Friday, November 27, 2015

Movie Review: Secret in Their Eyes

Secret in Their Eyes
Directed by: Billy Ray.   
Written by: Billy Ray based on the screenplay by Juan José Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Ray), Nicole Kidman (Claire), Julia Roberts (Jess), Dean Norris (Bumpy Willis), Alfred Molina (Martin Morales), Joe Cole (Marzin / Beckwith), Michael Kelly (Reg Siefert), Zoe Graham (Carolyn Cobb). 

The 2009 Argentinian film, The Secret in Their Eyes, is a very good thriller – expertly crafted and written, with some genuinely surprising twists and turns along the way. No, it really didn’t deserve to win the Foreign Language Film Oscar that year – especially not with two masterpieces, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet in the running – but it wasn’t overly surprising, since I’ve long suspected that the Academy likes to give the Foreign Language Film Oscar to a movie that feels like a Hollywood film, just in a different language, and The Secret in Their Eyes certainly qualifies. Therefore, an American remake was probably inevitable – but really should have been a can’t miss proposition. Really, you don’t need to change much in the original to move to America, and you could follow along on its basic path and make a decent film. Somehow though, the remake isn’t able to do that – and the result is a dull, morose thriller. You may like it more if you haven’t seen the original – and therefore may be surprised by the twists and turns in the plot – but I doubt it.

The movie flashes back and forth in time between the present and 2002 Los Angeles. In 2002, Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an FBI agent assigned to the D.A.’s office to track down terrorism suspects – and is currently monitoring a mosque that they feel may be a hotbed of extremists. His partner is Jess (Julia Roberts), an investigator with the DA, and they are close in and out of the office (not in a romantic way). They are called to a murder scene – because it’s right next to the mosque – and Ray is horrified to find out that the victim is Jess’ college age daughter, Carolyn. Although it’s not his job to solve the murder, he tries to anyway – and everything he finds points to one man – Marzin (Joe Cole) – but no one wants to move on him. He is a key informant at the mosque – and terrorism trumps rape/murder. As Jess seemingly falls deeper into depression and despair, Ray teams up with Claire (Nicole Kidman) the new ADA to try and make case. In the 2015 scenes, we find out something happened, and somehow the case went away – and Marzin disappeared. But Ray thinks he has found him – and wants help to bring him in.

The movie really should work – Ejiofor and Kidman are both extremely talented, but they completely lack chemistry in the movie – especially the kind the movie is going for, which ties them together over the years even though they haven’t seen each other in that time. This is one of the few roles in which I agree with Kidman’s critics – who say her face has grown too passive and non-expressive over the years, something I have disagreed with in the past, but agree with here. Roberts fairs the best of the three – it’s a smart bit of casting in a gender switched role from the original film, to cast America’s Sweetheart here – but the movie doesn’t push it far enough, and pretty much gives Roberts the same, one note of grief to play throughout the movie.

The writer/director is Billy Ray, who has written some good films before (Captain Phillips) and directed a few others (Shattered Glass, Breach). Here though, he seems on autopilot. The film ditches the class issue of the original, and replaces it with terrorism – which isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but the film doesn’t do anything with it. As a director, he follows the original’s lead, and stages almost everything at night – dark themes, dark visuals – but here the images are muddy and confused. If the original film is known for anything other than the ending, it’s for the amazing chase scene in a soccer stadium – the remake moves that to a baseball stadium here, but doesn’t stage it as daringly, so that it becomes yet another dull chase sequence.

The movie pulls out all the old tricks of the thriller – especially irksome was a montage near the end to replay the moments that you “missed” earlier in the movie that was an Ejiofor dropping his coffee cup away from being out of The Usual Suspects. What it doesn’t add is anything new – any real reason for it to exist. Yes, I know, there are many people who didn’t see the original, and never will, because they don’t want to read at the movies. Had Secret in Their Eyes been a decent copy of the original film that would have been fine. But it’s not a decent copy – it’s a pretty shitty one.

Movie Review: Court

Directed by: Chaitanya Tamhane.   
Written by: Chaitanya Tamhane.
Starring: Usha Bane (Sharmila Pawar), Vivek Gomber (Vinay Vora), Pradeep Joshi (Judge), Geetanjali Kulkarni (Public Prosecutor), Shirish Pawar (Subodh), Vira Sathidar (Narayan Kamble). 

Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film Court looks at the Indian legal system, in all of its ridiculousness, in a film that moves slowly – grinding along more like how the legal system really is, rather than the way it is portrayed on TV. It follows the case of a folk singer, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) who is arrested and charged with “abetting suicide” – apparently because he sang a song saying that sewer workers should kill themselves, and then a sewer worker killed himself. The case is hardly airtight – there is a legitimate possibly the worker died not because of suicide, but of stupidity, and the prosecutor has a very hard time even finding witnesses who could state with certainty that Narayan even said the sewer workers should kill themselves. The prosecutor wants him charged anyway – and put away for 20 years. He’ll do something else soon, she supposes, so better just to lock him away.

The courtroom scenes in Court are hardly scintillating stuff – as the various lawyers make their arguments, and the strange judge rules on them. Some of it borders on the absurd – like when the judge refuses to hear one case because the woman involved is wearing a sleeveless shirt. Some of it is quietly touching – like an extended cross examination of the widow of the man who apparently died of suicide, describing him as a violent alcoholic, and her life but before and after his death – both of which seem depressing.

The film is probably better when it ventures outside of the courtroom – as it often does. In court, we like Kamble’s lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), who is fighting for a good cause. Outside of the courtroom though, he’s kind of an asshole – he rich and entitled, and quite clearly looks down on those around him. He eventually gets his comeuppance – in a way – but even he didn’t quite deserve that. The prosecutor is played by Geetanjali Kuulkarni – who we in the audience disagree with in court – she is clearly trying to push through a weak case – but when we see her outside of Court, she appears to be a hard working woman trying her best to juggle a career and family. Just as you start to feel for her, she goes to a racist play however – insulting immigrants to no end. In the final scenes of the movie, Court follows the Judge into his outside world. These scenes are quite good – and contains the films haunting final image, even if it perhaps underlines things a little too strongly.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of another filmmaker – not a feature director, but a documentarian – Frederick Wiseman. He too has made films with titles focused on an institution – and Tamhane has a similar shooting style – long, static shots that go on far longer than most directors would hold them. The courtroom scenes in particular have the feel of authenticity to them because of the way they are shot.

Court, it must be said, is a little on the slow side – the film strives for authenticity in the courtroom scenes, and only occasionally doesn’t in the scenes outside of court. The film has the rhythms of real life, and therefore, is perhaps a little too slow for some. But patient viewers will be more than rewarded by Court, which builds slowly, but is worth the effort. It’s not quite a great film – but it’s an interesting one, and a debut that makes me want to see what Tamhane does next. He’s the real deal.

Movie Review: The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground
Directed by: Kirby Dick.

Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground makes no secret of where it stands on the issue of rape on college campus – clearly with the victims, who report what happened to unfeeling University Administrations, who go through rounds of victim blaming and neglect, making the victims feel even worse. The film doesn’t really pretend to be neutral – and clearly advocates for those who have been victimized, and point the blame not only at the rapists themselves but in the universities who are more interested in money than in protecting their students. If they reported the real number of rapes that happened on campus, people would be less likely to go there, and write those tuition cheques – not to mention the donation cheques from alumni. And if the accused is a member of a big time University sports team, forget it. That is a massive industry, and needs to be protected at all costs. The Hunting Ground is hardly a perfect documentary, both because of things within Dick’s control and things outside of it. The film would have benefitted from hearing from the schools themselves – but none of them are willing to talk to Dick (nor were they willing to talk to CNN in the post screening special of the film earlier this week) – although none of them seem to have problems issuing press releases defending what they do (actually being interviewed would require them to answer questions they don’t want to answer). Dick, who as a documentarian has moved farther and farther into advocacy over the years does perhaps lay things on a little thick at times in the film, and pushes perhaps a little too much. Yet, when the film remains focused on the victims – who tell their stories in their own words – it is a powerful documentary that no one can really argue with.

The film opens with happy scenes – the only ones in the movie – as the film plays the graduation song, as student after student checks online to find out that they have gotten into their dream school – that everything they’ve worked for through high school has now come true. Dick is doing this in bitter, cynical irony (it’s certainly one of the times he perhaps pushes too far), because right after that he will cut to women talking about they were raped by fellow students, even before classes began. Again and again throughout the film, Dick will return to these women who tell the same story again and again – they were raped, they reported it to the administration, who tried to get them to not file an official report, and did little or nothing even if they did. Dick, whose last film The Invisible War, tackled the issue of rape in the military, knows how to make a film about a giant institution looking out for themselves, who see rape as part of the cost of doing business. Neither of these films are as strong as Dick’s own Twist of Faith – about rape by Catholic Priests – and that’s because that film was more narrowly focused – telling an individual story, rather than making a film that casts as wide of a net as The Hunting Ground does. The film is successful because those individual stories still hit hard, and perhaps Dick was right to cast such a wide net, because in doing so it makes the problem harder to dismiss or belittle.

The film doesn’t delve too deep into many of the individual stories – except in the last part of the movie, which really does dive pretty deep into the allegations made against Jameis Winston – then Florida State’s star quarterback, who has since been drafted first overall in the NFL. The movie allows Winston’s accuser to tell her story – and it certainly sounds credible to me – but regardless of whether or not you do believe her, I’m not sure how anyone could be happy with the way the case was handled – where no one even attempted to talk to Winston for months after his alleged victim filed the complaint, the DNA in her rape kit wasn’t tested for more than a year, etc. There are many things that are disturbing about this was handled by the police and university – but not only them but the media and fellow Florida State students and fans –all of whom seem to immediately take Winston’s side, without knowing practically anything (how could they – the police didn’t even know since they barely bother to investigate). This is certainly not an isolated case here – just look at how a hell of lot of hockey fans immediately rallied to Patrick Kane’s defense when he was accused of rape this past summer, or how long it took for anyone to take Bill Cosby’s numerous accusers seriously. The Hunting Ground is about a specific problem of rape on University campuses – but it also at least hints at the problem of how society at large responds to the problem.

Normally, I will admit, I don’t much care for the so called advocacy documentaries – they are usually fairly dull, point and shoot affairs, that end with a call to arms and website address urging the viewer to “Get Involved!”. Even when they are about important issues, the films are needlessly dull – there is no reason to sacrifice artistry in a documentary. The Hunting Ground at times edges towards being that kind of film at times, but never quite crosses that line. The victims, who tell their story in their own words, keep the focus and the anger pointed at the right place throughout the documentary – and makes it one of the more powerful docs to hit theaters this year.

Movie Review: Call Me Lucky

Call Me Lucky
Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait.

Call Me Lucky is a documentary about standup comedian Barry Crimmins – who was obviously influential and respected, which you can tell by just how many comedians show up in the film to sing Crimmins praises. Crimmins is not the household name that many of those in the film are – and watching the film, I kind of understood why. Crimmins, it seems to me, was never actually very funny on stage. He was righteous and angry – he screamed at the audience about the evils of America and Catholicism, and always had an opinion on everything. He is incredibly smart and has no patience for fools. But watching his act through the various clips throughout the film, I’m not sure I ever actually laughed very much, if at all. There are reasons for this – which the documentary eventually makes clear – at about the half-way point of the movie, which also acts as a shift for the film in general, away from comedian profile doc, into something darker and more disturbing.

The film was directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, a longtime friend of Crimmins, who helped the younger Goldthwait at the beginning of his career. Goldthwait has become a very interesting director in recent years – giving his friend Robin Williams one of his last great roles in the very dark comedy World’s Greatest Dad, extending to middle finger to everything wrong with his country in God Bless America, which is more than another screed against reality TV, and also making one of the best Blair Witch knick-off with Willow Creek. Perhaps it was inevitable, but in his first documentary, Goldthwait doesn’t show the same daring he has done in his fiction films to day – opting for effective, yet safe, collection of talking heads and archival footage to show Crimmins early career, in which he had more success than many standups – but not quite as much as some of the others in the film.

The film shifts at the halfway point, when the darkness that was undeniably hanging over the first half becomes apparent, with Crimmins acknowledging that as a child, he was repeatedly raped by the boyfriend of his babysitter. Crimmins didn’t reveal this to his friends until the 1990s – when he started to talk about it on stage. Crimmins would eventually get involved in fighting child pornography – he even testified to Congress about how little AOL was doing to stop the proliferation of it. He remains an advocate for victims to this day – as the documentary makes clear. The second half of the film shows an older Crimmins on stage – getting few laughs than ever before, but completely baring his soul to people amidst his rather easy jokes about American Foreign Policy and the Catholic Church. He still wasn’t very funny to me, but there’s something touching about him up there.

Call Me Lucky is an interesting film about the life of a standup comedian, and then another interesting film about the life of child sexual abuse survivor – who has never forgotten what was done to him, but also didn’t allow it to destroy him. The film does go on a little long – it is overly repetitive, and loses steam near the end. But it’s a solid documentary – and not quite what you expect it to be.

Classic Movie Review Duo: Cure (1997) & Pulse (2001)

Cure (1997)
Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Written by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa based on his novel.
Starring: Kôji Yakusho (Kenichi Takabe), Masato Hagiwara (Kunio Mamiya), Tsuyoshi Ujiki (Makoto Sakuma), Anna Nakagawa (Fumie Takabe), Yoriko Dôguchi (Dr. Akiko Miyajima), Yukijirô Hotaru (Ichiro Kuwano), Denden (Oida), Ren Ôsugi (Fujiwara).

Pulse (2001)
Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Written by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Starring: Haruhiko Katô (Ryosuke Kawashima), Kumiko Asô (Michi Kudo), Koyuki (Harue Karasawa), Kurume Arisaka (Junko Sasano), Masatoshi Matsuo (Toshio Yabe), Shinji Takeda (Yoshizaki), Kenji Mizuhashi (Taguchi), Teruo Ono (Doroningen), Masayuki Shionoya (Ghost).

The late 1990s and early 2000s were a boom time for Japanese Horror (creatively referred to as J-Horror) – with films like Ringu and Ju-On finding international attention, and eventual American remakes in The Ring and The Grudge. Most of these movies were ghost stories of one kind or another – with curses, and death, etc. spreading from one person to another. The genre pretty much ran its course – in both Japan and America – by the mid-2000s, although the roots of Japanese horror ghost stories date back hundreds of years, and never really goes away. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a director who is somewhat related to the genre – but also somewhat removed. He has done some films that are straight ahead dramas – like Bright Future (2003) and Tokyo Sonata (2008), and has ventured into sci-fi and action filmmaking as well. He perhaps remains best known though for his horror movies – in particular Cure (1997), which isn’t a really in the tradition of J-horror (no ghosts), and Pulse (2001), which certainly is. Kurosawa has been on my radar for years – I particularly loved Tokyo Sonata – but somehow, I never went back and saw his two early horror films to recently.

Kurosawa’s 1997 film, Cure, predates the J-horror boom slightly (for the record, searching for J-horror on They Shoot Zombies Don’t They? Top 1000 horror film list has the first being Hideo Nakata’s Ringu from 1998, the last being 2005’s Retribution by Takahsi Shimzu from 2005 – and although Cure is on the list, it’s not listed as J-horror. Pulse however is), and is actually much more in line with the serial killers films of the era (which, in America, probably started with The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, and includes films like Seven, Copycat, etc.). In the film, a police detective, Kenichi Takabe (Koji Yakusho), investigating a series of brutal murders – all of which are connected, even though they are each committed by someone different. What connects them is a giant X on the victims who usually have their throats cut, and the fact that none of them remember committing the crime. Takabe teams up with a psychologist, Sakuma (Tsuyowshi Ujiki), who helps to give him insight into what is happening. Eventually, they figure out what the audience has known from the beginning – he mastermind is a young man named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), who uses hypnosis to control the murderers. Mamiya appears to have no short term memory – constantly asking what is happening, what day it is, where he is, and frustrating Takabe – while also possessing some surprising knowledge about him – especially about his mentally ill wife.

Cure is neatly divided into two halves – the police procedural of the first, giving way to something darker in the second. Plotting has never really been Kurosawa’s strong point – and it isn’t here either. The movie certainly requires one to make some big leaps in logic, and buy some pretty big twists and turns in order to make the story work – including far too much about the history of mesmerizing things in Japan. What Kurosawa does excel at is building atmosphere, and terrifying set pieces – something Cure has in abundance. It may not need all the time it takes (nearly 2 hours) to tell its rather slight story – but there is more than enough to make the film worthwhile, including a perplexing climax, which leaves audiences reeling.

For me, the better film is Pulse from 2001 – perhaps simply because there is nowhere near as much plot as in Cure,
which as mentioned, isn’t Kurosawa’s strong suit anyway. The film is, in some ways, a techno-phobic horror film. Interestingly however, the film never really blames technology for humanity’s downfall as much as seeing it as tool that we use to destroy ourselves. The film tells two parallel storylines – both centering on a character who is trying to figure out why everyone around them is killing themselves – sometimes in bizarre ways. They are draw to the internet – websites that load onto their screen automatically, and promise a connection to the dead. After this, there are overly complicated rules about the dead, and what precisely they are trying to do – and how – and a lot of talk about ash, and literal red tape. Yes, like Cure, Pulse is somewhat confusingly plotted – although this one at least has the excuse of being about ghosts who use the internet, so perhaps stretching credibility wasn’t really high on Kurosawa’s list of concerns.

What Pulse does brilliantly however is create atmosphere. There are a lot of scenes of creepy websites – perhaps a few too many, since they are all kind of similar, yet they are all so effectively creepy it hardly matters. Pulse is a terrifying movie because of all that atmosphere – because of those creepy ghosts coming to get you. I’m on record as saying ghost movies don’t often scare me – but this one did, in part, I think because it so brilliantly brings the ghosts into the real world – and also because the real villains in the film aren’t ghosts at all, but us.

Both Cure and Pulse have their flaws – both could stand to lose 20-30 minutes, which would result in tighter, less repetitive movies with less downtime in them. They could have also used someone else at the screenplay stage just to tighten up the plot a little bit – just to ensure it actually makes sense (I’m not sure it really does in either film). What both films do accomplish – brilliantly in the case of Pulse, is to be deeply unsettling, and downright scary. Pulse, in particular, does this – mainly by following its premise to its logical conclusion. Pulse has aged a little bit in the past 14 years – the first sound we hear in the movie is a dial-up modem, which I think we can all agree is scarier than a circle saying “Buffering” for minutes on end – but it’s still very much relevant and terrifying. Kurosawa seems to want to move away from horror films – so be it. But while he was making them, he made at least two that won’t leave you alone.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Movie Review: Brooklyn

Directed by: John Crowley.   
Written by: Nick Hornby based on the novel by Colm Tóibín.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Eilis), Emory Cohen (Tony), Domhnall Gleeson (Jim Farrell), Jim Broadbent (Father Flood), Jane Brennan (Mary Lacey), Julie Walters (Mrs. Kehoe), Fiona Glascott (Rose), Brid Brennan (Miss Kelly), Eileen O'Higgins (Nancy), Peter Campion (George Sheridan), Emily Bett Rickards (Patty), Eve Macklin (Diana), Nora-Jane Noone (Sheila), Samantha Munro (Dorothy), Jessica Paré (Miss Fortini), Jenn Murray (Dolores), James DiGiacomo (Frankie Fiorello).

Brooklyn is one of the most delicate, subtle, beautiful and best films of the year. It tells a story that some people would consider small – focusing on one Irish girl immigrating to America in the 1950s – but does so with depth of feeling and specificity. It is a film that about the choices we all make – how even when the world gives us something great, it takes something away as well. Brooklyn is one of those rare films that can make you cry from happiness and sadness in the same moment.

Saoirse Ronan delivers one of the best performances of the year as Eilis, a smart, capable young Irish lass – who has no job prospects in her small town, outside of working at the general store a few hours on Sunday. Her bookkeeper sister wrote a Priest she knows in America, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who agrees to sponsor Eilis to move to Brooklyn – getting a job at a fancy department store, leaving in a boarding house with other, young women, presided over by a wonderfully comic Julie Walters, start taking courses at the local school – in the hopes of one day being an accountant (did I, an accountant, love this movie because it may be the first time cinema history that an accountant is not portrayed as a pathetic loser? Maybe). In Brooklyn, she meets Tony (Emory Cohen – channeling a kinder, gentler version a young Marlon Brando) – an Italian plumber, and falls in love. Then, a family tragedy strikes, and she heads back to Ireland for what is supposed to be a short while – and meets Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson – for once not playing a nerd), and there is more confusion.

What makes Ronan’s performance so amazing is the subtlety in which she does pretty much everything – how she appears on the verge of tears at times in those early months in America, but doesn’t want anyone to see that. Those first, tentative flirtations with Tony, and how simultaneously terrified and happy she is when he tells her he loves her. Little-by-little, she grows more confident while living in Brooklyn – and she’s taking steps towards happiness, and away from the sadness of leaving Ireland. And then, amazingly, the performance shifts when she returns to Ireland. She always felt out of place in Brooklyn, being Irish, and now she out of place in Ireland, being a Brooklyn girl. She also, quite clearly, sees how her entire small town – especially her mother – is almost pushing her and Jim together. It’s not altogether unfair to say that Eilis remakes herself into the image that the town wants to her to be, a kind of self-imposed version of what Kim Novak did late in Vertigo for Jimmy Stewart. For a while, I think, she even starts to believe that version of herself – but a late conflict with an old rival snaps her out of it. This is immediately followed by a quietly devastating scene with her mother that should be enough to emotionally crush any viewer.

The film’s screenplay is the best work (for the screen anyway) done yet by Nick Hornby, adapting the novel by Colm Tóibín, that resists the urge to underline every passage, or vocalize too much. He has written a screenplay in which only one character is what you would call bad – and not really, just nosy – and she’s barely in the book. Every character in the film makes decisions that make sense, that are not driven selfishness or anything else – but some of them are still going to be crushed, because that’s the way life is. The film was directed by John Crowley – clearly doing the best work of his career (although when you directed a couple of episodes of the awful True Detective Season 2 that may not being saying much). He, wisely, chooses to make Brooklyn in a dreamily romantic film. It’s easy to make Ireland look beautiful – especially small town, ocean adjacent Ireland – and he does, but he also makes Brooklyn look beautiful as well – especially during all of streetlamp lit strolls Tony and Eilis take. Realistic? Maybe not, but this is better.

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
Directed by: Francis Lawrence.
Written by: Peter Craig and Danny Strong & Suzanne Collins based on the novel by Collins.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Julianne Moore (President Alma Coin), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Mahershala Ali (Boggs), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee), Paula Malcomson (Katniss's Mother), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Natalie Dormer (Cressida), Evan Ross (Messalla), Elden Henson (Pollux), Wes Chatham (Castor)

I’ve been a fan of The Hunger Games – both the books and the movies – from their entire runs. The first movie, by Gary Ross, is probably the best, as Ross found a way make the large scale action movie feel more natural, and grounded. When Francis Lawrence took over the series with Catching Fire, he brought along some Hollywood gloss along with it – but the series remained effective, if somewhat more impersonal. Even Part I of Mockingjay was good – even if it was needlessly drawn out to cash in with two movies. But now, here comes the finale, and it is easily the weakest of the films – and in fact isn’t very good at all. I’ve always thought the films, and lead actress Jennifer Lawrence, are most effective in the smaller moments. Whenever the movies under Lawrence’s direction, slide into action scenes or speeches, they ring false. And unfortunately, this movie is nothing but big sequences – a lot of actions and speech making, and little else. What really kills it though is how simultaneously drawn out and rushed the film feels (it’s hard to do both – this one does it). Action sequences go on and on and on – and yet the film doesn’t pause when someone, even important characters, die so it can rush headlong into another action sequence, another speech. Major characters are forgotten, or shoehorned in, and the characters who are left all play the same note throughout the film. Nothing connects in the final installment of what had been a pretty rock solid franchise.

The story picks up where Part I left off – the rebels have gotten Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) back, but he’s been poisoned and brainwashed by President Snow and the capital to try and kill Katniss. The rebellion is going good – but the rebels need to take down District 2, where the Capital’s stronghold of “Peacekeepers” and weapons are. President Coin (Julianne Moore) is determined to use Katniss as little more than propaganda – keeping her safe so she can remain a symbol. But Katniss is determined to kill Snow herself – and forces Coin’s hand. Soon, she is part of unit – that includes both other sides of the love triangle, Peeta, who still kind of wants to kill her, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who has become more militaristic, as they storm the Capital – well behind the front lines, to keep them safe, but hardly risk free – as Snow has had his game makers turn the outskirts of the capital into yet another Hunger Games like arena.

Subtlety has never been this series’ strong suit – this has been a series where the characters will pretty much tell you off the bat exactly what they are thinking, and exactly what they must do. It’s to Jennifer Lawrence’s credit that she has made as much of this character as she has – even if she has clearly outgrown the character that once made her a star. Part of the problem is that as the series has gone along, it’s become increasingly clear that Katniss is little more than a pawn being used by all sides. Collins’ books did a good job of making this point, but the movies don’t seem to want to do that – Katniss is the hero after all, and heroes are not pawns in Hollywood productions, so they continually have her deliver ham-fisted speeches that underline just how virtuous and heroic she is.

There are moments in the film that work of course. There is an underground fight sequence with some truly terrifying monsters that really is exciting, and Donald Sutherland’s evil Snow is always a treat, even if he has gotten less complex as the series has gone along, and stops just short of twirling his mustache in this film. And every time Jena Malone’s Johanna is onscreen – not often enough at any point in this series – it’s enough to make me wish the series had instead focused on her flawed, angry, cynical character rather than the virtuous Katniss – if for nothing but pure entertainment value.
But as the movie draws to a close – with one climax after another after another (surely on Return of the King had more) he film really does collapse under its own weight. If you’ve stuck with the series this long, you’re going to see the final film – that’s a given, and perhaps you’ll be in a more forgiving mood than I was towards. Still, what I would like to see is Francis Lawrence forced back into the editing suite and combining the last two films – all 260 minutes of them – and coming up with a single film, about half that length. Now that’s a movie I’d like to see.