The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Mockingjay Part 2Director: Francis Lawrence

Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, and Suzanne Collins

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, and Julianne Moore

First things first.  I would like to share a quote about last year’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 from one of my favorite critics, me:

“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…of the three films in the series, this is the worst, but hopefully will give way to a superior conclusion.”

I was outstandingly  astute!   Splitting these films up single-handedly removed The Hunger Games from the zeitgeist.  Now, the superior Part 2 is released with buzzless fanfare and to the series’ weakest opening regardless of it being a loftier achievement than Part 1.  I will review The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 as a stand-alone entry in the series, but hope secretly that director Francis Lawrence and editor Alan Edward Bell are sitting in a studio somewhere restoring this series as a trilogy by working on a 145 minute, single-film director’s cut of Mockingjay.

Mockingjay – Part 2 picks up right after Part 1’s sudden and violent conclusion.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) opens the film as she receives treatment and vocal therapy to repair the damage Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) inflicted when he attacked her.  His brainwashing by the Capitol was successful and now he’s a loose cannon and a prisoner of the rebels.  The plot from the previous film obviously continues as well.  The series of propaganda films that rebel leader, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) had commissioned to build up Everdeen as a symbol of revolution have worked.  Now it’s time to march on the Capitol and take down President Snow (Donald Sutherland), a man’s whose fate has been hinted at since the moment his first name was revealed to be Coriolanus!

The march on the Capitol is the bread and butter of this film.  For those upset by the lack of traps and kill-or-be-killed confrontations in the last film will have their appetites satisfied this time around.  As the rebel army advances, a team led by Katniss plays clean-up crew, avoiding deadly hidden traps called pods.  Katniss’s team has the unique job of trailing the rebel army and shooting more propaganda videos that show “The Mockingjay” in various feats of victory.  This team is also the impetus for reuniting Katniss with her hometown sweetheart, GalePeeta-in-handcuffs-300x200 (Liam Hemsworth) and her fellow tribute turned fiancé turned nemesis Peeta, who was sent by Coin as part of the team to demonstrate how the Capitol’s grip on Peeta has ended – except he’s still pretty messed up.

A word about Jennifer Lawrence.  She is so good in this role.  Arguably, the role of Katniss is what made Jennifer Lawrence famous, although her critical acclaims are rather abundant.  Still, imagining anyone else in these films is nearly impossible.  Her commitment and emotion lift Katniss off the pages and into our hearts the way Judy Garland was able to do with Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.  The impact of these films owe a lot to her performance.

Performances aside, this film does have some substance to it. Mockingjay – Part 2 proceeds to improve upon the comparison made in Part 1 between the futility of the “games” and a dogmatic battle to further one’s own cause.  At this, the film is quite successful.  The world itself is the arena and it is a battle of ideologies, not just the individuals who populate it.  It is eerily easy to draw countless associations between the conflicts in this film and those going on around us today.  The film works very well as a social commentary and one that could and should allow for some meaningful conversations between parents and teenagers.

I say teenagers and not kids because this film is unabashedly grim, and that’s in comparison to the other films in the series where kids try to kill other kids until only one is left.  This grim element does work slightly to the film’s deficit in that as a series of films, the true direction and ultimate ending point is not very fluid.  We feel less like we’ve been on a journey and more like we’ve been dragged through the mud.  To this point, Mockingjay –Part 2 is very much a different film that Part 1.  Readers of the third book know what to expect, but unlike the Harry Potter books and films that incrementally grow darker; Mockingjay sprints towards the finish line, especially in the darkness department.

The capstone film in the Hunger Games series has arrived.  The girl is still on fire, but the flame may not be as eternal as we once thought.    B+

Mockingjay is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes.

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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)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

ImageFour years ago, I was having a conversation with some of my high school students regarding what books they like to read.  One fairly astute young man, whom I held in high regard, told me he was reading a book called The Hunger Games.  He said it was about a supposed utopian North American society that holds annual organized battles to the death to maintain order throughout the numerous districts.  It sounded interesting, but I was not that impressed as my critical mind, still reeling from the absurdity that was (and still is) the Twilight “saga,” began its prejudicial routine of condemning most young-adult literature as being dumbed down versions of classics in order to make cash grabs at an increasingly illiterate reader-population.  However, this one particular student’s recommendation obliged me to forgo my rant about Brave New World, The Giver, 1984, and the host of other “Big Brother is watching you…” examples and give this one a try.  Now, as the adaptation of the book series’ second novel comes to the big screen, I confess myself as a fan awaiting the return, with millions of others, of Katniss Everdean to the big screen.

2012’s The Hunger Games was a tremendous hit automatically green lighting the entire film franchise and splitting its final entry, Mockingjay, into two separate films.  This year’s film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (or Hunger Games: Fire by some people – you know who you are) is based on perhaps the best book of the trilogy and finds our heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back home in District 12 awaiting the annual victory tour that follows the 74th Hunger Games and precedes the 75th.  President Snow (Donald Sutherland) remains none too pleased as Katniss and Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) risky move in the previous games showed an unexpected weakness in his control and has sparked a sort of uprising in some of the poorer districts.  The 75th Hunger Games offers Snow an opportunity, as every 25 years marks a quarter-quell, a special competition that gives Snow and his new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a chance to even the score.

