Sci-Fi Film Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 (dir by Francis Lawrence)


Mj

It’s finally over!

It probably sounds like I’m really excited that the final Hunger Games adaptation has been released.  It may sound like I’m happy that the saga of Katniss Everdeen and her life in Panem has finally come to an end.  And, to a certain extent, I am.  After everything that Katniss has been through, she deserves some peace and, fortunately, the series has ended before Jennifer Lawrence got bored with playing the role.  (To see what happens when actor gets bored with an iconic role, check out Daniel Craig in Spectre.)  Even though I think it can be argued that Mockingjay Part Two is the weakest of all the Hunger Games films, it still allows both Katniss and the actress who brought her to life to go out on a high note.

There’s a part of me that cringes a little when I think about all of the films that were released as a direct result of the success of The Hunger Games.  The Giver, The Maze Runner, Divergent, Tomorrowland, the list goes on and on.  I’ve reached the point where I can now say that I am officially sick of sitting through adaptations of Young Adult dystopian fiction.  And yet, I was still excited to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two (even if that title is way too long and unwieldy).  Regardless of the number of mediocre films that it may have inspired, The Hunger Games franchise has always remained compelling.

So, how was Mockingjay Part Two?  Obviously, it doesn’t work as a stand-alone film.  The pacing is totally off, characters appear and disappear almost at random, and it’s all rather confusing.  If you haven’t seen the film that came before Mockingjay Part Two, I imagine that you would be totally confused by this film.  But, when viewed as the fourth part of one gigantic epic story, the whole thing is rather brilliant.

When the film opens, Katniss is still being used a prop in Alma Coin’s (Julianne Moore) revolution.  The majority of the film deals with her journey into and through the capital.  She wants to track down and assassinate President Snow (the wonderfully evil Donald Sutherland) whereas Coin just wants to use her as a symbol to solidify her authority.  As Katniss quickly realizes, there’s not much difference between Snow and Coin.  However, it takes one great tragedy for Katniss to truly understand the truth about the Alma Coin and her revolution.  If you’ve read the book, you’ll already know about and be prepared for that tragedy but it’s still a heart-breaking moment.

It’s also the most important moment in the franchise, one that reminds us that The Hunger Games has always been far more politically sophisticated (and thematically darker) than all of the films, books, and fan fic that has been inspired by it.  This is a seriously dark and, some would say, cynical movie and, as a student of history, I appreciated that.  I appreciated that Mockingjay didn’t try to force a happy ending on us and I also appreciated the fact that Mockingjay didn’t buy into the simplistic Manichaen worldview that is currently ruining worlds both real and cinematic.  The film’s final scene may be hopeful but it’s never naive.

It’s a bit unfortunate that Mockingjay had to be split into two separate films.  Mockingjay Part Two is full of exciting moments but there’s also a lot of scenes that feel like filler.  You get the feeling they were included to make sure that Mockingjay Part Two’s running team was equal to the other films in the franchise.  This is a film that features a lot of genuinely exciting action and some truly emotional moments.  It’s also a film that features a lot of speeches.  If only both parts of Mockingjay could have been released as one six hour film.  I would have watched it!

The film also features the final performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the rule of Plutarch.  Hoffman is not in many scenes and reportedly, he died before filming two of his biggest scenes.  Those scenes were rewritten and his dialogue given to other actors.  At one point, Woody Harrelson starts to read a letter that was written by Plutarch and it’s a sad scene because you’re aware that, originally, Hoffman was meant to deliver those lines in his trademark style.  As it is, Hoffman only appears in a few minutes of Mockingjay Part Two and he doesn’t do much.  But, when the film briefly features his bemused smile, you’re reminded of what a great actor the world lost when Philip Seymour Hoffman died.

Of course, the entire Hunger Games franchise has been full of great actors.  Jennifer Lawrence brought Katniss to wonderful and empowering life and one of the joys of Mockingjay Part Two is getting to see her bring the character’s story to a close.  But even beyond Jennifer Lawrence’s rightly acclaimed work, the entire cast of the franchise deserves a lot of credit.  I’ve always loved Donald Sutherland’s interpretation of President Snow and he’s at his best here.

For that matter, if there ever is another Hunger Games film or a Hunger Games spin-off, why not make it about Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason?  The way that Malone delivered her angry and frequently sarcastic dialogue was definitely one of the film’s highlights.

Regardless of whether there are any future films, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two is a worthy conclusion to a great story.

