The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Mockingjay pt1Last year at around this time, I reviewed  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and I discussed the impact of splitting films into separate parts with separate release dates. While not sold on the concept, I did give Smaug and director Peter Jackson credit for effectively demonstrating the merits of this controversial choice. I cannot say the same about the final chapter of Hunger Games series, Mockingjay.

Mockingjay picks up right where Catching Fire left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rescued by a rebel organization calling themselves The Mockingjay, after she brought down the arena’s force field at the end of the 75th Hunger Games. Tributes Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) were also rescued while Johanna (Jena Malone) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) were captured by the Capitol. The group is hiding out in the mysterious and mythical District 13 and are looking to unite the other districts in overthrowing the Capitol.

Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) along with Katniss’s family are among the thousands who managed to escape the Capitol to District 13. When District 13 president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) approaches Katniss to sign on as the face of the rebellion, Katniss responds with ferocity over Coin leaving Peeta behind. Still, upon seeing the ruins of her home District 12 and with the advice of ex-gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Haymitch, Katniss reluctantly agrees to be The Mockingjay for Coin’s rebel cause.

Unlike the first two installments, this film does not follow the familiar design of holding a reaping that leads to an enclosed arena battle. Here the world itself is the arena and it is a battle of ideologies, not just individuals. This bodes well on the surface as Mockingjay has an opportunity to be fresh, exciting, and perhaps even significant. Instead, Mockingjay is a far messier film than its predecessors, and the cause is the decision to split this story in half. A film about a dogmatic battle between characters as vibrant as these should resonate with intensity from start to finish. Instead, Mockingjay goes the Breaking Dawn route and draaaaaaaawwwwwsss out its first act knowing that it has all the satisfaction coming up next year. There are several scenes that could have easily been cut from this movie, but are added to pad running time. While this is a major fault and complaint, it is basically my only one. Mockingjay has some really insightful things to say about war and propaganda’s role in furthering a cause. I actually wish more time was spent on that idea than with overblown scenes of Katniss visiting her home or staring at rubble. It also is very well acted. Every role is filled out with a dynamic performance and every character is memorable and serves a purpose. As a set of films, this could have been a very solid trilogy with a biting finale. The choice to split it up will forever prevent these films from achieving that overall status; however, the extra half a billion dollars Part 2 fetches will probably keep that artistic integrity safely out of sight. So get ready for more films with titles that require a colon AND a hyphen. Of the three films in the series, this is the worst, but hopefully will give way to a superior conclusion. B

Mockingjay is rated PG-13 and somehow manages a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong (Screenplay) and Suzanne Collins (Novel, Adaptation)

Non-Stop

ImageIt all started when the daughter of a man with “a particular set of skills” was suddenly Taken.  Now, following a string of successful “one-man army” style films, 61-year-old Liam Neeson has undeniably carved out a new niche for himself as a no-holds-barred action hero!

Non-Stop is the story of Bill Marks, a U.S. air marshal who finds himself on a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to London.  While in flight, Marks receives a text over his secure cell phone network requesting $150 million be wired into an account or a passenger on the plane will die every 20 minutes.

Soon it becomes apparent that the terrorist did not choose Marks’s plane by accident.  We learn that Marks has had a troubled past; much of it he has tried to erase with alcohol.  40,000 feet above the Atlantic, Marks has no one to trust but himself…and his particular set of skills.

Non-Stop is surprisingly well executed.  Director, Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown) keeps the pace moving and has a lot of fun while doing it.  Much of the enjoyment of the film revolves around trying to figure out who is texting Marks, and Collet-Serra along with the film’s three screenwriters make sure that everyone on the plane is a suspect.  Is it the pretty and anxious seatmate, Jen (Julianne Moore)?  Is it the flight attendant from Downton Abbey (Michelle Dockery) or the flight attendant who recently won an Oscar (Lupita Nyong’o)?  There is no shortage of characters to consider.

The other great thing about Non-Stop is how thoroughly entertaining Neeson has become in these types of roles.  The rugged, broguish Irishman commands the screen even when the character he’s playing is not so confident.  Neeson keeps the audience’s attention and interest even when the story gets convoluted and implausible.

