“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” *1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci
Written by: Peter Craig & Danny Strong (screenplay), based on the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Film criticism, I think, must take into account a film’s intent, whether or not it aligns with your personal wants and needs. I also recognize the legions of ‘Hunger Games’ book fans, and acknowledge that I have not laid a hand on any of them. Your passion for the material is noted. Understanding that, I find that reviewing films like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 to be an absolute chore. I am clearly not the audience, and I’m required by fans to show reverence for the source material, yet I still ask that the film achieve something greater than its’ source material. This is film, cinema, movies; this is the stuff of our dreams, and should leap off the screen and be remembered. It shouldn’t simply be the narration of a book that aims to please (at its core) a younger audience that at times can barely comprehend what they are feeling. For me, this latest sequel is just that- a meaningless narration, a non-challenging exercise of pre-packaged capitalism, simply collecting the money we have been pre-programmed to hand out. It doesn’t need or aspire to work for a greater creative purpose, and thus exists as an empty enterprise.
So, like a lamb to the slaughter, I sat down to the film with zero optimism, waiting for the inevitable uninspiring yawn to spew forth. As with Catching Fire before it, Mockingjay bores its’ audience, simply presenting a long series of rote, expected scenes and set pieces rife with artificial feelings, standard speeches, and meaningless treacle about absolutely nothing. Nothing happens in this film, or at least nothing of importance. I am responsible for my own misery here, as I fully understood what I was getting into, but ultimately, we’re all responsible for this type of drivel.
Collectively, we seem to yearn for the simple, uncomplicated storytelling and easy narratives brought forth by young adult material, but therein lies the problem with it. At best, it is unnecessary, easy to digest, always establishing the next film, promising to pay off in the end. At worst, it is irresponsible. Here’s what I mean- the basis of the “Hunger Games” story centers around the idea of children murdering each other for the enjoyment of the elite. Not only is that awful from a moral standpoint, it automatically brings to mind a dark, bloody sensibility, and in order to take it seriously, I’m requiring that the films at least be brave about the very subject the story is based on. The closest thing to that level of responsibility any of the “Hunger Games” films have presented is a slightly macabre scene in which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) stands over what amounts to a mass grave of still smoldering District 12 residents. Everything else is “teen-sheened” for that nice, PG-13 gloss. That these films need to be rated PG-13 speaks to their inherent ridiculousness.
So what happens in Mockingjay? I already said ‘nothing’, but I suppose there are technically ‘things’ that ‘happen’. If you’ve seen Catching Fire, you know that Katniss went and shot for the stars (literally), bringing down the whole arena and ending the games. She is rescued by the rebellion of ‘District 13’, and in the process is separated from Peeta (Hutcherson). I literally have no idea if Katniss has romantic feelings for he or Gale (Hemsworth), brotherly feelings, or if they both just represent something that she loves. I’m sure a fan can tell me. Peeta is alive and sending mixed messages through broadcasts from the capital, appearing to work for President Snow (Sutherland). Is that the case? Has he been brainwashed? Should the rebellion rescue him? Does this inspire other questions about the film’s lack of sensibility? Is Katniss so darned important to this ‘rebellion’ that it’s ok for her to enter war zones? What’s a ‘Plutarch Heavensbee’? Can bees and dogs really smell fear?
That is the unfortunate, ridiculous place that my mind wanders to after watching Mockingjay (or any of these films, to be honest). I get lost trying to keep track of the silly rules and foundations that this type of film lazily constructs because they don’t have the capacity to provide the entire book’s narrative setup. Perhaps the filmmakers assume most of their viewers will fill in the film’s gaps, but I cannot do that. I wonder- how did the Harry Potter films (the argument against my distaste for YA fiction) accomplish what they did? Did the whimsical nature of magic allow us to forget the occasional awkward stalls and poor pacing, or was the source material just that rich? I’ll just leave that question out there. I know the answer.
