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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Ever since the final story in the “Harry Potter” film series was split into two movies, other popular franchises based on young adult novels have followed suit. From “Twilight” to the upcoming “Divergent” finale to this week’s “Hunger Games” entry, it has become common practice to milk every dollar possible out of their fanbases. While smart from a business point-of-view, such a tactic typically means the storytelling suffers. To date, each first entry in these splits have expectedly felt like the first half of a whole story. But whereas “Harry Potter” had some meat to it, the first part of the final installment in the “Hunger Games,” subtitled “Mockingjay,” has none. The film is a cash grab through and through, taking about 30-45 minutes of dramatic narrative and lengthening it to a plodding two hours. And that’s the least of its problems. Despite two solid entries in the popular franchise, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” fails to deliver in nearly every regard.

The story picks up where “Catching Fire” left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has essentially destroyed the Hunger Games and has been picked up by the rebels who intend to overthrow the Capitol. To do that, they need to get the people from each district on their side, so the rebel president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and her right hand man, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), convince Katniss to be the face of the rebellion, their Mockingjay, and they set out to make propaganda films they can broadcast all around the Capitol.

That is more or less all that happens in this part one of the “Mockingjay” story. It shoehorns in certain themes, particularly in its exploration of totalitarianism, but they fail to resonate. While a story about government intrusion and control over its people is not a bad one, it’s one that has been explored to death, especially in recent years when the US government arguably overextended its rights after 9/11. “Mockingjay” doesn’t do or say anything particularly different, or even well, instead opting to be what amounts to a rather basic “corrupt government vs. righteous rebellion” story.

Even if just looking at it from an action perspective, even if you go in just trying to satisfy your most primitive, visceral desires, “Mockingjay Part 1” won’t satisfy. The Hunger Games from the previous movies are over and the rebellion has begun, but their focus on propaganda films means much of the action happens at a distance, Katniss merely hearing about it or seeing it after the fact and subsequently expressing her frustration on camera, which the rebels use for future broadcasts. The fear, the thrill, the mystery, the intrigue; they’re all gone, replaced with unenticing answers and a glacial narrative pace.

Ultimately, its pseudo-intellectualism is the most prevalent aspect of “Mockingjay,” at least from a story perspective. Unfortunately, its visuals don’t do much to pick up the slack. The colorful eye candy from the two previous films are muted to drab grays and browns here; count yourself lucky if you pick out the fleeting moments of actual color. Though the aesthetic switch compliments the darker tone of the film, it nevertheless makes the movie a visual bore. It is possible to make a tonally dark movie with a dark, muted color palette without compromising the actual beauty of the film. The later “Harry Potter” entries are great examples of those films. “Mockingjay Part 1” is not.

Worse yet, the dialogue is full of some of the most heavy handed ramblings you’ll hear all year, as Katniss and her cohorts proselytize incessantly like loudmouthed doomsayers on a college campus. Lawrence is a terrific actress, but even she can’t elevate her dialogue from the drudgery of the page it was conceived on. When she isn’t talking, the supporting characters don’t do much better as they speak obvious truths, seemingly to appeal to the dumber viewers in the audience. After one character gives a very clear warning to the rebels, another yells out, “A warning! That was a warning!”

There are a few tense scenes, but they either pale in comparison to similar sequences in other films or they fizzle out before anything really happens. The finale in particular ends up going nowhere and the one would-be frightening scene where bombs are dropping overhead recalls 1942’s terrific “Mrs. Miniver,” and it reaches not even a tenth of the drama and fear that movie instilled in the viewer.

There’s not much going on for the majority of this film, but just when the story finally begins to gain some momentum, it abruptly ends. Though it sets the stage for a hopefully more exciting final installment—and when coupled with it, perhaps this first half will fare better—as a standalone product, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” is a monumental dud, a huge nosedive in quality that is unprecedented in other major franchises. It’s unworthy of the venerable “Hunger Games” name and most certainly unworthy of your time.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 receives 1/5


The Maze Runner

There’s something about a good mystery that grips me. I have an innate desire to solve, or at least witness the solving of, mysteries, even if the material itself is subpar. This week’s latest young adult novel turned film, “The Maze Runner,” is an example of that, as it kept me interested with one of those mysteries, even as the characters and narrative structure failed to impress. It’s by no means great, and is likely to divide reviewers based on minute details, as the film itself is as middling as they come, but if you’re into stories with slow revelations and a mystery worth solving, you could do a lot worse than “The Maze Runner.”

As the film opens, Timothy (Dylan O’Brien), wakes up in an elevator ascending at incredible speeds, but to where he doesn’t know. When he reaches the top, he finds a colony of other young men who have themselves previously made the same journey. They tell him that they don’t know why they’re here or who sent them, as their memories have been almost completely wiped, with only their names remaining (it’s “the one thing they let us keep,” one character explains to him). Everyone has a job to sustain their livelihood, but the most important boys are called “runners.” Every day, an opening leading to a gigantic maze appears in the giant walls encasing them before closing again at dusk. The runners explore the maze every day, mapping it out and trying to find an exit, and if they don’t return by the time the doors close, they’re never seen again, taken by mysterious entities the inhabitants call “grievers.” Three years have passed since they began mapping the maze and nothing has resulted from it, but Timothy is determined to get out of there and takes matters into his own hands.

