Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best Films of 2014

This has been a pretty solid year for movies, particularly the studio pictures. Looking back at my most anticipated list from a year ago, quite a few of the ones I selected actually panned out (sorry, Transcendence). However, I am having to write this list without seeing all of the films I wanted to this year. The ones I haven't seen that probably would have been in contention include Foxcatcher, American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Selma, Birdman, Nightcrawler, and Boyhood.  That could easily be somebody's top 10 list right there, but thanks to studios not choosing to release these films in theaters near me (if they released them at all), I'll have to make do with the other great films from this year to make up my list.

<<Just a note to those viewing on a mobile device, you probably won't be able to view the videos embedded in this post, so switch to desktop or click on the title above the video in order to view them.>> 

Honorable Mentions:

My first tip of the hat goes to a film I've wanted since I was a little kid. Godzilla is one of those creatures that has always captured my imagination, and seeing this movie brought back those same feelings. The tension builds slowly throughout this film, which some people may not like, but no one can deny that when the King of Monsters lets loose (particularly with the atomic breath) it's one of the coolest scenes of the year. Hopefully you saw this on a big screen.

Who knew this would be such a controversial film for so many people? I can't tell you all of the ridiculous fanboy complaints I've endured about The Amazing Spider-Man 2, especially since it's actually a really entertaining film! I really wanted to include this on my top 10 list, because it has a great score, amazing visuals, and a really likable cast (particularly Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, whose on-screen chemistry is off the charts).

Big Hero 6

This was one of the most charming films I've seen all year, and one that kids are really going to love. Big Hero 6 has a good message and excellent visuals, but it also has one of the most memorable characters of the year in the adorable Baymax. No doubt every kid is going to want a Baymax toy (heck, even I kind of want one), but it's his nature that makes him so endearing. This was also really hard to keep out of my to 10, as it's easily one of the better animated films of the year.

Top 10 Films of 2014

10 - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Mockingjay Part 1 had a lot to live up to after the excellent film that was Catching Fire, and though it isn't quite as good as that one it mostly keeps the momentum going while setting up what is sure to be a massive blow-out in Part 2. Jennifer Lawrence is awesome as usual, and one of her speeches alone is good enough to get this film on the list. The expansion to two movies isn't wasted, as they use the opportunity to build character and heighten suspense for what's to come next year. Bring on Part 2!

9 - Edge of Tomorrow

Easily one of the biggest surprises of the year, Edge of Tomorrow overcame a terrible ad campaign to become one of the most entertaining films of the year. Tom Cruise is at his comedic best in this apocalyptic adventure, and his gradual character evolution is extremely satisfying to watch. Even though it can't hold its momentum for the entire run time, this is easily one of the best times you'll have with a movie this year. Please check this movie out!

8 - Guardians of the Galaxy

Oh yeah! Easily the funnest movie of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy proved the near infallibility of Marvel Studios and scratched everyone's itch for a Star Wars-esque space opera (at least until next year). With an on-fire Chris Pratt, a hilarious talking raccoon, "I am Groot", and some great action scenes, this was a shoe-in for my top 10 list of 2014. I was so happy to open up the Blu Ray this Christmas, and I'm sure I'll be watching it over and over again.

7 - How to Train Your Dragon 2

HTTYD 2 was probably the most visceral experience I had in the theater all year. The visuals are dazzling as the camera follows the roller coaster-like aerial maneuvers of Toothless and Hiccup, but it's the character arcs that really make this a worthy sequel to the tremendous first movie. If you've seen the trailer you know that Hiccup meets his mother in this film, which is a great place to take the story. The score is also extremely well done, eliciting emotions from pure exhilaration to the deepest sorrow. It's a great movie, and one that I can't wait to see again.

