Hammering Out... The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Hammering Out... The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Hammering Out... is a series of movie reviews featuring a lively he said/she said discussion between John and Julie. Next up: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1.

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JOHN: It should come as no surprise to anyone at this point that Suzanne Collins' third (and final) book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, has been broken up into two films (released a year apart) for maximum profitability.  What is surprising, at least to me, was how effective this particular Part 1 was.  Having read the books, Mockingjay was always my least favorite, and I went into this movie largely pessimistic and confident that I would be dissatisfied.  I was wrong.

I'll go out on a limb here and call Mockingjay Part 1 the best film in the series so far.  Why?  A couple reasons.

First, there are no Hunger Games.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that the games are the big draw for many, and occupy a significant amount of screen time in the first two films, but those sequences never really worked for me.  If you want to see the concept of kids killing kids succeed, check out Battle Royale.  I loved the build-up to the actual games so much more: Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteering as Tribute, hanging with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), being interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), training with Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and establishing her allies/enemies.  That was so much better than seeing Katniss stumble her way through the obviously limiting PG-13-rated games, and fall in "love" with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Second, Peeta sucks.  Hutcherson is a good actor, but he looks too young to be believably paired with Lawrence and the two have zero chemistry together.  Lawrence fits with Hemsworth much better.  I've always been Team Gale, and here (finally!!!), Gale gets his chance to shine.  Well, at least as much as Gale can shine.  He's kind of a dull character, to be honest.  But, I like that he is focused on the Revolution, and treats that as important.  Because it is important.  Katniss is too busy crying about Peeta and declaring that she loves him and wants him to be kept alive, when clearly there are much bigger fish to fry.  Like President Snow.  Dude needs to be taken down.  Gale gets that.  If he can score with Katniss in the interim, great.  But, he's not defined by his feelings for Katniss.  You go, Gale.

Fuck yeah. Suck it, Peeta.

Fuck yeah. Suck it, Peeta.

Third, the cast is just spectacular.  I mean, you're watching a scene set in a board room where the characters all debate war propaganda and revolution strategy.  Seating and/or standing around the table are Harrelson, Banks, Lawrence, Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman (!) (RIP) (Man, he's a great actor) (I miss him), Geoffrey Wright, and Julianne Moore (as Alma Coin).  That's a huge collection of talent in one room.  It speaks to the quality of this material, and how much better it is than other YA adaptations of its ilk.

Finally, though there's also lots of talk, it's exciting.  Director Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire, I Am Legend) knows his way around action scenes.  The stakes are bigger here.  And, though you know it's going to end on a cliffhanger, I still felt like enough happened in Part 1 to justify its running time and the split into two films.

I still have some complaints, which I'm sure you're going to dive right into as well, but overall, I liked it.  What'd you think?

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JULIE: We've both read The Hunger Games trilogy, and we have differing opinions about the books. I loved the games in the books. I kind of hated Catching Fire until Katniss and Peeta found themselves back in the Capitol, preparing for the games. And the games themselves were interesting, especially the second time around. I liked the challenge of figuring out the playing field, wondering who was in on what alliance, and, ultimately, who was involved in leading Katniss to bring down the games...which leads me to a complaint I'll get to in a minute.

I'm also Team Peeta...in the books. Part of the reason I fell so hard for this trilogy right from the get-go was this interesting dynamic set up between Katniss and Peeta. They don't know each other, really, but they know of each other. He has shown her kindness in the past. They're both kind of attracted to each other. It was a far cry from the usual teen book insta-love, which is something I can't abide. I thought their relationship in the second book was quite lovely as well -- sleeping together at night to quell the nightmares. They share a common experience no one else can understand and their bond is unmistakable.

Not so in the movies. I truly feel like most of The Hunger Games' problems could've been solved if "they" -- the mysterious "they" who decides these things -- had simply cast someone other than Josh Hutcherson. He's a fine actor. Seriously. Nothing against his talent, but he is no match for Jennifer Lawrence. They look like a big sister/little brother pair instead of a romantic duo. They have no chemistry. Zero chemistry. When they're supposed to act lovingly toward each other, it's just embarrassing and I have to look away.

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Gale rules, Peeta drools.

I wonder what would've happened if they'd cast the dude who plays Finnick as Peeta and Jesse Williams as Finnick. Hmmm...

Anyway, the sad result of the poor Peeta casting is that Katniss has to constantly remind us that she cares about Peeta. "I'm sad because I'm worried about Peeta." "You should've saved Peeta instead of me." It reeks of, as Plutarch puts it in one scene, telling and not showing. But Katniss has to tell us how much she loves Peeta because it doesn't come through when Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson try to show us.

My other big problem in this movie/book is Katniss. She is the weakest strong female character of all time. She's a puppet. The girl is dragged from place to place, manipulated, drugged, dressed up in costume. She has no agency in this film. She's not the one leading the revolution. She's the unwitting poster girl who'd rather be hunting in the woods, which is fine. It's a little John McClain sounding on paper. She's stumbled into the revolution and now she has to be the one to carry it. But she doesn't carry it. Beaty does, and Plutarch, and Coin, and even Effie. Katniss is just along for the ride, which makes her a very unsatisfying protagonist.

What do you think about the movie's Katniss problem?

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JOHN: I agree that the movie has a Katniss problem.  She is unsatisfying.  Seriously, what's with the Everdeen women?  One wants to save Peeta, and Prim wants to save a stupid cat.  Ladies, the future and freedom of human civilization is at stake!  Can we think big picture, please?  Lawrence is a strong actress, and I feel it's beneath her to have to cry about Peeta in every other scene.  Mockingjay Part 1 works as well as it does because it frequently abandons that stupid love story in favor of war strategy and gamesmanship.

I don't mind that the Revolution in the film is a group effort.  It shouldn't only be about Katniss.  But when it is, you're right - she's either a pawn, a poster girl, or a cry-baby.  Gale would never cry!  Gale would jump on a helicopter and save stupid Peeta. That's what Katniss should do.  Be proactive.  Take action.  But, the screenwriters are tied to what's in the book.

I was worried for a little bit in the beginning that this would be The Hunger Games equivalent of The Matrix Revolutions.  Forced underground, fighting against the Capital/Sentinels in the real world, without any costumes or flair.   It could have easily gone the way of Revolutions, but thank god it doesn't.

It was a real joy to see Hoffman on screen again.  This and Part 2 are his last film roles, and he looks healthier and more engaged here than he had in other recent movies.  I mean, he positively looked like death was knocking at his door in this summer's A Most Wanted Man.  He's having fun, and his scenes deliver a kick.  Maybe it helped that he got to share a lion's share of them with Moore, his fellow Boogie Nights alum.

What'd you think of the cliffhanger ending?  Are you frustrated we have to wait a whole other year to see the conclusion?

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JULIE: I wish that the screenwriters had taken some liberties with the source material. Mockingjay (the book) fails because every big moment takes place off screen. The story is stymied by the first person narration. We only get to see things through Katniss's eyes; so when Katniss is out of the picture, we're out of the picture. And she spends most of the book either drugged or knocked out, so yeah. I've always felt like this was a bit of a cop-out on Collins's part -- "Hmm...I don't know how to get Katniss out of this jam...so I'll just have someone knock her over the head and tell her later how they all escaped."

That said, the ability to give us some different points-of-view is one of the main strengths of this film (and the others). I love getting to see things from Plutarch's POV. Hoffman is really the secondary protagonist of this film. He's the one straddling the line between the District 12-ers and the District 13-ers. He's the one who had to keep the peace between Coin and Katniss. He's the one who has to talk Effie into helping the cause. (Also, I'm kind of shipping Effie and Plutarch after that cute scene between them in her "cell.")

I wish we could've gone into the Capitol with Gale to rescue Peeta and the rest. I hope that in the next movie we'll get to see the battles to their conclusion and that the screenwriters won't feel strapped by what happens in the source material. I thought the movie ended well and could've even stopped on more of a cliffhanger -- maybe right when Peeta attacks Katniss? Or when Coin's soldier hits Peeta and the screen goes black for a second. Storytelling-wise, I don't think this movie needed to be split into two parts. I would've been fine with a three-hour Mockingjay. (I think eventually this strategy will bite the movie studios in the butt; I'm predicting it will be when no one shows up for Fifty Shades: Freed, Part 2.) That said, Mockingjay Part 1 was so enjoyable (despite all my complaints, which were really more about the book than the film), I'll be there opening weekend for Part 2.

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JOHN: As we all will.  If you're still reading this far, so will you, dear reader.  I want to give a special shout-out to the soundtrack, which was curated by Lorde.  Save for the song that plays over the end credits, none of the songs on the album are in the movie - it's really more of an "Inspired by" soundtrack - but it's a great one nonetheless.  Big fan.  I agree about your proposed cliffhanger ending - that would have been a pretty powerful one to end on.  It would have been hugely frustrating, and totally prevented Part 1 from being able to stand on its own, but it would have been ballsy.

I also would have easily stayed for 3.5 hours to see one big Mockingjay movie, rather than two separate films.  I think it would be an improvement in quality, if not profits for Lionsgate.  Still, the writing, directing and acting put Part 1 well above the basic cash grab scenario.  The filmmakers truly care about the source material, and it shows.

Anything else?  Ready for ratings?

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JULIE: Even without my ending, the movie doesn't really stand on its own, does it? No one is going to watch this movie and think, "Okay. I'm done. All of my questions have been answered. Part two, schmart two."

As far as ratings go, I'm giving this a respectable Tim Gunn on the Sofia the First voice actor scale.

JOHN: Yeah, you're right.  No way Part 1 of anything stands on its own, but I felt like I got enough of a movie here to walk out satisfied.  I'll give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, and, more importantly, crown it the best Hunger Games yet.

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