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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Movie Review: “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Starring
Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage
Director
Bryan Singer

Just when it seemed like Fox was engineering a smart reboot of its X-Men franchise with “First Class,” the series’ original director, Bryan Singer, has returned to combine the old with the new in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” That’s not exactly bad news for fans who appreciate the lengths that Singer has gone to in an attempt to fix the continuity issues within the X-movies, but by doing so, he’s tethered the prequels to the earlier films in a way that ensures they’ll never be able to exist on their own. And considering the potential of where the franchise was headed prior to this “sidequel,” it’s a little disappointing to see Singer turn his back on that initial vision. Granted, there’s still quite a bit to like about “Days of Future Past,” but it feels more like a step backward than the creative leap forward that Matthew Vaughn’s prequel pointed towards.

In the near future, mutants are being hunted down by advanced versions of Sentinel robots that can instantly adapt to any situation, making them impossible to defeat. With only a handful of X-Men remaining, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her powers to send Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back in time to his younger body circa 1973 in order to reunite Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) for a single purpose: stopping Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the creator of the Sentinel program, Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), in the hope that it will alter the course of history. Meanwhile, the X-Men from the future must hold off an impending Sentinel attack to provide Logan enough time to complete his mission, although that’s much easier said than done.

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Movie Review: “American Hustle”

Starring
Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K, Michael Peña
Director
David O. Russell

David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” opens with a title card that playfully states: “Some of this actually happened.” But considering that the movie was originally titled “American Bullshit” and is populated with characters who are bullshit specialists, it’s meant to be taken with a fairly large grain of salt. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Russell has adapted what was an already outlandish story into a ’70s-styled farce filled with a flying circus of conmen, feds, politicians and casino mobsters. Immensely entertaining, impeccably structured and featuring excellent performances from its entire cast, “American Hustle” is one of the year’s absolute best films and a serious contender for every major award.

When we first meet Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), he’s seen carefully assembling his elaborate comb over with a combination of a toupee, glue and lots of hairspray. But what the paunchy conman lacks in good looks, he makes up for with confidence and intellect, which is what’s made him so successful at ripping people off. Everything changes when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who partners with Irving under the guise of a British businesswoman with royal connections named Lady Edith. Their business practically triples overnight, drawing the attention of ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who catches the pair red-handed and forces them to work undercover for the bureau. Richie wants to make a name for himself by taking down some white-collar criminals, and his first target is Camden mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a family man so desperate to revitalize the New Jersey economy that he’s willing to get his hands a little dirty in the process. It quickly turns into a game of who’s conning who, and yet the one thing that threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down isn’t their mistrust in each other, but Irving’s unpredictable wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

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Movie Review: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

Starring
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci
Director
Francis Lawrence

As far as book sequels go, “Catching Fire” isn’t exactly the most original. It’s like the “Evil Dead 2” of YA literature – a sort of ‘take two’ on the first novel that’s bigger and better, but not profoundly different. My lukewarm reaction to the second installment in Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy is almost completely due to that reason alone, because the concept feels more like a lazy rehash than a continuation of the story, although curiously, that isn’t the case with the film adaptation. Under the assured direction of Francis Lawrence (stepping in for the departing Gary Ross), “Catching Fire” doesn’t just improve upon Collins’ book, but the first movie as well.

After returning home as joint victor of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds it difficult readapting to her life in District 12, haunted by the events that took place inside the Arena. While on a victory tour across Panem, Katniss witnesses the unrest that’s begun to spread across the districts as a result of her highly publicized stunt, and recognizing the danger that a potential rebellion poses, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) enlists the help of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to devise a plan to eliminate Katniss once and for all. So when it comes time for the 75th edition of the Games (a quarter century celebration that adds a special twist to the normal rules), Snow announces that this year’s tributes will be selected from the pool of previous victors. As the only female survivor from District 12, Katniss is forced to participate in the Hunger Games once again along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who volunteers in place of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), only to discover that they have some unlikely allies watching their backs.

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