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Out in Theaters: ‘SUBURBICON’

A Beaver Clever-era, suburbia-set take on the Fargo formula, Suburbicon manages to tack onto its strange plot plagiarism a tone deaf racial integration backdrop and a slew of characters unable to pass as either likable or interesting. It’s an oddly comfortless misfire from director George Clooney, one that seems promising on paper but never is able to click once the tape starts rolling. Snooze-inducing if stylish, Suburbicon takes a host of talent in front of and behind the camera and squanders it in on an effort that, while never outright stupid, is almost unbearably not as smart, clever or funny as it seems to think it is.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2’

Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, the Mother of Rebellion, the Mockingjay, admits in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 that she is but a slave to the dictatorial President of Panem (played to chilly perfection by Donald Sutherland). Pitted against those she has no desire to fight in what has brewed up into an all-out civil war, she with more nicknames than Daenerys Targaryen is but still a pawn in the battle between warring factions. Her burden as torch bearer of a revolution was as predetermined as Prim’s name being reaped from a turnstile. So too is The Hunger Games (the films) enslaved to Suzanne Collins‘ cheaper narrative instincts and predestined by the closing chapters of her best-selling novels. But just as Collins’ books have their hero, the Lionsgate franchise have their own saving graces in the frankly splendid set design, a remarkably top-shelf cast, a vivid, wonderfully realized sense of imagination and the series finest action set pieces to date. Read More

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Out in Theaters: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

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From stadiums to tedium, the third entry in Lions Gate‘s multi-billion dollar franchise is decidedly half a story. Following up on what I like to call “Harry Potter Precedent”, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 takes us through the first half of Suzanne Collins‘ 390 page young adult dystopian fiction without ever getting to the fanfare of an actual conclusion. As point of comparison, “The Hunger Games” was 374 pages and “Catching Fire” was 391. So it’s no stretch to say that the material has been, er, stretched. However in that money-hustlin’ act of distention, something more singular and nuanced has taken shape. Mockingjay: Part 1 – though lax on events – rises up as easily the most thematically rich of the franchise, offering up characters actually worth exploring and a thoughtful meditation into the psychology of revolution. Those wanting explosions will undoubtedly be left cold as this quiet trek to the end is much more focused on emotional implosions.

Disbanded after the catastrophic conclusion of the Third Quarter Quell, Katniss is separated from Peeta and now takes refuge in the bombed out remains of District 13. While costumery, training and pageantry made up the bulk of the former chapters in Katniss’ previous stories, Mockingjay immediately unfurls a laundry list of political intrigue. Do not be mistaken, this is no longer a story about head-to-head combat, it’s one about sneaks in the shadows and stabs in the dark. As Peeta and Katniss drift further apart, a new rebel army must convince the population of Panem to band together and overthrow the tyranny of the Capitol and the serpentine President Snow. It’s an entirely new direction for the franchise, one unmistakably slower and more deliberate, that makes the absolute most of its substantially limited material.

The Hunger Games‘ central themes were rooted in power relationships, social class standing and public perception. Catching Fire‘s foot was placed firmly in the door of manipulation, loyalty and PDA. Mockingjay however is all about sacrifice; the sacrifice of life, self and artifice.

Coin__Heavensbee_in_Mockingjay.jpg

In a couple of visually powerful scenes, hordes of rebels bum-rush the Capitol Peacekeepers; men of violence in starched whites; faceless monkeys in sterilized jumpsuits popping off precise machine gun bursts like Call of Duty junkies. They are the Israeli tech to the Palestinian rocks. These troglodyte abandoning their lives in pursuit of the greater good, this is what the movie is about. If you need to put a face to the name of sacrifice, these be them. This proletariat working class rising against the elite bourgeoisie harkens back to Marxist theory and director Francis Lawrence knows it. And exploits it. He puffs Mockingjay‘s thematic elements into visually arresting kamikazes of epic scope. It makes for some potent scene work, conjuring up a science-fiction take on the French Revolution’s insurmountable odds and the death toll that accompanies such. It’s not quite peacocking but the man clearly knows what he is doing.

To a slightly more diminutive degree, Katniss too must sacrifice. But her loss is more emotional; more of a personal transformation (sans multiple fire-themed costume changes.) Her sense of self must be muted (though I’m not entirely convinced that she ever did have a very pronounced sense of self). At the behest of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) she must rise into an unwanted leadership position, at the risk of putting those she loves in increasingly tight spots. It becomes clear by this point that Katniss is but a kid. A pawn. A pretty face to rally around. It’s both demeaning and complimentary. Buck up kid.

