Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Even Jennifer Lawrence couldn't save this placeholder of a movie from falling flat. (Lionsgate Films/aceshowbiz.com)

Even Jennifer Lawrence couldn’t save this placeholder of a movie from falling flat. (Lionsgate Films/aceshowbiz.com)

Of all the things that made the last installment in the Hunger Games series – Catching Fire – so enjoyable, it was the strong performances from high caliber actors and intense and very gripping story which made it such a damn good time at the movies. With one book left to tackle, Hollywood did as only Hollywood can do: split it unnecessarily into two movies spaced a year apart (money!). The outcome, at least the half that I’ve been able to see, left a lot to be desired. Almost all of the excitement from the last film vanished, and I never once got pulled it by a character or moment from the story.

Picking up after the beginning of the rebellion in the prior movie, Katniss, and her family and friends, are now living in another district. Peeta is behind held in the capitol, his brain washed by the president, spewing propaganda to counter the rebels. The entire film is essentially a very slow back and forth of Peeta being recorded saying something bad about the rebels, and Katniss being recorded saying something bad about President Snow. It’s quite repetitive, and there weren’t spurts of action exciting enough to keep me wide-eyed and intrigued. I’m not saying I needed it to be a popcorn summer hit kind of film with all-out action, but boy was this dragging and in need of a little firepower. Also, it may have just been me, but half the movie felt like Jennifer Lawrence walking slowly to look at something and then breaking down in tears. It happened so often that it just got humorous by the end.

All of the A-list actors that brought so much goodness to Catching Fire – Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman – as well as newcomer Julianne Moore, were quite underwhelming across the board. Nobody gave a performance that I can point to as a standout, or bright spot. Nobody seemed really inspired, and when you put that together with a slow story, it doesn’t turn out well in the end.

I’d like to think that the franchise took a big downturn only due to the splitting of the last book into two movies. My hope is that this time next year, the final movie regains that fire and excitement and ends with a bang. Mockingjay – Part I felt like boring holdover material, which in a word, was disappointing.

 

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I: original_barnstar original_barnstar (out of 4)

Review: Interstellar

With a scope larger than perhaps any I've ever seen, Nolan does it again. (Paramount Pictures/aceshowbiz.com)

With a scope larger than perhaps any I’ve ever seen, Nolan does it again. (Paramount Pictures/aceshowbiz.com)

Oh…my poor, poor brain. Where to begin? How could I possibly try and evaluate all that Interstellar offered? After seeing the film, discussing it, and reading post after post about it online, I’ve come to an important realization: I will never understand and truly comprehend a lot of what’s scientifically going on in this movie. I have a better grasp on it now than I did when the credits began to roll, but this movie’s scope is so large, and it’s reach is so far. When the director employs an actual theoretical physicist (Kip Thorne) to help with the script and to advise on the actual probabilities of what is and what isn’t reality, you should be confident this isn’t a popcorn blockbuster. No, this was something much more than that…it was a movie that will make you use your brain until it hurts.

This doesn’t affect my rating of the movie, but I think it has to be noted – there is no other director that I can think of, that would have the guts or the brains to try and pull off something of this nature. There is so much actual science in this movie, and so much theory that could legitimately stump any smart person, that it’s just an impressive feat at that level. To that, I give Christopher Nolan a tremendous amount of credit.

There have been discussions on the balance of visual effects and treats for the eyes, and the effort given to create the human story in Interstellar. To address that first part – the visuals in the film are awe-inspiring. It’s almost as if Gravity last year was a mere appetizer for the much bigger slice of space we’re invited to see this time around. The planets, the ships, the journey among the stars is truly extraordinary to watch. Hans Zimmer strikes again with what I considered to be a perfect score, as well. But Interstellar, as scientifically detailed as it got, never had space travel alone in its heart. It was about love. It was about family, and the will and need to do anything to be with those you love, and to protect them too. A few scenes struck a surprisingly strong emotional chord with me, showcasing the basic human desire for love and care.

