Mockingjay Part 1

Stranger things did happen here

MockingjayLet’s just start where we left off.  In the next section of the Hunger Games story, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) heads to District 13, once thought destroyed by the Capitol (but actually putting a revolution in motion), along with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and others.  In 13’s cramped underground bunker (which made me feel like I was once again conscripted onboard the Matrix‘s Nebuchadnezzar), Katniss meets some new faces: President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the inscrutable-yet-not-ice-cold leader who plans on Fidel-Castro-ing her way to rulership of Panem; Cressida (Natalie Dormer), the shaven-headed-and-tattooed film director whose job is to feature Katniss in propaganda videos in order to rally support for the rebellion; Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Coin’s right-hand man, who might be more accurately described as “the guy who fetches Katniss when other people need her for something;” and Paylor (Patina Miller), the leader of the rebellion in District 8.  Most importantly (to Katniss, anyway), she is reunited with her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), such an ingénue that she’s named after the most delicate of flowers (and she even bears a resemblance to Mary Pickford).

Director Francis Lawrence navigates the slow-burning first half of the source novel through the eyes of Katniss (the lens through which the entire book series is told, and in present tense, no less), occasionally breaking away for Bad Guy Stuff between Donald Sutherland and whichever unlucky mooks happen to be within earshot of his garden-variety evil pontificating.  Otherwise, the main narrative is built of Katniss’s interactions with various others in 13, most importantly Coin, Prim, Plutarch, and the recently liberated Effie (Elizabeth Banks), seen for the first time in the series without buckets of makeup (yep; there’s a real person with real emotions under there!).  The main goal now is to rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) from the clutches of the Capitol so that a full-on assault can happen without endangering the lives of those who made Katniss’s escape from the arena possible – in other words, there’s still the promise of actiony stuff for casual non-readers.  But the best parts of the film are the haunting reminders of what will come in any war story, especially one that wants to show younger folks a thing or two about the horrors of combat.  This is done not by melting people’s skin off onscreen (that’s next time), but by elegant flourishes like having Katniss sing an a capella version of “The Hanging Tree” (a made-up folk song that actually sounds like a folk song) as requested by a poor sap who’s had his tongue hacked out by the Capitol.  Moments later for us, weeks/months in-universe, a gang of citizens martyr themselves in order to destroy the Capitol’s power source, all the while singing Katniss’s song.

As Katniss must now keep track of everyone’s most minute movements, so must we.  What kind of leader will Coin be?  She wants to use Katniss as a symbol to fuel her own ambitions, but at least she’s honest about it.  Julianne Moore could have played the character as shifty-eyed and overtly duplicitous, but instead plays a character whom it’s very easy to feel close to, even though your brain is telling you to keep your distance.  Hoffman’s Plutarch reveals his sense of humor, as well as his stake in all of this, and his lone scenes with Moore’s Coin bring back fond memories of The Big Lebowski (memories that will unfortunately only be memories from here on).  Dormer’s Cressida more or less encapsulates District 13’s attitude in a single person: “We like you, Katniss, but not as much as we like the rebellion, and only as long as we can still use you.”  Miller’s Paylor is underused and underseen, especially considering upcoming events, but I’ll save that.  Almost completely MIA is Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason, who appears in a silent cameo after being rescued, yet (and this is to Malone’s unbelievable credit) we’re assured that her entire personality is still intact just by the look she gives Katniss after tearing an oxygen tube out of her nostrils.

The most important part of the Hunger Games films is the characterization of Katniss.  A film inherently cannot spend as much time inside the character as a written narrative can, but both Lawrences are intent on not reducing Katniss to a Boring Hero (that role goes to steadfast pragmatist Gale [Liam Hemsworth] – imagine if he were the main character?).  Mockingjay dedicates plenty of scenes to Katniss alone and brooding, but never whining or dejectedly sulking.  The serious PTSD has started to set in, ensuring that what’s to come in Katniss’s personal life will be neither pleasant nor a surprise.  Furthermore, attention is given to the minutiae, which affects characterization far more than any of the “deep” thematic stuff: Katniss’s adoration for her sister is illustrated through little mannerisms that they both recognize.  They sleep in a bed together like children do.  Katniss reacts the way a person is supposed to when they see a pile of human skulls in the middle of a street (hint: not with a badass one-liner about vengeance).  She’s not your straight/narrow Harry Potter type, regardless of how YA narratives may get lumped together.  But she’s not a femme fatale either, and even after three films, she refuses to be anything but human.

The final installment will be fast and violent, but if this film and Catching Fire were any indication, Katniss’s voice will be heard more clearly than the myriad explosions will.

