philip seymour hoffman

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

mockingjay2_posterThe revolution continues in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. At this point in the series there is seemingly no need for introduction, but Katniss finds herself in the final stages of a face-off with her natural enemy President Snow as she and the rebels of District 13 prepare for war with the Capitol.

Once again Jennifer Lawrence continues her masterful portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, but in a series that in it’s final incarnation seems to be treading water. The transition from Part 1 to Part 2 certainly seems to justify being split into two films, but simultaneously feels a bit long winded. Additionally, director Francis Lawrence has made some questionable choices in terms of story details that serve only to bloat the runtime, and short changes certain characters to the point that their impact on the film’s conclusion leaves much to be desired. In the director’s defense though, his source material does much of the same. (more…)


Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

hgmockingjaypt1_posterThe hiring of director Francis Lawrence was easily and shockingly the best decision made by the studio for last year’s CATCHING FIRE and for MOCKINGJAY PART 1 & 2. That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of other qualified directors that could turn in equally impressive films, but sometimes continuously passing the torch can create a disconnect from the direction a series is going. Lawrence, being able to continue momentum from CATCHING FIRE is able to bridge audiences from the final chaos of that film into the far less action packed set-up that is MOCKINGJAY PART 1. I’m normally not a fan of this trend of taking the final book in a series and stretching it to two movies, but in this case Lawrence is able to expand the landscape and let the set pieces have room to breathe. With the games now in the rear view the action this time has more meaning and the film as a whole hits harder than its predecessors- though still at a level of its YA target audience.

If you haven’t seen the previous films I can only speculate why you’d be reading this, but obviously spoilers are ahead for aspects of the previous movies. MOCKINGJAY PART 1 picks up where CATCHING FIRE left off- Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is in what remains of District 13, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being held captive in the Capitol as a rebellion is quickly growing. The leader of District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore), along with Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) want to use Katniss’ Mockingjay symbol as the spark to ignite a full on rebellion against the Capitol and Katniss as the face of said rebellion. With a series of propaganda broadcasts calling for all districts to join the fight the Capitol deploys a series of broadcasts meant to undermine District 13’s efforts and make Katniss question whether or not what she is doing is really for the good of Panem.  (more…)

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


I hate sequels. Now, before you start including me in your own elaborate Hunger Game scenario and imagine my ultimate demise let me clarify- I hate good sequels. What an odd complaint to make? Well, you’re right, but the thing is that every now and again a movie comes along and you might enjoy it, but have some lingering doubts about just how much you like it- and then the sequel shows up. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is one of those rare sequels that is so good that it makes me a little embarrassed about how much I loved the first film.

If I had hated THE HUNGER GAMES, then not a one of those two opening statements would matter. The fact of the matter is that I really like Gary Ross’ film, but its flaws became all the more evident with Francis Lawrence’s CATCHING FIRE. I had my doubts after all, Lawrence did ruin a book that I love (I AM LEGEND) with some horribly awkward CGI that couldn’t be saved by Will Smith’s fantastic performance. So I had a thought in the back of my mind that his adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second Hunger Games book could cause the franchise to fizzle out. Luckily, that’s not the case as Lawrence’s film shattered every expectation I had, minus one or two slight problems.

If you’re unfamiliar with the series I’m not sure why you’d be reading this, but I’ll be vague about the plot either way. The film follows the continued struggle of Katniss Everdeen against the cruel hand of the Capitol following her victory in the previous year’s Hunger Games.

From the get go Francis Lawrence’s vision of Panem feels so much more realized than in the previous film. The characters feel more fleshed out and the actors playing them all seem more comfortable with their roles. Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic in the first and everyone else wasn’t bad necessarily, but their work in CATCHING FIRE is far better. Even some of the new faces are extremely welcome which includes Finnick as played by Sam Claflin, who in spite of not being aware of anything else he’s done almost perfectly captured Finnick’s cocky but charming persona.

The actors are indeed important, but when comparing it to the first film the atmosphere and tempo of the film are also vital to its success. With all the information that has to be crammed into CATCHING FIRE Francis Lawrence is able to lay out every last detail either visually or through the storytelling and pose a pretty incredible world with strong science fiction footing without making it seem overly cheesy.

From there the thematic elements are all nearly pitch perfect. Leading up to the games there is a tremendous portrayal of the fakeness of celebrities and their role in helping people forget their current situations. More than that though the emotions run higher, the action is more exciting and the story is deeper. Lawrence however is not simply stepping on Ross’ head to get to the top, instead he is just filling in the blanks and building on what Ross started in the first film. Where the first film does a more than adequate job at setting this world up this film brings it to the next level. CATCHING FIRE utilizes some of the values from the first film, but injects them with steroids to transition into a far more expansive world to accommodate the more action heavy aspects of the last book.

