Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 / *** (PG-13)

Katniss Everdeen: Jennifer Lawrence
Gale Hawthorne: Liam Hemsworth
Plutarch Heavensbee: Philip Seymour Hoffman
President Alma Coin: Julianne Moore
President Snow: Donald Sutherland
Peeta Mellark: Josh Hutcherson
Haymitch Abernathy: Woody Harrelson
Beetee: Jeffery Wright
Boggs: Mahershala Ali
Primrose Everdeen: Willow Shields
Finnick Odair: Sam Claflin
Effie Trinket: Elizabeth Banks
Caesar Flickerman: Stanley Tucci

Lionsgate Films presents a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong and Suzanne Collins. Based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Collins. Running time: 123 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material).

We’ve seen to two Hunger Games now and it is time for the revolution of Panem. But, before we get to that let’s pause to consider just what we’ve done and what it is we are calling upon ourselves to do. It is rare that an action franchise will take the time to consider its own ramifications, however, this first part of the exciting franchise finale might just be more about making money from four movies instead of three. I believe if its final chapter weren’t split into two parts, Katniss probably wouldn’t have quite this much of a chance to prepare herself to be the symbol of change she becomes here, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

While the first “Hunger Games” pretty much existed as its own entity, with only a few subplots left dangling at its conclusion, the second film in the franchise, “Catching Fire”, ended with a considerable cliffhanger. “Mockingjay, Part 1” starts where that one left us. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was rescued from the games by an underground movement that included her sponsor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the insider gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) was left behind in the arena.

Katniss is now in District 13, which appears to consist entirely of revolutionaries. During her time recovering from the events of the 75th Games, the movement has spread to seven of the other districts. Katniss is having trouble adjusting into the role of symbol of the revolution. The leader of the movement, District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) isn’t convinced that Katniss is the right person to act as the face of the revolution, but Plutarch is concrete in his resolve for her.

Katniss is reunited with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) from her home district. He has become one of the soldiers of the revolution after the Capitol annihilated District 12. Gale is happy to be reunited with Katniss, but she is consumed by the fact that Peeta was left behind. A trip back to the old disctrict snaps Katniss’s passion against the Capitol back into place and the revolutionaries embark on a campaign to build the movement toward revolution throughout all districts.

While much has been said about not much happening in this episode, that’s really quite a bit of plot. It’s the way in which this all happens that is unusual for a blockbuster of this magnitude. Instead of relying upon action sequences and special effects, director Francis Lawrence leans upon his actors and the dialogue of his screenwriting team to carry the film. It’s rare to find performances as strong in a mainstream science fiction sequel as we get here. Lawrence makes the audience question her as a leader just as she questions herself. Julianne Moore provides a strong anchor for the movement as President Coin. Elizabeth Banks also returns as Effie Trinket to provide some comic relief as a Capitol citizen who just can’t quite fit in to the drab lifestyle of the outer districts until she’s given the mission of making over Katniss to look the hero she must become.

The social commentary is toned down considerably in this installment, as we don’t get to see much of the Capitol city or the contrasting social classes of the first two films. There is a strong commentary made on manipulating the media, however, as much of the plot concentrates on the PR campaign orchestrated around Katniss. A film crew is brought in to document most of Katniss’s actions. They aren’t afraid to stage moments to get the desired effect. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol launch a counter campaign, and the significance of their dance is not lost on Snow, who comments at one point “moves and countermoves.”

“Mockingjay, Part 1” losses some sense of satisfaction by feeling incomplete. Falling squarely in the middle of the action from the previous chapter and next year’s finale, the movie doesn’t really have a beginning or an end. It’s a problem that is becoming more frequent in big franchise properties as more of their final chapters are being split into two parts. This first part is all set up and no payoff. We’ll have to wait a year for that, but this installment does solidify many of the thematic elements of this final chapter that will probably be lost in action sequences in Part 2. It thrives on and highlights the strength of the performances for this rather remarkable science fiction epic.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Force 10 from Navarone (1978) ***

PG, 118 min.
Director: Guy Hamilton
Writers: Robin Chapman, Carl Foreman, Alistair MacLean (novel)
Starring: Robert Shaw, Harrison Ford, Edward Fox, Carl Weathers, Franco Nero, Richard Kiel, Barbara Bach, Alan Badel, Michael Byrne, Angus MacInnes, Philip Latham

My wife and I have always been pretty protective of our children when it comes to exposing them to mature content in movies. I believe it depends on the person as to what they can handle by which age. Some kids will handle things better at an earlier age than others. By this point both of our older boys (13 and 9) have long since been exposed to all sorts of violence through video games and playing with their friends. Seeing “Fury” recently, I was reminded how much war movies helped to form my tastes as a cineaste and I realized that I have never shown my boys a real war movie. So, I decided to start them on the one I believe my father started me on, Alistair MacLean’s follow up the “The Guns of Navarone” and early Harrison Ford flick “Force 10 from Navarone”.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interstellar / ***½ (PG-13)

