The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 – Action, Suspense and Thinking!

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 could have gone wrong in so many ways that it’s a genuine relief to be able to say it’s infinitely better than the book – at least, so far. It’s smart and thought provoking while having considerably more action that I was expecting. In fact, it’s the best film in the series, so far.

Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Mockingjay 1 is basically a set up for the coming all-out revolution. It sets up and/or deepens relationships, takes a fresh look at courage, death, loss, loyalty, love and tyranny.

After two times through the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is understandably worn down and despondent – after all her efforts to save Peeta, she was rescued; he was not. Now, the leader of the rebellion, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and her chief advisor, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) want her to be the face of that rebellion – but she wants no part of it without Peeta.

To shock her out of her depression, she is taken to the destroyed District 12, where pretty much everything except the Victors’ Village has been bombed to rubble. That has its hoped for result and Katniss is ready to play her part – with conditions. One of these is that Coin must orchestrate the rescue of hostage Victors Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson), Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson).

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Heavensbee plans to shoot propaganda films, propos, to incite the other districts to join the fight, but Katniss can’t say remember her lines – or comes across as stilted. So Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the newly sober Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) are enlisted to figure out how to make the films work – with answer being simple: put her in the field.

A visit to a field hospital turns into a slaughter as Capitol ships bomb the helpless for having associated with the Mockingjay – and the face of the rebellion is born. During this sequence we get to see why Cressida (Natalie Dormer) is considered so good at directing propos. We see her team – Messalla (Evan Ross), Castor (Wes Chatham) and Pollux (Elden Hensen) – in action, but other than Cressida, only the mute Pollux gets anything resembling a character.

Mockingjay was both the shortest and least well executed of the Hunger Games Trilogy but the movie – scripted by Peter Craig and Danny Strong cut and paste – moving Katniss into the action much quicker; showing the appalling destruction the Capitol has wrought; placing the Capitol’s propaganda interviews with Peeta for maximum emotional impact, and timing comic relief perfectly.

Katniss is torn between loyalty to Peeta and avenging the destruction of her home – only 915 survived out of over 10,000. Coin and Heavensbee have to decide between using Katniss strictly as a (well protected) symbol or allowing her to be deeply involved in the fight.

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We see the callous disregard for human life that marks President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as the worst kind of sociopathic tyrant – from the execution of a few rebels in front of their assembled district fellows to the field of skeletons that freaks Katniss out in district 12.

There’s raw violence onscreen, too, as rebels storm the power plant/dam in district 5 to shut down the Capitol’s power – hundreds die before the power plant’s guards are overwhelmed by the weight of numbers.

Considering that Mockingjay Part 1 is the set up for the actual, full throttle revolution, it accomplishes a lot in setting up individual arcs; exploring major themes and getting all the players to where they need to be – without becoming a mind-numbing infodump.

Craig, Strong and director Francis Lawrence have produced a riveting entertainment. Jennifer Lawrence is, once again, brilliant as the battered and worn Katniss, who has suffered so much but manages to find a way to hope and give hope – even as her world is wrenched so far askew.

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Moore provides the proper steel to make Coin an effective leader while feeling just a hair too enthusiastic under the steel.

Hoffman provides light and intelligence as Heavensbee – and probably a bit more avuncular affection for Katniss than Coin can quite understand. The film is rightly dedicated to him.

Even Liam Hemsworth shines as Gale Hawthorne now that he has a bit more to do than look pretty for a few scenes. Like Katniss, he is plagued by the events he’s lived through – and, in a way, he’s suffered as much as she, only in a shorter, considerably more intense manner.

Harrelson and Banks are both a joy to watch, as well. Effie may well emerge from the underground world of District 13, but she will be forever psychically scarred by the loss of her wigs and makeup (though she makes the utilitarian garb of that world look good). Haymitch, as usual (and even while completely sober) makes more sense than anyone else – and is witty and charming doing so.

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There’s so much going in Mockingjay 1 that I haven’t even mentioned crucial moments with Prim (Willow Shields) Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) – the second coming of Q, or Finik Odair (Sam Claflin). Rest assured they all get their moments and match the overall quality of the film.

Mockingjay Part 1’s budget is larger and it makes a difference onscreen. The effects, which have to be much bigger, are super and, while the film is considerably slicker (in a blockbuster way) than the first two chapters in the series, it’s simultaneously more raw and emotional.

Finally, Mockingjay 1 ends with the perfect cliffhanger – not one of action, but of emotional intensity – that sets up the final film with a bit of heartbreak and a desire to see a major wrong righted.

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Photos by Murray Close/Courtesy of Lionsgate