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

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Frenetic Violence and Menace, Disturbing Images and some Sensuality

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci & J.J. Abrams

Starring: Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Michelle Monaghan, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg, Eddie Marsan & Laurence Fishburne

Despite having never been that interested in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise before this year, the only tidbit of knowledge that I knew about any of the films was that Philip Seymour Hoffman played the villain in the third movie. That alone was enough to make me excited for this to cleanse the palette after the disaster that was MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2. This third installment in the blockbuster franchise is the best that I’ve seen in the series (I will be watching GHOST PROTOCOL soon) thus far. Intense, exciting and smart, this MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE does something that neither of the previous entries did for me. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III actually made me feel like our main character was in constant peril and that the danger might overcome him at any point. I felt the dread, suspense and excitement rush through every single intense sequence, plot twist and action scene. It’s almost unheard of to see a third installment in any series one-up its predecessors, but that’s exactly what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III does in every way.

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Since the events of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2, Ethan Hunt has retired from IMF missions and found love in his fiancé. He’s drawn back into one last assignment when a former protégé is captured. The rescue mission goes sour and Ethan finds himself hunting for a powerful black-market figure. The villain is Owen Davian, a notorious arms dealer who has pretty much become an invisible man. When Ethan is tipped off about Davian’s latest whereabouts, he sets in motion a complicated plan to kidnap Davian. Unfortunately, not everything in this plan is solid and sound. Things quickly spiral out of control. Soon, Ethan finds himself being specifically targeted by Davian and his fiancé being held hostage in the crosshairs.

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While MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was a big popcorn-muncher of a movie and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 tried too hard to be stylish and cool, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III easily sports the best script of the first three films. It ups the ante from the very beginning by showing a scene that we can anticipate later on in the movie. While I usually complain about stories starting off in non-linear fashion as a cheap gimmicky approach, this works far better in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III as the scene is an undeniably tense one. It gives us a vulnerable side of Ethan that we’ve never seen before in either of the previous entries, while also showing just how scary Hoffman is as the villain. The former is definitely a big part of what works so well for me about MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. Adventures can only be so exciting when anyone can correctly predict where everything is heading and there’s no sense that the hero might fail. M:I 3’s script delivers a solid atmosphere of danger that hovers over every moment in which Ethan finds himself outgunned. It’s a nice change of pace for a series that seemed so content to play it safe and by-the-numbers.

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Since the screenplay is rock solid and the high stakes feel like high stakes this time around, the action scenes are extremely exciting. That’s also not to mention that the comic relief actually works, because it’s not overly excessive. Little moments of laughter do ease the tension a bit, but never dominate the scenes. One sequence of Ethan breaking into a heavily guarded building has the best punchline of any of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies delivered by Ving Rhames. Aside from stellar script, a nice change of pace, and exciting action, Philip Seymour Hoffman dominates as Davian. He’s a calm, cold, son of a bitch in the role. Exuding a bit of smugness, but more sociopathic tendencies than expected, Hoffman is one villain that you love to hate. He’s scary in how he delivers chilling dialogue in such a matter-of-fact, routine fashion as if the evil deeds he’s committing are really nothing to him…because they aren’t a big deal in his eyes at all. I doubt that we’ll receive another top-notch villain to the same high-caliber degree as Davian in the entire series. He’s that good!

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It’s not often that you can say a third entry in a blockbuster series manages to outdo the first and second installments, but that’s exactly the case with MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. You can sense that somebody genuinely cared about crafting a solid film as opposed to just throwing out yet another generic sequel. The acting and characters are solid across the board, with Hoffman being the biggest scene-stealer of the bunch. The action is adrenaline-pumping and has actual emotion put behind it. The story is engaging and takes the series in an entirely different direction than simply an unstoppable guy saving the world again. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III improves on its predecessors tenfold and manages to become a great adventure in the process.

