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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Ever since the final story in the “Harry Potter” film series was split into two movies, other popular franchises based on young adult novels have followed suit. From “Twilight” to the upcoming “Divergent” finale to this week’s “Hunger Games” entry, it has become common practice to milk every dollar possible out of their fanbases. While smart from a business point-of-view, such a tactic typically means the storytelling suffers. To date, each first entry in these splits have expectedly felt like the first half of a whole story. But whereas “Harry Potter” had some meat to it, the first part of the final installment in the “Hunger Games,” subtitled “Mockingjay,” has none. The film is a cash grab through and through, taking about 30-45 minutes of dramatic narrative and lengthening it to a plodding two hours. And that’s the least of its problems. Despite two solid entries in the popular franchise, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” fails to deliver in nearly every regard.

The story picks up where “Catching Fire” left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has essentially destroyed the Hunger Games and has been picked up by the rebels who intend to overthrow the Capitol. To do that, they need to get the people from each district on their side, so the rebel president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and her right hand man, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), convince Katniss to be the face of the rebellion, their Mockingjay, and they set out to make propaganda films they can broadcast all around the Capitol.

That is more or less all that happens in this part one of the “Mockingjay” story. It shoehorns in certain themes, particularly in its exploration of totalitarianism, but they fail to resonate. While a story about government intrusion and control over its people is not a bad one, it’s one that has been explored to death, especially in recent years when the US government arguably overextended its rights after 9/11. “Mockingjay” doesn’t do or say anything particularly different, or even well, instead opting to be what amounts to a rather basic “corrupt government vs. righteous rebellion” story.

Even if just looking at it from an action perspective, even if you go in just trying to satisfy your most primitive, visceral desires, “Mockingjay Part 1” won’t satisfy. The Hunger Games from the previous movies are over and the rebellion has begun, but their focus on propaganda films means much of the action happens at a distance, Katniss merely hearing about it or seeing it after the fact and subsequently expressing her frustration on camera, which the rebels use for future broadcasts. The fear, the thrill, the mystery, the intrigue; they’re all gone, replaced with unenticing answers and a glacial narrative pace.

Ultimately, its pseudo-intellectualism is the most prevalent aspect of “Mockingjay,” at least from a story perspective. Unfortunately, its visuals don’t do much to pick up the slack. The colorful eye candy from the two previous films are muted to drab grays and browns here; count yourself lucky if you pick out the fleeting moments of actual color. Though the aesthetic switch compliments the darker tone of the film, it nevertheless makes the movie a visual bore. It is possible to make a tonally dark movie with a dark, muted color palette without compromising the actual beauty of the film. The later “Harry Potter” entries are great examples of those films. “Mockingjay Part 1” is not.

Worse yet, the dialogue is full of some of the most heavy handed ramblings you’ll hear all year, as Katniss and her cohorts proselytize incessantly like loudmouthed doomsayers on a college campus. Lawrence is a terrific actress, but even she can’t elevate her dialogue from the drudgery of the page it was conceived on. When she isn’t talking, the supporting characters don’t do much better as they speak obvious truths, seemingly to appeal to the dumber viewers in the audience. After one character gives a very clear warning to the rebels, another yells out, “A warning! That was a warning!”

There are a few tense scenes, but they either pale in comparison to similar sequences in other films or they fizzle out before anything really happens. The finale in particular ends up going nowhere and the one would-be frightening scene where bombs are dropping overhead recalls 1942’s terrific “Mrs. Miniver,” and it reaches not even a tenth of the drama and fear that movie instilled in the viewer.

There’s not much going on for the majority of this film, but just when the story finally begins to gain some momentum, it abruptly ends. Though it sets the stage for a hopefully more exciting final installment—and when coupled with it, perhaps this first half will fare better—as a standalone product, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” is a monumental dud, a huge nosedive in quality that is unprecedented in other major franchises. It’s unworthy of the venerable “Hunger Games” name and most certainly unworthy of your time.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 receives 1/5


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Last year’s smash hit, “The Hunger Games,” was of a quality similar to many smash hits in recent years: it was good, but not great. Despite a bevy of things it did well, there were a number of story issues and missed dramatic opportunities that were only made all the more apparent by the undeserved hype its fans were spreading. Its sequel, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” fixes many of its predecessor’s mistakes. The drama is more potent, the story better structured and, though it eventually falls into more or less the same dragged-out rhythm of the previous film, the stakes are raised higher. The movie still doesn’t rank among some of the best this year has had to offer, but it’s a marked improvement and sets the stage for a promising final installment.

