Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)

November 25, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

HG

If I’m going to be honest then I might as well say it: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is a well-executed disappointment.

I had expected this to be the case when I heard that they were, like every other successful major book franchise these days, splitting the final book of the series into two films. This lit up alarm bells in my mind straight away, because having read the books, I already knew that  Mockingjay had the least amount of action and “wow factor” of the trilogy. It may have barely worked for Harry Potter and Twilight, but the final books of those series are nearly double the length of Mockingjay. 

The story picks up when Catching Fire left off: after destroying the Quarter Quell Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is rescued by the mysterious District 13 while her games partner, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), remains a captive of the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). With no more excuses to toss her back into the arena, this time the film is all about surviving on the outside and being groomed by District 13 president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) into the “Mockingjay”, the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

Consequently, Mockingjay  is a very different film compared to the other two. It’s darker and arguably even more intense because there’s a lot more death and destruction and the stakes are no longer just confined to the artificial world of the Hunger Games. The fate of Katniss, all the people she cares about, and even the entire world, lies in her unwilling teenage hands. Rather then making observations about the world of reality television, Mockingjay  explores political propaganda and the sacrifices of rebellion and consequences of war. It’s heavy stuff, but for the most part these themes are handled effectively and delicately.

The decision to split the final book meant that director Francis Lawrence (who did Catching Fire) was forced to stretch about 390 pages of material over what I presume will be about 240-250 minutes. By comparison, the adaptation of Catching Fire was 391 pages into 146 minutes, while for The Hunger Games it was 374 pages into 142 minutes. The first two adaptations were taut and action-packed affairs that largely kept close to the book editions. On the other hand, even if you litter Mockingjay with some additions not from the book, it’s just technically impossible for the film to keep pace with its predecessors.

This is not to say the film is bad — far from it. The overall standard of the production is still very good, on par with its predecessors. Lawrence makes the most of what little action he has to play with, creating some marvellous set pieces filled with high intensity that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. The additional running time also afforded more opportunities for contemplation and character development, taking the accumulated emotions from the two earlier films and building them up to the next level.

The performances are still top notch. Jennifer Lawrence may have had a tumultuous time recently, but in the Hunger Games world she’s as solid as ever. This was arguably the most difficult performance for her thus far because in this film she has to be a “bad actress” at times and a genuinely inspiring icon at others, and sometimes somewhere along that spectrum — and yet she manages to knock it out of the park. Josh Hutcherson doesn’t get to do nearly as much in this one, but the scenes he’s in are dynamite. Liam Hemsworth, on the other hand, is relatively wooden by comparison. Gale is one of those key characters who has a bit of a raw deal in this story because he’s never really central to the narrative, and Hemsworth doesn’t do much to elevate the character above that.

New additions like the ever-reliable Julianne Moore and Game of Thrones‘s Natalie Dormer are positives to the ensemble while also boosting star power, though for me the standout supporting performance still has to be the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose presence as former head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee makes you realise just how much of a loss his death is to the acting community. It was initially a little jarring to see him on screen, but he’s so good that after a while you just see him as the character rather than the deceased actor.

My difficulties with the film ultimately lie in what comes between all of its well-executed moments. Every now and then a scene feels a tad longer than it needed to be. Some reactions and conversations are drawn out when they probably didn’t have to be. It may be imperceptible at first, but they adds up over the course of the film and stick out like obvious time-fillers by the end. You could even argue that, with the exception of a couple of key occurrences, the entire film was one long, unnecessary filler.

It’s a shame, because I think Mockingjay had the potential to be one heck of a 140-150 minute movie that could have been on the same level as the first two films in terms of overall quality. Instead, they had to be greedy and split the book into two films, meaning that each one would be that much slower and that much less eventful. When you break it down, not a whole lot happens in this film. The impact of this decision becomes pronounced when the film ends on what’s supposed to be a semi-cliffhanger but feels more like an anti-climatic “is that it?”

If you’re a fan of the franchise then you’ll have no choice but to watch Mockingjay, Part 1 and then Part II when it comes out next year. And it annoys me that I’ll have to spend double the money for the series finale when a book perfect for a single film adaptation is being stretched unnaturally into two. I’m not saying Part I isn’t still a relatively entertaining and enjoyable experience; I’m just saying it isn’t as good as The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and more importantly, not as good as it could have and should have been.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

December 25, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

catchingfirekatniss

Why is Jennifer Lawrence so awesome?

