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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1 (2014): Written by Danny Strong and Peter Craig, directed by Francis Lawrence.  Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, and, of course, Donald “I sell this better than any of you mofos” Sutherland.  Running Time: 123 minutes.  Based on the third book of The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. 

Rating: 3/4

            I am as skeptical as anyone regarding the newfound trend of splitting up the final volumes of definitive Children’s/Young Adult literature series when they are made into film form.  Not that the result has always been bad!  The Deathly Hallows Part 1, the first Harry Potter film since Chamber of Secrets not choked to the gills with plot ended up being probably my second-favorite of the entire franchise (Sorcerer’s Stone will always, ALWAYS come first).  What makes it hard to swallow is that it is always painfully obvious the decision to do so has nothing to do whatsoever with an artistic desire to be able to translate the source materials as accurately as possible- the studios just want more money.  But again, this does not necessarily make the resulting films bad; in fact, I consider Mockingjay Part 1 to be the best Hunger Games film yet. 

            I was especially pleased to see the films continue to slowly but surely expand the scope of the story and action, much as they did with last year’s Catching Fire.  After being rescued from the arena at the end of the last movie, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, if you have somehow contrived to remain oblivious to this fact) was informed by Jacob (sorry, Gale, my bad) that District 12 had been completely annihilated; a return visit to her hometown later on includes some of the most gruesome imagery I’ve ever seen in a PG-13 film, once again raising very fair questions about why we continue to hold on to such an archaic system. 

            But I digress.  She and the others who were saved have been taken to District 13, which they thought had been wiped out by the Capital long ago.  Instead, it turns out that they have been hiding in a series of deep bunkers that allow them to hold off against the worst the Capital can throw at them, where they have also stockpiled a decent amount of weaponry that allows them to defend themselves, but is not enough for them to take on the Capital alone.  That has all changed since Katniss’ public persona of the Mockingjay started to really take off in the different districts, leading to one protest and open rebellion after another.  The leaders of District 13, President Alma Coin and her chief strategist Plutarch Heavensbee (Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman), see this as their chance to seize the initiative and finally topple the Capital, and after a bit of haggling are able to agree with Katniss to terms whereby she will agree to work as their poster child to inspire the Districts. 

            Something that I heartily enjoy about this franchise (and thankfully the films have improved in this regard as well) is how the usual action tropes regarding heroes, villains, and story twists are all subjected to the iron laws of reality TV, namely that perception is everything.  Every move the characters make is calculated to appeal to a wider audience, including several speeches offered by President Coin to the highly-regimented denizens of 13.  One of my favorite shots of the movie shows Plutarch mouthing the words of a speech that he clearly wrote himself in perfect time with Coin’s delivery.  A major part of the climax at the end hinges on a broadcast meant to be so fascinating in its implications it will distract the Capital from noticing a raid to rescue several of the victors from the last movie that were captured by the Capital after Plutarch made off with Katniss, including definitely-not-a-love-interest-oh-who-are-we-kidding Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, who over the course of the film completes his physical transformation into an even thinner version of Neil Patrick Harris, minus the charisma and singing chops. 

            It’s no psychology thesis, but the elements at play of how having to act for cameras almost nonstop can wreak havoc on your mental health and stability are great to see in a franchise aimed at teens.  I have lamented in the past that most of Jennifer Lawrence’s past film choices (including the first two films of this franchise) have done a poor job of tapping into her considerable acting skills (and yes, I am including her still-incredibly-baffling Oscar win), but at this point she really seems to have found a good balance with Katniss, and has grown into the character well.  That said, there is a hilarious scene where she (Katniss the character, that is) tries to act in a studio ad for 13’s PR team, and the result is an unholy fusion of her miscast performances in each of David Russell’s last two films. 

            This is a much slower and less active film than the first two (again, very much like Deathly Hallows Part 1), since it’s really just moving the major pieces into place for the INSANE stuff that goes down in the final battle (seriously, the books go to a very dark place here, and I am praying the movie producers don’t chicken out).  It’s real focus is on the PR war being waged between the Capital and the rebellion to win the hearts and minds of all the districts in between, with the rebels utilizing Katniss, who soon develops an ability to come up with perfect propaganda moments without even needing to try when she’s in the right setting, and the Capital using an obviously-tortured Peeta-as-Barney to plead with the rebels to surrender. 

            These developments, along with a major plot twist right before the end, all fuel Katniss’ continuing mental breakdown, something Jennifer has been doing an increasingly better job of bringing across.  I love how the first shot we have of our hero is of her having a massive panic attack and being forced to return to her quarters.  We have so many action movies that show off their heroes as totally cool badasses who can kick ass, take names, and carry on after the final boss has fallen as if nothing ever happened, when in reality, anyone who would actually do things like that would sooner or later end up like Katniss; whimpering on the floor of a medical facility. 

            I am on the fence about Julianne Moore as Coin at the moment; my thoughts about her character won’t yet be finished until I can see whether or not the filmmakers really do take the gutsy route with the finale (readers of the book know what I mean).  The same must be said regarding the others as well.  Katniss’ family barely registers, Gale and Peeta continue to compete for who can have the least amount of physical charisma when the cameras are rolling, and out of a team of filmmakers brought in to capture Katniss at her best, the only memorable one is the cameraman incapable of speaking (go figure, I guess?). 

            The lone exceptions to this are Donald Sutherland’s deliciously evil President Snow and, of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch.  After his death, I revisited my review of Catching Fire, and recalled being disappointed in his seeming utter lack of energy in the film.  I don’t know if that was connected to the increasing struggles that led to his death.  Maybe it was, or maybe it was something unrelated, but it seems he was able to shake it off for this one, because here he once again manages to take a character that in less-capable hands would be a total write-off and turn him into a sideshow all his own, never less than interesting to watch.  As the credits roll, we see a dedication to him, one that I hope they include in the final one as well (they were apparently finished with all but a single scene of his at the time of his death).  It is one final great performance from a master, and makes his passing even harder to bear. 

            The show must go on, of course, and the film rolls to a decent conclusion, but one that ultimately undercuts itself enough that I once again don’t feel comfortable labeling this a legitimately great film- it’s just a very good one.  There are reasons for this- some stilted acting, and a few very awkward directorial choices, including the fact that every speech of Coin’s ends with the citizens of 13 hooting like tailgaters at a football game.  But the saddest part is how the plot twist mentioned above also undermines it, mostly because the director decided that the film should just keep going for a bit afterwards.  If they had ended it at the twist, it would have been one of the ballsiest decisions of the year, leaving people furiously chomping at the bit for the final installment.  I understand why they did it- they choose instead to end on an image that is well-done and effecting on its own, but it inevitably pales in comparison to what just recently transpired, leaving things feeling a touch too safe by the time the credits roll. 

            But no matter.  This franchise keeps getting better with each film, and I am very much looking forward to next year’s big finale.  Here’s hoping they send Katniss out proper.  And maybe use some of this film’s massive profits to buy her boyfriends some Red Bull. 

-Noah Franc 

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