Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

I cannot believe it took me this long to review this movie, but sometimes you just have to watch some Lord of the Rings. That's not to say I wasn't looking forward to this film (as my most anticipated list of 2014 will tell you), but this part of the year seems crammed with other major releases... not that I reviewed any of them either. Anyway, since I was such a big fan of the previous entries to this franchise, I knew I was going to be seeing Mockingjay Part 1 in theaters, it was just a matter of when. Usually I make a point of seeing these big films right out of the gate (and occasionally a little early, depending on how lucky I am), but this one took me a whole week beyond its release to even see, let alone review. Because I was late to the party I unwillingly heard a lot of the critical reaction and consensus for the film before I even sat down to see it myself, which is definitely a pet-peeve of mine. Luckily I was free of spoilers (in a weird way) by reading the book, though it does diverge here and there from the source material at key moments.

Shortly after being rescued from the arena at the conclusion of Catching Fire, Katniss is brought to the sanctuary of District 13, which has long been thought to be demolished by the Capital years prior. With several other districts in Panem openly revolting against the government, President Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee want to capitalize (no pun intended) on the momentum by running propaganda spots for all of Panem to see starring the "Mockingjay". Katniss is resistant to play along at first, resenting the leaders of the resistance for letting Peeta get captured by President Snow. But when Peeta is also being manipulated (and presumably tortured) in order to undermine District 13's agenda, Katniss finally agrees to act on the condition that Peeta is rescued and given a full pardon. However, regardless of several successful film shoots with the Mockingjay, it remains unclear whether even their best rescue mission will save Peeta from what President Snow is planning.

That summary was actually most of the plot, so I apologize if you knew nothing about the film before reading this review. I'm a fan of this series and they seem to get better as they go along, with Catching Fire even surpassing the book in my opinion. Seeing that the same creative team is mostly returning to this film, I expected something of a similar quality to the previous installment. Francis Lawrence did a great job with the last film by inheriting a franchise that was already established and improving it on every level. His direction is very consistent and his vision is clear, which is really helpful in a complicated story like The Hunger Games series. I also appreciate the studio investing further in each sequential movie rather than cutting costs to increase their overall profit to the detriment of the film's quality. They also had the foresight to lock in such a talented composer as James Newton-Howard for this series, who continually excels at bringing this world to life with beautiful themes and unique orchestrations. "The Hanging Tree" was a particular highlight that will get in your head for days on end.

As for this film, however, it suffers a little from its partial narrative. This inevitably happens these days, as the last film in a franchise is often dragged out to two films in an attempt to milk extra box-office dollars out of a popular property that they won't be able to turn to in the future. While I understand the impulse, I rarely enjoy the results. The stretching of a whole story into two is fundamentally detrimental to the overall satisfaction of each film, as neither one is really a complete movie. While this series isn't the worst offender (I'm looking at you, Twilight and Divergent), it's definitely a little frustrating that we're asked to sit through a movie with no resolution. I'll surely expound on that sentiment more in my review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but thankfully it wasn't totally ruinous to my experience with Mockingjay Part 1.

This movie did a lot of things right with the extra time spent on this half of the story, specifically by showing us exciting moments only alluded to in the book. Also, there's nothing that really gets left out, that I can remember, and it serves as an excellent appetizer to the hopefully epic conclusion of Mockingjay Part 2. Though some of the scenes are a little bit longer than I would have liked, I'm mostly okay with the expansion of the final book as long as it's kept at this level of quality.

As usual, the visuals of this film are really great, and the realization of District 13 is almost exactly as I pictured it from Suzanne Collins's descriptions in her novel. The other districts are represented well too, where we see groups of people inspired by the Mockingjay who take on the Capital in whatever way they can. However, I appreciated the fact that it doesn't shy away from the sacrifices that must be made in any kind of rebellion, as a fairly large percentage of the dissenters don't live to reap the benefits of their bravery. It's a slightly harsh, but realistic portrayal of the desperation and horror of war that will only get more grim as the series progresses. Beware taking kids to see this film, as a post-bombing scene of a familiar location will definitely cause nightmares for younger viewers.

This feeling of desperation is intensified by the great performances of this cast. Jennifer Lawrence is as good as ever in the lead, with one moment following a devastating attack on innocent people that sent chills erupting up my spine. It was a little heartbreaking to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman in his final role, but he's absolutely great as Plutarch Heavensbee and I'm so glad the filmmakers didn't deprive us of seeing him one last time in these two films. Oddly enough, one of the standouts for me was an actress who wasn't in the film for very long, but made a huge impression as President Coin. I haven't always been a huge fan of Julianne Moore, but seeing her here with that white hair and grey contacts completely transforms her into the hardened general the resistance would need. Her interactions with Hoffman were particularly electric, and I can't wait to see how her character evolves in the next film.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 doesn't quite live up to the previous film, but I think it sets up the concluding chapter very effectively. It probably doesn't hold up quite as well on a second viewing (if my wife's experience is anything to go by), but I think anyone who enjoys these films will be engrossed throughout this film. It's got some problems inherent with its structure, but I liked this film enough to give it three and a half stars and can't wait to see the next one!

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1 is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material.

** What did you think of Mockingjay Part 1? Was the best in the series or an unnecessary expansion? Let me know in the comments below and don't forget to like the Facebook page! **