Friday, April 12, 2024

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1: A Halfway Effort

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After a rather dramatic week in nerdom, I am back to watching the Hunger Games trilogy tetralogy of movies, this time with Mockingjay Part 1. Now, I do try to stay as unspoiled as I can, but not an insignificant number of commenters on my past couple of posts said that they felt as though Catching Fire was the best of the series—a movie about which I felt oddly unenthused. I also knew that Mockingjay Part 1 took a book that wasn’t incredibly long to begin with and split it in two, something that I’ve [rather horrifyingly] seen before when a friend forced me to watch Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1.  

For that reason, I was a bit hesitant to jump into this film, to the point where I purposely bought nice popcorn and told myself I only had to watch thirty minutes at a time. Yet an hour flew by and I was beginning to question my sanity, because…I liked it. I really liked it.

I mean, okay, there were a few world-building details that drove me a little bonkers out of the gate. Like, Panem’s “Settlers of Catan” set-up kind of makes sense, but why is it that the Capital was able to casually bury their coal-producing district with no major repercussions? And why is there a coal and a hydroelectric district in the first place? Then, who was the genius in charge that thought putting all military people in one district together was a safe idea that could never result in an uprising? This is supposed to be a post-apocalyptic version of our world, right? Guess they ignored the lessons from the Ottoman Empire.

But it really didn’t matter. The newly introduced characters felt instantly rounded; the dynamics established between older characters were not only consistent, but evolving in a rather organic way. Katniss’s Peeta-tunnel-vision was simultaneously frustrating and understandable for the viewer, especially given his established, consolatory role in her life (a role he could uniquely fill given their shared trauma). “Nothing happened,” and yet everything did. You could see the nuances of the situation, and there really was no clear path forward. Okay, Katniss is the “symbol of the revolution,” but how will that actually be employed? How will District 13’s rigid, overly-logical values play into this revolutionary spirit?

I was sold, damnit. This is why I’ve argued that I prefer TV shows to movies (and mini-series’ above all): the tensions were allowed to build in a way where all implications were explored. Better still, with the lack of “action” in the first half of this film, characters demanded a space for themselves on the screen through the sheer force of their personalities.

Peeta might be case and point of this. His interviews were long, and felt long, but it allowed for these brilliant tonal changes. I’m not talking about Josh Hutcherson’s increasingly shrinking appearance; I’m talking within each interview. You can hear the increasing desperation, and the way Snow leeches into every word out of Peeta’s mouth. When it came time for Peeta to give the warning, you really felt the panic along with him.

I should talk about Snow, because I bemoaned him as an antagonist for Catching Fire, finding his ineptitude at running an oppressive government to be quite distracting. However, in this film, despite his minimal direct appearances, it totally came across that Katniss was his obsession. That his actions were myopic, sure, but done to turn the screws in her as best as he could. It’s chilling, his fixation, especially when we’re situated next to Katniss for most of it.

I have to imagine the books from her PoV were even more effective. My best guess for why dynamic didn’t translate so well in Catching Fire is that it was simply too tantalizing to get Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman on-screen together, and PSH’s unbelievable charisma eclipsed what was meant to be the central narrative: Snow tormenting Katniss. A mistake that was not repeated in this film.

In fact, while PSH (I’m sorry, but I truly have no clue what his character’s name is) made his points to the newly introduced President Coin, even going as far as to script a speech for her by the end of the movie, her own resolve allowed for him to not cannibalize that aspect of the narrative. Rather, their two characters clashed in a pleasing and ambiguous way. Though in general, I am wholly confused by PSH’s character. Where did he come from? Where did he go? When did he start working with Coin, because it totally seemed like a new development for both of them. And how the shit did anyone find out about District 13 to form this fairly elaborate revolutionary plan that would be kick-started in the Quarter Quell, because absolutely nothing ever clarified this?

Still, again, I was able to ignore it. This film had a willingness to dig into the nitty-gritty details and not let anyone off with an easy answer. Katniss agrees to be the Mockingjay but is not instantly transformed into a charismatic, filmable leader. Prim offers support and comfort, but doesn’t magically replace Peeta in terms of Katniss’s emotional needs.

Then there were the politics, oh the politics! I want to write an ode to President Coin, because what an amazing character. I’m not sure how such a wet blanket won any sort of election, except that she had this pragmatism and seeming commitment to justice that would appeal to the heavily regulated District 13. For that reason, PSH bemoaning Coin’s unwillingness to spin Katniss’s “Peeta gets saved and pardoned” demand wasn’t simplistically “right.” Instead, this movie opened up a genuine discussion on how best to take on a dystopian government; on what calculated risks were worth taking.

And despite a total lack of charisma, I couldn’t help but feel completely won over by Coin’s character, especially when you can parallel her demeanor to Katniss’s mode of operation. To me, Coin was pretty damn reasonable. Even her introduction: she offered Katniss sympathy as best she could for the trauma she endured, yet her worry over Katniss being a suitable “mockingjay” was justified. In fact, I appreciated Coin’s “she can’t handle this” far more than PSH’s impatience to stuff Katniss into a role she never wanted and wasn’t prepared to take.

