“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.

 

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Top Five Favorite “HOUSE OF CARDS” Season Two (2014) Episodes

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Below is a list of my top five favorite episodes from Season Two of Netflix’s series, “HOUSE OF CARDS”, a remake of the 1990-1995 BBC miniseries trilogy that was based upon Michael Dobbs’ 1989 novel. Produced and developed by Beau Willimon, the series stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.

 

“TOP FIVE FAVORITE “HOUSE OF CARDS” SEASON TWO (2014) Episodes

1 - 2.13 Chapter 26

1. (2.13) “Chapter 26” – Facing disaster in the hands of a distrustful President Garrett Walker, Vice-President Francis Underwood plays one last hand to achieve his goals first set in the series premiere.

2 - 2.09 Chapter 22

2. (2.09) “Chapter 22” – Freddy, the owner of Frank’s favorite BBQ joint, becomes embroiled in the war between the Vice-President and CEO Raymond Tusk, when his past and his son’s past is revealed. Meanwhile, the Underwoods are forced to deal with a brewing scandal regarding intimate photographs of Claire taken by ex-lover Adam Galloway. Directed by Jodie Foster.

3 - 2.01 Chapter 14

3. (2.01) “Chapter 14” – In this season premiere shocker, journalist Zoe Barnes confronts Underwood about the death of the late Congressman Peter Russo. Also, Frank and Claire prepare for his swearing-in as the country’s new Vice-President. Directed by Carl Franklin.

4 - 2.04 Chapter 17

4. (2.04) “Chapter 17” – Due to a terrorist threat, Frank is trapped inside the Congress building with a political nemesis, while Claire is forced to give a live interview that proves to be a shocker.

5 - 2.10 Chapter 23

5. (2.10) “Chapter 23” – Despite a military stalemate abroad and a possible violent situation at home, Francis concentrates on putting an end to Tusk’s influence over President Walker for good, with lobbyist Remy Danton caught in the middle. Claire clashes with new Party Whip Jackie Sharp over an anti-rape bill.

“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.

Top Five Favorite “HOUSE OF CARDS” Season One (2013) Episodes

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Below is a list of my top five favorite episodes from Season One of Netflix’s series, “HOUSE OF CARDS”, a remake of the 1994 BBC miniseries that was based upon Michael Dobbs’ 1989 novel. Produced and developed by Beau Willimon, the series stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. 

 

“TOP FIVE FAVORITE “HOUSE OF CARDS” SEASON ONE (2013) Episodes

Chapter 5

1. “Chapter Five” – Congressman Frank Underwood’s feud against a union over the Education Bill threatens his wife Claire’s charity gala and her own ambitions. And journalist Zoe Barnes mixes work with play.

Chapter 11

2. “Chapter Eleven” – Angry at Frank, Claire reconnects with former flame, photojournalist Adam Galloway. And when junior Congressman Peter Russo wrestles with his personal demons and considers confessing his and Frank’s sins, the latters decides that he has become a liability that needs to be eliminated.

Chapter 2

3. “Chapter Two” – Utilizing Zoe’s help, Frank plants a story that loosely ties Michael Kern, the President’s pick for Secretary of State, to an anti-Israel editorial that appeared in the college newspaper Kern edited.

Chapter 6

4. “Chapter Six” – Frank strikes back at the striking teachers by undermining the credibility of the teachers’ union representative, Martin Spinella. Claire is caught off guard by a deathbed confession from one of Frank’s personal bodyguards.

Chapter 13

5. “Chapter Thirteen” – Frank accepts the recently vacated Vice-President post from the President. Claire learns that she is being sued for wrongful termination by a former employee. And Zoe becomes increasingly aware of Frank’s plots in this season finale.

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

“THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” (2008) Review

Based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” tells the story of a New Orleans man named Benjamin Button who ages backward from 1918 to 2003 with bizarre consequences. The movie was directed by David Fincher and starred Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson.

Judging from an article I had read, it is clear that this movie was more or less a loose adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story. Aside from the premise of a man aging backwards, there are many differences between the two versions. The main differences center around the fact that in the literary version, Benjamin Button is born physically and mentally as an old man (asking for a rocking chair), and dies physically and mentally young. In the film, Benjamin is born physically old, but with the mental capacity of a newborn; and dies physically young, although his mind aged normally throughout his life. Aside from the dynamics of the main character, the setting changes from mostly late nineteenth century Baltimore in the novel, to mostly twentieth century New Orleans. Also Benjamin’s literary wife is named Hildegarde Moncrief, the daughter of a respected Civil War general, to whom he eventually becomes less attracted. Benjamin’s love in the movie is Daisy Fanning, the granddaughter of one of the tenants at the elderly nursing home where he lives with his black adoptive mother, Queenie.

I found ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” to be a technical wonder. I was very impressed by the film’s use of the CGI effects created by a team supervised by Burt Dalton. The movie’s other technical aspects – costume design by Jaqueline West, the art direction, Victor J. Zolfo’s set decorations, and the cinematography by Claudio Miranda – were first-class. I was especially impressed by how Miranda photographed New Orleans in the movie. With the movie’s art direction, the cinematographer did an excellent capturing the rich atmosphere and charm of the Big Easy. And I was especially impressed by the way he filmed 1918 New Orleans through the use of a sepia color for the movie’s prologue that centered on a clockmaker. And director David Fincher did an excellent job in utilizing the movie’s New Orleans setting and technical effects. If only he could have done something about the script . . . and the movie’s pacing.

