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The first part of the final 'Hunger Games' movie gets real, goes meta

Enough Canoodling, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has a dictatorial empire to topple.
Enough Canoodling, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has a dictatorial empire to topple.

All work and no play makes Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) go crazy. In truth, the heroine of the Panem uprising hasn't quite gone off the deep end. But at the start of the first of the last two Hunger Games movies (as with the behemoths Harry Potter and Twilight, the final chapter, "Mockingjay," has been split into a pair of coffers-filling parts), she is suffering from some pretty nerve-shredding PTSD. Sabotaging the villainous President Snow's (Donald Sutherland) youths-in-combat competition will do that to a girl. Katniss may be safe of body in District 13—where a subterranean rebellion brews under the command of the icy President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore)—but her anxious mind won't leave her alone.

What, or more rightly, who does Panem's champion dream of? Mostly, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her beloved fellow warrior who has started spouting pro-Snow propaganda on the Capitol's main television network. Katniss is convinced Peeta is demonizing the proletarian revolt against his will, but his words are having an unfortunate effect. The only thing to do, as noted by Coin and her righteously named right-hand man Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is to go on the offense with some proselytizing of their own. Got all that?

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Let's back up a second: Before Katniss can become a defiant symbol she has to dig deep into her shattered soul and unearth some revolutionary fervor. Damned if the early scenes of Katniss wandering the bombed-out and skeleton-strewn ruins of her former home, District 12, don't cause even a "Hunger Games" skeptic like yours truly to well up slightly. There's something about these penultimate chapters in tentpole film series (see, again, "Harry Potter" and "Twilight") that allow for some deviation from the pro forma letter of the fan-beloved text.

Here, it feels like director Francis Lawrence (of the previous installment, "Catching Fire") and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong have had the franchise shackles loosened (very) slightly, and are permitted to poke around the edges of this dystopian world created by author Suzanne Collins.

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There's a real wallop in the way leading-lady Jennifer Lawrence silently ambles through post-apocalyptic devastation. When Katniss comes to the top of a valley of corpses, the camera holds on her face, observing as her stoic expression cracks and tears start streaming—Young Adult Joan of Arc. And it doesn't feel like Lawrence (the filmmaker) is rushing things. He lets the character truly be in this suspended moment; it's akin to that beautiful scene in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I" when Harry and Hermione slow dance to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

That's the power of momentarily stepping outside the main story, which the film continues to do here and there, as in a nicely languid sequence in which Katniss and her competitor-in-affection Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) go hunting and end up canoodling beside a river. But inevitably we have to get back to things—there's a dictatorial empire to topple, after all. On that front, "Mockingjay—Part 1" still has some clever tricks up its sleeve. Chief among them is the way the District 13 powers-that-be try to mold Katniss into an empowering figurehead: She's once again primped and posed by her fashionista attendant Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks)—now perpetually irritated and underdressed—and followed everywhere by a camera crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer), a gal so fierce she strides around with a half-shaved, tattooed head and a don't-fuck-with-me scowl.

There's a very funny scene in which Katniss is made to stand in front of the future-world equivalent of a green screen, acting out a scripted speech that is anything but inspiring. When President Coin and her attendants see the finished product, they hang their heads in quiet shame, like movie-studio bean-counters realizing the star attraction they've been hyping is dead onscreen. It's up to Katniss' alcoholic mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) to point out the obvious: This girl only catches fire when she isn't being told what to do. A jaunt or two into the war-torn fields later and District 13 has a counter-propaganda movie all its own, humorously structured (with soaring music, quotable moments, and blood-pumping bombast) like one of the Hunger Games series' own teaser trailers.

It's not exactly biting the hand that feeds—more a gentle nibble. The corporate overlords at Lionsgate and the frenzied Comic-Con devotees who keep them in business can share a self-aware wink while the cash flows. Does pointing out the built-in hypocrisy mean anything anymore? It becomes these behemoths to conform to the status quo even as they preach rebellion. No surprise that "Mockingjay—Part 1" morphs into more of a please-all-parties machine as it goes on, its initial emotional textures flattened and its satirical edge blunted. Katniss and Gale have a bit-lip confrontation about her feelings for Peeta that makes "Twilight's" Edward-Bella-Jacob triangle seem positively Shakespearean, and there's a climactic action setpiece that's like a PG-13 riff on the bin Laden compound raid from "Zero Dark Thirty," minus any of that film's dynamic tension or sense of stakes.

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Hardly matters: The converted will be satisfied, or at least show up to the theater in obeisant force. Money will be made and anticipation stoked for next year's blowout finale. It's a circle—vicious to some, a religion to others—with no end in sight. Perhaps we should be thankful that even a work of art this monolithic still affords some genuine glimpses of humanity.

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