“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.

 

Five Favorite Episodes of “ELEMENTARY” Season One (2012-2013)

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Below is a list of my favorite episodes from the CBS series, “ELEMENTARY”. Created by Robert Doherty, the series stars Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson:

 

 

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “ELEMENTARY” SEASON ONE (2012-2013)

1.02 While You Were Sleeping

1. (1.02) “While You Were Sleeping” – Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson investigate the murders of two illegitimate children of a wealthy businessman. Matters become complicated when a witness identifies a woman in a coma — the businessman’s legitimate daughter — as the killer.

1.24 Heroine

2. (1.24) “Heroine” – Following Holmes’ discovery his former lover, Irene Adler, and his arch enemy Moriarty’s true identity, he races against time to prevent the latter from carrying out a plan to murder a Macedonian diplomat for the sake of profit.

1.12 M

3. (1.12) “M” – Holmes is reunited with “M.”, a British serial killer who appears to have followed Holmes to New York. Meanwhile, Watson eventually learns that “M” is the one who had murdered Sherlock’s lover Irene Adler.

1.06 Flight Risk

4. (1.06) “Flight Risk” – Holmes is recruited by N.Y.P.D. Captain Thomas Gregson to investigate the site of a plane crash on a beach. He comes to the conclusion that one of the four crash victims had been murdered.

1.16 Details

5. (1.16) “Details” – Gregson’s second-in-command, Detective Marcus Bell, survives a drive-by shooting while driving his car and his suspected attacker later turns up dead. When the evidence hints a possible revenge killing, Holmes and Watson investigate the case to clear him of any wrongdoing.

“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 Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 


FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.



2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel’s retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.



3 - Rush

3. Rush (2013) – Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.



4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.



5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) – J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.



6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.



7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) – Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.



8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.



9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) – Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.



10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.

“RUSH” (2013) Review

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“RUSH” (2013) Review

Before I began this review, it occurred to me that Ron Howard has directed a good number of movie biographies set in the distance past for the last eighteen years, starting with 1995’s “APOLLO 13”. Mind you, the film was not Howard’s first period picture. But in the following years, he has directed four more biopics, including his latest project, “RUSH”

Written by Peter Morgan, who also worked with Howard on 2008’s “FROST/NIXON”“RUSH” told the story about the rivalry between Formula One race drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 racing season. The two drivers are highly skilled and talented race car drivers who first develop a fierce rivalry in 1970 at a Formula Three race at the Crystal Palace circuit in England. Hunt is a brash young Englishman with a tendency to vomit before every race and the Austrian Lauda is a cool, technical genius who relies on precision. While Lauda buys his way onto the BRM Formula One team, which includes legendary driver Clay Regazzoni, following a falling out with his father. Both Lauda and Regazzoni later join the Scuderia Ferrari team with Regazzoni, and Lauda wins his first championship in 1975. Hunt’s racing team, Hesketh Racing, closes shop after failing to secure a sponsor and the British driver manages to land a driving position in McLaren after Emerson Fittipaldi leaves the team. During this period, Hunt marries supermodel Suzy Miller and Lauda develops a relationship with socialite Marlene Knaus. 

Eventually, the movie shifts to the 1976 Fomula One racing season. Lauda dominates the early races, while Hunt and the McLaren team struggle with a series of setbacks that include mechanical failures and a disqualified win at the Spanish Grand Prix. Hunt also suffers a personal setback when his wife leaves him for Richard Burton. All seem to be going well for Lauda, including a private wedding to Marlene Knaus. But all come to a head for him at the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, when he suffers a major car crash. While Hunt shoots ahead in points during his absence, Lauda struggles to recover the crash and return to finish the racing season.

Aside from the movies in the FAST AND FURIOUS series, the only auto racing movies that ever really caught my attention were two period comedies from the 1960s that featured Tony Curtis, the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy, TALLAGEDA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY”, and the 2008 film, “SPEED RACER”. That is it. Since I had never heard of James Hunt or Niki Lauda, I was almost inclined to skip “RUSH”. Thank God I did not. I would have missed out on something special . . . at least for me. I love action films. One of the aspects of action films that I love are the car chases. But the car racing scenes were not the reasons why I finally decided to see “RUSH”. I had three reasons – Ron Howard, Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. But the cincher for me was the trailer. What can I say? It impressed me.