6 - The LEGO Movie

Last year I would never have dreamed that a movie based on a toy would be half as good as The LEGO Movie turned out, let alone that it would nearly crack my top 5 favorite films of the year! Not only is this film hilarious, but it's also a very smart screenplay. Its imagination is off the charts, and the end twist brings a whole other layer to the movie that instantly requires a repeat viewing to fully appreciate. There are endless quotes in The LEGO Movie, but I can pretty much sum it all up with one indelible line... "Everything is awesome!"

5 - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Hail Caesar! I was a huge fan of 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as you can see on my best of 2011 list, and I couldn't wait to see how they would continue the franchise. Needless to say, they did it brilliantly. With a substantial improvement in VFX and a remarkable performance by Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes somehow outdoes its predecessor and ups the ante in nearly every way. It's hard to believe they'll top this with the inevitable sequel, but I'll be there opening weekend to see what else director Matt Reeves has got up his sleeve.

4 - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Man, I cannot tell you how much I love this movie. It's so good that I could almost put it above any other film this year depending on my mood. After a few lackluster efforts following The Avengers (ahem, Iron Man 3), I was so happy to see that Marvel had gotten its act together with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Not only is this one of the most entertaining and exciting films of the year, but it's probably my favorite MCU film to date.

3 - Gone Girl

This isn't a film for the faint of heart, but it's a thrilling, nail-biting experience that really delves into the darkness of the human psyche in a fascinating way. Gone Girl is expertly written, gorgeously shot, and skillfully acted, especially Rosamund Pike's amazing (pun-intended) portrayal of Amy, the titular gone girl. It may make you question the motive of everyone around you for a good week or so, but if you're up for it this is one of David Fincher's best films and easily one of the best of the year.

2 - X-Men: Days of Future Past

It's so rare for a comic book movie to have the most dramatic scene of an entire year, but that's exactly what X-Men: Days of Future Past accomplished. There are multiple moments in this film that take my breath away, whether it be the future Sentinels' vicious attacks, Magneto suddenly turning on Raven, or the wonderful slow-motion hijinks of the scene-stealing Quicksilver. With a legendary cast assembled to portray two generations of mutants and the return of X-Men superstar director Bryan Singer, it's no wonder this film crushed it. I cannot freaking wait for X-Men: Apocalypse!

1 - Interstellar

If you've read my review then this certainly won't come as any surprise. I was looking forward to this film so much that it could have easily run the risk of becoming a crushing disappointment. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan delivered a mind-blowing spectacle with very human themes and existential ideas in equal measure. It's bizarre that so many people could have such wildly divergent reactions to this movie, but count me among the multitude that admire both the ambition and the artistry of Interstellar. I doubt it will get the credit it deserves, but I cannot discount the incredible experience that seeing this film in IMAX gave me. I'm an unabashed Nolan fan, but to me this is one of his best films. It may always be an under-appreciated film in his body of work, but hopefully people will eventually come to recognize the complexity of this vision. If you still can, do yourself a favor and go see Interstellar!

** So, what are your favorite films of the year? Let me know in the comments section below, and don't forget to like my Facebook page! **

But wait, there's more! I'm not going to stop at just the top 10 movies of the year. I'm also going to be listing IMDb's highest rated films as well as ranking the top 10 scores of the year, the top 5 action scenes of the year, and the top 10 trailers of the year! Enjoy!

IMDb's Top 10 Films of 2014

1 - Interstellar (8.9/10)
2 - Boyhood (8.4/10)
3 - Gone Girl (8.3/10)
4 - Guardians of the Galaxy (8.2/10)
5 - The Grand Budapest Hotel (8.1/10)
6 - X-Men: Days of Future Past (8.1/10)
7 - The Raid 2 (8.1/10)
8 - How to Train Your Dragon 2 (8.0/10)
9 - Edge of Tomorrow (8.0/10)
10 - The Fault in Our Stars (8.0/10)

Top 10 Scores of 2014

10 - The Imitation Game (Alexandre Desplat)

I haven't seen this film yet, but Alexandre Desplat is one of my favorite composers working today, and thanks to the entire score being on YouTube, I've been able to listen to it without seeing the movie. It's not extremely different from his other works for films like The Ghost Writer or even the Harry Potter films, but it's a style I really enjoy.

