Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -Part 1

*** out of ****

After the sabotage of the 75th Annual Hunger Games, our heroine, Ms. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been taken in by the rebels of District 13. Katniss’ legacy of defiance has inspired revolt in the oppressed districts and the rebels know that her very involvement with their cause will be a symbol of strength, which will further their goal to overthrow the Capitol and its maniacal leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

While a sophisticated, well-armed movement, ready to serve Katniss - for the first time in her tortured life - may sound like great news, there is a tragic downside to everything. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss’ true love, has been taken by the Capitol, and forced into speaking in propaganda against the rebels. While the members of 13 regard him as a turncoat, Katniss knows that he’s doing this to stay alive and informs 13’s leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore) that she will not support their fight unless she agrees to rescue Peeta along with other captives from the games. As planning for this mission begins, Katniss realizes she is in a new kind of game: War.

To make a technical observation, it’s interesting that each part in this series has been shot differently, creating a different tone for each movie. The first two were shot on film, with the first one Super 35 and the second one; a combination of 35mm anamorphic and 70mm IMAX. This is the first entry to be shot digitally, which serves its bleak and dim atmosphere of underground bunkers and the ruins of war.

Like Catching Fire, there is a lot of meta-humor serving as an allegory for Lawrence’s celebrity. There is a remarkable scene in which Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) is directing a war propaganda video and Katniss turns out to be a terrible actress. We’re watching an Oscar-winning actress playing a character who can’t act. It’s pretty funny. When the propaganda videos are completed, they are remarkably similar to trailers for this franchise. That’s funny too.

Director Francis Lawrence, has the sensibilities of a good showman in his style and never strays from the emotional vulnerability of his characters. I still think that Gary Ross, the director of the first film, managed to convey more emotion in the storytelling –and did so at a swifter pace.

In between Catching Fire and this Mockingjay -Part 1, I think that there was a missed opportunity to emphasize the drama of a major story-point: The awe-inspiring revelation that the struggling masses have a powerful militarized ally in District 13, which was thought to be wiped from the earth decades ago. Their very existence is a very big deal in this series and I am surprised at how casually they’ve been introduced.

In spite of the stretched-out form the third entry has taken, there’s a lot of parts where I suspect that the screenwriters chose to skip over some essential exposition, knowing that a good chunk of people have read the books anyway. I’m pretty sure that in all the films, there hasn’t been one scene that explains the history of the Mockingjay bird and why it is so significant to Katniss and the rebels. Next movie?

Anyway, as the story moves along, Katniss goes on a couple campaign missions with a camera crew documenting her saintly efforts to help the survivors of rebellious districts bombed and left for dead by garrisons of the Capitol. The footage they gather inspires more uprisings and President Coin is ready to make a big move. Some very dramatic things happen, including a really cool rescue mission (that reminded me of the beginning of Escape From New York) followed by a disturbing twist and then… it ends.

I feel used, and I’m sure that a lot of Hunger Games fans feel the same way. We’re becoming familiar with the business trend of prolonging the experience in the sealing of a franchise. Oftentimes, there’s some excuse. In the Harry Potter series, the fans were treated to more of the gigantic book making it to the big screen when the last in that series was split in two. In the case of The Hunger Games Trilogy, the tactics are transparent. The third book is no thicker than the other two. I might even say that this entry should have been easier to condense into one film, than the first two.

Mockingjay is also the only entry in the trilogy that doesn’t involve the arena or the games. It’s called The Hunger Games Trilogy and now there will be just as many movies about a futuristic revolutionary war as there are about the Games. Did I enjoy this movie? Sure! It doesn’t mean that I admire the obvious greed inherent in the style of its release. As a casual fan, I feel like I deserved Part III in one movie. Instead, I've been treated like an addict, which dampens my enthusiasm.

