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Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1



"I wish they died. I wish we all died."

Those cheery words from Finnick O'Dair (Sam Claflin) open The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, director Francis Lawrence's grand, grim, emotionally wrenching penultimate chapter in what is now The Hunger Games cinematic quadilogy. Newly rescued from the clutches of the evil Capitol at the conclusion of the previous film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself even more traumatized than before, now a pawn in the war for the liberation of Panem waged between the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the leader of the rebellious District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore). The liberation of Panem, as masterminded by Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), needs a symbol to incite the remaining Districts to rebel and to rally behind. Katniss Everdeen is that symbol, the Mockingjay, whether she wants to be or not, whether she is psychologically or emotionally fit to be or not. But as long as Katniss has Jennifer Lawrence's movie star face, the Mockingjay can only be her.

"This isn't the girl you promised me," is Coin's assessment after meeting the Girl on Fire, and indeed, Katniss Everdeen is a burnt-out ember that needs continual fanning to spark the flames of anger and defiance simmering within her. Her PTSD from surviving the first Hunger Games has only worsened since surviving her second, where she bartered her own death for the survival of her co-victor and showmance "lover" Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Instead, Plutarch saved her because she's more valuable to their cause; Peeta meanwhile was recaptured by the Capitol, tortured, and is being used as a mouthpiece of subvert the burgeoning rebellion. Though her family, including her mother (Paula Malcolmson) and her beloved sister Prim (Willow Shields) are safe in the bowels of the underground fortress of District 13, as is her lifelong friend and now soldier for the cause Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' sole concern in Mockingjay, Part 1 is the safety and rescue of Peeta, to the chagrin of Gale and, well, everyone in District 13. Though a capable survivor and "not a half bad shot" with a bow and arrow, as her newly-sober former mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) jests, Katniss' real value is to be the face of the Rebellion. There's no better face in all of Panem, but the girl behind that face, while sometimes on fire, is mostly a mess.

Against the superior technological and military might of the Capitol, District 13's strategy to win the war is pure Hollywood all the way: make a bunch of movies starring Katniss! Though they have aircraft, missiles and formidable firepower stored in their cavernous hidey-hole, what District 13 really boasts are cinematic production values. The importance of fashion in winning a war also becomes a major issue, according to the miserably dowdy Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks), who replaces the courageous and now-dead Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) as Katniss' personal stylist.  Mockingjay, Part 1's few amusing moments are meta; Katniss is a terrible actress and essentially unlikeable when made to perform. She only comes alive when placed in actual danger. (Lawrence playing Katniss giving wooden, cringe-worthy line readings is golden.) As Panem's marquee movie star, Katniss is shuttled off to the war zones of Panem with a camera crew and director (Natalie Dormer, underutilized) in tow to film her very honest and emotional reactions to hospitals being bombed and thousands of innocents massacred. Katniss turns out to be an effective and powerful Mockingjay, indeed. Watching Katniss shoot down a Capitol fighter jet with a explosive arrow would make Arrow on The CW green with envy. "And if she dies?" worries Coin about putting her Mockingjay in mortal peril. "Get it on camera," retorts Katniss. The symbol endures whether or not the Mockingjay lives.

The war itself becomes a series of "moves and counter moves," as summarized on-the-nose by Snow. It basically works like this: the Capitol bombed a District! Roll a movie! The Capitol massacred thousands of innocent people! Roll another movie! When Dormer films Katniss touchingly singing a song called "The Hanging Tree," suddenly District 13 has a musical way better than Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music - Live! on its hands. "Katniss Everdeen's The Hanging Tree" successfully riles up the people of the other Districts to attack the Capitol's white-clad storm troopers and blow up a hydro-electric dam supplying power to the Capitol. Of course, bombs and guns aren't the only weapons in Snow's arsenal. Though he does order the bombing of District 13, which they survive without a soul lost, Snow saves his best weapon of all for his favorite game: mind fucking Katniss. Routinely, Snow puts Peeta on television to urge for a cease fire, each time looking more and more weathered and disheveled as a result of mind control and torture. For shits and giggles, Snow finds ways to leave white roses around, be it in Katniss' former mansion when she visits or dropping them by the thousands on District 13, just to remind her who the real thorn in her side is, as if she could ever forget. The white roses also remind the audience that the crux of The Hunger Games saga is the emotional trampling of a teenage girl by a sinister old man. 

