THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 (2014)

November 27, 2014

mockingjay Greetings again from the darkness. I’m now even further removed from the target demographics than for the first two Hunger Games movies. Regardless, I have read all 3 books from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and have seen all 3 movies based on her books. Oh, wait. There will be FOUR movies, not three, from her source material. Hello Lionsgate profits! By definition, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a warm-up act … it’s setting the stage for the finale which will be released in one year.

So for this one we get a Hunger Games movie with no Hunger Games. In fact, there is very little combat action at all. Instead, we are witness to the strategic planning and “selling” of a war (think Wag the Dog), replete with short promo videos featuring Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as the Mockingjay … the rallying symbol of the rebels. There is a terrific scene featuring four great actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore (as President Coin), Jeffrey Wright (as Beetee) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Plutarch). Four great actors in harmony elevating a movie based on YA novels. Pretty cool.

With no actual Hunger Games, the color palette of the film is almost entirely grays and browns. Even Julianne Moore’s famous red tresses are toned down to a streaked gray. The bleak look reminds of the Metropolis (1927) set, and also makes President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) vivid white wardrobe and beard stand in contrast to rest. Mr. Sutherland has another juicy scene flashing his devilish grin and twinkle. He’s another example of the perfect casting, which extends to Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Stanley Tucci, and Mahershala Ali (as Boggs). You should expect much less Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) this time, but a little more Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

Jennifer Lawrence proves again that her recurring role as Katniss is underrated from an acting perspective. She is now best known as an Oscar winner, but that doesn’t affect the sincerity, emotion and tenacity that she exhibits here.

This ending of Part 1 feels a bit awkward, but the break comes at the right time considering how the book is written. If you are a fan of the franchise, just accept that you will be buying a ticket for this move as well as next year’s finale.

**NOTE: Fans of Face Off will pick up a nod to that film

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away with less than two weeks remaining in the filming schedule. He will appear in the finale, but his last few scenes were re-written to account for his absence. I will say it again next year, but his death leaves such a void for us movie lovers.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


NON-STOP (2014)

March 2, 2014

non-stop Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood is a true believer in the theory that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. The constant attempts to capture the same lightning bolt in the same bottle would be kind of funny, if not so frustrating for us movie-goers. Liam Neeson’s surprise hit with 2008’s Taken spawned not just a sequel, but now two movies from director Jaume Collet-Serra – this one and the disappointing Unknown. Oh well, it’s easy money for Neeson and it’s not the worst early year release.

It’s been 20 years since Liam Neeson’s Oscar nominated performance in Schindler’s List. Rather than a great actor, he might best be described as a familiar screen presence … a guy we can somehow relate to most of the time. Well, at least until he unleashes his particular set of skills … this time in an airplane lavatory! The set up for this thriller is quite promising. Neeson plays an alcoholic US Air Marshal looking and sounding quite beaten down by life in the first few minutes. Once on his flight, he receives a text informing him that someone onboard will be killed every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred into an account. It’s a combination hijacking, extortion, whodunnit murder mystery and blackmail story. Unfortunately the three first time screenwriters (one of whom “wrote” for the WWE) botch every possible twist and turn. With a plane full of suspects, we play right along with Neeson as he begins the process to narrow down. We’ve enjoyed the claustrophobic approach to movie thrillers before in such movies as Flight, Air Force One, Flightplan and even Phone Booth.

For whatever reason, this plane never feels cramped and the tight spaces only come into play with the aforementioned lavatory fight scene, and even that seems like the most spacious airplane restroom in the history of aviation. Even the multiple drop-dead deadlines aren’t really played for full effect, and the decent supporting cast isn’t given much to do, save for looking suspiciously at Neeson.

Julianne Moore co-stars, but mostly her role consists of disbelieving stares and a tilt of the head. Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”) gets a few juicy scenes, as does the always interesting Scoot McNairy. Unfortunately, Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong’o, Shea Whigham, Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”), and Nate Parker have little to do, and the absolute wasting of Anson Mount is a crime.

