“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.

 

 

 

“SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” (2012) Review

 

“SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” (2012) Review

The past ten months has been a busy period for the Brothers Grimm. During that period, there have been two television shows and two movies that featured their work. At least one television series and the two movies retold the literary pair’s story about Snow White, including the recent film, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”.

Directed by Rupert Sanders; and written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is a twist on the Snow White tale in which the Huntsman not only becomes the princess’ savior, but also her protector and mentor. In this tale, Snow White is a princess of Tabor and the daughter of King Magnus and Queen Eleanor. After the Queen’s death, King Magnus marries a beautiful woman named Ravenna after rescuing her from an invading force of glass soldiers. As it turns out, Ravenna is a powerful sorceress that controls the glass soldiers. She kills Magnus on their wedding night and seizes control of Tabor. Duke Hammond and his son William (Snow White’s childhood friend) manages to escape the castle. But Snow White is captured by Ravenna’s brother Finn and imprisoned in one of the castle’s towers.

As a decade passes, Ravenna drains the youth from the kingdom’s young women in order to maintain her youth and beauty. When Snow White comes of age, Ravenna learns from her Magic Mirror that the former is destined to destroy her, unless she consumes the young woman’s heart. When Finn is ordered to bring Snow White before Ravenna, the princess manages to escape into the Dark Forest. Eric the Huntsman is a widower who has survived the Dark Forest, and is brought before Ravenna. She orders him to lead Finn in pursuit of Snow White, in exchange for her promise to revive his dead wife. But when Eric learns from Finn that Ravenna will not be able to resurrect his wife, he helps Snow White escape through the Forest. Snow White later promises him gold if he would escort her to Duke Hammond’s Castle. Meanwhile, the Duke’s son William manages to infiltrate Finn’s band in order to find Snow White on his own.

What can I say about “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”? It is not perfect. Well . . . I had at least two minor and one major problems with the movie. The two minor problems centered around the performances of Chris Hemsworth (Eric the Huntsman) and Charlize Theron (Ravenna). Basically, both gave first-rate performances. I cannot deny that. But . . . there were moments during the movie’s first half hour in which I found it difficult to comprehend Hemsworth’s accent? Was he trying to use a working-class Scots or English accent? Or was he using his own Australian accent? I could not tell. As for Theron . . . she had a few moments of some truly hammy acting. But only a few moments. But the major problem centered around the character of Snow White.

The movie’s final showpiece featured a battle between Snow White and Ravenna’s forces at Tabor’s Castle. The battle also featured the princess fighting along with both Eric and William. When on earth did Snow White learn combat fighting? When? She spent most of the movie’s first thirty minutes either as a young girl or imprisoned in the Castle. I figured that Eric, William or both would teach her how to fight in combat before their forces marched back to Tabor. The movie featured a scene in which Eric taught Snow White on how to stab someone up close . . . but nothing else.

The only reasons I wanted to see “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” were the visual effects and the fact that I was a fan of ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME”. That is it. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to pay a ticket to see this film. But I am glad that I did. Because I enjoyed it very much, despite its flaws. Thanks to Daugherty, Hancock and Amini’s script, “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is part epic, part road movie, part fantasy horror tale and part romance. For me, all of these aspects made this tale about Snow White fascinating to me. And Snow White has never been one of my favorite fairy tales. Director Rupert Sanders not only meshed these attributes into an exciting movie. More importantly, his direction gave the movie a steady pace. I find it amazing that “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” is Sanders’ first feature film.

The most interesting aspect about the film was its love triangle between Snow White, Eric and William. Although Eric was originally supposed to be nothing more than a savior and mentor for Snow White, someone made the decision to add a little spice to their relationship. I suspect that this had something to do with Hemsworth’s age and his chemistry with star Kristin Stewart. The movie did not end with Snow White romantically clenched with one man or the other. Although some people were either disturbed or annoyed at this deliberately vague ending, I was not. I suspect that if Snow White had chosen either Eric or William, she would not have found her choice an easy one – either politically or romantically.

There are other aspects of “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” that I found admirable. One, I was impressed by Dominic Watkins’ production designs, which ranged from horror to light fantasy. I was afraid that the movie would visually turn out to be another fantasy production with another second-rate “LORD OF THE RINGS” look about it. Watkins’ designs were ably enhanced by the special effects team led by Vince Abbott and Greig Fraser’s beautiful photography. And I loved Colleen Atwood’s costume designs. She did a great job for most of the cast. But her designs for Charlize Theron’s evil queen were outstanding. Take a look:

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The performances featured in “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” struck me as pretty damn good. The revelations of the actors portraying the Seven Dwarfs took me by surprised. Toby Jones was the first to catch my eye. Then I realized that a who’s who of well known British character actors were portraying the dwarves – Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, and Eddie Marsan. They were all entertaining, especially Hoskins, McShane and Marsan. More importantly, I was very impressed by their roles in the movie’s final battle. Sam Spruell’s performance as Ravenna’s sleazy brother Finn sruck me as almost as frightening as Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna. But only almost. Despite her moments of hammy acting, Theron nearly scared the pants off me, making her Evil Queen just as frightening as the one featured in the 1937 Disney animated film.