Finally, back to the cinema! I had been dying to watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy, since the credits started rolling on the first film, which I thought was a brilliant adaptation of a fine book. Expectations were especially heightened given that the second book is my favourite of the entire series.

My first impression of Catching Fire is: very good again, on par with the first film in terms of execution and remaining faithful to the source material, but falling a little short of my lofty expectations. In many ways, it’s simply an extension of the first film (despite replacing director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence, who did I Am Legend and Water for Elephants), with the same structure, mood and tone (unlike the first few Harry Potter movies where each installment was like a standalone adventure), a tale that has no real beginning and no real end, which I’m sure affected the overall experience.

No time is wasted in setting up the premise this time as audiences are presumed to know the kind of world the film is set in and what the characters just went through. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has returned back to District 12 along with co-winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and live in the almost ghost town-like winners village previously inhabited by the only other District 12 winner in history, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The trio are about to embark on a tour of the country to celebrate their victory, but the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearing that Katniss is becoming the symbol of a potential uprising, wants her dead. If you didn’t get any of that, chances are you’ll need to brush up on your Hunger Games knowledge, because there’s no spoon feeding of information this time around.

While the story is a continuation, it does go into more depth and explores their world and history in more detail. The characters are fleshed out more and relationships and alliances are questioned and tested. And don’t forget, there is that semi-love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which is played out with a minimal amount of cringe (at least when compared to Twilight). The love story is a key part of The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t dominate it, and we can all be thankful for that.

What I love about the book, which the film follows closely, is the clever way in which (I suppose I should say spoiler alert here) the story finds a way to bring Katniss and Peeta back to the Hunger Games arena again without making it feel like a rehash. The stakes are raised, the dangers are magnified, and the creativity of the head gamekeeper (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on full display. We are comforted by the return of familiar characters and excited by the addition of intriguing new ones, each with their own eccentricities and backstories and all appearing to be hiding a secret or two.

 

Unfortunately, the time in the arena is relatively short, or at least it feels that way. I complained about the overlong set up in the first film and I make the same complaint again here. It’s actually worse this time as the amount of real interaction between Katniss and her enemies feels quite limited, whereas the time out of the arena — the preparation, the training, the political posturing — felt much longer by comparison. And even though her foes this time are much more formidable we don’t get to see them nearly enough, especially after they have been hyped up beforehand.

One other complaint I have is the ending, which was incredibly exciting and cliffhangery in the book but came across as somewhat anti-climatic in the film. It was rushed, strangely, given by that time the film was already pushing 2.5 hours, and didn’t do enough to set the stage for the final chapter.

On the whole, there is still a lot to like about Catching Fire. For starters, Jennifer Lawrence is as awesome as ever, and this time she is joined by some really impressive names such as the aforementioned Hoffman, as well as Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone and Sam Clafin as a surprisingly good Finnick Odair. Returning stars such as Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz also make their mark without stealing any of Lawrence’s thunder. The second film in a planned trilogy is always tricky, but for the most part Catching Fire delivers with its star power, intriguing visuals and engrossing storyline. I do think the script may have followed the structure of the novels perhaps too closely — resulting in some of my gripes — and could have benefited from a less linear narrative structure, though when all is said and done it’s a solid effort and an enjoyable 2.5 hours of drama and action. I just think it could have been better.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I’m lowering my expectations substantially for the next two installments . Yes, they are also splitting the final book, Mockingjay, into two parts, damn moneygrubbers.

Recent Movie Reviews: Part VIII

December 18, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Movies reviewed: 2 Guns, Red 2, Paranoia, The Last Days on Mars

2 Guns (2013)

two_guns

It really does help improve a movie experience when you know absolutely nothing about it when you step inside the cinema. Such was the case when I saw 2 Guns, which on its face looked like just another guns-blazing crime/buddy action comedy starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, with Paula Patton as the obligatory eye candy. Maybe it’s because of this, I found 2 Guns to be surprisingly entertaining and likable, though at the end of the day my assumptions about it proved to be largely correct and I doubt I’ll remember much about it in a couple of years.

Denzel and Marky Mark play two criminals involved in the drug trade with more to them than meets the eye. It has a twisting and turning plot complete with crooked cops, backstabbing and double-crossing, but it’s executed well and in a light and humorous tone. The action itself is nothing special, and the jokes are passable, but the film stays afloat thanks to the banter between the two charismatic leads, who provide different styles that somehow mesh together rather effectively.