Read my writeup of Catching Fire here.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014); based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Danny Strong and Peter Craig; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Dormer, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

And we all fall down

deathlyWouldn’t you know it; the local movie theatre finally developed an organized and professional way to hold midnight premieres for the Harry Potter films, just in time for the final installment in the series.  I guess they can keep the new and improved process in mind when The Hunger Games and whatever other angsty young-adult books are translated into film next.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is, as the title suggests, the second part of a 5-ish-hour film, and believe me, this one feels like the second half of a film.  Director David Yates, in one of his only wise moves in this film, wisely avoids rehashing Part 1 and wasting time.  We get right into the story, with stubbly young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) chatting with the folks he rescued in the previous film and attempting to learn the secrets of two sets of MacGuffins: the Deathly Hallows, mystic objects most people do not believe exist, and therefore, in the realm of movie logic, must exist; and the Horcruxes, objects tainted with dark magic by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), which contain pieces of his soul.  The falling action of the Potter series follows Harry’s mission, along with Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) hunting for a way to destroy Voldemort, as Voldemort’s forces close in on Hogwarts School and prepare to annihilate its inhabitants.

Performance-wise, the film is solid, and as mentioned in my review of Part 1, seeing so many legendary British actors together in one spot is a treat.  As such, the supporting cast is infinitely more interesting than the main trio, as Harry remains stalwart throughout seven (or in the film’s case, eight) stories and never shirks his Boring Hero act.  Rickman as Severus Snape, Fiennes as Voldemort, and Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall steal much of the show here.  The film also features a nice scene with Kelly MacDonald (of Boardwalk Empire fame) as Helena Ravenclaw, a ghost who possesses secrets about one of the final Horcruxes.

Yates’ use of character is not as strong here as it once was, and on some occasions, we really feel as though we’ve missed something.  Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), Tonks (Natalia Tena), Kingsley (George Harris), Bill Weasley (Domhnall Gleeson) and several others are given very limited screen time and not allowed to say much, yet we’re expected to feel sympathy at their deaths (which are mostly unseen), and satisfaction at their killers being brought to justice.  Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), two of Harry’s more interesting schoolmates, are given plenty to do, and to the film’s credit, it’s nice to see virtually every minor cast member from the last four or five films involved in the defense of Hogwarts, even if they’re just standing there.  Nick Moran, Chris Rankin and a few others reprise their roles, but keep silent, as though they’ve been told not to speak lest the studio have to pay them more if they utter a line.

Yates makes several good choices and slightly more bad ones.  Aside from character issues, little of the actual fighting is shown in the much-anticipated Battle of Hogwarts.  We get snippets of unnamed extras fighting and dying as Harry and the gang run past to their next objective, but little to no fighting footage of any supporting cast members (characters with names) is seen.  I do wonder if there were deleted scenes featuring these characters.  As this movie is shorter than the last one, would it have been so bad to keep the footage in?  Additionally, after the already action-heavy opening third of the film ends, the clever and occasionally well-written dialogue of Part 1 gives way to nonstop action and CG.  Many of the scenes feel rushed, and I felt like I was being asked not-so-politely to simply accept character relationships forged five films ago and not worry about “talking” in this one.  Do filmmakers realize that battle scenes are especially boring when we don’t care about the characters who do the battling?

I would also like to ask David Yates why villains must crumble to pieces or melt when they die.  The heroes are seen bloodied and beaten, sometimes torn apart, while the main bad guys vanish into dust or explode into a gemlike blue substance.  This is not what death looks like.  When Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson) died in the fourth film, there was impact.  Know why?  Because he is cruelly murdered at point blank range, and his lifeless body flops unceremoniously onto the ground, eyes open and lustrous.  We know who, we know why, and it feels real.  The old Wicked Witch death (i.e. melting, crumbling, vanishing into smoke, or otherwise completely transmogrifying) is not an effective portrayal of death if you’re trying to evoke emotional impact, because the audience cannot equate it with anything from real life.  There is nothing to associate the feeling with.  If you’re a big fan of the books and don’t care about any of this, suffice it to say “it didn’t happen in the book,” and have at it.

The strongest section of the film involves revelations about Snape’s past, and Alan Rickman does not shortchange us with his performance, nor does Yates with the time he devotes to these scenes.  There’s a lot to like in the film, particularly the memories sequence, the wonderfully-done special effects (especially the multiplying treasure in the Gringotts vault), and the appropriate level of climax, given what this story has been building up to.  Perhaps the most enjoyable part of a film like this is seeing it in a crowded theatre with an audience who doesn’t know what’s going to happen.  Reactions are golden.

The film, while not the best in the series and far below the best of art, is an experience worth having, and closes out the series with Seinfeldian flair. It’s time to bid these characters farewell, so if you’re a big fan of the series, fret not.  Your life is not over.  There’s a world of amazing books out there, for which these served as barely a warm-up.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; written by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Ralph Fiennes.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I

‘allo, beau’iful

Whilst standing in line for David Yates’ second jab at directing the later entries in the Potter film series (Half-Blood Prince), I overheard/eavesdropped on a conversation between two young men, or “bros” to use the parlance of our time.  “They’re making the seventh movie into two?  Why?” one asked.  “Because they’re douchebags” was the other’s response, and it occurred to me that when the average film-goer uses the term “they,” it comes out in a tone just so dismissive that for a moment I wonder whether these folks don’t believe films are put together in one day and delivered to the theatre by the Celluloid Stork.

