Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Is there really only a single day remaining in 2015? Is it really 15 years (- a day) since 01/01/2001? Is it really a quarter century since the Gulf War? Is the Vietnam War as distant in time today as World War 1 was when I was in high school? (I remember how remotely ancient that conflict seemed to me.) Is the end of World War 2 really as far back in time today as the Spanish American War was when I was in high school? How astonishing one finds the answer to each of those questions no doubt depends on one’s current age. To a 15-y.o. 2001 is very long ago: as long ago as possibly can matter except to crusty historians. To a 30-y.o. it is half a lifetime ago. To a 10-y.o. 2015 all by itself is fully 10% of his life – a hefty chunk. To those of us past a certain age, however, something seems terribly wrong with the answers. Surely it was just a handful of years ago that I walked down F St NW in DC with a new diploma in hand wondering what to do now that undergrad studies were over, wasn’t it? Only if the years are equal in number to a handful of dried rice. News Years Eve makes one conscious of one’s life clock as does no other day of the year, birthday included.

By coincidence (I think) the two novels I read this week both dealt explicitly with time. Since I was a boy science fiction has been part of the mix of my recreational reading, and it remains so. (Children’s lit of the Dr. Seuss sort aside, the very first novel I ever read was Doyle’s The Lost World and the second was Wells’ War of the Worlds.) Time travel is such a staple of scifi that it is well-nigh impossible to come up with a completely original take on it, but these two at least put new twists in older ideas. They couldn’t be more different from each other.

Split Second by Douglas Richards is a rousing and well-constructed action/adventure scifi tale. Physicist Nathan Wexler believes he has come up with an elegant theory with little real-world application. If his interpretation is correct, quantum effects and dark energy in particular circumstances could allow time travel into the past a mere .00004515 second. This seems too short a time period to be of any practical use, but he neglects to consider that this effectively would duplicate an object; the duplicate (in a sense the same object) would be displaced by the distance traveled by earth in .00004515 second (about 58 feet). Other people do see the implications and they want to monopolize the technology permitted by the theory before it goes public. Mayhem ensues involving Wexler, his girlfriend Jenna, and a private investigator who finds himself in a bigger fight than he anticipated. Though nearly all scifi requires at least one dubious supposition, the science for the most part is well researched. Thumbs Up, though the philosophical questions the book raises about time are nothing unfamiliar to regular scifi readers.

Whereas Richards writes of split seconds, Claire North (one of the pen names of Catherine Webb) writes of lifetimes. I suspect her novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was inspired by the movie Groundhog Day, which is perpetually playing on some cable channel or other. (Yes, the irony is hard to miss.) Suppose that there are some few people who – rather than repeat the same day – repeat their lives. They are born over and over in the same year and in the same circumstances as always, but starting at the age of 3 their memories of the last life come back to them; each such person lives a life of normal length, dies, and then finds himself or herself at the beginning of it once again. Harry August is one such person, repeatedly born in 1915 in a train station washroom and dying less predictably, but usually between 1997 and 2003. Time and again his life restarts in 1915. We’ve all thought “if I knew then what I know now.” Harry gets to act on the thought. Naturally he becomes an uncannily sage investor, but after several lives he feels himself grow jaded. He does not seek out the loves of his previous lives. It seems to him that nothing he does can make a lasting difference, since whatever impact he has on the world in one life apparently is erased when his life starts over. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there are multiple timelines and all of them are permanent. Harry meets another “ouroboran” (Ouroboros, the reader will recall, is the serpent that swallows its own tail) whose effort to find out which is true by (in part) accelerating technological development has dire consequences. Whether or not those consequences are permanent, they affect the people who experience them and Harry, after initially helping, has a crisis of conscience.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is moodier and more thoughtful than Split Second and, if you pick only one, it is the better read. The busy Ms. Webb (aka Claire North aka Kate Griffin) already has more than a dozen novels in print, but is only 29. That seems a little early to have grasped the jadedness of the quasi-immortal Harry August as she did. Then again, I was never more age-conscious than when in my 20s. Twentysomethings are fully aware of how few are the years they can consider themselves youths. Youthfulness can last much longer of course, but they are aware of the difference. So, maybe it is just the right age for a novel of this sort. I wasn’t jaded at 29 though. Despite appearances, I was a hopeless romantic then and for long afterward. It never ended well. I’m jaded now. Nonetheless I’d still be happy to give the last several decades a second try.

