MOVIE REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

written by David Steffen

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is the 4th and final movie in the Hunger Games movie series, which is based on the second half of the third book of the written trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and was released by Lionsgate Films in November 2015.

Twelve districts are ruled over by the capital of PanAm.  In continued punishment for a rebellion 75 years ago, the capital rules over the districts oppressively, including forcing children from each community to participate in annual Hunger Games–tournaments to the death both for the entertainment of the capital and to send messages about rebellions.  Inspired by the rebellious actions of Katniss Everdeen of District Twelve, and from their new stronghold in District Thirteen that was previously thought destroyed by almost everyone, the districts are in open conflict with the capital for the first time in 75 years.

When the last movie left off, Katniss Everdeen, who has continued to play the hero for the cameras, now as an avatar of District Thirteen, has been reunited with her former Hunger Games partner and longtime love Peeta, but he has been brainwashed by the capital so thoroughly to twist his love for her into hatred, and he almost succeeds in killing her.  Their next move against the capital is to bring Katniss and Peeta through dangerous boobytrapped sections of the city to make their move against President Snow on-camera.  Katniss isn’t convinced that President Coin of District Thirteen is much better.

The trilogy of books this is based on is powerful and heartfelt, and the movies are reasonably fair adaptations of them.  As with most movie adaptations of books, I’d say the books are better if only because there is more space to spread out and we can get to know the internal conflicts of the characters in more detail, but these movie adaptations, including this one, are some of the best I’ve ever seen and are well worth watching, and I’m glad that because of the movies more people will be familiar with the stories.  Excellent conclusion to the movie series, well worth watching.

Movies Review: Ray Bradbury Award Nominees

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation is not technically a Nebula award, but it is announced with, nominated with, and voted with the Nebula awards by the same group of people. These last few years I haven’t made it to a lot of movies in theaters, and I feel sad when I hear about a great SF movie that I never got around to seeing. So this year I’ve used the Ray Bradbury award as a brief guide to what SF movies I really should catch up on from the previous year.

Note that there are two entries in the list that I have not watched. They are:

  • Doctor Who: ‘‘The Day of the Doctor” (Nick Hurran, director; Steven Moffat, writer) (BBC Wales)
    (I have never seen Doctor Who, I don’t know how to find Doctor Who, and I doubt I’d be able to fully appreciate it by watching just this episode in any case)
  • Her (Spike Jonze, director; Spike Jonze, writer) (Warner Bros.)
    (I fully intend to see this but have had trouble finding it. It appears to be in just indie movie theaters around where I live, and I haven’t had time to drive to those theaters and watch, and I don’t think it’s out on DVD yet. Once I find it, I will watch it, and I expect that I will review it separately at that time)

OK, then, on to the list!


1. Europa Report (SebastiÃ’ n Cordero, director; Philip Gelatt, writer) (Start Motion Pictures)
In 2011, new scientific data suggested that there was a liquid ocean beneath the ice crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa. This movie,formatted as a documentary, tells the story of the five-person manned expedition to visit Europa, and to look for signs that life has existed there now or in the past. En route, a crew member dies, but the other five continue on.

I had not heard of this movie at all before the award nominations came out. It must not have gotten much media attention, and even my SF geek friends hadn’t heard of it. I’m very glad that I sought it out. It is so incredibly good. The writing is solid. The special effects serve their purpose without BEING the purpose. And I can’t say enough good things about the acting. There are some peripheral characters in the documentary, but most of the film is on these 6 characters spending more than two years in tight quarters with each other. There are some major and tense scenes that had me on the edge of my seat with anticipation, wanting to find out how everything turned out. But just as important were the small moments, small inconsequential conversations, a frown or a stare or a cast of the eye that made me feel like I understood on some small level the relationships these characters had with each other over the two year voyage. By showing us just a few of these unimportant moments, the moviemakers did a really good job giving an impression of the millions of moments that we didn’t see.

I can’t recommend this movie enough.


