The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

(2015) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Paula Malcomson, Stanley Tucci, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Eugenia Bondurant. Directed by Francis Lawrence

When a franchise comes to an end, the hope is that it goes out with a bang. Everyone wants a Return of the Jedi but there’s always a danger of a The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part II. On which side will this girl power young adult franchise lean?

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is distressed that her erstwhile boyfriend Peta (Hutcherson) has been brainwashed by the evil minions of President Snow (Sutherland) to hate her to the point that he goes berserk at the sight of her. Although the rebel medical team is trying to break his conditioning, he remains a danger to Katniss and even a visit by baby sister Primrose (Shields) leads to another foaming at the mouth segment.

The timing of that is not so good, as the rebels are preparing to make their final assault on the Capital. Rebel President Coin (Moore) and her adviser Plutarch (Hoffman) are wary of allowing Katniss, who was brutally injured at the hands of Peta in Part 1 of the concluding volume of the franchise and then again during a raid on the District 2 armory, anywhere near the front although she continues to be valuable as a propaganda tool.

Nonetheless, Katniss heads to the Capital against direct orders and accompanied by her Hunger Game friend Finn (Claflin), her former boyfriend Gale (Hemsworth) and Boggs (Ali), a veteran warrior. She is ordered to steer well clear of the battlefront and to stay far behind the lines and make propaganda videos. President Snow has peppered the Capital with lethal traps designed by the Hunger Games designers. Some turn out to be more lethal than others.

As Katniss gets closer and closer to the Presidential palace and the confrontation between the two looks to be inevitable, she will discover the price for revenge may end up being incredibly high and that there are people close to her who have motives of their own that may well not include Katniss’ survival as part of the plan.

The production design for the movie is superb – it looks sleek and wow-inducing. The special effects are solid and the action sequences are thrilling. For many viewers, that’s all the movie really needs. For me, though, while there are a few scenes that contain emotional payoffs (none of which I’ll use here to illustrate as I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, although fans of the book will know what they are), the movie didn’t have an emotional resonance with me that the conclusion of an epic series should.

I could say part of the problem is that there are too many characters, many of whom I couldn’t keep straight, but that was true of the Harry Potter series as well and I had no trouble figuring out who was who. I could also say that the movie relied overly much on action rather than character, but that was true of the first Star Wars trilogy and that movie resonated with emotion at the end.

I think the problem is a blend of both issues; too many characters, many of whom had little development. To author Suzanne Collins’ credit, she didn’t rely on the love triangle that many young adult franchises with female heroines tend to utilize. However, there are too many extraneous pieces in the puzzle and the movie would have been better off leaving them out entirely, which might have been bad news for fans of Claflin and Hemsworth but good news for Lawrence’s fans, because I think the primary problem here is that Lawrence really gets short shrift here.

I sometimes wonder if Katniss Everdeen is really a good role model for young women; there’s a fine line between being headstrong and being mulish. There is also a fine line between being spontaneous and being foolish, as she takes a lot of chances that put lots of other people at risk, some of whom pay the ultimate price for it. Yes, that weighs heavily on Katniss’ soul but I guess our heroes these days have to be a little self-centered to be relatable.

The worst part is that there seemed to be no momentum, no fire. Certain cast members, particularly the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone and Donald Sutherland, did their level best but for the most part this felt very emotionally flat to me. Judging from the box office for the movie which has been okay but not what was expected, some of their fans haven’t had that connection either. I’ll admit that maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day I saw this, but for whatever reason the movie didn’t connect with me and I really wanted it to – I’ve generally liked the series but it felt like it ran out of steam here rather than finishing with a flourish.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of eye candy. Some emotional payoffs.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. No momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene near the end when Haymitch reads a letter from Plutarch to Katniss was supposed to be dialogue from Plutarch, but actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who played the role, passed away before the scene could be filmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Peanuts Movie

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The Good Dinosaur


Fireflies sold separately.

Fireflies sold separately.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Sam Elliott, Steve Zahn, Anna Paquin, John Ratzenberger, David Boat, Carrie Paff, Calum Grant, Jack McGraw, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Ryan Teeple, Marcus Scribner, Peter Sohn, Steven Clay Hunter, A.J. Buckley, Mandy Freund. Directed by Peter Sohn

What kid doesn’t like dinosaurs? They’re big, they’re extinct and they capture a child’s imagination like almost nothing else. But what if dinos were still around?

