Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)

November 25, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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If I’m going to be honest then I might as well say it: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is a well-executed disappointment.

I had expected this to be the case when I heard that they were, like every other successful major book franchise these days, splitting the final book of the series into two films. This lit up alarm bells in my mind straight away, because having read the books, I already knew that  Mockingjay had the least amount of action and “wow factor” of the trilogy. It may have barely worked for Harry Potter and Twilight, but the final books of those series are nearly double the length of Mockingjay. 

The story picks up when Catching Fire left off: after destroying the Quarter Quell Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is rescued by the mysterious District 13 while her games partner, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), remains a captive of the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). With no more excuses to toss her back into the arena, this time the film is all about surviving on the outside and being groomed by District 13 president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) into the “Mockingjay”, the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

Consequently, Mockingjay  is a very different film compared to the other two. It’s darker and arguably even more intense because there’s a lot more death and destruction and the stakes are no longer just confined to the artificial world of the Hunger Games. The fate of Katniss, all the people she cares about, and even the entire world, lies in her unwilling teenage hands. Rather then making observations about the world of reality television, Mockingjay  explores political propaganda and the sacrifices of rebellion and consequences of war. It’s heavy stuff, but for the most part these themes are handled effectively and delicately.

The decision to split the final book meant that director Francis Lawrence (who did Catching Fire) was forced to stretch about 390 pages of material over what I presume will be about 240-250 minutes. By comparison, the adaptation of Catching Fire was 391 pages into 146 minutes, while for The Hunger Games it was 374 pages into 142 minutes. The first two adaptations were taut and action-packed affairs that largely kept close to the book editions. On the other hand, even if you litter Mockingjay with some additions not from the book, it’s just technically impossible for the film to keep pace with its predecessors.

This is not to say the film is bad — far from it. The overall standard of the production is still very good, on par with its predecessors. Lawrence makes the most of what little action he has to play with, creating some marvellous set pieces filled with high intensity that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. The additional running time also afforded more opportunities for contemplation and character development, taking the accumulated emotions from the two earlier films and building them up to the next level.

The performances are still top notch. Jennifer Lawrence may have had a tumultuous time recently, but in the Hunger Games world she’s as solid as ever. This was arguably the most difficult performance for her thus far because in this film she has to be a “bad actress” at times and a genuinely inspiring icon at others, and sometimes somewhere along that spectrum — and yet she manages to knock it out of the park. Josh Hutcherson doesn’t get to do nearly as much in this one, but the scenes he’s in are dynamite. Liam Hemsworth, on the other hand, is relatively wooden by comparison. Gale is one of those key characters who has a bit of a raw deal in this story because he’s never really central to the narrative, and Hemsworth doesn’t do much to elevate the character above that.

New additions like the ever-reliable Julianne Moore and Game of Thrones‘s Natalie Dormer are positives to the ensemble while also boosting star power, though for me the standout supporting performance still has to be the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose presence as former head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee makes you realise just how much of a loss his death is to the acting community. It was initially a little jarring to see him on screen, but he’s so good that after a while you just see him as the character rather than the deceased actor.

My difficulties with the film ultimately lie in what comes between all of its well-executed moments. Every now and then a scene feels a tad longer than it needed to be. Some reactions and conversations are drawn out when they probably didn’t have to be. It may be imperceptible at first, but they adds up over the course of the film and stick out like obvious time-fillers by the end. You could even argue that, with the exception of a couple of key occurrences, the entire film was one long, unnecessary filler.

It’s a shame, because I think Mockingjay had the potential to be one heck of a 140-150 minute movie that could have been on the same level as the first two films in terms of overall quality. Instead, they had to be greedy and split the book into two films, meaning that each one would be that much slower and that much less eventful. When you break it down, not a whole lot happens in this film. The impact of this decision becomes pronounced when the film ends on what’s supposed to be a semi-cliffhanger but feels more like an anti-climatic “is that it?”

