The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, directed by Francis Lawrence, screenplay by Peter Craig and Danny Strong

Review written By Andrés Rosende

I’ve always been a fan of The Hunger Games. In this age of superhero franchises and young adult fantasy movies, Katniss Everdeen stands out as a feminist heroine who challenges traditional narratives about women: she carries a bow, kills and survives, is not emotionally available and prefers to act instead of speaking. She hunts while her male counterpart bakes, speaks about feelings, and encourages her to open up and share. And while her biggest competitor in the franchise war, Bella Swan from Twilight is a clumsy, helpless girl willing to sacrifice everything – her family, her friends and her life – to be with her vampire love, Katniss sacrifices herself to save her sister and eventually becomes the leader of the rebellion against the totalitarianism of the Capitol. At the end of Twilight, Bella is pregnant, married and refuses to go to college, opting to have a baby that might kill her. The message is clear: abstinence leads to marriage and motherhood to the apotheosis of a woman’s life. Katniss, on the other hand, is a refreshing girl. She is strong, smart; doesn’t follow the rules and proves she doesn’t need Prince Charming to protect her. In short, Katniss is a good role model for teenagers.

All that said, Mockingjay Part 1, one of the most anticipated films of the year, is not a good movie. It’s actually a clear example of commercial interests being put ahead of storytelling. Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more common in Hollywood these days. And it’s too bad because it could have been a great finale for a very entertaining and interesting franchise.

Dividing the final book into two movies makes no narrative sense but follows what the Harry Potter and Twilight sagas did (not to mention what Peter Jackson did with The Hobbit). And it is a strategy that works in the box office. Mockingjay Part 1 made more than $121 million on its first weekend and it’s getting close to $600 million worldwide. The problem with the film is that it feels like a huge set-up, full of exposition, for something we have to wait a year to see. To put it plainly: nothing happens in this film.

Lets imagine for a second that you are reading Little Red Riding Hood to a kid but instead of telling the full story you stop when Little Red Riding Hood meets the Wolf. Still you have to tell the story in the same amount of time. What would happen? Well, you would maybe describe a day in Little Red’s life: school, friends, games, homework, etc. We would go into depth about her relationship with her mum and her grandmother. We would make clear how far her grandmother’s house is from theirs; maybe she will study a big map of the forest…Then, her journey begins: she would have to stop to smell the flowers, listen to the birds and talk to the neighbors. She would probably have to take a couple of detours to meet some colorful creatures until she would finally encounter the Wolf. And now that the story starts to get exciting, we tell the kid to go to bed and that tomorrow we’ll finish the story, promising the ending is amazing. That’s exactly how I felt watching Mockingjay Part 1.

The film starts a few days after the close of Catching Fire with a tormented Katniss Everdeen living in an underground bunker, which is all that’s left from District 13, the military base of the rebellion against the Capitol dictatorship. Its leaders want to use her popularity to create a propaganda campaign. However, Katniss only wants to get back Peeta Mellark, her sidekick/love-interest. She agrees to become the “Mockingjay,” the symbol of hope and resistance for the propaganda campaign, but she is a terrible actress and the ads have no soul…until she sees with her own eyes the cruelty of the Capitol. And then, for a second, we get to see what Katniss will become in the final chapter of the saga. Unfortunately, this and a few other interesting moments are not reason enough for this film to exist. The movie becomes a drag and should have been the first act, the first 30 minutes, of a full film.

Francis Lawrence has a good feel for portraying the post apocalyptical world of Hunger Games but there is nothing a director can do without a screenplay. The most interesting – I should probably say the only interesting – thing about Mockingjay Part 1 is its political satire in the era of mass media manipulation that resonates so well in our present world. But it’s the amazing performers that are the main reason the film is watchable. Jennifer Lawrence is one of those people I can watch breathe and find interesting, but she delivers one of her weakest performances. For most of the movie she just stares in anger and despair. Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci Natalie Dormer, Julianne Moore and the unique Philip Seymour Hoffman (cinema is really going to miss you) raise the film from mediocrity, although it has the feel of a director who was given a bunch of Ferraris and just a suburban street with a lot of speed bumps to drive in.

Mockingjay Part 1 ends with a great plot twist (meeting the Wolf) and promises us an epic conclusion full of action and fireworks where, maybe, Katniss will get a full character arc and become the feminist leader of this revolution. We’ll know in 12 months.

