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THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 Review: Flying in Circles

Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1 PosterThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is the third installment of a four-part trilogy (trilogies now come in fours, not threes, when the third book is split into two films.)  Below is a quick recap of how we got here (you may skip the next two paragraphs if you are already familiar with the first two films):

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a dystopian future where the rich and mighty oppress the poor and feeble, and once a year those poor and feeble must fight to the death in an annual contest called The Hunger Games.  Two children are chosen to represent each of the 12 Districts (think states) and they must fight until only one wins.  Katniss not only wins the games, she outsmarts President Snow (Donald Sutherland), which keeps her District 12 mate – and possible love interest? – Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive and co-champion.

In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Katniss is an inspiration to a beleaguered nation – a symbol of hope.  As she and Peeta – whose romance is trumped up for TV, much to the concern of Katniss’ actual man, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) – embark on their Victor’s Tour, President Snow has growing concerns that the people might rebel against the government, so he announces that the 75th Hunger Games will be contested by past winners from all 12 Districts.  This puts Katniss and Peeta back on the field of battle.

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Now in installment three, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Katniss struggles with PTSD, her identity as the face of the rebellion, and the fact that the people who rescued her – including mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), former Capitol Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and president of little-known District 13 Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) – left Peeta behind to die.  But Peeta didn’t die, and this only makes matters worse for Katniss.  Her former Hunger Games partner and possible love interest has been captured by Snow and is being used as propaganda against the rebellion.  Through propaganda of their own, and with Katniss as their inspiration, the rebels of the 12 Districts begin an uprising that will hopefully lead to the fall of the Capitol and a new era of freedom.

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When you look at a franchise like this, with its themes of oppression and rebellion, its made-for-the-big-screen action, and its dazzling cast, the last word you expect to think of is “plodding,” and yet plodding is what you get for most of the 123-minute running time here.  I am certainly not dialogue-averse, even in action films, but dialogue should move something forward – story, character development, something – and that simply doesn’t happen here.  In fact, the dialogue gives such a sense of “talking for talking’s sake” that it’s clear this final chapter doesn’t need to be told in two films.

The early moments of the film show great promise.  Katniss is haunted by PTSD in the aftermath of the 75th Hunger Games.  This psychological frailty not only plays havoc on Katniss, it allows for doubt in the mind of President Coin that “The Girl on Fire” is fit to be the face of the rebellion.  When Peeta is discovered to be alive, Katniss’ internal conflict becomes more complicated.

That’s about where the depth of the story ends.

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From this point forward, the film is mostly an exercise in pointless repetition.  Katniss doesn’t want to be the face of the rebellion.  And then she does.  And then she doesn’t.  And then she does.  Katniss has feelings for Peeta.  But what about her feelings for Gale?  Or Peeta?  Or Gale?  Katniss needs to see the devastation for herself, so she is shown the rubbly remains of her old district.  She looks pensively out into the distance with tear-filled eyes.  And then again at another rubbly district.  And again at another.

Insert Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) for fish-out-of-water comic-ish relief, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) for tech speak, and newcomer Cressida (Natalie Dormer) as the take-no-BS director of the propaganda shorts, and there’s your movie.

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Meanwhile, those in charge of planning the rebellion don’t really plan the rebellion so much as they talk about the rebellion.  The rebellion begins anyway (at least in two districts), but by that point, disinterest has settled in.  Also disinteresting are the action sequences, which are not large enough in scope, not frequent enough in number, not long enough in duration, and not compelling enough in execution.  Not one action scene is exciting.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen an action film where the action sequences feel obligatory.

And then the last 5-10 minutes show up and they are spectacular and leave you wondering where THAT was for the previous two hours.  In fact, those last 10 minutes of Part 1 leave me hopeful for Part 2 (releasing November 20, 2015) to finish the franchise on a high note.

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I’ve not read the Harry Potter books, but when I saw the last two films – 7.1 and 7.2 – both were so rich and dense and captivating, as both stories and spectacles, it made sense to me why they made two films out of one book.  Not here.  There is so much nothing happening in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 that the film feels like money-making, fan-exploiting filler.  In the hands of more skilled filmmakers, a tight and tense 20-30 minute introduction in front of Part 2 could do a greater service to the franchise than this 2+ hour chore.


THE BABADOOK Review: You Don’t Want to Get Rid of The Babadook

Babadook PosterThe year 2014 has been terrific for independent thrillers and horror films, including some personal faves like Blue Ruin and Under the Skin (both of which will make my Best Of 2014), as well as Cheap Thrills, Lyle, and 13 Sins.  Looking to add itself to that growing and very impressive list is The Babadook.  This tiny horror film from Australia set Sundance on fire in January and has been lighting up the festival circuit ever since.

