“BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” (2016) Review

“BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” (2016) Review

Following on the heels of the success of 2013’s “MAN OF STEEL”, I had expected the Warner Brothers Studios to follow up with another movie about Superman, starring Henry Cavill. To my surprise, the studio had announced another movie featuring Superman, only the comic book character would be sharing top billing with another from the pages of D.C. Comics.

Warner Brothers surprised me with the announcement that their next comic book movie would feature Superman aka Clark Kent co-starring with none other than Batman aka millionaire Bruce Wayne. And the latter would be portrayed by Ben Affleck. Needless to say, I was not pleased by this announcement. I saw it as a personal insult to Cavill, who had really impressed me as the Man of Steel. And I felt that Warner Brothers could have given Affleck his own stand-alone film about the Caped Crusader, before rushing into some attempt to rush into a “Justice League of America” situation, similar to the one featuring the Avengers for Marvel Films and the Disney Studios. About a week before “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” was due to be released in movie theaters, I read a series of reviews that literally bashed the film. Now, I have never been a major fan of director Zack Synder in the past. And I was pleased that he did not go overboard with the angst factor in “MAN OF STEEL” as he has done with his previous films. But after reading so many negative reviews . . . well, I did not expect to like this movie. However, I had to see it just to satisfy my curiousity.

“BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” began during the last events of “MAN OF STEEL”. It began with billionaire Bruce Wayne aka Batman arrival in Metropolis to assist Wayne Enterprises employees caught up with the city’s citizens in the destruction caused by Superman’s battle against fellow Kryptonian General Zod. Unfortunately for Bruce, one of his top executives is killed and the legs of another employee named Wallace Keefe are permanently damaged from falling debris. Due to these events, Bruce begins to view Superman as a destructive threat to Earth and desires to find a way to bring down the Man of Steel. Nearly two years later, Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane is visiting a North African country to interview a political figure believed to be a terrorist. However, her interview is cut short when the men who had accompanied her kill the terrorist’s men and many local villagers. Superman aka Clark Kent manages to rescue her from the terrorist, but Lois ends up feeling very disturbed by the event. But she is not the only one. Many people, including a Kentucky senator named June Finch blame Superman for the incident and like Bruce, begin to view him as a threat. Many are unaware that Metropolis’ top billionaire, Lex Luthor, was behind the incident in Northern Africa. Like Bruce, he began to view Superman as a threat . . . but to his own plans and his sense of worth. Unlike Bruce, he commences upon a plan to exploit the distrust of Senator Finch and others to bring down Superman and other meta-humans of whom he has become aware.

When I first learned that Warner Brothers had decided to follow up “MAN OF STEEL” with a movie in which Superman was to share top billing with Batman, I was not thrilled. In fact, I had hoped they would do a second Superman movie. And while the movie was being shot, I was more than determined not to like this film. Reading the movie’s negative reviews made me believe that disliking it would come very easy to me. And then . . . lo and behold! I ended up leaving the theater with a positive view about the film.

Mind you, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” was not perfect in my eyes. I had two problems with it – one major and the other minor. My minor problem with “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN” has a lot to do with my virulent dislike of Snyder’s 2009 movie, “THE WATCHMEN”. The director utilized a device that he had carried over from the 2009 movie – namely the use of graffiti in some scenes. I thought he had overused it in “THE WATCHMEN” and continued to do so in this film. And the graffiti only brought back unpleasant memories of the 2009 film.

My major complaint against “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” has to do with the relationship between Batman and Lex Luthor. In one scene during the film’s last half hour, Luthor revealed to Clark that he had created situations not only to slowly direct public opinion against the latter, but also Bruce Wayne, whom he knew to be Batman. Luthor figured that Batman would go after the Man of Steel and the latter would eventually kill the former. I must admit that I found this very confusing, considering that the movie never hinted that Luthor was interested in killing Bruce in the movie’s first half. In fact, the Luthor Corp. files that Bruce had uploaded and Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman had stolen did not even contain any information on Batman. I had assumed that Luthor only became interested in killing Batman . . . after the latter had stolen the Kryptonite his people had discovered in the Indian Ocean and destroyed a LexCorp lab. And the movie that I had seen in a theater seemed to verify my assumption. Like I said . . . confusing!

So . . . what did I like about “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”? Well, the story. Okay, I really enjoyed it. I liked the fact that the movie eventually promised what its title had hinted . . . a conflict between Superman and Batman that eventually led to the promise of the Justice League of America. And screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer presented this development with a very emotional and complex tale. What I found particularly interesting is that nearly everything in this tale is a direct result of the events from “MAN OF STEEL”. This was especially the case for both Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor’s hostility toward Superman. In fact, Luthor used the dead body of General Zod (courtesy of the U.S. government) to not only study Kryptonian physiology, but also create the monster Doomsday, which would prove to be a threat in the movie’s final action sequence.

The movie also featured some excellent emotional development for the main characters. Again, this seemed to be the case for Clark Kent’s growing despair from the public and the government’s reactions to the events in Northern Africa; his disapproval toward Batman’s more violent vigilante activities; the latter’s anger towards the events from “MAN OF STEEL” and the heady mixture of paranoia and ego that drove Lex Luthor to investigate other meta-humans and plot against Superman.

