Monday, November 30, 2015

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1" by David Pretty


Snapped up by District 13 rebels after the chaos of the Quarter Quell, inadvertent heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is slowly fashioned into a symbol for mass uprising. Unfortunately, her willingness to spearhead the resistance is severely curtailed when nominal love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) emerges as a mouthpiece for the status quo. Kiefer Sutherland's dad guest stars.


For the love of everything holy, if someone suggests that you watch this movie and you haven't seen any of the previous films or read the books, go out for some frozen yogurt instead. Why? Well, it's because your enjoyment level for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is entirely predicated on how emotionally invested you are in the saga of one Mistress Katniss Everdeen.

  • Production designer Philip Messina brings a level of devastation to District 12 that gives Katniss all the motivation she needs to become the avatar for insurrection. Also the sterile environs of the subterranean District 13 provides the perfect contrast to the ostentatious extravagance of the Capitol. Credit is also due to costume designer Christian Cordella for the frumpy but functional District 13 uniforms, the intimidating stormtrooper-esque Peacekeeper armor and Jennifer's bad-ass Mockingjay outfit.
  • Early on we're introduced to the President of District 13, Alma Coin, played by the always-watchable Julianne Moore. She does her usual outstanding job, selling the character as a commanding reservoir of strength and competence. She particularly effective whenever she's calmly issuing orders, bolstering Katniss or addressing residents of the District. 
  • Not to sound like a broken record, but Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress. She might not be subjected to yet another Hunger Games competition, but she does get to witness the brutality of President Snow first hand. In a series of emotional body blows, Katniss visits the ruins of her home District, sees a hospital callously flattened by Capital attack ships and then learns that Peeta has been brainwashed into a mouthpiece for the regime. Jennifer Lawrence sells all of these scenes to the hilt; delivering a level of emotional heft that feels quite genuine. But my favorite moment comes when she's told to act like a flag-waving partisan in front of blue-screen battlefield. Jennifer's "performance" is so calculatedly awful that it's downright hilarious. It's a welcome moment of levity in an otherwise morose and turgid film. 
  • Man, do I ever miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. His portrayal of defected Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee is organic and seamless and not once does he ever reveal the pretense of "acting". Your eyes are glued to him whenever he's on screen, if only to marvel over the the small, subtle things he does with his voice, his body language and his face to sell the character as one-hundred percent genuine. You want high testimony? I'll give you high testimony: he actually eclipses Julianne Moore. And that ain't no small feat.
  • After finding Josh Hutcherson's Peeta Mellark to be a complete irritant in the first film, I'm now completely turned around on the guy. Via a series of propaganda interview segments hosted by a comparably-sober Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Hutcherson gives us increasingly obvious tells that something is horribly amiss. He does a good job, especially when he goes completely off the rails towards the end. His trauma feels genuine and you really start to feel bad for the poor bastard. 
  • The supporting cast also adds a lot to the film's limited appeal. Since alcohol is banned in District 13, we're treated to our first glimpse of a stone-cold sober Haymitch Abernathy. It's fun to watch Woody Harrelson school Coin and Heavensbee on what makes Katniss tick, which allows her to become a more sincere and believable symbol of freedom. And since overt fabulousness is also banned in District 13, our favorite snooty fashionista Effie Trinket gets re-purposed as the budding Mockingjay's style consultant. You get the impression that Elizabeth Banks is having a blast dealing with Effie's ultimate nightmare of being like everyone else. Jeffrey Wright is understandably twitchy and nervous as Beetee Latier, District 13's answer to James Bond's "Q". As a former rival in the Games, Katniss is still leery about BeeTee's motivations but he's clearly passed inspection by the end of the movie. And since I've been a fan of hers ever since I saw The Tudors, I was pretty stoked to see Natalie Dormer pop up as the Mockingjay's film-team director Cressida. IMHO, her cool authority and on-screen charisma is a welcome addition to any series of moving images. Finally, sharp-eyed viewers will have fun spotting Eldon "Foggy Nelson" Henson (try saying that five times real quick) as the mute half of Castor and Pollux. Hopefully he'll get more to do in the next movie.
  • The sequence where the team drops in on the beleaguered District 8 is the highlight of the film. In addition to showing the audience just how far Snow will go to preserve his position, it also instantly transforms Katniss into a spontaneous and authentic hero of the people. Returning director Francis Lawrence does a great job with this sequence, infusing it with plenty of emotion and tension. By the time Katniss trick-shots two attack ships out of the air and then launches into a fiery anti-Snow speech, you'll feel compelled to track Donald Sutherland down at his next red carpet event and kick him square in the cubes. 
  • Speak of the devil, I relish any moment when Sutherland is on screen. As the series wears on and the stakes become progressively higher, he's bringing more and more passion to role of Snow. Just look at the gleam in Sutherland's eye when he tells Katniss "It's the things we love most which destroy us." The sheer despotic glee he exhibits is glorious and a part of me would be perfectly content if Part Two just consisted of Sutherland and Lawrence sparring over coffee for two hours.
  • Props also go out to Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne. Thankfully, his character has finally come full-circle, evolving from "Alterna-Hunk #2" to someone who actually effects the plot. Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong (as well as original author Suzanne Collins, presumably) give him a great scene where he recounts the Capitol's merciless extirpation of District 12. He's equally adept during the Tribute Center raid sequence.   
  • Personally I'm a really big fan of this "book to movie series" trend, if only because there's a consistent creative team and the story unfolds like a good novel. For example, the raid on the Tribute Center only happens because Katniss inspires a civilian uprising which destroys a hydro-electrical dam which, in turn, cuts power to the Capitol. This is in stark contrast to the sequels of yore which often boiled down to "more of the same but 'splodier".  