I must admit that I was not that impressed by Sam Claflin’s performance as the missionary in last year’s “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES”. But I suspect that was due to the role he was stuck with. “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN” provided him with a much better role as the aristocratic William, who felt guilty over his and his father’s failure to prevent Snow White’s imprisonment following the King’s death. Not only was Claflin was able to strut his stuff in a more interesting role and prove that he could be a first-rate action hero; he also had surprisingly great chemistry with both Stewart and Hemsworth. As for the Australian actor, he was superb as the grieving huntsman, Eric. Okay, I had a few problems with his questionable accent during the movie’s first half hour. However, he overcame that flaw and gave a great and emotionally satisfying performance as a man whose destructive grieving was overcome by his relationship with Snow White. And he also proved that he was more than an action star in a scene in which he gave a beautiful soliloquy regarding Eric’s feelings for the princess. The belle of the ball – at least for me – was actress Kristen Stewart. I must be honest. I am not a fan of the “TWILIGHT” movies or Stewart’s role of Bella Swann. But I certainly enjoyed her performance as Snow White in this film. For the first time, Stewart seemed to be portraying a character that seemed animated, interesting and pro-active. She has great chemistry with both Hemsworth and Claflin. And she did surprisingly well in the action sequences . . . especially in Snow White’s confrontation with Ravenna. I hope to see Stewart in more roles like this.

I heard rumors that due to the movie’s surprising success, Universal Pictures hopes to release a sequel to “SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN”. I do not know if this is a good idea. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed the movie very much, despite its flaws. The script proved to be an interesting mixture of fantasy, horror, comedy, romance and a road trip. And the cast, led by Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, was first-rate. But considering how the movie ended, I simply do not see the need or possibility for a sequel. Besides, I felt more than satisfied with this particular film.

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: On Stranger Tides” (2011) Review

 

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES” (2011) Review

When the Disney Studios and producer Jerry Bruckheimer had first released news of their intention to make sequels to their 2003 hit movie, “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: Curse of the Black Pearl”, I reacted to the news with a greatdeal of wariness. In fact, I was against the idea. But after seeing 2006’s “Dead Man’s Chest” and 2007’s “At World’s End”, my opinion had changed. I ended up enjoying the two movies just as much as I had enjoyed “Curse of the Black Pearl” . . . especially the second film. 

About two years after “At World’s End” hit the theaters, the Disney people and Bruckheimer had released news of their intention to make a fourth film. Again, I expressed wariness at the idea. I thought the three movies released between 2003and 2007 made a neat little trilogy. There was no need for a fourth movie. But Disney and Bruckheimer went ahead with their plans and a fourth movie was recently released. But unlike “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”, I found it difficult to enjoy “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: On Stranger Tides”.

I cannot say that I disliked the film. There were aspects of it that I genuinely enjoyed. Both Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were in top form as Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Hector Barbossa. But I noticed something odd about their characters in this movie. For once, Jack did not have a particular goal to attain in this film. In “Curse of the Black Pearl”, he was after the Black Pearl. He was after the chest that contained Davy Jones’ heart in “Dead Man’s Chest” to be used to avoid a debt that he owned. And in “At World’s End”, he was still after Jones’ heart in order to gain the opportunity to become master of the Flying Dutchman and immortality. In this fourth movie, Jack seemed to have become swept up in Blackbeard and the British Crown’s agendas. And Barbossa seemed out of place as a privateer for His Majesty King George II and the Royal Navy. There was a scene that featured him eating slices of fruit arranged on a plate. He seemed to be doing his best to project the image of an officer and a gentleman . . . only he looked rather odd. However, both actors gave top notch performances and I could find nothing to complain about.

I could also say the same about the performances of Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane and Stephen Graham as Angelica, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and a sailor named Scrum, respectively. All three were perfectly cast in their respective roles. Cruz did an excellent job in portraying the complex Angelica, who happened to be the daughter of Blackbeard. Although it is obvious that she is attracted to Jack – a former lover, she seemed to have this . . . need for her father’s love that made her into some kind of twisted Daddy’s girl wannabe. Unfortunately, McShane’s Blackbeard seemed like poor father material. There were times when he conveyed the image of a concerned and loving father. And yet, he proved to be nothing more than an emotional vampire who would easily kill his daughter if she got in the way of his goal – the Fountain of Youth. And I must admit that not only did McShane made a witty and terrifying Blackbeard, he handled his character’s twisted relationship with Angelica beautifully. Graham’s Scrum almost struck me as a younger version of Jack’s old friend, Joshamee Gibbs. And considering that the latter’s appearance in this film seemed somewhat limited, it seemed just as well that Graham received more screen time.

