The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

November 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Directed by: Francis Lawrence (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “I Am Legend”)
Written by: Peter Craig (“The Town”) and Danny Strong (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”)

The economically-sound trend of splitting the final chapters of book-to-film franchises into two movies presents a unique—if not always positive—film-going experience. Like the penultimate films in “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series before it, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” doesn’t really feel like a normal movie. It creates a sense of unease as you try in your head to look for typical story beats and plot markers that just aren’t there because, alas, this movie is meant to end with a sense of having been all about building to a climax that we won’t get to see for another year. It can all be a bit disorienting and insulting, but what are you going to do? Wait until both films have been released on DVD and Blu-ray so you can watch them back-to-back so that they make a cohesive whole? Good luck with that.

After her lightning-charged arrow destroyed the arena during the Quarter Quell in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” District 12 tribute Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a symbol of rebellion in the oppressed post-apocalyptic state of Panem. After being rescued from the arena by Capitol turncoat Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated), Katniss is whisked away to the militarized District 13, a grim underground bunker of jumpsuits and cafeterias. Clearly suffering from PTSD and the separation from her would-be lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)—himself a prisoner of the Capitol and a propaganda tool—Katniss is called upon by President Coin (Julianne Moore) to become the Mockingjay, a symbol to unite the Districts in rebellion against the Capitol and the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland). With the help of Heavensbee, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss will need to overcome her own suffering if the people of Panem have any hope of living free of Snow and the Capitol.

When you can look past the table-setting and sometimes lumpy, drawn-out storytelling, “Mockingjay – Part 1” ventures into some incredibly dark yet intriguing places for a film franchise that, at least on the surface, is aimed at teenagers. The body count is high and the politics of propaganda is a refreshing change from the typical “chosen one” storylines that usually inhabit these YA worlds. Katniss is not valued by Coin for her skills in the arena, but for the televised image she cultivated in the Game—not that anyone should ever doubt her when notching an exploding arrow, though. Scenes of Katniss working with filmmakers to put together rebellion-sowing video clips are the bright spots of the film, creating a much richer world than the movie’s goofy future-animals like mockingjays or tracker jackers ever could. The rebellion is coming. Too bad we have to wait another year for it.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

November 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson
Directed by: Francis Lawrence (“Water for Elephants”)
Written by: Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours”) and Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”)

Unless you’re an unbiased fan of the wildly popular adult-book series “The Hunger Games” written by Suzanne Collins, the sequel to the record-breaking 2012 original film won’t hold much emotional weight. Without a deeper investment in these characters, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” much like the latest “Thor” sequel, was only made for its most hardcore followers.

Exploring much loftier ideas than the first film, “Catching Fire” does give Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) a good enough reason to reprise a role she was born to play.  Lawrence, whose beauty never overshadows Katniss Everdeen’s heroic nature, once again stands apart from the movie script’s unoriginal ideas. The dystopian themes featured in this series might seem new to somebody who has never picked up a science fiction book written in at least the last century, but, unfortunately, “Catching Fire” doesn’t seem all that interested in breaking any new ground.

On what is called a “Victor’s Tour” (think of a TV reality-show tour for “American Idol” contestants), Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are traveling from district to district being touted as the winners of the 74th annual Hunger Games. Unhappy with the way those games unfolded (the duo is pronounced co-champions only after they threatened to kill themselves with poison berries), President Snow (Donald Sutherland) sees their win as a threat to the way his government functions.  If someone like Katniss can break the rules, what’s to stop others from revolting against the system?

Putting an end to Katniss’ revolutionary way of thinking couldn’t come at a better time with the 75th annual Hunger Games (The Quarter Quell) about to begin. Established as an All-Star type of reality show, past winners of the Games, including Katniss and Peeta, are forced back into a new arena where they must once again fight to survive against other competitors. This time the to-the-death battle is headed by a new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who shares in President Snow’s thoughts that Katniss is a menace to the status quo.

Much like the first movie, “Catching Fire” takes quite a while to get to the action most mainstream moviegoers not familiar with the books might be most interested in. For a second movie in a franchise like this, there still seems to be a lot of set-up left to do before the last two films are shot back to back in the next couple of years. Unfortunately, much of that set-up is filled with lazy dialogue and plenty of underwritten secondary character that don’t matter much in the big picture. It’s surprising since the screenplay is penned by Oscar winners Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours”) and Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”).