  • The movie suffers from a severe case of Hobbit-itis. I'm not entirely sure why the film was split up into two acts *cough, cough* money, but there's some really pointless and redundant filler in this script. Characters such as Mahershala Ali's Boggs and Sam Claflin's Finnick barely register as blips on the plot radar. Look, I really don't mind quieter moments on screen; it gives contrast to the inevitable bombast and gives a chance for the characters to reflect. But there are tons of completely superfluous scenes here that don't add up to anything. Sure, the hunting trip was nice a nice touch and all, but we've already established that Katniss was traumatized by the Games. Plus we get no less than two scenes where she rummages through the Victor's Village house. *Yawn*
  • The film's climax hinges upon the Tribute Center raid which is pretty tense but all of this drama is completely deflated when the team just returns to District 13 safe and sound. As a result, the real "cliffhanger" ending hinges directly on Peeta's wigged out emotional state, but it's just not enough to hang a satisfying finale on. 
  • I'm glad to see Katniss re-unite with her family, especially considering that Primrose (Willow Shields) is kinda the reason all of this got started in the first place. But did we really need a scene in which l'il sis is put into jeopardy because of a stupid, fucking cat? Man, talk about the world's laziest writing cliche. 
  • Much to my dismay, President Snow is still is the running for the "WORST FICTIONAL DESPOT" Award. Doesn't he know that people can easily be coaxed into an apathetic rut so long as abuse and mass murder isn't rubbed in their faces? And that's why I'll always find the dystopian state in The Hunger Games to be so far-fetched. As if the youth-centric public death-sports wasn't extreme enough, Snow fire-bombs large segments of the population, makes prime-time public execution viewing mandatory and then expects the average schmoe to just go back home, watch Netflix n' chill. And that's a major point that a lot of these speculative writers seem to be missing: when people finally realize that society has slipped into fascism, the biggest revelation is that it actually happened a long, long time ago. 
  • When Katniss and company finally go topside after the Capital attack, the so-called "devastation" took me completely out of the movie. It just looks like a rock quarry with a few burning mosquito coils placed strategically around the set.

If I say "Katniss" and "Peeta" together and the first thing you think about is an unconventional but satisfying taste treat for felines, then I urge you to tread carefully RE: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Even as a self-identified fan of the film series, this one really tested my attention span and my patience. Which is a real shame, especially after coming off the lean and mean Catching Fire.

However, if you've been following the Hunger Games cinematic saga up to now, I suppose this is prerequisite viewing before donning your "SUCKER" sign and dutifully marching off to the theater to pay for the other half of the story. All I'm saying is that it better be worth slogging through this pedestrian time-killer.


 Tilt: down.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Movie Review: "The Spy Who Loved Me" by David Pretty

Back in 1977 your humble narrator was a budding seven-year-old cinephile. I couldn't have picked a better time to get started. I saw Star Wars in May of that year and just two short months later I saw my very first James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me. Watching that film on the big screen was a totally seamless experience for me, just as real as a day at school to my unleavened brain but infinitely more interesting. There were submarines, ski chases, guns, beautiful Russian spies, hulking henchmen, foreign countries, comic-book super-villains, undersea hide-outs, amphibious sports cars and a batshit insane climax that made my imagination seem woefully obtuse in comparison. In other words, it was a greatest hits package of a prepubescent's wet dream put to celluloid.

