CELEBRATING 10 YEARS!
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2", the fourth and final installment in the novel to screen franchise, had the weakest opening weekend of the series making a tad over $100 million in the U.S. Lionsgate's theory of splitting the final book into two movies, based on the previous successes of the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" films, didn't pay off, financially, this time.
While Lionsgate may not have seen the box office decrease coming, they did recently alter course for their other tween/teen book to screen series. "Divergent"'s final chapter, "Allegiant" was originally going to be split into two films for 2016 and 2017. While there are still going to be two movies, instead of titling these films Parts 1 and 2, they are "The Divergent Series: Allegiant" and "The Divergent Series: Ascendant". "Insurgent", which was released in March, grossed $20 million less than the original "Divergent". 20th Century FOX's property "The Maze Runner" also saw a year-to-year ticket sale decrease. 2014's first installment made $100 million, but "The Scorch Trials", released the same weekend one year later, only managed $80 million. Part 3 of this series, titled "The Death Cure", will hit theaters in Feb. 2017. So we get a one year break - that's the good news. The not-so-good news: there are FIVE "Maze Runner" books, so two other films (at least) could be in our future. Consider yourself warned.
Other sequel stories from 2015: In the comedy department, audiences responded to a second "Pitch Perfect" and "Hotel Transylvania" but not another dose of "Paul Blart" and "Ted". "Taken 3" proved Liam Neeson action movies are running out of gas. "Jurassic World" was the fourth in the "JP" series, and we all know how that turned out.
Fifth go-arounds worked for "Mission: Impossible" ("Rogue Nation") and an updated "Vacation", but "Terminator Genisys" bombed. The sixth "Paranormal Activity", "The Ghost Dimension" was the least successful of this worn-out franchise. And "Spectre" was a disappointing Bond 24. But it's a triple-header of SEVENTH installments that will be dominating the year-end recap headlines: "Furious 7", "Creed" (aka "Rocky VII") and, of course, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens".
Less than an hour into Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur”, I began thinking about the studio’s 15 other animated movies (never a good thing). Not all of them are outstanding (“WALL-E” being the most overrated), but given the choice, I would watch any of them again in favor of a second viewing of “The Good Dinosaur”, which is clearly the studio’s worst film to date.
It’s no wonder Pixar had years of problems trying to get this movie made. It was originally supposed to be their 2014 film, instead becoming their quietly-promoted second 2015 feature following the much more ambitious “Inside Out”. Much like “Newt”, Pixar’s highly-publicized failed project about amphibians falling in love, “The Good Dinosaur” should’ve been scrapped, or rather, put into extinction. And it’s too bad, because the initial premise, which is somewhat unique, poses the question: What if the meteor that killed all the dinosaurs missed the Earth instead?
We flash-forward millions of years and dino Arlo is born. He’s got a Mama, Papa and two active and competitive siblings. Arlo is not athletic or courageous. And yes, all the dinosaurs in “The Good Dinosaur” speak English, but the few humans in the story do not - kind of a reversal of “The Flintstones”. And this should quiet all those who have problems with the talking vehicles in “Cars”.
The first half-hour of “Good Dino“ (aka “Family Time”) is surprisingly flat, emotionless and awkward. Once again Disney and Pixar Executive Producer John Lasseter follows the studios’ mantra: “You MUST kill-off a character early to move the plot forward!” Just like in nearly every other Pixar and Mouse House animated movie this Century, someone dies early on in “The Good Dinosaur” and Arlo must prove his worth as he battles enemies and the elements trying to make it back home to his family with the help of a new friend, a young cave boy.
This story and script are on the “Disney Junior” TV series level. The writing is basic and rarely provides any genuine interest. There’s only one scene - midway through the film - which actually feels like it was created by a Pixar team, along with the absolutely gorgeous animation and stunningly realistic nature scenery. The rest - from the bland dialogue, to the wacky supporting characters, to the overly-sentimental tone - could have been produced anywhere. The only other “Good” element of “The Good Dinosaur” is Sam Elliot’s voice-work as a T-rex with a nasty scar and tall tales of his adventures battling outlaws. Yes, this film becomes a Western at one point.
There’s a scene in which young Arlo and his cave boy pal eat some “funny” berries and get “high”, complete with psychedelic music and visuals, taking them from the Stone Age to the “Stoned” Age. You've got to wonder if those same berries were being passed around during the production meetings of this movie.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Good Dinosaur” gets a C.
40 years ago, Sylvester Stallone ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as boxer Rocky Balboa in a film that established the standard for the sports movie genre. Following five other “Rocky” films Balboa is finally retired. But in “Creed” a special young fighter inspires Rocky to make yet another comeback.
We’ve seen so many sports dramas, many involving boxing, since the release of “Rocky” in 1976, and most have had a very formulaic flow. But here “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler breathes new life into the “Rocky” franchise. “Fruitvale” star, Michael B. Jordan, gives a commanding performance as Adonis (aka Donnie), the troubled son of the late, legendary Apollo Creed.
Donnie’s been fighting underground for years, and is undefeated, using the name “Johnson” to hide his identity. He wants to make it on his own. So he quits his office job in California and heads to Philadelphia. Where better to make this dream a reality than in the place where the sport’s two greatest icons, Rocky and his father (who died in the ring before he was born - in “Rocky IV”) became superstars?
His goal is to convince Rocky, who’s been out of the fight business running his restaurant “Adrian’s” full-time, to become his trainer. Moved by Donnie’s passion and determination, Rocky decides to return to the gym and the sport he loves - and an opportunity give the pair a chance to prove they both belong.
