Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1 ~ ****, 2 thumbs up

[really, really, really long review/commentary]

Mandatory spoiler alert--this is more of an in-depth, analytical synopsis/response suitable for those who don't mind being spoiled, or have already seen it & read the novels.

I've recently become a big fan of this series, and I was very highly impressed with this film. It's a change of pace from the prior two, but I absolutely love it when a great epic story gets darker, deeper, and more intense as you go. The Hunger Games is a truly worthy successor to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (let's just forget that Twilight even made the attempt.) And this is the start of Act II*, where all heck begins to break loose and you can sense that the proverbial fan is about to get hit big-time. [*Or perhaps Act III if this isn't a musical--what do you mean, this isn't a musical?! That was all in my head?! Confound it...]

Having read the brief criticisms of Part 1 (virtually all claiming that "nothing happens," "there's no action, they just talk," and "Katniss spends the whole time moping or whining over Peeta"), I had to wonder how it was possible that such viewers had seen the same film I did. Maybe it's an attention/memory-span thing. Overlong? Hmm. Had I not been watching on the floor, I'd have been edge-of-seat riveted. I didn't want it to end, and would have much appreciated an extra half-hour.

The worst thing about it is the agonizing wait for Part 2 (currently a 7-month one...aurgh!) All I can say there is that the next one had better deliver, by being the mind-blowing, explosive, fast-paced, 3+-hour extravaganza promised by the buildup of tension and ever-increasing stakes of the third installment. Of course, readers are aware that there is simply no way to be prepared to witness certain, er, upcoming events...but let me put it this way: Complainers about Part 1's "slowness" will be pleading for its sweet mercy again come November.

Additionally, the split was completely necessary. Although the third book isn't significantly longer than the others, it simply contains too much for a single film. It was possible to condense the Games and everything leading up to them twice...but to go from Katniss not wanting any further part of a rebellion, to the end, in one shot...the scale's just too great. Too much takes place. How rushed, undeveloped, non-informant, overwhelming, and "way too easy" it'd feel if they attempted this as a single movie. Several hours, and probably an intermission, would be needed anyway. (Hrm, maybe a THG miniseries or something is in order...or at least graphic novels?)

Just about every cast member gives a noteworthy performance. They and the director seem to truly "get" the characters and what makes them tick, which comes across in interviews as well as the films. So, we rejoin our protagonists in District 13--yes, the one thought to have been completely obliterated three-quarters of a century ago. In truth, this militaristic district has since been more or less thriving in a subterranean fortification. They're austere, but for a self-sequestered, long-thought-extinct district, they've got some fairly impressive high-tech weaponry (even nukes.) Which is because they used to be the Capitol's weapon designers. 

Our main character, the former celebrity, is wounded, damaged, and hurting. She and Finnick are in fear for their loved ones, Peeta & Annie, who were scooped up by the Capitol following the Quarter Quell. The leader of 13, a stern and enigmatic woman by the name of Alma Coin, wishes Katniss to be groomed into the Mockingjay symbol--but only once convinced that she, rather than Peeta, is the right "Chosen One" for that position. For a bit Kat's very reluctant to get on board, but eventually agrees to comply if her personal demands are met (and the demands, including their delivery, are terrific.) From the start, all she's wanted was to protect her loved ones and herself--not to spark rebellion or incite civil war, not the responsibility of rallying a nation, and certainly not to start keeping a "personal kill count" that's escalated into the thousands. "Why, oh, why didn't I run away with mah two bois, Prim, and Mum when I had the chance?!"

She takes a devastating trip back to her now utterly demolished native district, 12, to take in the ruins and skeleton-littered rubble. (And also to bring back some stuff from her house, including Prim's disagreeable cat, Buttercup.) 9.15% of the population survived (you did your best, Gale. Well, sort of. You DID conveniently "forget" about Peeta's family.) Anyway, speaking of whom...early on we can tell that the Katniss/Peeta/Gale "love triangle" isn't going away, but luckily no one else really pretends that it should be their main focus, or take precedence over what's going on in Panem at large. Plus, I'm sure most of us could see where that was going before we finished reading.

For most of this film, Katniss' main job is to star in "propos"--propaganda commercials for the rebel cause. She's introduced to her film crew, of whom the most endearing member is a bearded ginger Avox named Pollux. The rehearsal scene is humorous, as it becomes rapidly clear that this scripted Katniss is one awkward, stilted actress (it's fun watching J-Law pretend to be bad. Also cute to see Effie trying to be all supportive and encouraging, but with a look on her face that says, "...Crap, this isn't working.") The girl's only hope of being taken seriously is to witness firsthand situations that'll evoke genuine feeling and passion, so she'll be spurred into saying something she really means.