“RUSH” is not the first time Ron Howard explored the 1970s. He directed two other movies set in the same decade –“APOLLO 13” and “FROST/NIXON”. I am beginning to wonder if this decade means a lot more to Howard than he would care to admit. In “RUSH”, the more glamorous aspect of the 1970s was explored, thanks to the artistry of production designer Mark Digby. His work was aptly supported by the art direction team led by Daniel Chour and Patrick Rolfe, and also the film’s set decorations. But if there is one aspect of “RUSH” that truly captured the 1970s – aside from the soundtrack – was Julian Day’s costumes. I adored them. Below are examples of Day’s work:

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“RUSH” did featured a good number of first-rate auto racing sequences. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, along with film editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill did an exceptional job in recapturing the excitement (well . . . from the driver’s point of view) of Formula One racing. This was certainly apparent in two sequences – the Italian Grand Prix, where a barely recovered Niki Lauda managed to finish fourth place; and the Japanese Grand Prix, where the last race of the 1976 season took place. I realize that this might sound gruesome and I certainly do not mean to sound insensitive to what happened to Lauda. But I cannot deny that Howard’s recreation of the German Grand Prix at Nürburgring and Lauda’s car crash was an example of masterful filmmaking, thanks to Howard’s direction, Mantle’s photography and the editing by Hanley and Hill. The movie really captured the spectacle and the horror of the crash.

But “RUSH” is foremost a movie about two racing drivers . . . two men. Mindful of this, Peter Morgan did an outstanding job in recapturing Hunt and Lauda’s personalities, along with the circumstances that fueled their rivalry on the race track. This was not only in scenes that featured their separate private lives, especially their relationships with their wives Suzy Miller and Marlene Knaus, but also the friendly, yet intense rivalry that existed between them. In regard to their personal lives, I was very impressed by the two scenes that featured the breakup of the Hunt-Miller marriage; Lauda’s first meeting with Knaus and one particular scene during their honeymoon in which Lauda expressed concerns about the effects of his marriage on his racing career. However, the confrontation scenes between the two drivers when they were off the race track really rocked, thanks to Hemsworth, Brühl and Morgan’s screenplay. But there are two scenes that I really enjoyed. One of them turned out to be the drivers’ conference before the German Grand Prix, in which Lauda tried to convince the Formula One committee to cancel that particular race, due to heavy rain on the already notoriously dangerous Nürburgring race course; and their last meeting (at least in the movie), not long after the championship Japanese Grand Prix.

What can I say about the movie’s performances? They were outstanding. I was surprised to see Natalie Dormer in such a small role as a hospital nurse that Hunt briefly dated. Considering her growing fame, I had expected to see her in a bigger role. I could say the same about Julian Rhind-Tutt, who had a small role as a member of Hunt’s racing team. Christian McKay gave a vibrant performance as the flamboyant Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, 3rd Baron Hesketh, who financed Hunt’s first racing team. Pierfrancesco Favino portrayed Italian racing legend, Clay Regazzoni, who drove on the Scuderia Ferrari team with Lauda. I am aware that two drivers actually became good friends. Despite this friendship, Favino gave a sly and humorous performance, while recapturing Favino’s occasional frustration with Lauda’s eccentric personality. There were some grumbles on the Internet, when world of Olivia Wilde’s casting as Suzy Miller was first announced. She certainly proved them wrong by giving a first-rate performance, especially in one scene in which Miller’s breakup with Hunt became permanent. I was also impressed by her British accent, until I learned that one of her parents had been born in the U.K. Alexandra Maria Lara also gave a first-rate performance as Lauda’s first wife, Marlene Knaus Lauda. Not only did she project a great deal of warmth in her portrayal of the race driver’s wife, but also a touch of sardonic humor.

The men of the hour, aside from Ron Howard, are Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, who portrayed the two rivals. They were outstanding. Superficially, Hemsworth seemed to have the less difficult role, portraying the outgoing playboy, Hunt. The Australian not only bore a strong resemblance to the British-born racer, but also seemed to relish in his scenes featuring Hunt’s penchant for partying hard and womanizing. But Hemsworth also excelled in those scenes that explored other aspects of Hunt’s personality – the insecurity that generally plagues every human being in existence, the emotional chaos of the racer’s breakup with Suzy Miller and his awareness of the tough competition he faced against his rival. Howard selected German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl to portray the Austrian-born Niki Lauda. Like Hemsworth, Brühl had to utilize a different accent. He almost lost the role, when he attempted an obvious fake Austrian accent during his screen test. Thankfully, he prevailed in the end. Some have claimed that Lauda was a difficult personality. If one is honest, most people are individually difficult. However, Brühl was superb in conveying the difficult aspects of Lauda’s blunt personality, while at the same time, making the racer a very likeable character. It takes an actor of great skill to achieve this goal . . . and the latter did a fanstastic job.

