Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
This is one of those movies with a cult following that gains a kind of mystical aura because it's not readily available to see and anyone who wants to see it has to order it from some foreign website or buy it abroad or borrow it from a friend of a friend, as I did (a friend of my brother's, to be exact). Oftentimes movies like that have reputations that are far more exciting than their realities, but this lived up to my expectations, and even surpassed them at times. It's a popular Japanese film about a near-future in which unruly teenagers are controlled by the annual Battle Royale, an event that strands a class of high schoolers on a deserted island and pits them against one another in a death match until only one emerges alive. If you think about it, the concept doesn't make a whole lot of sense - is creating this elaborate death tournament really an efficient way to deal with rampant juvenile delinquency? - but once you accept the premise, the movie deals with the situation in a cold, gruesome and highly effective way, showing the pressures and social standards of high school writ large on a literal life-and-death stage. The Japanese import DVD had some sketchy subtitling, so I can only assume that the dialogue is not quite so stilted (or grammatically suspect) as it appears. The plotting is fast-paced and exciting, the characterization is strong, and fans of gore and violence will love it. Quite a good film, and a little better than I expected for an underground cult sensation.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)
I've seen so many Hitchcock movies that at this point I'm getting close to the bottom of the barrel. Not that this is a bad movie - I've never seen Hitch's 1934 original version, but by most accounts this one is better, and it's got good lead performances from Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in a serious role. But it's just another one of the "average Joe gets caught up in international intrigue" Hitchcock sub-genre, and after seeing North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, this just comes off as a little repetitive. There is one impressive, wordless sequence that takes place during a concert in London's Albert Hall, notable for how it builds suspense without any dialogue for several minutes, but the rest is largely unexciting and somewhat rote. Not Hitch's best work, but certainly not his worst.
Wide Awake (M. Night Shyamalan, 1998)
Shyamalan's first studio film, generally not that well-regarded, but after being so frustrated with The Village, I felt like I wanted to go back and see where this guy got his start. I think Shyamalan can be enormously talented - The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are both fantastic films - and the backlash he's endured since his first enormous success is often too harsh. But he's clearly become far too enamored of his own press, and has become too pretentious and somber to make anything but over-thought, over-serious films. Wide Awake, about a 10-year-old boy who searches for God after the death of his grandfather, is not over-thought or over-serious; if anything, it's under-thought, as Shyamalan tackles his big spiritual issues without much in the way of a plot. There's nothing supernatural going on here, although there is a twist ending of sorts, and overall the film comes across as something you might find made for the Hallmark Channel. The main problem is that Joseph Cross, who plays the central kid, is no Haley Joel Osment, and gets annoying rather quickly. In fact none of the kid actors come off as more than just cute, which is surprising given the more subtle work Shyamalan did with kids in The Sixth Sense and Signs. You can see him working on his pet themes about faith and trust, but it's all wrapped in a treacly, family-friendly bow that's typified by Rosie O'Donnell as a spunky, baseball-loving nun. Interesting for curious Shyamalan fans but otherwise not worth your time.