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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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 22, 2014)

22 08 2014

As I said in my review of “Only Lovers Left Alive,” I have not seen enough of Jim Jarmusch’s work to make a definitive statement as to whether or not he is a great director. But I have seen Jarmusch’s 2005 Cannes prize winner “Broken Flowers,” which is enough to inform me that he has at least one great film to his name.

This dryly humorous pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is second wave Bill Murray at his best (yes, even better than “Lost in Translation“).  He seems to have reached a status where he seems to reject the need for validation through actively courting our laughs, instead just allowing the comedy arise naturally from the events.  Murrray can then just sit back, maintain a stolidly unruffled facade, and just let the bizarre run-ins of “Broken Flowers” guide his reactions.

In the film, Jarmusch casts him as an aging Don Juan – appropriately named Don Johnston – served with a letter that suggests he fathered a child 19 years prior.  Don would be content to never investigate any further, but his inquisitive neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) insists that he go visit the potential mothers.  So, in a sort of inverted “Mamma Mia,” Don takes off on a series of painfully awkward encounters with former lovers.

The parade of women, including Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton, always entertains.  But Jarmusch isn’t just wheeling out stereotypes or stock characters.  “Broken Flowers” takes each of these women and sets them on an unpredictable but well-imagined path after their split with Don.  It can’t help but raise the question of what exactly his effect on these women was.

To say too much more of what each woman brings to the film is to spoil the fun.  But just dive head first into “Broken Flowers” for off-beat fun throughout and a startling conclusion that packs an unexpected punch.





REVIEW: Ernest & Celestine

16 06 2014

Ernest and CelestineIn the effort to engage in the larger cultural conversation about “important” films, I realize that it must seem like I can only appreciate a movie if it tackles topics of great thematic heft or breaks some sort of cinematic mold.  But truth be told, I love a movies like “Ernest & Celestine” just as much because it possesses a remarkable sort of magic.  It has the power to return me to a childlike sense of spectatorship, allowing me a pleasant regression to a simpler state of mind.

The film’s story is nothing particularly extraordinary, but it charms from the get-go.  The indomitably curious mouse Celestine (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) wants to know what could really be so bad about the big, scary bears of whom all mice are warned to fear.  This very nearly ends her life when she goes above ground and winds up in the clutches of the hapless bear Ernest (Forest Whitaker).  Celestine doesn’t just convince him not to eat her; she makes him a friend.

Sadly, no one else is willing to accept their unconventional relationship.  It’s unnatural and scary to both species, unwilling to budge from their present ideologies.  And yet, the bear and the mouse persevere, teaching very important lessons about acceptance and affection.  As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”  That’s a lesson “Ernest & Celestine” radiates with clarity as well as warmth, and I hope children from 3 to 93 everywhere take it to heart.  A- / 3halfstars