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Friday, November 21, 2014

‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1’ Successfully Sparks The Beginning Of The End (Movie Review)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1: 4 out of 5

Katniss Everdeen:  I never wanted any of this.  I never wanted to be in the Games, I just wanted to save my sister and keep Peeta alive.

Here is another critic-proof blockbuster that happens to be an entry in a series I very much enjoy.  With movies that not only have a massive amount of hype, but are also a part of an ongoing franchise, there really is not much to lose when writing about them.  I am not going to focus on the obvious financial success this film will have, but it stands to reason that any opinion I have on the film could only affect me personally, if, say, my views went on to be trashed by mega supporters or the opposite.  With that in mind, it pleases me to not only be positive towards the first half of a two-part finale, but find it serving as a strong follow-up to what many consider to be the series high point.  Mockingjay Part 1 may abandon one major series staple, but it continues to stands its ground as a well-realized film featuring a female protagonist’s role in a major rebellion.


If any find this to matter, I have read the Suzanne Collins novels this series is based on.  It would be impossible for me to know how my opinions may have altered, if I wasn’t familiar with the material, but suffice it to say, I also do not believe it matters.  I have a view of things based on the books and I have also seen the movies, and that should be the end of it.  The trickier thing is understanding whether or not one is satisfied with seeing a film that one knows must end in the middle of a larger story.  Fortunately, Part 1 does have a beginning, middle, and an end.

As the film opens, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is once again dealing with having successfully escaped the Hunger Games, but must now also deal with the loss of her home.  She is on foreign ground now, living amongst the rebels who are attempting to overthrow the evil capitol that controls the future society that is Panem.  These rebels are led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and she is joined by various figures Katniss is familiar with and led to believe she can trust, including Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Beetee Latier (Jeffrey Wright), Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, whose role has been expanded for the film, because Banks is great).  While an intense finale is surely coming in Part 2, this film focuses on developing Katniss as the face of the rebellion against the capitol and its tyrannical President, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland).


This was inevitable, given the structure of this film, but I kept being reminded of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (which I see as arguably the best film in that series).  Both films sacrifice the more traditional crowd-pleasing big battle scenes for the sake of character development in their final installments.  However, while I never had a ton of investment in the Harry Potter series, despite acknowledging the varying amounts of quality, given the cast, production, etc., I do find myself quite invested with these Hunger Games films and it comes down to me finding a lot of enjoyment in being in this world and liking these characters (having read the books in one series, but not the other, probably helps as well).  For all the faults this series has had, which I generally find to come in the form of dialogue and the romance element, there is plenty more that I really just seem to admire.  With that in mind, I was happy to really find myself so engrossed in a film that could have easily served as merely two hours of set up.

I think the key thing is that this film does serve as set up, but writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig have also done a fine job in managing to take a portion of a novel and turn it into a single film that features arcs for the characters, an understandable sense of drama, and other elements that get across basic structure for a singular film that is knowingly part of a bigger story.  The other thing to keep in mind is that Mockingjay Part 1 is very well made.  This could have been a stark, unenjoyable drama, with less to like and more in the way of things to take note of for a later film.  Instead, director Francis Lawrence has created a film that continues to build on a world that I like seeing, adds a sense of tension in the power plays taken by both sides, and works in an angle involving war propaganda, which replaces the handling of other societal issue-based themes seen in the previous films.  Making all of this more enjoyable is the solid cast.


Jennifer Lawrence is the rock of this series.  No doubts there, as she does great work in the central role that requires a wide range of emotions and physical effort.  All of the older actors are great as well, which should go without saying at this point.  Julianne Moore makes for a nice addition to the cast, I enjoyed seeing more of what Philip Seymour Hoffman had to offer, given that we have a chance to learn more about him in this film, Donald Sutherland continues to be a menacing joy, and don’t even get me started on how terrific Stanley Tucci has been throughout this series.  Woody Harrelson has a little less to do this time around, which is understandable, but the key thing that he, Elizabeth Banks (and Hoffman, to a lesser extent) have to offer is a lighter spirit.  Yes, this is a film about rebellion and we see hordes of people shot down and buildings getting bombed, but the film does a fine job finding a way to balance a communication of the stakes at play with what serves as entertainment as well.

Keeping the stakes in mind, as much as Katniss may know about the rebellion and how important it is, she is heavily focused on saving Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).  We see Peeta throughout the film in interviews masked with insincerity and it is in these moments that I was much happier to recognize how the romance angle of these films has functioned.  I would continue to say it is a weaker aspect of these films, especially given how bland I find Liam Hemsworth to be as Gale (which is more the fault of the character), but Hutcherson does a fine job of showing off vulnerability, making a decent argument for Katniss’ plight in all of this.  Having these two characters be apart this time around makes the film’s (ideally) key relationship stronger from my perspective, which is something I can appreciate, even if there are bigger things I would like to focus on, over a love triangle.


There are other areas I could delve into regarding what feels like padding and some minor missteps, but there are also plenty of areas I could go on praising, such as the visuals, the score, and the general handling of tone.  What I can say is that I have found this Hunger Games film franchise to be remarkably consistent.  It has a lot of great elements continuing to work in its favor, which includes strong performances, a great sense of how to depict the world, and confidence in the overall direction.  I greatly look forward to the final installment next year, but this first part most certainly does not feel like stalling.


Katniss Everdeen:  I have a message for President Snow:  If we burn, you burn with us!







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