NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Menace, Graphic Nudity, and Language

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Directed by: Tom Ford

Written by: Tom Ford

(based on the novel TONY AND SUSAN by Austin Wright)

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Isla Fisher

On paper, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS sounds like a Hitchcockian psychological head-trip crossed with a pulpy crime thriller. While that description of the film is correct, things do stray into metaphorical and artsy territory more than initially expected. There’s nothing wrong with being an art film, just look at most of the output from Refn, Lynch, Cronenberg, and Von Trier. However, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS occasionally weaves dangerous close to becoming downright pretentious and also attempts to be a little too ambitious, consequently leaving one of its narratives far stronger than the other.

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Susan (Amy Adams) is an uppity art gallery owner who collects and displays bizarre pieces. These strange works of art include: nude morbidly obese dancers who guide us through the film’s opening credits, a cow with arrows sticking out of it that litters the background, and a so-so painting that obviously states one of this film’s main themes. When yet another nail is put in the coffin of her crumbling second marriage, Susan coincidentally receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Titled “Nocturnal Animals” (his nickname for her), Edward’s new novel tells a dark story of murder, madness and bloody revenge. As she becomes hooked on the emotionally damaging book, Susan finds herself remembering her failed relationship with Edward and begins to suspect that the novel might actually be a veiled threat.

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On a visual level, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS looks great. The cinematography is crisp and has a distinct attention-grabbing style. You might want to look away during certain scenes but will find yourself unable to do so, because the film displays its ugliness through the most beautiful lenses. If you want to be a stickler for details, this movie is technically composed of three narratives (though I read it as two). There’s Edward’s novel and then there’s Susan reading it whilst reminiscing (tying past and present scenes together). The tense revenge tale kept me completely engaged to the point where I forgot it was actually a book being read by the main character and this happened numerous times. Personally speaking, the failed relationship plot seemed far more scattershot and less impactful. I think many moviegoers are bound to latch onto one narrative over the other. Whichever one they prefer will likely hinge on the genre they gravitate towards the most.

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The scenes of Edward’s book feature Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist Tony. Gyllenhaal does a brilliant job in the role (which was kind of expected from his previous work) and this character is made all the more fascinating when you tie him into Gyllenhaal’s performance as author Edward. There’s clearly a symbiotic connection between the real-life writer and his fictitious creation, with Gyllenhaal putting in two distinct performances. Amy Adams is believable as emotionally distressed, deeply depressed Susan. Her facial expressions and body language say far more than any ham-fisted dialogue that explicitly tells us how she’s feeling ever could. Michael Shannon delivers his best work in years as a grizzled vengeance-seeking detective in Edward’s novel. Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is positively terrifying as the psychotic villain of Edward’s book.

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The five main characters from four great performers aren’t where this movie’s acting talent stops though, because many big faces pop up in the sidelines. Armie Hammer doesn’t receive a whole lot to do, but still makes a strong impression as Susan’s disinterested second husband. Isla Fisher shows up as a character in Edward’s novel, resembling Amy Adams in a possible parallel of her. Michael Sheen has an all-too brief appearance as an interesting friend of Susan’s. Finally, Laura Linney shows up for one scene and becomes borderline over-the-top as a stereotypical rich aristocrat, though her small moment does feed into the story in a big way.

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS seems to have a lot on its mind, with certain themes being rather obvious and others bound to be discovered upon repeat viewings. It’s a metaphorical piece of cinematic art that follows the formula of a tragic drama about a failed relationship and the motions of a grisly crime thriller. However, the latter far outshines the former in this humble reviewer’s opinion. I was expecting the film to tie everything together in more ways than it actually did. This movie certainly keeps the viewer thinking about it long after the credits have rolled and fans of dark, depressing arthouse cinema are bound to find something to love here. Without getting into spoilers, I will also say that the film’s conclusion is unsatisfying in the best possible way. I really liked NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. I think it’s a fascinating piece of work in many respects, but the disconnected difference in quality between the narratives kept me from loving it as much as I wanted to.

