Review of “The Forest”

Being released in January is usually not a good sign for anything other than children’s movies. Early January and late August are often dumping grounds for movies the studios don’t believe have much potential for great critical or box office success. Naturally, this doesn’t apply for films that got limited releases in December to qualify for awards season then go wide after the first of the year like “The Revenant” and “The Hateful Eight.” One of this year’s orphans dumped at the doorstep of the New Year is “The Forest,” a low-budget horror flick starring Natalie Dormer from “The Hunger Games” series and “Game of Thrones.” A horror movie released two weeks after Christmas is Hollywood’s version of tossing a towel into the boxing ring when that corner’s fighter is hopelessly outmatched. Does “The Forest” stand a punchers chance?

Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) is concerned when she is informed by Japanese authorities her identical twin sister Jess, teaching English to students at a school in Tokyo, has gone into the Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mt. Fuji and has not been seen in a couple of days. Aokigahara is known as a place where people go to commit suicide. Sara believes Jess is still alive because she can still feel her presence. She describes it as a sound too low to hear but she still is aware of it. The girls were raised by their grandmother after the tragic deaths of their parents in an auto accident. Sara flies to Japan and goes to the forest to look for Jess. The night before she begins her search, Sara meets travel journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney) in the hotel bar. Aiden knows of a park worker named Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) who looks for people who have either committed suicide in the forest or are camping and still considering it. Aiden contacts Michi and he agrees to guide Sara through the forest to look for Jess. Aiden will come along as he plans on writing a story about the sisters for his magazine. Michi warns Sara the forest is filled with yurei or angry spirits. They prey upon the fears and sadness of the living and she should remember anything out of the ordinary she sees is in her head. Sara believes it’s all just superstition but soon begins experiencing strange occurrences.

The first of the film’s many sins is it isn’t very scary. While there are a couple of jump scares scattered throughout the film’s 90 minute or so running time they are few and far between. Director Jason Zada is capable of creating some spooky, dimly lit settings, allowing the building of music and the clichéd rumblings, rustlings, scratches and bumps of natural sound to pile onto each other until we are given a mild “Boo” and the letdown of knowing more underwhelming scares are likely to follow. Watching the film, one might think we are being lulled into a false sense of mundanity and will be blasted with the scariest scare to ever have appeared on film. Sadly, that theory is shot down as the movie lurches to its conclusion.

It wouldn’t be giving much away to say the story depends on Natalie Dormer’s Sara giving in to the paranoia and fear the forest is generating; however, the writers can’t seem to make up their minds about the various obstacles thrown in Sara’s way. The movie has the feel of one that was rewritten while on set with ideas thrown out and then shot based on what settings the crew could create. This makes the movie somewhat jerky with sections feeling like filler and not providing much to the story. There are also story elements that feel somewhat unnecessary and poorly thought out. Without giving too much away, a character suddenly appears providing tons of information Sara accepts without question. Granted Sara is desperate by this point and willing to believe anyone claiming to have information about Jess but a little critical thinking and skepticism from Sara could have opened up whole other avenues for possible frightening events. Instead, we are given a character so beaten down by her fear and sadness she is willing to accept any positive information as fact. The female character is easily misled while the male character keeps his cool and doesn’t appear susceptible to the pressures of the situation. It smells a bit stereotypical in its depiction of men and women.

Natalie Dormer is very good in the dual role of Sara and Jess. Despite being surrounded by a less than great movie, Dormer is convincing and sympathetic as Sara. We want the pair to be reunited so they can try to live the happy life the tragedy of their childhood seemed to take away from them. Taylor Kinney has the thankless job of trying to be the voice of reason and calm in a situation that is adverse to both. While his character is written a bit bland, Kinney is a likable presence on screen. We’re never quite sure what his true motivations are for helping Sara, but Aiden never appears to be a villain or using Sara for his own gain despite initially hitting on her in the hotel bar. I suppose Aiden is supposed to be the anchor to reality of Sara as she travels through this forest of despair. Again, it smacks of sexism in the portrayal of the characters but that isn’t the fault of the actors.

“The Forest” is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and images. There are images of dead bodies both on slabs and hanging from a tree. There are some bloody injuries depicted with one showing maggots in a wound. There are also images of a murder/suicide as well as discussion of suicide. Foul language is scattered and mild.

While some don’t understand it, I love a good scary movie. The tingle of anticipation running up my spine as a character investigates a strange noise down a dark hallway and the sudden release of adrenaline as the ghost/monster/psychopath jumps out and attacks makes me feel alive! I relish those times in a darkened theatre with a packed house or a precious few waiting for the next explosion of fear and the equally strong wave of relief as I tell myself it’s just a movie. Unfortunately, “The Forest” didn’t fill me with either dread or joy as the images flickered on the screen. All I felt was a bit of boredom and a longing for the credits to start rolling so I could move on with my day. That is just about the opposite of how a horror/thriller should make you feel.