If you’re a fan of the franchise then you’ll have no choice but to watch Mockingjay, Part 1 and then Part II when it comes out next year. And it annoys me that I’ll have to spend double the money for the series finale when a book perfect for a single film adaptation is being stretched unnaturally into two. I’m not saying Part I isn’t still a relatively entertaining and enjoyable experience; I’m just saying it isn’t as good as The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and more importantly, not as good as it could have and should have been.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

December 25, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Why is Jennifer Lawrence so awesome?

Finally, back to the cinema! I had been dying to watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy, since the credits started rolling on the first film, which I thought was a brilliant adaptation of a fine book. Expectations were especially heightened given that the second book is my favourite of the entire series.

My first impression of Catching Fire is: very good again, on par with the first film in terms of execution and remaining faithful to the source material, but falling a little short of my lofty expectations. In many ways, it’s simply an extension of the first film (despite replacing director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence, who did I Am Legend and Water for Elephants), with the same structure, mood and tone (unlike the first few Harry Potter movies where each installment was like a standalone adventure), a tale that has no real beginning and no real end, which I’m sure affected the overall experience.

No time is wasted in setting up the premise this time as audiences are presumed to know the kind of world the film is set in and what the characters just went through. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has returned back to District 12 along with co-winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and live in the almost ghost town-like winners village previously inhabited by the only other District 12 winner in history, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The trio are about to embark on a tour of the country to celebrate their victory, but the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearing that Katniss is becoming the symbol of a potential uprising, wants her dead. If you didn’t get any of that, chances are you’ll need to brush up on your Hunger Games knowledge, because there’s no spoon feeding of information this time around.

While the story is a continuation, it does go into more depth and explores their world and history in more detail. The characters are fleshed out more and relationships and alliances are questioned and tested. And don’t forget, there is that semi-love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which is played out with a minimal amount of cringe (at least when compared to Twilight). The love story is a key part of The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t dominate it, and we can all be thankful for that.

What I love about the book, which the film follows closely, is the clever way in which (I suppose I should say spoiler alert here) the story finds a way to bring Katniss and Peeta back to the Hunger Games arena again without making it feel like a rehash. The stakes are raised, the dangers are magnified, and the creativity of the head gamekeeper (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on full display. We are comforted by the return of familiar characters and excited by the addition of intriguing new ones, each with their own eccentricities and backstories and all appearing to be hiding a secret or two.

 

Unfortunately, the time in the arena is relatively short, or at least it feels that way. I complained about the overlong set up in the first film and I make the same complaint again here. It’s actually worse this time as the amount of real interaction between Katniss and her enemies feels quite limited, whereas the time out of the arena — the preparation, the training, the political posturing — felt much longer by comparison. And even though her foes this time are much more formidable we don’t get to see them nearly enough, especially after they have been hyped up beforehand.

One other complaint I have is the ending, which was incredibly exciting and cliffhangery in the book but came across as somewhat anti-climatic in the film. It was rushed, strangely, given by that time the film was already pushing 2.5 hours, and didn’t do enough to set the stage for the final chapter.

On the whole, there is still a lot to like about Catching Fire. For starters, Jennifer Lawrence is as awesome as ever, and this time she is joined by some really impressive names such as the aforementioned Hoffman, as well as Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone and Sam Clafin as a surprisingly good Finnick Odair. Returning stars such as Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz also make their mark without stealing any of Lawrence’s thunder. The second film in a planned trilogy is always tricky, but for the most part Catching Fire delivers with its star power, intriguing visuals and engrossing storyline. I do think the script may have followed the structure of the novels perhaps too closely — resulting in some of my gripes — and could have benefited from a less linear narrative structure, though when all is said and done it’s a solid effort and an enjoyable 2.5 hours of drama and action. I just think it could have been better.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I’m lowering my expectations substantially for the next two installments . Yes, they are also splitting the final book, Mockingjay, into two parts, damn moneygrubbers.