The Guess Who - No Time

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Four Flicks: Two Nix and Two Picks

Between Christmas and New Years Day there may be some time for lazing in front of a TV screen. Below are some thoughts on four of the options.

Safelight (2015)
OK, it had to happen: Juno Temple starred in a bad movie. The busy young actress has had leading or major roles in a remarkable series of indie films in the past several years plus relatively minor roles in big studio productions including The Dark Knight Rises and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Indies on her résumé include Little Birds, Dirty Girl, Kaboom, Killer Joe, The Brass Teapot, and Afternoon Delight, all of which have real merit. Quentin Tarantino of all people praised Afternoon Delight in particular. Other indie flicks including Jack and Diane, Magic Magic, and Horns are at least interesting. Even if in the end I didn’t really like them, I don’t regret having spent the time on them. Does no truly bad script ever come Juno’s way? Oops, one did.

“Safelight” has three meanings: it is the name of the town where the main characters live, it is a darkroom light for developing photographic film, and it evokes the lighthouses that appear in the movie. Vicki (Juno) is a stereotypical young truck stop HWAHOG (hooker with a heart of gold) in thrall to her crazy pimp. She befriends Charles, an inexperienced teen with a bad leg who works at the truck stop with his ill dad. For a school project he takes photos of lighthouses on the California coast. Vicki visits the lighthouses with him and they talk a lot about nothing very interesting. Vicki’s story of how she became a runaway is clichéd and tired. Perhaps all this worked as a novel (I haven’t read the book on which it is based) but as a movie it is soporific in the extreme. Now that Juno has had her obligatory miss, she has no need to repeat it. Thumbs down.

Playing It Cool (2014)
21st century screenwriters tasked by a studio with writing a romantic comedy have a problem. For reasons I don’t fully fathom – but which might have something to do with the current state of the gender war – audiences for more than a decade have been too cynical to give credence to old-fashioned romantic love in film, at least insofar as ordinary people are concerned. Maybe if one person is a vampire or an alien or a head of state or traveling backwards in time or some outlandish thing, they might allow the notion as being no more improbable than the rest of it. But for normal folks, forget it. Infatuation yes, but how can that end but badly? Even Disney has doubts: witness Maleficent in which the nonexistence of true love in a romantic sense is an important plot element that is never disputed.

For Playing It Cool, screenwriters Chris Shafer and Paul Vicknair tackled the problem by making their screenplay about a screenwriter (the character is actually listed as “Me”) who is having trouble finishing a romcom screenplay because he himself doesn’t believe in love and can think of no third act that isn’t clichéd, hackneyed, and unbelievable. Naturally he (Chris Evans) falls hard for a girl (“Her”: Michelle Monaghan) who is unavailable, so he tries to have a platonic relationship with her. The third act (can this really be considered a *spoiler*?) is deliberately clichéd, hackneyed, and unbelievable right down to a race against time to stop a marriage. (Harold Lloyd did this best in Girl Shy [1924], and it wasn’t new then.) We the audience are supposed to get that the screenwriters get that these screen conventions are not at all like real life. This movie is not a spoof in the usual sense, despite the protagonist phrasing his love declaration, “I'm willing to regret you for the rest of my life.” Playing It Cool is played straight. Shafer and Vicknair cynically wrote a non-cynical movie that telegraphs the irony to us. Does this meta-romcom work? Not really: too cynical. Thumbs down.

Leviathan (2014)
Some *spoilers* follow. In a bleak Russian coastal town near Murmansk, Koyla lives with his wife Lilya and his son Roma; their home and his business are on the same property. The corrupt mayor Vadim callously uses eminent domain to seize Koyla’s property for purposes that, by benefitting the Orthodox church, also will be of political benefit to himself. Koyla’s old army friend Dmitri is now an urbane lawyer from Moscow, and he tries to help. Dmitri’s legal appeals to stop the seizure, or at least to pay Koyla a fair price, go nowhere. Dmitri has a file on the mayor that he obtained from his connections in Moscow, however, and he threatens to reveal the file’s scandalous contents unless Vadim cooperates. The mayor quickly demonstrates that old-fashioned thuggery is still effective against file-waving lawyers, and Dmitri before long is on a train back to Moscow feeling lucky he is still alive. There are secondary plots involving adultery, teen rebellion, and drunkenness – a lot of drunkenness. There are no happy endings. Corruption rules.

