Manipulating ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1’

Director Francis Lawrence’s “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” begins much like Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber’s 2004 picture, “The Butterfly Effect.” Its heroine/hero is running from the past.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has a lot to be running from. Memories of her time in both the 74th annual Hunger Games and the third Quarter Quell. Death threats from Panem’s oppresive tyrant, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Stings from tracker jackers and screams from jabberjays. Her post-traumatic stress keeps her up at night.

Still, she claws desperately at a future like a cat chasing after a laser light. She can see the ray of hope in her grasp, but it’s as empty as a hologram.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” — based on the bestselling young adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins — picks up where “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” left off. Katniss and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) are rescued by a group of rebels led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and her second-in-command, Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

As the film opens, it appears as if Katniss and Finnick have traded one prison for another. They are the rebels’ weapons — lured into a propaganda scheme to stir rebellion throughout the districts. Their loved ones, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutchinson) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson), are separated from them — residing in the clutches of the Capitol.

“I wish they were dead,” Finnick soberly tells Katniss. “I wish they were all dead and we were too.”

This sets the tone for director Lawrence’s grim picture. Katniss’ home resembles the aftermath of an earthquake — a mountain of skeletons and debris. Meanwhile, we’re privy to messages from the Capitol: public beheadings throughout the land. Bombings of sick and injured at hospitals. It’s as unsettling as watching a child execute two adult soldiers in broad daylight.

But war forgives extreme actions. While the rebels may be fighting a cruel and unjust dictator, they are like ISIS — hijacking the public channels of communication. Instead of Twitter and YouTube, these rebels breed discontent via outdated TV airwaves. Katniss is seen shooting flaming arrows at Capitol planes. “If we burn, you burn with us,” she says. This precedes a scene where a group of rebels lure a group of Capitol police into the woods in order to bomb them.

Like any war, though, history’s written by its victors.

The Hunger Games’ victors move us. Lawrence with her “performance” as Katniss, the “girl on fire” in the rebels’ propaganda films and Claflin as the sexy Finnick Odair, keeper of Capitol secrets. They’re talented actors, but you have a feeling that they’re being pulled on a leash.

This becomes apparent when Katniss is rehearsing her first propaganda, repeating words the rebels have scripted for her. Katniss is behind a glass, much like she was when she was trying to impress Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) during the 74th Hunger Game. A committee consisting of Coin and Heavensbee watch and examine her words and costume. They discuss her, but they don’t really see the girl behind the glass. All they see is a symbol — a false figurehead that they can manipulate: Katniss Everdeen, the mockingjay.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -Part 1” is directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, based on Suzanne Collins’ book. 

Food for thought: commercializing ‘The Hunger Games’

I saw the 74th Hunger Games tributes on victory tour more than a year and a half ago.

The context: I was one of the 400 Capitol fans camped outside Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre, awaiting tickets into the black carpet event and premiere screening of gamemaker Gary Ross’ much-anticipated “Hunger Games.”

This was my view of “The Hunger Games” black carpet premiere on March 12, 2012. Photos taken by Qina Liu.

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Like the people watching the 74th annual hunger games — a gladiator-style/survivor tournament where two dozen children fight to the death — on television in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novels, I was incredibly moved by 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from district 12, a poor mining town near the outskirts of Panem.

But most of all, I appreciated Collins’ critique of reality and how that played out with the release of each movie.

For those not familiar with the trilogy, “The Hunger Games” echoes the lessons of George Orwell and “ad man” Edward Bernays. Like history has shown us again and again, the wealthy elite few control the uneducated masses. Whereas Orwell (and Machiavelli) showed us how this was done through fear, Bernays showed us how it’s possible to “engineer consent” through love and want. (i.e. The star-crossed lover storyline between district 12 tributes Katniss and Peeta is the sugar that makes Collins’ didactic messages easier to swallow.)

The tragic televised deaths of children serve as a fearful reminder of the government’s control. But they’re also a distraction from society’s problems: the games serve as entertainment, the tributes as celebrities.

“Your job is to be a distraction,” someone tells Katniss Everdeen, the bow-and-arrow-wielding heroine of the franchise, in the second movie.

And you can’t escape “The Hunger Games” universe or its commercialization.

Every TV network and late night talk show host covering “The Hunger Games” premiere had their own Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) or Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) — decked out in designer outfits, echoing Effie’s favorite motto (“Let the games be ever in your favor”) or Caesar’s conversational interview style.

“Team Peeta or Team Gale?” said every reporter, asking which of Katniss’ lovers the fans adored more.

Meanwhile, People Magazine runs glossy pictures and stories of each tribute (and the actor playing him or her). Hot Topic hangs displays of Hunger Game T-shirts and posters; Covergirl has a new Hunger Games-inspired makeup line.

