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
NEXT: The Peanuts Movie


Chely Wright: Wish Me Away

Chely Wright: All-American girl.(2011) Documentary (First Run) Chely Wright, Stan Wright, Rodney Crowell, Russell Carter, Rosie O’Donnell, Christopher Wright, Cherie Combs, Don Cusic, Natalie Morales, Chuck D. Waiter, Jennifer Archer, Welton Gaddy, Howard Bragman, Blair Garner, Meredith Vieira, Tony Brown, Richard Sterban, Charlene Daniels. Directed by Bobbie Berleffi and Beverly Kopf

I am not a big fan of country music; it’s nothing against those who play it or those who listen to it, it’s just that the music doesn’t connect with me in the same way rap doesn’t connect with me. I’m a rock and roll boy, plain and simple, but I do respect country for many reasons; it’s songwriting in most cases stripped down to the essentials, telling stories and making characters that live and are relatable to a vast audience.

More important in my opinion is the relationship between the musicians and the fans. Now, country music fans are no more rabid than fans of other musical genres when it comes to loving their appointed obsessions, but it is from the other direction that the true magic happens. The performers of no other genre appreciate their fans as much as those in country music overall. Despite the often cutthroat nature of the business end of country music (which is the same as in other genres), the performers tend to reflect traditional American values. It’s what their fans expect.

Given that the majority of country music listeners tend to lean politically to the right (ask the Dixie Chicks about that sometime), it was virtually unthinkable that any artist would come out as gay. There is a very strong fundamentalist Christian element in not only the fan base of country music but also in the music itself, which very much espouses Christian values and patriotic pride. In many ways, country music is the most quintessentially American music there is. In it is the optimism, the pride and the attitude that defines us not only to ourselves but to the world.

Chely Wright fit into that world like a glove at first glance. Hailing from mid-Kansas from a religious family, she was blessed with beauty queen looks. A supremely talented singer and songwriter, she burst onto the Nashville scene like a ray of sunshine on a rainy day and took Music City by storm. In time she had hits like “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.” She was dating Brad Paisley. You’d think she’d be on top of the world.

But she wasn’t. You see, she was harboring a secret – Chely Wright was a lesbian. Her biggest dream in the whole world, ever since she was a little girl, was to be a country music star and she believed that her sexual orientation might keep her from that dream. She resolved at an early age to keep her identity as a lesbian a secret; she would not pursue any intimate relationships with women and in doing so she’d achieve her dream. And achieve it she did.

But the cost was too high. The weight of her secret was a burden too powerful and too heavy to bear and eventually she found herself in front of a mirror with a gun in her mouth. She knew she couldn’t live this way any longer. She would have to stop living this life and come clean, not just for herself but for the many others like her, living with their own lies.

Chely’s coming out had to be handled very delicately and indeed it was. Publicists and marketing personnel sat down with her and orchestrated the campaign. It would be done, as all things in Chely’s life were, with music and in this case, also with a book. It would be a big deal. But before she could tell her fans, she had to tell her biggest fans first – her family.

Berleffi and Kopf were given extraordinary access into Chely’s world for three years leading up to her announcement and the days following it. They spoke with friends, family and fans, sometimes getting some truly moving material, as from her dad, her incredibly supportive sister and her Aunt Char – devout Christians all but also as non-judgmental a group as you’re likely to find.

But most moving of all is Chely’s own video diary, which she kept without the filmmakers knowledge. In it she revealed her most intimate thoughts and feelings, often so raw that you can’t help but cry along with her. When we use the term “courageous artist,” when referring to a singer/songwriter who reveals her most vulnerable side, it was invented for Chely Wright. Her dilemma of her childhood dream versus her identity is a struggle not many straight people may be able to relate to but I am sure a lot of LGBT readers instantly recognize a good deal of what Wright discusses as things and thoughts they went through.

The documentary isn’t breaking new ground in terms of presentation; it’s mainly interviews and archival footage but the video journal elevates this from merely typical and the presence of Ms. Wright herself makes this something special. Throughout you get a sense of her sincerity and her inner light, which you watch being extinguished and then miraculously relit when she finally does come out. Yes, it did cost her some of her fans but a surprisingly large number of them stayed right with her. It turns out that there is a lot more tolerance in the country music fan base than anyone, including Chely Wright herself, first thought. That’s heartening.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright is an impressive and courageous role model. Her video journal excerpts are particularly riveting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The media management is a bit cynical.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult thematic material and a few mild cuss words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The theme song for the film, “Shine a Light,” was written and recorded by Wright specifically for the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Home video footage of Chely and her wife relaxing at home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18,618 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental), Amazon (download only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
NEXT: Redemption

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.
NEXT: Daybreakers

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence takes a bow.

(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Alexander Ludwig, Isabelle Fuhrman, Amandla Stenberg, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, Nelson Ascensio, Leven Rambin, Jack Quaid. Directed by Gary Ross


For some, Darwinism boils down to survival of the fittest. Only those equipped to make it in a brutal, indifferent environment will move on to the next round. We see this in our social networking. We see this in our reality television.

In the future, it is all over our lives as well. After the fall of the United States, a new nation of Panem (from the Latin panem et circenses meaning bread and circuses) rises. It is comprised of the wealthy Capitol surrounded by 12 impoverished districts. After a failed uprising, the Capitol has ordered that one boy and one girl, each between the ages of 12 and 18, from each district would be selected at random and brought to the Capital for a fight to the death. Only one of the 24 young people would survive the competition, which was televised and became known as the Hunger Games.

This year is the 74th of the annual events. In District 12, the coal-mining district which is one of the poorest of them all, the people awaiting the Reaping (the ceremony in which the selection of the fighters, known as Tributes, is made) with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Katness Everdeen (Lawrence) is a veteran of these Reapings as is her boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) who like many young people is chafed by the injustice of the very rich choosing from the very poor to die for their entertainment. Katness is more practical; she’s concerned with day-to-day survival in a situation where food is scarce.

Her sister Primrose (Shields) is in her first Reaping and is mighty scared about how things will turn out. Katness tries to reassure her; she’ll only have one entry into the Reaping while Katness and Gale have dozens. So of course when the Reaping takes place it is Primrose who is chosen; Katness, aghast, quickly volunteers to take her sister’s place. This isn’t unusual in the more urban districts but this is the first time District 12 has had a volunteer. Somewhat anti-climactically, Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), the son of a baker, is chosen for the boys.

The two are collected by Effie Trinket (Banks), a dandified handler and whisked away by bullet train to Capitol. There they are to be mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson), a sullen alcoholic who has the distinction of winning the Hunger Games twenty years previously. There is also Cinna (Kravitz), a genius of a designer whose purpose is to make the Tributes look as memorable as possible so they might attract sponsors, wealthy patrons who send their favored medicine, food, water and other supplies during the course of the game.

Training is interspersed by media appearances, particularly on the wildly popular talk show of Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) where Peeta lets it slip that he’s had an unrequited crush on Katness. When the game begins, Haymitch warns Katness to stay away from the cornucopia which would be a bloodbath and to find high ground and water. She follows his advice and is able to survive the brutal first few hours in which half the Tributes die.

Her skills in hunting and tracking serve her well, particularly as an alliance has been formed by Cato (Ludwig), Glimmer (Rambin) and Marvel (Quaid), some of the older and better-trained Tributes. Peeta has thrown in with this lot to help hunt down Katness who has quickly become one of the more popular Tributes. Katness is joined by Rue (Stenberg) who helps her outwit the alliance by pointing out a nest of Tracker Jackers, a kind of genetically enhanced hornet whose sting causes hallucinations and death, at least for Glimmer.

It will soon become apparent that Katness will not only be fighting her fellow Tributes but also the powers that be, led by the amoral President Snow (Sutherland) who don’t want to see the inspirational Katness succeed. The Hunger Games are turning out to be so much more than the sum of their parts.

The wildly popular young adult books have transitioned well to the big screen, which translated to the third-largest opening of all time and the biggest for a non-sequel. The movie has gotten high critical praise and is rapidly on its way to becoming the next cultural phenomenon, replacing the Harry Potter and Twilight series.

It is also going to make a huge star out of Jennifer Lawrence. Katness is in many ways an iconic character; she’s a young woman of strength and ethics who feeds her family (much as Lawrence’s Ree Dolly did in Winter’s Bone) but shows compassion for the weak. She knows that her society isn’t just but is concerned more about survival until pushed to the limit. She makes for quite the role model.

Like in the Twilight series, Katness is faced with the love of two different men – the earnest and charismatic Peeta as well as the good-hearted and intelligent Gale. Expect hours of conversation between pre-teens and their moms about the relative merits of both gentlemen and which one is the right one for Katness.

Director Gary Ross has opted to go with a good deal of handheld camera work here, mostly to signify Katness’ point of view and illustrate the chaotic nature of the Games. That might be exciting for the younger viewers but for us older folks it gets annoying and intrusive; there are better ways to illustrate chaos than blurry, shaky images that make you want to look away from the screen than be mesmerized by it.

The images are dazzling in places, but not as much as I thought it would be. The overall look of Capitol is kind of like Versailles if it had been designed by the art director of The Fifth Element. It screams decadence and autocracy quite nicely, while dressing up the citizens of the outlying districts in homespun not unlike pioneers.

The action sequences are pretty marvelous although not necessarily groundbreaking. The stunts aren’t too terribly violent although there are a couple of pretty messy deaths here. Definitely original author Suzanne Collins has succeeded in creating a new environment that is simultaneously familiar and alien, inhabited by Tracker Jackers and mellifluous mockingjays (songbirds who appear in the movie’s emblem) as well as digitized Muttations.

There are those who see a socio-political commentary in the film; conservatives look at the young people as the Tea Party vs. the elitist left-leaning establishment, whereas liberals look at the young people as signifying the Occupy movement against the one per-centers. You are free to choose whichever interpretation you wish, or to make up one of your own. This is meant to be socio-political commentary disguised as entertainment but Collins is wise enough to be fairly vague in who’s who. That makes for some fairly nondescript politics but at least it is a place to start conversations. And when you’re talking one of the year’s most successful movies (having made three times its production budget in the first eight days), that’s not a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO GO: Several steps above the Twilight franchise. Lawrence sends her career to the next level.

REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little bit too long. Left me ambivalent about the inevitable next film in the franchise. Shaky cam was distracting and annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a lot of violence as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design for the cornucopia was based on the work of architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Disney Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are strongly positive.


GLADIATOR LOVERS: There are numerous references to ancient Rome, from the names of the citizens of Capitol (Coriolanus, Seneca, Cato) to the weapons used in the Games themselves.  


NEXT: POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold