Tag Archives: Elizabeth Banks

The Future is Finished

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

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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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Good Vibrations

Paul Dano, John Cusack share role of Beach Boy Brian Wilson

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Love & Mercy

Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks & Paul Giamatti

Directed by Bill Pohlad

PG-13

The Beach Boys and their songs about surf, sand, hot rods and girls represented West Coast light, life, fun and frolic in the 1960s. But the story “behind the music” had darker undertones, especially when it came to the group’s leader, Brian Wilson.

This trippy, time-tunnel dramatization of Wilson’s troubled, tortured musical genius bridges two different eras, 20 years apart, with powerful performances and mesmerizing filmmaking that recreates pivotal Beach Boys moments along with other, lesser-known incidents in Wilson’s life long after the group’s heyday.

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Paul Dano as ’60s-era Brian Wilson.

The movie’s most striking feature is its use of two different actors to portray its central character. As younger Brain, Paul Dano is nothing short of phenomenal in an Oscar-worthy performance that captures and channels the drive, innocence, obsession and brilliance that coalesced into the 1960s Beach Boys album Pet Sounds.

The movie toggles back and forth between Dano’s Brian and “later” Brian, movingly played by John Cusack as a shattered shell of man in the mid 1980s, imprisoned in a toxic relationship with a greedy, manipulative therapist (Paul Giamatti) who over-medicates him into a stupor and bars him from contact with his family.

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Elizabeth Banks and John Cusack

Elizabeth Banks is terrific as titanium blonde Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who comes into Wilson’s life in 1985, falls in love with him—and leads the charge for his deliverance.

The movie takes its title from a 1988 solo song by Wilson, and if you want to hear it, you’ll need to stay through the credits. It’s well worth the wait.

Although the relationship between Brian and Melinda puts much of the dramatic spotlight on Cusack, Banks and Giamatti, it’s Dano who steals the show. Composing songs at a piano, singing on stage, tinkering in the studio or simply feeling his head swell with a symphony of swirling music that only he can hear (kudos to Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross for his mood-perfect soundscapes), he conveys the sophisticated scope of Wilson’s prodigious talents, the heartbreak of his tumultuous relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) and the fissures that would later lead to full-blown mental and physical breakdowns.

“Who are you, Mozart?” Mike Love (Jake Abel) of the group asks Wilson as he seethes over Wilson taking more and more creative control—and leaving the rest of the Beach Boys on the sidelines. “It’s like you’re making your own record—we’re barely a part of the Brian Wilson band.”

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Beach Boys fans will love director Bill Pohlad’s almost documentary-style recreation of the group’s early promotional videos, album-cover photo shoots and TV performances. Sequences that depict Wilson in the recording studio, working with session players and band mates on what would become the 1966 pop-opus masterpiece Pet Sounds, feel like stolen, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the real thing.

But even more casual viewers will be touched by the romance at the heart of the tale, riveted by the acting, retro-grooved by the tunes, and entranced by the opportunity to learn more about a wounded pop-music Mozart who finally, fatefully found the Love & Mercy that healed him.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Second Verse

Tuneful reprise picks up a cappella tale, reunites cast

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Pitch Perfect

Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson & Hailee Steinfield

Directed by Elizabeth Banks

PG-13

A musical comedy that costs under $20 million to make and racks up more than three times that much at the box office will likely get another chance to sing.

That’s exactly the case with Pitch Perfect 2, a tune-filled reprise of the its 2012 predecessor that picks up the tale of a fictional all-female collegiate a cappella group, the Bellas, and reunites almost of all of the original cast (Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Skylar Austin, Adam Devine, Anna Camp, Ben Platt and Ester Dean).

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Das Sound Machine

This time, the Bellas are headed to a world championship sing-off against new rivals, an über-haughy German group called Das Sound Machine. But a major wardrobe oopsy during a performance attended by Present Obama and the First Lady has caused a serious kerfluffle, throwing off the Bellas’ musical mojo. And their senior member, Beca (Kendrick), is ready to move on to life beyond the group.

