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Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1



"I wish they died. I wish we all died."

Those cheery words from Finnick O'Dair (Sam Claflin) open The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, director Francis Lawrence's grand, grim, emotionally wrenching penultimate chapter in what is now The Hunger Games cinematic quadilogy. Newly rescued from the clutches of the evil Capitol at the conclusion of the previous film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself even more traumatized than before, now a pawn in the war for the liberation of Panem waged between the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the leader of the rebellious District 13, President Coin (Julianne Moore). The liberation of Panem, as masterminded by Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), needs a symbol to incite the remaining Districts to rebel and to rally behind. Katniss Everdeen is that symbol, the Mockingjay, whether she wants to be or not, whether she is psychologically or emotionally fit to be or not. But as long as Katniss has Jennifer Lawrence's movie star face, the Mockingjay can only be her.

"This isn't the girl you promised me," is Coin's assessment after meeting the Girl on Fire, and indeed, Katniss Everdeen is a burnt-out ember that needs continual fanning to spark the flames of anger and defiance simmering within her. Her PTSD from surviving the first Hunger Games has only worsened since surviving her second, where she bartered her own death for the survival of her co-victor and showmance "lover" Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Instead, Plutarch saved her because she's more valuable to their cause; Peeta meanwhile was recaptured by the Capitol, tortured, and is being used as a mouthpiece of subvert the burgeoning rebellion. Though her family, including her mother (Paula Malcolmson) and her beloved sister Prim (Willow Shields) are safe in the bowels of the underground fortress of District 13, as is her lifelong friend and now soldier for the cause Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss' sole concern in Mockingjay, Part 1 is the safety and rescue of Peeta, to the chagrin of Gale and, well, everyone in District 13. Though a capable survivor and "not a half bad shot" with a bow and arrow, as her newly-sober former mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) jests, Katniss' real value is to be the face of the Rebellion. There's no better face in all of Panem, but the girl behind that face, while sometimes on fire, is mostly a mess.

Against the superior technological and military might of the Capitol, District 13's strategy to win the war is pure Hollywood all the way: make a bunch of movies starring Katniss! Though they have aircraft, missiles and formidable firepower stored in their cavernous hidey-hole, what District 13 really boasts are cinematic production values. The importance of fashion in winning a war also becomes a major issue, according to the miserably dowdy Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks), who replaces the courageous and now-dead Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) as Katniss' personal stylist.  Mockingjay, Part 1's few amusing moments are meta; Katniss is a terrible actress and essentially unlikeable when made to perform. She only comes alive when placed in actual danger. (Lawrence playing Katniss giving wooden, cringe-worthy line readings is golden.) As Panem's marquee movie star, Katniss is shuttled off to the war zones of Panem with a camera crew and director (Natalie Dormer, underutilized) in tow to film her very honest and emotional reactions to hospitals being bombed and thousands of innocents massacred. Katniss turns out to be an effective and powerful Mockingjay, indeed. Watching Katniss shoot down a Capitol fighter jet with a explosive arrow would make Arrow on The CW green with envy. "And if she dies?" worries Coin about putting her Mockingjay in mortal peril. "Get it on camera," retorts Katniss. The symbol endures whether or not the Mockingjay lives.

The war itself becomes a series of "moves and counter moves," as summarized on-the-nose by Snow. It basically works like this: the Capitol bombed a District! Roll a movie! The Capitol massacred thousands of innocent people! Roll another movie! When Dormer films Katniss touchingly singing a song called "The Hanging Tree," suddenly District 13 has a musical way better than Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music - Live! on its hands. "Katniss Everdeen's The Hanging Tree" successfully riles up the people of the other Districts to attack the Capitol's white-clad storm troopers and blow up a hydro-electric dam supplying power to the Capitol. Of course, bombs and guns aren't the only weapons in Snow's arsenal. Though he does order the bombing of District 13, which they survive without a soul lost, Snow saves his best weapon of all for his favorite game: mind fucking Katniss. Routinely, Snow puts Peeta on television to urge for a cease fire, each time looking more and more weathered and disheveled as a result of mind control and torture. For shits and giggles, Snow finds ways to leave white roses around, be it in Katniss' former mansion when she visits or dropping them by the thousands on District 13, just to remind her who the real thorn in her side is, as if she could ever forget. The white roses also remind the audience that the crux of The Hunger Games saga is the emotional trampling of a teenage girl by a sinister old man. 

Adapting the final book of The Hunger Games into two films (perhaps unnecessarily), Mockingjay, Part 1 exchanges urgency for a stately pace, building suspense intensely though extended interludes between the characters. The quality of Mockingjay, Part 1 is built on the innumerable qualities of its exceptionally gifted Academy Award-winning star Jennifer Lawrence. Commanding every frame, Lawrence delivers above and beyond as Katniss is pushed continually past the limits of what a teenage girl should be forced to endure, even in a broken world such as hers. Every fiery, fleetingly joyful, or hopelessly harrowing emotion Lawrence feels is palpably projected on screen, and she continues to be surrounded by world class actors like Hoffman, Moore, Sutherland, and Jeffrey Wright as techno-whiz Beetee to bring out her best. When Snow, grinning like a Cheshire cat, finally comes face to face with Katniss, Mockingjay, Part 1 showcases the best scenes between a hero vs. villain communicating only through television screens since Kirk and Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The inevitable cliffhanger of Mockingjay, Part 1 is a powerhouse, as Gale successfully rescues Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone with a shaved head) and Peeta from the Capitol, only to find Peeta twisted by Snow's mind control into Katniss' assassin. Only a few minutes of Peeta in the movie, with him gradually becoming a raving monster, makes Mockingjay, Part 1 the best Hunger Games movie for Peeta detractors (such as yours truly). Mockingjay, Part 1 could have ended with a literal bang and faded to black when a bedpan bonks Peeta's head and saves Katniss from being choked to death. That would served as a smashing "I am Iron Man!"-like jolt of an ending. Director Lawrence chose instead to dole out some exposition where Coin consolidates her power over the rebellion, leaving us with the compelling image of Peeta struggling against his restraints in the grip of madness as Katniss' stunning face is superimposed over him. It's hard to argue against the final sight of an insane, murderous Peeta mocking the Mockingjay. Why so serious, Katniss? See you next year for Mockingjay, Part 2.