If you are skittish about flying, there is no reason to see this one, though the convoluted motive and lackluster reveal might help you forget the story takes place on an international flight. The one thing we do learn is that Liam Neeson can take a fire extinguisher to the head and bounce right back up without a mark. Let’s add that to his particular set of skills, while we less-than-anxiously await yet another collaboration between Neeson and this director coming in 2015.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have the late winter cabin fever blues and are in desperate need of a movie to get the blood pumping.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are hoping to get a jump on next year’s Oscar season.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiHDJ19A3dk


DON JON (2013)

September 26, 2013

don jon1 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been a few months since I saw a screening, and I’m a bit surprised it’s getting a wide release (beginning September 27). On one hand, it’s the directorial debut of the very talented and popular Joseph Gordon-Levitt. On the other hand, the subject matter is not exactly mainstream … he plays a compulsive type who is addicted to online porn. Stereotypes abound!

There is a lot to like here (and no, the film is not pornographic in nature). It’s a front line observation of some things going on in society right now. Technology has quickly sucked away much of our face to face social interaction. Jon (JGL) has a compulsive personality. He is obsessed with cleaning his apartment, showing off his muscle car, perfecting his body at the gym, continuing his string of one-night stands with hot girls, confessing his sins to the priest, and last but not least … online porn. He sees nothing wrong with his addiction but readily admits his real life conquests don’t meet his standards – no matter how pretty or personable they might be. Still, he goes through the motions of dance club pursuits to keep up his image with his buddies.

don jon2 Even when he heads home for dinner with his family, communication is a mess. His sister (the great Brie Larson) never puts down her phone. His parents (Glenne Headly and Tony Danza) are bombastic and emotional. When Jon meets a “dime” (translated to a perfect 10 … why didn’t Blake Edwards think of that?), his mother talks only of grandkids and his dad congratulates him on “a nice piece of ___” (you get the point).

See, this “dime” is Barbara, played by Scarlett Johansson. She has the look Jon so values and since he has no concept of how a relationship works, she easily manipulates him to transition into her ideal man (rom-com movies, college courses, etc). In a very telling scene, Barbara and Jon take in a Rom-Com spoof “based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks” and starring Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum. Barbara’s perfect man is a fictionalized knight in shining armor, while Jon’s perfect woman is the latest porn star. Though the issues are identical, neither sees their own flaws … only that of the other.

don jon3 The story takes a dramatic turn when Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore) in a somewhat embarrassing incident (for him). The budding relationship between the older mentor and her student of life could have made a much more interesting movie as she guides him down a path of self-discovery.

JGL, Scarlett and Ms. Moore are all very good in their roles, as is the entire supporting cast (Danza especially comical as the perfectly cast dad). Although there are some very humorous scenes and lines in the film, I found it somewhat dis-spiriting due to the observations it makes on the young adult generation. The final act seemed a bit too clean for real life, but that doesn’t take away from what is really a nice first outing for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a filmmaker. Stay tuned as I expect even better from him in the future.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are brave enough for a peek at the social lives of single young adults in today’s world OR you want to see how the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitz handles his first hat trick: writer/director/actor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Scarlett’s “Jersey Shore” accent is more than your ears can stand.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6615kYTpOSU


WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2013)

June 10, 2013

maisie1 Greetings again from the darkness. An ultra-modern indie update of the 1897 Henry James novel introduces us to parents we know, but wish we didn’t. Steve Coogan plays Beale, a self-absorbed art dealer. Julianne Moore plays Susanna, a self-absorbed rock star. OK, you and I may not know art dealers and rock stars, but we know self-absorbed types and we know they make terrible parents. So not only do we know it, but it’s also what Maisie knows.

Five outstanding performances and strong work by co-directors Scott McGhee and David Siegel prevent this one from spinning off into the neverlands of melodramatic muck. Onata Aprile is a wonder as Maisie. She displays none of the typical “movie kid” precociousness. The movie (and James novel) are told from her point of view. We see the fragmented bits and pieces she experiences as her parents fight. Rather than a full story drowning in details, we share her maisie3moments of late pick-ups, early drop-offs and forgotten trips.

