THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

Mockingjay

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1  * * 1 / 2

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland. Screenplay by Peter Craig and Danny Strong. Directed by Francis Lawrence.

Twenty-five years ago this weekend my dad took us kids to see Back to the Future Part II. I can still remember when the lights came up — after an audacious cliffhanger finale followed by a trailer for Back to the Future Part III, coming next summer.

My old man was as pissed as I’d ever seen him at anyone who wasn’t me. Here he’d shelled out a small fortune (probably less than the price of a single IMAX 3D ticket these days) to bring his family to the multiplex on the day after Thanksgiving and they’d shown a two-hour commercial for another movie coming out next year. These people didn’t even have the decency to give us a goddamn ending.

Dad doesn’t go to the movies nearly as much as he used to, and I can’t say that I blame him. After all the Kill Bills, Harry Potters, Twilights, Hobbits and pretty much anything made by Marvel, a big studio picture that actually provides closure is becoming something of a novelty. (Indeed, one of the reasons Edge of Tomorrow – or whatever they’re calling it now – was one of this past summer’s unexpected delights is because it told a story that had a beginning, middle and an end. I forgot how refreshing that could be. Punchline: it bombed.)

I’m sure this era of franchise maintenance has something to do with the rise of binge-watching television and a culture of Internet anticipation but it’s awfully late and I’m too tired to make any sweeping generalizations right now. Instead I’ll just point out that serials are what used to play before the featured attraction, now they’re the main event.

On that note, let’s just accept and examine The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 for what it is: roughly 40% of a bestselling book that’s been adapted into a pre-sold Thanksgiving smash, and what a weirdly depressive, discomforting blockbuster it turns out to be. It’s more interesting than good, but it’s very interesting.

In this futuristic YA dystopia conjured by author Suzanne Collins, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen survived the annual purge during which kids kill each other on live TV for our collective bread and circuses. When we left off practically mid-sentence in last year’s surprisingly solid sequel, Catching Fire (the first film was fucking terrible) Katniss wound up rescued and recruited by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Woody Harrelson’s sneaky fifth column of secret insurrectionists. Suddenly there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air, roll credits.

If Mockingjay – Part 1 is about anything it is that revolutions are a logistical drag. Plucky spitfire Katniss, with her hunting bow and down-home wisdom is suddenly lifelessly reciting slogans in front of bad green-screen backgrounds like the product-endorsement goofs in Rocky II. Hoffman’s wry Plutarch Heavensbee and Julianne Moore’s rebel leader President Alma Coin (Collins is such a shitty Dickens when it comes to character names) try to goad their newfound icon into acting “authentic” for mass consumption, but it’s not working at all.

My pal Matt Prigge compared the picture to Steven Soderbergh’s Che, which he later tried to play off as a jokey stretch but he was absolutely right in that the film chronicles unglamorous grunt-work, nuts-and-bolts insurgent tactics that aren’t all that inherently dramatic unless Steven Soderbergh is shooting them. Most of this movie takes place literally underground, in dimly lit spaces where everybody plots sedition beneath ugly fluorescent lights. Personally, I feel it’s more like Pablo Larrain’s recent, fantastic No, in which a dictatorship was toppled by a savvy marketing campaign.

The arc of the story here is our stubborn individualist heroine Katniss learning how to compromise herself for the greater good. She’ll dress up in crazy costumes and sacrifice her self-worth but only to a point. Most of the movie is just propaganda publicity opportunities and negotiations. It’s about being a star.

By now it’s impossible not to read Jennifer Lawrence’s own life into this character. How not to see another humble, loveable gal from the sticks suddenly trying to navigate the pitfalls of worldwide infamy, discovering that her body no longer belongs to her while trying to keep her integrity intact? She really is the best reason to watch these Hunger Games movies — so emotionally immediate, always giving a thousand percent.

Nothing really happens here but I was still taken with the film’s cold-blooded indifference to conventional audience satisfactions. There’s a bit of lip service paid to some insanely boring typical YA crud with Josh Hutcherson and Liam (I get why Miley dumped you) Hemsworth, but the for the most part Mockingjay – Part 1 steers away from the worst movie love triangle since Pearl Harbor.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about Philip Seymour Hoffman ending his brilliant career in a role like this, but I was so happy when he showed up. It felt really good to see him again. He’s effortlessly funny in a very dour film, finding the only light beats and working a lazy, lived-in chemistry with Julianne Moore that will serve, I guess, as our final LebowskiBoogie NightsMagnolia reunion.

Mockingjay – Part 1 is a very odd film that ends as abruptly as it begins, so I guess we must all tune in next year to find out if it actually amounts to anything. This is just how big movies work now.

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