Forget—and forgive—that most of the actors and actresses (playing college coeds) are pushing 30, or just beyond it. Don’t worry that the plot is a shoestring of jokes and songs stretched 10 to 15 minutes longer than it really needed to be. Let slide the fact that Wilson’s roly-poly character, Fat Amy, would never be called that name by any group of good friends—unless it’s in a movie like this one.

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Hailee Steinfield

Pooh to all that, because Pitch Perfect 2 just wants to make you laugh—which it certainly does—in between silly cooing about the bonds of sisterhood and the awkwardness of young love. The jokes fly fast and flip, and the humor gets spread throughout the big cast, which includes Hailee Steinfield, who plays a fresh-faced Bella newcomer; Keegan-Michael Key, of the Comedy Central sketch show Key and Peele, as a cocky music producer; and rapper Snoop Dogg, who gets laughs just as himself, singing Christmas carols. (Also watch for Katey Segal; Comedy Bang Bang’s Reggie Watts, bandleader for The Late Late Show with James Cordon; and members of the Green Bay Packers, riffing on Beyoncé’s “Bootylicious.”) Of the returning cast, Wilson, in particular, steals every scene in which she appears, and the writers know it, giving her optimum setups, plum punch lines and plenty of room to improvise.

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John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks

Some of the funniest bits, however, belong to John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, who play the commentators covering the various singing competitions at which the Bellas appear. Higgins’ character’s snarky, sexist, racist observations may be politically incorrect, but they strike comedy gold.

The real “star” of the show, however, is its director. Making her feature debut behind the camera, Elizabeth Banks joins a very exclusive club—alongside Angelina Jolie and Jodie Foster—of actresses who’ve moved successfully into an almost wholly male-dominated domain, taken control of a major motion picture and made all the pieces fit—and work—together. Bravo, Ms. Banks!

It’s not quite as fresh as the original, but Pitch Perfect 2 is still a bright, light, fem-centric frolic of music and goofy fun for anyone who likes their laughter with a peppy soundtrack of razzle-dazzle a ca-showmanship.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Hungry For More

‘Hunger Games’ semi-finale is light on action but heavy on build-up

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman & Liam Hemsworth

Directed by Francis Lawrence

PG-13

Fans of The Hunger Games will be thrilled because the latest installment—the next-to-last movie, the result of splitting the final book of author Suzanne Collins’ smash trilogy into two movie parts—has hit the screen. But that excitement might be tinged by some disappointment in watching the feisty, girl-power heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) sit out much of the drama on the sidelines.

Mockingjay—Part 1 begins where last year’s Catching Fire left off: Katniss, the victor of the first two movies’ kill-or-be-kill games, has become a refugee from the totalitarian regime’s brutal President Snow (Donald Sutherland), living underground with a group of rebel insurgents and their leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore).

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Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore

A revolution is brewing, and the rebels want Katniss to become its poster girl. “We have to have a lightning rod,” says Coin. So Katniss is recruited to make a series of propaganda videos—or “propos”—to spark a rebellion in the miserable masses of Snow’s repressed citizens.

“It’s the worst terror in the world, waiting for something,” Coin tells Katniss. A lot of Hunger Games fans might agree, given that so much of the movie feels like waiting around for the real excitement to start.

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Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence

Katniss, the rousing action figure around which the entire franchise is based, appears in only one scene that would quality as an action scene, in which she gets to actually un-sheath an arrow from her quiver and fire it from her bow. But then it’s back to the bunker for more plotting, more prep, and hanging out while other people get down to the nitty-gritty. There’s other action—a big dam blows up, a bunch of forced-labor lumberjacks turn the tables on their “Peacekeeper” guards, and a daring nighttime rebel raid on President Snow’s compound looks like a mash-up of Mission Impossible and Zero Dark Thirty. But Katniss sits it all out.

Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer), who also steered last year’s Catching Fire, keeps things looking drab and dreary, to match the mood of repression, doubt and dread. Obviously, he’s holding back, saving the story’s knockout punch for its final act, the big show. OK, I get that—but frequently this warm-up seems like it’s huffing and puffing without generating a lot of real heat.

