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How to start.
Well, there’s really no point in putting it off.
At the risk of losing what little reputation I have (if I even have one); at the risk of inviting ridicule, derision, mockery and scorn from those who read my reviews who don’t already hold me in ridicule, derision, mockery and scorn; and at the risk of being reviled by serious filmgoers far and wide…
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part I is not nearly as bad as the critics claim it is and is by far the best entry in the franchise to date, far better than the first two films.
In fact, it is often profound, insightful and deeply moving.
There, I said it. Do your worst. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
At the same time, there is still a significant question to be addressed…
Is it a good movie?
Well, no, I can’t really say that. It’s above average. It’s well done. It has a lot going for it.
But it’s also quite hit and miss and has enough faults to prevent it from really rising above what it is. It only sometimes reaches the emotional heights it should.
Yet, it’s not entirely worthless either.
And there you have it.
So…on to specifics, shall we? I believe the primary reason why Mockingjay outranks the first two films is actually rather simple: there are no Hunger Games in this entry of the Hunger Games.
Of course, if that is the reason you are attending the movie, you are going to be greatly disappointed.
But for me, the competition itself, a sort of satire of our present day fascination with reality TV, was, in many ways, the least interesting aspect of the earlier stories.
I always felt that the main mistake the filmmakers made in adapting the books was in focusing on the action within the arena rather than focusing on what really makes the Hunger Games the Hunger Games: the input the citizens of Capital City have on the outcome; how the various power brokers manipulate events to achieve a desired end; how the audience members can interfere and change the fortunes of the players.
In other words, the lives of the people who rule the games with impunity were almost totally ignored, the snobs were snubbed, the nabobs nixed, even though these are the people who were in control of the situation, and thus, in many ways, drove much of the story.
Instead, the movies focused on the final battle royale itself, which was never that interesting and was more a set of arbitrary fight scenes that were never really emotionally involving.
For me, this latest entry succeeds by focusing almost solely on aspects the first two films ignored: what is going on behind the scenes. Because Mockingjay is an almost step by step, precise and comprehensive dramatization of what it takes to create a revolution.
In Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen is no longer running the show. She’s actually no longer driving the story. This has fallen to two other characters, President Alma Coin, the military leader of the rebellion, and Plutarch Heavensbee, her primary adviser.
The two recognize that now is the time to bring down President Snow, the despotic leader of the country. And if they don’t do it at this precise moment, it may take two more generations for the districts to rally around for another attempt.
And so they put their plans into motion. The first tread on the staircase is to create an ersatz leader of the movement. That, of course, is Katniss. The problem is that she doesn’t want to lead. She’s no Joan of Arc, nor does she desire to be.
But in incremental steps, clearly defined, Heavensbee and Coin manipulate Katness into not just becoming their face in the crowd, but into having the personality, drive and fire to do so.
I mean, Mockingjay is a very cynical movie. It’s not Katniss who Coin and Heavensbee are interested in. It’s what she symbolizes. They have no personal emotional stake in her outcome. Their only concern is whether she can lead their side to victory. They’d replace her in a nano-sec if that would help their cause.
There is a very telling moment at the finale of the film that I think fully demonstrates this. Part I ends with Coin addressing the troops and rallying them to battle. The emphasis, in many ways, is on her. Katniss has been shunted to the side. At that moment, she’s no longer that important.
However, in order to understand just how cynical the movie is, it’s important to focus on a series of early scenes. When Katniss won’t agree to star in a rousing recruitment commercial and be the face of the rebellion, they fly her to her home district which was bombed into oblivion and filled with a river of bones from people mercilessly massacred. The horror causes her to reconsider her stance.
But when she tries to film the commercial, her reciting of the lines falls flat, embarrassingly so. She has no personality and can’t fake passion.
So they fly her, along with a film crew, to a hospital in a district scarred by battle with the Capitol. There, the wounded go silent in awe at her entrance and then vow to follow her wherever she leads, saluting her with the mockingjay symbol (this is, actually, only one of a number of powerful and moving moments, focusing as it does on the real cost of a civil war—the common people who have to fight it).
But Snow, being advised where Katniss is, orders the bombing of the hospital since, by visiting with their warrior princess, the sick, wounded and dying are breaking the law by aiding the rebellion.
Katniss witnesses the bombing. And at that twinkling, now that she has the right Stanislavsky motivation to give her the inner fire to make the speech, she does so. And the film crew tapes her with all the calm of sociopaths. For them, for Coin, for Heavensbee, yeah, sure, too bad the hospital got bombed, but that’s not nearly as important as the Madmen like ad they now have.
