The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Some killer, mostly filler.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

After the fairly middling critical reaction to Mockingjay Part 1, I wasn’t in any rush to go and see it, despite being a self-proclaimed fan of the franchise. Part of my reticence was also down to the stupid, but annoyingly cash-savvy decision to split the final book into two films, a practice that I hate with every fibre of my being. I mean, why bother going to see half a film, based on the weakest book in the trilogy, which is undoubtedly going to have as much padding as an insecure schoolgirl’s bra? Still, the notion of being a “proper” critic and forming my own opinion on a film, no matter how crappy the reviews are got the better of me, so here we are.

“They’ll either want to kill you, kiss you, or be you”

Mockingjay Part 1 once again follows our main heroine and two-time games survivor Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) after she was airlifted out of the Quarter Quell Games at the end of Catching Fire.  We learn that her act of defiance has sparked pockets of violence and rebellion in the various districts, leading the Capitol to respond in kind with brutal bombing runs, laying waste to all who oppose. Katniss is taken underground, far below the fabled District 13 and the leader of the rebellion, President Coin (Julianne Moore) plans to capitalise on the revolutionary spirit in the air by using Everdeen as a figurehead for the uprising with the former advisor to Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Katniss however, has her mind on not-quite beau Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) who was left at the Snow’s mercy when only she was rescued. Things take an interesting turn when Peeta shows up alive and well on Capitol propaganda broadcasts, urging people to lay down their weapons and submit to the Capitol’s rule. The basic narrative thrust of the series is still sound. The film still has its media satire action goggles on and Mockingjay Part 1 focuses on the battle between Katniss’ reluctant postergirlism and Peeta’s strangely glassy-eyed figureheaditude (those are totally words, shut up). There are some really clever, creative flourishes here. I’ve said it (and drawn more than my fair share of ire for it) before but The Hunger Games series is one of the best series out there, giving us a franchise that is smart, dark and enjoyable and not the sort of brain-numbing shit that normally captures a young adult audience’s attention.

A review of Part 1 is always going to put a cap on what you can say about it because it’s simply not a complete film. I’d read many reviews beforehand and they all seemed to make a big deal of splitting the last part in two. I started to wonder whether it was usual critic axe-grinding or a legitimate problem with the film. Sadly, it’s the latter. The film is all set-up and no pay-off. It’s going to leave you with narrative blue balls.  We spend a lot of time underground, with characters spinning their wheels until they’re sure enough time has passed to move the plot on without being in danger of running out of story. The pacing is slow and plodding. There’s a few pockets of action here and there, but it becomes clear that the big guns are being saved for next year. This practice really sucks. If you’re going to split a film, makes sure that both parts are satisfying experiences on their own. It’s fine to not rush to the endgame, but when it feels like all you’re doing is delaying the inevitable, it can frustrate and feel like you’ve just slapped down your cash for a feature-length trailer for the next one. Nearly all of the film’s failings can be attributed to the split. It’s baggy compared to the efficient Catching Fire. Various ideas/themes will be brought up in one scene, only to have the same ideas pop up in the next scene, making the drama feel inert. Mockingjay Part 1 feels like a film with the deleted scenes kept in. There’s one moment near the end that would have made a great cliffhanger, but we have to endure a few more low-key scenes reiterating what we already know before the credits finally roll.

This could have been a disaster. Thankfully, the actors just about carry it. Jennifer Lawrence is still great as Katniss. She’s been a reluctant hero from the beginning and the film plays on that. It’s nice that in spite of surviving two games, she’s still human. She’s a badass when she needs to be, but she remains just as vulnerable and relatable as she ever has. In lesser hands, the temptation to turn her into a world-weary invincible warrior may have been too strong, but her continued character development has been skillfully piloted away from those hacky jagged rocks. There’s new blood in the form of Natalie Dormer’s Cressida and her camera team, but they’re not really given much to do. Julianne Moore’s President Coin is the most interesting new addition to the cast. Moore gives a veteran polished turn as Coin and her slow-burn friendship with Katniss is played extremely well. I also liked her constant sparring with PSH’s Plutarch. PSH never turned in a duff performance even if the film was questionable and Mockingjay doesn’t break that streak. The guy was a fantastic actor and I’m gutted all over again that we won’t see anything more from him.

One of the only things that I feel The Hunger Games hasn’t knocked out of the park is Katniss and Peeta’s relationship. I love Katniss as a character, but I just don’t feel the films have justified her obvious love for him. He’s been a comfort during tough times and I suppose that’s enough, but something still doesn’t gel. Being stuck in the Capitol, Peeta doesn’t get much screentime and so the film instead concentrates on Katniss’ relationship with dreamy friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).  Much like in Twilight, I’m rooting for the underdog. Gale seems a much better match for Katniss. They’re equals. The more the films play out, the more I find it difficult to accept that someone as strong as Katniss would be into a beta male like Peeta. The film does occasionally hover around Katniss’ attraction to lame ducks, but I’m still not buying it. Anyway, the film has some nice moments between Katniss and Gale and I just wish they explored their complicated relationship a bit more. I could have done with an extra scene or two between them before Gale leaves District 13 for a good stretch of the film.

“Miss Everdeen, it is the things we love most that destroy us.”