Soon enough Beale and Susanna are divorced and the real wars begin. These despicable adults make little effort in hiding their hatred of each other from 6 year old Maisie. It becomes background noise to her life. Further proof of the epic narcissism from both: Beale soon marries Margot the nanny (played by Joanna Vanderham) and Susanna reacts by marrying Lincoln, a simple-minded band gopher and bartender played by studly but Alexander Skarsgard. The most startling moment of the movie occurs when Lincoln first begins playing with Maisie … it’s as if we had almost forgotten what it means to give your attention to a child.

maisie2 This is not an easy film to watch … at least if you understand that parenting means putting yourself second. The directors do a wonderful job of showing us how Maisie takes in moments and what memories she makes from these. The neglect and false moments of caring from her parents make her acceptance of the attention to her step-parents even more poignant. We can’t help but hope things work out for this little girl and it’s a reminder that childhood innocence cannot be recaptured once lost … and it’s worth hanging on to for as long as possible.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a realistic and terrific performance from child actor Onata Aprile OR you’ve always believed that Henry James doesn’t translate to the big screen

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the last thing you wish to see is two more pathetic parents

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68pgeWPc-QI


BEING FLYNN (2012)

March 27, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having done no research to determine how closely Nick Flynn’s autobiography/memoirs entitled “Another Bull**** Night in Suck City” follows his real life, it is safe for me to say that there is some pleasure to be had from a movie that lacks the traditional Hollywood ending of redemption for rotten souls. We do know that in real life, as in the movie, Nick met his long-lost father while working at a homeless shelter. This happened after Nick’s mother committed suicide.  Not exactly the most cheerful start, eh?

This story will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has experienced abandonment by a parent (or two). Hopefully, your personal story doesn’t also include the alcohol and drug abuse, as well as the guilt of believing you were responsible for the loving parent’s suicide. Nick’s story does.  He makes no apologies for the behavior of himself or either of his parents.  He just lays it out for us to see.

Nick is played well with an almost detached passive aggressiveness by Paul Dano. He seems constantly numbed by the situation life places him in. Astonishment kicks in when he comes face to face with his father Jonathan, a self-proclaimed brilliant writer, but also con artist and racist. Jonathan, played by Robert DeNiro, is first seen as a taxi driver. Yes, Robert DeNiro as a taxi driver, almost 40 years after his iconic turn in Taxi Driver! It’s a startling image for a movie lover, but one that doesn’t last long. Jonathan loses that job as he has lost everything else.

 Nick’s internal battle is obvious. He doesn’t want to be his father, but constantly sees glimpses that they are more similar than he would prefer. Nick manages to mess up a good thing with his co-worker played by the terrific Olivia Thirlby. She experiences the frustration of trying to save someone who doesn’t really want to be saved.

Strong support work comes from Wes Studi, Dale Dickey, William Stadler, Lili Taylor (Nick Flynn‘s real life wife) and Julianne Moore. Ms. Moore plays Nick’s mother, but really has little to do. Though she provided a strong foundation for Nick, this is really the story of Nick and Jonathan. It’s DeNiro’s best dramatic work in years and is a reminder that he is capable of more than the “Focker” movies (Paul Weitz actually directed Being Flynn AND Little Fockers, as well as About a Boy and American Pie.  This one can’t be termed enjoyable, but it is an interesting look at “real” life without a Hollywood twist.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have forgotten (or never knew) that Robert DeNiro is an accomplished dramatic actor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: bleak, dysfunctional family dramas are not your preference for springtime fare

watch the trailer:


GAME CHANGE (2012)

March 13, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. One sided films can be made about race, gender, religion, occupations and hobbies. One sided films about politics, however, tend to wreak as much havoc as the actual politics. HBO’s latest from director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong (the team behind Recount) is based on the bestseller from political writers Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Just as the book did, the film will bring enjoyment and confirmation to the left wingers and much pain and anger to the staunch right wingers … at least those who are unable, even 4 years later, to view the story with a hint of objectivity.

I am not here to debate the political sides of the story, but rather to address how it is presented. The thing that really stands out are the Emmy-caliber performances of Ed Harris (as John McCain), Julianne Moore (as Sarah Palin) and Woody Harrelson (as Steve Schmidt). McCain comes across as a man with true ideals and integrity, who gets caught up in the ambitious push to become President. Palin is presented as the “high risk, high reward” gamble that initially pays dividends, but ultimately backfires. Schmidt is really the key to the story as the campaign strategist who accurately reads the climate, but then fails to do his homework before turning in his assignment.

 The story follows the evolution of the Palin story. McCain’s campaign needs a “WOW” factor and the Alaska Governor provides an energetic, charismatic woman who quickly captures the imagination of the public and media. She then fades under the pressure of being separated from her family, having family secrets publicized, and most crucially, her lack of depth on basic foreign and domestic issues. The note-card budget for this movie must have set a record.

