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Dispatches From the Discount Theater #1: The Hunger Games Mocking Jay Part 2 by Matthew Guerruckey

Dispatches From the Discount Theater #1:
The Hunger Games Mocking Jay Part 2

by Matthew Guerruckey

I love movies, but I hate paying for movies. In Los Angeles, we’re lucky to have access to nearly every film released. But that access is a double-edged sword: we get all the low-budget, cutting edge features, but we’re positively bombarded with crap. You never know until you watch a movie if it’s worth your time. Sometimes things I expected to be crap have given me some of the most memorable film experiences of my life, and sometimes (often) I’ve been let down by things I’d been looking forward to for years.

Ticket prices nationwide average out at about $8 a pop. That’s not great, but in L.A. the average ticket is closer to $12, and if you want to go to a decent theater, with great picture and sound quality and assigned seating, you’re looking at about $17. So why would I take a chance on that quirky rom-com or that critically-lauded documentary if I’m essentially placing a $20 bet that I’m going to be entertained?

But, still—I love movies. And more than that, I love going to the movies. The big screen, the huge sound, and the audience reaction all combine to completely immerse me in the world of the film. Last week I caught up to Trainwreck, a movie that I was unsure of when it came out. It had a lot of great pedigree behind it, but nothing about the trailers made me laugh. So I gave it a pass, and picked it up on Red Box nearly a year after its release. You don’t think of comedies as movies you need to see on the big screen, but there’s something about the communal experience of laughing with dozens of other people that you can’t capture at home. In Trainwreck, there are long stretches of seemingly improvised comedy that just didn’t land in the same way they might have if 80 other people had been cracking up around me. I didn’t like it enough to wish I’d paid $17 to see it in the theater, but had I taken a chance, maybe I would have liked it more? As it turns out, $1.19 is about how much I was willing to pay for the experience of watching Trainwreck. Of course, I promptly forgot to return the damn thing to Red Box, and ended up paying $5 for it. (Five bucks for a movie rental? What is this, Blockbuster Video in 1998?)

But one of the benefits of living in L.A. (and there aren’t many) is that we also have dozens of

Regency Photo


second-run and revival theaters, where you can catch a movie for cheap. Some theaters even charge as little as $1.50—though the theaters themselves usually reflect that price in quality of the building, or the seats, or the screen itself. So, in this series, I’ll be venturing out to various discount theaters throughout Los Angeles, as a way to see as many movies as possible, visit parts of town I don’t see very often, and to see if what I paid to watch the movie affected the way I felt about the film itself.

For this first installment, I thought I’d bring along the man himself—Nathan Alan Schwartz, EIC of Five 2 One Magazine. We both live in the San Fernando Valley, so we went to the North Hollywood Regency cinemas 6, which is in the Valley Plaza shopping center. It has great 90’s architecture, and at night is still lit with neon that must have looked amazing in 1991. So if you’d come to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in this place, it would have looked spectacular. Now, it’s mostly just a sun bleached facade.

The 80’s and 90’s saw a proliferation of smaller multiplexes that have since been superseded by the mega-plexes of the 2000’s. If you go right down the road from the Regency NoHo, you’ll find not one, not two, but three AMC theaters in Burbank. One with 6 theaters one with 8, and one with 16. All within a mile of each other! So why would you go to a rundown relic like the Regency NoHo? Well, you’d go because on Sundays and Tuesdays, they charge $1.50.

The first thing you see when you walk in the door is an arcade, which includes two pinball machines. One of them, I shit you not, is from the 1995 Keanu Reeves sci-fi flop Johnny Mnemonic. Now, if you don’t know what Johnny Mnemonic is, you’re not alone—it was The Matrix before The Matrix, and made people wonder for a hot second if Keanu Reeves was done.

I am fascinated with everything about this machine’s existence. The first thing that amazes me is that somebody decided to make a Johnny Mnemonic pinball machine. Beyond that, the fact that in 2016—two full decades after the film’s release—a Johnny Mnemonic pinball table is still being used, in a movie theater, is mind-blowing. Adding to the overall effect of the machine was the large homeless person, draped in torn blankets, who was mashing the buttons as we walked in.

The theater itself is your standard early 90’s multiplex layout—basically, five long shoebox theaters, with one central screening room that’s larger, for prestige movies. Now, I’ve been to the NoHo Regency a few times, so I know that the largest screen has a tear down the right side that hasn’t been repaired in God-only-knows how long. The theater than Nathan and I were seated in had a slight discoloration on the right side—nothing as distracting as the large splash that’s one another of the smaller screens, clearly the result of someone tossing a large drink at the screen sometime during the Clinton Administration.

