Friday, November 20, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part Two Review

And so, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) takes her bow, concluding her four-part Hunger Games saga that gave a massive push to both the career of Lawrence and female led action movies. The final adventure in her grand story is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part Two, which, as evidenced by the title, is the second part of a two film adaptation of the singular novel entitled Mockingjay. Like I said, this is where it all ends folks...until Lionsgate pushes out those inevitable Hunger Games prequels/spin-offs which will arrive no later than 2018.

Snarky cynicism aside, there's a ton to praise about this final chapter, especially when it comes to how the feature handles its plot tonally. Now, the premise of this film is pretty simple; Katniss Everdeen is looking to kill evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) once and for all after all the suffering he's caused her and so many others. From there, the films follows her and a ragtag group of rebel soldiers (among them Gale, played by Liam Hemsworth and Peeta played by Josh Hutcherson) as they attempt to make it to Snow while surviving the various hazardous booby traps that have been set up to eliminate them from the picture.

Another film would have likely taken the concept of a vengeful Katniss and gone in a Taken style route of making it just a straightforward retaliation fueled action picture. That's not an inherently bad idea (the idea of an ass-kicking Jennifer Lawrence action vehicle sounds promising. Maybe we could call it Take-Jen?), but Mockingjay: Part Two, thankfully, doesn't abandon the loftier concepts and themes that have fueled the best parts of this franchise. Our main characters search for retribution results not in cheer-worthy moments of ferocity, but in scenes of difficult moral quandaries and uneasy and uncertain allegiances that test her very moral fiber. Even her fiercest allies can't be trusted. Such is the irresolute nature of war.

Those are the sort of bleak themes and concepts that Mockingjay: Part Two is practically fueled on, with nary a scene going by that doesn't have some sort of gruesome casualty or image to sear into the viewers mind that the stakes couldn't possibly get any higher. Perhaps in the hands of, say, Zack Snyder, such darkness would be used as a way to prove how "kewl" and "rad" his story is, a style over substance approach. But thankfully that's not the case with this final Hunger Games film, which instead commits wholesale to its darker aesthetic in order to concoct the engrossing various moral plights Katniss undergoes. There's a growing sense of uncertainty plaguing our hero as the story progresses that likely wouldn't work as well if the unpropitious tone of the feature hadn't been established so well.

Much of the successfully executed stark tone comes from Jennifer Lawrences top-notch turn as Katniss, a character the actor has inhabited for three years at this point and, similar to how Robert Downey Jr. constantly finds new avenues to take Tony Stark down after all this time, still manages to make Katniss as engaging as ever. The way she keeps a stoic outward appearance while emanating a pervasive sense of irresoluteness is the kind of emotional juggling act only an actor of Lawrences top-notch caliber could pull off so flawlessly. Josh Hutcherson has similar success delving into a more troubled arc for Peeta, whose still recuperating from his (lliterally) tortorous experience at The Capital. While at first it seems like his nervous ticks (to me at least) seem like they'll be more overwhelming and showy than nuanced, I grew to appreciate how Hutcherson shows the characters gradual recovery and inner anguish.

Much of the success of these stellar performances derives, I'd bet, from director Francis Lawrence, who manages to not only nab some glorious looking shots in here but also get memorable if brief turns from the likes of Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanely Tucci. These three in particular likely earn the easiest paychecks of their career with the miniscule amount of screentime they each get (Tucci gets maybe 60 whole seconds on-screen), but Lawrence makes sure each actors "curtain call" in this franchise leaves an impression. All the praise I'm showering on the performances make the blatantly lackluster work turned in by Liam Hemsworth as Gale feel all the more surprising.

Good gravy, centering many of the movies crucial emotional scenes on this guy is just not a good idea, mainly because there's a bewilderingly lack of screen presence  coming from this Hemsworth offspring. Even more damaging is how the script treats him like a big o'l deal in these sequences without ever giving a reason for the audience to invest in him. By contrast, I do wanna give props to Sam Claflin as Finnick, my favorite character in the whole film. A sharp contrast to Gale, Finnick is brave, charming as hell and weilds a freaking triton. The sight of him sitting on a couch while weilding that weapon in his palms alone is enough to secure Finnick as one of the best things to come out of the entire franchise and helps solidify how much, by comparision, Gale is lacking in distinctivness as a character.

Considering how terribly executed the action sequences were in the first Hunger Games movie, it pleases me to report that Francis Lawrence excels not only with the actors but also in staging intense on-screen combat in the form of the various "traps" the villainous Capitol has set for Katniss and her comrades. Best of these "traps" is a bunch of deadly black goo that threatens to envelop our heroes, especially in the ominous way its set up, with all the exits slowly sealing up and the inevitable sense of doom dawning on our leads. While the score by James Newton Howard threatens to overwhelm such intense scenes at certain moments, these nerve-wracking sections of the story do provide plenty of bang for your buck in terms of thrill. With that being said, I do wish that sort of clearly thought out execution for the harrowing "trap" sequences had been applied to the ending of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part Two, which felt far too tidy for my taste and puts a major damper on the whole proceedings as a whole, but hey, at least the rest of the movie rises to the occasion and becomes a solid send-off for this saga.

A spoiler discussion for Mockingjay Part 2 will be up this afternoon.

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