Adapting the final book of The Hunger Games into two films (perhaps unnecessarily), Mockingjay, Part 1 exchanges urgency for a stately pace, building suspense intensely though extended interludes between the characters. The quality of Mockingjay, Part 1 is built on the innumerable qualities of its exceptionally gifted Academy Award-winning star Jennifer Lawrence. Commanding every frame, Lawrence delivers above and beyond as Katniss is pushed continually past the limits of what a teenage girl should be forced to endure, even in a broken world such as hers. Every fiery, fleetingly joyful, or hopelessly harrowing emotion Lawrence feels is palpably projected on screen, and she continues to be surrounded by world class actors like Hoffman, Moore, Sutherland, and Jeffrey Wright as techno-whiz Beetee to bring out her best. When Snow, grinning like a Cheshire cat, finally comes face to face with Katniss, Mockingjay, Part 1 showcases the best scenes between a hero vs. villain communicating only through television screens since Kirk and Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The inevitable cliffhanger of Mockingjay, Part 1 is a powerhouse, as Gale successfully rescues Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone with a shaved head) and Peeta from the Capitol, only to find Peeta twisted by Snow's mind control into Katniss' assassin. Only a few minutes of Peeta in the movie, with him gradually becoming a raving monster, makes Mockingjay, Part 1 the best Hunger Games movie for Peeta detractors (such as yours truly). Mockingjay, Part 1 could have ended with a literal bang and faded to black when a bedpan bonks Peeta's head and saves Katniss from being choked to death. That would served as a smashing "I am Iron Man!"-like jolt of an ending. Director Lawrence chose instead to dole out some exposition where Coin consolidates her power over the rebellion, leaving us with the compelling image of Peeta struggling against his restraints in the grip of madness as Katniss' stunning face is superimposed over him. It's hard to argue against the final sight of an insane, murderous Peeta mocking the Mockingjay. Why so serious, Katniss? See you next year for Mockingjay, Part 2.

Thursday, November 20, 2014




Dan Gilroy's sensational Nightcrawler is a mesmerizing plunge into the seediness of Los Angeles at night that exceeds Michael Mann's Collateral and Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive as lurid, violent joyrides. We ride along with "Nightcrawlers," professional freelance videographers who make their living recording crime, accidents, tragedies to sell to local television news stations greedy for sordid content to boost their ratings. This world and the opportunities it presents lights up the perpetual saucer eyes of Jake Gyllenhaal, a petty thief and loquacious sociopath searching for a leg up in life. In stalking the unfortunate of Los Angeles, camcorder in hand, Gyllenhaal has found his true calling. 

Completing his trifecta of films where he seems desperate for 15 minutes of shut eye (Prisoners, Enemy), the emaciated and greasy-looking Gyllenhaal goes all out in Nightcrawler. It's an engrossing performance by Gyllenhaal of a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. And what Gyllenhaal wants is to be the best at what he does, along with everything that ought to come with it. This includes money, recognition, and it especially includes Rene Russo, the producer of the vampire shift of the local TV news station who gives Gyllenhall his first break professionally but comes to rue getting in bed with this guy (literally). Russo's marching orders to Gyllenhaal is to bring back footage where urban crime creeps into wealthy suburban neighborhoods. Gyllenhaal is beyond up to the task.

When Gyllenhaal trespasses into the wealthy home of three victims murdered by Hispanic men, he chooses to withhold his footage from the police in order to manipulate events to get even better, more dramatic footage of the police arresting the murderers. Despite everything going horribly sideways, Gyllenhaal remains un-phased at the consequences of his actions. In a standard Hollywood film, Gyllenhaal would undergo a change of heart and seek redemption. To Gilroy's credit, the uncompromising Nightcrawler pushes Gyllenhaal even further into the realm of sociopathy so that he never gets his comeuppance. 

All of this ends tragically for Gyllenhaal's hapless employee, Riz Ahmed, who pays dearly for daring to rebel against his bosses' wishes after being "promoted" to "Vice President" of Gyllenhaal's company Video Production News. The relationship between Gyllenhaal and Ahmed, the two of them blazing through the streets of LA in Gyllenhaal's red muscle car, is in some ways the heart of Nightcrawler; a twisted take on Batman and Robin where Robin sadly gets what's coming to him.  Everyone in Nightcrawler is a victim for Gyllenhaal to exploit. And yet, as Gyllenhaal rises in his chosen profession to take his place as the top Nightcrawler in LA, what an inspiring tale of entrepreneurship Nightcrawler is. If there's a lesson to be learned from Nightcrawler, it's that you can be anything you wanna be!

Thursday, November 13, 2014




"People used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we look down and worry about our place in the dirt." This is the blunt and bitter mission statement of Christopher Nolan's magnum opus Interstellar, a grand, ambitious, and hopeful exploration of human drama poised against Mankind's quest to reach unknown regions of deep space in a desperate attempt to save itself from extinction. Positing a terrible future decades from now where war and armies are unnecessary in the wake of a global famine, the human race has become "caretakers" rather than "explorers," as bitterly and bluntly stated by our hero Matthew McConaughey. A worldwide "Blight" routinely kills all the crops of America's heartland with devastating dust storms. Food production is at a standstill. Humanity is poised to die out within a generation. What's a good ole boy who's tryin' to raise a family to do? There's only one answer for McConaughey: save the world.

