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

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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.

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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.

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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”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

REVIEW: “Red Dawn” (2012)

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I have no problem saying I was a big fan of 1984’s Red Dawn. And whether it’s the nostalgia, the good action, the interesting storyline, the movie still holds up for me today. Now I grant you the politics are outdated and the cheese may not appeal to newer audiences as it does for many of us who grew up during those days. But I still find it to be a rousing good time despite its occasional silliness. That appreciation for the original film combined with what I saw from the first trailers had me concerned about the 2012 remake. Hollywood doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to remakes and let me just say that this new Red Dawn will do nothing to change that.

Now if you’re unfamiliar with the original story that’s ok. The new version only incorporates the general idea and a few of the names. Most everything else is new but certainly not better. The film starts by introducing Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth), a Marine on leave in his hometown of Spokane Washington. We also meet his brother Matt (Josh Peck), a high school football quarterback who doesn’t have the best relationship with his older brother. The movie also chunks in a few more introductions including Matt’s girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas), one of Jed’s old schoolmates Toni (Adrianne Palicki), and the boys’ father Tom Eckert (Brett Cullen). All are awakened one morning by an all out military assault on their town. Now don’t even try to use your brain to figure out how the enemy got that many planes, ground forces, and Humvees in the area undetected. The explaination is laughable. In fact, it’s best just to turn your brain off at the opening scene. I mean it seems like the filmmakers certainly did when they were putting together this crappy concoction of errors.

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This Red Dawn attempts to modernize the politics and the characters while telling the same basic story. Instead of Cuba and Russia from the 1984 film, this time North Korea is the occupying force that attacks the United States with a little help from Russia although how they’re associated is never adequately explained. In fact all we get is news footage during the opening credits which supposedly sets the deteriorating political climate of the world. Aside from that, the invading army is nothing more than a nameless, faceless force showing nothing in terms of motivation or incentive. They just supply our group of young heroes with people to kill. Their arrival causes chaos in the city but Jed, Matt and a few of their friends are able to escape up into the mountains. From there they form into a group of rebels that wages guerrilla war against their occupiers.

I know this sounds silly but the original movie actually did this quite well. It took a small group of scared young people, fleshed them out, and over several seasons turned them into pesky guerrilla fighters mainly focused on survival. This film takes an uninteresting group with practically no personality, zips them into combat, and soon has them carrying out complex missions in the middle of occupied Spokane. No training and very little trial and error. And in this film the North Korean army has to be the worst occupying force ever in the history of cinema. Jed and company are able to waltz right into town at their leisure, detonate C4 explosives wherever the wish, and walk right out of town with their AK47’s tucked under their jackets. And this is just for starters. Throughout the movie you’ll find huge gaps in logic, glaring plot holes, and numerous moments where all you can do is bury your face in your hands.

If I wasted time singling out every stupid moment and ridiculous inconsistency this review would go on forever. Instead let’s just give discredit where discredit is due. Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore’s script may be one of the worst I’ve ever experienced. NOTHING that they’ve added, from the new character twists to the annoying profanity, is an improvement or even on par with the original Red Dawn. It’s one of the most amateurish and laughably bad scripts you’ll find and that’s unforgivable considering it’s a remake of a movie that I felt was well written and highly entertaining. This mess is anything but that.

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And then there’s the dialogue and the performances. I was astonished at some of the ridiculous lines crossing the lips of the actors in this movie. Several times I just sat there with my jaw dropped trying to figure out how some of these scenes could have made the final cut. Whether it’s the pseudo-toughness of the kids or the rare moments where they’re trying to show emotion, the film is littered with corny and brainless dialogue. The most laughably bad scenes come with the arrival of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his two fellow Marines. Their embarrassing attempts at macho military talk left me speechless, particularly Matt Gerald. I swear he may have given one of the worst and most cringe-inducing performances I’ve ever seen. You’ll literally root for his character to be killed just to ease the assault on your ears.

Ok, enough of this. I could say so much more about this movie but I’m already sick of talking about it. In summary, Red Dawn is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. About the only positives I can come up with are the explosions look good and Chris Hemsworth is decent. But even he is eventually buried by his poorly written character and the shallowness of his lines. Red Dawn ends up being another incompetent remake that shouldn’t even exist. It has virtually nothing in common with the original and it shreds everything that the first film did so well. I can’t see anyone who even slightly appreciated the 1984 film to find anything worthwhile in this remake. But then again I can’t see anyone who appreciates good movies to find anything worthwhile either. It’s that bad!

VERDICT – 1 STAR

For a much better version, please check out my review of the original Red Dawn (1984) .