Unfortunately for her, Lawrence appears even more lost than I am, and certainly out-of-place. Her involvement in Mockingjay is summed up in an odd series of scenes where she observes something, then shudders in fear, then bawls. I wondered where the strong young woman from the first film was- the leader, the reason I bothered watching any of these in the first place? The idea that her character may or may not suffer from a form of PTSD is highly plausible, but then I contrast that with the world these people are living in. Isn’t she already familiar with devastation, loss, and subordination? These seem like new concepts for a population that supposedly has endured 75 years of abuse. I’m confused, aren’t you? Lawrence does her best to bring some emotion to the role, but she’s better than this film. Most of these actors are.
No one is more aware that I’m not the audience for this film than I, and I’m honestly reticent to be so harsh to what others love so much. Mockingjay, however, is the among the worst kind of movies in my eyes, simply there to perpetuate itself without the responsibility of being wort its’ cinematic weight. As opposed to good film, which would elevate the source material, this plays like a bored narrator, content to feed the audience exactly what it wants. Lionsgate, never content with their library of mediocre franchises ready to excrete on the public, has what they wanted- a large pile of money to bathe in. Congratulations.
“Interstellar” ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy, and Matt Damon
Written by: Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Admittedly, I fawned over the concept of Interstellar long before actually viewing the film, as I hold a deep passion for the subject of space exploration, and all the dangerous beauty therein. The thought that master filmmaker Christopher Nolan would create a space exploration epic whipped me into a frenzy. Trailers confirmed what I already suspected, that Nolan was making a film which spoke to humans’ long-lost love affair with the heavens, and begged us to recall our true nature as explorers. The truth is, we really have forgotten who we are. What once was an optimistic and romantic venture has taken huge steps backwards, to the point where the general consensus is to shun space exploration altogether. Fear, technological limitations, money, and even religious beliefs have kept us, for the most part, Earth-bound.
Nolan, the man with the tactical skill of a blockbuster director and the heart of an independent, will have none of that. Interstellar is a film, an experience, with remarkably bold ideas, proudly embodying the explorer spirit of the human race in all our ugliness and beauty. Even more triumphantly, it is a film keenly aware that our collective strengths far outnumber our weaknesses, and always will- even up to the point of extinction. After all our trials and tribulations, this film knows as I do that we should always dare to experience the awe of our universe beyond our home. This is a film that dares to stand up and proclaim that our spirit of discovery should be celebrated, never withheld. I adored Interstellar, but mostly for reasons that extend beyond the actual quality of the film, and instead what it roused in me. I love that Nolan has attempted to re-ignite our passion for exploration through a movie. I love that he cared to explain the actual science of interstellar travel without bogging our minds down in technical babble. I love the ‘tactfulness’, the attention to detail, and the understanding of who we really are. Every plot point, every piece of action, every struggle a character endures seems to point to the human condition, then pushes forward with a positive nudge. I love that the film still pays respects to the dangers of space and nature, yet doesn’t buy in to the dogma of our time that says space travel isn’t ‘worth’ the cost. I love how truthful this film is to the human condition; that honesty, paired with the film’s scope and beauty, make it one of the year’s best films, and an experience I will not soon forget.
McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former pilot whose expertise with machines helps him farm amidst a global-wide famine. Massive dust storms constantly ravage the land, crops die out, and humans can see their extinction in the rear-view mirror. An “anomaly” leads Cooper and his daughter Murph (Foy) to discover a hidden bunker, where, you guessed it, secret plans are being made by secret scientists to help take care of the Earth’s problem. Their solution? Find another suitable location for humans. We know nothing of that sort exists in our solar system; in theory, we should be out of luck. However, these scientists have found a ‘wormhole’ (or an Einstein-Rosen bridge for you science nuts) located outside of Saturn’s orbit. That ‘hole’ allows for the literal possibility of travelling to a galaxy far, far away. In perhaps the film’s weakest moment, the scientists choose the one man (Cooper) who found their secret location (but weren’t looking for him before) and ask him to pilot their craft. After all, he has all of the skills, knows the man leading the project (Caine), and mostly, the plot requires it.
