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Puppets, Tangled in Strings

Toward the end of The Hunger Games: Mockingay - Part I, Madam President Alma Coin (played by the wonderful Julianne Moore), she gives a rousing speech to her citizens of District 13 about a great victory they have just won under her direction. The monologue basically tells her comrades in arms that soon they will storm the Capital with the backings of the other Districts, that a new world will be born where they will become one people, once voice, and that all will share in the wealth and prosperity in this new Panem. And then....cut to black. Time to go home, tweet about how awesome this installment was, tell your BFF's to see this movie, and make sure you come back to spend more money on Part II now! The speech about unity and sharing among each other in a new, harmonious community comes off feeling hollow and empty; not because Moore doesn't sell this brave new world well, because she's one of the bright spots in Part I of this two-part finale. The reason this feels hollow is because the suits at Lions Gate took a 390-page book, which really could have been told in one fell swoop, and split it into two movies to make more bang for their buck and to keep pimping out this series for as long as possible.

The third installment of the wildly popular and profitable series of YA novels by author Suzanne Collins falls into the trap of feeling like an incomplete picture, because we're only getting one-half of the story. Just when the movie is really picking up steam, it cuts away and leaves you wanting to see what happens next. It's incredibly frustrating and it feels completely unnecessary to the film. At least when the final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was split into two movies, the justification was that the last novel was so involved and rich that they couldn't tell the story justice as a whole without skipping over major parts in it, so the filmmakers announced they would divide the last movie into a two-part event. Notice that I said that the filmmakers came to this decision: not the studios who financed the decade-long project, but the people adapting the story by J.K. Rowling. Warner Bros went along, and set up this new trend of splitting up literary adaptations into two-part finales because it will make the studios more money at the box office. Summit Entertainment did this with the final chapter in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn and plan to do it again with the last novel in the Divergent series, Allegiant, and Marvel Studios is playing to the trend by splitting the third Avengers film, Infinity War into two parts. These were the decisions made by the studios backing their investments, not by the filmmakers themselves. It's a trend that once was done out of necessity, and now transformed into a decision made simply out of pure greed. 

Rant aside, that blatant bit of cynicism is one of a few problems I have with Mockingjay - Part I. The other is the fact that certain characters have been regulated to near-cameo appearances. Elizabeth Banks, who played the spoiled and stylish PR guru Effie Trinket so well in the first, and had her character come to a crisis of conscious in the second, disappears into the grey background in the third movie, which I guess is appropriate. Gone are the wigs, the colorful dresses and the outlandish makeup, and here we have a stripped-down woman in the middle of a revolution who misses the comforts of home. Sure, she appears on the council to prop up Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as a Che Guvera/Joan of Arc type revolutionary to unite the Districts to rebel against its totalitarian ruler, President Snow (Donald Sutherland, wearing evil like a second skin), but she's hardly ever used. Sam Claflin, who plays trident-wielding Finnick Odair, a charming handsome victor of the 65th annual Hunger Games with a hidden agenda, loses that one interesting facet of his personality, and instead mopes around, pining for his lost love, Annie. The great Stanley Tucci as Capitol mouthpiece Caesar Flickman, is regulated to interviewing the captured Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as a way to keep the districts together and act as a counter-move to the moves of the rebels. He had more to do in Transformers: Age of Extinction, a "film" that was horrendous on every level! And Jenna Malone as the sexy, crazy axe-wielding District 7 winner Johanna Mason is in the film with one scene and not a line of dialogue spoken. Perhaps these actors and their characters will have more to do in the final installment of the series, but it annoys me that they were given barely anything to do this time around, when they were so enjoyable to watch the in the previous installment, Catching Fire.