Cronyism benefiting the politically well-connected (“special interests” is the preferred euphemism) at the expense of individuals and individual rights is no rarity in the US, of course, even if most often it is not technically regarded as corruption by most voters. The councils, zoning boards, and regulatory committees which practice this are doing exactly what they have been charged to do by popularly elected politicians. The effect, for those who have been at the losing end of it, is much the same. Nonetheless, the undisguised abuse of power depicted in this movie is grim indeed.

The Biblical and cetaceous references of the title are obvious, but it also calls to mind Hobbes, whose 17th century philosophical work Leviathan defended state authority, which, he argued, whatever its faults was superior to an anarchic state of nature. There always have been governments that cause us to call this into question.

Leviathan won best screenplay at Cannes. Thumbs up.

The Duff (2015)
By the 1930s high school was the majority experience in the US and most other industrialized countries. Since that time, the high school movie has been a recognized genre; almost everyone can relate to it. The movies have long lives: the Brat Pack movies of the ‘80s are still liked by the current crop of teens. OK, High School Confidential (1958) might be too dated to be relatable to current youth, but it is a hoot for just that reason. Adults always have been a big part of the audience for these films (at least on home screens) because the high school experience sticks with us. Most of us forged a big part of our adult identities as adolescents within high school walls.

Mean Girls has been the quintessential film of the type since 2004, but 2015 is not 2004 and each generation needs its own cinematic prime representative. I don’t think The Duff is it, but it is a better than average addition to the roster of high school films nonetheless. The film does a very good job of emphasizing the dominance of smart phones and social media in current teen life. 

Mae Whitman, a young actress reminiscent of Amanda Bynes in her teen years, is fine as Bianca, the lead character. She learns she is the DUFF, the “designated ugly fat friend” in her social circle, used by her friends for social convenience. She has a guy friend who is a jerk on the surface and she has a crush on a seemingly artistic guy who is a jerk underneath. She is tortured by the popular girls led by Madison (Bella Thorne), a character who is drawn just a bit too cartoonishly. I think the reader knows where this is going. You’ve seen high school movies before. But that’s OK, because this one is written and directed well enough. It’s not Mean Girls or 10 Things I Hate about You, but it’s not bad. Sometimes that’s all we ask. Thumbs Up.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Subtitles and Subtexts

English-speakers are famously apt to be monolingual. As English is the world’s most widely spoken second language, they can get by almost anywhere, and they tend to avoid the few circumstances where they can’t. Anglophones are not really lazier by nature than other folks; they just have a greater opportunity to be lazy in linguistic matters, so they are. The laziness extends to subtitled foreign language films which always face an extra challenge at the box office: “I don’t want to read at the movies!” is the gist of the complaint, and it is one I’ve heard many times.

This raises the question of the relative merits of dubbing and subtitles. I think the type of movie makes all the difference. If it’s a guy in a rubber monster suit stomping on a miniature Tokyo or if it’s one of the Hercules movies, choose to dub: it’s less distracting and nothing important will be lost. If it’s Kurasawa or Fellini, opt for subtitles. So too if it’s Rohmer (Pauline at the Beach) or Tykwer (Run Lola Run). There are nuances in language and delivery that no dubbed translation ever gets quite right, and these are often as meaningful as the strict dictionary denotation of the words; it is better to hear them in the original.

Besides, a willingness to “read at the movies” opens the door to marvelous films from all over, e.g. Tangerines (Estonia/Georgia), Timbuktu (Mali), Venus in Fur (France), and Leviathan (Russia) as a few recent examples. A particularly fun one (no art house credentials required) released on DVD earlier this year is the Argentine film Wild Tales [Relatos salvajes].

Quite a lot of harm in the world is committed not by bullies aggrandizing themselves and abusing others for fun, though plenty of such people exist. No, it’s done by people who regard themselves as victims. On account of their victimhood they feel completely justified in lashing out in the most disproportionate ways. Bullies don’t commit mass shootings: self-identified victims do. Listen to proselytizers of extreme and violent ideologies: their talk is all about how abused and put-upon they are. That’s not to say they haven’t been bullied: they surely have been. Who hasn’t been bullied? Some far more so than others. That never justifies more than a proportionate and properly directed response. Often it doesn’t justify any.

Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales has six stories of people who are unquestionably mistreated, but whose reprisals are, to put it mildly, immoderate. (1) "Pasternak": All the passengers on a plane discover they know a flight crewman named Pasternak, and that he has a reason to bear each of them a grudge. (2) "The Rats": A waitress contemplates a creative use of rat poison when she recognizes a customer as the gangster who ruined her family. (3) "The Strongest": Road rage erupts between two drivers on a lonely highway. (4) "Little Bomb": A demolition professional has his life and career ruined when he fights with bureaucrats over parking fines and towing fees. (5) "The Proposal": A wealthy man’s son has a lethal hit-and-run accident, which the detective in the case and the man’s lawyer both see as an opportunity for extortion. (6) "Until Death Do Us Apart": During her wedding reception, a bride ascertains that her new husband had cheated on her (presumably during their engagement) with one of the guests. She retaliates.

Wild Tales is well-directed, well-constructed, well-acted, and full of graveyard humor. It also has a point, which it doesn’t need to articulate explicitly: the tales themselves say it all. Recommendation: Put on glasses (if you need them) and read the subtitles.

Trailer Wild Tales (2014)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Getting Graphic

Overall, recreational reading continues its long decline in the US (and not only the US), but there are categories of the traditional paper-and-ink publication business that remain healthy, notably YA literature (discussed in a previous blog: Not So Young Adult), comics, and graphic novels (book-length comic books). Sales this year of comic books and graphic novels should be around 85 million units. That’s lower than the 1950s peak or the 1990s rebound, but the number doesn’t include digital sales; print and digital combined are at record levels. (There are nearly 150,000,000 more people in the US now than in the 1950s, of course.)

In pop culture comics are cool, which they were not even in the ‘50s. Comics once were guilty pleasures, but today no one (well, hardly anyone) is ashamed to flaunt them on coffee tables or to be seen in public in a Comic-Con costume. While many pop phenomena are not explicable in terms of artistic merit, in this case there actually is some to be found. In the past couple of decades there has been some outstanding work from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Sydney Padua, and others. As a reader I’m no expert swimmer in this literary pool, but I do dip a toe in the waters now and then. Two recent graphic novels by authors I respect found their way into my Amazon shopping cart last week, and I don’t regret the expense.

Canadian graphic novelist Bryan Lee O’Malley is best known for the critically acclaimed Scott Pilgrim, a comic book series published between 2004 and 2010 about a young slacker and rocker in Toronto. The surreal videogame-influenced series was adapted for the screen in 2010 as Scott Pilgrim vs the World starring Michael Cera. Despite positive reviews, the movie did poorly at the box office. The reason is something of a mystery to me and no doubt to Universal Pictures. Millennials were the prime target audience but they stayed away in droves. The ones with whom I’ve viewed it liked it without exception, but it is odd that I (a Boomer) introduced it to them and not they to me.

Last year O’Malley published the equally remarkable graphic novel Seconds, a copy of which arrived at my door last week. Premise: Katie is the chef (though not owner) at the successful restaurant Seconds. She has plans for her own restaurant but faces serious obstacles. Besides her professional problems, she is not over a break-up with her ex-boyfriend Max. The restaurant Seconds, she discovers, is inhabited by a house spirit named Lis. Katie is given the chance to undo her past mistakes by writing the mistake down, ingesting a special mushroom, and going to sleep. When she awakens her reality is changed: the mistake didn’t happen. Katie can’t resist using the technique over and over to try to make her life perfect, but it turns out (mild *Spoiler Alert*) that she can’t change one aspect of reality without changing all of it: the universe is much too interconnected for it to be otherwise. A “mistake” may be undone but the new branch of reality in toto is not necessarily an improvement. Katie’s memories remain unchanged, so she becomes increasingly alienated as the history of each new reality is ever more distant from the original she remembers.

Seconds is a contemplative and wistful graphic novel. As far as I know a screen version isn’t in the works. Given the disappointing ticket sales of Scott Pilgrim vs the World (which at least was action-packed) getting a green-light from a studio might be a challenge. Nonetheless, the book is hard to put down once opened. We’ve all made mistakes we wish we could undo, but we seldom consider that we would be different people today if we had made another choice then. It’s not possible to undo the past, of course. We sometimes do get second chances in life, but we never thereby erase the first one. All our do-overs come with a history, and all we can do is make the best of it.

Scottish graphic novelist Mark Millar and American illustrator John Romita, Jr., both veterans of Marvel, made a splash during 2008-2010 with their controversial comic book series Kick-Ass. The premise: high school nobody Dave Lizewski has no special powers at all, but he is a comic book fan who dreams of being a costumed crime-fighting superhero. So, he buys a costume and becomes one (minus the “super”). He soon discovers that there are others who have done the same thing, and that, unlike himself, these other costumed vigilantes are truly lethal.

