X-Men: Dark Phoenix review

X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX

Director: Simon Kinberg
Cast : Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Tye Sheridan, Jessica Chastain, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Ato Essandoh
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 1 h 54 mins
Opens : 5 June 2019
Rating : PG13

Dead comic book characters have a habit of coming back to life, and none more so than Jean Grey/the Phoenix. “Mutant Heaven has no pearly gates, only revolving doors,” Professor X declared in X-Factor #70. The X-Men film series has a second go at adapting the Dark Phoenix storyline in what is also the final entry in this series.

During a rescue mission in space, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is exposed to an unidentified cosmic force which alters her telekinetic and telepathic superpowers, unleashing a powerful entity called the Dark Phoenix. Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of the shape-shifting alien D’Bari race, arrives on earth to harness the power of the Dark Phoenix for herself. Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is angry at Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) for endangering Jean in the name of what she feels is his self-aggrandisement.

Jean’s increasing instability directly endangers her boyfriend Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), with the rest of the X-Men struggling with the onset of her destructive powers. Xavier must reluctantly join forces with his old ally-turned-enemy Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to contain the threat posed by the Dark Phoenix.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix has had a rocky path to the big screen, with its release date being postponed at least three times. With long-time writer and producer Simon Kinberg making his directorial debut, Dark Phoenix feels like a group project which everyone worked hard on, but nobody is particularly proud of – something that got submitted just in time and which everyone is happy to be done with. This is a far cry from the grand finale that a film franchise as important to the current landscape of comic book movies as the X-Men series deserves.

There were a number of external factors acting on this film, and while Kinberg has claimed that the film was always planned as the end of the franchise and that Disney’s acquisition of Fox had no impact on the making of this film, there has been speculation to the contrary. This certainly feels like a much smaller film than X-Men: Apocalypse, its immediate predecessor in the mainline series of X-Men films. There is nothing wrong with a smaller X-Men film, and Logan proved how taking a more dramatic, less spectacle-driven approach can work within the larger framework of the franchise, but Logan this is not. At every turn, it feels like the filmmakers were settling for whatever they could manage, such that Dark Phoenix never touches the awe-inspiring grandeur of some of the previous entries in the series.

In X-Men: The Last Stand, the Dark Phoenix storyline had to jostle for real estate with the Gifted plot. There is more room in this film to explore what happens to Jean Grey after the Dark Phoenix is unleashed, but nothing carries the intended emotional impact. Still, Sophie Turner does an excellent job of playing a character who manifests immense power, and it’s clear that she understands the central conflict of Jean Grey. While the movie doesn’t delve deep enough into Jean’s tortured psyche, this is far from Turner’s fault.

McAvoy and Fassbender have become as identified with Professor X and Magneto respectively as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have. While it is good to see them return to play these characters one last time, the weight of the tumultuous and far-reaching relationship between the two characters is all but absent. Xavier has become more self-absorbed after mutants have become accepted by wider sections of the populace, but this is far from the most compelling work McAvoy has done as the character.

The X-Men franchise got a hold of Jennifer Lawrence before she truly hit the big time, and her role in the Hunger Games movies seems to have caused the franchise to treat the character as a hero, when she has typically been a villain. It appears that Lawrence cannot wait to leave this role behind and is the most checked out she’s ever been in this film.

The film’s villains are almost laughably generic. The D’Bari come off like aliens from The X-Files. This is the first time extra-terrestrial beings figure into the X-Men movie franchise, but their existence is treated as no big deal. Jessica Chastain, an actor who can be a force of nature in the right role, is wasted as a character with no discernible personality to speak of.

While the script seems to strain to give everyone something to do, many of the supporting mutants are just kind of there. Characters like Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit McPhee) mainly seem to be in this movie because they were in the earlier movies. It’s a shame given that these actors are all visibly doing the best they can.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is not quite the flaming train wreck that is its central action set-piece, but because it’s the last film in the series and because it’s being released about a month after Avengers: Endgame, it is a deeply underwhelming affair. X-Men Dark Phoenix is a movie that has the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, becoming a disappointing send-off for a movie franchise that many have become attached to.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Red Sparrow movie review

For inSing

RED SPARROW

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Thekla Reuten, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey
Genre : Action, Crime, Drama
Run Time : 2h 20m
Opens : 1 March 2018
Rating : M18 (Violence and nudity)

The bird motif has followed Jennifer Lawrence in some of her biggest roles. As Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series, she became the symbolic ‘Mockingjay’. In the X-Men films, Lawrence plays Mystique, whose given name is ‘Raven’. In this spy thriller, she becomes a ‘sparrow’.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a promising ballerina with the Bolshoi ballet. After a career-ending injury, Dominika is unable to provide for her ailing mother Nina (Joely Richardson). Dominika’s uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her a way out – he is the Deputy Director of the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, and sees spy potential in Dominika.

