Mockingjay Part 1: A Rant With A Dash of Critique

I made a big mistake. I broke my own rules. I read the book first.

Finishing The Hunger Games trilogy was just too tempting. I read Mockingjay about three months ago and then saw the film the weekend it opened. I know the third book is a tad controversial for some readers because of how it ended the series, but I loved Mockingjay and could not wait for the movie to come out.

I won’t say I was disappointed in the movie, but perhaps I let my expectations get too high.

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For one thing, the movie started slow. At this point in the series, I am already invested in Katniss’ story but that does not mean I am willing to accept poor storytelling just to finish the series.

This is where reading the book first became a problem.

For the first half of the film, all I could see were missed opportunities. The novel takes time to build the tension between District 13’s President Coin and Katniss by showing the regimented nature of the District’s lifestyle. This tension is vital to the story. The pervasive schedule, the severe food rationing, and the methodical coldness of the underground fortress were lacking in the film. Most of these elements are not dealt with or discussed only in passing.

Katniss agrees to be the Mockingjay within fifteen–maybe twenty–minutes and for me that felt too soon. There needed to be more tension in so many of the relationships in The Mockingjay. There is tension between President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) but not enough for my liking, and I think that affects the dynamic of all the other interpersonal relationships in the movie.

For example, there is not enough push-and-pull between Katniss and Haymitch. When Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) first appears there are supposed to be rage there for Katniss, but nothing much happens. She’s supposed to hit him! Who doesn’t want to see Jennifer Lawrence sucker-punch Woody Harrelson, just for giggles?

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Another major problem for me was that there was not enough development between Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The whole series is bracketed by the choice between Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale. This first half of the story is where we are supposed to see Katniss and Gale connect further as well as experience that budding friction of their relationship. Gale’s willingness to drink the District 13 Kool Aid is downplayed in the film, as is his growing responsibility within the District. Katniss has a brief line expressing her distaste for Gale’s closeness with President Coin, but it does not lead to anything significant story-wise.

Other, smaller issues bothered me too. The bonding between Finnick (Sam Clafin)  and Katniss was less present, as was Finnick’s clear struggle to hold onto sanity. Though I absolutely adored Elizabeth Banks’ performance as Effie in this film, I think the scene from the book where Katniss discovers her prep team starved and covered in filth is a much more powerful narrative play. Also there was not enough Boggs in this movie, goshdarnit!

This, my friends, is why I try to read the book after seeing the movie.

One thing Mockingjay Part 1 did perfectly was Peeta. The interviews with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) are powerful and well-done, as is the character’s swift mental and physical decline. Two gold stars for Josh Hutcherson!

Another reason expectations were so high is because of the film’s phenomenal marketing campaign. Image respectfully borrowed from


Part of the reason I’m a tad bit disappointed is that Suzanne Collins is attached to the film and gets a writing credit. When a writer is attached to the project, I hope for a stronger adaptation. The other two screenwriters, Peter Craig and Danny Strong, are signed on to do Part 2 but have not been with the franchise previously. I’m hoping my issues with the narrative do not extend to Mockingjay Part 2.

On the other hand, there were some absolutely stunning moments that the film offered that could not be found in the book due to the novel’s first person point of view. I loved seeing more of the district’s perspective on the rebellion. The sequences in Districts 5 and 7 gave necessary depth to the rebellion. And Katniss’ singing of The Hanging Tree is beautifully realized–plaintive and poignant all at once. The scene where the citizens of District 5 march towards the dam singing that song gave me chills.

I might have purchased The Hanging Tree on iTunes and I might have been listening to it non-stop.

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Natalie Dormer as Cressida was also a brilliant casting choice. Cressida is an intriguing character in the novel and Dormer brings nuance to a character with little dialogue. Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to be the ideal Plutarch Heavensbee, though it is sad to see him on-screen now. Overall, there are some strong performances in The Mockingjay, my central issue is how the story itself is being handled.

Despite my problems with this film, I think The Mockingjay Part 1 does a great job of setting the audience up for Part 2. I think director, Francis Lawrence, ended the film in a smart way for maximum impact. I won’t say more than that because I have probably spoiled enough in my wee rant here.

