“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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“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

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“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.

 

 

 

“THE MASTER” (2012) Review

the-master

“THE MASTER” (2012) Review

Paul Thomas Anderson seemed to be one of those filmmakers who embody what critics would categorize as a modern day “auteurist” that release a movie every few years to dazzle moviegoers and critics with his or her personal creative vision. During his sixteen years as a director and filmmaker, he has made four short films and six feature movies. One of the six feature films is his latest, “THE MASTER”

Believed by many to be an exposé on Scientology, “THE MASTER”tells of the story of a World War II Navy veteran named Freddie Quell, who struggles to adjust to a post-war society. Freddie uses sex and alcohol to escape his personal demons. But when his drinking and violent behavior leads him to lose jobs as a department store photographer and a field worker on a cabbage farm, Freddie ends up in San Francisco, where he stows aboard a yacht that belongs to one Lancaster Dodd, a leader of a philosophical movement known as “The Cause”. Dodd sees something in Quell and accepts him into the movement. But Freddie’s drunken and violent behavior fails to abate and Dodd’s wife, daughter and son-in-law begin to express doubt that the latter can help the World War II veteran.

What can I say about “THE MASTER”? Did it turn out to be the exposé on Scientology that many believed it would become? Not really. Despite its title, “THE MASTER” seemed to be more about Freddie Quell than Lancaster Dodd and “the Cause”. The movie did feature practices that are believed to be similar to those practiced by members of Scientology. But the movie’s deeper focus on Freddie’s personal demons has led me to believe that the Church of Scientology has nothing to fear. In the end, “THE MASTER” seemed to be more of a character study of the very disturbed Freddie Quell, along with a secondary study of Lancaster Dodd . . . and their friendship. And Paul Thomas Anderson revealed these two character studies in a movie with a running time of 143 minutes.

There were aspects of “THE MASTER” I found very admirable. The movie featured outstanding performances from Joaquin Phoenix, who gave a volatile portrayal of the disturbing Freddie Quell. I was also impressed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd. His performance not only hinted in subtle ways, his understanding of Freddie’s demons, but the possibility that he once possessed similar demons. And Amy Adams was memorable as Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s second or third wife, who not only seemed more dedicated to “the Cause” than her husband; but also seemed to understand both him and Freddie with a frankness the two men seemed unwilling to face. The movie also featured solid performances from Laura Dern, who portrayed a hardcore devotee to Dodd; Rami Malek, Dodd’s quiet and unassuming son-in-law who assumes a dislike of Freddie; Ambyr Childers, Dodd’s daughter, who hides a lusty attraction to Freddie; Jesse Plemons, who portrays Dodd’s disenchanted son; Madisen Beaty, who portrays Freddie’s love of his life; and Kevin J. O’Connor, a devotee of “the Cause” who is not impressed by Dodd’s writing.

I was also impressed by the movie’s production designs. David Frank and Jack Fisk did an excellent job in re-creating America during the post-World War II era and the beginning of the 1950s. Mark Bridges’ costumes were tasteful and at the same time, projected an accuracy of the era. And cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. captured Anderson’s direction and the movie’s setting with some impressive photography.

So, did I enjoy “THE MASTER”? No. In fact, I dislike the movie . . . intensely. There is nothing more boring than a 143 minute character study, in which the main character does not evolve or devolve. Freddie Quell never changes. Perhaps this was the lesson that Anderson was trying to convey. But honestly, he could have done this with more solid writing, a shorter running time and with less pretentiousness. And I have never seen a movie with so much pretentiousness since Joe Wright’s movie, “HANNA”. While watching an early scene that featured Freddie dry humping a nude woman made from sand on a beach, I began to suspect that my patience might be tested with this film. I had no idea my patience would eventually slipped into sheer boredom. One cannot image the relief I felt when the movie finally ended.

I realize that “THE MASTER” has received a great deal of acclaim from critics and some moviegoers. But I simply failed to see the magic. And if this movie manages to acquire a great deal of nominations during the awards season (which it probably will), I will not be one of those cheering the movie for critical glory. I dislike it too much. Oh well. Perhaps I will like Anderson’s next film.

