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.

Catching Fire

The only solution

Quarter_quell_johannaJennifer Lawrence returns for another romp as Katniss Everdeen, but this time under the direction of Francis Lawrence, who has only directed formula films, but has both experience with character-centric sci-fi and the good sense to direct Catching Fire as more of a reserved drama than a Cloverfield-esque “found footage” battle epic.

J-Law is springboarding from a Best Actress win last year (undeserved over Jessica Chastain, but deserved in and of itself), and she shows no lack of seriousness as Katniss.  In the story, which features our heroine living through the year after the original Hunger Games, Katniss experiences severe night terrors and still lives in general poverty despite the monetary reward for her victory.  Perhaps worst of all, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the autocratic ruler of Panem, has a personal vendetta against her for publicly embarrassing the Capitol and forcing their hand at the end of the Games.  He approaches her at home and strong-arms her into participating in the Victory Tour, during which she and co-victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are to publicly thank the Capitol for their generosity, and to convince the masses of their love for each other, which Katniss faked in the first story in order to increase the “reality TV” value of the Games broadcast and win the hearts of the viewers.  Schmucks like TV host Caesar Flickerman (the ever-hilarious Stanley Tucci) eat this stuff up, but the people in the Districts are not fooled.  Revolution is brewing, and unbeknownst to Katniss (but knownst to us!), she is their symbol.

Meanwhile, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) harbors real romantic feelings for Katniss, and after an impromptu kiss, claims that he “had to do that at least once.”  What a wretched attitude.  Even after knowing her since childhood, he can’t just be her friend?  Regardless, the director wisely stays away from the romantic triangle that bogarted much of Katniss’s brain in the novel, because as readers know, it doesn’t really matter.  Gale, alongside Katniss’s family (played by Paula Malcomson and Willow Shields) have their own problems: Snow brings the hammer down on District 12, threatening to raze everyone’s homes if Katniss doesn’t behave during the tour.  He brings in Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) to enforce martial law on the District, flogging people in the square for minor infractions, and shooting people on sight for breaking curfew.  It’s all fairly silly, mustache-twirling villain material, but St. Esprit sells it, despite his short appearance, with one of the scariest performances I’ve recently seen.

The Victory Tour, of course, does not go as planned.  It mustn’t.  Katniss and Peeta ditch the speeches given to them by human peacock Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and instead speak to District 11 about the friends they lost in the Games.  The scene is truly emotional and difficult; these are the kinds of scenes we need in YA.  Scenes that remind the target audience (read: teenagers and impressionable people) that killing people isn’t fun and exciting, that military life is not made of glory and reward, regardless of what the heavy-metal TV propaganda says.

Through one thing and another, Snow realizes that the only way to shut Katniss up and turn the people against her is to put her back in the arena.  Because this is the 75th year since the installation of the Hunger Games (an event meant to illustrate the Capitol’s power over the people), a special Games must be held.  This time, the tributes are reaped from the existing pool of victors, and since Katniss is the only victor in the history of her district, hers is the only name in the bowl.  Katniss’s grizzled, alcoholic mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is also chosen, but Peeta predictably volunteers in his place.  Even Effie, the Capitol’s bright-eyed mouthpiece for the reaping in the first story, starts to feel the agony of this process, showing reservation in the live broadcast and weepily apologizing to Katniss in private.

Something isn’t right in these Games – half the tributes seem to be protecting Katniss from the other half.  Katniss meets previous victors Johanna Mason (Jena Malone!), a fiercely intelligent and sarcastic axe-wielder who goes so far as to strip naked during a long and confined elevator ride simply to make Katniss uncomfortable; Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), a vain musclehead with a big mouth; Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), an eloquent and rather enigmatic engineer who knows everything about manipulating electricity; Wiress (Amanda Plummer), Beetee’s partner, who seems unstuck in time; and Enobaria (Meta Golding), one of the “Career” tributes (people who train from birth to volunteer for the Hunger Games and usually win), who has had her teeth filed into fangs for purposes you can guess at.  Moreover, Snow has brought in a new head Game Maker, the unfortunately-named Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to ensure Katniss’s death by any means necessary.  The star power is almost too much to handle, but amazingly, the characters all fit into their roles well.  The issue with having so many great actors in supporting roles, however, is that each of them only get so many lines, and only so many of that small number are memorable – a shame when considering how little we’ve seen Amanda Plummer lately.