Perhaps most telling is a scene in Francis Lawrence’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (released in theaters Nov. 22).

Panem President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is sitting with his granddaughter, who has her hair pulled back into a Katniss-style braid (much like most of the female audience members watching the movie premiere in theaters).

“When did you start wearing it like that?” Snow asks.

“Everyone wears it like that, Grandpa,” she answers.

This emulation isn’t necessarily bad. After all, imagine where the world would be if there were more reluctant revolutionary heroes like Katniss Everdeen.

But “The Hunger Games” are a distraction from some of the world’s bigger problems. Whereas almost one in four people in the U.S. didn’t have enough money to buy food, the first book-turned-movie opened with a record-breaking $155 million in U.S. box offices; the second film, “Catching Fire,” made $161 million during opening weekend, promising to be one of the highest grossing films this November.

And how much food can you buy for $161 million?

That’s 273.7 million pounds of bananas, 25.76 million pounds of coffee, 37.03 million Big Macs, 225.4 million pounds of rice, 249.55 million pounds of potatoes, 48.3 million pounds of ground beef, 1.0948 billion eggs or 128.8 million cans of beers in the U.S..

Think of that the next time you see a Mockingjay pin.

Beautiful and touching, but hardly ‘Epic’

We’ve seen them before. They lived under the floorboard and called themselves the “borrowers” in Disney and Studio Ghibli’s film, “The Secret World of Arrietty.” They woke up with armor-like shells in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Or perhaps their insect-like qualities aren’t explained — like in the case of PBS’s animated television series “George Shrinks,” about a 10-year-0ld boy who’s three inches tall.

The concept of little people isn’t new — although adventures may seem grander when you’re smaller. Stature isn’t what makes Chris Wedge’s animated 3D film “Epic” epic, if it even is epic, extending beyond ordinary size or scope.

“Epic,” loosely based on William Joyce’s picture book, “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs,” follows M.K. (Amanda Seyfried), a 17-year-old girl sent to live with her estranged father after her mother dies. As the product of divorce, M.K. contemplates what to say to her father, Bomba (Jason Sudekis), a frazzled scientist obsessed with finding little people. This obsession cost him his career and marriage, and is the reason he’s a hermit, vigilantly tracking tiny people in the woods with his network of cameras.

The cameras are trying to catch what we see with 3D clarity: the breathtakingly beautiful, green and luscious world of the “leaf men,” tiny soldiers assigned to guard their Queen (Beyonce), the majestic Mother Nature by the name of Tara. Dandelions rise, revealing tiny faces beneath their puffs. Hummingbirds soar, carrying the leaf men, including Ronin (Colin Farrell), Queen Tara’s top guard, and Nob (Josh Hutcherson), Ronin’s teenaged charge.

As our saga begins, the Queen has just selected her heir from tiny lily pad buds when the evil Boggan leader, Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) — the Scar of this Pride Rock — kills the Queen. Stumbling upon the fallen Queen in the woods behind her father’s house and magically shrunken to the size of insects, M.K. is witness to the Queen’s dying wish: to protect the bud until it blooms by moonlight. It is only then that she will return to her normal size.

Although produced by Twentieth Century Fox Animation, “Epic” seems like an amalgamation between Disney, Studio Ghibli and Pixar, carrying just as much heart. The character Nob looks nearly identical to Flynn Ryder, one of Disney’s protagonists in “Tangled.” The amount of green in this movie can rival Studio Ghibli films, including “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” and “Ponyo.” The animation has the feeling of Pixar, known for their realistic-looking figures, from Merida in “Brave” to Flik in “A Bug’s Life.”

The visuals are stunning, but the story isn’t as epic as the title may suggest. Crafted by a team of five writers (James V. Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember), the screenplay contains ordinary scenes, familiar to any Disney consumer. M.K. becomes Alice — shrinking and falling into a surreal “wonderland” — only her hookah-smoking caterpillar is replaced by a singing one named Nim Galuu (Steven Tyler), who like the wizard Oz, proves to be rather useless under his curtain. (The white rabbit, Queen of Hearts, Mad Hatter, Wicked Witch, Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow are absent from this retelling of Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum’s story.)

Meanwhile, Nob and his surrogate dad, Ronin, experience a “Lion King” moment — the one where Mufasa is hanging off a cliff, before falling to his death trampled by wildebeests. Instead of wildebeests and lions, in one scene, Ronin battles an endless Boggan army as Nod watches helplessly from a cliff above.

“Epic’s” version of Timon and Pumba are a comedic slug-and-snail duo named Mub (“Park and Recreation’s” Aziz Anisari)  and Grub (Chris O’Dowd). As one may imagine, Mub and Grub, who would be sustenance for the larger Timon and Pumba, don’t have conversations about eating crunchy and slimy bugs, although they would both agree that the slimy kind is better (but not to be eaten).