“THE IDES OF MARCH” (2011) Review

“THE IDES OF MARCH” (2011) Review

While watching George Clooney’s recent political thriller, “THE IDES OF MARCH”, it occurred to me that two-and-a-half years have passed since I last watched a movie about politicians . . . inside a movie theater. It also led me to wonder if Hollywood has become increasingly reluctant to make movies about politicians. It would be a shame if that were truth. Because I believe the studios need to release more movies about them. 

On the other hand, I am grateful to Clooney for directing, co-producing and co-writing “THE IDES OF MARCH”, an adaptation of co-writer Beau Willimon’s 2008 play called “FARRAGUT NORTH”. The movie is about Stephen Meyers, an idealistic junior campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate, Governor Mike Morris of Pennsylvania, and his crash course on the brutal realities of politics on the campaign trail in Southern Ohio. His life and role in Governor Morris’ presidential campaign is threatened when Tom Duffy, the senior campaign manager of Governor Morris’ Democratic rival, Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman, offers him a job. Unfortunately for Meyers, his boss, Governor Morris’ senior campaign manager, Paul Zara learns about the job offer. Complicating Meyers’ situation is his romance with one of the campaign interns and daughter of the Democratic National Committee chairman, Molly Stearns, leads him to discover about her one night liaison with Governor Morris and her eventual pregnancy.

On paper, “THE IDES OF MARCH” looks and reads like a lurid melodrama with political overtones. But I believe the movie revealed to be a lot more. This is just a theory, but I believe that “THE IDES OF MARCH” served as a warning for those who tend to look toward politicians as saviors or leaders who can solve the problems of society. At the beginning of “THE IDES OF MARCH”, Stephen Meyers is a sharp and canny political campaigner. He has seen enough of the world to be somewhat jaded. But he is still young enough at age thirty to believe that one man can change his world for the better. And in his mind, that man is Michael Morris. But his own ambitions for a career as a political adviser and the revelation of Morris’ brief affair with Molly Stearns forces Meyers to grow up . . . in a most painful way. Considering the methods that he used in an effort to save his career, one might view Stearns’ loss of idealism with a negative eye. Or one might now. Personally, I believe that loss turned out to be a mixture of good and bad for Stearns.

“THE IDES OF MARCH” received a good deal of positive reviews from many of the media’s critics. Did the movie deserve the positive word-of-mouth? I believe so. I really enjoyed the story. And I believe that Clooney, Willimon and the third co-writer, Grant Heslov, did an excellent job of conveying Stephen Meyers’ final loss of innocence with plenty of melodrama (oh, that word!), tight pacing, political wheeling-dealing and plot twists. What is interesting about this movie is that all of the characters involved in the story are Democrats. There is no Republican or hard line conservative in sight. And I have to hand it to Clooney, Willimon and Heslov for being willing to show that in their own way, Democratic politicians and political wheeler-dealers could be just as dirty and manipulative as their Republican counterparts. Personally, I believe that this is a good lesson to learn that when it comes to the world of politics – and the media, for that matter – you cannot trust anyone, regardless of political suasion.

Clooney managed to gather a fine collection of actors and actresses for his movie. I do have one minor quibble about this . . . and it involves actress Jennifer Ehle, who portrayed Governor Morris’ wife, Cindy Morris. I had no problem with her performance. But aside from a brief scene with Clooney in which the two discussed his future in the White House, she seemed wasted in this film. I almost found myself thinking the same about Jeffrey Wright, who portrayed a North Carolina senator, whose support both Democratic candidates sought. He only had brief scenes in the movie. But he made the most of it portraying Senator Thompson as an egotistical power seeker with great relish. Max Minghella gave a decent performance as Meyers’ assistant who harbored ambitions to achieve the latter’s position. Marisa Tomei gave a witty performance as a snarky New York Times reporter, whose attitude toward Meyers changes drastically by the end of the movie. The year 2011 seemed to be a busy year for Evan Rachel Wood. She returned in her third role this year to portray the young intern Molly Stearns. Wood did an excellent job in portraying the vulnerable and scared young woman behind the sexy temptress. Her description of Morris’ seduction of Molly at an Iowa hotel left my skin crawling.