9 - Fury (Steven Price)

Scored by the Oscar-winning composer of last year's Gravity, Steven Price does a great job of capturing the grit and noise of battle with a backbone of sorrow and regret. His music has a way of instantly grabbing you, but also keeping your attention with the mix of choral, electronic, and symphonic music throughout. It's a solid follow-up for Price, and one of the better scores of this year.

8 - The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Hans Zimmer)

Okay, this one probably isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea... but I really enjoy this score! Hans Zimmer is my favorite composer, and he has a knack for coming up with captivating music that pulls an audience into the film. Here he's collaborated with a few other unusual people such as Pharrell Williams, Junkie XL and Johnny Marr among others, but the combination of their styles actually works. The coolest part of the score is the electronic bass (go to 6:30 in the video) which is used liberally during the Electro scenes, and it's an interesting musical translation of what's portrayed on screen.

7 - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (James Newton Howard)

Though the film wasn't quite as good as Catching Fire, this score composed by James Newton Howard is probably the best in the series so far. Headlined by the beautifully orchestrated "The Hanging Tree" performed by Jennifer Lawrence, Howard produced a haunting, intense soundtrack that is instrumental (no pun intended) in bringing this world to life. Not many of the old themes are reused here, which I always appreciate in a sequel, and the new music seems to mirror the heightened stakes that the Mockingjay films will introduce.

6 - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Michael Giacchino)

Speaking of my favorite composers, Michael Giacchino (Up, Star Trek, The IncrediblesSuper 8, etc.) is certainly up there. Paying homage to great sci-fi works like 2001: A Space Odyssey, and honoring what Jerry Goldsmith did with the original Planet of the Apes back in 1968, Giacchino creates an exciting action score while also laying the emotional groundwork that the characters will build on throughout the movie (though it's a tad reminiscent of his previous works).

5 - How To Train Your Dragon 2 (John Powell)

The music for the first How to Train Your Dragon is one of my favorite scores of all time, so really all I expected John Powell to do was repeat the magnificent themes he created for the first movie. While that is mostly what he did, there are some new tunes in the sequel that warranted a spot on this list. Powell is a disciple of Hans Zimmer, and his versatility is evidence that he learned a great deal from his former mentor (see The Bourne Identity). He combines the epic adventure with heart and emotion perfectly, and it's a worthy follow up to his Oscar-nominated work for the first film.

4 - Gone Girl (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are the kings of atmospheric scores that build and build tension without taking too much attention away from what's on screen. They won an Oscar for their work on 2010's The Social Network, and will likely get another nomination for their moody work here as well. The music is designed to unsettle, and as the events of the film unfold it transitions seamlessly from plot point to plot point. With an emphasis on electronic beats and distortion effects, their music can epitomize chaos and madness unlike almost any other composer out there.

3 - Godzilla (Alexandre Desplat)

Yet another score composed by Desplat, his ominous work for Godzilla is quite underrated in my opinion. With the forboding horns, urgent strings, punctuated with the occasional percussive pound, Desplat sets the stage for a massive and frightening encounter with a god-like beast. One of the highlights of the score also comes at the power plant, where the intensity ratchets up to critical levels and culminates in a mournful piece that's actually quite beautiful. Despite the recognition Desplat will receive for The Imitation Game, I still think Godzilla might be his best work of the year.

2 - Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Henry Jackman)

Another composer who is climbing the ranks, Henry Jackman does his best work to date with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This score is memorable not only for the pulse-pounding action scenes with alarming scream-like distortions, but also the heart-breaking simplicity of the piano in pieces like "End of the Line". It fits perfectly with the action packed, yet emotional story of Steve Rogers trying to reach out to his corrupted and brain-washed best friend while struggling to bring down an evil organization that threatens to destroy their freedom. Such a great score!