In the latest Pixar animated opus (the studio’s eighteenth), the asteroid that caused the mass extinction of the dominant lifeform on earth skips off the atmosphere and zooms past the world, startling a group of grazing dinosaurs. Flash forward an indeterminate number of years and the dinosaurs have become an agrarian society, with an Apatosaurus family running a farm. Poppa (Wright) and Momma (McDormand) Apatosaurus are expecting with three eggs about to hatch. Out pops Buck (Scribner), Libby (Nipay-Padilla) and lastly Arlo (Ochoa) who turns out to be something of a runt.

As on the farms most of us are familiar with, the entire family is expected to help. Arlo tries his best, but as the runt of the family he’s afraid of everything and despite his father’s patient efforts to make a man outta him, Arlo continues to be ruled by fear. When it is discovered that a critter is stealing corn from their grain silo, Arlo is given the task of trapping the critter, which he does, and killing it, which doesn’t quite work out when the critter – which turns out to be a young human boy, scares him and gets away.

Exasperated, Poppa gives chase, bringing along Arlo but the movie takes a Disney turn – you’ll understand when you see it . Things grow a bit desperate on the family farm after that and Arlo is asked to step up. He does his best – at least his heart is in the right place – but he doesn’t have the strength and stature to make much of a difference.

When a freak storm washes Arlo away in a raging river, he is saved by the human child. Nicknamed Spot (Bright) by Arlo, the two begin a journey back to Arlo’s home. Along the way they’ll traverse a beautiful but dangerous landscape full of nature’s fury but also of other dinosaurs, like colorful velociraptors, rootin’ tootin’ T-Rexes and opportunistic pterodactyls. They’ll also form a unique and lasting bond that only comes from enduring the worst that nature can throw at you and surviving.

This is something of a dino-Western, which is just as bizarre as it sounds. Essentially, think of this as a John Ford Western with dinosaurs in the saddle (although they actually don’t ride anything – well, Spot rides Arlo but that doesn’t count since the horses in Ford’s films generally didn’t talk). That fusion of dinosaur story and Western is the most inventive thing about the movie story-wise – more about that in a moment.

This movie can really be categorized as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Starting with the good, this is the most beautiful looking of all of Pixar’s films, with gorgeously rendered landscapes that are nearly photorealistic, looking very much like Big Sky country – I’m not sure what landscapes inspired the artists at Pixar but wherever it was, I wouldn’t mind going there myself.

The bad is the story. There’s nothing that really distinguishes it from plenty of other Disney and Pixar films; young protagonist overcomes adversity and personal tragedy, discovers the value of friendship and/or family and makes a journey – physical or otherwise – to reunite with his/her family. The only thing missing is a princess singing a song to the woodland animals.

The ugly are the dinosaurs (and humans) themselves. Amidst all the photorealistic grandeur are these cartoonish looking humans and worse, dinosaurs that look more like action figures than dinosaurs. I’m thinking that Disney didn’t want to frighten kids unnecessarily – after all, Dinosaur isn’t considered one of Disney’s big hits – so they made them as non-threatening as possible. That’s all fine and dandy – Disney’s gotta sell merch, after all – but why go to the trouble of creating such amazing environments and then filling it with creatures that don’t match? It makes the plastic look of the dinosaurs here even more glaring, along with their goofy cartoon expressions. It would have made more sense to create a more cartoon-y environment for these action figures to play in if they were intending to go this route.

And why is that a problem? Because it comes off very cynical, like the movie is an excuse for Disney to sell toys. And, to be honest, nearly every movie aimed at kids is just that. But it’s so glaring here that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, particularly of parents who will exit the theater knowing they will have to shell out hundreds of dollars for The Good Dinosaur-related toys and games this Christmas. My advice; just say no. It’s good for a kid to learn the lesson that they can’t always get what they want. As long as they get what they need, which isn’t anthropomorphic movie-related toys.

Usually with Pixar I’m as entertained as the children around me – certainly Inside Out from earlier this year was a film that I enjoyed as an adult perhaps as much and maybe even more than the kids in the audience. That story was imaginative and the environment equally so. There isn’t any of the magic from that film here. What we have here is one big commercial for action figures in the most beautiful backyard ever. Caveat emptor.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous environments. Plenty of Christmas toy-buying opportunities.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian story. Characters are surprisingly weak-looking.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally slated to be released over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2014, but due to production problems which led to original director Bob Peterson being replaced, the movie was pushed back to the spot that Finding Dory was originally slated for, prompting that movie’s delay until 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars 2
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Can You Dig This?