Both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti gave powerhouse performances as the two rival senior campaign managers, Paul Zara and Tom Duffy. Watching these two manipulate and trip up Meyers was like watching two warhorses showing the world how to give colorful performances. George Clooney’s portrayal of Governor Mike Morris was a lot more restrained than Hoffman and Giamatti, but equally memorable as Democratic candidate, Michael Morris. Superficially, Clooney invested a great deal of subtle charm and idealism into the character. But I liked the way he slowly revealed the ambition and corruption behind the Mr. Smith persona. If anything, Clooney’s Governor Morris reminded me of the numerous so-called ideally liberal politicians, who are revealed to be not only corrupt, but disappointing.

Despite the powerhouse appearances of veterans like Clooney, Giamatti, Hoffman, Wright and Tomei, the real star of“THE IDES OF MARCH” turned out to be Ryan Gosling. The ironic thing is that his portrayal of political campaign manager Stephen Meyers made Clooney’s restrained performance look absolutely subtle. Yet, along with Clooney’s direction, Gosling more or less managed to carry the movie. I am not saying this because Gosling is the star of the movie. In his quiet way, he managed to carry a film featured with more colorful performances from an older cast. More importantly, Gosling did an excellent job in quietly conveying Stephen Meyers from a savy, yet idealistic junior campaign manager to a harder and wiser politico who is willing to embrace corruption in order to save his career. I thought he gave a very impressive performance.

Will “THE IDES OF MARCH” be able to earn an accolades during the movie awards season? It is too early to tell, but I hope so. Thanks to George Clooney’s direction, the script and a talented cast led by Ryan Gosling, I was very impressed by it.

“NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” (2007) and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007) Reviews

“NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” (2007) and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007)  Reviews

Three years ago, two movies were released in the theaters . . . two movies that could not be anymore different than if they had tried. I am speaking of “NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR”. The first movie, starring Nicholas Cage and Jon Voight, is a sequel to the 2004 Disney film, “NATIONAL TREASURE”. The other is a comedy-drama about a Texas congressman from the 1980s who found himself involved in Afghanistan’s attempts to free itself from a Soviet invasion.

“National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets”

This sequel to the 2004 movie – “National Treasure” – opens with the Gates family – Benjamin and Patrick (Nicholas Cage and Jon Voight) – learning from a black market dealer named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) that their Civil War ancestor Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch) may have been the mastermind behind Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Wilkinson’s so-called proof came from assassin John Wilkes Booth’s diary. To prove their ancestor’s innocence and family honor, Ben and Patrick recruit the aid of family friend Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), Ben’s estranged girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), Patrick’s ex-wife Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), FBI Agent Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) and even the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) to help them find the treasure of gold that would vindicate Thomas Gates and the family’s name.

In a nutshell, this sequel turned out to be just as fun and exciting as the first movie. Ben Gates and company follow clues that lead them from Paris to London to Washington D.C. and finally Mount Rushmore in the Dakota Black Hills. The cast were their usual competent selves and Ed Harris turned out to be just as effective as a villain as Sean Bean had been in the first film. My favorite sequences included Ben, Abigail and Riley’s attempt to gain access to one of the rooms at Buckingham Palace, Ben and Abigail’s minor adventures at the White House and Ben’s kidnapping of the President at Mount Vernon.

I did have a few problems with the movie. My biggest gripe turned out to be the treasure itself. I realize that the Templar treasure found in the first film could not be topped. But I must admit that the City of Gold found beneath Mount Rushmore had failed to impress me at all. And why end the movie at Mount Rushmore? Granted there was a war between American settlers and the Dakota Sioux in 1862, but what did that have to do with the Civil War? I would have been happier if the movie’s setting had remained on the East Coast.

Aside from these minor gripes, “National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets” turned out to be as entertaining as the first film. I would highly recommend it.

“Charlie Wilson’s War”

This historical drama told the story of recently departed Texas congressman Charles Wilson (Tom Hanks)’s efforts to get the United States to aid the Mujahideen (Afghanistan freedom fighters) in their fight against the military invaders from the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Urged on by his staunchly anti-Communist friend and romantic interest, Texas heiress Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), Wilson became deeply involved to help the Afghans throw the Soviets out of their country without the world knowing about U.S. involvement. The film not only revealed Wilson’s growing disdain for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it also gave moviegoers a look into his gregarious social life of women and partying.

