The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is more than just a bridge to next year’s finale. Things happen. Characters grow.

Having rebuked President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) becomes an ally of the rebels. Realizing her power, she agrees to be a voice for those opposing Snow. President Coin (Julianne Moore) leads the opposition with key advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Heavensbee drafts Katniss for a series of videos, directed by Cressida (Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones). Cressida has a Skrillex haircut and a long vine tattoo on her left side—it’s a distinctive look. (Heavensbee’s guidance reminded me about Hoffman’s role as another crafty political consultant in The Ides of March.)

After scripted attempts at a propaganda clip fall short, Katniss and crew go on location for passionate, ad-libbed speeches that rip the Capitol crew to shreds. There’s also an action segment where Katniss takes down a fighter jet attacking District 8 with a well-directed arrow (with an explosive tip).

All the while, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is ensconced in the Capitol with several other survivors from the most recent Hunger Games. Like Katniss, Peeta is a media tool. Every time he appears on the Capitol’s TV feed, she watches intently.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 brings new versions of certain series characters. Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is now sober and not happy about it, thanks to Coin’s prohibition of booze. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has doffed her outrageous wigs and dresses for a do rag and olive drab jumpsuit. Hunky Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is still more like a big brother to Katniss, but there appears to be something stronger between them this time.

Among the questions unanswered in THG: M1… Is Peeta’s call for the rebels to stand down sincere or is he just saying these things to save his skin? Is Snow being overly cocky as he plays mind games with Katniss and the rebels? Do the rebels have necessary firepower to take down the Snow regime? Will Coin turn out to benevolent or will power corrupt? And will Katniss and Peeta ever be a real couple? Stay tuned—Part 2 comes your way in exactly one year!

 

 

 

 

 

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Out of the Furnace

Gritty is the best word to describe the setting, the characters and the story in Out of the Furnace. Director Scott Cooper, who struck gold in 2009 with his rookie effort Crazy Heart, falls a bit short with OOTF. He has assembled a strong cast that works hard to tell a revenge story that’s, unfortunately, not unlike other revenge stories.

The Baze brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) live in the rundown town of North Braddock, PA, just a few miles up the Monongahela from Pittsburgh. Russell goes to work at the town’s steel mill where his father worked. Rodney wants something different. He seeks it via gambling and bare knuckle fighting.

One night while driving after drinking a few beers, Russell hits another car, killing a kid. He goes to prison for a brief sentence. Rodney, meanwhile, goes to the Iraq war and returns with demons.

When Rodney runs up gambling debts to John (Willem Dafoe), he begs for a chance to earn money in a fight in a backwoods venue run by outlaw Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Harlan is a meth dealer, a killer and an all-around bad egg. The film’s opening scene demonstrates his temper and abusive behavior.

The fight is vicious. Rodney takes the dive he promised, but, as he and John return to town, Harlan and his henchmen block their way and detain them. Russell then plots his course of revenge.

Local police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whittaker) warns Russell against chasing down the culprit on his home turf. When Russell goes after Harlan anyway, the rural cop (who’d been alerted by Barnes) sends him home. Ultimately the showdown occurs back in North Braddock after Russell lures Harlan to town.

Zoe Saldana appears as Russell’s girlfriend. Sam Sheppard has a small role as Russell’s uncle.

Cooper hits several sweet notes in the film, including an effective sequence that cuts back and forth between a deer hunt and a boxing match. And the acting talent he has assembled is impressive. But once the film’s story is established, its outcome is predictable.

Christian Bale again shows his range as an actor in this working class tale. His strong performance may be the best reason to see Out of the Furnace.

Now You See Me

Now You See Me presents illusion on a grand scale. Not only the outsize magic tricks, but the characters and the plot points, too, are not always what they seem to be. The result is a vastly entertaining movie.

At the movie’s start, four magicians are introduced in brief vignettes: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher) and Jack (Dave Franco). After demonstrating their talents, each gets a mysterious card inviting them to a meeting that results in their forming a team.

The Four Horsemen, as they call themselves, begin with a true WTF? illusion in which they rob a bank in Paris from their Las Vegas stage. Hard to explain the depth of the illusion here, but it’s a mind-blower. (The audience volunteer for this trick looks, on first glance, to be a very big star in a cameo. Whoa! But, no, it’s not actually Robert Downey Junior, just a guy who looks a bit like him.)

When the Paris bank finds that their Euros have gone poof, FBI agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma (Mélanie Laurent) question the four, but release them. Also entering the story is Thaddeus Bradley (played by Morgan Freeman), a former magician who has made a career debunking and exposing other magicians’ tricks via a line of successful videos. Michael Caine appears as the Four Horsemen’s manager/advisor/benefactor.

As the fast-moving storyline progresses, the main question to be answered is who assembled these four and what is this person’s motivation? Following a trick/stunt in New Orleans that includes the apparent criminal theft of more money, our gang of four retreats to New York. As authorities close in, they run. Magician Jack is pursued in an exciting chase through Manhattan traffic that results in a fiery crash on the 59th Street Bridge. Jack’s apparent demise leaves no one feelin’ groovy.

