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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



When a film’s opening shots consist of its protagonist prepping a hard drink for himself, it’s hard to not assume the events that follow will be a little heavy-handed. When it’s in slow motion, it’s also easy to assume that it’s going to be a tad laughable. But when he starts swirling the concoction around with a toothbrush, of all things, the thought that comes to mind is that it’s going to be ridiculous. Well, “Non-Stop” is a little bit of all three. The character’s back story is inconsistent and exists solely as a means to force drama and the motivation of the mystery killer or killers is worthy of an eye roll, but it all plays out in such a ridiculous, over-the-top way that, if anything can be said for it, it’s never dull. That doesn’t mean it’s good, mind you, but if you’re looking for a stupid Liam Neeson thriller where you can turn your brain off, I suppose it works.

Bill (Neeson) is an Air Marshal prepping himself, through the consumption of alcohol, for a transatlantic flight. He hopes all will go well, as countless flights before this one have, but once in the air, he receives a text message on his supposedly secure phone from an anonymous person who demands $150 million to be transferred to an off-shore account. For every 20 minutes this doesn’t happen, this person is going to kill a passenger. Bill immediately springs into action, but he’s up against a cunning mind, one that has pre-planned everything and saving the people on this plane is not going to be easy.

Liam Neeson surprised everyone and proved himself as a capable action star with 2008’s “Taken” and even showed he could carry a mystery in 2011’s “Unknown.” In a sense, “Non-Stop” tries to blend those two together and the result is a jumbled mess, despite the cool, if admittedly thin, premise, but the problems arise quickly once you realize the movie has no idea what to do with it. Instead of actually investigating the mystery, “Non-Stop” features what can only be described as an intense text war. He prods and pokes and tries to get information from the person on the other end of the incessant messaging, but finding actual clues happens almost solely by accident.

When he does make an attempt to reveal the texter’s identity, he does so in ways that makes the most transparent person in the world look subtle. His tactics are obvious, to the point where nearly anyone on the plane could see or hear what he’s doing; for example, loudly asking his row mate, Jen (Julianne Moore), to watch the screens that transmit camera footage of the passengers, the screens that are directly in front of the very people she’s watching. While the film does raise some palpable suspense at times, Bill’s far-too-direct methods essentially kill it, as it’s far too easy to realize that nothing’s going to come from his attempts. Late in the movie when he makes a redemptive speech about how he’s not a good father or good man, it takes every ounce of self-control to not stand up and yell, “You’re not so hot an Air Marshal either.”

“Non-Stop” is a turn-off-your-brain-and-enjoy-it type of film. It demands very little with its simple story and could have succeeded solely based on its desire to be a popcorn film. If that is its intention, how can one fault it for being just that? But then the reveal happens and, without ruining anything, an out-of-left-field political message rears its ugly head. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the sentiments, it has no reason to exist in this movie. Why can’t the motivation behind the actions similarly be simple? Why can’t the perpetrator(s) simply want to be rich? The forced message in what amounts to a nonsense film sucks any goodwill one may have for it up to that point right out the window.

Much of this won’t matter for some of the more astute viewers anyway, as the eventual reveal isn’t all too surprising, so it’s likely they’ll have checked out far before it happens. If you’re familiar with other popular TV shows and movies, you’ll immediately know which passengers to focus on, as these stars wouldn’t relegate themselves to extras, and then it’s just a matter of time before you’re able to dwindle down the possibilities, though the movie does a good enough job of doing that itself with far too heavy trickery to try to throw you off the trail. We’ve seen these tricks hundreds of times before, so they don’t work.

Still, it’s hard to truly trash “Non-Stop.” It’s dumb, but, aside from that wrongheaded political reveal, it doesn’t aspire to be anything more. If the idea of Liam Neeson being Liam Neeson-y on a plane appeals to your senses, have at it. It’s not great, but you could do worse.

Non-Stop receives 2/5


Crazy, Stupid, Love

Crazy, Stupid, Love is neither crazy, stupid, nor particularly romantic. It’s a movie that bungles many things, but nails many others. Its quality fluctuates from slightly below average to slightly above. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s a decidedly middle-of-the-road picture, one I’m not upset I saw, but one I’ll surely forget about before the year is out. It’s likable enough, but whether it’s worth seeing is hardly worth arguing. If it interests you, see it. If it doesn’t, don’t.

If you do, this is what you’ll get: a movie about love that doesn’t spend adequate time building emotion. And that’s precisely why it’s stuck in mediocrity; because love is emotion. If you don’t feel it, it’s hard to care. However, it must not be a minute or two into the film before Cal (Steve Carell) is hearing from his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), that she wants a divorce. It doesn’t establish their relationship prior to this, yet we are asked to sympathize. In a way, we do (mainly due to Carell, who shows the anguish most people must go through when they find out the love of their life wants to leave them), but the structure of the screenplay limits it. One can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers chose not to open their film more emotionally aggressive and allow us to see the love the two had before splitting them up.

Distraught by what his wife has told him, Cal immediately moves out and starts drowning his sorrow in alcohol at a local bar. While there, ladies man Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who seems to take a girl home with him each and every night, strikes up a discussion with him. He tells him he is embarrassing himself with his self loathing and agrees to make him over, promising his wife will “rue the day” she decided to give up on him.

But of course, in a movie about love, even a ladies man like Jacob is going to find someone to care about. She comes in the form of Hannah (Emma Stone), a “game changer” (with a strange attraction to Conan O’Brien) with whom he begins to fall in love. Though wildly uneven as a whole, Crazy, Stupid, Love succeeds on little moments and the romance between Jacob and Hannah is the best example of that. Their relationship is built on virtually one scene, but it takes its time, allows for character growth and it forces viewers to reevaluate their perception of Jacob. Such a character curveball can only be done with a capable actor and Gosling is more than up to the task, emitting charm and likability at every turn, despite some shades of what seem like mild misogynism. Because of him and the always effervescent Stone, the scene comes off as strikingly authentic and deeply moving.

The problem is that it’s followed by an ending where coincidences are stacked on top of contrivances, resulting in a ridiculous string of events that takes a level, if underwhelming, movie and tips it too far to one side. By the time the credits roll, the movie has tackled issues of guilt, forgiveness, family, infidelity and depression, though “tackled” isn’t really the right word. It’s more like what would happen if a football player ran at a brick wall. He would hit it, but he’s not making an imprint.

Crazy, Stupid, Love should be something more than it is, especially given the wonderful trailers, which, sadly, do a better job of bringing forth the desired emotion. What it amounts to instead is nothing more than a barely passable movie that does something wrong for every something right.

Crazy, Stupid, Love receives 2.5/5


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