Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Review

Pitching Mockingjay Part 1 can be a simple undertaking or a daunting challenge, determined mainly by whether or not you've read the book(s).  Anyone already fully versed will know precisely what to expect, with the real question being where the split will come to separate the two movies.  Those who haven't invested in the books, however, are like to struggle with adjusting to the changes made in this semi-sequel.  Since the first two movies focused on tension, culminating in Catching Fire's intense cliffhanger, it only makes sense for one to expect its sequel to feed the fire even further.  However, most viewers will feel that the flame has been left to dwindle down to a mere simmer. 

Without spilling spoilers, Mockingjay Part 1 sees Katniss in a new home with all the homeliness of a mental ward.  She's quickly presented the task of being the Mockingjay, a symbol of rebellion and potential freedom for the Districts in Panem.  Her role primarily amounts to being a part of propaganda films (called "propos") to rile the Districts and ultimately thwart the Capitol.  There are no "Games" to speak of, which makes the continued use of the Hunger Games moniker feel both cluttered and misleading.  Instead, Mockingjay Part 1 is a depiction of cold war soon to be followed by actual, open warfare.  What audiences have been waiting to see for a year is only briefly realized before the end credits begin, asking us to come back again next year.
So it's easy to feel cheated out of payoff in Mockingjay Part 1, but does the film function on its own merits?  This question may depend on your expectations, but you do feel the franchise being milked throughout, especially during the first hour.  Mockingjay Part 1, like its corresponding book, is a slow ride, putting its bleak commentary and main character first.  At this point it needn't be said that Jennifer Lawrence owns the role of Katniss Everdeen; all the emotion and trauma that comes with the territory is realized in a way that the film loves to demonstrate.  If anyone has a chance to steal Lawrence's spotlight, it's either Josh Hutcherson during one of his three or four (emotional) moments, or Elizabeth Banks during her many comedic tidbits.  For as much runtime as Mockingjay Part 1 has to work with, nearly every supporting character lacks proper exposure.  Take for instance a scene where Sam Clafin's Finnick Odair discloses some revelatory details.  This scene would work great on its own and serve as an effective way to develop an otherwise minor character.  However, this is set as a backdrop for another event in the movie, meaning these just-exposed details may become lost on a less discerning viewer. 

Compounding the issue of short-changed characters is the fact we get scenes of downtime when they're never needed.  Until the last 30 minutes, everything moves without immediacy, save one or two brief action scenes.  It's a definite example of misused runtime.  What's more is that the score, one of Catching Fire's surprising strengths, feels utterly rehashed here.  If James Newton Howard composed any new tunes, they're lost in favor of pasting key notes from the previous film.

Mockingjay Part 1 isn't without merit, but the drastic shift in style and overall decline in substance leaves it feeling incomplete.  Granted, we know this will be the case going in, but it feels fragmentary for other reasons, too.  There's simply less to invest in, and this particular film seems to be in dire need of a plot device to drive things forward.  That may come in Mockingjay Part 2, but another year of waiting for that feels like an illogical punishment for fan loyalty.

Grade: C

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ben & Jerry's Candy Bar Pie Review

Ben & Jerry's don't need me to voice their validity; they've accumulated enough revenue and fandom with their indulgent products to make Donald Trump feel modest.  Yet all the same, it's fun to review anything they provide, especially when it's a pre-packaged variant inspired by their ice cream shop offerings.  I for one can't say I've ever experienced a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop, which might have to do with the fact I might as well buy tickets to Universal Studios and/or Islands of Adventure.  Hardly a feasible purchase.  Setting my personal digression aside, I had my eyes peeled for Candy Bar Pie to make an appearance on nearby store shelves, and I'm glad to say it's become rather easy to find.  We'll see if it makes the scoop shop scarcity factor any less relevant.
The description is sexy enough: Peanut butter ice cream with fudge flakes, chocolate nougat & sweet & salty Pretzel Swirls.  This already sounds like an easy A, especially since Ben & Jerry's have a reputation for decimating my defenses whenever employing their deadly chocolate-on-peanut-butter combinations.  The only thing I hope they didn't skimp on is the pretzel pieces, which better be plentiful and salty.
First impressions look promising with the top removed, which continue through each scooping.  Ben & Jerry's venerable base already works wonders with peanut butter flavor, but thanks to an ensemble of mix-ins, the ante is raised yet again.  Fudge flakes and quick-to-melt nougat are endearingly prominent, imparting to a strangely coffee-esque flavor.  And when I say "coffee," I mean Starbucks Frappuccino coffee.  The touted pretzel swirls add an additional touch, one that's salty and a wonderful enhancement to the peanut butter flavor.  To my surprise, these aren't necessarily crunchy, but swirled around with a smooth texture to maintain consistency with the ice cream.  I'd say the lack of crunchiness is disappointing, but I'm having too much fun enjoying the sheer collage of flavors.
Candy Bar Pie is an ice cream that leaves no stone unturned.  As with the best of Ben & Jerry's flavors, you feel like you picked up a pint straight from the ice cream shop, which was likely the intent.  Most ice creams leave me longing to suggest additional mix-ins, but Candy Bar Pie covers more terrain than an American dead-set on freedom.  That said, if the pint doesn't quite cover your one-way ticket to diabetes, you could always crunch up some Reese Oreos for that final push.
Where I Bought It: Wal-Mart