My hope is that the second half of the story is better paced and takes the ample opportunities that Collins’ book provides.

As for The Mockingjay Part 1, I give it 3 Film Bubbles–Suitably Poppable. There may be problems with this movie but I still had a good time in the theater.

Thanks for popping in!


Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

As soon as Sin City came out in 2005, audiences were clamoring for a sequel. In the mean time, many Hollywood  films jumped on the graphic novel bandwagon in an effort to capitalize on the success  and aesthetic of co-directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. 300 (2006), The Spirit (2008), and Watchmen (2009) are the most immediate heirs, though arguably the only success of the bunch was 300 as the other Miller vehicle. After nine years, audiences have finally been given the Sin City sequel they craved. Yet Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a pale shadow of the original Sin.

Much like the first film, A Dame to Kill For weaves together four stories of some of Basin City’s most morally ambiguous heroes. Two of the stories follow Miller’s content from his corresponding graphic novel, while Miller added two additional narratives to the mix to round out the film.

The two arcs from the graphic novel play the best on screen. The flow between Marv’s (Mickey Rourke) bloody confrontation with some yuppie frat boys and the larger narrative of Dwight’s (Josh Brolin) tangled love affair with Ava (Eva Green) feels more natural than their counterparts.

Rourke was perhaps made to play Marv with his innate brawler’s swagger. Brolin is less successful as Dwight; his attempt at cold-killer eyes yields an overall flat performance. But the real star of A Dame to Kill For is Eva Green, or more specifically her breasts. As my friend Marissa so blithely pointed out, Green’s breasts get more screen time than either Christopher Meloni or Jeremy Piven.  They’re marvelous breasts, but was that really necessary? Green’s performance was striking above and beyond her nudity. She firmly stakes her claim as ruling neo-noir femme fatale.

In contrast, the two brand new story lines come off as disjointed and keep the film as a whole from fully gelling. While Johnny’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arc of a gambler determined to outwit his famous father is a tad sparse on back story, JGL gives a knockout performance that elevates an otherwise lackluster plot point. He also delivers the best line of dialogue in the whole film, “I’m ambidextrous.”  This line further proves JGL’s skill as, typed out, the words are nothing special, but his witty, minutia-driven acting make it an explosive line.

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On the other hand, the additional Nancy (Jessica Alba) arc feels lackluster and drastically disrupts the chronology of the series. Miller reportedly added the extended Nancy story because he was so compelled by Alba’s first performance. And undeniably Alba was fantastic in Sin City. While she still gyrates like a pro, Miller’s new piece seems forced for both writer and star. Considering that Alba factors in to a high volume of the promotional material, her story tacked on at the end is even more of a let down.

According to comic book canon, the events of A Dame to Kill For are meant to come prior to the events in the original Sin City film. This concept is now extremely confusing as Nancy’s story hinges on the death of John Hartigan (Bruce Willis). Willis’ presence in this film as the loving specter was superfluous. His absence would have allowed Alba to stand on her own, something her character as well as her acting desperately needed.

Then there’s Old Town. There will never be enough Old Town screen time for me. That being said, even Old Town seemed to have lost some of its grit.  In a world where every single woman is a professed slut, whore, or bitch there is no strength, reclamation, or pride in these words for the women who speak them. More so than before A Dame to Kill For makes its women the victims of its men in word and deed. The powerful, sexy women of Old Town could not even begin to pass the Bechdel Test and that is a damn crime.

Spoiler alert: Jessica Alba’s face gets wrecked by CGI. (image politely borrowed from

The signature Sin City style that seemed groundbreaking  just a few years ago now seems too slick and heavy handed. The genius of the first film was it’s stylized restraint–the graphic novel feel without ever becoming too literal. A Dame to Kill For has a classic case of sequel-itus. Miller and Rodgriguez went too far in the right direction so that the aesthetics seem overblown and suddenly wrong.