Grade: B+

THE NEON DEMON (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, Bloody Images, Graphic Nudity, a scene of Aberrant Sexuality, and Language

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Directed by: Nicholas Winding Refn

Written by: Mary Laws, Nicholas Winding Refn & Polly Stenham

Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington & Alessandro Nivola

Nicholas Winding Refn makes films that people either love or hate, including his own fans. To give him credit, Refn is a director who constantly displays a steady hand, always swings for the fences and creates movies he clearly wants to make. After putting a prison drama, a Viking epic, and two very different crime thrillers under his belt, Refn decided that he wanted take on a “horror movie.” Displaying hypnotic cinematography, an intoxicatingly perverse tone, and scenes that are likely to haunt my memories for a long time to come, THE NEON DEMON is a complicated film to describe. It will leave lots of people disgusted, likely gain a small cult following, and is easily one of the most unique films of 2016.

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Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old aspiring model living in LA. Little is given about her past, but she openly states “pretty sells” and is willing to use to her looks to climb the cutthroat ladder of the modeling world. As Jesse’s career immediately grows, fellow models Sarah (Abby Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) begin to fear for their own livelihoods. Finding friends in make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and amateur photographer Dean (Karl Gusman), Jesse slowly loses her humanity as success and beauty become her main focuses. However, modeling is unlike other careers in that it thrives on youth and also comes with an expiration date.

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THE NEON DEMON is a gorgeous visual feast and a deeply disturbing experience at the same time. Nicholas Winding Refn has shown a knack for bringing lots of beautiful images to the screen and the same can be said for NEON DEMON’s cinematography. Every scene looks astonishing and the vibrant color scheme is pulsing with a life of its own. If you were pause any still frame of this movie it would look like a masterfully rendered painting or photography project. I cannot stress how breathtaking the visuals in this movie are, but the slick imagery also serves to make the horrific moments even more horrifying to behold.

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Though NEON DEMON is described as a horror movie, it should be noted that it’s not a cheap jump-scare filled romp or a total gorefest. Though the story gets extremely nasty in its final third, it relies far more on psychological mindfuckery, darker-than-dark satire, and a deeply uncomfortable atmosphere that never gives the viewer room to breathe. There’s a dark sense of foreboding from the opening scene and it hovers over the rest of the running time. As the film goes on, you get the sense that Jesse may be vulnerable prey wandering in a land of predators. Creepy photographers, sleazebag perverts, jealous competition and the ever-growing sense of the unknown lie around every corner.

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The film’s most disturbing moments arrive in the final third. I won’t go into specifics or give revealing hints at what happens (unlike other reviews that have outright spoiled stuff), but I will say that this is the first film in a long time that actually disgusted me. One scene made me feel physically ill and that’s among the highest realm of praise that I can give a movie like this. That moment wasn’t necessarily gory, but it certainly made me squirm in my seat and ranks among the most disturbing scenes I’ve seen. Whether it’s the elevator confrontation in DRIVE or the brutal torture sequence in ONLY GOD FORGIVES, Refn has never been a filmmaker to shy away from graphic violence. This film’s blood mostly makes an appearance during the final third, but those moments are both beautiful and brutal. The ending also serves as a sick punchline to send queasy audiences out on.

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As far as the cast goes, everyone does a stellar job with what they’ve been given. The dialogue is blatant and obvious, but that’s sort of the point when you’re following around people who use beauty as their most valuable currency and a bunch of sleazy L.A. perverts. While I felt sympathy for Elle Fanning’s Jesse, I also didn’t necessarily find her to be a likable protagonist. Jenna Malone is fantastic as wild card Ruby, who has an interesting side job. Bella Heathcote and Abby Lee seem to relish their roles as heartless models. Karl Glusman plays the only “good” character in the film, but there are interesting points made about his motivations during one insightful conversation. Desmond Harrington is creepy as a mostly silent predatory photographer, while Keanu Reeves delivers his best performance in years as a sleazy motel owner.

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My only complaints are small and derive from the very nature of THE NEON DEMON’s style and storytelling. There are a couple of dream sequences that get too over-the-top and one hallucination that runs a bit too long. The film also abruptly drops Keanu Reeves’ interesting contribution to the plot in an off-handed way. Still, THE NEON DEMON has plenty to please fans of art-house films, horror movies, and outright strange cinema. It’s another polarizing film from Refn and that was kind of expected from the get-go. THE NEON DEMON is loaded with amazing imagery, haunting moments, a great synthesizer soundtrack, and some of the most disturbing cinematic scenes in years. This is an unforgettable fairy tale about vanity turned vicious.

