Thursday, November 19, 2015

Movie Review: 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2'

As the title implies, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 is not a movie that tells a complete story. While last year’s Mockingjay—Part 1 was like watching the first half of a to-be-continued TV episode, Part 2 is a lot like picking up a book, opening to the middle, and starting from there. For those of you familiar with the dystopian woes of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the drama in the near-future world of Panem, this provides a mostly satisfactory conclusion the saga.

After the events of the previous film, with brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) freaking out and trying to murder Katniss, with the widespread uprising in the 13 Districts taking the fight to the forces of the Capital, and the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland) still being the architect of so much misery, the situation is grim and dire indeed. While the forces of the rebels attack the Capital, the main thrust of the plot sees Katniss lead a small group of soldiers on a side mission to assassinate Snow.

As Katniss and her merry band—which includes a still shell-shocked, occasionally murderous, Peeta; the other part of the main love triangle, Gale (Liam Hemsworth); super soldier Boggs (Mahersala Ali); former Hunger Games winner Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin); and more—make their way through the near abandoned ruins of the city, this is much more of a war movie than your standard young adult adventure.

Quiet tension builds as the soldiers maneuver through still, silent streets, a tranquility and calm that, almost like scenes from Full Metal Jacket, explodes in abrupt violence as they encounter peacemakers or pods, vicious booby traps designed by the game makers, that can be legitimately jarring to watch. Director Francis Lawrence’s decision to use low angles and handheld camera work in these moments, combine to place you directly in the action on the ground.

In this way, setting the streets of the Capital up as a new arena, Mockingjay—Part 2 forces the “this is the Hunger Games” aspect of the story. Continually pointing it out is a heavy-handed move that feels like they don’t trust the viewer to draw those parallels on their own. And the dour, serious war movie vibe, and accompanying aesthetic, is going to turn off some viewers. Katniss is out for revenge, plain and simple—against Snow, against the oppressive system, against anyone trying to control her—and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for humor or levity, and Mockingjay Part—2 is a very, very serious affair.

This seriousness is served well, however, in other aspects of the film. At its best, The Hunger Games movies are biting attacks on media culture and our fascination with celebrity and manufacturing stars just to watch them crumble. Mockingjay—Part 2 digs into how each side of the conflict manipulates the facts for their own gain. Snow is certainly a vicious bastard with no qualms about murdering any number of people without a second thought if it serves his own end. On the other side, President Coin (Julianne Moore), leader of the District 13 and the rebellion, is just a manipulative, ruthless, and power hungry as her counterpart, though in less overt fashion, a fact that unfolds over the course of the movie as the viewer learns just how far she will go.

In this landscape, it’s difficult to tell who the real enemy is, and surrounded by adversaries, the sense that Katniss is always in danger never alleviates. And Lawrence, much less of a wounded victim in the final installment of the franchise, plays Katniss with a grim determination. That is all well and good, though the script asks little more of her than to glower and weep, orating when such emotions could have been otherwise and more effectively dramatized. A climactic scene of Katniss hiding within a crowd of refugees, blending in with the intention of unleashing devastating violence, is unnerving and eerily timely considering the recent wave of attacks.

Sutherland once again has a great time playing the snakelike Snow, reveling in his villainous affectations. While I’ve never been a huge fan of Hutcherson in this particular role, he starts to fulfill his potential in Mockingjay—Part 2, flipping back and forth between a murderous rage and a scared, confused, broken kid trying to figure out what is and isn’t real. It’s a easily the most delicate, nuanced performance in the entire movie. A handful of other supporting players have nice moments, but not much more than that—this list includes Woody Harrelson as mentor Haymich Abernathy, Elizabeth Banks as the fashion-obsessed Effie Trinket, and Jena Malone’s Joanna Mason, who is just as fucked up as Peeta, but in much more caustic fashion.

On a sad note, Mockingjay—Part 2 is also the last time we’ll see a new performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman on screen. Especially as the film winds towards its conclusion, the hole his tragic death left in the narrative is painfully obvious. Partly for this reason, partly for others, after the main event wraps up, the epilogue plays as awkward and tacked on.

Overlong and over serious, dragging in the middle, and with too warm and fuzzy a happy ending, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 is definitely a movie with some issues. Then again, many of these already exist in Suzanne Collins’ novel that serves as the source material, to which the film is almost overly deferential. Like it’s predecessor, taken on its own, it’s definitely a part of something larger, though this time we at least have the corresponding piece to make it whole. Still, despite flaws, for fans of the franchise, it should serve as a satisfactory end to larger saga. [Grade: B]

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