Jennifer-Lawrence-In-The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-Part-1-Images.jpg

Her arc in this third chapter is about stepping into a role you don’t want; about being an emblem for something larger than yourself. Unlike Batman, she is the symbol that Panem needs and the one it wants. She pouts at first, and poorly acts her way through a to-be televised revolution campaign, but when the chips fall, she’s as game as the film’s namesake.

Another character – who from the get-go has hierarchically placed maintaining a sense of self above all else – bargains with losing his identity under untold torment. As Peeta, Josh Hutcherson is finally able to communicate something more than puppy dog devotion and his physical and emotional transformation is fittingly jarring. Pity the same can’t be said for pretty boy Liam Hemsworth.

In this whirlwind of sacrifice, even Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) must deal with the stylistic hell of a drab jumpsuit. In Maslovian terms, some sacrifices are greater than others but all sacrifices take their toll. To go without fuchsia eyeliner may be as taxing to Effie as an enthusiastic throttling may be to Katniss. We all must take our punches and roll appropriately.

Though I found much to appreciate within the thematic elements of Mockingjay – Part 1, I cannot deny  that this first act is total foreplay. But it’s sweet, sexy foreplay. The kind of foreplay that seeks to remind you that sometimes the teasing is more gratifying than the climax. Sure, the next installment promises death and destruction and whiskers on kittens but there’s something sweetly satisfying about silent implosions in the eye of the storm.

Perhaps because Mockingjay – Part 1 marks the first time I’ve felt invested in Katniss’s many relationships, the performances shine more than ever. Jennifer Lawrence‘s Katniss is rounded out by attributes other than “hardened”, “resilient” and “badass.” Here she’s very much out of control – the antithesis of what the glorious icon the rebellion wants to present her as. For the first time, it feels like she actually gets to, you know, act.

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A somber tribute to Phillip Seymour Hoffman denotes the end of the film and – not that it’s much of a surprise – his performance here is truly noteworthy. It won’t be remembered amongst his greatest but it’s a sweet, family-friendly reminder of what we’ve lost with his passing. Hoffman was able to communicate so much with so little; the sarcastic roll of an eye or a flick of the head that says, “Told you so” mean so much when rolled off Hoffman’s full shoulders.

As tensions mount in seat-hugging waves, a late-stage scene has President Snow transform into a full blown Star Fox villain. A bloated talking head grinning and cackling like a caricature, his white mane is that of a political tiger; his flesh-eating smile as poisonous as nightlock. It seems like the first time Donald Sutherland is actually chewing into the role.

But this is not a fun movie. Nor is it really geared towards kids. In the third outing of Hunger Games, you’re more likely to find subtext than battle. And yet Mockingjay – Part 1 is easily the most violent of the series. However, the violence isn’t physical so much as it is emotional; the taxing price of hope. This beginning of the closing chapter stomps out what it truly means to revolt; about the quiet minutia of a coup; the slogging footwork of a revolution. It’s not particularly eventful but it’s bloody well more interesting than more lathering, rinsing and repeating.

B-

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Out in Theaters: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

KATNISS.jpg
From stadiums to tedium, the third entry in Lions Gate‘s multi-billion dollar franchise is decidedly half a story. Following up on what I like to call “Harry Potter Precedent”, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 takes us through the first half of Suzanne Collins‘ 390 page young adult dystopian fiction without ever getting to the fanfare of an actual conclusion. As point of comparison, “The Hunger Games” was 374 pages and “Catching Fire” was 391. So it’s no stretch to say that the material has been, er, stretched. However in that money-hustlin’ act of distention, something more singular and nuanced has taken shape. Mockingjay: Part 1 – though lax on events – rises up as easily the most thematically rich of the franchise, offering up characters actually worth exploring and a thoughtful meditation into the psychology of revolution. Those wanting explosions will undoubtedly be left cold as this quiet trek to the end is much more focused on emotional implosions.

Disbanded after the catastrophic conclusion of the Third Quarter Quell, Katniss is separated from Peeta and now takes refuge in the bombed out remains of District 13. While costumery, training and pageantry made up the bulk of the former chapters in Katniss’ previous stories, Mockingjay immediately unfurls a laundry list of political intrigue. Do not be mistaken, this is no longer a story about head-to-head combat, it’s one about sneaks in the shadows and stabs in the dark. As Peeta and Katniss drift further apart, a new rebel army must convince the population of Panem to band together and overthrow the tyranny of the Capitol and the serpentine President Snow. It’s an entirely new direction for the franchise, one unmistakably slower and more deliberate, that makes the absolute most of its substantially limited material.