The acting was also top notch, led by Matthew McConaughey, who gave a better performance in this than he did in his Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club. When it was announced that Nolan picked McConaughey for the lead role, I was somewhat disappointed. But to my surprise, in the best of ways, he delivered. The rest of the main actors – Hathaway (who I normally hate, but didn’t in this movie!), Caine, Chastain, Lithgow – were all very, very solid in their own rights.

With all of that said, after dissecting the science versus human/emotional balance, the acting, the visuals and score, and everything else…it came down to one conclusion for me. Throughout the first roughly two hours, the film was very, very good. The scope was so intense, heavy, and heady, yet, it never quite became great. It was so jam-packed with what it wanted to say, and for whatever reason, didn’t completely translate to greatness on the screen. However, the final 40 or so minutes were so beautiful in every which way, and blew me away, that it made it very, very close to magnificent. There will always be questions I’ll have over the science, but nothing can take away from the experience of watching it, and the near brilliance it did achieve. And my gut tells me that at some point in the future, my opinion will only go up.

 

INTERSTELLAR: original_barnstar original_barnstar original_barnstar half_barnstar(out of 4)

Review: Birdman

Michael Keaton leads a strong cast in this mostly enjoyable dark comedy. (Fox Searchlight/aceshowbiz.com)

Michael Keaton stands out in this (mostly) enjoyable dark comedy. (Fox Searchlight/aceshowbiz.com)

I’ve never seen a movie that’s been so perfectly set up for the Oscar committee, and I’ve also never seen a movie filmed like this before. With such a unique lens, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) portrays an actor who was once a giant action-movie star, but is now struggling for relevance by writing, directing, and acting in a Broadway show. It’s dark comedic take on the attitude of Hollywood and its actors, and New York City and its theater, is a slam-dunk for Oscar nominations. But while it’s currently sitting in the high 90’s on Rotten Tomatoes, I came away with the sense that it was enjoyable, but certainly dragged at times, and was never truly great.

Birdman didn’t live up to my expectations, unfortunately, for a few reasons. The first is that there were a number of good scenes, but none that stuck with me in terms of humor or serious emotion. It would have a laugh, something interesting, and then would carry on a bit slowly…and repeat. The second is that as I’ve already said a few times, it dragged on too long. I do understand the points it was making about actors and the nature of these characters, but at times it was almost as if it had to hammer it home with another scene or actor saying the same exact thing. Not the worst thing in the world, but the running time could’ve been chopped by a fair amount.

What was astounding about this film is how it was shot: as one continuous take. There were no cuts, no fading away to another place or scene, and no extreme amount of editing. It was as if they pressed ‘record’ on the cameras and for two hours, just filmed, and called it a wrap. That must’ve taken some serious directorial skill, and the actors from what I’ve heard, had to do long, long sequences at a time. And speaking of the ensemble cast…everyone was good, but nobody truly stood out to me except for Michael Keaton. Playing the lead role of Riggan Thomas/Birdman, Keaton showed a huge range from funny to intense, and watching the movie, you actually cared about him. If we’re talking Oscars, I wouldn’t be mad if his name was announced.

 

BIRDMAN: original_barnstar original_barnstar original_barnstar (out of 4)

Review: Gone Girl

Affleck leads a good cast in David Fincher's intelligent and entertaining murder-mystery. (20th Century Fox/aceshowbiz.com)

Affleck leads a good cast in David Fincher’s intelligent and entertaining murder-mystery. (20th Century Fox/aceshowbiz.com)

David Fincher has made some of the best movies of the last 20 or so years, and maybe some of the best of all-time. When I think ‘classics’, Fight ClubSe7en,  and the Social Network surely come to mind. And let’s not forget outstanding efforts like Zodiac and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as well. So give him a crime thriller, completely character-driven, with twists and turns, and a good cast…and you’ve got yourself one hell of a film, and yet another example of why he has to be considered one of the best directors in Hollywood.