Dominika is eventually forced to enrol in ‘sparrow school’, where the unyielding Matron (Charlotte Rampling) trains her students in the art of seduction and psychological manipulation. Dominika’s first mission is to ingratiate herself with CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), to learn the identity of Nash’s asset, a mole within the FSB. Diving head first into geopolitical power games, Dominika must stay one step ahead of everyone else, as she decides how far she will go to serve her country.

Red Sparrow is based on the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, a former CIA agent. This film re-teams Jennifer Lawrence with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who helmed the second to fourth Hunger Games films.

Thanks to location filming in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the U.K., as well as Jo Willems’ gorgeous cinematography, Red Sparrow is a stylish picture. This is a film that wants to be classy yet visceral, and there is plenty of graphic nudity and violence. While Red Sparrow is often engaging, dramatic and thrilling, there are times when it’s stuck in a no-man’s-land between all-out spy movie hijinks and sober realism.

Red Sparrow feels like a spy movie, and while its heightened style is part of what draws the viewer in, it also makes the viewer conscious they are watching a spy movie. There are times when it feels like the sex and violence exist to shock the audience, such that they’re distracted from the more formulaic elements of the film. We know there are going to be double-crosses and that characters will play others against each other. While Red Sparrow has a few surprises up its sleeve, it doesn’t reinvent the genre.

Because it is based on a book written by a former CIA agent, Red Sparrow purports to shed light on the techniques that modern-day Russian spies are trained in. The Russian characters tend to have an air of cartoony menace to them, and as such Red Sparrow loses a bit of credibility. Sebastian Hülk’s deadly, sadistic Matorin seems like he’s stepped straight out of a Bond film. There’s also a goofiness to some of the dialogue – addressing her class for the first time, the Matron gravely declares, “The Cold War did not end. It shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces”.

That said, Red Sparrow often works, and star Lawrence is a big part of why. There’s a lot to the character for her to play with. While Lawrence isn’t exactly convincing as a Russian woman (lots of not-great Russian accents in this movie), she gives the role her all, and marshals an intensity quite unlike what we’ve seen from her before.

Dominika is a character who is backed into a corner but masterfully turns power against those who would try to wield it over her. It is fascinating to watch Dominika exercise this jiu-jitsu-like ability, gradually taking back control after it has been completely wrested from her. Dominika’s arc is compelling and is resolved in an exciting, satisfying manner

Schoenaerts is suitably slimy as Dominika’s shifty uncle. While Edgerton is unremarkable as the heroic but flawed American agent, it seems that’s how the character was intended to come off. The dynamic between Dominika and Nate doesn’t go quite how one would expect it to, but standard spy movie tropes are mostly adhered to when all’s said and done.

Charlotte Rampling delivers a deliciously icy performance as the matron. The scenes set in the spy school, in which students are forced to strip and perform other demeaning tasks as commanded, are some of the film’s most uncomfortable and consequently, most interesting. Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons stand around and provide gravitas, which they have no problems with. Mary Louise-Parker’s appearance as the secretary of state to a US senator seems to be a poorly-judged attempt at adding humour to the mix; her scene comes off as awkward and silly.

While Red Sparrow is not as complex and layered as it would like to be and doesn’t offer too much that fans of the spy movie genre haven’t seen before, Lawrence’s performance anchors it. It’s a little too long, but the injections of sex and violence will jolt audiences out of any lulls.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Mother!

For inSing

MOTHER!

Director : Darren Aronofsky
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 2h 2m
Opens : 14 September 2017
Rating : NC16 (Horror/Violence)

Jennifer Lawrence gets in touch with her maternal side – and an infernal side – in this psychological horror film from Darren Aronofsky. Lawrence’s character, the otherwise-unnamed Mother, is the wife of an author, the otherwise-unnamed Him (Bardem). Mother and Him have moved into a remote house, which Mother is attempting to fix up while Him struggles with writer’s block. Out of the blue, the couple is visited by an Orthopaedic surgeon, Man (Harris), and Man’s wife Woman (Pfeiffer). Man professes to be a fan of Him’s writing, and Him appreciates the attention, but Mother becomes wary of their new guests. This opens the gateway to more surprise visits, as Mother and Him grapple with issues within their marriage that are made manifest by the strangers who have come to their house.