Since the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have become celebrities. Their story of love has captured the hearts and minds of the people in their districts, much to the chagrin of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Their actions have sparked a rebellion among the lower districts, which is seen as a threat to the Capitol. It’s now the 75th year of the Hunger Games and every 25 years, the Capitol has a special event, a quell, to celebrate and remember the Capitol’s victory over the people’s uprising all those years ago. This year, President Snow, in an effort to subdue the districts’ recent attitude change brought on by Katniss, announces that they will take previous winners of the Hunger Games and pit them against each other. Once again, Katniss finds herself in dire situations, but with the help of some as-of-yet unknown allies, things may begin to change.

If the original film was about anything, it was about our bloodlust, our desire to watch people destroy themselves and each other in an entertaining way. It may be an easy allegory given the destructive reality television personalities our society focuses on, but it’s also a truthful one. We’ve become so accepting of these things that it hardly fazes us anymore. “Catching Fire,” on the other hand, is a wake-up call. It’s about not standing for the status quo if that status quo is corrupt or evil. More specifically, it makes a connection between the perpetuation of fear by media figures. In the film, President Snow wants to keep his people docile and prevent an uprising through the use of manipulation and misinformation, knowing full well that fear is a powerful tool and strong suppressant. Comparisons to so called “news” networks like Fox News are easy to see and this is where the film finds its grounding. Its greatest strength is in its commentary.

Of course, that commentary isn’t exactly subtle. Not much about the film is. The art direction is also once again simultaneously fascinating and perplexing, with clashing schemes of drab, bleak colors in the slummy districts and bright, colorful decor in the extravagant Capitol. Although the colors and costumes are meant to distinguish between the poverty stricken and those who live lavishly, the distinction is too extreme. When one aspect of the film is realistic and grim while the other feels like a cartoon, it inadvertently gives itself a confused tone.

Where “Catching Fire” surpasses the original is in its emotionally charged story. The original had some great dramatic moments, but they felt isolated from the story as a whole. After young Rue died in a tremendously sad scene, she was quickly forgotten and the trauma such an event would have on Katniss was never fully explored. There were no dramatic ripples that carried throughout the entire film. “Catching Fire” is the opposite. Few individual moments have deep impact, but the product as a whole combines to create overarching emotion that builds steadily and doesn’t go away until the end credits begin to roll, and this is despite the inconsistent tone. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” isn’t perfect and will no doubt be spoken of in hyperbole by its many supporters, but it’s nevertheless a step up in nearly every regard.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire receives 4/5



It’s really hard to hate animated movies, even bad ones. If nothing else, animated movies are typically filled with lush visuals and virtuous messages that children need to hear, even if they are a little too simple for adults. Such is the case with the inappropriately titled “Epic.” It’s certainly not an example of a good animated film, and considering that it’s coming from Blue Sky Studios whose best film is the mostly bland “Ice Age,” that’s no surprise, but it’s hardly a disaster and it sports some imaginative visuals, despite a story you can’t say the same for.

The film starts with Mary Katherine, who prefers to go by M.K. (Amanda Seyfried), a teenage girl whose father (Jason Sudeikis) hasn’t always been around for her. Despite this, she is making an attempt to connect with him and goes to visit him in his cabin in the woods. For years, he has been obsessed with a population of tiny creatures he believes to be living in the forest. Most people, including M.K., think he’s crazy, but little do they know he’s actually right. He just hasn’t found the proof yet. M.K. is about to realize this firsthand when she finds herself shrunk down to their size right after the queen of the forest, Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), gives her the chosen forest pod, which will save the forest from Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and the Boggans, the evil little creatures who want the forest to decay. That little pod is going to sprout that night and along with the Leafmen, the guardians of the forest led by rookie Nod (Josh Hutcherson) and Ronin (Colin Farrell), it’s up to her to ensure it sprouts in light and keeps the life of the forest intact.

