November 21, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I””


THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART I:  Worth A Ticket – Half a Good Movie Is Still Half a Movie

As big-screen and small-screen entertainment experiences have begun to merge, there’s been an increase in serialized franchise storytelling–super-expensive mega-movies turned into regularly scheduled series.  Sequels, of course, have always been with us, but through the decades from Andy Hardy to James Bond to Rocky, each installment tended to be a self-contained story that merely carried over its central characters.  The vast success of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter informed the studios that fans were ready, even eager, to absorb larger stories over a period of years.  As a result, Marvel/Disney and DC/Warners have plotted out densely interrelated slates through the rest of the decade.

A related TV phenomenon that’s come to the multiplex is the multi-part finale.  TV viewers are used to seeing a “To Be Continued…” card during the next-to-last week of the season, and Harry Potter blazed a trail in splitting its final Deadly Hallows saga into halves that unreeled in consecutive years.  (Which, of course, provided its studio with another billion or so dollars in revenue.)  The latest franchise to cash this ticket is THE HUNGER GAMES, with the new MOCKINGJAY PART I.  Some finales, however, lend themselves to a bifurcated presentation more than others, and the Part I script by Danny Strong and Peter Craig (with an assist from novelist Suzanne Collins, who gets an “adaptation by” credit) ends Mockingjay not so much by hanging off a cliff  as by stopping dead in a valley, making it ultimately an unsatisfying experience as a standalone narrative.

For what it is, Mockingjay I is well executed.  The Hunger Games franchise has been one of the smartest and best-crafted of the current era, and the creative team of the excellent Catching Fire has returned almost en masse, headed by director Francis Lawrence.  There’s plenty in Mockingjay I to admire and enjoy, and that of course starts with its star.  Jennifer Lawrence has made Katniss Everdeen not just a compellingly heroic force of nature but a conflicted, sometimes difficult human being who, by this point of the story, has also developed an occasional dark wit.

One of the interesting layers to the Hunger Games saga is that its protagonist, for all her strength of will, is often being manipulated, and that becomes part of the subject matter of Mockingjay I.  Katniss spent Catching Fire having no idea that others in the games, from her purported romantic partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and frequently drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), to her opponents Finnick (Sam Claflin), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Johanna (Jena Malone), not to mention Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee himself (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles), were all conspiring to keep her alive as the spirit of the nascent revolution, a position she cemented when her arrow ignited the electronic shield around the arena and literally blew up the Games that tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) had inflicted on the people of Panem.  Catching Fire ended with Katniss learning that Peeta and Johanna were in captivity, and that her own District 12 had been ravaged by government warplanes.

In Mockingjay, the revolutionary forces, led by their own President Coin (Julianne Moore), are after the return on their investment in saving Katniss’s life.  In particular, they want her to appear on propaganda videos (called “propos”) as the revolution’s spokesperson and shining star.  Katniss, as it turns out, is a very bad actress, and Lawrence does a lovely job of playing that comedy very straight  Eventually, the Powers That Be realize that even Katniss’s shilling has to come from a genuine place, and send her on the road with director Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and a skeleton crew that includes her other romantic interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth).  Shot that way, her reactions to actual government atrocities give the propos the ferocity and spirit the rebel leaders want.  (It’s a nice meta touch that the propos use the same typeface and music as the promos for The Hunger Games movies themselves.)  Meanwhile, Snow is using the brainwashed Peeta as his own propaganda tool, having the boy sit for endless “interviews” with oily TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).

There isn’t much more than that to the story. which nevertheless had to reach a 2-hour feature length to justify its existence.  So while Mockingjay I isn’t ever boring, it feels padded (it’s not enough for Katniss to roam the ruins of District 12 once, she has to go back for a return visit).  Despite the length, supporting characters like Coin and Heavensbee are underdeveloped.  Also, one of the shortcomings of the Hunger Games series as a whole catches up with it:  the fact that as played by Hutcherson, Peeta feels more like Katniss’s kid brother than a viable romantic lead.  Since Katniss’s anguish over his imprisonment is a major driver of Mockingjay‘s plot, it’s sustained only by the strength of Lawrence’s performance, and even then only barely. It’s also a major miscalculation that because of the way the movie’s story has been split, Katniss doesn’t take an active role in the movie’s climactic action sequence, leaving her to stare at video screens like Katherine Heigl on State of Affairs.

Still, therehere are passages that are beautifully composed, like one that shows how Katniss’s off-hand rendition of a folk song becomes the soundtrack for the revolution (James Newton Howard’s score this time around is considerably more evocative and worthy of note than his work on Catching Fire).  Elizabeth Banks, as Katniss’s handler Effie, makes the one-time Capitol show pony practically Dickensian in her horror of having to wear a jumpsuit and do without her wild wigs, and her real if sardonic commitment to her longtime charge.  (In a movie with little trace of humor, Effie’s reaction to President Coin’s utilitarian hair is a high point).  Woody Harrelson isn’t around much, because Haymitch spends much of this part of the story in the Panem equivalent of rehab, but he provides fine support when he’s there.  Although much of Mockingjay I takes place in District 13’s industrial underground bunker, cinematographer Jo Willems and production designer Philip Messina make the most of their visits to the open air.

When Mockingjay is seen in its totality at this time next year, it may look considerably more effective.  For now, watching it is like having the battery go dead on your Kindle while you’re in the middle of a para


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."