Paula Patton made headlines when she apparently demanded nude scenes with Denzel, but apart from that she doesn’t get to do a whole lot. She should not be confused with Bill Paxton, who plays the nasty villain with some personality but ultimately not enough to make him a memorable one.

In the end, 2 Guns is adequately good; a fun time with two bankable stars who appeared to be enjoying themselves, but no effort was made to go that extra mile to elevate itself from the other movies of this type you see every year.

3.25 stars out of 5

Red 2 (2013)

red-2-movie-poster-4

The 2010 predecessor, Red, was a rollicking ride with cool old people. I wasn’t as high on it as some others, but it was fresh, funny, and different. As expected, the success of that film led to Red 2, which is essentially more of the same — except this time the act gets, pardon the pun, a little old.

Inspired by the comic book series of the same name, Red 2 is about a bunch of ex-CIA operatives who are “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”, and for some reason people want to kill them. The all-star cast is again headed by Bruce Willis (with Mary-Louis Parker as his girlfriend), John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Brian Cox, and this time they’ve added Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anthony Hopkins and Korean star Byung-hun Lee (from GI Joe).

Red 2 is still loud, explosive, crazy, and routinely tongue-in-cheek, but this time around it lacked the charm of the original. The idea was good, but evidently only for one film, and rehashing the same formula failed to deliver the same result. I didn’t really care much about where the plot was heading and the narrative felt like it was all over the place, and the character quirks evolved from affable and sweet to mildly irritating. The occasional amusing one-liner would pop up every now and then, but for most of its excessive 116-minute running time Red 2 was just going through the motions.

A mixed bag, I’m afraid, with probably more bad than good. And of course, a third film is already in the works.

2.5 stars out of 5

Paranoia (2013)

paranoia

Every year there is a star vehicle film that appears to have some strong elements but ends up being a real turd. This year’s leading candidate is Paranoia, which could actually end up having the opposite of the intended effect on the career of Liam Hemsworth, brother of Thor and ex of Miley Cyrus. It’s not that horrible, in all fairness, but in context, considering the director (Aussie Robert Luketic, whose credits include Legally Blonde and 21) and the cast (Gary Oldman, Harrison Ford, Amber Heard, Richard Dreyfuss, Embeth Davidtz, Julian McMahon and Josh Holloway — Sawyer from Lost), Paranoia is an awfully unconvincingly, bland and actually rather boring film about corporate espionage.

Hemsworth works as a low-level employee for a giant corporation run by Oldman. One day, he pisses off his boss and instead of destroying his career is given an opportunity to infiltrate the company of Oldman’s competitor and former mentor (Ford). He accepts, of course, and is seduced by the perks of being a well-paid executive, but as you guessed the rosiness doesn’t last very long. By the way, Dreyfuss is Hemsworth’s dad, Heard is the love interest, and Sawyer is an investigator.

One of the biggest problems with Paranoia is that Hemsworth, as big and hunky as he is, has very little charisma. I don’t put all the blame on him, however, as the pedestrian script probably sapped whatever charisma he had anyway. The other problem is that the plot itself offers no excitement or thrills, and you can basically see all the plot points being ticked off, one by one, as it progresses towards a painfully predictable and cliched ending where the absence of an obligatory twist would have been more of a surprise.

In other words, Paranoia is this year’s Abduction, the Taylor Lautner star vehicle from 2011. That was laughably bad as well, but at least it had some guilty pleasures as we watched Lautner run from place to place while kicking ass. Paranoia, on the other hand, was just stuck in the same place for nearly 2 hours.

1.5 stars out of 5

The Last Days on Mars (2013)

last_days_on_mars_poster

I love me some Liev Schreiber, the man with the best narration voice in Hollywood (sorry, Morgan Freeman). And even though I couldn’t get into Ray Donovan, I can’t deny that Liev infuses the screen with his icy masculine presence whenever he is around.

All of that has little to do with The Last Days or Mars, essentially a zombie movie set on the red planet. The trailer looked pretty promising so I decided to check it out, but unfortunately, after a strong, atmospheric start, the film fizzles out in the second half and ends up wasting what was a great idea.

Liev leads a crew of astronauts who are about to leave Mars after a half-year post. Less than a day before they are scheduled to depart, one of the crew members discovers potential evidence of life and decides to check it out. Big mistake. That’s right, you guessed it. The discovery unleashes a virus that turns humans into ultra-aggressive zombies!

