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.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Don’t be yourself: good advice for most Hollywood directors

Crazy, Stupid, Love is Ficarra/Requa’s new feature-length RomCom concerning the romantic escapades of several good people.  Kevin Bacon’s in it, too.

The film is the big debut of Steve Carell after his dramatic exeunt from The Office, and as usual, he plays a likable, hapless man with zero luck and the best intentions.  Carell’s character, Cal Weaver, leaps out of a moving car after his wife, Emily (the lovely-as-ever Julianne Moore) declares her desire to get divorced.  Simultaneously, Cal’s son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), thirteen years old, declares his love for his babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), four years his senior, who rejects Robbie’s advances in surprise and disgust.  Cal begins spending time at a local bar – which looks more like a high-end casino than any bar I’ve ever seen – and has a chance meeting with Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), a wealthy, well-dressed womanizer who promises to teach Cal the tricks of the trade in order to help win Emily back.  The only woman Jacob hasn’t been able to rustle is Hannah (Emma Stone), who can’t stand his pickup lines, doesn’t find him attractive, and already has a boyfriend (Josh Groban).  With one thing and another, these respective parties inevitably cross paths in several hysterical, clever, and sometimes downright touching ways.

I have to respect the writer/director(s) for just that: having respect for the audience.  In a day and age where filmmakers feel they need to spoon-feed every thread of story information to the iPhone-obsessed ADD public, here’s a film which introduces several characters, apparently not connected in any way, right at the outset of the story, and leaves it to the viewer to remember who each character is without constantly repeating information and retreading tired plot points.  I wish this method of telling a story as though telling it to someone older than five wasn’t such a lost art form in films these days.

The performances are solid through and through.  The actors avoid playing characters who are expecting a clean-cut happy ending.  The film even features appearances from Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon, the latter of whom plays David Lindhagen, the many-times-named accountant who steals Emily from Cal, and he does a good job of playing the character as a real person and not a generic sleazeball whose only mission is to spite the protagonist (the Spiteful Sleaze, as seen in so many easy plot formulas for this type of film).

The character growth is genuine, albeit achieved through preposterous circumstances which could only occur in film.  Conversations are interrupted at near-miraculous times, but they’re always finished later.  In addition, the film’s single plot twist is well-executed and unexpected (yet inevitable when you think about it in retrospect, which to me is the best kind of twist, if we need one at all).  The filmmakers shoot for an uplifting ending (because it’s a date movie) and achieve much more, because their respect for their audience never wanes.  Not everyone gets the girl (or guy), there’s no moral lesson, and the dynamics of a somewhat dysfunctional family are left fully intact even when optimism wins out.

Go figure.  A RomCom which achieves both parts of its name, as well as being an engaging family drama.  Characters are made to say difficult things to the people they care about, the title is never blurted out, and there’s barely an ounce of the crude humor that seems so par-for-the-course with any type of comedy nowadays.

There’s also a great big editing error featuring Emma Stone’s legs.  Happy hunting.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.; written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; starring Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.