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Josh Hutcherson

The movies’ main cast returns: Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and (the late) Philip Seymour Hoffman. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are back as Peeta and Gale, the two hunks competing for Katniss’s affections, although the storyline puts them in very different places and situations.

There’s a lot here for Hunger Games fans to digest—political undertones, the drumbeat of war, public executions. And it’s got another great performance by Lawrence, who makes almost everything she does (even playing a bad actress, who struggles to get her propos lines right) fun to watch. She even breaks out in song, a haunting, dirge-like ditty called “The Hanging Tree.” There’s some real dramatic tension, a good deal of emotion, and one heck of a setup for the next movie.

But as for a big, “fiery” showdown that fans have been waiting, and waiting for, well, they’re just going to have to stay hungry a bit longer—until next November.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Everything is Awesome

Sharp, smart writing, gonzo wit and the pursuit of special-ness

LEGO

The Lego Movie

Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman & Elizabeth Banks

Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

PG-13, 100 min.

Since their introduction in Denmark in 1949, Lego construction toys have spread all over the world, across multiple generations and throughout the reaches of pop culture. In addition to almost endless varieties of play sets, characters and components, there are also Lego videogames, Lego clothes, Lego competitions, and Lego amusement parks in Europe, North America and Asia.

Now there’s a Lego movie—and more people have seen it than any other film in America since it opened earlier this year.

Clearly, Legos are immensely popular playthings. But The Lego Movie is also an exceptionally well-done, wildly entertaining piece of family-friendly fare, a rare piece of work that engages both grownups and kids with a sharp, smart writing, gonzo wit and a story that bridges cross-generational audiences.

000048.0027807.tifBrilliant digital animation creates a teeming, brick-by-brick Lego world—several of them, in fact—and a sprawling cast of Lego characters: Emmet (Chris Pratt), a everyday, by-the-book construction worker nubbin who may—or may not—be the fulfillment of a long-ago prophesy foretold by Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), a blind seer; Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful female resistance fighter; Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), a walking maritime junkyard of a pirate; Batman (Will Arnett), Superman (Channing Tatum) and the Green Lantern (Jonah Hill); Lord Business (Will Farrell), an evil control freak who wants to micro-manage everything and everyone; and Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), a literally two-faced law-enforcement officer.

Co-directors and writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose growing collaborative résumé includes the movies 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and TV’s How I Met Your Mother and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, weave themes of creativity, independence and cooperation into a story that runs on a crazy rail of nearly nonstop pop-cultural riffs and satirical references, understated comedic nuance as well as explosively absurd visual magic, and just the right tones of subversive cool for a movie that needs to appeal to children as well as parents.

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Early in the movie, Emmet gets in his Lego car, turns on the radio and hears a song, “Everything is Awesome.” It’s meant to be a big supersonic joke, an ironic mantra-like jab about conformity in a place where being mindlessly happy is mandatory. But it’s infectious as all get-out, and it becomes the movie’s theme. (It’s performed by the Canadian indie duo Tegan and Sara and the comedy-rap group the Lonely Island, and produced by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh.)

And like the interlocking pieces of the gazillions of Legos it would have taken to make this movie if it weren’t for the digital magic of computer animation, the song just fits. Yep, in this joyous, joke-filled parable about the joy of making stuff, the power of imagination and the pursuit of special-ness, everything pretty much is awesome.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Who’s Hungry?

‘Catching Fire’ sequel quenches ‘Hunger Games’ appetites

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Blu-ray $39.99, DVD $29.95 (Lionsgate Home Video)

Things are pretty bleak for young folks who have to fight to the death in The Hunger Games. But on the bright side: The sci-fi trilogy’s second blockbuster movie, the No.1 box-office hit of 2013, is well on its way to cracking the billion-dollar mark in sales. So don’t feel too bad for Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, or Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz and Donald Sutherland, all of whom reprise their original parts (plus an appearance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in what would become one of his final roles). Bonus features include a nine-part behind-the-scenes documentary, commentary from director Francis Lawrence, and deleted scenes.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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