Nolan crafts characters here with real depth though, considering their situations and all of the grand things going on about them. Case in point- Cooper is a pilot, but also the father of two children. His situation presents the main problem for anyone considering interstellar travel: time. To begin with, he must consider the fact that he’s leaving his children (who’ve already lost their mother), possibly for good. Then, once he makes that decision, there is a possibility that if he returns, enough time will have passed on Earth that his children may be dead. Every hour he spends in an alternate galaxy, seven years pass on Earth. Imagine the difficulty that decision brings, compared with the gargantuan task of saving the human race from extinction. His mission team for project ‘Lazarus’ have their own responsibilities that they wrestle with, and I love that the script acknowledges both the brilliance and vulnerability of the individuals. After all, they are still human, and have to endure completely new experiences in the harshest of environments. Even Nolan’s robot creations have personalities. TARS and CASE (Interstellar’s amazing droids) are both stunning to look at and carry unique personalities. They represent, quite possibly, the nearest thing to mission-assisting AI in film history- clunky, yet useful, and wholly believable.
The ‘Lazarus’ mission presents the crew with two possibilities- first, that the astronauts might find a habitable world to transport Earth’s survivors to; second, they find a world to begin a new colony, but only if the first plan fails. By the time Cooper comes upon this project, teams have already been through the wormhole, and have scouted potential homes in advance of the following team. Nolan gives us ground-breaking, astounding visuals as the crew traverses time and space, from the unbelievable slingshot that is the wormhole to the various alien surfaces and through a giant black hole. At the same time, there is something familiar about what we see; Nolan knows that the audience expects a degree of reality from him, and something fantastical, a la the psychedelic colors of 2001: A Space Odyssey, wouldn’t seem right in his film. The alien planets should look like Earth; after all, that is their goal. That’s party why the film works so well; being grounded in reality and the familiar allows you to accept what happens as plausible.
I must admit that I admired Christopher Nolan long before the arrival of Interstellar. I now feel a different, and perhaps greater, admiration for his work. His film bothers to challenge us and ask difficult questions. If we damaged our planet beyond repair, should we not seek out a different home, even if it runs contrary to logic or religious beliefs? Should we be willing to sacrifice our ‘greatest gift’, life, to achieve that goal? Should we not examine every possibility, up to and including the illogical, to save our species? Should we shun our true natures because of difficulty, or fear of difficulty? This is a film interested in confronting the grand dangers of human and Mother Nature, and respectfully picking ourselves up and pushing forward when She knocks us down. As the film states, she is “formidable, but not evil”.
The great 2013 film Gravity represents our primal, logical, conservative “right” brain, asking us to take Ms. Nature as a literal force to be reckoned with. We feel the intense connection Sandra Bullock’s character has for her Mother Earth at the end as she emerges from the water, gripping the ground with intense gratitude. We feel her character understanding her place in the universe, content with fearing the unknown once more. On the other hand, Interstellar mirrors our cinematic left brain, examining all creative and scientific avenues. We feel Cooper almost stretching his hand out into the void of space and fearlessly admiring the beauty of what it may hold, yearning for a greater understanding. Interstellar challenges us to think bigger, as it should. If you want to be simply entertained by loud noises, overly maudlin storytelling, and vague explanations not based in real science, this won’t be for you. You’ll need to don a thinking cap, and that’s refreshing. It is representative of the very reason we go to the theater, and why we always have. It entertains, but asks you to participate; it stays with you, asking you to consider that the human race is better than what we’ve done or where we came from, and that we should always move forward.
