No explainer article can fully capture how truly crazy and demented Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” is to just watch.

MotherPosterIt’s a creation myth! It’s about how men gaslight women! It’s about climate change! It’s a bizarre human comedy! It’s a crazed mix of Luis Bunuel, Rosemary’s Baby, Black Swan and a dash of La La Land! Whatever mother! is, don’t forget those exclamation points.

I’ve already read way too much about Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, and if you’ve seen the film, you know I’m right. It’s best to go in relatively cold. Because every explainer and analysis that tries to paint it as a divine Biblical allegory isn’t wrong, but it never fully captures how flat out, bat shit crazy this movie is. Continue reading “mother!”

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

“Mockingjay – Part 2” is a fitting end to the Hunger Games franchise.

HungerGamesPosterHow do you have a Hunger Games movie without the Hunger Games? That was essentially the problem of “Mockingjay – Part 1,” the padded first half to the third and final entry in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games book trilogy. “Part 2” finds a way to retain that Hunger Games feel without the repeat of the arena setting, and it finds Francis Lawrence’s film back on track for a satisfying conclusion to what has been an otherwise stellar franchise.

The rebel organization housed at District 13 has rescued Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol’s imprisonment and brainwashing, but at the end of “Part 1” he tried to murder Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and is still suffering from the after effects of the brainwashing. Katniss hopes to bring him back to the real world while organizing a plan of attack to bring down President Snow (an increasingly excellent, understated and chilly Donald Sutherland). The rebel leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) wants to use Katniss as a symbol for the rebellion, but Coin may be plotting a way to kill Katniss and get her out of the way in the event of Coin’s inevitable takeover and rise to power.

All this has traces of the politicking that bogged down “Part 1,” but “Part 2” is far better at reaching those intimate, character driven pow-wows and moments of conflict. Watching and waiting for the film to get to the action, Director Lawrence keeps the audience of two minds, torn between a craving for excitement and Katniss’s want for peace. For the first time in the franchise “Mockingjay” makes the dividing line between good and evil less clear. Katniss comes to realize the people trying to kill her are not her enemy, every drop of blood lost has less and less meaning, and the impact of each on the audience stings more.

“Part 2” gives back the “Hunger Games” feel by trotting Katniss, Peeta, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her outfit of teenage Marines into the barren warzone of the Capitol. The streets are littered with “pods” or cleverly designed booby traps. Their unmanned nature makes each feel gamelike, with someone from above pulling the strings and all the rules being decided on the fly. “Mockingjay” toys with everything from stormtroopers, flamethrowers, machine gun traps, spotlights capable of disintegrating and even slimy, faceless zombies that resemble the pale monster in “Pan’s Labyrinth.” One incredible set piece has the team running from a growing pool of oil; touch the surface and you’re immediately impaled by spears of the liquid suspended above the ground.

“The Hunger Games” have always stood out in the creative use of deadly traps and special effects, but it’s also one of the few that goes so far above and beyond the YA novel boilerplate romance and “be yourself” mantra. The symbolism here is all on point, with Katniss literally becoming the “girl on fire” after an explosion, with the floating packages previously used in the games as relief now used as harbingers of death, and with the televised murders of children not just used for action but to implicate us as an audience for enjoying it.

The very first “Hunger Games” showed this was not a trifling franchise just for kids. Katniss is a character in grief and anguish, the world is always in disarray, and love triumphs, but at a cost. “Mockingjay” ends this franchise fittingly; the odds were ever in its favor.

3 ½ stars

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

There was no need for “Mockingjay” to be broke into two sequels, but why does this hardly resemble a Hunger Games movie at all?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1” started the unfortunate trend of major film franchises splitting tentpole books into two separate films. Though it may be a cash grab, that seventh Harry Potter film is actually one of the most distinct in the series. Six movies of being tied down to Hogwarts and Quidditch, the seventh film took the main characters out of a familiar world, threw them in the forest against insurmountable odds and allowed them to act. They grew up into adults and the whole franchise matured overnight. It’s the most unusual Potter film, yet also David Yates’s best.

The previous “Hunger Games” movie “Catching Fire” was the blockbuster everyone needed after Potter. It was dark, inventive and upped the stakes on the previous film, not an easy task when you consider the first film was about teenagers murdering each other for sport and survival. But it also ended in such a way that “Mockingjay – Part 1” could hardly repeat the successes of the second. Katniss had been thrown into the rebellion, separated from her love and Hunger Games partner Peeta and asked to serve as a symbol she never wanted to be.

