The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

2015 #127
Francis Lawrence | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you’re not au fait with the first two Hunger Games movies, there’s nothing for you here. Why would you want to join a story halfway through anyway?

Even for those of us who are, Mockingjay Part 1 — the first half of a two-part finale that, for my money, plays more like its own standalone movie than most first halves of two-part finales manage (I’m thinking of Deathly Hallows 1 or The Matrix Reloaded here) — throws us in at the deep end, starting a little while after the end of the last film and challenging us to keep up. It’s a little frustrating at times — if you’ve not watched the previous movies into the ground, there are points where you wonder if you’ve forgotten something or just not been told it yet — but ultimately helps make for an engrossing, mature movie.

Naturally I mean “mature” in the sense of “grown up”, not in the oft-misused sense of “for adults only, wink wink”. This is a thoughtful film, one which has more time for examining issues of politicking than for bang-bang-a-boom fight scenes. Indeed, if you’ve come looking for an action movie — as, it seems, most critics did — then you’ll definitely be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for a film to continue the series’ rich vein of sci-fi political allegory, well, you’re in luck. This edition: propaganda.

In the previous films, heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inadvertently inspired a rebellion against the ruling Capitol, which has been bubbling away without her knowledge. Now, having been targeted by evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), she’s been transported to the underground locales of District 13, where they want to put her in films to continue spreading dissension among the other districts. At the same time, the Capitol are putting Katniss’ captured lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on the air, arguing for peace and maintaining the status quo. It’s a war of hearts and minds, essentially, as both sides attempt to rally ordinary people to their cause through the power of the media. It’s a tale that’s as timely as ever, surely.

One of my favourite elements here is the distrust that both sides engender. The rebels Katniss has found herself with are certainly the good guys, battling to overthrow an abusively oppressive regime, but they aren’t whiter-than-white — they won’t always do everything our hero would like; she’s not always sure she can trust them. There’s no doubt about which side is the right one to be on, but it’s at least a little more complex than the norm.

Katniss herself remains a refreshingly un-self-assured heroine. She doesn’t always know or do what’s right, she isn’t always sure of her purpose or her goals, or even her own feelings. That’s so much more human than so many movie heroes, no doubt in part thanks to having an Oscar-able actress to carry the role. True, we’ve seen these facets before from her in both of the previous films, but hurrah to author Suzanne Collins and to the filmmakers for not taking the simple route of having her transform into something she didn’t start as. There’s still a whole outstanding film to bring about such a change, of course, so we’ll just have to wait and see how they follow this through to the end.

The fact there will be another film is an undoubted point of contention. The Hunger Games is the latest to follow in Harry Potter’s footsteps and split the final book of a series in two when filmed. Indeed, since Twilight latched onto that bandwagon it’s become de rigueur, with the final-book-split usually announced as soon as the first film in a wannabe-series is a box office hit — see the Divergent series, for example (or The Maze Runner for one that supposedly won’t succumb to this). Despite the complaints from many other critics and viewers, I must say that (as someone who hasn’t read the book) it didn’t feel overly like the first half of something longer to me. Of course there’s a cliffhanger and stuff, but there was at the end of the last film as well. This is no worse than that. If anything, I felt Mockingjay Part 1 built to its ending more successfully — I was quite surprised when Catching Fire stopped, whereas here the ending felt like a natural stopping point. In fact, given the point some of the storylines reach, it’s difficult to imagine them feeling anything other than rushed if they’d been executed in half the time. Maybe the film is a little drawn out in places and some storylines could’ve been condensed (how many propaganda films do we need to see Katniss make, really?), but that’s a niggle about perhaps wanting a minor trim, not a complaint decrying the need for full-blown editorial intervention.

Whether or not this Part 1 stands alone will be cemented by the next film, I feel. If the focus on using Katniss as no more than a propaganda figurehead isn’t continued in Part 2 then, well, that’s the part of the story that this film is about. It doesn’t feel like it needs to be continued next time — that particular propaganda angle has been fully explored — and so I think this instalment will feel much more like a fully-fledged film in its own right if they just move on. I hope the final film give us new themes, new subplots, new arcs to follow; I hope it feels like Part 4 of 4, in the way this currently feels like Part 3 of 4, and doesn’t play as Part 3B of 3 and retroactively transform this into Part 3A.

If you like a lot of Hunger Games action from your Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay Part 1 will certainly be a disappointment. On the other hand, if you more enjoy the political satire side of the series, it may be your favourite instalment so far (and you wouldn’t be alone in that view). For me, Catching Fire is the best of the three because it crystallises both of those constituent elements; and if the first film was purely the action side (with a bit of the politics), then here we find its mirror image: purely politics (with a bit of action). Either way, perhaps the ultimate fate of all these films rests on how well the next, final part can bring all their action, themes, and plots to fruition.

4 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is available on Netflix UK from today.