There were other aspects of “On Stranger Tides” that I enjoyed. Or should I say, scenes? The mermaids’ attacks upon Blackbeard’s men and upon the H.M.S. Providence were among the most terrifying scenes I have seen in the franchise since the Kracken’s attacks in “Dead Man’s Chest”. I also enjoyed the scene that featured Jack’s mutinous meeting with members of Blackbeard’s crew. Personally, I found it very funny and it brought back memories of former characters such as Pintel, Ragetti, Marty and Cotton. Jack’s meeting with King George II proved to be somewhat entertaining. And it led to an equally entertaining chase sequence through the streets of mid-18th century London. But my favorite scene featured Jack marooning Angelica on a deserted island, following the death of Blackbeard. The humor not only permeated strongly in their verbal exchange, but also in director Rob Marshall’s visual style. And I must admit that I also enjoyed the photography featured in the London scenes and the “island” where the Fountain of Youth was located. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski did justice to the lush Hawaii jungle that served as one of the movie’s settings.

So, if I had so much to enjoy about “On Stranger Tides”, why did it fail to resonate within me in the end? What went wrong? At least for me? My main problem with the movie is that I felt it tried to repeat many aspects of the first film,“Curse of the Black Pearl”. This is odd, considering that “On Stranger Tides” was allegedly inspired by Tim Powers’ 1987 novel, “On Stranger Tides”. The fourth film did not come off as a remake or anything of such. But there were too many aspects of the first film that seemed to be repeated in “On Stranger Tides”. One, Jack’s reunion with Angelica in a London tavern almost seemed like a remake of his first meeting with Will Turner in “Curse of the Black Pearl”. Scrum almost seemed like a remake of Joshamee Gibbs. This is not surprising, since he had more scenes with Jack that Gibbs and the latter (along with actor Kevin McNally) seemed wasted in the movie. Two of Blackbeard’s crew turned out to be zombies (if you can call them that). And they seemed like remakes (physical and otherwise) of Barbossa’s first mate from the first film, Bo’sun. More importantly, the romance between missionary Philip Swift and the mermaid Syrena almost seemed like a remake of the Will Turner/Elizabeth Swann romance . . . but without the character developments. If I must be honest, Philip and Syrena’s romance nearly put me to sleep on several occasions. I feel sorry for actors Sam Claflin and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey. They seemed like two decent actors forced to work with a pair of boring and undeveloped characters.

There were other problems I had with “On Stranger Tides”. The movie saw the return of Royal Navy officers Theodore Groves (from the first and third film) and Gillette (from the first film). What on earth did Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot did to their roles? Both characters almost seemed lobotomized. Well, Gillette did. Groves seemed to have lost his sense of humor. I recalled that he was a big fan boy of Jack in the first and third films. Yet, when he finally met Jack . . . nothing happened. He was too busy being a rather boring and stiff character. What happened to Jack and Barbossa’s own quests for the Fountain of Youth, which was first introduced in “At World’s End”? After a few years of failure, the audience is led to believe that Jack simply lost interest. And Barbossa’s earlier encounter with Blackbeard and the latter’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, led to the loss of one leg and the Black Pearl. And how did Barbossa managed to survive the loss of his leg. Apparently, Barbossa had to cut off his leg to free from Blackbeard’s enchanted ship lines. So, how did he manage to keep himself from bleeding to death in the ocean? How did he manage to swim to safety with one leg?

And then we come to the mermaids. How did the mermaids manage to destroy Barbossa’s ship, the H.M.S. Providence? It was one thing to lure men from small boats or smash said boats. It was another to do the same to a large frigate. I have never heard of such a thing in the mermaid mythology. One last major problem I had with the movie dealt with the presence of the Spanish. Like the British, they were after the Fountain of Youth. Only their leader, known as the Spaniard (portrayed by Óscar Jaenada), called himself destroying the Fountain in the name of his king and the Catholic Church, as some kind of stance against paganism. Worse, he possessed the very chalices that needed to be used to drink the Fountain’s water. Yet, he did not bother to smash them, until he was at the Fountain’s location. Why? And what in the hell were Elliot and Rossio thinking? Why include such a storyline that proved to be irrelevant, epsecially since Jack was able to use the Fountain’s water after its so-called destruction?

I hear that Disney Studios and Bruckheimer are planning a fifth movie. I can understand this decision, considering that“On Stranger Tides” raked up a great deal of profit at the box office. Frankly, I wish they would change their minds. I honestly do not care how much money the movie had made. After watching it, I realized that a fourth movie should not have been made . . . at least from an artistic point of view. It featured too much sloppy writing and characterizations for me to truly enjoy. “On Stranger Tides” might prove to be the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie that I cannot consider as a favorite.