Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I
Directed by: Francis Lawrence.
Written by: Peter Craig and Danny Strong and Suzanne Collins based on the novel by Collins.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Julianne Moore (President Alma Coin), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Mahershala Ali (Boggs), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee), Paula Malcomson (Katniss' Mother), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Natalie Dormer (Cressida), Evan Ross (Messalla), Elden Henson (Pollux), Wes Chatham (Castor), Sarita Choudhury (Egeria), Stef Dawson (Annie Cresta), Patina Miller (Commander Paylor), Robert Knepper (Antonius).

One of the most frustrating recent trends in recent movies is the splitting of the final installments of popular series into two movies instead of one. I know the filmmakers all go on about how it’s for “artistic” reasons, and how the stories are just too big to be contained in a single movie – but I don’t know anyone who actually believes that lie, and well they shouldn’t – because it is in fact a lie. It’s all about money. Did anyone really need two installments Twilight: Breaking Dawn, or even the final Harry Potter movies – which were actually good. The good news about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I is that it is more Harry Potter than Twilight – and for the most part is a satisfying movie on its own terms. And while I don’t buy the argument that Mockingjay – which as a novel was the same length as Catching Fire, which worked just fine as one movie – needed to be two movies, the good news is that many of the scenes that may have been cut if it was one movie are the best in the movie. This is a film where the quieter scenes are far and away the best – the bigger moments, where people make grand speeches feel false, phony and forced (even when they’re not supposed to) – but the quieter moments get to something that movies of this size rarely attempt. Yes, this is a movie that draws everything out too long – and repeats itself too often – but when it works, it works quite well.

Following the events of the last two films – where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has had to go through the same process twice – entering the world of the Games, where she is forced to kill fellow teenagers and children or be killed herself. For two films, she has essentially been a pawn of the capital – who uses her, and the fellow “tributes” to keep law and order. At the end of Catching Fire, she is rescue by the rebels, who want to overthrow the Capital – a plan that many others were in on, but she was not. When the film opens, Katniss is now in District 13, the rebel base, but some of her fellow tributes – most notably Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) were left behind. The rebels want to use Katniss as a pawn, just like the Capital did, but this time for the opposite cause. But Katniss is essentially suffering from PSTD, and doesn’t know if she can handle anything – least of which being used in propaganda pieces. But it may just be the only way to save Peeta – and she hates the Capital enough that she agrees to go alone with it.

The best scenes in the movie are the quietest – the ones that show just how powerless Katniss really is. Lawrence is excellent in the lead role – at least at those quieter moments – where she is just trying to hold herself, her family and her friends together. There are moments when she is forced to give speeches to be used for propaganda purposes – and those moments don’t work quite as well. Ironically, Lawrence’s more convincing playing Katniss as unconvincing in the staged propaganda pieces, than she is at playing Katniss as convincing, when she is delivering the real speeches that inspire everyone.

The two best performances in the movie however belong not to Lawrence – but supporting characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman is great as Plutarch, who knows the Capital better than anyone else in the rebel forces, and wants to use their own game against him. Julianne Moore is equally great as President Koin, the leader of the rebels, who is idealistic, but has no idea how to win the hearts and minds of the rebels.

There are problems with Mockingjay Part I. For one, it feels like it’s trying to shoehorn in every character that previously appeared in the movies, even if they have little or nothing to do (the worse examples of this are Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks’ Effie). For another, some of the performance are quite simply terrible (Liam Hemsworth, I’m looking at you). For another, the movie simply repeats itself too often – two different emotional, heavy handed and long sequences in District 12 basically say the same thing twice.
But when the film works, it works amazingly well. The thing that I have appreciated about The Hunger Games – the books and now the movies – is how it makes Katniss both a strong character, but an ultimately powerless one. No matter what she does, where she goes, she has no real power over anything that she does. She is merely a pawn in the game being played by others. She can rage against it all she wants, but she cannot change it.

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