As one might expect, the story is inconsequential and filled with messages about saving our forests and preserving the delicate ecosystem of life on our planet. It’s certainly a good message and it doesn’t beat you over the head with it like last year’s “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” but the problem comes when the question is inevitably asked: why save the forest? The answer boils down to an unconvincing “because it’s pretty.” The Boggans, as far as the movie explains, don’t want to destroy the forest because they hate the forest’s inhabitants, but rather because they enjoy living in rot. To them, it’s simply a matter of beauty vs. decay and they prefer decay. The battle to save the forest becomes one of aesthetic purposes rather than one of nobility. Although the decay of the forest would obviously lead to the destruction of its ecosystem, such a point is never made. There are plenty of reasons to save our forests and respect the life in it, but kids watching won’t walk away with that understanding due to a narrow thematic focus.

One must admit, however, that the visuals do indeed paint a forest that looks exquisite and feels alive, so perhaps the narrow focus will benefit those watching. Due to our advanced technology, it’s difficult to make a movie with a presumably large budget like this look bad, but that no less diminishes its beauty. The characters are also animated well and move gracefully through the forest, even during the surprisingly taut action scenes. Watching the film move is a real joy, even if where it’s moving to isn’t particularly interesting.

The story itself is emotionally distant and the characters are flatly written, usually succumbing to the archetypes modern moviegoers expect. Nod is the reckless free spirit with untapped potential while Ronin is the hardened general whose duties to the Queen and the forest are his only priorities. Naturally, Ronin cares for Nod and believes in him, despite his recklessness, and it’s a safe bet to assume that Nod will make him proud by the end of the movie. And you can’t have a movie with characters of the opposite sex without sparking a romance, this time between Nod and M.K., a romance that is never truly built or felt and is largely forgotten by the end, given that M.K. has to return to normal size while Nod must remain in his diminutive state.

“Epic” is nothing but underdeveloped stories that are masked by high flying action and solid voice performances from a talented cast (aside from Aziz Ansari as Mub the slug, who proves he can be just as annoying without having to look at him). It’s sure to delight children, though it won’t leave a lasting impression and the chance to provide them with some meaning is unfortunately passed by for simplicity’s sake. For similar concepts told in vastly different ways, you’re better off checking out Studio Ghibli’s wonderful “The Secret World of Arrietty,” which is far more interesting, beautiful and profound than anything shown here. “Epic” is anything but.

Epic receives 1.5/5


The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of the best selling young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, has been shrouded in secrecy. Little was revealed about the film leading up to its release and critics were even asked to sign non-disclosure agreements before watching the film, meaning if they broke the embargo set by the studio, they could be punished in court. It’s a little extreme to be sure, especially since it isn’t anything particularly special. It’s a good film, but the hype it has garnered is a bit much, though if audience reaction at my screening is any indication, it will be a huge hit.

The film is set in a dystopian sci-fi future where every year, 24 kids from the ages of 12 to 18 are thrown together in an arena to battle to the death, one girl and one boy from each of the 12 districts. In District 12 lives Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman who has been forced to act as the head of the household. Ever since her father died, her mother has been useless and she has had to take care of her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Well, Primrose has just hit the age of 12 and for the first time ever is eligible for what they call The Hunger Games. As fortune (or misfortune) would have it, Primrose is selected, but before she is taken off, Katniss volunteers herself in Primrose’s place. So along with the selected male in her district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), she heads off to compete, knowing full well she may be approaching her final days.

For film buffs who are familiar with Kinji Fukasaku’s masterful Battle Royale (which is also, coincidentally, based on a book), The Hunger Games is going to seem mighty familiar. The premise is more or less the same—kids are thrown in a remote area and must fight to the death until only one remains—but tonally, they are quite different. The Hunger Games injects more drama and heart into its runtime than Battle Royale, though that doesn’t necessarily make it superior. For what both are trying to accomplish, Battle Royale does a better job.

The Hunger Games’ greatest strength is its individual moments. It competently builds the characters to the point where you care about them not just because they’re too young to die, but also because of their motivations, selfless actions and realistic emotions. Katniss, for instance, is obviously fearful for her life, but doesn’t want to kill anybody, though she knows she’ll have to. When she runs into Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a young girl of only 12 or 13, she befriends her only to watch her die shortly after. It’s a powerful scene and both actors sell it well. There are more instances like this too, but the problem is that these individual moments don’t ripple throughout the entire movie. After Rue’s passing, she’s never mentioned again and the trauma of such an event is never truly felt in Katniss’ behavior or actions. The respectable and affecting drama is too often traded for cheap thrills, like a late chase through the woods by a pack of wild beasts.

