Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Ghoul Versus The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Previously on the Hunger Games: Catching Fire...

Katniss' life continued to redefine suck. After barely surviving an arena battle to the death where she was hunted like sport, she returned home to her crapsack district to live with her newly developed case of PTSD. Peeta was no help as she broke his heart by revealing she never loved him and faked the whole thing for the cameras, so now she has that hanging over her head as well. The fun didn't stop there though, because President Snow has come to hold her personally responsible for the growing rebellion in his fragile dictatorship.

Utilizing one of the biggest “fuck yous” EVER, he threw her back into the next Hunger Games event so she'd finally be out of his epically white hair. Things didn't quite work out as he planned, because not only did she survive but she was rescued by a band of rebels. Even though he was able to prevent Peeta from escaping with her, this wasn't enough so he had District 12 bombed back into the Stone Age.

The Hunger Games novel, 374 pages. Adapted into a 142 minute film.
Catching Fire novel, 391 pages. Adapted into a 146 minute film.
Mockingjay novel, 390 pages. Adapted into TWO films, the first one being 123 minutes and the second likely to be at least that long.

YEP, even an extremely high quality franchise like the Hunger Games isn't immune to “Split the Final Book Into 2 Movies” syndrome. Harry Potter kicked off this madness back in 2010, and when it proved to be financially successful beyond anyone's dreams, the doors were kicked open for good. Twilight was soon to follow and it added a touch of innovation in the form of making the movies PADDED OUT AS HELL. I suppose one COULD make the case Harry Potter did this as well since the first film is basically an hour of the Power Trio camping, but that's a story for another day. The Hunger Games was next in line to adopt this free money trend, and DAYMN did it ever work as Mockingjay Part 1 became the highest grossing film of 2014, although it JUST lost that title to American Sniper and its 2015 staying power.

As I pointed out in my book-to-movie comparison above, there was absolutely NO reason for Mockingjay to be split in two besides the extra money it'd bring in. This is a sinister money grabbing scheme Hollywood is foisting on us, and it's not going to stop anytime soon as Divergent's third and final book, Allegiant, is also going to be two parts. But hey, why should book adaptations have all the fun? What about other genres, like superhero films? Oh sweet, the third Avengers movie is also getting cleaved in two to maximize profit! Where's this going to stop? Disney animated films? Rom-coms? What about found footage movies? How great will Paranormal Activity: I Think That Chair Moved, NO SRLSY BRO IT MOVED Parts 1 and 2 look on a theater marquee?

Enough with this negativity, let's look at the bright side of this trend. We get to see more Jennifer Lawrence kicking ass! You gotta find that silver lining, folks. Director Francis Lawrence returned to the chair for this movie, so we're already guaranteed it's going to look great and flow from scene to scene. New writers were brought on board to write the screenplay in the form of Peter Craig and Danny Strong. Craig is recently new to the Hollywood scene, turning his talents to the big screen after writing black comedy novels. Strong is one of the fastest rising talents in the industry as of late, originally beginning as an actor (remember him in the second Prophecy film?) but then turning to screenwriter. He wrote the CRITICALLY acclaimed script for Lee Daniels' The Butler, so between that and conquering the box office with Mockingjay it looks like there's nothing he can't pull off. He'll still always be little Jonathan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to me though, which is in NO WAY a sleight against him because that was a brilliant character.

This is the first Hunger Games film that I haven't seen before, so if you couldn't tell from my reaction to the first two films, I am anticipating this just a TAD. Let's kick off the spark that ignites a rebellion, because it's now time for A Ghoul Versus The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 And Wow Could This Movie Have Any More Words In The Title?

Before we begin, I want to give the blu-ray edition of this movie a shout out for having some fun with the trailers that precede the movie. After hitting play, the disc kicks off with a title card reading “Previews For Your Mandatory Viewing”, which very much fits into the totalitarian nature of President Snow's reign. We get a trailer for Divergent's sequel Insurgent, some TV show called Manhattan that I've never heard of, and Blake Lively's latest attempt to prove to us she can be a big star in the form of the Age of Adaline. To be fair though, the movie does look intriguing so expect to see it grace these pages later this year.

Another interesting trailer was Johnny Depp's latest box office disaster, Mortdecai. Have you even HEARD of this thing? Don't feel bad if you haven't, despite featuring an all-star cast of Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ewan McGregor, it came and went earlier this year without making a ripple and barely made back half of its sixty million dollar budget. Critics were as unimpressed as audiences were, giving it a roaring 13% on Rotten Tomatoes and all but ensuring I'd be reviewing it when it hits blu-ray.