It is possible that the experience of this film will never again be replicated for me. I sat front and center to an IMAX screen, my body shaken by the deep bass of space engines and rockets, my mind enveloped by the journey. Like most cinematic ‘experiences’, however, it may not translate well to the home screen. At that point the grand ideas of Interstellar should take center stage, and if you’re willing, it can take you places. At a time when there seems to be so much pessimism towards the notion of space exploration, this film offers the view that we should never give up searching. That sense of discovery, that thirst for knowledge, brings forth the most positive of feelings, and stirs our primal souls. Nolan is right to frequently quote Dylan Thomas in this film- we should never go gently into that good night. We should always rage, rage, against the dying of the light. This is a film that truly knows what that means.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” **** (out of 5)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Karen Gillan, with Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Josh Brolin
Written by: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, based on the Marvel comic created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Directed by: James Gunn
Prior to the release of this film, I sensed a small, but vocal group of fans growing discontent with Marvel’s ‘stubbornness’. After all, fan hero Edgar Wright had walked from the “Ant-Man” project due to creative differences, seemingly because Marvel wouldn’t budge. Remember, this is a group that hit so hard on their gamble, yet seemingly couldn’t wait to plan everything out in ‘phases’, then not allow for different versions of their ‘plan’. Sure, they’ve been unbelievably successful, but I’ve been pining for them to have some fun. Even the latest Captain America film, despite how well-done it is, still operates at a spy thriller-level of seriousness. In walks Guardians of the Galaxy, a robust, strange, kind of gross, yet extremely funny space opera that’s a complete breath of fresh air for the Marvel cinematic universe. Aside from a few problems that are really nothing more than my own brain being finicky about songs, this film does ‘comic book movie’ better than any of its’ counterparts, and will likely be remembered for generations to come.
More than one specific part of the film, the tone is spot on. Upon the hiring of James Gunn as director, I was understandably worried- even with the bits and pieces that worked with his films Slither and Super, they certainly weren’t complete. I did, however, detect a specific sensibility from Gunn that would work for a proposed film about a bunch of rag-tag galactic misfits. From an opening scene where Peter Quill (Pratt) prances around an alien treasure room to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” to a chase on the galaxy’s capitol planet, cast and crew alike seem to know that the world they’ve created is far too ludicrous to be taken too seriously. As a result, Guardians sets a different set of rules, and comes off as quite self-aware, which is the right approach. Think of it as an ‘indie blockbuster’.
Star-Lord/Quill is the focus of the story, but unknowingly he brings four other beings to him in search of the stolen alien orb. On the galaxy’s capitol plant of Xandar, home of the “Nova Corps” (think Green Lantern Lite), Quill tries to sell this alien treasure. Soon, he’s pursued by the green-hued Gamora (Saldana), the enormous, deadly Drax (Bautista), and the dynamic but scientifically improbable duo of Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel). After tearing through the city in a three-way bounty chase, all five are arrested and shipped off to “Knowhere”, a floating galactic space skull, which just happens to serve as a prison. This motley crew goes from fighting each other, to gathering in a police lineup, to plotting an escape, to collaborating against a common enemy, all within 45 minutes. What feels like a rushed partnership in lesser films actually makes sense here- these five all have specific skills that mesh well, and they’re all outcasts.
Little does Quill know that his artifact-snatching actions have attracted the attention of Thanos (Brolin), the ‘Mad Titan’. He has both his son Ronan the Accuser (Pace) and his daughter Nebula (Gillan) scheming to acquire the power contained within this orb, and now that the five galactic misfits have it, they’re a target. Much has been made of the Thanos character since he first appeared on-screen in The Avengers– but if I’m honest, his menacing tease isn’t fully realized here. Brolin, while vocally capable of pulling off the role, delivers flat, antiseptic lines that don’t reflect the promise of his hype. I’m sure he’ll eventually show off, but Thanos underwhelmed here. The same goes for Ronan, who doesn’t appear to have much of a motivation for his aggression, nor is there much nuance to his character, other than his hatred for his boss/father Thanos. If there is a weak spot to this film, it would be the underwhelming presence of the villains. In fact, their lack of menace is what keeps this film from overtaking Captain America: The Winter Soldier as Marvel’s best entry.
