Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is a bleak film, focusing more on character than action, setting up the franchise’s final installment.

The film finds Katniss Everdeen recovering in District 13 in the wake of the events of Catching Fire. She is distraught about Peeta’s capture by the Capital; however, Plutarch Heavensbee and President Alma Coin (the leader of the rebellion) desperately need her help. Right now is the moment of rebellion that District 13 has been waiting for, ever since their initial rebellion was quelled over seventy-five years ago. Katniss’s actions at The Hunger Games have inspired a nation. The rebels need her to be their symbol of revolt, inciting the nation to rise up together against the Captial.

First thing, let us call Mockingjay – Part 1 what it really is: a narrative and creative abomination in the name of additional profits (akin to splitting The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn into two parts even though the story does not really support two full narrative films). The Harry Potter series split its final book (The Deathly Hallows) into two films, starting this trend – the difference between The Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn and now Mockingjay, however, is that there was enough substantial story and character to make two films. Here there is not.

Calling the film an abomination is harsh. The problem is that the film essentially serves at the first act of the final chapter; yet, the filmmakers (including director Francis Lawrence) need to fill two hours with material, when really only about thirty to forty minutes is essential (or even needed). Thus, the film is primarily a showcase of the characters sitting around, grinding out time until the action really begins (in the next film). For the audience, this makes for a less than interesting film overall, but it still has its engaging moments.

The Deathly Hallows – Part 1 plays as much more of a character piece as compared to the continuous action of Part 2. Mockingjay – Part 1 tries to follow a similar path, as the narrative focuses on Katniss’s internal struggle with being the face of the rebellion, but there does not seem to be any narrative momentum. By comparison, part 1 of The Deathly Hallows saw Harry and company searching for horcruxes and the meaning of the Deathly Hallows. The film has a narrative structure and character development. It works as a standalone film (in as much as a sequel can), while also setting up the final film. Mockingjay – Part 1 is initially about Katniss becoming the face of the rebellion, which she does without much struggle. Then, the film seems to become about the recovery of Peeta. The problem with the second narrative piece is that Katniss is not involved in the action.

One of the big problems with this film series as a whole is that Katniss seems to always be sidelined. Even as the face of the rebellion, she is not directly involved in the rebellion planning or action. She is just propaganda. It might have been interesting for the film to really take a deep look at the emotional and psychological toll being a symbol takes on Katniss, being removed from the real action, just rolled out to make appearances for moral, seeing those actually fighting dying around her. It does this to a minor degree, and those moments are compelling; but, this was never going to be that kind of film – a character piece, built on performance and dramatic moments. Lawrence still wants to make a sci-fi action adventure, like the first two films, but there is just not that much for anyone to really do.

Structurally, Mockingjay – Part 1 has a number of things that do not work as well as they probably should. Right off, the film feels completely disconnected from Catching Fire, as if it were unrelated. The characters and tone are totally different. We learn that some period of time has passed between the end of Catching Fire and the beginning of Mockingjay, but it is very disorienting (especially because I just re-watched Catching Fire before seeing this). Lawrence certainly had the narrative time to transition the narrative to District 13, but instead the film begins clumsily. Lawrence also had the time to focus more on supporting characters, but no one is really given much to do dramatically. Katniss is the only character that has significant character moments (seeing the carnage that the Capital brought upon District 12 and her realization that Peeta was brutally tortured while being held in the Capital). Again, most of the film’s issues seem to arise from there not being enough to sustain a full narrative feature.

There are things that do work too. Katniss’s emotional moments are effective and even moving. Lawrence does a good job creating a world that looks and feels very bleak. District 13 is reminiscent of the style of the film 1984 (based on George Orwell’s novel) – it is a bit ironic that the rebels fighting for freedom seem to live in a highly structured world (seemingly void of real personal freedom and personality). The few moments of action are engaging as well. Lawrence even creates some tension when the team goes to retrieve the victors from the Capital.

