The year’s coming to a close, and I’m just as behind on my annual movie-watching as usual. Still, I’ve seen a number of striking/big-name/otherwise important films that I’d like to write about, except I don’t have time to pump out a full-length review for each. As a compromise, I’ve decided to release a three-part series featuring (relatively) bite-sized reviews on the 2014 films I watched (or will watch) during the holiday season, which I’m defining as the period between Thanksgiving and midnight on New Year’s Day. Below is the first part of the series; an additional part will be released each successive day until New Year’s Eve.
As always, feel free to offer your own thoughts in the Comments section, and I hope you enjoy my reviews!
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Judging by its plot alone—which involves a propaganda war between the capitol of Panem and the rebel militia headquartered beneath the blasted-out District 13—one can see that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 marks in some ways the series’ arrival at a new level of sophistication. Specifically, the film works the down-and-dirty aspects of real-world politics into entertainment targeted at tween-teen audiences, a compelling approach because it prepares the film’s young viewers, albeit within the gentler context of fantasy, for some of society’s uglier truths. The film shows that both the “good” and the “bad” guys—or, in the lingo of our war-torn world, the “insurgents” and the “state”—employ deceitful tactics and possess multiple agendas. The resulting moral ambiguity reflects a film whose intelligence—at least relative to most other blockbusters marketed to the same demographic—is a welcome anomaly.
All this would have been stellar if it had been compacted into an hour and fifteen minutes and preceded a strong finish. But director Francis Lawrence, whose exhilaratingly economical Catching Fire is the antithesis of its protracted sequel, has dragged out the plot to a full two hours, lopping off the story’s action-packed climax (I know because I’ve read the books) to leave a one-toned film that, for lack of things to do, keeps recycling the same ideas and the same types of scenes. No doubt, the decision to split one book into two movies was not even Lawrence’s own, and with that in mind, Part 1 is a virtuoso case of making do with what you’re given. The acting is solid, and there are moments of stirring pathos (plus, we are reminded once again that Jennifer Lawrence can sing). Still, one can’t help thinking about what Lawrence (the director) could have done had he been given three hours to tell a full-blooded story rather than two just to set the scene. Grade: C+
There are few perfectly titled films; Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is one of them. Derived from the eponymous Hank Levy song featured in the film, the title also captures what the movie does to you when you watch it. You get whiplash in your heart, it’s beating so fast. You get whiplash in your hands, which are clenching and unclenching so quickly they’re a blur, and in your neck from snapping your head around to look at your neighbor, trying to see whether they’re as jacked up as you or, more likely, to alleviate some of your stress by momentarily looking away at the screen. But your eyes are all but fastened to the film, so your head snaps back twice as fast, thus exacerbating your injury.
Whiplash is a movie that wracks your being into a state of frenzied exhilaration, the kind of cinematic punishment—inflicted on both the audience and the characters—typically reserved for the horror genre. That’s because Chazelle’s movie is a work of horror; you’ll be hardpressed to find a killer, ghost, or vampire more terrifying than J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher, the top instructor at the (fictional) top music conservatory in the U.S. and a monstrous arsenal of emotional—and at times physical—abuse. On the receiving end is Miles Tellers’ Andrew Nieman, a freshman drummer pushed both externally and internally to become one of the “greats”—his is a drive that redefines the word “obsession.” With Fletcher and Neiman going head-to-head, the film morphs into a devastating cautionary tale against overachievement, especially in the cutthroat context of America’s elite universities.
All of this is scarily effective…and crazy fun. For although the conflict escalates alarmingly, you can’t help but root for Nieman, and there is something about Fletcher’s demeanor that is so severe as to be hypnotic—who knew someone could go so far over the top? And yet both actors go higher still, riding the film’s staccato editing and mad jazz soundtrack toward the nirvanic final scene, which, in the music, the performances, and the filmmaking, achieves a state of transcendence. It is a moment of frightening suspense and pure ecstasy—in other words, an unqualified triumph. Grade: A