The scenes from “Epic” are familiar, but combining a bunch of scenes from known movies doesn’t make an “Epic Movie” epic or a “Scary Movie” scary. And satire doesn’t seem to be what Wedge’s family-friendly film is after.

“Epic” may be cute and touching, but it lacks the 10-year odysseys, wars and bloodshed that would make this story epic.

“Epic” was directed by Chris Wedge and written by James V. Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember. The story is based off of William Joyce’s book “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs.” 

All almost aboard the ‘Rise of the Guardians’

Once you pick up your suspension of disbelief along with your 3D glasses as you walk into the theater, “Rise of the Guardians” becomes quite an enjoyable film.

Based on William Joyce’s “Childhood of Guardians” series, the film centers around Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the Sandman — five guardians appointed by the Man in the Moon to protect children’s belief in magic against the forces of the Bogeyman, Pitch Black (Jude Law).

With an estimated $145 million budget, Dreamworks Animation’s “Rise of the Guardians” looks beautiful. Jack Frost, with his youthful face, big blue eyes and playful and carefree grin, is eye candy — cute as the Zac Efrons, Justin Beibers or Josh Hutchersons of the world — as he lures kids into snowball fights and guarantees snow days. (After all, who doesn’t love a guy who’s good with kids?) Meanwhile, the film’s animation is delightful, featuring a potpourri of colors and wonders. Easter eggs walk into rivers of pink dye while dreams float out of your head and prance around. Yetis assemble and paint Christmas toys in the North Pole while tiny tooth fairies, which resemble hummingbirds, flutter under pillows to collect teeth.

Although Pine may be as good looking as his animated counterpart, Jack, the 32-year-old actor’s voice is too deep to match the face of his character — who looks half his age. Pine’s voice, who commands the Starship Enterprise in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot, is too suave, smooth and confident for a character who’s young and lost — trying to discover who he is and why he died. Closer to teenaged heartthrobs, like Efron or Hutcherson, would have been better suited for the role.

Meanwhile, Pine’s co-stars shine with their mastery at accents. Although we know Jackman can sing and voice a pretty good American accent, it’s refreshing to hear Jackman’s native Australian accent as he voices a large bunny that resembles a kangaroo. Meanwhile, Baldwin’s Russian accent completes the unconventional Santa Claus character, which also has “naughty” and “nice” tatooed on his arms. And Law, with his English accent, always sounds sexy — even when he’s voicing a misguided, black-haired villain that resembles Loki from “The Avengers.”

“Rise of the Guardians” takes us on a journey on the Polar Express — proving that you’re never too old to believe in magic. All you have to do is open your heart and believe.

“Rise of the Guardians” was directed by Peter Ramsey. The screenplay was written by David Lindsay-Abaire.

Who looks forward to “Detention”?

High school is miserable. But it makes it a great source of dark humor and satire. From “Carrie” to “Heathers” to “Scream” to “Jennifer’s Body,” “Detention” is another parody of the teen movie comedy horror collection — where the dead body count of teenagers rises as days build up to the prom.

“Detention,” directed by Joseph Kahn, follows the misadventures of Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), a vegetarian klutz who is pinning after Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson), who is dating Jones’ ex-best friend, the cheerleader Ione (Spencer Locke). After Jones and her peers witness the death of a classmate at a party, the three are subject to detention while a Cinderhella copycat serial  killer is on the loose at Grizzly Lake High School.

Although the film demonstrates great production value for a low budget film, “Detention” comes off as a potpourri of different films and stereotypes: Think “Scream” meets “Juno” meets “Saw” meets “The Breakfast Club” meets “Freaky Friday” meets “Back to the Future.” Kahn and Mark Palermo’s screenplay incorporates some self-deprecating humor as they describe it as making “as much sense as that stupid movie ‘Torque.'” “Torque,” which is notorious for bombing in the box offices, was the first movie Kahn directed. Kahn and Palermo had gotten acquainted because Palermo, a former film critic, was one of the few who enjoyed “Torque.”

Whereas “Torque” was an action movie modeled after the “Fast and Furious” movies, “Detention” seems to be a clever satire, full of exaggerations, absurdities, social commentaries, and nostalgia for the ’90s. In one scene where Davis catches Jones dressed as the school mascot, a grizzly bear, grinding against Billy Nolan (Parker Bagley), the school’s misunderstood jock, in the boy’s locker room, Davis says,”Is this the part where I say how could you?” Jones responds,”Is this the part where I say it’s not what I look like?”

Told in chapter sequences, “Detention” explores what it’s like to be a teenager, when every little thing seems like a ticking time bomb to the the end of the world. Featuring serial killers, aliens, detentions and proms, Kahn’s film seems to be making a statement that Jones sums up best: “It’s not the end of the world. It’s just high school.”