Mother! is a film that is difficult to review because the filmmakers want us to know as little about it as possible. The marketing has had to be creative, because it’s such a challenging film to sell – a deejay friend of this reviewer’s received an actual pig’s heart in a box as a gift from the movie’s distributor. This is very much an arthouse film, and audiences going to see it because of Jennifer Lawrence will be thrown for a loop. Mother! is packed with potent imagery and thought-provoking ideas, but it feels like a film that was made with the intent to alienate the audience. Aronofsky does a fine job of establishing mounting dread, and there is a pervasive uneasiness to the affair, but because Mother! is so mannered and arch, there’s a barrier separating the viewer from the movie. This makes it difficult to get into, and no matter how intense and visceral the movie becomes, it engenders a certain detachedness.

As with many arthouse films, there is plenty to pick apart and muse over, and there are several themes that root the movie. Mother! reflects the power to create and to destroy inherent in every person. Mother! touches upon the culture of celebrity worship, and how cult-like it can become. Mother! is about the relationship between artists and their audience. Mother! is about the anxiety of, well, motherhood, the joy and hardships of bringing another human being into the world. Mother! is about how women can be side-lined, about how wives are sometimes forced to alter their lives to orbit around their husbands. One could write a paper, nay, several papers about Mother!, but perhaps a film should be more than something to dissect.

There’s a purity to Lawrence’s presence in this film, and she emanates an almost ethereal radiance. This is different from other projects she’s undertaken, clearly pushing the actress outside her comfort zone. While the character seems to be victimised for most of the film, she does bring a quiet strength to the role. Audiences know Bardem is capable of being creepy, and to his credit, he doesn’t come across as overtly evil – but we’re plenty suspicious of him all the same. Lawrence and Bardem are mismatched, but that seems to be the point, with the age gap between them being repeatedly pointed out by other characters.

The story is focused tightly on the dynamic between Mother and Him, but the supporting players do make an impact. Pfeiffer is especially fun to watch as someone who’s passive-aggressive and calculative, but outwardly pleasant. Of all the performers, Pfeiffer appears to be having the most fun. There is a certain Saturday Night Live who shows up later in the film – if you don’t who this is yet, it’s a fun surprise, but also comes off as deliberately gimmicky.

Mother! has attracted its share of controversy – you might have seen headlines online along the lines of “Mother! could be the most hated film of 2017” or “Has Darren Aronofsky gone too far?” After a near-excruciating slow burn, Mother! does build to a chaotic, gory frenzy. There are moments of raw, searing power here, and it is immensely thought-provoking. However, because of how much attention the film draws to its own construction, and how desperately it seems to want to be seen as a piece of art, Mother! is more a bubbled-over cauldron of allegory and metaphor than an absorbing story.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Passengers

For F*** Magazine

PASSENGERS 

Director : Morten Tyldum
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Genre : Adventure/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 56min
Opens : 22 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Scenes of Intimacy)

passengers-posterMany of us have pleaded for “five more minutes” when struggling to get out of bed in the morning. Compared to Jim Preston’s (Pratt) predicament in this sci-fi romance, that’s nothing – Jim is awoken 90 years too early. He is among the 5000 passengers on the starship Avalon, bound for the colony planet Homestead II. A malfunction in his hibernation pod results in Jim’s 120-year-long slumber being cut short. Doomed to live out his days in solitude aboard the Avalon and with no way of returning to hibernation, Jim only has the android bartender Arthur (Sheen) for company. That is, until another passenger awakes: Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a writer from New York. Jim and Aurora fall in love – it’s not like they have too much else to do. However, the hibernation pod malfunction is only the first warning sign as it soon becomes apparent that the state-of-the-art ship is in jeopardy, putting the lives of Jim, Aurora and their fellow voyagers at risk.

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Jon Spaiht’s screenplay for Passengers landed on the 2007 Black List of most-liked unproduced scripts in Hollywood, with Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon once attached to the project. It’s safe to say that Lawrence and Pratt have significantly more star wattage. They were the top-earning female and male movie stars of 2014 respectively, and while making the promotional rounds, the pair has given some entertaining interviews. While there’s a novelty in the premise of a sci-fi film carried mostly by two actors, Passengers ends up feeling too familiar. With Oscar-nominated director Morten Tyldum at the helm, it is solidly assembled, but the romance central to the film borders on the simplistic. There is conflict and a rom-com-style big misunderstanding writ large, but the film relies more on its stars’ charm than its wit.