Judging from the manner in which I had just raved over “RUSH”, one would start to believe that I could not find any faults with it. First of all, there is an aspect of Mantle’s photography that did not sit well with me. I found it slightly metallic and wish that it could have been more colorful, especially in a film about the heady days of auto racing the 1970s. I missed that sharp color that was apparent in some of Howard’s past films. And I also could have done without the footage of the real James Hunt and Niki Lauda in the movie’s last reels. Such scenes belonged in a featurette about the movie, not in the movie itself. The footage brought back disappointing memories of how Steven Spielberg ended “SCHINDLER’S LIST” and Spike Lee ended “MALCOLM X”.

Aside from my few quibbles, I enjoyed “RUSH” very much. It was a first-class look at two auto racing rivals who not only lit up the racing scene in one memorable season in the mid-1970s with their driving skills, but also their colorful personalities. Thanks to an excellent screenplay written by Peter Morgan, a superb cast led by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, and some outstanding direction by Ron Howard; “RUSH” has become one of my favorite movies of 2013. And it has also become one of my favorite sports movies of all time.


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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” (2011) Review

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: (2011) Review

I have been aware of the Marvel Comics hero, Captain America, ever since I was in my early teens. And I might as well say right now that I was never a fan. Captain America? Why on earth would someone like me be interested in some uberpatriotic superhero who even dressed in red, white and blue – colors of the flag? This was my reaction when I learned that Marvel Entertainment planned to release a movie based upon the comic book character. 

My condescending contempt toward this new movie grew deeper when I learned that Chris Evans, of all people, had been hired to portray the title character. I have been aware of Evans ever since he portrayed another comic book hero, Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch in the 2005 movie, “THE FANTASTIC FOUR”. And aside from the 2009 movie, “PUSH”, I have seen Evans portray mainly flashy types with a cocky sense of humor. So, I really could not see him portraying the introverted and straight-laced Steve Rogers aka Captain America.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby first conceived the character of Captain America sometime around 1940-41 as a deliberate political creation in response to their repulsion toward Nazi Germany. The first Captain America comic issue hit the stores in March 1941, showing the protagonist punching Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the jaw. The comic book was an immediate success and spurred a comic saga that continued to last over the next six decades – more or less. I had already seen two television movies based upon the Captain America character in my youth. Both movies starred Reb Brown and they were, quite frankly, quite awful. They were so awful that I deliberately skipped the 1990 movie that starred Matt Salinger. After those encounters with the comic book hero, I approached this new movie with great trepidation. But since it was a comic book movie and part of “THE AVENGERS” story arc, I was willing to go see it.

Directed by Joe Johnston (“THE ROCKETEER” (1991) and “JUMANJI” (1995)), “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” was basically an origin tale about a sickly Brooklyn native name Steve Rogers, who had been making and failing attempts to sign up for the military, following the U.S. entry into World War II. While attending an exhibition of future technologies with his friend Bucky Barnes, Rogers makes another attempt to enlist. This time, he is successful due to the intervention of scientist and war refugee Dr. Abraham Erskine, who overheard Rogers’ conversation with Barnes about wanting to help in the war. Erskine recruits Steve as a candidate for a “super-soldier” experiment that he co-runs with Army Colonel Chester Phillips and British MI-6 agent Peggy Carter. Phillips remains unconvinced of Erskine’s claims that Rogers is the right person for the procedure, until he sees Rogers commit an act of self-sacrificing bravery.

The night before the treatment, Dr. Erskine reveals to Rogers about a former candidate of his, Nazi officer Johann Schmidt, who had underwent an imperfect version of the treatment and suffered side-effects. Unbeknownst to the good doctor, Schmidt has managed to acquire a mysterious tesseract that possesses untold powers, during an attack upon Tønsberg, Norway. Schmidt has plans to use the tesseract and the Nazi science division, H.Y.D.R.A., to assume control of the world . . . without Adolf Hitler and the Nazi High Command in the picture. Before Steve can face off Schmidt, he has to travel a long road to assume the persona of Captain America.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” really took me by surprise. I never really expected to enjoy it, but I did. Not only did I enjoy it, I loved it. Either I have become increasingly conservative as I grow older, or Joe Johnston’s direction and the screenplay written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely managed to avoid the unpleasant taint of smug patriotism. Perhaps it is both . . . or simply the latter. But I certainly did enjoy the movie.

One of the aspects about “CAPTAIN AMERICA” that I truly enjoyed was its production design created by Rick Heinrichs. With the help of John Bush’s set decorations, the Art Direction team and the visual effects supervised by Johann Albrecht, Heinrichs did a superb job in transforming Manchester and Liverpool, England; along with the Universal Studios backlot in Los Angeles into New York City, London, Italy and German between 1942 and 1944-45. Their efforts were enhanced by Shelly Johnson’s beautiful photography and Anna B. Sheppard’s gorgeous photography.

