COURTESY MURRAY CLOSE LIONSGATEThe appealing Jennifer Lawrence is back as Katniss in "The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay - Part 1."

New ‘Hunger Games’ installment feels padded

Patently unclear on the concept of the trilogy, Big Cinema presents “The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay-Part 1,” the penultimate installment in a four-ticket series masquerading as a deluxe three-parter. Strong performances keep this fantasy spectacle absorbing. But the splitting of the film into two episodes results in a thin story frustratingly padded.

The film is again based on a Suzanne Collins novel and directed by Francis Lawrence (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”). But this time the story, set in Panem, where the wealthy Capitol has bombed the districts mercilessly, is darker both narratively and visually.

Having survived and destroyed the Hunger Games – the televised event featuring young people forcedly vying in deadly challenges – a devastated Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself rescued by rebels living in an underground compound in District 13. Led by hardliner Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), they hope to spur survivors in the other districts to revolt and overthrow the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

The plan needs the popular Katniss, but Katniss wants only to save her true love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Peeta has been captured and turned into a propaganda tool by Snow and sleazy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).

After viewing the horror Snow has wreaked, Katniss agrees to become the Mockingjay, the rebels' symbol. The role involves appearing in propaganda videos produced by media chief Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the movie is dedicated). Touring the landscape with guerilla director Cressida (Natalie Dormer), Katniss expresses a compassion and rebel spirit that stir hearts across the land.

Other movies based on young-adult sci-fi novels surely get worse than this competently directed, well-acted, generally engaging adventure. Peter Craig and Danny Strong's screenplay contains dialogue smart enough to keep adults from wincing. Echoing the previous two films, the story contains colorful characters and relevant themes.

But with the climactic action and other second-half events slated for next year's finale, this movie must stretch half a story into the two-hour running time associated with such blockbusters. The filmmakers don't have enough quality material to fill the space. The action scenes are so-so. The love story – bland Peeta has never seemed a fitting match for dynamic Katniss – is tepid.

The end result is a serving of dystopian-pop entertainment lifted over the middling mark by the humanity supplied by the cast.

Lawrence, sensational here, not only fires a killer arrow but gives the film a moving force of goodness in a character that would come off as cartoonish in lesser hands. Supporting players add further richness and sometimes a comic charge. Elizabeth Banks as style maven Effie Trinket and Woody Harrelson as the now-sober (and hating it) Haymitch Abernathy are particularly enjoyable.

REVIEW

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1

two and a half stars

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland

Written by: Peter Craig, Danny Strong

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Rated PG-13

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

artsFrancis LawrenceHunger Games: The Mockingjay-Part 1Jennifer LawrenceMovies

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