passengers-the-avalon

Passengers’ gleaming, futuristic aesthetic is pleasing, if not terribly ground-breaking. The corkscrew-like exterior of the Avalon is a departure from the traditional bulky star cruisers from most sci-fi media, but the interiors conform to expectations of Apple-esque sleekness. The Avalon is meant to be a space-borne luxury cruise liner, with the passengers spending the last four months before arrival to Homestead II enjoying its plush surrounds. This is one of several ways in which Passengers resembles WALL-E. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, known for his work on Inception and Interstellar, does some beautiful work here and is successful in making the Avalon seem like an awesome place to take a vacation. Infinity pools have got nothing on infinity-and-beyond-pools.

passengers-jennifer-lawrence-and-chris-pratt-1

Both Lawrence and Pratt are interesting case studies in stardom. It’s affected the former more than the latter so far, but there are large swathes of moviegoers who find themselves put off by a perceived sense of ‘trying too hard’ projected by both actors. Lawrence has spoken up about pay inequality after being paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle, and secured a $20 million salary for Passengers – $8 million more than Pratt, despite Pratt having more screen time. Behind the scenes politics aside, they do make for perfectly-matched romantic leads, and their immense chemistry helps the film overcome some contrived moments of character development. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography also makes them both look as glamorous as ever.

passengers-michael-sheen-and-chris-pratt

Michael Sheen’s Arthur the android bartender deliberately invokes Lloyd, the ghostly bartender in The Shining. The character is a clever creation, Arthur’s polite friendliness belying an unsettling uncanny valley vibe. Despite its fantastical setting, the film’s depiction of loneliness and despair resulting from isolation and the desire for meaningful companionship is relatable, if not exactly profound.

passengers-chris-pratt

Thomas Newman’s score is frequently guilty of being too obvious and intrusive, loudly dictating what the audience should feel rather than hinting at it. It’s a bit of a shame, given how many of Newman’s scores have been lyrical and moving.

The posters for Passengers feature the ominous tagline “there’s a reason they woke up”. This reviewer was hoping for a mind-bending conclusion and an audacious reveal of a massive conspiracy that Jim and Aurora get caught up in. There are flashes of wit in Spaiht’s screenplay – why yes, Sleeping Beauty’s real name is Aurora – but when it is explained why Jim’s hibernation pod opened early, this reviewer was disappointed. Passengers promised a marriage of fiendishly clever sci-fi with a tearjerker romance, but only takes audiences partway to that destination.

Summary: There was never any doubt that Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt would work wonderfully off each other, but past its sci-fi context, it’s a bit of a let-down that Passengers is as straightforward as it is.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

Director : Bryan Singer
Cast : James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Olivia Munn, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Lucas Till, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 25 mins
Opens : 19 May 2016
Rating : PG13 (Violence & Brief Coarse Language)

The end is the beginning is the end for our ever-expanding cast of mutant heroes as they face their most insurmountable foe yet. The year is 1983 and after a millennia-long slumber, En-Sabah-Nur/Apocalypse (Isaac), the first and most powerful mutant in history, has awoken. Apocalypse goes about recruiting mutants to be his new Four Horsemen: the still-bitter Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Fassbender) is “War”, the telekinetic swordswoman Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Munn) is “Pestilence”, weather-controlling Ororo Munroe/Storm (Shipp) is “Famine” and the winged Warren Worthington III/Angel (Hardy) is “Death”.




In the meantime, Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Lawrence) has become an icon to mutants everywhere following her actions in Washington D.C. ten years earlier. In her mission to free oppressed mutants, she rescues Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee), a circus performer with the ability to teleport. Among the new students in Professor Xavier’s (McAvoy) school are Scott Summers/Cyclops (Sheridan), Jean Grey/Phoenix (Turner) and Jubilation Lee/Jubilee (Condor). These young, inexperienced X-Men must look up to mentors like Professor X and Hank McCoy/Beast (Hoult) for guidance, with speedster Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Peters) returning to the fray as well. Everyone will be caught in Apocalypse’s unrelenting thirst for absolute power, as the X-Men have to fight for their lives and their future.

 X-Men: Apocalypse is the ninth film in the X-Menseries, counting Deadpool from earlier this year. With the successes of both Days of Future Past and Deadpool, expectations for Apocalypse were understandably high. While there is a surfeit of wink-and-nod references for fans of the source material to lap up, Apocalypsedoes suffer from ‘sequelitis’ – it’s not an incurable case, but the symptoms are there. The 144-minute run time does mean this is bursting at the seams – if you thought there were too many characters in the earlier films, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The pacing, particularly in the front half, suffers, then the latter half of the movie almost drowns in frenetic, overwrought action sequences. The film’s reach tends to exceed its grasp, and there are so many complicated visual effects-heavy scenes that the large-scale destruction tends to feel synthetic and bereft of weight.


