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)

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Out of the Furnace

ImageOut of the Furnace poses a rather critical conundrum.  On one hand, the film’s gritty exploration of one man’s quest for justice is finely acted, but on the other hand, it is substantially conventional. 

Director Scott Cooper follows up his enormously successful 2009 film Crazy Heart with Out of the Furnace.  In it, steel mill worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in order to take care of his terminally ill father while his Iraq-War veteran brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) tries to find a way to adapt to life back at home.  On the surface, it is a film about fathers, sons, and brothers.  However, Cooper opens his film with an alarmingly tense and violent scene at a drive-in movie theater that includes neither of the film’s two main characters.  This scene sets the tone for the film as well as attempts to set the stage for its ambition.  Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace can not quite maintain its balance between narrative and ambition.

The ambition angle aims to document and test the two brothers as life locks them in a metaphorical “furnace.”  Russell spends several years in prison for a drunk driving accident and Rodney begins a downward spiral after the war that leads him to an underground fight-ring headed up by a ruthless kingpin, DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, in his most frightening role in years).  When Rodney suddenly disappears, Russell takes matters into his own hands and goes on a manhunt.  This is when Out of the Furnace ends up stepping on the heels of a film released earlier this year, Prisoners.  Both films want the audience in a “what would you do?” type of scenario, but Prisoners executes it much better.  Both films even have a deer hunting motif!

Out of the Furnace is clunky structurally and it is heavy handed in its treatment of flawed characters who “just want to do the right thing.”  However, the film did attract big, big stars who all came to play.  Affleck and Bale turn out career performances, and the supporting players include Willem DaFoe, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and the aforementioned Harrelson who are all quite compelling as well.     

Out of the Furnace is all guts and not much glory.  The film desires to resonate with the audience, but I was left feeling unsatisfied and disappointed.  I appreciate great performances, but they are rarely enough to carry a film on their own merits.  C

Out of the Furnace is rated R, and has a running time of one hour and 46 minutes.  I say see Prisoners instead.

Now You See Me

 ImageIn 2006’s The Prestige, Michael Caine plays a magician mentor who says, “Making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.”  In Now You See Me, Caine plays a very different character who in one scene learns this lesson in a very painful way.  Now You See Me is like The Prestige-Lite, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. 

According to Now You See Me, successful illusions are the result of misdirection and timing. In a summer teeming with sequels, it is refreshing to see an occasional original idea hit the theaters, and it is this misdirection and successful timing that perhaps enhances the appeal of this film.  In one of the year’s most enjoyable opening scenes, four unique illusionists (Jessie Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco) are drawn together by a mysterious individual who provides them with the blueprints to a spectacular act that only they are capable of performing as a team.  The team, now known as the Four Horsemen, begins performing a series of illusions that involve various heists including the robbery of a major Paris bank.  Ironically, the spoils of these robberies go not to the victors but to the audience of the show!  This Robin Hood-esque form of vigilantism draws the attention of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) who is given the exceptionally difficult task of proving exactly how the Four Horsemen are guilty of these robberies. 

Casting is by far one of the film’s major attributes.  Eisenberg’s awkward, self-deprecating persona is put aside for one with much stronger bravado; watching him play J. Daniel Atlas is sort of like watching him play Mark Zuckerberg on personality steroids, in other words – kind of great.  Woody Harrelson does a great job as mentalist Merritt McKinney, which he plays kind of like Sherlock Holmes…on personality steroids – so also kind of great.  Dave Franco and Isla Fisher are very effective, but far less central to the film’s development.  Ruffalo and his partner Alma (Mélanie Laurent) are great at revealing the frustration of chasing down the clever illusionists, and Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine expertly provide further dimension to the story by exploring the darker side of “magic’s” purpose.         