The moment “The Maze Runner” begins, it hooks you. It doesn’t bother with backstory or even context for such an opening. Much like the character you’re watching, it simply throws you blindsided into a situation you know nothing about (provided you haven’t read the book, of course). It has you begging for answers. Who is this person? Where is this maze and why does it exist? This is, oddly enough, the film’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. The questions at the core of the narrative are enticing, but the answers to them leave much to be desired. By not providing any backstory, it’s impossible to care about these kids. Characters need to be defined, to be given personalities, for an audience to truly connect with them and care about their plight. By stripping them of those things before the movie even begins, it creates a heavy burden on the upcoming narrative and character exploration, which needs to make up for such emptiness.

Sadly, the eventual reveals don’t add much to the emotional hole residing in the core of “The Maze Runner.” As Timothy’s actions affect the colony and its inhabitants discover their true personalities, the movie hits a lull. It tries to move the story forward, but nevertheless brings it to a screeching halt. None of the characters are built in a believable way and their narrative arcs are obvious; their previous behavior a clear indicator of what they will become. Even worse, they start to give speeches and wax poetic about their freedom, yet they do so with childish dialogue, perhaps understandable given their age and intellectual immaturity, but it doesn’t make for the most interesting cinema.

It’s a shame because that central mystery is strong, even if it is surrounded by crummy dialogue, poor characterizations and oppressively dark nighttime scenes, which leads to action sequences with the grievers that can barely be followed when coupled with the aggressive shaky cam. In fact, I was so anxious to see the big reveal that I didn’t want to see it end—a clear indicator of a great mystery. Unfortunately, its reveal isn’t a particularly big one, serving merely as a cliffhanger for the sequel. Ending on a cliffhanger is not an inherently bad approach, but the story at hand still needs to have some type of resolution and the one provided here is minor when compared to other young adult film adaptations.

“The Maze Runner” is, by and large, a take it or leave it affair. It does some things incredibly well, but stumbles like a drunk, elderly cripple elsewhere. Worth noting is a terrific performance from the young lead actor, O’Brien. Although there is ultimately nothing here worth caring about, he pulls off his emotional scenes with fervor. By the end, though, “The Maze Runner” proves itself as little more than a cinematic tease. It entices you like a string of yarn to a curious cat, but when the string is finally grabbed and the foundation falls apart, you quickly realize there wasn’t much to get excited about in the first place.

The Maze Runner receives 2.5/5


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Last year’s smash hit, “The Hunger Games,” was of a quality similar to many smash hits in recent years: it was good, but not great. Despite a bevy of things it did well, there were a number of story issues and missed dramatic opportunities that were only made all the more apparent by the undeserved hype its fans were spreading. Its sequel, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” fixes many of its predecessor’s mistakes. The drama is more potent, the story better structured and, though it eventually falls into more or less the same dragged-out rhythm of the previous film, the stakes are raised higher. The movie still doesn’t rank among some of the best this year has had to offer, but it’s a marked improvement and sets the stage for a promising final installment.

Since the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have become celebrities. Their story of love has captured the hearts and minds of the people in their districts, much to the chagrin of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Their actions have sparked a rebellion among the lower districts, which is seen as a threat to the Capitol. It’s now the 75th year of the Hunger Games and every 25 years, the Capitol has a special event, a quell, to celebrate and remember the Capitol’s victory over the people’s uprising all those years ago. This year, President Snow, in an effort to subdue the districts’ recent attitude change brought on by Katniss, announces that they will take previous winners of the Hunger Games and pit them against each other. Once again, Katniss finds herself in dire situations, but with the help of some as-of-yet unknown allies, things may begin to change.

If the original film was about anything, it was about our bloodlust, our desire to watch people destroy themselves and each other in an entertaining way. It may be an easy allegory given the destructive reality television personalities our society focuses on, but it’s also a truthful one. We’ve become so accepting of these things that it hardly fazes us anymore. “Catching Fire,” on the other hand, is a wake-up call. It’s about not standing for the status quo if that status quo is corrupt or evil. More specifically, it makes a connection between the perpetuation of fear by media figures. In the film, President Snow wants to keep his people docile and prevent an uprising through the use of manipulation and misinformation, knowing full well that fear is a powerful tool and strong suppressant. Comparisons to so called “news” networks like Fox News are easy to see and this is where the film finds its grounding. Its greatest strength is in its commentary.

Of course, that commentary isn’t exactly subtle. Not much about the film is. The art direction is also once again simultaneously fascinating and perplexing, with clashing schemes of drab, bleak colors in the slummy districts and bright, colorful decor in the extravagant Capitol. Although the colors and costumes are meant to distinguish between the poverty stricken and those who live lavishly, the distinction is too extreme. When one aspect of the film is realistic and grim while the other feels like a cartoon, it inadvertently gives itself a confused tone.

Where “Catching Fire” surpasses the original is in its emotionally charged story. The original had some great dramatic moments, but they felt isolated from the story as a whole. After young Rue died in a tremendously sad scene, she was quickly forgotten and the trauma such an event would have on Katniss was never fully explored. There were no dramatic ripples that carried throughout the entire film. “Catching Fire” is the opposite. Few individual moments have deep impact, but the product as a whole combines to create overarching emotion that builds steadily and doesn’t go away until the end credits begin to roll, and this is despite the inconsistent tone. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” isn’t perfect and will no doubt be spoken of in hyperbole by its many supporters, but it’s nevertheless a step up in nearly every regard.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire receives 4/5