In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey plays Matthew McConaughey, a former hotshot pilot and "highly educated" engineer (somehow more believable here than Mark Wahlberg was as an "inventor" in Transformers: Age of Extinction) who stumbles upon strange phenomena in his Midwestern corn farm. A military drone flying overhead that should have been decommissioned. Weird gravity moving objects in the bedroom of his sweet young daughter, the apple of his eye, played MacKenzie Foy. This all leads McConaughey and Foy in the dead of night to a secret location where they stumble upon the secret remnants of NASA, run in secret by the father-daughter scientist team of Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway. They have a plan to save the world, with a name they must have lifted with a wink from their previous encounters with Ra's al-Ghul in The Dark Knight Trilogy: Project Lazarus -- a manned space mission through a mysterious worm hole in space that appeared next to Saturn, taking them to another galaxy to find a new planet capable of sustaining human life. Plan A: get everyone on Earth to the new planet. Plan B: a population bomb, growing new people on the new planet at the cost of everyone on Earth left to die. Everyone agrees: McConaughey has the right stuff. He is gung ho about going; his daughter pleads with him to stay. Their conflict and heartache will span decades across time and space.

With giddy glee, Interstellar unleashes a payload of quantum physics at the audience. Depicting the grim and gritty realities of outer space travel in the Stanley Kubrick 2001/Ridley Scott Alien tradition, Nolan delights in dazzling us with the physics behind a worm hole (totally different from what Star Trek: Deep Space Nine used to depict), the perils of relativity when traveling in space near a black hole (an hour on one watery planet equals a year on Earth -- a catastrophic tidal wave that astronauts McConaughey and Hathaway survive costs the life of Wes Bentley and 23 years of missed time on Earth), and later, an insane jaunt into a black hole and an exploration into the 5th dimension. Interstellar raises intriguing questions: what if there are no "ghosts" or "supernatural" phenomena but instead all of the unexplainable occurrences throughout time are after effects of the actions of Mankind after it has highly evolved into other dimensions, rendering time meaningless? Meanwhile on Earth, Foy has grown up (to the same age her father was when he abandoned her); now played by Jessica Chastain, she struggles to unravel the scientific equation left behind by the dying Caine, discovering the dark secret behind the Lazarus Mission that dooms the human race on Earth (there is no Plan A. It is all a lie). At the very least, Interstellar makes one want to learn Morse code. It could save the whole world.

All the heady science aside, Interstellar is a movie first and foremost and plays to all the tropes of a blockbuster Hollywood film. In another galaxy, McConaughey and Hathaway find an ice planet and a water planet, convenient landscapes available in Iceland where Interstellar was shot. McConaughey space cowboys his way across the galaxy, performing desperate stunts flying his space ship, refusing the very idea that he won't be able to return to Earth to see his daughter again. Hathaway risks the entire mission because she's in love with a missing scientist from the previous Lazarus mission. And no matter how many trillions of miles across galaxies they can travel, put two dudes on an ice world and somehow they'll get into a fist fight. Matt Damon surprises us with a cameo appearance as a scientist-gone-mad who embarked on a prior Lazarus mission on a frozen world, and it's a bravura performance. Damon plays completely against expectation as a sniveling, manipulative, murderous coward.  It's safe to say you've never hated Matt Damon in a movie as much as you do in Interstellar. The feel good ending begs the question of whether it's true that an old woman on her deathbed's fondest wish is to see her sexy young daddy -- all handsome, tanned, tight jeans, just fell out of a black hole -- swagger into the room to kiss her goodbye.

Interstellar is refreshingly anti-Star Wars in that it is the opposite of phallocentric. The central father-son conflict of Star Wars is eschewed in favor of exploring the relationship between fathers and daughters: McConaughey's sweet relationship with Foy/Chastain and to a lesser extent the relationship between Caine and Hathaway. McConaughey has two kids, a boy and girl, and he ain't too concerned about his son, who grows up to be Casey Affleck and is happy to be a farmer as raised by their grandfather John Lithgow. Heartbreaking scenes of McConaughey watching video messages from his aged son aside, McConaughey really cares most about his daughter, who angrily refuses to acknowledge him for decades until their touching climatic reunion when she's an old lady played by Ellen Burstyn. Interstellar's emotional crux is touchingly all about a father's love for his baby girl, as McConaughey breaches time and space to become the very "ghost" that sets about this entire outer space enterprise and enabling her with the means to solve Caine's math equation and save humanity. A stunning, breathtaking behemoth of a motion picture with big brains and a beating heart, Interstellar reaffirms the human spirit with the idea that the best reason to boldly go where no one has gone before is to do it for your family so that you can come back home and be with them. And then go back into space and find Anne Hathaway, 'cause she's all alone out there and she needs some McConaughey lovin'.