Grade: A

THE MASTER (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Laura Dern & Christopher Evan Welch

By every conceivable measure, I thought I would love or (at least) like Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER. I’ve had the movie recommended to me by numerous cinephiles. I’ve liked every Anderson film that I’ve seen thus far to some extent (including the strange INHERENT VICE). I also love films that dig at really controversial and touchy topics. THE MASTER had many things going for it, but left me feeling purely apathetic towards it. This film definitely has some fantastic qualities, but enough mediocre ones to leave it as a middle-of-the-road experience for me.

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WWII has ended and veteran Freddie Quell is struggling to adapt to post-war America. In coping with his traumatic wartime experiences, Freddie has become a raging alcoholic with a sex addiction. Moving from one failed job to another, Freddie winds up as a stowaway on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd. Dodd claims to be a philosopher, a nuclear physicist, a writer, a doctor, and a man. He’s leading a new religious movement known as “The Cause” and soon has a fascinated Freddie more than a little interested in helping out this philosophical “genius” with his good work. As The Cause keeps moving forward, Freddie begins to realize that this new religion might be a cult. This shell-shocked veteran turned follower is left with experiencing a lot of conflicting emotions and saddled with some tough decisions to make.

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THE MASTER has stunning cinematography. Anderson brought this story to the screen using 65mm film and that old-school technique is fantastic to see in this new age of mostly digital filmmaking. The musical score accompanying the film is haunting and beautiful. It makes the whole film seem a lot better than it actually is when you slice down to the nitty-gritty of the plot (but more on that in a moment). There are also parallels to Scientology that have already been pointed out by many. These supposed coincidences are impossible not to notice, though Anderson denies that this movie was inspired by that group. Dodd is a stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard and the ludicrous claims of The Cause (mentally time-travelling and curing cancer through sheer will) mirror the same level of insane faux reasoning of Scientology’s beliefs. Aside from specific comparisons to Scientology, THE MASTER has a lot to say about religion in general and not much of it is nice. However, I felt that more time could have been dedicated to this commentary that’s pretty much abandoned by the closing credits.

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Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver fearless performances in their roles as protégé and master. Phoenix convinces you of his ill-tempered former sailor with a whole lot of baggage, while Hoffman is simply amazing as Dodd. They sell these characters as real people, but there’s just not a whole lot of empathy that can be given towards them. As sick as it may sound, I felt like AMERICAN PSYCHO, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and (most recently) NIGHTCRAWLER did a great job of putting you inside the head of a lunatic. You may not have liked them, but you could probably relate to them in some unfathomable, unexplainable way. THE MASTER didn’t compel me in that sense. I really couldn’t care less about either Freddie or Dodd. The performances are great, but the characters are far too distanced from the audience. That may sound like an oxymoron, but that’s exactly how it felt. Amy Adams is rather underused as Dodd’s wife. For the most part, this is a two-person show.

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My biggest problems with THE MASTER are the messy narrative and long-winded running time. Paul Thomas Anderson has stated in recent interviews that he doesn’t care so much about having a plot in his films anymore and only wants to leave long-lasting feelings with the viewer. While that’s apparent in the recent INHERENT VICE (which didn’t make a lick of sense after about 40 minutes), it’s far more obvious in THE MASTER. There are long stretches of this film that didn’t seem to be relying on a story whatsoever, but instead on these characters. That’s not necessarily a bad way of approaching things, but it becomes a problem when the film gets boring. THE MASTER got dull in many spots throughout its running time of over two hours.

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THE MASTER left me with no strong reactions and not much story to hold on to. Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography is filled with unusual and original creations. THE MASTER is definitely unusual and original, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good. I didn’t care for the lack of a working plot and the running time was far too long. The characters felt oddly disconnected, in spite of phenomenal performances. There are definitely people who will adore THE MASTER for a variety of reasons (including the ones that I’ve listed as negatives), but this film just wasn’t for me.