The seats are a hodge-podge. The first ones that we sat down in leaned so far back that our butts were practically on the floor, which meant our eyes were guided up toward the ceiling rather than the screen. So we moved one row up, which left a poor old man to sit down in the seat, to great sigh of “oof!” There are numbers on each seat, but they’re not in order—the ones in our row were labeled 3, then 6, then 108, then 8. It’s clear that these are salvaged from other theaters in the Regency chain. This is how they’re able to keep this theater in operation, which is cool with me, but maybe not so cool for the back of the poor old guy behind us.

Generally, the Regency NoHo features movies that are coming to video soon, are already on video, or are about three to four months old. Every great once in awhile, when a new release bombs hard enough, it will be here in a few weeks. The movie we decided on was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. Ever since the Harry Potter franchise successfully stretched out the seventh and final book into an eight movie, this is kind of the rule. This is why we have three Hobbit movies, each less necessary than the next. That strategy worked for the Harry Potter series, because The Deathly Hallows is a very long book. But there’s just not enough material in any of the Suzanne Collins Hunger Games novels to justify their bloated film adaptations.

Another problem with this now-concluded Hunger Games film franchise is that the tone is all over the place. They’re just not sure what they want to be about. Are they action movies? Are they romances? Are they philosophical reflections on political theory? They want to be all of the above. That approach worked to great effect in Catching Fire, which was my favorite movie of 2013 (and which we voted the top movie of that year at Drunk Monkeys). It’s a serious movie, but it’s also a fantastically fun movie. Jennifer Lawrence had just won the Oscar, and her performance has a real swagger about it. But on top of that, they had just brought on Francis Lawrence as director, who steadied some of the mess that Gary Ross had made of the first installment. That whole first movie is actually really shoddy. You can tell they just didn’t put as much money into it, because they didn’t yet have the money that movie itself would go on to make, which is all the money in the world. With the other movies, you can at least see the money on the screen.

No matter how slow and tedious Mockingjay Part 2 can be, it still stars the most charismatic actress working today, and so by virtue of that, it’s going to be entertaining on some level. And I was definitely entertained by the movie, but only in bursts, because it is so loaded with stuff. The tone doesn’t waver, they know what they’re going for. It’s this slow deliberately, a consciously arty move that just doesn’t work. On top of that, this film is markedly darker than the last installment, which means that these last two don’t even feel like continuations of the same whole, and that makes the series in general very muddled.


Hunger Games-Katniss Everdeen

There’s nothing new about anything in The Hunger Games book series—sometimes quite literally, in swiping ideas from Battle Royale and pother works—but it’s well done and fairly consistent. The first Hunger Games book is great and the second even better, but the third is a confused muddle of bullshit, with a few great scenes. Many of the best moment in the adaptation of Mockingjay are the transfers of those key scenes, specifically the moment where Katniss assassinates President Coin. But even in that scene the glacial pace of the film is a problem, as Katniss takes a comedically slow walk across the stadium to the podium where Coin stands with her arms raised for an also comedically long amount of time.

That scene typifies the rest of the movie—you’ve got Jennifer Lawrence doing great work, you’ve got Julianne Moore really going for it as this fake-benevolent villain. And thematically, this scene is the core of the both the film and the entire series. Katniss would not be a hero if she took out Snow, because that would be personal revenge Instead, she needs to take down the very power structure that allows this cycle of violence to exist. That forces her to remain a symbol, which has stripped her of her humanity as surely as the Hunger Games themselves did. But while the scene works, it’s also very boring. And that’s the one thing that this scene should not be—cannot be—to be effective. But since that problem existed on the page, then I guess this is a faithful adaptation of a ponderous book.

But overall, because I’d had such low expectations going into this movie, I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would—I certainly think it’s a better made film than the first Hunger Games. Part of that is because anytime you have all of these great actors (including the legendary Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last major screen role) just sitting in a room acting off of each other, it’s dynamic. I also enjoyed seeing so many micro-icons of geek culture in supporting roles, including Winn from Supergirl, Foggy Nelson from Daredevil, Gwendoline Christine from five minutes of The Force Awakens, and Natalie dormer from being a flawlessly gorgeous human being.


Johnny Mnemonic

So I had fun, but yes, a large part of that fun came from my lowered expectations, and the fact that I was watching it for $1.50 in as theater with a Johnny Mnemonic pinball game in the lobby.