The Hunger Games‘ central themes were rooted in power relationships, social class standing and public perception. Catching Fire‘s foot was placed firmly in the door of manipulation, loyalty and PDA. Mockingjay however is all about sacrifice; the sacrifice of life, self and artifice.

Coin__Heavensbee_in_Mockingjay.jpg

In a couple of visually powerful scenes, hordes of rebels bum-rush the Capitol Peacekeepers; men of violence in starched whites; faceless monkeys in sterilized jumpsuits popping off precise machine gun bursts like Call of Duty junkies. They are the Israeli tech to the Palestinian rocks. These troglodyte abandoning their lives in pursuit of the greater good, this is what the movie is about. If you need to put a face to the name of sacrifice, these be them. This proletariat working class rising against the elite bourgeoisie harkens back to Marxist theory and director Francis Lawrence knows it. And exploits it. He puffs Mockingjay‘s thematic elements into visually arresting kamikazes of epic scope. It makes for some potent scene work, conjuring up a science-fiction take on the French Revolution’s insurmountable odds and the death toll that accompanies such. It’s not quite peacocking but the man clearly knows what he is doing.

To a slightly more diminutive degree, Katniss too must sacrifice. But her loss is more emotional; more of a personal transformation (sans multiple fire-themed costume changes.) Her sense of self must be muted (though I’m not entirely convinced that she ever did have a very pronounced sense of self). At the behest of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) she must rise into an unwanted leadership position, at the risk of putting those she loves in increasingly tight spots. It becomes clear by this point that Katniss is but a kid. A pawn. A pretty face to rally around. It’s both demeaning and complimentary. Buck up kid.

Jennifer-Lawrence-In-The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-Part-1-Images.jpg

Her arc in this third chapter is about stepping into a role you don’t want; about being an emblem for something larger than yourself. Unlike Batman, she is the symbol that Panem needs and the one it wants. She pouts at first, and poorly acts her way through a to-be televised revolution campaign, but when the chips fall, she’s as game as the film’s namesake.

Another character – who from the get-go has hierarchically placed maintaining a sense of self above all else – bargains with losing his identity under untold torment. As Peeta, Josh Hutcherson is finally able to communicate something more than puppy dog devotion and his physical and emotional transformation is fittingly jarring. Pity the same can’t be said for pretty boy Liam Hemsworth.

In this whirlwind of sacrifice, even Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) must deal with the stylistic hell of a drab jumpsuit. In Maslovian terms, some sacrifices are greater than others but all sacrifices take their toll. To go without fuchsia eyeliner may be as taxing to Effie as an enthusiastic throttling may be to Katniss. We all must take our punches and roll appropriately.

Though I found much to appreciate within the thematic elements of Mockingjay – Part 1, I cannot deny  that this first act is total foreplay. But it’s sweet, sexy foreplay. The kind of foreplay that seeks to remind you that sometimes the teasing is more gratifying than the climax. Sure, the next installment promises death and destruction and whiskers on kittens but there’s something sweetly satisfying about silent implosions in the eye of the storm.

Perhaps because Mockingjay – Part 1 marks the first time I’ve felt invested in Katniss’s many relationships, the performances shine more than ever. Jennifer Lawrence‘s Katniss is rounded out by attributes other than “hardened”, “resilient” and “badass.” Here she’s very much out of control – the antithesis of what the glorious icon the rebellion wants to present her as. For the first time, it feels like she actually gets to, you know, act.

15062502707_9803e33efb_o.jpg
A somber tribute to Phillip Seymour Hoffman denotes the end of the film and – not that it’s much of a surprise – his performance here is truly noteworthy. It won’t be remembered amongst his greatest but it’s a sweet, family-friendly reminder of what we’ve lost with his passing. Hoffman was able to communicate so much with so little; the sarcastic roll of an eye or a flick of the head that says, “Told you so” mean so much when rolled off Hoffman’s full shoulders.

As tensions mount in seat-hugging waves, a late-stage scene has President Snow transform into a full blown Star Fox villain. A bloated talking head grinning and cackling like a caricature, his white mane is that of a political tiger; his flesh-eating smile as poisonous as nightlock. It seems like the first time Donald Sutherland is actually chewing into the role.

But this is not a fun movie. Nor is it really geared towards kids. In the third outing of Hunger Games, you’re more likely to find subtext than battle. And yet Mockingjay – Part 1 is easily the most violent of the series. However, the violence isn’t physical so much as it is emotional; the taxing price of hope. This beginning of the closing chapter stomps out what it truly means to revolt; about the quiet minutia of a coup; the slogging footwork of a revolution. It’s not particularly eventful but it’s bloody well more interesting than more lathering, rinsing and repeating.