Thanks to Suzanne Collins’s original prose, Katniss is never a Boring Hero.  Despite the action in which she participates, she never seems like a role meant for [insert popular male action star].  She’s layered.  She’s feminine.  She’s strong-willed, but she’s as scared as any of us would be.  She’s determined, but still a kid in all respects; she’s never going to have the perfect plan.  She must learn, she must toil, she must improvise.  Since Collins was a producer on the film, the narrative sticks pretty closely to that of the novel, and the perspective never breaks away from Katniss (save minor breaks for evil dialogue between Sutherland and Hoffman), which means Lawrence has to carry the story on her back.  She does.  She just does.

Jena Malone, however, steals the show whenever she’s on.  A multi-talented actress/musician playing a multi-layered character whose complexity does not match the amount of attention she gets in the film, Malone completely owns Johanna Mason (one of the best characters from the novels) at every corner.  One second, she’s mercilessly taunting Katniss.  Another, she’s laying down her life for her.  But even in a film under two hours, this relationship is earned.  Far more so than the “will they, won’t they” between Katniss and Peeta, leastways.  What is her true allegiance?  What will her fate be?  There are some answers, and some big questions left to the next story.  The filmmaker, in an uncharacteristic move for this kind of film, avoids shoehorning in character deaths for emotional impact or creating big boss battles to ensure audience satisfaction.  No one gets any particular comeuppance here, and only with the absence of that do we see how much these formulas routinely distract us from real attention to character.

I have one fundamental issue with The Hunger Games: the fact that it was made into a movie at all. Here you have a story that essentially displays how reality TV and movies that people become addicted to are actually harmful tools used by the power structures to keep people complacent. This is a piece of text, a piece of writing, i.e. the freest and most liberal form of art, made to closely mirror our current culture and to demonstrate the court of public opinion’s destructive power, and now you have made it into a movie, into which people dump endless sums of money, and which you have advertised on network TV channels that also show reality TV shows and conservative news. So as stories, I like The Hunger Games, and as visual art, the films have something, but it’s a property that contains a vicious commentary on our power structures, and it has now been appropriated by our power structures, which is exactly what Big Brother does. This dystopian future is not a future: it’s where we are now. It was the present when Huxley and Orwell wrote it, and it is the present now.

The higher-ups see something that might start a fire (to use a metaphor from the book) – in this case, young people (namely women) starting to think that the government may not have their best interests in mind – and they say, “We must take possession of that. If it looks like we support it, the people remain on our side.”  Sound familiar?  I wonder who those involved in the films’ production think the “real enemy” is.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013); based upon the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Jena Malone, Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrelson.

 

Snow White and the Huntsman

My kingdom for a pair of flaming slippers

Yes, I saw The Avengers.  No, I did not find it worth writing about.

My favorite part of the hype and media jabber for Snow White and the Huntsman is that the most common piece of feedback I’ve seen, particularly in positive reviews, is that this is a “darker/gritter take on a classic fairy tale.”  This is problematic to me.  Do these paid movie critics believe Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was first created by Walt Disney and later adapted by the Brothers Grimm?  Or perhaps that the Grimms’ version in the original German featured dwarfs whistlin’ while they work and a nice cozy ending?  Sorry to break this to you, but fairy tales (especially the bizarre Brothers Grimm versions) were the nastiest, grossest, crudest (“darkest” if you must) stories of their time, and most of them end with death, body part removal, or inexplicable acts of violence.  There’s a reason the Addams Family were big fans of the Grimms, you know.

