Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Future is Finished

‘Hunger Games’ finally runs out of gas in ‘Mockingjay 2’

Final Poster crop

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutherson, Donald Sutherland and Liam Hemsworth

Directed by Francis Lawrence

PG-13

Opens Nov. 20, 2015

“Mandatory Viewing” is the directive that pops up on holographic screens across all of post-apocalyptic Panem when dictator Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) beams a transmission to the masses.

That message couldn’t be truer for Hunger Games fans, especially as it pertains to this movie, the final film of the four made from author Suzanne Collins trilogy of best-selling dystopian young-adult novels. This is the end, the big finish. The Games have come to a close—mandatory viewing for the masses, if ever there was.

The first Hunger Games, in 2012, made Jennifer Lawrence a household name as Katniss Everdeen, the galloping, galvanizing firebrand who became the leader of a revolution and an icon of female empowerment. As Katniss fought and forged her way to freedom in brutal, futuristic “games,” fans faithfully came back, movie after movie, to follow her—and to see just how faithfully Hollywood kept to the details of Collins’ books, which melded a young-love triangle with wicked satire on reality TV, media propaganda, social stratification and war.

Fans will be satisfied with Mockingjay—Part 2. It covers all the bases and ties up the loose ends, and everybody’s back on board: Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), President Coin (Julianne Moore), Primrose (Willow Shields), Finnick (Sam Claflin), Cressida (Natalie Dormer), Johanna (Jena Malone). Even Phillip Seymour Hoffman returns, and he died in early 2014. It could have used a bit more of the colorful Games escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and wackadoo master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), but hey, you can’t cram everyone front and center, even in a movie that runs two hours and nearly 20 minutes.

And about that: Most of those minutes are filled with chatter. Characters talk a lot—about what they’ve done, they’re doing and going to do. Occasionally they get up and actually do something—like Katniss throwing a cup at a cat, or heading out on a covert, high-stakes mission, which sets up the two big action scenes. One (a subterranean attack by a horde of hissing, spastic lizard-people) looks like something out of a horror flick, with a nod to Alien; the other involves a massive, surging wave of sludge and oil, which everyone outruns like it’s only slightly more terrifying than an overflowing toilet—or the not-even-there computer effect that it really is.

Donald Sutherland

And it’s dark. Yes, people die. But it also looks dark, dim and dull—greys, browns, blanched-out, bleach-y, blahhhh tones that seem to blot out the sun. Sure, it’s a grim, wintry, wartime world. But why did director Francis Lawrence (who’s helmed every Games movie, except the first) make every scene look like it was lit with a 40-watt bulb? Did he blow his lighting budget on CGI sludge and lizard people?

And does everyone in the movie have that “over it” look because they’re tired of all that fighting for the revolution—or because they really are? As Mockingjay flutters and flaps to a close, this victory lap looks and feels like a slog.

The Hunger Games franchise made billions of box-office bucks and became a pop-cultural phenomenon. But finally the Games have run out of gas. Jennifer Lawrence, now 25, has become a global, Oscar-winning superstar, above and beyond the YA bow-and-arrow heroine, the “girl on fire” she started out playing four years ago.

“I am done,” Katniss says in one scene. Yes she is. Congratulations and good job, everyone. Now proceed toward the exits, and let’s all just keep moving.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Ho-Ho-Hokum

‘Love the Coopers’ is snow-covered Christmas gloop

(Left to right) Diane Keaton and John Goodman in LOVE THE COOPERS to be released by CBS Films and Lionsgate.

Love the Coopers

Starring John Goodman, Diane Keaton, Alan Arkin, Ed Helms & Olivia Wilde

Directed by Jessie Nelson

PG-13

In the early moments of this sprawling Christmas comedy, characters somehow appear to end up “inside” a snow globe, frolicking in the crystalline white flakes.

There’s a lot of snow in Love the Coopers; the stuff never stops falling. I was surprised by the end of the movie that it hadn’t shut down every road in Coopersville, or Cooperstown, or Coopers Knob, or wherever it is the story takes place. Instead, like a gigantic snow globe, the movie just seems to regenerate the same precipitate, shaking it up over and over again—so it doesn’t pile up, it just flies around and re-lands, making everything look like a big, fluffy white winter wonderland, snow on snow.

Love the Coopers indeed looks like a picture-perfect Christmas: sumptuous cookies and cupcakes, colorfully coordinated sweaters, coats and scarves, holiday carolers, red poinsettias, green mistletoe, twinkling lights on impeccably trimmed trees. Even the dogs are decorated.

