The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 Review: Thrilling end to an intelligent action adventure saga  

The Hunger Games movie saga, which stars Jennifer Lawrence as revolutionary poster girl Katniss Everdeen, reaches its conclusion with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. I saw it last week, and the review embargo has just been lifted.

The series – based on Suzanne Collin’s popular book trilogy – took me by surprise. I was lukewarm about the initial instalment, both before and after seeing it. In hindsight, this is probably not because of the quality of the film itself (directed by Gary Ross), but rather my own prejudice.

The Hunger Games: A Running Man and Battle Royale rip off?

As a teen I had seen Arnie in The Running Man (1987) – based on a book and set in a dystopian future where the state sanctions a TV death match as a means of pacifying the populace. Later, I had marvelled at the magnificent Japanese movie Battle Royale (2000) – also based on a book and set in a dystopian future where the state sanctions a TV death match as a means of pacifying the populace.

Sound familiar?

So with what seemed to be the same set up – teenage ‘tributes’ battling to the death for the masses on mass media – it was through this lens that I watched The Hunger Games (2012). As far as I was concerned it was as expected – largely derivative of Battle Royale and The Running Man (the latter of which isn’t even particularly good) with added YA (young adult fiction) dust.

But looking back, the beginnings were there for what has become an intelligent an engaging saga. With Francis Lawrence installed as the new director for the rest of the series, the first sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) added layers of political and media commentary & satire, while remaining true to being a YA action adventure. The first part of the follow up story The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014) took us into the territory of the war film, which is where this concluding chapter remains.

Jennifer Lawrence embodies the how good a female action hero can be

Central to the success of this saga remains the confident and engaging performance from Jennifer Lawrence, who as Katniss Everdeen has come to embody how powerful a well realised female action hero can be.

The film picks up immediately after the events of Part 1 – Katniss is suffering both mentally and physically from the effects of being almost strangled to death by her former District 12 fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who has been brainwashed by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) into believing that Katniss is evil.

The new Katniss/Peeta dynamic is central to their relationship in this film. Katniss spends much of the story afraid of him, and lamenting that the Peeta she knew is gone. He in turn is full of hate for Katniss, and simply wants to kill her. Despite their mutual distrust/loathing, they are thrown together for the sake of the continuing media battle of Penem, and the pair’s importance as propaganda puppets.

Katniss Everdeen – not just a symbol of revolution

Katniss is beginning to tire of being used as a political tool, this time by President Coin (Julianne Moore). In this film, Katniss finally decides it’s time to write her own story. Like Peeta’s hate for Katniss, she has a singular vengeful purpose now – to kill President Snow. As far as she’s concerned he is solely responsible for the misery of the world about her. She wants to see him dead, and preferably by her hand.

Also remaining in the mix is Gale (Liam Hemsworth). As well as his ongoing role in the love triangle with Katniss and Peeta, he continues his transformation into a callous revolutionary fighter – displaying a crueller streak than before. He is another character hardened by the ongoing war.

Of the other key players, President Snow continues his unsettling relationship with Katniss, and Sutherland is as sinister as ever. In not dissimilar fashion, Julianne Moore’s President Coin is on the surface a heroic leader, but what lies beneath is also troubling. Her determination to control Katniss plays out in the wider context of the war and its aftermath.

The Hunger Games reimagined

There are no ‘Hunger Games’ per se in this movie. Instead, Snow deploys the gamemakers to devise ever more imaginative (and TV friendly) ways to defend the city from the invading rebel army. This leads to some visually stunning scenes, but the stand-out sequence is a subterranean set-piece that is as tense and exciting as anything you are likely to see this year. Jennifer Lawrence displays Katniss’s archery skills to full effect, in a thrilling ensemble action scene.

The previous film suffered from an obvious fault – it was only part of the story, where not very much happened, and there was very little payoff. The whole thing felt like a preamble towards the next instalment.

But this film is given the chance to explore themes and characters fully. It brings the story to a satisfying conclusion, in a way that is surprising, dramatic, and powerful. Friendships are shattered, and loved ones are lost. For everyone left standing at the end, the world will never be the same.