Judging from the movie’s Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nomination, one could see that “Charlie Wilson’s War”has become a front-runner for Academy Award nominations. Does it deserve the acclamation? I do not know. Granted, Mike Nichols did a competent job in allowing moviegoers a peek into Washington and international politics, and C.I.A. policies. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos) were excellent. But if I must be honest, the movie did not give me a charge. I liked it. I really found it entertaining. But I did not love it. When leaving the theater, I had this feeling that something was missing. It could have been the unsatisfying ending, which I found to be rushed. Or perhaps I thought the story could have required a little more depth.

I cannot say that “Charlie Wilson’s War” was great. But I did find it entertaining. And if you are intrigued by a look into American politics during the 1980s, I would highly recommend it.

“CAPOTE” (2005) Review

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”CAPOTE” (2005) Review

I finally got around to watching the first of two movies about writer Truman Capote and his work on the non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood”. This particular movie, “CAPOTE”, starred American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who eventually won a SAG award, a Golden Globe award and an Oscar for his performance.

Penned by actor Dan Futterman and directed by Bennett Miller, “CAPOTE” turned out to be a more somber affair than its 2006 counterpart, “INFAMOUS”. Miller had once commented that he wanted to create a more subtle portrait of the flamboyant author in order to emphasize on Capote’s lonely and alienated state . . . despite his relationships with authors, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) and Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood); and his popularity with New York high society. This subtle approach not only permeated the movie’s tone and pace, it also affected the cast’s performances – especially Hoffman and Clifton Collins Jr., as Perry Smith.

I do not know if I would have automatically given Philip Seymour Hoffman that Oscar for his performance as Truman Capote. I am still inclined toward Heath Ledger receiving the award for his performance in “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN”. But I must admit that Hoffman certainly deserved his nomination. He managed to skillfully portray Capote’s ambition and determination to create a literary masterpiece from the real life murders surrounding the Herb Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Hoffman also revealed how Capote used his charm to manipulate others . . . especially Perry Smith.

Catherine Keener earned both BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for her warm portrayal of “To Kill Mockingbird” author, Nelle Harper Lee. Granted, she deserved her nominations and I especially enjoyed how she managed to project a mixture of friendly warmth, reserve and moral fortitude in her performance. But I could not help but wonder if she could receive acting nominations, why not Clifton Collins, Jr.?

It seemed a shame that more praise had not been heaped upon Clifton Collins’ shoulders for his portrayal of the intense and soft-spoken convicted murderer, Perry Smith. His scenes with Hoffman gave the movie an extra bite of emotionalism that saved it from being too subtle. Like Daniel Craig’s performance of Smith in “INFAMOUS”, Collins brought an interesting balance of soft-spoken politeness and intense danger in his performance. Well . . . almost. The real KBI investigator in charge of the Clutter case, Alvin Dewey, had once described Perry Smith as a quiet, intense and dangerous man. In “CAPOTE”, Smith’s own sister had warned Capote that despite her brother’s quiet and polite demeanor, he was easily capable of committing the crimes against the Clutters. And yet, I never did sense any real danger in Collins’ performance. Not quite. Except in two scenes – namely his confrontation with Capote over the “In Cold Blood” title; and the flashbacks revealing the Clutters’ murders. The ironic thing is that I suspect that Collins was not to blame. I suspect that Miller’s direction and Futterman’s script simply did not really allow Collins to reveal Smith’s more dangerous aura.

All of this led to what became my main problem with “CAPOTE” – namely the somber subtlety that seemed to permeate the production. Not only did the director’s desire to create a subtle film seem to mute Collins’ potential for a more balanced portrayal of Perry Smith, it also forced Hoffman to hold back some of Capote’s more flamboyant traits. I am quite certain that this was both the director and the screenwriter’s intentions. But I also feel that this deliberate attempt at subtlety may have robbed both the Capote and Smith characters of a more balanced nuance. It also denied the audience a deeper look into Capote’s New York lifestyle and bogged down the movie’s pacing in the end. During the last thirty or forty minutes, I found myself begging for the movie to end.

But despite the movie’s “too somber” mood and pacing, “CAPOTE” is an excellent movie and I would highly recommend it for viewing.

8/10