“Mockingjay” was poised to rewrite the franchise, but Francis Lawrence’s opportunity to make “Part 1” into something more than a cash grab has been squandered. It’s the most unusual “Hunger Games” yet, but hardly for the better. The fantasy, the color, the intrigue and the creativity has all been sapped from this sequel to make a frustrating half of a movie, one that’s talky, filled with exposition and set pieces that hardly resemble what made either of the first two films memorable. Continue reading “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”

American Hustle

“American Hustle” is David O. Russell’s brilliant charade of a movie led by an amazing cast.


Christian Bale gained 43 pounds for his role in “American Hustle.” When he first appears on screen, he spends minutes “perfecting” an elaborate comb over of glued on hair and parted strands that will fool no one.

The beauty is that Bale and O. Russell have fooled everyone. We immediately are torn between the “real” Bale, the real character he’s portraying or the carefully tailored version he’s putting on for his associates, and if this portrayal is good enough, we’ll believe whatever these master performers put in front of us.

“American Hustle” is a brilliant charade of a movie. It’s a talky, intricate and intrigue filled caper in which everyone’s a con artist and there’s little sense of what’s real and what isn’t. We’ve been conditioned to believe in the movies there’s a certain element of truth within each story, no matter how fictional, fantastical or how deceitful and crafty the characters.

O. Russell’s film takes the real life story of ABSCAM, a ‘70s FBI sting operation that convicted several congressmen and a senator, and turns that concept of reality on its head. He opens the film with “Some of this actually happened,” a clever twist on the ambiguous “Based on a True Story,” and inhabits his and Eric Singer’s screenplay with a wacky, high octane and deliciously fun investigation that can’t be fully followed, trusted or believed in the slightest. Continue reading “American Hustle”

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” finds new director Francis Lawrence raising the stakes on this already dark franchise.

“The Hunger Games” franchise has now done what it took the Harry Potter movies perhaps four or five films to get right. “Catching Fire” is a sequel that sees its stakes increase tenfold, its action becoming more crisp and polished, its themes growing deeper and its deep cast of talented individuals gelling completely.

It does beg the question, how does a story in which teenagers murder other teens for sport and sacrifice manage to get darker, more serious and more consequential? Gary Ross’s “Hunger Games” was a film about the internal struggle of an individual to find her strength and voice. It treated survival instincts like a virtue. Now in “Catching Fire,” that lone wolf mentality to just survive plays like another death sentence.

New director Francis Lawrence ties “Catching Fire’s” dystopian future concept and steamy love triangle to broader ideas about rebellion, fame, loyalty and psychology. Best of all, he’s packaged it in a slick, suspenseful package that hasn’t lost any of its twisted edge.

“Catching Fire” resumes shortly after Katniss and Peeta’s (Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson) victory from the previous games. Now President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is using their celebrity as a symbol of false hope as he tours them around each district of Panem. Snow threatens to kill Katniss and her family unless she tows the evil Capitol’s line and makes her act in front of the cameras genuine.

Katniss however has become a reluctant symbol of a slowly growing rebel uprising. The film has done a wonderful job playing up the franchise’s iconography, with early shots framing Katniss as a figure of solemn power or people raising three fingers in defiance to the Capitol and making it feel significant. When they do celebrate her legend, people are beaten and killed by the Capitol’s “peacemakers,” faceless stormtroopers modeled off another similar franchise, “Star Wars.”

Because she’s creating problems, the new Master of the Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), arranges a special event for the 75th Annual Hunger Games in which past survivors of the games are forced to compete again. Given how few there are still living, Katniss and Peeta are on the chopping block yet again. Continue reading “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

Off the Red Carpet: 4 Weeks till Oscars

Image courtesy of Consequence of Sound
Image courtesy of Consequence of Sound

Oh boy, there’s that Oscar season lull. All the movies have come out, most of the awards shows have had their say and there’s still a month to go.

In other news, I got a job this week! So I haven’t had much time to catch up on Oscar stuff this week anyway, but thankfully the conversation has turned elsewhere.

Adele to perform at the Oscars

Yes! Justice is served! The Oscars will be interesting to watch again! The Academy announced quite literally this morning through Facebook that Adele will in fact perform the Oscar nominated theme song from “Skyfall” on the Oscar telecast.

What was not specified was whether this would be part of a collection of all the Original nominated songs being performed or will be part of the 50th Anniversary Tribute to James Bond.

Not only is this the first time Adele has performed “Skyfall” live, it will be the first time she’s performed live since the 2012 Grammys. (via Continue reading “Off the Red Carpet: 4 Weeks till Oscars”

CIFF Review: Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell described the Led Zeppelin song “What Is and What Should Never Be,” a song used in his new film “Silver Linings Playbook,” as bipolar.

“And if I say to you, tomorrow…” Robert Plant croons smoothly, honestly and calmly, all before a big explosion. “And catch the wind, see us spin/Sail away, leave the day/Way up high in the sky,” he screams.

“Silver Linings Playbook” is just as exciting, surprising and stylish as that Zeppelin song. It’s a crowd pleasing rom-com about two people struggling with bipolar disorder who learn to love, stay positive and enjoy family in the face of lots of hardship.

Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) is just being released from a psychiatric ward. Eight months earlier, he caught his wife cheating on him and beat her lover half to death, but because he was found to have undiagnosed bipolar disorder, he was able to spend his sentence in a mental institution rather than in prison.

It’s no wonder his disorder would go undiagnosed. Pat is part Italian and living in Philadelphia, and their loud, argumentative family dynamic blends perfectly with Pat’s honest, blunt and high-spirited speaking brought on by his disability. His father, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro), also has a case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when rooting for the Eagles, adjusting remotes and holding lucky handkerchiefs to ensure an Eagles victory. But O. Russell realizes that all these nervous ticks just come naturally as being part of a family. Continue reading “CIFF Review: Silver Linings Playbook”

The Hunger Games

I’m not a 12-year-old girl, but I would imagine they would not want to see children their age being gruesomely murdered with spears any more than I would.

“The Hunger Games” then is a puzzling blockbuster. The book trilogy by Suzanne Collins and this impending movie franchise are being marketed as the equivalent to “Twilight” and “Harry Potter.”

But the film is a shockingly bleak and brutal story of survival and mortality in the face of massive pressure and little hope. It is a deftly powerful piece of filmmaking that more closely resembles “Children of Men” than light entertainment. Continue reading “The Hunger Games”

X-Men: First Class

The X-Men are a treasure trove of possibilities. Any superpower you wish you had, one of them has it, thus their immense popularity and enduring capability of this franchise. “X-Men: First Class” is the fifth installment, and fans of the films are very familiar with the names, histories and mutations of every one of them to the point that even Charles Darwin would lose track. So I would expect no less from Marvel than to exploit every miniscule detail as a way of reminding us how respectful they are of their fans and their millions of dollars in revenue.

“X-Men: First Class” is a carefully constructed film that takes no chances in contradicting the franchise that has carried it to this point. If there is a character, mutation, plot point, building, vehicle or costume that was not completely explained in the original three films or the Wolverine prequel, it is here. It is Marvel’s way of ensuring there will be at least a sixth installment, and God knows how many more.

The difference is that director Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass”) is given mild liberties to not take these details strictly seriously. For instance, it has long been a question of why in Bryan Singer’s two films we see little of the classic costume designs the way Stan Lee drew them in the original comic book series. Surely Vaughn is forced to answer the reason behind Lee’s kitschy ‘60s style, but he’s allowed to do so by making his film a psychedelic period piece. Set pieces, dialogue and women’s clothing choices are rightfully emblematic of a comic series that began as campy fun, and split screen montages are goofy departures from a film otherwise focused on the dourness in the Holocaust and Cuban Missile Crisis. Continue reading “X-Men: First Class”

The Beaver

Some stories are flawed on a fundamental level. No matter how well told or performed they are, there are certain things it becomes tough to get past. “The Beaver,” a lovingly directed film by Jodie Foster, falls into this trap. It’s not bad or uninteresting, just problematic.

Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is a hopelessly depressed man. He has no ambition and spends much of his day sleeping. As the CEO of a failing toy company and the distant father of his lonely little boy Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) and his self-hating teenager Porter (Anton Yelchin), he has no one to look to but his wife Meredith (Foster). But she has given up on him after years of trying to help him come out of his slump and kicks him out of the house.

He drunkenly tries to kill himself, only to be startled by an ugly old hand puppet of a beaver. Walter talks through it with a Scottish accent and assumes this new persona. He convinces his wife it is a therapy procedure and finds his confidence at home and at work through it. Continue reading “The Beaver”