Based on the best-selling novel, a Missouri man is suddenly caught in a whirlwind of accusations from local and national media when his wife goes missing. Played by Ben Affleck, we watch Nick Dunne go from loving husband, to possible murderer, and is put through the ringer on every move he makes. His sister (and only ally) is vilified, his in-laws are sure of his guilt and more or less disown him. But all the while, we’re introduced to curious clues – ones that make us question and reevaluate what we just thought was right. Lawyers come on, ex-lovers come on, and each step makes the story murkier. When the truth is revealed, it’s not the end of the movie at all, either. The brilliance is where it goes once we know what’s going to happen.

It’s no surprise that upon reading facts about Gone Girl on IMDB, it turns out Brad Pitt was considered for the lead role. Seeing as how he’s been the main character in three David Fincher movies, it’s sort of shocking we’re given Ben Affleck instead. But Affleck did well, as did Rosamund Pike – whom I’d had never heard of prior to this film. As in so many of Fincher’s movies, the supporting cast is wildly strong as well. Carrie Coon as Affleck’s sister, Kim Dickens as the local detective, and Tyler Perry as Affleck’s lawyer. Wait…what? Yes, that Tyler Perry. If a movie can make me appreciate how good Tyler Perry was, it’s automatically a huge success. Without question though, the acting was spot-on across the board. No performance struck me as Oscar worthy, and nothing completely blew me away, but with the intricate story that’s been built around the characters, you really didn’t need anything amazing.

What was best about Gone Girl was the feel of it. David Fincher has such a unique style to his directing, and you can feel it in the dark themes and dark picture (literally). You can hear it in the music (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, again), and see it in the editing. Each scene and every exchange has this wonderfully well established sense of doom and mystery. I can’t credit anyone but the man behind the camera himself. Once again, Fincher has shown how to take a crime drama and make it into something so very memorable. It’s a good sign when the running time of nearly two and a half hours doesn’t feel long at all. And as the credits began to roll, you’re left wanting even more of Gone Girl. I’d consider that a pretty huge success.

 

GONE GIRL: original_barnstar original_barnstar original_barnstar (out of 4)

Review: The Skeleton Twins

the-skeleton-twins02 (1)

Despite the occasional terrific scene, Hader and Wiig can’t save the film from being anything other than mediocre (Roadside Attractions/aceshowbiz.com).

In the Skeleton Twins, real life comedians Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play siblings that are very emotionally unstable, and struggle mightily with their own issues. Having not seen in each in a decade, we’re introduced to them in what might be the worst way possible: attempted suicides. But as it would turn out, neither would end up dying, and both join together to reunite, and to try and rebuild themselves.

Whether it’s cheating on their partner multiple times, lying about trying to conceive a child, sleeping with a teacher and former child predator, an emotionally detached mother, dead father from suicide, or just extreme depression, these two, now grown-ups, have quite the laundry list of serious things to deal with. Throughout the movie, we see them go in waves: from bonding, laughing, and emotional understanding, to repeated mistakes, additional suicidal thoughts, and more. It’s heavy, and the acting is alright, but for such devastating material, I found myself somewhat bored through all of the ups and downs of the film. It felt much, much longer than its actual running time, which is also never a good thing.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of some of the scenes were, as it felt like it was just repeating itself. And granted, there were some really quality parts to this movie…but they were too few and far between. They would’ve been foolish to not have any comedic sequences with these two actors as their leads – and luckily, they didn’t waste that opportunity. But, yet again, there were just too few of those moments to hold the entire project above water for me.

THE SKELETON TWINS: original_barnstar original_barnstar (out of 4)

Review: Calvary

calvary still

When I see a movie in theaters, there has to be some pretty strong interest to get me out to the cinema. Whether it’s the actors, the story, the reviews, or a combination of these factors, I need a pretty strong pull to avoid me thinking “eh, I can wait for that on demand or on Netflix.” Calvary had so many things working in its favor that got me out to see it: Brendan Gleeson, a controversy surrounding an Irish priest, and nearly 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (and good word of mouth from someone I know). So, why am I sitting here, writing this somewhat disappointed?