For a movie heavy on action, it featured some interesting dramatic moments. My favorites included Clark’s clashes with Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White over investigating Batman’s activities in Gotham City; the first meeting between Clark, Bruce and Diana Prince at a party held by Luthor in Metropolis; Bruce’s lingering anger over what happened in “MAN OF STEEL”; Luthor’s clashes with Senator Finch over his plans to deal with Superman; Clark’s conversations with his adoptive mother Martha Kent about his activities as Superman and with the ghost of his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent; Lois Lane confrontation with Luthor before the final action began; and also, Diana and Bruce’s comments on the public’s fickle attitude toward Superman. The movie also featured further development of the relationship between Clark and Lois, which culminated in a very charming and sexy moment in a bathtub. I thought Sndyer handled these scenes very well, which is not surprising. He has always managed to get great performances from his actors . . . even in his movies that I dislike.

However, first and foremost, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” is a comic book hero film . . . an action-adventure film. And Snyder was certainly in his element as a director. This especially seemed to be the case in those scenes that featured Lois and Superman’s adventures in northern Africa, Bruce’s dreams about leading a group of rebels against Superman, Batman’s attempt to steal the kryptonite from Luthor, his rescue of Martha from Luthor’s henchmen, and the attempt to rescue both Metropolis and Gotham from Luthor’s newly created monster, Doomsday.

However, one half of the movie’s title is called “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”. Many movie fans and critics had dismissed the idea of an effective battle between the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader. So did I. After all, Batman was not really a meta-human – someone with super abilities – merely a highly trained costumed crime fighter. The movie made me realize that many of us had forgotten that Bruce Wayne also had brains. Through his investigation of a Russian weapon-trafficker named Anatoli Knyazev, he learned that Luthor was not only investigating meta-humans, but had found a possible weapon against Superman. Kryptonite. By creating weapons from the kryptonite he had stolen from Luthor Corp. and a powered exoskeleton suit, Batman was able to put up a good fight against the Man of Steel. And surprisingly, their battle proved to be very effective to me . . . even if many still believe otherwise.

The other half of the movie’s title was “DAWN OF JUSTICE”, which hinted the beginning of the Justice League of America aka the Super Friends. I found it interesting that Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor’s reactions to the events from “MAN OF STEEL” not only led to their fear of Superman and attempts to find a way to destroy the latter, but also to hints of the forthcoming creation of the Justice League of America. It all centered around Luthor’s investigation of other meta-humans and the files Bruce and Diana had found within Luthor Corp.’s computer mainframe. The file not only contained information and video clips on Diana’s past as Wonder Woman during World War I, but also on Barry Allen aka the Flash, Arthur Curry aka Aquaman and Victor Stone aka Cyborg. But it was that one scene in which Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman finally decided to form a team to battle the monster Doomsday . . .

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. . . that led to memories of the old ABC animated series, “SUPER FRIENDS” and its theme song going through my mind. It was a wonderful moment for me.

There was one aspect of “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” that left a heavy imprint on my mind was the fickleness of human nature. We humans are a fickle, controlling and very selfish specie. Snyder and screenwriters Terrio and Goyer really did an excellent job in portraying those aspects of our nature through the character of Superman. I found it interesting that many viewed Superman as a savior or angel. This was apparent in the statues raised in his honor and this almost selfish demand that he serve as their savior and nothing else. I can recall one moment in which victims of a flood had left the symbol on his costume painted on their roof to attract his attention. On the other hand, there were many others viewed him as a real threat against humanity . . . even after he had saved them from General Zod’s plans in “MAN OF STEEL”. Both Bruce and Senator Finch blamed Superman for the destruction that had occurred in Metropolis nearly two years ago, conveniently forgetting that it was Zod’s arrival on Earth that had led to that destruction. I came away with the feeling that people like Bruce, Senator Finch and Wayne Enterprises employee Wallace Keefe used Superman as a scapegoat, since the latter ended up being the last Kryptonian left standing. I do not find this surprising for using others as scapegoats is a very human thing to do. After the Congress bombing, even those who had seen Superman as a savior began to think otherwise. They did not come to this conclusion via any investigation on their parts. Superman was the last person standing and ergo, became “Suspect Number One” . . . just as he had become following Zod’s death. No wonder Clark had fallen into despair and walked away for a while. And no wonder Diana had such contempt toward the public’s renewed good opinion of Superman following the battle against Doomsday.

I have been talking about the plot so much that I forgot about other aspects of “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” – namely its technical and artistic effects. I might as well start with Patrick Tatopoulos’ production design. Tatopoulos did not have to create an alien world or a setting from the past. But I was impressed by his duel designs for not only the cities of Metropolis and Gotham, but also the northern African town at the movie’s beginning, Washington D.C. and the damage caused by Doomsday in the two fictional cities. He had ample support from the art direction and visual effects teams. I was surprised that Zack Snyder did not use Larry Fong as cinematographer for “MAN OF STEEL”. Because the latter had worked with Snyder on both “300” and “THE WATCHMEN”. In a way, Fong’s style, which struck me as sleek, rich in color and slightly dark, reminded me of Wally Pfister’s work for many of Christopher Nolan’s films. I have noticed that a good of Han Zimmer’s movie scores have seemed a little heavy-handed lately. And it certainly seemed to be the case for “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. But there were moments when that heavy-handedness seemed to mesh rather well with certain scenes, especially during those that hinted the future Justice League of America and the battle against Doomsday.