The central tempestuous and compelling relationship between Charles and Erik was the driving force of First Class. While this plot thread had to share screen time with many others in Days of Future Past, it was still given enough play. Here, it gets pushed to the sidelines, but director Bryan Singer seems eager to assure us that he hasn’t forgotten about it. As good as McAvoy and Fassbender are in their respective roles, most of the interaction between the two characters here seems like a re-tread, with Magneto’s character development going around in circles. Even more obvious here than in the previous film is the sense that Mystique has been pushed to the forefront to capitalise on Lawrence’s current stardom. There’s also an excuse written into the plot for why we see so little of Mystique in her scaly blue true form. Lawrence seems the tiniest bit checked out, as if she’s glad that she’s still part of a juggernaut franchise after the conclusion of the Hunger Games series, but would rather move on to something else.

When the first images of Apocalypse as depicted in this film were revealed, the comparisons to Ivan Ooze started flooding the internet. For this reviewer, the problem is not so much that the supervillain physically resembles a Power Rangers baddie, but that he acts like one. The original omnipotent mutant should be a force to be reckoned with, but Isaac’s hammy performance and some clunky snatches of dialogue prevent Apocalypse from actually being intimidating at all. It’s a shame that this unstoppable, ancient entity comes across as petulant and unintentionally funny.


Quicksilver stole the show with the slow-mo kitchen sequence in Days of Future Past, and there’s a generally decent attempt to recreate that here with a set-piece set to Sweet Dreams Are Made of This. It’s too bad that it can’t help but feel like a desperate attempt to bump a breakout character up the roster. The younger versions of Cyclops, Phoenix and Nightcrawler are generally fine – this reviewer particularly enjoyed McPhee’s turn as the sensitive, easily-startled and good-hearted Kurt. Fans of the X-Men: Evolution animated series will probably enjoy what is the closest we’ve come to a live-action version of that show, in the moments when the recruits are hanging out. And yes, the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) cameo is a hoot.

In between all of this, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg find the time to make a particularly nasty dig at X-Men: The Last Stand, in a line of dialogue uttered by Jean as she, Scott and Jubilation are leaving the theatre after watching Return of the Jedi. Sure, The Last Stand’s flaws have been consistently acknowledged and Days of Future Past exists predominantly to wipe it off the slate, but perhaps Singer and company shouldn’t be so smug. There’s less room for the character dynamics to breathe, the action is more generic and less inventive, and at times the large ensemble comes across like the Rockettes performing a kick line at Radio City Music Hall. On top of all that, a major supervillain whose live-action debut has been highly anticipated is disappointingly realised. Here’s hoping this is a momentary stumble, because if the post-credits scene is anything to go by, there’s more to come.



Summary: X-Men: Apocalypse has its entertaining moments and there’s no shortage of things for eagle-eyed fans to catch, but these are generally drowned out by loud, generic action and an overstuffed cast.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

For F*** Magazine

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2 

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Donald Sutherland
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 17 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