Price: $3.48

Grade: A

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar (2014) Review

No one can objectively call Christopher Nolan an unambitious director.  As far back as Memento (maybe further), he's created movies meant to either challenge himself, his viewers, or both.  Even the pot-boiling Inception still leaves people pondering and theorizing over its ending and, subsequently, its minor details.  Now the English director brings us Interstellar, one of the few properly marketed movies in recent memory thanks to a scant number of plot points being revealed beforehand.  Between this and Nolan's stellar track record, it's easy to enter his latest production with curiosity and optimism.  However, these forms of anticipation are gradually erased as the film stretches out into realms of implausibility amidst a taxing runtime.
A fair warning should be issued to audiences hoping to be spectacular-ized, since Interstellar is clearly far from concerned with such matters.  Granted, this shouldn't (and wont') be a deal-breaker for many, yet one can't help but feel an uncomfortable sense of irony, considering the lack of visual lusciousness.  Even more ironic is where Interstellar gleams the most: its characters.  This is an area most of Nolan's stories have fallen short with.  While there are exceptions like Leonard Shelby in Memento, The Joker in The Dark Knight and brief, select scenes in The Prestige and Inception, Nolan has usually struggled to transfer emotion from character to audience.  Interstellar runs past this time-worn hurdle while hitting surprisingly effective notes along the way, and not just with regards to Hans Zimmer's endearing score. 

Key characters are Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy, then Jessica Chastain), who have a terrific father/daughter dynamic, despite being eons apart for the runtime's majority.  From them we get the set-up for our story, and while Nolan's films often benefit from a going-in-blind approach, it feels less criminal to divulge Interstellar's plot.  The premise is simple: Earth is dying and humanity needs to look elsewhere for salvation.  Interstellar isn't as driven by its plot and story as it is by themes and characters, which is why spoiling anything from the first act (maybe further) is easy to shrug aside.  One potential, lingering impression is that Nolan had a couple marathons dedicated to Cosmos and Through the Wormhole and, upon completion, he thought it would make sense to tackle those concepts in a three-hour film.  At best, this is a fun premise which sadly becomes tiring and overwrought through its own realization.  What's interesting is that despite the odd, silly introduction of a more or less sentient robot, Interstellar keeps plausibility well in-check.  However, as the film treads into its third act, suspension of disbelief quickly becomes challenged to point of outright denial.  Perhaps these final pitches will make sense to viewers more versed in the context of space, but for those who want a concise film that functions independently, Interstellar builds and builds only to break at the seams.
Interstellar is a strange piece to evaluate, especially when considering if and who to recommend it to.  You feel Nolan wants to appear more ambitious than he actually is; much of what we receive here is either familiar or briefly touched upon.  Everything else has a sense of underdeveloped pretension under the guise of innovation.  It's dependent on a sit-quiet-and-nod type of effect, a trick that will work for some and leave others to roll their eyes in sighs. 

Grade: C

Question of the Day: What's your favorite "space" movie?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Crown Royal Regal Apple Review

We appear to be amidst another flavored whiskey storm, thanks to brands like Early Times, Jim Beam and now Crown Royal.  Jack Daniels also released an apple-flavored product in the form of Winter Jack, but that was more a traditional cider at 15% ABV, as opposed to a flavored whiskey.  As for the Canadian distiller, Regal Apple arrives on shelves with an appropriately toned packaging.  Crown touts this rendition as a combination of their traditional whiskey and "Regal Gala Apples."  Gala apples, for the unaware, are considered cloned apples in horticulture. 