Mainstream comics in the West, though often violent, tend to pull punches when depicting brutality. The very graphic Kick-Ass doesn’t. The result is impressive, disturbing, and most definitely not-for-kids. The series is also quite funny, though the humor is very much of the graveyard sort. Millar and Romita followed up the series with the sequels Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl. (Millar also had unrelated success with The Secret Service, which was adapted for the screen as Kingsman.) In 2015 Millar and Romita released the graphic novel Kick-Ass 3. This arrived at my door in the same package with Seconds. In Kick-Ass 3 the imprisoned Hit-Girl seeks the help of Kick-Ass and other costumed not-so-superheroes to get out. She still has in her sights the mob and a corrupt police department.

Millar and Romita haven’t lost their touch. If you have Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass 2, and Hit-Girl, it is definitely worth rounding out the set with Kick-Ass 3, which marks the end of the series. A prequel might be in the offing however. The movie Kick-Ass (starring Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, and Chloë Grace Moretz) was more successful at the box office than Scott Pilgrim. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it was well regarded critically (with exceptions: Roger Ebert hated it) and was big enough to spawn the sequel Kick-Ass 2. Those who have seen the movies but not read the comic books might be surprised to learn that the movies are substantially tamer – really. They also differ somewhat from the comics in backstory and subplots, such as (in the first entry) the relationship of Dave and Katie. Apparently a Kick-Ass 3 movie is in the works, but it is at a very preliminary stage.

Both Seconds and Kick-Ass 3 are recommended for that coffee table, perhaps next to SPQR that I recommended in the last book review. I suspect the first two will inspire more conversation with guests.

A do-over with a history:
Do It Again by the Beach Boys

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Blue Blazer Time

Digital photographs are marvelous: easy to access and easy to share. They also are easy to lose. They might stay on the cloud forever but that doesn’t mean we can find them. (What was grandma’s password? Have you seen the red flashdrive anywhere?) So, I’m still old fashioned enough to like hardcopies for a physical photo album. Not every single saved digital photo is print-worthy, of course. Not one in ten is. But I print just enough to document various events, the passage of years, and my own progression toward dotage.

I got around to printing a page of pics this morning, which included one of me in a uniform of sorts. (Not coincidentally, though lacking the pocket patch, it was pretty much my prep school uniform of 50 years ago.) It occurs to me that I wear precisely the same blue jacket and red tie both to weddings and to funerals, though I intend no irony or commentary by the practice. The same style, that is: the original jacket, if I still had it, wouldn’t fit. Every year since I was 25 I’ve attended at least one those events – sometimes both. In recent years, life being what it is, funerals have outnumbered the weddings, but in 2015 I attended one of each.

Neither event is really my story to tell, so beyond this unspecific mention of them I won’t. On a strictly actuarial basis, though, it’s good to know the odds for the wedded couple are in their favor. After hovering around 50% during the 1970s-90s, divorce rates in the US in the 21st century have dropped to levels not seen since before World War 2. Why? Apparently, iffier couples are forgoing vows in the first place, so only more secure couples still walk the aisle. (Disclosure: my one and only marriage lasted 3 years, ending in 2001.)

This might be the last wedding I attend in a while (maybe ever), for the hetero marriage rate has gone off a cliff and is still in free fall. The demographics of marriage have shifted too. The median age of first marriage is higher than it ever has been for those who bother at all: the number of lifetime adult singles is the highest on record. Prior to the current century, women with college degrees were the least likely to marry; now they are the most likely. Yet, that stat by itself is misleading. The marriage rate for this group has not gone up; it has gone down. It just hasn’t gone down a lot, whereas for everybody else the rate has collapsed.

For those who seek economic explanations for social trends, the sorry financial state of men at present is a candidate. True enough, men still predominate among CEOs, corporate directorships, and governorships just as they predominate within prisons and halfway houses: more men than women inhabit both tails of the bell curve. CEOs are doing great. But most men are not CEOs, nor are they homeless. The typical male experience is quite different; the middle 80% of men are losing ground. Median male wages peaked 40 years ago in real terms and continue to decline – and not by a small amount. According to Time, men’s wages are down 20% since 1980; moreover, the male labor participation rate is lower than it ever has been. (The current ratio of employed men to employed women is 91:100.) Fewer attend college. Men make up only a third of undergraduates, and women in 2015 earned more degrees at every level up to and including doctorates. In short, modern men are, by and large, lousy prospects, for despite the ongoing increase in female earning power “a secure job” still topped the female list of requirements for a marriage partner according to a 2012 Pew study.