Bringing this up warrants a quick discussion about nostalgia. Dear fans of Full House and Space Jam: just because these were the first moving images you ever saw as a kid, it doesn't necessarily mean that these things were good. And this was my fear in re-watching The Spy Who Loved Me recently. Would it hold up to scrutiny in the eyes of this crusty ol' film reviewer?

Well, I'm here to testify that, not only does the film hold up, it's one of the best James Bond movies of all time.   

In his third outing as the famous British super-spy, Roger Moore's 007 gets paired up with a gorgeous Soviet agent named Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) and togehter they attempt to track down two missing nuclear submarines. Sustained through a series of exotic locales including Egypt and Sardinia, the duo have several nasty encounters with a gargantuan assassin with stainless steel chompers named Jaws (Richard Kiel). Eventually they're led to the underwater lair of crazed one-percenter Karl Stromberg who's keen to re-boot civilization in lieu of a moister and considerably less populous matrix.

The film kicks off with a tense and expertly-mounted sequence which recounts the disappearance of the British sub. Sharp-eyed movie fiends would do well to keep their eyes peeled since this scene features the Jeremy Bulloch, the future Boba Fett, who plays "HMS Ranger Crewman". Talk about inspiration for all you extras out there: in one movie you could be sitting at a table playing chess in a blue jump suit and the next thing you know you're the most notorious bounty hunter in the galaxy.

One thing I adore about the Roger Moore 007 movies is that they don't take themselves too seriously. Or at least they didn't by the time The Spy Who Loved Me rolled around. In Sir Roger's first two outings, Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun, the producers tried to turn him into a bad-ass Sean Connery clone which was a huge mistake. Moore just seems too genteel for those scenes in which Bond slaps women around for info.

Spy producer Albert R. Broccoli and writers Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum picked up on this, customizing the part for Moore, who delivered a cooler, drier, slightly cheeky and veddy British version of the famed super spy. Part and parcel with this lighter tone is a very funny script. For example, when "M" hears about the missing sub he asks Moneypenny "Where's 007?" When she replies: "He's on a mission, sir. In Austria" he comes back with "Tell him to pull out. Immediately." We then get a hilarious smash-cut of Bond putting the blocks to some orgasmic ski bunny. Pure gold.

Which brings me to the following obvious point. I'm not one to brook in ageism and this certainly didn't occur to me when I was watching the film as a sprightly seven year old kid. After all, it wasn't unusual back then for people over the age of thirty to take on major starring roles; just look at the cast of Space: 1999 for instance. But Roger was fifty years old at the time, a fact made abundantly clear when you watch The Spy Who Loved Me in high-definition. Even though one could argue that he was a bit long in the tooth to play Bond, but, just like Pierce Brosnan a few years later, Moore was delayed taking the part because of binding television contracts. For that reason, and the fact that he's so perfect in the role, I willing to let this fact slide.

The action immediately launches into high gear with a terrific pre-credits grabber sequence which sees Bond slaloming down a treacherous mountain while avoiding a squad of machine-gun toting hit men. Notwithstanding the incongruous funk music and the completely obvious rear-screen projection shots, this is a very tense and authentic-looking action set piece. After putting several of his pursuers in the powder with a patented ski pole rifle, Bond voluntarily launches himself off the edge of Grossglockner Mountain. Poles fly, skis spin away and for a few tense seconds it looks as if Bond's committed air-born seppuku. But then his backpack opens up to reveal a parachute, but not just any parachute: it's a giant union jack flag. Cue screams of delight in the packed theater. 

We then get a memorable title sequence accompanied by Carly Simon warbling the ebola-catchy, Seventies-a-rriffic hit "Nobody Does It Better". I kinda dig this Bond theme song because it isn't brassy and cacophonous like a lot of the songs that came before it, it's just kinda melodic and chill with an oil-tanker-sized amount of sexual sub-text. Which pretty much sums up the entire decade. As well as this movie.

Speaking of sexual sub-texts, the opening credits likely represent the first time your humble author ever saw boobs up on the big screen. Heavily silhouetted, back-lit, partially-covered-with-credits boobs but boobs nonetheless. And, hey, I don't wanna hear anyone out there say "Sorry, seven year old Dave, but that was just wishful thinking", 'cuz if you do then I shall be forced to counter with "I say thee nay, good sir or madam! Watch this and tell me that you don't see a nipple for about .4 milliseconds of screen time at the 2:21 mark."