It was nice to discover that Joe Johnston still knew how to direct a first-rate movie. Okay, he had a bit of a misstep with“WOLFMAN” last year – unless you happen to be a fan. With “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, he seemed to be right back on track. I knew there was a reason why I have been a fan of his work since “THE ROCKETEER”. Some directors have taken a first-rate script and mess up an entire movie with some bad direction. Johnston, on the other hand, has managed through most of his career to inject his projects with a steady pace without glossing over the story. His handling of the movie’s two major montages were also first-rate, especially the montage that featured Steve’s experiences with various war bond drives and U.S.O. shows. And with period pieces such as this film and “THE ROCKETEER”, Johnston has maintained a talent for keeping such movies fixed in the right period. He certainly did this with “CAPTAIN AMERICA”, thanks to his pacing, exciting action sequences and direction of the cast.

Speaking of the cast, I was surprised to find that so many of the cast members were not only British, but veterans of a good number of costume dramas. This particular cast included Richard Armitage, J.J. Feild, Dominic Cooper, Natalie Dormer and especially Toby Jones and leading lady Hayley Atwell. In fact, it was the large number of British cast members that led me to realize that a good number of the movie was filmed in the British Isles. They performed along the likes of Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Sebastian Stan, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci.

I have been a fan of Toby Jones since I saw his performances in two movies released in 2006 – “INFAMOUS” and THE PAINTED VEIL”. He continued to impress me with his subtle portrayal of Joachim Schmidt’s quiet and self-serving assistant and biochemist Arnim Zola. Richard Armitage was equally subtle as H.Y.D.R.A. agent Heinz Kruger, whose assassination attempt of Dr. Erskine and failed theft of the latter’s formula led to an exciting chase scene through the streets of Brooklyn and a funny moment that involved him tossing a kid into New York Harbor. Trust me . . . it is funnier than you might imagine. Dominic Cooper was surprisingly effective as the young Howard Stark, scientist extraordinaire and future father of Tony Stark aka Iron Man. Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, J.J. Feild, Kenneth Choi and Bruno Ricci were great as members of Captain America’s commando squad. One, all of the actors created a strong chemistry together. Yet, each actor was given the chance to portray an interesting character – especially Choi, who portrayed the sardonic Jim Morita. The only misstep in the cast was poor Natalie Dormer, who was forced to portray Colonel Erskine’s assistant, Private Lorraine. Personally, I thought she was wasted in this film. The script only used her character as a minor plot device for the temporary setback in Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter’s romance.

Samuel L. Jackson had an entertaining cameo in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. His appearance guaranteed the continuation of the Avengers storyline. I believe that Stanley Tucci’s performance as the brains behind the Captain America formula, Dr. Abraham Erskine, was one of the best in the movie. He managed to combine warmth, compassion and a sly sense of humor in at least two scenes that he shared with leading man Chris Evans. I had never expected to see Tommy Lee Jones in a Marvel Comics movie. His Colonel Erskine struck me as so witty and hilarious that in my eyes, he unexpectedly became the movie’s main comic relief. Sebastian Stan was convincingly warm and strong as Steve’s childhood friend and eventual war comrade, Bucky Barnes. He and Evans managed to create a solid screen chemistry. Hugo Weaving . . . wow! He was fantastic and scary as the movie’s main villain, Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull. I have not seen him in such an effective role in quite a while.

I have enjoyed Hayley Atwell’s performances in past productions such as 2007’s “MANSFIELD PARK” and 2008’s“BRIDESHEAD REVISTED”. But I was really impressed by her performance as MI-6 agent and the love of Steve Rogers’ life, Peggy Carter. Atwell infused her character with a tough, no-nonsense quality that is rare in female characters these days. She also revealed Peggy’s vulnerability and insecurities about being a female in what is regarded as a man’s world. And she did an effective job in conveying Peggy’s gradual feelings for Steve. It was easy to see why Atwell’s Peggy fell in love with him. Chris Evans really surprised me with his performance as Steve Rogers aka Captain America. I was more than surprised. I was astounded. Evans has always struck me as a decent actor with a wild sense of humor. But for once, he proved . . . at least to me that he could carry a major motion picture without resorting to his usual schtick. His Steve Rogers is not perfect. Evans did a great job of conveying his character’s best traits without making the latter unbearably ideal. This is because both the script and Evans’ performance also conveyed Steve’s insecurities with a subtlety I have never seen in any other Marvel film. Superb job, Mr. Evans! Superb job.

I have to be honest. I tried very hard to find something to complain about the movie. In the end, I could only think of one complaint . . . and I have already mentioned it. But aside from that one quibble, I really enjoyed the movie and so far, it is one of my top five favorite movies of this summer. And because of this movie, I am truly looking forward to “THE AVENGERS” next year. I only hope that it proves to be just as first-rate as “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”.