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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


Young Adult

When director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody teamed up in 2007 for Juno, they struck gold. All of a sudden, their small independent movie was seeing a wide release and garnering a number of award nominations, including a nod for Best Picture at the Oscars. Since then, Reitman has directed the wonderful Up in the Air, another terrific movie that, similar to Juno, was met with critical acclaim and awards nominations. Cody, on the other hand, moved onto Jennifer’s Body, a lackluster (if even a bit underrated) horror comedy that tried far too hard to capture that Juno magic. Now she is back with a new script and working with the director that made her somebody. The end result is Young Adult, an occasionally funny, sometimes clever, but all around mediocre vehicle for Charlize Theron in the most unlikable role she’s ever been in. And she was in Monster. Think about that.

In the film, Theron plays Mavis Gary, a writer who is in the process of writing the last book in a popular young adult series. Her draft is due soon, but she has barely begun to write it. This is due to her infatuation with an old fling, Buddy Slade, played by Patrick Wilson. The problem is he’s married and he’s about to have a baby. She knows this thanks to the invitation she was sent to join him and his wife in their celebration, but she doesn’t care. She plans on breaking them up and taking him for herself.

Mavis is a terrible person. There’s no getting around it. Some may argue that as one of the film’s strengths. Some will see deep meaning in her actions and words. They’ll see some statement on humanity and desperation, but they’ll be reaching. Not all movies have likable characters, but those movies don’t necessarily try to make you like them. Young Adult does. You’re supposed to laugh at her excess, her rudeness, her vulgarity, but it’s very hard to do so. She is trying to break up a perfectly happy marriage, one where a kid is on the way, for her own selfish gain. She has one friend in the small town she grew up in, Matt, played by Patton Oswalt, who she treats terribly, despite the fact that years ago he was brutally beaten and left to die by a group of people who just happened to think he was gay. She’s also a hypocrite, telling Matt at one point to stop living in the past and dwelling on his terrible event, despite the entire fact that she’s back in her hometown solely because she wants so badly to be with her high school boyfriend, unable to follow her own advice.

Young Adult may send mixed messages about how we are supposed to approach this character, but it does show hints of intelligence. Mavis, as terrible as she is, is hard to take seriously. She’s a writer of those silly tween novels and she treats her life like one. She has this fantasy that she will ride off into the sunset with Buddy and live happily ever after. She has spent her entire career building unrealistic fantasies that she’s now starting to believe in them. When she has a late movie speech about how Buddy is her moon and stars, it’s not cheesy and laughable like it would be in a different film. It’s actually kind of brilliant.

The relationship between Mavis and Matt also takes some nice unexpected turns and the chemistry between the two actors is surprisingly good. Oswalt in particular plays well in another quirky role, but after starring in the underseen, but absolutely fantastic Big Fan, one can’t help but want more for him. Still, he’s good enough to make this movie watchable, though not enough to make up for its shortcomings. There are some great moments in Young Adult that hint at a great movie hidden somewhere in it. It’s just a shame Cody and Reitman couldn’t find it.

Young Adult receives 2.5/5