IN A NUTSHELL
Snapped up by District 13 rebels after the chaos of the Quarter Quell, inadvertent heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is slowly fashioned into a symbol for mass uprising. Unfortunately, her willingness to spearhead the resistance is severely curtailed when nominal love interest Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) emerges as a mouthpiece for the status quo. Kiefer Sutherland's dad guest stars.
IN THE WHEELHOUSE
For the love of everything holy, if someone suggests that you watch this movie and you haven't seen any of the previous films or read the books, go out for some frozen yogurt instead. Why? Well, it's because your enjoyment level for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is entirely predicated on how emotionally invested you are in the saga of one Mistress Katniss Everdeen.
- Production designer Philip Messina brings a level of devastation to District 12 that gives Katniss all the motivation she needs to become the avatar for insurrection. Also the sterile environs of the subterranean District 13 provides the perfect contrast to the ostentatious extravagance of the Capitol. Credit is also due to costume designer Christian Cordella for the frumpy but functional District 13 uniforms, the intimidating stormtrooper-esque Peacekeeper armor and Jennifer's bad-ass Mockingjay outfit.
- Early on we're introduced to the President of District 13, Alma Coin, played by the always-watchable Julianne Moore. She does her usual outstanding job, selling the character as a commanding reservoir of strength and competence. She particularly effective whenever she's calmly issuing orders, bolstering Katniss or addressing residents of the District.
- Not to sound like a broken record, but Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress. She might not be subjected to yet another Hunger Games competition, but she does get to witness the brutality of President Snow first hand. In a series of emotional body blows, Katniss visits the ruins of her home District, sees a hospital callously flattened by Capital attack ships and then learns that Peeta has been brainwashed into a mouthpiece for the regime. Jennifer Lawrence sells all of these scenes to the hilt; delivering a level of emotional heft that feels quite genuine. But my favorite moment comes when she's told to act like a flag-waving partisan in front of blue-screen battlefield. Jennifer's "performance" is so calculatedly awful that it's downright hilarious. It's a welcome moment of levity in an otherwise morose and turgid film.
- Man, do I ever miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. His portrayal of defected Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee is organic and seamless and not once does he ever reveal the pretense of "acting". Your eyes are glued to him whenever he's on screen, if only to marvel over the the small, subtle things he does with his voice, his body language and his face to sell the character as one-hundred percent genuine. You want high testimony? I'll give you high testimony: he actually eclipses Julianne Moore. And that ain't no small feat.
- After finding Josh Hutcherson's Peeta Mellark to be a complete irritant in the first film, I'm now completely turned around on the guy. Via a series of propaganda interview segments hosted by a comparably-sober Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Hutcherson gives us increasingly obvious tells that something is horribly amiss. He does a good job, especially when he goes completely off the rails towards the end. His trauma feels genuine and you really start to feel bad for the poor bastard.
- The supporting cast also adds a lot to the film's limited appeal. Since alcohol is banned in District 13, we're treated to our first glimpse of a stone-cold sober Haymitch Abernathy. It's fun to watch Woody Harrelson school Coin and Heavensbee on what makes Katniss tick, which allows her to become a more sincere and believable symbol of freedom. And since overt fabulousness is also banned in District 13, our favorite snooty fashionista Effie Trinket gets re-purposed as the budding Mockingjay's style consultant. You get the impression that Elizabeth Banks is having a blast dealing with Effie's ultimate nightmare of being like everyone else. Jeffrey Wright is understandably twitchy and nervous as Beetee Latier, District 13's answer to James Bond's "Q". As a former rival in the Games, Katniss is still leery about BeeTee's motivations but he's clearly passed inspection by the end of the movie. And since I've been a fan of hers ever since I saw The Tudors, I was pretty stoked to see Natalie Dormer pop up as the Mockingjay's film-team director Cressida. IMHO, her cool authority and on-screen charisma is a welcome addition to any series of moving images. Finally, sharp-eyed viewers will have fun spotting Eldon "Foggy Nelson" Henson (try saying that five times real quick) as the mute half of Castor and Pollux. Hopefully he'll get more to do in the next movie.