Now You See Me has a lot of fun with its premise.  Director, Louis Leterrier packs the film with style and tricks of the trade that keep the story moving and rather captivating.  Leterrier, mostly known for action films like The Incredible Hulk and the first two Transporter films, takes a crack at an ensemble piece where he must balance story with numerous characters – all the while keeping the audience in the dark about the exact motivations of these characters.  He is mostly successful at this, but the film requires a rather high level of suspension of disbelief and some serious overlooking of plot-holes.  It also has a bit of an unevenness to it as Leterrier cannot quite lose his proclivity for action and crowbars a 15 minute car chase smack in the middle of the film.  The scene is brilliantly shot and very exciting, but it also involves virtually none of the film’s main characters and thus, feels a bit superfluous.

Now You See Me is a lot of fun and fortunately, it does not run out of steam at the end.  Too often films like this are all set-up and no delivery, but the ending of Now You See Me is satisfying and very appropriate.  Hopefully, Now You See Me will find an audience and remind movie studios that once in a while an original idea is worth their consideration before they green-light Fast and Furious 12: Where Did I Put My Keys? B+

Now You See Me is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 56 minutes. If you like magic and you like movies and you’ve been looking for a way to make that miserable experience of seeing The Incredible Burt Wonderstone disappear, this is the movie for you!

Seven Psychopaths

Director: Martin McDonagh

Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Colin Ferrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson

Seven Psychopaths is Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to his quirky 2008 hit, In Bruges.  McDonagh is making a name for himself as his two films complement each other nicely and provide a roadmap for the type of director McDonagh aspires to be.  Like Tarantino or Hitchcock, McDonagh strives to make films about similar types of characters viewed through a similar societal lens.  Awareness seems to be McDonagh’s trademark.  His characters are flawed, yet keenly aware of these flaws.  His scripts are dark, yet this darkness is carefully tempered by his films’ awareness of the fact that they are films, as his characters are always interacting with the film industry in some way.  This awareness allows the viewer to enjoy his films on multiple levels, first on a narrative level and again on a satirical level that tries to provide commentary on humanity through the narrative.

In the case of Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh turns his focused lens on an unfocused, alcoholic screenwriter, Marty (Colin Ferrell).  Marty is struggling to write a film called Seven Psychopaths and turns to his friends and their acquaintances for inspirations on ways to characterize his seven different psychopathic characters.   What follows is a wild series of events that lead Marty down the literal Psycho-Path to self-realization.  As his characters become fleshed out, Marty starts to see that he’s living a detached life.  His detached life is illustrated by the flaws of his screenplay.  Marty’s writing is not authentic.  He borrows from other people’s lives to write his characters, and his tragic personal life causes his women characters to be nothing but fragile stereotypes.  His relationship is in shambles, his inspiration is drying up, Marty is desperate for a motivation, and thanks to a mixed up con-gone-wrong by his dog kidnapping grifter friends, Hans and Billy (Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell), this motivation comes in the form of an LA underground gangster (Woody Harrelson) who is seriously upset about his kidnapped Shi-tszu.

Seven Psychopaths is a busy film and it is also McDonagh’s most brutal.  There is so much going on that its stars only have a matter of minutes to shine.  Standouts are Rockwell and Walken.  Rockwell’s Billy is a fast-talking idea man.  He’s relentless and firing on all cylinders in every scene.  Walken plays Hans, who is much more relaxed than Billy, but equally fun to watch.  Walken is doing a Walken impression here, which is basically what people have come to want from him in this phase of his career.  Regarding its brutality, from the opening scene, the film’s tone is quite clear.  While trailers might lead one to believe that the dog kidnapping plotline is central to the story, it is actually a very minor element.  The majority of the film’s 109 minutes explores exactly what happens when the “inmates take over the insane asylum.”  Desert shootouts, sadistic serial killers, and revenge killings pepper the action of the film.  Seven Psychopaths feels inspired by the independent films of the 90s.  As it unfolds, it is reminiscent of 1994s Floundering or 1995’s Living in Oblivion not in plot (or in casting James LeGros), but in its meaning.  These films blend the effects of fantasy and reality in a compelling way, creating a very enjoyable movie.  If only James LeGros could have shown up as an eighth psychopath!  B+