Reading the raft of reviews for director Morten Tyldum ‘s (The Imitation Game) new sci-fi movie Passengers, you would think the movie must have killed somebody’s mother. The resoundingly negative press stems from a an early plot development that critics have decried as offensive, disgusting, misguided, misogynist, and even “Titanic in space.” After having seen this controversial film, I feel like some of the moral outrage is overblown, or at least purposely ignoring complexities and context. Passengers is a movie that makes you think and feel and my feelings were more than billious invective.
Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is a passenger onboard the Avalon spaceship as it hurtles across the galaxy toward the colony of Homestead II. It’s a gigantic, sleek, and powerful vessel and the trip is expected to last 120 years. Except Jim was awakened early. 90 years too early. His hibernation pod short-circuited and he’s unable to go back to sleep. He’s destined to live out his life and die alone before any of the approximately 5,000 other passengers awakens. The Avalon is large and lonely, save for a handful of robotic and holographic guides, notably an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen) who advises Jim to accept his circumstances and find enjoyment. One year later, binging on exotic food, playing video games for hours, and living without rules has lost its appeal enough that Jim is considering suicide. Then he sees the sleeping face of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is awestruck. She’s beautiful but she symbolizes more. She’s a journalist and he reads all of her works, admiring her courage, sense of humor, ambitions, and determination. He feels like he’s falling for her and wishes she were awake. Jim asks Arthur, “What if you were stranded on a desert island and had the power to wish somebody else there? You wouldn’t be alone anymore but you’d be stranding them.” Arthur’s response: “Jim, these are not robot questions.” Jim decides to purposely wake Aurora, because if he didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a movie left. He hides his culpability and welcomes her to this new grim reality and they find solace with one another. The truth hovers over their heads but it’s not the only danger for Jim. The Avalon is experiencing a wealth of small technical glitches that cascade into bigger problems. If Jim and Aurora don’t stumble upon an answer, all 5,000 people onboard could perish far from home.
While far from flawless, Passengers has plenty at play to engage an audience on different levels, be they intellectual, ethical, or science fiction thrills. The premise is strong from the first minute onward and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) has an astonishingly imagintive command of world building. The first act is one of discovery for Jim and the audience, and Spaihts provides plenty to discover that fits within the logical future. Jim sends out a video recording asking for help and then learns it will take 18 years to be sent to Earth and another 30 years to get the answer. It’s a nice moment that brings some science smarts to the proceedings. Colony planets are the next big corporate venture, and I appreciated the little touches that made this future world feel all the more plausible and authentic. Jim is a lower-class skilled laborer and will owe a percentage of his life’s earnings to pay for the voyage (sound familiar?). There’s also a class system alive and well, as Jim is denied the more delicious food and beverage breakfast items because he is not a Gold Star passenger. Beyond these little touches, Spaihts delivers a remarkably efficient story structure. The emphasis shifts in half-hour segments just long enough to fulfill a plot purpose before moving on to a natural transition. The rich contours of the Avalon are explored with plenty of built-in mysteries like what’s on the other side of the crew door. It’s a story implanted with strong mystery elements to smoothly guide the intrigue of an audience. The small scenes open up to wider scenes, and every set on the Avalon fulfills a purpose either emotionally or with suspense. I was definitely hooked and wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of this brave new world. Tyldum impresses with how easily he translates his visual prowess into the realm of large-scale science fiction. The set design by Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception) is immaculate and had me begging to visit as many locations as possible aboard the Avalon. The many designs are more than just clean, sterile surfaces; there’s craftsmanship and personality in the rococo symmetry. I also greatly enjoyed the very intentional Shining visual motif of Arthur’s red velvet bar.
The film’s selling point is the relationship between its mega-watt stars, and Pratt (The Magnificent Seven) and Lawrence (Joy) deliver on their end. You could do far worse than spend 90 years with some of Hollywood’s most effortlessly charming, gorgeous, and self-effacing actors. Pratt and Lawrence seem to exist on a similar goofy yet spirited plane, and it works toward their eventual courtship. There’s a cute scene where Jim quizzes Aurora on her observational reasoning, guessing real aspects about several sleeping passengers. Jim is a man who feels out of place on Earth, looking to build anew, and Aurora is looking for an adventure worthy of a great story to equal her famous father’s literary works. It’s a fascinating question of whether a person would willingly jump forward in time 250 years, as Aurora plans to when she returns to Earth (if there still is an Earth). You’d be severing all tethers to human relationships from your past and also the world as you conceived. The characters aren’t the most in depth, and “Aurora Lane” is definitely a name that’s one step removed from being downright Jetsonian, but it’s the exceptional situation that makes them compelling to watch. How does one court the only other waking human being on a ship of thousands? What if Aurora happened to be gay? It’s a Last Man on Earth scenario that has been explored many times on TV and the big screen but there’s still something inherently interesting about the premise. I also enjoyed the care they build for their only other companion, Arthur the loyal bartender and confidant.
Whether you see the movie as a parable about the horrible things people do when confronted with despair or as a fantasy for unchecked misogyny will depend upon if you view the problematic relationship as morally wrong but potentially empathetic or only irredeemably creepy. “You murderer!” Aurora accuses Jim when she discovers the awful truth, and she’s right. Jim has robbed her of a future and taken away her choice. I like to consider myself a relatively enlightened and progressive chap but I’ll admit I that I can only see things through my own white heterosexual male lens, so your mileage may vary. When Jim falls in love with Aurora from researching her background and pouring over every word she’s written in print, this may be the telltale sign for an audience. If you view it as a more heightened equivalent to falling in love through correspondence, an unrequited love fueled by missed chances, then perhaps you’ll still be onboard. However, if you view Jim’s love as the equivalent of falling in love with a coma patient (Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her?) and projecting feelings onto an unresponsive woman without agency, then this is a romantic paean that you’ll associate more with a horror movie.
There are several great and touching one-sided romances in the annuls of film, and I viewed Passengers as a higher concept rom-com where the misguided man (it’s usually the man) is hiding a secret about the murky circumstances surrounding the start of their relationship (like a She’s All That in space). That’s a fairly cheeky assessment of what could also effectively be dubbed a Stockholm syndrome romance, as Jim is the one responsible for kidnapping her from her planned future. I’ve read lots of ink from critics decrying this movie as an offensive, deeply flawed film. I think Passengers effectively communicates the full implications of Jim’s choice. It wants us to wade into that ethically troublesome pool with Jim. It doesn’t pretend he’s the good guy, though that judgment can be read too easily. It says Jim is a human being in a unique setting and that he made a selfish choice. There’s a complexity there I think is going ignored in a rush to moral indignation. I honestly think most people if given similar circumstances would make the same selfish decision. That’s not a lazy excuse but it is empathy, and empathy does not require comprehensive endorsement to still exist in some form or other.
With that being said, the movie certainly stacks the deck in Jim’s favor for some sort of redemption and/or forgiveness. The very fact that we have an actor as handsome and charismatic as Pratt shows the movie’s intentions. It’s not like Steve Buscemi was the one who woke up Jennifer Lawrence, and now that I’ve just written that sentence I’d be seriously interested to see that version of this story. I think that audience sympathies might be different for a more ordinary, homely man awakening a woman who, by conventional dating standards, would be out of his league on any planet. I think an audience might be more apt to interpret a lecherous angle to Jim’s actions if the part wasn’t so young and generally appealing. The opening act is the Cast Away section of the story that follows Jim’s discovery and isolation for a solid year, and it does much to engender good will for an audience, enough that his actions waking up Aurora force us as well into the uncomfortable ethical muck. “He was a drowning man, and he’ll grab onto anyone to save himself if he could,” is the only real overt effort at approaching apology.
This premise is strong enough that different angles could have been explored. What if we only spent the opening ten minutes establishing Jim and his life on the Avalon? The awakening of a second passenger would serve as the inciting incident but the movie would purposely hide behind the plausible theory that she woke up by accident, by the same mysterious malfunction that Jim will relate. It would also provide a longer period of time for Jim and Aurora to develop together. Then the Act Two midpoint would be the reveal of Jim’s involvement and the fact that he had been awake far longer than he initially told her, perhaps with the original opening half-hour cut down to a few impressionistic flashback bits to communicate the stark loneliness and desperation. We would be just as shocked as Aurora. It’s here that the movie could completely become a horror movie, with Jim chasing her down through the empty space station. Maybe she even finds a locker with other women he woke up that were then murdered because they too found out too much. Then she has to take him down or else he will keep repeating this murderous behavior until he gets his perfectly submissive Eve. Admittedly, that takes the movie in an entirely different, albeit still interesting, tonal direction.
