The Hunger Games: Mockingkjay – Part 1

It’s a tough gig adapting much-loved books for the screen, especially if the one you’re dealing with is generally seen as the weakest in an overwhelmingly popular series. That’s the ground we are on with this, the third of the Hunger Games movies. The third and final book in the trilogy seems to be the least regarded by fans (I haven’t read them myself); and with the now almost inevitable decision having been taken to split the final story into two films, one could argue that the film-makers have made a rod for their own backs.

I really liked both of the first films. They were witty, exciting, disturbing and though treading similar ground managed to deal with sufficiently different narrative and thematic material to suggest to effect a meaningful progression between the two. This third film marks a narrative departure: there’s no central motif of gladiator-style combat-as-entertainment to build central action sequences around. Instead, we’re in the territory where a Katniss-fronted revolution is being plotted whilst Peeta remains behind in the Captiol, apparently manipulated into being a spokesperson for the Big Brother style-regime. Instead of intense action thriller we have what amounts to an intense and involving political thriller, this time taking the politicising of the media into its satirical and thematic spotlight. There’s good action sequences as well, but this isn’t an action movie in the sense of the other two.

That’s where disappointment may kick in for some viewers. It’s a big call for a major franchise like this one to change its tone so drastically mid-stream; I can’t think of another major series of films that makes such an obvious leap. Without emotional investment in the source, I was utterly compelled by it – I remained swept up in the dystopian wold of the film; Jennifer Lawrence’s central performance remains a strong, engaging and layered one; the supporting players are all decent, with a special poignant mention for the characteristically studied depth of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

When the film does need to move into action sequences, it does so very well – the last major such passage being a standout, effectively intercut with dialogue and character. Therein lies these films’ consistent strengths; these are blockbusters aimed at the vaunted young adult market which prove a timeless truth – that if a film (or book, or music, or…) is constructed with enough intelligence and substance, there’s no limiting the market. If this has lost the shock value of the first two films’ central ideas, it has gained space to breathe and worm into the consciousness. We’ll only be able to really judge if splitting the last instalment in two has worked this time next year; for now this may be the least immediately powerful of the three so far, but it’s by no means a dip in the quality of the series.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire … The Revolution Will Be Televised

The youth of today. As we took our seats for Catching Fire in a packed, midweek, cinema, my heart sank as I realised that we were sitting next to a group of teenagers. My heart sank further when I heard one of them use the word (I hesitate to call it a word, in truth) ‘worstly’. Yes, really. I needn’t have been so pessimistic, though; what happened did for my cynicism and showed up my own prejudices. Not only were they perfectly silent and engaged throughout the film, but before the film began they were talking about what they were watching on TV. Doctor Who and Breaking Bad, among others. You don’t watch those and not appreciate them. Both of them, in their own ways, are brilliantly written pop culture icons with as much depth and weight to them as you want to find. If you think that’s an adult over-reading a TV show, then it was clear from the conversation that our teenage neighbours felt the same too. In their entertainment they want excitement, but with substance.

Which is why it was entirely apt that we should converge at this second Hunger Games  movie. Last year’s first film took the near-future totalitarian nightmare of Panem, and gave us our heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) sacrificially volunteering herself in place of her younger sister for the annual gladiatorial, televised, titular fight to the death with 23 other conscripts reaped from the state’s 12 regions. It was an excellent example of an intelligent franchise blockbuster; brilliantly cast and played throughout, special-effects to enhance and propel plot, good action and some big questions about relevant issues: reality television and its effect on viewers and participants, what keeping rich and poor out of relationship with each other does to each, violence and the media and a few other things besides. All that, and it was a major studio project fronted by a woman, whose character didn’t need men to rescue her but who was more than capable of doing the rescuing herself.

That such a successful film managed to satisfy such a devoted fan-base of the books only served to illustrate how good the film was, a faithful adaptation which worked as a film yet avoided the ‘narrative on rails’ feeling that dogged more than one of the Harry Potter films. Pressure, then, on this second film. Surely it couldn’t live up to the expectations of book-lovers and fans new to the material after such a strong first film?