You can see that it’s an intriguing premise and offers a lot of potential for either fun or serious scares. Sadly, The Last Days on Mars delivers neither. Irish director Ruairí Robinson opted for the straightforward horror route, which is how I preferred it, but fails to deliver freshness or the abundance of thrills that a film like this required. There was too much seriousness and long slabs of lame dialogue, too much contemplation and not enough hardcore zombie interaction. A considered zombie film is not a bad thing, but only if all the drama can add to the effectiveness of the horror or bring out something in the characters for us to root for. In this case, all it does is slow things down. Even the likes of Liev, Romala Garai, Olivia Williams and Elias Koteas could not salvage their respective characters.

That said, I did enjoy the early moments of the film, which I found to be quite creepy. But once the zombies appeared, the film went straight for the contrived plot devices we see too often in such films, including a sudden and complete deprivation of common sense. Considering that it doesn’t ever turn farcical and that it’s running time is a suitable 98 minutes, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that The Last Days on Mars sucked, only that it’s weak and disappointing.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Expendables 2 (2012)

September 9, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

So I keep hearing that The Expendables 2 is what the first film should have been.

My expectations for the first film were, unfortunately, slightly higher. That said, Expendables 2 is a vast improvement on its predecessor because it decided to have do more with fact that it features a whole bunch of high-profile action stars who aren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves. It’s has more characters, longer cameos, bigger explosions, upgraded fight scenes and a lot of great one liners. I wish it could have been a little more, but perhaps I’m asking for too much.

The story picks up not too long after the first one ended. Sty Stallone and Jason Statham are still leading their team of mercenaries, which includes other action heroes such as martial arts expert Jet Li, MMA fighter Randy Couture (Mr “You got a door? You got a gym!”), Ivan Drago aka Dolph Lundgren , and the guy I will always associate with White Chicks, Terry Crews. Of the original team, only Mickey Rourke dropped out.

This time, the team has two strange new additions: Liam Hemsworth (who is not an action star — yet — though his brother Chris is) as a sniper, and Chinese actress Yu Nan (selected probably because of her proficiency in English), who keeps up the Asian quotient on the squad after Jet Li jets off minutes into the film (he hadn’t planned on being in it but Stallone insisted).

I think the plot had something to do with baddies forcing poor villagers in Eastern Europe to help them mine plutonium, but no one really cares about plot in a film like this.

The Expendables 2 still contains “serious” scenes and “character development” scenes, but on the whole the film was more lighthearted than the first. The jokes are frequent, and unlike in the first film, much funnier, and the fight scenes are better choreographed. There are plenty of blown off limbs and exploding bodies but it’s all so intentionally over-the-top that no one would call it realistic violence.

There are three major positives worth mentioning about this film.

The first is the new villain, Jean-Claude Van Damme, who plays a guy creatively named…er, Vilain. Van Damme does a delicious villain and actually gets to perform some of his trademark Kickboxer movers, such as that flying roundhouse he loves so much. Van Damme is backed up by the familiar face of Scott Adkins, who has been in a bunch of supporting roles and B-grade action films over the years.

The second is the extended cameos of Willis and Arnie. The biggest disappointment of the first film was that they appeared for about 5 seconds together and did nothing. This time, the trio finally get together and get their hands dirty. Even though it’s not for very long, it’s still better than nothing, and they even get to shoot witty remarks at each other. It was fun.

The third is the much-talked about appearance of Chuck Norris, who has somehow grown to legendary status thanks to those never-ending internet jokes. Chuck lives up to those jokes and even tells a few of his own. His presence is the brightest highlight of the entire film, and it’s a shame he couldn’t have gotten more screen time. I would pay to watch a Chuck Norris spin-off where all he does is live up to his legend.

What you should have noticed by now is that none of the three positives involve Stallone’s team of mercenaries. That’s because they still kind of sucked. The biggest culprit is still Stallone himself, who must be the lamest of them all by keeping a “straight face”  (okay, I see that’s a term grossly inappropriate for him) throughout the entire film. He remains jacked up on steroids, human growth hormones or whatever Lance Armstrong has been taking, but he exhibits no charm and no skill other than growling incoherently (I think he’s still saying “Adriannnnn!”), running in over-sized platform boots and squinting through those two pellets he calls eyes. But hey, it’s his movie and his idea, so he still has to be “the man” by default. I wanted more Rambo and Rocky, less whatever his name is in the film.