1 - Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)

This was a pretty obvious choice for me. Like I said, Zimmer is my favorite composer out there, and given his incredible track record when working with Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception), I couldn't wait to hear what he cooked up for the science-based space epic, Interstellar. Zimmer courageously abandons the string heavy action music he made famous for the Batman films as well as the rumbling drum kit utilized for Man of Steel and stepped outside the box for what is probably his most ambitious work to date. With a stroke of brilliance, Nolan and Zimmer decided to focus on woodwinds and, most notably, the church organ. At times it seems to penetrate your very skin when you're in the IMAX theater, but it works extremely well with headphones on an iPod as well. There are so many wonderful tracks that I could spend a whole review just talking about them, but some of the standouts are the heartbreaking "Stay", the clock-inspired "Mountains", and the incredibly intense "No Time for Caution". Please go see this movie in theaters, and if you're interested in film music at all pick up the score on iTunes!

**  What are your favorite scores of 2014? Did you even notice them? If not, hopefully you will start to!  **

Top 5 Action Scenes of 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

It's almost impossible to choose a scene from this film, but the first major action moment in the movie is a really hard one to top. I love all the in-camera effects that are happening, giving the whole scene a much more tactile physicality that really grips you. Enjoy!

X-Men: Days of Future Past

This video might not be the best quality, but this scene was one of the biggest surprises of the year. Everyone (including me) thought that Quicksilver looked stupid in the pre-release photos that were coming out on news outlets. No one was prepared for the awesome display that would absolutely steal the show from even the most beloved X-Men.


Unlike the last scene which was a total surprise, this one was what everyone was waiting for the entire movie. Godzilla hadn't had a battle against another monster in a long time, and most American audiences had probably never seen one (even the cheesy ones where both monsters are clearly guys in suits surrounded by model trains). The battle is epic, and definitely worth the wait as Godzilla takes on two Mutos at once. However, it isn't until his back plates begin to illuminate that the crowd (meaning me) felt like getting up and cheering.

Edge of Tomorrow

This whole movie was a surprise to me, and this first battle scene really sets the stage for how difficult their overall task is going to be. People are dropping like flies all around Cage (Tom Cruise) and as he has zero training for this situation, he's solely dedicated to staying out of the line of fire. It's a really intense moment, and one that works best while viewing the movie as a whole.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I couldn't find a decent video, but how could I forget one of the most heart-stopping moments of 2014 by omitting Koba's frightening attack on the human settlement? The 360 degree shot atop a swerving tank is easily one of the best visuals of the year, and it's an extremely creative way to organically pray the chaos of battle.

** What did you think of my top 5 (in no particular order) action scenes of the year? Let me know what yours were in the comments below!  **

Top 10 Trailers of 2014

Now for this list it would be easy to include all trailers that were released during 2014, but instead I'm going to limit my selections to trailers whose films were coming out in 2014. Some of these movies weren't all that great, but the trailers really got me excited for them nonetheless. (For mobile users, please tap the title above each video to view directly in YouTube.) Enjoy!

10 - Noah

9 - The Theory of Everything

8 - American Sniper

7 - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

6 - Guardians of the Galaxy

5 - Godzilla

4 - X-Men: Days of Future Past

3 - Interstellar

2 - Unbroken

1 - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

** So there you have it! Happy new years everyone! What did you think of my mega end-of-year list this time? Also, be sure to check out my most anticipated films of 2015 list coming out soon! **

2014 Yearly Star-Ratings

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit   ----------------------------------------------->

The Lego Movie   -------------------------------------------------------------->   

The Grand Budapest Hotel   ------------------------------------------------>

Divergent   ----------------------------------------------------------------------->

Captain America: The Winter Soldier   ----------------------------------->

Draft Day   ----------------------------------------------------------------------->

Transcendence   --------------------------------------------------------------->

The Other Woman   ----------------------------------------------------------->

The Amazing Spider-Man 2  ------------------------------------------------>

Godzilla   ------------------------------------------------------------------------>

