Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part I" Changes Up Franchise Formula to Mostly Positive Results

Katniss becomes the face of the revolution in Mockingjay -- Part 1.
In a post Harry Potter world, The Hunger Games series is far and away the best of the onslaught of YA adaptions. I outlined my thinking on this in my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but the gist is this: even though the plot here is just as high concept and ludicrous as those found in many of its contemporaries, there is a credibility to the series because it keeps everything on the human scale rooted in a great lead character played by an actress at the top of her game. As this series goes on, it's getting easier and easier to say it -- Jennifer Lawrence is outright iconic.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part I is another winning entry in the series, which is really saying something given all it has going against it. For starters, it doesn't center around a Hunger Games, and so it doesn't have the structure the first two films had. This adaptation was already going to have a meandering quality to it because of that, but then there's the fact that it's also being split into two films, which has only made it worse.

Splitting films has become a thing in Hollywood, but it almost always makes the films feel incomplete and is almost never necessary. At least with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there was a practical reason -- that book was huge and had the responsibility of tying together so many plot strands that making one satisfying movie would've been impossible. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Breaking Dawn, a two-part film in which so little happens, it's amazing they couldn't do the whole thing in about 75 minutes.

Mockingjay falls squarely in the middle of these two extremes. Splitting the book into two films certainly affords the opportunity to explore character in a way one film never could, but I'm pretty confident the narrative would've been better served without the split. Although the total Mockingjay experience is going to clock in at well over four hours, it probably would've worked best as a three-hour epic. At least 20 minutes could have been chopped off of this first part without doing harm (especially the manufactured drama about Prim's cat and the rescue mission that eats up most of the final quarter of the film and was no doubt trumped up from the books as a means to give this film an exciting ending).

But there's no use talking about what could have been. Mockingjay -- Part I is still an involving film, but fans of the series should know that it's definitely a major step back in the action department. While the first two films hinted at political maneuvering, this film puts such manipulations front and center.
Mockingjay -- Part I gives these frequent costars a chance to 
share some scenes together.
Other than Katniss, the two focal characters in this film are Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the games-maker from the last film who conspired to spring Katniss from the arena, and President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of the militaristic District 13 that is leading the revolution against the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In lieu of tournament with kids killing each other, the film spends a great deal of time showing their attempt to unite the districts and incite war with Katniss cast as their troop-rousing mascot. A great deal of effort is put on the PR aspects of war, so, in many respects, this latest Hunger Games film has more in common with something like Wag the Dog than it does with its direct predecessors (which explains why Danny Strong, writer of the political HBO films Recount and Game Change, has been brought on as a a co-writer).

The cast for this series is a huge strength and just keeps getting better and better. Julianne Moore is a solid addition and giving an actor as great as Hoffman more to do is always a great idea. Woody Harrelson gets some new notes to plays as a sober Haymitch, as does Elizabeth Banks as a humbled Effie, who has been added on here in a well-considered streamlining move (her role in the books was filled by lesser characters who had already been marginalized in the previous films).

As indicated above, Lawrence is a dynamo, and it's great to see her do bad acting when filming canned ads for the revolution, only to then see how moving she can be when giving a speech in the heat of battle or singing a soulful and moody song from her youth that is then morphed into a rallying song by the propoganda machine (major props to Lawrence and The Lumineers for bringing those book lyrics to life). Meanwhile, Josh Hutcherson remains the a stealth weapon of the series, conveying a lot of subtext in each of his interview scenes. On the other end of the barely-a-romantic-triangle triangle, Liam Hemsworth remains the weak link in the cast, but I'm not sure how much of that is on him, and how much of that is on the poorly defined character. For what it's worth, he does deliver in his big speech about the bombing of District 12.

Outside of the unnecessary splitting of the narrative, my biggest gripe with the film involves a deviation from the book that definitely rates as as a spoiler (you've been warned). While inter-cutting a rousing victory speech from Coin with Katniss watching a writing Peeta is a fantastic, theme-appropriate way to end here, I'm not a big fan of the overt acknowledgement that Snow allows this rescue mission to occur because of his "brainwash Peeta to hate Katniss" plan (which was more of a safety net in the books where the conversation between Snow and Katniss never occurred). It seems highly unlikely that Peeta would've actually been able to kill Katniss, and I just don't see how a shrewd villain like Snow would take that chance considering how much of a PR victory it would represent for the opposition otherwise. That's especially true considering he didn't bother brainwashing the other two captives. Why not just kill those two if he was going with this Peeta plan? Or, better yet, why not just kill all three? The whole thing worked better when it played like Snow was semi-duped as opposed to actively stupid.

While I'll probably always believe the series would've played best as a trilogy, Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part I is another good entry in an increasingly impressive series of films. B+