REVIEW: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”

mocking poster

Why, why, why? Oh who am I kidding? The reason is obvious – money. That’s the reason they chose to split the final chapter of “The Hunger Games” series into two movies. It certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen this done. Following the profitable but not narratively beneficial blueprint laid out by “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”, “Mockingjay – Part 1” is the first part of the much anticipated series finale.

The first Hunger Games movie was pretty good although it didn’t convince me that this was a franchise worth following. It was the second movie, “Catching Fire”, that won me over. The characters grow, the stakes are raised, you gain a firm understanding of where the franchise is going, and it ends with a bang. Now enter “Mockingjay – Part 1”, the first part of the final chapter, and a film with nowhere near the pop of its predecessor. It’s not that this is an inherently bad movie. Several interesting things happen. But it is stretched past its limits in order to make this a two-movie ending and the film suffers for it.

mocking1

All of the cast of characters return led by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Recuperating from the chaotic conclusion of “Catching Fire”, Katniss wakes up in District 13, the home of the burgeoning rebellion. After a brief reunion with her mother and sister, her is introduced to President Coin (Julianne Moore) who wants Katniss to be the face (AKA the Mockingjay) of the growing rebellion. Old friends Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) encourage Katniss to take on the role and inspire the people.

But Katniss remains unsure, that is until she see is taken to see the carnage and ruins of her home district left behind following an intense bombing by the Capitol. She eventually accepts but only if President Coin agrees to send a rescue team to free a captured Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol city. Peeta is being used by the noxious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as a propaganda piece to quell the rebellion. Several other familiar faces return. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is given a bit more to do this time around. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) pops up in a couple of scenes to offer sage-like counsel. Effie (Elizabeth Banks) appears in what is basically a tag-along role. And Stanley Tucci’s wacky Caesar gets very little screen time.

 

“Mockingjay – Part 1” doesn’t offer a lot in terms of thrills and excitement. Instead it gives us speeches and debates. Then it gives us more speeches and debates. We have long moments of indecision, lots of pondering, a bunch of planning. We visit a few locations (one of them twice where we get the exact same camera shots) and we get a couple of random scenes featuring inspired rebels. But very little spans beyond Katniss’ reluctance in becoming the Mockingjay and the political wrangling by both the rebellion and the Capitol.

mocking2

To be fair, I did enjoy a lot of the political back-and-forths. I also still like spending time with most of these characters. And Jennifer Lawrence is once again superb. There is nothing glamorous about her role. She attacks it with such conviction and delivers genuine raw emotion. There are also great performances from Hoffman, Wright, and Sutherland who is so playfully vile as the the chief antagonist. Moore was the biggest new addition and she serves the part. But her character is pretty straightforward and generic and she is isn’t asked to show much range.

I know “Mockingjay – Part 1” is considered a part of a greater whole, but as a single movie it disappoints. It felt like a gradual meandering buildup towards a climax that we never get. Even the cliffhanger (if you can even call it that) was shockingly underwhelming. And you can tell that numerous scenes were stretched as far as they could go in order to make this a two-picture conclusion. Yet still there are enjoyable moments, good characters, strong performances, and the knowledge that this is just a set-up to what should be an action-packed final film. But as a single standalone movie, I was definitely hoping for more.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

HUNGER POSTER

The 2012 film “The Hunger Games” launched a new movie franchise to the tune of almost $700 million at the box office. It was based on Suzanne Collins’ equally popular book series – one that I had never heard of prior to the film’s announcement. The story is dystopian science fiction and it examines themes such a class disparity, oppression, and the infatuation with reality television. It wasn’t a perfect movie but it stood head and shoulders above other popular film franchises aimed at this age group. With a good cast locked in and the groundwork laid for a fairly interesting premise, the inevitable sequel had a lot of potential and expectations.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” hit theaters with even bigger fanfare than the first film. It raked in over $860 million and received hearty praise from critics. Personally I felt there was room to improve from the first film, but I didn’t expect to find a significantly better movie. I really enjoyed “Catching Fire” and I was impressed at how many trappings it avoided. So often movies of this type and sequels in general make the same mistakes which more often than not lowers the quality of the film. “Catching Fire” does several things better this time around and it starts with the story.

