Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 — Fails to catch fire

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for violence, disturbing action and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.21.14

As was true of its two predecessors, this newest big-screen installment in the Hunger Games franchise follows its source quite closely.

Which, in this case, isn’t a good thing.

When Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, foreground right) agrees to check on the injured civilians
in a District 8 hospital, she's joined by, from left, Commander Paylor (Patina Miller) Gale
(Liam Hemsworth), Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and Pollux (Elden Henson).
Suzanne Collins’ third novel is gawdawful: a complete betrayal of her characters, and of her readers. I can’t imagine what the author was smoking when she wrote it, but this much is obvious: Her heart wasn’t in it, and — in hindsight — she should have quit after the first one.

My sympathies therefore lie with scripters Peter Craig and Danny Strong, tasked with making a cinematic silk purse out of this sow’s ear of a book. With credits such as The Town, Game Change and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, they seem an odd choice to craft a post-apocalyptic narrative that spends so much time inside the head of a strong and resourceful young woman, which may explain why Katniss Everdeen is such a mess in this film.

Not even Jennifer Lawrence, who aside from her considerable talent certainly knows this character by now, can persuasively deliver the frankly ludicrous emotional arcs demanded by this storyline.

On top of which, this film suffers the problem that plagued the penultimate Harry Potter film. Both J.K. Rowling’s The Deathly Hallows and Collins’ Mockingjay save most of their action for the second half, limiting the first portions to sidebar exposition and increasingly melodramatic angst.

If Hollywood, in its cynical desire to wring as much money as possible from these franchises, chops each final book in half, we’re therefore tormented with a two-hour film “teaser” that accomplishes ... almost nothing. Harry Potter 7.1 was a yawn: a time-filler that should have been subtitled Harry and Hermione Go Camping.

Hunger Games 3.1, in turn, should be dubbed Katniss Has a Good Cry. Repeatedly.

It’s not that Katniss doesn’t deserve an emotional collapse; goodness knows, she has been through a lot during the year-plus covered by the first two books (and films). But it’s distressing to see a character who initially impressed us as a resourceful fighter, suddenly transformed into a near-helpless victim who gets acted upon.

Granted, Katniss is destined to regain her spunk as things continue, but that’s a discussion for next year’s Hunger Games 3.2.

Meanwhile, we’re stuck with this one.

When last we saw Katniss, she had just destroyed the entire Hunger Games arena while the entire Panem viewing audience watched, agog; she then was swept away by rebels from the hitherto-believed-destroyed District 13. An enraged President Snow (Donald Sutherland) responded by fire-bombing Katniss’ home community — District 12 — out of existence.

Thanks to quick thinking on the part of her longtime sorta-kinda lover, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), roughly 10 percent of the district was saved, including Katniss’ mother (Paula Malcomson) and sister, Prim (Willow Shields). They’ve all been embraced by District 13, joined by — surprise, surprise — the most recent Hunger Games designer, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has been a clandestine member of the rebel alliance all along.

Katniss is astonished to discover that the many District 13 inhabitants are doing quite well in their underground bunker community, and in fact have the well-armed means to mount serious strikes against Snow and his fortified District 1. But such a rebellion can’t succeed unless all the other districts also get on board, and they need to be motivated by a living symbol: Katniss, ideally playing up the mockingjay emblem that she has embraced.

But Katniss is feeling neither symbolic nor cooperative; she’s furious and distraught because the aforementioned rescue mission — which also saved Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) — failed to prevent Snow’s Peacekeepers from snatching Johanna (Jena Malone) and most particularly Katniss’ fellow Hunger Games victor, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

(Katniss’ personal life remains complicated. She actually loves Gale, but has been forced to pretend otherwise; she never thought of Peeta as more than a friend, but has been forced to pretend to love him. We must remember that Collins’ target readership was teenage girls.)

District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) fears that Katniss may be emotionally broken beyond repair; Plutarch believes otherwise. Their “Mockingjay” simply needs fresh motivation, and that won’t be in short supply, with the Hitler-esque Snow calling the shots throughout Panem.

The bulk of this newest Hunger Games chapter, then, is devoted to Plutarch’s efforts to transform Katniss into an effective propaganda star for inspirational video spots helmed by ace director Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and filmed by guerilla cinematographers Castor (Wes Chatham) and Pollux (Elden Henson).

So, yes, we’re watching a movie ... about a character trying to make movies.

And that, ironically, nails this film’s core problem: It lacks the immediacy and emotional verisimilitude of its two predecessors. At one point, Katniss’ trainer Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) challenges Coin, Beetee, Plutarch and some colleagues to recall the moments when Katniss most inspired them; the answers are, indeed, some of the most powerful incidents from the first two books and movies.

Nothing in this film, however, comes even close.

Not even after this chapter’s sole action scene, when Katniss and Gale attempt to prevent Peacekeeper planes from destroying a District 8 hospital. In the aftermath, as Cressida orders Katniss to speak earnestly, about what has just happened — Castor and Pollux duly recording the results — the result feels .... contrived. Lawrence’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it, and her tears look like (ahem) acting.

The magic is gone.

Instead, we sense only obligation: the need to go through the motions and slog along, so that the story can wheeze and gasp its way to a conclusion. Collins hasn’t the faintest understanding of endgame, and Craig and Strong clearly weren’t in a position to “correct” her.

They do try, though, particularly during a climactic assault on District 1 that concludes this installment: a rebel sortie that took place entirely off-camera in Collins’ book (and how daft was that?). We get to watch that mission unfold here, as director Francis Lawrence builds the only suspense present in this entire film.

As you’ve undoubtedly gathered by now, we’ve accumulated a lot of characters during the course of this vicious and frequently mean-spirited saga; this installment introduces even more. As a result, we get only brief glimpses of stalwarts such as Haymitch and Prim, although both Harrelson and Shields make the most of their screen time.

Elizabeth Banks stands out as former District 1 costumer Effie Trinket, now a reluctant rebel due to her fondness for Katniss; Effie is a hoot, and Banks has fun with her caustic one-liners. Mahershala Ali, a busy character actor best known for TV shows such as The 4400 and Treme, is warmly authoritative as Boggs, President Coin’s right-hand man.

Hoffman and Moore seem to be slumming, neither bringing any particular oomph to their roles. Hoffman’s Plutarch was a lot more interesting in the previous film, when we thought he was one of the bad guys; here he’s rather bland.

Claflin has some solid moments as the emotionally shattered Finnick, while Hutcherson tries his best — not successfully — to deliver an emotional arc that’s even crazier than what Lawrence attempts to accomplish with Katniss. Hemsworth’s Gale gets one genuinely touching moment with Katniss, after which he’s simply ... stoic.

Actually, the acting standout here is Sutherland, who brings delicious malevolence to his portrayal of the reprehensible Snow; he’s quite chilling during one exchange with Katniss ... a truly terrifying villain.

The tech credits and special effects are top-notch, as always; production designer Philip Messina is particularly imaginative with District 13’s underground community. Effie Trinket’s presence in this chapter notwithstanding, we get none of the opulently crazed costumes that Judianna Makovsky and Trish Summerville concocted in the two earlier films; this time out, everybody is stuck with boot camp fatigues.

Those familiar with Collins’ book won’t have any trouble predicting where this film will stop, having hit an ideal cliff-hanger; it’s as good a place as any, to leave us hanging until next November.

At which point, we’ll find out if Lawrence, Strong and Craig are able to soften some of the unforgivably heinous shocks that Collins throws into the final chapters of her novel.

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