November 24, 2014

Movie Review: The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Pt. 1

So, the first half of the final chapter for The Hunger Games franchise has arrived in theaters. With it, it snagged the biggest opening of the year, just as it fell well short of its predictions and expectations. I always wonder about things like that, with a franchise as well received and popular as it is, to open up some $36 million less than its predecessor, where did the people go? Granted, I am not all about the opening weekend as I am about the quality, but it begs the question what resulted in the disparity? I guess it really doesn't matter, the movie is going to make plenty of bank. So, aside from the money, was the movie any good? Yes and no.

I cannot say I have been a fan of the trend to split the final book of a series into two movies. In most, if not all, of the cases it is not to the benefit of the film. It is a decision made purely on the business side and not with any artistic merit. Yes, I understand these are essentially pop film making and inherently less about the art than about the opening day, but that does not completely separate it from the art that is there and all of the individuals, in front of and behind the camera, who invest themselves into the creation. There is art involved, whether you approve of it or not. The decision to split the books is not art, it is about the bottom line and this is a good example of where it hurt the film itself.

Now, I have not read the books, so I do not know what happened in this chapter or what was supposed to happen, but the pacing really felt off. It felt like they knew where they wanted to make the break and had to make sure they had a long enough run time to justify the two parts. It also doesn't help that this is the part of the story where the games are not a central element of the plot. Then, it is also the set up for the big climax, so there is a bunch of maneuvering going on to get the pieces in the right places for the big action to hang on, so we are left wanting the big stuff to happen.

Back to the pacing, I like the series because of the big picture political landscape the paint and how or heroine is dropped into the middle of it almost by accident. I like that she is chosen by default, that there was nothing initially special about her and she was not “the one” as these types of movies tend to have. I like how the personal stuff about gets mixed in with the big picture stuff to create an interesting tapestry. Well, here it seems to take a long time to get to the big picture mix. For nearly an hour we spend time almost exclusively with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and the personal stuff involving her before we get to the involvement of the big picture. By then, and with the overall lack of action, it is too little too late.

Do not get me wrong, this is not a bad film, it does some good and interesting things, it just isn't helped by the business decision. I do like how they have transitioned from the games, which have big picture implications, but are more contained, to the bigger picture and how the events of the games are affecting the different districts and their combined strength to rise against the oppressive regime.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 finds Katniss rescued from the debacle that ended the games of Catching Fire and introduces us to the big picture revolution that is building against the Capital, with much of it inspired by the actions of Katniss, who is now faced with becoming the Mockingjay, the face of the revolution. It is complicated by the reveal that Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is in the Capital and the hostilities and manipulation between Katniss and President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

It is fascinating to watch the build, even if it is uneven. Move, counter move, attack, bluff, trap, repeat. None it feels terribly original, but there is something to the way the pieces are put together. A lot of it, I think, has to do with the solid casting job. I seriously think that a lot of the success, and the reason why this third one ultimately works, is Jennifer Lawrence. I am not suggesting these are great films or performances, but she has a lot of talent and manages to keep one emotionally invested in what happens. She does a lot of the heavy lifting, plus with support from Sutherland, Julianne More, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, it can do nothing but help.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 is a good movie. It stumbles where its predecessor excelled, but still works to keep us involved in this world. The use of propaganda, the individual involvement and emotional investment, the games played on both sides. There is no denying there is interesting stuff going on here. We are also fortunate that it does rise above the noise generated by all those wanting to claim the crown as “The Next Hunger Games.” All I can really hope for is that the final installment pays off on the promise of this one and steps up its game to send us off with a bang.


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