All is not perfect with this concluding chapter. The story has a clear conclusion, and what follows is a lengthy epilogue that is crying out for a pair of scissors to wrap up the story with the brevity it deserves. It’s not quite Return of the King level, but disappointing all the same. Also, while I’m not familiar with the books, a few of the characters seem to get short shrift in the movie, despite the 2hr+ running time.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last movie

Someone who certainly doesn’t feel absent – but with less do do than previously – is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He died during filming and before his scenes had been completed. I think I spotted a couple of occasions where he may have been digitally inserted into scenes, and there appears to have been one obviously important passage that was rewritten for another actor. But I was on the lookout for these instances and I don’t feel they will distract from the story.

Overall, this is an engaging conclusion to a saga that began with what seemed to be less ambitious aims. The series has cleverly dealt with themes of political manipulation, propaganda, and the damaging effects of war on society. These are all messages that are of great relevance today, and will continue to be so.

The fact that these ideas are dealt with so thoughtfully within an exciting action adventure, that appeals especially to teens, is a great credit to all involved with this – from author Suzanne Collins to the actors and filmmakers. Teens obviously have a natural defiance against authority and the status quo. These stories highlight the positives of that attitude, and how we would all do well to remember that feeling as we move beyond those years.

Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen has inspired a generation of girls

The character of Katniss, and Jennifer Lawrence’s terrific performance, will continue to be a benchmark for female led action adventures. She has inspired a generation of girls to aspire to become confident and proud women, and hopefully educated their male peers to accept this as a reality.

The Hunger Games series has demonstrated once and for all that the time of the female led action adventure is now. That they can be engaging across a series of movies and be hugely popular with audiences, especially if created with integrity, respect, and intelligence like this series.

Fa`mily Fever

Immerse Yourself in Star Wars With This Stormtrooper Homeware Set

Being a fan of something – and showing that fandom – has many outlets these days. As well as toys, there are clothes, accessories, and homewares.

My daughter is easily identifiable as a Star Wars fan, and was lucky enough to be sent this great Stormtrooper set from Character World.

The classic stormtrooper look has always been a favourite of mine, and now it’s one of my daughter’s too. Their distinctive black & white design lends itself well to reproduction, as these items show.

The classic Stormtrooper rug (ok, among other items) has added an eye catching Star Wars look to my daughter’s room.

Vader top, Star Wars skirt, and a lot of Stormtrooper stuff. #starwars #DarthVader #stormtrooper #mysewingcircus

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The trooper cushion has become more of a toy to cuddle, though other times she likes to pretend it’s a mask!

The force is strong in my family….

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The trooper look has been updated for the forthcoming The Force Awakens.

STAR508 AWAKEN SINGLE 91 ROTARY2It is this design that features on the single pillow and duvet set. These new troopers also look pretty good when reproduced, although I think the duvet isn’t as visually striking as the classic trooper items. It is also reversible with a fabric design that matches the pillow on the reverse.

As with many of these things, the stated target market is young boys, but don’t let that make you think for a second that these are not for girls too.

My daughter loves this set, and her favourite is definitely the cushion. As she currently favours the classic Stormtrooper look (that may change once she has a chance to check out the new movie) this was always going to be a hit, plus it’s a good size for her to play with.

She also calls it Stormy (who is a ‘she’ in case you were wondering – take that Captain Phasma).

The use of the stormtrooper design on all these items is nicely realised (although as mentioned I favour old trooper over new). All items are made of artificial materials if that’s something you look out for.

If you like the look of these and you’re feeling lucky, why not enter our giveaway?

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Bedding: RRP £15.99

Cushion: RRP £14.99

Mat: RRP £19.99 

We received all these items free of charge from Character World for the purposes of this review.

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What Stormtrooper / Star Wars homeware items would you like to have in your home? Please comment below.

Is Mr. Mom My Mentor?

I’ve written previously about how I have no problem being called Mr. Mom, the name of the 1983 movie starring Michael Keaton. In short, I find it quite endearing.

In the movie, Keaton plays Jack, an engineer who gets laid off. Struggling to find another job, his previously stay-at-home wife Caroline (Terri Garr) successfully restarts her career. The working dad becomes Mr. Mom.