Mockingjay Part 1 is decent enough. There’s an inherent quality to the performances and the script, but it’s a shame a recommendation has to come with so many caveats. I know that once Part 2 comes out I’ll never watch Part 1 on its own again. I would have been completely happy to sit through a three-hour spectacular finale, but nope- money to be made, son.  Anyway- the film: 3/5, the business practice: -1000000000/5

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

 
Districtly brilliant.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

 

I was pleasantly surprised by the original Hunger Games. After a misguided advertising campaign sold it as “the next Twilight“, I wasn’t exactly pawing at the multiplex doors to be let in. However, I ended up really enjoying it and bought all three books soon after. It’s an intelligent sci-fi series that has a lot to say, but doesn’t beat you round the head with it. The main character, Katniss, is a strong female lead without being a ballbuster, is involved in a love triangle without being a soppy, boy-obsessed milkdrip and generally is a fantastic role model to anyone reading or watching her adventures, not just the target demographic of young girls. Also, whilst I do like the film, can we stop with the “Battle Royale with cheese” shit now? Hunger Games has so much more going on than BR ever did and, to my mind at least, even does better with the central conceit. For those of you sputtering with indignation right now, knocking over all your “kawaii” desk decorations to write me an essay on how wrong I am about the cultural significance of this scene or that bit of dialogue, please do not underestimate my apathy.

“Remember who the real enemy is.”

After basically giving the system a one-fingered salute (or more accurately, three) at the end of the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return to District 12 rich and famous, living a life of wealth in Victor’s Village, a walled community built for Hunger Games winners. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) fears an uprising from the districts as Katniss has inspired hope and revolution with her very public defiance. He turns to new gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for help and the pair conspire to tear down the symbol Katniss has become. They eventually settle on a “Quarter Quell”, a special games made up of past winners, to prove that no-one is safe from the Capitol’s wrath. Catching Fire is solid film, although in terms of basic story beats its pretty similar to the first. It wisely focuses on the social unrest and revolutionary aspects of Panem, rather than just being happy to trot out the death and violence of the games again. It does what all good sequels do and improves on practically every aspect of its predecessor. Jennifer Lawrence is still fantastic as Katniss, giving the sort of layered performance that’s incredibly rare in this type of film.The previous games have taken their toll on her and she has some real PTSD stuff going on. I warmed to Josh Hutcherson more in this film than I did in the last one. He’s still the weakest link in a great cast, but he’s serviceable, with the script affording him more depth. In fact, there’s a real effort to dimensionalise what were previously one-note characters. Elizabeth Banks’ Effie who irritated me in the original, actually comes across as a proper character this time round. Sutherland’s President Snow has a lot more genuine menace about him too, with some fascinating glimpses into his personal life. Of the new blood, Sam Clafin is fun as Finnick Odair, especially when he has the lovable mute grandmother Mags (Lynn Cohen) on his back, Yoda style. Felix Leiter himself Jeffrey Wright is incredibly likeable as technical whiz Beetee and makes a great double act with Amanda Plummer’s Wiress. Jena Malone simply steals scenes as the angry, axe-wielding Johanna Mason, right from her impromptu elevator strip onwards. Ol’ reliable PSH is predictably brilliant too.

The film takes a surprisingly long time to actually get to the titular games. A lot of time and effort is spent getting the audience up to speed with the current state of Panem and the shady government dealings going on behind closed gilded doors. None of the book’s nastiness has been skimped on here. Whilst the first Hunger Games felt toothless and compromised at times, this feels legit brutal, bruv. There’s public floggings, executions, grevious injuries- the lot. There may have been a few CGI blood shots edited out, but I doubt there’s a proper uncut version waiting in the wings for when it comes to shiny disc. I got the feeling Lawrence was pushing the rating to breaking point, rather than shying away from it like Ross.

Weirdly, the one film Catching Fire reminds me of is Back to the Future Part II. Whilst there are no hoverboards (much to my disappointment) it does share the same spirit of messing with the established framework of the first film and toying with audiences’ expectations. As I said previously, the story beats are the same as the original Hunger Games, but they all have neat little twists on them. For instance, instead of smiling and waving at the cameras when the tributes are brought in via carriage, Katniss and Peeta are instructed to remain stoic and defiantly ignore the crowd this time round. When the interview segment gets underway, instead of playing the game and speaking in cloying “just happy to be here” sentiments, all the tributes are working different angles to try and get the games cancelled by swaying public opinion, be it by admission of anger at the system, tearfully telling the insanely enameled Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) about a love back home or Peeta’s inspired whopper about him and Katniss. It’s clever stuff, make no mistake.

Most of the problems with the first film have been ironed out. The direction from Francis Lawrence is a lot more assured than Gary Ross’. Whilst Ross had an overreliance on shaky cam to obscure the nastier stuff, Lawrence uses it sparingly, which is a great relief for those of us who are fans of seeing what’s going on. The production budget has been upped considerably too, with some amazing futuristic vistas on display and a greater look at the decadent Capitol. The writing also got worked over, with Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt replacing Ross, Billy Ray and series author Suzanne Collins. The quality of the writing has been upgraded from “passable” to “actually pretty damn good”. Characters no longer awkwardly blurt out motivations or thoughts and . In fact, if I may compare it to Twilight for a moment, this is what the Twi-films should have been doing when it came to sequels, instead of aggressively sticking to the god-awful writing and terrible special effects, all the while upping the product placement and soundtrack shilling. The Twilight films showed nothing but open contempt for its audience. All the gains from the first Hunger Games feel like they’ve been plowed into this one to make it the best film it can be.

“Katniss Everdeen is a symbol. We don’t have to destroy her, just her image. Show them that she’s one of us now. Let them rally behind that. They’re gonna hate her so much they just might kill her for you.”

I think that’s the one thing that’s holding Catching Fire back from 5 star Valhalla. Everything else has been brought up to scratch, but the limitations of the source material are starting to show.  The first book is genuinely great, but the quality then acts on a sliding scale right through to the end.The film stops frustratingly short of the climax of the book, but I understand what they’re going for. My only concern now is that Mockingjay was my least favourite book and they’re making two damn films out of it. This could be the series highpoint. This is the series’ Empire Strikes Back. It’s darker and more confident in what it wants to do. It’s bloody brilliant. Highly recommended.