Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Alternate Title:  Downtime

One sentence synopsis:    Katniss Everdeen must become a symbol of rebellion to stoke the flames of revolution against the Capitol and save her friends from the previous games.

Things Havoc liked:  I loved Catching Fire, the second installment of the Hunger Games series, itself a rebuttal to the overwhelming evidence on-offer that YA books make terrible movies. The series has been uniformly good to-date, but the second movie was a masterpiece, a deserved entry on last year's list of best films. Accordingly, unlike a lot of the stuff I have been seeing recently, I was stoked to see this, one of two yearly-installment films (the other being The upcoming Hobbit) that I thought had potential to really nail the end of this remarkable year down. The reason that this series is so good is fairly simple, quality of actors, quality of writing, quality of production, one of the only films in the genre that actually seems to take itself seriously. Compare this series to the Mortal Instruments or Divergent or, God help you, Twilight, and the differences are apparent. As with children's films, YA movies work best when you don't treat them as YA, but simply as another movie on another topic, something Hunger Games has consistently done, and the other series have consistently not.

But enough background, we're here to talk about the movie itself. And to a degree that's actually rather surprising, the movie itself is, of all things, a character study, primarily of our main character, Katness Everdeen, played as always by Jennifer Lawrence. I'm an unashamed fan of Lawrence's, and this is the role that introduced her to me in the first place, so when I tell you all that she is excellent here, I don't expect I'll be astonishing anyone. The movie dives into Katness' character far more than the other films were able to, as she tries to recover from the terrible ordeal of having competed in two consecutive Hunger Games, the second one designed specifically to destroy her, and struggles with becoming the face of the incipient revolution being prepared against President Coriolanus Snow (I love these goddamn names), played by Donald Sutherland at his most avuncularly-villainous. The movie doesn't drive completely into a study of PTSD, but that aspect is there, something I had sort of hoped would be in the previous films, but better late than never. Indeed, the film takes a fair amount of time just looking at Katness as a character, as she tries to figure out what she should do in response to the escalating violence and reciprocity of the Capital's forces. Wisely, the movie doesn't try to recast Katness as a shattered violet or anything, but you cannot engage in child murder (or war) for terribly long before some psychological effects manifest themselves, and Lawrence rides the line properly to give us a character we can believe.

But even Lawrence has nothing on the late, great, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing Plutarch Heavensbee, the gamesmaster-turned-propagandist whose task it is to produce the speeches, videos, films, posters, and other materials that will drive the revolution forward. Hoffman is fantastic here, as an expert in his field finally being allowed to put his skills to use, utterly unapologetic about the nature of his work (propaganda), and refusing to allow himself to be used as a stand-in for a moralizing lesson about the purity of truth or some such. In a similar vein, and only slightly less impressive, is Elizabeth Banks, whose character of Effie Trinket was more or less a ludicrous joke in the first two films, and here is... well a slightly less-ludicrous one. Kidnapped by the rebels and brought to a far more down-to-earth area than the wild world of Panem, she, like Hoffman's character, becomes an assistant of sorts using what skills she does have, presentation, erudition, even makeup. The two of them are stellar in this film, the former liberated, the latter constrained, both accustomed to being the smartest people in the room (only one of them correctly), and both acidly doing what they have to do in order to practice their art. And that art is interesting to watch, particularly given the discovery, early on in the film that Katniss is a terrible actress, whose propaganda films consequently look flat and terrible, forcing innovative (and perhaps a bit contrived) solutions in order to produce the material necessary.

And there's other performances here worth watching as well. Jeffrey Wright (of Casino Royale and Only Lovers Left Alive) reprises Beetee, a Q-like gadgeteer who at the very least turns in one of the better "super-scientist" performances I've seen, insofar as his science actually manages to walk the tightrope between understandable and innovative. Catching Fire's Sam Claflin has a smaller role this time, but does a decent job with it, playing a different tribute liberated from the games with a different set of baggage on him from his experience in Panem. Josh Hutcherson, playing Peeta (once more the only role of his I've ever been able to stomach), actually turns in the best performance of the three movie for him, limited though his role is. Even Liam Hemsworth, Thor's younger brother, who was more or less useless in every movie prior to this, has a decent enough turn this time. If all you're after is watching these actors play these characters for a while, then this movie will provide that much.

