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THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

November 23, 2014

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written by: Danny Strong and Peter Craig
produced by: Nina Jacobsen and Jon Kilik
directed by: Francis Lawrence
rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material)
runtime: 123 min.
U.S. release date: November 21, 2014

 

Upon hearing that Mockingjay, the third and final YA novel by Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games trilogy, would be turned into two movies, my wife, who had read the books acknowledged the logic in that approach. She stated Mockingjay is the least of the three, yet probably the most cinematic. Having seen “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”. I agree and disagree with her, in that order.

The movie opens with the camera focused on an emotional Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, excellent as ever), who is crouched down in a dark corridor. She’s possible hiding and definitely worked up to the point of tears, reciting a mantra to herself of the events that got her where she is at this time. It’s convincing and within context (because I’ve seen the previous two movies), but it totally feels like a hyper catch-up moment for moviegoers who forgot what happened in the last movie(s).

Don’t feel bad if you do. At a recent screening for a separate movie, I overheard a fellow critic ask a critic sitting near me what exactly transpired at the end of “Catching Fire”. Critics are people too. Maybe that would be one reason not to separate these movies. Keeping them “one and done” leaves them as chapters that we can check in and out of, instead of feeling like a 4-hour investment is mandatory.

 

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Feeling the dizzying aftermath of the Quarter Quell, Katniss may seem as disoriented as some viewers, but she soon learns she’s in District 13 (a location that remained a mystery in the first two movies), a subterranean militarized colony of those who oppose President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol of Panem. Like any place outside of the Capitol, it’s drab and void of color. It resembles a multi-leveled prison or a military academy (or an organized version of Zion from the “Matrix” movies). It is some comfort to Katniss that she escorted to her mother (Paula Malcolmson) and sister, Prim (Willow Shields), but her mind is on Peeta Mellark, primarily where he is and what happened when they the two were separated during the last games.

Due to her popularity within the districts, a reluctant Katniss is asked to be the face of the rebellion to combat Snow’s cruel and destructive rule by President Coin (Julianne Moore) and her propaganda strategist, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Knowing she’ll need some convincing, Plutarch has Katniss see the decimation of her home, District 12, firsthand and learns what’s left is a band of rag-tag survivors overseeing the sick and injured. She also learns, through televised interviews of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) by Ceasar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), that her friend is being manipulated by the Capital as a mouthpiece to calm the unrest across Panem.

What she sees of Peeta only motivates and enrages Katniss to act, which Plutarch and President Coin are counting on. Once again, with the help of a dialed-down Effie Trinkett (the always welcome Elizabeth Banks) and newly sober Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Katniss is prepped and groomed, but this time to inspire a revolution throughout the rest of the districts. With the continued support of her best friend, the ever-patient Gale (Liam Hemsworth), now a fellow soldier in the rebellion, Katniss must navigate through all the propaganda and ugliness of war, Katniss must figure out what her place is in all of it.

 

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But before things really take off, the movie ends and a reminder pops up that this is “Part 1”. This sequel is mostly about catching up with characters that everyone presumably already knows and an increasing amount of build up to….next year when we get “Part 2”. The filmmakers and the cast don’t care. These two “Parts” were shot as a whole. They’re done. But I’ll wager that in most theaters (including the packed house at the screening I attended), you’ll hear a gasp of dismay at this ending.

I admit, I felt a little of that too. But even before this ending (granted, there was an opportunity, mere minutes before, for “Catching Fire” director Francis Lawrence to make it a better ending, but alas, it wasn’t so), I found my attention waning in “Part 1”, mainly because it felt like the screenplay by Danny Strong (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) and Peter Craig (“The Town”) primarily consists of repetitive scenes, like one-too-many tours of District 12, that build-up to next year.

Outside of the Harry Potter books, this popular series certainly has the best big-screen adaptation and most of that can be accredited to the cast of “The Hunger Games” series, primarily Jennifer Lawrence. She can convey and emote like no one’s business. I watch her and I don’t know how she does it. I’m hooked by her Katniss. Hutchinson and Hemsworth pale compared to her work and that could just be because the focus is on Katniss (even in the books), but they’ve grown into their roles quite well. For obvious reasons, it’s bittersweet to see Hoffman here. He’s so good as Plutarch that you find yourself both saddened once again but also savoring what little time you have with him.

 

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So thankfully, we have some fine actors to watch in “Part 1” and I also found myself welcoming some the actors who played characters new to this series. Natalie Dormer (of “Game of Thrones”) plays Cressida, a young woman with a half-tattooed scalp who leads a documentary crew (Evan Ross, Wes Chatham and Elden Henson) that follows a battle-ready Katniss around, to get the right angle/lighting/lines in order to win the hearts and minds of any potential viewer. The whole manipulation, on both sides, is quite interesting, but after a while its overuse reminds us that a little goes a long way.

Although “Part 1” takes some time here and there for Katniss to take a breather – particularly getting some down time with Gale out in the wilderness, like the used to do – it’s still not enough to warrant a two-parter. Just give us a 3-hour end cap and be done with it. We can handle it. Clearly, the studios can’t.

It’s obvious that Lionsgate is following Warner Bros. and Summit by splitting the last book of a highly successful series into two movies. Sure, it immediately seems like a cash grab – but, why not? Ending an immensely lucrative movie is a blow to the fans and an inevitable loss to the studios. It may have worked well for “Deathly Hallows” (I didn’t bother with either “Breaking Dawn” movies), but I just can’t say the same for “Mockingjay – Part 1”.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

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