Now, I would have though the series’ devoted fans would be thrilled that they’re getting more content.  Even at two hours twenty minutes, the first installment of Deathly Hallows feels jam-packed with events, superfluous characters, frustrating loose ends and exhausting sequences of suspense.  Given the source material, however, Yates handles the material well, managing to make it more than a jumbled attempt to correct previous acts of over-zealousness.  We get a veritable A-list of British actors, and despite the fact that most of them have tiny roles (or even cameos in some cases), it’s something of a delight to see John Hurt, Bill Nighy, Warwick Davis, Nick Moran, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham-Carter, Timothy Spall, Ralph Fiennes and Robbie Coltrane in the same film.  It doesn’t have quite the same effect as Machete‘s ensemble cast, but this is quite a different kettle of fish, isn’t it?

A lot of what holds the film down is, again, the source material.  The seventh story focuses so much on “items” and “fetch-quests” that for a moment you may think you’re rifling through your RPG inventory trying to figure out what half of these baubles are for. Here’s a comprehensive list:

Horcruxes– Seven objects selected by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) which contain a piece of his soul.

Deathly Hallows– Three MacGuffins of massive power that everyone wants.  If you’re keeping score, Harry has two and Voldemort has one.

Broken Piece of Mirror– If you haven’t read the book, put a giant question mark here, because it’s never explained in the film or any before it.  If you have, you’re already angry at me.

Hermione’s Purse– A magic bag which contains…well, everything.  To the director’s credit, this is the first time in a film I’ve seen the classic “bottomless bag” gag used in a scene where it wasn’t the center of a joke.

In the proper tradition of MacGuffins, none of the above items will have any significance by the end of the third act (Part II, which comes out in July).

Finally, in this film, the acting skills of the three leads comes full circle.  Up until the fifth film, the shaky performances of the kids were padded by the slew of excellent actors surrounding them, but this time they’re on their own, and they carry the film well enough.  Rupert Grint’s acting has come the furthest (in the film, at least), and it becomes difficult to stifle chills during a scene in which Ron Weasly lives up to his name and…well, weasels his way out of the Quest.  Emma Watson also steps up to the plate, becoming Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) mature guiding hand, and the film doesn’t quite clarify with which of the two strapping young lads she’s in love, especially during some tender moments with Harry in the tent.

The story has all the makings of a young adult fantasy classic: the Quest, a bunch of magical items, amazing spells; as well as the stuff modern youths and fanboys get off to: kids with superpowers, needless love triangles, you know the drill.  The inner soul of the series has always been rather hollow in the sense that, besides the absence of the author’s writing chops, the protagonist never changes.  Harry walks the straight and narrow so consistently throughout seven books that the inevitable victory over unbridled darkness is not only routine, but tiresome.  Rowling throws in a few deaths and maimings of beloved secondary characters for dramatic impact, but most of us aren’t fooled nor distracted.

One of the most striking aspects of the film are the little touches that make it different than the last.  While Half-Blood Prince is a quieter tale about personal discovery and teen angst, this one is told on an epic scale.  For the first time, we see all of Voldemort’s followers in one room.  We see the changes in the Ministry of Magic, whose influences cast a heavy nod in the direction of George Orwell, as the slogan “Magic is Might” looms over a statue of a wizard trampling normal humans (“muggles”).  Pay close attention to the costumes chosen for the footsoldiers of the Ministry – a nod to Nazi Germany?  We also get new characters such as Yaxley (Peter Mullan), who nonchalantly leans back in his chair as “blood traitors” are sentenced to death.  The gorgeous Clémence Poésy returns as Fleur Delacour, who is to marry Ron’s oldest brother, Bill (Domhall Gleeson, son of Brendan), the victim of a werewolf attack, and the choice to have Bill report the news of Mad-Eye’s death is both inspired and startling.  Perhaps my favorite of the additions is Nick Moran, best-known for his role as Eddie in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, as Scabior, a dirty-haired bounty hunter known as a Snatcher.  Moran is not only allowed to retain his amazingly-pleasant-to-listen-to East End accent, but his role is expanded from that of the novel, and in the film it seems that Scabior is the leader of the Snatchers, barking out orders even to savage werewolf Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno).  For a moment, I could have sworn I was in the London underworld.

Ultimately, the film succeeds, not only for the fresh-faced teenage girls in hand-me-down robes and five-inches-too-short skirts who attended every midnight premiere and annoyed the hell out of the adults in the middle row who wanted to listen to the dialogue, but also those adults themselves.  The only disclaimer I can put on the film, for those who want full enjoyment, is this: don’t get too wrapped up in the details.  There are unnecessary name-drops and sideplots that are picked up and thrown out faster than sale-price egg salad, but what really matters is the characters, how they’re going to deal with what’s ahead (once they actually figure out what that is), and how the whole journey makes you feel when it’s done.  That said, I believe the end of the franchise is in good hands.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows : Part 1 (2010); written by Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); directed by David Yates; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Ralph Fiennes.

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