THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1 (2014)

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Director: Francis Lawrence; Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Danny Strong; Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Natalie Dormer, Stanley Tucci; Running time: 123 minutes; Certification: 12A }

In an ideal world, we’d be talking about simply The Hunger Games: Mockingjay right now.  As is a Hollywood studio’s wont, a three series book has once again been turned into a four series film – or ‘triology’ – for the financial perks, with news recently seeping through that Lionsgate is considering the idea of keeping the franchise going beyond the release of Mockingjay Part 2 next year and exploring new characters.  While there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea; studios need to make money so they can keep making us films, it can grow a little bit waning when two hours worth of good material is stretched into four hours of average material, at essentially twice the price.  Couple that with the fact that the final book wasn’t particularly well received, and Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2 were already heading into rather trepidatious waters.  How terrific, then, that Mockingjay Part 1 has turned out to be a better film than The Hunger Games.

Francis Lawrence has given this series such solid footing.  Not to be insulting to Gary Ross; he did a perfectly good job with The Hunger Games, but it was, in the end, only a decent movie – feel free to disagree (the box office earnings certainly do), but I didn’t feel it quite had the panache or swashbuckling persuasion to take it to the heights it desperately wanted to go.  It was immediately apparent in Catching Fire how suitable Lawrence was for the job, how clear a vision he had for what these films are all about, when he succeeded in making a more interesting, more exciting and generally more fun film than his predecessor, and has continued that, for the most part, with Mockingjay Part 1.  His appointment highlighted the tenacity this series needed to really lift it off the ground.

Notably, the drama doesn’t feel like it’s been stretched out too much.  It remains to be seen whether it would have worked better as a single film (the smart guess would be yes), but the narrative arc in Mockingjay Part 1 is fulfilling and the break feels natural, even if it isn’t.  Everything that happens feels important, there’s no baggage or excess.  The biggest diversion from the previous films is the lack of actual games.  On the face of it that could spell trouble, and probably there will be people out there who just think what’s the point – isn’t that what the series is about?  Perhaps that’s the reason a lot of people have said the book isn’t so great.  Yet not for one second in this film do you really miss them because everything else that’s going on is so interesting.  It’s taking the ideas of oppression and inequality presented in the previous films and, to great results, exploring them further.  There’s simply no room for another games to take place… and even if they did, how would they differ from what we’ve already seen?

The performances are widely good; Jennifer Lawrence, while not in her brilliant American Hustle mode, anchors the film well and continues to be devilishly watchable and a true strong leading lady.  Her little song is nice too.  Then there’s Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final performance, who steals attention at every opportunity; the In Loving Memory note at the end offers a sad reminder of just what a talent we’ve all lost.  For an actor who was always brilliant, whether playing Truman Capote or the villain in Mission Impossible 3, it’s painful to think of how many astonishing performances we’ll miss out on in years to come.  There is perhaps an issue with the film trying to fit too many characters in; one gets the impression that some of the recurring characters don’t appear until later on in the book, at least prominently, but were forced to crop up in both films.  There’s definitely a feeling of some secondary characters fighting for screen time.

While Mockingjay Part 1 has taken less at the box office than the previous two entries had by this point, it’s still performed extraordinarily well and will continue to do so.  I think people respond so well to these films because we all quite enjoy the fantasy of being part of such an uprising, of fighting our oppressors and helping our fellow man.  The seed of that idea was planted in the first film and has grown little by little ever since; now we’re at a point in the series that yields results, and blimey is it exciting.  Couple that with a still brilliantly compelling central character and an allegorical social commentary on the state of the media and how propaganda is used to manipulate the masses, and we have the tinder for a truly exciting climax.  Catching Fire remains the best so far, but this was a real surprising treat.

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