Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 movie review.

I’ll just cut right to the chase. I’m a huge fan of the Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins. I’ve gone on about them enough times; complimenting their take on reality television exploitation meets governmental uprising, as well as their now iconic lead character Katniss Everdeen.

Similarly, I’ve been a huge fan of their following feature film adaptations since the beginning. Starting in 2012’s superb Gary Ross directed original, it then bested itself with Francis Lawrence’s spectacular continuation Catching Fire, and was bigger and more expansive than its predecessor without sacrificing its heart.

Next would be the adaptation of the final book, and my favorite of the series, Mockingjay, which had a lot of skepticism thrown its way because of the decision to split the book into two films. I myself have come to hate this trend of splitting a book into two (or three) films myself, but I was always very defensive of this decision, as the book never went beyond Katniss’ immediate point of view, and it could give us a chance to see the uprising outside of District 13 that we heard about, but never saw. I found the first part very engaging despite its occasional filler, and I’m happy to report that this finale to the Hunger Games series is every bit as satisfying as I wanted it to be… albeit with a couple stumbles keeping it from being Catching Fire good.

With a hijacked and fear-conditioned Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) rescued from the Capitol, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) begins preparations for her eventual assault on Panem’s Capitol, and the defeat of its dictator President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Intending to make a grand spectacle of their deaths, Snow’s game-makers and peacekeepers have rigged the various streets of the central city with dangerous traps, varying from explosives and heavy ammunition to deformed predators. Not only that, but the moral ambiguity of District 13’s commander President Coin (Julianne Moore) stirs mistrust in Katniss’ mind, and as she and her soldiers work their way to Snow, the path they take will be paved with great widespread and personal cost.

With this final entry in the series, the filmmakers have wisely veered away from the reality television and celebrity satire of its earlier entries, and given a majority of focus towards its revolution angle, which often lead to boiling points running us through a roller coaster of emotions. With real world uprisings and tensions reaching boiling points both international and domestic, from events in Benghazi to Ferguson, it’s no surprise how timely the series has remained, and that thematic attention continues to be explored in more direct ways, while simultaneously being given a difficult task to tie up loose ends.

All of this makes it the grimmest of all the films, with a very subdued and sparing sense of humor spread throughout, but particularly for its questionable alliances and lines between friend and foe. It’s no mistake that those of the Capitol are guilty of heinous crimes, and the filmmakers have done an impressive job of making us hate the thinly veiled communism-Nazism based figureheads and peacekeepers with each passing film, but even Katniss’ ties to those of District 13 are shrouded by very gray and blurred intentions, with Moore’s sly Coin pulling strings from behind the scenes, which puts into question if certain ends will justify their means. At what point does one succumb to the same oppressive grip they’ve fought against? At what point does one become alike to the thing they’ve vowed to destroy?

As far as the split between films goes, having watched Parts 1 and 2 back to back, it only makes sense for it to have been made this way. While the content of the book as it is would most likely fit into one film fine, as I’ve said before, if any book required a two part finale to expand on events that happened without its main character’s involvement, this was it. It’s a common vice of films being split that its first entry serves as a long set-up to its second section, which essentially becomes nothing more than a feature length action sequence. Here, there’s no such issue as both films have their own self-contained stories, and Part 2, while it has plenty of satisfying action, is very balanced between smaller scale character sequences and thematic density, with build-up of tension and suspense more often taking place of action.

By this point, there are a lot of loose ends that the film has to address as concisely as its 135 minute running time makes possible, with the pace of the film moving at slower rhythms to satisfy every pent up emotion being built up leading to here, as well as giving each character at least one crowd-pleasing moment as a farewell. The performances are no less impressive, with Lawrence’s Katniss again being a standout and commanding presence. Like the film, Katniss’ character has so many things still left to be addressed, with Lawrence bouncing quickly and naturally between different emotional states, and has earned Katniss her status as an iconic action heroine.

However, if there’s anything about the film that I don’t care for, it’s that maybe the movie isn’t concise enough. Once the movie enters its final half hour stretch, it’s already slow pace becomes even slower, and actually starts pulling a Return of the King with the amount of content still left to be concluded. Not that there’s much of anything that shouldn’t be here, but after a while, it becomes tiresome as it stumbles across the finish line, requiring more punch than it has in these more dialogue heavy scenes.

Also, while the supporting cast are impressive, with many of the more popular ones (like Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, and Sam Claflin) getting plenty of finality, other prominent players (like Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Jena Malone’s crazed Johanna Mason) get sidelined through a majority of the second half. In fact, Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman gets reduced to brief cameos via the Capitol’s mandatory broadcasts. It’s also clear that the production of the film has taken hits, with several instances where the filmmakers were clearly rocked by the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, here in his final onscreen performance. It becomes evident that scenes he was intended to participate in have been forced to work around his absence, including shots of CGI stand-ins. That said, I can’t in good conscience fault the film for  such unavoidable limitations, and the bittersweet send-off to Hoffman is done in the best way that was possible.

In the end, Mockingjay as a whole doesn’t measure up to its earlier predecessors, but it nevertheless serves as a satisfying finale to the Hunger Games series. Throughout its lifetime, it’s not only put all of its other YA novel competition to shame, but has served as a spectacular and timely thematic analysis. While this ending is undoubtedly bumpy, it still gives a proper closure to every character and story element we’ve come to care for across four years, leaving just the right bittersweet lasting impact it deserved.

So… now what?

**** / *****

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