November 29, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1

In this review, I’m assuming you’re somewhat familiar with the overall plot of The Hunger Games series, so while I do discuss plot points, I’m not going to bother explaining all the rules of the franchise’s milieu.

The trouble with movies like Mockingjay Part I is that they demand so little of the film medium. They’re not interested in being good movies, merely filmed readings of the novels, visual valentines to the devoted readers of the book series who want to expand their excitement and their experience of the fantasy. Harry Potter wasn’t content to be a well-told book series or even a film series. It eventually became a whole world unto itself at Islands of Adventure. And Hunger Games may one day have to follow in HP’s footsteps to give the fans what they truly want. Perhaps a Hunger Games-themed paintball park? No one is interested in adapting the series in a way that feels truly cinematic, although director Francis Lawrence does make some efforts with Mockingjay. But the movie is ultimately tethered to the book series in a way that ensures it will be a boring set-up for the finale. And viewers may likely find themselves restless with disinterest, but unwilling to criticize the movie since it’s part of a larger whole. How can we really even rate a movie like this, when it’s incomplete?

Even the great Jennifer Lawrence isn’t enough to save this movie. It’s partly her very quick rise as a respected actress—an ascendance that actually started before The Hunger Games—that has made her performance as Katniss Everdeen seem labored and gradually too familiar, too repetitive. Jennifer Lawrence already had an Academy Award nomination under her belt by the time she made the first Hunger Games (for the unsettling, murky meth-noir Winter’s Bone). Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other actors who were Oscar nominees before they were stars of hugely popular young adult movie franchises. Now that Lawrence has won an Oscar (for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook) and a third nomination (for last year’s American Hustle), her presence in Mockingjay Part I—the first half of the conclusion to The Hunger Games—is a little bit like a 22-year-old being stuck at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving. The other grown-ups have legally recognized her adulthood, but they’re still treating her like a child. Of course, Lawrence has obligations to fulfill, and this series is her bread and butter. But Mockingjay Part I is a real yawn of a movie, and for people who look forward to what Lawrence can do on the screen, it represents a dull speed bump for an actress who has shown such promise.

It’s especially hard to watch an actress as good as Jennifer Lawrence be so inactive. Katniss Everdeen never felt more passive than in this movie. She sits, she waits, she reacts. She’s occasionally enlisted to shoot propaganda videos to rally the districts, which are fighting a losing battle against the Capital. She waits for news of her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s a prisoner of the Capital being used as a puppet to denounce the civil war between the districts and the Capital as radical and self-destructive. The alleged love triangle between Katniss and Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) has no momentum, especially since Peeta is seen through a glass screen for most of the film. (And how crummy is it to be Gale at this point? Always doing things for the woman he knows will never love him back the way he wants her to.) She chats with the leaders of her district—Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman—about strategy. She chats with Woody Harrelson (her alcoholic mentor). She chats with Elizabeth Banks. But none of the conversation, none of the characterization, adds up or amounts to much.

There’s also not much of a strong villain presence. The only really tangible bad guy is the face of the cold, ominous President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who’s mostly seen on big TV screens and thus needs desperately to be petting a white cat on his lap. He’s too larger-than-life to feel very threatening, and the movie drones on vaguely about the Capital in a way that never make the threats of the Capital seem real or genuinely tense. Even the big scenes—such as an air raid by Capital bombers—fails to show us the weight or the impact of the struggle. We see lots of terrified district folks running for shelter as the building around them shakes. But we don’t see the bombers and the scene is rendered ineffectual. It’s stagey in the worst way, like when the actors in a play look out the window and report on what they see since we the audience cannot actually see it. Moore and Hoffman are stern and unfeeling and dull as the leaders, always vaguely unaffected by the many setbacks and tragedies going on around them, and too noble to be capable of any real feeling.

I haven’t read any of the Hunger Games books. I saw the first film, but skipped Catching Fire. About fifteen minutes into Mockingjay, I was wishing I had skipped it too and waited for the finale, which is sure to be more entertaining (one hopes). This silly trend of expanding the final entry of series into two movies is peculiar and, I think, antithetical to movies and what they are. (Studios, of course, cannot pass up an opportunity to squeeze as much money as they can out of their pet franchises.) Even fans of the series seemed largely underwhelmed by this installment. The theater wasn’t even crowded. (Granted, it was the middle of the afternoon.) And nobody seemed excited. When I went to the final Twilight movie on opening night, half the fun was observing the audience. Those fans were having the time of their lives. The movie was a bummer—although entertaining for what it was—but the fans’ energy made it worth seeing. This latest Hunger Games entry felt lifeless.

The film is technically well-made. The director, Francis Lawrence, makes an effort to give the movie some visual feeling. In an early scene, we see Katniss emerging from a circular hallway into a large bunker, and the shot is kind of elegant. Many of the scenes in Mockingjay are visually tied together in a way you don’t expect from this kind of series. And the movie doesn’t pound you over the head with ending after ending. (I suspect that will come with Part 2). No, this film’s problem is that it’s a place-holder, and there’s so much being withheld that it’s hard to care. Even the one big advancement in the film’s plot (involving Peeta’s eventual release from the Capital) feels too little too late.

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