THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2 Review: Assets and Liabilities

Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 PosterThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is the fourth and final installment of a four-part trilogy (trilogies now come in fours when the third book is split into two films).  Below is a recap of how we got here. You may skip the next three paragraphs if you are already familiar with the first three films.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a dystopian future where the rich and mighty oppress the poor and feeble, and once a year those poor and feeble must fight to the death in an annual contest called The Hunger Games. Two children are chosen to represent each of the 12 Districts (think states) of Panem, and they must fight until only one wins. Katniss not only wins the games, she outsmarts Panem President Snow (Donald Sutherland), keeping her District 12 mate – and possible love interest – Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive and co-champion.

In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Katniss is an inspiration to a beleaguered nation – a symbol of hope. When she and Peeta – their romance is embellished for TV, much to the concern of Katniss’ actual man, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) – embark on their Victor’s Tour, President Snow has growing concerns that the people might rebel against the government, so he announces that the 75th Hunger Games will be contested by past winners from all 12 Districts. This puts Katniss and Peeta back on the field of battle.

In installment three, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Katniss struggles with PTSD, her identity as the face of the rebellion, and the fact that the people who rescued her – including mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), former Capitol Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and president of little-known District 13 Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) – left Peeta behind to die. But Peeta didn’t die; he was captured by Snow and used as propaganda against the rebellion. Through propaganda of their own, and with Katniss as their inspiration, the rebels of all the Districts begin an uprising that will hopefully lead to the fall of the Capitol and a new era of freedom.

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And it all comes down to this, the final installment, where the rebels, led by politician Coin, strategist Plutarch, and warrior Katniss, set the stage for the final confrontation with Snow in an effort to forever destroy the Capitol. But Katniss’s role in this battle is changing. Coin sees Katniss not as a fighter but as an asset.  The rebel president wants Katniss to remain the Mockingjay – the face of, and inspiration for, the rebel uprising – and to do so as the centerpiece of propaganda films. Katniss has other plans … one other plan, actually.  She plans to personally assassinate Snow. Political, strategic, tactical, and emotional paths cross, not everyone survives, and those who do have their lives forever changed.

With so much on the line, with everything that has happened in this franchise driving toward this conclusion, The Hunger Games: MockingjayPart 2 should crackle with high drama, explosive action, and great suspense. Instead, it waffles and stumbles and fizzles at every turn, eventually wearing down the viewer to the point that watching the film becomes an exercise in wondering not just when the film will end, but when the franchise will finally be put to rest.

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The film at first attempts to be a serious drama – one about everything from conflicted emotions and trust, to Panem politics and military strategy.  Katniss is the only one with any feelings for Peeta, who is suffering from the aftereffects of being brainwashed by Snow.  The other man in her life, Gale, watches on as he wonders what Katniss’s true feelings are for himself an/or Peeta.  Coin and Plutarch strategize about the best ways to leverage their asset and execute the rebellion’s final push.  The masses look to Katniss as their inspiration, something she is still not comfortable with.  It’s just all so perfunctory, mostly having been done before and simply rehashed here to pad the running time.  Dialogue is flat, performances are tired, and when there are occasional new bits inserted, they are dull and injected only as a means to the film’s end.

Speaking of the film’s end, the latter “half” of the picture – the action half – is not only as rousing as a 1990s-era video game, it’s perhaps more disappointing than the first half.  The gauntlet that Katniss, Finnick (Sam Claflin), and others must survive to get to Snow might be bigger and louder than gauntlets past, but it certainly isn’t more creative.  Massive flamethrowers and automatic weapons with seemingly endless rounds are lazy and almost laughable when compared to the more creative traps of previous films in the franchise.  Again I go back to the word “perfunctory,” as if director Francis Lawrence has a list of things that need to be done to bring the train into the station and he executes the list.  Nothing ever builds to anything greater; it all just happens because that’s what’s supposed to happen next.

