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‘Hunger Games’ Ends on a Whimper

Mockingjay_Part_2_PosterThey say all good things must end. In the case of the “Hunger Games” franchise, the mediocre must finish, as well.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” (gosh, that is a pain to type) is the fourth and final film in the “Hunger Games” franchise (until they decide to give it a prequel/sequel/reboot, because, money). It again stars Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant face of a revolution. She must lead the remaining rebels on one final assault against the corrupt Capital, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The film also stars Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth and Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his final role) and Francis Lawrence directs.

Unlike a lot of people, I actually enjoyed “Mockingjay – Part 1.” I thought all the behind-the-scenes political and propaganda of a revolution was very interesting, and thought it was building up to something great. I was wrong, though…

The biggest problem with “Mockingjay – Part 2” is that it really feels like an unnecessary movie. Hollywood has this notion that the final book of a series needs to be broken up into two movies, but in reality it does nothing but add a few extra hundred million dollars into their pockets. Harry Potter was able to get away with it because everyone loved that series, but Part 1 was arguably the worst film of the franchise. I only saw Part 2 of Twilight’s finales, but I really doubt those are books with enough content to break into multiple films. And of course The Hobbit was a 300 page book broken into three overlong films that really no one wanted, but each made over $900 million, so Hollywood is just laughing at us. But I’m getting off track.

Much of “Mockingjay – Part 2” feels like forced dialogue or action for the sake of action, both to try and justify a second film (it clocks in at an inexcusable 137 minutes). Some of the fight sequences are appreciated and well-done; there are tiny nuggets throughout the film that are what have made the “Hunger Games” series fun, or what we have been promised. But all too often the film is just walking around and repeating plot points, like how they don’t know if they can trust Peeta because he is still brainwashed by the Capital. That is a topic of conversation about seven times.

Lawrence is again the star of the show, but Katniss is again a borderline unlikable heroine that you really don’t care about her besides the fact she’s Jennifer Lawrence. Woody Harrelson and Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) give two short but nuanced performances, and some of the revolution storylines are interesting.

It really is hard (and in a way, pointless) to review a film like this because you likely won’t see it if you haven’t seen the other ones in the series, and if you have seen those films then you already know if you’re going to see it or not. So if you were planning on seeing “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” then you should know there is a lot of sitting around, then a lot of running, and almost none of it is interesting. By the time (I thought) the film was wrapping up it really drags on, and well outwears any welcome the previous films had bought it.

It is a disappointing ending to a decent franchise, and I seeing as its Thanksgiving week, let’s just say I’m thankful I won’t have to endure any more of this overstretched series next November.

Critics Rating: 4/10



‘Mockingjay – Part 1’ Best Hunger Games Yet

MockingjayPart1Poster3They say the third time’s the charm. While that is usually not the case with movie franchises (give me one third film that eclipsed the first two which is not named “Return of the King”), the saying does ring true with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”, which is the best film in the series.

Picking up right where “Catching Fire” left off, Katniss (fan-favorite Jennifer Lawrence) is now in District 13 and has become the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol, led by the love-to-hate-him President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Liam Hemsworth and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman return as Julianne Moore joins the cast. Francis Lawrence returns in the director’s chair.

The first two Hunger Games films both served their purpose, but I never felt any real connection to the characters, even Katniss. I’ve honestly always found her extremely unlikable and hard to root for, a claim she herself has pointed out on numerous occasions so it isn’t exactly like I’m grasping at straws. However “Mockingjay – Part 1” replaces the PG-13 shakycam action with well-acted scenes involving propaganda and the sparks of a revolution and that is why it is the best entry in the Hunger Games series to date.

The direction in the film is what makes it so good; without director Francis Lawrence, the film would not work. He utilizes fantastic production value and impressive CGI to immerse us in a world that is dark, both in tone and visuals. Whether it is the remains of a bombed district or a secret underground bunker, he knows exactly how and where to place the camera to get the most from every shot. There is also one incredibly impressively executed raid scene inside the Capitol that is as entertaining as it is nerve-wrecking.

Hoffman yet again shows why he was truly a rare talent, and we lost one of the all-time greats. Playing a master of political propaganda, Hoffman has some moments of humor and makes a few fantastic points about society, and he plays well off of the stubborn Katniss. Woody Harrelson once again is the comic relief, and at times stands as the voice of reason for the audience. Southerland is the best he’s been so far as the sinister Snow, and one monologue gave me chills just by the pure evil in his eyes.

Now “Mockingjay – Part 1” isn’t for everyone. There are no kids-killing-kids this time around, and Katniss only shoots her trademark bow and arrow once. It is certainly the slowly burning wick at the start of the exploding powder keg, so there is lots of talking and almost no action. But what that does is make the action scenes that do take place hold even more purpose and weight, and make you even more excited for the epic finale that awaits.

If you open a history book, the American and French Revolutions are some of the most interesting and exciting time periods you can read about. This holds true for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”, as it is tense, emotional and leading to something grand. Does it warrant the final book being broken up into two separate movies? Probably not, but time will tell. Who woulda thunk that the best film in the Hunger Games franchise would be the one that doesn’t even feature the Hunger Games at all?