Passengers seems to bounce back and forth between existential horror movie and broadly romantic soap opera. It doesn’t always mix but I enjoyed the collision of ideas, tones, ethics, and discomfort, at least before it rumbles into a third act that becomes a series of life-and-death action set pieces. It’s not that Passengers goes slack in its final act; the visuals are consistently engaging as the spaceship shuts down piece by piece. When the gravity goes, Aurora’s swimming pool water becomes a floating prison, endangering her life. It’s a terrific moment even if it only serves as momentary suspense. There was always something to keep my interest with Passengers, from the world itself to the mysteries to the ever-changing script to waiting for the awful truth to finally hit about Jim’s misdeeds. Ultimately your opinion of this movie will be entirely based upon your view of how the movie handles Jim’s decision and its aftermath. You may view the movie as a fiendish masculine fantasy that strips away a woman’s right to consent or as an empathetically challenging, morally dubious drama with a relatably selfish choice that requires real consequences and introspection. Pratt and Lawrence are winning actors even if they might not make the most winning couple. Passengers is engaging science fiction made with pristine technical care and a smart screenplay that layers mysteries worth unwrapping. I hope more audience members decide for themselves rather than turning up their noses thanks to the staunchly negative critical reviews reeling with offense. There’s more here than given credit and I feel Passengers is a journey worth taking for fans of large canvas science fiction that still demand a personable entry point.
Nate’s Grade: B
“We all know the third movie is the worst,” says young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) in a curious moment that is too meta for its own good. It’s meant to be an in-joke, and possible a jab at 2006’s heavily derided X-Men: The Last Stand, but it ends up summarizing more than one X-Men movie. Easily the weakest of the prequel series, X-Men: Apocalypse is a muddled super hero movie that marginalizes its interesting characters, lacks a thematic linchpin, pushes a new batch of boring and often superfluous new mutants, and feels like everyone is running through the paces of what they think an X-Men movie should be. It’s not Last Stand, the near franchise-killer that Days of Future Past had to wipe out of existence, but this movie is a dull and clear example of the lousy mediocrity of compounded missed chances suffered at the expense of loyalty to formula.
In 1983, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for gifted youngsters, a.k.a. mutants, and has a new class of students including Jean Grey, Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Kurt Smit-McPhee). Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is trying to live a simple life and exclude himself from a larger fight between humans and mutants. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is crossing the globe and discovering new mutants to rescue. Everything changes when an ancient mutant is awakened in Egypt. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is thousands of years old and is rumored to be the first mutant. He collects four mutant helpers he deems his Horsemen, and in 1983 it happens to be a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Magneto. Apocalypse promises a world built for only the strongest mutants and will wipe the planet with those found lesser.
Let’s start with the empty void that is the titular super villain; Apocalypse is a complete waste and a complete bore. Oscar Isaac is a terrific and soulful actor who can be so malleable to roles as diverse as misanthropic Llewyn Davis to dreamy X-wing pilot Poe Damaron. He is buried under pounds of purple makeup that limit his expression, coupled with a heavy costume that also limits his movement. Apocalypse should have probably been a motion capture performance. Andy Serkis has proven that mo-cap performances can exhibit tremendous emotive qualities and the technology can support it. Mo-cap would have been better than staring at Ivan Ooze lumbering around. Then there’s his haphazard characterization. Apocalypse is both too all-powerful and shackled with powers that are too vaguely ill defined. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that needs an entourage for support despite the whole snazzy “Four Horsemen” backing band name. Apocalypse should be the solo act; he doesn’t need a backup band. You could have written Storm and Psylocke out entirely and had no impact on the plot whatsoever. My pal Eric Muller even jokes that Psylocke literally walks off the movie. Allow me to indulge my X-Men fandom a moment and just say how Apocalypse is my favorite X-Men villain and Psylocke was one of my favorite X-Men way back when I was reading the comics consistently in the 90s. I loved the psychic blade of Psylocke, though in this movie it’s pretty much just a laser arm sword, which is a underwhelming. Seeing both of these characters completely wasted is particularly disappointing to 90s me.
But back to Apocalypse, he seems too powerful to need to seek out a select group of super lieutenants and part of this is also because of how poorly the movie explains the specifics or limitations of his powers. He absorbs the powers of his host mutants but what are those powers exactly? The movie never specifies beyond the weird shifting-humans-into-walls thing that looks a bit too silly to be truly terrifying. Every time he displays a new fancy power we just have to accept it, but if he keeps unleashing powers we never know about then why does he even need assistance? We already see Apocalypse turning the world into dust clouds, so why does he need Magneto to, I believe, rip the metal core out of the Earth? It’s not like he has a meaningful relationship with Magneto, the only Horseman who truly matters. Apocalypse should be the mutant equivalent of a god, and credit to my pal Ben Bailey on this assertion, and the world of mutants should be forced to make a choice to follow this god who genuinely wants a new world consisting only of his “children.” Instead he’s just a bloviating and boring demagogue that makes a terrible lead villain. For a guy who might be the “first mutant” and inspire the Bible, it sure seems like squandered potential.
The trio of the core characters of the prequels (Professor X, Magneto, Mystique) is largely sidelined and you can certainly tell that the actors are eyeing the exit door, no more than Lawrence. These are the characters we’ve gotten to know and the ones we’ve built up an emotional attachment to, so why not just push them to the outer edges of your story and shove some new even younger X kids in place to dominate the narrative? Lawrence and Fassbender especially are given the least to do. When Mystique has to become a de facto X-Men leader and teacher, you can feel like everyone is just going through the motions. They just look bored or at least unable to hide their ambivalence with the muddled screenplay. The new X kids are also fairly bland with little charisma. I think there’s an actual scene where Nightcrawler is walking around a mall in plain sight. The X kids are here to take over for the Magneto/Xavier/Mystique unit and provide a bridge to the original X-Men series. It is here where I must now gripe because First Class was set in 1961 and Apocalypse is set in 1983 and nobody looks like they’ve aged. Maybe that’s a mutant ability plot device but then Rose Byrne’s human character hasn’t aged much either. Her character is also completely pointless in this movie. She might not be as badly shoehorned into the action as Lois Lane was in Batman vs. Superman, but then again there still isn’t anything as terrible as anything in BvS.
The X-Men franchise from the beginning has been a super hero saga with subtext and social commentary. It might not be completely subtle but it was effective and brings greater relevance and emotional power to the struggles of our mutant heroes. The first prequel was about a core philosophical divide between Xavier and Magneto; the second movie was about the individual versus society and was personally exemplified by the moral crisis of Mystique’s hunt for vengeance that would lead to the downfall of humanity. This third movie has none of that. Magneto is suffering from a personal tragedy caused by prejudice and fear but the basic theme is the same from First Class just not nearly as well articulated. Here it’s more just blunt “kill ‘em all” vengeance, and he’s made to be a practically mute cipher until called upon at the very end for some tidy plot work. I haven’t even talked about the tacky return to a concentration camp. The characters are either fighting the bad guy or fighting with the bad guy. That’s it. There isn’t any major personal or philosophical conflict that is highlighted by the subtext of the plot. It’s all just more grist for world-ending CGI nonsense.
Apocalypse at best is a series of moments, and the overall quality level rarely rises beyond competently acceptable, not exactly a ringing endorsement. The movie’s action sequences are rather dull and visually repetitive, making poor use of geography and development. The entire third act is a blandly extended action sequence in the dusty ruins of Cairo. Things just sort of happen and then more things just sort of happen. The opening action sequence in Days of Future Past is better than 99% of the scenes in this movie. The clear highlight that everyone will rightly cite is Quicksilver (Evan Peters) showcasing the amazing potential of his super speedy powers, but even this is a repeat of a highlight from a previous movie. It’s like the producers decided to take the moment everybody loved and do it bigger and better. It was a real fun surprise in the first time, and now it’s become the newest part of the X-Men formula. Still, it’s a fantastic sequence with great visual panache and a lively sense of humor. When the world slows down and Quicksilver steps into the frame, it’s almost like a hero moment for the audience to cheer. He saves a school of mutants, and a dog, from a colossal explosion, but it too is just another moment that could have been cut from the movie entirely. It’s a fantastic moment, the obvious highpoint, and yet it’s still superfluous. The other highpoint is an extended cameo at Alkali Lake, and again it is superfluous and calls into question greater franchise continuity.
Speaking of continuity, there are some major events in Days of Future Past but especially Apocalypse that make me question how the events in the 2000s X-Men still stand. According to the events of the prequels, Mystique “outed” herself to the world and proved the existence of mutants to the wider public when she tried killing Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) and infiltrated the Nixon White House. Cut to 1983 and Apocalypse broadcasts a message to every human and mutant on the planet. He launches the world’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons into space. That seems like a big deal, the kind of deal that would dramatically alter the events in the 2000s to the point that a mutant registration act would seem hilariously quaint and far too late. The character relationships in the first X-Men movie must also be reassessed with the events of Alkali Lake. It’s hard for me to reconcile the earlier films matching up with these prequels at this point.