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Most frustrating are those scenes where something special can happen but doesn’t, which only continues to reflect poorly on director Lawrence, who is the film’s, and the franchise’s, biggest liability.  There is a long sequence that occurs underground, in a series of sewer- and subway-like tunnels, culminating in an action set-piece, where people die.  There is absolutely no tension in these scenes, and when the big action payoff comes, the filmmaking technique employed replaces true action blocking and choreography with chaos and close-ups.  As a viewer, the sense of loss felt when those characters die is no more impactful than the loss felt in one of those 1990s-era video games.  Director Lawrence replaces the viewer’s emotions by testing the viewer’s patience.

The conclusion is a combination of predictable and preposterous (the latter being a late-breaking twist that is so unearned, it’s an insult).  Wrapping with a mawkish epilogue, this film is neither smart enough to be good drama with action, nor is it exciting enough to be good action flick with drama, nor original enough to be a fitting final entry in a film franchise.

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I closed my review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 with the following: “… the film feels like money-making, fan-exploiting filler.  In the hands of more skilled filmmakers, a tight and tense 20-30 minute introduction in front of Part 2 could do a greater service to the franchise than this 2+ hour chore.”  I was right.  Instead of two films running a combined 4 hours 20 minutes (!), the two Mockingjay films could have been assembled into one epic running about three hours.  In fact, I would say the same thing about the first two Hunger Games films.  That pair, which combine for nearly five hours (!!), could have also been a single, three-hour epic.

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Instead, Lionsgate chose a director who could manufacture needless film in an effort to take a story that could have been something for the cinematic ages and turn it into a cash-grab.  A franchise should end with some sense of melancholy that it’s over, that the characters we’ve invested in have no more stories to tell.  With The Hunger Games: MockingjayPart 2, that melancholy is replaced with a sense of relief that the series, and the bilking, have finally ended.


THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER Review: Scene of the Crimea

Russian Woodpecker PosterWatch enough new independent film releases in a year and creative trends can be spotted. I don’t mean the kinds of trends lamented by Film Twitter (too many superhero movies, too much found footage, etc.). I mean the kind of natural, organic trends that feel like filmmakers have found a new storytelling vein to tap. My first exposure to this (The Beginning) came in the form of a very good film that played at Hot Docs 2015: Chuck Norris vs. Communism. My next experience (The Coincidence) came in the form of a film I found on my own, the excellent Red Army. The former tells the story of how Romanian film lovers in the 1980s defied their oppressive government, smuggled into the country bootleg VHS tapes, and held secret movie parties. The latter documents the history of the mighty Russian national hockey team, its rise to global dominance, and its eventual fall.

If the common ground you guessed is “1980s-Based Soviet-Themed Documentaries,” go to the head of the class. The latest entry here, the entry that moves this entire cinematic experience away from The Coincidence an into The Trend, is The Russian Woodpecker, an astounding documentary from first-time filmmaker Chad Gracia.

In April 1986, when the Soviet Union was still in its Cold War existence and Ukraine was still a part of it, an unthinkable event occurred: an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant released massive amounts of radiation into the air, doing untold long-term damage to the people in the region and forcing the immediate evacuation of tens of thousands of people. One of those people … a child at the time … was Fedor Alexandrovich. Decades later, Fedor is something of a Renaissance Man; he’s a father, a pacifist, and an artist with skills in several media. He’s also a curious one—curious about why, to this day, there are still unanswered questions about the Chernobyl disaster. He’s also curious about an old Soviet map on which, near Chernobyl, is something labeled “Boy Scout Camp.” Guess what? It’s not a boy scout camp. What begins as one man’s trip to the past and quest for the truth turns into something that is the stuff of Cold War spy novels, but it’s all true … or at least it might be.

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It isn’t just that the elements of The Russian Woodpecker are so compelling on their own. There is this divine convergence of them that creates a film simultaneously gripping, mystifying, horrifying, and, at times, emblematic of something my old high school history teacher used to say: “Many things are too strange to be believed but nothing is too strange to have happened.”

The setting and history are foremost critical to the story, not just because of the disaster of Chernobyl, but because that disaster took place in a country—Ukraine—that has with Russia a shocking pre-Chernobyl past and a terrible post-Orange Revolution present. This political backdrop and its decades-long existence (that brief period of independence be damned) is deftly summarized by Gracia along three main points on the timeline: Holodomor, the famine manufactured by Russia that claimed the lives of millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s; Chernobyl, where the single-worst nuclear power plant accident in history occurred in the 1980s; and Maidan, the main square in Kiev, where protests against Russian oppression happen today. Gracia punctuates these moments in time with chilling footage and photographs of victims of these atrocities.

