Woody Harrelson

REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

After escaping the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) reluctantly becomes the symbol of rebellion against the Capitol.

From the outset Mockingjay – Part 1 looks distinctly different from the previous two film. After the lush greens of the first arena and the bright sun, sand, and water of the second, life in District 13 is tinged in grey. It suits the setting as so much is set underground though certainly some of the night/dark scenes could’ve been lit a bit better.

Here we have a Katniss who is full of guilt and regret for leaving Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) behind and it’s only when she has President Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of District 13, pledge to rescue Peeta and the other victors captured by the Capitol that she agrees to be the Mockingjay – the symbol of hope and rebellion for the people.

Cutting the final book in a YA book to movie adaptation series became the norm after the success of both Harry Potter and Twilight so it was little to no surprise that The Hunger Games went down the same route. This does mean that Mockingjay – Part 1 has far less action than the previous films as now not only are Katniss and Peeta no longer in the arena battling to the death, but instead it focuses more on Katniss’s state of mind as the conflict between the Districts and the Capitol grows. That’s not to say there aren’t any “action sequences” – Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) get caught up in a Capitol bombing – but they are few and far between and instead the tension and drama is more character focused.

A key part of the Hunger Games has always been how well the tributes can make themselves likeable and appealing to sponsors as that’ll help them survive. This take on the PR and propaganda machine takes a different turn in Mockingjay – Part 1. Former Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plans to help the rebels by filming a load of propaganda films of Katniss to inspire the rebellion. It’s a pity Katniss works best when she’s not following a script. Just as District 13 are using Katniss in their propaganda, the Capitol is using Peeta and though the two of them are barely together during the film you can see how Katniss’s love for him (whatever kind of love that is) is still strong.

One of my favourite sequences in this whole series is in in this film. It’s a moment where Katniss sits by a lake with her film crew and sings a song called “The Hanging Tree” which is taken up and echoed by the mockingjay birds in the woods. That song is then used for one of Plutarch’s films and then a rallying cry for the people as they take a stand against the Capitol. The score by James Newton Howard is especially effective in this sequence too.

Nothing highlights the criticisms this series has on media/entertainment and how we consume it (both in the films and the books but especially in the books) than the fact that there were multiple upbeat techno versions of “The Hanging Tree” made and released. Using a song about a murdered man, a song with themes of freedom, death and martyrdom, as an upbeat song just feels very strange and wrong. I remember hearing one of the remixes when I was driving and doing a doubletake when I registered why the lyrics sounded so familiar but the beat did not.

Mockingjay – Part 1 lays a lot of the groundwork for the battle ahead and different character dynamics are given room to breathe like Katniss and Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Katniss and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) which continues to be one of my favourite and the most interesting relationships in this series. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Hunger Games (2012)

After revisiting the books for the first time in about a decade it was time to revisit the films – many of which I probably haven’t seen since they were first released.

Every year in the ruins of what was once North America, the nation of Panem forces each of its twelve districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games – a fight to the death on live TV until only one victor remains standing. When her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. Katniss is forced to rely upon her sharp instincts as well as the mentorship of drunken former victor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) as she and her male counterpart, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are pitted against bigger, stronger representatives, some of whom have trained for this their whole lives.

From the outset it’s clear the difference between the Capitol and the Districts aka the haves and the have-nots. The Hunger Games opens with two men with brightly coloured hair and vibrant clothes talking about the Games and then cuts to District 12 where a woman screams and everything is bleak and grey.

Even before we get into the arena, the camera work is shaky and frantic. While it works in the arena, encompassing the fear and the adrenalin as the tributes fight to survive and quickly moving away from children’s bloody bodies allowing the imagination to fill in the gaps, in Katniss’s day to day life it feels jarring. I’m not one to feel queasy due to shaky cam, especially not when watching a film on my laptop, but some of the sequences in District 12 did make me feel funny and my eyes hurt due to the camera work.

Some of the most interesting moments in The Hunger Games comes from things we’d never have seen in the book as it was all from Katniss’s point of view. In the film, you get to see the Gamemakers, the people pulling the strings behind the scenes on their holographic screens as they set traps for the young competitors. Again, it goes to show that for people in the Capitol this is just entertainment or just a job but for the tributes it’s the worst time of their life.

