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Next Goal Wins the Hunger Games
Brief reviews of two prominent new releases.
Let’s do some brief reviews of two prominent recent releases, shall we?
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
My cousin convinced me to read Suzanne Collins’ original The Hunger Games trilogy at some point not long before the first film adaptation came out. I was expecting just another Twilight, and I was happy to be wrong. The overarching story is considerably more nuanced than one might expect from dystopian YA fiction, forgoing a simple “We killed the leader of the bad guys and now everything is okay”-type message in favor of wrestling with the facts that for even the soldiers who survive, wars never have happy endings, and today’s revolutionary is often tomorrow’s despot.
The film adaptations were mostly fine. As is too-often the case with movies based on popular best sellers, they strove to remain as faithful to the source material as possible, regardless of whether or not that would actually work in cinematic terms. The results were kind of like a CliffsNotes version of Collins’ original story, and I’ve sometimes wondered: Given that the films necessarily had to skim over so many important details and relationships, did they connect at all with viewers who have never read the books?
Director Francis Lawrence’s new adaptation of Collins’ prequel novel, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, makes me feel like the answer is “No, they did not” - because I didn’t read that one, and the movie felt like a long, boring mess to me. Maybe Collins’ source material was also this disjointed and episodic, but I’m willing to bet that, at the very least, it gave us insights into future dictator Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland in the original movies, Tom Blyth here) that the movie sorely lacks.
Maybe this would have worked better as a mini-series? Aside from the fact that this iteration of Snow just isn’t all that interesting, Ballad feels like three different movies stitched together. When The Hunger Games within this story were ending, I assumed the movie was near its conclusion - but then I looked at my watch and realized there was an hour left.
That hour is confusing, and the conclusion doesn’t really justify this kid growing up to be such an evil prick. Perhaps if I’d read the book, some things would have made more sense… or, at the very least, the love story between Snow and Hunger Games competitor Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegeler, apparently cursed to spend her post-West Side Story career in terrible sequels) would have felt semi-convincing. There are fleeting glimpses of the ethically murky political insights of the original trilogy here, but not enough to warrant sitting through this entire slog of a movie.
The best thing about The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is Viola Davis, as game-maker Volumnia Gaul. Davis doesn’t just chew up the scenery - she spits in the other performers’ faces and dares them to rise to her level. Alas, they never do.
Next Goal Wins
There’s this old interview with Sean Connery where he talks about the difference between his interpretation of James Bond and Roger Moore’s interpretation of James Bond, and he says that while he always strove to make the character credible and would incorporate humor only when it was organic to the scenario, Moore would “go for the laugh and the humor at whatever the cost of the reality or the credibility” of the moment.
This may seem like an odd thing to bring up while discussing Taika Waititi, who has nothing to do with James Bond. But it came to mind because I think it also describes the difference between Waititi’s best work, like What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Thor: Ragnarok, and his last two films, Thor: Love and Thunder and the just-released Next Goal Wins: Waititi now shoves in jokes wherever he can, regardless of whether or not he should, and the results often undermine the overall narrative and destroy any sense of reality.
This is especially problematic when Waititi tries to deal with weightier subjects, like trans rights or the death of a child, both of which are issues in Next Goal Wins. Given that Waititi won an Oscar for his WWII comedy Jojo Rabbit, it’s understandable why he thinks he can mix humor with such serious topics… but it doesn’t really work here, because, again, the joke always comes first, no matter what that joke actually means for the drama.
Thor: Love and Thunder hit a similar speed bump when trying to tackle terminal cancer and the propaganda of the ruling class, but at least in that case, Waititi had some decent, already-established characters to prop up the shoddy storytelling. Next Goal Wins, which is based on a true story, feels like a boilerplate underdog sports movie on fast-forward. In a good version of this kind of movie, various members of the team would be given personalities and subplots of their own, but here, only the trans player Jaiyah Saelua (portrayed in the film by Kaimana) gets anything to do - we’re told that one guy has an anger problem, but we never really see that, and another dude is recruited because he’s really good at kicking, but then that never actually ends up being important, and a goalie’s redemption arc is literally as simple as “One year he really fucked up but this year he actually did his job.” Only Wilderpeople’s Oscar Kightley, playing a sweet-natured administrator, feels properly serviced as a character, and even he’s more of a sketch than a flesh-and-blood human.
Consequently, we don’t care about most of these people, the bond coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) forms with the team seems completely unearned, and we get no real sense of what Rongen did to make them better other than force them to practice a lot.
Most of the movie’s story threads are similarly undercooked. An entire subplot about Rongen and his ex-wife (Elisabeth Moss, wasted in a truly nothing role) just completely disappears at the end. But it was so slight in the first place that I didn’t even notice it went unresolved until I was thinking about the movie afterwards. Ditto the fact that the film inexplicably begins with a narrator, played by Waititi himself, who disappears after the first scene. Why is he in the movie at all?
It feels like there may be a longer cut of Next Goal Wins where some of this stuff is given proper time to breathe, but that cut was mercilessly edited down in favor of just getting the whole thing over with as fast as possible. The result is a pleasant-enough movie to watch on Netflix one rainy afternoon. But we know Waititi is capable of so, so very much more.