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With the stage set, Gracia establishes his key players. The hero is the Renaissance Man, the artist and pacifist who wants nothing more than to know who is to blame for his bones being radioactive. And it’s because he’s a Renaissance Man, always observing and examining and questioning, that he draws the conclusion he does. (It’s so shocking, I dare not whisper it here, lest I deprive you of one of the great moments of film in 2015.) The villain is the Old Soviet Guard; there are interviews with old school Soviet science and military guys, interviews almost exclusively conducted by Fedor that, when the questions he asks them wander into remotely accusatory (of the Soviet government) territory, turn to moments fraught with worry that if too much is said, even after all this time, there will be old school retribution. It’s a palpable fear, and what makes it so believable is that the fear doesn’t just come from the old school science and military guys. When Fedor’s parents consider his theory about what actually caused the Chernobyl event, they are genuinely frightened that the KGB will come for him and maybe them too.

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With everything place, and with Fedor framed as a modern-day Ukrainian David slinging stones at a reborn Communist Goliath, all that remains is his present-day story. It’s spellbinding. Gracia takes all the passion, conviction, and pinpoint calculation of an attorney building his case and turns Fedor loose on that case. It’s the filmmaker’s masterstroke. Fedor is a child of Chernobyl, so his interest is vested. He is smart enough to know which questions to ask and of whom, yet brave(foolish) enough to actually ask them. And as an artist (and probably one who has struggled at some point in his life), he has a demeanor that disarms people (until he hits the with questions) combined with a tenacity to remain undaunted in the face of insurmountable challenges.

The great story of past and present, the great storyteller in Fedor, and the great storytelling by Gracia combine in that divine convergence to create a documentary of considerable historic consequence.

(Note: While the film’s title has something of a secret code-name ring to it, it’s actually the name of a device that is at the heart of Fedor’s quest for the truth, and the linchpin of his theory about Chernobyl.)

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It is difficult to overstate how incredible writer/director Chad Gracia’s storytelling work is here. The Russian Woodpecker is a film that begs to be as confusing and cumbersome as possible, with competing dichotomies of past and present, Cold Warriors and pacifists, history and art, history-makers and artists, and science and conspiracy. Yet somehow Gracia not only makes sense of it all, he presents it in a way that rivals some of the best dramatic fiction out there.


AMY Review: Body and Soul

amyThere’s this thing called the “27 Club.”  The notion of it began when musicians Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died between 1969 and 1971, each at age 27 when they passed.  While other musicians of some repute died at 27, both before (Robert Johnson, 1938) and after (Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1988), none had the star-power of those four until 27-year-old Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) died in 1994.  According to Wikipedia, there are 50 musicians in total who belong to this most peculiar club.  However, most of them did not have the star-power of one of the club’s most recent members.  Amy Winehouse is that member, and her story is exhaustively captured in Amy, from documentarian Asif Kapadia.

Winehouse’s story is a familiar one – one of dazzling talent never fully realized, one of a life never completely lived.  As a young girl, the London native enjoyed (and excelled at) singing, but was disinterested in modern pop music, instead gravitating towards jazz from the likes of her idol,  Tony Bennett.  A unique style and a unique sound, coupled with the ever-necessary lucky breaks and hard work, led to rapid popularity and success for the songstress.  But with that popularity and success came the glaring light of fame, the vast hollow of loneliness, and a series of bad decisions allowed (and enabled) by people afraid to say NO to their gravy train.  After numerous spins through the revolving door of rehab, Winehouse’s body, weakened not only by substance abuse but a long battle with bulimia, finally gave in.  The singer died in 2011.

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While a rock-n-roll fable with an unhappy ending might be familiar, and while Kapadia makes sure to hit all the points in Winehouse’s life, the presentation of her story in Amy is nothing like your average bio-doc. Kapadia mines exhaustive video footage of Winehouse’s life … particularly her pre-fame life, so much of which was captured on camera. This allows the director to do more than just present Winehouse’s life – he is able to fully immerse you in it, which is most impactful in more mundane moments – hanging out at home, goofing off, sleeping in a car, etc. And because it’s mostly a linear presentation, you feel like you are growing up with Winehouse.