The studio execs and producers behind the X-Men series have already gone on record speculating that their next movie will take place in the 1990s and have Mr. Sinister as its chief villain. I think they’re getting a little too ahead of themselves with the larger franchise vision much like what happened to Sony after their 2012 Amazing Spider-Man reboot. They started plotting two sequels, a spin-off, and lost sight of simply making a good movie with characters you care about and memorable action sequences. They lost track and had to reboot their Spider-Man franchise yet again, this time with an assist from the Marvel bigwigs. I don’t need an X-Men-a-decade adventure. I just want good movies. Out of six movies, half of them are great and the rest are acceptable to terrible. Apocalypse won’t kill its franchise but I think the negative and indifferent response from the public, as well as less-than-robust box-office returns, will give the studio caution. Don’t just throw out an X-Men movie in order to lay the tracks for the next two X-Men movies. Make a compelling and entertaining X-Men film that stands on its own. If you can’t do that, then there won’t be too many more X adventures, period.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two may be the bleakest Young Adult-adaptation ever put to film. It’s a franchise that began with the televised spectacle of children killing children, so it’s never exactly been the cuddliest environment for our emotions. This is a conclusion that is overwhelmingly dark and pushes the boundaries of the mainstream PG-13 ratings. If you’re expecting a happy ending, look elsewhere.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the face of the revolution between the Capitol and the thirteen districts of Panem. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been returned but he is recovering from intense brainwashing from the Capitol. He doesn’t know whether Katniss is a friend or foe. The fight is now being taken directly to the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The cagey leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore), wants Katniss to stay behind with the members of her propaganda team. Katniss sneaks off to the front lines of conflict with her District 12 pal/potential love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The Capitol’s gamemakers have designed a series of fiendish surprises for the rebels on every block. While Katniss and her team are behind the fiercest fighting, she is still a high-profile target sought for prompt elimination.
Mockingjay Part Two doesn’t hold back when it comes to the ugly realities of war, namely the innocent casualties in the pretext of an ends-justify-the-means pragmatism. I was reminded of World War II stories and photographs as Katniss and crew stumble through the bombed-out ruins of Capitol neighborhoods. There’s something eerie in the silence amidst miles of rubble. In Part One we saw similar carnage with Katniss’ home district, incinerated by Snow, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t pretend that only one side of this conflict suffers. It’s not exactly a cutting edge commentary on the atrocities of war but it’s still appreciated. Put simply: plenty of bad things will happen and others will attempt to justify these bad things, and at one point that includes the knowing slaughter of innocent children as a political gambit (for you book readers, the body count remains the same. Sorry if you were hoping for a reprieve for certain characters). The series has explored the nature of trauma and nobody gets out free. When Katniss is making her way to the Capitol, it can be easy to forget all the prior character work animating her decision-making. When a Capitol loyalist points a gun at her head and asks for a reason he shouldn’t kill her, she says, “I don’t have one.” In a sense, that can be looked upon as lazy screenwriting or, and I’ll give the movie the benefit of the doubt here, perhaps acknowledging the realities of entrenched conflict when it comes to class warfare.
The attention to social and political commentary has helped give The Hunger Games a bit more maturity than the rest of its YA ilk who often rely upon simplistic oppressed/oppressor conflicts that naturally fall into authority vs. individuality. I appreciate that the filmmakers have followed author Suzanne Collins’ approach to human conflict, which doesn’t dabble in black and white but a larger series of grays (50 shades of them? I’m sorry). This intelligence has given the franchise a depth that could be easily ignored, either by audiences looking for their next fix or studio execs that demand dumbing things down. Part Two forgoes the political gamesmanship for more traditional action suspense sequences, several of which are quite entertaining. There’s an underground chase with snarly mutants that is terrifically teased out suspense-wise. I do appreciate conversations started on how exactly one moves on from tyranny and how easy it is to follow in the same footsteps in the name of justice. However, if you don’t predict where Katniss’ final arrow is going, then you aren’t paying attention to the lessons on recrimination being underlined by explicit on-the-nose dialogue.
There are a few improvements including finally making Peeta an interesting character. He was the noble, nice guy, the somewhat boring conscience for Katniss, but after being returned from the Capitol’s brainwashing, he’s struggling to identify what is real and what is false. It’s still hard to believe that Coin would allow his inclusion on Katniss’ team making its way to the Capitol that is until you remember that Coin also sees Katniss as a political threat for post-war leadership. The love triangle has long been the least interesting aspect to the entire Hunger Games series and part of this falls upon the character of Peeta, who, removed from the manufactured romantic narrative for the cameras, has struggled to be ore than a weak link. Here he can be a threat at any moment, triggered by whatever daunting stimuli that may make him slip back into psychosis. He becomes a ticking time bomb and something far more risky than a romantic alterative. When Peeta becomes a “bad boy” is when he finally becomes worthy of our attention.
If Mockingjay Part One was all protracted build-up to the climax, then Part Two is all climaxes, and yet given the lugubrious allowances afforded by filling the running time of two separate movies, the movie is oddly anticlimactic as well. We’ve been waiting for the confrontation between Katniss and Snow for three whole movies, and Part Two picks up immediately after where Part One ended, and yet we’re still made to wait. Coin wants Katniss to still be primarily a propaganda tool and stay miles behind the front lines, which causes more of Katniss chaffing against authority like she does. Once she does get to the gates of the Capitol, the movie follows a familiar deadly games setup, this time in a more open terrain but the basics are the same: Katniss and crew have to battle a series of deadly booby-traps to reach their goal and kill the bad guy. In a sense, the plot mechanics are similar to video game stages needing to be cleared. It’s a setup that predictably picks off the more expendable members of Team Katniss One, though I’ll give them credit for spreading out the sacrifices. The losses would hit harder if we actually cared about any of these characters on a personable level. Oh well. I also could have used more screen time for many of the supporting actors, notably Moore, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Jenna Malone, Natalie Dormer, and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This is the last we’ll ever see of Hoffman on screen, and that fact made me quite melancholy by the end.
With the games long gone and the revolution at hand, The Hunger Games has always had some difficulty figuring out how to fill the space before the inevitable showdown with President Snow. In Part One we were mostly stationed in the bunkers of District 13 while we watched the other districts revolt. Like Katniss, we’ve been itching to get to the front lines, especially after Part One’s more plaintive pacing. Once we get to the action it’s more like mop-up duty, which robs the movie of some sense of satisfaction, which turns into a key theme. With the games we had the veneer of “paying” roles as media manipulation for survival, and with Part One we had the study of propaganda. With Part Two, it’s all dour action. I hope viewers aren’t expecting a fantastic finale between Snow and Katniss and their collective forces because then you shall be disappointed. The filmmakers, hewing very close to the novel, have the conclusion to the revolution play out in more realistic and grounded terms, which add points for realism and relevance, but it does detract from some sense of overall satisfaction.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has guided the franchise with sturdy skill and a keen eye for visual arrangements, but if there’s one significant visual complaint I have it’s that these movies are too damn dark. I’m not talking thematically, as I’ve already explained above, but simply from a light level. These movies are just hard to see. Lawrence seems to favor low-light environments to create an ambivalent mood. That’s fine, but I’d also like to see what’s happening on screen. In the last movie we spent a majority of our time in dank underground bunkers, but Part Two is an outdoors kind of picture, so why is it still so hard to distinguish what’s happening?
With the approaching end of The Hunger Games (until Lionsgate milks more money from its lucrative cash cow) it’s appropriate to take stock of its legacy. No other YA franchise has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist like The Hunger Games, but its ultimate legacy will probably be cementing the once promising young actress Jennifer Lawrence firmly into the upper echelon of Hollywood. In the time since our first foray to Panem, Lawrence has won an Oscar, been nominated for another, and proven to be one of the hottest stars on the planet, the kind of actress that esteemed directors are fighting to work with and studio heads want to tap as their lead. Much like Katniss’ meteoric rise to renown, Lawrence has become her own version of the Girl on Fire. She has been better than the Hunger Games movies for some time, and yet Lawrence hasn’t failed in her primary duty to provide an anchor for the audience. Her gritty, conflicted, and commanding performances in the franchise have been a unifying resource for audiences and a reminder of her considerable talents. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two brings to a close a massively successful film franchise and an important chapter in the ascendancy of Ms. Lawrence. It’s thrilling, bleak, and inhabits most of the hallmarks that have come with the Hunger Games films, though in somewhat less supply to make way for the onslaught of action climaxes. There’s more anticlimax then you’d expect, and I credit the filmmakers for sticking with it even at the detriment of the experience. Mockingjay Part Two does enough to end the franchise on an appropriate if somber note. I’ll see everyone at the proposed theme park (seriously, look it up).
Nate’s Grade: B
Taking place immediately after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was rescued from the events of Catching Fire, we find ourselves locked away underground with the residents of District 13. Long believed annihilated by the Capital, and its tyrannical leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the people rebuilt their society as one large series of underground bunkers, preparing for a day of revolt. The leader of District 13, Coin (Julianne Moore, under a thick grey wig), is wary of Katniss as the symbol of the revolution. She would rather fight the Captiol without her, but the people love her, and it is the common people that Coin and her team must struggle to unite and inspire. Katniss is not exactly in the inspirational mood. Her family was saved from District 12 before it was bombed but the Capital holds Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as a high-profile captive, ready to denounce the latest aggressive acts of the rebels as foolish and dangerous. Katniss desperately wants to rescue Peeta but before she can she has to accept her fate and become the Mockingjay, the figure to rally the districts in war.