One such situation is a visit to a District 8 hospital full of badly wounded folks, where she has to lie about losing the baby she never conceived. When the place is bombed and destroyed, Katniss is spurred to deliver the kind of powerful, inspiring monologue her group was looking for. It's turned into a "Join the Fight" propo and broadcast, and she's become that galvanizing figurehead. Other key action sequences include the killing of Peacekeepers by a bunch of District-7 lumber workers, and the explosion of a dam that knocks out power to the Capitol. So, lots of explosions for those who can't get enough of them--but they're explosions with a plot-advancing purpose. Oh, and the "Hanging Tree" song? Very haunting. J-Law's got a real nice voice.

One advantage of the film is the fact that we get to periodically pop into the Capitol to see Snow. Ahh, Snow. Calculating, speech-making, frozen-hearted, public-execution-ordering, Everlark-shipping Snowy. Sutherland does a fantastic job with this guy, whose first name says it all with its last four letters. He's got a couple of close confidants called Egeria (neat name) and Antonius, who're nice touches. So, after deciding on the right word for those against him ("radicals"), he expressly and officially forbids association in any form with the Mockingjay symbol. Friendship with Katniss Everdeen now amounts to treason, most grievously punishable. (Note what his granddaughter does as he issues his declarations.) Snow really does appear to wish that he could, as Johanna Mason suggested, simply throw all these people giving him grief into the arena and kick back with a big ol' bucket of buttered popcorn.

Meanwhile, Peeta is repeatedly interviewed by a more serious (but still groovy-looking) Caesar Flickerman. At first he's an honest voice of reason, pleading for diplomacy and peaceable behavior. By the third broadcast, though, he's starting to look rather poorly and say things that make him sound like a traitor to his friends. Is he under some form of duress, or
perhaps brainwashed? We can tell that something unspeakable has begun happening. The fact of the matter is that the poor boy's being hijacked--the government pulling its own sadistic form of Clockwork Orange on him, until he's classically conditioned and reprogrammed into the perfect anti-Katniss/Mockingjay basketcase-slash-weapon. Egads!

At the end of one transmission, Our Peeta breaks through and issues an urgent warning--13 is being attacked! You'll all be dead by morning! Sheet! What follows is an intense evacuation scene in which everyone descends massive staircases further down into the earth. The extra few minutes afforded them by Peeta make the difference, and nobody is killed; they weather the explosions that rock the fortress in an even danker, drearier, oxygen-reduced bunker environment. They stay there longer in the book, but the scene on film is just as good, providing an appropriate sense of stifling, suffocating claustrophobia down there. Prim revealing that she's being trained as a doctor, easy amusement at the teasing of Buttercup with a light...and speaking of those two, Prim has been called an idiot for going back to save the cat. I can't take that view, since there's no way I'd ever have left my dog behind.

So, as Katniss & Company rise from the depths no worse for wear, she's consumed with thoughts of Peeta...and decides that she wants to drop the whole Mockingjay thing, because keeping it up will result in his further torture and alteration. Coin sees that it's time to get bread-boy over here--along with Annie and Johanna, per the agreement. Gale is the first volunteer for this recovery mission, which proves suspiciously easy. Dun, dun, dun.
Skyping with Snow, Katniss tries to nobly offer herself in Peeta's place, but is shot down. There's a horrible moment where she thinks she's lost both of her best male friends, and potential love interests, at once.

Beetee is the invaluable "tech guy" on the team, without whom their messages wouldn't be able to reach an audience--and Katniss wouldn't have any explosive or incendiary arrows in her quiver. Finnick is broadcast giving a shocking expose; he reveals scandalous facts about the prostitution/selling & objectification of Victors, and the reason behind the "He drinks blood?!" bit in Catching Fire (big secret: Snow poisoned his way up the ladder of power, allowing himself to develop permanent bleeding mouth sores to avoid suspicion. Hence the fragrant white roses that are his signature, calling card, and favorite way of communicating with Katniss.) Aside from perhaps Snow's own immediate family (perhaps?!), no one is ever truly safe from his wrath. Everyone is at his mercy, and most of the characters are victims.

Mercifully, the film doesn't end on "the strangle," and the reunion of Finnick and Annie (*preferred ship name="Annick") is adorable. The actual conclusion to Part 1 involves a neck-braced, red-eyed, horrified Katniss, a thrashing, isolated Peeta, and a heck of a speech from Coin. She talks about justice and never giving up the fight, how they are now all "one people, one army, one voice," whom will "become an alliance to be reckoned with." She foreshadows the first segment of Part II--they're going to set out to conquer the government's principal military facility in the mountains of District 2. Dun, dun, dun...! *shiver* (Nooo, you can't stop now, things are just heating up!! Graah!)