Much of what makes The Hunger Games: Catching Fire work comes from the source material.  This entry in the series has many more tricks up its sleeve than the previous film.  That being said, the trio of screen writers (including author Suzanne Collins herself) and new director, Francis Lawrence have noticeably shifted the film’s focus away from the characters and more to the atmosphere, themes, and events set in action from the first film.  In fact, the writing is bit edgier leading to some extra spirited dialogue especially from Peeta and Heavensbee.  Accordingly, this film has a different feel and agenda, which keeps the series fresh, but also may disquiet fans who want more Katniss.  That is not to say, Ms. Everdeen is not the film’s shining star, she is, and her love triangle between Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta continues to be provocative rather than stale and arbitrary.  Lawrence continues down her path to being the most beloved starlet of her generation by authentically representing Katniss’s struggle between newfound fame and inherent defiance.  Furthermore, she is supported by a very recognizable A-List cast.  However, saying much more about the cast or plot would ruin some of the film’s best surprises. 

One surprise worth ruining is Jena Malone’s role in the film.  It should come as no surprise that there is another reeping, and there is another host of tributes.  Malone plays the highly anticipated Johanna Mason from District 7, and she steals every scene she’s a part of – possibly making her the best new element of the film. 

Altogether, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a fine adaptation of Collins’s novel, and it is a highly entertaining film as well, ascetically edging out its predecessor.  The film’s nearly doubled budget from the original is obvious – the costumes pop, the effects are much better, the acting continues to be strong, and the ambitiousness of the film is far more evident.  A-

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 26 minutes.  It is a superior follow up to The Hunger Games and a phenomenal set-up to the series’ two-part conclusion.          

 

Oscar Predictions: Part 4 – The Big Ones

OscarsOscar Predictions: Part4 – The Big Ones

The final installment of The People’s Critic’s Oscar prediction series lists my picks for the six major film awards: Directing, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Actor, Actress, and Picture.  These are the categories decided by the largest blocks of voters and, thus reveal the academy’s consensus feelings on the great films of the year.  Readers are invited to continue to weigh in with their own opinions by submitting to the public polls following each category’s predictions.

Best Director:

Nominated directors are Michael Haneke for Amour, Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ang Lee for Life of Pi, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, and David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.

The Best Director Oscar is basically the Cinematography Oscar crown jewel.  The director oversees every chosen element on set to ensure his/her vision is secure and successful.  In the Classic Hollywood Cinema days, this award was a bit easier to come by as directors like William Wyler, John Ford, and Frank Capra were nominated often and won more than any other directors in history.  Over the years, the award has become much more aloof; very few directors earn more than one Best Directing Oscar.  The award is closely associated with the Best Picture winner as well, however these awards are becoming more independent of one another now that the Best Picture field of nominees has been increased to up to ten films.  This year will be an upset year no matter which way it goes.  Not since the 1930s has it been more likely that the Best Picture will go to a film who’s director was not nominated.  Additionally, it is quite likely that the Best Director will go to a film that does not win Best Picture.  Therefore, it is critical to look at each of the nominated films for director’s merit alone. Haneke and Zeitlin turned out two emotionally charged human dramas that are deserving of immense appreciation.  In terms of directing, Zeitlin is the better choice between the two, but these small films rarely make a dent in the voting pool.  Spielberg does not deserve to be nominated for this award this year.  Russell has once again made a great film that would have won last year, but he will find himself beaten this year.  The award is between Russell and Lee.  The Peoples Critic Selection: Ang Lee for Life of Pi


Best Supporting Actor:

Nominees are Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln, Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained, Robert DeNiro for Silver Linings Playbook, Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master, and Alan Arkin for Argo.

Best Supporting Actress:

Nominees are Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables, Helen Hunt for The Sessions, Sally Field for Lincoln, Amy Adams for The Master, and Jackie Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook.

Acting categories need the least amount of explanation.  The supporting role awards are traditionally a bit more exciting.  These Oscars have gone to some surprising upsets over the years and is more likely to go to an edgier or younger performer than the awards for Best Actor/Actress.  On the men’s side, this year’s field has two performances that are practically lead roles (Waltz and Hoffman), and this will most likely work in one of their favors.  On the ladies’ side, there is a clear winner, so I’ll simply explain why she wins.  Much has been made of the fact that Anne Hathaway is only in Les Misérables for a short period of time.  However, this award has gone to many recipients whose screen-time is limited.  The Oscar for Supporting Role is designed to recognize superior support, regardless of screen time.  What Anne Hathaway does with her segment of an otherwise dull film is give a Hugh Jackman quality performance and then leave you wanting more.  What worked for her will unfortunately not work for Jackman since his Best Actor field also has a clear winner who accomplishes a similar feat in that category.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz for Django UnchainedThe People’s Critic Selection for Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables.  