Yes, it could. In style. It would be so easy to have fallen into the ‘more is more’ trap, and just injected the strengths of the first film with steroids. Katniss and fellow victor/survivor Peeta are required to tour their victory around Panem’s provinces, pretending love for the cameras. They find a country on the verge of a rebellion which they’d unwittingly inspired; in an attempt to quell this they and other former victors are put back in the Hunger Games arena for a special 75th anniversary Hunger Games. It does have all the strengths of the original; drained colour palettes in the districts, gaudy colour in the centre of power, superb performances throughout, lurking dread, shocks and tension and gripping action.

There’s actually a little less out-and-out action than the first film, but what there is just as effective, but for different reasons. Whereas the first installment made good mileage from the harsh discomfort of watching children try to kill each other, this film pits gives us adults who know how to kill and survive, sacrifice and betray. The same themes are there also, this time with the nascent rebellion taking on more of the plot’s weight and recalling how distractions can dehumanize, upping the ‘bread and circuses’ roll of control the Hunger Games are designed to effect for the government.

There’s so much that’s good here. Without knowing the books I was totally taken in by the narrative; tension boiled, plot-twists revealed themselves at the right time in the right way. The introduction of Philip Seymour Hoffman, never less than excellent, in a key supporting role is master-stroke as an actor who can do much with comparatively little screen time. It’s Jennifer Lawrence’s film though. I’ve loved her work since the outstanding Winter’s Bone. She’s a skilful, engaging screen presence with strength and vulnerability in just the right measures with the weight of screen presence to carry a film in which she is on-screen for the majority of the running time. She (and the intelligent direction) ensures that a film well over two hours in length zips by. She’s a likeable, down-to-earth star off-screen also; impressively unruffled and unchanged by the media machine, a star to enjoy and admire.

It’s easy but erroneous to patronise pop culture. There always has been and always will be good and bad within it. The Hunger Games series is at the top end, surfing a wave of popularity but asking  hard questions and probing at society’s underbelly. The youth of today are in good hands; but don’t you dare think this is only for youth. A good film is a good film; and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a very good one.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Silver Linings Playbook

Some movies just shouldn’t work. They should, if you strip them down to their constituent elements, be run of the mill stories which flow along predictable narrative lines. There are many movies which do that; only a few have a plot that’s entirely predictable but still manage to engage and move. We’ve had a few of those in recent times – take Zero Dark Thirty or Argoboth of which had entirely predictable narratives which still more than kept the attention. Silver Linings Playbook is another.

At its heart it’s a conventional romantic comedy based on a popular novel. Bradley Cooper is a teacher returning from a stint in a mental health facility having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; we find out early on this was precipitated by his violent assault on the man his wife was having an affair with. His marriage was on the rocks; he comes out and forms a friendship with Jennifer Lawrence’s young widow, a woman who on losing her husband had slept with every one of her co-workers. She agrees to help him reconnect with his wife if he’ll help her out by learning to dance and dance with her in a competition she’d always wanted to enter.

From a bare description you know where this is headed. There’s not a single plot-spolier there, but you can fill in the blanks. There’s so much to like here, though. You know already about the performances. Bradley Cooper is playing an awards-fodder role, but he still does it well. Jennifer Lawrence is simply superb – again. In her young career she’s showed star-power and variety in the roles she’ll take on. Her’s is a necessarily more still performance, low-key to Cooper’s major, but holds the film together.As a woman who dances to heal and express herself, it’s a role fraught with the danger of cliché or the dreaded ‘life-lessons’; her awards are richly deserved because you simply believe her. She’s going to have a special career if she keeps choosing roles with the wisdom she has done.

What I really liked, though, is the earthiness of the presentation of mental illness.When you’re suffering, when you’re in the depths of depression, when the black dog is barking and snarling and foaming at the mouth; when it’s like that, sometimes it’s all you can do to put one foot in front of the other. The film revolves around the achievement of some things are desperately ordinary  – watching a game with the family; getting an average score, getting to have a conversation with someone you love. None of these are major, but for those under dark clouds they’re the defining thing, the summit to scale. In showing believable, ordinary people and families struggling just to get to normality, the film does a great service. To do so  – and lovingly, gently point out the irrational coping mechanisms of the so-called un-afflicted along the way – removes stigma, enhances understanding and does so with a smile and a knowing glance. All that in a conventional romantic comedy. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to a simple thing well.

I rated this movie 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 8/10 on imdb.com