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Like an overgrown and bloated trailer for a film yet to come, Francis Lawrence‘s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 spreads perhaps 45 minutes of dramatic material across two far-too-leisurely hours. The final installment of Suzanne Collins‘ blockbuster trilogy wasn’t naturally designed to be broken down into two segments. However, after the producers of the Harry Potter and Twilight series doubled their financial pleasure by dividing those series’ climactic stories into two distinct films, how was Lionsgate to resist doing the same with its own gold mine, given that the two previous Katniss chronicles have together grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide?
It isn’t that it’s disagreeable to be reunited with the resourceful, resilient and attractive characters in this series, especially now that the Hunger Games themselves are history and a revolutionary spirit has seized the downtrodden masses of Panem. This first half of the big-screen version of the oft-derided Mockingjay novel is essentially devoted to the rebel leaders’ efforts to transform Katniss into their standard bearer and make her the focal point of their propaganda. Up to a point, this process is engaging and somewhat amusing, even if a little dialectical montage would have been welcome along the way, just for fun.
Unfortunately, Mockingjay — Part 1 has all the personality of an industrial film. There’s not a drop of insolence, insubordination or insurrection running through its veins; it feels like a manufactured product through and through, ironic and sad given its revolutionary theme.
Unlike its outdoorsy predecessors, this franchise installment is mostly confined to quarters — notably the secret, bunker-like headquarters of District 13, a hotbed of revolt led by its president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). In league with turncoat Capitol game-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated) and wheelchair-bound high-tech wiz and hacker Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), the president aims to galvanize the surviving citizens of all the districts to overthrow the ever-devious President Snow (Donald Sutherland) once and for all.
This state of affairs is new to Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, all of 23 when this was shot), who awakens from the trauma of what we saw her endure last year to be faced not only with underground confinement but the apparent betrayal of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). In a series of broadcast interviews with the emotionally manipulative Caesar (Stanley Tucci), the unlikely young survivor appears drugged, brainwashed or both as he warns against civil war and urges the rebels to agree to a cease-fire.
Relieved that her friend is still alive but dismayed by his words, Katniss is taken to view the rubble that is her native District 12 in hopes of stoking her revolutionary fervor. By her side again are the ever-ardent Gale (Liam Hemsworth); Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), now sober and with little to do; and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), whose insatiable need for high style and glamor are amusingly stymied by the militaristic drabness of District 13. Given more opportunity here than in the two previous films, Banks gamely pushes the role into quasi-Oscar Wildean territory.
It’s up to all of these characters to mold Katniss into “the face of the revolution,” and the film’s most entertaining moments portray their efforts to goose, prod and provoke the resourceful warrior into becoming a cross between Joan of Arc and Marianne, France’s symbol of la liberte. It doesn’t come naturally, as Katniss’ initial attempts at inspirational calls to storm the barricades wouldn’t pass muster in a high school play. But the galvanizing moments eventually arrive, as do some testy televised exchanges between Katniss and Snow; the latter may be under assault but always seems to have more cards to play.
The central challenge faced by new-to-the-series screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong was to bring the story to the brink of the inevitable confrontation between the oppressors and the oppressed. From a dramatic point of view, this would have ideally occupied either the initial third or first half, let’s say, of a 140-minute movie, which would have then continued to accelerate toward cathartic action and ultimate resolution. As things stand, however, audiences are left at the edge of a cliff for another year — until November 2015, to be precise — when Part 2 of Mockingjay will be released.
To be sure, massive audiences will turn out this year as well as next. But far more than with Harry Potter and about the same as with Twilight, this doubling-the-profit gambit feels like a gaming-the-public ploy.
Production companies: Color Force, Lionsgate
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Willow Shields, Sam Clafin, Jena Malone, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer, Wes Chatham, Elden Henson, Paula Malcomson, Evan Ross
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, adaptation by Suzanne Collins, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Suzanne Collins, Jan Foster
Director of photography: Jo Willems
Production designer: Phil Messina
Costume designer: Kurt and Bart
Editors: Alan Edward Bell, Mark Yoshikawa
Music: James Newton Howard
Casting: Debra Zane
Rated PG-13, 123 minutes
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