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MOVIE REVIEW: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1

 

November 17, 2014

The game is afoot with THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1, but it's no longer being played as a game within the confines of an electronically controlled and domed "arena". With the release of Katniss Everdeen's arrow as her final move in the "Catching Fire" Quarter Quell, all bets are off. The games are no longer "games" with a single victor (or victors, as in the case of Katniss and Peeta). The game is now very real and must be played by every single citizen in Panem if the now obviously evil megalomaniac, President Snow and his Capitol are to destroyed and Panem returned to its people. Disturbingly, the tone of MOCKINGJAY is set very quickly thanks to images that could be lifted from the very pages of today's history from fire-bombed villages and panic-stricken "frozen" skeletal remains to ISIL style random executions. What began as a dystopian young adult franchise with futuristic hypothesis and "fantasy" is now mimicking the very world we live in today and quite honestly, may hit too close to home for many.

MOCKINGJAY begins anew following Katniss' rescue from her arrow-inflicted destruction of the Quarter Quell. In shock, suffering not only extreme PTSD, but with what even appear to be schizophrenic emotional swings, Katniss is no longer the girl on fire Panem (and the real world) came to love. Her emotions are raw, uncontrollable, histrionic. She is panicked and afraid. Gone is the courage and strength that we came to know and love in Katniss.

Awakening in a secret underground military installation built beneath the ruins of what was once District 13, Katniss learns the fate of her loved ones and her beloved home in District 12. After Katniss destroyed the Quarter Quell, President Snow retaliated and fire-bombed District 12, leaving it a pile of rubble and charred skeletal remains. Out of almost 10,000 residents, only 95 survived; among them, Katniss' mother, her sister Prim, and best friend Gale. Her mother and Prim are working in the medical unit of the military installation while Gale is a part of the inner circle of President Alma Coin, the unflappable, poised and extremely intelligent leader of the rebellion. Also in the mix is President Coin's right hand advisor Plutarch Heavensbee. Joining the rebellion and taking refuge in District 13 are Haymitch Abernathy and Effie Trinket. And along with Katniss' extraction from the Quarter Quell, Finnick Odair was also saved and is receiving extensive medical care for his injuries.

Racked with guilt over what Katniss believes to be the deaths of Peeta, Johanna and Annie during the Quarter Quell, it is only when a series of broadcast interviews featuring Peeta originate from The Capitol that things start to get interesting. Not only is Peeta alive, but it appears he has betrayed Katniss and Panem as a whole, and is now the poster child for President Snow, serving as Snow's mouthpiece in an effort to destroy Katniss and any hope of a rebellion. And unfortunately, it also sets the stage as being an over-done focus of Katniss' obsession.

At the suggestion of Plutarch to fight fire with fire, President Coin agrees to feature Katniss as the face of the rebellion, the Mockingjay, in a series of propaganda spots to be broadcast to the residents of other Districts. But Katniss is unmoving, uninspiring in the "propos" as Plutarch calls them. And so it falls to Effie and Haymitch to help Katniss find her inner fire as everyone works together - even the now deceased Sinna - to galvanize Katniss into the face of the revolution. With a reality style tv crew at the ready, and dangerous locations serving as inspiration for Katniss, the rebellion uses the media to its own manipulative purpose, inspiring stronger and more defining uprisings among the downtrodden people of Panem.

As the stakes are raised ever higher in a doe or die mission to rescue Peeta, Johanna and Annie, it falls to tech expert Beetee to hack into The Capitol security and broadcast system so that in a distracting live feed from District 13, Finnick can disclose the secrets of Snow while Katniss sets the stage with an inflammatory video exchange with Snow for what will be the final showdown for Panem next year in MOCKINGJAY PART 2.

Fans around the globe will rejoice at the returning cast, particularly in the case of Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Liam Hemsworth who are the real reasons to see MOCKINGJAY PART 1.

A now sober Haymitch as played by Harrelson, and everyone's favorite fashionista Effie as played by Banks, are the humanity of MOCKINGJAY 1, they give the story its heart and soul. Were the potential Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor fields not as crowded as they already are, I could easily see Harrelson garnering supporting awards consideration. Banks adds a touch of self-deprecating humor in that Effie way that is not only endearing but gives respite to the darkness while allowing the audience to fully comprehend the stakes of not only the story, but our real world. And yes, Effie does show us all that even when confined below ground, feeling like a political refugee, you can still be fashionable with military green.

