Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 review

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is the first half of a two part finale to the hugely successful franchise.  Director Francis Lawrence returns to the helm, after the incredibly lucrative Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  The films are of course based on the novels of the same name.  Lots to talk about, so let's go!

What I liked about the film:
The Performances
If there was something I enjoyed the most in this film, it would undoubtedly be the performances.  Jennifer Lawrence returns as our hero, Katniss Everdeen.  We didn't need this film to tell us that Lawrence is an incredible actress, with unlimited talent.  She IS Katniss Everdeen.  Lawrence demands our attention, and grabs hold of the audience fairly early on.  I noticed that with the darker subject matter of this film, we didn't explore nearly as many sides of Katniss' character.  It's understandable, but I enjoyed seeing a more playful, comedic side to Katniss, in previous films.  Nonetheless, Lawrence did a phenomenal job and brought her A-game to this picture.

The supporting cast is just as good.  I wish I could give examples of every actor's great work in the film, but you'll be reading this until tomorrow if I did.  Josh Hutcherson returns as Peeta; and while he has very little screen time, he relays the characters' emotions perfectly.  Liam Hemsworth plays Katniss' other love interest, Gale, and portrays a confused and frustrated young man very well.  Other notable performances include Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright and Stanley Tucci.

And how could I forget, the late, great, Philip Seymour Hoffman?  Prior to the films completion, Hoffman passed away; leaving a large fan base (myself included), wondering, in what capacity, he would be a part of the film.  I was most pleasantly surprised to see that he had a significant role in the film.  He has some really terrific scenes, where he gets to show off his incredible range.  From angry and frustrated to smart, sarcastic and funny.  I am going to miss watching this man on the big screen.

What I didn't like about the film:
The Story
Ok, just so you die-hard Hunger Games fanboys and girls are prepared; it's all negative from here.  So click off this site if you don't want to hear honest opinion, supported by examples.

There is no real story in this film.  A story contains a beginning, middle and end.  Peter Craig and Danny Strong are the writers of the film, but I can't completely blame them for this mishap.  The studio, for the most obvious of reasons, decided to split the final book in the series, into two films.  We've seen numerous examples of this in the past decade; most notably, the final Harry Potter book.  That being said, this film does not accomplish what Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 did; tell a compelling story, AND, set up the epic finale to a beloved franchise.  Mockingjay Part 1 is just the beginning of one story.

There is a way to tell a tight knit story, AND slowly build up to final battle we all know is coming.  The film is so preoccupied with exploring the different ways governments are run, the way propaganda is used, and how leaders can be manufactured, that it forgets what made the franchise so popular... the combination of a human story, with incredible characters and eye popping spectacle.

The Themes
I'm going to get a lot of pushback on this, but I'd like to explain.  Government, propaganda and leadership are merely a footnote in the first two films.  They are definitely present, and are important; but they are not the primary focus.  They are in this film.  I'm not saying these things CAN'T be a part of a Hunger Games film; I'm saying they SHOULDN'T be the primary focus of a Hunger Games film.  If these issues were just a scene or two in the film, it wouldn't be a problem.  But I'm positive the writers were forced to produce 'filler' scenes, where the filming of a propaganda video become a 20 minute affair.  I'm guessing these are all explored further in the books, but the only reason they're focused on here, is because of the split of the final film.  I'm sure of it.  The theme of hope, which are predominant in the first two films, is just brushed over with a quick stroke of the brush; and substituted with sparking the flame of war.

The Scope of the Film
When I wrote the review for Catching Fire; I noted that everything was stepped up a notch, and the scope of the film was larger than the first.  This movie does the opposite, and pulls back the size and scope of the movie.  It honestly felt like a prison movie.  Again, I get it, it's important to explore character and be somewhat faithful to the books; but this is a Hunger Games film damn it!  The majority of the film takes place in such a confined space, we the audience, are desperate to see the light of day.  And before you even begin to argue that this was done 'on purpose', you're wrong.  Again, it goes back to the film being split into two part.

The Action
There is none.  I shouldn't say none... there is an arrow shot and a few guns fired.  Look, I'm not asking for a 1990's action film with nonsensical explosions and killing.  I'm asking for a Hunger Games film; the film we were lead to believe in the trailers and in the films that preceded it.  Francis Lawrence is an incredible director, but this just doesn't feel like his movie.  Even I am Legend, a film Francis Lawrence also directed; better juggled character development with the subtlety of a desolate landscape and over the top spectacle.  This was not a Hunger Games film, I'm telling you.

The Setup
All the dislikes you've read above make up this point I'm about to make... the movie was a setup.  WE were setup.  There is a scene towards the end of the film, where I can guarantee most audiences will assume it's the end of the movie.  And in my opinion, it's where the film should have ended.  But there's a few more minutes before the movie ends in the most unusual of places.  I literally watched filmgoers in my theater look at each other, as if to ask 'is it over?'.  It really is a headscratcher as to why it ends there.  And if it's fan service to the people who read the book, I'm going to dislike the movie even more.  I've always said a book is a book, and a film is a film.  They're structured differently, and their stories are told differently.  We'll have to wait a year to see where all this setup is going to take us.

The Verdict:
It's not the film we were promised
I honestly blame the studio for the way this film turned out.  The director, set designers, composer, and the cast are all top notch in the film.  I'll even give the writers a nod.  A greedy studio, motivated by profits, and trying to please shareholders, affected the final product of an art I love so much.  The first two films explored interesting characters, told conscience stories, and featured glorious spectacle.  By splitting the final book into two films, they forced these artists to have to do things differently than they normally would.  Now I sound like an overprotective father.  But that's how much I enjoyed the first two films.  And the fact that the second film improved upon the first, you can only imagine the level of expectation I had for this film.  Needless to say, I hope the finale offers the sort of redemption I'm hoping for, this time next year.

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