LOVE THE COOPERS

Marissa Tomei

But all the cheery Christmas decorations cover up a big, dysfunctional mess: The Coopers are falling apart, in just about every way. Mom Charlotte (Diane Keaton) and dad Sam (John Goodman) are planning to split after 40 years of marriage. Their grown kids (Ed Helms and Olivia Wilde), Charlotte’s younger sister (Marissa Tomei) and her dad (Alan Arkin) all have issues of their own.

There’s also a jaded waitress (Amanda Seyfried), a foul-mouthed urchin granddaughter (Blake Baumgartner), a cop with an identity crisis (Anthony Mackie), a couple of teens working out the sloppy, tongue-twisting kinks of French kissing, a say-anything septuagenarian aunt (June Squibb), and a strapping young soldier (Jake Lacy) who gets roped into the Christmas Eve family reunion as a pretend boyfriend.

And a partridge in a pear tree—no, not really. But it does get very, very crowded, and that’s not even counting the narrator, who turns out to be…well, someone whose name you’ll certainly recognize, in a form you’ll in no way be expecting, in a manner that makes absolutely no sense at all.

LOVE THE COOPERS

Producer-director Jessie Nelson, whose previous projects include the heart-tugging, high-pedigree gloop of I Am Sam, Stepmom and Corrina, Corrina, remains true to form here, with an all-star cast fumbling around in a deep-dish holiday goo of dumb dialogue, silly shtick and artificial sweetness that feels like a concoction created with ingredients ladled from other, far better cinematic Christmas crock pots—a dollop of It’s a Wonderful Life, splashes of Love, Actually, sprinkles of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Snow on snow on snow.

Ed Helms and Alan Arkin sing, a dog gets blamed for a fart he didn’t make and Marissa Tomei hides a brooch in her mouth. There’s mashed potato slinging, Christmas carol mangling, streets full of Santas, gingerbread men in G-string frosting, and a joyous, swirling dance to a Bob Dylan song.

And so much snow. But it never piles up—and like the movie, it never adds up, either, to anything more than a slushy, mushy holiday heap of ho-ho-hokum.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Bond is Back!

‘Spectre’ double-O dazzles with derring-do, action & emotional depth  

Spectre

Spectre

Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz and Lèa Seydoux

Directed by Sam Mendes

PG-13

 

James Bond, with his iconic “license to kill,” has never been a stranger to death. And in Spectre, the latest adventure of the world’s most famous secret agent, the prospect of mortality looms especially large. “The dead are alive,” a cryptic sentence, is the very first thing you see on the screen, just before the face of a gigantic skeleton in a Day of the Dead parade.

But as Bond (Daniel Craig) notes at one point, “Death and dying—it’s all a matter of perspective.” Spectre, the 24th movie since Dr. No began the Bond franchise in 1962, may reflect on the past and even gaze into the grave, but it’s vibrantly, expressively, emotionally alive and very much in step with today. Reuniting Craig with director Sam Mendes—his partner in the snap, crackle and pop of Skyfall in 2012—it begins with Bond going off the grid to wrap up some unfinished business just as the “double-O” espionage program headed by his boss, M (Ralph Fiennes), is in danger of being scrapped back in London.

Daniel CraigA crusading young British intelligence officer, C (Andrew Scott, Moriarty on TV’s Sherlock), wants to replace Bond and his “prehistoric” stalk-and-shoot derring-do with a new multi-national initiative, using global surveillance and drones to keep track of criminals—as well as everyone else.

“It’s the future,” C tells M. “And you’re not.”

M smells a big, worldwide rat, and so does Bond—and off he goes to track it down, to Mexico, Rome, Austria and the desert of North Africa, setting up some thrilling set pieces that up the ante on cinematic Bond moments. A dazzling 15-minute beaut of an opener begins as one ludicrously long, unbroken tracking shot (filmed by a drone!) down a street and into an alley, up and out of an elevator, into a hotel room, through a window and onto a rooftop—before climaxing in a building-toppling explosion, a frantic foot chase and a brutal hand-to-hand fight in an out-of-control helicopter dipping and diving over a crowded plaza filled with thousands of people.

Wow!

There’s a sleek nighttime car chase, an alpine pursuit with an airplane that becomes both a bobsled and a battering ram, and a brawl in a train so slam-bang intense you expect it to cause a derailment.

Christoph Waltz (left) and Leå Seydoux in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions’ action adventure SPECTRE.

Christoph Waltz

Christoph Waltz plays a nefarious über-villain with a deep-rooted evil secret that haunts—and hurts—Bond in more ways that one. Former pro wrestler Dave Bautista (so memorable as the red-tattooed Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy) is a hulking wall of sneering, leering bad news—and only one teeny, tiny two-word line of dialogue.