The Eagle (2011)

2015 #60
Kevin Macdonald | 106 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Hungary / English & Scottish Gaelic | 12 / PG-13

The EagleChanning Tatum is a brave Roman general whose father lost his company’s standard, the titular eagle, north of Hadrian’s Wall (a real historic event, coincidentally depicted in Centurion). Determined to reclaim his family’s honour, he ventures north with slave Jamie Bell to attempt to retrieve it.

Adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth, director Kevin Macdonald’s film is, perhaps surprisingly, almost leisurely paced, as much about mood as it is about action. Big fights and battles clearly aren’t the film’s goal or forte, though an early sequence where Roman forces battle druids outside the fort Tatum commands is excellently done. Conversely, it makes the last-stand climax feel a little underwhelming, even somewhat anticlimactic in its briefness.

Between the two battles, Macdonald has made almost an understated second-century buddy movie, as Tatum and Bell trek across the North, bonding — or not — as they encounter the locals. Personally, I rate both of these actors (Tatum, a little to my surprise, has really grown on me this year), so the focus on their cautiously-trusting, always-uncertain relationship worked for me. However, the movie’s real strength lies in how incredible it looks, with rich cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle that shows off some dramatic scenery, shot on location in Scotland and Hungary. When the duo reach a far-north tribal camp, there’s an edge-of-the-world — indeed, almost other-worldly — Sceneryquality to the setting, characters, and imagery that’s quite striking.

The Eagle is a little more thoughtful and measured than you might expect from a PG-13 adaptation of a children’s adventure novel. Clearly a movie that doesn’t meet with all tastes, it has a number of strong qualities that did mesh with mine.

4 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

2014 #15
Francis Lawrence | 146 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hunger Games: Catching FireJennifer Lawrence (who, depending on your mileage, is either “the most charming young movie star in, like, forever” or “actually kind of a little bit irritating”) returns as the totally-plausibly-named Katniss Everdeen in this super-successful follow-up to the super-successful kids’ young adult novel adaptation that’s kinda like the new Twilight only actually quite good.*

Having struck a PR blow to the ruling elite by forcing their hand at the end of the previous Hunger Games, joint winners Katniss and Peeta (pronounced “Peter” (Josh Hutcherson)) are back home. But not for long, because in an attempt to reassert control it’s decided the forthcoming 75th Hunger Games will feature previous combatants — and Katniss and Peeta are their District’s only choice. Cue an almost-rehash of the first film, but with different burgeoning political undertones, and the added twist of the competitors all being previous winners. There are much bigger twists than that coming, though…

Indeed, perhaps the most striking part of Catching Fire is its ending. That’s not to say the rest of the film isn’t entertaining — it really is, but it’s a variation on a theme; that theme being “the first one again”, even if this is arguably a superior version. The ending, however, suggests things are about to be launched off in a radically new direction, as well as casting a new light on the film we’ve just watched. These closing moments most literally remind me of The Matrix Reloaded: following a surprise world-changing development, our hero lies recuperating on a spaceship with new-found allies among the resistance, while outside in the rest of the world a final showdown brews…

Katniss' backTonally, however, it’s more similar to The Empire Strikes Back** — indeed, the Star Wars comparison applies to both Hunger Games films and their relationship to each other: the first is the story of an unwitting small-town kid becoming a hero and landing a decisive blow against the evil ruling body in a standalone adventure; but our heroes have only won the battle, not the war, and the evil empire rolls on… Cue Film #2, in which we get a wider view of the world, the bad guys seek our heroes more directly, and everything comes to a head in a blatant “to be continued” cliffhanger that unavoidably draws us on to the next instalment.

On The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson goes so far as to assert that, not only are they alike, but “Catching Fire’s ending is the most daring “to be continued” since Empire Strikes Back”. She argues that they are executed in a style which none of the multitudinous other cliffhanger-ending-ed films made since (including everything from Back to the Future to The Lord of the Rings) can claim to have achieved in quite the same way. To take her final sentences: “Most serial films end by spelling out exactly how the characters are headed into disaster, and in some cases, exactly what they plan to do about it. Empire and Catching Fire closes [sic] with a sense not just of something continuing, but potentially, even more thrillingly, of something new beginning.” Her whole piece is worth a read.

The Emperor, or somethingOf course, to an extent the tone of this ending comes from it being an adaptation: the filmmakers haven’t looked at the history of movie cliffhangers and chosen which to emulate, but instead brought someone else’s ending to the screen. Adapting doesn’t mean you have to take the original work faithfully, mind — you could go the Game of Thrones route and rearrange exactly where one book ends and the next begins; or the James Bond / Jason Bourne route of doing just whatever the hell you want. I haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ original novels, but I get the impression the films are pretty faithful.

