The makers of “The Hunger Games” films were on to something when they cast Jennifer Lawrence.
Despite winning an Oscar for a film that was not drawn from a YA novel, and being the young woman whose career is most on fire among Hollywood’s young women, Lawrence shows up for work in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I” like it’s her only job.
She is as fresh and unmannered as ever as Katniss Everdeen, reluctant participant in teen battles to the death who becomes, in this third “Games” film installment, reluctant poster girl for the rebellion against the government of dystopian Panem. Whether showing fear, confusion or defiance, Lawrence always comes across as authentic.
Perhaps because of her experience in other films, she also brings a new-found command to the screen in “Part I.” Her sympathetic-magnetic pull is the only consistently winning aspect of this film, which never captivates like its two predecessors – movies that, not coincidentally, adapted entire books.
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The stretching of the third book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy into two parts really shows in “Part I,” which feels three hours long when it’s really two. That the ending would not wrap things up was to be expected, since “Part II” is not due for for another year. Its agonizingly slow beginning was not.
It is so slow that it allows the viewer to notice that this Panem place really is a drag, and perhaps not worth visiting for several hours total.
Lawrence, however, always can be counted on to do something interesting. Like convincingly portray Katniss as lacking in charisma during the shoot for a propaganda video the rebel government wants to make. Lawrence lacking screen presence – that’s acting.
The film begins with Katniss in District 13. The rebels spirited her there after she wrecked the Quarter Quell – a sadistic battle of Games champions – in 2013’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Though once believed to have been annihilated, District 13 is the rebellion’s multilevel, industrial-looking underground home.
Sweet Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss’ fellow Games competitor and maybe-fake/maybe-real true love, was left behind in the Capitol. But Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her handsome hunting buddy from her District 12 home, is in 13, as are Katniss’ mother and sister. The Panem government destroyed District 12, which wasn’t that nice in the first place.
Francis Lawrence, who also directed “Catching Fire,” shows a smooth hand with action scenes. But action is scant. This movie instead focuses on Katniss adjusting to life in gray-brown-industrial District 13, or surveying the bodies (in a scene that might trouble kids in the audience – if we’re still pretending these films are kid-friendly at all) in districts attacked by Panem.
There’s adjusting, surveying, sitting and talking, and little that’s visually stimulating. “Part I” doubles down on the dreariness of previous “Games” films because the Games no longer exist. Those Games, as nasty as they were in spirit, offered colorful, inventive visuals.
Also missing is the strong sense, from the first films, of the starving masses taking on 1-percenters. Rebel government leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) looks like an Orwellian Susan Sontag and loves militaristic order and fake photo ops. She exudes cool authority as someone whose aim might be truer than Panem President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland, reviving his convivial sneer), but whose political scheming resembles his.
So she’s the same as the old boss. How is that anything but depressing for viewers? Granted, it is not the filmmakers’ fault that Collins created this character. But the 1-percenter move of reaping more box-office receipts by splitting the author’s final book in two is their fault. By all indications, the filmmakers are saving both the action scenes and any sense of hope for the final installment.
Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the one-time Capitol gamemaker and secret rebellion collaborator, now serves as Coin’s close assistant. But unlike Coin, he is not humorless.
Heavensbee acts as wry advocate for Katniss, when the president at first does not understand the fuss surrounding the girl on fire and why Heavensbee thinks her face will fuel the rebellion. But once Heavensbee and Coin ignite Katniss’ passion by sending her into the field to see the destruction left by Panem, Coin gets it.
Hoffman’s proud-papa expression, once Katniss demonstrates Heavensbee’s faith is warranted, makes you wish there were more instances of this avuncular fellow. Before his death in February, Hoffman was making an interesting transition from playing tortured souls to playing authority figures.
Audience favorites Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the oft-drunk former Games champion, and Effie (Elizabeth Banks), the Games-contestant escort struggling to find beauty in drab District 13, make fun but too-brief appearances.
Teem Peeta members will be disappointed that Hutcherson, who is such a reassuring presence in these movies, appears infrequently in “Part I.” Hemsworth appears more often. But not only is Gale the less compelling Katniss love interest, Liam is the less compelling Hemsworth brother.
The film ultimately rests on Lawrence, and though she never disappoints, a single actress – even one as lovely and lovable as she – cannot save a blockbuster film. It’s as unfair to place that burden on Lawrence as it is for District 13 to put the rebellion on Katniss’ shoulders.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson
Director: Francis Lawrence
Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material)
Warm up for the new “Hunger Games” film with bar trivia and a movie marathon. Sacramento fans can spend all day Thursday celebrating reluctant heroine and skilled fight-to-the-death competitor Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) return to the big screen.
“Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,” the first of two films based on the final book in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy, opens at 8 p.m. Thursday. But Fans can brush up on Katniss’ dystopian world starting at 2:30 p.m. with big-screen showings of the first two “Hunger” films at theaters including Downtown Plaza, Century Stadium 14 and Regal Natomas.
“Mockingjay – Part I” will track Katniss’ integration into the rebellion against the Capitol. If that doesn’t sound “Games”-y enough for you, Geeks Who Drink is holding a “Hunger Games” trivia contest at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Sacramento’s Alley Katz bar (2019 O St.).
The trivia event costs $5 per person, with a cash prize for the winning team (of six or fewer players). Coal soot and crazy Effie wigs optional.