Ben Affleck became the eighth actor to portray Bruce Wayne aka Batman on screen (television or movie) and the public had not reacted well to the news of his casting. I found this astounding, considering that Affleck is a first-rate actor, who had previous experience portraying a costume hero when he played Matt Murdock aka Daredevil in the 2003 movie about the character. Affleck did an excellent job in portraying the paranoid aspects of Wayne’s nature in a very intense and at times, slightly scary manner. Henry Cavill was equally effective in his continuing portrayal of Clark Kent aka Superman. The loneliness that seemed to mark his performance in “MAN OF STEEL” seemed to have been replaced by satisfaction in Clark’s relationship with Lois Lane, intense determination to investigate Batman’s activities and frustration with Perry White’s unwillingness to allow him to embark on that investigation. My favorite scene with Cavill involved Clark’s quarrel with Perry about investigating Batman. And my favorite Cavill moment was the “What the fuck is wrong with you?” expression he gave Luthor when the latter introduced him to the Doomsday monster. But following the Congress bombing, that old despair and loneliness returned in full force. When I first heard about this movie, I thought Amy Adams’ role would be reduced from what it was in “MAN OF STEEL”. Thankfully, my fears were abated, for not only did Lois continue to play a major role in this DC Comics universe, she also played a major role in exposing Luthor’s plans and eliminating Batman’s anger toward Superman. Being the consummate actress that she is, Adams did a superb job in conveying not only Lois’ emotional vulnerability regarding Clark and what happened in northern Africa, but also her intelligence and determination to discover the truth.

The movie also featured an exceptional performance from Jesse Eisenberg as main villain, Lex Luthor. Not only was his movie exceptional, but also rather surprising. It was not that I thought him incapable of portraying a villain, but I just could not see him as Lex Luthor. I was wrong. He gave a fantastic performance. It seemed both subtle and overly dramatic at the same time . . . in a good way. He made Luthor seem very eccentric . . . again, in a good way. Diane Lane returned to portray Clark’s adoptive mother, Martha Kent. Her portrayal of Martha struck me as rather unusual. In other comic book hero movies, maternal types like Martha tend to give speeches to the main hero in order to motivate them in serving the public. What I liked about Lane’s Martha is that she was more concerned about Clark’s well being and happiness than him fulfilling some destiny as a hero or savior. It may seem selfish, but it also seemed very real to me.

Gal Gadot became the first actress to portray Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman in a very long time. Ever since Lynda Carter ended her run with the ABC/CBS series in 1979, Hollywood seemed reluctant to bring the Amazonian Princess back to the screen. Thankfully, Warner Brothers, Snyder and Nolan ended that dry run by hiring Gadot for the role. And she was perfect . . . spot on. I never thought another actress could do justice to the role – except for Marvel alumni Jamie Alexander from “THOR”. But Gadot was perfect and I look forward to seeing her solo movie. Jeremy Irons, to my utmost surprise, became DC Comics’ new Alfred Pennyworth. His portrayal seemed so different from past performances – a little less of a servant and more of a companion for Bruce. More importantly, I really enjoyed the sardonic wit that Irons had infused into the character. But he was not the only one. Laurence Fishburne returned as Clark and Lois’ boss, Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White. In “MAN OF STEEL”, Fishburne had infused a touch of dry wit into his portrayal. In this movie, that wit was in full force and even more sharper – especially in the actor’s scenes with Cavill. I really enjoyed his presence in this film. The movie also featured some excellent supporting performances from the likes of Holly Hunter, who gave a wonderfully sarcastic speech to Luthor in her portrayal of Senator June Finch; Harry Lennix, who returned as former General now Secretary Calvin Swanwick; Scoot McNairy, who portrayed Wallace Keefe, the Wayne Enterprises employee who had been crippled during Superman’s battle with General Zod; and Kevin Costner, who returned with a poignant performance as the ghostly figure of Clark’s adoptive father, Jonathan Kent.

To this day, I am flabbergasted by the media’s negative campaign against “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. I do not understand it . . . period. I could have understood if the movie had drawn some criticism. But this unrelenting criticism struck me as unreal . . . especially after I had seen the film. But you know what? I realize that I should not care. I saw the movie twice and I enjoyed what I had seen. Yes, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” (what a mouthful!) had some flaws. What movie does not? But overall, I was very pleased by this film. I like to think that I understood what director Zack Snyder, along with screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer were trying to say. And I enjoyed the performances of the cast led by Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill very much. More importantly, I am glad that the cinematic version of the Justice League of America has finally commenced. Regardless of the opinions of others, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” more than satisfied me. It has become one of my favorite movies of 2016.

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“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART II” (2015) Review

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“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART II” (2015) Review

Some five or six years ago, Warner Brothers Studios began a new tradition when its executives made a decision to split its adaptation of the last “HARRY POTTER” film into two novels. A year later, Summit Entertainment continued this tradition by splitting its adaptation of the last “TWILIGHT” novel into two films. And now Lionsgate has done the same by adapting Suzanne Collins’ last novel in her “The Hunger Games”trilogy with two movies. The studio ended the movie franchise with the release of “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART II”.

This last film, which is based upon the second half of Collins’ 2010 novel, picked up where the 2014 movie left off – with Katniss Everdeen aka “The Girl on Fire” recovering from being attacked by her close friend, Peeta Mallark, after he had been brainwashed by the Capitol into regarding her as an enemy. After being attacked by a supporter of Panem’s President Snow during a propaganda campaign in District 2, Katniss is frustrated by rebel leader Alma Coin’s insistence that she stay away from the battlefields. Fellow tribute from the 75th Quater Quell Games, Johanna Mason, quietly suggests that she sneak aboard a supply ship leaving for the Capitol, where Commander Paylor is planning an invasion, during the wedding of former tributes Finnick Odair and Annie Cresta. Unable to control Katniss, Coin decides to assigned her to the “Star Squad”; along with childhood friend Gale Hawthorne, Finnick, and documentary director Cressida and her team. Led by Katniss’ former bodyguard, Boggs, the squad is order to remain in safety behind the actual invasion of the Capitol and provide video clips of their incursion for propaganda purposes. But Katniss and her fellow combatants encounter a great deal of danger from Capitol soldiers, explosive pods and mutated animals. Coin also assigns Peeta to the squad, despite the fact that he has not completely recovered from his conditioning. What starts out as a propaganda campaign for the squad, eventually becomes a dangerous and bloody mission that ends in tragedy and a great surprise.

