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December 2, 2015

Reel Roy Reviews: Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 & The Night Before

"I guess there are no more rules about what a person can do to another person" - Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 & The Night Before

By Roy Sexton



What passes for entertainment these days, it could be argued, shows a glib disregard for humanity, grace, and life itself. It's a bit ironic, given that Hollywood tends to be first to get in line for humanitarian causes, yet the chief blockbuster product rolling from the City of Dreams on a quarterly basis is awash in cinematic bloodletting. I don't know what to make of that.RoySexton1215a.jpg

I've long struggled with my distaste for The Hunger Games saga for this very reason. People tell me to lighten up, but often they are the same people who celebrate photos in their local paper of young girls and boys, bow in hand, grinning madly over their latest "trophy kill." Violence begets violence, and when does it stop?

Surely, Hollywood doesn't influence behavior - it's just a movie, right? But, then, why did Chrysler partner with Lionsgate on this latest installment to cross-promote cars (which just seemed to be odd synergy, regardless)? Sorry, folks, you don't get to pick and choose what people will emulate (rampant consumerism) or won't (rampant disregard for life).

Not only did I already have this predisposition going into Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, but the world has spent the better part of a week trying to reconcile the senseless violence in Paris, France and wagging hundreds of politicized fingers at governments or refugees or religions in a misplaced, manic desire to place blame on anyone but the actual perpetrators ... and, for that matter, to shift focus away from our own collective collusion in this endless stream of mind-numbing violence, real and fictional, that dances across myriad screens.

It's funny, and a bit sad then, that this final Hunger Games installment actually clarifies what it's all about, Alfie, and what it's been about, all along: a cautionary tale (albeit a simplistic, pubescent soap opera one) about the very world we have become - a world where violence is used for theatrical purposes to divide and conquer, to prop up the 1% and their self-selected preening dictators, and to oppress any and all of those dumb enough to allow mindless fear to curdle into unbridled hate.

Perhaps, the fact that this fourth film has opened with the smallest box office total of any in the series (albeit still exceeding $100M) suggests that the world sees less entertainment in its own follies than it once did? This film is a tough pill to swallow right now in the midst of the real-life tragedies facing us all.

Mockingjay - Part 2 suffers from the excesses of its immediate predecessor - or said more plainly, the greed of Lionsgate to attenuate the final book's narrative into two films. Part 2 is just much too long, mopey, and meandering, after a Part 1 that was all of those things and a bore.

That said, this movie finally delivers what stands as the series' punchline and thesis: absolute power - in a media-saturated age - not only corrupts absolutely, but does so with a rationalizing, self-obsessed, materialistic, nihilistic glee. Like the ubiquitous reality shows that Suzanne Collins' literary creation ostensibly lampoons, the prize - in this case control of all humanity - must be won at any cost, and, if one freely jettisons their own humanity along their path to the crown, well, so be it.

In a line that practically made me stand up and applaud, Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss hisses - as she begins to see the shameless willingness of "on/off again" boyfriend Gale (played with less and less gusto by otherwise charming Liam Hemsworth) to sacrifice morality for victory - "I guess there are no more rules about what a person can do to another person." Darn tootin'.

This is not groundbreaking insight, of course. Shakespeare covered this idea in just about every play, comedy or tragedy ... but it is potentially heady stuff for today's masses if delivered in a smart, playful, and authentic way. Unfortunately, for me, this film series seemed perpetually torn between the Ray Bradbury/Kurt Vonnegut/Clockwork Orange-esque battery acid allegory it could have been (should have been) and the escapist PG-13 Subway-sandwich selling, middle America revenge fantasy it actually was.

For those following the films - and (gulp) loving them - Mockingjay Part 2 won't disappoint. Jennifer Lawrence continues her emotionless, robotic hero quest as Katniss. This actor shows so much spark anywhere else that I'm just baffled by what a dud she is here. Regardless, Lawrence is still the glue holding this enterprise together. When she discovers the [spoiler alert] big reveal that the dictator she hopes to unseat (Donald Sutherland's President Snow) will be replaced by one conceivably even more ruthlessly cavalier (Julianne Moore's President Coin), Lawrence does yeoman's work quietly selling the point to all of us in the cheap seats: "Look, bloodlust gets you nowhere. People are evil, duplictious sh*ts. They don't care about each other, and those desperately seeking power are exactly the people who should. not. ever. get. it." (Maybe Lawrence could moderate the next GOP presidential debate? Bow and arrow in hand?)

The film has an ample amount of political intrigue, some fun twists, a couple of seat-jumping scares, and a sparkling supporting cast (largely wasted). It's a bit of a Hunger Games greatest hits: Stanley Tucci's TV huckster Caesar Flickerman for a hot second spewing some Fox News-style bile; Woody Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy looking even more bedraggled and annoyed with all of it, but still saddled with life-coaching that makes Yoda look like a Quentin Tarantino character; Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket now completely de-fanged but again fabulously bewigged as her chief role seems to be serving as Katniss' valet; Sam Claflin's vainglorious Finnick Odair and Natalie Dormer's caustically pragmatic Cressida now reduced to cannon fodder.

