The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2
Dir. Francis Lawrence
You'd think, with Lionsgate having split the final Hunger Games book into two films, that this final chapter would be a non-stop action thrill ride. You'd think. Unfortunately, Mockingjay Part 2 features almost just as much sitting around and doing nothing as Part 1, only with far less interesting tension brewing under the surface. While the entire cast is great (it's refreshing to see the female characters given most of the spotlight over their male counterparts), the set and costume design are top notch, and director Francis Lawrence definitely knows how to stage a CGI-filled action scene to make it feel grounded and real, I just can't get past the laboriously slow pacing of the film and the somewhat confused, contradictory plot.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is still the symbol of Rebellion for Panem, and her mission is to assassinate the ruthless President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to bring some semblance of peace and freedom to the world. Katniss was almost killed at the hands of her #2 lover, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who was brainwashed by Snow into making him believe she's the enemy. While Peeta is chomping at the bit to snap his former Hunger Games GF's neck in half, resistance leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) wants to keep Katniss away from the battlefield, saving her for future propaganda efforts. But Katniss being our hero, she instead sneaks off to lead a group of soldiers straight to the Capitol to kill President Snow once and for all, evading dozens upon dozens of "pods" (aka defensive booby traps set up by Snow) along the way. Sounds like fun right? Unfortunately, after EVERY "pod" sequence, the characters take a long break in between, camping out and figuring out their next move, often with absolutely no dramatic tension behind it. You'd think they'd be in a rush!
Once again, most of the weight of the film falls on Jennifer Lawrence's shoulders, and she yet again does a great job of portraying this reluctant hero. The biggest problem with her character this time around, however, is that the film pretty much outright contradicts itself for convenience sake. At one point, Katniss makes a big deal out of not vilifying the "enemy" (only Snow is the enemy), and that citizens of Panem shouldn't kill each other because that's exactly what Snow and his cronies want. But then later on she's blasting away at hordes of Capitol soldiers with incendiary arrows with total abandon. Where there could have been a strong anti-violence message for all the little kiddies growing up with these movies, instead cheap action beats are heralded instead.
Really, this movie just should not have been produced in two parts. The payoffs take a laborious amount of time to get through, the action is the weakest of any of the previous films, and the pacing goes in fits and starts. Although I think The Hunger Games series, as a whole, is possibly one of the best "young adult" adaptations yet, with rich anti-war themes and a powerful, iconic lead character, unfortunately, by Mockingjay Part 2, the flame has fizzled out a bit.
The Good Dinosaur
Dir. Peter Sohn
Spoiler Warning: Technically I spoil the ending, but it's vague and nothing major!
Two of my absolute favorite things as a child were dinosaurs and Pixar. Jurassic Park and Toy Story were on constant rotation on my VHS player, so I was really hoping the latest Pixar film, The Good Dinosaur, would be a "peanut butter-and-jelly" combo of two great tastes that go great together. Unfortunately, The Good Dinosaur, plagued with behind-the-scenes production issues, is definitely one of the weakest Pixar features to date and feels much more like the "safe" family-fare that you'd expect from an Ice Age movie. That being said, even Pixar's worst is often better than most other animated films out there, and while it's obviously the lesser of the studio's other effort this year, Inside Out (which is pretty much guaranteed a spot on my Top Ten list this year), The Good Dinosaur still a decent little tale that I'm sure will delight children and, unlike Minions, will not make parents want to slit their wrists.
The story is very simple for a Pixar film. A young apatosaurus lives on a farm with his parents and two siblings. They all have their individual tasks to do, each "making their mark," earning a spot for a footprint on their corn silo. All, that is, save for Arlo, who's a total wimp and can't do shit. Arlo, whose one job it is to kill the critter (a human boy) eating all of their food, inadvertently gets separated from his family and has to find his way back home, encountering strange and scary characters along the way, and also learning to man-up in the process.
I don't mind the story, but what makes this such an odd duck of a film (and where you can tell the production troubles came in) is in its very strange tonal shifts. At one point it seems like a traditional Homeward Bound buddy film, then it turns into a Dinosaur-Western, then it's sort of a childish comedy, then there are overly scary moments, and there's even a sequence, and I'm not kidding, where Arlo and his new human pal get high and start giggling and hallucinating. So many moments just made me go: "what the fuck is this?" The whole film also seems like it's building up to Arlo figuring out a way to "make his mark" by providing for his family during the harvest season, but by the end of the film that plot thread is not resolved at all! Spoilers: he makes it back, but without a solution to the harvest! So I guess kids, Arlo and his family will be DEAD this Winter.
I knew this from the moment I saw the trailer - but I really hate the character design in this film, which is very unusual from Pixar. The backgrounds are stunningly beautiful and nearly photorealistic, but the dinosaurs themselves stick out completely from the world they're in and look like weird, silly early sketches where the kinks weren't worked out yet. None of the "bad" dinosaurs look particularly menacing, and for some reason the apatosauruses' knee joints bother me. They don't stand out and they move around very awkwardly. I honestly think the world of Cars was thought out better, in terms of the clever ways to anthropomorphize them. There is an interesting dynamic in that Arlo's human pal, Spot, acts more like an animal than Arlo (he's essentially a dog in human form) - which is the opposite of what you'd expect, like in How to Train Your Dragon - but not much more is made out of this idea other than physical humor.