Six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a troubled boy who is so convinced there is a monster out to get him and his mother, it consumes his every waking thought and word, driving him to go so far as to design weapons to defeat it.  This obsession, coupled with the boy’s endless hyperactive energy, takes a toll on his mother, Amelia (Essie Davis).

The oppression Amelia feels is overwhelming.  She is a single parent, having lost her husband (Samuel’s father) to a car accident while en route to give birth to Samuel.  The grinding routine of working thanklessly in a nursing home all day and managing her over-energized son all night takes its toll on the widow, and it all becomes that much worse when the domestic madness she feels is exacerbated by the real possibility her son has been right about that monster all along.

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The Babadook is not only one of the best horror movies of 2014, it’s one of the best movies of 2014 (period), and the foundation for that statement is the screenplay, written by the film’s director, Jennifer Kent.

Aside from Samuel’s obsession with some nondescript monster, the first third of the film has nothing to do with horror.  Instead, it’s an intimate study in a single mother’s descent into parental madness.  Samuel is loud and shrill and a behavioral problem at school and a social problem at the playground.  Family and friends want nothing to do with Amelia because they want nothing to do with Samuel.  More and more Amelia becomes emotionally isolated.  Night after night and day after day, Samuel deprives her of peace … of personal time … of sleep … of friends … of a life.

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It’s so much to bear and yet more complicated than that.  This is Kent’s genius in how she paints Amelia.  It isn’t just that Samuel is THAT kid, the kid we’ve all rolled our eyes at in a restaurant or on a plane; it’s that Samuel is, in a thought process twisted by six years of pain and sleep deprivation, why Amelia’s husband is dead.  Does she love her son?  Of course.  But there is always an underlying sense of resentment because of six years ago, and when a mother resents her own child, even the most underlying sense is palpable.

Unlike other horror movies, where so many protagonists are victims of circumstance (moving into a haunted house); victims of revenge (an evil spirit righting a past wrong); or victims of their own poor judgment (foolish teens tempting evil); Kent makes her protagonist a victim of everyday life – of a rough job and judgmental friends and a hyperactive child.  At the peak of her fatigue is when Amelia is weakest.  At the peak of her fatigue is when the horror starts.  At the peak of her fatigue she attracts Mister Babadook.

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“Mister Babadook” is the title of the scary book that finds its way onto Samuel’s bookshelf – one he can’t resist (thanks in part to the shocking red binding in an otherwise drab household).  The reading of it only makes matters worse, as it gives a name and a face to the monster Samuel has obsessed about over his short life.  It’s no longer imaginary; it’s a story now told.

The book could have been anything, really – a toy, a stuffed clown, a found talisman.  By making it a book, though, Kent again shows her brilliance as a storyteller by tapping into that special parent/child bond – the bedtime story – and turning that parent and child into victims bound by a nightmare.  It’s horror at the most personal level.

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As a director, Kent – making her debut, no less! – has a terrific eye, incredible patience, and (hallelujah) an aversion to jump scares.  I don’t mind the occasional jump scare, and this film actually has one (it’s deliciously effective, too), but too many modern-day horror films rely on them to give the audience a quick jolt.  Not Kent.  If your typical multiplex horror film is a quickie, Kent’s film is tantric with its terror.

But the superstar of the film is Davis, whose performance is staggering.  She doesn’t just mope through maternal fatigue, she struggles under years of emotional wear, with every tired sigh a defeated cry for mercy and every slouch a little more weight of regret.  She revs up the madness once Mister Babadook comes to town, but it’s her earlier, quieter moments that dazzle.

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Small filmmakers have done a great job this year representing the horror genre and the independent film community, but there isn’t an entry out there with the depth or power of The Babadook.  With this incredible tale, Jennifer Kent proves storytelling trumps all, and sometimes the greatest horror can be found in the home.


WHIPLASH Review: Yeah, But Look at the Results

Whiplash Poster 1One of my favorite childhood memories is the sound of my Babcia’s choir.  They sang in Ukrainian, a language I (sadly) never learned, but despite that, just the sound of the collective – the harmony, the power – filled the enormous church and made me feel good.  On occasion, I would go to choir practice with Babcia after mass.  My only memories of those experiences involve the choir director screaming at his singers again and again, cutting them off and making them start over, for hours on end or until his voice was shot.

I didn’t understand it then but I’ve come to since.  His high demand for perfection resulted in an amazing sound – a sound I remember and remember loving so much.  That high demand/high reward approach is at the core of Whiplash.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer and student at a prestigious music conservatory.  Andrew’s goal is not to one day be great; his goal is to one day be one of the greats.  There is a clear distinction, and Andrew knows it well.  Being a student at the school is the first step towards getting there, and he gets his next big chance when he is invited to be a member of Terence Fletcher’s (J.K. Simmons) band.  Fletcher is a teacher at the school with two distinct reputations.

