Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 / *** (PG-13)

Katniss Everdeen: Jennifer Lawrence
Gale Hawthorne: Liam Hemsworth
Plutarch Heavensbee: Philip Seymour Hoffman
President Alma Coin: Julianne Moore
President Snow: Donald Sutherland
Peeta Mellark: Josh Hutcherson
Haymitch Abernathy: Woody Harrelson
Beetee: Jeffery Wright
Boggs: Mahershala Ali
Primrose Everdeen: Willow Shields
Finnick Odair: Sam Claflin
Effie Trinket: Elizabeth Banks
Caesar Flickerman: Stanley Tucci

Lionsgate Films presents a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong and Suzanne Collins. Based on the novel “Mockingjay” by Collins. Running time: 123 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material).

We’ve seen to two Hunger Games now and it is time for the revolution of Panem. But, before we get to that let’s pause to consider just what we’ve done and what it is we are calling upon ourselves to do. It is rare that an action franchise will take the time to consider its own ramifications, however, this first part of the exciting franchise finale might just be more about making money from four movies instead of three. I believe if its final chapter weren’t split into two parts, Katniss probably wouldn’t have quite this much of a chance to prepare herself to be the symbol of change she becomes here, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

While the first “Hunger Games” pretty much existed as its own entity, with only a few subplots left dangling at its conclusion, the second film in the franchise, “Catching Fire”, ended with a considerable cliffhanger. “Mockingjay, Part 1” starts where that one left us. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was rescued from the games by an underground movement that included her sponsor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the insider gamesmaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) was left behind in the arena.

Katniss is now in District 13, which appears to consist entirely of revolutionaries. During her time recovering from the events of the 75th Games, the movement has spread to seven of the other districts. Katniss is having trouble adjusting into the role of symbol of the revolution. The leader of the movement, District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) isn’t convinced that Katniss is the right person to act as the face of the revolution, but Plutarch is concrete in his resolve for her.

Katniss is reunited with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) from her home district. He has become one of the soldiers of the revolution after the Capitol annihilated District 12. Gale is happy to be reunited with Katniss, but she is consumed by the fact that Peeta was left behind. A trip back to the old disctrict snaps Katniss’s passion against the Capitol back into place and the revolutionaries embark on a campaign to build the movement toward revolution throughout all districts.

While much has been said about not much happening in this episode, that’s really quite a bit of plot. It’s the way in which this all happens that is unusual for a blockbuster of this magnitude. Instead of relying upon action sequences and special effects, director Francis Lawrence leans upon his actors and the dialogue of his screenwriting team to carry the film. It’s rare to find performances as strong in a mainstream science fiction sequel as we get here. Lawrence makes the audience question her as a leader just as she questions herself. Julianne Moore provides a strong anchor for the movement as President Coin. Elizabeth Banks also returns as Effie Trinket to provide some comic relief as a Capitol citizen who just can’t quite fit in to the drab lifestyle of the outer districts until she’s given the mission of making over Katniss to look the hero she must become.

The social commentary is toned down considerably in this installment, as we don’t get to see much of the Capitol city or the contrasting social classes of the first two films. There is a strong commentary made on manipulating the media, however, as much of the plot concentrates on the PR campaign orchestrated around Katniss. A film crew is brought in to document most of Katniss’s actions. They aren’t afraid to stage moments to get the desired effect. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol launch a counter campaign, and the significance of their dance is not lost on Snow, who comments at one point “moves and countermoves.”

“Mockingjay, Part 1” losses some sense of satisfaction by feeling incomplete. Falling squarely in the middle of the action from the previous chapter and next year’s finale, the movie doesn’t really have a beginning or an end. It’s a problem that is becoming more frequent in big franchise properties as more of their final chapters are being split into two parts. This first part is all set up and no payoff. We’ll have to wait a year for that, but this installment does solidify many of the thematic elements of this final chapter that will probably be lost in action sequences in Part 2. It thrives on and highlights the strength of the performances for this rather remarkable science fiction epic.

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