The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
2Mar/150

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

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Following the events of Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen finds herself at the mercy of a rebel alliance who want to turn her into a symbol of their resistance of the capital.  President Snow, also not one to waste an opportunity for propaganda, puts the capture Peeta Mellark in front of the camera's to denounce Katniss and the rebels.  The symbol of the mockingjay spreads wide, as does the insurgency, and the fight for control of the 13 districts begins.  Francis Lawrence directs Mockingjay - Part 1 from a screenplay written by Danny Strong and Peter Craig with stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore.

White savior complexRereading my review of Catching Fire again, it's a wonder the Hunger Games film series could bounce back from the dull and morally hypocritical depths of the second chapter.  I finish this first part of Mockingjay not with rage, but boredom, a bit of admiration, and a question about whether the final film will have any surprises.  Truth be told, Mockingjay - Part 1 is just as hypocritical as the first chapter, but the change in scenery at least helps the pill go down a bit better.

The Hunger Games films work best when they're dealing with the way media and government collude to produce a narrative which makes the populace easy to control.  It's been my position that the Hunger Games franchise, by dragging out its narrative and doing its best to keep the audience from the violence, is betraying the class-rooted rage which made the books so popular.  What makes Mockingjay - Part 1 intermittently effective is a certain self-awareness in the visual exchange this time around.  Mockingjay - Part 1 is almost entirely a battle of propaganda with the actual ground war mostly kept off-screen, but the distancing effect makes us question the motives of the resistance and whether any real change will come of this.

Mockingjay - Part 1 has more to do with the propaganda element of Panem and is a stronger film for it.

Mockingjay - Part 1 has more to do with the propaganda element of Panem and is a stronger film for it.

There's a surreal moment when we see the first successful propaganda montage after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) returns from a field excursion.  The package looks and sounds almost exactly like the trailers for the very film we're watching, just with a bit of optimism and energy injected into the actions of the resistance.  It made Katniss' actions look like a fun and energetic romp, which is a stark contrast to the dim caves in which the resistance watches the propaganda piece.  I almost want to watch that movie instead, a story of a strong and independent leader saying, "No more!" and fighting an evil empire.  But we're back in the dreary cave with the reminder that what you see is almost never what you get, and as the resistance's words begin to sound less noble and more bloodthirsty I start to wonder how long the second installment will take before showing Katniss is working to replace one dictatorship with another.

These are at least interesting details and ones which director Francis Lawrence mines for great images.  Many times in Mockingjay - Part 1 Katniss is reduced to a background shadow in her own story, made totally dark against the glare of a screen while everyone around her tells her what to do.  This still doesn't showcase the inspiring heroine of the books I've heard so much about, but as character study it's far more visually compelling than the repetitious action of the second film and the incoherent violence of the first.  Jennifer Lawrence makes a stronger impression this time around precisely because she's been forced into being little more than a puppet.  Her frustration and rage do make for great newsreel footage but when she breaks out in full-blown panic attacks at multiple points in the film she reveals herself to be a more unpredictable protagonist than the basic goodness of her previous incarnations.

In many ways, this feels like the real second part of the Hunger Games story while Catching Fire was a horrific attempt at remaking the first film.  There's an arc to all the characters which wasn't present in Catching Fire, most notably in the actions of the insecure Plutarch Heavensbee.  The late Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to imbue this character with a mercurial identity centering around an accent which sounds like it could be from anywhere.  In his public guise he's taken orders from President Snow (Donald Southerland), but even when he's supposedly in a position of power in the resistance he's still a pawn of Alma Coin (Julianne Moore).  His frustration in behind the scenes maneuvering give more urgency to his need to create good propaganda, and make Mockingjay - Part 1 intriguing for his scenes.  Additional scene-stealing stalwarts Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson return for some much-needed humor with the latter's constant hunt for drugs and alcohol in the scarce caves a humanizing touch to the careful construction of the film.

I'm still indifferent to this installment for a couple of reasons, the first regarding the style and the second back to my moral issues with the films.  Action in Mockingjay - Part 1 is pathetically limp, asking the audience to take on faith a lot of the actions which occur off-screen.  Katniss takes out a fighter jet with her bow and arrow in a scene which practically begs us to follow the trajectory of the projectile, but instead the camera hangs back with Katniss so far away from the jet she could reasonably claim plausible deniability and say a wayward bird flew into the engine.  The revolution itself is still bloodless, with the camera cutting away just when a public execution occurs or obscuring figures in fog and darkness so there's no need to model bullet wounds as they're gunned down by the dozens.  It's hard to get worked up for a long overdue change of command when it looks like everyone's tripping on their way to storming the castle.

I lamented Catching Fire might have been Hoffman's final film, but the uptick in quality for Mockingjay - Part 1 gives me hope for the finale.

I lamented Catching Fire had one of Hoffman's final performances, but the uptick in quality for Mockingjay - Part 1 gives me hope for the finale.

The second issue, which may be resolved in the last film, is that this series has a massive case of white savior complex.  The melanin-deprived leadership core of the resistance is not too different from the capital and the way Moore plays Coin, combined with the streaks of white in her hair, make her seem like another President Snow waiting to happen.  Katniss isn't much better, and by the time we get to see some real variety in the skin tones onscreen it's when she's out in the field literally for the purpose of being their inspiration.  Even her song, "Hanging Tree," makes me uncomfortable because while the melody is working class the lyrics sound like they were not written by a white leader.  I know a vocal but small population flipped out when Rue was cast as a black girl, but the way the Hunger Games films keeping setting up white idols for the slave class to look up to is disconcerting in light of the racial difficulties our country has faced over the last year.

It's possible they'll underline the dangers of perpetuating this kind of system in the end, which is rumored to be more action-packed.  This is disappointing to me because Mockingjay - Part 1 proves there are ways of transporting the Hunger Games from page to screen which keep some of the interest intact.  Whether they go with bland action and suspect moralizing or unpredictable emotions and murky decisions remains to be seen.  At least with Mockingjay - Part 1 shows how a little variety goes a long way for this series.

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Tail - Mockingjay Part 1The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014)

Directed by Francis Lawrence.
Screenplay by Danny Strong and Peter Craig.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore.

Posted by Andrew

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