I’m writing this slightly disappointed because there’s another large factor for a movie to succeed: it has to, or something about it, has to stay with me and make me think or impact me in some fashion after the end credits roll. I want to talk about it or think about it, and most of all, care about it. The problem with this film, was that I really didn’t care about the characters or the story or what I just saw, not even ten minutes after leaving the theater. Nothing provoked further thoughts or talks, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. One would think that a good lead actor taking on a story about a Catholic priest that’s threatened to be murdered would pretty much equate to instantaneous conversation. Sadly, it was not the case. 

Calvary also felt sort of disjointed, and while I was waiting for the ending, the middle (the huge majority of the film) scenes jumped around and told little stories that didn’t all come together for me. Nothing truly stood out and raised my interest level – I was just waiting for the ending sequence. It’s tough to have a great movie when a big chunk of it feels so slow. Now with that said, this wasn’t a bomb by any stretch. The acting was good, especially from our lead, Brendan Gleeson. The scenery was very nice and lent itself quite well to the ominous plot. The beginning scene had you on the edge of your seat, as did the final scene. So, yes, there were good things…but just not enough in total, and not frequently enough. 

 

CALVARY:  original_barnstar original_barnstar half_barnstar (out of 4)

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

'Guardians' featured a great cast, fun action, and a welcome change to the predictable superhero universes. (Marvel Studios/aceshowbiz.com)

‘Guardians’ featured a great cast, fun action, and a welcome change to the predictable superhero universes. (Marvel Studios/aceshowbiz.com)

It sure seems like a long time since I’ve seen a movie in theaters. And additionally, it sure seems like a long time since I’ve seen a comic book based movie that doesn’t feel like the same…darn…thing, over and over again. The Nolan Batman trilogy aside, can you think of one that stands out as memorable, that hasn’t been tainted or watered down to an extent by sequels and reboots galore? Spiderman, Iron Man, Captain America, X-Men…they keep coming out with new ones that follow the same formula. Do they work? Sure, they’re probably fun, and harmless. But there’s no risk involved, there’s flailing originality in the Marvel and DC universes. Then came along the weirdest, brashest comic book movie I’ve ever seen to partially restore my faith in this genre: Guardians of the Galaxy.

An 80’s kid, a green-skinned warrior, a blue hulk of a destroyer, a maniac raccoon, and a tree with a below-average IQ. Those are your heroes. Those are the main characters in what Marvel hoped would not be an absolute bomb at the box office. Turns out their gamble paid off big time. The breath of fresh air from this band of misfits is so utterly enjoyable, so fun and likable, that it’s hard not to gush at what a good time it was to just sit back and take this film in. Will the story set the world on fire? Will it become an instant classic, or even become your favorite superhero movie ever? Doubtful, on both accounts. But it does so many things right, that those things don’t even seem to matter.

One thing the movie does better than most, is its’ humor. This is led by our main character, Peter Quill (aka, Starlord), played by the incredible Chris Pratt. From minor appearances in Zero Dark Thirty to Moneyball, and his starring role in NBC’s Parks and Recreation, it’s clear that Pratt is on the rise. And this role just put him over the top. He’s a normal guy superhero, with no superpowers or crazy suits and gadgets. He does possess impeccable timing for one-liners and great humor littered throughout the movie. But the laughs don’t end with just Pratt: the entire cast has brief moments of humor that make the watching experience that much more enjoyable.

Without going to the point of labeling this a comedy, it should be noted that Guardians is a hell of a ride when it comes to outerspace action, too. The effects were good (nothing incredible), and the worlds we were introduced to were grimy, realistic (despite being futuristic), and in a funny way…ordinary. That’s not to say they were like what you might see on Earth, but for some reason, they never struck me as crazy as some things in other Marvel or DC movies. Maybe it’s because I liked the characters so much, and was having so much fun watching, that I just accepted things as normal.

Even the voice actors – Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper – were good. Diesel voiced a tree, who had, from what I remember, two different lines he used in the entire movie. And yet, it was suitable and at times, very heartfelt (trust me on this). Cooper on the other hand, was a non-stop chatterbox, who hit it out of the park as an insane, yet insecure, raccoon.

 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXYoriginal_barnstar original_barnstar original_barnstar (out of 4)

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