The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Hollywood can be so cruel. Splitting the third and final book of The Hunger Games trilogy into two movies feels so… unnecessary. Lucrative, in a “hey, Harry Potter and Twilight got away with it” kind of way. But still, totally unnecessary. Thus Mockingjay – Part 1 is a good movie that could have been great. It’s a means to an end – and that means fans of the franchise will (and should) see it despite my frustrations with a narrative cut short. Then – come next year – we will all surely see it again, as part of a movie marathon, when Mockingjay – Part 2 bows in theaters. Just in time for Thanksgiving 2015! May the odds of remembering what happened in the books – and the first three movies – be ever in our favor.

Mockingjay – Part 1 finds our reluctant heroine Katniss Everdeen (still played brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence) waking up in the rebel safe haven of District 13 after having put a fork (okay, an arrow) into the craziness that was the Hunger Games – where kid ‘tributes’ from the districts of Panem had been forced to fight to the death as part of some annual penance devised by the autocratic Capitol. Why? It’s complicated. If you really care to know, read the books. See the movies.

Rosewater

Jon Stewart’s crossover from host of a hit satirical news show to feature film writer/director was slightly surprising on the face of it. But once you get into Rosewater, you see why this true story was so personal to him. In 2009, Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones, donning a silly undercover spy persona, conducted a mock interview in Tehran with Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari for a segment about the country’s elections, which Iranian-born Bahari had returned home to cover. A short time later that interview was actually used against him when he was arrested and charged with spying for the CIA. “Why this man claim to be a spy if he is not a spy?” his interrogator asks in the film. “Why would a spy have a television show?” Bahari answers incredulously. And this was the rabbit hole he fell down — an absurdist nightmare with no room for reality or truth.

Dumb and Dumber To

Dumb and Dumber To is truly stupid. If you have a problem with that, don’t go! However, if you’re a fan of the original Dumb and Dumber – and haven’t matured all that much since 1994 – then go, and embrace the stupidity. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels reprise their roles as blissfully dimwitted pals, Lloyd and Harry. They haven’t changed much in 20 years. No ‘character growth’ here. And that’s just the way they like it.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman has no competition, because there is nothing remotely like it out there. It is a semi-fantasy, dark comedy with an amazing cast and a highly imaginative script. Michael Keaton has never been better, and in this role he shows off a kind of raw emotive talent that I would not have guessed he possessed. Playing Riggan, a former mega-star who was known for his role as the immensely popular superhero Birdman a couple of decades back, he has come down to earth and is trying to make a name for himself again, only this time with a Broadway play that he wrote, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” He is directing it and starring in it as well. And he may just be losing his mind.

Interstellar

As an astute co-worker noted, ‘If Inception and Gravity had a baby, it would be Interstellar. It’s a mind-bender with an exceptional cast and a story that those of us who (intentionally) skipped Physics in grade school will surely fail to grasp. No spoilers here – ‘cause I’m not really sure what happened!

Anyway, fans of director Christopher Nolan’s 2010 brain-strainer Inception will surely appreciate this flick as well. And like last year’s Gravity, Interstellar needs to be seen on the big screen in all its IMAX glory. It’s experiential. Sometimes loud and pulsating (bring earplugs). Sometimes eerily silent.

John Wick

The moral of John Wick is never ever kill someone’s dog, probably a good thing to bear in mind anyway. In the case of this film, the perpetrators of the vile act choose the absolutely worst person possible to piss off. Keanu Reeves plays the title character and he is a retired hit man. And not just any hit man, but the best in the biz. But he left that life behind a while back and got married, and as the film begins, his beloved wife has just died from an unnamed illness. And John is taking it really hard, when a crate shows up at his house with an adorable little dog and a note from the dead wife saying that she wanted him to have a companion to help him get through his grief. So it is not just a dog, but a link to the love of his life.

Laggies

Laggies is an easy breezy chick flick – good for a few laughs, a bit of drama, a somewhat relatable story, and solid performances from Keira Knightly, Chloë Grace Moretz, and (still) one of the most under-appreciated actors of our time, Sam Rockwell (case in point: The Way, Way Back). The film is ultimately about growing up, taking responsibility for your choices in life, and finding your path.

Nightcrawler

Movies like Nightcrawler pose a real challenge for me as a frequent film ‘opinionator’ because I simply didn’t like it nearly as much as I’m supposed to, especially considering my ‘day job’ in broadcast news. I guess I wasn’t in the mood for creepy and disturbing. And that’s exactly what Nightcrawler is – a crime thriller that left me feeling more distressed than entertained. I’m sure that’s what the filmmakers were going for. But who needs to PAY for that?

Yes, the performances are excellent. Jake Gyllenhaal got all gaunt and wild-eyed to play Lou Bloom, a smart but psychotic petty thief who stumbles upon a new career as a nightcrawler in Los Angeles – filming and selling grisly accident and crime scene footage to the highest bidder(s). And Rene Russo is chillingly good as Nina, an ethically-challenged news director determined to do whatever it takes to get her struggling TV station out of the ratings cellar.

St. Vincent

St. Vincent is a surprisingly feel good flick, and a great deal of that is due the performance of Bill Murray, who has followed his early comedy career with some wonderful dramatic turns. He is fortunate to have teamed up with a very talented newby writer/director who crafted a layered character for him to sink his teeth into. But the film also has what could have been a pretty cliched story at its center that is slowly turned on its head as the film chugs along. Not that Bill Murray isn’t funny in this role. There are some very funny bits in that deadpan, world weary way only he can pull off. It’s just that the laughter is tempered with some dramatic moments that keep it from being typical curmudgeon comedy.

Kill the Messenger

Kill the Messenger is based on a true story, and what a story it is! It is the tale of a journalist/whistleblower who had the guts to publish the truth about the CIA’s complicity in bringing crack cocaine to our inner cities in order to fund a war Congress wouldn’t pay for. And what did he get for it? He was demonized by his peers and hounded out of the profession. It is no All the President’s Men, which you can feel it trying to be at times, but it is another sickening story of people in high places feeling they are above the law, and an intrepid reporter stumbling into the story that blows the lid off their dirty little secrets. Jeremy Renner plays real life journalist Gary Webb, and it is his performance that keeps you watching. It is at times heartbreaking.