CATCHING1

This film begins shortly after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have won the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The two have returned to District 12 where Katniss has convinced her local boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) that her “love” for Peeta was just an act to survive the games. She is paid a surprise visit by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who informs her that she and Peeta will be going on a victors tour to the other districts. He also expresses displeasure in her defiant actions during the games which have fueled a rising underground rebellion against his Capitol. He intends to use the tour to influence public opinion but in secret he feels the only way to solve his problem is to kill Katniss.

Woody Harrelson returns as the goodhearted boozer Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks is back as Effie, the queen of gaudy fashion overkill. The two clearly have affections for Katniss and Peeta and they both understand the danger and intensity of their situation. They try to prepare the two victors for the tightrope they must walk between energizing the revolution and bringing the wrath of President Snow to their home district. Director Francis Lawrence does a great job of ratcheting up the tension during this part of the story and the stakes are raised particularly when some of the tour stops to oppressed districts don’t go as planned.

CATCHIN2

The story then takes a sharp turn with the out-of-the-blue announcement of the Third Quarter Quell. Basically ever 25 years the Hunger Games are “celebrated” with a special set of rules that normally serves the Capitol’s interests. President Snow decides that the 75th games will consist only of past winners. Since Katniss is the only female to win from District 12 she is automatically put into the games which Snow hopes will take care of his little problem. For me this is where the movie does spin its wheels a little. In what felt like a slight retread from the first film, we go back through the glitzy chariot presentations of the players, their appearances on Stanley Tucci’s whacky talk show, and the showcase of their skills before the bigwigs. It doesn’t play out as long as it did in the first film but I did find myself anxious for things to movie along.

But once the games do start the film gets right back on track. There are a number of interesting twists and angles that come from a variety of different directions. That is what provides the film with its own identity. “Catching Fire” maintains the grand scope and ominous threat of the first film, but it magnifies it and then takes it into its own place. A lot of it has to do with the progression of Collins’ story, but I give a lot of credit to Francis Lawrence’s direction and the screenplay from Simon Beaufoy and Michael duBruyn.

CATCHING3

It also helps that the acting takes a step up. Lawrence is fabulous and I would take this performance over her good but generic work in “American Hustle”. She is the heart and soul of the film and her abilities to sell her character both emotionally and physically are vital. I also think Josh Hutcherson make significant strides. His acting was a weakness in the first film but both he and Liam Hemsworth make obvious improvements. It was also great seeing some new characters played by really talented actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman (in what is one of his final roles) shows up as Snow’s new Gamemaker. I also really liked Jeffrey Wright as a studious fellow games participant.

I enjoyed the first film of this popular franchise even though I didn’t think it was great. That alone was enough to make me curious about “Catching Fire”. What I didn’t expect was to be completely enthralled in it from start to finish. “Catching Fire” is a big budget franchise entry that manages itself well and pulls off what many are incapable of doing. It not only adds to the groundwork laid by its predecessor, but it improves on it in nearly every area. And perhaps this movie’s biggest trick was to make ME thoroughly interested in what happens next. That of itself was a major accomplishment.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

“THE EAGLE” – 2 STARS

There have been several movies about Rome’s powerful Ninth Legion and their annihilation in the British territories in the 2nd century. The newest addition is “The Eagle”, adapted from the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff. Channing Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a young Roman centurion taking his first command in a dangerous and isolated part of Britain. Aquila seeks to restore the honor of his father who was leader of the powerful Ninth Legion when they mysteriously disappeared along with the sacred golden Eagle of Rome. After their fort is attacked, Aquila gains the trust and admiration of his legion by leading them to victory but is injured in the battle resulting in his honorable discharge. But with his father’s name still held in contempt and the Eagle still missing, he sets out on a quest past the Northern Wall, accompanied only by his newly acquired slave Esca (Jaime Bell), to find the Eagle and redeem his father’s reputation .