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One reputation is that of recognizing great talent.  The school only accepts the best of the best, and Fletcher only works with the best of those.  The other reputation, though, is one of a cruel, sometimes abusive, teacher – one who berates his students with profanity- and epithet-laced tirades, all in an effort to bring out their best.  The results of the former reputation mask well the sins of the latter.

Andrew’s first role in Fletcher’s band is that of Alternate – a second-string drummer relegated to turning the sheet music pages of the Core drummer.  Hard work and a little luck change that, but being Core brings another level of demand from Fletcher that will either drive Andrew to greatness or drive him to insanity.

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Writer/director Damien Chazelle crafts and executes something electrifying in Whiplash.  The film is a simultaneously frenetic and fluid look at a familiar story, but Chazelle turns that story on its head with the first crash of Andrew’s cymbal.

The story is that of the obsession for perfection and the high price of greatness.  This is a tale usually told against the backdrop of athletics, where screaming is part of everyday communication, where berating a player is supposed to build character, and where “leaving it all on the field” typically involves blood loss.  Chazelle takes these clichés off the field of play and injects them into … a music conservatory?  Indeed, and to great affect.  Because such extreme behavior occurs in a place traditionally regarded as calm and reserved makes the behavior that much more intense.

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Dishing it out in the music room and leaving it all on the drum kit both rely heavily on the strength of the film’s co-leads, and those co-leads deliver, giving equally amazing yet wildly diverse performances.

The intimidation – and it is intimidating – is doled out with unstoppable might from Simmons.  Fletcher’s superiority is felt in his first scene.  Andrew is alone and practicing drums when Fletcher confronts him – not screaming, just being imposing.  It’s their first meeting.  The teacher verbally vivisects the student efficiently and effectively, leaving Andrew to wonder if everything he has been working towards for 19 years has been turned to dust in 90 seconds.  From that point forward, Fletcher’s intensity, in the hands of Simmons and like a Big Band Jazz chart, rises and falls in waves of seething emotional rage and quiet, psychological cruelty.  Fletcher is more than a music teacher – he is a surgeon and a butcher and he knows when to use which instrument to get the most out of his musicians – especially Andrew.

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As Andrew, Teller is revelatory.  Unlike most tales of young athletes on the brink of greatness, there is no swagger to Andrew, no cocksure chip on his shoulder that needs to be knocked off before he can rise to be a better player.  Nor, however, is there humility.  Teller creates Andrew as a painfully unassuming young man who knows he has the skills, but lacks that something extra to get him where he wants to be.  (His being a drummer makes sense, really; he’s hiding behind that kit and doing the workman’s work – keeping the beat – and letting the guys up front get the attention.)

Andrew evolves, though.  He becomes more confident in what he can do and what he wants to be, he becomes driven to the point of being singularly focused, and he even allows for the rare moment of arrogance, as evidenced by his devastating (Fletcher-like) commentary on his cousin’s pursuits in the (Division III) college football ranks.  Other than that, he keeps it all in check because he isn’t there … yet.

This is the Miles Teller The Spectacular Now teased us with.  This is the Miles Teller that Miles Teller needs to be.

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Chazelle’s master stroke is that while he takes the story off the athletic field, he leaves the athleticism in it – even the sweat, and especially the blood.  Fletcher pushes Andrew to the point that the young drummer bleeds from blistered hands and busted knuckles, leaving stains on snares and droplets on cymbals like a violent crime has just taken place.  And while Teller’s performance earns the sweat, he isn’t the only one flexing his physicality.

Simmons is like a cobra, lithe and sinewy, as he moves around the room listening to – and stopping and starting and stopping and starting – the music,  until he’s in Andrews face with fangs bared and ready to consume the boy for being off rhythm so slightly, only someone of Fletcher’s calibre could hear it.

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The film’s only weak point involves a romantic interest for Andrew.  As his confidence increases, Andrew gets up the nerve to ask movie theater employee Nicole (Melissa Benoist) on a date.  She says yes, a romance blossoms, but the romance must end because it takes a way from Andrew’s focus on being one of the greats.  In a film that does something different with other clichés, it sticks to the old playbook here, which adds nothing of value to the film and at times gets in the way.

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With a fabulous jazz score, incredible direction from Chazelle, and precision editing from Tom Cross (editing that the film lives and dies with, and oh how it lives), Whiplash is like nothing I have seen before.  The title might refer to one of the songs from the film, but as the closing credits roll, it isn’t surprising I grabbed the back of my neck and wondered what hit me.