Grade: A-

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 2 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and for some Thematic Material

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Jeffrey Wright & Stanley Tucci

This year marks the conclusion of THE HUNGER GAMES. Fitting snugly into the young adult fiction void left by HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, Suzzanne Collins’ teeny-bopperized version of BATTLE ROYALE made huge waves on the big screen. While I didn’t care for the first film at all, I found CATCHING FIRE to be surprisingly well-executed. Like seemingly all modern book adaptations, the final novel of the series was split into two separate films. As a result, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 felt like a feature-length first act. Picking up from the exact final seconds of Part 1, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 returns to the level of quality that CATCHING FIRE brought to the franchise. This is a very dark, intense, and satisfying final chapter to the HUNGER GAMES saga.

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Katniss’s propaganda campaign worked wonders for the rebels of Panem and the nation is in the midst of a full-blown revolutionary war. While the united Districts may have a massive army of soldiers, the sinister President Snow still has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve. He’s employed brainwashing techniques to turn Peeta against Katniss and has rigged the Capitol with hundreds of deadly booby traps. As this war progresses towards its darkest final hours, Katniss (aided by a handful of former Hunger Game survivors and freedom fighters) sets out across the deadly city landscape to assassinate President Snow. However, she discovers that there are few people that she can trust in this war.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is dark, really dark. This fourth and final HUNGER GAMES installment is more horrific and intense than any of the previous chapters. Though it still contains a slight level of silliness, I found myself sucked into this story more than I was during the entirety of Part 1. Instead of merely using the repeated formula of a group of individuals trying to kill each other in a booby-trapped stadium, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 instead makes the viewer realize how big and bad the war raging in the Capitol is. As a result, the script is far more mature than I expected it to be. There’s a very strong anti-war message that’s undeniable as lives are lost on both sides and certain individuals twist the chaotic violence for their own personal gain.

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As far as the cast goes, Jennifer Lawrence has never been better as Katniss. The character has a quiet intensity for most of the film that feels convincing (especially given everything that’s happened to her throughout the past three movies). Lawrence’s strongest scene comes from her character having a pure emotional meltdown during a moment in the final third that was completely believable. I imagine that particular scene is bound to get a few fans crying in the theater. Though MOCKINGJAY Part 2 still has an annoying love-triangle aspect (which did remind me of the horrible TWILIGHT movies), I felt that both Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth brought their A-game as Peeta and Gale. They are more than just eye candy for teenage girls and actually serve a purpose in the plot.

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Julianne Moore returns for a much bigger role than she had in Part 1 as President Coin. Next to her side is the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final on-screen performance. Though he only receives about 5 minutes of total screen time, Hoffman is just as talented as he ever was. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson reprise their roles, but don’t necessarily have a ton to do in this final chapter. The colorful-haired Stanley Tucci also pops in for a one scene appearance, while Jena Malone (who plays one of my favorite characters in the whole series) is mostly regulated to the sidelines for about three good scenes. Natalie Dormer, who was an important player in Part 1, only receives about a handful of lines and mainly stands in the background as an extra gun. Donald Sutherland owns the role of President Snow as a menacing politician who’s always the smartest, and most dangerous, person in the room. Most of the supporting cast members aren’t necessarily given a ton to do, because this is Katniss’s story.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is beautifully shot and has many stand-out sequences. Creative booby traps provide some of the more exciting moments (an oil pit being a definitely highlight). There’s a nice atmosphere of tension and hopelessness (despite us knowing full well how this story is probably going to play out). Though most of the CGI works well, there’s one scene in a sewer that looks as if it took a page out of RESIDENT EVIL or (more recently) THE SCORCH TRIALS with some silly-looking creatures. There’s also a minor plot hole that annoyed me for a few minutes when it popped up. The running time runs a tad too long thanks to this film having the same amount of endings as RETURN OF THE KING. There were about three shots where the movie could have ended perfectly and it kept going as if to show us every minor detail to the point of annoyance.