(By the way, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, December is science fiction month here at the Shattered Lens!  We hope you enjoy it!)

Previous Hunger Games Reviews:

  1. Quick Review: The Hunger Games (dir by Gary Ross)
  2. Review: The Hunger Games
  3. 44 Days of Paranoia: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  4. For Your Consideration: Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part One

Film Review: All The Wilderness (dir by Michael Johnson)


All the Wilderness

I recently watched an excellent little film called All The Wilderness.

James Charm (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a shy and withdrawn teenager who is still struggling to deal with the recent death of his father.  He spends his time wandering around the forest surrounding the house where he lives with his mother (Virginia Madsen).  Occasionally, he makes his way into the nearby city and aimlessly wanders through the desolate streets.  In his spare time, he sketches pictures of dead animals and tells people that he can predict when they are going to die.  When he informs the local bully that he’s going to die in just a few more days, the bully responds by punching James in the face.

Sometimes, James visits a therapist (Danny DeVito) who seems to alternate between concern and indifference.  One day, while sitting in the waiting room, James meets Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), who is dealing with her parents’ divorce and spends her time making and selling eccentric doughnuts.  James likes Val but he’s too scared to open up to her.  Some of that may have to do with the mysterious, hooded figures who occasionally materialize out of thin air and pursue him through the streets.

After sneaking out of one unproductive therapy session, James discovers a mysterious man named Harmon (Evan Ross) playing a piano in a courtyard.  Later, after his hamster mysteriously dies, a distraught James sneaks out of his house, makes his way down to the city, and gets on a bus.  Sitting across from him is none other than Harmon.

Harmon invites James to follow him on a trip into the hidden corners of the city.  Soon, James is discovering that the wilderness is not only limited to the countryside surrounding his mother’s house.  There’s also an urban wilderness and, with Harmon as his guide, James starts to discover it.  And yet, even as James starts to find happiness, those hooded figures continue to follow him…

All The Wilderness reminded me a lot of last year’s underappreciated California Scheminganother atmospheric look at alienation that was full of existential dread.  All The Wilderness is probably not a film for everyone.  Not only is it extremely stylized but it’s also a bit too short.  All The Wilderness is one of the few films that could actually benefit from an additional 30 minutes added to its running time.

And yet, flaws and all, All The Wilderness is a great film and one that everyone should take the time to see.  It is perched so precariously between being insightful and being pretentious that it becomes oddly compelling to watch the film’s valiantly struggle to maintain its balance.  Visually, this is an incredible film just to look at, with the constantly moving camera capturing images of ominous yet undeniably beautiful urban decay.  In small roles, both Danny DeVito and Virginia Madsen are well-cast while Evan Ross is appropriately charismatic as Harmon.  Finally, Kodi Smit-McPhee — all grown up from his heartbreaking performances in The Road and Let Me In — gives a wonderful and versatile performance in the lead role.

All The Wilderness is a film that deserves to be seen.

For Your Consideration #6: Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One


Mockingjay

Of the three The Hunger Games films released so far, Mockingjay Part One is definitely the weakest.  That does not, however, mean that it’s a bad film.  It’s just that it doesn’t quite reach the grandeur of the first film, nor does it have the same political immediacy as the second one.  However, there’s a lot of good things to be said about Mockingjay.  Julianne Moore is perfectly cast as the charismatic but faintly sinister Alma Coin.  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance reminds us of what a towering talent we lost earlier this year.  Donald Sutherland continues to transform President Snow into a villain for the ages.  Even though he’s only in the film for a few minutes, Stanley Tucci is perfectly vapid as Caesar Flickerman.

In fact, the only real problem with Mockingjay is that it’s so obviously a prologue to something bigger.  Much as with The Maze Runner, we watch Mockingjay with the knowledge that it’s only part one and that the majority of the issues raised by the film will not be settled until next year.  The film itself knows this as well and, as such, it lacks the immediacy and much of the excitement of the first two Hunger Games films.

But yet, with all those flaws in mind, Mockingjay still works and it’s largely because of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss Everdeen.  Whereas the first two Hunger Games films featured a Katniss who was always at the center of the action and always taking charge of any situation that she found herself in, Mockingjay features a Katniss who has far less control over her fate.  (One of the neater ironies of the series is that Katniss was actually more independent as a prisoner of President Snow than as a “guest” of Alma Coin.)  In Mockingjay, Katniss finds herself forced — with more than a little reluctance — to become the figurehead for the entire revolution and the film’s best moments are the ones in which others debate how to best “market” her.  These scenes are all about how Katniss — who is now not only a celebrity but a political icon as well — deals with losing control over her own public image.  Considering that Jennifer Lawrence’s rise to fame and acclaim occurred just as abruptly as Katniss’s, it’s probable that — even more so than in the previous films — the actress brought a lot of herself to the character.