The bottom line is: if Linda Carter in Wonder Woman hadn't already established my budding heterosexuality two years earlier, then The Spy Who Loved Me completely sealed the deal for me. Thank God for the Seventies and Eighties, when the MPAA and society as a whole was a lot less militant about showing casual nudity in PG films. Man, how far we've not come in the slightest. 

Sorry, I digress.

Well, not quite. Not long after we meet Barbara Bach's Anya Amasova, a gorgeous Russian spy and Bond's rival/love interest throughout the film. It's kinda hard to convey this to modern audiences, but 1977 was a better-than-average year for women in film. Carrie Fisher's Leia Organa became a hero to millions of little girls who always wanted the princess to rescue herself and Anya was cunning and capable, besting Bond in many of their early meetings. No, Agent XXX (yeeesh!) isn't exactly Gloria Steinem in an ushanka but she's still light years ahead of many of the twinkie-esque Bond girls that proceeded her. Plus Bach gives a strong and nicely-understated performance, even if her Russian accent blinks in and out of existence from time to time.

We also get the requisite scene of Bond being dispatched from MI-6 before heading out on his latest mission. Continuity fans rejoice: the positively delightful Desmond Llewelyn is on hand as Q and he has some wonderful scenes with Moore and his superiors. Speaking of continuity, fans of the novels already know that Bond was formally a Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and we get to see 007 in uniform here. The well-starched Moore is perfect in this capacity, doing justice to both the title, the uniform and the epic-level Britishness required to pull this off.

Next up we're introduced to the villain of the piece in the form of accomplished German-Austrian actor Curd Jürgens as the megalomaniacal shipping magnate Karl Stromberg. Between his unblinking stare and powerful voice, Curd Jürgens is positively hypnotic to watch. Whenever he's on-screen I always find myself hanging on his every word. Over the course of several brief but economically-informational scenes, Stromberg ticks off all of the qualities required for a great a James Bond villain. If you don't believe me then watch the movie with the following check list nearby:
  • Exotic accent...check!
  • Blatant disregard for human life...check!
  • Bizarre physical deformity...check!
  • Obsession with some form of animal life...check! 
  • Unconventional fashion choices...check!
  • More money than Jay-Z and Beyonce put together...check!
  • Swingin' underwater lair...check!
  • Pet selachimorpha...check!  (slight demerit, though, for not bothering to install any frikkin' head-mounted laser beams)
  • Monstrous, virtually indestructible henchman...check!
  • Insane plan to wipe out most of the planet's population...check! 
As you can see, Stromberg pretty much bats a thousand in the crazed super-villain department. In his very first scene he thanks two patron scientists for developing a submarine tracking system and then vows to pay them ten million large apiece for their troubles. Then, just for shits and giggles, he makes them watch as he feeds a duplicitous assistant to his pet shark. As if that's not crazy enough, he then proceeds to auto-detonate the the scientist's helicopter and re-divert their payments back into his own account. And that's why rich people will always be rich. It's like that old saying: "a penny saved by murdering your employees in cold blood is a penny earned."  

As a side note, Stromberg's amphibious hideout Atlantis is some pretty sweet digs. When it's deployed to "air dry" mode it looks particularly bad-ass, like the kinda place where Aquaman villain Black Manta might hang out. Between this secret base, the Soviet and British subs, and Stromberg's ship-eating super-tanker the Liparus, the model work by Derek Meddings is still some of the most convincing miniature effects ever committed to film before or since.  

Adding to the film's considerable visual appeal are all the exotic locales. The Sphinx, the Pyramids plus all the assorted temples and statuary all add up to an amazing visual panoply. Veteran Bond movie director Lewis Gilbert and renowned cinematographer Claude Renoir (grandson of the famous impressionist artist) do a bang-up job replicating the son et lumière show near the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. This stunningly- beautiful qualities of this scene are in stark contrast to the vampire-like murder of Aziz Fekkesh played by Nadim Sawalha. 