Liam Hemsworth gets to spread his wings a bit more as Gale, reinforcing what many already believe - Katniss picked the wrong guy in picking Peeta. Hemsworth is strong and sensitive and is allowed with Gale's character growth to bring in levels of confidence to outshine Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss.

And what about Lawrence? While there are great moments of strength and fire where Lawrence just explodes, the fragile, weak, histrionic scenes - of which there are many - give way to annoyance. It's also interesting to note that we're seeing "J-Law tells" now being added to Katniss with certain moments of dialogue or delivering speeches, uncreasing wrinkled speech notes. It's as if the red-carpet turned olive drab for the film. Quite frankly, it takes one out of the world of Panem.

Donald Sutherland is deliciously evil and cunning, using elocution and vocal pacing to tell us more about Snow than we ever dared to know. It's not what is said or not said that makes Snow, it's how it's said and Sutherland is perfection. As his presidential counter-part Alma Coin, Julianne Moore is a welcome addition to the franchise. With meticulous precision, Moore makes Coin a formidible woman in complete emotional and physical control of the situation at hand. She shines and quite honestly, I would relish a face to face between she and Sutherland. There are moments her presence reminds you of a commanding Eva Peron on a balcony speaking to the legions, but here, instead of a balcony, the 40 floors deep concrete assembly bunker looks more like the famous backgrounds of Nazi Germany and Hitler, creating very interesting food for thought.

In his second-to-last big screen role, Philip Seymour Hoffman returns as Plutarch while the over-the-top flamboyant Caesar Flickerman is downplayed this go-round into a darker, more manipulative Capitol mouthpiece by Stanley Tucci. Sam Claflin is back as Finnick Odair but is pretty much in check until the climactic final scenes. Jena Malone is still Johanna Mason but is held for the final scenes, setting the stage for her presence in the final chapter. Jeffrey Wright is also back as wheelchair-bound high-tech wizard Beetee and adds upbeat optimism. And then there's Josh Hutcherson who as a brainwashed Peeta runs the gamut from polished and calm to frantic and edgy to totally off the wall killing machine. Great depth from Hutcherson.

Written by newcomers to the franchise, Peter Craig and Danny Strong, the script strongly follows Suzanne Collins' novel, but also has some defining touches and carefully constructed commentary on the world today, politics, geopolitical warfare and, notably, media manipulation. Structured with some 80% of the film inside the confines of the concrete bunker and a large portion of the story trying to create the persona and image of the "Mockingjay" herself and plan out propaganda, tedium comes into the mix and the film feels "dragged out" solely for the purposes of creating a Part 2 of this chapter of the film aka "The Harry Potter Syndrome". But the concurrent problem the tedium creates is a sense of clinicism. The film has a very clinical approach to it with little emotional gravitas signifying revolution. Where the script succeeds in spades is the climactic ending which has even me chomping at the bit for MOCKINGJAY PART 2.

With Francis Lawrence again at the helm and joined by cinematographer Jo Willems, production dollars surely could have been saved just pulling news footage from today's world. There are images of executions, burned bodies and rubbled cities that could just as easily be from anywhere in the Middle East today. It's a sad commentary on our own world that this "fictional" future dystopian society mirrors much of the 21st Century today. Refreshing is a jaunt by Gale and Katniss into the woods and blissful respite by the cool waters and green foliage. Applause to Willems and production designer Philip Messina for adding some visual Litvak-style texture to the spiraling bunker and claustrophobic cement walls; very scaled back, minimalist design and lensing that work well for the darker tenor of the film while still adding visual and emotional appeal.

But throughout it all, although solidly packaged with for the most part solid performances, MOCKINGJAY PART 1 feels restrained. The exuberance and anticipatory excitement within both "The Hunger Games" and "Catching Fire" is missing here. Perhaps because the film hits so close to home in this day and age. Or perhaps because Lawrence played it safe with his direction.

Here's hoping that MOCKINGJAY PART 1 is truly just the foreplay to Katniss' mantra, "fire is catching", and that "Mockingjay Part 2" catches the fire that is Katniss and "The Hunger Games."

Director: Francis Lawrence

Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, adaptation by Suzanne Collins, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Willow Shields, Sam Clafin, Jena Malone, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer, Wes Chatham, Elden Henson, Paula Malcomson, Evan Ross

 

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