At this point, all that really matters is Katniss. A strong female character like her is rare in movies these days, and Lawrence does an impressive job at portraying her as someone we can all root for. In an age where the Disney princess culture reigns supreme among audiences, it’s nice to see that there’s a fictional character out there that girls (at least tweens) can stand behind. Sure, Katniss might get someone’s attention by shooting an arrow through their chest, but is that kind of PG-13 rated violence really any worse than Cinderella or Snow White or Sleeping Beauty or the Little Mermaid finding happiness only after they hook up with their Prince Charming? Just as long as Katniss stays a lot manlier than Peeta (and that damn Gale Hawthorne doesn’t get much screen time), a lot can be said about how “Catching Fire” and the rest of this series can pave the way for more of these roles to find a permanent place in Hollywood.

Red Dawn

November 16, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, Adrianne Palicki
Directed by: Dan Bradley (debut)
Written by: Carl Ellsworth (“Last House on the Left”) and Jeremy Passmore (debut)

The 1984 version of “Red Dawn” had real-world fears in its corner to bolster its believability. The story of a ragtag posse of teens and young adults fighting back against an invading army comprised of Soviets, Cubans, and Nicaraguans benefited from the unpredictability of Cold War politics, from the notion that World War III could break out at any time for any reason. While it’s a little more difficult to buy into a group of mildly-trained high schoolers beating back even the most incompetent modern army, the film drops enough references to guerrillas and minutemen to lend the idea a little more credibility.

None of that is intended to convince anyone that the original “Red Dawn” is a good movie. It’s not. Its sloppy, jingoistic, and filled with some of the wimpiest explosions committed to film. But like lots of relics of the ’80s, it’s remembered fondly by people who were kids when they saw the movie for the first time. And, as is the fate of all nostalgic properties,”Red Dawn” was tapped for a modern remake.

The grammar of those modern remakes is followed closely by this new take on “Red Dawn.” Bigger, slicker action and special effects? Check. Impossibly attractive, ethnically-diverse cast? Double check. Serious scene from the original re-purposed and played for laughs this time around? Triple check. The basic plot remains the same: small town brothers Jed (Chris Hemsworth) and Matt Eckert (Josh Peck) narrowly escape a foreign invasion on American soil by North Korean forces. With the help of fellow classmates (including Josh Hutcherson of “The Hunger Games” and Adrianne Palicki of TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) and Jed’s military training, the group, dubbed the Wolverines after the mascot of their local high school, is able to seriously disrupt enemy operations armed with little more than shotguns and hunting rifles. Their revolution inevitably attracts the attention of the North Korean command, who double down on their efforts to squash the Wolverines.

Along with being yet another unnecessary remake, this modern take on “Red Dawn” runs into new problems, chiefly the conflict with the changing face of warfare. The original took place during the waning years of the Cold War, when the idea of a ground war had not yet given way to the smart bomb and guided missile combat that has defined combat since the first Gulf War. Setting the story in 2012 (or 2010, as the film has sit completed on the shelf for two years while MGM worked its way through bankruptcy) and ignoring things like remote-operated drones and the fact that the North Korean military can’t, by all accounts, tell its ass from a hole in the ground adds strain to a film already trying too hard to one-up its inspiration. Throw in plot holes like a super-weapon that knocks out all electronics except for the ones integral to the plot and behind-the-scenes issues like hastily changing the enemy from China to North Korea (by way of digitally altering flags and just re-dubbing the Chinese actors with Korean dialogue because who will notice that?) and “Red Dawn” ends up as another mess that should have never made it out of the Cold War.

The Hunger Games

March 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

The Hunger Games
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson
Directed by: Gary Ross (“Sea Biscuit”)
Written by: Gary Ross (“Sea Biscuit”), Suzanne Collins (debut), Billy Ray (“State of Play”)

There are a few things inherently lacking in director/co-writer Gary Ross’ highly-anticipated film adaptation of “The Hunger Games” that should be puzzling to anyone who is familiar with the history of the sci-fi genre and even the more complex ideas behind dystopian literature and how it carries into the social context of today.

Thematically, the film, which is based on the popular young adult series by Suzanne Collins, doesn’t have a single original thought in its flimsy framework. It’s bothersome because young fans of the series won’t care how similar it is to films of the past. Audiences just want something to replace the hole that will soon be left by “The Twilight Saga.” It is fortunate “The Hunger Games” doesn’t stoop to a level like Stephenie Meyer, but it still makes it hard to appreciate Collins’ concepts when she does nothing to separate herself from the pack.