Which brings me to Stromberg's unstoppable hit-man Jaws, played to hulking, mute perfection by Richard Kiel. By all accounts, Kiel was a real sweetheart off-screen but when first laid eye on him as a seven year old kid he instantly joined the ranks of Darth Vader from Star Wars and Bigfoot from The Six Million Dollar Man as the most terrifying fictional characters of the Seventies. I didn't know if I should hide under my theater seat or chuckle at his constant misfortunes, and that was part of the magic. One minute Jaws is chomping through chains and necks or trying to murder Bond and Anya on a moving train and the next minute he's engaged in comical wrasslin' match with a telephone van and dropping giant bricks on his size 17 EEE canoes.

As luck would have it, MI-6 just so happens to have a branch office conveniently located in some Egyptian ruins, which is great since it gives the screenwriters an excuse to bring Q back for a few more scenes. The subsequent gadget test montage is one of the goofier ones in the entire Bond franchise but it's also incredibly funny. I'm pretty sure this is where Eddie Izzard got the whole Death Star canteen / "death by tray" thing from. But best of all, this whole sequence gives Q an opportunity to roll out the best James Bond car ever: the Motherfucking Lotus Esprit.

Sorry, folks, but you can cube your precious Aston Martin for all I care. I promise you right now: if I ever, ever become Stromberg-level stupid rich the first thing I'm gonna do is requisition a 1976 white Lotus Esprit with special amphibious option. During an extended motorcycle /car / helicopter (!) chase, Bond uses the vehicle's incredible agility and rear-mounted cement cannons to throw off his pursuers. But when the chopper, piloted by the fetching Caroline Munro as Naomi, proves to be more than a worthy adversary, Bond is forced to take a long drive off of a short pier. What happened next completely shattered my fragile eggshell mind.

Right before my unbelieving eyes the fucking thing turned into a fully functional sub! Needless to say I was completely blown away. Especially when, moments later, 007 destroyed Naomi's helicopter with a mini ballistic missile launched from the Lotus. Pretty cool, even if it was a dreadful waste of hottie.

Over the next ten minutes or so of screen time the car continued to amaze, giving James and Anya an opportunity to snoop around Stromberg's submerged Atlantis and even fend off an attack from his henchmen. Bonus points: when Bond finally rolls up onto a nearby beach, we get our first appearance of the recurring "drunk guy who thinks he's hallucinating" character, played by the film's assistant director, Victor Tourjansky. He reprised this role two more times: once in Moonraker (1979) and also in For Your Eyes Only (1981).

Eventually the film throws all of its fucks out the window and races towards not one but two insane climaxes. First Bond breaks free and leads a revolt of the prisoners aboard Stomberg's super-tanker, the Liparus. Between M's tweed n' hickory office, Gogol's spartan KGB headquarters, Stomberg's shag-carpet think tank and his super-swanky dining hall, all of Ken Adam's set designs are absolutely gorgeous. But, arguably, the best set in the entire Bond series is the tanker's interior sub pen. It was so expansive, reflective and huge that cinematographer Claude Renoir couldn't see to the end of it so Adam called in renowned recluse Stanley Kubrick to advise the lighting team. So, not only does this set look massively huge, it also looks positively gorgeous.

The battle aboard the Liparus is an orgy of blood squibs and explosions with more grenades casually hurled than during the entire invasion of Normandy. In a lesser film, that would be the end of it, but since Stromberg is pretty damned brilliant, Bond is forced to deal with the villain's many safeguards. When the baddies seal  themselves up in the command center behind a massive blast door, Bond is forced to overcome a tense time challenge by using his brains. To the screenwriter's credit, both the solve and the delivery becomes an almost unbearable wellspring of suspense. 

Eventually things come down to a mano-a-mano confrontation between Bond and Stromberg. Unlike so many tiresome modern action movies, there's no prolonged dust up or chase scene, the two enemies just try to murder one another in the quickest, most economic manner possible. Their battle is over so quickly that it's downright refreshing. This still leaves enough time for a final showdown with Jaws, the rescue of Anya and a Poseidon Adventure-style escape that's still pretty damned thrilling. The whole thing is capped off with a tongue-in-cheek retrieval operation that's well in step with the film's lighthearted take on the then-new concept of detente.

Where some Bond snobs like to crap the Roger Moore era for being too jokey and not gritty enough, but I'd counter this by saying that Bond has just enough dimension which leaves him open to interpretation. In the form of Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton and now Daniel Craig we've had three pretty pretty sober takes on the character so I really appreciate Roger's films for their contrasting, light-hearted tone, unabashed Austin Powers-style elements and pure spectacle.

Tilt: up.