THE FOREST (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Content and Images

Forest poster

Directed by: Jason Zada

Written by: Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell & Nick Antosca

Starring: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Eoin Macken & Stephanie Vogt

Aokigahara Forest is one of the creepiest places in the world. This 35-kilometer patch of land is known by two other names: Sea of Trees (because it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the harshly wooded landscape) and Suicide Forest (because a massive amount of people have ended their lives there). This location would make the perfect setting for a well-crafted horror movie. THE FOREST is not that movie. January is usually a dump month for films that studios have no faith in and THE FOREST was released in the first weekend of 2016. To lower expectations even further, the trailer looked like a generic cash-in. THE FOREST surprised me in having a couple of redeeming qualities, but it’s definitely aimed at pre-teens and those who aren’t very well acquainted with the horror genre.

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Sara and Jess Price (both played by Natalie Dormer) are twins. Jess is teaching in Japan, while Sara remains in America with her fiancé (Eoin Macken). Sara becomes concerned when she receives a phone call that claims Jess might be in danger and these suspicious are confirmed by a tingling “twin sense.” Sara travels to Japan and goes to the last location where Jess was spotted, Aokigahara Forest. With park guide Aiden (Taylor Kinney) by her side, Sara ventures deep into the forest. When they find her sister’s tent, Sara disobeys advice given by literally every Japanese person she’s met up to that point and decides to spend the night in the suicide forest. Pissed off ghosts supposedly lurk within the sea of trees, but those are just silly superstitions, right? This is a horror movie, so you already know the answer to that question.

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Natalie Dormer is decent in her dual performance as Sara and Jess, even though these two characters aren’t given much development. Background information comes from a few flashbacks and occasional “twin sense” exposition. The only key difference between these twins is that one of them is a goth (with darker hair) and the other one looks like normal Natalie Dormer. Taylor Kinney is ambiguously friendly/threatening as Aiden and Eoin Macken’s fiancé character shows up for less than five minutes. This is mainly Dormer’s time to shine. Her main character may be a dunce, but Dormer adds a bit of talent to this otherwise stale ghost story.

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The mostly lame script deserves props for not taking a cheap jump scare approach to the material (as suggested by the dumb theatrical trailer). There are a handful of jump scares, but they actually stem from something threatening and aren’t just fake-outs. Instead, THE FOREST seems to aim for more of a head-trip approach than a lazy cash-grab. Though it doesn’t succeed (due to almost no character development and dumb clichés), this psychological attempt is far more interesting to watch than most other PG-13 horror flicks of this type. At the very least, there were a few cool ideas in this film, which is more than can be said for most other January released horror films in recent years.

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Since the Japanese government isn’t exactly thrilled about Aokigahara forest, filming on-location has been outlawed. In an effort to capture a similar location (and it fooled me), the filmmakers used a thick Serbian forest as a convincing substitute. FOREST has a somewhat spooky atmosphere, which isn’t exactly difficult when you consider that the setting is one of the creepiest places on earth. While THE FOREST never made me jump and has three very cheesy apparitions, most of Aokigahara’s ghostly inhabitants look pretty damn creepy. I also liked the film’s conclusion, even though it would have been much more effective with a better screenplay behind it.

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Maybe it’s due to my severely low expectations and a highly suggestive January release date, but I didn’t find THE FOREST to be nearly as terrible as I expected it to be. It’s definitely a bad movie, but has enough surprisingly redeeming qualities that you can see a potential skeleton of a good film lying within. The suicide forest automatically lends itself as perfect material for a fantastic horror story and I hope that someone eventually takes full advantage of that. In the realm of “horror movies that have terrifying locations and still manage to suck,” THE FOREST ranks better than AS ABOVE, SO BELOW and THE PYRAMID, and comfortably sits alongside CHERNOBYL DIARIES.

Grade: C-

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

Mockingjay2 poster

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

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

Mockjay1 poster

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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