Indeed, perhaps the real strength of Catching Fire being an adaptation of a novel is that it’s bedded in one author’s voice. My point being: it wasn’t written and constructed by committee, meaning we’re not subjected to the over-familiar beats of an action-adventure movie. There aren’t regularly-spaced action sequences of ever-increasing scale throughout, for instance — it’s not until halfway through that we end up in the arena, and up to that point it’s all story, the only action being ‘events’ rather than your traditional Action Sequence. This is no bad thing. If it’s adaptations of young adult novels that we need to save us from predictability, to deliver us a story rather than a thin excuse for the delivery of evenly-spaced action sequences, then so be it.

When the Games do arrive, director Francis Lawrence makes the most of it: as Katniss finally rises into the arena, the aspect ratio subtly shifts from filmic 2.40:1 to IMAX-derived 1.78:1. It’s remarkable how much impact this has even on a TV screen; nothing like what it must have in a proper IMAX theatre, but striking nonetheless — it really feels like things have just gotten bigger, both in terms of events depicted and the cinematography, Not Stormtroopers, nopewhich seems richer, more detailed, despite no genuine increase in resolution. I guess it’s true what they say: if you start with a higher quality source, it filters all the way down. The “bigger screen” effect probably wouldn’t work for a film entirely shot on IMAX — it’d just fill your TV from the start — but, after an hour-or-so of black bars, it really feels like the screen has grown.

Last year was one of mixed fortunes for the blockbuster, when films that one might deem well-received actually had an equal number of detractors; but Catching Fire stands apart as an engrossing, entertaining, intelligent and invigorating success. I guess it too must have its detractors, but I suspect not as many, and not as deservedly.

5 out of 5

The first Hunger Games is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. The next (and penultimate) instalment, Mockingjay: Part 1, is in UK cinemas from this Thursday, 20th November.


* I’ve still not seen any of the Twilight films, but I remain confident that, when I do, I’m not going to like them. ^

** I’m certainly not the first person to notice this: Googling “Catching Fire Empire Strikes Back comparison” brings up about 66,000 results — it used to be more, and obviously it misses anyone who’s making the comparison without using the world “comparison”. ^

The Day of the Locust (1975)

2011 #38
John Schlesinger | 137 mins | TV | 18 / R

The Day of the LocustAdapted from the novel by Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust is a slightly scrappy film about the seedy underside of Hollywood’s golden age. The plot is neither here nor there in many respects — the film is about the grotesques who are attracted to Hollywood, and that being exactly what it feeds on. The bizarre, surreal ending definitely makes more sense if you’re already thinking about the film in this way.

The magnificent riot at the end is a tour de force of cinema that single-handedly almost justifies that whole theme — it’s what happens when their frustrations at dreams not being realised overflows. It could be argued it makes an easy juxtaposition — of fans baying for stars at a premiere with a revenge-fuelled mob baying for blood — but it’s still a just one. It’s capped off by the way one turns into the other, and how that turns into a kind of apocalypse. I don’t know how it’s meant to be read, but I choose to take it that way

(Spoilers in this paragraph.) If the riot is a literal apocalypse, then the next scene becomes an afterlife-set coda. It’s very brightly lit and white, like a Heaven, and Faye is still there — still in Hollywood, exactly where she’d dream of being — while Tod is gone. She’s looking for him, back at the Bernadoo where she was kinda happy, and she wants him after all — but he’s not there; he doesn’t want her. It’s a tenuous reading for a film that seems to be a real-world drama, maybe… but not a wholly unsupported one — it’s a flat-out unusual scene.

Homer Simpson. Not that one.Also brilliantly staged is the collapse of a Waterloo battle set. Appropriate as it’s one of the novel’s most memorable moments.

Despite having top billing, Donald Sutherland’s part is a beefed-up supporting role. Except he’s so good in it that he fairly steals the film. And despite fourth billing, William Atherton is ostensibly the main character. I don’t know if the film takes lengthy asides from him because they cast a fourth-billed-level actor, or if they cast a fourth-billed-level actor because the film takes lengthy asides from him, but either way these long-feeling stretches away from the only character we’re really encouraged to identify with dilute the film’s drive. Primarily for this reason, it could do with being shorter. Interestingly, the novel is a mere 163 pages (in my edition), meaning the film is close to translating it at a rate of a page per minute, which is rather extraordinary — very few adaptations do so little condensing.

(You probably recognise William Atherton from slimy supporting roles in Ghostbusters and the first two Die Hards. Believe it or not, his Ghostbusters character is available as an action figure. That is madness.)

Who ya gonna call?The Day of the Locust may be a mess, or it may be a flawed masterpiece. It may very well be both. For much of it’s running time it pootled along at 3 stars, pushing down toward 2 the more diluted it began to feel. But seeing the completion of Donald Sutherland’s performance in the final scenes, plus the way those scenes seem to draw together the whole film, revealing and fulfilling themes I hadn’t even noticed developing until that point, in a spectacular orgy of apocalyptic violence… well, the stars suddenly ratchet back up.

4 out of 5

The Day of the Locust is on Sky Movies Indie tonight at 9:30pm, and at various other times throughout the week.