Ap­pe­tiser for the fi­nale

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FILM REVIEWS - David Strat­ton

AHUN­DRED years ago, in the pi­o­neer­ing days of silent cin­ema, se­ri­als were all the rage. The Per­ils of Pauline en­thralled au­di­ences in 1914 as ev­ery week the re­source­ful hero­ine bat­tled against the forces of evil and tri­umphed against all odds. Noth­ing much has changed: The Hunger Games is a se­rial in all but name, ex­cept that in­stead of wait­ing a week to see what will hap­pen next, the fans are forced to be pa­tient for months or even a year. You can’t es­cape the feel­ing that they’ve been conned, es­pe­cially when the third of Suzanne Collins’ books has been split into two parts (fol­low­ing a tra­di­tion es­tab­lished by the Harry Pot­ter and Twi­light fran­chises) for no other rea­son, it seems, than to make twice as much money.

Just in case there are any read­ers un­aware of th­ese books and films, here’s a brief run­down on the story so far (not that the film it­self both­ers with such things: it as­sumes its au­di­ence will be well aware of ev­ery­thing that hap­pened ear­lier, hav­ing prob­a­bly seen it all more than once). The story is set in the fu­ture to­tal­i­tar­ian state of Panem, which is ruled by the de­vi­ous Pres­i­dent Snow (Don­ald Suther­land). The state is of­fi­cially di­vided into 12 dis­tricts plus the Capi­tol, and each year an ado­les­cent boy and girl must be se­lected from each dis­trict to fight to the death in a kind of glad­i­a­to­rial contest, tele­vised of course. To pro­tect her kid sis­ter, Kat­niss Everdeen (Jen­nifer Lawrence) vol­un­teered to fight in her place, and her tri­umphs and tribu­la­tions have been the sub­ject of the first two movies. Gary Ross, the orig­i­nal di­rec­tor, seem­ingly went out of his way to avoid ex­plicit vi­o­lence, given that the film was aimed at teenagers, but this only led to a limp, con­fus­ing and un­ex­cit­ing movie. Ross was re­placed by Fran­cis Lawrence, who brought more grit to the sec­ond film, Catch­ing Fire, and who is also re­spon­si­ble for the third,

When the new film com­mences, Kat­niss is in Dis­trict 13’s rebel head­quar­ters. The rebel leader, Coin (Ju­lianne Moore), wants the young war­rior to be­come the poster-girl for the revo­lu­tion, while Kat­niss wants her boyfriend, Peeta (Josh Hutch­er­son), who has been cap­tured by the bad guys and who, in an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to pris­on­ers of rad­i­cal Is­lamic groups, is giv­ing tele­vised speeches aimed against his for­mer friends and al­lies. Dolled up in some very fetch­ing ar­mour and wield­ing bow and ar­rows, Kat­niss be­comes Mock­ing­jay, whose rous­ing calls to arms trig­ger re­bel­lion all over Panem.

What fol­lows is re­ally noth­ing more than a prepa­ra­tion for the fi­nal in­stal­ment in the saga, and as a re­sult it re­ally feels leaden and plod­ding. Much of it takes place in un­der­ground bunkers or ru­ined ur­ban land­scapes, and even fine ac­tors such as Moore and Philip Seymour Hoff­man (as Plutarch Heav­ens­bee, one of Coin’s ad­vis­ers) can only do so much.

Thank good­ness for Lawrence, who proves once again that she’s a tal­ented and re­source­ful young ac­tor; with­out her, this would be dreary in­deed.

Not that it will in any way de­ter the le­gions of Hunger Games fans, who will be flock­ing to cin­e­mas to see this very or­di­nary Hol­ly­wood con­fec­tion. The Hunger Games: Mock­ing­jay — Part 1 (M) Na­tional re­lease Maps to the Stars (MA15+) Na­tional re­lease AFTER a cou­ple of early ex­per­i­men­tal fea­tures, Cana­dian di­rec­tor David Cro­nen­berg achieved cult sta­tus with a se­ries of skil­ful yet grisly hor­ror films in­volv­ing var­i­ous as­pects of bod­ily de­cay ( Shiv­ers, Ra­bid, The Brood), a se­ries that reached an apoth­e­o­sis with The Fly (1986), the un­for­get­table re­make of a mi­nor 1950s hor­ror film. Since then Cro­nen­berg has for the most part tack­led themes that were less genre based, of­ten ex­plor­ing vi­o­lence both phys­i­cal ( A His­tory of Vi­o­lence, East­ern Prom­ises) and men­tal ( A Dan­ger­ous Method). Many of his films have con­tained a sub­ver­sively comic sub­text, but not un­til has he made a film that could be de­scribed as a com­edy, though it’s a com­edy of a pe­cu­liarly ran­cid na­ture.

The ti­tle refers to the maps for sale on the streets of Hol­ly­wood that pur­port to di­rect fans to the homes of film stars and Bruce Wag­ner’s orig­i­nal screen­play trans­ports us into some of those homes where, un­sur­pris­ingly, a bunch of odi­ous peo­ple are in­volved in some ob­nox­ious be­hav­iour. As an ex­pose of Tinseltown, the film of­fers noth­ing we didn’t know, or sus­pect, al­ready, but Cro­nen­berg’s witty and at times sav­age han­dling of the ma­te­rial is brac­ing in its un­blink­ing vi­sion of un­tram­melled avarice and am­bi­tion.

First and fore­most there’s the won­der­fully named Ha­vana Se­grand, an age­ing, deeply neu­rotic ac­tor des­per­ate to score the cov­eted role in a re­make of a cel­e­brated Clarice Tag­gart pic­ture. Tag­gart, a fa­mous movie ac­tor who died in a fire was, in fact, Ha­vana’s mother, so Hava- na feels en­ti­tled to the role and will do almost any­thing to get it. Play­ing Ha­vana to the max and beyond, in her sec­ond ap­pear­ance on screens this week, is Ju­lianne Moore, clearly en­joy­ing her­self hugely in this bitchy role, for which she won the best ac­tress prize in Cannes this year, while Sarah Gadon por­trays Tag­gart in pal­lid flash­backs. Ha­vana’s dis­cov­ery that the re­make’s di­rec­tor, Damien Javitz (Gord Rand), prefers another ac­tor, Azita Wachtel (Jayne Heit­meyer), for the role af­fords Moore plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties for ripe com­edy.

Ri­valling Ha­vana in terms of self-re­gard­ing nar­cis­sism and all-round bad be­hav­iour is Ben­jie Weiss (Evan Bird), a 13-year-old su­per­star whose last movie, Babysit­ter, was such a huge hit that a se­quel is in the works, if only the ob­nox­ious Ben­jie can get out of re­hab in time. Mixed up with th­ese char­ac­ters are Ben­jie’s sis­ter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who gets a job as Ha­vana’s per­sonal as­sis­tant; their par­ents Stafford (John Cu­sack), a self-help guru, and Cristina (Olivia Wil­liams); and Jerome Fon­tana (Robert Pat­tin­son), a wannabe ac­tor work­ing as a driver un­til his big break comes along.

The com­bi­na­tion of a very fine cast, a screen­play filled with waspish barbs at the ba­nal­ity of the movie cap­i­tal, plus Cro­nen­berg’s own ten­dency to ex­plore the darker as­pects of the hu­man con­di­tion gives Maps to the Stars its edge. But what re­ally sur­prises — and im­presses — is how a film about such nasty, self-ab­sorbed char­ac­ters in­volved in any num­ber of crimes and an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour can be so funny.

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