WITH THE decision made last year to divide the final instalment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy into two movies, Mockingjay Part 1 has the unenviable task of having to follow up last year’s brilliant sequel Catching Fire while teasing out the saga’s conclusion for another year.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (12A)
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Hutcherson
Star rating: ****
As we’ve seen already with The Hobbit, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and, most disastrously, with Twilight: Breaking Dawn, that’s the sort of commercially motivated creative decision that can seriously test an audience’s patience, be they hardcore fans or casual viewers.
But as some of the Marvel movies have also shown, we’ve entered a new phase in blockbuster filmmaking where the creative lines between long-running franchises and series television are starting to blur. Strictly speaking, films no longer have to be stand-alone stories with a definitive beginning, middle and end; they can be phases in a larger saga, episodes, if you will, that allow filmmakers the time and space to explore the characters in ever-greater detail.
Charitably speaking, that’s the route the Hunger Games films seem to be taking under the stewardship of Francis Lawrence – although until next year’s concluding chapter is unveiled it’s impossible to say for definite whether Collins’ not exactly overly long Young Adult source novel (it’s only 450 pages or so) would have benefited from being condensed into one three-hour movie.
What is gratifying in the first instance about the new film is that the extra character development afforded by this decision is at least dramatically compelling; there’s no Hunger Games equivalent of dwarves washing dishes (although Jennifer Lawrence does get to sing a song in this one); no protracted scenes spent with minor characters we’ll never see again. Instead it picks up the story shortly after the conclusion of the second film, with Katniss living underground amongst the rebels of the thought-to-be-destroyed District 13. (For those not yet up to speed on series, it hardly needs to be said that this is not the place to start.)
Having destroyed the Hunger Games arena last time, Katniss has become a revolutionary symbol for the oppressed masses of Panem, but it’s a status she’s not exactly comfortable with, even less so when it becomes apparent that in escaping her role as the reluctant puppet of the Capitol’s propaganda machine, she’s expected to fulfil a similar position for Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the revolutionary president of District 13. She was the one, it turns out, who helped set in motion the plan to rescue her — albeit acting on the advice of Machiavellian rebel strategist, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who reportedly completed the majority of his work on the sequels before his untimely death earlier this year).
The film is good at conveying the uncertainty Katniss feels about her role in all of this, especially when her fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) pops up on Capitol TV espousing propaganda to counteract the messages her own declarations are being shaped into by District 13’s film crew (led by Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer). The universe of The Hunger Games is much more morally complex than any of the other fantasy franchises around and this film ratchets up that complexity by showing Katniss genuinely wrestling in a relatable way with the position she’s found herself in. That helps transform it into more of a political thriller than an action film, one in which “moves and countermoves” – as Donald Sutherland’s deliciously malevolent President Snow intones at one point – take precedence over the hand-to-hand combat of the previous movies.
Which isn’t to say there are no decent set-pieces this time, but they’re different in tone, don’t always involve Katniss, and are not really the film’s raison d’etre. Indeed, with its discussions about propaganda, torture and the power games involved in both igniting and overthrowing revolutions, Mockingjay Part 1 seems to have designs on being a dystopian fantasy version of Zero Dark Thirty. That’s no bad thing and certainly not as fanciful as it sounds, especially when Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films got kudos for drawing on grown-up thrillers like Heat and the inferior Captain America: The Winter Soldier scored points for riffing on 1970s classics like Three Days of the Condor.
Of course it helps immeasurably to have Jennifer Lawrence once again fronting the film. She lends its more fanciful setting credibility and really grounds Katniss, revealing her fraught humanity with an in-the-moment rawness that’s utterly engrossing. It’s a quality she shares with Moore and Hoffman, and their expanded presence this time only adds to the feeling that, for the moment at least, spreading the story across two films was the right thing to do.
Get On Up (12A)
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Viola Davis, Dan Aykroyd
Star rating: **
There’s no funk in the trunk of this tedious biopic of James Brown. Less a film, more a template for a future West End or Broadway show, it’s for people who don’t really like music and prefer to be spoon-fed familiar hits with the sort of life-spanning biographical details that conform to the rise-fall-redemption character arc beloved of these types of stories. Change the soundtrack and the cast and you might as well be watching Ray, Walk the Line or Jersey Boys. Papa most definitely does not have a brand new bag, in other words, and that’s a shame given Brown’s contribution to the music of the 1960s and 1970s.
Alas, his self-proclaimed status as the “hardest working man in showbusiness” has been translated here into a workaday film, one that may throw in an occasionally off-the-wall moment (the scatological opening scenes are very odd), but mostly sanitises his tumultuous times into a safe, easy-to-digest greatest-hits package.
Director Tate Taylor’s previous film, The Help, reduced the complexities of the civil rights movement to a feel-good piece of fluff and his broad-strokes approach here does a disservice to Brown as an artist by focusing more on his astuteness as businessman than his genius in the studio. Chadwick Boseman’s performance as the Godfather of Soul, meanwhile, isn’t much more than an adequate act of mimicry. He’s got the Brown rasp but he never disappears into the role and there’s no real edge to the performance scenes, which (perhaps wisely) use Brown’s original recordings rather than having Boseman attempt to replicate them.
But having the blessing of the Brown estate is also part of the problem: the music becomes a crutch, a way to prop up a narrative that doesn’t want to go too far into his abusive relationship with women or get too involved in the political issues of the times. It’s also used as a way to distract attention from the film’s wilfully jumbled chronology, which seems to have been deployed less to reflect the erratic nature of Brown’s life than as a way to disguise how boringly and conventionally it has been rendered here.