An End to the War

A movie trilogy is a different animal than a series. Rather than an on-going story with repeat characters, a trilogy focuses on a story too large to fit in one movie. It’s closer to a three-act play in construction. The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars movies are good examples, and there’s a good chance the current Star Wars series may accomplish the feat as well. I’d also make the case that the special edition of Godfather I & II, cut into chronological order, fits as a trilogy: Vito, Vito & Michael, Michael alone. (We’ll forget about Godfather III; Please, let’s forget about Godfather III!)

With War for the Planet of the Apes, the series begun in Rise and continued in Dawn now fits as a trilogy – and a stunning third chapter it is! The accomplishment is all the more amazing in view of the origins of the series. The original Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi classic, with its script adapted by Rod Serling from a book by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai). With the mammoth success of the movie, Twentieth Century Fox ordered a sort-of sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with its climax being the total destruction of the planet. Not the best move if you want another sequel, but Fox did the time warp again and went back to show how Earth became the Planet of the Apes. The movies were schlocky after the first, but were embraced by fanboys before Hollywood realized there was such a thing as fanboys. Tim Burton’s remake of the original kept the schlock without the grace of Serling’s script, and it had one of the worse endings ever stuck on a movie. But it was a financial success, grossing nearly $200 million.

At the same time as Burton’s movie with its made-up monkeys, Peter Jackson was revolutionizing character animation by using motion capture (mocap) technology to create Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Animation is originally the artist’s creation, with an actor adding their voice. Mocap technology works more like virtual make-up to support the actor’s performance. It’s the actor’s expressions and physical movements that control the animation, and because of that mocap performances should be considered along with all other performances during awards season. Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar in War is definitely Oscar-caliber.

War takes place fifteen years after the experimental drug augmented the intelligence of Caesar’s band of apes and led to a pandemic that wiped out most of the humans race. But pockets survive, including a military regiment under the command of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). At the end of Dawn, the human survivors in San Francisco had contacted the regiment, and the Colonel led his men south to battle the apes. War begins with a skirmish between the two groups, with Caesar defeating the Colonel’s men. Rather than killing or imprisoning the surviving soldiers, Caesar sends them back as a peace offering. All he wants is to be left alone by humans. But the maniacal Colonel blames the apes for the destruction of society, and in a horrible attack he comes close to destroying Caesar’s world.

Caesar sends the rest of his apes to where he believes they’ll be safe, while he heads out to have his revenge on the Colonel. Some apes accompany him, including the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konaval). Caesar is also haunted by the spirit of Koba (Toby Kebbell) whose anger and obsession precipitated the confrontation with the San Franciso humans in Dawn. Along the way Caesar’s band picks up two new members: the mute human child Nova (Amiah Miller) and the elderly chimp from a Lake Tahoe zoo who thinks his name is what the humans kept calling him, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).

War for the Planet of the Apes has as part of its DNA the westerns of John Ford, with Caesar coming close to the obsessive Ethan Edwards played by John Wayne in The Searchers. He’s matched by the Colonel, who echoes Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But War creates its own powerful story, and the interaction between Serkis and Harrelson crackles with electric energy.

While Zahn’s character is called Bad Ape, he is anything but, and Zahn injects a beautiful humanity (it’s the only word that fits) into his character. Humanity also flows from Amiah Miller’s Nova, who is adopted for all intents and purposes by Maurice. She has an assurance in front of the camera that is far beyond her years, and though she only signs a few lines in the film, her eyes speak volumes.

Matt Reeves, who helmed Dawn, returns to the director’s chair for War, and he again collaborated with Mark Bomback on the script. As with the screenwriters of Rise, Reeves and Bomback both play with and pay homage to the original series. Yet War is far superior to any of the original five movies, including the first. War rises to a Shakespearean level of drama, even as it tugs on your heart.

There’s been some talk of a fourth film, but I really hope the studio will leave well enough alone. The story of Caesar in Rise, Dawn, and War is fulfilling, and deserves the grace of an ending.

Coming of Age in a New Age

Back in the 1980s, the John Hughes coming-of-age flicks became a fixture of the
Cineplexes. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and others were embraced by the youth of that day – people the youth of today know as mom and dad. Since then there have been some excellent examples of the genre that are less formulaic and more heartfelt than humorous, such as Boyhood, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Juno, An Education, and Thirteen, among others. One of the accomplishments of The Edge of Seventeen is it blends serious with silly to capture the highs and lows (real and imagined) that pretty much everyone faces on the way to adulthood.