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Truthfully told, there’s no reason why MOCKINGJAY couldn’t have just been a three-hour long final movie. The decision to split the story in two films was purely financial and contributes to pacing problems. Part 1 feels like the first act of a movie and Part 2 feels like the last two acts of that same movie. With some complaints aside (silly monsters, an ending that overstays its welcome, and a few wasted performances), MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is on the same level as CATCHING FIRE for me. It was nice to watch a young-adult movie series that started off on a shaky note and became something far better than it probably should have been by its finale. THE HUNGER GAMES franchise has left a mark in cinema as a new blockbuster sci-fi saga that will be remembered for years to come. MOCKINGJAY Part 2 serves as a more than satisfying final note to go out on.

Grade: B

INHERENT VICE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Drug Use throughout, Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Language and some Violence

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

(based on the novel INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Maya Rudolph & Martin Short

Paul Thomas Anderson is known for making unique films, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted him tackling a stoner noir comedy. Yet, INHERENT VICE (nominated for one Golden Globe and two Academy Awards) is currently in theaters. This movie plays out like CHINATOWN by way of BIG LEBOWSKI. Unfortunately, a damn near incoherent script and lengthy running time kill some of the momentum that this hippie mystery had going for it. I can see it gaining a possible cult following, but INHERENT VICE’s big problems weigh it down. At least, the film is a somewhat entertaining mess.

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The 60’s have come to a close and the 70’s are killing the hippie movement. Doc Sportello is a pothead private investigator who receives a mysterious visit from his ex-girlfriend, Shasta. Doc’s ex, now lover to a powerful businessman, informs the hippie detective that there’s a complicated plan at work and she might be in danger. Before you know it, Shasta has disappeared and Doc is on the case. His search begins with three seemingly unrelated disappearances that lead to a huge conspiracy and much craziness. I must attest to not completely understanding everything in the plot at the end of the day, but dare anyone to explain the whole movie to me in a way that makes any plausible sense without having to pull out a notepad and pen in order to map the whole story out. At one point in the film, Doc does exactly that on his wall and I couldn’t help but feel totally lost with him (in a bad way).

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How does INHERENT VICE function as a comedy? It definitely has its fair share of very funny scenes. The best of which have not been given away in the trailer. However, there is also a semi-serious attempt to lace all of these laughs into a mystery that becomes far more irritating than entertaining. For the first hour, I had a pretty good grasp of the plot as the web of lies, murder, and drugs spun faster and faster. However, with a certain plot twist, the movie completely lost me and never regained my interest in the actual story at hand. Part of this might be entirely blamed upon the source material itself as the 2009 has been said to be polarizing. Some call it a hugely entertaining hippie noir, while others see the whole affair as an aimless bore. I’m somewhere in the middle in my opinion of this film. The biggest detriment to the movie is the overlong running time that drags in quite a few places and ends with a shrug.

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Doc is a totally wooden protagonist. Joaquin Phoenix blends right into the role of a hippie who happens to be a private investigator on the side, but there’s nothing much to this character other than him wandering through a variety of random situations (some of which work, while others fall flat). The other characters wind up serving little to no point, including Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro popping up for about 5 minutes of screen time. Not to mention that Martin Short’s entertaining role is underused. There is one exception to these shallow cartoon characters played by A-listers. That’s in the performance of Josh Brolin. Brolin plays a cop bearing the nickname of Bigfoot. This character is fuelled by an extreme prejudice against hippies, but also remains a friend (of sorts) to Doc. Brolin steals every scene he’s in and received the biggest laughs out of my theater audience (myself included).

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Even though it bores in places and is ultimately underwhelming, INHERENT VICE does have an air of solid filmmaking around it. It’s very well-shot, has great moments and sports a fantastic soundtrack. There’s a sense that what you’re watching might just be a drug-addled hallucination projected onto the theater screen (in a similar way to FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS). There are definitely positive qualities to be said for that effect. I’d almost recommend seeing the film just for the weird, funny atmosphere it brings (as well as Brolin’s scenes).