B-

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Out in Theaters: NON-STOP

“Non-Stop”
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong’o, Omar Metwally
Action, Mystery, Thriller
106 Mins
PG-13

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Perfectly adequate entertainment, slyly primed to keep you guessing and anchored with deliciously smarmy stars, Non-Stop is exactly the kind of in-flight, mile-high thriller you’d expect attached to the name Liam Neeson. From Neeson and Julianne Moore to Corey Stoll and Scott McNairy, there’s a bevy of great performers lining the rows from business class to coach, each given their fair share of silliness to weave into stakes-laden seriousness. While the script may leak the occasional nonsense into the proceedings of this 3,300 mile Transatlantic trip, thankfully none of the performers are caught with their pants down. If the goal is to keep the ball up in the air as long as possible, they’ve done their jobs right, helping make Non-Stop a perfectly suitable one-and-done thrill ride sure to please the masses.

Non-Stop Neeson might as well be Brian Mills at some different stage in his life – a bizzaro version whose daughter never made it to France (…or out of grade school). Instead of honing his particular set of skills, he stooped into a depressive alcoholic state. Still preserved is his towering frame and inimitable Irish-American cadence, making him the kind of pensive brute that you’ll believe can snap a neck with his bare hands, the brand of machismo that you can easily muster up a scenario in which you’d submit to him like a field mouse to its prey. If Neeson’s new found persona as an action hero relies on him domineering opponents in a mental wrestling match, he’s the E. Honda of intimidation. With this half-drunk, gunslinger of the sky growling at you in meaty garbles, you’d find yourself cowering in the fuselage corner too.

To call it “Taken on a Plane” would be an oversimplification but it’s a easy distinction to make for people with about a half-second attention span; a quick soundbite to consume for the inattentive rabble, so let’s run with it. But while Taken steered Neeson’s career in wildly unexpected places, having him dash around France at neck break speeds to, uh, break necks, Non-Stop is a good step outside the same categorical genre. Where Taken is an all-out actioner, this is much more of a suspense-thriller; reserved, predatory and only sparsely violent. As Non-Stop rarely relies on action beats, it’s ability to skirt around said beats makes it all the more intriguing to our somewhat quelled intellect and, more importantly, the film’s internal sense of suspense.

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Confronted with the threat that an anonymous hijacker will kill someone on the plane every twenty minutes until $150 million is deposited in an account, Neeson’s Bill Marks stirs with questions of “How do you kill someone on a crowded plane and get away with it?” Indeed. Cleverly enough, writers John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle manage to dovetail the promise of in-flight demise with the need to keep the antagonist anonymous. As we get to know the crowded plane load of colorful potential suspects, our suspicions waver like a compass on a magnet, never quite showing us true north and sporadically pointing in new directions. At times, we’re worried that the threat may not even be on the actual plane but thankfully we’re never confronted with this “waking from a dream” cop out of a twist. No, everything is rather succinctly handled in the as-promised confines of the airplane, allowing this Chekov’s gun to be as tightly loaded as possible and ready to spring at any moment.

When (s)he inevitably comes out of the closet, the perfunctory villain’s explanation is undeniably underwhelming, but it’s nice to see something other than the one-trick pony that’s become the man “who wants to watch the world burn” or, even more boring, those who “are just in it for the money.” Even though the worldview-cocking, diatribe-spewing conclusion feels half-baked, at least our villain musters up an excuse for their passenger-offing dickishness. As convoluted and circumstantial as their plan may be, at least there is a plan and a semblance of an ideology.

Demanding a mention is the addition of soon to be Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o who is also onboard for no particular reason other than to rock a relic of the past by way of hairdo, a glib style only suitable for runway models or Bond girl May Day. For someone primed to add a trophy to her shelf by the end of the weekend, she’s barely juiced for more than a line, a reality that I lament for little more than the fact that I wanted to see her flex her acting chops outside the realm of slavery.

While most of the film’s logic can be punted through with the mention of a black box, it’s not one of those omnipresent nags that won’t allow you to enjoy watching the events unfold as they do. The circumstantial implications throughout are hazy though, delving into the increasingly present question of whether security is worth the cost of sacrificing one’s personal liberties. 9/11 anxiety or no, I think we can all safely agree that we don’t want random security checks in the midst of our commutes, be they on board an airplane or otherwise. Pushing those bits of moralistic ponderances aside, Neeson again shows a knack for straight-faced comedy and his couple of off-the-cuff jokes roped the audience into easy stitches. Undeniably ripe for a sequel (or even franchise), Non-Stop is exactly what it ought to be: fun, fizzy and forgettable.

C

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