Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

December 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (PG-13)

Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay 2

“The bakery didn’t survive.” It was alive once? #LivingBakery
Sorry, couldn’t resist. Precision of language, folks.

Gale complains about #Katniss’ distracted kiss. I personally wouldn’t mind what she was thinking about.

The rebels crack the #Nut, much to #Katniss’ disapproval.
The beginning of the schism between Katniss and Gale.

“Turn your weapons to Snow.” #MeltingGun
A little play on words there. Reminds me of Duck Dodgers’ Disintegration Pistol which would…disintegrate. #LooneyTunes.

#PeetasPearl The ember remains.
Is this, in a symbolic sense, Peeta’s pearl of great price? #Bible

“She’s mythic.” #Katniss
Shouldn’t that be mythical?

“History doesn’t stop to celebrate.” Does it stop to mourn?
We do every year on September 11th and December 7th.

#StarSquad Say cheese!
There’s a whole section of the book where Katniss has to do extensive training in order to join the team. Sadly, none of those scenes appear in the movie.

Beware of #Pods. #
In that 50s sci-fi movie they were called pod plants, but close enough.

#Peeta the #CapitolMutt.
Snow does have him trained pretty well.

Peeta is a baker. So was the #ApostlePaul. #PeetaAndPaul
Before you brand me as a heretic, know that this is a witticism, courtesy of Bob Phillips. Paul was actually a tentmaker, but the joke maintains that he was a baker because he went to Philippi (Fill A Pie). #PewHumor.

#InkFlood Yick!
It’s later established that this is oil, which leads to the next tweet. I’m sure the oil was all CGI, but in the olden days the oil would be composed of printer’s ink and Metamucil or some other thickener. Reference Star Trek: The Next Generations’ “Skin of Evil.”

Apparently the Capitol has plenty of oil to waste.
I guess it’s Holo-Oil, created by the Gamemakers, but still.

“A face plucked from the masses.” #Katniss
Interesting word choice since Snow frequently plucks roses from his garden.

Coin cuts in on Snow. How wud!
No, they don’t dance together in the movie. That would be creepy.

Rest in a sewer? Don’t know that I could.
Unless I had nose plugs.

There’s a sound in the sewer tunnel. Must be #Gollum creeping about.
More appropriately, “sneaking.”

These #SewerZombies are fast.
Kind of like the speedy zombies in I Am Legend (2007) or World War Z (2013).

#Tigress is on loan to #Panem from the #
Correction: Tigress is from Kung Fu Panda, Tygra is from the Thundercats.

“They chose you.” Then they chose death.
The price of freedom.

Snow’s “our way of life” speech is frighteningly relevant to current events.
But in reverse with ISIS being cast in the role of the rebels. Although with all of the corruption in the U.S. government…

#ParachuteBombs Once a symbol of hope, now an instrument of death.
Color me cynical, but I wouldn’t be anywhere near one of those parachutes when it landed.

How many times does #Katniss end up in a hospital in this movie? #CharredMockingjay
I think I counted three visits to the hospital. This story device, which is presumably designed to produce pathos in the viewer, gets worn out from overuse.

“These things happen in war.” Especially when Snow’s finger is on the button.

A symbolic Hunger Games? Have we learned nothing?
Coin signs her own death warrant at this point.

 Snow’s can hear a Coin drop.

“GET OUT!!!” Poor cat’s gonna have #PTSD.
Although, I’ve never seen a cat just sit there when objects are hurled at it.

“No one ever wins the games.” Not even the #Victors.
Especially not the winners, because they have to live with the guilt from all the people they’ve had to kill in order to survive.

“Much worse games to play.” #Katniss has different arrows in her quiver now.
This world stands in stark contrast to the bombed out dystopia featured throughout the series. These scenes seem to suggest that there’s hope for humanity. #HappyEnding.

Final analysis: an adequate, if not spectacular, series capper.

The first two were really good, the last two were mediocre. Should’ve been a trilogy.
It’s a shame that The Hunger Games ended up as an average movie series since it had such potential to be great.

2 1/2 out of 4. The perfunctory plot and lack of action make this an unsatisfactory conclusion.