This last “HUNGER GAMES” movie received a great deal of praise. But at the same time, these same critics expressed dismay that the last novel in the franchise had been split into two films. Surprisingly, I had no problems with how the adaptation of “Mockingjay” resulted in two films. Unlike the last “HARRY POTTER”and “TWILIGHT” adaptations, the two-part adaptation for this particular movie seemed to break at the right moment – namely the rescued Peeta Mellark’s attack on protagonist Katniss Everdeen. However, I did have a few problems with “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART II”. I wish the screenwriters and director Francis Lawrence had featured a few scenes of Panem citizens rebelling against the Capitol . . . just as they had done in “PART I”. In fact, I wish they could have featured a few scenes of the rebels inching towards the Presidential mansion, before Katniss and close friend Gale Hawthorne had reached it. The movie seemed so fixed upon Katniss’ point-of-view (POV) that the entire sequence featuring the massacre of the Capitol citizens, Peacekeepers and rebel medics from bombs seemed slightly disjointed and confusing. I also wish that the screenplay had included a scene from the novel in which Katniss and her mother, Mrs. Everdeen, said good-bye to each other over the telephone. I never understood why they did not include that scene in the film. It would have been a great moment for both Jennifer Lawrence and Paula Malcomson.

Quibbles aside, I must admit that I really enjoyed “MOCKINGJAY, PART II”. I thought director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig did a very good job of adapting the second half of Collins’ novel. I had worried that Lion’s Gate Studios would insist that the screenwriters and Lawrence drastically change the story by giving it a less bittersweet ending. Lo and behold, no such thing happened.“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART II” – especially its ending – literally wallowed in moral ambiguity. More importantly, story allowed its heroine, in the end, to succumb to her worst instincts in a way that made sense to the saga that began in the first chapter. I believe it took balls for Suzanne Collins to end Katniss Everdeen’s struggles against the Capitol on that note. And I can say the same for Lawrence, Strong, Craig and the film’s producers.

I was also impressed by the movie’s portrayal of Peeta Mallark in this chapter of the saga. As many know, Peeta had spent most of “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART I” as a captive of the Capitol. He had been tortured and brainwashed via a tracker jacker venom into making an attempt on Katniss’ life. The filmmakers could have easily ignored Collins’ story and allowed Peeta’s recovery to be a quick job before he joined Katniss’ squad in the Capitol’s streets. Instead, they decided to follow Collins’ story and allowed Peeta’s recovery to be slow. By doing this, they allowed Peeta’s presence in the squad to not only endanger everyone, but have an impact on Katniss’ relationship with the Rebellion’s leadership.

More importantly, “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART II” continued the saga’s theme of the impact war has human beings. After all, this theme has been present since Katniss and Peeta found themselves in 74th Hunger Games arena in the first movie. But in these last two movies, audiences see how war impacts everyone and not just a group of tributes coerced into playing out a lethal war game for the sake of television ratings. The war eventually has an impact upon Katniss’ various relationships – especially with Peeta, her best friend Gale Hawthorne, her family and the Rebellion’s leadership . . . and also upon her psyche. What I found interesting in the combat featured in this film is that Katniss and her fellow combatants not only have to deal with the traditional weapons of war, but also the muttations and other technical wonders usually reserved for the Hunger Games. The most harrowing examples of the Capitol’s use of muttations were the flood of black tar on the Capitol’s streets and the lizard mutts’ attack upon the squad inside the Capitol’s sewer system. I found this sequence rather difficult to watch, due to the scary images, the level of violence and the devastating impact upon the squad. But I must say . . . I thought it was one of the most frightening scenes in the entire saga. And due to Lawrence’ direction, the cast’s performances, the editing team of Alan Edward Bell and Mark Yoshikawa, cinematographer Jo Willems, and the special effects team; I also found it very effective.

Speaking of the performances, there is not enough I can say about them. I could not find a misstep made by any member of the cast. “MOCKINGJAY, PART II” featured some really solid performances from the likes of Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Evan Ross, Stef Dawson, Sarita Choudhury, and Meta Golding. Natalie Dormer continued her excellent portrayal of television director Cressida. Patina Miller gave a more subtle performance as District 8’s Commander Paylor, who ends up playing a major role at the end of the rebellion. Although her screen time was somewhat limited in the movie, Jena Malone continued to give a colorful performance as former tribute Johanna Mason. Actually, she was not the only one whose screen time was limited. I could also say the same about Woody Harrelson, who portrayed Katniss and Peeta’s mentor Haymitch Abernathy; Jeffrey Wright as former tribute and the Rebellion’s tech man Beetee Latier; Elizabeth Banks as Katniss and Peeta’s escort Effie Trinket; Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ delicate mother Mrs. Everdeen; Willow Shields as Katniss’ quiet and highly determined sister Primrose; and Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman. Thankfully, they were all top-notch, as usual.