New Releases for the Week of November 27, 2015


The Good DinosaurTHE GOOD DINOSAUR

(Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Elliott, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn. Directed by Peter Sohn

In a world where the asteroid that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs missed the Earth, an Apatosaurus named Arlo who as the runt of the litter was always frightened of everything in the world around him, is forced to make friends with a feral human boy named Spot. Alone and far from home in a dangerous world, the two must work together to make it home.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for peril, action and thematic elements)

Bone Tomahawk

(RLJ Entertainment) Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Sean Young. After a small town in the Old West is attacked by savage cannibalistic cave dwellers (try and say that five times fast), a grizzled sheriff leads a dysfunctional posse after them to rescue the captives they took from the town. Little did they realize that the cannibals were far more ruthless and resourceful than they could have imagined – and that the rescue mission has become a fight for survival.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Western
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Brooklyn

(Fox Searchlight) Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters. A woman in the 1950s emigrates from Ireland to the United States to find herself a new life. At first beset by pangs of homesickness, she begins to ease into her situation, buoyed by a promising romance. However when personal matters require her to return to Ireland, she finds herself forced to choose between two lives – one in her homeland, one in her new home. Scripted by Nick Hornby.

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and an interview here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language)

Creed

(MGM/New Line) Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad. The son of the late boxing champion Apollo Creed never knew his father, who died in the ring before he was born. Angry at life, he only feels comfortable in the boxing ring. Knowing that he needs the kind of training that he can’t get just anywhere, he seeks out his father’s one-time rival and closest friend Rocky Balboa, who sees something in the young man that Creed doesn’t see in himself. But Rocky has a deadly battle of his own to wage and young Adonis Creed will be taking on a foe that may be more than he can overcome. Jordan in the title role is reunited with his Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for violence, language and some sensuality)

Legend

(Universal) Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston. In the 1960s the Kray Brothers were the most notorious and feared gangsters in London. Their story, previously chronicled in The Krays starring Gary and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet, benefits from an Oscar-caliber performance by Tom Hardy – as both Kray twins. The movie will be opening on more screens in two weeks.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village (opening wider December 11)

Rating: R (for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual and drug material)

Tamasha

(UTV) Deepika Padukone, Ranbir Kapoor, Javed Sheikh, Faraaz Servaia. A tourist and a nomad living on an island near France fall for one another as they organize “tamashas” all over the island.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

Trumbo

(Bleecker Street) Bryan Cranston, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Diane Lane. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is called in before the House Un-American Activities Commission to testify about his beliefs and to incriminate other colleagues who might be leaning too far to the left for American tastes as of 1947. Instead, he stands up against Congress and is sent to prison before being blacklisted. Instead, he perseveres and becomes an American hero in the process.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)

Victor Frankenstein

(20th Century Fox) James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Charles Dance. A reimagining of the Mary Shelley classic, as a medical doctor wishing to conquer death becomes obsessed to the point of madness. Only his faithful assistant Igor can save him from his own deteriorating mental state and from his horrifying creation.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for macabre images, violence and a sequence of destruction)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1


Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

(2014) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Willow Shields, Mahershala Ali, Paula Malcomson, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Stef Dawson, Sarita Choudhury. Directed by Francis Lawrence

It has become something of a habit now for Hollywood to take the final book in a young adult franchise based on a book and split it in two; this has been done for the Harry Potter series, Twilight and now The Hunger Games with the same fate planned for the Divergent series. This is a blatant cash grab that cynical studios use to squeeze every last penny that they can out of a successful franchise. As for the Potter series, the first part was the weakest movie of the eight-film franchise (although the second part turned out to be one of the strongest). In the Twilight series Lionsgate both movies were poor and the final entry the worst of the entire series.

In this penultimate film, the events of Catching Fire have led to the complete carpet bombing and destruction of District 12, home of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) who has been taken to the previously-thought abandoned District 13. However her love Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) had been left behind and was captured by the men of President Snow (Sutherland) and brought back to the Capital. There he is used as a pawn, with interviews conducted by the smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) which essentially are propaganda pieces.

District 13 president Alma Coin (Moore) is wary of using Katniss for the same purpose; clearly Katniss is shell-shocked and not in an emotional state where she is able to be a spokesman for the revolution that is sweeping Panem. However uber-patient ex-boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) is on hand to help Katniss make it through; old friends Haymitch (Harrelson), Effie Trinket (Banks) and Finnick (Claflin) are there to support Katniss. Rescued from the rubble of District 12 are Kat’s sister Primrose (Shields) and mom (Malcomson).

Pulling the strings in District 13 is Plutarch (Hoffman) a cynical but brilliant marketing man who is selling the revolution to the people of Panem whereas President Snow is selling safety and security while providing neither. A villain of the first order, he callously orders the bombing of a hospital in order to set an example of what happens to people when they allow a visit from the Girl on Fire who is now referred to as the Mockingjay. This pisses Katniss off enough to pull out of her funk temporarily – until the callow Peeta makes another plea for peace. Who knew the face of revolution would be so emotional?

And so after that atrocity the rebels are finally moved to push into an offensive against the Capital, giving them the opportunity to rescue Peeta and the other Victors held captive by the President, including Finnick’s girlfriend Anna (Dawson). However, they don’t begin to see the depth of the game being played by President Snow – and how far he is willing to go to win it.

As any fan of the series will tell you, it’s all about Katniss and thus it’s all about Jennifer Lawrence. Normally I’d say that’s a pretty safe bet; after all, she has become one of the hottest actresses in the world, with Oscar wins as well as starring in one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood today. However, I can’t say as I like what is happening to her character here.

Now I’ll admit that it should be taken into account that I’m not a teenage girl nor have I ever been one – nor am I likely to ever be one. I may be getting this all wrong but I feel cheated a little bit by what Katniss has become in this movie. I had always viewed her as a good role model for young girls; strong, independent, able to defend herself and those around her and with a strong moral compass. I’m not sure what the author’s intentions were  but I saw the same thing happen to Bella Swan in Twilight as well. Both series were written by women but I’m not sure if they were saying it’s okay to be ruled by your emotions to the point where you become virtually immobilized by them, or if they’re saying that’s part of being female.

I don’t know about that part. How is it role model material for your strong, independent heroine to be literally whining “It’s not fair!” while pining away for her boyfriend to the point that she’s willing to let all sorts of people – including her sister and mom – be killed because she’s too emotional to act to prevent it. That kind of self-centeredness may be part of modern culture but it seems out of place for a movie heroine. Of course, my perceptions of what a role model should be may be hopelessly outdated but I do like to think that there are some things that are fairly basic and timeless.

Lawrence is a terrific actress but she seems curiously lifeless here. Even so, she still manages to dominate the screen and while this isn’t her best work, it certainly is enough to carry the movie. She gets some able support, particularly from the late Hoffman whom the film is dedicated to. Mostly though this is a lot of people going through the motions for a paycheck and Moore, also a fine actress, looks distinctly uncomfortable in an unfortunate wig.

There’s just not a lot of energy and life to this movie even though the visuals are well shot and there are some pleasant moments in idyllic forests. Most of the movie takes place in District 13’s underground bunker and is perpetually underlit. Even without 3D this movie is dark and dingy-looking most of the time. You have to admit though it does set a certain kind of bleak mood.

There is subtext here about image-making and its use in manipulating opinion, and while that is a fascinating subject, the filmmakers tend to thunk us over the head with a shillelagh rather than skewer us with a rapier which would be much more preferable. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here but then again, I get the sense that the filmmakers don’t respect their target audience a whole lot. Certainly the kind of girls that identify with Katniss are capable of understanding subtlety.

This is a big disappointment for me. Thus far I’ve actually enjoyed the series and was looking forward to seeing this one. Although it is reasonably entertaining to earn a feeble recommendation, I was hoping for so much more. With any luck,  the finale next Thanksgiving will pull out all the stops and let the series end on a high note rather than a whimper or a whine which is where it seems to be going. Prove me wrong. Please.

REASONS TO GO: Some pleasing eye-candy. Lawrence is terrific even when she’s subpar.
REASONS TO STAY: Turgid and boring. Lacks any kind of spark. Katniss, a strong and courageous soul, is reduced to a weepy teen pining for her boyfriend and feeling sorry for herself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some intense violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman passed away a week before filming concluded; rather than recasting the part, the filmmakers did some rewrites so that the portions Hoffman didn’t film could be incorporated in different ways.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Divergent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Daybreakers

Broken City


Wahlberg turns away from the corruption of the Broken City.

Wahlberg turns away from the corruption of the Broken City.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jeffrey Wright, Barry Pepper, Alona Tal, Natalie Martinez, Michael Beach, Kyle Chandler, James Ransone, Griffin Dunne, Odessa Sykes, Britney Theriot, Luis Tolentino, Tony Bentley, Andrea Frankle, William Ragsdale, Dana Gourrier, Teri Wyble. Directed by Allen Hughes

Honesty and politics don’t mix in modern America. The rule is that most politicians will do just about anything to win, stopping short of murder. Some don’t even stop there.

Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is a New York City cop but one with anger issues. When a lowlife who raped and murdered a teen is released on a technicality, he snaps and murders the scumbag in cold blood. Police commissioner Carl Fairbanks (Wright) wants to throw his detective to the woods but then New York City Mayor Hostetler (Crowe) buries the evidence and tells Taggart he’s a hero. However, while Billy won’t be going to jail even the Mayor can’t protect his job under those circumstances.

Seven years later, Billy is working as a private investigator but his business is failing. While his loyal assistant Katy Bradshaw (Tal) hangs in there, Billy knows he can’t survive much longer. However apparently coming to his rescue, Mayor Hostetler comes to Billy with an assignment; to follow Hizzonor’s wife Cathleen (Zeta-Jones) and find out if she’s having an affair or not. The Mayor is in the middle of a vicious campaign for re-election and he can’t afford the hint of a scandal to get out; it’s something his opponent Jack Valliant (Pepper) and his canny manager Paul Andrews (Chandler) would make a great deal of hay from.

Billy is more than happy and grateful to take a paying job, even when it leads to Cathleen’s lover – none other than Paul Andrews himself. But when Andrews turns up dead, Billy realizes he’s in way over his head and that someone in this equation is hiding something, something they’re willing to kill to keep hidden. Not knowing who to trust and fighting his own demons – alcohol and jealousy of his girlfriend (Martinez), an aspiring actress – it’s going to be no easy thing to fix this broken city.

This originally saw the light of day on the Black List of unproduced scripts. Hughes snapped it up and sent it out to some Hollywood A-listers and both Wahlberg and Crowe jumped at the chance to work on the project. The first clue though that things didn’t turn out so well was when the studio scheduled the film to premiere in January 2013. January is the graveyard for movies; few films of any quality surface during the first month of the year when Oscar contenders and Holiday blockbusters take up most of the screens at the multiplex.

But seeing this made me wonder how the script could have wound up on the Black List considering just how poorly written the movie is. Plot points are explored and then abandoned. Holes in logic abound. Dialogue that doesn’t sound like real people talking. And lest we forget, a ludicrous ending.

Fortunately the movie has some pretty good actors who are playing this (mostly) with straight faces. Wahlberg can play this kind of part without working up much of a sweat and yet he gives it his earnest best. Billy is far from lovable but at his core he has a sense of justice – not always an accurate one – that just can’t be denied. For example, when he sees a sex scene his girlfriend filmed for an indie film at the premiere, he is horrified. He simply can’t get past seeing her do those things where everyone can see them. He’s a rumpled knight in dented, rusting armor but he’s also the sort you’d want at your side if you were fighting for a hopeless but just cause.

Crowe also gives the Mayor easy charm and smile on the surface with a crocodile’s teeth just under the facade. It’s a mesmerizing performance and would ordinarily overwhelm someone as blue collar as Wahlberg but the two make a good point/counterpoint sort of chemistry for themselves. Zeta-Jones remains one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, but she didn’t win that Oscar in a Cracker Jack box; the lady’s got chops and she shows them here in a character study that’s as complex as any in the movie. However, the Israeli actress Tal seems to be having more fun than anyone else in the movie and she is a delight with a future in Hollywood if she keeps getting these sorts of roles.

The action scenes are for the most part forgettable although there are a couple of nifty little set pieces here. This is the kind of mindless fluff that is forgotten as soon as the popcorn is gone but there’s nothing wrong with that sort of movie. I just get the sense that isn’t what the filmmakers had in mind when they undertook this project to begin with.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid performances from terrific cast. Some gritty action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot holes and dangling plot points a-plenty. Falls flat overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language, violent content and a bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time Hughes directed a film solo; normally he works with his twin brother Albert.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on a $35M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (Purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Ernest & Celestine (Ernest et Célestine)


Celestine shares a secret with Ernest.

Celestine shares a secret with Ernest.

(2012) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Jeffrey Wright, David Boat, Ethan DiSalvio, Delphina Belle, Gary Littman, Maggie Villard, Joe Ochman, Ashley Brooke, Marsha Clark, Ashley Earnest, Cameron Dickson. Directed by Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner

Florida Film Festival 2014

Childhood was a magical time. It was a time of perfect summer days, running around outdoors in the fresh air and finding places where there were meadows, greenery, fresh water or a lovely beach – places we would find we could play in and let our imaginations run wild. It was a time of cold winter nights, tucked into our warm beds after a cup of hot cocoa and a story. It’s not like that anymore.

These days it is a time of video games and day care, a time when overworked parents working harder and longer hours just to make ends not quite meet spend less and less time with their kids. It’s a time of fear and paranoia, of worrying about all the lunatics out there who want to hurt our children. It’s also a time of plopping the kids in front of the TV, computer screen or videogame console just to get them out of our hair for an hour or two.

Ernest & Celestine, a French animated feature based on a series of classic children’s books by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent, is a welcome return to that feeling of warm comfort that only comes in childhood. There is a hand-drawn feel that is simple but not in the way of the excremental Cartoon Network crap that passes for animation these days – there’s a pastel watercolor beauty to the film that shows why animation is art first and foremost. That it was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards is no accident.

In an underground city of mice, Celestine (Foy) is an orphan who is obliged to go out in the above-ground city of bears to steal discarded teeth so that the school of orthodontics can practice (apparently all mice want to be dentists) as well as scraps of food so that they can, you know, eat. The mice orphans are regaled with tales of the Big Bad Bear who will eat misbehaving mice by The Grey One (Bacall) at the orphanage. It is definitely the bedtime story from Hell.

One night a mishap occurs while Celestine is trying to steal teeth and she is obliged to spend the night in a trashcan in the Bear Town. Ernest (Whitaker), a down on his luck bear, has just awakened from his winter hibernation and man, is he starved! With nothing in the house, he busks around the town square as a one man band, getting hassled by the police. Desperate, he starts foraging in trash cans and finds the sleeping form of Celestine. About to eat her, the quick-witted mouse manages to convince him not to and shows him a way to get into the candy store. Delighted with this turn of luck, Ernest gorges himself on candy until he is discovered. Celestine hides him in the Mouse city and soon, a friendship of necessity is born as both mouse and bear become wanted as fugitives.

This is a simple tale of friendship and of getting past preconceptions, although it must be said that children are much better at it than adults are to begin with. Still, as this is most certainly geared towards younger children, it is a lesson that bears reinforcement.

I’m told that the original French version is superior to this (and it was originally shown in the U.S. in that form) but I have to say – Forest Whitaker was born to be a bear. He captures the essence of bruin vocally, gruff and growly but with a big heart. The look of Ernest is just perfect too, rumpled and disreputable – a bear whose every move should be accompanied by the sound of a mournful oboe. It is also nice to hear Bacall’s distinctive voice once again.

This is a fairly short film so it won’t tax the attention span of the very young. While the attitude and vibe is very French, American kids will love this – it’s as charming as can be and waaaay better than the stuff they see on cable and the humor is kind of Looney Tunes style so adults will get a kick out of it too. As far as this adult is concerned however, the best part was feeling that warm fuzzy feeling of being cared for that one gets as a child – that’s a priceless commodity these days that makes the effort of seeking this out worth every bit of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful animation. Heartwarming and not boring for adults. Whitaker was born to be a bear. Perfect for toddlers and very young children.

REASONS TO STAY: Older kids may find this unpalatable.

FAMILY VALUES:  Perfectly suitable for all family members.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first animated movie to win Best Film at the Magritte Awards, the Belgian equivalent of the Oscars.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Charlotte’s Web

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Druid Peak

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

(2013) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, Toby Jones, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Megan Hayes. Directed by Francis Lawrence

With the Twilight series completed (at least for now), the studios scrambled to find a new franchise that would appeal to a similar demographic. They’ve found it with The Hunger Games based on the best-selling Young Adult book series by Suzanne Collins.

