The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 Movie Review 0 13

the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-movie-review

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first two Hunger Games movies. Please only read on if you have seen them beforehand.

The all-conquering, now billion dollar Hunger Games franchise continues in impressive fashion with part 1 of its conclusion. We pick up pretty much directly in the aftermath of what happened at the end of Catching Fire when, having been forced back into competing in the fateful tournament of the title as part of the 75th year “Quarter Quell,” Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) shot an arrow up into the sky and brought down the barrier and, thus, the whole twisted system.

Having been rescued by those rebelling against the government in The Captiol, Katniss wakes up in the hitherto believed to be exterminated District 13. With the government, led by the power hungry President Snow (Donald Sutherland), having destroyed a lot of the other 12 districts, Katniss is tasked with becoming the icon of the rebel cause, known as the “Mockingjay,” all the while working to save Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) whom she believes is being held captive.

The great thing about this franchise, and what Mockingjay – Part 1 continues rather brilliantly, is how it manages to tell an over-arching story, always moving things forward to make for a satisfactory long-form narrative experience for the audience, while at the same time allowing each film to stand on its own two feet as individual pieces of entertainment. Similar young adult fantasy fare as of late like Divergent and The Maze Runner, as enjoyable as they may have been on their own, ended up feeling like they were just saying, “Wait until you see the next one!” Not so with this franchise and thankfully Mockingjay – Part 1 stands that ground but also does a great job of making you want to see what comes next, especially since it’s all in anticipation of the franchise’s dénouement.

It’s a much less action-lacked film this time around, understandable considering the titular games are, quite literally, out of the picture. It’s all about repercussions and consequences, good and bad, for drastic actions taken before and the heavy guilt that may lay heavy on those who took them. Ironically, even though a slight issue with the first film was that it took too long to get to the actual games, and once it did it felt decisively safe and lacking in impact (something Catching Fire more than made up for), this one actually functions better without them. It’s a more thoughtful and melancholic film but with a tremendous sense of anticipation of what’s to come. Occasionally it can feel like they’re stretching the material a bit – even fans will tell you the third book is the weakest and least deserving of being splitting into two upon adaptation – as there are a few of the more talky scenes that easily could have been left on the cutting room floor. But it’s never enough to derail the film that thoroughly knows its audience and plays to it though never forgetting that it also needs to appeal those less familiar.

Lawrence is once against terrific as the conflicted, understandably emotional Katniss as she struggles between becoming the face of an entire revolution – Lawrence is brilliant at convincing us of both her determination to take a stand and her fear of doing exactly that – and dealing with more personal problems like her guilt over what happened to Peeta. It’s a heroine that, unlike, say, Bella in the Twilight movies, continues to be a strong, complicated and believably human heroine for young girls everywhere and Lawrence pitches her portrayal of her just right.

She is ably supported by a heavyweight supporting cast, including the late-great Philip Seymour Hoffman as the wonderfully named Plutarch Heavensbee; Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinkett like you’ve never seen her before (downtrodden, plain and out-of-costume); Jeffrey Wright as the amiable weapons-maker Beetee; and new addition Julianne Moore, compelling as the light President Alma Coin of the resistance to Sutherland’s dark President Snow of the Capitol. Some of the younger cast get thrown more into the spotlight this time around, including rising star Sam Claflin as fellow Games winner Finnick and Liam Hemsworth as friend Gale.

The biggest surprise in the cast, however, is Hutcherson as Peeta. His very important subplot, which ultimately drives most of Katniss’ actions and thus the plot, takes things in a refreshingly dark and frankly quite disturbing direction which sets things up intriguingly for what’s to come and with it Hutcherson gets to show he’s more than just a pretty face and certainly more than just a generic love interest for the hero. The movie does a nice job of giving its characters enough to do so that they don’t feel wasted and introduces new characters in a way that makes them feel like they’ve been there the whole time.

Although it’s ultimately one half of a much bigger movie, Mockingjay – Part 1 provides gripping, thrilling and compelling entertainment in its own right. It continues to invest us richly and deeply into the increasingly dangerous world that it presents – some of its depictions of the devastation are surprisingly intense for its 12A age rating – maintaining its social consciousness and social satire about power, corruption and propaganda but pleasingly lacking in the heavy-handedness often associated with films that make that sort of attempt. We’ll obviously have to wait and see if Part 2 lives up to the hype but, if Part 1 is anything to go by, it’s going to be one hell of a finale.

This review was previously published on Scotcampus.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 187

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 212

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10