REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

20 11 2015

Much like the “Harry Potter” series, the final installment of “The Hunger Games” departs radically from the formula of all entries that came prior. “Mockingjay – Part 2” does not actually feature the Hunger Games themselves, the main event that involves children killing children to placate the masses of a dystopian future. Without this intense action set piece to which the story can build, everything else cannot help but feel like a bit of a letdown.

“Mockingjay,” for many fans of the series, represented the least of Suzanne Collins’ books. So, in a sense, it is not terribly surprising that “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” ends on a similarly underwhelming note. But even that is unlikely to put a damper on what will surely be one of the highest grossing films of the year; the four-year relationship Jennifer Lawrence built between viewers and her Katniss Everdeen is truly remarkable.

Without the games, “Mockingjay – Part 2” seems rather confused as to what kind of movie it wants to be. Some aspects of political semantic games and propaganda messaging remain from Part 1, primarily at the outset. These leftovers just further serve to reinforce the sense that a two-part finale was an unnecessary protraction of events.

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REVIEW: Water for Elephants

6 01 2015

I read Sara Gruen’s acclaimed best-selling novel “Water for Elephants” at the zenith of its popularity and found myself rather underwhelmed.  (What self-respecting novel gives only the most cursory explanation of its title?)  Francis Lawrence’s cinematic adaptation did little to change my opinion.  His “Water for Elephants” is pleasant and watchable, which is about all it has to offer.

In the film, Robert Pattinson stars as Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student whose life takes a screeching detour when his parents both die during his last exam.  Saddled not only with his own grief but also with their debts, he opts for a somewhat cliched escape route by joining the circus.  He stows away and quickly moves up from shoveling horse droppings to taking care of the show’s star animals.

He quickly discovers that his humane veterinary practices have little use in the profit-hungry Banzini Brothers circus, run by the shrewd but cruel August (Christoph Waltz).  As if that is not enough to make him worry about both occupational and personal security, Jacob finds himself smitten for the boss’s wife, star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).   Romantic rivalry quickly runs cold as Jacob’s arrival quickly accelerates the dismembering of Marlena and August’s already fragile relationship.

Lawrence prefers to leave the tensions at a standstill rather than letting them progress towards their boiling point.  As a result, “Water for Elephants” often feels flat and unexciting.  At the very least, when the sparks fail to fly at the clashing of the three leads, the environment is always believable and interesting.  The film does a nice job romanticizing the elegant, balletic movement of the circus performance as well as the extravagant moveable architecture of the spectacle.

In a sense, it adds to the story a visual element that has to remain imaginary when experienced on the page.  Too bad Witherspoon, Waltz, and Pattinson could not add more flavor with their characters.  C+2stars





REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

20 11 2014

Unlike the “Harry Potter” finale, which ran over 800 pages in length, the last installment of “The Hunger Games” probably did not necessitate a two-part cinematic conclusion.  But alas, the filmmaking team thought they could find enough action in the story, and the Lionsgate executives had confidence that they could market two films.  So now, audiences are stuck with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.”

Though the film runs a full 30 minutes shorter than both its predecessors, it feels significantly longer.  Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his penultimate role) do bring an aura of prestige to the relatively calm proceedings, yet that is not enough to boost the low energy that plagues the first half of “Mockingjay.”  While there is a thrilling final rescue scene and one quasi-action sequence in the middle, the inside baseball of Panem politics occupies the majority of the two hours.

Perhaps “Mockingjay” could inspire the next generation of political publicists, a prospect simultaneously encouraging and frightening.  The film offers an introductory course to how semantics, misinformation, and outright propagandizing can be used by governments as well as social movements to recruit followers and repel criticisms.  The overarching lesson of “Mockingjay” may very well be that the camera is mightier than the sword.

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REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

1 12 2013

Hunger GamesWhen I wrote my review of the first film in “The Hunger Games” series over a year and a half ago, I couldn’t stop gushing about Gary Ross’ gritty, unsparing aesthetic.  The shaky camera and rough editing made the movie’s form brilliantly match the dark content of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young adult novels.  But Ross is gone for the second installment, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” and his unique stylization went with him.

The absence of artistry is likely to only bother people like me who study film, however.  And while I was sad to see it go, “Catching Fire” more than compensates with a tighter focus on storytelling and fidelity to its source.  Under the steady direction of Francis Lawrence and the pen of Oscar-winning scribes Michael Arndt (‘Toy Story 3“) and Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours“), this sequel is among the rare class that manages to outdo than its predecessor.

“Catching Fire” manages to pack a remarkable amount of events into its nearly two and a half hour runtime; in fact, I had read the book a few months before seeing the movie and could hardly think of anything excised from the plot.  Yet even in spite of how much it bites off, the film never feels its length at all.  Lawrence keeps the action unfolding at a steady clip, never hurried enough to make us feel frenzied but never so drawn out that we can get bored.  (And unlike the first “Hunger Games,” I was actually excited for the next film when “Catching Fire” ended.)

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