The villains aren’t what make this memorable, however. Let us ponder the multiple possibilities for failure with this film- a talking, irascible CGI alien raccoon, a stoic alien tree that can only utter four words, a former pro wrestler in a pivotal role, a green-skinned assassin, and a talented, but unproven lead. In the hands of lesser talent, Guardians would be a disaster. As it is, Gunn and crew took all of those same possible eccentricities and spun them into positives. Pratt is a star- and he’s brilliant as Star-Lord/Quill, showcasing both his comic timing and his action chops. Cooper and Diesel, while just voices, offer such a depth of character with the small amount of time they have. It’s truly remarkable how Rocket and Groot are realized, both behind the mic and behind the CGI wizardry. Saldana, playing off her existing connections to sci-fi popular culture (Star Trek, Avatar), brings depth to her character and elevates it from being a simple hired hand. Bautista was a real revelation- who would have thought he could bring a dry, comic awareness to a character named ‘Drax the Destroyer’? What appeared to be a weak link with his casting actually stood out for its’ brilliance. There are new, exciting worlds loaded with strange, bold new visuals, prompting me (a critical sci-fi stickler) to fixate on the screen in wonder.
Other than the obvious comparison to another pop culture titan in Star Wars, one needn’t look much farther than another Marvel mind for a more prescient comparison. The late “Firefly” series and subsequent film entry Serenity are good, low-budget templates for this material, but Guardians stands taller. The ironic part is that Guardians, for all of its’ visual brilliance, actually owes its’ character chemistry in large part to Joss Whedon’s cult favorite. What sets it apart is Gunn’s inherent odd sensibility- the need to place a gross joke in the right place, or a gnarly alien to ground it in a different universe.
Guardians of the Galaxy does care about the larger “Avengers” universe, but only by proxy. The filmmakers have forged their own beast here, rife with the fantastical and the improbable, and it works. Ok, not only does it work, it’s wonderful. Despite my minor protestations (and they are minor), Guardians succeeds where others haven’t- bringing the spirit and fun of something like Star Wars back to pop culture, a task that even the latter’s creator failed to accomplish. There are brash heroes, skilled warriors, sly sidekicks, idealistic factions, and loyal friends. Simple? Sure. Pandering? Not at all. Guardians is the film experience the Star Wars prequels wishes it could have been- but as a function of artistry, the film isn’t the slightest bit worried about comparisons, expectations, or symmetry along the lines of a franchise. I appreciate that rebel sensibility, and it should be commended for being so bold as to cast a lead like Pratt, for being weird, and for coming off like the middle child that wants to be noticed, but is fine to do its’ own thing. Guardians is fun enough to make me say I “felt like a kid again”, and actually mean it.
*note: the mid-credits scene would be throw-away, if not for the already obvious Star Wars/George Lucas link. By getting the scene right, it shows just how wrong Lucas was/is, and solidifies Guardians as a new standard-bearer in sci-fi/fantasy.
“Noah” **1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Ray Winstone, and Anthony Hopkins
Written by: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
**SPOILER ALERT (it seems perfunctory, but still…)**
**Note: My religious beliefs obviously have a bearing on whether or not I enjoyed this film; however, I shall make a sincere attempt to critique the film on its’ own merits.**
It is important to note that I have no grounds to critique the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of a Bible story. Suffice to say, I’m familiar enough with the idea of the ark, Noah, animals furry and slimy, and scripture that I can at least have a frame of reference. The thought of an actual Hollywood production of this story seems a bit preposterous- with varying viewpoints, faith-based opinions, and a lack of pure evidence to reference, a representation of such a fantastical story would have to be taken for what it is, conjecture.
The question, then, is whether or not “Noah” accomplishes the mission to be a competent, consistent film, conjecture be damned- and my answer is a soft ‘no’. It has the ambition of a blockbuster, but none of the joy. It has the tenacity to be provocative, but lacks the conviction required for deeper meaning. It is thoughtful, but not wholly religious. It strives for authenticity, then allows for silliness. All of these inconsistencies might generally doom a film, but “Noah” isn’t a complete failure- simply an incomplete and confusing undertaking. It’s a blockbuster film from an independent filmmaker, and it just doesn’t work.
