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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1: Half the calories 

Rating: ***

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY — PART 1
***
DIRECTED BY
Francis Lawrence
STARS Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 (Photo: Lionsgate)
  • Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 (Photo: Lionsgate)

So do we blame the very existence of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 on Han Solo or Harry Potter?

Multi-movie series have been around for decades, of course, but while heroes like James Bond and Tarzan always managed to wrap up their exploits before the final credits and were prepared to tackle new adventures in subsequent sequels, The Empire Strikes Back did no such thing. Since gargantuan franchise grosses guaranteed a third and final chapter in the original Star Wars saga, George Lucas felt free to end his movie with Han in captivity, the Empire in control, and Luke Skywalker grappling with daddy issues. There wasn't really an ending, just a promise of more to come.

The Jedi tale was created for the screen; not so the Harry Potter pictures, which were born on the pages of J.K. Rowling's best-selling books. And after six successful films, the producers got either ambitious or greedy (take your pick) and opted to split the final novel into two separate flicks — maximizing profits, yes, but also allowing the story to breathe a bit more and not be heavily trimmed to fit into one comfortable run time. The downside, though, was that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, while nevertheless enjoyable, still felt like a case of too much narrative padding, with most of the highlights reserved for Part 2.

That, in a nutshell, is also what happens with Mockingjay — Part 1, an adaptation of the first half of the final book in author Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games series. The film is certainly a success, and no fan would dream of missing it. But there's an unavoidable sensation of treading water, of biding time until the main attraction, Mockingjay — Part 2, hits theaters this time next year (Nov. 20, 2015, to be exact). The previous entry, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, also ended in cliffhanger fashion, but because everything preceding it had been so exciting (it's easily the best of the three films to date), it didn't feel like a cheat, just a way to get viewers even further out on the seat's edge. Conversely, Mockingjay 1 ends so abruptly — and without much dramatic charge (it most resembles the conclusion of the middle Matrix movie, Reloaded) — that the overall feeling isn't excitement or anticipation; it's entitlement, a sense that the filmmakers owe it to the audience to wrap up this story in damn fine fashion.

I expect they shall, if this picture is any indication. Because for all its stop-and-start pacing, there's still plenty worth catching, beginning with the lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence. She once again excels as Katniss Everdeen, who, as we saw at the end of Catching Fire, has been plucked by members of the rebellion to lead their uprising against President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his fascistic government. Not so fast, sez she. Angered that Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) was left in the hands of the ruling class, she's not really in the mood to accept the mantle of symbol of the revolution, a decision that worries resistance leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and right-hand man Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). It's up to Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), of all people, to help get Katniss back in the saddle, to where she'll want to visit oppressed citizens, film propaganda pieces for public broadcast (shades of Edge of Tomorrow) and generally make life miserable for Snow.

Any film that decreases screen time for Woody Harrelson (as boozy Haymitch Abernathy) and increases it for Liam Hemsworth (as heroic Gale Hawthorne) is tempting fate — and critics — but for the sake of the narrative, these modulations make sense, as Katniss suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and needs her best buddy/semi-boyfriend frequently on hand to calm her down. Still, as with the previous pictures, the proceedings receive a charge whenever Harrelson, Banks or Stanley Tucci (as smarmy TV host Caesar Flickerman) pop up — more so, in fact, since this is the most somber of the three movies and can afford to be broken up by their characters' humorous interludes.

As for that sudden-death overtime of an ending, it's sure to leave many patrons grumbling. But look at the bright side: Whereas we had to wait three whole years to witness how Han would get rescued, we'll only have to wait one to see if this franchise rescues itself from overhyped expectations and wraps up in high-flying fashion.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
Rated NR · 2014
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer: Danny Strong and Peter Craig
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin and Jena Malone

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