X-Men: Days of Future Past   ---------------------------------------------->

Maleficent   ---------------------------------------------------------------------->

Edge of Tomorrow   ----------------------------------------------------------->

How to Train Your Dragon 2   ---------------------------------------------->

Transformers: Age of Extinction   ------------------------------------------>

Boyhood   ------------------------------------------------------------------------>

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes   ------------------------------------------>

Guardians of the Galaxy   --------------------------------------------------->

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles   -------------------------------------------->

The Giver   ---------------------------------------------------------------------->

Gone Girl   ---------------------------------------------------------------------->

The Book of Life   ------------------------------------------------------------->

Interstellar   --------------------------------------------------------------------->

Big Hero 6   --------------------------------------------------------------------->

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1   ------------------------------->

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies   ---------------------------->

Unbroken   ---------------------------------------------------------------------->

Into the Woods   --------------------------------------------------------------->

American Sniper   ------------------------------------------------------------->

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Believe me, I'm as surprised as anybody about this star rating. I came into this film with a ton of good will. First, my family has been singing the praises of the source material for months on end. Then, the initial trailer for this movie was released, which was possibly my favorite trailer of the year (scroll down to see what I'm talking about). With all of the talent that was involved in the production of this film and the rich story potential of adapting such an extraordinary life story, I expected this to be one of if not my favorite film of the year. Unfortunately, despite all the promise this film showed initially, a lot of that potential goes unrealized.

Louis "Louie" Zamperini was once a rebellious youth, stealing cigarettes and liquor when he wasn't getting in fights with the neighborhood bullies. However, thanks to some words of encouragement and training assistance from his brother, Louie begins to realize his potential as an athlete. His track and field prowess leads to an appearance in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he breaks the record for the final lap of the 5,000 meter race. Later we see him as a second lieutenant, deployed to the Pacific island of Funafuti as a bombardier on the B-24 Liberator bomber. While on a rescue mission after crashing their original plane, the crew are given a notoriously defective craft that crashes to the ocean and kills 8 of the 11 passengers on board. After 47 days adrift on a life raft, Louie and his crew mate Phil are rescued/captured by the Japanese Navy and held in a prisoner of war camp with no hope of escape. 

I'll cut myself off there so that there's still some suspense for those who don't know about Zamperini's story. Right off the bat I noticed what was probably the biggest strength of this film - the cinematography. Roger Deakins is an incredible cinematographer (see my review of Skyfall for more on that), and he does a great job of capturing the beauty of the locations as well as the internal struggle of each character. If you're a relatively new director doing a massive film like Unbroken, you can't choose a better camera man than Deakins to capture it.

The next best thing about this film is the performances, particularly by lead actor Jack O'Connell playing Zamperini. He does a great job personifying the struggles that Louie had to endure, particularly as the film progresses and his physical strength begins to deteriorate. Everyone else in this film is a bit-player, but most of them come to play as well. Domhnall Gleeson was particularly memorable as Russell "Phil" Phillips, who survived the ocean with Zamperini and must have endured his own fair share of punishment in the POW camps. Unfortunately, he wasn't in the film for very long, and besides a passing mention at the film's "where are they now" conclusion (a staple of any Hollywood biopic), we never got to see his character make it home.

This leads into some of my other complaints about the movie, which I wouldn't have imagined going into the screening on Wednesday night. There is so much fertile ground in this story for an emotional and spiritual experience, particularly since these are the areas where Zampirini seemed to struggle the most later in life. I went in with some knowledge of the book, but had few expectations as far as the content we would see, but even I could tell that something wasn't really jelling the way it should. The tagline of this movie (and the subtitle of the book) says "Survival. Resilience. Redemption." It's a great three-word summation of Louie Zamperini's life as I understand it, but the problem with this movie is that its focus was entirely on the first two points. Director Angelina Jolie really wanted to do this film when the rights became available, but it seems like she misplaced her attention on the physical endurance Zamperini displayed rather than the spiritual journey his trials took him through. According to family members who have read the book, she seemed to have missed the point by excising all of the real struggles he had to overcome throughout his life, instead of spending the entire film on World War II.