While “The Eagle” does start off promising, it’s an inconsistent and uneven film that falls into mediocrity. The first act is encouraging. The attack on the fort features the film’s best action sequences. They are furiously shot and edited and bring reminders of films like “Gladiator”. Later, as we’re introduced to Esca, the relationship between wounded Roman hero and Rome-hating slave offers up potential even though it’s built upon pretty familiar grounds. But it never goes very far. Nonetheless the movie still has some pretty decent moments early on.

But then the picture bogs down in numerous scenes of tedious exposition and a quest that lacks any real sense of urgency or peril. These problems can be traced back to a very lackluster script. Other than a few bits of text in the opening, there’s no real effort to develop the film’s historical setting. There is no real explanation of the importance of the Eagle other than “The Eagle is Rome”. The relationship between Aquila and Esca is underdeveloped and hard to buy into. The ending is flat and lacks any real punch or emotion. These are all issues that could be resolved with better writing.

Channing Tatum does a better acting job than in many of his previous films but the verdict is still out for me. He gives a good effort but he just can’t carry a picture like this. His scenes involving interaction with his soldiers early on are his best but he struggles elsewhere. Then you have Donald Sutherland who is laughably bad and terribly miscast as Marcus’ uncle. He appears to be just going through the motions and he’s impossible to take seriously. Jamie Bell gives the better performance of any but even he is handcuffed by the weak screenplay.

“The Eagle” is a very “ok” movie. It’s best parts are experienced early then the movie falls off considerably. It starts off as a poor man’s “Gladiator” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But then it loses it’s identity and heads off into a different direction becoming a very mediocre action picture. The characters and the story are underdeveloped and in a movie like this you have to buy into the quest and the stakes must be high. The stakes weren’t that high and I was never sold enough on the story to really invest in it.

REVIEW: “The Hunger Games”

With this week’s release of the incredibly popular “The Hunger Games” on DVD and Blu-Ray, I had a chance to see it for a second time. I thought it would be fun to share my review of the movie again for those who may be newer to my blog. What are your thoughts on this much talked about picture? Were the odds ever in your favor as you sat down to see what all the hype was about? Here’s my take.

It’s been called the next big thing at the movies. It’s projections point to an opening weekend of around $150 million. Fans are filling theaters with anticipation. With such hype and expectations, how is it that I had never heard of “The Hunger Games” before seeing its first movie trailer? Expected to be the first in a profitable series, “The Hunger Games” is based on a series of novels written by Suzanne Collins. It’s a dystopian science fiction film that’s based on a preposterous premise yet it manages to be strikingly entertaining.

With the “Twilight” series mercifully set to end later this year, “The Hunger Games” is looked at as the next big franchise and has even drawn some misguided comparisons to the romantic vampire versus werewolf films. But there are several things that separate “The Hunger Games” from the “Twilight” series. First, this film opens itself up to a much broader audience. The movie embraces several good sci-fi and action elements that should appeal to a wider variety of moviegoers. ”Twilight” made millions but had a much more restricted target audience. Also “The Hunger Games” made a point to bring in quality performers and it really shows in the finished product. The acting is head and shoulders above the teeth gnashing performances in “Twilight”. In other words, “The Hunger Games” has more to offer than many of the other popular multi-million dollar series.

The movie takes place in Panem, a nation broken up into 12 districts. It’s a futuristic world that features a capital city filled with advanced technology surrounded by landscapes that resemble the Ozark or Smokey Mountains. The power and affluence are confined to the Capitol while the outer districts are filled with poverty-stricken villages struggling to survive.  We learn that years ago there was an uprising in the districts that resulted in a strong militaristic response from the Capitol. After quenching the uprising, The Capitol instituted “The Hunger Games”, an annual competition that required each district to provide one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete against each other in a survival fight to the death. There would be only one winner and that winner would receive fame and glory. The games were intended to serve as a lifelong punishment for the district’s uprising and to show the twisted view of mercy and forgiveness of the Capitol.

