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Entries in philip seymour hoffman (4)

Thursday
Nov202014

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

Thursday
Nov212013

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

Friday
Sep212012

The Master

I was speaking with one of my critic colleagues after our screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master. When I asked him what he thought of it, he responded, “I feel the same way about it as I did There Will Be Blood. I’m watching it and it’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, then it ends and I’m like, ‘What the hell was the point of that?’” His sentiments, more or less, echo mine. Anderson is no doubt a gifted filmmaker, but he has a strange way of setting up themes that he never fully explores. It’s his frustrating modus operandi and it’s never been more apparent than in The Master. It is most certainly a good film, but its failure to meet ending expectations set by its opening events prevents it from being one of the best of the year.

Heavily criticized by the Church of Scientology as an attack on their beliefs, The Master takes place post-WWII and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a war veteran who is coasting aimlessly through this new peacetime, unsure of what the future holds for him. One night, during a drunken stupor, he stumbles onto a boat run by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and passes out. He wakes up in the middle of the ocean and begins to learn who Lancaster is, discovering that he’s the founder of a faith-based organization called “The Cause.” Despite Freddie’s violent outbursts, the two strike up a friendship and Freddie quickly becomes Lancaster’s right hand man.

Paul Thomas Anderson is masterful director. His movies are beautifully shot and he always gets the absolute best out of his performers. He even managed to turn Adam Sandler, who had been thought of as nothing more than a goof at the time, into an acting powerhouse in 2002’s blissful Punch-Drunk Love. He knows when he has something good going and often opts to shoot in one continuous take, letting his actors do what they’re supposed to and giving the film a gritty realism, one that is unparalleled by any other filmmaker working today. His eye for detail and accompanying techniques to capture them, which include what one could only call an anti-shot-reverse-shot, in that his camera stays on one actor rather than editing back and forth based on who’s talking, are masterful strokes from a brilliant filmmaker.

That reason right there is enough to see The Master. It’s practically guaranteed to be nominated for multiple Oscars in the upcoming awards season (including Joaquin Phoenix, who should be a shoo-in win), but mainly due to its technical expertise. Where it flounders is in its telling of its story. I hesitate to say Anderson isn’t a good storyteller because he definitely is—this film is captivating from its first frame of frothy ocean water to its last—but it never finds meaning, or at least not the one he sets up. Early in the movie, the mystery behind this so-called religion is the film’s driving force. The themes he sets up about science vs. religion are fascinating. At times, it’s an indictment of unfounded religious thinking, exploring the idea that people will believe any religious ideology if their mind has been shaped—some may say manipulated—into believing. This is a movie that knows full well that the idea of God is planted in the mind. It’s not an inherent trait. Regardless of whether you’re religious or not, this is an important issue worth looking into given how much religion shapes so many world events.

But then the movie switches gears. It becomes less about religion and more about the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster, the latter refusing to shun the former, wanting only to help him through his meandering life. This story is no less interesting, mind you, and you’ll be so engrossed in what’s happening that it won’t be until late in the movie that you’ll realize the focus has changed. Nevertheless, this sudden shift from sharp religious commentary to broad character study is more than a little disappointing. That’s not to say that every movie needs to have some intellectual point to make on any given topic—most movies get by just fine without one—but setting one up and then suddenly dropping it comes off as unfocused. If this shift was indeed the intent, one can’t help but wonder why the none-too-subtle comparisons to the founding of Scientology, down to names, dates and locations were made to begin with.

In the end, The Master fails to fulfill its promise, though it would be unfair to say its intellectualism evaporates; it just moves it onto something else. Despite a lingering feeling of disappointment once the credits roll, there’s so much good here, so much talent on display, that it would be a crime to call it anything other than a great film. It stands right alongside the rest of this year’s other great films, though, really, that should be taken as both a compliment and a criticism. With the right focus, it could have stood above them.

The Master receives 4/5

Friday
Sep232011

Moneyball

A couple weeks ago, we were treated to Warrior, a sports drama that broke the mold of a typical sports drama and became something more. Hot on its heels is this week’s Moneyball, a movie that, similarly, hopes to break new ground in the genre by focusing more on what goes on behind the scenes rather than on the field. It’s written by Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter of last year’s best picture, The Social Network, directed by Bennett Miller, director of Capote, framed by Wally Pfister, cinematographer of The Dark Knight, and it features a terrific cast of Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Its resume is second to none and although it’s a technically sound film, it nevertheless tells an inconsequential story, one that will likely have people asking when it’s over: that’s it?

Moneyball tells the true story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager for the Oakland Athletics, when he attempted to wrangle up a championship team despite a tiny budget during the 2002 baseball season. To do so, he enlisted the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an Ivy League graduate who explained to him that the owners of Major League Baseball teams are trying to buy players when they should be buying wins. He believes there are undervalued players out there that are overlooked because of trivial matters like body type or play style. He thinks, despite a lack of money, they can find 25 men worthy of calling themselves a ball club.

Moneyball can be viewed a number of different ways, though none of them are particularly interesting. One way can be as a traditional sports story about defying expectations—after all, this ragtag group of players ended up setting the record for most consecutive wins in a single season—but defying expectations meant making it to the playoffs, where the team lost in the first round, making a movie adaptation about them questionable. Another way would be as a story about a man who changed the way the game was played, or, more specifically, how managers recruited players, but that’s a tidbit that is interesting as a footnote in a sports book, not as a full length feature film. You could also see it as a film about a man overcoming his emotional struggles, but even that proves to be uninteresting because his struggle stems solely from baseball. They don’t come from a meaningful outside factor like in the aforementioned Warrior; they come from not winning games, which is hardly a struggle at all.

The best sports dramas aren’t about the sport, they’re about something else. Remember the Titans, for example, was about a social divide brought on from racism. The Express similarly dealt with race relations, chronicling the story of the first African American Heisman Trophy winner, an accomplishment that meant more than the sport itself. Moneyball is simply about baseball, that’s it. While not necessarily a bad thing, its insignificance can’t help but show through when compared to other films in the genre.

There needed to be a reason to care about Billy and his team, but none is ever presented. He’s a divorcé, a situation ripe for emotional turmoil, but only one scene exists between him and his ex-wife and, as far as the viewer can tell, their post-marriage relationship is fine. He too has a good relationship with his daughter, shown through scenes that prove to be the only gripping moments away from baseball. In his family life, nothing seems to be eating away at him. The film tries to create a connection between his desperate need for success by tying it in with flashbacks from his failed professional career, seemingly wanting to make up for the fact that he never lived up to expectations as a player, but again, it’s not fleshed out enough and the connection gradually diminishes until there’s nothing left.

Moneyball is a baseball lover’s movie. If you don’t know what an RBI is or are uninterested in the player trading process or don’t care about the likelihood of a player getting a hit based on the pitches he swings at, this movie may not be for you. Because the process used to recruit the players is based on an old algorithm, there is a lot of statistical talk, which many will find dry and boring. I played baseball as a kid and watch it today, so I found it somewhat interesting, but these talks are as deep as this movie gets, which is a problem considering its pretentiousness in thinking it is so much more. It’s still worth seeing because of the great performances, top notch cinematography and gripping dialogue, but it’s simply too shallow to make an impression.

Moneyball receives 2.5/5