Set in the future, “The Hunger Games” takes about an hour of the first act to explain the mythology behind the title competition. Two kids or teenagers from 12 different districts are chosen through a lottery system to compete in an all-out fight to the death on national TV where only one of them will survive. Representing District 12 is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss enters the competition after her younger sister Primrose’s name is chosen and she volunteers to take her place.

Whisked off to the Capitol (a sort of Emerald City on acid), Katniss and Peeta are pampered like royalty and assigned a mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former Hunger Games champion who is now a drunk, to teach them the ins and outs of a competition that will leave at least one of them dead.

Borrowing generously from the text of writers like Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”), Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”), and Richard Connell (“The Most Dangerous Game”), “The Hunger Games” will definitely attract its fan base who have been itching to see the film come to life on the big screen. While its easily-accessible plot and characters also might generate some new interest from others not familiar with the books, the movie has no real ambition. More importantly, it fails to build any type of emotional structure around its characters besides Katniss herself. As kids get picked off one by one in the battle royale (look it up, kids: Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film “Battle Royale”), it’s about as affecting as watching pawns get removed from a chess board.

Take away the fact that “The Hunger Games” is a 142-minute rehash, and we’re left with a perfectly-cast Lawrence in the lead role who makes up for a lot of the film’s problem areas. As Katniss, Lawrence, nominated for an Oscar for the fantastic 2010 drama “Winter’s Bone,” is a strong female protagonist that puts someone like the always-suffering Bella Swan of “The Twilight Saga” to shame. Lawrence is the reason to hope the inevitable sequels to this franchise can break away just a little more from Collins’ original text and at least give it a style that doesn’t feel so synthetic at times.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

February 11, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Vanessa Hudgens
Directed by: Brad Peyton (“Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”)
Written by: Brian Gunn (“Bring It On Again”) and Mark Gunn (“Bring It On Again”)

Dear Dwayne Johnson,

While I was never a fan of wrestling, I’ve always been a fan of yours. Even if I didn’t smell what the Rock was cooking or respect the People’s Elbow, I recognized your talent was too big for the squared circle, and I looked forward to your inevitable transition into movies. You were the perfect post-modern action hero: beefy and intimidating, yet funny and self-aware. Your easy charm would have been a welcome presence as action movies evolved away from the bombastic cheese of the ’80s. You started off with smart choices, like when Arnold Schwarzenegger unofficially passed the torch to you in “The Rundown,” or when you stole the show in the otherwise-terrible “Be Cool,” especially when you performed the monologue from “Bring It On.” You even took crazy chances, working with a madman posing as a director to play a dual role is the psychotic fever dream “Southland Tales.”

So…what happened?

Look, I’m well aware this isn’t your first family movie, but this seems to be a new low. I’m no Hollywood insider, but my guess is that any project that features as much pre-production drama as “Journey 2” had is fairly creatively compromised. In case you weren’t aware, Brendan Fraser passed on this sequel out of loyalty to the original film’s director (Eric Brevig, who wasn’t finished with post-production on “Yogi Bear” in time to start shooting). Didn’t more red flags raise when the studio replaced Brevig with “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore” director Brad Peyton just to meet the their desired release date? I mean, look at that murderer’s row of crappy movies and add that to the fact that Brendan Fraser, who obviously never says no to anything, said no to this.

And you said yes.

But hey, no one’s ever backed up a dump truck full of money in front of my house asking me to take over something Brendan Fraser decided not to do, so I really have no point of reference. Heck, maybe you read the script and saw you’d be filming in Hawaii for a few months and you read the part about punching that giant lizard square in the face and thought, “Eh, why not?” Sure, you probably rolled your eyes at the expository dialogue your character would have to spout, like the nonsense about recognizing soil liquefaction thanks your time in the Navy and such, but you probably just cracked a smile and shook your head, because it’s just a stupid family movie, right?