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INHERENT VICE is a one-of-a-kind movie in its concept and execution, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There are laughs to be had, but also a running time that limps along. The A-list cast is mostly wasted and Josh Brolin walks away as the best part of the entire movie. I imagine that INHERENT VICE would play a lot better if you were high (not that I’m advocating that at all). As someone who saw the film without drugs, I think it’s just an okay flick.

Grade: C+

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, some Disturbing Images and Thematic Material

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci & Jeffrey Wright

HUNGER GAMES has been filling the void of good young adult book adaptations left behind by the (mostly) phenomenal HARRY POTTER saga. It’s staggering how popular this series is and I’ve been excited for MOCKINGJAY Part 1 to a certain degree. I actually didn’t care for 2012’s THE HUNGER GAMES (it was a silly teeny-bopper version of BATTLE ROYALE) and found last year’s CATCHING FIRE to be a remarkable step up in quality on pretty much every level. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 falls somewhere in between those two films. It’s not great entertainment, but never sinks to the silliness of the first film. The biggest problem that knocks this film down in quality is obvious in the title, but more on that in a moment.

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When we last left two-time Hunger Games survivor Katniss Everdeen, she had been used as part of a rebel plot against the Capitol and was being taken to the supposedly destroyed District 13. That’s where we pick up in this movie. Katniss witnesses the cruelty that the evil President Snow has brought onto her District and others (including executing those associating with the Mockingjay symbol and oppressing everyone even further). She becomes the face of a rising revolution and the tables begin to turn on the Capitol, but this is violent revolution and lives will be lost on both sides. That’s the general plot of this film and it leaves us with a huge “see you next November” final scene (more so than CATCHING FIRE did).

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Production values on MOCKINGJAY are fantastic. Seeing this world come to life was actually my favorite part of this third entry. With the plots of the previous two films revolving around battles-to-the-death in complex arenas that provided many dangers (besides the group of teenage killers running around), it didn’t seem like enough time was spent on developing this futuristic society enough for the viewer to care about the overall struggles of the huge class system. Jennifer Lawrence slips right back into Katniss mode with little effort and has made the character her own at this point. The same can be said for every returning cast member. The new additions (mainly Julianne Moore and Natalie Dormer) are good in what they’re given to do (which doesn’t amount to much other than a few conversations). The overall plot is compelling, but there’s a problem that sticks out like a sore thumb…

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The main issue that many (including myself) will likely have with MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is that “Part 1” at the end of the title. Greed might have ruined what could have been a stand-out conclusion to an entertaining trilogy. The whole movie (as compelling as it is) feels like a first act stretched to feature-length. If you’re still waiting for things to get fully going by the time the end credits roll, then I feel you because that was my exact reaction. The main character of Katniss is given remarkably very little to do in this film other than utter some lines and encourage others to fight back against a corrupt government. Nearly every piece of action you’ve seen in the marketing is taken from one scene that happens early on. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is far more focused on this revolution beginning than actually showing the revolution taking place. It’s all set-up and filler. While I enjoyed details about it, there will be viewers who wholly dislike this film for that reason and it’s a valid point.

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Despite feeling like a stretched first act to a really solid movie, the film does have a handful of intense scenes. The political subtext isn’t as subtle as many might prefer it to be, but the messages in MOCKINGJAY Part 1 are far more mature than most of the young adult adaptation counter-parts this year. Most of the character bonding moments are filler. We know who these people are and we don’t need to see them bond anymore as we want to see the action (which has been building for two movies) come to fruition. These were merely included to pad out the running time even further and they feel useless.

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In a world where studios are milking every closing chapter of young adult franchises for all that they’re worth, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 isn’t a bad set-up film for a good finale. However, it still remains a set-up film for the finale. One giant MOCKINGJAY movie would have done the job just fine and it seems like studio greed might be slightly spoiling this final book adaptation. As far as books being split into multiple movies go, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS and THE HOBBIT are both getting the concept right. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 feels like BREAKING DAWN Part 1 in the sense that this all could have been wrapped up in the opening hour of a 2-3 hour long final film. At any rate, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is disappointing, but still worth a watch. You just might want to skip it in theaters and watch it at home before going to see MOCKINGJAY Part 2 next year.

Grade: B-

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