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Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 Review: A Darker, Deeper Revolution

Although it's beginning is a little slow, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 takes us deeper into the world of Panem's rebellious spirit.

For someone who likes but not loves The Hunger Games franchise - and have never read the books - it's been nice to see the story of Panem evolve by exploding into rebellious violence, perhaps serving as a warning to current nations who might wish to radicalize themselves in their twisted perception of a new world order. Regardless of where current world politics will take us, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is a deeper, darker, and more desolate sequel than perhaps some fair-weather would like, but I think its tone is right on the money, even if it's not a perfect product.

"When we last left our show," the radical Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) had been rescued from the Quarter Quell edition of the 75th Hunger Games, herself having destroyed the contest in one feel swoop. The result has left her injured and despondent for news about the rest of the participants, including Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has become more important to her that she planned. Her appearance in the previously-thought destroyed District 13 has also coincided with the rescue of many familiar characters, including the detoxed Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Katniss' secret lover Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and the former gamesmaker Plutarch (the deceased Phillip Seymour Hoffman). But for District 13 President Coin (Julianne Moore), Katniss has become a chess piece in a much larger game; her desire to overthrow the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) now pits the evil dictator against the charismatic bowman as she visits her the destroyed Districts 12 and 8 and issues emotional demands to join the rebellion. As the fate of Peeta and the entire revolution hang over her head, Katniss must take control of the chessboard to rescue her friend, while Snow plots his next violent moves

Mockingjay is an odd film, in the sense that what brought these characters together is no longer in play. With the Games dead, all that's left is the new suffering brought on by the rebellion, and the film's beginning feels very different, with Katniss hiding from the authorities down in the District 13 bunker before being 'escorted' back to bed. From there, her reluctance to join the wider struggle comes in fits and stops as she witnesses the horror of Snow's oppression. That sort of drama is a slow burn, taking nearly 45 minutes before any Games-like action occurs; but I feel that element is neither front and center nor is it needed in these films. That to me is a signal of the franchise's maturity, a fact which does play quite well.

It's not all serious glances here: there's a funny scene as Katniss struggles to shoot a propaganda piece while Haymitch and de-fanged Effie (Elizabeth Banks) look on in shock, but for the most part this is a tonally dark production. Catching Fire Director Francis Lawrence returns to take the struggle underground, immersing his characters in a game for control of the hearts and minds of Panem. The story by The Town penner Peter Craig issues important messages about our own charged world political climate, while making funny - if on-the-nose - comments about winning the general public over to revolution. Danny Strong from Lee Daniels' The Butler adds a human touch as Katniss and others ruminate about the coming war and Peeta's fate.

We know things are building towards something violent and ultimately devastating for these characters, at least that's what Lawrence wants us to think. This revolution will come with consequences, and in Mockingjay the violence of the games has been replaced with even more death than before, perhaps proving Snow's point illustrated so well in Catching Fire.

And yet, the production isn't without its problems. A horrific image of the remains of District 12 is shown too soon, re-acted for the 'propos' by Director Cressida (Natalie Dormer); the impact just isn't there as it was the first time, with that money shot filmed from exact same angle. Cressida is totally unneeded, while Haymitch feels underused, confined to a few scenes of dealing with his alcoholism and preparing the message of the rebellion. The same goes for Finnick (Sam Caflin), a hero in Catching Fire and one of the many reasons why I loved the second film (read our review here), while psycho Joanna (Jena Malone) appears for literally 2 seconds. Whether the books portray Gale as Lawrence does here or not, he is certainly the love interest looking in, and Hemsworth's rather blank stares throughout demonstrate his readiness for another adventure. I've never felt he was properly used in this franchise, and any chance to grow his character into a tough, self-sufficient hero is ignored often enough for us to notice.

But this is The Jennifer Lawrence show, and as always she carries this considerable weight with nearly perfect results. She knows Katniss is now a ploy to help defeat The Capitol, and her very human responses to being played as such give Mockingjay a realistic spin on the old idea that not all heroes were born to be one. Hutcherson's violent turn at the end is powerful, as is Lawrence's visceral reaction, making the duo far more effective than any Captiol production in previous films. I also liked the steady hand of Moore, whose gray streaks of hair and simple clothing add to her aura as a leader unfazed by Snow's antics. She's very good next to Lawrence the actor, and Lawrence the director makes the most of their chemistry.

With so much of the YA movement in the box office trash compactor, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 still hits its marks, delivering a solid - if not a particularly inspiring - production. Moviegoers hoping for a rousing ending with slow-mo 'This' and majestic music 'That' will no doubt be bored, a situation which I did not find myself. It's not that Mockingjay is boring, but the cast of Oscar whos-who aren't given much more to do than ruminate, hide, and worry as Snow sends his bombers. That formula works for me, but I can see others possibly looking at their clocks, wondering when the real action will arrive. Sorry, that's for Part 2.

For now, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is perhaps the deepest character study of the franchise so far, transitioning the games into a continental battle for worldwide control. And even though a premium experience like IMAX or even 3D is not necessary, any other like XD or Atmos is certainly worth your time.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material and has a runtime of 123 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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