hunger games mockingjay part 1 reviewIt's that time of year again. That's right folks: Happy Hunger Games!

The film franchise based on a series of best-selling young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, set in a futuristic society that pits citizens against one another in a showy gladiatorial match, has become an annual event. There are accompanying soundtracks that top the charts, marketing blitzes, promotional tie-ins... And the movies themselves, which revel in sleek visual stylization and are propelled, aloft, by an undercurrent of powerfully rah-rah feminist notions.

The latest film, which follows last year's superb "Hunger Games: Catching Fire," is "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1," the first section of the bisected finale. (As a similar approach to the "Twilight" franchise proved: why make all the money in the world just once?) When last we left contestant-turned-freedom fighter Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), she was being rescued from the thunderdome after shattering perceptions and bucking convention (recurrent themes alert). Now she's firmly entrenched in the resistance, strategically striking back at the oppressive government (led by a snidely Donald Sutherland) while still dealing with the cumbersome love triangle between hometown hottie Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her fellow contestant Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been captured by the evil government.

But are these games worth returning to? Or should you sit this one out and just show up for the real finale (next year)? Read on to find out.

1. It's Very Different From the Other Two Movies
The most striking thing about "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" is the fact that it is so different than the other two films. This is a movie that is largely colorless, set almost entirely in the outlying, economically depressed districts, far away from the pageantry and operatic showmanship of the games. As such, the movie has a funereal pallor and unshakable grimness that is, at first, somewhat off-putting, before becoming part of the stylistic fabric of the film. A little more color wouldn't have been totally bad, and a few more jokes would have been appreciated. But this is war people, no time for fooling around.

2. It Might Help If You Re-watch the Others Beforehand
Not going to lie: especially towards the beginning, I was pretty confused. There were names and places and events discussed that I had little-to-no recollection of. This could have been averted had I invested in a mini-marathon of the two earlier movies beforehand, which I now suggest all of you attractive people do. The other two movies, it should be noted, are officially "very good," so it's not like you're having to go through something that will taste your patience. Plus, since you're watching them at home, you can get up and make yourself a sandwich every so often and use the bathroom without having to miss any of the action. Make it happen.

3. Jennifer Lawrence Continues to Dazzle
Jennifer Lawrence hasn't been on screen since "X-Men: Days of Future Past," and just seeing her face, all cheeks and giant eyes and a seemingly endless well of expressions, is a thrill. But there really is no Katniss without Jennifer Lawrence (and vice versa) and she so fully inhabits the character, that you get the sensation that the actress thinks and reacts and, most importantly, feels as the character. It's pretty remarkable. And while this sequel isn't as action-packed as the other two, there are a few big set pieces wherein Lawrence really shines that are totally, totally amazing. The first movie really was told almost exclusively from her point of view, and the more that this film sticks with her, the better it is. She is just a marvel and continues to dazzle.

4. The Cliffhanger Will Probably Kill You
Try not to riot. The next one will be coming (soon enough). This doesn't have quite the same oomph as the note that the last film left off on, but you'll still be dying to see what happens next.

5. Natalie Dormer Is Totally Badass
Natalie Dormer, from "Game of Thrones," plays Cressida, a kind of media director, who follows Katniss around as they film a series of propaganda films meant to stoke the fires of rebellion. (The film interestingly explores how media can be used, almost as a form of mind control.) She is easily one of the breakout characters of the movie, a tough-as-nails freedom fighter with a half-shaved head (the shaved off section is embroidered with a tattoo of snaking ivy). She is also feminine and sexy and goes a long way in challenging traditional gender roles and notions of beauty. In the future, sexuality should probably be a little murky.

6. See It on as Big a Screen as Possible
Another thing that "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" double-underlines is how perfect director Francis Lawrence is for this property. With the second film, he established a palpable mood and atmosphere and pushed things, stylistically and thematically, into wonderful new arenas. He continues that with this film, while upping the ante on the big set pieces. We see more of the other "districts" this time around, which lessens Katniss's journey somewhat but certainly ups the stakes. And as such, you should see it on the biggest screen you can find. The scope is significantly grander.

7. Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman Will Make You Sad
This is one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's final performances; he was shooting his final bits for the next movie when he died earlier this year of a drug overdose. And seeing him on screen will probably make you very sad. I had to compose myself a little bit when first glimpsing him; he had such tremendous talent and was clearly having the time of his life in a big, commercial film like this, while battling insurmountable personal demons. The film is dedicated to him, and he will be missed terribly.

8. It's Pretty Violent
This movie is dark. It's also really, really violent. This is worth mentioning because it is, technically, a PG-13 movie. Just know that going in, especially if you have little "Hunger Games" fanatics in your family.

9. The Pace Is Slightly Off
The propulsive forward momentum of the first two movies, which were structured around the games themselves, has dissipated. Yes, there are big, cataclysmic conflicts, but the pacing seems slightly off, and there definitely seems to be a fair amount of wheel-spinning. This is the danger of splitting a story that probably could have been told with one film into two halves. But hey, "Hunger Games" is like sex or pizza -- even when it's bad it's still pretty good.

10. There Are Wigs Aplenty
Even without the flamboyance of the other films, there are still plenty of wigs, of varying degrees of quality. Because, really, what is "The Hunger Games" without wigs?

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" hits theaters Friday, November 21.

Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 Premiere Red Carpet

categories Movies, Reviews