The trend where the final book of a series is turned into two movies needs to take one of Katniss’ arrows straight through the heart.  Instigated by the Twilight and Harry Potter (and later by The Hobbit, which is three movies for one book) franchises, the end result in each case has been a weak and watered down conclusion.  Obviously the rationale for milking more movies out of a book series is financially motivated, but any art extracted from the source material is suffering at the hand of avarice in these four movie trilogies.  Mockingjay 1 was a middling effort that merely set the table for this series finale.  Maybe it’s due to that weak lead-in, but this final Hunger Games film is a drab, lackluster affair, with a dearth of action sequences, insipid character scenes and a ho-hum resolution.  It’s a shame that Jennifer Lawrence’s considerable talents were wasted on this uninspired rendering of Suzanne Collins’ novel.  Other A-listers were also underserved here: Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci have maybe a half dozen scenes between them. Also, Donald Sutherland (President Snow) and Julianne Moore (President Coin), as post-apocalyptic power brokers on opposing sides of a coup, do their utmost to animate their cardboard characters, but unfortunately even fine acting can’t elevate the movie’s mediocre writing. It’s truly sad that this underachieving effort will go down as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final film credit.  With all the quality work he did before his untimely passing in early 2014, it’s a shame that this film will be his last impression on future audiences.  Additionally, how ironic is it that Hoffman’s acting career, which was largely devoted to independent and arthouse pictures, should culminate with a commercial blockbuster and that today’s youth will probably only remember him as Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games films? As for the story, everything feels rushed, expedient and contrived in Peter Craig and Danny Strong’s screenplay.  When the Nut is blasted by the rebels, we see the explosions over Katniss’ shoulder off in the distance while she’s in the middle of an important conversation.  Here was an opportunity to create a really amazing action scene but it’s thrown away as a non-event, and worse still, upstaged by chatting characters. It’s bitterly ironic that even though there are plenty of character moments in the film, there’s very little characterization…an important distinction. We lost some good character interactions during the training sequences, which failed to appear in the movie, presumably because they would’ve taken up too much screen time. The simmering love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (which is an obvious echo of the Bella, Edward and Jacob triad from the Twilight series) comes to a full boil in this movie, but oddly, Katniss’ conflicted choice is made academic by the poor decision of one of her suitors.  Her selection is made in an instant, which cheapens the moment and is a severe letdown after the buildup over the last three movies.  Like the previous films, the final chapter of The Hunger Games flirts with a message, but doesn’t really deliver on the promise of a well considered, dystopian cautionary tale.  The perfunctory plot (which hews too closely to Collins’ novel) takes us on an expected journey to a predictable final confrontation and a standard, even passé, resolution.  The movie’s Jane Austen style ending will likely leave some spectators bewildered and others angered. This bucolic dénouement was a gutsy choice and even though I’m not averse to it personally, I can see where others might take issue with it or outright mock it.  So, is this film worthwhile?  Depends on how you like your entertainment.  For me, the movie left me hungry for a more substantial and meaningful final act to an otherwise entertaining series. 

Creed (PG-13)

Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

No. But it is your uncle’s Rocky movie.

Adonis, son of Apollo, fights all the time. #FamilyBusiness
Adonis’ son will be named Agamemnon.

#CreedMansion Movin on up!
This cements the movie’s rags to riches theme.

Fighting without head gear. Duuumb!
Fighting in general…duuuumb. Or at lest tha the wey it meks ya.

“Time takes everybody’s undefeated.” #Rocky
The first great line in the movie and a glimpse of the quality writing to come.

A “self taught” boxer. Good luck with that.
I once read a book about how to become an astronaut. Does that qualify me to go into space?

“What cloud?” Hilarious!
Generation gap.

Old school training. #SlowChickens
A really funny scene that hearkens back to Rocky’s training in Rocky II (1979).

The #ToughestOpponent scene is a nice moment. #ManInTheMirror
This scene underscores the commonly held view that a big part of boxing is psychological.

“Without the name there’s no fight.”
A line that exposes the dark underbelly of boxing…that it’s all about the money.

Adonis is afraid of being the “Fake Creed.”
His opponent, Conlan (Tony Bellew), later calls him a “False Creed.” This strikes at the heart of Adonis’ identity crisis.

Don’t call him “Baby Creed.”
It doesn’t take much to push an angry person over the edge.

“If I fight, you fight.” Yeah!
The line was telegraphed by earlier statements, but it still works.

Creed trunks. Special moment.
The best of both names. A key moment in Adonis accepting who he is and finding his true identity. And not a moment too soon.

“Can he fight?” #LetsGetReadyToRumble
Nice to see legendary ring announcer, Michael Buffer, in the movie. Adds a nice note of authenticity.