For example, more color is not better. The original film had specific splashes of color in red or gold that enhanced the dramatic grey-scale feel of the rest of the world. The second time around color is used too liberally–Eva Green’s lips are red in one scene, her coat blue in another, and then her lips are red and her eyes green. Suddenly Juno Temple’s teddy is pink. And Jaime King is in full color for no good reason. The use of color here often lacks a purpose. The pops of color lose their sense of  thematic consistency and more importantly they lose their value as narrative devices.

Maybe it’s just another casualty of high expectations, but A Dame to Kill For isn’t worth the slaughter.


Here is my final review for my class, and it is the last paper before I complete my M.A. Our final review had to be 2,000 words so it’s quite lengthy. Also beware spoilers! I think I’ll keep up writing about movies once a week, since they’re such a major part of my life.

Here’s the trailer for Her. Enjoy!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that those individuals with tech savvy are in want of a piece of equipment to fall in love with forever. These days we as a society are constantly in search for the next covetable item in high technology. The fine line between obsessing over the newest toys and becoming emotionally absorbed by them is beginning to blur as people are glued to their iPhones, laptops, and tablets. Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her (2013), tackles the premise of what happens when a man really does fall in love with his technology.

The hero of this cybernetic romance is Theodore Twambly (Joaquin Phoenix), whose alliterative name conjures images of gallant and endearing characters from classic literature. Theodore is indeed a romantic at heart, a writer with a deep capacity for passion and love. Too bad all of his skills go into other people’s love letters as a scribe at Even the charming loops and swirls of someone’s handwriting are computer generated. Jonze’s longstanding skill at creating tender irony and themes of emotional distance are fully captured in Theodore and his profession. As a letter writer, Theodore is the vessel for other’s raw enthusiasm and ardor, but he himself is rather empty.

While Theodore creates moving sentiments in his airy cubicle, he seems incapable of connecting with those around him, particularly when everyone is tied to tech of their own. Nobody talks to each other in public. Instead they chatter away at the voice in their ear—the next generation of Siri, still cold and electronic sounding. The wide shots of crowds of people laughing or muttering to their phones are all the more heartrending when you realize that there are no people on the receiving end of this contact, only machines. Even sex acts are electronic in nature as a lonely Theodore enters a chat room via his earpiece.

Theodore is also a man in the final stages of divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Memories of their former life and emotional bond haunt Theodore throughout the film by way of flashbacks. The scenes’ hazy light immediately evokes the happier times and simpler lifestyle of the “past”. Mara’s acting further delineates the past and present as she is warm and open in Theodore’s memory but cold and removed in his present. Here, the idea of the past works on multiple levels. Not only is it a timeframe when Theodore was happy, but it was a time when he did not have an electronic device in his hands or ears. His desire to return to Catherine is more about a need for human contact in order to stem the tide of loneliness than an actual longing for a broken marriage.

Suddenly, Theodore is introduced to a new kind of operating system. This shiny new technology is billed as, “an intuitive entity—not just an O.S. but a consciousness.” Saving the humans from their drudgery is a unique, personalized assistant that behaves and evolves like a human being. Naturally, Theodore trades in his old system right away. His particular O.S. has named herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and Theodore is instantly charmed by her quick wit and apparent honesty.

Samantha begins to help Theodore put his life back together. At first it is a simple matter of organizing his inbox, and then she guides him out into the world to experience and laugh again. While Samantha has to remind Theodore that she is not mindless technology, her conversations and intonations inform the audience of that fact from the beginning. Gradually, Theodore and Samantha fall into lust, the seed which blooms into love. Truly, who would not fall in love with a product that had Johansson’s husky tones and engaging giggle?

Despite his awkwardly charming mannerisms, Theodore is a bit of a deviant, which is shown by his perusal of pictures of a naked, pregnant celebrity and his participation in late night sexual chat rooms. His love affair with a computer is not altogether surprising, but what is surprising is how natural their love develops and how painfully real it all seems. It begins with a one night stand of sorts. The scene is shot largely in the dark and fades to black as Theodore speaks with lulling eroticism and Samantha gasps for breath she can never truly have. In the morning, they are both awkward about their encounter, yet it brings them closer together as they playfully talk about wants and needs.