Lea Seydoux

Lèa Seydoux

As the latest “Bond girl,” French actress Lèa Seydoux gives Bond pause for something “more important” than the sometime-vicious necessities of his job. Ben Whitslaw returns as nerdy gadget master Q, and Naomie Harris is back as Moneypenny, the office assistant who’s now become an invaluable assignment aide.

Will this, Craig’s fourth outing as James Bond, be his last, as rumored? Time will tell. Other spies come and go, but Bond—whoever portrays him—has been the standard for more than 50 years, and Spectre finds him in fine, full, clever, super-stylish, ultra-cool, death-dodging form, very much alive and well.

“It’s good to have you back, 007,” M tells him at one point, welcoming him home. Yes, it bloody well double-O is!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Down & Dirty

Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton make politics personal in ‘Crisis

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS

Our Brand is Crisis

Starring Sandra Bullock & Billy Bob Thornton

Directed by David Gordon Green

R

“I can convince myself of many things, if the price is right,” says Sandra Bullock’s character, “Calamity Jane” Bodine, in Our Brand is Crisis.

Jane is pretty good at convincing other people, too. That’s why the formerly formidable campaign strategist is lured out of early retirement to help an unpopular Bolivian president in an upcoming election—by convincing the reluctant public, through whatever means necessary, that they should vote for him.

But this battle’s not just political, it’s also personal: Bodine has to match wits with an old nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s been hired to strategize for the other side.

It’s based on things that went down at a real 2002 Bolivian election, which was chronicled in an award-winning 2005 documentary of the same name. Thornton’s character is a movie remold of former hardball strategist James Carville, who appeared as himself in the original film. Bullock’s character—a part originally written for a male—is an amalgam of several other actual people.

OUR BRAND IS CRISISBullock and Thornton provide the movie’s real spark; it’s too bad there’s not more of it, and more of them, to help the whole thing catch fire. There’s a murky, turbulent history between Bodine and Candy that we never fully understand, just one of several things the movie doesn’t make clear. But the deft, unfussy way the two characters spar and parry, in guarded conversations and piercing silences, are artful reminders of just how these two pros can make the most of their screen time.

Scoot McNairy, Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie are also aboard as Calamity Jane’s team members. Zoe Kazan plays a young dirty-tricks research wonk brought in to turn up the heat when things shift into true “crisis” overdrive.

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS

Zoe Kazan

George Clooney is one of the producers. The director, David Gordon Green, has a wide-ranging resume that includes the stoner comedies Pineapple Express and Your Highness. Peter Straughan, who provided the screenplay, is also the writer of the espionage thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The movie has some solid DNA, but it never seems to know whether it wants to make us think, make us chuckle or make us sad. Is it political parody with heart, a satire that jabs with its funny bone, or a south-of-the-border rom-com based on real headlines? (The biggest  audience response, for what it’s worth, comes from Bullock’s bare buttocks hanging out an open bus window.)

If you’re a political junkie, this is your time of year. The presidential candidate debates make for riveting, sometimes-outrageous TV, and shows like The Good WifeScandalVeep and the new Agent X take viewers inside the heated (fictionalized) heavings of Washington, D.C. Our Brand is Crisis brings up some timely points about what it takes to mount—and win—a campaign.

But is anyone surprised that politics plays dirty? That strategists can be snake-oil salesmen who convince people to buy things they don’t need, to elect leaders who may not have their best interests in mind? That America exports its will and influence to other parts of the world?

After her first meeting with the Bolivian president, Bodine realizes what a daunting job she signed on for, and she wearily notes that he “doesn’t smell like a winner.” Unfortunately, despite Sandra and Billy Bob, neither does this.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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‘Room’ Mates

Dazzling dual performances shatter gut-punch gloom

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Room

Starring Brie Larson and Jason Tremblay

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

A woman and her young son laugh, play, tease each other, have breakfast and read books. She tells him when he’s watched too much TV, coaches him on brushing his teeth, bakes him a birthday cake and sings him a lullaby at bedtime.

It seems so lovely, so happy, and so right. But in the opening moments of Room, we know that something is so awfully, terribly, very, very wrong.

Ma (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jason Tremblay), who’s just turned five, are prisoners in a soundproof, windowless outdoor shed measuring about 10 feet square. Jack was born there, the son of a man who still comes to “visit” Joy in the evenings and bring the things she and Jack need to survive. The room is not only Jack’s home, it’s the only world he knows, the only place he’s ever been, and the entirety of everything he’s ever seen, done and experienced.

That’s the setup for director Lenny Abrahamson’s knockout, gut-punch movie adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s award-winning 2010 novel.