Overall, I wasn't a huge fan of the film, but it does have its moments. I loved the fact that Pixar, in true Bambi fashion, wasn't afraid of dealing with dark subject matter, and I loved how much emotional milage they got out of their dialogue-free sequences (I'll admit, I teared up during the "family circle" scene). But the ideas are all over the map here, there are tons of weird offshoots and loose ends, and it's hard to get over the awkwardness and cartoonishness of the characters, especially in contrast to the stunning environments. Nothing interesting is really explored regarding the "if dinosaurs didn't die" idea either, other than they would learn to speak and gain agricultural skills.
Dir. Ryan Coogler
Every single Rocky film, from III on, had Rocky saying, 'I swear this is my last fight before I retire.' This reached its apex of geriatric stupidity by 2006's Rocky Balboa, where a 60 year-old Sylvester Stallone yet again hopped in the ring. With Creed, however, a spin-off/sequel following Apollo Creed's son, Adonis, Rocky finally passes the torch, and essentially becomes the new "Mickey." Creed, directed by 29-year old Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler, brings the series back to its grounded roots of the original film, and breaths so much life into this franchise that seemed as if it was already knocked out. But Coogler and Co. cued up Survivor and rose to the challenge of their rivals, making Creed not only one of the best films in the series overall, but one of the most satisfying films of the year!
At the center of the story is Adonis "Donnie" Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky's former opponent-turned-trainer Apollo Creed. Having died before his son was born, Adonis bounced between foster homes and juvie centers until Apollo's widow/Mrs. Cosby comes along to adopt him. This sets the stage for a very interesting character who was brought up in both a poor background, giving him some semblance of street-cred, but also, once adopted, had a privileged upbringing as well, giving him an almost split-identity, especially when he decides to leave the "comforts" of his secure finance job to become a fighter, struggling under the shadow of his father. He heads to Philadelphia and convinces Rocky Balboa out of retirement to train him - a nice way story-wise of bridging the old with the new, without featuring that annoying fan-service stuff that we had in Jurassic World and I hope to God won't be in The Force Awakens (but knowing JJ it totally will).
Everyone involved in this movie does a spectacular job. Jordan clearly trained his ass off for the role, and he brings both an intensity and a wonderful underdog quality to the character. His "dual" identity brings about lots of rich moments throughout the film, which I won't spoil. This also may be the best I've ever seen Stallone act in a movie (I've never been a fan), and I would even be happy to see him snag a Supporting Actor nomination. As he comes to terms with his own life being in the past, he learns just as much as Adonis to "keep fighting" and to not give up, for entirely different reasons. The Rocky music theme is sparely used in the film, but at the climactic moment when it's used, you can't help but get wrapped up in the moment as this iconic character we all know (even if you've never seen the Rocky films, if you're an American, you know who he is) and a new character we've grown to love, work together and prove themselves.
Creed is a surprisingly fantastic film from a filmmaking standpoint. The boxing sequences here are possibly the best since Scorsese's Raging Bull, using long, unbroken takes that truly make you feel like you're in the middle of the ring with these guys duking it out. It's exciting and fresh and even the actors, who I'm sure had to make sure all the choreography was perfect or they'd have to set up all over again, capture the exact spirit of a "real" fight. The relationship between Adonis and his neighbor, a musician named Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is also well-handled and honestly feels more real and interesting than that between Rocky and Adrian from the first film (watch that movie again - it's pretty goofy). While Creed certainly does follow the same formula established from the six previous films (the ending is a direct echo of the first movie), the film is a total crowd-pleaser and as good as the boxing sequences are, following the lives of these characters was just as involving. By the time Adonis dons a familiar pair of red-white-and-blue shorts before his big fight, I dare you not to raise your fist to the sky and belt out "Eye of the Tiger."
Dir. Patricia Riggen
If you write out a list of jobs you hope you never have to do, I would think "being a miner" would be right up there, next to "sewage maintenance" and "animal masturbator" (for science!). But at least the unfortunate soul jerking off a pig for animal researchers probably won't end up trapped in a cave for 69 days. The 33, Patricia Riggen's film based on the testimonies of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground with very little food or water is a nightmare scenario that could be fertile ground for a harrowing, intense, politically-important film. Unfortunately, despite a solid central performance from Antonio Banderas, The 33 avoids any real controversy and settles for a typical, schmaltzy Hollywood-ized version of the events that unfolded.
I wish more could have been investigated into the business side of why these miners had to go through hell. We get little nuggets here and there, but the story mostly focuses on the miners and their families wanting them to get out. Spoilers for a five-year old news item: they do. So watching this movie is sort of pointless, since you know the ultimate end-game. What could have made this much more interesting than a simple, by-the-numbers hero/survival story is to investigate how such a shit show as this could possibly happen, and the complete oversight for safety from the people in charge of these miners. Via text, we learn at the end that none of the mine owners were punished. Why? This flick is a big missed opportunity - it's a soap opera with CGI falling rocks.