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” is a bad movie. Far from it. Not only can it boast a first-class production design, but also an excellent cast led by Brad Pitt. I have been a fan of Pitt’s since I first saw him in a movie I would love to forget – ”COOL WORLD”. But I do feel that he has a tendency to be slightly theatrical. It almost seems as if his acting style was more suited for the stage than in front of a camera. However, he does know how to be subtle when the role calls for it. And his portrayal of Benjamin Button is quite subtle. The character does not seemed to develop much – even following the deaths of his blood father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) and his foster mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). It took his romantic problems with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) between the mid 1940s and the 1950s, and the realization that he would soon be too young to help raise his daughter Caroline that led his character to assume dimensions that were lacking earlier in the film. Despite this last minute development of the character, I must admit that Pitt gave one of his better performances in his career.

Pitt was ably supported by Cate Blanchett, who portrayed the love of his life – Daisy Fanning. Mind you, I found her character rather shallow at first. I could dismiss this simply as a case of her being young at the time. But there seemed to be lacking something in Daisy’s character that Blanchett’s excellent performance could not overcome. Quite frankly, I did not find her that interesting. Screenwriter Eric Roth (”FOREST GUMP”) tried to inject some angst into her character by having her fall victim to a car accident in Paris that cut short her dancing career. But I could not buy it. I am sorry, but Daisy did not really become interesting to me until she was forced to raise Caroline without Benjamin, and later take care of him before his death. But Blanchett gave it all she could. Without her, Daisy could have been a disaster – at least for me.

The other supporting characters were excellent. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton gave a poignant performance as Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of a British spy whom Benjamin meets and has an affair with in Russia before the Pearl Harbor attack. Jared Harris was colorful and funny as Captain Mike, the commander of the tugboat that Benjamin works for during the 1930s and early 40s. Julia Ormond, whom I have not seen in ages, gave solid support as the adult Caroline. So did Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Queenie’s husband, Tizzy and Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button, Benjamin’s brother. But I have to say something about Taraji P. Henson. She portrayed Queenie, an attendant at the New Orleans nursing home who adopts Benjamin as her own. I loved her performance. She was colorful, tough, funny, sharp and pretty much the emotional center of the whole damn film. And it seemed a shame that she did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.

The first thing I had noticed about ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” was that it strongly reminded me of the 1994 Oscar winning film, ”FOREST GUMP”. In fact, I even nicknamed the movie, ”a backwards ”FOREST GUMP” . And judging from the fact that this movie’s screenwriter, Eric Roth, had also written the 1994 film, I should not have been surprised. But whereas the main tone for ”FOREST GUMP” seemed to be one of historical whimsy, ”BENJAMIN BUTTON” seemed melancholy – especially in the movie’s last hour. The themes of aging and mortality seemed to permeate the movie like a black shroud. Considering the movie’s theme and the fact that Benjamin spent his early years in the company of the elderly, it seemed surprisingly appropriate. And at least it gave the movie its main theme. Without this theme of aging and mortality, the movie could have easily been reduced to a 166 minute film with nothing but a gimmick.

But as much as I liked ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”, it has some flaws. The movie’s main flaws, at least for me, turned out to be – ironically – the script by Eric Roth and the movie’s pacing. Now I realize that movies that cover a span of years or decades tend to run up to at least two-and-a-half to three hours. But did the pacing of this film have to be so goddamn slow? I realize that Fincher wanted to give the movie a Southern atmosphere, considering its setting, but I feel that he went a bit too far. By the time Daisy gave birth to Caroline in the movie’s second half, I found myself screaming for the movie to end. As for the screenplay, Roth filled it with moments and plot points that dragged the film needlessly. I never understood why the movie’s ”present day”, which featured a dying Daisy telling Caroline about Benjamin, was set during the outset of Hurricane Katrina. What was the point? In the end, the hurricane had nothing to do with the story. And although I found Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbott rather charming at times, I had some problems with it. The sequence started out well with the circumstances of their first meeting. But the buildup to their affair and eventual parting seemed longer than necessary. The one sequence that really irritated me featured Daisy’s accident in Paris. All Roth had to do was featured her encounter with a Parisian taxicab, Benjamin’s trip to Paris and their meeting in a hospital. But . . . no. Instead, Roth wrote this contrived scene that featured little moments from various strangers that led to Daisy being struck by the taxi. It seemed so ridiculous that I nearly groaned in agony.

Despite its flaws – and this movie certainly had plenty – ”THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” turned out to be a first-class period piece with an interesting premise of a man aging backward. Although this premise could have reduced the movie to nothing more than a gimmick, the topic of aging and mortality lifted the movie to an interesting, yet sad tale filled with emotional moments, great cinematography and solid acting, especially from Brad Pitt.  The movie ended up receiving both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations during last year’s award season.  I still do not know whether it deserved these accolades or not. But I must admit that it was one of the top twenty (20) movies I had seen in 2008.