The next redeeming factor is that when the action starts, we can actually see what’s going on. Most remember Ross’ incredibly dizzying shaky cam from the first film whenever action was taking place- well that’s all gone here and replaced with clean steady shot sequences. However, there are at least two or three scenes that take place at night that are almost too dark to see everything happening which can be disorienting.

To add on to the gorgeous cinematography, the special effects are just one more aspect that trumps the original film. One of my biggest gripes with the first film was the horrible CGI in the final scenes and the weird dog creatures which were rendered horribly and the scene took place at night which still didn’t manage to hide the crappy effects. Lawrence is responsible for some pretty terrible CGI in previous movies like Constantine, but more so the “vampires” from I AM LEGEND- not the case in CATCHING FIRE. The effects in the arena are spectacular and the setting is absolutely beautiful to look at, but that also goes for the expanded looks we get at Panem throughout too.

To say that THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE is better than the first is not giving it enough credit. Aside from some darkly lit action sequences the film is perfectly paced, exciting, emotional and beautiful. Francis Lawrence has upped his game substantially for this blockbuster franchise and I now have nothing but hope for his involvement in the final two movies. The second CATCHING FIRE ends I was immediately pumped to see the next installment which is a testament to the quality because had it been a middling experience I’d have been okay with a bit of a wait until the next film. Jennifer Lawrence shines once again and helps to make THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE one of this years best films that should not be missed.

Rating: A-

Movie Review: The Ides Of March (2011)


So many movies lately have tried to tackle the most boring aspect of a topic in the forefront of our lives and try to turn it into something thrilling. Of the topics the one I’m mostly uninterested in is politics- mostly because it’s a topic so rich with varying opinions and voices way more qualified to share their opinion that throwing my hat in the ring would be as ill advised as putting a blind man behind the wheel of a car entering a Nascar race. While politics is not my bread and butter I can recognize when a film conveys the ugliness and shady conversations behind closed doors in an effective way. THE IDES OF MARCH is a film that will talk your ear off at nauseam until it turns you finally realize you are chin deep in a tense thriller with zero threat of any real physical violence- it’s not a glamorous accomplishment but an accomplishment nonetheless.

Dirty politics takes center stage when Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) has to learn the hard way that when it comes to winning a presidential nomination some people will stop at nothing to secure a win. Stephen works for presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) and his senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). However, when opposing campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) offers him a job and a pretty blonde intern seduces him, Stephen finds his loyalties spiraling out of control.

More than anything else THE IDES OF MARCH is a film about characters. What I mean is that yes there’s plot and things do happen but really everything in the film relies on the characters themselves. Where lots of films put characters in dicey situations and let them work their way through them this one is nothing more than characters in their job and how their personalities and personal demons control what they do or say. Every movie has characters that do things and say things but for me I wasn’t as hooked on the actual political race the characters are involved in as I was with their motivations and reactions to what other characters say and do. So when I say this is a film about characters what I really want to push across is that this is not a film about people running for a presidential nomination but instead is about how loyalties and motivations can change on a dime when a person’s livelihood and moral code is pushed to the edge.

It’s not a perfect theory to say the least but to a more direct point I will just say the performances in THE IDES OF MARCH are top notch. George Clooney, Paul Giamatti, Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman all bring their characters to life and each of them has a different but distinct voice. Their characters are pushed and tested and you watch each and every interaction play out never knowing exactly how any one character will react. It’d be a disservice to any specific actor to single one out as better than another as they all give great performances and are leveled out in a way where none of them tip the scale in regards to anyone else in the cast.

All that being said the film itself is not perfect. As tense and engaging as the conversations between characters are and how great the performances are the film at times does feel a bit long. There are stretches that while acted well and don’t harm the tone of the film do make the time drag ever so slightly. Sometimes scenes of silence linger which also slows the pace down but also could be intentional just to add to the uncomfortable nature of the scene.

The performances are the standout of the film and it’s because of that the characters are about the only impression I was left with at the end. I wasn’t left with a profound reaction to how the election turned out outside of the implications of what characters had to do to get to that place. The dirty politics that eventually go in play make the dynamics between characters that much more interesting but their goal wasn’t as groundbreaking as you’d hope. That’s not a knock against the film as a whole because the film is held up and to great effect by the power of the writing and the performances in spite of how generic the actual plot around the characters happens to be.

When you look back at great thrillers a good handful usually involve key characters in mortal danger, most get killed or some sort of physical violence lurks just around the corner and at times I thought THE IDES OF MARCH would go there but it never does and I have to applaud the film for it. There are some darker aspects in the film for sure but given that the film is tense and engaging without character whipping guns or knives at each other and instead hurl lots of dialogue back and forth I believe the tension is that much more impressive. However as great as the initial viewing of the film is I still feel like the story is generic enough that there is little reason to continue revisiting it. The leads all knock it out of the park and easily make the film as watchable as it is but overall seeing it once was perfectly enough- yet there’d be no reason to hold a gun to my head if I was asked to watch it again.