Appearances are completely familiar until the whiskey lets its aromas do the talking.  My desk is immediately overcome by a a decidedly green apple smell harkening to a certain Jolly Rancher candy.  Between this and the reduction in ABV (from 40% to 35%), I'm prepared for my dental to suffer.

What comes as no surprise is the hit of sweetened apple flavor; Regal Apple has more than a couple traces of quasi-candy-like infusion.  Less expected, however, is the discernible amount of actual whiskey contained in the spirit.  There's a welcome wholeness to it all, with subtle vanilla and caramel notes bridging the core spirit and its main, companioning flavor.  Allow the whiskey to sit and you'll be rewarded with a slight touch of semi-refreshing apple flavor (think caramel apples).

In the end, Crown Royal Regal Apple has no qualms about putting its sweet foot forward.  The experience will make whiskey purists turn their noses up and walk away, but what else would you expect?  For the more adventurous and open-minded drinker, however, Regal Apple is an acceptable, relatively easygoing and mostly rewarding experience. 

Where I Bought It: Total Wine

Price: $24.99 (750 mL)

Grade: B

Question of the Day: What's your favorite Apple-flavored product?  And please don't say iMac.

Friday, October 24, 2014

John Wick (2014) Review

Considering his filmography, Keanu Reeves hasn't starred in a noteworthy movie since The Matrix Revolutions.  Although efforts like Street Kings and A Scanner Darkly have since found their way into the hearts of select viewers, the once glowing action star seems to have fallen mostly into obscurity.  Enter John Wick, a movie relying almost exclusively on Reeves' "yeah, I'm thinking I'm back" line to ensnare viewers.  The premise of a man starting a one-man mob war of sorts over the death his dog, however, doesn't come across as something a student would want to pitch to their screenwriting professor. 

Despite its silly outward appearances, John Wick offers a surprising blend of style and substance, with the latter coming through in spades during the first act.  Color is effectively used throughout the movie, with brief moments of orange warmth offsetting the bleak, pale blue filters which dominate the initial 15 minutes.  Later on, the dominant nighttime settings and abundant use of black play up the path John shoots and wrestles his way through.  This isn't so much with regards to tone as it is to style; John Wick employs an admittedly odd direction, injecting a healthy dose of comedic moments in unsuspecting areas, ensuring that grins are delivered aplenty.
Action comprises a healthy chunk of the runtime, and once again, there's a surprising amount of style to find.  Where any other film would stay conventional and supply an extravagant level of choreography and stunt work, John Wick takes a more honest approach.  With regards to John himself, comments about being "retired" and "rusty" frequently show up in the witty screenplay, and we're seldom led to believe otherwise.  We learn what John was like through brief, mostly implicit moments with minor characters.  These are abundantly verified.  However, things become more difficult when the magazines are emptied; when John shoots, you can hear and feel the power in every bullet.  If he's using more primitive means to subdue his foes, excitement immediately turns into tension.  Nearly every scene is presented with clarity and conciseness, providing proper vantage points for every action scene.  There's also no shying away from the blood and projectile-fueled combat, but not once does it feel too gratuitous for its own good.
Another pleasantry is the overall cast.  Keanu Reeves is in fine form, awakening a new kind of spirit through his performance, one seemingly driven by more than just the script.  Michael Nyqvist, who plays the main antagonist, puts out a performance that often leaves you guessing.  A fair portion of the comedic moments come from him, with one mid-chase scene near the end being a real knee-slapper.  Be on the lookout for the particularly cool and amusing Lance Reddick (Fringe and The Wire) as well.  Additionally, Game of Thrones fans will instantly recognize Alfie Allen as the son of Nyqvist's Viggo Tarasov, who seems poised to become an unsympathetic typecast. 

On that note, not everything that John Wick provides screams excellence.  The film definitely has a for-the-sake-of-entertainment vibe to it, but the more heavy moments make the overall weight feel inconsistent.  What's more is that some plot threads are resolved quite abruptly.  This makes the retributional aspect feel less personal, which runs counter to what John says just before the bullets truly start to fly.

Despite a few puzzling and otherwise disconcerting details in the overall picture, John Wick looks and feels the part you want it to.  Immediately compelling, quickly engaging and consistently entertaining, Keanu Reeves returns with style in a form that feels different, but works as effectively as any of his best works. 

Grade: B

Question of the Day: What are some of your favorite return-to-form films?