I have to wait a year for closure in a movie series about sinister death games in the part of the story that doesn’t have any? %*@# you Lionsgate! And $%#* you keyboard! I’m trying to type here and you keep %^&ing up! Some day the fans of these moneymakers are going to stand up against this nonsense. We need a Mockingjay. I’d do it, but I suck at archery.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


**** out of ****

Whiplash is about a young jazz drummer, played by Miles Teller, studying at a prestigious New York conservatory under the cruel tutelage of an obsessive band director, played by J.K. Simmons. Nothing about this man’s reputation prepares this student for what he will endure. Just imagine R. Lee Ermey’s boot camp section of Full Metal Jacket being an entire movie… but about music.

Where do I start? Should I begin by saying, that I’ll be surprised if I see a better film than Whiplash this year? Yes. I think I’ll start there. I was prepared for a well-written heavy movie with great performances about the intense pursuit of perfection. I was not prepared for how this movie’s craft brings it close to perfection by complementing its content through meticulous cinematography, rhythmical editing and astounding sound design.

It didn’t take long before I was enraptured in the tunnel vision perspective of its characters regarding their world of musical precision. The film could have been about any kind of art. Hell, it could have been a sports movie about a tough coach, but lord knows we’ve seen plenty of those. Jazz is this movie’s choice of flavor and once you’re watching, you have no choice but to respect it.

I don’t know if I’ve ever said so in a previous review, but as a lover of movies, I don’t regard any movie, no matter how great, as perfect. This movie probably has one or two narrative flaws and its interpretation of the history of jazz mastery is sure to be contested by professionals of the subject. But it lives and breathes the world it creates. It is a piece of cinema with a voice and moves with tremendous energy in unapologetic fearlessness.

In the casting of its protagonist, Teller brings more than his already proven acting talent. His apparent abilities as a drummer escalate his character’s authenticity so much. I’ve liked this kid since I saw him in 2010’s Rabbit Hole. He has a very believable screen presence that has benefitted every film it’s graced.

J.K. Simmons has transcended from his scenery-chewing side characters, like the manic J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man flicks, to a man who eats every mean person he’s played for breakfast. If you’ve ever had a teacher who won your simultaneous fear and respect, Simmons embodies the nightmare version of that teacher.

The film’s writer/director, Damien Chazelle got the film funded by shooting a short film of the same name with Simmons and presenting it at Sundance last year. The full-length version was shot in less than a month, which is shocking. This is a film with a commanding pace that guides us from the innocence of passion to the darkness of obsession without losing our empathy for how badly this kid desires validation from someone who will not grant it.

Whether or not humiliation-driven teaching (which borders on sadism in this film) is effective, is beside the point for me. This movie is about the masochism in accepting this style of education and all the dehumanizing sacrifice that comes with it.

By the end of this film, I dashed to the men’s room. I’d been holding it somewhere past the halfway point and couldn’t imagine the thought of breaking the experience the film provided for even one minute. While leaving the theater, I shook with the exhilaration that one may get after a theme park ride, but I tend to get when I’ve seen a movie that I am absolutely sure, is great.


*** out of ****

Rosewater is the story of an Iranian-Canadian journalist, Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), who was arrested in Iran while covering protests after the 2009 election. To his surprise, he was held in solitary confinement shortly after participating in a satirical interview for The Daily Show and accused of being a spy. This film is about the endurance of his 118 days of imprisonment and cruel interrogation.

Jon Stewart's directorial debut is admirable but only so creative. While a comedic newscaster may be an unusual source for a serious movie, his work reminds me of films in the past which come from actors trying their hand in directing for the first time. The emotion is invested in the performances while gimmicks on the technical side of the process don't always sync up with that emotion.

In this film's case, there are maybe one too many special effects to feed us abstract messages, but not to a tasteless degree. I could have done without a shot of the hero walking down a Tehran street having memories of his departed father as images of the man are digitally superimposed on the window's reflections.

There is already the risk of a tired cliche when he imagines his father comforting him during solitary confinement. I was reminded of a similar scene recently in Orange is the New Black when a character in a similar situation hears the voice of an imaginary person through the wall, which was a much more psychologically effective approach. I understand that the character in this film needs his father, but I didn't need to literally see him.