The Mockingjay sings her last in the conclusion of the Hunger Games saga. The nation of Panem is in the throes of a revolutionary war, with Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) continuing to bear the burden of being the symbolic figurehead of the uprising, the Mockingjay. Katniss teams up with a group of her closest allies – including Gale (Hemsworth), Finnick (Claflin), Cressida (Dormer) and Peeta (Hutcherson) – to infiltrate the palace of President Snow (Sutherland) and assassinate him. After an extended period of captivity in the Capitol, Peeta is deeply shaken by the psychological torture he was subjected to and becomes hostile towards Katniss. District 13’s President Alma Coin (Moore) and her right-hand man Plutarch (Hoffman) are counting on this final assault to be the tipping point that allows them to overthrow Snow. As Snow becomes increasingly obsessed with destroying Katniss and putting a stop to the revolution, Katniss realises that as high as the stakes were before, they are ever higher now, with the future of Panem in her hands.
                The expectations are high for the final instalment in the Hunger Gamesfilm series, not just because of the massive following the Suzanne Collins novels and the films themselves have gained, but because the filmmakers went the route of splitting the last book into two films, increasing the build-up for Part 2. Typically, movies that close out a blockbuster series promise colossal, epic battles and a surfeit of spectacle. For both better and worse, Mockingjay Part 2 takes a different route. The emphasis is on the politics, an element which has set the Hunger Games series apart from most teen-aimed properties. From the word “go”, this is an appropriately bleak affair, an unrelenting downer. True, The Hunger Games was never meant to be particularly happy or uplifting, but Mockingjay – Part 2 will alienate or even confuse viewers who aren’t 100% invested in what has come before. Audiences are expected to be familiar with the preceding films and, preferably, the books as well.
                The Hunger Games series has taken a considerable amount of risks that have been rewarded critically and at the box office. After all, the basic premise of the first movie/book is a tournament in which kids kill each other for the entertainment of the masses. Finally overthrowing the tyrannical rule of President Snow should be a rousing triumph, but for a society as far gone as Panem, a quick fix simply won’t cut it. That the film not only acknowledges this but delves into the myriad ramifications of the revolution is admirably mature, if not viscerally exciting. Particularly during the first act, things can be a bit of a slog, and Mockingjay Part 2 struggles to gain momentum. The action sequences, in which Katniss and the District 13 Unit have to navigate booby-trapped stretches of the Capitol and fend off all and sundry threats that are flung at them, feel more perfunctory than truly thrilling.
                Jennifer Lawrence’s ever-rising star has paralleled Katniss’ journey from starving District 12 girl to bearer of the Mockingjay mantle, though we imagine being J-Law in real life is generally more fun than being Katniss. In a way, it’s a good thing that Jennifer Lawrence won’t be playing Katniss indefinitely and that she’s given an opportunity to see the character’s arc through to completion. Even more than in the earlier instalments, Mockingjay Part 2 asks the question “is this too much for one girl to handle?” point blank, answers “yes” and shows us all the ways in which it is too much. In the film’s opening scene, Katniss is trying to speak as she is being tended to by a nurse, after Peeta nearly crushed her windpipe in the previous film. There are many films about “finding one’s voice”, but instead of manufactured optimism, the Hunger Games series serves up unflinching brutality and Jennifer Lawrence’s final bow as one of this generation’s defining heroes is expectedly affecting and stirring.
                We also get a resolution to the love triangle, which director Francis Lawrence tries his darndest to couch as something secondary to the turning cogs of revolution. The wounded, feral quality that Peeta takes on is heart-rending and does give Hutcherson more shades to play, as well as switching up the dynamic between Peeta and Katniss. Gale’s bond with Katniss as a childhood hunting buddy is played up a little more in this one; Hemsworth has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s not an actor with immense range but not too much is demanded from him here.
There is quite literally an army of supporting players, so it is natural that some will get shorter shrift than others. This reviewer did enjoy that the film is packed with badass female characters in addition to Katniss, including Dormer’s Cressida, Patina Miller’s Commander Paylor, Gwendoline Christie’s Commander Lyme, Michelle Forbes’ Lieutenant Jackson, Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason and Moore’s President Coin. Moore is especially fun to watch as we see President Coin making increasingly questionable but decently justified decisions. Elizabeth Banks, clad in increasingly fanciful ensembles, seems to be crying out from all the greyness that surrounds her. Sutherland proves he was the ideal choice for President Snow from the beginning, exuding a deep malice that is several layers past idle moustache-twirling villainy and making us all the more eager to see Snow get his comeuppance.
In an age where series finale blockbusters seem almost mandated to include no-holds-barred clashes of epic proportions, the Hunger Games series’ more cerebral conclusion is welcome. However, if one has a particularly short attention span and isn’t fully immersed in the world of Panem as established by the earlier films, it is possible to become bored and frustrated by the ponderous proceedings. This is sure to be a smash hit (at least until Star Wars invades cinemas), so we hope Lionsgate doesn’t try to futilely stretch things out with spinoffs and a reboot, though, like the fall of Panem, that does seem depressingly inevitable.
Summary: The Mockingjay’s last song is resonant if not especially rousing, the final chapter of the Hunger Games series largely satisfying but at times overwhelmingly downbeat.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong

            

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

For F*** Magazine

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Woody Harrelson, Evan Ross, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Gwendoline Christie, Donald Sutherland, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence) 
Run time: 123 mins
It’s time to raise the three-finger District 12 salute and whistle that four-note motif again because another Hunger Games movie is in theatres. Following her actions in the Quarter Quell, Katniss (Lawrence) has been whisked away to the secret stronghold of District 13. Her best friend Gale (Hemsworth), sister Prim (Shields) and mother (Paula Malcomson) are among the survivors from the Capitol’s bombing of District 12 taking refuge in 13. President Alma Coin (Moore), along with Plutarch (Hoffman), is in the midst of staging a revolution, calling on Katniss to become the face of the uprising. Despite being reluctant to after the trauma she experienced in the arena, Katniss assumes the role of the symbolic “Mockingjay”. Peeta (Hutcherson), who couldn’t be rescued, is held in the Capitol and forced by President Snow (Sutherland) to make televised appearances exhorting a ceasefire. Because of this, he is branded a traitor by the revolutionaries, but it only strengthens Katniss’ desire to rescue him and the other victors even more.