Kapadia is also shrewd to include clips of comments from, or moments with, a young Winehouse that will foreshadow her problems with substance abuse and bulimia. These moments are never exploited. They fit naturally into the narrative and when Winehouse’s later life devolves (and devolves again), you have that sense of recall, of looking back at small things you had “lived through” with younger Winehouse and realize you were watching her slow-spiral in real-time and there was nothing you could do about it.

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Another interesting creative approach by Kapadia is his use of observations from third-parties (aka friends, family, and record executives … aka talking heads). With one exception, these soundbites are audio-only, which achieves two important effects. First, it gives the impression everything was recorded specifically for the film, adding to the constant sense that “you are there” (although it’s probable that at least some sound was culled from previous sources). Second, audio-only contributions keep the visual focus, thus the flow of the film, on Winehouse. That lone exception is Tony Bennett, although his comment is brief and touching. In fact, Bennett’s inclusion actually spotlights another great creative choice: there are no celebrity appearances in this film. Other than stock footage that includes Winehouse with the rich and famous (and that one Bennett bit), there is no one of tabloid consequence speaking about Winehouse (or trying to make the moment about themselves).

With a life as tumultuous as Winehouse’s became, there is going to be blame to assign to those who were closest to her – not direct blame for her death per se, but blame for enabling her lifestyle, exploiting her fame, or both. Kapadia makes it clear who he thinks is culpable in her death, and while his assertions might be true, it’s the one area of the film that smacks of being biased. (This might explain why, despite so much footage of a younger Winehouse, there is almost nothing from her early childhood years, and why her mother isn’t prominent in the tale.)

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Of course, a documentary about Amy Winehouse wouldn’t be complete without her music, and there is plenty of it here. Again, Kapadia’s use of archival footage from Winehouse’s early years is excellent. As her story progresses, and those early club dates grow to become major concerts, there is a terrific sense of how Winehouse matures as an artist, particularly a singer. It’s a great complement to that “you are there” approach, as it becomes almost an exercise in binge-listening to her music. I experienced something like this once before when I listened to a good chunk of Frank Sinatra‘s early discography in chronological order and over a relatively short period of time. Hearing a singer this way affords a unique learning opportunity to listen to to a singer grow. I caught that same sense here. Winehouse’s lyric delivery becomes more pointed with time, but more importantly, she understands how to better leverage those moments when the chart has no lyrics – either by extending vocals into those open spaces or toying with how the music is written. It’s terrific jazz delivery all the way, and Bennett later pays her an incredible compliment relative to that.

(Kapadia also includes onscreen lyrics, quite artistically added, as some of Winehouse’s enunciation can be a challenge, even to those familiar with her work.)

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There is one moment in the film more touching than any other. The setting is the 2008 Grammys and among several other awards, she is up for Record of the Year. She’s not present at the awards show but is instead in London, performing an intimate concert. She has stopped her show in anticipation of the winner being announced on TV (with her reaction being beamed back to LA via satellite). The presenters of the award are Natalie Cole and Bennett, and when they are announced, Winehouse is star-struck at the site of her idol. She even shares this excitement with her audience (who doesn’t appear to paying too much mind). “Guys, guys … it’s Tony Bennett.” Winehouse, who had recently gained control of her demons (at least temporarily), has that youthful gleam, that excitement, that wonder, in her eyes. When she wins the award, she’s dumbstruck. I remember the Grammy moment, but being able to re-watch it from her side makes it that much more magical.  Sadly, what Winehouse is purported to have said soon after that moment is devastating, and makes her ultimate demise that much more sad, punctuating with regret a life of success and excess.

Amy hits all the points you want a musical-themed bio-doc to hit, from a future star’s obscurity to her struggles to her successes to her music to her face on the cover of Rolling Stone.  All of that is special enough.  But it’s how those points are hit, how her story is told, that makes watching Amy Winehouse’s life story an exercise in living her life by her side.  That’s beyond special.