I don't wish to continue nit-picking Stewart's choices in technique. This is a good movie with a good message about fear conquered by imagination. There's enough here to suggest that Stewart could find a career in directing, should he ever retire from his current position. With this being his first film, he's figured out a lot and chosen a great subject through an intense story that brings a western audience closer to understanding the humanity in a part of the world that it fears.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


**1/2 out of ****

I’m actually pretty unhappy with this movie. In the days that have followed since seeing it, I’ve felt pretty down. The beginning is strong and fascinating. The middle is aggravating and stupid. The end is interesting but far from satisfying. Director Christopher Nolan has delivered a production solid enough to be remembered for years to come but he and his co-writer brother, Jonathan, constructed a story with an unmanageable amount of unpolished concepts –even for a three-hour movie. This is frustrating sci-fi, which reminds me of Zemekis’ Contact and Spielberg’s A.I.

Matthew McConaughey is continuing his hotstreak in picking ambitious material to work with, but the final quality of this project is problematic. The actors do what they can with the material, but many of their characters make choices, which baffle me.

The theme of love transcending time and space, challenged my ability to take its ideas seriously, but there was a breaking point for me far into the film, when a pointless conflict is mindlessly introduced, which provoked one very awkward spaceman fight scene, intercut with another issue taking place on earth. Both aspects of this story seemed needless and they didn't fit together well in the edit.

While I found a sequence near the end to be preposterous, it's surreal execution was undeniably gorgeous. The visuals are engaging through smart, high-end cinematography capturing brilliant design work and flawless special effects. Also, I can’t wait to own Hans Zimmer’s pipe-organ-filled score, which sounds like a callback to Philip GlassKoyanniqatsi score

There’s nothing forgettable about Interstellar. What really bothers me is its ambition in taking on a big idea, which happens to tap into our anxieties concerning humanity's future, and delivered something clumsy.

Big Hero 6

*** out of ****

While ambitious concepts are plentiful at the movies right now, I have to stop and acknowledge the pleasure to be found in the simplicity of a family movie that works. Disney’s latest is a delight. I had a very good time watching Big Hero 6, the story of a boy and a robot assembling a team of heroes in a futuristic japanesey version of San Francisco (It’s like a happy version of future L.A. in Blade Runner!) It's kind of interesting that this film and Interstellar both came out on the same day, and both feature a robot of unique imaginative design.

Loosely based on a Marvel comic, the movie is a very child-appropriate action comedy with a wonderful candy-colored palette and CG animation filled with lively characters. The good voice acting is an important contribution as well.

As always, don’t be late. The opening short is not to be missed.


***1/2 out of ****

This story is about the triumph of one sociopath in a dog-eat-dog world. He has the awkward personality of a strange outsider sticking his nose into the business of others with the insistence of a child, only to eavesdrop on their business tactics so that he can mimic them. He may look like a maladjusted loser, but he's a rare breed, methodically adapting to an ugly world in order to have power in it.

Jake Gyllenhaal puts more into this character than I would have ever expected. His frail figure, oily hair and gigantic un-blinking eyes amount to an unsettling screen presence. His character pursues the profession of paparazzi-like accident and crime videography in L.A. with no emotional response when approaching a gruesome scene with his camera. When socializing with others, he makes lengthy speeches, as though he’s been rehearsing them for a long time. This is an anti-hero that works without winning any of our empathy. His ability to succeed in the profession he’s assumed is simply fascinating, given how alien he seems.

Nightcrawler is Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, and as usual, the Gilroy brothers have much more to give when they get around to their passion projects. He is the brother of Tony Gilroy, who made the excellent Michael Clayton some years back before they worked together on the decent, yet pointless The Bourne Legacy. Here, Gilroy has a cynical, yet interesting –though sometimes heavy-handed commentary on a modern business world that encourages unconscionable actions.