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Friday, November 21, 2014

Movie review: Hunger Games turns dark in the series' latest installment

Posted by on Fri, Nov 21, 2014 at 12:40 PM

click to enlarge Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 - PHOTO BY MURRAY CLOSE
  • photo by Murray Close
  • Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1
★★★½ 
Glenn McDonald

With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, Hollywood's reigning teenage-wasteland franchise brings the darkness, spiraling the story into some new, interesting and heavy territory.

It's a war picture, basically, with Jennifer Lawrence's reluctant heroine Katniss Everdeen assuming the mantle of armed resistance leader. In the troubled empire of Panem, the districts are on the eve of full revolt against the corrupt Capitol, and there will be blood.

If you don't already know the back story for The Hunger Games series—based on Suzanne Collins' trilogy of smart YA sci-fi novels—you won't get much hand-holding in the new film. The script assumes familiarity from the get-go.

Even if you have seen the previous two films, Mockingjay represents a fairly radical change of trajectory. Gone are the colorful grotesques of media and reality TV—no more Inspector Gadget arena battles or bread-and-circuses Capitol parades. Instead we get scenes of bloody field hospitals and suicide bombers, with our heroes spending much of the film in a cramped underground bunker complex.

That would be District 13, or what's left of it, ruled by resistance leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) and her lieutenant of propaganda Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final roles.) The series' other characters assume smaller roles this time around, including Woody Harrelson as drunken expat Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks as fallen pageant mom/aristocrat Effie Trinket.

Storywise, Mockingjay is fundamentally handicapped by the decision to split the final chapter into two installments. As with the Harry Potter and Twilight series, this is a move to extend the franchise's profitability. The story, since it can't actually conclude, suffers. But the filmmakers do the best they can, providing a decent-enough climactic sequence regarding the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the fate of Katniss' true love Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Lawrence remains utterly compelling as Katniss, thanks to the actress' insistence on taking the role seriously. You never catch Lawrence the movie star winking beneath the character. Along with Moore and Hoffman, she channels the story's increasingly heavy themes and wicked sci-fi allegory. If films reflect their political and cultural times—and they do—then Mockingjay is entirely in the moment, with sequences concerning remote aerial bombings, filmed executions and the deliberate targeting of civilian refugees.

Unfortunately the film is hampered by some persistent problems. The teen love-triangle business between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is rightfully muted in this darker installment, but it still sparks a few cringes. Hemsworth is especially troublesome. He's so bland that the camera seems to slip right over him, which poses a problem considering that Gale is one of the series' major characters.

Another chronic issue is that director Francis Lawrence, returning from last year's Catching Fire, apparently has a severe allergy to subtlety. The story's allegorical threads on class rage, mass media and fear-mongering aren't teased out as much as they're yanked out. I suspect he wants to make sure the message is reaching the teens, but teens are smarter than this. And in the event that anyone is missing the emotional underpinnings of a scene—tension, grief, steely resolve—the clumsy musical score is cranked to 11.

With it's built-in cliffhanger structure, Mockingjay is designed to leave you wanting more. And, despite the problems, it does. 

(One last note: Star Wars fans of a sufficient intensity will observe that those Capitol army goons are starting to look a lot like Imperial Stormtroopers, and several scenes evoke famous moments from the original trilogy. See if you can spot the Admiral Ackbar moment: "It's a trap!")

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