Statham has two good scenes where he gets to strut his stuff, but Crews, Lundgren and Couture fade into the background and practically do nothing. Hemsworth and Yu Nan don’t do a whole lot other actors couldn’t have done either. It’s disappointing and a waste of an opportunity.

I also didn’t get all the pointless talking that was supposedly aimed at character development. They were boring, and no one can tell what Stallone is trying to say anyway.

Ultimately, the film was still a solid piece of entertainment and plenty of popcorn fun. Kudos for improving on the first one and providing a blueprint for that inevitable third movie. It’s possible they may have already exhausted all they can do with this franchise but I suppose as long as there are new action stars to add people will still flock to watch it — me included.

3.5 stars out of 5

 

Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)

April 7, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t read any of the books yet.

I’ve seen all eight Harry Potters and all four Twilights, and none of the 12 films could compare with the experience I had with The Hunger Games. I suppose the only reason I’m comparing them are because they’re all based on bestselling young adult books that have crossed over to mainstream readers, but The Hunger Games was just so much more up my alley than the other two — dark, gritty, violent and bleak, and with no sappy romances in sight.

Set in a post-apolcalytpic dystopian society, The Hunger Games is a yearly reality TV contest where a boy and girl from each of the nation’s 12 districts are thrust into a kill-or-be-killed contest where there can only be one winner (don’t worry, there is a reason for it). The story focuses on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a tough girl from District 12 who makes the ultimate sacrifice and is thrust into this nightmarish world where she must use all her skill and wit to survive. The premise is similar to the Japanese novel Battle Royale (which was also adapted into a film) — I’ve read the parts of the manga version — but I certainly wouldn’t call it a rip-off.

Despite its running time of 142 minutes, The Hunger Games didn’t feel nearly as long. The set up could have been shorter, but it was executed brilliantly, slowly peeling away the layers as the true nature of the games is revealed to the audience. The genuine action doesn’t really begin until halfway through, but the tension is maintained and built up right from the beginning, and when the brutal and bloody games finally start, the jolt of exhiliaration hits you like a kick to the stomach (at least it did for me).

The Hunger Games would not have been anywhere near as good without the outstanding performance of Jennifer Lawrence.  Apparently Suzanne Collins, the author of the book who also adapted the screenplay, said Lawrence was the only actress out of the dozens that auditioned for the role that truly captured the character, no mean feat considering some of the other candidates included Hailee Steinfeld, Saoirse Ronan, Chloe Moretz and Emily Browning. In the end, it was the right decision to go with the Academy Award nominated Lawrence, who chanelled the inner strength of her character from Winter’s Bone to give bring Katniss to life. She dominates just about every scene in the film and it’s virtually impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Just compare that to the years of growing pains endured by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in Harry Potter before they became respectable actors, and the respectability that still eludes the likes of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner in Twilight!

Lawrence is backed up by a strong supporting cast including Josh Hutcherson (you might remember him from Bridge to Terabithia or Journey to the Center of the Earth), Woody Harrelson (who was a little weird at first but eventually found his mark), Elizabeth Banks (freaky performance), Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley (remember him from American Beauty?), Toby Jones, Lenny Kravitz and Liam Hemsworth (in a surprisingly small role). And a special mention to Isabelle Fuhrman, who was horrifying in Orphan and is pretty scary in this one too.

If there are any complaints, it would have to be the shaky camera employed at times — though I must admit my annoyance was somewhat mitigated because it kind of served a purpose — and the lack of explanation for some of the mechanics of the games (such as how the “sponsorship” and “virtual reality” systems worked). The violence was  unfortunately not displayed very clearly on screen because it had to pass the censors, but I think director Gary Ross (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) did all that he could to maintain the raw brutality of the games under the restricting circumstances. The film also probably could have fleshed out the political themes strewn throughout a little more but I didn’t find it a big deal considering the target market.

On the whole, The Hunger Games is a compelling, thrilling and often terrifying action-drama that hit almost all the right notes. Given the impossible expectations it carried from the moment it was announced,  I think it did all right. Looking forward to reading the books and Catching Fire (the sequel) when it is hopefully released next year.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: Huge kudos for not releasing this film in 3D.

 
%d bloggers like this: