Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1″

Starring
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks
Director
Francis Lawrence

Upset over Lionsgate’s decision to release “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” as two films instead of one? Blame Harry Potter. That was the first movie franchise based on a popular book series to split its last installment into the dreaded two-part finale. But while that decision appeared to be made only partly due to studio greed (this was Harry Potter, after all, and it was an event meant to be celebrated and savored), every successful YA book-to-film adaptation since has taken it upon itself to use a similar strategy for no other reason than to squeeze more money out of moviegoers. The “Hunger Games” trilogy (except that it’s no longer a trilogy at all) is the latest series to go this route, and quite predictably, it’s resulted in a “Part 1” that’s almost completely void of excitement, proving once again why this model is never a good idea.

After being rescued from the Quarter Quell by a secret resistance group headed by former Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is transported to District 13 along with her fellow Tributes, Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and the survivors of District 12. It seems that Katniss’ actions in the last Hunger Games have stoked the flames of rebellion throughout Panem, and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) intends to use her as the figurehead for the revolution. Katniss agrees on a few conditions – namely, that they rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s being tortured and used by the Capitol as the voice against the resistance, as soon as possible – and begins filming a series of propaganda videos intended to recruit more soldiers for the war effort.

One of the biggest problems you typically run into with two-part finales like “Mockingjay” is that the filmmakers are no longer forced to think economically in terms of what material is essential to telling the story. Though it made sense to split up “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” due to the sheer size of J.K. Rowling’s book, “Mockingjay” doesn’t have that issue, especially when “Catching Fire” (which is the exact same length in book form) was adapted just fine into one movie. Add to that the fact that “Mockingjay” is hands-down the weakest entry in the series, and it was always going to be an uphill battle for director Francis Lawrence and writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig. There are some really powerful emotional beats littered throughout, but it often feels like Lawrence is just twiddling his thumbs in fear of getting too far ahead, with most of the film spent setting up the next installment. It’s a necessary slog in order to get to the good stuff (and one that fans of the Harry Potter and “Twilight” series will be all too familiar with), but it’s a slog all the same.

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Blu Tuesday: 22 Jump Street, Sin City and Into the Storm

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“22 Jump Street”

WHAT: When they humiliate the police department during their latest assignment, Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) are sent back undercover, this time at a local city college to find the source of a new synthetic drug called WhyPhy. But when Jenko makes friends with the main suspect (Wyatt Russell), his relationship with Schmidt becomes strained as they split up to investigate different leads, which threatens to derail the entire mission.

WHY: For a while, it seemed like everything that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller touched turned to gold, adapting challenging source material into successful comedies with a flair for visual gags. But they haven’t had quite the same luck with sequels, as evidenced by recent films like “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” and “22 Jump Street.” Striking the same self-mocking tone as the original, “22 Jump Street” skewers Hollywood’s formulaic sequels by openly acknowledging the rinse-and-repeat plotline and noticeably larger budget. Although it’s a clever approach that earns some laughs, it doesn’t change the fact that the film is still a complete retread from top to bottom. Lord and Miller inject the movie with the kind of silly, manic energy that’s become a touchstone in all their projects, but there aren’t enough truly laugh-out-loud moments, with many of the recurring jokes failing to hit their mark. Even when it starts to drag in the middle, however, there’s rarely a dull moment thanks to its two leads, especially Channing Tatum, who’s so funny as the dim-witted jock that he makes every scene more enjoyable. As a result, “22 Jump Street” isn’t entirely good or bad, but rather a perfectly mediocre comedy with just enough laughs to remind audiences what they loved about the first movie while failing to validate the need for a sequel.

EXTRAS: There’s a ridiculous amount of bonus material here, highlighted by 22 deleted scenes and an audio commentary by directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller and stars Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. Also included are four production featurettes, a collection of cast improvisations, Line-O-Ramas for five different scenes, a “Dramatic Interpretation” of the film and much more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”

WHAT: An anthology of intersecting stories set in Sin City. Private detective Dwight (Josh Brolin) is tricked into helping out his dangerous former lover (Eva Green); a young drifter (Joseph Gordon Levitt) faces the consequences of beating Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) at the poker table; and stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) plots her revenge against the man responsible for the death of John Hartigan (Bruce Willis).

WHY: Robert Rodriguez has been talking about a “Sin City” sequel since the first film hit theaters, so what took so long for the prolific director to finally deliver on his promise? Your guess is as good as mine, especially when he wasted that time making garbage like “Shorts,” “Spy Kids 4” and two “Machete” movies. A lot has changed in those nine years, and whereas the original was pretty groundbreaking both visually and technically, the long-awaited follow-up feels stale in comparison. Though only two of the four stories featured are from Frank Miller’s graphic novels – the titular centerpiece “A Dame to Kill For” and the Marv-centric prelude “Just Another Saturday Night” – the best of the bunch (featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s perpetually lucky gambler) is an original story written by Miller for the movie. Unfortunately, the other new segment is hands-down the weakest entry from either film, not only because Jessica Alba’s stripper is a complete bore, but because it makes a huge mess of the overarching continuity. In fact, the sequel as a whole isn’t nearly as captivating as its predecessor, and although it’s great to see Mickey Rourke reprise his role as the unstoppable brute Marv, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” lacks the wonder and excitement of experiencing something for the first time.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a high-speed green screen version of the movie that lasts about 15 minutes, featurettes on the stunts and make-up effects, and some character profiles.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “Dumb and Dumber To”

Starring
Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Laurie Holden, Rob Riggle, Rachel Melvin, Kathleen Turner, Steve Tom
Directors
Bobby & Peter Farrelly

Sequels are rarely a good idea, but particularly when the original was released so long ago that part of the new film’s target audience wasn’t even born yet. Though there had been rumblings of a follow-up to Bobby and Peter Farrelly’s 1994 cult classic “Dumb and Dumber” for a number of years, the pieces never fell into place until now. Unfortunately, while the promise of seeing Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne together again may have sounded like a fun slice of nostalgia, it’s obvious within minutes of “Dumb and Dumber To” that, despite trying to recapture the goofball magic of the first movie, it never quite clicks.

It’s been 20 years since Lloyd (Jim Carrey) had his heart broken by Mary Swanson, and during that time, he’s been living at a mental hospital in a catatonic state… only to reveal to his friend Harry (Jeff Daniels) that it was all an elaborate prank. Harry appreciates the commitment to the gag, but he has much bigger things on his mind, like the fact that he’ll die unless he gets a new kidney. When Harry discovers that an old flame, Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner), gave up their daughter for adoption 22 years earlier, Harry and Lloyd set off to track her down in the hope that the gorgeous but dumb Penny (Rachel Melvin) is willing to donate a kidney to the biological dad she never met. Along the way, the duo gets caught up in a plot to kill Penny’s adoptive father (Steve Tom) by his duplicitous trophy wife (Laurie Holden) and groundskeeper (Rob Riggle), who are after the scientist’s large inheritance, including a mystery box that he’s entrusted to Harry and Lloyd to deliver to a TED-like science conference where Penny is accepting an award on his behalf.

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Blu Tuesday: Tammy, Jersey Boys and Getting On

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Tammy”

WHAT: After she wrecks her car, is fired from her job and discovers that her husband has been cheating with their neighbor, all in the same day, Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) is desperate to leave town as quickly as possible, and her alcoholic grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) – who has the two things Tammy needs most: a working car and some cash – decides to tag along. But when they end up driving the wrong way, the two women decide to make the most of the mishap in an attempt to patch up their troubled past.

WHY: Like pretty much anything that Melissa McCarthy does these days, your enjoyment of “Tammy” will depend entirely on how you feel about the actress as a performer, because for those who were already sick of her tedious, one-trick pony act after “Bridesmaids,” sitting through McCarthy’s latest movie is about as pleasant as a punch to the face. It’s bad enough that Tammy never shuts up, but director/co-writer Ben Falcone wants the audience to sympathize with her as well, even though she’s largely to blame for much of what happens over the course of the film. She’s not as mean-spirited as Diana from “Identity Thief,” nor as vulgar as Shannon from “The Heat,” but she’s not someone you’d necessarily want to be friends with either. So when the movie suddenly tries to manufacture a romance between Tammy and Mark Duplass’ nice-guy farmer in the final act, it doesn’t just feel unearned, but completely unrealistic considering he had zero interest in her only a few days prior. That initial meeting takes place shortly after an exceedingly confident Tammy brags about how men are attracted to her like “flies on shit,” and in that instant, McCarthy provides the perfect ammunition to describe her recent career, because that’s what this movie is – a big, steaming pile of shit.

EXTRAS: In addition to a short featurette about a family road trip that Melissa McCarthy and director Ben Falcone took following production on the film, there are four deleted scenes, some alternate takes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Jersey Boys”

WHAT: The story of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and the Four Seasons, from their early days as two-bit gangsters in New Jersey, to their rise to fame thanks to hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.”

WHY: Clint Eastwood is one of the last people you’d expect to direct a film adaptation of “Jersey Boys” – or any stage musical, for that matter – and it definitely shows, because it’s one of the worst stage-to-film adaptations in recent memory. In fact, the movie isn’t really a musical at all (save for the end medley/production number), instead going for more of a rockumentary feel that doesn’t translate very well to the screen. The main problem is that with the exception of the great catalog of songs, the film isn’t terribly interesting, barely scratching the surface with its “Behind the Music”-esque narrative. It’s rife with all the usual melodrama of a music biopic, but the characters are never fully developed, despite the fact that the film’s bloated 134 minute runtime gives plenty of opportunities to do just that. Vincent Piazza (as group member Tommy DeVito) and Christopher Walken (as Jersey mobster Gyp DeCarlo) both shine in supporting roles, but the rest of the acting is mediocre at best, particularly theater vets John Lloyd Young and Michael Lomenda. Eastwood was clearly having a senior moment when he agreed to do “Jersey Boys,” because not only is it one of the weakest movies in his oeuvre, but it fails to showcase why the Broadway production was such a huge hit.

EXTRAS: There are three featurettes in total, covering the movie’s journey from Broadway to the big screen, actor Donnie Kehr’s experience working with Christopher Walken, and filming the grand finale.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Getting On: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: After agreeing to serve as the temporary Director of Medicine in the Extended Care Unit at Mount Palms Hospital, Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) is disheartened when the assignment is made permanent, relegated to work in the soul-crushing facility alongside new supervising nurse Patsy De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez), head nurse Dawn Forchette (Alex Borstein) and rookie nurse Denise “DiDi” Ortley (Niecy Nash).

WHY: Though it flew pretty far under the radar during its first season, this U.S. remake of the BBC series of the same name is one of the more underrated shows in HBO’s lineup. Every bit as much a satire as it is a drearily honest and sobering look at our country’s broken healthcare system, “Getting On” makes the typical black comedy seem lighthearted in comparison. Though the humor on the show can be a little too dry at times, and some of the in-jokes are only funny if you’ve worked in a hospital setting before, it features sharp writing and excellent performances from its cast. Laurie Metcalf, Alex Bornstein and Niecy Nash all deliver great work in their respective roles, while the guest stars (including Molly Shannon, Daniel Stern and a potty-mouthed June Squibb) provide many of the best moments. The only weak link is Mel Rodriguez’s sexually ambiguous Patsy De La Serda, whose character is so annoying (even if that’s kind of the point) that the show becomes infinitely less entertaining whenever he appears on screen. That’s not the only area where “Getting On” could improve, but although it’s not quite the hidden gem that it could have been for HBO, it’s definitely worth checking out for fans of likeminded comedies like “Derek.”

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes some deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Movie Review: “Big Hero 6″

Starring
Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Jamie Chung, T.J. Miller, Genesis Rodriguez, Damon Wayans Jr., James Cromwell
Directors
Don Hall & Chris Williams

There is a clear sea change in the quality of Disney’s animated movies once they acquired Pixar in 2006. “Bolt” was the first film produced after the merger, and it marries the sensibilities of both companies reasonably well, though still has too much of the old Disney stodginess. Over time, though, the Pixar Way shone brighter with each release, and with the 1-2-3 punch of “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” and “Frozen,” Disney is succeeding both critically and commercially at a level that they haven’t enjoyed in a while.

With “Big Hero 6,” the Marvelization of Disney films has begun (Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment in 2009, and “Big Hero 6” made its Marvel comic debut in 1998). It is a superhero movie about science nerds, a film where no one escapes a bad situation using anything other than their brains. In fact, brute strength does not factor once in the proceedings. Peter Parker and Tony Stark would be proud. So would Walt Disney, because the movie has a ton of heart. Also, the lead character’s parents were killed 11 years before the opening scene. That’s the Disney way.

Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a bored boy genius living with his aunt and his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) in the city of San Fransokyo (you read that right). Hiro graduated high school at age 14, and spends his time taking part in illegal ‘bot fights. Tadashi, hoping to inspire Hiro to apply himself, brings Hiro to the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, where Tadashi and his friends are working with cutting-edge tools to make the world a better place. Hiro wants in, and he earns his acceptance after dazzling Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell) with his newest invention, mind-controlled microbots. The microbots are almost immediately lost in a fire, which takes the lives of Callaghan and Tadashi. Shortly afterward, Hiro discovers that his microbots are being manufactured in a seemingly abandoned factory, and he is nearly killed by a masked man who’s controlling them in ways that they were never intended to be used. Hiro convinces Tadashi’s fellow colleagues to team up and use their super smarts to unmask the man who stole Hiro’s tech.

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