I feel like there will be more to comment on performance-wise as the films progress but the likes of Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Toby Jones looking like their having a whale of a time. They all play citizens of the Capitol and are used to lives of luxury but Banks manages to ensure that Effie comes across as well-meaning if a bit insensitive as she’s never not on Katniss and Peeta’s side.

Jennifer Lawrence is really does a fantastic job at Katniss. She’s not the most expressive or potentially even likeable character as she’s had to have so much responsibility from a young age but Lawrence makes it work, showing the girl behind Katniss’s stoicism and the moments when she truly lets her emotions out, often when she’s with her sister or Rue (Amandla Stenberg), you truly feel what she’s going through.

Overall, The Hunger Games is a solid, though sometimes a little slow, adaptation and with stellar performances bringing to life such interesting characters it sets the franchise off on a good foot. 4/5.

REVIEW: Midway (2019)

The story of the soldiers and aviators who helped turn the tide of the Second World War during the iconic Battle of Midway in June 1942.

The first 20 minutes or so of Midway are honestly thrilling as the film opens with the attack on Pearl Harbour. Unfortunately, that sense of urgency and pace doesn’t continue for the rest of this almost two and a half hour-long film.

There are a lot of military characters and names to keep track of. The main pilot is cocky Dick Best (Ed Skrein) whose cavalier attitude towards death puts his superiors including Rear Admiral Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) on edge, but naturally when things are at their breaking point he’s just the kind of guy they need.

It’s a pleasant surprise that the film spends time with the Japanese characters, the admirals and soldiers who planned and carried out the attacks on Pearl Harbour and Midway, and tries to elevate them from just being the Bad Guys. Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) is the main character we follow on that side of the battlefield as he tries to bring glory to Japan without taking undue risks. In fact, the Japanese are almost three-dimensional characters, especially compared to their American counterparts that are largely comprised of clichés and strong accents.

The most interesting character is reserved intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) who had warned the Japanese were planning something big before the attack on Pearl Harbour, but his superiors failed listened to him. Now with Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) taking command, he is charged with predicting the Japanese’s next move. Their working relationship, as Nimitz slowly puts his faith into Layton and his team of codebreakers, some of whom are a little eccentric, is perhaps the most compelling element in this sprawling account of military underdogs.

The last third is full of aerial battles that are a sight to behold – seeing the pilots dive headfirst towards aircraft carriers in order to drop a bomb on target are nail-biting moments – but the spectacle becomes overwhelming and the various characters, the majority of which you know little about to care about them, are hard to follow in the carnage.

Midway does it’s best to offer a respectful account of events that took place and the men, both Japanese and America, who took part and risked their lives. The action is big and bold but that doesn’t allow any room for nuance. 2/5.

REVIEW: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

The story of a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) who joins a group of smugglers and thieves led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) to take on an almost impossible heist for crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany).

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a prequel to the original Star Wars films, showing us how Han Solo became the Han Solo we know and love. Is this film needed? No. Is it a good film? I’s alright and its downfall is that it has the same problems that so many prequel films have no matter the genre. You know the characters who you’ve seen in films that are set later on survive this adventure and you know any characters you’re introduced to in this film who you haven’t seen before will either die, turn evil, ride off into the sunset or just generally not have a big role in this film. Sometimes it’s a combination of more than one of these potential outcomes. The new characters are mostly decent but aren’t particularly fleshed out or, in the case of Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), are suddenly given multiple different facets towards the end of the film that it feels a bit like whiplash.

Alden Ehrenreich does a great job as a younger version of Harrison Ford’s jaded Han Solo. This Han Solo is a guy who doesn’t really know where he fits in, he tries being good, he tries being bad and a lot of the time he’s just very lucky. Donald Glover is also very charismatic as a young Lando Calrissian and seeing how Han and Lando meet is great and the two of them bounce well of each other. Another great first meeting is Han and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) seeing the friendship grow between these two was wonderful and any of their interactions or the scenes that featured the two of them were the best. Chewbacca probably has the most well-developed and interesting character arc in this film to be honest.

The action and fight scenes are good with the heist on a train being a standout moment. However, the pacing of Solo: A Star Wars Story leaves much to be desired. The first thirty minutes or so is a bit of a slog, but it does pick up once Han meets Beckett and his crew. The first thirty minutes or so were also incredibly dark. I honestly found myself squinting at the screen a few times as it was difficult to make out characters reactions to events that were happening around them. While scenes that take place at night or on grimy planets will naturally be darker, it seemed like everything was so poorly lit that when something interesting did happen, it was hard to actually see it.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a perfectly fine film. It’s mostly fun and the characters you’ve already met are great. There’s a few surprises in Solo: A Star Wars Story and a lot of references to the franchise as a whole (some of which are eyeroll-inducing and really aren’t needed). Overall, it’s a film that doesn’t add much to the Star Wars mythos but it’s a mostly fun adventure featuring some much-loved characters. 3/5.