There were cast members who given opportunities to strut their stuff in one or two scenes. There was an excellent moment for Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, who as Rebellion commander Bogg, tries to warn Katniss about President Alma Coin’s true goals in a heartbreaking scene. Sam Claflin continued his excellent performance as former tribute Finnick Odair – especially in two scenes. One of them featured his character’s wedding to another former tribute Annie Cresta. And other featured his attempts to placate the still hijacked Peeta. One scene that featured an intense performance by Michelle Forbes, who portrayed Boggs’ second-in-command, Lieutenant Jackson. However, Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moore received a good number of opportunities to showcase their talent. As President Coriolanus Snow of Panem and President Alma Coin of the Rebellion, the two performers gave interesting, yet contrasting takes on presidential villainy. Sutherland’s performance struck me as verbose, but with a slight edge of desperation, as his character struggle to deal with the possibility of defeat. On the other hand, Moore’s performance seemed a good deal more subtle . . . cool. I got the impression of observing a personality that proved to be a lot more manipulative than Snow’s and just as murderous in the occasional flash in her eyes.

The movie also featured superb performances from the three leads. Liam Hemsworth gave an interesting performance as rebel Gale Hawthorne. Very interesting. Hemsworth skillfully expressed Gale’s fervent aggression against Snow’s administration, but also a disturbing willingness to resort to any means necessary to end the war in the rebels’ favor. But for me, his best scene featured that moment when his character was unable to verify whether one of his weapon designs was used in an attack in front of the Presidential mansion. Hemsworth barely said a word, but his stark emotion is perfectly clear on his face. I think Josh Hutcherson had the most difficult role in this movie. He had to take the Peeta Mellark character on a journey from the murderous and brainwashed young man to someone who managed to find some semblance of peace in the wake of two Hunger Games and a violent war. Thanks to the screenwriters and Hutcherson’s performance, Peeta’s journey was not rushed into some futile effort to resume his old relationship with Katniss as quickly as possible. And this journey resulted in a beautiful scene in which Peeta finally told Katniss how she was needed to end this war against Snow – a scene that Hutcherson not only acted his ass off, but also brought tears to my eyes. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss Everdeen seemed a bit more subtle than usual in this movie. I found this surprising, considering her role as the movie’s lead. I suspect that Katniss’ unusual subtlety came from having the brainwashed Peeta in her midst. I also suspect that Katniss’ unease toward Gale’s “by any means necessary” attitude toward the use of violence may have contributed to that unease. Lawrence really kept her performance under control in this film. But there was one scene in which Lawrence’s performance blew me away, when she openly expressed Katniss’ rage and grief against the tragedies she had experienced during the war.

I understand that “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART II” made less money than the previous three movies. Personally, I do not see this as a reflection of the movie’s quality. Sure, it had a few bumps in the narrative and the production. But so did the other three films. Frankly, I thought it was an outstanding conclusion to one of the best movie franchises I had the good fortune to see. And one can thank not only Suzanne Collins’ imagination and talent, but also Francis Lawrence’s first-rate direction, a well-written script by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, and a talented cast led by the always superb Jennifer Lawrence that brought Collins’ story to life.

 

“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I” (2014) Review

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“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I” (2014) Review

The producers of “THE HUNGER GAMES” movie franchise decided to follow the examples of the “HARRY POTTER”and “TWILIGHT” franchises and divide its adaptation of the last novel in Suzanne Collins’ literary series into two movies. The first of these two films is the recent “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I”.

Based upon the first half of Collins’ 2010 novel, “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I” picks up a few days or so after the end of the second film, “THE HUNGER GAMES – CATCHING FIRE”. After being rescued by her mentor Haymitch Abernathy and Head Gamemaker of the 75th Hunger Games Plutarch Heavensbee, Katniss Everdeen finds herself as a resident at the underground rebel facility hidden underneath the ruins of District 13. Fortunately, her sister Primrose Everdeen and mother Mrs. Everdeen had been rescued by her close friend Gale Hawthorne before President Coriolanus Snow had ordered the bombardment of their home, District 12. Unfortunately, Katniss learns that her other close friend and fellow District 12 tribute/victor Peeta Mallark, District 7 tribute/victor Johanna Mason and the wife of District 4 tribute Finnick Odair have all been captured by the Capitol and are now prisoners being tortured.

Both Heavensbee and leader of the rebellion Alma Coin want to use Katniss as a symbol of their rebellion. It seemed Katniss’ actions in the 75th Games arena – helping District 3 tribute/victor Beetee Latier bring down the arena forcefield in the last movie – spark and riots against the Capitol. Katniss refuses to become the rebellion’s suggestion, because they had left Peeta behind in the arena. But after visiting the ruined District 12 and seeing Peeta being used by the Capitol state television to end the rebellion, Katniss reluctantly changes her mind. She agrees to become the rebels’ “Mockingjay” symbol on the condition that Peeta and the other captured victors will be rescued at the first opportunity and pardoned.

When I had first learned that the producers of “THE HUNGER GAMES” franchise had plans to divide the adaptation of Collins’ last novel into two movies, I groaned with dismay. The last thing I wanted to experience was watching divided film adaptations of one novel. I have mixed feelings about how Warner Brothers and Summit Entertainment divided the adaptations of the last “Harry Potter’ and “Twilight” novels respectively. And I feared that I would experience similar feelings with this divided adaptation of Collins’ last novel, “Mockingjay”. After all, I have been more than satisfied with the adaptations of the first two novels. I adored them.

I have no idea how I will feel about the franchise’s last movie. Must I must say that I liked “MOCKINGJAY – PART I”very much. Well . . . actually, I enjoyed it as much as I did the first two films. And I did not expect that to happen. Unlike“THE HUNGER GAMES” and “CATCHING FIRE”, “MOCKINGJAY – PART I” did not focus upon a Hunger Games competition in which tributes engage in a lethal survival struggle. Instead, “MOCKINGJAY” shifts into the very premise that was foreshadowed in “CATCHING FIRE” – a deadly civil war. This shift in premise was one of the reasons why I had doubts about this film in the first place. I see I had nothing to worry about. Collins’ novel and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig did excellent jobs in conveying how the events of the first two chapters impacted the characters and the narrative of this last story – especially the actual outbreak of the rebellion, Katniss’ role in that outbreak, her role as the rebellion’s public face, her relationships with both Peeta and Gale, and Peeta’s position as a prisoner of the Capitol.