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is the one on the edge. She’s been an outsider at school all her life, though she was fortunate when young to find a best friend who’s stuck with her ever since, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). It’s hard for Nadine because her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) is firmly in the In Crowd at school, while her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) spouts platitudes as advice even as her own life is a mess. As a substitute father figure, Nadine has latched onto her favorite teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), even though he’s not happy to be cast in the role.

Then Nadine is thrown into a crisis when Krista falls for her brother and Nadine can’t handle sharing her. Swirling around like an uncontrollable whirlpool, Nadine becomes obsessed with a boy she only knows from a distance while missing a boy who sits near her in class (Hayden Szeto).

Writer/Director/Producer Kelly Fremon Craig has crafted a coming-of-age story that rings true to everyone who’s survived high school. While it fits with the current generation’s more profane style – things that would have caused angst in the 1980s don’t rate a bat of an eye here – the underlying traumas that life can throw at you are all too familiar. Yet Craig leavens the traumas with a bright wit and a light directorial touch that serves the movie well.

Given a fully-formed role to play, Hailee Steinfeld slips into Nadine and gives her best performance since True Grit. At 20, Steinfeld has begun to show that she will be a major performer for many years to come, with a successful start to a recording career to go along with carrying a movie like Edge where she’s center stage in almost every scene. I would not be surprised if Steinfeld winds up an EGOT before she finishes her career.

A delight of this movie is it’s not just one excellent role in a half-baked stew. Craig has invested the other roles with heart and character, and the actors deliver wonderful embodiments of these characters. Harrelson’s scenes with Steinfeld are a particular joy to watch, and Sedgwick is first-rate as a mother with her own maturity issues. The film’s almost stolen by Hayden Szeto whose character Erwin is almost as awkward and mixed up as Steinfeld’s, though with a desert-dry sense of humor.

This is a movie that deserves to be seen. It manages to tickle your funny bone and touch your heart at the same time.

Spare Tire on a Tricycle

Turning a trilogy into a tetralogy is risky. On the plus side, the film maker has a good four-plus hours to adapt a book, rather than 2-2 ½ hours, but it runs the risk of coming across as a spare tire on a tricycle – its only use is to try to keep it going when things go flat. After the stellar The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which improved on the original Hunger Games, Mockingjay Part 1 had to keep fans hooked until Part 2’s release next year.

The book already has the weakness of being The Hunger Games without any games. A critique of the book when it came out was that, after the inventiveness of the first two volumes, the third came across as a straightforward dash to the finish line. Stretching the book to two movies seemed motivated solely by the box office. “Mockingjay” is half the length of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” another final entry in a series that was split in two, and even with the greater source material the first part of Deathly Hallows dragged. The good news is that, even though it’s a letdown from Catching Fire, director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Recount, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) have managed to make a decently exciting film. It doesn’t suck like it could have, especially when you think about Spider-Man 3 or X Men: The Last Stand (and I apologize for making you think of those two turkeys, but they do illustrate how Hollywood can suck at the level of an industrial-strength vacuum when it comes to the third entry in a series).

Mockingjay Part 1 picks up shortly after Catching Fire. After the destruction of her home district, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is taken by Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to the rebel outpost in District 13. There she’s reunited with her mother and sister Prim (Willow Shields) who were led to safety by Gale when District 12 was attacked. She also meets with the rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who wants to use Katniss to counter the Capitol’s propaganda and build the revolt into a full-fledge revolution. Katniss, though, is still emotionally damaged by the Quarter Quell experience and the loss of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Things change when Peeta shows up on the Capitol TV broadcasts being interviewed by Caesar (Stanley Tucci). Katniss agrees to do counter-programing, but she comes across as wooden thanks to the leaden script she’s given to perform against a special effects background. Thankfully a now clean and sober Hamish (Woody Harrelson) shows up to save Katniss from the debacle. He points out that when Katniss has inspired people, it has been with her honest reactions to what’s happening around her. So Hamish and Katniss head off into the fight, accompanied by a film crew under the direction of Cressida (Natalie Dormer).

