Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer


When the Reindeer Games become more like the Hunger Games.

(2018) Animated Feature (Screen Media)  Starring the voices of Josh Hutcherson, Samantha Bee, Morena Baccarin, Martin Short, John Cleese, Christopher Jacot, Rob Tinkler, George Buza, Jeff Dunham, Jean Yoon, Julie Lemieux, Carlos Bustamante, Scott Farley, Steph Lynn Robinson, Darren Frost, Angela Fusco, Quancetia Hamilton, Carly Heffernan. Directed by Jennifer Westcott

 

Every year at this time we get a glut of Christmas-themed animated movies and TV shows, all looking to take their place among the perennials that get watched over and over again year after year. Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer has the ingredients to join that rarefied company but it won’t be an easy hike to get there.

In a world (and what critic hasn’t dreamed of starting a review off with those three words) where Santa (Buza) is real and everyone knows it, he is struggling to keep up with increasing demand as the world’s population explodes. His original team of reindeer are shrinking with one going to an ashram to find himself, another defecting to Russia for a romance, and most recently Vixen (Hamilton) leaving for the Florida Keys to open up a juice bar – three days before Christmas.

This leads to a frantic try-out competition for the coveted position on Santa’s team but his right-hand elf Lemondrop (Short) is no fan of reindeer and he has a point; reindeer have become arrogant, egotistical and overbearing and the elves loathe them. Santa keeps them on as a kind of nod to tradition.

There are reindeer trainers all over the world and as word gets out about the tryouts, Walter (Tinkler) – the owner of a slowly failing petting zoo – is counting on DJ (Jacot) to be his meal ticket. He has already sold off the animals in the petting zoo including pony (“MINIATURE HORSE!”) Elliot (Hutcherson) and Elliot’s omnivorous friend Hazel the goat (Bee). Elliot has long had the goal of being part of Santa’s team but it’s a reindeer-only club. Nonetheless he and supportive Hazel stow away on a rocket sleigh (all the trainers have them although Walter’s is in line with his status falling apart) and swaggers his way into the tryout with the help of fake antlers.

The rest of the plot is fairly formulaic; the buyer of the farm animals turns out to be a producer of exotic jerky meat, there is a conspiracy in Santa’s village to force the reindeer out and convert to rocket sleighs, and saving the lives of his farm friends as well as saving Christmas itself will eventually rest on the broad miniature shoulders of Elliot.

The animation here is mostly nondescript, although some of the Santa’s village and arena scenes are pretty imaginative and for once the characters have expressive faces rather than robotic ones. While he only appears in two scenes as Santa’s haughty reindeer Donner, John Cleese is always a pleasure. Something tells me that if filmmaker Jennifer Westcott had let Short, Cleese and Dunham improvise a bit, it might have benefited her film a lot.

Some critics have latched onto a subplot involving magic cookies which make the reindeer fly (as well as any other animal that eats them) and some unscrupulous reindeer taking more of them than they’re allowed, some even suggesting it promotes performance enhancing drug use. Sorry colleagues; sometimes a magic cookie is just a magic cookie.

For that reason the film feels more than a little bit formulaic which hurts its chances of ascending the heights as does the overbearing soundtrack which sounds like what you might have heard in a cartoon circa 1975. However, there’s still a chance for plucky Elliot to become a seasonal favorite. Many of the movies and TV shows that we consider to be classics really aren’t all that good; they resonate with us because we saw them over and over again as children. And I will say given the avalanche of product that comes out each year, this is head and shoulders above the rest which is mostly mindless soulless dreck. I don’t know that I’d want to revisit this year after year but there are children seeing it this year for whom this will become a treasured childhood memory. One certainly can’t argue with that.

REASONS TO GO: This has the makings of a Christmas perennial. The voice work is splendid and any chance to hear John Cleese at work is worth it.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is annoying. There are a few too many clichés in the script.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude and mildly suggestive humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to a very small limited release as well as a VOD release, the film has a one day special screening on December 1 at about 100 additional theaters across the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Family in Transition

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New Releases for the Week of November 30, 2018


THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE

(Screen Gems) Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson, Nick Thune, Louis Herthum, Stana Katic, Max McNamara, Jacob Ming-Trent. Directed by Diederik Van Rooijen

A young woman dies during the course of an exorcism. Months later, a morgue attendant working the graveyard shift takes delivery of a disfigured corpse. She begins having horrifying visions and begins to suspect that the corpse may be possessed by a demonic force. Formerly known as Cadaver, the movie has been bouncing around the release schedule for more than a year.