But there were two aspects of this movie that I found very interesting. First, I found it interesting that the willingness of both sides of the rebellion – the District 13 inhabitants under Alma Coin and Panem (the Capitol) under Coriolanus Snow – to use Katniss and Peeta for their respective causes. Coin and the rebellion exploits Katniss and the Mockingjay symbol via prepared speeches and televised visits to other rebellious districts. And Snow exploits Peeta to convince the public not to join the rebellion via televised interviews with Hunger Games master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman. It is interesting how different political beliefs can merely end up as two sides of one coin, so to speak. Another interesting aspect of the movie . . . at least for me . . . proved to be Katniss Everdeen. I noticed how Katniss is described as some kind of heroine in many articles on the Internet. This image was certainly solidified in the District 8 sequence. But while watching the film, I found myself wondering if Katniss was on some kind of slow journey toward a nervous breakdown. Superficially, she seemed tough . . . sure of herself. But there also seemed to be minor hints of a breakdown, especially in the film’s second half.

Director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems continued their visual expansion of the world of Panem in“MOCKINGJAY – PART I”. The movie featured scenes of both Districts 13 and 8, along with parts of the Capitol never seen in the first two films. I thought Willems did a solid job with his photography of the locations that stood for the two districts in rebellion. But if I must be honest, I do not recall any mind blowing scenes in the film – aside from the Capitol’s bombing of District 8. Philip Messina’s production designs did an excellent job in conveying the contrasting looks of the bombed out districts, the Capitol and Coin’s headquarters beneath District 13’s ruins. “MOCKINGJAY – PART I” proved to be the first film in the franchise that did not feature any over-the-top and memorable costumes designs, aside from the suit worn by Josh Hutcherson in his character’s interviews and Katniss’ Mockingjay battle outfit:

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Otherwise, Kurt Swanson and Bart Mueller’s designs seemed more casual and utilitarian, especially for the costumes worn by the rebels led by Alma Coin. I suppose this was due to most of the story told from Katniss’ point-of-view. And for once, she never visited the Capitol.

The performances were top-notch. Once again, Jennifer Lawrence knocked it out of the ballpark in her portrayal of “the Girl on Fire” Katniss Everdeen. Only in this film, Lawrence’s Katniss seemed even more on edge, torn between her hatred of Coin and the Capitol, her wariness toward Alma Coin and her deep concern for Peeta’s fate. Many have commented upon the District 8 scene in which Katniss openly expressed her anger over the bombing. But my favorite scene featured the moment in which Lawrence reminded audiences that Katniss is still an adolescent. I refer to the scene in which Katniss, which adolescent discomfort gives Coin and Heavensbee ultimatums in exchange for agreeing to be their “Mockingjay”. Great Lawrence moment. Because his character spent most of the film as a prisoner, Josh Hutcherson had lesser screen time in this film. No matter. He still managed to give a great performance as the tortured and exploited Peeta, forced to act as the Capitol’s mouthpiece. There were two moments in the film that truly displayed Hutcherson’s talent. One featured Peeta’s last interview in which he seemed to be struggling between cooperating with the Capitol and longing to express a warning to Katniss and the rebels. Anyone could see the extension of the abuse Peeta had suffered. The other moment was . . . well, that would be spoiling the film. All one has to do is watch Hutcherson’s performance in the film’s last ten to fifteen minutes. Liam Hemsworth’s character, Gale Hawthorne, was expanded in this film. In fact, he had more scenes that Hutcherson. Which is good news, for the actor finally had a chance to display his skills as an actor. I was impressed by how Hemsworth conveyed Gale’s struggles and failure to contain his jealousy of Katniss’ relationship with Peeta. I thought he was more effective in displaying this aspect of Gale’s character in this film than in the last two flicks. I was also impressed by Hemsworth’s performance in a scene in which Gale recalls the destruction of District 12.

I read somewhere that the Effie Trinket character did not appear until near the end of Collins’ novel. Thankfully, Strong and Craig did not reduce her character in this film. And audiences got a chance to see Elizabeth Banks give another delightful and crowd pleasing performance as the publicist/chaperone. I especially enjoyed watching Banks convey Effie’s dismay at the lack of fashion sense among the District 13 rebels and contempt toward Coin and Heavensbee’s handling of Katniss. Woody Harrelson was equally entertaining as Katniss’ alcoholic mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. Harrelson seemed to have less screen time in this film, due to his character being forced to undergo detoxication and being on the outs with Katniss. But Harrelson was colorful as ever. And I especially enjoyed his interactions with Banks. Donald Sutherland was creepy as ever in his portrayal of Panem’s head-of-state, President Coriolanus Snow. One of the aspects of Sutherland’s performance that I enjoyed so much is how he manages to effectively convey such subtle menace in his portrayal. This was especially in one scene in which Katniss made a personal plea to Snow to spare the lives of Peeta and the other prisoners.