By now the main characters are well established, so seeing them on screen again is like meeting old friends. Jeffrey Wright returns as tech genius Beetee, and Sam Claflin’s Finnick is there, though several scenes are stolen by Elizabeth Banks, whose Effie Trinket looks upon her exile among the jump-suited, wig-less rebels as her being condemned to Hell. Donald Sutherland once again is awesomely villainous as President Snow, and the movie does manage to get a face-off between Katniss and Snow, even if it is a televised one.

But that actually fits with the film and its focus on how media can be used to manipulate the masses, both by those in power and those wanting to break free of that subjugation. Mockingjay Part 1 manages a final twist that changes the dynamic of the story and will make fans wait anxiously for Part 2’s release the weekend before Thanksgiving next year. In the end that was its purpose, so mission accomplished.

Burning The Bread And The Circuses

The beginning of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire mirrors the first movie, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hunting in the remnants of District 13. The winter landscape, though, makes the world even bleaker, and it’s soon clear Katniss is haunted by her experience in the games. Her true love, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is supportive, but he’s also dealing with what happened between her and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutherson) in the arena.

She returns to her home to find President Snow (Donald Sutherland) waiting for her. Snow was a hovering threat in the first movie, but now they’re in direct conflict as Snow tries to quell the nascent rebellion ignited by Katniss’ defiance. She and Peeta are about to depart on a victory tour of the districts with Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks). Snow threatens her family and Gale if she can’t convince the people – and him – that her actions in the Games were only for love and not rebellion.

The tour doesn’t go well. Throughout the trip they see signs of the rebellion: graffiti of her Mockingjay pin; more that changes the game’s slogan to “The odds are never in our favor”; people in the audience giving her three-fingered salute and whistling Katniss’ haunting whistle, which brings on lethal responses from the authorities. Snow realizes that not just Katniss but all the past victors in the Hunger Games are potential leaders in a rebellion, and he turns to a former game designer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), for a way to eliminate the threat. The answer Heavensbee provides is a Quarter Quell for the 75th games, where the contestants are all former winners. As the only female winner from District 12, Katniss has to return to the arena.

The Hunger Game franchise, like Star Wars and Harry Potter before it, ls blessed with a strong production team, led by Nina Jacobson and John Kilik. After director Gary Ross departed, they replaced him with Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend). If anything, it’s made the series stronger. The new movie opens up the canvas so the audience see more of the world and the capitol.

The production design, especially the sets and the makeup, have actually improved on the outstanding work in the first movie. There’s a strong echo of Imperial Rome in the movie’s style, more than just the chariots the tributes ride when they’re introduced before the games. The heavily-lined eyes with the women’s makeup and the rows of drummers along the parade route would be instantly familiar to Caesar’s citizens. The buildings, though, are 20th Century Totalitarian. Kudos to Philip Messina for the overall production design as well as to the entire makeup department. Also deserving of recognition is Trish Summerville for the costume design, which ends up being an integral part of the movie’s plot.

The roles of the returning cast have grown. It’s a pleasure to watch Sutherland in full villain mode. Even when Snow interacts with his granddaughter, his ruthlessness is just below the surface. Banks beautifully embodies the shallow Effie as she ventures tentatively into deeper waters, and we see in Willow Shield’s portrayal of Katniss’ sister Primrose some of her older sister’s grit and strength. We also get to know both Gale and Peeta better, and both actors help give reality to Katniss’ dilemma of being denied her first love as well as the real feelings developing for Peeta. Not only Katniss but the whole audience can’t decide between the two.

Several of the former Game winners stand out, in particular Jeffrey Wright as the brilliant Beetee and Sam Claffin as the vain but complicated Finnick, but the one who is stunning is Jenna Malone, who has one of the most memorable entrances in film history as wild-child Johanna Mason.

The movie, though, is carried by Lawrence, who can communicate pages of emotions in a simple glance. The point of Catching Fire is Katniss’ transformation from young, fragile girl to steely leader of the rebellion. In one moment of silence, Lawrence nails it.

The final book “Mockingjay” has been split into two films, as was done with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” The Potter films felt a little bloated – together they ran over 4 ½ hours – and one hopes that this won’t happen in this series. The good news is they’ve brought in Danny Strong to pen the adaptations. Strong won an Emmy for his writing of the HBO movie Game Change, and he also did the screenplay for Lee Daniel’s The Butler, released earlier this year. Another reason to hope is that the producers have already pulled off one of the hardest tricks in the movie business – they made a sequel that is better than the outstanding original.