Rupert Sanders’ action-adventure adaptation of the tale is not so much an adaptation as a reimagining, but it retains enough of the fairy tale’s spirit that it skirts a line somewhere between the two.  One of the film’s most true-to-tale scenes (albeit a scene invented for the film) is one in which Snow White (Kristen Stewart) wanders into a mostly computer-animated meadow and encounters dozens of peculiar creatures, including a tortoise with moss on its back, mushrooms with eyes, and an enormous stag, which seems to somehow represent the heart of the forest, and which Snow White lovingly caresses in a surprisingly touching (and beautifully wordless) minute or so of reel.  The film keeps the Grimms’ “three drops of blood” motif as well.  At other times, the films borrows from The Lord of the Rings, most notably in a scene in which the seven dwarfs (played by a group of famous actors including Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, and Ray Winstone) sing a harrowing lament for their fallen eighth.  I’d hoped the film might retain Snow White’s manner of coming back to life after being killed by the poisoned apple – that is, the Prince’s servants trip on a shrub and drop the coffin, dislodging the piece of apple caught in her throat – but alas, we are left with opportunistic kisses.

By the same token, there can be little to no nuance in a film that wishes to stay true to a folk tale.  Snow White must be absolutely good, and the Queen (renamed Ravenna and played by Charlize Theron) must be absolutely evil.  As such, Ravenna is often seen eating the hearts of cute animals and sucking youth from the mouths of young girls (whereas in the original, she wants to eat Snow White’s lungs and liver), as well as pandering evilly to her magic mirror (an object/character that seems thrown in for familiarity and doesn’t serve the one function it serves in the Grimm tale: informing the Queen that Snow White is alive after the Queen believes her dead).  Snow White, in this version, is someone we enjoy spending time with and want to know more about, but if you begin to develop a character, you have to go all the way, and Sander’s princess is somewhere between a good character and a Boring Hero.  The manner in which Ravenna overtakes the kingdom of Snow White’s father is ingenious, however, and when she explains why she mercilessly disposes of male monarchs and usurps their thrones, we, as an audience, are pretty much with her.

The film uses its supporting cast well, mainly the seven dwarfs, which could have been confusing to keep track of, but somehow manage not to exhaust us nor to fall into comic relief (though they do provide the film’s one or two laughs).  Chris Hemsworth appears as the titular Huntsman, pretty much doing the same thing he does in Thor, but the filmmakers wisely do not allow him to upstage the heroine.  Sam Spruell plays Finn, the obligatory secondary bad guy in a film with two leads, but even he has his place and never wears out his welcome (which is more than I can say for his hairdo).  There’s even a surprise appearance by Lily Cole (of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Rage) as Greta, one of the Queen’s prisoners.  The only character who seems out of place is William (Sam Claflin), Snow White’s childhood friend, who is never quite sure what part he wants to play in this story – love interest?  Loyal soldier?  Enforcer on Finn’s brute squad?  The film occasionally plays at a romance between William and Snow White, but the main action is resolved before either acts upon impulse (when both are conscious, leastways) and we are left wondering whether William has been permanently friend-zoned.

I don’t know what to call this film.  I adore the classic folk tales and fairy tales (in spite of their quirks), but this film doesn’t attempt to copy them, nor does it seek to become the new standard for future generations to use as a frame of reference (as the Disney version sadly has, at least as far as modern film critics).  Where the animated feature has glitz and color and resolution, this movie has sensibilities.  I am tempted to refer to it as a feminist war movie.  Sure, the Huntsman helps Snow White here and there, but she alone inspires the (all male) Duke’s Army to fight in her name, all for the sake of personal revenge against Ravenna, since the latter doesn’t pose a threat to the duchy.  There’s also some business with hearts and messages about beauty and its inevitable fading.  If we’re looking at it from the media standpoint, it’s a fantasy film with big battles (and one too many ambushes), but the main conflict is between two women and they’re not fighting over a man.  Whether or not fantasy is your dish, that fact alone is worth ten-fifty.

Lastly, let me say that Kristen Stewart is a fine actress.  The unfortunate stigma is that so many viewers know her only from the Twilight films and not from her great roles as Joan Jett in The Runaways and Lucy Hardwicke in In the Land of Women.  Regrettably, she doesn’t have as much to say in this film as I would have liked, and for all of the Queen’s malicious taunting, Snow White could have had a few more pearls of wisdom for us.  I’m not saying I needed her to take up the voice of the Brothers Grimm and tell me the moral of the story; no, I needed her to take up her own voice, just a little bit more, because I was (and still am) ready to listen.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012); written by Hossein Amini (based upon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the Brothers Grimm); directed by Rupert Sanders; starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, and Chris Hemsworth.