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-

BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sex Scenes with Explicit Dialogue, Nudity, Drug Use, Language and Violence

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Heather Graham, Luis Guzman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, Alfred Molina & Thomas Jane

If you look up any “Best Films of the 90’s” list, you’re likely to see BOOGIE NIGHTS included on a few of them. There are quality reasons for that. This is the sophomore effort of Paul Thomas Anderson (who has received a lot of critical acclaim as a master storyteller), showcases a sprawling cast of big name actors, and received three Academy Award nominations (Supporting Actor and Actress, and Original Screenplay). This lengthy drama (over two hours) spans across a decade around a group people in the pornography business in a style reminiscent of Scorsese’s crime epics.

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Eddie Adams is a high school dropout living with his parents and working at a shady nightclub on the other side of town. It’s 1977 and the adult entertainment industry is booming. It comes as no surprise that Eddie runs across Jack Horner, a successful pornographic filmmaker interested in recruiting a well-endowed newcomer. Under the new name of Dirk Diggler, Eddie becomes infatuated with this amazing money-making business of sex and pleasure. All good things come to an end though and the bigger they are the harder they fall. You can see where this is heading…

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What’s really cool about BOOGIE NIGHTS is that it doesn’t just focus on Dirk Diggler in this time period. Instead, the overall plot is made up of a colorful characters given life by stellar cast members. These include the other porn stars and the film crew (ranging from the director to the sound guy to the cameraman and even the producer with skeletons in his closet). Each character is interesting in their own unique way. My two favorites being William H. Macy’s assistant director and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s boom-mic operator. Dirk Diggler might not be the most compelling or redeemable person in the film (especially once fame gets to his head and ego), but it’s something else to see Mark Wahlberg acting his ass off in a part that’s unlike anything you see him play now. This is a film full of different stories and most of them revolve around living the dream and watching that lifestyle crumble away.

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BOOGIE NIGHTS doesn’t just rely on an amazing screenplay and stellar acting. It also has a whole lot of style to it. There’s a lot of confidence apparent in the directing here. A nice use of filters is made in showing off clips of Dirk’s films and the stereotypical music used in those faux pornos cracked me up (one trailer of a Bond-like piece of smut is hysterical). I would be remiss not to mention the awesome soundtrack that again is very much Scorsese-like in its use. There are a couple of moments of original score (including a moment I’d like to dub the heartbreak montage), but the film strings along many cool 70’s and 80’s hits to directly inject the viewer inside the scene’s time period.

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Seeing that BOOGIE NIGHTS takes place across both the late 70’s and the 80’s, the business of adult films is both glamorized and then torn down in just over two hours. The lifestyle we see Dirk living is a good one during the 70’s time period, but we also see the problems that come with it in the 80’s. As the porn stars try to go their own paths (John C. Reilly’s character notes “No one can fuck forever”) is where bad things happen. Despite the film supposedly being billed as only about the pornography business, we see how this former line of work takes its toll on budding careers in music and business owning. Cocaine also plays a huge part in the film as well and leads to possibly the best drug deal scene in film history.

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Seeing as the film is about people working in pornography, you’d expect some graphic sex scenes and there are a couple. However, it’s refreshingly toned down in the actual on-screen “porn” and doesn’t revel in the sex itself…at least from a movie with a plot like this. This may turn people off of the movie, because topless big-breasted women are shown as well as close-ups of thrusting. What I’m trying to say is that BOOGIE NIGHTS wasn’t nearly as graphic sexually as I was expecting it to be and that’s a plus, but I can imagine a lot of people snubbing their noses at this film even though it’s not about pornography (opting to focus on people).

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BOOGIE NIGHTS has been described as the GOODFELLAS of porn and I’m backing that up as the most accurate description for this flick. Paul Thomas Anderson displays remarkable talent in his second(!) film and the Oscar nominations were well deserved. It’s not as sexually graphic as you might believe, though there’s definitely a fair share of nudity given the subject matter. There’s less of an overall plot and more of a group of connected stories that make up the film. BOOGIE NIGHTS is fantastic!

Grade: A

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