And it works. Katness’s speech inspires other acts of self-sacrifice, incidents of smaller rebellions where the inhabitants of various districts willingly allow themselves to be brutally cut down by Capitol soldiers if they can, say, stop production of the raw materials the Capitol needs to manufacture arms or to blow up the dam that provides the primary source of power to the Capitol.
It’s scenes like this that make the movie. It’s the sacrifice of unnamed, unknown, unheralded people that often bring the real emotion to the film.
And it’s the non-caring, often cruel exploitation of these civilian soldiers that bring the cynicism to it.
For those of you who are only interested in the final show down of the rebels and the Capitol, yes, this half of the final two films may feel like the longest prologue to a story in movie history.
But if you are more interested in both the psychology of a revolution and what it takes and costs to achieve victory, then you may very well find this part of the movie as interesting as I do.
It’s certainly not a perfect film. In one way, it has the same fault as parts one and two. We still never get a good idea as to what life in the Capital is like. We know what is going on behind the scenes in the rebellion and what happens in the arena, but we never got, and still aren’t getting, a good idea of what is going on where the ruling class actually rules.
What we do know is only hinted at. In a rather surprising revelation, Finnick Odair, a former winner of the Games, reveals that the victors were not just lauded and celebrated, but were often prostituted to powerful members of the Capitol’s elite and were, in many ways, sold into sexual slavery. He also reveals that along the way he learned many of the secrets of the movers and shakers of this incredibly decadent society and just how Snow managed to maintain his power among the power brokers that surrounded him.
But just where is this decadence? How does it manifest itself? What sort of society have these working class worker ants been supporting?
It’s all so maddeningly vague.
At the same time, there is something a tad off about this; after all, Katniss was a winner of the Games and none of what happened to Finnick happened to her. But this is such a startling revelation that one can’t believe this was never made more a part of the story earlier on.
And the penultimate climax of the movie, Snow’s attempt to use Peeta as a human weapon to take out Katniss is poorly staged and is over before it begins. This is a through line that screams for a slow build and Hitchcockian suspense, but it’s horribly, even mind-bogglingly, bungled.
In fact, though so many are saying that the movie is too long and that it would have worked better if the story hadn’t been divided into two parts, I say no, that Mockingjay-Part I is actually too short and it might have been of benefit to the movie for it to be thirty minutes longer or have the final installment broken up into three parts (hey, if Jackson can do it).
The acting is of the usual mixed-bag. What is unusual here is that almost everyone involved, including Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss (who else) and Julianne Moore as Coin start out giving flat and uninteresting line readings. Only Philip Seymour Hoffman as Heavensbee seems right on point from his first appearance.
Moore is even saddled with one of the worst hairdos I’ve ever seen in a film (I was so relieved when Effie, the fashionista of the rebels, makes a snide comment about it—all I could think was, yes, it’s not just me).
But as the film progresses, both Moore and Lawrence gain in power (even Coin’s hairstyle becomes less annoying and distracting). As characters, they both seem to give the other the personality and characteristics they need to gain the persona they need to lead the rebellion. They both rise to the occasion, or surpass it, with strong, powerhouse performances.
The rest of the cast is pretty much the same as before. Katniss is stuck with two love interests, both of whom are played by fairly bland and dull actors (Josh Hutcherson as Peeta and Liam Helmsworth, of the himbo Helmsworths, as Gale Hawthorne). It reminded me of the movies of the studio years when non-threatening and less than stellar male performers were cast to play against actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford so as not to distract from whom the real star is.
Also around for the fun and non-games is Donald Sutherland, now a grand old man of the movies (who’da thought he’d go from playing the rebel in movies like M*A*S*H to being dictator—though as Mel Brooks said, it’s good to be the king), totally relaxed as Snow; Woody Harrelson not given enough to do as Haymitch Abernathy; Elizabeth Banks as Effie, who actually creates a great deal of sympathy as she first whines about the look alike uniform she is forced to wear—until she slowly manages to make the look her own (you almost look forward to her next arrival just to see what new addition she’s made to her redesign); Jeffrey Wright, as the technician Beetee; and Stanley Tucci as the TMZ type commentator with a horrible tan, Caesar Flickerman.
In the end, I think that much of the reason why Mockingjay-Part I is a vast improvement over the earlier films probably has to be laid at the door of the writers Peter Craig, Danny Strong and Suzanne Collins (who wrote the book) and Francis Lawrence, who directed.
It all feels as if they took the story, the ideas, the approach, much more seriously than they did before.
And they did so to such a degree that they left me with a very unnerving feeling at the end—when Moore mounts the podium to deliver her final Henry V, St. Crispin’s Day speech, I was no longer sure that the rebel leaders would be any different or any better a ruler than Snow.
I’m not sure whether Coin is fighting for democracy and freedom or for power.
But I’ll guess I’ll have to wait until the next movie to find out.