Alright, enough talking about future reviews, I still have a present day one to finish! We open with a frantic Katniss hiding in a tunnel somewhere, whispering the plot of the last movie to herself for all the newcomers in the audience. Is that a thing? Who the hell is out there that didn't see Catching Fire? Some guards come and find her, dragging her back to a hospital room in District 13. She sneaks out again, drawn to the next room by the sound of someone crying. We see it belongs to Finnick Odair, who seems as broken as Katniss over the trauma they've endured. He tearfully tells her Snow has captured his beloved Annie and taken her to the Capitol to be held prisoner along with Peeta and Johanna.

Katniss gets a visitor in the form of Colonel Boggs, the head of security, who informs her she's being released from the hospital and is to meet with the district's president. As they travel down an elevator, Boggs gives us some quick backstory on the district since the previous movie failed to give us anything on it. They're an underground community of soldiers, who have not given up on their way with the Capitol despite their upper facilities being destroyed. The president of District 13 is Alma Coin, played by the best actress of 2014, Julianne Moore. That's only if you put stock into the Oscars however, I personally don't as there is NO WAY Moore was better than Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. NONE.

Coin, along with Plutarch and Beetee, want Katniss to become the Mockingjay again and star in a series of propaganda clips (propops) they plan to air in all the districts to spur everyone into taking up arms against Snow. Katniss isn't hearing ANY of this though, because she's still irate they didn't rescue Peeta when they crashed the arena. Katniss angrily storms out, Coin confiding in Plutarch they SHOULD have left her and rescued Peeta instead. Plutarch gives an eloquent defense of Katniss, saying she will be the face of their rebellion and just needs a little motivation. To that end, he talks Coin into letting Katniss visit the remains of Distict 12.  Along with Gale, Katniss is flown to the bombed out wreckage of her home. I guess it looks pretty bad, it's kind of hard to tell considering how beat down it already was. Hell, the bombs MAY have improved the d├ęcor of the place. No wait, scratch that, there are skeletons EVERYWHERE. All joking aside, these provide for some horrifying looking visuals including a shot where Katniss accidentally steps on a skull before realizing what she's done.
Lo and behold though, her house in the Victors' Village is still standing, which was absolutely an intentional act on the part of Snow. She goes inside, grabbing a bag and loading it with her remaining possessions. She is shocked to find Buttercup is alive as well, adding the cat into her Bag of Holding. She is even more shocked to find a white rose waiting for her on a table, which is the symbol of Snow and always present on his lapel. In the books they expounded on this a bit more by explaining they were genetically engineered roses that constantly emitted a floral scent to mask Snow's horrible breath caused by his constantly bleeding mouth, but it still works here since we've at least seen him always wearing a rose.

What doesn't work is the flower itself, because it's not dead. Was Snow sending someone to her house every few days to change it out for a new one? He had to have been, because it's been weeks since the bombings and the flower looked freshly cut. If THAT'S the case, why didn't he just plant some kind of bomb in the house since he knew she'd eventually return to it? The pilot of the ship earlier established that Boggs' soldiers had swept the entire area for signs of the Capitol to ensure it was safe, but a man like Snow with infinite technological resources surely could have devised SOMETHING that would evade their sensors, right?

She returns to her new home, smuggling in Buttercup to give to Prim before heading to the cafeteria to eat with Gale. Their meal is interrupted by a broadcast from the Capitol, where Caesar Flickerman is interviewing Peeta himself. Peeta implores everyone watching to cease the rebellion, which does NOT go over well with the people in the cafeteria as they begin to scream “traitor!” at his image. After a pep talk from Prim, Katniss to visit Coin to make her a deal: she'll become their Mockingjay if they rescue Peeta, Johanna, and Annie, as well as giving the victors a full pardon for any preceived crimes against the rebels. At first Coin refuses, but Plutarch talks her into it based off how passionate Katniss is getting. This makes Coin change her mind and agrees to Katniss' demands, including a last second request to let Prim keep Buttercup.