I have fond memories of the movie, but probably hadn’t seen it since the eighties. Browsing Netflix for something, my wife suggested we watch it. I warned her it was pretty silly, and she probably wouldn’t like it. Well, as it turned out, she didn’t like it and gave up less than halfway through. I stuck with it though.

It was interesting to revisit what was probably my first exposure to a dad staying home with their kids, something I am now doing myself. I was struck that the movie did in fact cover a lot of interesting and relevant themes around the swapping of traditional gender roles in the household.

This is essentially a situation comedy, and for comedic effect Jack doesn’t choose his new role, it is thrust upon him by becoming unemployed. It’s interesting that one of the reasons for the rise of the number of stay-at-home dads is the recession. Many fathers have lost their jobs, while their wives either haven’t or have found work instead (just like Jack and Caroline). These dads may have found themselves taking on a role in the home they never intended to.

Initially our decision for my wife and I to swap at-home and working roles was made because each of us wanted it. When we relocated from NZ back to the UK, my wife landed a great job quickly, while I picked up freelance work here and there. So there is a mirroring of the situation, inasmuch that my wife is more employable than me, and that is one of the reasons I am home with the kid.

I was struck by a scene where Jack goes to see a temp agency, and gets involved in a conversation two other male jobseekers are having. Turns out they are enthusiastically sharing recipes, the implication being that they too are in the same situation as Jack. I’ve had a similar situation – where another dad and I were moaning about laundry. On this occasion, a mum overheard us and sarcastically commented “Well, what a manly conversation you two are having”.

One of the myths of Mr. Mom (as far as I’m concerned) is this – the storyline of a mother trying to seduce Jack. I can reliably report that there hasn’t been a hint of sexual tension in any of the various baby groups, classes, playgroups, etc. that I have attended in my years as a stay-at-home dad. Even if my mother friends and I weren’t all happy in our respective relationships, it strikes me that the life of the lead parent of a baby/toddler is too tiring to go to the effort of having an affair.

But like Jack, I’ve also let my appearance slide while being home. I was never a smart dresser anyway, but now my day-to-day outfits tend to consist of jeans with holes, and old t-shirts and tops. As I have a short window to use the shower before the munchkin gets up, shaving tends to be left to the weekends too. As a happily married man who interacts with mothers with partners most of the week, I’m not trying to impress any of them with how I look.

In the film, Jack ends up forming a fairly close social circle with local mums. Since my first time with the antenatal group, and then befriending local mothers in our new area, I have formed good friendships with mothers. I have never felt awkward in these all female environments, which I must admit surprised me. My wife often reflects on the fact that I know far more mothers in our local area than she does – though they’ll often say hello to her at weekends, because they recognise our daughter.

The way the role change affects the mother also has a lot of truth to it. Working mother guilt is an established societal issue, which my wife is no stranger to. I wouldn’t, however, berate my wife the way Jack does, for all the things she has missed while at work. I know we are very lucky that my she supports us, and I know she feels like she is missing much more than she actually is.

Mr. Mom, Mr. Mum, Michael Keaton, stay at home dads, stay home dad, being a stay at home dad, stay at home dad blog, Stay at home dads are losers
Mr. Mom (1983), Starring Michael Keaton and Terri Garr. Dir: Stan Dragoti

A theme of the film is the style of Jack’s parenting compared to a mother’s. Do dads parent differently than mothers? I don’t know. My fairly relaxed parenting style is shared by a lot of mothers I know too. Like Jack, I have fed my baby (well, toddler) chilli, and while I’ve never dried her bum on a hand-dryer, I have held her over men’s urinals many times. But mothers have told me of instances when their kids have accidentally swigged beer, or they’ve fed them nothing but white toast all day – the kind of things ‘Mr. Mom’ would do too.

Is Mr. Mom My Mentor?

Ultimately, there is something important about Keaton’s portrayal and the way Jack is written. Confidence. Jack acts like he has every right to be there in all these situations, and that’s exactly how stay-at-home dads should be. The movie is only partly about a hapless hopeless stay-at-home dad. He quickly finds his feet, and then owns the role of at-home dad. Many men who have also spent their time working, and less around their kids, may understandably also experience this transition too. Jack may do things a little differently, but not necessarily because he’s a man.