Andrés Rosende is an LA based writer and director. He holds an MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. His films have played at festivals around the globe including Cannes, Sitges, Cleveland and South by Southwest, winning more than 40 international awards.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

The Boxtrolls, directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, screenplay by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava

Review written by Mike Fishman

Set in an imaginary early 19th Century England, this feature animation from Laika Studios (Coraline, ParaNorman) is another step forward for stop-motion animation, a painstaking process in which it can take filmmakers a week of work to create four seconds of footage. For The Boxtrolls, the creative team at Laika incorporated 3D printing to create literally millions of character’s faces, many of which were only used once. The payoff is apparent from the first frame, with character’s faces more expressive than we’ve seen before, particularly the eyes, generally the weakest aspect of animated characters. As is often the case with animation it’s the little touches and degrees of improvement that make all the difference. And particularly in stop-motion it’s the details that enthrall: tiny buttons on sleeves, shoes with laces, the character’s pushed and pulled faces. This being England in the 19th Century, one of the running gags is characters sporting horribly crooked teeth, bared so often and with such relish they practically earn their own credit, adding not just dark humor but a sense of realism, albeit exaggerated.

The film is a visual delight and several big scenes are truly exhilarating, especially a set-piece that takes us deep beneath the city streets to the boxtroll’s lair. The story (based on Alan Snow’s book Here Be Monsters!) concerns an infant boy who is saved from danger by boxtrolls, grayish creatures who live underground and use discarded boxes to hide their bodies and from which they get their names: Shoes, Fish, Eggs, etc. Archibald Snatcher, an evil exterminator voiced with ghoulish flare by Ben Kingsley, strikes a deal with the city to destroy the boxtrolls in exchange for membership into the mayor’s cheese-obsessed council, even though Snatcher is allergic to cheese. His denial of the allergy, even when his face puffs up horribly, is one of several ironic touches running through this witty film; he is determined to become part of the upper class even if it kills him. A wicked wit is apparent as well in the absurd scenes of Snatcher dressed as a female chanteuse and performing a ditty for the public demonizing the boxtrolls. Yes, that’s right, a cross-dressing performance voiced by Sir Ben.

Of course, there’s a girl (Elle Fanning) who helps save the boy (Isaac Hempstead Wright); it is after all the very rare animated film that doesn’t feel the need to include or base their story upon a young romance. Contemporary classics Brave and Frozen are certainly changing that and refreshingly, the female character in The Boxtrolls is a feisty fiercely independent girl who is more curious than frightened of the creatures and the one doing the saving. Upon arriving in their lair and finding them surprisingly timid she wonders aloud where the storied bones of dead children are, disappointedly exclaiming, “I was promised rivers of blood and bones. Lots of bones.” More humor comes in the form of Snatcher’s henchmen (Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade), dressed and speaking as if they were waiting for Godot, constantly questioning whether they are good or evil and riffing hilariously during the closing credits about the possibility of being controlled by some unseen forces or hands (!) as the filmmakers use time-lapse photography to reveal a puppeteer manipulating the characters. It’s a wonderfully self-referential, tongue-in-cheek scene, and part of what makes The Boxtrolls so smart.

The Boxtrolls will be available for streaming and on DVD in January 2015.
Visit the official website: http://www.laika.com/

Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University and has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Columbia University Film School.

Posted in Film Reviews, etc.

X: The Human Condition, directed by Michael Nova

A love story of a different kind…Two alienated artists, each trapped in their own surreal existence, believe that no one else feels their feelings of alienation and loneliness, yet still retain some hope that there is someone out there who understands. Each is mysteriously driven to create the ultimate work of art, one that will make a difference.
Desperate, they each create something magical… living, breathing works of art that take over where they left off, inspiring other lonely people to come together…

X: The Human Condition draws on Michael Nova’s own past experience of feeling alienated while facing and overcoming life challenges, and this film is his inspired mission to speak for and help those who are experiencing their own personal challenges. X: The Human Condition is the allegorical story of two individuals searching for human connection in their increasingly cold, technologically-driven lives. A timely story, as studies show that people feel more alone than ever despite being more connected than ever, it is already resonating with people worldwide (it’s received rave reviews from Mexico to Australia).

As president of Nova Music Productions, Inc., Michael was featured in the New York Times as a pioneer in offering multiple services to independent artists in the music industry. Educating his clients to “do it yourself,” Michael followed his own advice and completed X: The Human Condition as a D.I.Y. undertaking. With no previous film industry experience, he fully funded, wrote, directed and co-edited the film portion of the project while composing and co-producing the music. Despite losing his sight and being stricken with chronic kidney disease, Michael worked for 12 years and completed X: The Human Condition on a shoestring budget. He’s written an article to help other indie filmmakers that is available free for download at: http://hypnoticalentertainment.com/keys-to-successful-filmmaking/.

You can see the film trailer at http://hypnoticalentertainment.com/media/.

Posted in Filmmaker Profiles

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