Even disregarding this complaint, I wasn't particularly moved by anything we were shown on screen. I am a big softy when it comes to films (see my review of Return of the King for more on that), and fully expected to be shedding tears at multiple parts of the movie. Seriously, I even teared up every time I watched the trailer for this film. But no matter how many lashes Zamperini takes, or how many close encounters with a shark he survives, there's nothing that really made me care all that much. Obviously no one wants to see someone stricken with so many tribulations, but in a movie it's imperative to make the audience care about the character in order for us to really feel the magnitude of what they overcome. Unfortunately, Jolie expects her audience to come into the film already caring about Zamperini and does hardly anything to make us connect with him. Even a subplot involving the love of his life (who also gets a brief mention at the end credits) was cut from the film to make room for more prison beatings. There's a moment of it in the trailer, but even bringing a fraction of that relationship into the film would have made a world of difference.

Ultimately, this was a pretty major disappointment, and it continues to irk me the more I think about it. Technically it's a very well-made film with brilliant images and solid performances, and the story itself is incredibly inspirational as a pinnacle of human perseverance, but the movie short-changes the real heart and soul of his story by limiting it to such a narrow scope. It's astounding to me that I walked away feeling like the trailer was a better tribute to the miraculous life of Louie Zamperini than the two hour film. I'd still probably recommend it to people who just want to know what he went through, but there's no real redemption shown here. I debated giving this a higher rating, but my sinking opinion of how this material was handled brought me down to a (maybe a little harsh) two and a half stars for Unbroken.

UNBROKEN is rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language

** What did you think of Unbroken? Was it a worthy adaptation of the acclaimed biography, or do you think it missed the point? Let me know in the comments and don't forget to like my page on Facebook! **

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

We've finally reached the end of this long journey through Middle Earth. I've just finished reviewing all three of the spectacular Lord of the Rings films, and I was pretty excited to see what director Peter Jackson was going to do as a grand finale over ten years beyond the release of The Return of the King. If you've read my reviews for An Unexpected Journey or The Desolation of Smaug, you'd know that I was less of a fan of those works than the LOTR trilogy. Having said that, I saw an upward trajectory in quality that I assumed would continue as we got to the final installment of this Hobbit series.

After their dangerous confrontation with the dragon Smaug, Bilbo and several of the dwarves look on in horror as the beast attacks the nearby Laketown with a fiery vengeance. Their homes destroyed, the villagers must relocate to the deserted town of Dale, led by the courageous Bard. However, despite their pleas for Thorin Okenshield to stand by his promise to share the wealth of the mountain, the new dwarf king of Erebor is stricken with dragon madness and refuses to part with his treasure. With an army or Elves also looking to reclaim lost jewels and a legion of orcs on their way, Bilbo has to take matters into his own hands in order to brokerage a peace between the warring parties. But will Thorin finally see reason and accept this compromise, or will he remain stubborn and declare war against the armies at his door?

Despite this being the shortest Peter Jackson film set in Middle Earth, there's actually quite a bit going on in The Battle of the Five Armies. The power play between the two races is possibly the most intriguing plot element of the entire Hobbit trilogy, helped in large measure by the performances of Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Lee Pace as the elf king Thranduil, and Richard Armitage as Thorin. I've always thought Freeman was the perfect choice to play Bilbo, and here the genius of that casting decision comes to fruition. He expertly balances the dramatic and light-hearted scenes and gives us a character most people can probably relate to. As for the others I mentioned, Lee Pace is great at conveying menace and intelligence in equal measure, and we're never sure if he's really trustworthy. Armitage might have the largest challenge, taking his character to a dark place where we've never seen Thorin venture.