Critics Rating: 7/10

‘American Hustle’ Mainly Bells and Whistles


Sometimes in movies it is very apparent the actors had much more fun making the film than the audience has watching it. That pretty much sums up “American Hustle”, the new David O. Russell film with an all-star cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence.

Set in the late 1970’s, the film follows con man Irving and his partner Sydney (Bale and Adams), who are forced to work with an FBI agent (Cooper) and take down politicians in exchange for their own freedom.

The premise of the movie is very intriguing, and could have been something fantastic. People trying to scam the mafia, corrupt Congressmen and other con artists all in one big deal? With a tighter script it might have been like “Goodfellas” meets “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (how’s that for a movie reference?). But instead we get a movie that decides to focus more on its characters, rather than its plot or story arch.

According to Christian Bale, Russell allowed the actors to improvise their lines whenever they felt the desire, even if it changed the plot. This may seem like a creative, fun idea at the time however the end result is the movie lacking solid flow or a true narrative (try and decipher whether this is a drama, comedy or political thriller, because it doesn’t have a clue). It seems like the whole film was just a scene with a punchline or dramatic moment, followed by another scene with a punchline or dramatic moment which is almost unrelated to the previous scene.

All the actors do a fine job, particularly Bale. His dedication to any role he does is admirable, as he gained 40 pounds to play Irving. Bale went from dangerously skinny in “The Machinist” to ripped in “Batman Begins”. He then lost weight again for “The Fighter”, and had to put muscle back on for “The Dark Knight Rises”. Bale is the best part of “Hustle”, as he plays a man who deep down has good intentions but can’t seem to get out of the rut he has put himself into with his scamming.

The rest of the cast is solid, albeit nothing memorable. I’m sure they will all earn their award nominations, however I couldn’t help but get the feeling their roles could be done by anyone, particularly that of Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Bale’s wife. Until the film’s climax she really isn’t anything but an extended cameo, and I just never felt she brought anything special to the table (except that she is Jennifer Lawrence).

There are flashes in “Hustle” that made me think the film would rise above the mediocrity that had so far been presented, but it never does. I’m not sure if it was the pacing or the lack of any true resolution, but I just never got absorbed into its world of 1970’s New Jersey. People disappear from the plot never to be seen again, and others do actions that are just completely out of character and leave you shaking your head wondering why that just happened.

“American Hustle” may have looked good on paper, and it is clear the actors all had a fun time with each other while filming it, but in the end it just feels like a missed opportunity. The ending is clever and some of the dialogue is sharp, but it just doesn’t come together in a pretty bow, which is a disappointment considering the cast. The movie may not be a scam, but it certainly sold itself short.

Critics Rating: 6/10

‘Catching Fire’ Is Flawed Fun



            It is a rare feat when the sequel to a worldwide blockbuster film is better than the original film. “The Dark Knight” was able to overtake “Batman Begins” (in some people’s eyes), while “The Hangover: Part II” was not as good as the first movie (once again, it’s in eye of the beholder). “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” follows an entertaining but flawed first film, and for the most part it succeeds in being better, but it is not without stumbling along the way.

Jennifer Lawrence, fresh off her first Oscar, once again plays Katniss Everdeen, the heroine who, alongside Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson), won the most recent Hunger Games. If somehow you don’t know the franchise’s basic story arch, the Hunger Games are a yearly event where 24 teenagers fight to the death for the entertainment (and symbol of power) of the tyrannical government. The Katniss and Peeta’s victory has sparked a rebellion among the oppressed citizens, making the Capitol target the two and send them back into the Games. Francis Lawrence takes over direction duties from Gary Ross.

The first Hunger Games film was just alright. It was entertaining and somewhat fresh, even if the shaky cam and PG-13 violence held it back a bit. On this second go around the direction is much more fluid (my hat goes off to Francis Lawrence) and we get a little bit more bloodshed, mainly because all the fighters in the Hunger Games have won the event before, so they are 20 and older, not young kids who we can’t show actually get killed.

The film has its share of intense and exciting moments, most of which come from the dedication of Jennifer Lawrence. She throws herself into the role of Katniss, and it is her cunning wit and humanity that makes us follow her on her journey. However I can’t say I was always Katniss’ biggest fan.

The idea of the film (and book) is that Katniss is unlikable and has no real relationships, which is supposed to make her status as the Districts’ beacon of hope more meaningful; that a nobody can be the leader of great change. However when your main character is unlikable, then who are we as an audience supposed to root for? Where is our symbol of hope? There are points Katniss gets upset at people for reasons that are out of their control, and it really just annoyed me when she would break down crying because of what happened to her in the first film. We get it, she witnessed death. We all saw the first film; we don’t have to be reminded of what happened a dozen times.

Some of the pacing leading up to the Games is also a bit awkward and the running time is unnecessary (clocks in at near two and a half hours). And of course they try and force a love triangle because God forbid a film aimed at teenagers doesn’t feature the main character having to decide between two beefcakes.

Gripes about Katniss and the pacing aside, “Catching Fire” is an enjoyable film. The ending that may leave some people uneasy, but it is all to try and build the hype up for part three (well to be technical, part 3a). This sequel is more impressive and more fun than the first film, while at the same time adding layers of drama. The stage is set for an epic finale(s), even if the road to the climax wasn’t always smooth.

Critics Rating: 7/10