Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Waiting Games: "Mockingjay - Part 1" a compelling but unspectacular first-half finale

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014)
125 min., rated PG-13.

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" is the final installment in the big-screen adaptations of Suzanne Collins' series, but it's only half of a movie. Since it must be an unwritten Hollywood rule that YA film-to-book properties can't stand on their own anymore and the last entry must be split into two, this is a place-holder for commercial purposes rather than for the sake of art. Like 2012's "The Hunger Games" and 2013's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," this film's setup does bode well for a great conclusion; it just needs to get there. With returning director Francis Lawrence here to stay for the long haul and screenwriters Peter Craig (2010's "The Town") and Danny Strong (2013's "Lee Daniels' The Butler") now in, the picture is still anticlimactic filler, but it has enough meat on its bones to be worth recommending to those devoted to seeing Katniss Everdeen's journey to the end.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is having a hard time after surviving two fights to the death, outwitting the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and causing uprisings in seven of the districts. Panem's District 12 has been destroyed and left as a wasteland of rubble and skulls. She is devastated and confused to discover her fellow tribute victor and love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), has been finangled into speaking for the Capitol and declaring a ceasefire. Katniss has been rescued and now holes up in District 13's underground bunker, run by Madam President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who aspire to make her the face of the revolution, their symbolic Mockingjay. She gives in, but only if her requests to President Coin are granted. Even as she has to be camera-ready, saving Peeta is her main concern.

Whereas the first two films were given a scope to roam emotionally, narratively, and visually, "Mockingjay - Part 1" occasionally edges on the maudlin and monotone, but Jennifer Lawrence and her top-of-the-line support manage to keep mopiness in check. The production values are still faultless, but there is only so much awe to be drawn from dreary, claustrophobic underground bunkers with the gaudy Capitol mostly out of the picture. Ashy, skull-strewn landscapes, however, are emblematic of there being a despairing, downbeat vision on the screen. The stretched-thin proceedings often plod along, but this is a far more quiet film than the first two, focusing more on the tributes' trauma after the Hunger Games and political propaganda. Politics has always been an integral part of this story's world, and it's interesting to point out that screenwriter Danny Strong wrote two politically charged TV movies, 2008's "Recount" and 2012's "Game Change." Katniss being the mockingjay for the revolution resonates the most. For instance, she must effectively deliver a rally speech in front of a green screen as part of a "propo" piece and then pay a visit to other districts, including District 8's makeshift morgue and hospital, with rebellion leader Cressida (Natalie Dormer), mute AVOX/cameraman Pollux (Elden Henson), and her crew. Also, more so than the first two films, Katniss gets to spend time with her mother (Paul Malcomson) and sister Prim (Willow Shields), who are at least given some purpose in District 13.

Jennifer Lawrence is still a dynamic, tireless force, owning the role of Katniss and making her personal arc as riveting as ever without just going through the paces. Josh Hutcherson, though sidelined, gets to reveal sad emotional shadings as Peta, whose character arc might be the second most affecting in the series, and Liam Hemsworth's Gale isn't so much a romantic third-wheel as much as Katniss' friend with different opinions. A newcomer to the series, Julianne Moore brings her innate class and gravitas to the underwritten role of President Coin that calls for her to do a lot of serious posturing in a long, gray wig, and she does it well. She also shares a "Boogie Nights" reunion with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (to whom the film is dedicated), who brings some heft after Plutarch Heavensbee had a turn-around at the end of "Catching Fire." De-glammed without her flamboyant drag-queen costumes and wigs, Elizabeth Banks' series favorite Effie Trinket is turning out to be an even more intriguing and charming character here as she feels like a political refugee in a drab jumpsuit. Also, Woody Harrelson still has his shining, albeit brief, moments as Haymitch, Katniss' newly sober mentor.

Though "Mockingjay - Part I" still exists under the title of "The Hunger Games," there is no fighting in an arena here. There aren't even any eventful action set-pieces, aside from a rescue mission that recalls "Zero Dark Thirty" and Katniss shooting down a plane, that many by the film's end might ask, "Is that all you got?" That this first half of the franchise's finale feels like such a business decision is a nagging but inevitable issue, but for a warm-up, there is just enough appetizing interest here and a potent final shot to get over the greed of a studio. Compelling but unspectacular, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" doesn't take off as expected for a franchise that started off high and got better from there. Instead, it ends as another cliff-hanging serial that forces one to wait in bated breath for a year. We're raring to go for "Part 2."

Grade: B - 

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