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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (2015): Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, directed by Francis Lawrence.  Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, and the indefatigable Donald Sutherland.  Running Time: 137 minutes.  Based on the book series by Suzanne Collins. 

Rating: 3/4

            The Hunger Games franchise, for me at least, has always been a film series whose real importance lies in its greater symbolism as a major break with our decades-long tradition of male-dominated studio action flicks (and book series, for that matter), a refreshingly direct refutation of the stagnant industry “wisdom” that female-driven fantasy/sci-f/dystopia narratives can be neither good, nor profitable.  Its success in becoming a cultural touchstone for a generation of readers and filmgoers is undeniable, even if the films ultimately do nothing new narratively or cinematically.  None of the individual movies rise to the level of stand-alone cinematic greatness, but a good story is still a good story, and it has been a pleasure watching each new film rise further above its literally very shaky first installment.  Mockingjay Part 2, despite its clunky title and the overt cash-grabbing fact of its existence, is no exception to this trend.  It is by far the best movie of the franchise, and will provide most fans of the book with the satisfying ending they wished to see. 

            In almost direct mirror of the last movie, we open with a shot of Katniss at another low point, right after she was attacked by a brainwashed Peeta at the very end of Part 1.  Her throat is covered and bruised, so swollen that she can barely form words.  The story’s embrace of the uncanny PTSD valley Katniss is forced to endure is perhaps the greatest strength of the entire tale, a sly critique of how most action-heavy blockbusters straight-up ignore how deeply war, celebrity, and personal betrayal can psychologically scar a character, yet still allow them to grow and overcome hardship in spite of it.  I have been skeptical of the J-Law craze in the past, and critical of her performance early on in the series (critiques that I still stand by), but like the movies themselves, she has very much come into her own.  The movies lack the internal monologue that the books used to examine Katniss’ existential exhaustion, so Lawrence has had to make it all evident in how she carries herself, and it’s in this movie that I finally felt she hits her stride.  It’s the best performance we’ve gotten from her in several years. 

            While she is recovering (in several senses of the word), and the efforts to un-brainwash Peeta are underway, the rebellion continues to build and move towards its ultimate conclusion.  Only one District is still held by Capital forces, and that is quickly dealt with once the Mockingjay and Gale (Who?  Oh right….wait, who?) arrive on the scene.  After that, the final pieces are put into place for the assault on the capital, as President Snow pulls back all soldiers and civilians into the inner circle of the city, and sends his surviving gamemakers to turn every corner of every street into a terrifying death trap for the incoming rebel army. 

            For obvious reasons, President Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee (oh Lord, how I miss Philip Seymour Hoffman) want Katniss to sit this last one out and hang back behind the lines to shoot propaganda footage, promising her she will be granted the honors of executing Snow herself once the battle is over.  She has other ideas though, figuring that taking Snow out early will lead to a quicker end to the fighting, and she, His Galeness, her camera crew, and a few other soldiers (plus eventually Peeta, for reasons that even in the book make no sense) eventually break off from their assigned mission to make their own way through the blasted city. 

            Further than this, I cannot go, for then I would be way too far up spoiler creek, with nary a paddle to steer back with.  If you haven’t read the book and therefore don’t already know exactly how everything finally plays out, you owe it to yourself to experience the ending cold.  For those who did read the series, rest assured- the ending is faithful to the source material in all its gory glory.  My biggest worry from the start was that the movies would, under studio pressure, pull away from the very un-cheerful, non-fist-pumping nature of most of the third act, but that concern was, thankfully, unfounded, and the movie is a lot stronger for it.  After all these years of building this world bit by bit (and getting better at building it with each new film), each action and character resolution carries real weight.  The best word I can use to describe it is appropriate.  It is the ending both the story and Katniss as a character deserved. 

            Not that the film is perfect.  As I already said, even this last one is held back in a few places, often by flaws of its own design.  Gone is (most) of the atrocious shaky-cam that brought low the first movie, but with the camera now so still I was able to look at the sets more, and that highlighted a new issues- given how recent events in Iraq and Syria have provided the world with far too many examples of what a war-ravaged city actually looks like, the supposedly burned-out Capital looks too….clean, like these are sets on a stage that have been roughed-up somewhat for appearance, but are still basically intact.  It’s a bit unsettling, as if even the war itself was for show. 

            That’s a relatively minor issue though.  A bigger one is pacing, the bugbear of every Hunger Games film, with a great many sequences of characters simply going from Point A to Point B (or even just sitting around in a room somewhere) taking far too long.  The movie feels longer than it is as a result, which kills a lot of the vibe the great scenes achieve.  This could very well have been a desire to build atmosphere, but slowing down the action or story development to do so is a tricky balance to strike, and it often can’t quite pull it off. 

            Thankfully, when the parts fall into place and the movie starts clicking again, it is very good.  My personal highlight was the sequence in the sewers (fellow readers, you know that of which I speak), which, purely in terms of how it builds the tension of the moment until I was just about to burst out of my chair, is the best piece of visual filmmaking in the entire franchise, bar none.  The acting is vastly improved over previous films, and also might feature the most racially diverse cast I’ve seen in an action movie in some time.  But as great as Lawrence, Hoffman, and others are, the MVP award for the entire franchise still goes to Don Sutherland as President Snow, who somehow managed to take his fiendish, scene-stealing abilities from the previous films and makes them even better here.  My sincerest apologies to James Spader’s Ultron, but I think we already have a winner for Noah’s Favorite Villain Performance of 2015. 

            So here we are.  Three books, four movies, and a worldwide phenomenon all wrapped up (for now).  Sure, they have their individual flaws, and the last two both suffer from being two separate halves of what worked best as a combined whole, but thankfully, in the end that was not enough to sink them.  The Hunger Games franchise ends on a fitting high note, leaving viewers both young and old with a lot more questions to chew over than any of its imitators on the market (looking at you, Divergent) can offer.  It’s been an interesting ride, and I am glad I experienced it. 

-Noah Franc 

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