We get a peek behind the curtain of a Presidential campaign, and see the shock on the faces of Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace (played by Sarah Paulson) as they realize too late just what they are dealing with in Palin. It was painful enough to watch what was presented to the public during this actual campaign, but to see what was going on behind the scenes is pure agony.

 Where the movie does its best work is in capsulizing what really happened in this 2008 campaign. We hear Schmidt ask, do you think the people want a “Statesman” (McCain) or a “Celebrity” (Obama)? That really is the key observation on the race. One candidate lacked real a connective personality, but fought for his country and served more upon his return. The other had few accomplishments, but had a dynamic personality that drove him to quickly become one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. McCain mentions “the dark side of the American populism“.  Schmidt understood the need for celebrity and poof … Palin appeared!

The last segment of the film provides a glimpse into the power-hungry, or at least celebrity-enjoying phase of Sarah Palin, and it looks like that persona is still going strong four years later. Even at this stage of the primaries, she mentions that she is open to being President.  The film does provide some insight into the pressures of managing a campaign on the highest stage and I found it quite interesting … even though I had to relive the chagrin I felt as each layer was peeled back on Palin in 2008.

watch the trailer:


CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.

July 31, 2011

Greetings again from the darkness. From the opening scene it is clear we aren’t in for a typically lame rom-com with caricatures instead of characters and punchlines instead of feelings. Instead, this one is all about the characters and their feelings … realistic feelings of pain, anger, hope and frustration. Now don’t misunderstand. It doesn’t go too deep and there is still plenty of humor in the moments.

Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) are sharing one of their many restaurant moments over the course of their long, steady marriage. Only  this time, something spoils the comfort zone. Emily says she wants a divorce and later tells Cal that she had an affair with a co-worker (Kevin Bacon). What follows is as close to real life reactions as we could ever hope for in a rom-com. Cal is hurt. The kids are angry. Emily is confused. Their friends take sides.

The intertwining story lines and characters are both sad and funny. We see how people react when they are attracted to others … or not. We see how people react when they wonder if a decision was rash. We see how basically nice people try to do the right thing for themselves and others, but still mess it up sometimes.

 After moving out, Cal heads to a local upscale lounge that seems to be stocked with gorgeous women and only a handful of men … every night. In real life, the line of men waiting to enter would be wrapped around the block. Still, one of the regulars is Jacob, played by Ryan Gosling. He is a thing of beauty himself, and always quick with just the right line. His science is making women believe he cares about nothing but them. Cal is discouraged by Jacob’s incredible success rate. Jacob notices Cal’s negative vibe and agrees to train him. But first, the makeover … wardrobe, haircut and conversation skills.

The polar opposite effect of what you might expect from Hollywood – these nice people begin to question their direction. Cal longs for Emily. Emily still thinks about Cal, but dates her co-worker. The son (Jonah Bobo) has a crush on the older baby-sitter, who has a crush of her own. Even Jacob falls hard for new attorney Hannah (Emma Stone) who has just walked out on her wet rag boyfriend (Josh Groban) who offered her a job, rather than a ring. Oh what a tangled web we weave. And that’s just the stuff I can tell you!

 Cal’s first conquest utilizing his newly learned skills is a teacher played with full energy by the terrific Marisa Tomei. She only has a couple of scenes, but as usual, Ms. Tomei makes the most of her screen time. The high school baby sitter is played well by Analeigh Tipton, but it’s interesting to note (in real life) she is 3 days younger than law school grad Hannah (Stone).

 All of the actors are top notch here. Steve Carell continues to get better … this is a superior movie to Date Night (with Tina Fey). Julianne Moore is solid, though her character is mostly mopey. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both outstanding. Gosling is known for mostly offbeat, dark independent films but shows again how easily he slides back into sex symbol. Ms. Stone is headed for super-stardom. She was really good in Easy A and has a star-making turn in the upcoming film The Help. After that, it’s on to the new Spider-Man for her.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are the co-directors and were responsible for the much less mainstream I Love You Phillip Morris, with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. Surprisingly the film was written by Dan Fogelman, who is known for his script writing on the animated Cars movies.

Chances are good that more women will want to see the movie, but the surprise is, many men will relate to what’s going on with the Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling characters. There is enough humor to keep everyone happy and enough strong writing to say this is a very good movie.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: it’s date night and you are looking for a good comedy/drama made for adults

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you find it difficult to find any humor in watching a couple struggle through a divorce, no matter how well made it is.