THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 review by Mark Walters

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 review by Mark Walters

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THE HUNGER GAMES franchise hit theaters with a bang a few years ago, becoming an instant box office hit along with being satisfying adaptations for fans of the books. Originally a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, Lionsgate decided to do something that seems like a popular move with movie studios these days – they split the last book into two films. It means more money on ticket sales, and expands the franchise to last longer… it’s actually a rather smart move on their part, although arguably not a necessary one. HARRY POTTER did the same thing, which resulted in a talky and somewhat slow second-to-last chapter on the big screen, and an action-packed final film. THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 isn’t going to play out much different.

In the last film Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was captured/rescued by District 13’s Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and reunited with Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Her gaming mate Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is still under the control of The Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Katniss is introduced to District 13’s leader President Coin (Julianne Moore), who hopes to groom her as a propaganda tool encouraging other Districts to stand up and fight against President Snow and The Capitol’s armies. Meanwhile Snow is using Peeta, to the surprise of Katniss, to spread The Capitol’s message and go against the rebels’ motivations. All of this back and forth is leading up to an inevitable civil war… but you’ll have to wait until PART 2 to see that.

The biggest complaint MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 has received so far is how slow and talky it is, and the lack of action and excitement the first two films had. The fans of the books have reacted strongly to these criticisms, stating this is how things played out in the novels, and that people are missing the point of what this story is about. I heard similar reactions when the final two HARRY POTTER films came out. The problem here not unlike the problem there is the same – despite being based on books, these are movies and should stand on their own as movies, and we shouldn’t have to read the books to “get it” or be entertained. I enjoyed the first two HUNGER GAMES films quite a bit, especially CATCHING FIRE, but this first half of MOCKINGJAY has left behind a lot of what made those first two films so great. It almost feels like a different franchise, a much darker and more bleak look at the characters we all know, and not the kind of film you’ll walk out of with a sense of enjoyment. In fact the biggest thing I noticed was the lack of reaction from the audience, something that used to be the norm for these films. Things like clapping, cheering, and audible enthusiasm from the crowd was noticeably absent here. There were no cheers at the end, no smiles on people’s faces, just folks walking out in a malaise. The film left people cold, and not in a good way.

We all know this is leading up to a big battle in the final chapter, but they couldn’t have given us a little more to react to in this one? The few action scenes that are present here are over almost as soon as they begin. There’s a great moment where Katniss takes down some Capitol bombers who are attacking an already-devastated District, but it’s really short and sweet. Another moment where rebels attack a heavily-fortified dam is more morbid than exciting. And there’s an evacuation scene where Katniss must go back to find her sister, but the reason her sister stayed behind is so silly it’s more frustrating than exciting. The film even fails to end at the right spot. There’s a great shocking moment at the end of the story which would have been the perfect place to cut to credits, but instead is continues to a more awkward point of the story before cutting to black.

The performances are for the most part okay, Jennifer Lawrence is almost always good and does the best she can with the material. This outing requires her to be much more somber with her acting, stepping back from the action. Her strong reading with the character is one of the saving graces in an otherwise monotonous film. Liam Hemsworth takes a bigger role in this story, and isn’t bad as the leading man, but just doesn’t possess the charm or gravitas his brother Chris has. I never felt invested in him as a character, and even a poignant scene about his District’s evacuation didn’t seem to hold the weight it should have, perhaps because of his performance. Julianne Moore is an interesting new character here, though also very subdued with her role. I wanted to see more passion with her, and perhaps that’s coming in the next outing. One of the bigger disappointments from the acting side is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who reads every line without emotion, as if he’s just giving minimal effort. Considering this is one of his final filmed performances, I was hoping for more. Josh Hutcherson is seen primarily on a TV screen delivering propaganda messages, but there is a sincerity with his portrayal of Peeta. Next to Lawrence, he is easily the strongest and smartest casting choice in this franchise. And Donald Sutherland is again great as the deliciously power-hungry President Snow, though some of his orders in this story seem a bit questionable. You wonder why those under him obey without question, when the looks on their face show they don’t agree with his strategies.

Francis Lawrence returns as director, and does a good job framing the story and events, but even he can’t make this more interesting than it is. The most impressive aspects of the production are in the special effects department. Things like hi-tech ships landing and dropping people off look incredibly real and convincing, causing someone like me (who knows a lot about that realm) to question just how they pulled it off. Digital backgrounds are seamless, and really transport us into this world. The score by James Newton Howard is terrific as well, and a song that’s repeated and sung by Katniss and others throughout the film becomes haunting and memorable. There are good qualities to MOCKINGJAY – PART 1, and it’s by no means a badly-made movie, it’s just not a strong entry in the franchise. My prediction is fans of the books will likely be forgiving of the shortcomings here, but moviegoers who want to be entertained will leave wanting more. Our only hope is the final chapter gives us just that.

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 opens nationwide November 21, 2014

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.