Monday, December 15, 2014


As much as “The Hunger Games” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” captivated me, I’m less than elated that Lionsgate has split the final novel of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy into two movies.  Watching “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) is like watching half of a good movie. Worse, Lionsgate plans to make audiences wait for another year before they fold this franchise.  Of course, the “Harry Potter” and the “Twilight” franchises made a mint with this shrewd strategy, so it’s no surprise Lionsgate, the same studio that released the “Twilight” epics, would not pass up such an obvious opportunity.  As fastidious and well-made as “Mockingjay Part 1” remains, all “Catching Fire” director Francis Lawrence and scenarists Peter Craig of “The Town” and Danny Strong of “The Butler” have done is produce a potboiler that simmers more often than sizzles for two hours and three minutes.  Indeed, this qualifies as the shortest entry in “Hunger Games” franchise.  Comparatively, “The Hunger Games” clocked in at 142 minutes, while “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” edged it out at 146 minutes.  The way they’ve made “Mockingjay Part 1,” we see more of Katniss Everdeen and Plutarch Heavensbee than President Snow, Haymitch Abernathy, Gale Hawthorne, Effie Trinket, Finnick Odair, Caesar Flickerman, and Johanna Mason.  Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence spends more time shedding tears than shooting arrows.  Indeed, she shoots only one arrow in this installment.  Making the most of his handful of scenes, a gleefully wicked Donald Sutherland delivers the best line: “Miss Everdeen, it is the things we love most that destroy us.”
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” picks up the plot after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright of “Casino Royale”), and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin of “The Quiet Ones”) have been rescued.  Unfortunately, the treacherous Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman of “Doubt”) and the resistance have failed to liberate Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson of “Red Dawn”), Johanna Mason (Jena Malone of “Sucker Punch”) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson of “Manhaters”) in the aftermath. Meantime, Katniss and her traumatized companions are recuperating from their tribulations in District 13, but our heroine doesn’t know if Peeta managed to survive Panem's third Quarter Quell. If you haven’t seen “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” you may be at a disadvantage. Eventually, she learns that Peeta is alive, but he is being held in the Capitol by President Snow. Plutarch and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore of “The Big Lebowski”) convince Katniss to serve as their standard-bearer for the rebellion. They need her “anger-driven defiance” desperately to shore up the sagging support among the other districts in the wake of District 12’s annihilation. Remember, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale Hawthorne all (Liam Hemsworth of “The Expendables 2”) grew up in District 12.
The action alternates between above ground and below ground. The above ground scenes where either Katniss or the rebels battle the enemy provide the most excitement. The scenes below ground in District 13’s deeply entrenched bunkers, where Katniss agonizes over poor Peeta’s ordeal, constitute classic, four-handkerchief, hand-wringing, chick flick fodder. Worse, the scenes involving the secret mission to snatch Peeta from under Snow’s nose yield only a modicum of suspense.  Nevertheless, as static as this sophomore sequel is, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” easily surpasses the half of the novel that it depicts without sacrificing much source material fidelity. 
Essentially, “Mockingjay Part 1” combines elements of a war movie with a love story.  The war story sequences generate fewer thrills than the tournament sequences in the two previous outings, while the scenes between a love-sick Katniss and a tortured Peeta are histrionic in every negative sense of the word.  Katniss wanders around and whines, while a visibly wretched Peeta looks woebegone and far away. These scenes are as dreary as the air-raid sequence is tedious.  The scenes of the lumberjacks scrambling up trees to avoid being massacred by President Snow’s trigger-happy soldiers and later the assault on the dam are sensational, but these scenes cannot compensate from the loquacious inactivity during the subterranean sequences.  The new characters that flesh out the action are fresh, but they lack charisma, while the regulars have been confined largely to the sidelines in cameos.  Of course, each will play a larger part in the second half. 
Mind you, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” looks terrific.  The producers have blown a bundle on every scene.  The destruction of the District 5 dam is nothing short of spectacular, with a chorus of suicidal heroes storming a gauntlet of soldiers to detonate crates of explosives. The concrete mountains of rubble, twisted metal, and skeletons galore in District 12 appear thoroughly convincing, too.  Philip Messina’s production designs, Larry Dias’ set decoration, and the art direction by Andrew Max Cahn, Lauren E. Polizzi, David Scheunemann, Steve Summersgill, and Dan Webster enhance the atmosphere and credibility of the film.  The sumptuous looking sets and slick production values, however, don’t offset the film’s sluggish pace. 
Basically, nothing groundbreaking happens in “Mockingjay Part 1.”  The best scenes occur in the final moments, while most everything else serves as expository filler.  Indeed, you know neither Katniss nor Peeta are in jeopardy.  In other words, neither are going to die, and what happens to Peeta is the equivalent of having a regular series character slip into a coma while the filmmakers pause the plot to conjure up suspense.  Altogether, neither Lawrence nor his scenarists have done anything in “Mockingjay Part I” other than delay the inevitable.  The hospital bombing sequence, the air raid scene, Katniss’ propaganda speeches to arouse the other districts as well as singing a song are dreary.  Jennifer Lawrence has a few good lines.  Unfortunately, when she isn’t decked out in her combat fatigues with a bow and arrow in her fists, she doesn’t cut the mustard.  Lawrence looks ridiculous in her baggy uniform, and Julianne Moore actually upstages her.  Hopefully, Lionsgate is saving the best for “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2.”