Mockingjay is a sufficient setup for Mockingjay – Part 2, but it is bloated and does not work as a standalone film. Katniss is not even given a real dramatic journey in the film. Its biggest fault is that it feels overly long, slow and even boring in parts, because it is essentially a one act piece stretched to fill two hours. Lawrence does not do enough with the characters or feature enough action to fully engage the audience for the film’s runtime. Yet, all that said, the stage is set for Part 2, which seems like it will be a rewarding film experience (finally); and thus, Mockingjay – Part does ultimately serve its purpose (sloppily).

Now for something minor that I noticed that does not really effect the film’s overall quality at all, it just bugged me. The blocking of the film crew within the film (there to capture moments of Katniss reacting to stuff to use for the rebellion’s propaganda machine) is often fairly terrible. The cameramen are in each other’s shots. The director even walks in front of one of the cameramen at one point. They miss many crucial shots of Katniss emoting and in action (and so on). It is really no big deal; it just bothered me. They are touted as being the Capital’s best crew, but seemed incompetent.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Francis Lawrence made a good film with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. With Mockingjay – Part 1, he is at a bit of a disadvantage, as it is clear there is not enough material to fill two films. That said, he does a good enough job (I guess). He gets good performances and the few action scenes work well. It is just disappointing that there is not more character moments to go around and that the film is not more efficiently structured (instead of feeling a bit tedious). I am looking forward to seeing Mockingjay – Part 2. I imagine it is much more action packed and that Katniss, finally, is involved in the primary action both emotionally and physically.

Aesthetically, Mockingjay – Part 1 is grim. The film mostly takes place in a somewhat soulless and barren bunker or amongst the rubble of destroyed towns. Jo Willems’s cinematography is fairly straightforward, working with Philip Messina’s production design to create this dreary world, seemingly almost void of color. It works narratively, but I miss the flare the first two films had in their design style. James Newton Howard’s score works well, supporting the dramatic moments (but it is overshadowed by the great soundtrack that Lorde put together).

The cast is good overall, but dramatically speaking there is very little for most of them to do. Natalie Dormer has her usual rambunctiousness about her, which works well with her character (the filmmaker Cressida). Elizabeth Banks has some fun moments as Effie, adjusting to a world without style and color. Sam Claflin is good as Finnick, seemingly playing a man broken by the games (though, it feels a bit out of character given where the audience left him in Catching Fire). Julianne Moore is very calm and calculating as President Alam Coin, very restrained. It works. Philip Seymour Hoffman seems a bit disinterested as Plutarch Heavensbee, probably because he has almost nothing of substance to do in the film. Donald Sutherland plays President Snow with a lot of flare and guile, enjoying the villainy of the character. Woody Harrelson, too, seems bored as he spends the film standing around, aside from a few lines of dialog. Liam Hemsworth probably has the most screen time in this film of any in the series so far, and yet he remains unengaging. Josh Hutcherson is quite good as Peeta, showcasing the mental and physical toll being a prisoner of the Capital is taking on him (he looks like he is dying, slowly wasting away). I just wonder why the film never gives Johanna (especially when you have Jena Malone, who is fantastic in the role) or Annie any screen time while they were captive (even if it were just in the background). It is an odd choice to single out Peeta as the only visible ‘traitor’, while leaving the others to merely be referred to as similarly traitors for doing the same thing. Filmmaking is about showing more than telling (or at least it should be). Jennifer Lawrence is very good as Katniss. She conveys the pain and internal struggle that she suffers through very well. It is clear that she is on the breaking point. (Much like the audience, I am sure) Katniss is tired of being left out. The film is moving in some places and ultimately succeeds dramatically solely because of her performance (as structurally it is pretty poor).

Summary & score: It is difficult to rate The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 because it is not really a narrative film (in that it does not really have its own story to tell or a complete character journey). It is merely just act one. Seemingly, it was never meant to be more. Thus, to really give this film a score I need to see how it plays in relation to Part 2, as presumably they are really two piece of one epic film. As it is, it only works insomuch as Jennifer Lawrence gives a very good performance, the action is engaging and some of the visuals are compelling. Large portions of the film, however, are uninteresting, as characters and viewers sit around waiting for the action to start. It was completely unnecessary for Mockingjay to be split into two films; thusly, this film exists solely to make additional money, not to serve a narrative need – and that is unfortunate for fans of the series. 5/10

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