Movie Review: Moneyball (2011)


Billy Beane may very well have achieved something great in Oakland during the 2002 season- but from this point forward he will be able to include this statement in the same breath, “Brad Pitt played me in a movie.” MONEYBALL combines two of my biggest passions, it’s a movie and it’s about baseball- beyond that it’s also an underdog story, a story about not settling for second or third best, being scared to believe in yourself….heck at one point it’s even partly about the fact that David Justice doesn’t like paying for soda. Really though, MONEYBALL does what THE SOCIAL NETWORK did just a year ago- it takes an in depth look at the more mundane details of a bigger picture- and it is phenomenal.

MONEYBALL is the true story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics and GM Billy Beane, played Brad Pitt. The team made it to the playoffs in 2001 only to be eliminated by the New York Yankees in the Division series. During the off season GM Billy Beane and his scouts were faced with losing three of their best players and needing to replace their numbers on a shoestring budget. With the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) the two use an extremely methodical stats system to pick players they can afford to create a winning team. Beane is looked at as crazy as his system fails at first, but begins to miraculously turn around later on in the season.

I have a deep love for baseball- yet I’m also not an Oakland Athletics fan. The beauty here is that you do not have to be an Athletics fan to appreciate MONEYBALL- you don’t even have to be a fan of baseball. MONEYBALL involves the Oakland Athletics, but it is not ABOUT the Oakland Athletics. It’s the story of a former baseball player turned scout, turned General Manager that works against budget constraints to create a winning team- the team just happens to be the Athletics because that’s what happened. In fact there’s even a nice integration of archived footage mixed in to the film. The message and heart of the film is much deeper than being just a movie about scouting and managing baseball.

With a star like Brad Pitt in a film like this it may be hard to separate the star from his character. I myself had trouble at times, but Brad Pitt is a great actor and he still does a fantastic job. Jonah Hill also does an admirable job standing next to Pitt and even Philip Seymour Hoffman in select scenes. MONEYBALL is Pitt’s movie though and he has great comedic timing and delivers all his lines with charisma and charm. The performances all around are great and even the brief moments with Pitt and Hoffman have a sense of tension but also comedy in them.

The thing to know about MONEYBALL is that this is not your typical sports movie. There are in-game sequences but they are not the entire focus. In many ways MONEYBALL has a lot in common with Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar Nominated script from last year THE SOCIAL NETWORK- where it takes a recognizable topic and gives you what happens behind the scenes. Instead of long scenes of play by play games we get lots of stat crunching and Pitt making deals for players or arguing with scouts about who he wants to pick up for the team. MONEYBALL uses lots of smart baseball talk to win over the audience much like Sorkin’s Facebook movie used rapid fire computer lingo to engage the audience.

I do not believe you have to be a baseball fan to enjoy MONEYBALL, but I truly believe anyone who loves baseball will love this film. Baseball hatred can latch on to the great human drama within the film- Pitt’s relationship with his daughter, the friendship between Pitt and Hill, and the way it conveys the overall love of the game Billy Beane had. It was incredibly easy to get lost in how well the movie pushes across the monotony of going through the motions year after year and the driving need to make a change or it can kill the enjoyment of something you once loved. I connected fully with every aspect in regards to Beane’s love of baseball and how fun it is to experience something new amidst the day to day tedious aspects. I also felt the absolute frustration when people refuse to see it from a different perspective and the selfishness that is present not only in sports bit life in general.

MONEYBALL is a quiet film in regards to score- there is a lot of talking so there is no need for loud boisterous music. Baseball lovers will find the general use of baseball jargon and techniques a suitable replacement to a musical score, much as I did. Don’t get me wrong there is a great score it just doesn’t dominate the film. Lots of the best scenes are almost devoid of music at all. The standout scenes for me are the early scenes where Pitt is in meetings with scouts as they argue back and forth, a fantastic monologue at the end when Pitt is meeting with the owner of the Red Sox and the final scene involving Pitt in his car listening to a CD. The two latter scenes pushed me over the edge from loving MONEYBALL to adoring the film outright.

As mentioned earlier on- I believe that MONEYBALL is this year’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK for baseball fans. It might be difficult to make the disconnect that Brad Pitt is not playing himself but an influential member in the baseball community- but Pitt still gives a great performance as does everyone else in the film. What it lacks in a truly memorable score it makes up for with witty dialogue that ranges from dramatic to very funny. America’s greatest past-time deserves a film that loves the game as much as the fans and I truly believe that MONEYBALL is that film.