THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 REVIEW

Two halves are better than one. This idea seems to have become white noise for Hollywood producers and that means no literary adaptation is safe. The trend of splitting final books in a series into multiple films has been, in a nutshell, creatively disastrous — exemplified by the uneven Harry Potter finale and the criminally overstuffed Hobbit films.

Things were looking up for the Hunger Games series, with director Francis Lawrence coming off delivering a spectacular entry that lives up to the hype with Catching Fire. Alas, good will alone can’t save the series’ last installment from the dreaded split, as Mockingjay – Part 1 comes up largely empty on content, making for the dullest entry in the saga of Katniss Everdeen yet.

After the events of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is taking refuge in the secret underground world of District 13, once thought to be bombed out of existence. There, publicity master Plutarch Heavensby (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and stoney district president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) are intent on molding Katniss into the face of the rebellion. Katniss, meanwhile, is more hung up on crying over Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the Capitol’s hostage, who is being used to denounce the rebellion. Once she witnesses the Capitol’s capacity for cruelty and with a promise to rescue Peeta in place, Katniss embraces her destiny as the Mockingjay.

The general justification behind splitting a final installment into two movies is that it allows for a more detail and closer adherence to the book. True to form, Mockingjay – Part 1 basks in capturing the intricacies from its source material, taking things slow to catch everything it can.The unfortunate result is a film that has, realistically, about an hour of good content stretched to two hours, stuffing filler in where it can and killing all pacing.

There is promise in the blocks of the film that do work, with a satisfying look at how this rebellion is fought with publicity as much as combat and a small handful of interesting action sequences and plot turns, including the destruction of a dam.

However, if any book in the series was in need of an overhaul, it would be Mockingjay. In cribbing from and expanding on its source material to the degree needed for a two-parter, the film never finds the visual and emotional pop that we saw in the last story. This can undoubtedly be attributed to so much of the movie consisting of people in identical grey jumpsuits having prolonged conversations in a dingy, underground bunker.

One thing that these movies had going for them through thick and thin was that Katniss was, for the most part, a relatable character and Jennifer Lawrence sold it. Here, even our steadfast protagonist reaches the point of unlikable. For a series that had wisely put the love triangle aspect in the background, Katniss’ whole purpose here seems to be to juggle her clearly-interested-friend Gale at an arms length while breaking down to an ever-increasing state of weeping. Every action this character takes here seems to revolve around her fake boyfriend, Peeta, as opposed to, say, the good of others in this rebellion. Unfortunately, in a war between fascists, she’s the best we’ve got to root for — if only this movie didn’t make that such a pessimistic prospect.

There’s no doubt that the Hunger Games films are in better hands with Lawrence as director than Gary Ross, but even the I Am Legend helmer’s skills aren’t enough to avoid being hobbled by an unnecessary split to two parts. After a non-conclusion, Mockingjay – Part 1 ends on a passive cliffhanger, befitting of such a passive movie. Hopefully, Mockingjay will follow the Deathly Hallows pattern of the final part going out with a bang, but for now Part 1 is a film that can’t sustain itself on just an hour of content and doesn’t come close to justifying it’s existence as a separate film. In the long run, it’s the equivalent of a big shoulder shrug.

5/10 

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INTERSTELLAR REVIEW

At the risk of sounding like a Nolanite, let me just say that Christopher Nolan is one of the most respectable filmmakers around. Outside the obvious praise of him giving us the hands-down best series of Batman films to date, the hit director is commendable for intelligent, mind-bending stories exploring science and psychology, as well as his preference for practical effects and shooting on traditional 35 mm film.

With Interstellar, Nolan turns his focus to space travel, mixing in a heartfelt family drama with profound concepts like wormholes, relative time and gravity. At its best, Interstellar is majestic space odyssey rife with amazing visuals, intriguing concepts and good performances. But at its worst, suffering from a full, disjointed story and criminal pacing issues, Nolan’s answer to 2001 sometimes feels like it hasn’t delivered on its potential.

A resurgent dustbowl has wiped out all viable crops on Earth except corn, and the future of the human race looks grim. When former pilot and current farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) receives mysterious coordinates from an unseen specter, the struggling father is led to a secret NASA operation headed by a former colleague to look to answers beyond our solar system. Using a not-too-distant wormhole, a plan has been put in motion to send a team to survey far-away worlds that can sustain human life — a plan they need Cooper to pilot. Leaving his devastated daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain) behind, he embarks for strange new worlds, but can he ever make it back to Earth and if so, will it even be in his children’s lifetime?

Much like Inception, there’s no lack of ambition at play with Interstellar. Space travel isn’t a daring new topic in the film world but the details of Nolan and his brother Jonathan’s story are. It’s beyond admirable that these two can craft an engaging (well, mostly…more on that later), accessible story using high-concept theories of hard science and, for the most part, make them work in their favor.

As per usual, Nolan’s look and sound of Interstellar is top-notch. Despite splitting from mainstay cinematographer Wally Pfister this time out, the look of Interstellar is breathtaking. Space is a surreal experience here, as distant worlds and otherworldly anomalies are brilliantly rendered on screen. If any film is destined to emulate the elaborate visual trippiness of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on screen in this generation, this is it.