I’m not going to lie to you – the eighties slapstick humour, of which this is full of, falls fairly flat now. Comedies of this era were full of similar gags, and they haven’t aged well. But I’m glad I revisited it.

The film makes a compelling case for the positives of being a stay-at-home dad, or even an engaged dad, and that there’s no rule that dads MUST be the breadwinner of the family. I’m sure that influenced my subsequent thinking. I have no idea why I wanted to become a stay-at-home dad so much. I had no role models in my friends or extended family that have done it.

What I do have is the fond memories of watching this film as a child. Perhaps Mr. Mom planted the seed of an idea to become a stay-at-home dad, that became a reality many years later.

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Curious to watch the movie? Check it out on Netflix.

Disclosure: I am a member of the Netflix #StreamTeam program. Our household receives free Netflix for a year and I post about how our family uses the service.
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TV REVIEW: Does Supergirl Fly?

I don’t know much about the character of Supergirl. She is Superman’s cousin, is blonde, and wears a skirt. We’ve seen a few appearances from her in some animated shows. I toyed with showing my daughter the 1984 Helen Slater movie, but I remember it being terrible.

But Supergirl – as a concept – has been an easy shorthand to help my daughter to engage with superheroes. She is familiar with Superman, mostly from the Donner movies and the 90’s animated series, and the concept of a female version inspires her. If she puts on a cape, her default hero to be is ‘Supergirl’. If she wears a top with the ‘S’ insignia, again she is ‘Supergirl’.

Given this, I was excited by the prospect of a Supergirl TV show, so she could engage with the character directly. When I saw the first photos of Melissa Benoist in character, she certainly looked the part. She also had a warmth to her expression, that went against the prevailing darkness of most superhero adaptations these days. This would hopefully be an uplifting show.

An early trailer left me feeling a little wary, as it was rather close to this viral Black Widow rom-com parody.

This week we finally got to check out the TV show, on Sky 1 in the UK (minor spoilers ahead).

The set up is that the teenage Kara flees the doomed planet of Krypton right behind her baby cousin Kal-El (aka Superman), but as is the way with these things, she arrives long after him – so long that while she hasn’t aged, he is now Superman. She was supposed to protect the baby, but now she is the child who needs his help.

She grows up choosing not to follow him into the heroic business. We find her stuck in a dead end job working for Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart plays her ‘Devil Wears Prada’ like boss Cat Grant). Her life is going nowhere. She seem unfulfilled, until circumstances lead her to use her powers to prevent a plane crashing, and a hero is born.

Much set-up follows, including her costume (trying to justify the short skirt and cape), name (trying to justify the use of ‘girl’ over ‘woman’), and who the villains are (no spoilers).

Being a) the female version of a male hero, and b) being called ‘girl’ means this probably isn’t going to be the definitive strong female superhero many are clamouring for. But despite this I am happy for my daughter to engage with Supergirl (like Batgirl before her) because they can still be excellent, empowering characters when handled right. Plus, my daughter is proud of being a girl, so the name is one she likes.

As this is a primetime US network show, I had no reason to think it wouldn’t be suitable for my 3-year-old daughter to watch with me, and I was right. While there was a little cuddling up to me while Kara faced down the bad guy du jour, this is nothing compared to how upset she gets with other more overtly kiddie fare – such as the scrapyard denouement of Toy Story 3.

Will we be watching more? Absolutely. While the Devil Wears Prada aspect was there, it didn’t dominate. It’s being set-up with potential love interests for Kara, bit that didn’t drive the plot. It passes the Bechedel Test. And the superhero action was for the most part well staged. My daughter likes the character interplay as much as the superheroics, and spent the whole episode engaged and full of questions about the unfolding story.

This was a pilot episode, that had to shoehorn in a lot of exposition and set up. I trust that it’ll settle into a more streamlined show, and even if it doesn’t – showing my daughter a female hero save crashing planes, throw down with a villain, or take out a truck hurtling towards her, is enough for me. And probably for her too…

This kid. So awesome. 😀

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Star Wars Rebels – A Girl Friendly Galaxy Far, Far Away….