Most know the story, but I digress. Noah (Crowe, in a performance you’d likely expect), per the Old Testament, was an obedient man. So obedient, in fact, that God chose him as the deliverer of all innocent creatures- for He so loved people that He decided to kill 99.9% of us and ‘cleanse’ the Earth. A task so grandiose would call for a steadfast servant, and Noah was indeed that man. A direct descendant of Seth, one of Adam and Eve’s children, Noah possessed the pure-of-heart genealogy that made him ideal for God’s task, and set him apart from others in his time. The film depicts him as a decent but sad man, weary of outsiders (descendants of Cain and Abel) that seem to be driven simply by chaos.
We understand through the narrative that Noah is part of the tenth generation of man, a population that had clearly lost touch with their creator. This film also tells us that despite our youth as a species, we were apparently quite advanced- we could manufacture vast amounts of weaponry, grasp the nuances of hand-to-hand combat, speak with distinguished English accents, and give birth in soggy, animal-infested environments with little to no consequence (or medicine). We also walked the Earth in the presence of fallen angels, who apparently became prehistoric transformers as part of their plight. A select few of us apparently had God-like powers as well, which begs the question- why believe in a creator when you don’t need one?
Therein lies the problem with “Noah”- the film simply cannot commit. It begins bombastically, then depicts humanity as primitive and savage. Then it introduces mysticism. Then Noah and his family are helpless, but then the next moment they have God to bankroll their actions. Then humans are incapable of behaving humanely, thus ‘proving’ why they deserved death, I suppose. Then they are inspired by a single menacing guy (Winstone) to intricately organize a massive assault on Noah’s ark and provide an unnecessary antagonist. Furthermore, the very moment Noah can prove his obedience beyond a shadow of a doubt, to truly affect the future of the human race as he was tasked to do- he cannot, for he is weak. It’s the same type of weakness that millions were punished for. The moment disproves the notion that Noah was indeed special, for how can the chosen messenger be the chosen messenger if he disobeys a direct order? We’ll never know. I’d say the filmmakers were making a statement about faith, free will, or human nature, but the rest of the film is jumbled just enough that I cannot say for sure either way.
As a technical achievement, however, “Noah” has few rivals. The ark, for one, is a thing to behold. For that matter, most effects in this film, especially those involved with the flood, are stunning. When the rains come, and the water flows, it is swift and frenzied to the point where I became immediately sold that nothing land-based could survive. As the ark becomes a mobile vessel, the film’s most powerful moment, enhanced by CGI, takes place. A ‘mound’ of people, crawling over each other to escape the rising waters,writhes in fear, creating one of the more terrifying scenes in recent memory. Imagining how Noah and his family must have felt hearing the carnage outside was humbling. If the rest of the film carried the same weight as that scene, we’d have something. Director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”) understands that weight- in fact, his “Requiem For A Dream” was so heavy that I cannot bear to see it again. He seemed to understand the need for a steady theme and tone, which makes this film even more confusing.
I’m aware that I may be attempting to interpret this film too literally, but please do not misunderstand- I gather that the film is asking us to take the story on faith, and perhaps take something away from it to bolster said faith. That doesn’t excuse its’ faults, nor will I ignore its’ merits. Despite being an inconsistent film lacking a true identity, I found myself appreciating a variety of moments. I simply wanted the film to embrace something, to be that movie that tries to interpret the language of the time, the fighting style of the time, the brutal, primitive nature of the first round of humans. “Noah” is certainly not a complete failure. Rather, it is a fine case study on how a filmmaker with the moviemaking soul of an independent created a studio-appeasing blockbuster so he can continue making movies with an independent soul.
**Note- It is clear to me that this film wants us to consider animals as innocents, and wants us to abhor our consumption of their meat, or at least ponder that we’re eating the wrong things. We sure do enjoy slaughtering those innocent beasts and enjoying their char-broiled loins. I for one remain unphased, and yearn for my next juicy steak. Sorry Noah.