With the lyric “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss,” The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” might have been a good theme song for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2.”
It applies not only to the story of reluctant hero Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the citizens of Panem, but also to the dismal grinding down of this series, which winds up being as forgettable as its young-adult dystopian adaptation contemporaries, from “Divergent” to “The Giver.”
In 2012’s “The Hunger Games,” the conceit of pitting teenagers against each other in a fight to the death was already familiar (“Battle Royale”), but with 2014’s “Mockingjay, Part 1” and this dreary final picture, it’s clear that the reality-TV survival story was actually the strongest framework of the series. Without the outdoor adventure, heightened personal stakes and gaudy satire of the upper class, “Part 2” is left to hit the same tragi-romantic story beats again and again, while hammering home more really obvious messages about powerful puppet-masters.
Poor Jennifer Lawrence looks tired. In the opening shot, she’s struggling to talk after a choking incident with her maybe-I-will-maybe-I-won’t ex Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who himself is recovering from some kind of mind control — one of many questionable plot devices. This throws the seriousness of the situation into focus as Katniss and her revolutionaries march on to overthrow Panem, but it’s undercut by an identical story beat when she’s soon shot — and immediately recovers — again. What’s worse, Katniss disobeys orders to avoid being a pawn, and escapes from her military troop, only to be immediately discovered and rejoin them —again.
Hutcherson doesn’t fare any better, hitting one redundant note after another, his do-gooder mentality now replaced by lots of woe-is-me, kill-me-now emo sneers, which maybe is meant to make him “deeper” and more attractive? Meanwhile, current boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) has little to do but let Peeta know he’s still into Katniss. I understand that YA books succeed by transposing real teen concerns into life-and-death fantasy situations, but any connection to the characters that existed by the end of 2013’s “Catching Fire” (the best of the franchise) has been stripped away by these plodding “Mockingjay” movies.
Like “Part 1,” the visual palette is more oppressive grays and browns. Katniss and crew are surrounded by concrete, whether it's underground tunnels or city ruins, and most of the “action” scenes involve silly booby traps, including a CGI oil flood that they escape by — wait for it — reaching an arbitrary higher ground and … waiting three whole minutes for it to subside. At least Katniss doesn’t black out in this moment, like she does at the height of several other action scenes.
“Mockingjay, Part 2” gets all “Return of the King” at the end, featuring at least three false endings, with character “revelations” that are all kinds of wrong. If they’re not already forgone conclusions (Donald Sutherland’s Snow, Julianne Moore’s Alma Coin), they are simply underdeveloped (Gale and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch). Even Katniss’ big moment is robbed of its power because it’s so self-evident. Maybe this stuff was easier to pull off in the book.
Somehow, after a dismal 137 minutes to wrap up this series, I can’t help but be reminded of another song; this one by Peggy Lee and used recently on “Mad Men”:
“Is that all there is?”
A watershed worldwide classic returns to glory
On March 30, 1992, just 24 days before his death, 71-year-old director Satyajit Ray accepted an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar from his hospital bed in Kolkata. Archivists at the Academy who were working on a clip reel for the show were shocked to find few watchable prints of his hugely influential early films, so original negatives were transferred to a London lab to await restoration work.
Tragically, one year later, a massive fire burned the reels beyond repair. They remained untouched for 20 years until The Criterion Collection stepped in and began eight years of meticulous hand labor repairing the elements, finding duplicate negatives and masters, and rebuilding Ray’s masterpiece, the three movies that make up “The Apu Trilogy.” Now, the late 1950s film series that gained international success and brought Bengali culture to the world has literally risen from the ashes and is available on Blu-ray in a three-disc Criterion box with tons of extra features and historical context.
This is truly a cause for celebration. I’ve been reading about these films all of my adult life, but the only commercially available versions were fuzzy, scratched, and had poor sound quality. The Blu-rays bring Ray’s rich black-and-white images to stunning life and feature a crisp, 24-bit remastered soundtrack.
All three films feature naturalistic acting and beautifully symbolic subtext, but 1955’s “Pather Panchali” is the highlight. Set in a remote Bengali village in the 1920s, it is the template for all coming-of-age stories, especially ones that feature an inquisitive young searcher. Young Apu and his family are very poor and every day is a struggle, but the movie is bursting with life. Apu’s mother (Karuna Banerjee) is the rock that keeps things together, and Apu develops a strong bond with his older sister, as they dream of the world beyond the train tracks.
During Apu’s journey to manhood, he's played by four different actors. As he moves from big cities to villages and back again in the 1956 follow-up “Aparajito” and the last film “Apur Sansar” from 1959, his family slowly disappears and he must fend for himself. The setting changes with Apu’s fortunes (or lack thereof), and Ray’s camerawork becomes more advanced. Each film develops its own distinct personality—much like our own lives might be viewed, were we to look back at them as a distinct phases.
There’s a reason “Pather Panchali” won the Best Human Document award at Cannes before going on to be regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made. It is full of wonder and hope, and it resonates with aching authenticity.
By any measure of modern filmmaking, “The Apu Trilogy” is slowly paced and requires patience, but that patience is rewarded with time to savor the small moments and contemplate the timeless beauty of humanity. And as Ray proved in the late 1950s, that feeling cuts across all cultures worldwide. We’re extremely lucky to be able to experience these films, looking and sounding better than anyone has seen them in probably over 50 years.