So, yes, I would argue that Jennifer Lawrence does perhaps deserve some awards consideration for her performance in Mockingjay.  However, she truly deserves it for the consistent quality of her performance throughout the entire Hunger Games franchise.  From the very first film, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance has been iconic.  Fiercely independent without giving into the usual cinematic clichés that come with that, Katniss Everdeen has provided an alternative role model for a generation of girls who, otherwise, might have only had the likes of Bella Swan to look up to.

If that’s not worthy of being honored, then I don’t know what is.

Film Review: 96 Minutes (dir. by Aimee Lagos)


Bleh.

I’ve read a lot of really over-the-top laudatory reviews of 96 Minutes, an independent urban crime film that’s opening in limited release this weekend.  Reviewers and bloggers are describing this film as being insightful and powerful and important.  Here’s a quote from one review that was posted over on the IMDb: “I would encourage all of those who see the (film’s) themes as stereotypical to get outside of their own box for 2 minutes and spend some time with those who will you give example after example of how the youth in this country still struggle with the same things as they did 10, 20, and 30 years ago.”

And again, I say “Bleh.”  I saw 96 Minutes last night.  It’s a movie that’s full of good intentions but so what?  A bad movie is a bad movie, regardless of the noble intentions of the filmmakers.

The film starts out with four people in a car.  Dre (Evan Ross) is driving while, in the passenger’s seat, his jumpy friend Kevin (J. Michael Trautman) points a gun at two girls huddled in the backseat: Carley (Brittany Snow) and her friend Lena (Christian Serranos).  Lena, by the way, has been shot in the head.  The film proceeds to show us (by jumping back and forth in time) how this situation came to be and guess what?  It all unfolded exactly how you think it did so the end result is like being stuck with someone who continues to tell you the same long story even after you’ve said, “Yes, you already told me all this.”

From what I’ve been able to gather from online research, 96 Minutes was (much like Crash, which this film resembles) inspired by an actual carjacking that involved the film’s director. As such, 96 Minutes starts out by informing us that the film we’re about to see is “Based on true events.”  That should have been a warning because, while the whole “based on a true story” thing is usually a good sign when it comes to an old school exploitation film, it’s almost always the kiss of death when it comes to well-meaning but overly earnest independent cinema.  Ironically, films that are “based on true events” often feel rather false and predictable and the end result is a movie that comes across like an overlong version of one of those awful Mutual of Omaha “Ah-ha Moment” commercials.

(“My name is Carley and this is my Ah-ha moment.  Oh my God, we were getting carjacked!  At that moment, so many things went through my head…”  “Brought to you by Mutual of Omaha, proud sponsor of life’s Ah-ha Moments…”)

In the film’s defense, it is well-acted (especially by Evan Ross, who has a very quiet power) and director Aimee Lagos comes up with a few strong visuals but ultimately, it doesn’t add up to much.  The film feels predictable and the fractured narrative structure doesn’t provide any unexpected insight into the characters or their actions.  The scenes with Kevin and Dre feel as if they were clumsily lifted from a hundred other urban crime films, right down to the predictable pairing of a complete psycho with a sensitive criminal who wants to go straight.  Meanwhile, Carley and especially Lena come across not so much as actual characters but more as dramatic devices.  This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if this was a 15-minute short film about the quirks of fate but stretched out to 96 minutes, the film’s characters and themes feel quite thin indeed.

In many ways, 96 Minutes reminded me quite a bit of last year’s Another Earth.  Much like Another Earth, 96 Minutes doesn’t have much to say but it pretends like it does and I imagine that a quite a few gullible viewers will be tricked into thinking that they’re watching something powerful and important play out in the screen in front of them.  If they’re anything like the members of the Another Earth cult, they’ll probably get really offended over any suggestion that the film they’ve just watched isn’t a masterpiece.  Well, my reply to them is this: If the film was really as great and important and insightful as some people are claiming then you wouldn’t care what I have to say about it.  If this review makes you defensive, it’s because you know I’m right.