Jeffrey Wright returned as District 4 tribute/victor Beetee Latier. Although there was not much in his character development, Wright had one particularly interesting scene in which he skillfully conveyed Beetee’s concerns over his use of technology to support an important military mission within the Capitol. Sam Claflin reprised his role as District 4 tribute/victor Finnick Odair and did an excellent job in portraying the character’s emotional vulnerability regarding his concern for wife and fellow victor Annie Cresta. I was really by Claflin’s performance in one scene in which Odair revealed his past experience in being forced into prostitution for his fans in the Capitol. Philip Seymour Hoffman returned as former Head Gamekeeper and the rebellion’s publicist Plutarch Heavensbee. In some scenes, Hoffman seemed smooth as ever as the manipulative Heavensbee. But there were interesting moments in which the actor revealed Heavensbee’s occasional bouts of fear and doubt. Paula Malcomson, Stanley Tucci and Willow Shields all returned to reprise their roles as Mrs. Everdeen, Caesar Flickerman and Primrose Everdeen. All gave solid performances, but I was especially impressed by Shields, who conveyed in increased maturity in her role. Mahershalalhashbaz Ali and Natalie Dormer joined the cast as Alma Coin’s right hand man/Katniss’ bodyguard Boggs and Capitol film diretor-turned-rebel Cressida. Both gave solid performances. But I was especially impressed by no-nonsense attitude conveyed by Ali. Julianne Moore also made her debut in the film franchise as leader of the rebellion, Alma Coin. In many ways, Moore’s Coin seemed just as subtle and manipulative as Sutherland’s President Snow. Moore was also effective in conveying Coin’s somewhat cold-blooded pragmatism that strangely reminded me of Katniss.

Did I have any qualms about “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I”? Well . . . as much as I found Katniss’ angry speech during her visit to District 8 rather stirring, I was also a little put off by it. I got the feeling that the screenwriters and Lawrence wanted to include a “macho/heroic moment” for Katniss, considering the minimum number of action scenes for the character in compare to the previous two films. I do not know if this scene was included in the novel. But it seemed a bit over-the-top to me. And there was the scene in which a rebel demolition team manages to blow up the dam providing the Capitol with electricity. There seemed to be a certain lack of reality in the rebels’ attack upon the dam that did not seem right to me.

But as far as I am concerned, “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I” proved to be just as first-rate as the previous two films. It is already one of my favorite films of 2014. Francis Lawrence continued his marvelous job as the franchise’s director. And I believe he was also damn lucky to work with a superb cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and utilize an excellent screenplay written Danny Strong and Peter Craig. I hope . . . and pray that the last entry in the film franchise will prove to be just as superb as the first three films.

“THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE” (2013) Review

Catching-Fire

 

“THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE” (2013) Review

Despite my enjoyment of the 2012 movie, “THE HUNGER GAMES”, I must admit that I had regarded its sequel, “THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE” with a wary eye. One, the movie franchise had replaced Gary Ross with a new director, Francis Lawrence. And two, a relative who had read all three of Suzanne Collins’ novels expressed a less-than-impressed opinion of the second installment, which this movie is based upon. But enamored of the first film, I decided to give this second one a chance.

“CATCHING FIRE” picked up not long after the ending of the first installment. The winners of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, have returned to their homes in the impoverished District 12. But due to their winnings, both now reside in upscale neighborhoods. Before they are scheduled to embark upon their victory tour of Panem, Katniss receives a visit from the tyrannical President Snow, who reveals that her actions in the recent Games have inspired rebellions across the districts. He orders her to use the upcoming tour to convince everyone her actions were out of genuine love for Peeta, not defiance against the Capitol. The victory tour goes off well, aside from an emotionally difficult and violent visit to District 11, the home of the deceased tributes, 12 year-old Rue (whom Katniss had befriended) and Thesh (who had saved Katniss).

Despite the tour and the installment of violent Peacekeepers in District 12 to crack down on any signs of rebellion, President Snow remains fearful of Katniss being used as a symbol of any possible upheavals. The new Head Gamekeeper, Plutarch Heavensbee, proposes a special Hunger Games called the Third Quarter Quell (the 75th Hunger Games), in which the tributes will be selected from previous victors. He believes the Games would either ruin Katniss’ reputation, or kill her. As the only female victor from District 12, Katniss is naturally selected. However, her mentor Haymitch Abernathy is chosen as the male tribute. Peeta immediately volunteers to take his place. Haymitch informs the pair that most of the tributes are angry over being forced to participate again and suggests they make alliances. Although Katniss is against the idea, she and Peeta adhere to Haymitch’s advice and find themselves in competition that ends with surprising results.

Despite becoming a fan of “THE HUNGER GAMES”, I continued to resist watching Suzanne Collins’ novels. Perhaps one day I will read them. But due to my unfamiliarity with the plots, the end of “CATCHING FIRE” pretty much took me by surprise. And this is a good thing. The movie’s first third hinted of a growing rebellion against President Snow’s rule over Panem in scenes that included Katniss and Peeta’s harrowing visit to District 11, the beating of Gale Hawthorne (Katniss’ closest friend and possible lover) at the hands of the Peacekeepers, and Snow’s growing paranoia over Katniss. Even the scenes featuring Katniss’ participation in the 75th Hunger Games continued hint the growing rebellion against Snow’s administration and the Capitol through the characters like Haymitch, Katniss’ friend and costume designer Cinna, and those serving as tributes. Characters like Beetee Lasnier and Johanna Mason expressed their dismay or anger at being forced to participate in another Hunger Game during their pre-Game interviews with Caesar Flickerman. Even Peeta tried to manipulate Snow into stopping the Game with false hint that Katniss might be pregnant. And during the Game, I found it interesting that Katniss and Peeta ended up forming an alliance with Lasnier and his District 3 counterpart Wiress, Johanna, and the two tributes from District 4, Finnick Odair and Mags – the only tributes to express any hostility toward the Games and President Snow. I had figured that all of them would eventually openly defy Snow by getting out of the Games. But thanks to some very good writing from Suzanne Collins, along with screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn; the circumstances behind the beginning of the rebellion really took me by surprise.