The very title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 both tells you everything and nothing. Firstly, there are no Hunger Games anymore. This is a full-on war film, and we’re finally getting to all the good stuff, the revolutions stirring all throughout Panem we heard about and caught glimpses of before the plot required a redo of the games, repeating the structure of the first film. It felt overly redundant, especially when the stuff outside of the games was far more interesting. That structure has been cast aside and Mockingjay is a completely different film than the ones before it, focusing much more on character and the politics of propaganda. In many ways, this is a quieter film that allows the characters to deal with the trauma of their experience in the deadly arena. Even though war is fermenting and people are being bombed into oblivion, there is considerably less urgency, especially less contrived urgency. This allows the characters and the plot to breathe, the calm before the storm. Much has changed and a measured amount of time to process this is a good move. This is no longer the Hunger Games. This is war. The subterranean District 13 is the major setting of our film, which gives Katniss time to reflect on how damaged she is and her guilt over what exactly the Capitol is doing to their promotional lapdog, Peeta. The movie opens with her muttering to herself, hiding from others due to a disturbing nightmare. The psychological well being of our heroine is a ripe topic. While the world is on fire, much is once again expected of Katniss, and we get to watch her transform, awkwardly, into the revolutionary figure others require of her. The political and media critiques add another level of entertainment, as each side spins and contorts to position themselves for the news cycle. This expose of media manipulation makes Mockingjay feel in part like a post-apocalyptic Wag the Dog. Credit co-screenwriter Danny Strong, he of HBO’s Recount and Game Change fame. This welcomed change of pace and structure allows the film to finally feel like the story we want to watch. And while I’m tip-toeing around spoilers, I’ll just say that the split occurs exactly where you think, book readers.
And secondly, the “Part 1” of the title is also what defines this 125-minute prelude to the concluding movie, a fact that becomes inescapable as it seems all the good stuff is being reserved for later. While the reflective plotting allows more space to breathe, it also becomes abundantly clear that this wasn’t exactly a story that needed to be told in two parts. From a financial standpoint, I can’t argue with the decision from Lionsgate. This is their once-in-a-lifetime franchise and elongating the final film in YA franchises has become de rigueur and a box-office no-brainer. Still, the overwhelming feeling is that this is all setup and the best stuff is just ahead, a tease that the franchise also toyed with during Catching Fire, as we were stuck in the games instead of the revolution. Mockingjay Part 1 is mostly buildup; it’s entertaining and more politically adroit than expected, but in the end it’s still a story stretched out. The intriguing supporting characters from Catching Fire are still mostly put on hold. The inclusion of Gale (Liam Hemsworth) still feels relatively pointless in the scheme of things, except for prolonging the love triangle, the weakest element of the story by far, and one that even author Suzanne Collins seems half-hearted about. When the world is falling apart, who cares which boy Katniss decides to kiss? Old favorites like Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) get brief appearances but little else. There is a stark decrease in action with this movie, only two real sequences of suspense, and one of them proves to be false. Strangely enough, there’s a high-stakes nighttime raid that plays out unironically like a dystopian Zero Dark Thirty finale. I await others to make a similar comparison. It’s no surprise that Mockingjay becomes more suspenseful, engaging, and meaningful just as it’s ending, leaving less on a cliffhanger and more on a latent promise. Instead, this particular movie features a lot of speeches and hushed discussions in dank quarters (the photography is rather dimly lit and hard to decipher at times). It’s not exactly rollicking.
Being a war film, atrocities are commonplace and examined openly, especially when Katniss visits the ruins of her home in District 12. Not once but twice does the camera slowly zoom out to allow the graveyard of charred skeletons to gets its thematic due. There’s only so far a mandated PG-13 rating can take you when it comes to illustrating the horrors of war, but I give Mockingjay credit for neither glossing over the loss of innocent life or glorify the leaders of this revolution, namely District 13. President Coin is shown to be a calculating and pragmatic leader who is concerned more about the big picture. She’s thankful for Katniss but just as ready to move onward and forget her. By the end of the movie, you don’t exactly have warm feelings for the people of District 13, who laid in wait, sowing seeds of rebellion with the other districts, all the while relying on their bunker for ultimate safety. The other districts are more vulnerable and more likely to feel the Capital’s wrath. Just ask the smoldering citizens of District 12.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) is the Hunger Games’ version of David Yates, the director who steered the concluding four Harry Potter films. Chris Columbus put that world together, but a better, more visually adept director saw Potter through to its end. Likewise, Lawrence has taken the world that the original Games director Gary Ross cultivated and given it the mood and visual heft needed for the franchise to feel properly and triumphantly cinematic. If it weren’t for this man’s visual talents, the many conversations in the dark would be even harder to watch. Lawrence has been a helpful addition to the franchise, especially as the world was starting to get more fleshed out. While I bemoan the overly gloomy cinematography (which was also an issue with Catching Fire), Lawrence has brought a necessary sense of gravitas to the series. The emotional pain and psychological torment registers, and his handling of his actors will often be overlooked thanks to the natural talent of his lead actress, but Lawrence has found a way to strike the right tone to make us care.
Speaking of the woman in question, Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) is already an Oscar-winning Hollywood star in her mid twenties, and she elevates these films even more. Her character is a reluctant figurehead, never having asked for such prominence, nor having asked to trigger a revolution with countless casualties. Without as much physical activity and arrow slinging, Lawrence gets greater opportunities to emote and show the fractured, conflicted feelings of the woman in the middle of the revolt. She’s not a natural when it comes to being on-camera, she cannot fake sincerity (even though she played up the whole “star-crossed lovers” angle in the first film as a means of survival, but whatever), and it’s somewhat funny watching skilled actors pretend to be bad actors. The emotions are on a hair trigger here, as rage boils over to fear and shock. Lawrence anchors the series with another surefooted, strong performance.
The real standout is Sutherland (The Italian Job). This is as much President Snow’s movie as it is Katniss Everdeen’s. Rather than plotting from the shadows, Snow gets to become the worthy villain the franchise has been waiting for. Sutherland relishes his retorts with Katniss and preying upon her. His broadcasting of an ever-increasingly frail Peeta is more meant as a crushing psychological blow, a reminder that his prized hostage will be punished for Katniss’s and the rebellion’s mounting successes. When they’re finally face-to-face once more, it’s the film’s most invigorating moment.
It’s also hard to watch the movie and not feel grief over the loss of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Mockingjay Part 2 will officially be the actor’s last onscreen appearance. He’s good, though the part isn’t exactly challenging, but the real pang is the realization that we’ll never get another Hoffman performance. Once the final minute of Plutrarch Heavensbee is gone onscreen, so is the cinematic ghost of a ridiculously talented man who was taken from the world far too soon. In a nice gesture, Mockingjay Part 1 is dedicated to his memory.
Once more into the breach, dear friends, as Mockingjay Part 1 lays the way for the promise of an exciting and action-packed finale. The extra pause, the last breath before the melee, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows the film to break away from the plotting of the previous two entries and it provides a refreshingly reflective opportunity peppered with intelligent conversations about the political process and propaganda. It also stretches out a story that proves it did not have enough plot points to justify the expansion. No matter, the cash registers will ring loudly as the world’s hunger for the Hunger Games knows no limit. Lawrence and a team of great supporting actors help provide reasons to keep watching, as well as the increasingly dire circumstances of the war against the districts. This intermediary film serves as a bridge to the exciting conclusion, the assault on the Capitol. Let’s just hope that audiences don’t feel too stingy about paying to watch a two-hour trailer for another movie.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Ever since Marvel’s Avengers destroyed the box-office in 2012, every studio with super hero franchises has been looking to follow suit. It’s not just about comic book franchises; it’s about building a comic book universe. It’s been a long dark period for the X-Men ever since the regrettable 2006 debacle The Last Stand, which callously killed characters, butchered others, and botched the most famous storyline in the history of the comic. In 2011, Matthew Vaughn proved there was still life to be found in the franchise with his terrific 60s-era prequel, X-Men: First Class. Now, post-Avengers, Fox is salivating at combining the past X-Men and the present X-Men into one colossal movie with a colossal budget. Back on board is director Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men films and the man who helped kickstart the modern superhero era. If that wasn’t enough riding on the film, X-Men: Days of Future Past also follows the second most famous storyline in the history of the comic.
In the horrible future, killer robots known as Sentinels hunt down mutants. These are the invention of Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), a military scientist who was killed back in 1973 by the vengeful shape-shifting mutant, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The murder convinced humans to subsidize Trask’s killer robot plan of defense. Thanks to experiments replicating Mystique’s mutant ability, the Sentinels have the ability to adapt to any power, turning them practically indestructible. In the future, the Sentinels are eradicating all mutants, mutant sympathizers, and eventually human beings. Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) have teamed up with a small band of surviving mutants, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Thanks to the phasing powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they can send Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973 so that he can prevent the Trask assassination. The only ones who can help Wolverine is the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), former mentors to Mystique. Except Xavier is a recluse and strung-out on drugs to dull his powers and Magneto is locked away underneath the Pentagon.
