Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1"

I haven't been a big fan of "The Hunger Games" series in general, and now it's fallen into the trap of so many fantasy/supernatural franchises based on books -- splitting up a novel into two movies. It's been done by Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Twilight and I'm sure the Divergent folks are gearing up to follow suit.

Nearly always, this is done for business rather than artistic reasons -- why sell one ticket to the series' slavering YA fans when you can sell two?

What usually ends up happening is that the penultimate movie is a bunch of boring exposition and build-up, and you have to wait for the follow-up for the real catharsis.

It should be noted that "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1" is 20-25 minutes shorter than the previous two films, and the lack of a substantive narrative is glaring. It essentially plays out as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), having escaped the tortures of the gladiator-like televised games organized by the oppressive nation of Panem, spending most of the movie wandering around looking haunted and google-eyed.

The thing we liked about Katniss is that she's tough, resourceful and fiercely independent. She made things happen and shook things up. Here, relegated to a more passive, reactionary role, she comes across as a whiny teen thrust onto a stage she hasn't earned.

The action scenes are still engaging, what few of them there are, and Donald Sutherland still has a twinkly, loathsome presence as President Snow, the thoroughly evil dictator brutally putting down a rebellion inspired by Katniss, aka the Mockingjay.

Long stretches, though, are just plain dull.

If you'll recall from the last movie: Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), having jointly won their Hunger Games by faking a romance for the benefit of the audience, were recalled by Snow to participate in another games featuring past champions. It turns out the rebellion, aided by Games Master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), had rigged the games to break out Katniss and several other of the champions as a way to stoke the rebellion in the various Districts.

Katniss, brilliant scientist Betee (Jeffrey Wright) and pretty boy Finnick (Sam Claflin) were rescued, but Peeta and the others were captured by the forces of the Capital. Katniss finds herself in the hands of District 13, the stark underground home base of the rebellion, which is led by enigmatic president Coin (Julianne Moore).

She finds some familiar faces who survived the bombing of her own district, including her mother, sister and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her childhood friend and would-be lover. Katniss is tasked with appearing in a bunch of propaganda videos, or propos, decked out in a cool black Mockingjay uniform. But she turns out to be a terrible actress, so they decide to put her into actual combat, which yields some better footage. The war plays out mostly offscreen, with reports of various insurrections and retaliations filtering in.

The big surprise is when Peeta starts showing up in Capital broadcasts as the counterpoint to Katniss, urging peace and responsibility. He's denounced as a traitor by the rebels, and Katniss has to deal with her complicated feelings for him. She doesn't fully return the romantic ardor Peeta had for her, but there is love on some level. The pair, formerly faux lovers, are pushed by their respective backers into positions of antagonism.

Director Francis Lawrence, a holdover from the last movie, is joined by two new screenwriters, Danny Strong and Peter Craig, in adapting Suzanne Collins' novel. I've actually read all three of the Hunger Games books -- don't judge; it was research! -- and have been surprised by how faithfully the films have followed them.

Fans may appreciate this ultimate fidelity, but it can actually be a problem when adapting a book to the movies. The rhythms of the page and the screen are completely different, and I think that's why so many sections of this movie feel like we're treading water, story-wise.

I mean, at this point what purpose do Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) serve in the movie, other than recalling some friendly faces? Their tiny bit of expositional dialogue could easily be passed off to other characters. Kill 'em off, I say.

They key challenge in adapting a book to film is finding ways to condense and distill the tale down to its essence. There's no such attempt at cinematic alchemy here.

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