The implausibility of the film’s final act is the only real nit-pick that I can make, but it is hardly an issue when considering the film’s overall premise.  Non-Stop is not the first airplane thriller, and it is keenly aware of this.  Instead of falling into “been there, done that” caveats, Non-Stop builds on scenarios you’ve seen before by including them in interesting ways.  When the passengers catch wind that their plane may be high-jacked, several of them consider ganging up on the suspected terrorist, not unlike the passengers of United 93.  The limitations of technology in regards to air travel is explored, and the technical limitations related to the recent disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 feel that much more eerie in the wake of this film.

These references to serious issues are not in bad taste but are true conversation starters about the idiosyncrasies of air travel.  There’s that, but then there’s a sudden nose-dive creating a moment of zero-G’s that send a handgun floating right into Neeson’s hand at precisely the right moment.  I’m not sure how long it will be before these Liam Neeson roles begin to seem more funny than fun.  We can probably breathe easily until we see his name in the credits for The Expendables 9: Taken to the MaxB+

Non-Stop is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 46 minutes.

Don Jon

ImageDon Jon presents a surprisingly adult perspective on relationships.  First time writer, director, and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt said he came up with the idea for Don Jon during the filming of a film called 50/50 with Seth Rogan.  In that film, Rogan (who wrote and starred in 50/50) tries to help his friend, played by Gordon-Levitt, through the drama of his recent Cancer diagnosis by coaxing him to lose himself in meaningless sex and to use his Cancer as a sympathy device with women.  Gordon-Levitt’s character Jon in Don Jon feels like a combination of those two characters, which is quite fascinating.

Don Jon, in essence, is a modern retelling of the classic Don Juan legends.  Here, Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a slick, confident ladies man – handsome, confident, and consumed with his appearance and the appearance of those with whom he desires intimacy.  As we get to know Jon, we are immersed in his chauvinism and addictive personality.  He hits the gym for his patterned out workout, he hits the church for his prepared confessions, and he hits the Internet for his regular masturbatory sessions.  He also hits the clubs nightly with his friends where they rate women on their appearance, hoping for the elusive “dime” or perfect 10.  That “dime” appears in the form of Barbara (Scarlett Johansson).  From the moment Jon and Barbara begin their romance, Don Jon stops being a character piece and starts being an intriguing look at adult relationships and how the opposite sexes view each other.  In most retellings of Don Juan legends, the protagonist’s sinful ways are dealt with very one-dimensionally in that he is punished for taking advantage of those around him.  Gordon-Levitt tries something different.  He tells a far more relatable story about how both men and women are guilty of attaching unreal expectations on each other due to stereotypes perpetuated by a society that profits on obsession; for men it’s the porn industry and for women it’s the fairy-tale romantic stories in the movies.

As Jon and Barbara’s relationship continues, Jon’s addiction with porn complicates things because Jon values the virtual more than the physical.  Meanwhile, Barbara’s addiction to romantic love stories puts unreal expectations on how Jon is supposed to live his life if he’s going to be with her.  All of this is explored with a careful eye by Gordon-Levitt, the director.  The culmination of which is his subtle introduction of Esther (Julianne Moore) as an older classmate in Jon’s night school course.  Gordon-Levitt did wonders for his film by including Moore, and it is apparent from the moment she appears.  His most impressive camera work, acting, and staging occurs in this act, and it all strengthens the film as a whole.

Gordon-Levitt has made a fine exploration of one sub-section of modern adult relationships.  While some scenes seem a bit forced in terms of situation and/or dialogue (i.e. the curtain rod scene between Jon and Barbara), most of what he does works very well.  Gordon-Levitt also brilliantly casts Tony Danza in a small part as his character’s father and gets an excellent little performance out of him.  It may not be time for Academy Award winning filmmaker, Joseph Gordon-Levitt just yet, but he does show promise behind the camera apart from in front of it.  B+

Don Jon is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 30 minutes.  It’s a good looking, well acted look at some modern aspects of adult relationships. 

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