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

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

Rating: R (for gruesome images and terror throughout)

Border

(NEON) Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jorgen Thorsson, Ann Petrén. A customs office has the uncanny knack of being able to sniff out the guilt of smugglers – literally. One day a mysterious man walks past her and for the first time in her life, confounds her senses. This leads her down the rabbit hole of secrets and incredible revelations, into strong feelings and choices of whether to live a life or an uncomfortable truth.

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

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

Rating: R (for some sexual content, graphic nudity, a bloody violent image, and language)

Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer

(Screen Media) Starring the voices of Josh Hutcherson, Morena Baccarin, John Cleese, Martin Short. When one of Santa’s reindeer retires unexpectedly, a frantic search for a replacement gets underway. Elliot, a horse with big dreams, heads to the North Pole to try his luck. In the interim his farm gets a new owner with nefarious plans of his own. Elliot must choose between achieving his dream and saving Christmas in doing so, or saving the lives of his friends.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Epic Theaters at Lee Vista (Saturday only)

Rating: PG (for some suggestive and rude humor)

Maria by Callas

(Sony Classics) Maria Callas, Omar Sharif, Aristotle Onasis, Catherine Deneuve. The life of the iconic opera star is told in her own words.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements, some smoking and brief language)

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SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Border
Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer
The Possession of Hannah Grace

The Disaster Artist


The Franco brothers – together again at last!

(2017) Biography (A24) Dave Franco, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Paul Scheer, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, June Diane Raphael, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas, Andrew Santino, Nathan Fielder, Joe Mande, Sharon Stone, John Early, Melanie Griffith, Hannibal Buress, Judd Apatow, Bryan Cranston, Charlene Yi, Jessie Hannah Eris, Peter Gilroy, Lauren Ash. Directed by James Franco

 

There are three kinds of bad movies. There are the ones that are just bad, the ones you walk out of in the theater or more usually switch off from your television. There are the ones that are guilty pleasures – movies you know aren’t very good but you still like them anyway because they either speak to you in some way, there’s an actor in it you really like or you simply liked the vibe. Finally there are the “so bad they’re good” classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Terror in Tiny Town. One of the most recent examples of this is The Room.

It was made by writer, director and star Tommy Wiseau (J. Franco) who has a decidedly bizarre Eastern European-like accent but claims he’s from New Orleans. With long rock star hair matching his leather rock star pants, he has a look all his own, a kind of heavy metal marching band pirate.

In 1998 he met Greg Sestero (D. Franco) in an acting class in San Francisco. Greg wasn’t very good, unable to commit to his role. Tommy walked in and did maybe the most ham-fisted version of Stanley Kowalski screaming “STELLLLLLLLAAAAAAAH” in history. The two, both of whom have aspirations of making it in the business, become fast friends.

They end up moving to L.A. together and sharing an apartment Tommy has there. Tommy, who apparently has an unending source of money, is rejected by mega-producer Judd Apatow one night – well, he did interrupt his dinner – and decides that rather than waiting for a producer to see the clear star quality he knows he has that he needs to show it by making his own movie.

The thing is, Tommy knows absolutamente nada about making movies and while he hires a professional crew, he chooses to refuse their helpful advice and go resolutely down his own road. From time to time he turns into an actual dictator on the set, bullying actors and technicians alike and firing them from time to time without cause. Nevertheless, somehow the movie gets made and only Tommy seems to know that the movie is completely horrible and yet it will go on to become one of the first cult movies of the millennium.

Both of the Franco brothers are terrific in their performances but particularly James who not only nails Tommy’s bizarre accent and mannerisms but seems to inhabit his head too. Tommy as is pointed out in the movie and by reviewers lives on his own planet and everyone else is just visiting. James has gotten most of the acclaim (and the Golden Globe although surprisingly no Oscar nominations) but Dave deserves a little love too in a much less flamboyant role.

As a matter of fact, the cast is strong throughout as Franco likely cashed in a whole lot of markers to get lots of celebrity cameos – often as themselves – that help make the movie fun in spot-the-celebrity drinking game; you know the one, where you take a shot every time you see a celebrity other than the main roles. I guarantee you’ll be passed out drunk before the film is halfway over. Even given that you may well get a kick out of seeing some familiar stars from the recent past such as Melanie Griffith as a harried drama teacher or Sharon Stone as a harried agent. You’ll also see Seth Rogen at his non-stoner best and Alison Brie (Dave Franco’s real life wife) as Greg’s sweet girlfriend.

Although it shares a certain amount of DNA with Ed Wood, a similarly-themed film that critics seem hell-bent on comparing this to, they are completely different outlooks. Wood is a movie about mediocrity; this is a movie about perseverance. Tommy isn’t a particularly gifted or visionary individual and yeah if he wasn’t wealthy who knows if he gets to make a movie like this but one has to admire his tenacity, even if he occasionally turns into a dick in the process.

There is a question every critic needs to answer when reviewing a film like this – no, you don’t need to see The Room before seeing this and it really doesn’t matter which you see first. I would lean slightly towards seeing this first because you’ll appreciate the Wiseau original much more if you do.

This isn’t one of the best movies of the year but it is a very good movie that I can easily recommend to anyone. Sure it’s a little bit out there – maybe because it gets into the orbit of planet Tommy a little too closely – and some might think it a paean to bad movies – it’s not. Still, those who have ever loved a movie for no reason other than because it was nutty enough to appeal to them will find themselves finding common ground with this film.

REASONS TO GO: Both of the Franco brothers deliver the goods. In fact, the cast is really strong from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too off-kilter for some and some may think it celebrates bad movies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, some sexuality and more of James Franco’s butt crack than you may ever wish to see again.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from A24 to be screened in the IMAX format.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ed Wood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Greatest Showman

New Releases for the Week of December 8, 2017


THE DISASTER ARTIST

(A24) Dave Franco, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Sharon Stone  Directed by James Franco

Greg Sestero, an aspiring actor, meets an intense young man named Tommy Wiseau in an acting class. The two men determine to go to Hollywood and make movies; their magnum opus is The Room which some have called the best worst movie ever made. This has been getting some awards season buzz.

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

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

Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity)

Just Getting Started

(Broad Green) Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Rene Russo, Glenne Headley. A former Mob Lawyer now living in Witness Protection has it pretty good. The cock of the walk at the retirement home, he has all the ladies’ attention; that is, until a brash former FBI Agent shows up. When it turns out the Mob has figured out where their former counselor is and have ordered a hit, the two must put aside their petty differences in order to stay in the land of the living.

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

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

Rating: PG-13 (for language, suggestive material and brief violence)

My Friend Dahmer

(The Orchard) Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche, Vincent Kartheiser. Before he was a notorious serial killer and a cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer was a high school kid. As told by someone who knew him well at that time, this film is based on the graphic novel of the same name.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Universal Cineplex

Rating: R (for disturbing images, language, teen drug use, drinking and sexual content, and for brief nudity)

November Criminals

(Vertical) Ansel Elgort, Chloë Grace Moretz, Catherine Keener, David Strathairn. When a classmate is brutally murdered, two college kids – unsatisfied with the progress police are making – decide to do the investigating themselves. It takes them deep into a world they have no experience with and puts the both of them in serious danger.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Crime
Now Playing: AMC Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content including teen sexuality, drug material, brief violence and strong language)

Thelma

(The Orchard) Elli Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen. A woman falling in love is a beautiful thing, but when Thelma does it, she discovers that she has strange and frightening powers. Sometimes the most terrifying discovery is who you really are.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: NR

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ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Black Clover
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ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

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SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

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The Light of the Moon

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

New Releases for the Week of November 20, 2015


The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2

(Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Directed by Francis Lawrence

This is it, folks, the final showdown between President Snow and his goon squad of Capitol elitists and Katness Everdeen and her rebellion of the people. Panem is in full-blown civil war and President Snow is obsessed with destroying Katness. She sets out to assassinate him but will encounter a fiendish labyrinth of traps, moral dilemmas and physical punishment that rivals any she faced in her two Hunger Games. This one is for all the marbles.

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

Release Formats: Standard, IMAX
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and for some thematic material)

By the Sea

(Universal) Brat Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Niels Arestrup. An American writer and his wife come to a tranquil French seaside resort in the 1970s and are joined there by a young newlywed couple as well as a pair of locals. The troubled marriage of the Americans soon begins to rear its ugly head and while they try to resolve their differences, their problems soon reveal issues with the others as well.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for strong sexuality, nudity and language)

Man Up

(Saban) Simon Pegg, Olivia Williams, Lake Bell, Rory Kinnear. An American woman at Waterloo Station in London is mistaken for a British man’s blind date. Rather than explain that she is not, she impulsively decides to go for it. What begins as a lark turns into the most uncommon first date ever.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: R (for language and sexual references)

The Night Before

(Columbia) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, Lizzie Caplan. Every Christmas Eve, three boyhood friends get together to celebrate with one of their number, whose parents died on that day years and years ago. Now however, one of their number has become too famous to be involved while another is getting ready to have kids of his own. So the three decide that this will be their last night of Christmas Eve debauchery, and they will celebrate it by going out in style – at the most debauched, depraved and notorious Christmas Eve party in New York. Assuming they can find it of course.

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

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

Rating: R (for drug use and language throughout, some strong sexual content and graphic nudity)

Secret In Their Eyes

(STX Entertainment) Julia Roberts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Alfred Molina. A tight knit investigative team are rocked to the core when the daughter of one of their number is discovered brutally and inexplicably murdered. More than a decade later, after painstakingly searching for the killer, finally one of them gets the break he needs to resolve the case and bring the killer to justice. But even he is not prepared for the secret that one of them carries, and brings him to a crossroad where he must choose between justice and vengeance which in this case may not necessarily be the same thing.

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

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

Rating: PG=13 (for thematic material involving disturbing violent content, language and some sexual references)

Spotlight

(Open Road) Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber. In the mid-90s the investigative journalism team of the Boston Globe came across a story about a pedophile priest who had been shuttled from one parish to another by the Catholic Church without any warning to those in the new parish of the priest’s tendencies to abuse altar boys. As they dig deeper, they discover the scandal goes a lot deeper, covers many, many more diocese and goes to the very top of the Catholic Church. This scandal nearly took down the Roman Catholic church and would pave the way for the reformative-minded Pope Francis to take over the Vatican.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some language including sexual references)

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

New Releases for the Week of November 21, 2014


The Hunger Games  Mockingjay - Part ITHE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I

(Summit) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Katness Everdeen has become a force to be reckoned with and Panem is in full revolt. Treacherous President Snow isn’t going to stand by and lose his control and he fights back, hard and soon the rebellion is in full flight. Katness is needed to be a symbol of courage and hope, but she herself is not sure she can do it. With Peta under control of the President and her friends and family in danger, she must find a way to summon up that strength or risk seeing everyone and everything she loves perish..

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide release
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material)

Food Chains

(Screen Media) Eva Longoria, Forest Whitaker, Eve Ensler, Barry Estabrook. The plight of courageous tomato pickers in Florida and elsewhere is examined here. The workers are asking for a penny per pound increase in their payment. Courageously standing up for themselves against corporate growers, the mainly Latino workforce started the Fair Food Program and themselves approached such buyers as Wal*Mart and McDonald’s. The bigger picture becomes the living conditions of the workers vs. the profits of corporate growers.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall
Rating: NR

The Theory of Everything

(Focus) Eddie Redmayne, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Felicity Jones. Stephen Hawking is a promising student at Cambridge when he is stricken with a devastating disease. Given two years to live, he defies the odds and continues his education, marries the love of his life and makes discoveries that have changed the way we look at the universe.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, B-roll video and a greeting from the film’s stars here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and suggestive material)

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)


Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

(2007) Drama (Disney/Walden) Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison, Kate Butler, Devon Wood, Emma Fenton, Grace Brannigan, Latham Gaines, Judy McIntosh, Patricia Aldersley, Lauren Clinton, Isabelle Rose Kircher, Cameron Wakefield, Elliott Lawless, Carly Owen, Jen Wolfe. Directed by Gabor Csupo

Sometimes a great friend comes along when we least expect it. Someone who broadens our horizons, turns our perspectives upside down and makes us look at the world differently. Sadly, sometimes great friends also leave us when we most need them.

Jesse (Hutcherson) doesn’t have the most ideal home life. Sometimes, he feels like the invisible boy. His dad (Patrick) and mom (Butler) dote on his little sister May Belle (Madison) and all his other little sisters. They have way too much on their minds though to spare much of a thought for him – money is tight and that alone is enough to get him bullied by Janice Avery (Clinton), a large sadistic girl.

There’s a new girl in class though – Leslie Burke (Robb). Jesse has always taken solace that he’s the fastest kid in school, but Leslie beats him in a race, netting him further grief from his tormentors. On the bus ride home, he discovers that Leslie lives next door. Irritated with her victory, he rebuffs her attempts to make friends.

Eventually she wins him over, especially when she expresses her admiration for his drawings in the notebook he carries around with him at all times. She tells him about her love for fantasy stories. Together they go exploring the woods near their home, crossing the creek on a fallen log. They find an abandoned treehouse and a broken down old truck near it. They decide that this is their castle and this is the world of Terabithia, populated by gnomes, trolls and all manner of fearsome beasts. They are the King and Queen of their little world which comes to life in their imagination.

Leslie has had a rough time of it, moving from place to place and having trouble making or keeping friends. Even though her parents are wealthy and loving, Leslie has been a lonely little girl. Jesse is really the first and best friend she’s ever had, so Leslie’s parents embrace him as one of their own. Leslie discovers that Janice has had an even tougher time of it. She is the victim of abuse from her father. Leslie befriends her, a turning point in Janice’s life.

Leslie isn’t the only one noticing Jesse’s talents. Ms. Edmunds (Deschanel), the music teacher Jesse has a secret crush on, invites him on a trip to the art museum. Although he tells his mom where they are going, she is half asleep and he takes her mumbled response for approval for his trip. He has the opportunity to take Leslie along but at the last moment he doesn’t, wanting the experience all for himself. Spending the day at an art museum on a stormy day seems like absolute heaven to him.

However, his trip to the art museum will have unintended but devastating consequences as tragedy will strike very close to him. Jesse’s life will never be the same afterwards.

The movie is based on the award-winning children’s book by Katherine Paterson which is in turn based on the real life experiences of her son David (who wrote the screenplay for the movie). Perhaps that is why the kids seem realistic to me and their relationship organic and natural. Robb who has also turned out impressive performances in Race to Witch Mountain and later in Soul Surfer is a lustrous beauty even at this age who seems almost angelic. Hutcherson who has gone on to star in the Hunger Games movies, shows some solid acting chops. While he doesn’t have Robb’s screen charisma, he is nonetheless more than adequate for the role.

Disney marketed this as a straight up fantasy movie which it isn’t really at all, although there are certainly digital creature effects thanks to WETA (which are better than average, by the way). This is a coming of age drama essentially with elements of fantasy which are meant to highlight the imagination of the children – we see what they see. Some people who saw the movie left disappointing, expecting something along the lines of a Harry Potter movies. There are also those who went into the film expecting another disappointing young adult fantasy movie and emerged pleasantly surprised.

There is a great deal of depth to this movie and it deals with a lot of things that kids deal with – bullying, economic hardship, fitting in, loneliness, imagination, feeling left out, and loss. Some of these things can be difficult for parents to help their kids with and in fact the parents in this movie don’t have all the answers. Just like most of us.

Still, I highly recommend this for not only pre-teen kids but their parents as well. There are some terrific opportunities for dialogue between parents and children to be opened up here. Not only that, this is as satisfying a movie for adults as it’s going to be for their kids. Highly recommended.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly candid and insightful. Pulls no punches. Terrific performances from Hutcherson and Robb, with Deschanel her usual solid self.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fantasy sequences can be a bit cliche.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are depictions of bullying and peril as well as a few mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be cinematographer Michael Chapman’s final film as he retired after filming was completed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video for the song “Keep Your Mind Wide Open” from cast member Robb, as well as a discussion about the book by cast members, educators and most insightful of all, author Katherine Paterson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $137.6M on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flipped

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Need for Speed

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