At its core, though, The Hunger Games is a commentary on society, on our bloodlust and our fascination with watching people destroy themselves via reality television. This is where the film works best, even if the ideas have already been explored more successfully in the ahead-of-its-time action film, The Running Man or, in a more dramatic sense, The Truman Show. With our idolization of people like Charlie Sheen, our fascination with shows like Celebrity Rehab and even our obsession with bloody, violent sports like boxing and mixed martial arts, it’s hard not to feel like we’re heading in the direction of pitting people against each other to the death for entertainment. The fact that the film is rated PG-13 is only another indication of our downhill slide because it doesn’t shy away from its brutal violence. Kids are hacked up with machetes, shot with arrows and punctured by spears. Showing blood used to be enough to garner an R rating, but blood splashes up through the screen here while little children are shown dead or dying. While I hesitate to call the violence overly gratuitous (this is no Saw film, after all), the sheer amount of it is startling given its rating, yet it works in favor of the film’s commentary.

Given its grim set-up that all children must die but one, which should lead to conflicting emotions and, ultimately, rich drama, a late movie twist feels a little bit like a cop out; if not a cop out (since they did, in all fairness, set this turn of events up fairly early), then a missed dramatic opportunity. This miss is indicative of the film as a whole. The set-ups aren’t followed through on and the dramatic repercussions of experiencing such a terrible circumstance are left unexplored. Still, those aforementioned individual scenes pack a punch, even if the movie as a whole doesn’t.

The Hunger Games receives 3.5/5


The Kids Are All Right

Movies are an expressive art form and many filmmakers use them as a means to get their messages across. When walking into a movie about a controversial or taboo topic, it’s only natural to assume it will take a position. However, some filmmakers break the mold and like to explore issues within the issues. Last year’s brilliant war film The Hurt Locker never criticized nor praised the Iraq war and instead showed the indisputable effects it has on select soldiers fighting in it. The Kids Are All Right does something similar. It’s about a married lesbian couple with two children, but doesn’t seem to make a statement on homosexuality. It’s simply a story about an imperfect family, like all families, that go through trials and tribulations and must stick together to overcome them.

The film’s story is simple. Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening) have been married for quite some time. Unable to have children on their own, they go to a sperm bank and artificially inseminate themselves. Both have a baby, producing Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Now they are all grown up and Joni is about to head off to college. Before doing so, she contacts her and her brother’s sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Despite Laser’s initial unwillingness to open up, the three bond. When Jules and Nic find out, they take it upon themselves to meet Paul, but conflicting emotions threaten to tear the once stable family apart.

The beauty of The Kids Are All Right is that it treats its characters with respect. It never looks at Jules and Nic as a gay couple. It simply sees them as a couple. They have normal conversations about their jobs. They have problems. They worry about their children and want to share their lives with them. They’re just like any married couple. The filmmakers ensure that their relationship is authentic through and through.

Even better is that their mannerisms make sense. When Paul comes into the picture, Nic understands why her kids sought him out, but questions why they felt the need to. Isn’t her love enough? So she becomes upset, especially after meeting him. Paul is unkempt, rugged and says what’s on his mind, though he means well. Still, Nic doesn’t like him. She was content with her family before, but now fears for its survival with him around. Some may argue her behavior is irrational, which is perfectly justifiable, but it’s believable and that’s why the film works.

You can understand her point of view, even if she is coming off as a little hot-headed. All of the characters are handled this way, even the uncouth Paul. Because of this, you can relate to each and every person and don’t want to see any of them get hurt, but due to a plot turn (that I’ve purposely skipped to avoid spoilers), that outcome is impossible.

Quite simply, the filmmakers do an excellent job of fleshing out their characters. You will relate to somebody in this movie, guaranteed. Even more remarkable are the performances, all of which are spot-on. Although never directly stated, you can tell which child came from which mother because they have similar personalities. Nic’s abrasiveness trickled into Laser while Jules’ easy-going nature clearly penetrated Joni, though both have physical quirks that attach them to their biological father. It’s really quite astounding.

So yes, this is a serious film, but not always. At times, it can be rather funny. I laughed quite a bit, especially from some early sexual double entendres, which goes to show how much thought and care went into the film's production. The Kids Are All Right is in limited release and most likely won’t get the audience it deserves, which is a shame. It may be about a gay couple with sperm donor kids, but I'd be willing to bet you'll see a little bit of your family in here too.

The Kids Are All Right receives 4/5