However, one oddity was that the movie seemed to want me to not like Coin. There were ominors musical cues and reaction shots. Like okay, I get that this sort of dispassionate, coffee-less District 13 isn’t exactly a “utopia,” but was I supposed to find it unreasonable that Coin wanted to wait out an attack so that the Capital couldn’t update their intel just because PSH was having a panic attack? It felt a bit like Carol’s Landing in Game of Thrones’s 5th season. The music wants us to disagree with Cersei, but why?

Not that I’m a Coin-stan. I just found her side of the arguments compelling. Plus she clearly had growth by the end, as she learned the value of salesmanship. The District 13 people were totes more excited because of her now peppy speech! And it didn’t come from nowhere either; more that she saw how the emotional revolutionary spirit was as important a concern as military technology, and something to factor into her leadership style, in part thanks to PSH’s presence, but also after seeing the way people responded to the propaganda.

Now that I think about it, most secondary characters were given arcs, with the exception of Natalie Dormer’s character, a director who never seemed to have worked with actors before. She’s pretty inconsequential though.

Effie is the best example of this really, in terms of the clarity of her arc and how simply awesome she is. She was obviously chafing at District 13’s strict lifestyle, and never really signed up for this to begin with, yet manages to assert her own voice, deftly smacking down PSH’s “anyone can be replaced.” In fact, is she the first character to successfully stand up to him? I was seriously fist-pumping at my screen when that happened, and to see the way she served as Katniss’s…heart? Optimism? It was actually moving, in the real way.

This film moved me, in the real way. There’s a “but” coming, though. Can you feel it building?

I don’t know how to put this. It felt as though halfway through, the writers suddenly began panicking that they had written a certified trope buster of a movie, and needed to stick in tried and true conventions to guarantee a success. Quick! Drag back out the love triangle! Give us Action™!

The former is really less forgivable. It had been so refreshing that Gale respected Katniss’s boundaries for the first half of the movie. Catching Fire made it clear who she chose, and why this matter wasn’t put to bed is beyond me. But no, halfway through, we need Gale manipulating Katniss into kissing him and then yelling at her when she did. Whee.

The latter…I get it. Especially given that the first two Hunger Games movies had, well, the hunger games. Set “action” pieces. If this had been a movie of just talks about the philosophy of revolution, I doubt people would have looked favorably on it (even if I might have). But every action sequence somehow felt completely lacking in tension. I guess the hospital blowing up in that one district was the best of the bunch, but that was also the moment of “action” where the least happened. Katniss shoots down one plane, but the focus was on Snow’s tormenting of her more than the ‘splosions.

The evacuation to the air-strike bunker (or whatever) scene was far less successful, because it felt more contrived. Someone needs to tell me if Prim really risked her life for a cat in the books, leading to one of the worst buzzer-countdown sequences I’ve seen in quite a bit. Like, we hear there’s thirty seconds left when Katniss gets to the stairwell, and she still is moving backwards at second fifteen. Then magically with three seconds left they’re at the door and safe. What. Honestly, I would have taken an extra five minutes of the cat chasing the flashlight than that.

Which by the way, that moment being Katniss’s revelation that Snow was messing with her…seriously? It kind of felt like something that would be in the book if I had to guess, but to call it “heavy-handed” might be too complimentary. This movie had done subtlety pretty well until that moment; it was both disappointing and jarring, given how happy and engaged I had found myself not ten minutes before.

The final action sequence, Operation Extract the Tributes, fell flat as well. Mostly because we were watching people watching it. And as much as I love “let’s plays,” that’s normally not what I sign up for with movies. Plus, this one just dragged. It was made worse by the fact that you could tell they really thought they were building the tension so deftly. That whole “Finnick talking being spliced with the approaching ship” technique, you know? But no, we spectators to spectators, and this editing was just transparent, rather than effective.

Unsurprisingly, the conversation with Snow towards the end of this sequence was the best part. Probably because it actually involved Katniss. The reveal that “haha I know about your troops in my building” was decent as well. But then Gale’s “they just let us go” remark kind of killed anything successful, because HOW STUPID ARE THESE PEOPLE? Seriously, this is akin to Leia flying right back to Yavin 4 despite knowing the Falcon was being tracked.

That said, I really didn’t see Peeta attacking Katniss coming. I think the movie seeded the sense of dread well, because clearly something was amiss with their escape. But to see Peeta weaponized in such a disturbing way, especially juxtaposed to Joanna’s smirk (I’m livid she didn’t speak, but she still seemed like herself) and Annie/Finnick’s tearful reunion…yeah, it was good. And as annoyed as I was with the second half, damnit, this made me want to keep watching to find out what happens to him, because it was so profoundly upsetting to see Peeta in that amount of pain. So I guess this movie did exactly the job any setup film needs to?

The re-emergence of more conventional storytelling devices in the back-half was distracting to the point where I was pulled completely out of it. By the time Coin told Katniss “waiting is the worst part,” I couldn’t even care about the what this moment meant from a character perspective, which is not a good feeling to have after being quite compelled by the same relationship earlier. There was a lot this got right, as I’ve detailed, but overall, it simply felt like a movie that was playing it safe. Which given its subject matter is a bit odd, no?

It left a weird taste in my mouth, that’s all I can say. Rather like that bowl of my expensive popcorn. It was delicious for the first few bites, but it cooled off quickly, and afterwards, left me with a bit of a stomach ache. Yet I will happily pop another bag, and probably will do exactly that for the rousing conclusion of this series.


All images courtesy of Lions Gate Entertainment

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