Another aspect of “CATCHING FIRE” that took me by surprise, turned out to be its cinematography. With the change of director, the franchise acquired a new cinematographer, Jo Willems. And I liked the way Willems expanded the look of Panem in the film. I suppose one could thank the movie’s plot, which allowed viewers a look at the exclusive neighborhood of District 12, into which Katniss and Peeta moved following their victory at the 74th Games; the other country’s districts, and the tropical environment that served as the 75th Games’ new setting. But more importantly, Willems expanded the visual style of the Capitol . . . especially in a scene that featured Katniss and Peeta’s arrival. This expanded visual really took me by surprise. The movie also acquired a new costume designer, Trish Summerville. I have to be honest. I found her costume designs similar to the ones created by Judianna Makovsky. I really do not see the differences . . . especially for those costumes worn by the cast for the Capitol sequences. Mind you, they are just as imaginative and beautiful as the ones featured in the first film. I simply cannot see the differences. There was one outfit – worn by Elizabeth Banks – that I found very original:

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I understand that the song “Atlas”, written and performed by the group Coldplay have earned both Golden Globe and Grammy nominations. Congratulations to the band. However, I do not remember the song. Sorry. I simply did not find it memorable. I was also a little disappointed in how Lawrence (the director) seemed to rush the first third of the movie – namely the sequence featuring Katniss and Peeta’s victory tour and District 12’s problems with the so-called Peacekeepers that culminated in Gale’s beating. It seemed as if he was in a hurry for the movie to focus on the 75th “Quarter Quell” Hunger Games. And if I may be blunt, I was also not that impressed by Alan Edward Bell’s editing. It struck me as a little choppy – especially in the movie’s first half.

The performances by the cast struck me as first rate. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson did superb jobs in continuing the development of their characters, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mallark. I noticed in this film that Lawrence conveyed a great deal of realism in Katniss’ growing difficulty in containing her emotions regarding those she cared about. This was especially apparent in the scene following Gale’s public whipping, Peeta’s near death experience during the first day of the Games and the visit to District 11. Someone once described Peeta as a saint. I never could view him in this manner. He strikes me as a rather manipulative individual, who can also be a very good liar. What is amazing about Hutcherson’s performance is that he perfectly balanced Peeta’s manipulative skills with his near all consuming love for Katniss and willingness to do anything for her.

Liam Hemsworth got a chance to develop his portrayal of Katniss’ childhood best friend, Gale Hawthorne. Hemsworth, like Hutcherson, did an excellent job in balancing the different layers of Gale’s personality – namely his love for Katniss and his ever-growing obsession with rebellion against President Snow and the Capitol. Woody Harrelson continued to knock it out of the ballpark as Katniss and Peeta’s alcoholic mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. I think this is the first time moviegoers got a real look at Haymitch’s hostility toward President Snow, especially in the scene which featured the announcement of past winners participating in the Quarter Quell. Harrelson portrayed that small moment with such intense anger. Donald Sutherland continued his brilliant portrayal of the brutal, yet manipulative politician, President Coriolanus Snow.

Sutherland perfectly captured Snow’s quiet machinations that could rival Palpatine from the STAR WARS franchise. Yet, the actor also did a subtle job in conveying Snow’s growing paranoia over Katniss’ popularity and growing role as a symbol of rebellion. I had greatly enjoyed Elizabeth Banks’ performance as Effie Trinket in the first movie. I loved her performance in this film, as the actress allowed filmgoers a deeper look into the chaperone’s persona, beyond her usual shallowness. I am also happy that Lenny Kravitz reprised the role of Cinna, Katniss and Peeta’s stylist for the Games. As usual, the actor/musician gave a warm and beautiful performance as Katniss’ emotional solace before the Games. One particular scene in which Cinna endured a brutal beating over a dress he had created for Katniss proved to be a very painful one to watch, thanks to Kravitz and Lawrence’s performances, along with the other Lawrence’s direction. Stanley Tucci was marvelous as ever in his continuing portrayal of Caesar Flickerman, the Games’ announcer and commentator. Toby Jones reprised his role as Flickerman’s fellow commentator, Claudius Templesmith. But his role had been reduced considerably.

The movie also featured some newcomers to the franchise. Philip Seymour Hoffman gave a sly and subtle performance as the Games’ new Head Gamemaker, who schemes with President Snow to destroy Katniss’ reputation and possibly, her life. Sam Claflin continued to surprise me at how charismatic he could be, in his engaging portrayal of Finnick Odair, one of the tributes from District 4, during the 75th Games. Jena Malone was a hoot as the outspoken and aggressive female tribute from District 7, Johanna Mason. The strip scene inside the elevator is one that I remember for years to come. I was surprised to see Jeffrey Wright appear in this film. He gave a subtle, yet intelligent performance as the male tribute for District 3, Beetee Latier. Wright also clicked very well with Amanda Plummer, whose performance as Latier’s fellow District 3 tribute Wiress, struck me as deliciously off-center. Lynn Cohen nearly stole the show as Finnick’s fellow tribute from District 4, Mags. I thought she did a pretty good job, although I am at a little loss over the fanfare regarding her performance.

Many seemed to regard “CATCHING FIRE” as superior to the original 2012. I cannot agree with this opinion. I am not saying that “CATCHING FIRE” is a disappointment or inferior to “THE HUNGER GAMES”. But I certainly do not regard it as better. I would say that it is just as good. And considering my very high opinion of the first film, one could assume that my opinion of this second film is equally positive, thanks to an excellent screenplay written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, first rate direction from Francis Lawrence, and a superb cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.