Jena Malone fares best as Katniss' frenemy Johanna Mason, chewing the cardboard scenery and reaching through the screen and grabbing us by the collective lapels. She seems to say, "You know this is kinda nuts right? That this series made so much money? Now, stop whining and moping and pay attention to the nuggets buried way deep in this thing and start giving a crap about your own lives and about each other." Or maybe I'm projecting a bit.

Best part of Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part 2 - for me?  That it's over.

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If we're really honest with ourselves, Christmas is less about a magically mysterious birth, less about "new beginnings," and more about exorcising the ghosts and specters of the past that haunt us all. Charles Dickens understood this, and that's why A Christmas Carol, which is as gothic a horror story as they come, has become a timeless template for the best holiday stories in the canon.

Hollywood knows this too, and they return to Dickens' inkwell time and again, for the best (and the worst) of their seasonal cinematic output: It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Home Alone, Four Christmases, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas, The Polar Express, Love Actually, Scrooged (and every other overtly Dickensian swipe/homage/remake), Bad Santa (my favorite), and on and on. These films, in their episodic tedium, work when they nail the debilitating guilt we all feel as adults that the "special day" never lives up to its materialistic hype, that the whole month of December is cluttered and cramped - with decades of detritus from prior Decembers, with the tears of holiday heartbreak, with the thorny angst of broken promises, with too many ephemeral demands of time and money, and with the laughter of feverishly fun Christmas Eves nearly-forgotten.

The latest in a long line of sad/funny attempts to capture this cold, clammy Christmas truth is director Jonathan Levine's (50/50, Warm Bodies) holiday farce The Night Before. The film depicts one final Christmas Eve rager for a trio of Manhattan-dwelling friends (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie). The boys have convened for a night of drug-fueled debauchery every Noel for the past 15 years to help Gordon-Levitt's character cope with the fact that his parents were killed in a car accident during the "hap-happiest season of alllll" in 2001.

However, people tend to move on, even if they don't necessarily grow up, with Rogen and wife (the plucky Jillian Bell who nearly saves the film and steals every scene) expecting their first child and Mackie ascending as a football hero (albeit a steroidal one) and social media star. Gordon-Levitt, though, has no life, no prospects, and no joy, and these Christmas blow-outs have sustained him when he is otherwise running on fumes. In spite of this, Rogen and Mackie have convinced their buddy that this year's event will be the last hurrah.

The film, which borrows liberally from The Hangover, The Great Gatsby (?!), and the aforementioned Scrooged and Harold and Kumar, unfortunately never gels around its high-concept premise. There are bright spots. Both Mackie (who can deftly balance poignancy and jackassery) and Gordon-Levitt (who has the sad clown deadpan expressiveness of silent movie king Harold Lloyd) have some fabulously grounded moments where the superficiality of the season halt them in their holly jolly tracks. They both deserved a better movie.

A stocking-full of zippy guest stars brighten the proceedings. Michael Shannon is a hoot as a bedraggled, philosophizing, drug-dealing guardian angel - think David Johansen's Ghost of Christmas Past from Scrooged by way of It's a Wonderful Life's Clarence Odbody ... on his way to/from/to The Betty Ford Clinic. Mindy Kaling is her typically acerbic self, playing the boys' drinking buddy and appearing to be the only character who has a realistic reaction to how, well, reprehensible they are. Lizzy Caplan is criminally underutilized as the wise and world-weary, gimlet-eyed object of Gordon-Levitt's affections. And [spoiler alert] James Franco and Miley Cyrus (yup, there she is again) portray versions of themselves, injecting the right amount of spiked frothy eggnog into the film's climactic party scene.

(Can someone get Franco and Cyrus a screwball comedy stat? Maybe a remake of Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn's Bringing Up Baby ... set in a marijuana dispensary?)

Rogen is Rogen, and, since he is an executive producer on the film, it appears that no one was able to rein in his bug-eyed mugging and foghorn-in-a-windstorm delivery. I didn't think it was possible, but he actually gets worse every time I see him, and he drags everyone down with him. The film has a sweet and salty balance when he's not onscreen. Regrettably, he's onscreen about 85% of the time, so you can do the math.

There is an interesting film - a loving/witty/sad/believable holiday movie gut-ache - lost somewhere amidst the rambling raunch and ribaldry of The Night Before. Perhaps that movie got left on the cutting room floor, or perhaps it was side-lined from the get-go with Rogen's grubby involvement. I guess we'll never know. I'm still waiting for that movie - in the meantime I'll stick with Bad Santa

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton's Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.