Though there are a lot of interesting character scenes, the bulk of this movie (predictably, if you've read the subtitle) is the battle of the five armies. If you thought the fight scenes in The Return of the King were long, just wait until you see the hour long battle here. This would have been welcome if the stakes were as high as Lord of the Rings, or if the effects were as convincing. Unfortunately, this film's effects, while mostly top notch, fail to reach the tactile feel of the LOTR trilogy which came out over a decade ago. Rather than making us feel the epic quality of the assault, it comes across like a video game trailer that goes on far too long. There are only so many scenes of orcs being beheaded or someone coming within an inch of death before being miraculously saved that I can watch until it becomes numbing with repetition.

Peter Jackson is a very talented director, but where LOTR felt so original and groundbreaking, this trilogy has ended up as a poor facsimile of those much better films. That isn't to say that I don't like The Hobbit, it just lessens the impact when there are so many similarities and callbacks to the previous movies we all loved. This film does provide some interesting links to Fellowship of the Ring, but a lot of the homages were a bit unnecessary and distracting from the story on which they should have been focusing.

It's been almost two decades since I've read this book, so many of the surprises in this film took me completely aback as well, particularly when characters I knew started to die. This actually got me far more invested in the story, and every fight became that much more suspenseful for me. One storyline that was entirely created for the film, however, ended up being one of the highlights for me (though I'm sure that is an unpopular opinion). Tauriel and Kili's unlikely love story that seemed a little out of place in The Desolation of Smaug eventually came to a dramatic conclusion in this movie that I found myself connecting with. Honestly, I think that has more to do with Howard Shore's lovely music for those scenes than what actually happened in them, but I found it effective nonetheless.

The movie concludes in somewhat lackluster fashion, for my taste, though the final scene does make me smile out of pure nostalgia (you'll get what I mean when you see it). Though I mostly enjoyed this film, I struggled with my overall recommend based on its failed attempt to recapture the magic of The Return of the King's heart-wrenching conclusion. I hate to say this was the worst of the trilogy since so many plot elements really did interest me and some of the battle scenes were pretty well done. This is probably the best trailer of the trilogy (see below), though that may be to the detriment of your enjoyment if your expectations are too high.

My ultimate feeling regarding this trilogy is that it should never have been a trilogy to begin with. This story seems perfectly structured for two movies, and this one in particular felt like Jackson was struggling to stretch it out to the two and a half hours that it ended up being. I really do think this movie was good, but it was a little disappointing at the same time. All three films are worth seeing, but if there was a way to edit them down to two films I think we would have a much more solid prequel series to the Lord of the Rings than they gave us. With all that in mind, I'm giving this film a three star rating.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

** How would you rank The Hobbit films? Let me know in the comments below and don't forget to like the Facebook page! **

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

I cannot believe it took me this long to review this movie, but sometimes you just have to watch some Lord of the Rings. That's not to say I wasn't looking forward to this film (as my most anticipated list of 2014 will tell you), but this part of the year seems crammed with other major releases... not that I reviewed any of them either. Anyway, since I was such a big fan of the previous entries to this franchise, I knew I was going to be seeing Mockingjay Part 1 in theaters, it was just a matter of when. Usually I make a point of seeing these big films right out of the gate (and occasionally a little early, depending on how lucky I am), but this one took me a whole week beyond its release to even see, let alone review. Because I was late to the party I unwillingly heard a lot of the critical reaction and consensus for the film before I even sat down to see it myself, which is definitely a pet-peeve of mine. Luckily I was free of spoilers (in a weird way) by reading the book, though it does diverge here and there from the source material at key moments.

Shortly after being rescued from the arena at the conclusion of Catching Fire, Katniss is brought to the sanctuary of District 13, which has long been thought to be demolished by the Capital years prior. With several other districts in Panem openly revolting against the government, President Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee want to capitalize (no pun intended) on the momentum by running propaganda spots for all of Panem to see starring the "Mockingjay". Katniss is resistant to play along at first, resenting the leaders of the resistance for letting Peeta get captured by President Snow. But when Peeta is also being manipulated (and presumably tortured) in order to undermine District 13's agenda, Katniss finally agrees to act on the condition that Peeta is rescued and given a full pardon. However, regardless of several successful film shoots with the Mockingjay, it remains unclear whether even their best rescue mission will save Peeta from what President Snow is planning.