REVIEW: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Seven months after the murder of her daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) challenges the local authorities, who have not caught the culprit, by promoting the injustice on three billboards on the road to her hometown.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is from writer and director Martin McDonagh. This is the man behind In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, so if you have seen them, you’ll now at least a little of what to expect from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – which is black comedy, drama and violence.

Frances McDormand is brilliant as the vengeful and hurting Mildred. She’s a woman in pain who wants justice and is not afraid to cause pain and distress in order to get it. Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) is trying to be understanding with what Mildred is going through, and does his best to explain that there just isn’t the evidence to catch her daughters killer, while struggling with his own demons and an unruly police force. Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a racist and violent cop and is no way a good guy and the film doesn’t paint him like one. He’s the main antagonist of this story, hurting anyone close to Mildred in order to get to her.

That’s the thing about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, none of the characters are particularly likeable and all of them are very angry and mean. While you understand Mildred’s frustration it doesn’t mean she’s doing the right thing, and while Dixon does evolve as a person, he’s never completely changed or “good”, he’s still the disgusting and dangerous person he always was, just changed slightly.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is funny but it’s also super dark – the script manages to balance these two elements really well. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is tough to watch at times, remembering a scene at a dentist still makes me shudder, but the incredible performances pull you into the story and gives you a memorable film. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Nadine’s (Hailee Steinfeld) life gets a lot more complicated and frustrating when her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner).

The Edge of Seventeen is a sweet and funny coming of age drama. Nadine is such a flawed and frustrating yet sympathetic character. She is quite self-centred, thinking that she is the only one who has any problems in their life, yet she’s still a teenager who fears she’s losing her one and only friend to her cooler brother. You get where she’s coming from even if the way she deals with it sometimes is incredibly cringe-worthy – I definitely got some second-hand embarrassment from this film but this made Nadine feel more real and relatable.

Nadine’s relationship with her teacher Mr Bruner (Woody Harrelson) is wonderful, and it’s also where a lot of the comedy comes from. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) has her own problems and is never available for Nadine to talk to or ask for advice so Mr Bruner becomes almost a surrogate parent in her eyes.

The Edge of Seventeen is a great film. With its clever script, it both embraces and subverts the typical high school clichés. It’s funny and heartfelt and Hailee Steinfeld is brilliant – it’s her performance that gets you to like Nadine even when she’s doing crazy things and pushing people away. 4/5.

REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

After the human military comes to kill Caesar (Andy Serkis), he must wrestle with the fact that the ever-looming war between apes and humans is finally here.

If you are expecting an out-and-out war film here, you’ll be disappointed. Yes, there are soldiers and there’s conflict between the apes and humans but the film is more than that. It’s an intelligent, thoughtful look at humanity and at a group of creatures who just want to be left alone. The conversations between Caesar and The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) are really interesting because they are two smart, capable leaders who have their own kind to protect.

It kind of goes without saying but the motion capture and computer work in War for the Planet of the Apes is phenomenal. The actors performing as the apes do incredible work as do the digital artists – you really feel and understand the emotions that play out on these creatures faces. It’s easy to forget that they aren’t really “there”.

War for the Planet of the Apes is an incredible film. It builds on the previous two films and adds more depth to the characters we already know and interesting dynamics with new ones. Caesar feels so much older and battle-worn compared to when we last saw him but then there’s a new character like Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) who’s weird quirks brings some much needed humour to the film. Because War for the Planet of the Apes is often a bleak and tough film. The characters, and the audience, go through so much that those moments of humour are needed to break the tension.

The relationship between Caesar, fellow chimp Rocket (Terry Notary) and orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) is delved into even more in this film. It’s fascinating to see not just Caesar’s growth across the trilogy but theirs, along with the community they’ve built in the woods.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a solid, poignant story of hope, conflict and loss. There’s a sense of tension and foreboding throughout the film and it puts your emotions through the wringer. It is an amazing end to a trilogy that just got better and better with each instalment. This trilogy is up there with the best of them. 5/5.