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: Escobar: Paradise Lost

26 06 2015

EscobarDespite what the title might imply, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is not really a film about Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.  The name must have its roots in a marketing meeting because Benicio del Toro’s titular figure shows up about as often as Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone in “The Untouchables.”

For the uninitiated, writer/director Andrea di Stefano provides a little more information about the drug lord than season 3 of “Entourage” can give.  In lightly sketched detail, Escobar’s appeal to the dispossessed in his country becomes a little more clear.  Whether willfully or naively, the film implies most Colombians remained in the dark about his lucrative illegal enterprises but were not asking questions so long as the money kept flowing.

The true protagonist of “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” Josh Hutcherson’s Canadian surfer bro Nick Brady, encapsulates this journey from tentative acceptance to fearful resistance.  Nick falls in love with Escobar’s niece while working in the forests near the Colombian beaches, and he graciously accepts an offer to work on the family farm rather than face harassment from armed thugs.  He suspects something might be awry with his relative and employer but remains silent, to his ultimate detriment.

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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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REVIEW: The Hunger Games

23 03 2012

From the very beginning of “The Hunger Games,” it is very clear that this literary adaptation has in common with “Harry Potter” only the hype surrounding their release.  While Rowling and an army of talented directors transported us to a universe accessible only in our wildest imaginations, writer/director Gary Ross shows no such inclinations in bringing Suzanne Collins’ best-seller to the big screen.  As her novel is meant to hold a mirror up to our own reality-TV saturated culture, he plants the film in an America just a little bit of social upheaval removed from our current one.

He has no interest in sweeping formalist cinematography that basks in the beauty of castles and countryside.  Ross’ style adheres more closely to the films of Danny Boyle with a kinetic desire propelling every shot; watching the struggles in the wilderness harkens more to Aron Ralston’s fight against nature in “127 Hours” than it does to anything in the Forbidden Forest.  The editing is more deliberate, too, lingering on the actors to communicate internal monologues with their eyes rather than conveying that the editor forgot to take their Ritalin.

Of course, not everything in the film looks as gritty as District 12 and as unyielding as the Arena.  The Capitol, where the rich and the elites bask, is embellished to the maximum for an especially emphasized contrast.  The men and women look like they walked out of Hunter S. Thompson’s acid trip, and their lavish makeup and attire are nothing short of ridiculous.  (So don’t be surprised if “The Hunger Games” takes home a technical Oscar or two next February.)

All of this makes Panem, a strange society born from the ashes of an America that tore itself apart, a fascinating place to build a story of triumph over the odds.  16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister.  The Games require the competitive edge of an Olympic athlete in addition to the cut-throat inclinations of a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, and it gets worse for Katniss as class bias is institutionalized in the rigid caste society of Panem.

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“The Kids Are All Right” Poll Results

31 07 2010

As “The Kids Are All Right” rolls into over 800 theaters this weekend, including many that are very much in the mainstream, it seems as good a time as ever to check out the results of the poll I ran along with the Oscar Moment on the movie.

The poll was a little bit different than any other one I’ve run before (at least with an Oscar Moment).  Rather than answer a simple “yes/no” question, I asked readers to pick ALL the contenders from Lisa Cholodenko’s film that they expected to wind up nominated at the big dance.

So there might have been some confusion, and I apologize for that.  The results seem normal now, but at first, they didn’t seem … well, all right.

There was a clear favorite candidate: Annette Bening.  With six votes, readers clearly think she is going to be a major threat in the Best Actress race.  (Although I will say, after having seen the movie, I think Bening should be supporting and Moore should be lead.)

Then things got a little more interesting.  Four people think that the movie will be nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.  That’s a nice number, but it shows that not everyone is convinced this is the real deal.  Only one person thinks Lisa Cholodenko will receive a nomination for Best Director, which isn’t too shocking given that the movie isn’t the type where the director gets a lot of credit.  But in 2007, Jason Reitman sneaked in for “Juno” when no one expected it, so you never know.

Among other actors, Julianne Moore received the next highest votes of confidence with four.  In my review, I singled her out as my favorite, and I sincerely hope she wins.  Hopefully no category fraud issues spell her doom.

Surprisingly, Mia Wasikowska wound up with more votes than the elder statesman Mark Ruffalo – two to one, in fact.  Many people consider Ruffalo very overdue for a nomination, particularly after being snubbed for 2000’s “You Can Count on Me.”  But if the field is weak enough, Wasikowska could sneak in if love for the movie is strong.  It wouldn’t be the first time that two actresses from the same movie were nominated in the category; it’s happened the past two years.

Also worth a mention, Josh Hutcherson received a vote, which I sure liked to see.  Represent 17-year-olds!  (Fun fact: he’s two days older than I am.)





REVIEW: The Kids Are All Right

18 07 2010

Lisa Choldenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” may not have everything right, but it’s most certainly better than just alright. Her witty and insightful script is enormously entertaining, finding that perfect median between comedy and drama that so many filmmakers struggle to achieve.

Perhaps the most impressive facet of the film is how effortlessly it nails family dynamics. Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) are a married lesbian couple with two children, Joni and Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson), whom they have raised to success in academics and athletics, respectively. No matter what your take is on Proposition 8, you have to admire how much this family can be any family. They hug, they kiss, they laugh, they banter, they bicker, they argue, and they love just like any other family. And it’s also incredible how Cholodenko manages to tranquilize any sort of awkwardness that might ensue from the whole “two moms” situation.

For reasons that are never quite fully explained, Laser and Joni decided to make contact with their biological father, the ungrounded Paul (Mark Ruffalo). He’s more put together than the trainwreck Ruffalo played in “You Can Count On Me” but not by much. A college drop-out who gave his seed to the sperm bank mainly for the money, he’s coasted by on casual relationships to get by. When the kids enter his life, he feels a sort of connection that taps into a longing for something more significant in life. At first, Paul meets the kids in secret, just coming to the reality that his own seed could produce something living. But looking to forge something deeper, he finds that there’s just no way around meeting Nic and Jules. He becomes a presence in the life of the family, not always welcome, and definitely causing dramatic changes for everyone.

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