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Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

November 21, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Mockingjay - Part 1 Poster

The penultimate entry into the wildly successful cinematic saga, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is the sort of film that is only really worth seeing if you were gripped by the previous instalments, and are already eagerly anticipating next year’s final chapter.

And I mean this in a good way.  As a fan of the films and Suzanne Collins trilogy of books, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 provides a stirring and high minded political thriller that expands upon the already introduced themes, while doing a fine job of setting the stage for next year’s grand finale.

But this is also the least standalone entry into the outstanding series, feeling very much like the buildup for things to come, in a more expository way than 2012’s stunning first instalment, or last year’s excellent Catching Fire.  Though these things hardly matter when the exposition is this tightly scripted and brilliantly acted.

With District 12 left in ruins after the shocking Quarter Quell, war is brewing between the displaced residents of the bombed out towns, and the dictatorial Capitol of Panem.  After being airlifted from the arena, rebel leader Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is now taking refuge in the bunkers of District 13.  There she is being groomed by gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), resistance leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) and now sober mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), to become a symbol of hope for the burgeoning revolutionaries, including childhood friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).

But their efforts to use Katniss as a media symbol, shooting propaganda videos with aspiring filmmaker Cressida (Natalie Dormer), are matched by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) using her boyfriend turned war prisoner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as leverage through televised appearances with the flamboyant Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).  Trying to send images of the destroyed districts back to the totalitarian Capitol, with engineer Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) helping intercept the television signals, the film intriguingly shows how the media can be manipulated by both sides of an idealogical divide.

Although this is the shortest film in the series at just 123 minutes, in many ways The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 takes the most time.  This is the most dialogue heavy of the films, almost making us question the decision to split the final novel into two parts, as has become standard with most Young Adult adaptations.  But as I said earlier, these things hardly matter when the writing and filmmaking is this good.  Francis Lawrence continues to do an excellent job directing the series, and the few action set pieces that the film offers are thrillingly handled with striking and even haunting cinematography.

What The Hunger Games series also has in its corner is the endlessly impressive cast, fronted by the Mockingjay herself, Jennifer Lawrence.  The Oscar-winner continues to bring depth to this refreshingly resilient heroine, believably portraying both the physical strength and emotional turmoil of the inspiring young revolutionary.  When you have such great actors as Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman all onscreen together, the results are simply exciting to watch.  Elizabeth Banks continues to provide delightful comic relief as Effie Trinket, her character still trying to be fashionable despite now wearing a grey jumpsuit.

Rich with bitingly relevant political subtext, this is one of the more intelligent mainstream films of the year, providing something more thought provoking than the usual blockbuster fare.  The series also continues to use violence in appropriately disturbing and provocative ways, making every gunshot sting, even when reflected in the black visers of the ironically named Peacekeepers.  Promising great things for next year’s final chapter, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is a stirring beginning of the end that is anchored by sharp writing and outstanding performances.

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