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Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Sorry for the delay but here are a few of my own thoughts on the somewhat underrated latest Hunger Games movie.

Once again, a quick reminder and disclaimer that I haven't read a word of the novels and all my usually effusive views on the series are based almost entirely on the films themselves. I have no idea how close this is to the novel, in other words, and I don't particularly care - but I fully understand that if you're one of those fans who have devoured the books multiple times, your views may well be very different to mine.

Continuing in the recent tradition of splitting adaptations of popular kid- or YA novels into two or more films, the latest Hunger Games movie captures only the first part of the final book in Suzanne Collins' massively popular series. It's unquestionably true that this is a decision based almost entirely on monetary concerns, what with the Mockingjay novel not being significantly longer than its predecessors and everything, but the resulting film is actually far less of a disaster than you might expect going in. Indeed, though I can't bring myself to give more than a seven out of ten to a movie that resolutely cannot stand on its own at all, Mockingjay - Part 1 isn't that much of a drop off from the series' excellent second installment and makes the very best of its cynical commercial mandate.

Unlike the head-pulverizingly dull Hobbit trilogy where the extended running time is devoted primarily to completely uninteresting filler and grotesquely over-inflated set pieces, director Frances Lawrence and script writers and franchise newcomers, Peter Craig and Danny Strong, use their luxury of more time to delve deeper into these characters and their world, while launching into a particularly gripping look at the political complexity of this dystopia and the way that so much of the war is fought through the media, rather than through conventional warfare.

The series has always been interested in the way aesthetics and a strong media presence allows for a hopelessly corrupt government to get away with very literal murder but that reaches its apotheoses here, as we see Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) reconfigured as a symbol for the rebellious District 13, even as her former comrade in arms and potential love interest Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson) suddenly turns up as the face of the totalitarian Capital. Furthering this theme, the film also gives us a canny comparison of the leaders of the two factions - Julianne Moore as District 13's coldly efficient President Coin and, once again, Donald Sutherland as the Capital's genial face of ruthless tyranny, President Snow - whose similarity in methodology and big-picture thinking make for frightening mirror images of one another and a true reflection of how thin the line between benevolence and malevolence in political leaders truly is.          

That these compellingly anarchic and impressively complex ideas are convincingly presented in the most populist way imaginable, all aimed squarely at a fairly young viewership, only further proves that the Hunger Games series is simply operating on another level entirely to its far less inspired dystopian-tinged, YA contemporaries. Many have bemoaned the lack of action in Mockingjay - Part 1 but I, for one, definitely appreciate the more contemplative and cerebral tone that the series has been allowed to indulge in before it launches into its inevitably action-packed finale.  

Also, much like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1, this penultimate installment also simply allows us to spend a bit more time with these characters before we inevitably have to bid them a fond - or, at times, not so fond - farewell around this time next year. Admittedly, the romantic tension between Katniss and her two possible suitors remains the least engaging aspect of the whole series, especially as Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta are two of the series' least interesting characters, but, on the whole, this is a film crammed to the gills with great characters portrayed by some of the finest actors around.  

We get more of Woody Harrelson as the now slightly less drunk Haymish Abernathy and Elizabeth Banks as the slightly less extravagant but no less entertaining Effie Trinket and the introduction of Julianne Moore's cautious President Coin as a counterpoint to Donald Sutherland's mustache-twirling President Snow is a stroke of brilliance, but Mockingjay Part 1 really belongs to two actors and their characters: Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee - the latter of which may just have the maddest name in a series full of mad, mad names.

I did admittedly miss the sparky presence of Jenna Malone this time around and there are so many supporting characters that people like Sam Claflin and the always overlooked-yet-excellent Jeffrey Wright are given less to do than you might hope, but all this is mitigated somewhat by the the amount of time devoted to the sterling work of Lawrence and Hoffman.

At this point, it's probably unnecessary to repeat how fantastically good Jennifer Lawrence is as the series' central heroine but, honestly, between the ridiculous backlash that she's received of late, especially in the face of the non-scandal of certain pictures of her appearing all over the internet (the so-called "slut-shaming" that went on was disgustingly wrongheaded even by the internet's usual, bottom-feeding standards), it's good to see her once again reminding her detractors of just how unbelievably good she is at what she does. Katniss is clearly an interesting character already but she would be nothing on screen without Lawrence's beautifully nuanced, compassionate and utterly believable performance - a performance that is, very simply, the glue that holds the entire series together.  

As for Philip Seymour Hoffman, he may or may not get the most screen time of all the film's many, many supporting characters but, aside for Lawrence herself, his presence definitely looms largest. In part, this is undoubtedly the case because, as District 13's PR man and the guy who is basically tasked with turning Katniss into a symbol for the resistance, his character is the perfect embodiment of the film's major themes. More than anything else though, Hoffman's magnetically wry presence grants an otherwise very bleak film a certain amount of zing, not to mention humour.

It's interesting that the Mockingjay two-parter has turned out to be Hoffman's last film work because, however impressive he may well be in something like A Most Wanted Man, Mockingjay Part 1 is a poignant reminder of just how much his very presence contributes to any sort of film he appears in - up to and including huge, highly commercial Hollywood franchises. For me personally, it's especially poignant that his character here weirdly resembles the role in which he really first came to my attention: Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's wonderful Almost Famous.

There are plenty of reasons to check out this third Hunger Games film but it's worth it just as an all too poignant epitaph for one of the silver screen's greatest talents - and a heartbreaking reminder of what we lost.


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