Film Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (★★★)

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hunger_games_mockingjay__part_one_ver25Are you anxiously awaiting the coming of the “Mockingjay?”

The YA (Young Adult) universe has been taking over cinema screens for years now.  “Twilight” dominated the box office for its run while “Harry Potter” brought in more money than they knew what to do with.  “The Hunger Games” took on a new phase of the genre, appealing to not only the young people it so desperately needed for box office results, but keeping the older viewers/parents of these movie-goers interested.  The next installment of the franchise, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” is a purely entertaining set piece for what will likely be a most intriguing finale.

The obvious quarrel with the film is the splitting into two separate movies.  “Harry Potter” coined this tactic with “The Deathly Hallows,” breaking them into two films to maximize box office potential.  “Twilight” soon followed with “Breaking Dawn.”  This installment is probably the least bloated out of any of the franchises seen yet.  It feels legitimately focused on the development of the characters and the surroundings they are now inhabiting.

Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Katniss from a whole new perspective.  The film takes place just a short time after the events of “Catching Fire.”  Katniss is living in District 13, angry and in despair after losing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in Quarter Quell.  To add, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) has revealed that District 12 has been destroyed.  Only 950 of 10,000 survived the raid and Katniss is asked to be the face of the revolution that is now rising against the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  When Peeta is revealed to be alive and being held in the Capitol, Katniss must wage war against Snow, with the rebels, and try desperately to save Peeta.

Lawrence continues to develop Katniss and bring us on her journey with a believable and authentic nature.  Katniss is very broken in this installment, weakened by the events that preceded her, and Lawrence executes it just about flawlessly.  The real surprise, is how effective Hutcherson and Hemsworth are this time around.  Their roles are expanded, and they are offered an opportunity to showcase some very real and heartbreaking moments.  Especially Hutcherson, who sheds all the annoyance he embodied in the first film, and brings a new life and lust to his eyes.  I was quite taken by what he was doing and where’s going.

the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-sliceDonald Sutherland is a fantastic villain.  The ying to Katniss’ yang, the two are practically in an abusive love affair and it works tremendously.  They’re the two opposite spectrums of this new world where war rages on and the dead are not necessarily the unlikely ones.  Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman are equally amazing in good measure of their respective roles.  The pinnacle of the performers, and has been for this entire franchise is Elizabeth Banks.  As Effie, she’s embodied a soul plucked from her normal environment and thrust into the battle grounds of something she doesn’t fully understand.  Her appearances are both funny but impeccably warm.  I hope people notice how vital and important she’s been to the franchise, which should lead her to more vital and vivacious roles in the future.

Francis Lawrence makes artistic choices that keep the audience at arm’s length.  Some of it is deliberate to hide things I’m sure we will know in the next installment.  Some of it, is deathly obvious, bringing suspicion and tension to characters we know are going to be forces to be reckoned with.  For the most part, everything is standard filmmaking.  Something as massively popular as this needs to be to get the widest audience possible.  I do wonder if that wasn’t the focus on Lionsgate, and if they attempted to be more gritty with the material, show the destruction and blood of the people, and go up to an ‘R’ rating, if this isn’t elevated significantly?  Can only wonder.

Overall, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” is very satisfying.  Setting the chess pieces of what is destined to be an epic finale, it’s one of the best things you can bring your family these upcoming weeks leading to the holiday season.  I took my 14-year-old niece to see it, and she emphatically expressed “Oh my God! It was amazing!”   You can’t beat that.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” opens in theaters on Friday, November 21.