Now Philip Seymour Hoffman, rest his soul, was the perfect Plutarch Heavensbee--a highly "creative" gamemaker, now working with another president to engineer a different sort of game. He's genial, persuasive, and capable of skillful manipulation. Julianne Moore struck me as ideal casting for the part of Coin; she pretty well nailed it. Natalie Dormer comes in fresh from another epic story about a game in which "you win or you die," but sports a considerably different look from Margaery Tyrell: She's Cressida, the partially-shaven and tattooed film crew leader. All in all, the additions to our core cast are solid.

To me the most fascinating character is Effie; physically and emotionally, her arc is dramatic (though not in the simplistic, sudden way most people assume)--and Banks continues to play the role hilariously, heartbreakingly well. 

     So, the girls of "Team TEAM" (Trinket+Everdeen+Abernathy+Mellark) were, wisely or not, uninformed of the plot beforehand. Now they need to be brought up to speed, filled in on details, and come to grips with the grim realities of Panem's current state--in order to make their choices.
    At first the little refugee feels imprisoned, worried, and alone in this extremely strict, confined, dank, uniform, and monochromatic society, where the simplest things are disallowed. (She's actually accustomed to some of that, but in different forms; this kind of exposure to a society like 13 is a bit of a shock.) Loath to be seen--especially bare-faced & wig-free in her baggy, admittedly less-than-flattering regulation jumpsuits--
and insistent on covering her hair with a large bandanna, she hides in her quarters until Plutarch comes to see whether he can coax her out. He quickly confirms what she already knew--that she has officially and voluntarily relinquished that privileged, more sheltered life she's known. But now, Thirteen seeks to recruit both Katniss and herself, as the "face of the revolution"--a savior of sorts--and adviser thereto. They can be irreplaceable parts of this movement whose time has come. Of course, she's initially hesitant and unsure--but soon she's in. She won't be the one to break up the team that was basically her idea in the first place.

So she lays it on the table for Katniss, literally: The aim is to restore democracy to the nation. (Bring back 'Murica, perhaps? Doesn't sound toooo bad right about now, eh? Y'all can be signers of a new constitution, and reserve rights for the people in the precise numerical quantity of "hella"...) Effie shows Katniss the Mockingjay suit design sketched by their old friend Cinna, who was so brutally beaten to death before Katniss' eyes immediately prior to the Quarter Quell. They've got the suit ready for her, if she'll accept. It was definitely a good call making the guys able to get Effie away from the Capitol early on, so that we get to see her in action alongside the rest of the gang, rather than waiting for the reunion near the end of Part 2. Even hearing a gritty account of her off-screen experiences would be less satisfying than this development.
    It makes sense that they'd want her, if possible, over simply kidnapping the less-useful cosmetic prep team trio (whose primary book scenes were there to hammer home the disturbing, foreboding similarities and parallels between 13 and the Capitol, Coin and Snow...which I anticipate being even more evident in Part 2.) As it is, they're still trying to mislead those who don't already know what's up (aka, those who didn't read/don't remember the books well)...throw them off the scent, if you will...;) She's a good substitute for a somewhat extraneous and similar "Plutarch's assistant" character; even if a few of the retained comedic lines seem forced, they work thanks to skillful acting. And it all means a whole lot more coming from her--someone who genuinely cares about Katniss, who also knew and cared for Cinna.

Still relatively vivacious, chirpy, and a little bit sassy (like her friends!), Effie always has been pretty good about trying to optimize lousy circumstances. She tries to give her confidence a slight boost (and incidentally make her utilitarian jumpsuit look some 75% cooler) via nicer, somewhat chic-er styling and combinations of such elements as a headwrap-bandanna (gangsta!), her own shoes, a glovelet, bangles, rosy-tinted glasses (yes, underground; suh-wag! xD well, I guess the lights down there are pretty harsh & glaring), the tunic/poncho/cape over the thick grey leggings (& stirrup pants?), or a black sweater draped over her head (possibly borrowed from a certain, *ahem*, "associate??") Grey becomes the new fuchsia, or...something...and she adapts. (Quite well & quickly, it must be said, for someone used to a more extravagant culture and suddenly being asked to join in an incredibly dangerous war effort in one of the most austere places imaginable. She's got some spunk, not to mention the purest of hearts.) It's fun to see her get a wee bit creative with more limited materials. Gotta hand it to Coin for apparently figuring it best to just let her get away with the minor additions/tweaks/modifications, so long as she wears their stuff and basically blends in. (I mean, you can take the girl out of the Capitol...) [I could & have gone on for ages about the significance and symbolism in Effie's costumes, her development/progress, and so forth; that's for my Hayffie/THG documents. Oh, Effs, you're beautiful--no matter what you've got on your outside.]
Effie's also tougher than one might have thought--but then, "Fe" IS the chemical symbol for iron. As the film progresses and her eyes are opened to some cold hard truths, we see her coming to embrace a new identity--as revolutionary, full-on rebel, wind beneath the wings of the Mockingjay.
    As always, Effie does her very best to be as helpful as possible. Her trust in Plutarch seems to increase, but it still remains to be seen how much faith she's got in Coin to lead them. >;p It really is nice to see her so much earlier than in the text, where she's imprisoned and we don't know what's happening to her, which is worrisome--indeed, for a while Katniss believes that she may well have already been executed. (Thankfully she survives, with help from Haymitch and Plutarch, but remains enshrouded in mystery. Katniss mentions the potential need to let Coin know that she was on their side.) Like the author, I'm delighted that we finally get more of her, but I do honestly have to hope that they're able to somehow address the original situation--for the sake of unity, completeness, and blank-filling. There are just ever so many possibilities, honestly, for how everything could go, that I almost don't even want to think too much more about it...and yet I do...and yet I don't...because I'll most definitely go mad long before November.

And then there's my other favorite--good ol' Haymitch, who's experiencing some difficulty and displeasure of his own in adjusting to total sobriety...but managing, and
doing a darned good job of dealing with it. (After all, it's mandatory in 13, but he chose this; running a revolution calls for a clear head.) While Effie hides, he's being "dried out." But he and she act just like protective, proud parents toward Katniss. (It's the Capitol-bred Jabberjay, the wild mockingbird, and the resultant mockingjay!) There's a very cute scene in which he basically takes on the role of a teacher at a digital blackboard (*wipes screen clear* "Hope that wasn't important"--lol!), and Effie is the eager (and a bit titillated) little teacher's pet. They share a somewhat surprising, delightfully flirtatious & funny/adorable moment, and...oh, yeah, Hayffie confirmed for my new OTP. Each light-heartedly but (finally!) publicly, openly claims to prefer the other this way--closer to their real and genuine, natural selves...a raw, "just you", perhaps it's for the best that they've been stripped down & laid bare like this. Divested of their usual fronts--his liquor and her masks ("over-the-top, wild" outfits, hairstyles, and makeup)--it's almost as if they're being reborn, so that their truest selves can begin to emerge more fully than before. I really do love those two; they are just full of surprises. And after all, "like you better" implies what we already knew: that they've truly (like-)liked each other all along. ;D (What an understatement "like" is!!)

More philosophically...there is always a very real possibility that a second rebellion will fail, leading to unprecedented levels of oppression, suffering, and destruction. There's the fact that civil war will inevitably cost thousands (possibly millions?) more innocent lives...the chance that one bad system will be replaced with another...that the world will be plunged into sheer chaos...or indeed, that mankind in "North America" (or whatever they now call this continent--is it all just "Panem," like Australia?) will be essentially annihilated. On the other hand, the big picture is becoming clear. Snow's evil is unchecked, his "peace" maintained at high costs. It isn't simply about abolishing the games anymore. The games ostensibly exist to protect an established system of law and order that's neither peaceful nor just; it may in fact be corrupted beyond salvation. Those who would like to see change for the better may finally be faced with a feasible opportunity at last, if enough citizens can be persuaded as help dismantle the oppressive establishment board by board, saw the (NON-MAHOGANY!!) tables of tyranny in half, etc...even if some do have their own personal agendas as motivation to overthrow Snow. 

With regard to the overall series...I like each book and movie so far. I found the first two books to be approximately equal in quality to their adaptations. Both versions have their strengths; I adore how the movies bring these characters and the story to life, but naturally, the books provide a lot of "bonus" scenes you wish could have been depicted on film. I appreciate how faithfully the source text has been followed, and was able to thoroughly understand and enjoy the first two movies before being compelled to read, in order to glean all the information that had to be omitted. The premise itself is intriguing, and the characters have that magical quality of seeming very real. I have to share, however, in the general consensus that Mockingjay is the weakest book of the trilogy.

It's by no means a bad book--just not, in my opinion, as good as the first two. It necessarily has a bit of a different structure, and a larger scope. The bones of it are great. However, it felt as if the author were uncertain of how to handle this section of the to play it out, and especially, how to wrap it up. I got the sense that perhaps she just wanted to get it done and published. It's still, of course, a more than worthwhile read. The benefits are all the additional details which explain or provide insight. They're often the things that don't translate well to  the audio-visual version because they'd require a narrator, or would bog it down too much. Still, they do make you wish that they could be included in a brochure with the film, to inform or remind viewers of what's not seen or heard onscreen!

While few gory details are spared, many others are. Surely the YA reading level has something to do with the frequent feeling of rush, vagueness, and glossing-over. The ending and bittersweet epilogue are particularly sparse and, frankly, on the *really* depressing side. I understand that by that point, our narrator is drained and burnt out, and hardly bothering to learn or share much with us. That helps to explain the extreme lightness of detail, which almost seems like a setup for subsequent elaboration. But it's tough on such detail-oriented fans as myself, who must always know absolutely EVERYTHING. Readers are left with so many burning questions and ponderances (we didn't even learn the names of the Everlark children until later on.) And the matter of whom or what ultimately took out Snow is one of about nine hundred things it'd be super-swell to know.

Basically, these characters and this story are worthy of Harry Potter- or Lord of the Rings-length books, and I felt distinctly unsatisfied after all that the story had done to me. "That's it? So open-ended? It feels as though we should be waiting for another." With Part II of Mockingjay, I'm not asking for a future that's all sunshine and rainbows; that'd be totally unrealistic --I just very much hope that things are fleshed out for us in a much more satisfying manner. The brief summation we got barely gave a taste of the "new world order." Overall, the book is a blend of strengths and weaknesses--a great many strong, very well-written passages, interspersed with lesser bits.

So the benefits of this film, which covers almost the first half of the book, are numerous. For one thing, we're no longer 100% locked inside Katniss' head--seeing only what she sees, knowing only what she (thinks she) knows, and receiving everything exclusively through her point-of-view filter. This forces one more than ever to think well beyond the text itself and--as per usual with first-person narrators, especially of the YA variety--keep some salt grains handy. Don't take everything for gospel. Yes, we remain tethered to Kat throughout the film, but are at least allowed to see a bit more so long as it relates directly to her. All in all, the film provided a better perspective and made the story more engaging, exciting, suspenseful, and thrilling. It permitted greater development for everyone else, and flowed well from plot point to plot point. There's nothing hugely wrong with it, and they again made up with various excellent scenes for the things that had to be left out. At the same time, I could have used another 20-30 minutes, since I was pleased with the way that it actually expanded, enhanced, elaborated--and in some ways improved. Of course nothing is perfect, but the cast and crew make valiant efforts to approach perfection.

Changes made from text to screenplay were largely wise. I think there's just enough wiggle room and space for revision to think that even we readers can expect some (hopefully awesome) surprises. Yet, I believe we should continue to anticipate the core plot and major events and developments remaining intact (e.g., I'd see little reason to hope for the sparing of doomed people or to fear a survivor biting it.) So far, Mockingjay is still proving a powerful and effective story with a large scope and intriguing war commentary.

The biggest omissions from the source material include Madge, Darius (aka 'the cool Peacekeeper'), Bonnie & Twill, Peeta's prosthetic leg, Katniss' hearing loss, explanation of the use of fallen tributes in creating mutts, and an explanation of the mockingjay's origin (well, the latter was a deleted scene that didn't work.*) Oh, and the fact that arena mutts can be created from like, slightly-resurrected dead tributes--but that concept would've been understandably difficult to get across to a film audience. Would've been awesome to see, though.

At first a couple of those seem like fairly significant points, but ultimately, their removal isn't of tremendous consequence. The story isn't really too hurt without their mentions; it's not hard to accept that a lot of important things do have to happen off-screen and/or go unaddressed. The films succeed by, for the most part, leaving out only that which isn't totally crucial and can be concisely summarized, touched on, or implied in some other ways.

*Because Plutarch wouldn't require an explanation of the species, soooo.......although I totally see why they discarded that, I wish it could've been worked in somehow. Idk how, because it's just a known thing in their world, so how do you reveal it without breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience...maybe someone could be heard explaining it to someone young enough not to know yet, or whatever. Even if Madge had made the films, she wouldn't have explained it... :/ (Again, that brochure wish...!!!) The films merely convey the sense that the Capitol didn't really care for mockingjays all that much, for some unprovided reason.
Certain deleted scenes were removed for clear reasons (too contrived or silly/goofy/out-there or what-have-you)--while others can be assumed to have happened, basically as filmed, but simply couldn't be fit in for one reason or another, or didn't add enough to the movie to be as necessary as the rest. In the director's estimation, anyway.

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