If one is inclined to dismiss economic explanations, however, we can find other factors at work, too. Modern social media have vastly improved communication and understanding among people; the results have not been good. We understand what we hear and we don’t like it. Unexpectedly, the communications revolution has deepened partisanship in all parts of life, including the age-old gender war. It’s hard to say how much this matters:  there always has been much fraternization across battle
Twilight Zone: "Two"
lines and there always will be, but it matters some. Perhaps more important is the retreat from real world (“meatspace”) interactions with other people into virtual ones. It’s common for people to share more with online friends whom they never meet than with those who show up in person. It’s not just marriage as a legal formality that has diminished: twosomes of the informal kind are less common too. Millennials in particular date less and opt to live together less than did Xers and Boomers at their ages. According to Gallup, “Gallup's data reveal that young adults are not simply swapping marriage for living together, but rather staying single longer.” They are “less likely to be making the more serious commitment associated with moving in together – whether in marriage or not.”

Well, I can understand that. There is something to be said for the freedom to crank up one’s stereo at 3 AM (assuming you don’t have thin walls and close neighbors) without having to justify the choice to a housemate. There endless perks to being single, mostly in the form of not having to negotiate every aspect of life. Being single is, in my (long) experience, relaxing.

What about love? OK, if you want to get picky. La Rochefoucauld’s remarks on the subject notwithstanding, I suppose that might be a reason for some folks to turn down the stereo – or at least to use earphones.

Andrews Sisters – Apple Blossom Time (1941)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Game Is Up

From the earliest days, movie producers saw the potential profit in sequels, series, and franchises: Tarzan, Nancy Drew, Frankenstein, etc. Some were designed as a series from the start while others spawned sequels only after the success of a stand-alone film (e.g. The Thin Man). Then there are the serials so popular in the 1930s and ‘40s that played before the main feature: short films with cliffhanger endings and a continuous story arc such as Flash Gordon, Batman, Green Hornet, and the late entry (1952) Commando Cody. George Lucas famously was inspired by these for his Star Wars series. Star Wars coincided with the arrival of home video players, which made discretionary home binge-watching possible for ordinary folks. The home-binge option has made serials more prevalent than ever. High among the sources to which Hollywood has looked for scripts have been comic books and Young Adult fiction.

This year three series based on YA books (Divergent, Maze Runner, and Hunger Games) with broad similarities have installments in theaters. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is the monster hit of the three and the final installment of its series. Though she certainly has made her mark in other films, Jennifer Lawrence became a superstar in The Hunger Games. I try to keep up with at least some pop-culture phenomena, so Monday night I went to a nearby multiplex to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. (I noticed only when I got home that the Millennial cashier had, unasked, given me a senior discount: sigh.)

For those who have read the books, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 follows the plot pretty faithfully, with only such simplifications as are sensible to maintain cinematic pacing. Nonetheless, like the other installments, it is a remarkable visualization of the novels and worth seeing for that reason alone. Those who haven’t read the books but who have seen the previous three films know basically what to expect, and shouldn’t be disappointed. Anyone who hasn’t seen the first three, however, (a caveat for most series) will be completely lost. Recommendation for newbies: binge-watch the first three before stepping foot in the theater.

On one level The Hunger Games series is a teen-oriented adventure, but it really is more. It is deeply cynical on many levels, the political being just one of them. Katniss is not a typical heroine. She owes her hero-status to media-hype and she knows it. She is not a very nice person and she knows it. She is humanly inconsistent: she is willing to sacrifice for others, yet also is willing to sacrifice others for herself. She does self-reflect enough, however, to question her own moral choices and those of her friends. Should we conveniently excuse ourselves and our allies for acting the same way as our enemies just because it is a means to an end? What are the limits of loyalty and what is betrayal? At what point is victory too costly? It is unusual for a YA-based series to ask such questions and more unusual to offer the answers this one does.

Contrary to popular opinion we do not live in cynical times. These are partisan times, and partisans are true believers. It is not cynical to believe the worst of one’s opponents. That’s just toeing the party line as a true believer. Cynicism in the good sense involves recognizing unsavory natures and motives in oneself and one’s allies while seeing the goodness in one’s opponents – yet still making an informed choice among the shades of gray. So, the success of The Hunger Games with its more complex world view is surprising and encouraging.

Thumbs up, but not as a stand-alone movie: See the others first.

Essence of The Hunger Games world view: