Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2″

Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin
Francis Lawrence

Amid the glut of YA book-to-film adaptations, “The Hunger Games” has always stood head and toe above the competition – a movie franchise that actually improved upon its source material by treating the audience with respect. That’s what makes “Mockingjay: Part 2” such a hard pill to swallow, because while it seemed like the stage was set for an exciting finale after the tedious third installment, it’s yet another incredibly slow burn that only highlights just how boring the final book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is. If anything good comes out of “Mockingjay: Part 2,” it’s that it will finally convince studios to stop dragging out these stories for the sake of their own greed.

The film picks up almost immediately after the events of the last movie. As Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) recovers from the brutal attack by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), rebel leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) plots her assault on the Capitol now that all 12 districts have been united under one cause. Katniss wants to go fight on the frontlines, but when Coin refuses because she’s too valuable to the rebellion, she sneaks into the Capitol on her own to assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Coin and her right-hand man, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), decide to use Katniss’ defiance to their advantage by assigning her to a specialized military unit – which also includes Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and a mentally unstable Peeta – to shoot more propaganda videos on the war-town streets of the city. With Capitol soldiers and deadly booby traps awaiting them at every turn, Katniss and company slowly make their way to Snow’s mansion. But as is usually the case with war, casualties are inevitable, and that’s something Katniss has difficulty accepting.

For a franchise that’s always relied on deliberately paced storytelling that gradually builds towards each film’s climax, “Mockingjay: Part 2” never really gets going. It hits all the major moments (including the countless deaths) within Collins’ grim novel, but there’s very little emotion to it, as if director Francis Lawrence is just ticking off boxes as he goes along. There are a couple of good action sequences once Katniss arrives in the Capitol, but while the story tries to replicate the feeling of being inside the arena with the addition of booby traps (called “pods”), it doesn’t provide the same thrill. In fact, it’s actually quite repetitive, as the second act is largely comprised of Katniss’ unit scanning for pods, safely activating said pods and resting for the night. Wash, rinse, repeat. Further compounding the lack of action is the monotony of the dialogue scenes, which dwell on the same issues (the love triangle, Peeta’s condition, Coin’s true intentions) over and over again.

“Part 1” may technically be the worst installment in the series, but at least that movie felt like a necessary evil in order to deliver a satisfying payoff in “Part 2,” which is why the latter is a much bigger disappointment. It doesn’t even have the strong performances to fall back on this time around, because with the exception of its main trio, no one else has very much to do. Julianne Moore fades into the background for most of the second half (likely due to some adjustments made as a result of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s untimely death), while Hoffman himself is in maybe two scenes total, his big speech at the end now awkwardly delivered by Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch via a letter that Plutarch penned. Even Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t appear particularly enthused about having to slog through this downer of a finale, and it’s hard to blame her, because instead of going out on the high note that the franchise and its loyal fans deserved, my first thought when the film ended was, “Thank God it’s finally over.”


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Movie Review: “The Night Before”

Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie, Jillian Bell, Lizzy Caplan, Michael Shannon
Jonathan Levine

Every year, a new crop of Christmas-themed films arrives in theaters to help kick off the season, but apart from 2003’s awesome trio of “Elf,” “Love Actually” and “Bad Santa,” Hollywood hasn’t had much luck producing movies worthy of shaking up the usual rotation of holiday classics. Nobody really expected Jonathan Levine’s “The Night Before” to join that illustrious club, but it seemed like it would at least be a fun diversion from the barrage of serious Oscar fare by adding a bit of frat-humor debauchery to the Christmas movie festivities. Unfortunately, it’s not very successful, because “The Night Before” is at best a fleetingly funny comedy that ranks as Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s weakest collaboration to date.

For the past 14 years, best friends Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have spent every Christmas Eve together, a tradition that started as a way to console Ethan after he lost his parents in a car accident. Now in their early 30s, the guys have mutually agreed to end the annual tradition for various reasons: Isaac and his wife (Jillian Bell) are expecting a baby, and Chris, a pro football player who’s found fame late in his career, is simply too busy. Ethan, meanwhile, is still reeling from his breakup with longtime girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan) and is worried that he’s about to lose his friends as well, but when he fortuitously comes into possession of three tickets to the Nutcracker Ball – an ultra-exclusive party that the guys have been trying to get into since their first Christmas Eve – Ethan figures that they can at least go out with a bang.

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Movie Review: “Secret in Their Eyes”

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Alfred Molina, Michael Kelly
Billy Ray

“Secret in Their Eyes” had its work cut out for it. The source material is a (fantastic) 2009 Argentinean film which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film the following year. It’s an intense, well-plotted crime thriller with an unrequited love story at its center. I described it at the time as “The Remains of the Day” set in a 1970s police station. Writer and director Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games,” “Captain Phillips”) knew that timeline wasn’t going to fly with a 2015 American adaptation, and while he loses a bit of the “Remains” aspect of the original story as a result, the time in which he places the flashback, post-9/11 Los Angeles, is a genius move. Paranoia is at an all-time high, and all of law enforcement was under tremendous pressure to find someone they can turn, and once they did, they protected that asset at all costs. You can see where that kind of environment would cause good cops to make bad decisions, and bad cops to make worse ones.

Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) works security for the New York Mets, but he spends his nights scanning databases for the one that got away 13 years ago, when he was working for the Counter Terrorist Unit in Los Angeles in 2002. He’s watching a local mosque, and when he receives word that a body is found in a nearby dumpster, he is shocked to discover that it is the daughter of his colleague Jessica (Julia Roberts). Ray’s only suspect in the case was a boy who regularly visited the mosque, but because of the boy’s value (he was a mole, and was about to give CTU an entire sleeper cell), he was considered untouchable.

Present-day Ray asks Claire (Nicole Kidman), for whom he’s been carrying a torch since the moment he met her and is now the city’s district attorney, to reopen the case so they can investigate a man recently out on parole, whom Ray firmly believes is Jess’ daughter’s killer. At this point, even Jessica is telling Ray and Claire to walk away, but Ray is motivated by this case for a reason that not even Jessica knows.

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Movie Review: “Legend”

Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Chazz Palminteri, David Thewlis
Brian Helgeland

After penning the adaptation of “L.A. Confidental,” one of the finest films of the 1990s, and directing the exceedingly cool, nasty little throwback “Payback,” writer/director Brian Helgeland marks his return to the crime genre with “Legend.” Though he spent some time in director jail following 2003’s “The Order,” Helgeland made a comeback with “42,” the Jackie Robinson story. Taking advantage of the clout that biopic afforded him, Helgeland has once again made a stylish and occasionally tough, albeit bloated, crime film.

“Legend” follows real-life gangsters Ronald and Reggie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy) during their reign in the 1960s. The identical twins couldn’t be more different. Ronald is a mad dog who wants to rule all of London, and he’s arguably a paranoid schizophrenic too, while Reggie’s aspirations are more modest. The calm and cool gangster simply wants to run a few clubs, stay out of trouble, and live a violence-free life with his girlfriend, Frances (Emily Browning). The two brothers clash repeatedly, both emotionally and physically, but at the end of the day, they’re brothers, and no matter how far Ronald goes, Reggie stands by his side.

“Legend” is a somewhat unconventional crime movie; it’s familiar, but structurally dedicated more to character than plot. Helgeland’s script doesn’t build towards some big heist or turf war, but rather an internal blowup and personal loss, and the film takes its time getting there. Ultimately, “Legend” has a simplistic moral about a complicated relationship, so the 131-minute running time is excessive. Reggie’s dilemma – having to stick by his brother – is illustrated again and again. At times, there’s more repetition than narrative momentum.

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Blu Tuesday: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Hobbit

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.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

WHAT: In 1963, during the height of the Cold War, the United States and Russia agree to temporarily put aside their differences and combine forces when they learn that a secret criminal organization has kidnapped former Nazi scientist Udo Teller to build an atom bomb. The CIA and KGB assign their top agents – Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), respectively – to infiltrate the cabal and prevent a global disaster.

WHY: Hollywood hasn’t been shy about its love for sequels, reboots and remakes this year, but as far as big screen adaptations of mildly popular television shows go, you could do a lot worse than “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” In fact, though director Guy Ritchie has admitted that he wasn’t overly familiar with the 1960s TV series before signing on to the project, it’s the ideal property for a filmmaker like Ritchie to tackle, because it allows him to cherry-pick the show’s best bits and put his own spin on the material without worrying about stepping on too many toes. It worked well for “Sherlock Holmes,” and it has a similar effect here. While Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer may not sound like the most exciting duo on paper, they form a surprisingly charming team with lots of great banter between them. It’s the kind of polite but playful English wit that’s present in most of Ritchie’s films, and it allows the movie to be self-aware without resorting to winking satire “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” runs a little long despite its relatively straightforward plot, and the half-baked romance between Hammer and Alicia Vikander’s characters never really takes off, but it’s an entertaining homage to retro spy films that makes up for what it lacks in substance with plenty of laughs and undeniable style.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes six featurettes highlighted by a behind-the-scenes look at production and recreating the music, costumes and props of the 1960s.


“The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies – Extended Edition”

WHAT: After successfully defeating Smaug, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the surviving citizens of Lake-town head to the Lonely Mountain seeking refuge. Thorin (Richard Armitage), who’s since been consumed by the dragon sickness, refuses to help, leading the humans and elves to declare war on the dwarves. But when Azog the Defiler and his battalion of orcs attack the dwarven stronghold, the three armies must fight together in order to stop them.

WHY: Splitting “The Hobbit” into three movies has been a point of contention among fans since it was first announced, and the futility of that decision has never been more evident than with “The Battle of the Five Armies,” a 144-minute marathon of masturbatory excess in which the titular set piece – one that’s contained within a single chapter in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel – makes up almost half of its bloated runtime. (The new extended edition tacks on an additional 20 minutes of footage, including more from the actual battle, that only adds to the film’s pacing issues.) Though the movie has its share of great moments just like the first two installments, they’re surrounded by a lot of extraneous filler that pushes its main hero even further into the background. But while “The Battle of Five Armies” is arguably the weakest entry in the series, it’s a nonetheless fitting end to a trilogy that’s biggest problem was taking so long to get there. Could it have been better? Absolutely, especially when measured against the far superior “Lord of the Rings” films, but fans will love it regardless, and that’s to the credit of the fantastic ensemble cast, incredible visuals and Peter Jackson’s limitless creativity.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Peter Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens, there are two discs filled with over nine hours of supplemental material that covers virtually every aspect of production.



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