THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1 Review

I've always been a fan of second chapters, but this new trend of first halves of last chapters is an unfortunate one that doesn't seem to be going anywhere soon given the extra dollars to be made from it. Not only does it completely contradict the reasons studios use to justify these splits, but they often times present glaring weaknesses in the story that otherwise wouldn't be present if the intention was the same as with the first two or however many predecessors there were. In the case of The Hunger Games, having read the books, I would have much more preferred they split Catching Fire into two parts than the rather lackluster and somewhat disappointing third book in the trilogy. Of course, as the finale, it is the one that gets the big to-do. There is a case to be made and an essay to be written for why studious should consider breaking the book that deserves it most into two parts rather than the concluding chapter (one that might ultimately agree with their story justifications in the press release that we all know are just covers for double the profit), but that is for another time and head space. While we may eventually get to a place where every book is broken into two movies right now we are here to discuss the beginning of the end for what has been the middle ground between the more credible Harry Potter series and the laughable, niche that was Twilight. The Hunger Games has served as a bridge between these series, uniting the tween and teen girls that flocked to the Bella Swan soap opera and the fans of varying degrees that grew up with J.K. Rowling's boy wizard in a way that melded the female heroine with the gritty realism of a fictional world. These films are, in a way, the ultimate composition of young adult literature combining every successful element that have come before and garnering the masses all the more for it while also sporting its own line of imitators. I wouldn't necessarily say I enjoyed The Hunger Games, either in the books or film series, but I am no doubt intrigued by them and fascinated not only by the role they play in pop culture and the brand they've etched out for themselves, but for the actual intentions of the story and how that has somehow been maintained in the feature adaptations. With that mindset I went into Mockingjay - Part 1 with a hopeful optimism that director Francis Lawrence and his unbelievably impressive cast might have crafted a game-changer.

Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and President Coin (Julianne Moore) strategize their rebellion.
Game-changer, this is not. Instead, I learned to accept a way of thinking I didn't imagine I'd be open to and while the film itself is just above average, I appreciate it more for attempting to expand my views. While it's been too long since I've read the source material to make accurate comparisons or suggestions, Lawrence and his screenwriters (Peter Craig and Danny Strong, neither of which worked on any of the previous installments) seemed to initially plague this first act with conversation upon conversation around the same topics before folding to the obligatory action piece during the climax of which the protagonist isn't even involved and then cutting it off just as things were genuinely getting interesting. If this Part 1 was to serve any purpose it would seemingly be to tell us how chock full of action and juicy drama Part 2 will be. It was even something of a wonder in my immediately critical mind that they were somehow able to keep this first half so tame. That wasn't too say it was a complete bore or that the conversations weren't executed well, especially with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore and Jeffrey Wright exchanging large portions of the dialogue, I could certainly see that,but as it went on it became more clear why splitting this story into two separate parts might not have been a bad idea. As I continued to watch the film and acknowledge the breadth of topics in which the limited dialogue spoken by multiple characters incorporated I began to appreciate it all the more. Coming off Catching Fire, which I found to be rather exceptional considering the genre it operates within, I was hoping there might be something larger in store for audiences, something more innovative that might have been done in order to keep the momentum going, but what I got was something a little more subtle.

At first, these discussion feel like a bunch of placeholders that wouldn't have come close to making the final cut were this to be only one movie. The longer the film plays though and the closer attention we pay, the more we realize the slow burn in play, the boiling below the surface so carefully put in motion. I enjoy Lawrence's approach to the material in that his aesthetic is almost everything. This world, if we're to take it as seriously as it takes itself, is all about tone and our appreciation for the approach to the beautiful disaster the characters are privy to. We visually sense a world and a responsibility for why things have to be the way they are, but it is in the subdued editing and writing of this introduction to the final revolution that make it not feel as epic as it looks. Suzanne Collins books were intent on not only providing entertainment, but were essentially think pieces in metaphorical form for the inequality of rich and poor as well as our knack for seeing suffering as entertainment and the lifeline of Mockingjay - Part 1 is reinforcing those ideas.

We are re-introduced to Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) after her evacuation from the Quarter Quell as she awakens in the believed-to-be destroyed District 13. She is seemingly suffering from some type of PTSD, but is necessary to the rebel resistance for she will serve as their symbol of hope, their Mockingjay if you will. Naturally, there is reason to be hesitant from Katniss as she doesn't understand Plutarch (Hoffman) or President Alma Coin's (Moore) decision to rescue her and Finnick (Sam Claflin) and not Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). In an attempt to remind her of who the real enemy is Plutarch and Coin send Katniss back to her home to see the remains of District 12 after what the Capital and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) did to it. Her home is in ruins, the burnt bodies of her fellow townsfolk are littered throughout the rubble and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is her only source of strength that pulls her through being able to commit to the wishes of the District 13 leadership. With a few conditions on hand that include Peeta, Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson) being rescued and not charged as traitors, Katniss agrees to be the Mockingjay in order to recruit more rebels from the districts. Coin agrees and from here the film slightly stalls in trying to build anticipation around Katniss essentially campaigning for District 13. Side characters such as Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) feel shoe-horned in and new characters in the form of Katniss' personal camera crew including Cressida (Natalie Dormer) Messalla (Evan Ross), Castor (Wes Chatham) and former avox, Pollux (Elden Henson) are introduced with no real development and add little to the narrative besides being present for the middle action scene that displays ultimate desperation before the bigger finale. Stanley Tucci and Hutcherson have little to do this round other than conduct interviews with one another, but as things crawl (somewhat desperately) towards the finish line it is revealed that Peeta has been 'hijacked' and brainwashed to kill Katniss. In his attempt to do so after his rescue the stakes are officially set with the challenges needing to be overcome in Part 2 all the bigger.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) becomes the face of the revolution.
The glaring weakness of Mockingjay is that while it is intended to be a story of revolution the real story is in the strategy of that revolution and yet most of the focus in the book, as I recall, was centered on the action and deaths of prime characters. This is the one thing Mockingjay - Part 1 understands. In being able to not simply focus on the action beats of the plot and moving through to the somewhat inevitable finale that has enough good twists to justify a satisfactory conclusion Mockingjay - Part 1 has the leisure to explore the importance of appearances and the necessary attributes of its characters with which they will harvest for the overall goal. There are scenes within the film that consist of multiple characters sitting around talking about the character of Katniss, who she is and what the best light to present her to others is and how to best motivate them towards their cause. In many ways, this diving into what makes its own characters tick is like having a discussion about the film afterwards, but with the characters themselves. For someone who attempts to think about film critically the majority of the time this is an interesting perspective from which to approach things while mainstream audiences will take these dialogue-heavy scenes as pure strategical meetings that are set-up for what is to come. It is in these discussions, in the acting of the highly-pedigreed cast that the film is still able to capture the essence of what Collins was writing about and that has been the one, unshakable strength of The Hunger Games films since the beginning.

That directors Gary Ross and Lawrence seem very much in tune with where their films spawn from is clear. And while the pacing of the action and drama somewhat stalls out in this talky Part 1 it is the depth of the conversation that keep the spirit and themes alive. In that often-referenced source material we learn the Mockingjay bird came about as a result of a failed project by the Capitol to spy on the rebellious districts. Since this revelation there was always a sense of defiance associated with the bird and the failure by the oppressor it represents. This symbol of resistance not only comes to be materialized in our heroine, but it stands as the biggest theme in the series of films, one that is justly given its due in this installment and that we probably wouldn't have received were it not split in two. Maybe I'm just trying to see the best in an overall bad situation, but despite the initial disappointment inherent with hearing the finale would be split into two I have found much to appreciate in the room given to flesh out the story and characters all the more.