The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 Review

Posted: November 22, 2015 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews

By: Michael “MovieBuff801” Dennos

I love the Harry Potter series with every fiber of my being. I know this is a review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, but go with me on this. If you asked me what’s one thing from the Harry Potter franchise I ultimately sort of regret, it’s the fact that the two-part adaptation of Deathly Hallows began a trend of every final installment of a young adult franchise since then being split into two separate films, whether they warrant it or not. The seventh Potter book deserved such a treatment, though. I’ve read The Hunger Games novels by Suzanne Collins, and I can safely say that the third book definitely did not call for it, ignoring that it wasn’t nearly as good as the first two novels. So, naturally, one would assume that Mockingjay – Part 1 would be a lesser film than the first two installments, right? Well … yes and no. Yes, it is indeed not as wow-worthy as Catching Fire or The Hunger Games, but no, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad movie. In fact, it’s pretty surprising it’s ultimately as good as it is.

Picking up nearly right after the cliffhanger conclusion of Catching Fire, Mockingjay – Part 1 finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) a broken shell of herself after being rescued from the Quarter Quell. Her rescuers are the citizens of District 13, an independent and militarized District long-thought destroyed, but has actually been thriving underground for years, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike back against The Capitol. The leader of District 13 is President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who, together with Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), orchestrated the events of the 75th Hunger Games to get Katniss out. Coin is intent on taking down The Capitol and removing President Snow (Donald Sutherland) from the equation, and she needs Katniss to help by being the face, or “mockingjay”, of the rebellion that all of the other members of the Districts can rally behind. But all Katniss is concerned about at first is how District 13 abandoned Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) back in the Arena and left him at the mercy of The Capitol. And as events begin to unfold, it becomes clear that Snow has the same intentions for Peeta that District 13 has for Katniss: to use him to discourage any rumblings of war, but is Peeta doing it of his own volition?

If you’ve read my reviews of the first two Hunger Games films, then you’d know how much of a fan I am of this series. But even then, when I first went into Mockingjay – Part 1, it was with more than just a bit of trepidation, because the source material didn’t exactly inspire a whole lot of confidence. Maybe those lowered expectations were a blessing in disguise, though, because this is honestly a pretty strong movie in its own right, even if it is noticeably only half a film. The thing I’ve always appreciated the most about this series is that, much like the last couple of Harry Potter movies, these filmmakers have always found the intimacy in these stories that take place in such a large world, and that certainly rings true for Mockingjay – Part 1. When looked at as a movie, and not simply the first half of a much larger movie, not a whole lot of any real, traditional interest happens here, but in terms of characters and mounting drama and atmosphere and emotion, there’s actually quite a bit to latch onto. The Hunger Games franchise is also a really good example of a type of storytelling in film that I’m a really big fan of: the subtle, quiet, non-flashy type. In that respect, it’s easy for me to see why so many have called this film mostly boring, but I find it fairly gripping in spite of the lack of action and whatnot. It just goes to show you should never undervalue the effect of sure-handed storytelling.

As it always has been, a big component of what makes this material work is the acting. Not a whole lot of time needs to be sent singing the praises of leading lady Jennifer Lawrence — because isn’t that just a foregone conclusion by now? Suffice it to say, though, that she kills it yet again as Katniss. She communicates the character’s frustration, uncertainty, fear, heartbreak and much more with the effortless skill of a seasoned veteran of the craft. As a result, we naturally feel her struggle just as much as if Katniss were a real person, making it clear that it’s almost criminal how great at acting Jennifer Lawrence is. Josh Hutcherson has considerably less screentime this time around, but he nonetheless makes the most of what he’s given. Hutcherson has to rely a lot on face/eye-acting in this one, and he pulls it off. Given what Peeta goes through in this film, he has to look broken and not quite right every time he’s on-screen, and Hutcherson is able to make his performance subtle enough in those instances for it to work. Haymitch is also not around as much as in the first two, but just like Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson makes every minute count, proving further that Haymitch is without a doubt my favorite character in the series. Julianne Moore brings an interesting quality to the film as well, keeping in line with the subtlety that’s required from nearly everybody in the cast. Our perception of Coin starts off one way, but in watching Moore’s performance over the course of the film, it’s interesting to see how her character gradually develops. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is of course great to watch, too, tragic circumstances involving him aside. He’s given more to do here, and since this is Phillip Seymour Hoffman we’re talking about, he nails every minute. On the opposite end of things is Liam Hemsworth, who just isn’t nearly as talented as his brother, and the dialogue he’s saddled with doesn’t do him any favors, either.

Director Francis Lawrence continues to impress me with how he helms these films, especially considering that he never dazzled me all that much with any of his previous works before coming onto the franchise. He’s proven here that he has a true talent for character-driven stuff and bringing out the intimacy and small moments that make everything tick. Lawrence also creates a real sense of confinement and claustrophobia in all the District 13-set scenes, and he instills the film with this mounting feeling of dread and danger that feels appropriate. One of my favorite scenes is one where Katniss simply starts singing a song called “The Hanging Tree”, and it’s because of Lawrence’s direction and ability to capture that intimacy why it carries so much weight. The screenplay by Peter Craig and Danny Strong is really solid and fairly well-paced for the most part. There’s a lot of political themes and ideas at play here, and the script’s way of dealing with them is interesting and doesn’t feel at all like a “young adult version.”

There is one problem Mockingjay – Part 1 can’t overcome, however, and it’s that at the end of the day, this is still half a movie where maybe only a handful of significant things happen. By comparison, let’s recall Deathly Hallows Part 1. That movie is half a story, too, but at least that one was also structured like a standalone film in its own right, with enough significant events throughout to justify its existence. To its credit, Mockingjay – Part 1 DOES build up to something — an event in the plot that’s effective enough as a climax, and also the natural splitting point — but the problem is that while the film may be good and gripping (and never boring, in my personal opinion), it’s adapting the half of the book where not much of anything happens. I can credit Francis Lawrence and the screenwriters for making the most of it and pacing everything reasonably well, but isolated on its own, Mockingjay – Part 1 is good but not as good as the first two. However, it IS better when watched in succession with the first two films. Take that for what you will, but the track record for the franchise still remains intact.

Isolated rating: ***/****

In succession with the first two rating: ***1/2 /****

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