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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 Movie Review

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014) movie poster The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

Theatrical Release: November 21, 2014 / Running Time: 123 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Francis Lawrence / Writers: Suzanne Collins (novel and adaptation); Peter Craig, Danny Strong (screenplay)

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mallark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Julianne Moore (President Alma Coin), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Mahershala Ali (Boggs), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason), Jeffrey Wright (Beetee Latier), Paula Malcomson (Katniss' Mother), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Natalie Dormer (Cressida), Evan Ross (Messalla), Elden Henson (Pollux), Wes Chatham (Castor), Sarita Choudhury (Egeria), Stef Dawson (Annie Cresta)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is one of DVDizzy.com's Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 ranks 81st in our list of the Top 100 Movies of the Half-Decade (2010-2014).

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When it came time to adapt the seventh and final novel in J.K. Rowling's wildly popular fantasy series,
filmmakers had to decide how to do justice to a 759-page book and end a beloved film franchise more than ten years in the making on a satisfying high note with a reasonable runtime. They chose to split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two films. The move seemed to pay off: Part 1 performed comparably to its six predecessors and Part 2 set series records both commercially and critically. With that, "double the movie, double the profit" became an acceptable philosophy for the studios behind today's best-attended film series. Summit went that route for the final installment of The Twilight Saga. Also to be divided into two movies are the finales of the Divergent series and Marvel's The Avengers.

Today, I am talking about this practice because it is put to use on The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, which is widely expected to become the domestic box office champion of 2014 as sequel Catching Fire was in 2013. Mockingjay has not been split into two films out of necessity; Suzanne Collins' 2010 novel of the same name ran just 391 pages, barely longer than the first book and a page shorter than the second. No, the division is clearly a business move, one that gives Lionsgate another guaranteed smash hit opening a year from now in addition to this surefire blockbuster.

Two-movie finales may be a savvy strategy for the bottom line, but there are creative repercussions. Deathly Hallows, Part 1 was by far the least eventful installment in that franchise. Even if its build-up eventually paid off in the action-packed Part 2, neither half felt truly complete or self-sufficient. The Breaking Dawn movies had a world of problems, but the unnecessary division seemed to be one factor for those last two dragging that teen vampire series to artistic lows. Again, it was the Part 1 that was most problematic.

Like most, I've found The Hunger Games through its first two films to be a series far superior to Twilight. I also hold the first two Hunger Games installments in higher regard than the majority of Harry Potter movies as well. Mockingjay, Part 1 is not impervious to the drawbacks of that one-novel, two-film design. It endures what you assume to be the most challenging act to date with its considerable appeal and entertainment value largely intact. At the same time, Part 1 is a minor step down from the more exciting first two outings.

Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) visit the ravaged District 8 in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1."

This third film moves the series in a different direction. The titular games the featured so prominently in the past two episodes are nowhere to be found. In lieu of life-or-death reality television competition, we find two-time victor Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) fighting for survival and justice against the totalitarian government that has allowed and reinforced a system of extreme inequalities.

Following her defiance of The Capitol, Katniss' homeland, the impoverished District 12, has been exterminated almost in full. Now, finding herself part of a rebellion she didn't foresee, the popular and inspiring teenaged girl is an obvious choice to become the rallying figure of this movement. On the recommendation of duplicitous former gamemaker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final two performances), the secret District 13's President Alma Coin (newcomer Julianne Moore) agrees to make Katniss the "Mockingjay."

Plutarch sets out to make a number of "propos" (propaganda short films) starring Katniss. Visiting her decimated district and others who have been wounded but not yet defeated by The Capitol's forces, the expert young archer is flatteringly shot by an artsy group of guerilla filmmakers. All the while, Katniss worries about the safety and well-being of Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her Hunger Games co-champion, supposed husband and genuine love interest. While she is doing District 13's bidding, Peeta is being interviewed on television at the Capitol by talk show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), his remarks about the revolution creating some discord.

Having found their Mockingjay and agreed to her demands, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and President Coin (Julianne Moore) work on propaganda campaigns to strengthen their cause. Separated from Katniss, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) appears in a televised interview by Caesar Flickerman.

While The Hunger Games has always had a wealth of social commentary, this threequel gets more political to slightly diminished effect. There has been an element of activism to Katniss' heroism, but she has now evolved from sympathetic, strong-willed survivor into a leader of a full-blown cause
for which viewers may have trouble summoning as much passion as the marginalized masses of the dystopian Panem. At different times, the film reminds of real tragedies, from the Holocaust to the September 11th terrorist attacks. There are public executions and armed guards shooting into organized raids.

It all feels rather dark for a bestselling young adult novel series and a film franchise that probably plays most strongly with teenagers. Lest we forget, this is a series founded on the premise of children forced into killing one another for sport. As bleak as it gets and as uncomfortable as its evoking of real atrocities might make you, one has to admire the provocative nature of Collins' story and greatly prefer it to some escapist vampire-werewolf-human love triangle that crumbles under scrutiny and is making up rules as it goes.

Mockingjay, Part 1 consistently engages and has some sharp moments, but it is never quite as effective as its predecessors. The stakes are supposed to be rising, as Katniss moves from simply trying to outwit her fellow youths and victors to outright taking on the malicious President Snow (Donald Sutherland). But it doesn't feel like they are, without tributes dying off and various creative obstacles presenting themselves in the domed battlefield. It's not that you want yet another Hunger Games; two such competitions already were plenty even if Catching Fire did an extraordinary job of not feeling like a retread. I'm not sure where the franchise should go from here and it kind of feels like neither was Collins, despite having the second story flow directly into this one, at least on film. On the plus side, Part 1 respectfully avoids the aimless, meandering feel of Deathly Hallows, Part 1.

Mockingjay seizes choice opportunities for returning cast members to pop up (the most notable exception being Caesar's co-commentator played by Toby Jones), though it doesn't always do the best job of keeping you informed. Those who haven't read the books may be racking their brains to remember who this Annie character is for whom Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) is so concerned. That is the one rare instance where you feel like the movies aren't doing complete justice to the texts, a change from Harry Potter where certain plot points warranting clarification would only get some by reading. In fact, it seems like with this penultimate installment, the films are actually expanding upon Collins' novel to reach a fulfilling runtime. They would appear to do so with the author's blessing; she is credited with adaptation but not the screenplay, indicating her contributions have been different on each film.

For a moment, you fear that Part 1 will end on a real wicked cliffhanger. It goes on a little further, while still setting the stage for a final film where if you haven't read the books (or had them spoiled in detail), seemingly anything could happen to Katniss and the many different people in her world.

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Related Reviews:
The Hunger Games The Hunger Games: Catching Fire | Now in Theaters: Big Hero 6 The Theory of Everything
Jennifer Lawrence: Winter's Bone Silver Linings Playbook American Hustle
Josh Hutcherson: Bridge to Terabithia The Kids Are All Right Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Doubt The Master The Ides of March | Liam Hemsworth: Paranoia The Last Song
Fantasy Film Series: Divergent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Reviewed November 21, 2014.



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