Review – Something’s Changed… (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”)

I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of the Hunger Games movies. To me, it’s just a ripoff of Japan’s Battle Royale and then going the extra mile with a silly, overused plot device we’ve seen before (The Giver, Divergent, The Maze, The Host, etc.) about a dystopian society where a plucky teenager saves the day by their feats of daring-do. However…  something has changed.

(Note: watching 2013’s Hunger Games: Catching Fire is required to know what’s going on here) We continue with good ol’ Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) who, if you’re keeping score, has won major points with the common folk by ending the savage “kill or be killed” Hunger Games after 75 years. Y’see, Katniss is now part of the rebel alliance; a secretive hidden District 13 run by President Coin (Julianne Moore) and President Snow’s ex-PR guy, Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Along with Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss’ old publicity guru, and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), her old mentor, they run the propaganda machine deep within the bowels of this underground fortress to stir the other District’s to fight against the Capitol.

BUT! Katniss’ old Games partner and sorta love interest, Peta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) has been captured by the Capitol of Panem, and is now their pawn, denouncing Katniss on TV (with Stanley Tucci back as talk show host, Caeser Flickerman) for her support of the rebellion. Katniss is crushed. She has seen the horrors of war and can’t figure out if Peeta being coerced or is he saying all these terrible things on his own? Katniss and her BFF, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) meanwhile, are with a small task force and a TV crew, fighting a Panem bombing run at District 8 while on a goodwill tour. Their stirring video of the atrocities is shown all over Panem with Katniss urging everyone to fight.

This sparks an attack against District 13 and later, more terrorist acts against the Capitol. While a power failure goes down at Panem, a rescue mission of Peeta and the rest of the Hunger Games survivors gets underway, but is this rescue mission a trap? The surprise ending is ripe for part 2, which you won’t see until 2015, but hopefully it’ll be just as good as part one.

Based on Suzanne Collins wildly popular books, this adapted screenplay by Daniel Strong and Peter Craig is cause for celebration. This “turn the tides” movie is nothing like it’s former ones: Jennifer Lawrence has finally grown into her role and shows a strength and depth to her character that she didn’t have before. Gone is that teen angst and is replaced by some hard adult choices of having to be a role model when she doesn’t want to be and doesn’t know how. Director Francis Lawrence doesn’t play this like a cartoon, but a real war-like situation, thankfully deleting the Games part of it and thereby making the story more gripping and exciting.

The late, great Hoffman is wonderful in one of his last roles here, and will have to be CG replaced for part 2, as he left us much too early while they were still filming. The others – Harrelson, Banks, Moore, and Donald Sutherland as President Snow – are always welcome treats, like extra sprinkles on a cupcake. Like I said, I’m not a fan of the Hunger Games, BUT this I enjoyed! Bring on part 2!

The Golden Compass (2007)

Shrouded in controversy when it was released, this lavish kids film was based on Phillip Pullman’s book trilogy which in turn, was based on his own atheistic views of religion and anti-Catholic bashing. Yeah, nice reading for a tween. Nevertheless, the movie itself was a tremendous CGI adventure-fest for a plucky pre-teen “Indian Jones” type named Lyra Belacqua.

Dakota Blue Richards stars as Lyra, a 12-year-old who lives in strange world where your soul is physically manifested by your side as a talking animal companion (bird, cat, monkey, dog, etc) called a demon. The Magisterium, a unified religious power (meant to be the Catholic church) rules over the secular world. One day Lyra accidentally witnesses a Magisterium member poison someone and then warns her father, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who instructs her to remain in hiding. Lyra learns from her father about “Dust”, a particle (magic) that the Magisterium has forbidden the mention of and that Asriel has gone off on an expedition to find more.

Lyra then meets Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who insists on taking Lyra as her assistant. The Master of the college gives Lyra the last remaining “alethiometer”, a compass-like gizmo that reveals all truth and instructs her to keep it secret, especially from Mrs. Coulter. Next thing you know, Lyra and her demon are being chased/hunted for that darned compass-thingy by Mrs. Coulter and Lyra is quickly saved by Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), a cowboy-pilot and by a giant CGI armored polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellan).

More captures, more escapes, more close calls, you know the drill. . . Oh, and did I mention that if your demon gets killed, you also die? The whole movie boils down to two crucial plots: mega-polar bear Iorek Byrnison getting into a real nasty fight with his old nemesis to regain his title as King, and Mrs. Coulter revealing her true colors as she lures unsuspecting children into a machine that will separate their demons from them. Bwha-ha-ha!

In the end, Lyra saves the day as only this pre-teen can (with the help of a few friends) and sails off to find her dad… which never happens because a sequel was never made. Why? New Line Pictures received SO much bad press over the film’s blatant and obvious anti-religious overtones, that it was shelved permanently, even though two more were scheduled. But I gotta tell ya, look past the all the ballyhoo and switch-off your religious-radar and you’ve got a crazy, very strange and delightful fantasy film here that is fun to watch.

High production values, great CGI and storyline, beautiful costuming and set design/props, and terrific acting all around. Okay, so the theme was hell bent on denouncing religion and yadda-yadda-yadda, but if you look at this movie from a purely fantasy point of view, you’ll see a wildly good piece of entertainment.