We get a quick scene of Plutarch meeting with Effie, whom also made the trip to 13. However this wasn't by choice and she is LESS than happy with it, although she seems more concerned with the fact she no longer gets to dress like Lady GaGa. Plutarch talks her into helping manage Katniss in his upcoming propos campaign, which is a huge deviation from the book. Effie was barely in Mockingjay at all, as she spent nearly the entire time in a Capitol prison cell for suspicions of aiding the rebels. Here it looks like she'll be replacing a woman named Fulvia Cardew, who was Plutarch's assistant and helped Katniss do propos. This is followed up by Coin calling an assembly to announce her plan to rescue the remaining victors from the Capitol. She makes an offhand apology about the change in their schedule and that everyone's time tables will be adjusted in accordance to the delay, which hasn't been set up AT ALL so far.

(Sing it with me) In the books, the first few chapters were about Katniss learning to adjust to life with the rebels. They were run exactly like an army, even moreso as their entire day was planned out to the minute and tattooed on their arms daily with non-permanent ink. This caused much friction between Katniss and the higher ups, because she's an individual who was become VERY MUCH used to her freedom and the ability to do what she wants, when she wants. More importantly, it set up an interesting “out of the frying pan and into another frying pan” aspect of the book, as Katniss begun to learn the rebels aren't necessarily the best people either. It was a fantastic touch in Collins' narrative, and one I hope the movie DOES NOT skimp out on. Especially considering they split the book in half, there is no reason to cut ANYTHING from it.

The propos are a complete disaster, as Katniss has to stand in front of a camera and deliver inspiring speeches. They are magnificently awkward, as this is SO not Katniss' bag, baby. Haymitch, who has spent the past month in detox getting sober, wanders into this bout of Megan Fox-level acting and suggests they need to try something different. Bringing home Katniss' most powerful moments were unscripted, he comes up with the idea of actually sending her into a battle zone and filming her there. Beetee says they should send her to areas where the carnage has ceased and the danger is minimal, everyone agreeing this is the best idea.

They send her to District 8, which is pretty much a bombed out husk but not to the extent of 12. Katniss meets the rest of her team, Cressida, Messalla, Castor, and Pollux. Cressida is played by the super badass Natalie Dormer, who has gained worldwide fame thanks to her role as Margaery Tyrell in HBO's runaway hit Game of Thrones. Pollux's actor, Elden Henson, is also set to get some greater fame with a co-starring role in Netflix's upcoming original series Daredevil, though he's recognizeable as poor Lenny from the 2004 hit the Butterfly Effect. The other two are played by relative unknowns, but I'm sure we'll see them again in the future as these movies are kinda popular. Through conversation, we learn Pollux is an Avox, something else the films have ignored until now. One of the Capitol's bigger punishments for offenders was to cut out their tongue and turn them into a servant called an Avox, which actually was key to a few of the plotlines in the first two books.

Landing in 8, they meet with the leader of the forces holed up there, Commander Paylor. She takes Katniss to a hospital to visit their wounded, who are large in number. Everyone falls silent when they see her, Katniss telling them she WILL fight with them. Her appareance does not go unnoticed, as back in the Capitol Snow's cameras capture her entering the district. He orders ships sent out immediately, which target the hosital and bomb it to the ground before Katniss can destroy them with the high tech bow Beetee made for her. Livid at the deaths of all the innocents, Katniss delivers a genuine and from the heart speech into Cressida's cameras, vowing Snow will pay for this and that “fire is catching”. The Capitol counters this by airing another interview with Peeta, where he's drinking Snow's kool-aid even deeper now.

Gale outright calls him a coward, wondering how he could possibly defend a man that bombed his home. That's when Katniss realizes Peeta has no idea what happened to 12, so flies there to do another propo. Gale does the honours for this one since he was there to witness it first hand, finally giving Liam Hemsworth something to do the entire series besides be breathtakingly handsome and painfully look into the camera while watching Katniss mack on Peeta. But then he's back to being his old self by guilt tripping Katniss over their lack of a relationship, because PRIORITIES! They take lunch by a lake, where Katniss begins to sing a song called “the Hanging Tree” for Pollux.

If you own a pair of functioning ears and have been anywhere near a radio the past few months I'm sure you've heard this song, as it crossed over and became a HUGE radio hit. It got as high as number twelve on the Billboard Hot 100 and has sold over a million copies, even garnering its own dance remix that was also a big hit. This is just Jennifer Lawrence's world right now, and we're lucky to be allowed to live in it. She can act up a storm, she can sing, she's hilarious, and of course she's beautiful as the day is long, I don't know what “it” is, but she has ALL of “it”. This new propo is played to all the districts save the Capitol, as Beetee still can't hack his way into their network. Help comes in the form of rebels from District 5, who blow up a hydroelectric dam that provides the Capitol wit their power.

The movie has been cutting to battles in other districts from time to time, which normally I'd accuse of helping stretch out the movie to the all important two part length, but I'll give it a pass here since it actually is world building. It's not like watching Bella and Edward dick around on their honeymoon for half an hour. A third Peeta interview follows this act, and this time he looks TERRIBLE as he's obviously been beaten. He starts to shill for Snow some more when Beetee is finally able to override their broadcast with the District 12 propo, Peeta seeing it and warning Katniss the Capitol is on their way before he's viciously dragged off camera. Coin orders everyone to evacuate into the lower levels of the base, just in time too because Capitol airships appear on their radar. They wait out the bombing, Coin not wanting to launch a defensive effort for fear of revealing their exact location.

In the morning Coin asks Katniss to do another propo saying they survived the attack without a single casualty, adding because of Peeta's warning they had an extra eight minutes to evacuate her people to safety. Katniss and team journey to the surface, finding it covered in white roses admist the rubble. This shakes her to the core, as it dawns on her Snow is just going to keep punishing Peeta every time she appears on camera. She tells Cressida she can't do anymore, retreating to her quarters. She is joined sometime later by Haymitch, who tells her Coin has sent a team to go rescue Peeta and the others, Gale among the first to volunteer. We cut between the rescue team flying into the Capitol cut with a propo from Finnick detailing the sins of Snow, finally telling us about his perchance for poison and his bleeding mouth. Well, better than never I suppose.

Snow cuts into the feed they're using to monitor the extraction team and taunts Katniss for awhile before revealing he knows all about the rescue effort, cutting the signal because he's a dick like that. Days of radio silence follow until finally Haymitch bursts into Katniss' room to tell her they've returned. She runs into the medic area to greet them, first seeing Johanna and Annie. Gale is there as well, suspicious because the Capitol just let them go without a fight. He gruffly points out a room adjacent to him, telling her Peeta is in there. She enters, overjoy to finally be reunited with the man she has come to love. Battered and bruised, he looks into her eyes... AND THEN STARTS STRANGLING THE SHIT OUT OF HER!

Boggs hears the commotion and knocks Peeta out, Katniss waking up in a bed with the Colonel by her side. Peeta has been brainwashed, or “hijacked” as they call it in this world. He's been conditioned to want Katniss dead, which is why the Capitol let him out of their grasp so easily. And that's pretty much it, Coin sends us out with a speech announcing they're taking the fight to the Capitol while Katniss watches a demented Peeta trash around in a bed trying to break his restraints.

Cue the credits, featuring a title card dedicated to Philip Seymour Hoffman. RIP.

This is the first book adaption franchise I've reviewed where I've read the books first and know what's going to happen, so I don't want to spoil any of that with my thoughts on what we just saw. This movie featured the series' proud tradition of superb acting and storytelling, BUUUUUUT it was pretty much all set up. In the book, the last scene of Katniss learning the details about Peeta's hijacking took place on page 182, meaning Mockingjay Part 2 is going to be based on 208 pages of story. It's not necessarily a lot of story either, large parts of it devoted to action. Any other series I'd be dreading that, but this is a production that has earned by trust and respect, so I'm sure it'll all be very well done. It was kind of surreal watching this though and subconsciously thinking what I would have cut to make this a single movie, because it EASILY could have been.

My biggest problem with the split movie gimmick is none of them feel like movies but are rather extended previews for the second half. They're all setup, with almost nothing of consequence happening. There's never a second that goes by where you think anything is going to get resolved, which kills nearly all of the tension the resulting actions should be inspiring. The worst part is these don't even end on cliffhangers to make you anticipate the second half, they just kind of end. One of my favourite games has been trying to guess where the filmmakers are going to end the first movie, I've YET to get one right because I've made the bizarre choice of picking where the biggest cliffhanger would be.

This movie I wound have ended it the second Peeta started strangling Katniss, that was a bigger shock and certainly a better lead in to Part 2. But no, let's explain everything that happened to Peeta and end with Coin babbling about a whole lot of nothing. Not at least ending the movie on an exciting note gives a cynical edge to the whole affair, like the producers know you'll see the second one no matter what so it barely even matters what happens. But again, I'm a huge fan of these films so I won't say that was the case here. Again, this was a high quality story in almost every aspect, and it probably sounds like I'm being too hard on it when I was entertained the entire time. I'd give this a recommendation if you're a fan of the material, if not I would say wait until Part 2 is closer because you WILL forget a lot of what happens between now and then since there was so little.