Thankfully, “Creed” elevates this very basic premise, with a multi-layered, character-driven story that goes at the steady pace of Rocky’s main motivational line to Donnie: “One Step, One Punch, One Round at a Time.” Coogler often mirrors the previous “Rocky” films (too much so with the glorified finale bout), but he’s able to give this spin-off the appropriate, modern flare that allows it to fly on its own. Bianca, a local singer (played by Tessa Thompson) provides a love interest for Donnie, and as his training and relationship with Rocky continue, things become more and more complicated. Most of the dialogue is quite authentic and packed with emotion.
Jordan has the physical look and overall presence of a real fighter. He and Thompson have great chemistry, and Phylicia Rashad, as Apollo Creed’s former wife and Donnie’s adopted mother, has a few standout scenes. But, believe it or not, it’s Stallone who gives the defining, knockout performance in “Creed”. He revitalizes this beloved character, with a subtle authenticity and restrained command of every moment on screen. In a career filled with cartoonish action roles, Stallone proves to all doubters, once and for all, that he can act, as he carries some of the most raw and powerful scenes of any movie this year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Creed” gets a B+.
After a solid first installment and an even stronger sequel, "The Hunger Games" franchise flamed-out with last year's "Mockingjay - Part 1". Lionsgate decided to split the third and final book from Suzanne Collins' phenomenon series into two films based on the financial successes of the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" series, which utilized this strategy. This time, however, it was a huge mistake.
"Mockingjay - Part 1" underperformed at the box office, and the film itself was a snoozer, with a serious lack of action. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" does amp-up the destruction and explosions, and there is a level of anticipation for those who have been with this series for the past four years (especially for those who didn't read the books). Will Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the shining symbol of the ongoing Panem districts rebellion, finally kill the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland)? And how will the romantic triangle end - will she pick Gale (Liam Hemsworth) or Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)?
"Mockingjay - Part 2" suffers from the exact same problem as its predecessor: there isn't enough legitimate material to warrant a stand-alone, 2-hour, 15-minute movie. Once again, there are long, dull stretches with the array of characters talking and talking but not advancing the story. But the truth is - even if combined into just one movie, "Mockingjay" is clearly the least exciting and satisfying of the adaptations.
Each of the "Hunger Games" films has featured at least one or two standout performances. In the original, it was Woody Harrelson's former "Games" winner Haymitch and Stanley Tucci's TV show host Caesar Flickerman (their roles are greatly reduced in "MP2"). "Catching Fire" introduced us to new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), who elevated the entire cast. He does have several scenes in this final installment (though, oddly, no "In Memory of" this time in the closing credits). In "Mockingjay - Part 1", Julianne Moore was terrific as District 13 President Alma Coin, with a commanding presence and an engaging and slightly mysterious personality. Coin is a significant character in this final chapter, still leading the rebel take-over of The Capitol and the destruction of Snow. And she has a few other surprises up her sleeve as well.
But the best performance in "Mockingjay - Part 2", by far, is delivered by Lawrence. The Oscar-winner captivates in at least a half dozen dramatic scenes, displaying the acting skills she regularly saves for collaborations with David O. Russell. If you've been invested in "The Hunger Games" movie franchise, seeing Lawrence's best work of the series is really the only reason to check-out this finale. If that's not enough for you, just ask one of your obsessed friends or younger family members to take 30-seconds and fill you in on how it ends.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" gets a C.
In a season filled with blockbusters and awards hopefuls, “Love the Coopers” deserves a very special recognition: This all-star comedy takes elements from every “dysfunctional family coming together for the holidays” movie ever made, combining them into one, large fruitcake…that’s as hard as a rock.
If you’re expecting some holiday cheer from this star-studded effort, think again. There’s very little love on display in “Love the Coopers”, but plenty of pain. We’ve got the main couple, played by Diane Keaton and John Goodman, on the verge of a divorce after 40 years of marriage. A son, played by Ed Helms, who’s lost his job and can’t afford to buy presents for his kids. Oh yeah, he’s also divorced. How about the daughter who’s forced to bring home a fake boyfriend for the holidays so the other family members won’t feel sorry for her? And she’s also having an affair with a married man. This storyline (featuring Olivia Wilde and Jake Lacy) gets the most screen time and is the most interesting, though only because of the likeability of the two actors, and not their actual characters or wildly-predictable situation.
There’s the lonely sister played by Marisa Tomei who’s a criminal and becomes involved with police officer Anthony Mackie. “Nebraska”’s delightful June Squibb somehow got roped-into playing the senile old Aunt. And finally, nothing says festive fun like a young woman looking to start anew inspired by the wise ol’ grandpa of the family. Amanda Seyfried and Alan Arkin, as longtime waitress and her devoted customer, play-out this awkward relationship as best they can.
It’s hard to understand how a movie like “Love the Coopers” got made. If I laughed or smiled at all it was in sheer disbelief of what I was witnessing. At least director Jessie Nelson didn’t play favorites, instead making sure each actor has their own embarrassing scene or two…or three. We get both the uncomfortable Christmas Carol sing-along and cringe-inducing family dancing exhibition - in a hospital cafeteria. Plus, the obligatory dysfunctional dinner table drama. At times it felt like I was watching “December: Osage County”. Nelson also plays mind tricks with weird, unexpected flashbacks and visions, I’m guessing just to keep the audience from dozing-off.
The story, which is set in Pittsburgh on Christmas Eve is narrated by a Hollywood legend who’s barely recognizable and only named in the closing credits. That’s his early Christmas present, getting to stay as far away from this holiday disaster as possible. You should do the same.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Love the Coopers" gets a D.