Monday, November 24, 2014
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1 Never Quite Catches Fire
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1 Review:
- There's a lot to like about the Hunger Games franchise. In an era when it still feels like we're lacking for female-driven blockbusters on the big screen, The Hunger Games stands as a defiant example of just how wrong and shortsighted big studios can be when it comes to diversifying their tentpole franchises. Katniss Everdeen as played by Jennifer Lawrence kicks all kinds of ass, and Lawrence is surrounded by a supporting cast littered with top-notch talent - from Philip Seymour Hoffman to Elizabeth Banks to Donald Sutherland to Jeffrey Wright to Julianne Moore (joining the series with Mockingjay) - who help to elevate The Hunger Games beyond what it might have been otherwise. That said, MOCKINGJAY, PART 1 also exhibits some of the worst tendencies of modern franchise filmmakiing: artificially extending a story to maximize revenue rather than because it's creatively justified, and in doing so presenting a decompressed storyline that is too frequently filled up with scenes of characters literally just sitting and talking in ways that don't drive the plot forward. MOCKINGJAY has its share of memorable, exciting moments - and Lawrence is as great as ever. But in its need to fill out two hours with only half a story, the film takes on the vibe of a 22-episode CW series - lots of on-the-nose dialogue seemingly inserted just to keep things from moving ahead too quickly. To put it simply, MOCKINGJAY is less killer, more filler.
When we last left off at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss' dome-shattering flaming arrow - a dramatic end to the all-star edition of The Hunger Games - had helped spur revolution across Pan-Em. Katniss found herself whisked away by a previously-secret band of freedom fighters that included old flame Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and former games-master Plutarch Heavensbee. Now, the group - housed in a fortified underground compound (also there: a de-glammed Effie Trinket and Wright's science-whiz Beetee), wants Katniss to be the spokesperson for their revolutionary movement. Katniss is reluctant, but she agrees when she realizes that her Hunger Games companion, Peeta, has become a mouthpiece for President Snow's evil empire. Katniss decides to go out on the frontlines with a camera crew, and broadcast the Snow-inflicted devastation and tyranny to the masses (thanks to Beetee's hacking of the airwaves). All the while, tensions escalate as all-out war looms.
There's some really great, effective stuff in this film. There are some really funny and fun moments in which Katniss is awkwardly prepped by Julianne Moore's revolutionary leader Alma Coin - and a braintrust that includes Hoffman's Plutarch and Woody Harrelson's returning (and struggling-to-be-sober) Haymitch - to be the TV-friendly leader of the cause. Later, as the revolution gains steam, there's an absolutely fantastic scene of Katniss singing a rousing spiritual hymn to her friends, which then - in a stunning montage - becomes the battle hymn of revolutionaries throughout Pan-Em. There's also a super-sweet action sequence in which Katniss shoots down Snow's aircraft with incendiary arrows. I generally like director Francis Lawrence, and he's got a knack for crafting really epic, really effective apocalyptic imagery. And so another highlight of the film are some pretty jaw-dropping scenes that portray the destruction and death caused by Snow's systematic annihilation of problematic Districts in Pan-Em. Yep, in MOCKINGJAY we see Katniss drop to her knees and cry out helplessly among skeleton-filled ruins of destroyed cities - pretty epic - and surprisingly dark - stuff. In and of themselves, there are plenty of moments here that set the stage quite nicely for the coming final battle.
However, there are also lots of moments that remind me of the sorts of stuff we tend to see on TV shows that have to uncomfortably fill up 22 hours of airtime every season: people sitting around, talking, in a way that grinds the momentum of the storytelling to a screeching halt. We all know the kinds of scenes I'm talking about from shows like The Walking Dead: one character walks into a room, finds another character brooding there, and the two proceed to have a "deep" conversation in which they verbalize what we could already infer from their actions - often through pointless anecdotes or meandering confessions. Some may praise the inclusion of these scenes in MOCKINGJAY, and call it character-building. Sure, on the surface, yes. But I call it filler. It's ironic, because there's actually a scene in this movie where Haymitch reminds the rebellion's braintrust of Katniss' most memorable moments in her rise to fame, in an effort to dissuade them from trying too hard to package her in an artificial or forced-feeling manner for their propaganda pieces. Haymitch's words should have also been taken to heart by the filmmakers: what we remember about this series are the character moments that come organically in service of the plot, not those that feel like a forced way to shoehorn more "characterization" These scenes also constrict Frances Lawrence, as he's reduced to shooting lots of static scenes of two characters in a room having protracted heart-to-hearts. By the end of the movie, momentum just seems all but drained - rendering even the big, would-be-heart-pounding attack on the rebellion's compound feel pretty blah. The movie rallies in the final few minutes with a surprising final twist, but the shocker is more in its horror-movie-esque, jump-scare delivery than with the actual plot ramifications.
Luckily, the franchise's ace-in-the-hole is still Jennifer Lawrence, who carries the whole Hunger Games on her shoulders and makes even the film's weaker scenes work as well as they possibly could. It's funny, pop-culture watchers are so frequently exposed to Lawrence's goofy, good-natured real-life persona that it's easy to forget how badass and epic of a hero she is as Katniss. The real heart and soul of the film is Katniss' rise from accidental hero to genuine leader and revolutionary. And this is where the movie really soars - again, in large part thanks to Lawrence's performance. Lawrence makes Katniss' gradual acceptance of her role in the revolution feel natural and earned, and so the movie's true climax isn't any plot twist or battle, but a late-movie scene in which a crowd of tattered, embattled citizens collectively show their allegiance and loyalty to Katniss.
Unfortunately, as good as Lawrence is, and as good as some of the supporting cast is (Moore is fantastic as always, and Seymour-Hoffman - RIP - makes even the smallest of moments pop) ... there are still some clear weak links. Josh Hutcherson has gotten better as this series has progressed, but as Petah, he still feels outmatched and outclassed by Lawrence. And I'm not sure how much of this is on Liam Hemsworth, and how much is the script's poor development of Gale, but the character still feels pretty lifeless, present more so to deliver the requisite love-triangle component of the story (this is still YA, afterall), than anything else. The young women of this world continue to outshine their male counterparts. In Catching Fire that was true of Jenna Malone's standout turn as Johanna (she pops up briefly here), and is again true in MOCKINGJAY with the addition of Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer, as Katniss-documentarian Cressida. Dormer does well for herself here, stealing a couple of scenes via sheer presence and badassery.
I wouldn't necessarily have minded the first MOCKINGJAY film ending on a cliffhanger if it felt right, and if there seemed like enough material in this one to justify a story-split. But sadly, this does sort of feel like half a movie, and worse, it feels like a movie that is very padded and diluted in the name of ensuring the franchise's extension into four chapters. I'll always enjoy Lawrence in this role, and the stacked supporting cast keeps things interesting. But the decompressed storytelling makes MOCKINGJAY feel more like an episode of a primetime TV soap, and less like the penultimate chapter of the big dystopian action franchise that it is and should be. The movie feels less like it's barreling towards an epic conclusion, and more like it's out for a leisurely stroll. Sure, I'm onboard for the final chapter. But at this point, it's a bit more out of obligation than genuine excitement for what's to come.
My Grade: B-