Maybe you wanted to work with Michael Caine, who hasn’t slummed it this bad since “Jaws: The Revenge.” He’s got two Oscars, after all. By taking the part you get to spend a big chunk of the movie trading jokes and insults with him. That’s cool. And Luis Guzmán seems like a great guy to work with. He’s super funny. His Polynesian(?!) helicopter pilot Gabato provides some much-needed laughs that aren’t about how ridiculous some plot points are, like how our adventurers are somehow able to pilot giant bumblebees like they were Sopwith Camels (it’s a fighter plane, Dwayne). For all I know you’ve been wanting to work with Vanessa Hudgens. Who wouldn’t? She’s a gorgeous actress. Or, I don’t know, maybe you’re a “Sex and the City” fan and wanted to work with Kristen Davis. Maybe you just loved the first movie so much you wanted to work with that kid…you know…the one that was in the first movie, for some reason runs from the cops on a motorcycle at the beginning of this movie…hold on–

Josh Hutcherson. His name is Josh Hutcherson.

Why, Dwayne? Why would you sign on to a ham-fisted, Jules Verne-defiling sequel filled with lousy special effects and idiotic leaps of logic? You’re the hero we need, Dwayne. Please, for Pete’s sake, never sign on to another movie where you punch a reptile in the face, the upcoming “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” notwithstanding.

Your pal,


P.S. At least you can take comfort in knowing you had nothing to do with the blasphemous computer-animated 3D Daffy Duck short, “Daffy’s Rhapsody,” that preceded “Journey 2.” Yeah, it featured the voice of the late Mel Blanc and Elmer Fudd firing an honest-to-goodness shotgun, but rendering Looney Tunes characters in three dimensions should be grounds for deportation.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

October 28, 2009 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: John C. Reilly, Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson
Directed by: Paul Weitz (“American Dreamz”)
Written by: Paul Weitz (“American Dreamz”) and Brian Helgeland (“Mystic River”)

Part fantasy, part parody, “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” fails to introduce us to enough interesting characters to keep the story interesting. It’s unfortunate since the script is co-written by Oscar winner Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) and directed by Paul Weitz, who helmed the first “American Pie” and a great film in “About a Boy.” Here, the vampire narrative feel second rate in an era where everyone is trying to cash in on the folklore. Based on a series of books by Darren Shan, there’s really no reason to continue the vampire tween saga and try to outperform (at least in box office revenue) something as obsessively followed as “Twilight.”

Journey to the Center of the Earth

July 3, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem
Directed by: Eric Brevig (debut)
Written by: Michael D. Weiss (“The Butterfly Effect 2”), Jennifer Flackett (“Nim’s Island”), Mark Levin (“Wimbledon”)

It’s usually hard to sell a movie with 3-D special effects without thinking it’ll be nothing more than gimmicky concepts and designs. You can hardly be blamed for the pre-notion when the visual technique was popularized in the 80s and attached to a number of second-rate movies.

In “Journey to the Center of the Earth,”  however, the digital technology, which has improved immensely over the last few years, is such a major element of film, the computer-generated risks just happen to work much better than the story itself.

Based on Jules Verne’s book of the same name, “Journey to the Center of the Earth” screenwriters of this newest film version decide not to actually adapt the book like the 1959 movie, but rather incorporate it into the story. The actual book is one of the belongings given to geology professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser), which belong to his late brother, a scientist in his own right.

Left to take care of his young nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) for a few days, Trevor discovers some notes his brother scribbled in the margins of the novel that could possibly lead to a major discovery. The doorway to this scientific breakthrough happens to be in Iceland, the location where Sean’s father disappeared during his last mission.

So, off the duo goes to explore the great unknown with the help of Hannah (Anita Briem), a lively guide who directs them through dangerous passages of the Icelandic volcanoes. Of course, this isn’t your ordinary tour through a few harmless walking trails. The group finds this out when the cave they are trapped in collapses and they begin freefalling to the Earth’s core.

The real 3-D adventure finally begins once they reach their destination and left to fend for themselves against giant piranhas, man-eating plants, and, of course, an ornery Tyrannosaurus Rex hunting for some human grub. (Ignore the yo-yo scenes tossed in at the beginning for no good reason).

The effects are amusing if you have your shades on, but there’s really no reason to see “Journey” if you’re not watching it in 3-D format (2-D versions will also hit theaters). While the story is fast-paced and the effects fun, novice director Eric Brevig (the amazing special effects guru behind “Total Recall”) can’t steer clear of the corny dialogue and one-dimensional (how ironic) characters. While everything is literally jumping out at you from the screen, “Journey” screenwriters actually forgot to include something to return the favor and reel us in.