Tuesday, November 25, 2014

mockingjay, part 1: post-traumatic stress katniss

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 picked up right where the second film, Catching Fire left off, but viewers may still feel like they got caught in a different film franchise, though it is following the original story, written by Suzanne Collins, (who also gets a screen credit for adapting her novel). This film is very deliberately paced, some may even feel slow-moving. But it is a very different story than the first few films, which followed Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as she tried to survive two Hunger Games, an annual ritual that pits young people from each district in the country of Panem in a fight for survival — only the strong, and the last person standing — make it out alive. But in both instances Katniss thwarted the powers that be, which distinctly upset oligarch President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In her first Hunger Games she managed to also save fellow District 12 resident Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Snow sent the pair and a host of other champions back the following year, trying to kill all of the insurgent birds with one stone. But Katniss destroyed the game zone and was airlifted out with other contestants Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), but Peeta was left behind, his whereabouts and fate unknown.

A rose by any other name — President Snow leaves a gift for Katniss

As the new film begins the Hunger Games are no more, and Katniss is bereft. She wakes up in the vast underground bunker of District 13, which had perviously been assumed to have been destroyed by Snow and the Capitol forces. But it has been built into a hidden fortress, led by the steely President Coin (Julianne Moore) with ex-Capitol advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) at her side. Plutarch is convinced that Katniss, as the "Mockingjay" is the symbol they need for a successful revolution. Coin listens to him, but doesn't always agree. Katniss is reunited with her mother and sister Prim, who seem to have (mostly) adjusted to the totalitarian environment, and old pal Gale, who still seem to carry a torch for her, when he isn't busy becoming an uber-soldier for Coin. But Katniss can't connect with much around her, haunted by her guilt over the destruction of her home, District 12, and especially the missing Peeta's and her feelings for him. Mockingjay Part 1 is about war and its after-effects, from Katniss grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder to Snow's attempts to match District 13's rebellion with attacks on all of the country's districts — innocent lives lost to make a point.

The first film in the series to be shot digitally, Mockingjay Part 1 is dark, with much of the action taking place underground in District 13. Also the first not to be released in IMAX, the film didn't bow to the blockbuster de riguer 3D, which it had no need of. But what really sets the film apart is the quality of its cast. It is fascinating to watch Lawrence as Katniss, a raw nerve, and more of a pawn than ever, being buffeted by the political and emotional forces around her. Philip Seymour Hoffman is also a wonder, as always, bringing layers of nuance to his role as the main brain of the war room. The film is dedicated to his memory.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore appear in their fourth film together (Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, and Magnolia)

As dark and serious as things are for Katniss, there are also some welcome moments of levity. It is great to see her trainers Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) again. Both actors have a blast with their fish-out-of water characters, a dried-out Haymitch without his requisite bottle of spirits to help him through the day, and the irrepressible Effie suffering from all the gray-on-gray surrounding her. A big silly cat called Buttercup also brings not just a touch of humor to a few scenes, but provides for a silly, but necessary jolt of action mid-film.

In the land of the drab, Effie makes it work

Is Mockingjay Part 1 a film that can stand on its own? Yes and no. It works well as a set-up for the final installment, due this time next year. Could it work without the greater context of the Hunger Games? Not really, but it wasn't really intended to. This is serial story-telling. It is hard to call it a cash grab, however, as might be said about the bloated approach to The Hobbit taken by Peter Jackson. Mockingjay's themes of war and its aftermath, especially the toll it takes on the young is worthy of exposition. A single film may have had to rush Katniss's experiences in favor of a fiery finale. Mockingjay may not be the blockbuster movie that everyone thought they were going to get, but in this age of televised torture and warfare, it may be the deeply emotional film that we need.


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