That summary was actually most of the plot, so I apologize if you knew nothing about the film before reading this review. I'm a fan of this series and they seem to get better as they go along, with Catching Fire even surpassing the book in my opinion. Seeing that the same creative team is mostly returning to this film, I expected something of a similar quality to the previous installment. Francis Lawrence did a great job with the last film by inheriting a franchise that was already established and improving it on every level. His direction is very consistent and his vision is clear, which is really helpful in a complicated story like The Hunger Games series. I also appreciate the studio investing further in each sequential movie rather than cutting costs to increase their overall profit to the detriment of the film's quality. They also had the foresight to lock in such a talented composer as James Newton-Howard for this series, who continually excels at bringing this world to life with beautiful themes and unique orchestrations. "The Hanging Tree" was a particular highlight that will get in your head for days on end.

As for this film, however, it suffers a little from its partial narrative. This inevitably happens these days, as the last film in a franchise is often dragged out to two films in an attempt to milk extra box-office dollars out of a popular property that they won't be able to turn to in the future. While I understand the impulse, I rarely enjoy the results. The stretching of a whole story into two is fundamentally detrimental to the overall satisfaction of each film, as neither one is really a complete movie. While this series isn't the worst offender (I'm looking at you, Twilight and Divergent), it's definitely a little frustrating that we're asked to sit through a movie with no resolution. I'll surely expound on that sentiment more in my review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but thankfully it wasn't totally ruinous to my experience with Mockingjay Part 1.

This movie did a lot of things right with the extra time spent on this half of the story, specifically by showing us exciting moments only alluded to in the book. Also, there's nothing that really gets left out, that I can remember, and it serves as an excellent appetizer to the hopefully epic conclusion of Mockingjay Part 2. Though some of the scenes are a little bit longer than I would have liked, I'm mostly okay with the expansion of the final book as long as it's kept at this level of quality.

As usual, the visuals of this film are really great, and the realization of District 13 is almost exactly as I pictured it from Suzanne Collins's descriptions in her novel. The other districts are represented well too, where we see groups of people inspired by the Mockingjay who take on the Capital in whatever way they can. However, I appreciated the fact that it doesn't shy away from the sacrifices that must be made in any kind of rebellion, as a fairly large percentage of the dissenters don't live to reap the benefits of their bravery. It's a slightly harsh, but realistic portrayal of the desperation and horror of war that will only get more grim as the series progresses. Beware taking kids to see this film, as a post-bombing scene of a familiar location will definitely cause nightmares for younger viewers.

This feeling of desperation is intensified by the great performances of this cast. Jennifer Lawrence is as good as ever in the lead, with one moment following a devastating attack on innocent people that sent chills erupting up my spine. It was a little heartbreaking to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his final role, but he's absolutely great as Plutarch Heavensbee and I'm so glad the filmmakers didn't deprive us of seeing him one last time in these two films. Oddly enough, one of the standouts for me was an actress who wasn't in the film for very long, but made a huge impression as President Coin. I haven't always been a huge fan of Julianne Moore, but seeing her here with that white hair and grey contacts completely transforms her into the hardened general the resistance would need. Her interactions with Hoffman were particularly electric, and I can't wait to see how her character evolves in the next film.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 doesn't quite live up to the previous film, but I think it sets up the concluding chapter very effectively. It probably doesn't hold up quite as well on a second viewing (if my wife's experience is anything to go by), but I think anyone who enjoys these films will be engrossed throughout this film. It's got some problems inherent with its structure, but I liked this film enough to give it three and a half stars and can't wait to see the next one!

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1 is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material.

** What did you think of Mockingjay Part 1? Was the best in the series or an unnecessary expansion? Let me know in the comments below and don't forget to like the Facebook page! **