The first thing I thought coming out of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” is that it isn’t much of a movie.
I don’t mean that the production isn’t professional or that it doesn’t look like a movie — it just doesn't feel like one. It's the worst recent example of Hollywood serialization — a victim of its own success.
What I mean is that it isn’t satisfying in any way.
It’s no news to fans of the young-adult book series by Suzanne Collins that this third movie only covers a portion of her third novel, which is par for the course, I suppose, for a film that contains a both a colon and a hyphen in its title. But even in the “Star Wars” series, which now retroactively features the word “Episode” in each title, the films themselves had a form of resolution. Sometimes there were cliffhangers, sure, but the emotional journey and theme of each film were wrapped up by film’s end.
Then again, George Lucas wasn’t adapting someone else’s novel.
UPDATE: Watch this hilarious video: If "Return of the Jedi" were made in 2014.
To adapt the 759-page “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Warner Bros. split the film version into two parts. There was just too much plot to cram into one movie, and 2010’s “Deathly Hallows Part 1” ended up being one of the most effective Potter films, partially because it elucidated the gravity of its characters’ situation and gave them breathing room.
Peter Jackson is the most recent offender of Hollywood serialization, of course, turning the 300-page “The Hobbit” into three films totaling seven and a half hours, but he’s also using supplemental material from J.R.R. Tolkien’s other writings to fill that out.
Ironically, with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” (a 390-page book), letting the characters breathe turns out to be a really bad idea. Not only does it expose how one-dimensional most of its characters are but it also reinforces the idea that Jennifer Lawrence has been doing most of the heavy lifting throughout these films and shows what little she had to work with this time out.
As designed, “Mockingjay — Part 1” is visually the most drab of the movies so far because very little of it takes place in the candy-colored Capitol, where the prevailing fashion sense is for its uber-rich citizens to out-peacock each other. Instead, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) has been taken underground to District 13, where the rebels walk around in olive-green, prison-like jumpsuits and eat awful food in cafeterias together.
From a plot standpoint, it's refreshing to see “Mockingjay — Part 1” jettison the setup/gameplay formula of “The Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire,” but what little forward movement there is in the film has our resourceful hero Katniss sidelined, while talented actors like Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman phone it in.
They play the leaders of the resistance, which means they do three things mainly: call meetings, look at screens and make speeches. (Remember all of that Galactic Senate speechifying in “The Phantom Menace”? Now that’s something to aspire to.)
The media satire of the first two films has shifted from reality-TV culture to the nature of propaganda. Rather than fighting, Katniss has become a symbol to unite the districts against the Capitol.
The only way to make her a truly effective propaganda tool is to put her in the field where she can witness the horror of the war against the districts firsthand, and the camera can capture her rage. She complies. On the other side, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) uses Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to talk the rebelling districts down.
What unites all three movies is that their lite satire revolves around the manufacturing of authenticity. It’s not a terribly profound media criticism, but at least “The Hunger Games” is about something bigger — while it distracts its audience with the requisite dopey love triangle (will she choose the werewolf or the vampire?) and life-or-death gameplay (a bloodless “Battle Royale”).
In “Mockingjay — Part 1,” none of that window dressing exists. Katniss, the lightning rod, that symbol of young female empowerment, is reduced to a person of inaction.
The revolution has sprouted up around her and it continues on, without her participation. She’s reduced to battling her own feelings for Gale (poor Liam Hemsworth, with nothing to do) and Peeta, and weighing her personal life against the greater good of all of Panem. Neither of these conflicts are particularly effective and both of them are counter to the forward movement of the story.
Besides being padded with scenes that go on too long and drive home the same story beat that’s already been established, “Mockingjay — Part 1” is just plain dull. There is only one major plot revelation in the entire movie, and it’s obvious from the outset. Meanwhile, time that’s supposed to be spent deepening the relationship between Katniss and Gale is completely unconvincing.
Neither of first two “The Hunger Games” movies were perfect, but at least they were built on a structure with a certain amount of proven success in the drama department. Good on Collins for trying something new this time out (and to the screenwriters for a valiant attempt at adapting a third of it, as instructed), but “Mockingjay — Part 1” is a wholly unsatisfying movie. Whether it’s redeemed by “Part 2” remains to be seen, but at this point, I couldn’t be any less interested in finding out.
Death Metal Angola
Debuting today on iTunes and other VOD platforms is a documentary with the misleading title “Death Metal Angola.”
After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, the West African nation of the title was engulfed in a brutal, bloody civil war for 27 years. It’s still incredibly poor, and many of its citizens walk the bombed–out streets like zombies, all too cognizant of the living nightmare they’ve been witness to.
What better place for the pure rage of death metal, that most primal form of rock music? Believe it or not, “Death Metal Angola” is more than a treatise on the origins of this bombastic musical style. It’s a story of hope.
As it profiles an Angolan couple’s mission to mount a rock concert that one describes as their own “Woodstock,” it fills in the moving stories of those trying to find refuge at a local orphanage. There’s no reinvention of the form here, just a solid documentary on a subject you had probably never thought existed.