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Film Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1"

The jay flies again


The first and second parts of the "Hunger Games" franchise earned big profits and critical praise; they also inspired a good deal of trendy talk about empowering young women in action pictures, which seems to mean that the heroine wields a wicked bow and can fight and kill with the best of them. The new, penultimate chapter in the collection, "Mockingjay," naturally continues the story and prepares the way for the no doubt grand conclusion.

In the new movie the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), in a sense serves as the pawn of the rulers of District 13, which lies deep beneath the surface of a world of rubble, in their rebellion against the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), ruler of the Capitol. That notion introduces one of the two major subtexts of the plot -- the fact that the opposing forces rely as much on propaganda as on weaponry (sound familiar?), pitting their video clips against each other to convince the civilians to choose their side. The other, related concept should resonate with any viewer -- that for their own reasons, good or bad, politicians frequently and happily send young people to die.

President Coin (Julianne Moore) of District 13 and her advisors, with some difficulty, persuade Katniss to serve as their own Joan of Arc, inflaming the citizens of the Capitol to join the rebellion. They commission a camera crew to follow Katniss outside their subterranean fortress and film her in dramatic photo ops against a background of ruined buildings, railing against the terror and destruction of President Snow's armies. Snow, on the other hand, employs the captured Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), drugged and brainwashed, in televised interviews, exhorting the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender.

Whether intentionally or not, for a motion picture supposedly about the heroism of a young woman and her compatriots, "Mockingjay" seems surprisingly cynical. In a relatively minor role, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Plutarch Heavensbee (these names grow increasingly ridiculous), who cheerfully devises the exploitation of Katniss and writes President Coin's several hysterical rants before the assemblage of her cheering constituents. Heavensbee, the president, and the other advisors also occupy long stretches of talky scenes loaded with awkward exposition.

As for the actual conduct of the action, it mostly consists of sequences of aircraft bombing the rebels, and the enslaved citizens of the Capitol, inspired by Katniss's rhetoric, making successful but suicidal charges against armed troopers attired in what looks suspiciously like leftover gear from the storm troopers of the "Star Wars" franchise. In what may be a cinematic first, Katniss also shoots down a jet plane with a bow and arrow.

For an action movie, or any movie for that matter, "Mockingjay" runs far too long and concentrates far too much on repetitive speeches and dull conversations. Despite a cast full of big stars -- Sutherland, Moore, Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson -- the performances entirely lack any spark of life or sometimes even any conviction. Minor eccentricities of dress and makeup constitute the director's attempts at creating any individuality; the only character with any, well, character is Woody Harrelson as an occasionally comic former drunk named, get this, Haymitch Abernathy.

Whether in keeping with a contemporary Hollywood trend or simply responding to the actual wishes of the young adult audience for the original novels and the adaptations, the movie's star, Jennifer Lawrence, ranks up there with Kristen Stewart of the "Twilight" franchise for the most insipid young woman in film (as Peeta, Josh Hutcherson matches her perfectly and also provides a suitable rival for Robert Pattinson). Her impassioned speeches seem utterly artificial and she displays only one facial expression throughout the whole picture -- unhappy.

Like most heavily hyped movies of any kind, especially a blockbuster with a supposedly empowered young woman as its protagonist, "Mockingjay" has already enlisted the media on its side -- even an NPR interviewer drooled all over the director and the film last week -- and will presumably repeat its predecessors' financial and critical success. The film ends with yet another Julianne Moore speech, calling for more warfare against the Capitol; I think we all know who will win.