2. Gravity (Alfonso CuarÃ’ n, director; Alfonso CuarÃ’ n & JonÃ’ s CuarÃ’ n, writers) (Warner Bros.)

Bio-medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (a woman, despite the name) is on an orbital mission with NASA to insert a processing board in a satellite. After a collision with debris from a destroyed Russian satellite, she’s left tethered to astronaut Matt Kowalski with the rest of the crew dead and no contact with Mission Control. Kowalski had been testing a thruster pack at the time of the accident, so they use the pack to head toward the International Space Station with the aim to use their escape pod to return to Earth.

This movie got a lot of Oscar nominations, and won seven awards this year. I can see why, it’s exciting, well written, well acted. And I admit it’s good to see a space movie take such mainstream honors, maybe it’s a sign that the general public is showing some interest in space travel again. This could easily have made #1 on my list, the main reason it didn’t top Europa Report was that the exploration of the farther reaches of the solar system was even more exciting.


3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, director; Simon Beaufoy & Michael deBruyn, writers) (Lionsgate)
This is the second movie in the trilogy, based on the trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins.

The first story (spoiler alert), The Hunger Games, was about Katniss Everdeen taking her sister’s place in The Hunger Games, a brutal Coliseum kind of fight in which a young man and young woman picked from each of the twelve districts under the rule of the dictatorial capitol are placed in a ring to fight until only one survivor remains. Katniss and Peeta broke the rules in a very public way, when they were the only two contenders remaining, by threatening to commit mutual suicide rather than kill each other.

This movie continues where the last one left off. This show of resistance against the Capitol’s rules has caused rebellions to break out in the districts. The media played this out as being due to their hopeless love for one another, but many people aren’t buying it. Katniss and Peeta must tour the districts and show their supposedly undying love for each other, and read the scripts they’re given. Anything they do might cause more rebellion. And then the drawing for this year’s Hunger Games occurs, but only after an announcement that this year the rules are different to mark the 75th anniversary of the games: only previous champions will be drawn. Katniss is the only female champion of District Twelve, so she knows immediately that she will be going back in the games.

This was my favorite book in the trilogy of books, and I thought the movie did a great job of backing it up. Still great casting all around, great writing, great acting, great special effects, good everything. No complaints whatsoever. I would happily have put this at the top of the list, but it was just stiff competition in this group.


4. Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, director; Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro, writers) (Warner Bros.)
In the near future, giant monsters start appearing from the depths of the Pacific Ocean and destroying coastal cities. The first few are killed by local military forces but when more and more of the monsters (Kaiju as they’re called) appear it becomes increasingly clear that this strategy won’t work for long. The nations of the world band together to face this threat, and invent the Jaeger project. Jaegers are mechsuits as tall as skyscrapers which are controlled by two pilots whose minds are intertwined to distribute the neural strain of the piloting. These are very effective for a time, but the Kaiju are getting bigger, getting smarter, and now the Jaegers have been discontinued in favor of a coastal wall. There are only a few of the Jaegers left, and the project is in its dying gasps, but when the wall turns out to be ineffective the Jaegers are the only option.

Most of the information in the last paragraph is conveyed in the first few minutes of the movie. It seemed like this movie was kind of a sequel to a movie that had never been written–that opening sequence was clumsy, but I guess it served its purpose. The movie as a whole was exactly what is said on the tin. Giant human-controlled mechsuits fighting giant monsters. I heard a lot of hype about this movie when it came out but I admit that seeing it now I don’t understand what all the fuss was about. The special effects were good, but only SyFy makes bad special effects anymore, so that’s not remarkable. The acting was good. The writing was pretty good, though some of the action sequences made little sense (why not pull out the badass weaponry at the start of a fight instead of at the end). But none of it really stands out from all the other effects-heavy SF movies of the last few years.

I did have some plausibility issues, mostly regarding the need for two pilots to distribute the neural load. What neural load? The suits are shaped like humans and move like humans, with the exception of the add-on weaponry. You should be able to pilot them by basic motion capture like the motion capture used to make this movie. It shouldn’t even require a neural interface.

“Wait, wait,” I said as I watched the movie and the computer voice narrating the technical actions spoke, “Is the voice of the computer the voice of GLaDOS? From Portal?” And sure enough, it turns out that moviemaker Guillermo del Toro is a fan of Portal and he sought out Ellen McLain who voiced GLaDOS for a cameo appearance. Of course in this case she really is just a computer voice not a mad scientist superpowerful mainframe AI voice.


Review: Hugo Dramatic Presentation, Long Form Nominees 2013

written by David Steffen

You may notice that four of the five nominees here are also nominees for the Ray Bradbury award this year, which I also reviewed. So, yes, I did just move my review of those four into this article. If you read that previous article and you want to just read the new stuff, The Hobbit is the only nominee that was nominated for Hugo but not for Ray Bradbury, so you can skip ahead to that part.

Anyway, this was a very enjoyable batch of movies this year!


1. The Cabin in the Woods
When I saw the previews for this movie I didn’t know what to make of it. The vague impression I got was that it was tortureporn, of the same ilk as Saw and Human Centipede. So I didn’t see it theatres. But then I kept getting recommendations for it from people who have similar taste as me. And it got a Ray Bradbury nomination–surely my fellow SF writers would have better taste than to nominate something of that variety, I figured. So I decided to give it a try.

At the beginning, the main thread of the movie may seem familiar, stereotypical even. Five college students go to visit an isolated cabin in the woods for a vacation, each student a different archetype of such movies. A classic horror setup for anything from monsters to serial killers. But there are other scenes interspersed with this main plot that show scenes from what could be a typical dull government office, except that these guys in ties are controlling the events at the cabin in the woods and steering them toward some outcome. In the end it’s all explained and is extremely entertaining.

It’s full of action. It has some gore, but I thought the amount was reasonable considering the content–I trust Whedon to use gore effectively. Personally I found it more often funny or just plain awesome, but rarely scary, but I don’t think the classification of this movie as horror is inaccurate. It is meant specifically as a response to the stereotypes of horror film and there are gory parts and things that might be scary to other people but the way that it was presented put it in a completely different light for me.


2. The Avengers
I saw this one in theaters. I haven’t kept up with all the Marvel movies, but my favorite superheroes are all Marvel and it was such a fun idea to have a movie that takes all the recent big-hit Marvel movies and combines them with all the same actors. I’ve never seen anything put together quite like that, with Iron Man, Thor, Captain America already having their own feature films in their own right.

Although the Avenger Initiative has been canceled before the movie even begins, the group is brought together to counter a threat to the entire world. Thor’s brother Loki is trying to open a portal to another dimension to bring through an army to conquer Earth. The group must come together to try to stop them: Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye, Thor, all organized by Nick Fury. My concern with the premise was that either just a few of the heroes would get the focus and the rest would be background characters, or they’d spread the attention so thin that you never felt like any character really got their chance to shine. But Whedon (again!) did a superb job balancing the characters in such a short period of time, while leaving me satisfied. Each character got plenty of chances to show their skills (though Hawkeye seems a little ludicrously unpowered in such a group). Each character brought something to the group, both in abilities and in dialog/character. Iron Man got all the best lines, while Captain America was the straight man, Banner was the skeptic, and so on.

Admittedly, much of anticipation was waiting for the next time that Bruce Banner would Hulk out, but that anticipation just made the smashing time all the more fun.


3. The Hunger Games
Heather and I heard the hype about this movie about a year before it came out, and we both read The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins–this movie is the first of the three adaptations.

The story follows Katniss Everdeen of District Twelve, one of the twelve districts that is little more than a prison colony of the totalitarian government of Panem, occupying the territory now occupied by the United States. The districts have risen up against the capital before, but the rebellion was crushed. To punish and remind them, every year the capital randomly chooses two tributes (a boy and a girl) under the age of 17 to fight in an arena. These 24 young people are put in a strictly controlled arena with limited resources, and they stay in there until all but one of them are dead–the district of the winner is showered with prizes (mostly extra food). Katniss’s 12-year old younger sister Primrose is the one taken in the random drawing, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. She is the sole provider for her sister, and she must find a way to survive to keep her sister alive. The game involves not just action, and wilderness survival, but politics as the games are watched by the public and controlled by the government to ensure the audience is satisfied.

I’d recommend the book to anyone. The movie is one of those rare movie adaptations that does its book justice in tone and content, though the book of course contains more of what you see in the movie. Being able to see the opulence of the capital is the best part because that was one of the parts of the book that I was looking forward to seeing the most.


4. Looper
Heather and I watched this one together before the Bradbury nominees were announced based on recommendations from friends.

Time travel is invented 30 years in the future, but it is primarily used by criminals. Other technologies will have progressed by that time, including technology which makes it almost impossible to dispose of a dead body without evidence of it being discovered by the police. So criminal organizations have developed a system using time travel to solve this problem. They hire people from 30 years before (a time before time travel was invented) to act as “loopers”. Their job is to wait at specific places at specific times for murder victims. The victim will come through with a hood over their head and their hands bound behind their back and all the looper has to do is kill the person and dispose of the body. Since neither the forensic technology nor time travel has been invented at this time, it’s much easier to dispose of the body. With each victim is a payout in silver. The looper continues this work, until eventually a victim comes through that looks like any other, and is to be killed in the same way. This victim comes with a gold payout, enough to make a person filthy rich. This victim is the looper from the future time, and the murder of that person “closes the loop”, destroying any chance for the future authorities to interrogate this older person, hence the name. Complicated, but interesting premise, for sure.

The protagonist, Joe, is a looper, but when his golden payout comes through, something goes wrong and his future self escapes. This makes them both fugitives from the criminal organizations that run the system. The young Joe wants only to kill the older Joe so that he can live normally again. Older Joe isn’t so keen on this plan, but he has to try to keep young Joe alive because killing him will make old Joe disappear.

It’s really a sign of the quality of the nominees that this is #4. This movie is great, and I’d highly recommend it. It’s action packed from start to finish. I was skeptical that Joseph Gordon-Levitt would seem plausible as a young Bruce Willis, but they managed to pull it off with the use of some facial prosthetics to change the shape of his face. It looks really real, though it’s disconcerting if you’re used to Joseph’s face from his other acting work. It’s not just a mindless action movie; they did a great job plotting it, putting foreshadowing in place that’s not too blatant but which makes sense in retrospect and the ending resolution totally makes sense while not being too obvious.


5. The Hobbit
I’ve been waiting for this one to come out for quite some time. I enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies more than the books that they are based on because I’ve found Tolkien’s writing style to be rather impenetrable. When I first heard that Peter Jackson would also be working on The Hobbit, I was very excited. But my excitement dampened a bit when I heard that The Hobbit was being made into a trilogy of movies. And by the look of it they’re going to be long movies. I can understand why The Lord of the Rings needs to be turned into nine hours of feature film (okay I know the uncut trilogy is more like twelve, but you get my point). The one-copy collection I have of them is more than a thousand pages. Really, he had to cut out a lot of material to fit that in the way it was. But The Hobbit is a children’s book, is a very quick read. Where The Lord of the Rings needs to be cut drastically to fit into the space, The Hobbit really needs to be embellished to fit in the space.

And that was my main complaint about the movie is that it’s been expanded so much, shoehorning in characters from The Lord of the Rings that never graced the pages of The Hobbit, adding in fight scenes, side plots, lots of extra stuff. There are lots of fun special effects, good acting all around, I just felt it was too long for the actual content. The Lord of the Rings got away with it because the stakes are so much higher–Sauron is threatening to conquer the world. Here the stakes are not all important to the world as a whole–the dwarves want their home back, and the area surrounding the mountain would rather do without a dragon, but really they’re going and picking a fight that they don’t really need to pick. For a movie that’s fine, but an epic trilogy is a bit much for this, I thought.

But, if you liked The Lord of the Rings movies, and you want more, you’ll probably want to check this out. I thought Bilbo’s interaction with Gollum was very well done especially.

So, I liked it, but in general I thought it was rather over-embellished for its content.