Friday, November 28, 2014

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Year: 2014
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore
Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Well, that was unexpected.

No, not that Suzanne Collins' third Hunger Games book, Mockingjay was adapted into a film. That was inevitable, especially after The Hunger Games and Catching Fire nabbed the 7th and 6th highest opening weekends in box office history. Nor was it unexpected that they would split that film into two parts. Twilight and Harry Potter proved beyond all doubt that, despite the format's limitations, it's a surefire box office bonanza. What's unexpected is that Mockingjay - Part 1, an adaptation of the worst half of the worst of the three books, is kind of awesome.

And not just because of the Sexy Lumberjack District.

While the book itself was a bit of a snooze, Mockingjay - Part 1 brings its best elements (namely, the scenes of rebellion) to the forefront and reduces its worst (Katniss's endless emotional outbursts which ring true to a teen girl's responses to a traumatic situation, but murder the pacing in cold blood), both by nature of being a visual, rather than written medium. 

While this is done without any real technical distinction save for a few moments, this turns Mockingjay into an emotional barrage, perfect for capturing the tone of this film's shift in genre from its predecessors. Where The Hunger Games and Catching Fire were bleak and dystopian and child-murdery, they couldn't even hold a birthday candle to Mockingjay, which is nothing more and nothing less than a brutal war film.

So, yeah. This film picks up where the last left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was busy hungry gaming for the second time when she broke the game's force field and was whisked away to District 13 - a rebel safe haven long thought to have been abandoned. Ousted gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final film role) has teamed up with District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) to rebrand Katniss as the Mockingjay, a symbol behind which the disparate districts can unite in opposition to the tyrannical Capitol, led by the despotic President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland).

As Katniss explores the damaged districts with Gale (Liam Hemsworth), she battles her PTSD and harnesses her anger against the Capitol to inspire all of Panem. Although her goals are more singularly focused on the rescue of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol's clutches, her words ignite the flames of war.

And the fervor of a thousand fanfictions.

As the skirmishes increase and the districts band together against the Capitol Peacekeepers, the film becomes a slamming gauntlet of war and civil unrest. Although it retains the violence-obscuring shaky cam of the earlier films, Mockingjay largely casts away the YA trappings of the franchise to depict a grown-up, mature vision of a reluctant teen crossing into adulthood and finally realizing her responsibility to do all she can to fight the injustices that she has grown up with.

Looking at the news this week, the increased sense of social responsibility present in Mockingjay hits hard. That's all I'm gonna say about that, but this film came at the right time to (albeit slightly accidentally) be bold and shatter political boundaries, much more than it could have even a couple months earlier.

Every element of the film emphasizes the hard facts of war and injustice. Especially notable is the costume design, which actively denies the actresses of their typical level of makeup, stripping away the cinematic facade of normalcy and highlighting the bleak, unpolished reality of the situation. Although Capitol fashionista Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) finds a way to make a military jumpsuit her own, her costume is perhaps the most affecting, transforming a gaudy glamor queen into a pale shadow of her former self.

Though Lord help me, she makes it work.

Behind those simple costumes lies the powerhouse of Mockingjay. Elizabeth Banks outdoes herself as the garish spokeswoman stripped down to her essentials and Jennifer Lawrence gives the single best performance of her career as a shattered teen girl scrabbling for a kernel of hope in a colorless world. The rest of the acting is competent all around (although Natalie Dormer as Cressida the propo director is perhaps a little showy), but these two women really bring the house down, quite literally in some cases.

This visual bleakness is accented in the score with a dazzlingly simple composition by James Newton Howard with lyrics pulled from the book itself - "The Hanging Tree." This song of rebellion spreads like wildfire from district to district, eventually being pulled into the underscore itself in one of the most well-composed sequences in the film.

Luckily, side characters like Banks and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch provide brief moments of levity to protect Mockingjay from becoming a grand tour of humanity's most awful tendencies. I mean, this is a film in which the opening title is led in with the line "I wish we were dead." It's tough to watch - whether it's the bombing or the shooting or the sneak attacks or the ruthless propaganda, there's something to hit everyone's disturbed sweet spot.

I spent a great deal of time dithering over my numerical rating for the film because it's so much better than Catching Fire, but it lacks the intangibles necessary for me to rate it a 9. The visuals just aren't spunky enough for me to look at it as an astounding piece of cinema - although as a series of emotional beatings, it's top notch. So take that 8 with a grain of salt, knowing that I'd give it a half if I could.

See you next year when we can finally lay this franchise to rest with maybe the best entry yet? Until then, may the odds be ever in your favor.

TL;DR: Mockingjay - Part 1 is the best film in the franchise so far - and a harrowing emotional journey.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 989
Reviews In This Series
Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013)
Mockingjay - Part 1 (Lawrence, 2014)
Mockingjay - Part 2 (Lawrence, 2015)

1 comment:

  1. I've always said that if they could just keep up the rate they were improving these films, Mockingjay Part 2 would be better than Citizen Kane.