After the Four Horsemen’s penultimate bit of business atop an NYC rooftop, all is explained and the elaborate, tangled web is unraveled.

With some films, you might hope to get to know the characters better, but with Now You See Me, it’s the plot that keeps the wheels turning. Mere surface awareness of the film’s individuals turns out to be for the best, I believe. Because, as Eisenberg’s character Daniel says at the movie’s beginning, “The closer you look, the less you see.”

(Rated PG-13.)

Seven Psychopaths

Among a strong cast, Sam Rockwell is a standout in “Seven Psychopaths.” It’s not that the performances from Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson and Colin Farrell were lacking. They’re all good, but Rockwell’s character has the most to work with.

“Seven Psychopaths” is an ultraviolent comedy. As with “Pulp Fiction” and similar films, the audience goes from repulsion to chuckles (or vice versa) in seconds. Some of its elements are serious. We see innocent people meet violent ends. But soon after, absurd events or remarks bring us right back to the funny.

Farrell plays an alcoholic screenwriter in L.A. who has an idea for a movie called “Seven Psychopaths,” but just can’t get started. Walken and Rockwell are dog kidnappers who then respond to “lost dog” postings to collect rewards. Harrelson is a hood whose Shih Tzu, Bonny, is taken.

Walken and Rockwell provide Farrell with ideas for the movie’s plot—the one he’s writing, that is. Some of the elements discussed for that screenplay do turn up in the movie we’re watching. The trio takes refuge in the desert after Rockwell kills his girlfriend (who is also Woody’s girlfriend). Woody, meanwhile, wants his dog back.

Among the supporting cast is Tom Waits as a psychopath who shares his personal story with Farrell about the killing he’s done. Gabourey “Precious” Sidibe appears briefly as Woody’s careless dog walker.

“Seven Psychopaths” benefits from the strong quartet of leads, each of whom has been in absurd comedies before. Each man has a commanding screen presence and, as a group, they help the movie over a bumpy section or two.

Worth noting are a couple of fantasy sequences (involving a graveyard shootout and a Vietnamese holy man) that add compelling action.

Writer/director Martin MacDonagh (who also wrote and directed “In Bruges” in ’08) has put together an totally entertaining movie. Its violence makes it off-limits for the squeamish, but for the rest of us, it’s fun.

 

 

 

 

“The Hunger Games”—(Reality TV Bites)

It’s a reality TV show producer’s fantasy/nightmare: a televised competition in which those eliminated are not merely voted off the island. Instead, in “The Hunger Games,’ they die.

Could society devolve enough to allow a televised spectacle in which 24 youthful contestants fight to the death, until there is only one left standing? Check back in 50 years and see. In THG, the competition is an annual punishment meted out to each of 12 political districts for a failed rebellion in this near future state/nation, Panem.

The best player in “The Hunger Games,” is Katniss Everdeen. Or is she? Katniss, played wonderfully by Jennifer Lawrence, is a strong young woman whose sister is chosen in a random drawing to be part of this annual death match. Knowing that her weak sister would quickly be killed, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

As preparations for the games begin, Katniss becomes a favorite: A favorite of those who watch and wager on the games. A favorite of TV host Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci (who sports some very weird hair). A favorite of mentor Haymitch Abernathy, played by Woody Harrelson.  A favorite of fellow “tribute” Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson. But not a favorite of President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland.

Having watched reality shows on TV for many years now, I have often suspected producers of manipulating outcomes via physical competitions that favor certain players, vote totals that appear questionable and judges who keep less-talented but more attractive players. It happened in the early days of TV when quiz show contestants who audiences liked were given answers so they would stay on week after week.

Manipulation by the TV producer and his crew occurs often during “The Hunger Games.” Rules are changed. Fires are set. Wild animals are unleashed. Medical supplies are shared from beyond the game area. But even as producers are working their trickery on contestants, so do Katniss and Peeta work theirs on the producers.

THG delivers a compelling screen character in Katniss along with a story that keeps the viewer totally engaged. (The only time I checked my watch during the screening was to note that the actual competition begins at the movie’s halfway point, about 70 minutes in.) Whether this is “the movie event of the year” is debatable, but “The Hunger Games” is a well-crafted movie. Director Gary Ross tells the story clearly without calling attention to himself via cinematic stunts.

“The Hunger Games” presents a chilling vision of a future not too far removed from 2012. Moviegoers who have watched TV shows like “Survivor,” “The Real World,” “American Idol,” “The Bachelor” and “Big Brother” will see elements of those shows and others in “The Hunger Games.”

Because “The Hunger Games” is based on a “young adult” novel which has been embraced by teens, adults may fear that THG has some Twilight-like tendencies. Nope. If you are a grownup, you can see and enjoy this movie. And you should.