Following the events of the first film (there are spoilers for that film if you haven’t seen it yet), Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are preparing to go on their Victor’s Tour of the 12 Districts of Panem, a traditional responsibility of the winners. Their love story has captivated all of Panem which has the tyrannical President Snow (Sutherland) a bit worried. You see, he has seen through the pair’s ruse. Katniss still has it bad for the strapping miner Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) and her sham relationship with Peeta was something done so that they could both survive. Snow warns Katniss that she not only has to convince Panem that her feelings for Peeta are genuine – she has to convince the President first of all.

This isn’t the same Panem that Katniss left however. The repressive policies that have created such a wide gulf between the haves of Capital and the Have-Nots of the Districts has begun to spark some thoughts of uprising with Katniss herself a symbol that is giving the people the courage to stand up for themselves. The new master of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) agrees with the President that Katniss needs to go – but not as a martyr. She must be associated with the government of Panem and become a symbol of its corruption and repression – then they can kill her.

And he has just the means to do it. The 75th Edition of the Hunger Games is coming up, the so-called Quarter Quell and rather than getting all-new tributes, Heavensbee proposes that the tributes be reaped from the existing pool of victors. Katniss, as the only female winner from District 12 is automatically chosen to go and this time she’ll be up against trained killers who have a win in the Games to their credit. This will be a Hunger Games like none seen before.

While director Gary Ross has exited and Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has stepped in, there are plenty of familiar faces including Haymitch (Harrelson), the alcoholic former winner who has become mentor to Peeta and Katniss; Effie (Banks), Caesar (Tucci) the smarmy host of the Games whose capped teeth can be seen from space and Cinna (Kravitz), the brilliant clothing designer who is largely responsible for Katniss’ popularity and image.

There are also new faces mostly the tributes for the Quarter Quell including the hunky Finnick (Claflin), his mentor Mags (Cohen), the brainy engineer Beetee (Wright) and the savant Wiress (Plummer), as well as the buttkicking Johanna (Malone) whose motivations remain unclear. The overall performance level has been raised significantly from the first film.

So too have the special effects. There is a sequence in which a kind of mandrill-like monkey clan attacks and it is done so smoothly and seamlessly that it doesn’t seem like CGI at all. The look of the film is pretty satisfying in every sense.

More importantly, there’s so much going on here than just a mere action tale or a romance. There are all sorts of underlying subtexts from the class warfare to the vapid fashion-obsessed culture to the role of mass media in shaping opinion. That’s the kind of thing that makes a critic’s heart beat faster – assuming they have the gumption to look more closely at the movie or its source material.

Lawrence has won an Oscar since the last time she played Katniss and her self-confidence from that clearly shows in Kat’s own growth. While Hemsworth is a fine actor, it’s Hutcherson who captured my attention and seemed to make a better foil for Ms. Everdeen. However, be warned that some of the romantic elements don’t have the same amount of complexity that the rest of the story has and so it seems aimed more squarely at juvenile hearts. Also it should be said that at times Katniss is of a participant in her own story and more of a reactant. For someone who is as supposedly kickass a warrior and strong in spirit she can come off as a self-pitying wimp in places. I don’t think it’s Ms. Lawrence’s fault so much as it is male writers who have problems writing strong female characters. I’d love to see a female screenwriter take a crack at the next one although I understand that’s fairly unlikely an occurrence.

Still, this is solid entertainment that is going to capture the imaginations of its young female core audience. Katniss is truly a heroine to be admired, much more so than Bella Swan. In every respect this is a superior franchise to that other one with a lead character who is much worthier of being a role model despite the occasional hiccups. I wasn’t sure if I cared about seeing a sequel after the first Hunger Games; after the second, I can’t wait for the third.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine performances and action sequences along with a solid storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Stumbles over itself with occasional overkill and main character sometimes doesn’t seem true to her own traits.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, with a few frightening images, some suggestive situations, a couple of instances of bad language and overall thematic elements not for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the Capitol scenes were filmed at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel which also happens to be where Dragoncon, one of the Southeast’s premiere conventions, takes place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Running Man

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Muscle Shoals