The X-Men films have always had a topical advantage to them that provided a weightier sense of drama than your typical story about a reluctant soul blessed with amazing powers. The mutant allegory automatically applies to any sub-group facing oppression mostly through fear and ignorance. What other superhero franchise has two opening scenes in a German concentration camp? The stakes are even larger with this movie because of the Horrible Nightmare Future that must be prevented. Now we all assume said Nightmare Future will be avoided by film’s end, so the movie provides a proverbial reset button that the filmmakers can have fun with, and they do (look out future mutants). Excluding the Nightmare Future framing device that becomes an unnecessary parallel storyline, the majority of the film takes place in 1973. If X-Men: First Class tapped into the groovy optimism and “take me for what I am” sense of social justice of the time, then this film certainly taps into the disillusionment of the 1970s, where the promise of reform and hope morphed into anger and cynicism (hey, that’s like us today!). This loss of innocence is typified in Mystique, who becomes the central figure of the movie in many ways. Her seething desire for vengeance is what animates her, as well as the pain of betrayal from the men closest in her life, as well as the world who once held such promise. Also, Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) has become one of the biggest female stars on the planet, so it makes sense to bolster her role. The central conflict is stopping an assassination, one domino that leads to many others, but it’s emotionally about Mystique having to confront her feelings of hate. It’s another platform for the ongoing conflict of perspectives between Xavier (restraint, tolerance) and Magneto (strong defense, eye for an eye). But as I found in First Class, it’s hard not to agree with Magneto as human overreaction leads to rash and thoughtless actions, like Horrible Nightmare Future.
That’s not to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past fails to deliver when it comes to the popcorn thrills and action highs we crave in our finest summer blockbusters. The action set pieces are large without dwarfing the characters, playful and imaginative without losing a sense of edge and danger. I loved how the character Blink (Bingbing Fan) would utilize her mutant power of opening portals as a fighting strategy. It makes action sequences so much more inventive and visually exciting to throw a series of portals. The pacing is swift short of the second half of Act Two, gearing up for the climactic showdown in D.C. that dominates Act Three. The time travel story starts with a lot of exposition but it gets smoothed out as it goes, the rules of the story fall into place. Every action sequence hits, some admittedly better than others, but it’s the small touches that Singer injects that made me smile most. I enjoyed Magneto pointing a gun, being toppled, but still using his power to have the gun fire in midair. I enjoyed the animalistic nature of the Beast/Wolverine brawl. Jackman is looking even veinier than usual in his bulked out form. Thankfully the fish-out of-water timeline jokes are kept to a minimum. Wolverine is the perfect glue to hold both timelines together. And then there’s that standout Pentagon prison break sequence (more on that later). Singer might not have the most natural instincts developing and staging action, but the man is a surefire talent when it comes to staging eye-catching visuals (I would say the same about Christopher Nolan). Even his unfairly maligned Superman Returns is proof of the man’s cinematic gifts. As far as entertainment value, this is right up there with X-Men 2. I still view Vaughn’s savvy First Class as the best X-film of the bunch, which has only gotten better the more I’ve watched it.
And if that wasn’t enough, Singer’s new film does what every fan has been hoping for: (spoilers) it erases all the crummy X-Men movies, namely 2006’s Last Stand and the first Wolverine solo effort, from the official timeline. It’s time to start anew, toss out the old stuff nobody liked, and forge ahead with a new unified timeline. There can be two parallel X-Men franchises, one present/future and one with the prequel casts, and they can go on forever as desired, or until the prequel cast prices itself out. In one fell swoop, Singer and company have reset the mother franchise and given fans new hope about the possibilities. Make sure to stick around to the very end of the credits for a scene that indicates directly who the next major villain will be in the 2016 sequel.
Let me take time to single out just how expertly Evan Peters (TV’s American Horror Story) steals the entire mutant-heavy movie. First, he’s the most comically attuned character, which is a nice break from how serious, and rightly so, every character is so often. Quicksilver provides a whole new jolt of entertainment, and when he checks out after the prison break sequence you’ll dearly miss him. The character is a rapscallion (as my late grandmother might have termed) that enjoys using his super speed powers to mess with people, to test his limits, to see what he can get away with, and a Pentagon jailbreak is right up his alley. Ignore the silly yet period appropriate outfit and ignore what initially seems like Peters’ smirking self-involvement from trailers and ads. When this character is onscreen the movie has a joyful sense of irreverence. He is instrumental to freeing Magneto and the onscreen depiction of his super speed is the best illustration of the power ever conceived in film and TV. There is a segment sent to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and some wonderful special effects, which is just so playful, so giddy, and so cool that it very well might be my favorite moment in any superhero movie… ever. It is definitely an applause-worthy moment and my audience responded in kind. Quicksilver is a perfectly utilized supporting player in a movie stuffed to the gills with characters.
The time travel geek in me has a few quibbles with the parallel lines of action from past and present. Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back in time but he film plays out like it’s happening simultaneously to the events of the future. So if Wolverine is pulled out in the middle of the movie, he’ll have failed his mission to change the future, even though by going back in time he’s already, blah blah blah butterfly effect. Anyway, I understand how they want to make the future story have a sense of urgency but it’s not like waking Wolverine from a dream; the times are not happening concurrently. He’s in the past, meaning that the moment he goes back there, the future will already be altered due to the consequences of his actions, for better or worse. There is no race against time to keep his consciousness back in time until he complete his mission. I can see why they went this route for a summer blockbuster, but that doesn’t quell the quibbles.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a time-hopping, unabashedly fun time at the movies; well as fun as preventing nightmarish futures built from the consequences of oppression and prejudice can be. With Singer back in the saddle and the bridging of the two X-Men universes, the series is back on track and once again the promising font of stories and characters. The newest X-film is one of the most entertaining, funny while still being dramatic, and while burdened with the largest cast of any super franchise, finds notable moments for its characters big and small to remind us that these people matter. While less philosophical and funky than First Class, this is one of the best films in the franchise, on par with X2. The action sequences and visual eye-candy are great fun with some inventive and memorable touches. It’s also nerdy fun getting to watch the past and present interact, and for many this is their first return since 2006’s crappy Last Stand. It’s not a perfect movie; I wish there was more early Sentinel action, I wish Dinklage had much more to do, and I wish that the plot didn’t so transparently hinge on Xavier not having his powers. The slate is clean and all X-Men fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The future is once again rosy. The X-Men, and not just Wolverine, are relevant once again.
Nate’s Grade: B+
With two movies, writer/director David O. Russell has vaulted to the top of Hollywood. Previously known for his own difficult behavior, Russell’s last two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, were both critical and commercial hits (Silver Linings made over $230 million worldwide). Both brought a bushel of Oscar nominations as well, making Russell one of the hottest directors for actors and producers. But a new side seems to have emerged over these last two movies, one less of Russell the domineering director and one of Russell the open collaborator. It feels like he’s just hitting his stride too. American Hustle is Russell’s latest and it’s sharply written, engrossing, lively, surprisingly comic, and readily entertaining.
In the late 1970s, the FBI set up an undercover sting to nail political corruption, ultimately nabbing several U.S. congressmen and one standing U.S. Senator. Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is an FBI agent who snags the perfect assistance. To catch a crook you have to think like a crook, and so Richie has strong-armed a pair of lucrative con artists into helping him. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a professional down to his elaborate hairpiece. He’s used to fleecing desperate people and selling phony artwork to the gullible, but he’s been too shy about making too much noise. If you stay small, you go unnoticed. Irving’s partner in crime is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a kindred spirit who has reinvented her self. She and Irving are in love, and now they’re trapped by Richie to set up New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The one unpredictable element is Irving’s young wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who could blow up the whole operation with her careless and self-involved tantrums.
Russell has once again given audiences one of the most entertaining films of the year, this time allowing them to participate vicariously in a con game, trying to anticipate the twists and turns and assessing everyone’s personal angle. This is a fictionalized rendition of the Abscam case (the opening text drolly says, “Some of this actually happened”) and it gives us a slew of meaty characters that have something going on. The central point elaborated in this pop crime caper is that we’re all cons, we’re all pretending, on some level, to be different people; Russell’s film just takes this notion to the extreme. Irving and Sydney are trying to escape lives of ordinary malaise, of being victims, of the more powerful dictating their options for them. With Sydney, she’s pretending to fall for Richie, but we don’t fully know which side she may choose to end up on. Richie is trying to also escape his dull life of desk jobs and lower middle-class dinners. His ambitions get hold of him, and with Irving’s aid, he catapults himself toward achieving those oversized dreams of his, never mind the ethical lapses in nabbing the bad guys. For Carmine, he’s so fiercely devoted to his community that you don’t doubt his loyalty for a second. He’s a man who sincerely wants to help others and is knowledgeable enough about how the world works, knowing he may have to grease some wheels to get the progress started. He is the most moral figure of the five main players and you may find yourself rooting for him to escape the snare closing in on him. Then there’s Rosalyn who has her hooks in Irving, looking for a sense of stability for her and her child. She’s a volatile cocktail of emotion but she knows what she needs to do to keep Irving anchored to her needs, though she’s also cognizant enough to latch onto a better provider if one materializes. Mixing and matching those characters, you have an eclectic mix of personalities clashing, many at odds with one another as far as goals, and the conflict stirred up is delicious.
