Sunday, November 30, 2014

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)

The final chapter of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is here, and it's darker and more grown up, like the series' antihero protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). This time, it's war instead of games, the arena is the world of Panem, and there might not be a winner.

The film's main setting is District 13, thought to have been destroyed during the last war. In fact, the district's industries--graphite and nuclear technology--allowed its citizens the leverage to negotiate a detente with the Capitol. Now they live in a massive bunker below bedrock (rebels living underground, get it? I strike thee with the Allegory Bat), waiting for the chance to end the Capitol's tyranny.

Plutarch Heavensbee (RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman), formerly Gamemaker and now advisor to District 13's President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore EEEEEE), is determined to showcase Katniss as the Mockingjay, the unifying symbol of the rebellion. Initially reluctant and absolutely terrible at being scripted, Katniss eventually becomes the inspiration for violent acts of defiance across Panem against the reign of President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

The acting is terrific, but you already knew that, with the caliber of the cast involved. As usual, JLaw turns an unlikeable character into someone you root for, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) does puppy-dog eyes, and Prim (Willow Shields) is still the little sister you'd die/kill for. The biggest character change lies with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), which is a big part of Katniss' motivation this time around. Moore is terrific as the perpetually cool and "concise" rebel leader Coin, and watching Heavensbee is a sad reminder that we lost a great actor.

The dialogue is mostly somber. There are fewer moments of levity without the usual antics of show host Cesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), but Effie (Elizabeth Banks) steps in to fill that void. Katniss also has a great one-liner early in the film that had viewers roaring with laughter (hint: it involves Buttercup).

The cinematography is wrenching, especially in shots that underline the brutality of Snow's rule. There are scenes that contrast the president's words with his police's actions, and while it's not subtle, it's certainly not heavy-handed. Meanwhile, the soundtrack, especially Katniss' rendition of "The Hanging Tree" and the scene that follows, is spine-chilling.

The third act of the film involves the Capitol's move and the rebels' countermove, and this is where Mockingjay Part 1 is strongest. There's tension, action, and a crackling exchange between the hero and villain. The film ends with Katniss finally getting what she's wanted since the end of Catching Fire...but the Capitol might have the last laugh.

Having read the books, I think it's a great decision to split the finale into two parts. It allows the filmmakers to effectively interpret the wider scope and heavier themes of the last entry in the Hunger Games trilogy. Mockingjay Part 1 deals with character development, the power of propaganda, the strength of symbols, and the achievements made possible when fear is replaced by determination and unity. Part 2 is probably going to be about butt-kicking and the fallout. I can't wait.

TL; DR: A great movie that creates anticipation for the final chapter of Katniss' story. 

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