Likewise, frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer largely ditches the booming bass drums and low brass wall of sound for this score in favor of a more spiritual, majestic sound — complete with pipe organ —  that is invaluable to the emotion of the film.

On the topic of emotion, there’s a significant amount at the heart of this film. Nolan is a master of ratcheting up the tension, providing overwhelming stakes to Cooper’s mission (like, say, the fate of the planet) and dire consequences for each mistake.

At least part of the reason this works is because of the bond between Cooper and Murph, a more traditional motivation that grounds the movie quite well. Nolan likes to keep his players cool and collected much of the time and McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain oblige, but each are given notable opportunities to cut loose that hit home.

So, if all these elements of the film work so well — including an entertaining final act that starts as a thriller and ends diving into full-blown science fiction after several overt hints — why doesn’t the movie as a whole feel overwhelmingly good? It might be due to the fact that there’s a lot of movie going on with Interstellar; too much. To generalize, a great many 3-hour films don’t justify their runtime and Interstellar, at 2 hours and 49 minutes, falls squarely into that camp.

The final cut of the movie suffers from frequent sections of dragging while the script is in desperate need of doctoring to smooth out the extended sections of sciencey exposition and explanation, not to mention the somewhat episodic nature of the story as the team visits new worlds and deals with the hurdles each brings. It’s like Inception but not as good as Inception.

In fact, smoothing out is the perfect description of what this story itself desperately needs, especially in editing the script to trim the bloat and get the movie to an acceptable length. There’s a lot to cover with the film’s current story and one can’t help but wonder if trimming one plot thread, planet, concept or character would have helped. Interstellar is a smart film but it’s a rambly smart film when all the pieces are in place for it to be a concise one. Just because the material is epic doesn’t mean the length of the film needs to pump itself up to similar proportions.

Because of this, there’s a really disappointing feel at times in the movie — like you’re being kept at arm’s length investment right at the moment you’re feeling closest. As mentioned, Nolan’s space epic can be completely engrossing in parts but they’re sadly often followed or proceeded by parts that don’t match up.

Far be it to say Interstellar is a bad movie, it’s not. In so many ways it embodies why we go to the movies in the first place: to be transported to far away worlds and see something we’ve never seen before. It even throws in the bonus of making you think a little bit. Sure, there’s a frequent feeling that this good movie could have been great with more care in scripting and pacing but Nolan’s latest succeeds on visceral entertainment (a screening in true IMAX is a must for film junkies), performances and admiration for making a film about relativity interesting.

It may not be the knockout success akin to some of his earlier films or what some of us may have been expecting, but it’s far from something to turn your nose up at.

7.5/10

NIGHTCRAWLER REVIEW

It takes balls to revolve an entire film around a character who is downright unlikable. In a landscape of easily accessible protagonists and cheery goals and motivations, Nightcrawler spits in the face of joy and comfort to deliver a hypnotizing portrait of a man who has left morals behind.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) may believe in hard work and forward advancement in the business world but that hasn’t changed the fact that he is a petty thief, stealing manhole covers and chain link fences when not busy assaulting security officers for their watches. Lou finds his avenue to success, however, when he falls into the world of “nightcrawling,” videotaping latenight accidents, murders and robberies for local Los Angeles TV news. Once in, Lou will stop at nothing to reach the top, abandoning all morality while manipulating coworkers and taking out the competition.

Nightcrawler is a creepingly uncomfortable viewing experience all thanks to Jake Gyllenhall going the extra mile to be, well, the ultimate creep.  Appearance-wise, the actor is gaunt to the point of being almost unrecognizable and exudes unsettling focus and intensity, while first time writer/director Dan Gilroy crafts a character on paper that is repulsive but mildly admirable for his tenacity — something Gyllenhaal jumps all over in performance. The story expertly unfurls the depths of Bloom’s ruthless nature and why he does what he does to the point where all expectations of him doing the right thing disappear.

Everything pivots on the study of Bloom and Gyllenhaal fully delivers on his end of the slimy deal. Gilroy manages more than alright on his own as well, producing a smart script that keeps you thinking, whether it be about the effects of a recession and limited job market, racial selectiveness in crime reporting and the “if it bleeds, it leads” desperation that some media embraces. Gilroy’s story is the sturdy bedrock on which all of Gyllenhaal’s character work can build upon (props as well to Rene Russo, tactfully playing the similarly dubious and enabling but unsuspecting news director, Nina.)

As an unabashed character piece, it admittedly takes Nightcrawler a bit to get moving. The first 45 minutes of the film is all character work that, while good, feels a tad aimless. It’s after then that the movie finds its plot and puts its character inspection to good use.

Nightcrawler acts like a passing car wreck you can’t turn away from, while remaining a pristine example of filmmaking. Gyllenhaal’s unsettling performance and Gilroy’s cynical script make for one of the seediest, thoughtful film experiences this year that will keep you pondering long after.

8.5/10