Russell also attaches on his Martin Scorsese filter, delivering a freewheeling film about criminals from their wizened point of view, explaining the ins and outs of their hustle with flamboyance, style, and vigor. While the opening is a tad slow, including an opening minute watching Irving work his almost breathtaking comb over hairstyle, we plow right along into this world of hustlers and con men, learning tricks of their trade (hint: desperate people are desperate) and the tools to stay ahead of detection. We’re awash in multiple perspectives, each with voice over, a frenetic camera, and emboldened editing. It’s the Scorsese approach given studious application to the Abscam affair. It’s a great thing that Scorsese is the finest living filmmaker and devoting a two-hour-plus homage to the man’s most stylized crime pictures is a plus. Russell’s movie feels alive but also hungry, like many of his characters, restlessly searching for something. The scenes land but they don’t feel like they’re standing still; everything is propulsive in this movie. The small operation of Irving and Sydney is taken to the big leagues thanks to Richie’s ego, and the FBI’s desire for splashy headline busts, but wider exposure also exponentially multiplies the danger. Once the gambling scheme attracts the investment of the Mob, that’s when everyone has gone too far. I was clenching my fists in suspense toward the end, worried that our fictional cons may be too far in to survive.
Russell hasn’t lost his magic touch with actors. His last two films have netted seven acting Oscar nominations and three wins, and the cast of American Hustle meets that same level of excellence. Perhaps even more so than The Fighter, the characters are given a very broadly comic brush, easily and routinely stepping into a carnival row of over-the-top behavior. It provides plenty of entertainment of the mishap and absurd variety, but there are also lone piercing moments of great empathy with these messy people. Mostly, the various actors all seem to be in a great syncopation, each one contributing where the other left off, building a great and compelling picture. When this ensemble is firing, it’s hard to beat. Special mention to comedian Louis C.K. (TV’s Louie) making the most of every scene he’s in as an FBI party pooper. His running gag involving a personal ice-fishing story is one of the film’s best jokes.
Bale (Out of the Furnace) is our guiding voice in this world, a flimflam man of the first order who fools maybe even himself. He’s got his own code of ethics and a heart behind that pot belly (another physical transformative performance by Bale the chameleon). He’s briskly entertaining but my only complaint is that, by being so suave and slick, he seems a tad too low-key at points given the risk involved. I know it’s part of the act, but from an audience standpoint, it makes him seem a tad too modulated. His equal is Renner (The Bourne Legacy) who is so earnest that it practically breaks your heart when he oversteps into morally murky territory.
However, Bale’s performance is compensated by the sheer craziness of the Silver Linings co-stars, Cooper and Lawrence. Cooper (The Place Beyond the Pines) is a lawman but also the film’s biggest antagonist. He gets drunk with power and the credit he’s receiving at the FBI. He’s also a deeply insecure man who is trying to style himself like Irving and Sydney as a posh reinvention. Cooper gives him a manic energy and taps back into his reservoir of eager-to-please egotism. Lawrence (Catching Fire) is the most unpredictable character. She acts on impulse, flirts with sabotage, and soaks up the spotlight she’s so rarely afforded. Lawrence is having the time of her life playing a loud, shrewish, vampy housewife who has a noticeable habit of starting house fires.
Beforehand, I would have thought that Lawrence and Adams should have swapped roles (still an interesting experiment), but having now seen the film, each suits them well. Adams (Man of Steel) is the saddest character of them all to me because she’s the bruised dreamer anxious to be anyone but who she really was. She relishes the con, more so than Irving, and ties much of her self-identity to her shyster skills. But two aspects of Adams’ performance especially surprised me: 1) she speaks with a fake British accent for nearly the whole movie, and 2) the copious amount of side boob on display. As per the 1970s fashions, Adams takes full advantage of the plunging necklines, giving her fans a lot to observe from scene to scene, and not just her formidable acting talent on display.
I’ve been dragging my feet writing my review and I’ve been trying to determine why, beyond, obviously, holiday-related sloth. American Hustle is readily a good movie that provides plenty of entertainment, meaty characters, and fun, but why do I keep feeling like it’s missing one undetermined ingredient? I can’t even articulate what at the moment but after having seen the film two times now, I feel like perhaps my emotional involvement was stunted. It’s a finely tuned script that delivers big performances for big-time actors, with a dandy ending that manages to dish out satisfying conclusions to its bevy of wheeler-dealers. But why didn’t I care more, why didn’t I feel more resonance by the time the end credits landed? The best theory I can surmise at this time is that we’re caught up in the con game, where everyone is pretending to be somebody else out of necessity or desire, that when it’s all over, we reflect on what a fun ride it’s been with fun characters but do we feel like we’ve gotten anywhere? I feel like I was more interested in the characters than attached to them. Again, American Hustle is still a sensationally entertaining movie and this paragraph is but a quibble, but it’s enough to thwart me from fully embracing and celebrating Russell’s film (confession: having already seen Scorsese’s brilliant Wolf of Wall Street, this could be coloring things for me with Russell’s Scorsese homage).
American Hustle is a fun ride with arresting performances, oodles of style, energy, and comedy. It’s a crime caper of the first order, easing you into this world and watching people play all sides. Even better, we’re given a volatile mix of personalities that clash, forming new and lasting conflicts, some of which could endanger the entire operation. These are interesting people to spend time with and so we can excuse the indulgences of a 140-minute movie that offers even more with this fantastic cast. Russell with a Scorsese filter is an even more improbably entertaining filmmaker. This is a crowd-pleasing sort of movie, much like Silver Linings, that doles out punchlines and payoffs with aplomb. It’s easy to go along for the ride, laugh uproariously, and then by the end sort of wonder whether it was all worth it. The emotional detachment to the characters may be a minor complaint for a film this largely satisfying, but since we’re spending so much time on our characters, I think I would have preferred something a tad more substantive by the end. It’s a great ride, with great characters and great humor, but there is a nagging concern that it may have been a better ride than a story. Regardless, American Hustle is an enjoyably alluring con that mines the absurdist fashions, personalities, and political overreach of the 1970s, painting a tale of criminals who may be the real heroes of the American dream.
Nate’s Grade: A-
It’s been a year and a half since The Hunger Games broke box-office expectations, gifting Lionsgate studio with a formidable franchise. Based upon Suzanne Collins’ series of young adult novels, the first film was an agreeable adaptation that was occasionally hobbled by poor direction, rushed plotting, and budget limitations. Catching Fire, the second film, improves upon the established groundwork in almost everyway with the chief drawback being a terminal sense of dystopian déjà vu.
In the months after the events of the 74th Hunger Games, the two victors from District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are traveling across the other districts of Panem as part of their victory tour. What better way to endear yourself than visiting other districts to remind people that their children are dead and you survived? On the tour, there is growing unrest throughout, and the people have turned Katniss as their symbol of defiance against the tyrannical Capitol. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) threatens Katniss to control her media image, to convince the people that she’s madly in love with Peeta and not a fledgling revolutionary. In order to check the power of the victors, Snow introduces a rule change for the 75th games, the Quarter Quell. This year the participants will be culled entirely from previous past victors, meaning that Katniss and Peeta will be plunged back into the deadly games and this time their competition aren’t children.
What a difference a director with a sense of cinematic visual command can make. Early into pre-production, the original director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) decided to bow out for sequels, and so Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) was hired, and goodness does the movie benefit from this change at the helm. Lawrence has a much stronger visual authority, having cut his teeth in commercials and music videos (remember those, kids?) before feature films. The man couldn’t frame a lousy shot if he tried. With a stronger visual lens, the world of the Hunger Games is able to stretch, given a proper budget, and the visual grandeur unfolds around you, especially the largess of the Capitol. The movie doesn’t feel like they had to cut corners with their budget or special effects, and part of that is credited to the skill of Lawrence. And with this new visual stylist comes the demise of shaky cam. Dance and celebrate that Ross’ misapplied docu-drama approach has been abandoned; this time, when there is onscreen action, you can comprehend what is happening. I read the book years ago but even I was feeling twists of tension, notably the start of the Quarter Quell. The action isn’t terribly developed but it’s sufficient, though again the kill-or-be-killed extremity kept to PG-13 safety is starting to chafe. My only visual complaint is that much of the action within the games takes place at dawn/dusk and thus low-light environments. It feels like someone threw on a muddy filter, though perhaps this was just my theater’s light bulb-saving projection setting.