Hungry for the Movie

When Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was published in 2008, it became a sensation, shooting to the top of the New York Times Bestseller lists.  That’s something that doesn’t normally happen for Young Adult books unless the author’s last name is Rowling.  The other books in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, were just as successful.  The only question was whether they could be successfully transferred to film.

The film of the first book, The Hunger Games, answers that question with a resounding yes.  Collins’ vision blended a dystopian/utopian vision of the future with reality TV gone wild, and she created a memorable heroine in the tough, unsentimental Katniss Everdeen.  The movie does the book proud.

In the distant future, the rebellion of the 13 districts against the central government of Panem was ruthlessly crushed.  (One district was completely destroyed as a warning to the remaining 12.)  As a reminder of the subjugation, each year the 12 districts pay a tribute of two children between the ages of 12 and 18 who will compete in the Hunger Games, where they must fight to the death until only one is left.  The winner is then showered with riches and glory.

16-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is the provider for her 12-year-old sister Primrose (Willow Shields), since her widowed mother has withdrawn from life.  Katniss is a deadly accurate hunter with a bow and arrow, and the game she illegally kills keeps the family going.  Her best friend is Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, the younger brother of Thor’s Chris Hemsworth).  The reaping, where the tribute children are selected, is coming soon, and the odds are that Gale will be chosen.

The day of the District 12 reaping arrives, under the direction of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).  When the names are drawn, Primrose is the girl chosen.  Knowing Prim has no chance of survival, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  Rather than Gale, the male selected is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who has a history with Katniss.

With mentoring from Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a prior winner of the Games, along with styling help from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss and Peeta are put through a training period where they must also seek sponsorship for the tourney.  The provisions of sponsorship, be it medical aid or food, could be the difference between living and dying.

Overseeing the games is Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), operating under the watchful eye of the leader of Panem, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  The games are both entertainment as well as brutal yearly intimidation for the 12 districts.  For 74 years it has instilled fear in the poor district residents, but Snow fears one thing: Hope.  “It is the only thing stronger than fear,” he tells Seneca.

Collins had worked in children’s television before turning to writing, creating one of the best shows in Nickelodeon’s history, Clarissa Explains It All.  She worked closely on the adaptation of her book, co-writing the script and serving as executive producer.  Her main writing collaborator and the director of the movie was Gary Ross, whose previous work includes Big, Dave, Pleasantville, and Seabiscut (the first two as screenwriter, the last two as both screenwriter and director).  Ross is excellent at taking written words and translating the scene to film.  He stays as true to the source material as is possible in a 2 ½ hour movie.

For the opening scenes in District 12, Ross utilizes handheld cameras and washed out color which helps give a feeling of the hand-to-mouth existence of the residents.  Then he anchors the camera and increases the color pallet as the action shifts to the capitol.  While the district residents wear ragged clothes, the capitol citizens look like Lady Gaga wannabes.  It sharpens the dystopian/utopian conflict of the book.

The film is filled with sparkling scenes played by excellent actors.  Stanley Tucci serves as the interviewer/commentator for the Games, a mix between Ryan Seacrest and Elton John in his Captain Fantastic days.  Katniss’ main threats in the games are the representatives of District 1, the sword-wielding Cato (Alexander Ludwig) and the knife-throwing Clove (Isabel Fuhrman), who are outstanding.  There’s also beautiful, heartbreaking work by Amandla Stenberg as the young Rue, whom Katniss takes under her wing.  Woody Harrelson is excellent as Haymitch, a world-weary survivor who recovers his soul under the influence of Katniss.  As Cinna, rocker Kravitz is surprisingly effective.  Donald Sutherland oozes a paternalistic malice as President Snow.

But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, and she takes ownership of it.  She’d shown with the low-budget  Winter’s Bone that she could carry a movie (and carry off an Academy Award nomination).  Now she shows she can anchor a tent-pole series.

There are weaknesses with the movie – you hardly get to see the other districts and the rest of the tribute are little more than cannon fodder – but overall it works.

The movie (and the books) echoes the Roman gladiatorial combats – on purpose.  The name given to the country by Collins, Panem, means “Bread” in Latin, and is a part of the famous phrase panem et circenses:  Bread and Circuses, offerings and entertainments used to placate and distract the Roman populace, keeping them content.  In the movies we’ve had Spartacus and Maximus, fighting against corruption and dictatorial power.  Now we have Katniss Everdeen.