“Proud to be a Creed.”
He’s proud to be an American too…just take a look at those trunks.

Final analysis: a meaningful sequel that moves the franchise forward in a bold new direction.
You’ve got to tip your hat to Stallone, who keeps finding new ways to move his franchise forward.

3 out of 4 stars. Superb performances by Jordan and Stallone. The best #Rocky movie that isn’t.

The seventh film in the franchise is actually the first with Creed in the title. As you’ll recall from the first four Rocky films, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) was Rocky’s nemesis turned friend, who met an untimely end in Rocky IV (1985). In the early goings of this film, we learn that Apollo had an illegitimate son named Adonis. Adonis is filled with anger over being raised in a foster home, and over never having met his father, and learns how to brawl at a young age. The adult Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) channels his aggression into boxing, which leads him to discover the identity of his deceased progenitor, which eventually leads him to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). Initially reticent to get involved, Rocky finally agrees to become Adonis’ trainer, and you can guess where the film goes from here…for the most part. As an origins tale for Adonis, the movie’s rags to riches theme is in full force along with the master/pupil story element that worked so well in the first two Rocky movies with Burgess Meredith’s Mighty Mick. While Jordan’s characterization of Adonis isn’t overly complex, the physically demanding portrayal of Adonis, like Stallone’s punishing performances in his Rocky movies, is to be commended. The movie is all about self-discovery, the courage to keep fighting no matter what, the necessity of having family in your life (whether biological or not) and to always wear head gear when sparring (okay, so that’s not really one of the movie’s themes, but it is an important safety tip). Other than Adonis’ mother’s (Phylicia Rashad) mansion and his boxing trunks, there really isn’t anything glamorous about the film, which is actually a boon. The gritty look and feel of the film, and its inner city locations, resembles the original rather than the many sequels. Despite its fine production, clever premise and raw performances, the story line is fairly uncomplicated and is riddled with boxing movie tropes, i.e., the main character’s rough upbringing, an older/wiser mentor, training sequences/montages, key fight as the climactic event, etc. The twist on the formula is that Adonis is struggling to find his identity in the shadow of his father’s brilliant career. There are some really good character moments in the film, like Rocky’s “toughest opponent” training exercise and the “If I fight, you fight” scene where pupil challenges teacher. The motivational sayings are laid on pretty thick in the movie, which will be inspiring for some and annoying to others. Other than its sound bite dialog, predictable plot, stiff acting by Stallone (which actually fits his character this time around) and oversimplified story, there’s little else to critique here. The movie represents a changing of the guard: Rocky (finally) hangs up his boxing gloves and takes a young fighter under his wing. This symbolic transference of the mantle is nowhere more powerful and painful than in the final sequence, where Rocky struggles to climb the steps that he triumphantly vaulted in the first Rocky film. It’s a bittersweet and uber-nostalgic moment that’s also an extremely effective means of showing Rocky’s entire arc from young fighter to old trainer. The scene is ineffably poignant. So, with the baton securely passed from Rocky to Adonis, will there be a Creed 2? And if so, will Stallone be in it? Something tells me Stallone will appear in these films as long as he’s physically able to amble onto a movie set. Even if you aren’t a fan of his acting, you can’t take away the fact that Stallone is absolutely brilliant at finding new ways to keep his franchise pounding away at that side of beef.

Trumbo (R)

Directed by: Jay Roach
Starring: Bryan Cranston
November 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Love the jazz score for the opener.
The infectiously upbeat music not only sets the tone for the film, it perfectly characterizes Trumbo’s unflagging energy and ambition.

“What writers write, builders build.” #PicketLine
This is an important reminder that no film would ever be produced without an army of people behind the scenes who build and create everything seen onscreen.

Post-movie shower. Sad.
Throwing a cup of water at someone was enough to make a point back in the 50s. Today they just shoot someone they disagree with. Tragic.

“We both have the right to be wrong.”
Trumbo was attempting to take the high road, but his strategy backfired since the person he was addressing had an extreme point of view. There’s nothing more dangerous that someone who knows they’re right.

Trumbo meets the Duke...and promptly insults him on where he was stationed during the war. #Ballsy
A really good scene, but I just couldn’t buy David James Elliott as John Wayne. But really, who else could they have cast in the part? Love him or hate him, the Duke was a true original.

Putting Communists in internment camps. Yikes!
I’m definitely not pro-Communist, but herding people like cattle into camps is morally reprehensible. We need look no further than Nazi concentration camps or US internment camps for Japanese Americans for examples of these atrocities.

Plan implodes when justice dies. Off to the pokey.
“The best laid plans…”

“Spread your cheeks.” How undignified.
Especially for an Academy award winning screenwriter.

“The luckiest unlucky man.” Touching and well written letter.

“No, you don’t want my name on it.” Ha!
Emphasis on the “you.” Having already been blacklisted and imprisoned, it made sense that Trumbo would use a pseudonym when trying to reestablish a career in the industry. While on the subject, many female writers also broke into the industry during this period by using pen names.

“The Alien and the Farm Girl.” Lesson: don’t mix political commentary with schlock.

Too busy for birthday cake. Sad. #SweetSixteen
Amazing how quickly people’s priorities can change. When Trumbo was in prison, his family was his main focus…at this point in his life it’s his work.

Who is Robert Rich? #
The story that kept nagging Trumbo over the years ends up becoming and Oscar winning screenplay. Just goes to show that it’s always best to write from the heart.

“It simply lacks genius.” Preminger was a tough customer.
But he was just as tough on actors, so there’s something to be said for his consistency.

Academy awards: 2. Yes!
Those who have an overdeveloped sense of justice, like me, will revel in this scene.

The scene where Trumbo’s screen credit is reflected on his glasses is absolutely brilliant.
Ingenious cinematography and inspired acting.

“It was a time of fear and no one was exempt.” #Blacklist
No one was exempt because this was such a polarizing issue. There really was no middle ground.

Final analysis: a timely true story of one man’s plight during a dark chapter in American history.
This film is timely because of what’s going on in the world at present. How will we treat the Syrian refugees when they arrive in our country? How will we treat Muslims in light of the recent terror attacks in Paris?

3 1/2 out of 4. Rich in historical detail and social relevance with a towering performance by Cranston.

As a huge fan of Spartacus (1960), I’m very familiar with the name Dalton Trumbo and of his plight during Hollywood’s blacklist phase. However, even with a previous knowledge of his story (anecdotally, at least), there were many aspects of Trumbo’s life and career that I was completely unaware of, like his penchant for writing in the bathtub. Trumbo effectively melds disparate narrative elements—a socially conscious biopic, an enthralling character study, a bittersweet dramedy and an accurate, if abridged, survey of film history—into a cohesive edutainment. As such, there’s something here for everyone. The movie’s big draw, of course, is Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, who is utterly spellbinding as the titular script writer. Like a virtuoso pianist, Cranston hits every note with precision and acumen and mesmerizes with a performance so unique and veracious that at times the line between character and actor is exceedingly blurred. I can gush about Cranston’s portrayal of the eccentric writer for the rest of this review, but in all fairness, the supporting players are dazzling in this picture as well. First of all, Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) is exceptional as Edward G. Robinson. Though he doesn’t quite favor the diminutive actor, Stuhlbarg makes the part his own without trying too hard to provide a perfect portrait of the Classic Hollywood mainstay. On the flip side of the coin is David James Elliott, whose depiction of John Wayne is, ironically, more wooden than any part the Duke ever played. However, is it really possible for any actor to accurately dramatize Wayne since he was a walking caricature? Although Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Roger Bart, Elle Fanning and John Goodman are all superb in their roles, honorable mention goes to Louis C.K. as Trumbo’s writer friend Arlen Hird and Helen Mirren as the Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper. John McNamara’s (Aquarius) script is witty and nuanced and delicately negotiates some rather turbulent political terrain. At its core, this movie is about courage and cowardice. Trumbo goes to jail for his convictions. Both actor Kirk Douglas and director Otto Preminger fight for Trumo’s name to appear in Spartacus and Exodus, respectively. Standing in stark contrast to the courageous actions of these men are individuals who named names in order to save their own skins, like Robinson. Ironically, as the film aptly depicts, many of the finger pointers also suffered career setbacks due to the very suspicion of their involvement with the Communist party. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) has delivered a conscientious film that, in addition to showcasing the authentic details of the milieu, also captures the moods and attitudes of proponents on both sides of the politically charged issue at the heart of the movie. Inserting the film’s actors into archival footage via CGI, a la Forrest Gump (1994), is yet another of the film’s many masterstrokes. The way I see it, a movie that educates while it entertains is a double whammy winner. And if it also happens to have a message, so much the better. Topical and timely, this film is not to be missed.