            Mockingjay – Part 1 has followed in the footsteps of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises by going the “last book adapted into two movies” route. Both Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Breaking Dawn – Part 1 did a lot of treading water in padding things out. While Mockingjay – Part 1 fares far better than Breaking Dawn thanks to its denser plot, there’s still a degree of disappointment to be had from sitting through two hours of set-up, even if it is pretty good set-up. Introducing audiences to the subterranean District 13, there is the credible sense that this revolution is coming to a head. Moving past the Games themselves, we get to see more of the other districts, including the lumber-producing District 7, and power-generating District 5 with its massive hydroelectric dam. There is an increased sense of scale without it feeling like bloated and empty spectacle. There’s also more of the helicrafts in action, two of which Katniss shoots down with her bow and arrow.

            The film still is character-driven, Jennifer Lawrence returning to her star-making role with more of the drive, indignant determination and just the right amount of vulnerability she brought to the first and second films. Unlike a number of young adult novel adaptations, Mockingjay – Part 1 does a good job at establishing that there is much more to the story and the world than the protagonist’s personal struggles and heartache, without downplaying the importance of that. The premise of the franchise is televised bloodsport in which teenagers kill each other for the entertainment of the elite and to keep the masses in line. The role of media manipulation in shaping the perceptions of the public gets further explored here with the introduction of Natalie Dormer’s Cressida, a Capitol film director who defects to District 13. That the resulting propaganda films or “propos” end up looking like movie trailers is a sly, effective touch without having it go all Starship Troopers on us.

            The politics of The Hunger Games is one of the key components that gives it an edge over other film series aimed at a similar demographic. Julianne Moore retains her stern exterior (looking more than a little like Ysanne Isard from the Star Wars expanded universe) but plays a warmer, kinder authority figure than moviegoers are used to seeing her as. Both skilled actors, she and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman make for believable collaborating revolutionaries – this marks their fourth time co-starring in a movie. The film is dedicated to Hoffman’s memory and while he completed shooting all his scenes for Part 1, some of Plutarch’s scenes in Part 2 will have to be distributed to other characters.

            Much of the emotional content of the first two films was derived from the relationship between Katniss and Peeta and director Francis Lawrence uses the fact that the two characters are separated to generate a good amount of tension and anguish. Peeta being used as the Capitol’s new mouthpiece in his interviews with Ceasar Flickerman (Tucci) is contrasted and compared with how Katniss takes up the mantle of the Mockingjay for District 13. The role of Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is also expanded. It seems director Lawrence is all too aware that there are still detractors who dismiss this series as mopey teen romance, so scenes in which the love triangle is addressed appear sparingly.

            If Catching Fire was analogous to Empire Strikes Back, then Mockingjay – Part 1 is like if Return of the Jedi ended right after the escape from Jabba’s clutches. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but there’s no denying that the climactic sequence, which director Lawrence has said was inspired by Zero Dark Thirty, feels like in belongs in the middle of a movie. Still, fans of the first two films are most likely more than willing to wait a year for the series’ conclusion and there is enough that takes place here to enticingly set the stage for the finale.


Summary: Despite suffering from “Part 1-of-a-two-parter-adaptation-itis”, the politics of Mockingjay and the turning gears of the revolution make this an intelligent, absorbing entry in the series.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

Director : Bryan Singer
Cast : Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Evan Peters, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Josh Helman, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit
Genre : Action, Adventure
Opens: : 22 May 2014
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence & Brief Coarse Language)

            The “biggest X-Men film yet” has almost everybody from both the X-Men trilogy and 2011’s X-Men: First Class in attendance as part of this decades-spanning odyssey. In a post-apocalyptic future, mutants are at war with formidable, super-advanced Sentinel robots. Professor Xavier (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) hatch a plan to have Shadowcat (Page) project the consciousness of Wolverine (Jackman) into the body of his younger self; a sort of metaphysical time-travel. “Arriving” in 1973, Wolverine has to wrangle Xavier and Magneto’s younger selves (McAvoy and Fassbender respectively) in order to stop the war before it begins. A threat to mutants emerges in the form of Dr. Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), the inventor of the Sentinels. Mystique (Lawrence) is on a mission to hunt and kill Trask, but it is this action that will set the world on its dark path. The various mutants, too many to list in this paragraph, must band together to avert their horrific destiny.