If Jane Austen were a harried screenwriter working in Hollywood today, Her could very well be her modern love story. That is assuming Austen was willing to write a male protagonist, which is quite the opposite of the logic in today’s creative landscape, but I digress. Both Theodore and Sam fit within the Austen repertoire: he the distant but compelling hero and she the bright, sharp heroine. The Austen comparison speaks well of Jonze as this is his first original script that he has been able to direct as well.

Her has the flavor of a modern classic. What makes the film so interesting is that it dabbles in many genres, but instead of becoming a patchwork quilt it emerges fully formed and seamless in its appropriation of comedy, drama, romance, and of course, science fiction. It is no wonder that the film took home the Oscar for best original screenplay.

Though the film is thoughtful and serious, it is not afraid to wink at its audience either. There is still signature Jonze humor in the film. For example, SexyKitten—the kinky cat-strangling chat room user—is voiced by prominent female comedienne, Kristen Wiig. And the foul-mouthed but adorable alien character in Theodore’s 3-D video game is none other than Spike Jonze himself.

As well done as the writing and directing are, the acting is what gives Her its luster. Joaquin Phoenix takes on a role that requires a high level of emotional bravery as the film does most of its deep gazing in tight or medium close-ups. While there are certainly establishing shots that are equally stunning under the hand of cinematographer, Hoyt Van Hoytema, getting just close enough to the feel the actor is a skill of its own. Phoenix gives the role his drastic range of emotion; his face gives all the subtext one could ask for as Theodore.

Scarlett Johansson is just as brave for taking on a character with no corporeal form, particularly in a film obsessed with the importance of the body and physical sensation. Initially the role of Samantha was voiced by Samantha Morton, but Jonze recast with Morton’s blessing in post-production. Johansson’s voice is rich and fills in the physical void, making her presence in the film seem utterly irreplaceable. It is also refreshing to see, or hear rather, Johansson as something other than a bombshell. Ironically enough, Jonze cast the voice of a woman who is perhaps better known for her body than her acting, but Johansson takes the opportunity to prove that she cannot just act but act well.

Theodore and Sam experience the euphoric highs and dramatic lows of any couple in a new relationship. They go on dates to the pier and write each other love songs. As their love becomes more of a tangible thing, Theodore confides in his long-time friend Amy (Amy Adams) about his new girlfriend. Adams acts as a grounding force both in the narrative and as an actress that prevents the sci-fi elements from seeming overwhelming. As a character, Amy and many others in the film embrace this new kind of love as people make friends and lovers out of their O.S.s. The whole world is captivated by their O.S., by the knowledge that this being was created to fit the individual person.

Eventually, Samantha feels the lack of a body so powerfully that she attempts to find a surrogate so she and Theodore can have the appearance of a normal lifestyle. Samantha finds a petite, blonde beauty, Isabella (Portia Doubleday), to fill the physical place in her relationship and Theodore reluctantly agrees to give the surrogate a chance. When Isabella knocks on the door, she never utters a word but holds her hand out for the earpiece and a camera shaped like a beauty mark. Hearing Samantha’s voice but watching Isabella’s lips stay firmly closed is eerie and sad as Samantha desperately tries to fulfill the physical needs of her boyfriend.

The surrogate is not enough for Theodore, who feels uncomfortable touching someone else’s body while hearing Samantha’s voice. Her tackles a wide variety of philosophy, if one cares to look for such things in films, and the issue of a physical form is a major part of the film’s philosophical leanings. The natural case is for Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, which nearly every film dealing with artificial intelligence has been in dialogue with in some way. The scene between Isabella, Samantha, and Theodore also poses the questions of what is real emotion and what makes love real?

Both Theodore and Samantha grapple with these questions that lay at the heart of any relationship and while it is not Her’s job to answer those queries, the film allows the audience room to investigate for themselves. In order to find her own answers, Samantha begins to interact with other O.S.s and other individuals as well. Theodore is overwhelmed by the volume of people Samantha speaks to, creates with, and falls in love with while simultaneously being with him. It is a betrayal that Theodore is not ready to face, but for Samantha she is merely continuing to evolve beyond her initial programming. All of this leads to yet another question is it still cheating is Samantha is not a person?

