It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Jennifer Lawrence's charisma and the the sly excellence of her supporting cast keep "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1" aloft. This third installment in the "Hunger Games" saga (technically chapter three, part one) is a bleak, sometimes dire experience, and not only because it's the darkest installment yet in an already dark saga, catching dystopian rebels in a beaten-down and demoralized state. As written by regular series scribes Peter Craig and Danny Strong, and as directed by Frances Lawrence (who helmed the second film in the series, "Hunger Games: Catching Fire"), it also feels a bit stretched out, not to give the actors room to breathe and widen the film's narrative margins to better pack them with detail, but because that's how Hollywood increasingly does big budget "event" franchises these days: chopping one volume into two or three, a la "Harry Potter" or "The Hobbit," to satisfy the most literal-minded readers by dramatizing as many scenes as possible, and to sell more tickets.
the story begins, our heroes have literally been driven underground.
Hunger Games champion Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) survived multiple
iterations of the books' nationally televised, gladiator-styled,
bread-and-circuses reality show, then was cynically positioned by the
evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as a false figure of
inspiration. She became the real thing thanks to her indomitable spirit, plus clever plotting by rebel fighters and image manipulators, including Katniss's
once-drunk and now sober mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson); the
propagandist and image consultant Plutarch (the late Philip Seymour
Hoffman, to whom the film is dedicated); the tech genius Betee (Jeffrey
Wright), and the image wizard (and ace comic relief) Effie Trinket
"Mockingjay, Part 1" picks up where "Catching Fire" left off, with Katniss, rescued from Quarter Quell, living in a compound under the rubble of District 13 with her fellow insurrectionists. Led by their intrepid district president Coin (Julianne Moore, sporting a frosted 'do and a severe demeanor), our heroes endure attacks by Snow's planes and troops while plotting their next righteous move. Of course, Katniss is also supported and pined-after by her loyal right-hand, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), even as she frets over the fate of her great love, the still-milquetoast Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who's being held hostage by Snow's forces and turned into an anti-Katniss propaganda tool, denouncing our heroine on national TV in order to legitimize his puppet masters.
If "The Hunger Games" films were to be compared structurally to "Star Wars"—still the commercial Holy Grail of film franchises—you might say that this one is the first half of "The Empire Strikes Back," with emphasis on the visually and drastically oppressive Hoth sequences. The plot takes us from from setback to setback to setback until we feel suffocated (on purpose). Snow has the overwhelming military advantage, and in a couple of effective action scenes, we get the sense of just how long the rebels' odds of victory are. The best of these depicts an aerial assault that's filmed mostly from ground level, envisioning Snow's warplanes as chunky blurs that can corner in midair, like gulls.