Appetiser for the finale
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.