To add yet another warped component to the story, The Hunger Games have become a Super Bowl like event. Much like 1987′s “The Running Man”, citizen’s throughout the capital city watch and cheer the games like they would a major sporting event. Special events and talk shows centered around the participants and leading up to the games are soaked up by the heartless and blood-thirsty Capitol crowds. In contrast, those watching in the outer districts do so not out of sport but out of concern for their loved ones. The movie goes all out to show a stark economic and moral difference between the wealthy city people and the poor district citizens. It’s a contrast that looks to play a bigger role in the future films.

The movie starts inside the very poor District 12. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a tough 16-year old girl forced to take care of her mother and little sister Prim (Willow Shields) after the death of her father. The sisters gather together with the other kids from their district for what’s called “The Reaping”, a random drawing to find out who will represent the district as “tribute” in the year’s games. When a terrified Prim is chosen, Katniss steps in and volunteers in her sister’s place. Joining Katniss from District 12 is a baker’s son named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). The two are shuttled to the Capitol where they are prepped and paraded around until the day for the games is upon them.

You can’t talk about “The Hunger Games” without talking about Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. A lot of great young actresses tried out for the role including Saoirse Ronan, Chloe Moretz, Hailee Steinfeld, and Shailene Woodley. But Lawrence was chosen and she was the perfect choice. Since I first saw her in her Oscar nominated role in “Winter’s Bone”, she’s been one of my favorite young actresses. Here she gives a strong and committed performance that feels true and authentic. In fact, she often times rises above the material and when the story goes a little off-track she manages to elevate it and carry it on her shoulders. It’s a brilliant performance and she fleshes out every quality of her character that you would expect.

Lawrence is joined by a nice supporting cast including Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, a bumbling boozer who is the only survivor to ever come out of District 12. Stanley Tucci is great as Caesar, the voice of The Hunger Games. He hams it up with his wild blue hair and huge grin but he’s also a bit slimy and disturbing. Elizabeth Banks plays Effie, a Capitol liaison to District 12 and Lenny Kravitz plays a stylist who has the job of making Katniss and Peeta make a good impression. We even get Donald Sutherland delivering his signature overly dramatic but perfectly effective lines as the sinister President Snow. While these supporting performances are quite good, some of the younger actor’s work doesn’t quite measure up.

The story itself captures a lot of what makes for good science fiction. It also does a nice job building up the tension leading up to the start of the games. I also saw myself emotionally caught up in several of the movie’s more heart-felt scenes. The action sequences aren’t as plentiful as some have advertised and the violence is strategically edited to ensure the PG-13 rating. But I did find watching teenagers hack each other up, some with pretty flippant attitudes, to be a bit uncomfortable. I also felt the tributes (the Hunger Games participants) to be inconsistently written. Several are introduced in a way that makes you think they are significant but they meet their demise in fairly meaningless fashion. Better writing could have made the tributes (aside from a small handful) feel more important therefore giving the games themselves a lot more weight.

There were also a few head-scratching moments in the story. Throughout the preparation leading up to the games, everything seemed to focus on making a good impression in order to gain sponsors needed for survival. The wardrobes, the introductions, the interviews – everything was for the purpose of sponsors. But during the games, sponsorship didn’t have much of an impact at all which made all the posturing seem pointless. I also couldn’t help but wonder what a society would find entertaining about kids having a survival fight to the death. Look, I understand that they were sick and morally bankrupt people. But a 12-year old little girl in a competition to the death shouldn’t be that interesting even to the most twisted and perverse individuals.

But even with a story’s occasional clunkiness, there’s something that drew me into the world of “The Hunger Games”. From the very start, I found the film created a futuristic society and sociopolitical environment that was surprisingly realistic even though it’s science fiction. I also felt the film’s fluid pacing helped create several moments of genuine tension that had me on the proverbial edge of my seat. There are also several heart-wrenching and emotional scenes that never felt fake or manufactured. And while the ending was a little underwhelming, it puts in place several intriguing possibilities for the next film. “The Hunger Games” is a movie that could have been better with a little more polished and thought-out script. But it’s also a film that puts together a disturbing yet enthralling world that I was totally caught up in. Combine that with an amazing performance from Jennifer Lawrence and some strong supporting work and you have the groundwork for a very satisfying franchise. May the odds ever be in our favor as this series moves forward.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS