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THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY — PART 1 is not unlike its iconic heroine, Katniss Everdeen. It’s bold, headstrong, no-nonsense, and impatient to get on with things. It begins almost directly from whence the last installment of the saga left off, and with little if any exposition about anything that happened before. For example, why those white roses are so worrisome to Katniss is not something explicitly covered here, In short, if you haven’t seen the first two films in the series, there is a rather steep learning curve involved in figuring out ongoing relationships. There is also the problem of it being essentially half a movie. Sure, there is a dynamite cliff-hanger, but those looking for closure should refer themselves to the books of the same names by Suzanne Collins , to which the series hews comfortably close, or wait until the release of part two before investing in part 1.
Which is not to say that this installment is unworthy. Far from it. Jennifer Lawrence is once again a force of nature as Katniss, and a force that is prickly and less than empathetic to those around her, even those for whom she feels genuine affection, such as younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) for whom she volunteered for the eponymous games, and their mother (Paula Malcomson), a woman worn out by the hard life before and after Katniss prevailed in those games. Katniss, having been used as a propaganda pawn by the fascist government of Panem run by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), is now being pressured into performing a similar function for the rebels led by President Coin (Julianne Moore). Katniss wants none of it, preferring a quiet life to mourn for those she lost in the games. Until a few of them turn up not so lost. With the saving of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her putative fiancée, as the bargaining chip, Katniss becomes the symbol of the rebellion, surprising even herself with the power of that symbolism.
When THE HUNGER GAMES is at its best in any of it incarnations, it is a devastatingly pointed commentary on the media culture here in the present, long before the dystopia depicted happens. Image is everything, spontaneity is carefully engineered, and pure motives are a fool’s game. Yet for all the volumes of social commentary and political science involved, it is also a dynamic action story with smarts as well as explosions. Nifty explosions. Such as Katniss, archer extraordinaire, taking out a jet fighter with a newly designed incendiary arrow. That the jet fighter goes on to bisect and topple a very tall smokestack may or may not be a metaphor, but in a film like this, the odds are forever in favor of it being a message of some sort.
Part of the effectiveness of the commentary is the resonant echo of the images presented. Katniss overwhelmed at the sight of a mountain of crumbling human skeletons, children shell-shocked and cowering in makeshift field hospitals as bombs rain down on them, and other images that are a veritable gallery of warfare in the 20th and 21st centuries. They are handled with a respectful restraint, rather than blatant exploitation, and, as always, with Lawrence’s visceral reactions underscoring them, they take on a new sense of horror.
One expects raw intensity from Lawrence, and one is not disappointed. One expects a velvety evil from Sutherland and, again, one is not disappointed. Ditto Moore, who is suitably flinty as the leader trying to hold a crumbling alliance together through the sheer force of her will, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a former fascist functionary world-weary but with a few burning embers of idealism to hope for change. Rather, it is Elizabeth Banks who surprises by stealing the film. Her character, Effie Trinket, was the stylist responsible for turning a coal miner’s daughter into a fashion plate before feeding her to the games. A walking example of conspicuous consumption and triviality taken seriously, Effie bemoans her loss of wigs and makeup in exchange for a life of drab jumpsuits and makeshift origami headscarves. It should be the comic relief, and it is certainly that, but Banks finds the broken heart that comes of a loss of identity as much as a flighty woman with nothing in her head but the latest trends. And then she makes Effie’s sudden attack of gumption not just a plot device, but an inherent, if latent, aspect of her character, the seeds of which were, in retrospect, carefully laid out for us. It is a subtle reminder that while humanity deserves bread and freedom, it also deserves roses. A piquantly subversive message.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY — PART 1 will whet the appetites of die-hard fans, but also leave them frustrated with the year-long wait in store for them. My advice, see it now, read, or re-read, the books, and be glad that there is still an intelligently conceived young-adult series out there.