            To say the X-Men film franchise has had its ups and downs is very much an understatement. As such, fans were understandably wary of X-Men: Days of Future Past, which takes its name and premise, if not every last detail, from the landmark 1981 comics story arc. The “everyone and their mother” cast (well, Mystique’s here but alas, Nightcrawler isn’t) led many to fear that this would be a bloated affair. We’re happy to report that director Bryan Singer has somehow managed to keep all the plates spinning. Because one metaphor isn’t enough to describe how masterful the balancing act here is, Days of Future Past is a football field-sized sheet of paper which has been folded into an intricate origami crane. X-Men: First Class is quite different in tone and style from the X-Men trilogy proper, so to marry those two into a cohesive universe is quite the achievement.

            Naturally, the plot is a complex one and neophytes might feel left out in the cold. For those who have stuck with the mutants’ cinematic outings through thick and thin however, X-Men: Days of Future Past will be rewarding and exhilarating. There’s character development aplenty and the interactions we’ve become familiar with, particularly the pivotal, rocky relationship between Xavier and Magneto, get a good deal of play. A section of the film is set against the real-life Paris Peace Accords (with Mark Camacho as a pretty darn good Nixon), lending the film historical context. In addition to all this, spectacle is not in short supply. We’re treated to a variety of combat scenes and action sequences in which the characters’ myriad abilities are showcased in full. There’s also just enough levity amidst the drama; Evan Peters’ kleptomaniac speedster Quicksilver in particular gets to steal the show with what might just be the single greatest slow-motion sequence ever put on film, set to Jim Croce’s ballad “Time in a Bottle”.

            Comic book fans have often joked of “Wolverine publicity”, that Marvel shamelessly coasts on the popularity of the clawed Canuck. In the comics, it was Shadowcat who did the time-travelling but here, everything rides on Logan. Jackman is as good in the role as always; ripped to shreds, baring his butt and playing mediator and guide, a role that’s unfamiliar for the short-tempered Wolverine. McAvoy’s turn is riveting, his lost, broken and argumentative Xavier in stark contrast to the signature tranquillity and wisdom of Patrick Stewart’s portrayal. Thankfully, screenwriter Simon Kinberg has preserved the in-flux relationship between Xavier and Magneto that Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman presumably wrote into their draft of the script. Fassbender is majestic, commanding, unwaveringly intense yet undeniably sexy, further proving that casting him as young Magneto was a stroke of genius.  

            Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is almost as big as Wolverine is on the poster and she does play a key role; her pursuit of Trask driving the 1973-set portion of the film alongside Wolverine’s quest. Lawrence and her stunt doubles break out some impressive acrobatic fight moves and Mystique’s shape-shifting power is used cleverly and surprisingly several times. The very sympathetic Mystique in X-Men: First Class differs greatly from the cold-blooded lackey in the X-Mentrilogy and Lawrence strives to make the character’s transition believable. Dinklage delivers a captivating performance, confident, focused and just menacing enough. Trask is the designated antagonist but he’s certainly not made out to be a cackling, one-dimensional villain. Dinklage’s casting carries a hint of comic book psychology, that perhaps the invention of oversized giant robots is Trask’s way of compensating for his slight physical stature.

            If there’s something about the film that doesn’t completely succeed, perhaps it’s the aesthetics. For every dazzling visual effects flourish, there is a questionable design choice or a casting of a supporting character that doesn’t quite work. Twilight teen idol Booboo Stewart is far from convincingly tough as Warpath. Quicksilver does come off looking quite silly, but Evan Peters’ joyous portrayal overcomes that. Mystique’s makeup consists mostly of a skin-tight bodysuit here, which no doubt saves application time but also means the scales can look glued-on. The Future Sentinels’ resemblance to the Destroyers in Thoris sometimes distracting; especially the way their faces open up to unleash a burst of flame. Josh Helman also looks way too much like Seann William Scott to be taken seriously as Young Stryker, the character having previously been played by character actors Brian Cox and Danny Huston.

            That said, it’s hard to be bothered by perceived surface-level imperfections when everything else blends and melds so seamlessly. Sequels can have a difficult time justifying their existence, not least when they’re the seventh entry in a long-running franchise. Days of Future Past does more than justify its existence, it becomes a stunning, involving epic that matches awe-inspiring visuals (plus some good 3D effects) with ever-evolving character dynamics. Stick around past the end credits for an appetite-whetting taste of where the story’s headed next.


Summary: The biggest, most ambitious X-Men film yet is also the greatest.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong