The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Peter Craig and Danny Strong, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Natalie Dormer

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 opens with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in District 13 after she literally shatters the Hunger Games forever. Under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends, Katniss spreads her wings as she fights to save Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage.

Review: Despite its best intentions, Mockingjay Part 1 is easily the weakest installment in the Hunger Games franchise thus far. Lionsgate had made the financially-lucrative (but creatively bankrupt) decision to cleave the final installment in two, but unfortunately Mockingjay Part 1 does not work well as a standalone movie, and ends in such an abrupt manner that it can potentially turn casual audiences off from making a return visit for Mockingjay Part 2. The final novel in the Hunger Games trilogy was the grandest in scale, but does not lend itself well to a (probable) 4-plus hour transition to the big screen. Mockingjay Part 1 is ponderously paced, meanders and feels drawn out, and is only sporadically interesting in its two hour plus running time. While the elements that made the first two movies good are still present, they are weighed down by too much unnecessary baggage.

Although “The Hunger Games” is still part of the title of Mockingjay, it is important to note that while there’s war and strife, there’s no Hunger Games being conducted in the movie. While this is not surprising for anyone who has read the novels (like myself), expectations of some audience members will surely be confounded. Mockingjay is a far more static movie, with a very minimal number of action setpieces. Much of it is set underground, in District 13, and with Katniss essentially neutered from most of the action (of any kind), it’s almost like the franchise is banking on the halo effect of her past two cinematic outings to coast by. Even though Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress, she’s really only effective in a handful of scenes in Mockingjay Part 1, a stark difference from the previous two films where she held the audience’s attention from beginning to end. The film does boast a very strong supporting cast of veteran actors, especially the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but none of them are really given enough time to shine, despite the film’s length.

It doesn’t help that Peeta is separated from Katniss for essentially the whole movie – while Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is around Katniss, the love triangle is essentially DOA since there’s no chemistry whatsoever between Hemsworth and Lawrence, which has already been confirmed in the last two movies, but brought into starker contrast this time round. Fortunately, the romance is a smaller and less consequential component of the film compared to other YA offerings, so it doesn’t completely undermine the movie despite the clunkiness.

Since it’s essentially half a movie, it is difficult to judge if Mockingjay is a befitting swansong for the franchise until Part 2 is released (a full year later, in November 2015). It cannot be denied, however, that nothing much really happens in Mockingjay Part 1, since it’s merely a placeholder for the true conclusion of the film in Part 2, where surely there’s less inaction and an actual denouement. This is the film’s most glaring fault and drowns out almost every positive aspect. While it’s still a perfectly serviceable YA film (albeit a fair bit darker and brooding than most films in the same genre), Catching Fire had set up higher expectations which unfortunately are not met with this half of the finale.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Big Hero 6

Genre: Animation

Directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams

Writers: Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Jordan Roberts, based on the comic by Duncan Rouleau, Steven T. Seagle

Voice Cast: Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph

Running Length: 108 minutes

Synopsis: An action comedy adventure about brilliant robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), who finds himself in the grips of a criminal plot that threatens to destroy the fast-paced, high-tech city of San Fransokyo. With the help of his closest companion—a robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit) – Hiro joins forces with a reluctant team of first-time crime fighters on a mission to save their city.

Review: We have all gotten used to the short film that precedes most animated films these days, but this could possibly be the first time that I feel a feature presentation has been somewhat hurt by the short film before it. While Big Hero 6 is a fun romp for both young and old, the emotional depth (nowadays more commonly referred to as “the feels”) actually pales in comparison to its companion six-minute short Feast, which is an excellent short film. And while this is a good, if somewhat unexpected, addition to the Marvel Comic Universe movies, the fact remains that there is a better superhero animation in the Disney/Pixar stable (no prizes for guessing which).

As always, I will touch on the short film first. Feast is a recounting of the relationship a Boston terrier has with his master over 12 years, except via the unusual angle of his food. It seems like such a simple conceit, but like the best of animation, it is evocative and manages to tell a very engaging story. There is a good chance that many animal lovers or pet owners will choke up (like I did) over Feast, which is high praise given that it unfolds in such a short span of screen time. If this is what writer-director Patrick Osborne can achieve in under ten minutes, I am definitely looking forward to his first feature film (surely not too far away).

Perhaps it’s a direct result of Pixar’s stellar output over the years (and to be fair, a smattering of animated films from rival studios) that expectations for animated films have risen dramatically. It doesn’t help that technology has advanced to a point that spectacular visuals are almost a given in any computer animated film these days, and often the differentiating factors come down to the storyline, the number of A-list actors in the voice cast, and the production design. The need to sell animated films with Hollywood actors has become almost a liability however, because not all name actors are necessarily good in voice roles. Thankfully, Big Hero 6 eschews this, going instead with a bunch of relatively lesser-known actors that do pretty well in their roles.

As for the visuals, there’s really nothing to complain about, except once again this is not a film that needs to be seen in 3D. The character designs are uniformly excellent, with some truly colourful and creative flourishes, and the setting of San Fransokyo is wonderfully imagined, creating an inventive mashup between San Francisco and Tokyo. Then, there’s Baymax – Disney has created a surefire marketing phenomenon with the most cuddly robot design I’ve ever seen, and despite straying far, FAR away from the source graphic novels, will capture the hearts and minds of audiences of all age groups.

This is not the first movie in the Marvel Comic Universe to work with a relatively obscure Marvel property, as Guardians of the Galaxy lays claim to being the first. There’s also an interesting parallel between the two movies, since both are about a motley crew of unlikely heroes, and also touches on grief and loss. I would say that the themes are better handled in Guardians of the Galaxy versus Big Hero 6, but this is a somewhat unfair comparison given that Big Hero 6 is aimed at a much younger audience. Given that there will be a lot of young ones watching the movie, the concept of death is actually quite elegantly handled, even more so than How to Train Your Dragon 2 (I’ll keep things vague although the full trailer does give part of this storyline away).

Most of the film stays pretty light-hearted with a number of fun action set pieces, and it would take a heart of stone not to be somewhat taken by Baymax and his lovable antics, so it is not difficult to recommend the film, especially for younger audiences. There are a number of more affecting moments, to be sure, but Feast manages to do better in this aspect than the whole of Big Hero 6 (hence the earlier comment about the short film hurting the feature film, something that I have not experienced prior). Although the superhero origin story is done to death at this point, Big Hero 6 offers a somewhat fresh perspective, even if it doesn’t match the narrative strength of The Incredibles, still the gold standard for animated superhero films a decade after its release.

P.S. The end credit sequence is a blast, and features one of the best cameos I have seen to date, particularly so for fans of the Marvel universe. Definitely worth staying through the credits for.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)



Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Chris Nolan

Cast: Matthew McConnaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Timothee Chalamet, David Oyelowo, Will Devane, Matt Damon

Running Length: 169 minutes

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Review: If I were to pick just one word to describe Christopher Nolan’s latest film, it would have to be “ambitious” – Interstellar is an epic undertaking that doesn’t always succeed, but you have to give Nolan brownie points just for trying. Although this sounds like faint praise, Interstellar is actually an excellent cinematic experience – the sheer scope and spectacle of the film is more than enough reason to give this movie a once-over on the big screen (and I am serious about “big screen” – this movie deserves to be seen on IMAX – more on this later), and even if the final reels come a little unhinged, it does not undo what happens in the two hours prior.

Although the film runs almost three hours long, it never feels belaboured, and plotlines are so engaging and well developed that the 169 minute running time passes by very quickly. Nolan smartly intertwines plot heavy scenes with action setpieces which are nothing short of stunning, taking place on a variety of very different landscapes. If you thought the action setpieces in Nolan’s Inception and Batman trilogy were impressive, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

While Interstellar is essentially a sci-fi film, Nolan manages to inject a lot of emotionality into the proceedings. It treads the fine line between emotional resonance and cheesiness, but most of the time the drama does hit the right notes, none more so than a mid-movie segment in which the time warping capabilities of a black hole is brought into stark relief. Matthew McConnaughey is extremely impressive in this sequence, and without spoiling the proceedings, the range and depth of emotions that he displays in those five minutes could rival the entire cast of some other sci-fi films, and brings to mind Sandra Bullock’s similarly excellent turn in Gravity. The supporting cast is strong, but undeniably McConnaughey is the one that holds the entire film together. It would not be a surprise to see him nominated second year running for Best Actor.

That the film throws so many scientific principles and terms at the audience, and yet still remains rather accessible, is a feat in itself. Most of it seems legit too, especially since famed CalTech astrophysicist Kip Thorne consults on the film and is credited as an Executive Producer. It does get a bit too farfetched and clunky near the end, and the denouement feels a little rushed, as though Nolan is aware that dwelling too long on the postscript would bring the plot holes into focus. Interstellar is not as mind-bending as some of Nolan’s other work (it was pretty clear to me how the plot would pan out eventually, midway through), but audience members will nevertheless need to prepare for a mental workout when watching the film – this is not your usual Hollywood sci-fi action blockbuster.

In terms of technical accomplishment, Interstellar is about as flawless as it gets. Every technical aspect is remarkably executed – art direction, production design, sound, visual effects, CG work, cinematography, editing, musical score and more – one simply cannot ask for more in a movie. This is a big budget Hollywood movie done right, and I will be surprised if there would not be a flurry of nominations and awards in technical categories come awards season next year. Having been shot entirely on celluloid, bucking the digital trend, the film’s scale and beauty is best appreciated in IMAX, and is a necessity in my opinion.

Interstellar is such a massive undertaking that the fact that Nolan manages to pull it off is impressive enough, and for the film to actually be this accomplished means it automatically takes a spot in my best-of list for 2014. Despite some blemishes, it is the cinematic experience to beat in 2014, and much as it sounds like a cliché: if you watch one movie this year, make it Interstellar.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)