Cooper: Matthew McConaughey
Murph: Jessica Chastain
Murph (10 Yrs.): Mackenzie Foy
Murph (older): Ellen Burstyn
Brand: Anne Hathaway
Professor Brand: Michael Caine
TARS (voice): Bill Irwin
Donald: John Lithgow
Tom: Casey Affleck
Tom (15 Yrs.): Timothée Chalamet
Doyle: Wes Bentley
Romilly: David Gyasi
Getty: Topher Grace
Dr. Mann: Matt Damon

Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures present a film directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Running time: 169 min. Rated PG-13 (for some intense perilous action and brief strong language).

“You're familiar with the phrase ‘man's reach exceeds his grasp’? It's a lie: man's grasp exceeds his nerve.”
                                    —Nikola Tesla, “The Prestige”.

In 2006, Christopher Nolan released a movie called “The Prestige”, about how magicians create their illusions. Real life electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla appeared as a character in the fictional film as a mentor to one of the magicians. While Tesla was a legitimate innovator in science, he gained a reputation as a “mad scientist” through his showmanship and some of his more outlandish experiments that never gained mainstream support. He provides a science-based version of the magicians work in that movie in a way that somewhat bridges the gap between art and science. This could describe much of what Nolan seems to do as a director. His latest epic space adventure “Interstellar” could be his grandest work of art and science yet.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Pompeii (2014) *½

PG-13, 105 min.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writers: Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Bathler, Michael Robert Johnson
Starring: Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Kiefer Sutherland, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jared Harris, Carrie-Anne Moss, Sasha Roiz, Jessica Lucas, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham

I’m not sure what I did wrong to be subjected to two Paul W.S. Anderson movies in one week. Truth is it’s my own fault. I voluntarily watched both of them and I should know better. I couldn’t shake “Event Horizon” from my head after seeing “Interstellar” for some reason and then “Pompeii” came through the mail from Netflix. I didn’t want it sitting around without something good coming to replace it, so I watched it. True, I’m the one that put it in my queue, but I thought a movie about Pompeii would be really interesting until I learned that Paul W.S. Anderson had directed it. By that point, it was already in my queue, and I was a bit curious as to just how much he could screw it up.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

If someone were to create a cineaste major for higher education (which may have been done), the introductory courses would most certainly contain a few movies from Mike Nichols. The renowned director redefined cinema with movies like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), “The Graduate” (1967)—for which he won his Best Direction Oscar—and “Carnal Knowledge” (1971). In fact, Nichols’s films would populate every level of such an education trajectory.

He dabbled in nearly every genre, including broad comedy “The Birdcage” (1996), tragedy “Silkwood” (1983) and “Wit” (2001), political satire “Primary Colors” (1998) and “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), war “Catch-22” (1970), science fiction “The Day of the Dolphin” (1973), confidence “The Fortune” (1975), horror “Wolf” (1994), heart-wrenching drama “Regarding Henry” (1986), satirical melodrama “Postcards from the Edge” (1990), farce “What Planet Are You From?” (2000) and even stand-up/sketch comedy “Gilda Live” (1980). He helped lead the cinematic feminist movement by directing the female-led, Oscar-nominated “Working Girl” (1988). He directed a couple of terrible movies, but an inordinate amount of his films are masterworks.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Event Horizon (1997) **

R, 96 min.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writer: Philip Eisner
Starring: Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Kathleen Quinlan, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee, Jack Noseworthy

Having just watched Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (review coming in the next couple of days), I had a hankering for some space adventuring. For some reason, I felt compelled to re-watch the 1997 space/horror flick “Event Horizon”. This was a particularly strange urge since I didn’t like the movie when I saw it in theaters. I saw it a second time on video some years after that, but no time recently, and I still didn’t like it. Something made me connect this movie with “Interstellar”.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) / **** (R)

Riggan: Michael Keaton
Sam: Emma Stone
Mike: Edward Norton
Lesley: Naomi Watts
Jake: Zach Galifianakis
Laura: Andrea Riseborough
Sylvia: Amy Ryan
Tabitha: Lindsay Duncan

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu. Written by Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. Running time: 119 min. Rated R (for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence).

I think I was about 8 years old when I determined that most people are assholes. Don’t read that the wrong way. I didn’t think at such a young age that there was no good in the world or that it was useless to make friends. I included myself in that group of maybe 99 percent of people that are essentially selfish pricks. It is just part of being human. Even for those of us who want to be good to and for others, we spend most of our time struggling to find our way through it all to benefit ourselves as much as possible. Although, that group who desires to benefit other includes a much smaller amount of people. This concept of our human nature seems to be at the heart of the remarkably entertaining movie “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”.