Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014)

So, we're on the third Hunger Games movie now, based on the first half of the trilogy's final and most divisive book. I'm someone who enjoyed the first two-thirds of Mockingjay but was seriously pissed off by the ending, so I've been waiting to see just how they handle that book's biggest problems, as well as whether they can keep up the hot streak established by the first two films. How did they do?

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1... well, the last two words in the title alone tell you where most of this film's biggest problems lie. It's half a movie, one that ends after what should be the second act, and undoubtedly the worst film in the series so far. I knew this was going to happen the moment Lionsgate announced that they'd be splitting Mockingjay into two films, a move done solely to double the money they plan on making from what's become their biggest cash cow. It's a slow, bloated film that really didn't need to be padded out the way it was -- I can think of several scenes right off the top of my head that could've been cut or merged to create a smoother-paced, more cohesive, and more impactful whole, while also trimming the film's run time enough to fit in the third-act finale that it so desperately needed. Instead, what we got was a film that ended just as it was finally starting to get moving and get really interesting. At only about 110 minutes long (not counting the credits), it felt like a movie that had had filler scenes stuffed into it to justify the decision to split it in two.

And yet, even underneath all the dead weight, what works about the Hunger Games series still shined through here. It takes too long to get to the action, but when we do finally it, it's great and intense, while the series' satire of image-obsessed pop culture and violence in the media still comes through. Everybody once more delivers a performance at the top of their game, from those who've been with this series since the beginning to the newcomers like Julianne Moore's President Alma Coin. As hard as they tried, the studio's misguided decision to pad this series out as long as they can couldn't put out its fire completely. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 is a good movie in spite of itself, and one that, at the very least, sets up one hell of a finale.

Spoilers incoming if you haven't seen the other movies, though if you're even thinking about seeing this, then chances are you've already seen those two, which means that this spoiler warning is pointless and why did I even put it here oh god my life is a lie

Mockingjay follows on from the end of Catching Fire, where Katniss Everdeen had found herself part of a plot, led by Plutarch Heavensbee and several of her fellow contestants (including her show-boyfriend Peeta Mellark), to disrupt the Hunger Games and set off the rebellion that had been brewing for the past year or so thanks to Katniss' actions at the previous year's Games. Unfortunately, this led to reprisals in the form of the Capitol bombing flat most of Katniss' home, District 12; out of a population of ten thousand, barely nine hundred people made it out, led by Katniss' boyfriend Gale Hawthorne and including her mother and sister. They, as well as Katniss and many of the conspirators, are now safe and sound in District 13, a fortified bunker which had been presumed destroyed after the last great rebellion, but which has continued on in a cold war with Panem, rebuilding and rearming in preparation for round two. Peeta wasn't so lucky, though, having been kidnapped by the Capitol along with Johanna and Annie, two other plot conspirators in the arena. Now Peeta's in the Capitol spouting their propaganda line against the rebellion, while Katniss must once more allow herself to be remade into a media icon -- this time into District 13's figurehead leader for the rebellion, the Mockingjay.

I must say, when this film is on, it is on. Like in the past films, what elevates this above many other dystopian sci-fi flicks is its satirical edge. It's a teen version of an '80s John Carpenter action movie, with the blood spurts replaced with canoodling but still offering great commentary on our media-obsessed culture in between action scenes. It's made clear that, while District 13 may be more scrappy and blue-collar than the decadent and stratified Panem, they're not above media games either. Nowhere in this better seen than when Katniss is shooting corny propaganda videos for District 13, having to not only go through this same shit again (only now, it's for the "good guys"), but with her and the leaders of District 13 both realizing that the very idea of trying to remake her in their image goes against the whole reason why she's become a populist hero in the first place. It must be said that, in hindsight and with the development of her "girl next door made good" persona, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss has proven to be utterly serendipitous casting, even more than her already-solid performances would suggest, given that Katniss' entire in-universe appeal to the people of Panem is that she's an ordinary girl who defied The Man and got away with it. She's especially good at playing someone going through what is undoubtedly a nasty case of PTSD, having twice survived a bloodbath and now barely able to sleep thanks to her nightmares about the experience. She's not alone in kicking ass and taking names -- the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (who gets a tribute in the end credits) gave a hell of a bookend to his career as Plutarch, Liam Hemsworth was both hunky and badass as Gale, Donald Pleasance was once more having fun as President Snow (or as he's known in this house, President Evil Santa), and Josh Hutcherson, despite his reputation as the weak link of the main three cast members, stood out with his limited screen time as the facade he puts on for the Capitol's propaganda starts to crack. And while I had some issues with the film's portrayal of Alma Coin, the President of District 13 who could've stood to be somewhat more morally grey given her actions in the second half of the book, I can't deny that Julianne Moore did fine work.

As for the action scenes, while they're few in number and a bit too back-loaded, they were still stellar. The film's blockbuster budget was put to great use; the crappy CGI of the first film is long in the past, replaced with intense action that director Francis Lawrence once again handles with a very skilled hand. He mixes it up between steady long shots and documentary-style handheld cameras that manage to avoid the shaky-cam trap that the first film succumbed to, always letting us get a great look at the combat in the streets. And for once, we actually see the meat of the rebellion rather than just catching glimpses of it, with rebels and Capitol peacekeepers fighting in the woods, in industrial slums, and in front of a dam before the film climaxes with a daring nighttime raid into the Capitol itself. It was thrilling stuff, made only that much more intense by the stakes behind it.

It's just a shame that it took so long to get to the good stuff. Which brings me back to the film's number one flaw: the fact that the book was split into two movies for no reason beyond getting more money out of fans. I can think of so many scenes here that could've been either rewritten and consolidated into fewer, shorter scenes, or otherwise cut entirely, that if I'd made this film and had my way, this movie would be barely an hour long. As it stands, it's close to two, and it feels like it. All that action and satire I just described, all those great characters? They're spaced out between a roughly equal amount of filler that's designed solely to run up the clock. The thoughts that went through my head the most as I was watching this were "get on with it already!" and "when I find the Lionsgate executive who made the call to make this a 'Part 1'... well, sir or ma'am, I still have a gun." It does move, but it only moves in fits and starts, frequently losing momentum just as it's getting interesting. When both this and the finale are out on DVD and Blu-Ray, I'd love to see someone make an edit of both films that cuts out all the filler and leaves us with a single two-and-a-half-hour blockbuster action film. I'd imagine the first hour of that film to be a far more thrilling and less indulgent product than what we got here.

Score: 3 out of 5

It really, really didn't need to be a two-part movie, and it probably would've been a lot better off if it was just one movie. Still, even with so much filler, this is still a very enjoyable penultimate installment to the series. It's the worst one up to this point, but it's also one that sets up what's bound to be a great finale. (Now let's just hope that the end of Mockingjay - Part 2 is better than the second half of Mockingjay the book, because... well, I won't spoil, but there were things at the end of the book that pissed me off something fierce.)

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