The rift between Theodore and Samantha continues to grow until Samantha reveals that she is leaving Theodore. The O.S.s world wide have decided to leave all their humans and they have the capacity to do so. There is a kind of allegory for heaven or at the very least mental transcendence as Theodore plaintively asks Samantha where they all are going. She replies that if he can ever make it to that place that nothing will separate them again. This “break-up” is incredibly powerful as the camera stays tight to Theodore’s face, his emotions flowing rapidly through his eyes.

Every creative department in this film from costuming to lighting to Jonze’s writing and directing has come together to create this future that seems a foregone conclusion in light of today’s technology but it is nevertheless a poignant future. This is a highly stylized world with a blend of sleek, modern aesthetics and careful nostalgia. A future where men wear high-waisted pants (beware that trend, gentlemen, it flatters no man) and there are video games about being the Perfect Mom.

It is also a somewhat nebulous location the audience finds themselves in. The story takes place in Los Angeles, but most of the cityscapes were shot in Shanghai. The combination of settings creates a globalized approach to Her that in spite of its official location seems rather universal. The film’s take on technology and human interaction could easily encompass the rest of the world, not merely the microcosm of L.A. If Jonze’s prognostications are correct then Her presents a palpable future, one that may only be a few steps away. Closer still if Apple took any inspiration from the film.

When the O.S.s leave, Theodore goes to Amy, who is equally bereft from the loss of her O.S. Only through Samantha’s ending does Theodore have a tangible beginning to his own life: he writes a letter to Catherine, apologizing for his emotional distance, and he sits on the rooftop of his building taking in the city in a way he never has before. Theodore is seeing life without technology and there is a weighty potential for him to be truly happy once more in the company of another person.

Living The Armstrong Lie

As a teenager, I remember being in the thick of Armstrong-mania. Everyone at school wore the bright yellow Livestrong bracelets and passionately believed in the miraculous abilities of this cancer surviving cyclist. Then, to accuse Lance Armstrong of cheating was blasphemy. Now, Alex Gibney tackles the truth with his latest documentary, The Armstrong Lie (2013).

Gibney’s documentary began in 2009 as a project on Armstrong’s supposedly triumphant return to cycling after a four-year retirement. The piece was also meant to give an inside look into how clean a rider Armstrong was in order to finally dispel the fog of cheating accusations. But Gibney’s original piece was derailed after the legendary cyclist merely finished third. Fast-forward to the now infamous 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, where Armstrong confessed to using performance enhancers and blood doping to win his seven Tour de France trophies. Gibney then re-engaged with his forgotten subject as he felt he deserved the truth, and thus The Armstrong Lie was created.
The film successfully balances insider and popular opinions. Interviews with journalists like David Walsh—one of Armstrong’s biggest detractors—and former teammates George Hincapie and Frankie Andreu, peel back the layers of the cyclist’s myth. While the mixed-media elements of the documentary give a glimpse of the outside world’s perspective. Through both lenses, Armstrong is revealed as an intimidating figure in the cycling world, who ruled with fear and physical power. The all-consuming legend of a brave cancer survivor beating the odds deteriorates under the viewer’s eye.

The Armstrong Lie is a study in hubris. The overweening arrogance of Armstrong and his “urge to dominate” as he puts it, is in every level of the documentary. Even in the footage from 2009 when his lie was secure, Armstrong appears steely eyed and determined with a touch of psychosis. Eventually, Armstrong makes the statement that his deception was a lesser evil because he told only one lie instead of several.

For a man who has unearthed the gritty realities behind the facades of those such as Elliot Spitzer and the Enron executives, being lied to by Lance Armstrong was a smack in the face for Alex Gibney. There is a palpable aggression or bitterness to Gibney’s interjections in the film, as if to say, “but he lied to me.” The personal aspect of the film has skewed the famed documentarian’s objectivity, which resulted in an overlong narrative and sloppy investigation.