 

Best Actor:

Nominees are Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln, Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables, Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook, Joaquin Phoenix for The Master, and Denzel Washington for Flight.

Best Actress

Nominees are Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook, Emmanuelle Riva for Amour, Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty, Naomi Watts for The Impossible, and Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Hugh Jackman picked the wrong year to turn out his best performance of his career.  What he does as Jean Val Jean in Les Misérables is raw and spectacular.  However, it will be the one-two punch of excellent writing by Kushner and flawless delivery by Day-Lewis that will allow him to make history as the first to win three Best Actor Academy Awards.  Meanwhile, the Best Actress category has already made history by nominating both the youngest and oldest nominees ever considered for the Best Actress Oscar with Riva and Wallis.  Unlike the men’s race, no clear winner exists here.  Riva has enjoyed a surge as of late given her heart wrenching performance in Amour along with the fact that Oscar night just happens to be her 86th birthday.  However, it seems that the “girl on fire” this year will come away with her first trophy, solidifying what will likely be a long and dynamic career.   The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln.  The People’s Critic Selection for Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook. 


 Best Picture:

Nominated Films are Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.

Nine films were deemed worthy of Best Picture honors this year.  The jury is still out on this callback to the olden days where ten (even twelve!) films could be nominated for this award.  In 2009, the Academy expanded the limit of nominees from five to ten, but finding that there are not always ten worth-while nominees, the rule currently allows the list to vary between five and ten nominees.  This year’s collection of nominees would all have beaten last year’s winner, The Artist substantiating what an excellent year at the movies 2012 was.  As stated earlier, this award is often tied closely together with the winner for Best Director; however, no year in recent history has provided a lower likelihood of this happening than this year.  Therefore, how does one judge a film on its merits alone without necessarily taking the director’s choices into strong consideration?  How much does one weigh the writing, the cinematography, the set design, the acting, etc.?  These are tough questions.  One major element is to examine the editing.  Best Picture is more about conveying a message, entertainment, structure, and overall effect than anything else.  Editing (along with direction) is the key to all of those characteristics that make a movie great.  Therefore, if direction becomes a lowered value in the equation for determining greatness, the vacuum will be filled with editing.  The result is an upset that has only happened three times in history and not at all since 1989 – a Best Picture winner where the director was not even nominated.  The People’s Critic Selection: Argo

The Master

ImageTwo things can be said with certainty about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master. First, Anderson definitely knows his way around a camera; second, Joaquin Phoenix emphatically knows his way around appearing ‘disturbed.’ Both of these elements are used to their absolute potential in order to challenge and entice the audience to look a little closer at this film than, perhaps, Anderson has asked in the past.

The Master is Anderson’s sixth stop on his cinematic journey through American culture and it may be his most polarizing one to date. Director, Anderson has mesmerized audiences with triumphantly engaging dissections of American culture in films like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and of course 2007’s There Will Be Blood. The Master returns Anderson to his role as writer along with being director after his singular exception, adapting Upton Sinclair’s Oil! into There Will Be Blood. This time Anderson takes an isolated and cold look at specific segment of post-World War II 1950s America. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a Naval veteran who struggles with alcoholism, anger issues, and repressed memories of a troubled upbringing which partially manifest in unhealthy sexual obsessions. After the war, Quell finds himself in a series of odd-jobs that he is in no way suited for, including one that results in his being chased off after one of his “home-made” alcoholic concoctions seemingly brings about the death, or near death, of one of his co-workers. It is here that Quell finds himself a stow-away on a yacht commanded by a charming, yet nefarious character by the name of Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who stars in four of Anderson’s six films). Dodd is at sea to officiate and celebrate the wedding of his daughter, but upon the discovery of Quell his interests turn to him and his story. Dodd’s compassion for Quell unveils to reveal his role as leader of a cultest group known as The Cause. Dodd uses his wit, intellect, and charm to pray on the affluent, which in turn results in additional wealth, appreciation, and power for him and his group. He is quick to accept compliments, but resorts to shouting down and conceivably condoning violence against his critics. Quell, who has been wrestling with his uncertain future, is easily drawn in by their hypnotizing appeal.

What follows is a slow-burn of a drama that gains all of its leisurely paced momentum from the conflicts that arise between Quell and Dodd. It is also a challenging film for the viewer. It is a cinematic puzzle on par with enigmatic films like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in 2011. We are forced to pay close attention as we constantly question a look, a question, or an action in an ongoing battle to understand these characters’ true motivations. A follow-up to There Will Be Blood, it is hard to ignore the similarities between Blood’s Daniel Plainview and Master’s Lancaster Dodd; the names are iconically memorable for starters. Furthermore, Dodd’s methodical and meticulous effort to distort and corrupt the psyche of Quell in order to vindicate or authenticate himself certainly rings a bell.

The Master is not an easy film to understand, nor is it an easy film to watch given its 140 minute running time. What it is, is a beautifully acted and orchestrated character analysis filmed on 65 mm film stock. Anderson takes endless risks here and while the film drags, his criticisms on some of the supposed motivations of those who promise answers, faith, or comfort do stay with you after the credits role. C+