Book Review: ‘Mockingjay’ by Suzanne Collins

July 18, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

A post-apocalyptic world where two children from each of the nation’s 12 districts are thrust into a televised battle to the death – where there can only be one winner. That was the premise of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Not entirely original (you know, Battle Royale, etc) but with enough originality and differences to be an enticing and exciting hit in its own right.

The second book in the series, Catching Fire, amazed me by taking the story to another level when I thought it had nowhere to go. Catching Fire widened the intensity and scope of the games, provided more context and upped the characters and action. Save for a disappointing ending, it was all fans could have hoped for.

Now I’ll admit I was initially sceptical about Mockingjay, the third and final instalment in the trilogy. Collins had already milked the “reality TV goes too far/totalitarian rule” concept for all it was worth, and now faced the daunting challenge of bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. But how was she going to do it without getting repetitive?

Well, I’m glad to say that Mockingjay is a fitting finale to the Hunger Games trilogy. It might not have the freshness and creativity of the first book or the excitement and innovation of the second, but what Mockingjay does is wrap up the story extremely well and in a way that I certainly did not expect.

For starters, the tone of Mockingjay is very dark. It’s a brutal world Katniss Everdeen lives in and Collins does not sugar coat it. Think of the darkness of the final Harry Potter books and multiply it by…a lot. There’s blood and guts and the horrors of war. There’s military strategy and politics and propaganda. There are a lot of serious themes here, and at times I had to remind myself that I was reading a young adult novel. And if you’re expecting a wonderfully gift-wrapped ending with cream and cherries on top then you’ll likely be shocked. Mockingjay is a stark reminder that the “real” world rarely turns out the way we envisage.

Without giving away too much, the story picks up from the cliffhanger ending of Catching Fire. The Hunger Games are over and this one is all about the final battle with the Capitol that ensues. Katniss finds herself thrust into the spotlight again as the rebels want her to be the symbol of the rebellion against the evil President Snow, but is she really saving the world or is she merely another pawn in their game? And what about the two boys in her life, Peeta and Gale? Who will she choose? And what kind of world will she find herself in when it’s all said and done?

So as you can see, there’s lots to ponder in Mockingjay. This third book reinvents itself by stepping back from the Hunger Games to provide the bigger picture, including why the games were necessary in the first place. The focus here is no longer on reality TV but on the nature of war and power and the politics that go on behind it. The concepts and structure are arguably more intelligent and thought-provoking than the first two books in the series, and that’s saying a lot.

Collins continues to handle the action scenes with great skill, and there’s even a clever link back to the Hunger Games as the story nears its conclusion. I was also unexpectedly drawn to the ongoing love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, which never forms the centerpiece of the narrative but is always there and itching to be dealt with. For the record, I think it was resolved brilliantly.

My main problem with Mockingjay is a feeling of inevitability. You know things will end with a bang and you’re forced to wait patiently through the book for it to happen. While there are twists and turns and highs and lows, I got the feeling that Collins was to some extent padding the pages in the lead up to the big finale. In that sense, Mockingjay lacked the compulsive page-turning capabilities of The Hunger Games and in particular Catching Fire. Not to say it wasn’t still a brisk and exciting read, but let’s just say I would have gotten less paper cuts turning the pages (had been reading a real book instead of an e-book).

Ultimately, I guess you could call Mockingjay a satisfying conclusion of sorts. It might not be the perfect Hollywood ending some had hoped for but I for one preferred it this way. Some may gripe that the various loose ends in the book are not tied up very well – I personally thought an extra chapter or two was warranted – though the epilogue has a haunting quality that totally kills JK Rowling’s abomination from Harry Potter 7 (and do I even need to mention the vomit in Twilight: Breaking Dawn?).

So there you have it. Mockingjay is a flawed but strong conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy, one of the rare literary phenomena these days that actually deserve much of its praise and success. I don’t think I have ever devoured a book series as quickly as I did this one.

3.75 out of 5