Now that the world of Panem is established, Catching Fire does a nice job of showing the various social conflicts coming to a head, bubbling into uprising. The pre-games victory tour opens up the world, allowing us into other districts and viewing the different strife befalling them. It’s jolting to watch the public defiance met with summary executions and yet the people will not be stopped. Now the class conflicts of the haves and have-nots get pushed to their breaking point. There’s a great contrast provided with a Capitol party so lavish, with food so sumptuous and plenty that the Capitol denizens have cocktails on hand to induce vomiting. That way you can continue eating (historical fact: vomitorium is actually not what you think but instead a passage below a tier of seats for easy exit, like in modern stadiums). The themes and the points aren’t subtle, that’s for sure, but they are effective and intriguing. Katniss, who only wanted to survive, has been thrust as the face of revolt, and now she has to walk a delicate line to again save her loved ones. The fascist politics and media manipulation hinted at in the first film are given more examination, providing a richer narrative. What works in the first Hunger Games is generally expanded upon and what faults the first film had have been, generally, nipped and tucked. There’s nothing as eye-rollingly awful as Peeta’s human rock sculpture camouflage. The burgeoning love story elements again are abbreviated the harshest, but when the world is coming apart, you have to spend more time on revolution than love triangles.
The film also benefits from a slew of new characters that have strong personalities. We’re introduced to other formers winners of Hunger Games past, and they make the most with their limited exposure. Joanna Mason (Jena Malone) is an axe-wielding woman given to speaking her mind with devil-may-care attitude. Her first scene in the film involves her stripping naked in an elevator with Peeta and Katniss. Malone (Sucker Punch) really has fun with the blithe approach of the character and manages to come across as comical while still being a credible badass. She’s a terrific character and you’ll be seeing more of her in the sequels to come. The other famous victor is Finnick (Sam Claflin) who bathes in the celebrity limelight, luxuriating in his media image as a suave playboy. Except there’s more under the surface and you’ll be given peaks throughout the film. I’m not as sold on Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman) as I am on Malone; he’s got the requisite chiseled physique, but I don’t feel the charismatic pull the character demands. Also, when I close my eyes and listen to him speak I hear James Franco, and I don’t know what to make of that. Then there’s the new head game maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is presented as an enigma. He leans on President Snow to spare Katniss rather than turning her into a martyr for the cause. However his alternatives are sinister and media savvy. Hoffman is one of our best working actors today but he seems to sleepwalk through the role, perhaps because he’s meant to be vague. However it’s played, it’s hard to get a read on Plutarch until the very end.
Strong as ever, Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) is the rock of this franchise. The Oscar-winning actress has been on a tear as of late and her acting and overall presence elevates the material. They struck gold when they hired her. There’s more fire to her and more devastation, as she’s going through the PTSD, plagued by nightmares. She’s haunted by the horror she’s escaped but also by the continuation of the threat from Snow, the ongoing charade that she will have to keep up for the rest of her life. There is no time out of the spotlight as a victor let alone a national celebrity like Katniss. Lawrence can convey so much wordlessly and she can convincingly play the different dimensions of her wounded warrior.
Many of the criticisms one can hurl at Catching Fire are the same from Collins’ book. There is a repetitive plot structure, where the games themselves feel like too much of a retread. It feels forced to serve up what worked the first time. The problem with throwing Katniss and crew back into the Hunger Games is that all the real consequential action is taking place outside of them. We’ve been watching the stirrings of revolt all movie, watching the cracks take shape, and then the movie returns to its deadly TV competition when the audience just wants to leave to see if the revolution will be televised. Breaking free of Katniss’ first-person perspective from the book allows the filmmakers to add scenes fleshing out the world and the characters, with some nicely malevolent conversations between Snow and Plutarch. But that also means we don’t have to be locked into watching Katniss’ every move (I know this sounds like sacrilege). It’s not like the creatively torturous games are boring, but it’s hard to ignore an increasing sense of been-there-done-that. When there are so many larger, wider-reaching consequences happening outside throughout the various districts, you can’t help but feel a bit antsy. Another reason the film doesn’t break free from the games repeat is that it purposely keeps Katniss, and in turn the audience, in the dark about the larger outside machinations. The collective ignorance has a purpose but it also makes the plot frustrating.
Really, Catching Fire is more a setup for the series greater conflict rather than a complete film/story. Things are unraveling in the country of Panem, but if you want resolution you’ll have to wait until 2014 for the next movie, or more likely 2015 for its concluding half. What Catching Fire does is tease out the plot change and then transition to it, but only in the final minute. As my pal and colleague Ben Bailey notes, it ends in similar fashion to 2003’s Matrix Reloaded, and you’re left on a cliffhanger that doesn’t seem like a natural resting point for the story. Again, these critiques can be waged at the book as well as the film is a fairly close adaptation that will satisfy the die-hard fans.
From here on out, the Hunger Games movies are going to get more interesting. With two remaining films to cover the ground in one book, it should allow for greater development of characters, conflicts, dramatic themes, social commentary, or just larger kickass action sequences now that we’re in a larger arena, so to speak. Under the screenwriting expertise of Danny Strong (HBO’s Recount and Game Change) I’m anticipating a more politically astute and intellectual dystopian drama. Francis Lawrence has brought visual dynamism and stability to the franchise, just in time for when things are poised to get really interesting. As a film, Catching Fire is a step above the previous entry, ironing out some of the shortcomings and presenting more subtext when it comes to its social unrest. It introduces a bevy of intriguing new characters, escalates tensions throughout the realm, and promises greater suffering and strife ahead. However, the repetitive plot structure of throwing Katniss back into the games for an hour eats away at time that could be better spent watching the revolution ferment. It’s still a reliably entertaining film with a sharper visual gloss, so fans should go home happy and audiences should be suitably thrilled. The alterations from Collins’ book are all for the better. Catching Fire will slay the box-office with little trouble but I’m most thankful that we’ll be leaving the games behind for good.
Nate’s Grade: B
As readers will attest, I am a fan of actress Jennifer Lawrence. Some of my pals might say limiting the word to “fan” is being too modest on my part, but I don’t want to alarm anyone. I think she’s a terrifically talented actress and her Best Actress Oscar was well deserved for a film I unabashedly adore. With all of this being said, good actors can still make really bad movies, and that’s what we have with the stillborn horror flick, House at the End of the Street, referred to by marketing by the Twitter-friendly acronym HATES. That seemed like a tip-off, didn’t it? The problem is that for a good hour this movie is more of a drama than a horror movie, and everyone in town seems to be jerks to this guy in town whose sister murdered his family. Apparently him still residing in town lowers their property values… for some reason. I think it wants to be a psychological thriller, but even giving it that much credit assumes there’s some degree of competent execution. It’s not scary, the twists should be easily telegraphed to anyone with a modicum of sense, and Lawrence’s presence is just downright questionable. Why did she agree to do this? What about this clunky script, with its obvious padding to its “shocking” revelation, appealed to this woman? And at PG-13, there are not really any optimal exploitation elements to recommend. I suppose with her fast ascent to the top of Hollywood, Lawrence now has the clout to never again star in something as drecky as this would-be thriller. Then again, if she does, it’ll be by choice. Or a fat paycheck.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I am in love. It’s been days since I watched Silver Linings Playbook and I’m still under its spell. It’s a movie that gave me such rapturous emotional peaks, a deeply satisfying crowd-pleaser that doesn’t just nail the big moments, it crushes them. This is a movie that works so well with just about every facet of storytelling, from acting to writing to directing, that you’re liable to be in awe as I was.
Pat (Bradley Cooper), a high school history teacher, came home one day to find his wife in the shower with another man. He admittedly lost it, beating the man bloody, and has been remanded to a state psych ward for the past eight months. It’s determined that Pat is an undiagnosed bipolar case, and the court orders him to stay on his meds and stay 500 feet away from his now ex-wife, Nikki. Having lost his home, Pat is living with his parents (Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver), both of whom don’t know how to help their troubled son. Pat is convinced he can win back his wife. He starts conditioning by running, wearing a garbage bag to better sweat off the pounds, and meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s been fighting through depression after coping from the sudden death of her police officer husband. She agrees to help Pat get in contact with his ex, passing a letter, but at a price. He must compete with her in a dancing competition. They spend hours practicing their routine, getting to know one another, and stabilizing one another, providing a foundation for healing and success.
The story itself isn’t anything groundbreaking; you could glibly label it as the “bipolar rom-com” and it does adhere to that structure for the second half. But this is David O. Russell we’re talking about, the man behind 2010’s The Fighter, yes, but also offbeat dysfunctional family comedies like Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster. The man has a way of working within the framework of conventions and finding the rough edges, to make stories at once familiar and excitingly new. Is there anything groundbreaking with Silver Linings Playbook? It’s your boy-meets-girl formula at heart, but the execution is so extremely sure-footed, so exceptionally handled, that the movie leaves you buzzy and beaming. Once it ended, I wanted to run around, shouting from the rooftops for people to run out and see this movie. You want others to share in something so special and affecting. I felt a similar passion after seeing the unconventional romance Safety Not Guaranteed, and I’d advise any fans of Safety to certainly check out Silver. Being a rousing, crowd-pleasing sort of movie is not necessarily a yoke to weigh down its artistic integrity. As if enjoyment and creative accomplishment are opposing forces. I freely admit that Silver Linings Playbook is a masterful movie that knows what it takes to get an audience cheering, and I was thrilled to be part of that cheering throng. Here is a movie that just makes you feel good, and when was the last movie you saw that made you feel glowing with happiness?