Jack is a growing boy, and Ma—whose real name, which has lost much of its meaning for her, is Joy—remembers life outside “room.” She wants a better life for Jack, who’s getting old enough to understand more about their predicament. She hatches a wild, dangerous plan.

room-ROOM_DAY8-0044_rgbLarson, who’s already demonstrated her acting chops on TV (The United States of Tara, Community) and in films (21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now, Don Jon, Trainwreck) turns in a performance that’s getting major—and deserved—Oscar buzz. She plays Joy as a wounded, fiercely protective, paternal marvel, a woman who’s held things together for herself and her son and made a hellhole a home for seven long, almost unfathomably dark years.

And young newcomer Tremblay makes you feel every soft, wide-eyed nuance of Jack’s innocence, curiosity and confusion, and the steep, overwhelming learning curve he faces in the dazzling, blinding hustle-bustle of the outside “world,” full of new things—other people, pets, traffic, ice cream, germs.

Jason Tremblay

William H. Macy plays Joy’s father, who can’t get his mind around the ordeal his daughter has endured. Veteran TV/film actress Joan Allen is her mother, who becomes the warm heart of the film’s second half.

The only natural light in Joy and Jack’s dismal room comes from a small, single skylight, high in the ceiling. The camera turns to that skylight often—just like the movie itself, despite its rather grim, gloomy premise, which also keeps turning to something higher, brighter and beautiful. It may begin in a claustrophobic box, but driven by the breakout performances of its two main stars, Room becomes a moving, lyrical meditation on love, imagination, bravery, strength, happiness, home, holding on and letting go, looking back and moving on, and the unbreakable, unshakeable bond between a mother and child.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Tech Titan

Smart, savvy ‘Steve Jobs’ shows the man behind digital revolution

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Steve Jobs

Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen & Jeff Daniels

Directed by Danny Boyle

R

Steve Jobs was a digital pioneer and technological entrepreneur whose ferocious drive and tenacious zeal for perfection lead to companies, products and services that today define much of the world’s lifestyle: Mac computers, iTunes, iPhones, iPads, iPods and Pixar movies.

But Jobs wasn’t successful right off the bat—and his life wasn’t nearly as sleek and smooth as the clean, uncluttered lines of a thin, new iPhone.

“I’m poorly made,” Jobs (Michael Fassbender) confesses to his head of marketing and longtime business associate Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) in Steve Jobs, the sprawling new biopic directed by Danny Boyle based on former Time magazine editor Walter Issacson’s 2010 bestseller.

Michael Fassbender and Seth Rogen

Michael Fassbender and Seth Rogen

His former partner, Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), comes to agree. “Your products are better than you are,” he tells him.

The movie begins in 1984 at an event heralding the launch of Jobs’ Macintosh computer, which turned out to be an overpriced, underpowered flop and ended his career at Apple, the California computer company he started in his garage in the 1970s with Wozniak. The film continues through two other “acts,” also around product launches: Jobs’ NeXT cube, in 1985 (another flop), and then the 1998 unveiling of the iMac, which marked his triumphant, full-circle return to Apple.

Director Boyle, an Oscar winner whose previous work includes Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, keeps things moving at an almost breathless pace and uses three different types of film (grainy 16mm, standard 35mm and crisp, high-def digital) to define each of the movie’s trio of distinctive segments. The screenplay by Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is full of the smart, savvy, rat-a-tat-tat dialog that made The Social Network, Moneyball and the TV shows The Newsroom and The West Wing zip and zing.

Steve Jobs

Jobs introduces his daughter (Makenzie Moss) to his latest invention, the Macintosh computer.

As the man at the center of it all, Fassbender portrays Jobs across a span of three decades and masterfully summons the powerful gravity that pulled other objects into his orbit—as well as the icy, distant chill that pushed most people away, including his daughter, Lisa (played at three different ages and stages by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo and Perla Haney-Jardine), by former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterson).

Jeff Daniels, a Sorkin mainstay, plays Apple CEO John Sculley, and Rogen steps outside his usual stoner-comedy roles as Wozniak, who comes to resent his former partner’s arrogance and hubris, his dismissive treatment of everyone who was ever close to him, and his rise to rock-god-like stardom.

Jobs—who died in 2011 from complications of a pancreatic tumor—may have been a tech and marketing genius, but Steve Jobs makes it clear he could also be a colossal jerk. To gazillions of Apple product uses, however, he became a guru, if not a messiah. Maybe that’s why Doyle’s closing shot—with Jobs bathed in blinding light, beaming, walking slowly into the camera before disappearing into a wash of white—looks so much like a resurrection.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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