Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part I

I want to begin by stating that as a rule, I consider myself a live and let live type of guy. Point of fact, there are only three things that I truly hate with every fibre of my being:

1. People who insist on celebrating the 12 days of Christmas between December 13th and 25th instead of between Christmas Day and January 6th when it actually is. Yes, I get it, all the fun is in the lead up to Christmas but you can’t just alter historic facts to suit your agenda like you’re the Texas Board of Education.

2. Anyone who posts intentionally cryptic and manipulative Facebook posts in a shameless bid for sympathy and attention. Whenever I see someone post Feeling blue :-( I can assure that it is only the rules of polite society and my absolute love of dogs that prevent me from responding with “Good, I hope your pet was hit by a bus.”

3. The latest trend out of Hollywood to produce half-movies. Half-movies are when they adapt a series of novels but break the last in the series into two films. They insist it is so they can give the story the necessary screen-time to do it justice. Of course, everyone except those who recently fell off a truck reeking of turnip knows that it is so they can get my $12.95 twice rather than once.

Without fail, half-movies are the worst films of the series. (The Harry Potter and Hobbit franchises slowly nod their head) To be fair, it’s almost impossible for them to be anything but the weakest. They are asking people to plunk down good money to see only the first half of a story. It would be like if you paid to hear a joke and all you got was A Priest, a Minister, and a Rabbi walk into bar. The Priest goes up to the bartender and says I’ll have a gin and tonic. The end. That will be $13 please. You couldn’t help but feel creatively cheated and completely ripped off. So you can imagine my surprise when I left The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part I  not feeling creatively cheated and completely ripped off.

That is not to say that Mockingjay is a great movie but by even making it a good movie, the filmmakers accomplished a feat just shy of miraculous. As in the book, the movie picks up right after Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) disrupted the Quarter quell which is the celebrity all star version of their annual children-murdering-children festivity known as the Hunger Games. Picture a dystopian Dancing With The Stars – only slightly less cringeworthy. Katniss has been rescued by the rebels as modest uprisings against the Capitol have begun in the other districts. The rebels need Katniss to serve as their propaganda tool but she is reluctant to do anything for the people who rescued her but left Peta behind.

Right here is where this instalment gets off on a much better foot than other half-movies that came before it. Whereas those simply picked up the action where it left off and continued on its merry way, Mockingjay begins with a protagonist called to a mission which she is reluctant to undertake. Only after seeing the horrific devastation of the her home district does she overcome her reluctance and agrees to the mission. Joseph Campbell would be very proud. In that first act, we have the Call to Adventure (Katniss, we need you to be the Mockingjay), the Refusal of The Call (No, go f**k yourself) and Crossing the First Threshold (Look what those bastards did to my home, all right, I’m in)

On to Act Two.

From here the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse between Katniss and President Snow brilliantly played by Donald Sutherland.  Sutherland is able to portray every ounce of Snow’s ruthless and calculating demeanour without ever making it come off as ham-fisted or cartoonish. Snow has Peta held in the Capitol and just as Katniss is being used to ignite rebellion, Peta is being used by Snow to stamp it out. Whether Peta is doing this freely or under duress is not exactly clear. Still, Peta’s pro-Capitol propaganda messages only fuel the desire to extract him from Snow’s grasp.

Another success of Mockingjay is taking us deeper inside the Katniss-Gale dynamic. Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) has worked his way into being one of the rebel army’s top soldiers. This gives him more to do than just be Katniss’ shoulder to cry on. This is key because when Katniss does need that shoulder, Gale is no longer viewing events simply through the prism of what is best for Katniss. Now he has to consider what is best for the rebellion and when you mix in his unresolved feelings for Katniss, these scenes play out with more depth and meaning than in the earlier films. This is important because previous fan favourites like Haymitch, Effie, and Plutarch (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his last performance) all take more of a backseat in this one.

The biggest challenge in any half movie is constructing a satisfying third act. In the actual book, everything builds to the big climactic confrontation at the end. Here they have to jerry-rig an “ending” out of what is the middle part of the novel. Again, they are able to do this more successfully than I expected. This third act builds up to a rescue attempt of Peta and the other tributes. All the while, Katniss is trying to play Snow to ensure the success of the mission. Without giving too much away (Peta dies…okay he doesn’t die – relax) we have enough invested that the success (or lack thereof) in the mission is enough to feel satisfying as an ending. We have been waiting to see if Katniss and Peta will be reunited and the resolution to this narrative question works.

If you are a fan of the books and/or the previous films, there’s nothing in Mockingjay that will disappoint you. And I expect you will leave the theatre as I did – feeling, for the most part, narratively satisfied. Which, again, is more than a little surprising. How did I expect to leave the theatre given this is another Hollywood half-movie?

Feeling Blue :-(

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