This in an emotionally rich film; I was so happy after my screening that it felt like a high I didn’t want to come down from. To engineer a reaction that enhanced, that enlightened, that potent, well I must sing the praises of Russell and his actors. I bought into the love story and family drama big time. The payoffs are meaty and numerous, and I often found the film to be sincerely moving. There’s a great satisfaction in watching two oddballs find their special someone’s, and when the characters are this interesting, this human, and so well portrayed, it makes every stop along the journey that much more engaging and emotionally triumphant. It’s got an ending that pulls it all together in spectacular fashion, giving us exactly what we want while feeling earned and on its own eccentric terms. This is a deeply felt and compassionate film, one with as much uplift as acerbic rebellion. You feel like these people really do love one another. Silver Linings Playbook has memorized the playbook on how to win over an audience, but it always comes down to the same Xs and Os: strong characters, a compelling story, and people we genuinely care about, and that includes distaff supporting characters too.
The characters are so interesting and beautifully flawed, and the actors are so in tune with one another, delivering bar-raising performances that take the movie into another realm of enjoyment. When actors are given plum roles about people with mental illnesses or disabilities, it must be very enticing to overindulge in tics and self-conscious mannerisms. That doesn’t happen with Silver Linings Playbook. Beyond an uptick in tempo, the actors portray their parts as characters rather than ailments. If anything, the acting in this movie is practically restrained given the circumstances. What’s more, Silver Linings Playbook is a fine example of what can happen when the cast works in tandem, challenging one another to up their game. It’s like every actor felt revived from all the talent on display. Russell knows how to push his actors like few other directors, and while this has lead to notorious Internet videos of his actors losing their cool, it’s also given way to raw performances that burn in your memory. Russell gets his actors to bring their A-game and then some. The Fighter got three Oscar nods for acting and I wouldn’t be surprised if Silver Linings Playbook gets three as well (I think Lawrence and De Niro are locks).
Cooper (The Hangover) has always had a certain smirking, leering quality about him, a guy used to portraying louts with charisma. I have never seen him tackle anything nearly as challenging as what he does with Pat. He’s unpredictably combustible, ready to explode at any moment, but also empathetic, trying to do better. Pat isn’t meant to be seen as a loveable loser. This guy has serious problems he’s working through. Cooper is simply incredible, showcasing skills and nuance you didn’t know the man had, radiating with an intense outpouring of spontaneous energy that doesn’t ever feel forced. Cooper is not bouncing off the walls here as some wild-eyed loony, playing upon codified ideas of what a bipolar person behaves like. He’s a deeply complicated guy, processing challenging and contradicting feelings in a brain that doesn’t necessarily follow the rules. He has so many impulses leading him in different directions. Pat is obsessed with his goal of impressing his wife, so much that he seems blind to the tangible connection he’s formed with Tiffany, and we yearn that he realizes the catch in front of him. I was won over completely by Cooper’s committed, attentive, anxious, and lively performance.
Readers will know that I harbor a serious crush when it comes to the talented actress, Lawrence (The Hunger Games). I was expecting her to be great in this movie, as this is pretty much my default setting with the actress at this point. I was not expecting what she delivered, a performance that is so enthralling, so astonishing, that you’ll be left stupefied that a woman at only the young age of 22 could be this phenomenally gifted. Lawrence had several scenes that just left me speechless. Lawrence is in elite territory now as far as I’m concerned. Her command of the character is just about impeccable, and you perk up every moment she’s onscreen. She’s a damaged woman recovering from her own powerful grief, but she’s so many things at any one moment. She can be lusty, provocative, angry, sullen, commanding, vulnerable, and hurtful. There are scenes where she will bounce around a plethora of emotional states, but each one gradually shifts to the other, making the transformation genuine and another layer to the character. If she were just some crazy girl we wouldn’t care if she eventually got her happy ending with Pat. With Lawrence’s talents, and Russell’s sharp writing, Tiffany becomes a figure worth fighting for, a bruised romantic that finds her rare kindred spirit who accepts and appreciates her messiness.
The supporting cast from top to bottom may not be at the same level as Cooper and Lawrence, but their output is also impressive. De Niro (Limitless) hasn’t been this good in ages, delivering a few monologues that will hit you square in the gut. Weaver (The Five-Year Engagement) is something of an enabler for the family, but she also gets her moments to shine and reassert her strength and dignity. Chris Tucker (in his first non-Rush Hour movie since 1997) is the least Chris Tucker I’ve ever seen him. He’s downplayed his motor mouth tendencies completely, and he’s a wonderful presence as he ducks in and out. He even teaches Tiffany how to “black up” her dance, a fact that most heterosexual males in the audience will be thankful for this time of year.
Russell deserves serious credit for portraying mental illness in a manner that doesn’t dance around the seriousness of the condition. Statistically one in three people suffer from a mental illness at some point in their life, and I’ll even admit that post-divorce, I too fell amongst those ranks (I’m a statistic!). In the case of Pat, He’s not just some unfeeling jerk who says inappropriate things or has problems reading social cues. He’s a guy going through serious personal struggles, same with Tiffany. These are not jokes. They are not send-ups of mental illness; they are people. At no point does the humanity of these characters get lost. We will laugh at their inappropriate comments, sure, but we are never laughing at them from some cushy sanctuary of superiority. I also think Russell examines an interesting, more socially-acceptable form of mass mental illness, namely the OCD-nature associated with sports superstitions. Smart and capable people can get caught up in the allure of superstitions, and when it concerns sports in general, groupthink overpowers. I consider myself a sports fan as well (I’m a double statistic!) and fully accept the ridiculous nature of fandom, but I thought it was a clever move for Russell to hold the mirror up to our own cracked community and its irrational behavior. And as any Philadelphia sports fan will acknowledge, they take fandom to a whole other level.
At this point, I don’t know what more I can write about this movie without coming across as a complete, frothing madman. Football, mental illness, ballroom dancing! I’m smitten big time with Silver Linings Playbook. I’m completely in the tank for this film. Future viewings (already planning one soon) will probably highlight certain minute flaws I’ve failed to notice the first go-round. And even if those flaws become more apparent (yes the final dance is something of a contrived climax) I simply do not care. The movie’s many virtues far exceed any shortcomings that could potentially arise. It plays to some familiar rom-com elements but it goes about its business with its own funky charm. The acting, writing, and directing are all on such a heightened level of excellence, it’s amazing just to watch all the parts work together so masterfully. I wasn’t just won over by this movie; I’ve become its disciple. I preach the gospel of Silver Linings Playbook. Here is a rapturous feel-good movie that doesn’t feel like it’s pandering or dulling its edge even after it takes some conventional turns. Cooper is terrific, Lawrence is astounding, and together they form the couple you cheer for. Silver Linings Playbook is everything you’d want in a stellar movie. I can’t wait to watch it again and get caught up in its wondrous spell once more. It took a long ten months but The Grey has finally been knocked off the perch. Silver Linings Playbook is nothing short of the best film I’ve seen this year.
Nate’s Grade: A
The prevailing thought I kept having while watching the twee indie romance (?) Like Crazy was that this is like stupid. I spend fifteen minutes with the young happy couple, Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones), and then there’s already trouble. Rather than have to wait two and a half months to see one another again (a.k.a. eternity), Anna decides to overstay her visa because it’s not like that would be taken seriously in a post-9/11 world. Naturally, there are repercussions and Anna is banned from reentering the U.S., effectively putting a hitch in her romance. It’s such a short-sighted, impulsive, boneheaded decision, and it’s one that completely made me lose all sympathy for a couple that couldn’t bother to be apart for a mere two and a half months. Jacob and Anna try and hold it together but the constant starting and stopping, as well as the comforts of people closer, provide major roadblocks. I’m not a hardhearted person; I’m a sucker for a good romance. Many of my favorite movies of the past few years have strong romantic elements (Eternal Sunshine, Once, Moulin Rouge, WALL-E), but I felt next to nothing for this whiny, pitiful couple. First off, they’re only together for fifteen minutes before being ripped apart, which doesn’t exactly allow me enough time to emotionally engage. And then there’s the fact that these “crazy kids” have absolutely no passion between them, no spark, no nothing that would compel them to be together against all odds. You don’t feel anything approaching romance. And to top it off, Jacob has a perfectly lovely, charming, and available alternative played by the lovely and charming Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games). She even makes this doofus breakfast in bed. This movie felt like an entire montage of small moments that never accumulated into anything believable or compelling. I’ll take Lawrence and breakfast in bed and be grateful.
Nate’s Grade: C