Nobody has made a landmark Biblical movie since Mel Gibson helmed “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.  Mind you, contenders have cropped up, primarily “Noah” (2014) with Russell Crowe, but it amounted to little more than a pretender with its apocryphal allusions to the Books of Enoch with its stone angels.  “Son of God” doesn’t really qualify since its producers re-edited it from The History Channel miniseries “The Bible.”  Sadly, nothing about director Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (** OUT OF ****) appears divinely inspired.  Scott, best known for lavish spectacles such as “Alien,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down,” and “Prometheus,” has spent $140 million on this sprawling recreation of ancient Egypt.  Admittedly, Scott doesn’t qualify as a saint.  In a recent New York Times interview, Scott said about “Exodus,” “I’ve got it fairly well plotted out. I’m an atheist, which is actually good, because I’ve got to convince myself the story works.” Not surprisingly, the secular screenplay credited to four scribes, among them “Tower Heist” duo Adam Cooper & Bill Collage, “The Constant Gardner’s” Jeffrey Caine, and “Schindler's List’s” Steven Zaillian, adopts a realistic rather than a scriptural slant to its subject matter.  Moses behaves more like Rambo rather than Charlton Heston, and our hero discovers with considerable chagrin that he isn’t an Egyptian. Comparatively, “Exodus” neither takes its cues from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 or 1956 versions of “The Ten Commandments” nor Mel Gibson’s subtitled “Passion of the Christ.” Certainly, nobody would expect anything less from a luminary like Sir Ridley Scott, whose last two films—“The Counselor” and “Prometheus”--excited as much as mystified audiences. Traditional believers may judge “Exodus” a questionable expense. For example, when Moses initially encounters God on the side of a mountain after a mudslide, the former finds himself dealing with an eleven-year old boy who reads him the riot act.  Later, during a subsequent confrontation with this obnoxious urchin, Scott presents the interview from two perspectives. Again, Moses is conversing to a child.  Meanwhile, Joshua eavesdrops on Moses, but all Joshua sees is Moses addressing a rock with nobody present in either human or divine form. Sure, this resembles the movie “Fight Club” (1999) where narrator Edward Norton argues with Brad Pitt, who turns out all-along to have been nothing but Norton’s hallucination of himself. If this kind of nonsense doesn’t bother you, you may enjoy “Exodus,” but I think that depicting God as a petulant punk undermines the gravity of the film. 

Basically, “Exodus” duplicates virtually everything that DeMille showed in his two “Ten Commandments” outings.  The venerable saga concerns oppression and intolerance.  The Egyptians are proud and powerful, while the Jews are poor and powerless. Moses appears and pleads for the release of his people. Predictably, the Egyptians with their architectural enthusiasm for worshipping themselves with massive monuments balk at turning the Jews loose.  Ramses and Moses remain at odds until God intervenes with ten deadly plagues that make Ramses into a believer. The Egyptian ruler releases the Jews, and they head off for Canaan.  A vindictive Ramses has second thoughts and decides to pursue Moses and his minions. The big showdown occurs at the Red Sea where Moses waves his staff and the waters recede just long enough for his people to cross.  Along rampages Ramses with murder on his mind and his army, but he doesn’t arrive in time to take his toll.  Instead, the toll takes him.  This is the stuff of which Sunday school lessons are taught and most movies about the event have depicted. Scott takes exception to several things.  He doesn’t include the adolescent years when Moses and the future ruler Ramses were playmates.  When “Exodus” unfolds, Moses and Ramses are adults and rivals to the throne.  Of course, Ramses’ noble father Seti (John Turturro of “The Big Lebowski”) thinks that Moses has a better head on his shoulders than his petulant son and confides as much in Moses.  Unfortunately, Seti points out that he cannot appoint Moses over his son.  This relationship resembles a similar relationship in Ridley Scott’s earlier epic “Gladiator” (2000) when the dying Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) preferred Maximus (Russell Crowe) to his repellent son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) for the throne.  During a savage war with the Hittites in 1300, Moses displays his martial ardor and saves the once and future pharaoh from certain death in battle. Moses serves chiefly as Seti and Ramses’ advisor.  In other words, he does all the dirty work with which neither wishes to soil their hands and clashes with a corrupt Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn of “Killing Them Softly”) who reveals Moses’ genuine origins as a Jew. Moses goes into exile and bids farewell to Ramses. Ramses’ mother Tuya (Sigourney Weaver of “Alien”) isn’t as content as her son to let Moses off as easily and sends a pair of fiendish assassins to finish him off.

“Batman Begins” star Christian Bale and “Star Wars” actor Joel Edgerton generate neither chemistry nor camaraderie respectively as a militant Moses and a ramrod-straight Ramses.  Scott and his scenarists want us to believe that these two grew up together in the same house, but they share little in the way of brotherly affection.  Bale’s Moses relies more on the sword than the staff, and this differentiates this cinematic interpretation from Charlton Heston’s Moses.  Scott surrounds these two with a robust supporting cast, including Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, and John Turturro. Sadly, they make only a minor impression.  Mendelsohn registers best as the slimy villain who gets his just comeuppance in the final reel.  The spectacular computer-generated imagery and the craggy scenery—lensed in Spain and the Canary Islands--qualify as top-drawer assets.  The film generates some unforgettable moments during the ten deadly plagues montage, particularly when the crocodiles crunch on fishermen. Clocking in at a leaden 150 minutes, the lackluster “Exodus: Gods and Kings” fares far better as a special effects extravaganza than a faith-based bonanza.