Things Havoc disliked:  But nothing more.

Let's address the elephant in the room here. Like the last Twilight and Harry Potter movies, this film is split in two, and what we are watching here is the first half of a movie, a decision that ruined those films (not that Twilight needed the help), and comes damn close to ruining this one. There is a flow to movies, a narrative arc that comes with telling a proper story, and while it is certainly permissible to violate that flow for whatever reason, it is not going to work to arbitrarily cut a film in half just to make more money. There is no climax to this movie, no denouement, no sense of rising action, nothing. We wander, purposelessly, from scene to unconnected scene, without any sense of tension or setup or establishment for purpose. If the second half of the movie were to immediately follow this one, then perhaps this wouldn't be a problem, but we won't know if that's the case for another full year, and the film that we have before us is consequently incomplete. At no time during the two hours it runs could I determine how close we were to the end of the film, nor, when the movie came to an end, had I the first hint that the end was coming. Maybe there was too much material for one movie or something, I don't know, but for whatever other faults they had, the Hobbit movies, also carved into pieces from a single book, managed to produce complete films out of the material, even with the sudden abruptness of the second film's ending (an ending I actually thought was kind of brilliant, as opposed to this one).

But whether or not there was too much material here for one film, there is plainly not enough for two, as this movie is padded as all hell. Sequences exist for no reason that I can fathom except to take up time, such as an interminable bombing sequence focusing around a cat, and an even more interminable speech delivered by a propagandist that takes four times longer than it should by virtue of cutaways and Shatnerian-acting. Even the action scenes, and they are very few, take forever, as characters have to stare at military bombers for three full minutes from five different angles before they work out that they may be engaged in bombing. This tendency is so pronounced that despite all the nice performances on offer, the movie is simply boring in a lot of places, and that's the one thing you cannot afford to have your blockbuster YA action film be.

But set the pacing aside and the money-grabs by the producer, and there's still major problems here, most of which have to do with new additions to the cast. Catching Fire introduced a bunch of new characters, all of whom were nuanced and interesting and had objectives they kept hidden which might have had nothing to do with Katniss at all. This time though, we get Natalie Dormer, of the Tudors and Game of Thrones, playing Cressida, a director escaped from the capital, whose job is to follow Katniss around and film her. I wouldn't mind this concept so much if this character was given a character of her own, or even an opinion on something, or for that matter, if Dorner could act worth a damn, which she cannot. A whole gaggle of fellow idiots tags along with her, of such little use that I refuse to even research their names. But worse yet is Julianne Moore, an actress I have never liked, not even in movies I favor (Big Lebowski for instance, or Children of Men). This is more or less the reason why. Her character of President (of the rebels) Coin is a complete cypher, reciting deliberately ambiguous speeches awkwardly about inevitable victory or some such, a transparent attempt by the filmmakers to add "mystery" to the character that winds up all but attaching flags and sirens to itself saying "EVIL CHARACTER DESIGNATED TO TEACH LESSONS ABOUT THE DANGERS OF REVOLUTIONS IN THE NEXT MOVIE".

Oh, I'm sorry, am I spoiling things? I have no idea, I never read the books. I just have a feeling...

Final thoughts:   Mockingjay, or rather Mockingjay's first half is a tremendously disappointing film, mostly due to the terrible decision to split it in two. Not only does this guarantee that the first movie is a boring exposition-fest intercut with shots of the camera watching a character watch the beauty of the trees or whatnot, but it also all but guarantees that the second half of the film, due to come out next year, will likely be nothing but a single, solid action piece, without time to stop for exposition, character, or breath. All things being equal, that might not be so bad, and God only knows what the whole thing will look like when arranged front to back, but given that this is the movie I was given, this is the result I have to report on. The movie is not a bad film, neither poorly-made nor poorly-acted (on the whole), but if there was ever proof that a good movie is more than the sum of its parts, it's this one. Why they did not decide to simply make two complete movies out of Mockingjay, I do not know, but they did not, deciding instead to simply cleave one large movie in half with an axe.

I still like this series, despite this misstep, and will in all likelihood see the last element of the film when it comes out at the end of 2015. But do not expect me to give it mercy for failing to properly establish itself just because the establishment, and strictly nothing else, was all done in the previous film.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Week:   Actors in Nebraska.  Lots of them.

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