- The sequence where the team drops in on the beleaguered District 8 is the highlight of the film. In addition to showing the audience just how far Snow will go to preserve his position, it also instantly transforms Katniss into a spontaneous and authentic hero of the people. Returning director Francis Lawrence does a great job with this sequence, infusing it with plenty of emotion and tension. By the time Katniss trick-shots two attack ships out of the air and then launches into a fiery anti-Snow speech, you'll feel compelled to track Donald Sutherland down at his next red carpet event and kick him square in the cubes.
- Speak of the devil, I relish any moment when Sutherland is on screen. As the series wears on and the stakes become progressively higher, he's bringing more and more passion to role of Snow. Just look at the gleam in Sutherland's eye when he tells Katniss "It's the things we love most which destroy us." The sheer despotic glee he exhibits is glorious and a part of me would be perfectly content if Part Two just consisted of Sutherland and Lawrence sparring over coffee for two hours.
- Props also go out to Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne. Thankfully, his character has finally come full-circle, evolving from "Alterna-Hunk #2" to someone who actually effects the plot. Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong (as well as original author Suzanne Collins, presumably) give him a great scene where he recounts the Capitol's merciless extirpation of District 12. He's equally adept during the Tribute Center raid sequence.
- Personally I'm a really big fan of this "book to movie series" trend, if only because there's a consistent creative team and the story unfolds like a good novel. For example, the raid on the Tribute Center only happens because Katniss inspires a civilian uprising which destroys a hydro-electrical dam which, in turn, cuts power to the Capitol. This is in stark contrast to the sequels of yore which often boiled down to "more of the same but 'splodier".
- The movie suffers from a severe case of Hobbit-itis. I'm not entirely sure why the film was split up into two acts *cough, cough* money, but there's some really pointless and redundant filler in this script. Characters such as Mahershala Ali's Boggs and Sam Claflin's Finnick barely register as blips on the plot radar. Look, I really don't mind quieter moments on screen; it gives contrast to the inevitable bombast and gives a chance for the characters to reflect. But there are tons of completely superfluous scenes here that don't add up to anything. Sure, the hunting trip was nice a nice touch and all, but we've already established that Katniss was traumatized by the Games. Plus we get no less than two scenes where she rummages through the Victor's Village house. *Yawn*
- The film's climax hinges upon the Tribute Center raid which is pretty tense but all of this drama is completely deflated when the team just returns to District 13 safe and sound. As a result, the real "cliffhanger" ending hinges directly on Peeta's wigged out emotional state, but it's just not enough to hang a satisfying finale on.
- I'm glad to see Katniss re-unite with her family, especially considering that Primrose (Willow Shields) is kinda the reason all of this got started in the first place. But did we really need a scene in which l'il sis is put into jeopardy because of a stupid, fucking cat? Man, talk about the world's laziest writing cliche.
- Much to my dismay, President Snow is still is the running for the "WORST FICTIONAL DESPOT" Award. Doesn't he know that people can easily be coaxed into an apathetic rut so long as abuse and mass murder isn't rubbed in their faces? And that's why I'll always find the dystopian state in The Hunger Games to be so far-fetched. As if the youth-centric public death-sports wasn't extreme enough, Snow fire-bombs large segments of the population, makes prime-time public execution viewing mandatory and then expects the average schmoe to just go back home, watch Netflix n' chill. And that's a major point that a lot of these speculative writers seem to be missing: when people finally realize that society has slipped into fascism, the biggest revelation is that it actually happened a long, long time ago.
- When Katniss and company finally go topside after the Capital attack, the so-called "devastation" took me completely out of the movie. It just looks like a rock quarry with a few burning mosquito coils placed strategically around the set.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If I say "Katniss" and "Peeta" together and the first thing you think about is an unconventional but satisfying taste treat for felines, then I urge you to tread carefully RE: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Even as a self-identified fan of the film series, this one really tested my attention span and my patience. Which is a real shame, especially after coming off the lean and mean Catching Fire.
However, if you've been following the Hunger Games cinematic saga up to now, I suppose this is prerequisite viewing before donning your "SUCKER" sign and dutifully marching off to the theater to pay for the other half of the story. All I'm saying is that it better be worth slogging through this pedestrian time-killer.