Female characters used to be a rare occurrence in Star Wars. In the original trilogy there was Princess Leia of course, but the likes of Aunt Beru and her blue milk, Mon Mothma mourning her Bothan spies, and… um, oh Toryn Farr who fired the Ion Cannon on Hoth, made fleeting appearances. It wasn’t too much better in the prequels.

Happily, things are different now. While we wait to see just how The Force Awakens treats its female characters (the signs so far are good), it’s worth taking a look at Star Wars Rebels (the first season of which is now out to buy on Blu-ray and DVD)  – the first major Star Wars project since Disney’s Lucasfilm acquisition in 2012.

The series is set around four years prior to Star Wars (A New Hope), and charts the rise of the Rebellion against the Empire – the conflict that drove the narrative of the original trilogy. For fans of the original movies, it’s nice that this show features the Empire and all their familiar trappings, from Stormtroopers to Tie-Fighters.

I first caught this show when it aired on DisneyXD last year. As a parent looking for alternative female cartoon characters for my daughter to engage with – rather than the usual princesses and fairies – this was great one to watch. The fact I was a Star Wars fan looking for new ways to introduce his daughter to the galaxy far, far away… well, that didn’t hurt either.

I was worried that Star Wars was going to be defined by Disney as a boys brand, so I was delighted to see Rebels had such prominent female characters.

Of the featured women, first up we have Captain Hera, the pilot.

Her role in the group is significant as female pilots were scarce in the movies – good luck finding a one in the original trilogy (although there were some minor character ones in the prequels).

So for Star Wars Rebels to have a woman in charge of their ship the Ghost is a decent step forward.

Next up there’s Sabine Wren, an explosives expert and street artist.

Initially described by my daughter as that “pink Boba Fett Lady”, I must admit I was unsure about her at first. However, she has become a firm favourite with both of us – and my daughter couldn’t wait to get a toy version of her.

"Daddy, can I buy this please?!" #SabineWren #StarWarsRebels

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We were lucky to receive a LEGO minifigure too.

Sabines on toast. #sorrynotsorry

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There are also a few other notable female characters in the show. An interesting one for me was that of Maketh Tua, an Imperial Governor. One thing your never saw in the movies were any women in the Empire. I’m glad to see this has changed – both here and the forthcoming The Force Awakens.

The creative force behind the series is Dave Filoni, who was also responsible for the previous Star Wars cartoon, the highly regarded The Clone Wars. That was a show I had previously ignored, and boy was I wrong about that (If you haven’t already seen it I urge to to get the five series Blu-ray boxset now!). It has kickass female characters galore – including Star Wars fangirl icon Ahsoka Tano.

The Disney made Star Wars Rebels skews younger than that cartoon, but has a similar style of animation and thankfully displays the same commitment to portraying strong female characters at the centre of the action.

While Rebels is populated with mostly new characters, a few familiar faces do turn up – such as an episode with Lando Carlissian, voiced by Billy Dee Williams. This is my daughter’s favourite, as she has a bit of a soft spot for Lando.

Some other well known characters make an appearance too, but that would be spoiling things.

Things are not perfect with Star Wars Rebels. The show still centers on two male characters, and the initial wave of merchandise omitted the female characters entirely (which thankfully now appears to have been rectified with most licensees).

But the show is a good entry point for young girls and boys into the world of Star Wars, and a great way for fan parents to share their love of Star Wars with their kids. Series two has just started airing, and has added even more female characters to the cast.

How much of this ties into The Force Awakens remains to be seen. We also have the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to look forward to after that. It’s set in a similar (Pre-Star Wars) era to Rebels, and has a female lead (played by British actor Felicity Jones). Perhaps there might be some crossover there?

In the meantime, enjoy the gender neutral space battles, lightsaber duels, and the unfolding drama of the beginning of the rebellion against the galactic Empire in this pleasingly exciting and inclusive series.

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You can purchase Star Wars Rebels: The Complete Series One from Amazon on Blu-ray and DVD.

Star Wars © & TM Lucasfilm Ltd.

Family Fever