That's not to say Mockingjay - Part I (God, I get annoyed saying that title) isn't good. It isn't as action-packed now without the vicious nature of teens fighting and killing each other in the name of entertainment, but what it lacks in thrilling action set pieces, it makes up for in crafting a great political subtext on the ways governments and parties use media to advance their own agendas, usually at the expense of the ones being used. The games maybe over, but a new one is being played to win the hearts and minds of the citizens of Panem. The tools are cameras; the weapons are images of rubble and ruin of freedom fighters rising up against their oppressors to galvanize more to the cause, or shots of terrorists being executed for aiming to take down the peaceful and caring government and warn that revolt will lead to a firing squad; and the voices are Katniss, using her power as the Mockingjay to sway people out of apathy and into revolutionary action, and Peeta, the boy pleading with citizens to not fight back and end this senseless bloodshed. Both Katniss and Peeta are nothing but puppets but to be used to gain their own ends. Coin doesn't believe that the Girl on Fire can handle this responsibility of being the face of a growing revolution because "the games destroyed her." The ever willy and calculating Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) claims that "only she can do this", and takes her to the ruins of District 12 to remind her of the brutality of President Snow and his regime. Snow uses Peeta to torment Ms. Everdeen and break her spirit completely, before he descends on the rebel base of District 13 and crushes the rebellion. Both their puppets are pushed further and further to their breaking points to win, and are little more than an ends to justify their means, whether Plutarch sends out a propaganda film crew to shoot footage of Katniss using an explosive arrow to take down a Capitol aircraft, or Snow's henchmen torture and threaten Peeta to tears off camera. The drama and the commentary is played so well and it makes the film more engaging to watch with each side continuing to make moves and counter-moves.

Despite certain actors not getting enough to do in this installment of the franchise, the acting nevertheless comes up aces. Liam Hermsworth, who's been regulated as the pretty-boy love interest  in both HG films, finally gets to sink his teeth into a more central role as Gale, the boy who's in love with Katniss, but can't get her to feel the same way with Peeta always being in the way. You see him longing to earn her love, but slowly realizes that it won't be him that gets Everdeen's heart. Newcomer Julianne Moore is perfect as President Alma Coin, the leader of the rebellion who's constantly put into situations where she may sacrifice her integrity and her standing for victory at almost any cost. Josh Hutcherson shines once again as Peeta, this time as a tortured prisoner, being touted to quell the violence and dampen the coming war. before the flames become too hot to be contained. You can see how he hates being used as a pawn, but is unable to control his own destiny. At the point, there's nothing much I can say about Jennifer Lawrence and the way she commands the screen as Katniss Everdeen with just her eyes and her expressions. She was born to play this conflicted, reluctant hero and how she must now be the face of a rebellion she had no intention of causing. The highest praise I can laud on her is that I cannot see another actress stepping into the role and providing the same outcome, She is the Girl on Fire, plain and simple. 

But the actor who reigns over Part I of Mockingjay is Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Before his death earlier this year, he was one week away from finishing his part as the ever-calculating puppetmaster for Part II. There had been speculation that the studio would digitally remake him in order to carry out his final performance, but director Francis Lawrence refused and instead worked around and gave his parts and lines to other cast members in his honor. Frankly, it won't be the same without this acting giant's presence. He portrays this man as a Karl Rove-type politico with a conscious: he knows the score and is willing to sacrifice who and whatever to obtain victory, but realizes the cost will be bear in the end, if at all he can bear it. "Everyone is replaceable," he tells Effie, but the truth of the matter is that Hoffman simply is not. This last work is a testament to his legacy onscreen, as an actor who's skills at finding the truth of each character he plays of his generation is almost second to none, and we may never see a man of of his talents again.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I isn't as exciting as previous installments, some actors are disappointingly less utilized in this go-around and it feels much like an incomplete piece of work, rather than a completed film. But the film's lazer-point commentary on media and propaganda and the performances by Lawrence, Moore, Hoffman and other are still as sharp and emotionally engaging as ever, make this a satisfying appetizer before the film's final swan-song, which is due out in November of next year. 

*** stars out of ****


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