“The Forest” gets two stars out of five.

Three new movies hope to scare up some business this week. I’ll see and review at least one of them.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi—

Norm of the North—

Ride Along 2—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Following the near fatal attack by Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is shaken that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has somehow hijacked her friend and lover from the 74th Hunger Games and turned him into an assassin with her as his only target. Katniss’ concern for Peeta complicates her relationship with Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). Leader of the resistance Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) wants to use the Mockingjay as a propaganda tool to encourage others to join their cause and keep Katniss off the front lines but her anger at Snow for what was done to Peeta makes Katniss find a way to be a part of the assault force that is moving through the Capital. Their journey through the deserted street is complicated by a series of booby traps set up by the game designers.

I wasn’t a fan of the first “Hunger Games” movie. The whole concept of the poor and oppressed fighting to the death for the entertainment of the rich and powerful left a bad taste in my mouth and a less than favorable opinion of the series in general. Of course, one needs only a tiny bit of historical knowledge to see the parallels to ancient Rome and the gladiators of the coliseum with the “Hunger Games” series of novels and movies. Some could argue the same thing happens today with politicians pitting their constituents against the supports of the rival party. The whole thing is a very dark and depressing look at what can happen when power and revenge run amuck. The second film in the series won me back as the oppressed begin to fight back and the third film sets up what is the final push to the Capital and the fourth movie pays off everything that has come before with a few surprises thrown in. Does it end the franchise in grand style or do the characters and story limp to the finish line?

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” is a mixed bag with a tone as dark and depressing as the first film. Characters die, Katniss starts injured and gets more injured along the way, things become bleak then bleaker and lovers are tested. What few moments of happiness are shown are quickly ground into the dirt. It makes one question which would be worse: Losing the war or winning it?

Jennifer Lawrence continues her great work as Katniss. The character’s spirit, determination and bravery are tested by the trials forced upon her by the machinations of both President Snow and Alma Coin. Lawrence is able to breathe some life into a sad character in a dour situation. While the entire situation stretches credibility, Lawrence is able to keep the character grounded and believable. Her work as Katniss Everdeen will likely not win her any major acting awards but it is something of which she can be proud.

The rest of the cast is largely window dressing as nobody is on screen for any significant amount of time; however a couple of performances do deserve some praise. Liam Hemsworth gives a strong performance as Gale. His heartbreak at Katniss’ interest in Peeta’s recovery from brainwashing is etched onto his face. One of his scenes late in the movie (no spoilers) is brief but devastating. Josh Hutcherson is allowed to stretch and be more than “the other guy.” The pain and confusion caused by the mind games played by Snow on him leads to some surprises along the way. Hutcherson has been a part of the films since he was in his late teens. His growth as an actor is clear and this might be considered something of a graduation.

While I enjoyed the film and the performances there were a few things that troubled me. First, the film feels all of its 136 minute running time. With all the effort to give attention to the emotional parts of the story along with the action, there are times when the film seems to come to a complete halt. All narrative momentum is sacrificed so the audience can experience the feels. It seemed forced and an effort to play to the fans of the books instead of the fans of the movies.

It’s time once again for “Thinking about the Details Too Much.” There have been some nagging questions about the logistics of how the world of “The Hunger Games” works that really came to the forefront in this film. First, where do the rebels get all the fuel they need to fly their planes and drive their trucks? I know there was a cache of weapons and equipment they captured earlier but fuel is something that is very difficult to produce in a way that isn’t vulnerable to attack. How they get their food is also something that confuses me. With the disruptions caused by the rebellion, it seems like no one in Panem would be working to make food that might fall in the hands of either side. Perhaps there are stores of rations saved up for emergencies but that wouldn’t last very long in an ongoing war and would also be a target for attack. And that concludes “Thinking about the Details Too Much.” Thanks for listening.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for some thematic material. There are numerous battles between armed groups. We see one person killed by a landmine. Another couple is killed in various ways by booby traps. There is another death caused by poison and a character is shown coughing up blood. Katniss kills a couple of people with arrows. Various explosions cause more death. There is no gore. We see some of the injuries sustained by Katniss mostly consisting of bruises on her neck and her ribs. I’m not sure what the reference to “thematic material” is other than a character is disfigured after disappointing a person in power.

Some might consider “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” to be more of the same: Characters pitted against a powerful government with only their determination and imagination to help them. That is largely correct; however, this final entry into “The Hunger Games” film series is consistent in tone and style and manages to wrap up the story in an exciting, entertaining but still dark way. While it is probably about 15 minutes too long, fans of the books and the movies should find this a satisfying conclusion.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” gets four stars out of five.

The Thanksgiving holiday means a midweek release of three new films. I’ll see and review at least one of them.

Creed—

The Good Dinosaur—

Victor Frankenstein—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.