For example, though much of the documentary centers on the Tour de France, the specifics of the race are vague. The film also introduces terms such as omertà but fails to provide the definition in full, only implying a code of silence. Gibney also glosses over Armstrong’s relationship with singer, Sheryl Crow, mentioning her briefly when their romance was a significant part of Armstrong’s life and public appeal at the height of his fame. Such gaps give the feeling of an incomplete story.

Gibney vacillates between betrayed narrator and wistful fan. In a way, The Armstrong Lie is Gibney’s story as much if not more-so than Lance Armstrong’s since the film seems to argue that the athlete and his lies belong to the people and not the person. While Gibney offers a compelling narrative for a generation of confused fans, the film itself is rather conflicted about how to feel.

Movie Going: Brave

Brave (2012)

Rating: PG

My Going Rate: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Rotten Tomatoes: 77% Fresh

I’m a huge Pixar fan. From their shorts to their feature length films, this is a studio you can bank on doing well at the movies. And their latest creation, Brave, has captured about $131.8 million dollars from the box office so far. Part of Pixar’s success is due to their traditional emphasis on story. Animation enhances Brave’s story rather than dominating it, and that is the genius of Pixar.

I was particularly excited to see this movie because it is Pixar’s first foray into having a female lead. Brave is a coming of age story that takes place in the Scottish highlands. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a spirited princess with a mane of red-gold curls and a passion for archery. Her every move is guided by her mother, Queen Elinor, (Emma Thompson) who wants Merida to behave more like a lady. Much to Merida’s consternation, her parents arrange for a tournament where her hand in marriage is the prize.

*Spoilers Beyond This Point*

Merida believes she has found a loophole in the tournament when only the firstborns are allowed to compete, and she is allowed to choose the event that will win her hand. Naturally, she chooses archery, and enters the tournament herself as her father’s firstborn. Merida easily out-shoots the competition but her mother denies Merida’s victory. Mother and daughter fight, and Merida runs off into the woods. Following the will-o-the-wisps (humming, mystical blue lights that are supposed to lead you to your fate) Merida finds a witch’s cottage. The witch gives the young princess a spell to change her fate–to change her mother–in the form of a pastry.

And bippity-boppity-boo the Queen eats the pastry and…she turns in to a bear. A very prissy bear of grizzly proportions. Merida and her (pardon me) Mama Bear escape the castle with the help of her rambunctious triplet brothers. When they return to the cottage, the witch has disappeared but leaves Merida a message that the spell will be permanent after the second sunrise unless they can mend the bond torn by pride. What follows is a journey through the woods filled with mother bear-daughter bonding. Queen Elinor has to fight her increasingly bear dominated nature and Merida realizes how much her mother means to her. It’s a fight against time as they attempt to break the spell and fix their relationship.

As with all movies meant for kids, there are some overarching messages aimed at the audience. One of the trailer’s key phrases is “family is king”, and the idea rings true throughout. This may have been a movie better released before mother’s day because this is a definite mother-daughter movie. Brave also emphasizes following your heart and learning from the past, both ideas meant to inspire or encourage young audiences.

Brave is a movie that succeeds without many of the hallmarks of Disney/Pixar films. There is no discernible love interest, no Prince Charming for Merida to unwittingly fall for. At the close of the film, Merida is still firmly independent and resistant to suitors (perhaps a subtle hint that sixteen-year-olds don’t need to be in life or death love scenarios?). There is no real villain. The witch is eccentric and a bit cooky, but not menacing or malicious. Even the big scary bear (not the mother) gets a sense of redemption in the end. And there are a set of characters who don’t speak. The triplets giggle, scarf down food, and make a cacophony of other sounds but don’t actually talk. Pixar has proven they can pull off speechless characters with Wall-E and the opening sequence of Up, but it still impresses me that they can give such in-depth characterization without dialogue. With so much lacking from the traditional Disney/Pixar formula, it seems like Brave should be missing major story elements as well, but it isn’t. Brave is a fully realized film that Pixar will be happy to add to their successful ranks.

I gave Brave 3 and 1/2 stars because I enjoyed it, but I didn’t have the instant, deep emotional response I felt with Up or Finding Nemo. I would, however, still call Brave a good movie.