Friday, November 20, 2015

Kill Snow: "Mockingjay - Part 2" catches a little fire and ends satisfactorily

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (2015)
137 min., rated PG-13.

It ends here. Suzanne Collins' trilogy made for two superior post-apocalyptic YA big-screen adaptations with 2012's "The Hunger Games" and 2013's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," and then the series turned into something of a waiting game by the time it was ready for the third book to bring Katniss Everdeen's journey full circle. Even if Lionsgate Films' decision to split the third and final installment of "The Hunger Games" into two movies was purely for monetary reasons, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" is certainly more eventful than its predecessor. Without any televised to-the-death "hunger games" in sight, 2014's "Mockingjay: Part 1" more than flirted with being a post-apocalyptic "Wag the Dog" but felt like a dreary, often sludgy, and incomplete hurry-up-and-wait. That languid solemnity does carry over into the first third of this film, but there are more moments of genuine excitement and actual narrative momentum this time around. If you're still invested in these characters and a showdown between Katniss and President Snow, then this will be a satisfying payoff for the series to bow out.

Where the last film left off in the underground District 13, the emotionally and physically bruised Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been strangled by a brainwashed, nearly insane Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her former lover, and placed into a neck brace. She continues to be used as the Mockingjay, a propaganda tool, by Resistance leaders President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) in order to unify all of the districts and eventually earn full control of Panem. Even if Coin turns her into a martyr, Katniss makes it her personal mission to confront and assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Though she's instructed not to make her way to the Capitol yet, she goes rogue with the accompaniment of Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the unstable Peeta, Finnick (Sam Claflin), Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and a squad of other rebel members. With the city booby-trapped by Snow and his game-makers for their arrival, this will be the 76th Hunger Games, for all intents and purposes.

Grim and dark as war and genocide but never in a way that's smothering like last year's placeholder, "Mockingjay: Part 2" initially bumps along, taking its time gathering up a head of steam until throwing plenty of obstacles Katniss' way on her adventure to kill President Snow. Returning director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong find inherent drama and tension in the political intrigue and allow more humor to slip through the cracks of such a devastating society, but when it comes time for more action to take place, the film delivers. Perhaps the most the series has seen since the first two installments, there is a palpable sense of danger and realization that lives are actually at stake, beginning with a rousing encounter in the Capitol with a wall of a giant oil slick. After that, a sequence set in the sewer catacombs, where Katniss and her team are attacked by lizard mutts, is frightening and thrillingly staged on the apprehension levels of "Aliens." Finally, the revenge Katniss seeks on Snow comes with a few surprises that reveal layers in characters on both sides of the revolution.

Four movies later, Jennifer Lawrence has been the unwavering anchor as Katniss, vividly hitting all the right emotions and actualizing the alternate fearlessness, fallibility, and trauma of a young woman who has been put through the ultimate wringer. To express how far she has come, a final scene at the vacant District 12 where she encounters her younger sister Prim's cat Buttercup reaches a startlingly raw degree of poignancy and catharsis. Katniss has had to carry a lot of weight on her now-18-year-old shoulders, and she has way more to live for than just a love triangle between Peeta and Gale; she has to stand as the rebellious figure to turn an entire nation around. It's refreshing, then, when eye-rolling Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone) shows back up with a sardonic quip, denouncing Katniss' triangle as a "tacky romance drama." Josh Hutcherson is the most empathetic he's been as Peeta, who has been through it all with Katniss and now recovers to regain his compassion, while Liam Hemsworth (decidedly the less interesting of the two men in Katniss' life) is just relegated to being the epitome of loyalty. Always calmly ferocious and suitably loathsome as President Snow, Donald Sutherland adds a little devilish glee to his performance for the last time. Like Elizabeth Banks' re-dolled-up stylist Effie Trinket, Woody Harrelson's mentor Haymitch, and Jenna Malone's chops-busting tribute Johanna Mason, several of the series' livelier standout characters are underused but the filmmakers make sure most of them get a curtain-closing moment. This is also Philip Seymour Hoffman (who died before the film was finished) in his final screen performance as Plutarch Heavensbee, a bittersweet way of saying goodbye to the series as well as to the phenomenal actor.

Excluding the "Harry Potter" films from the conversation, "The Hunger Games" has always been the benchmark of the YA-page-to-screen trend (not "Twilight," or "Percy Jackson & the Olympians," or "Divergent," or "The Mortal Instruments," or "The Maze Runner"). These are sophisticated pop entertainments that have focused on the evolution of a dystopian world but also on those who inhabit it. It is a testament to director Francis Lawrence (who has helmed every film, save for the first), the writers, and the entire ensemble that such a futuristic allegory has grown into a tough, intimate, emotionally textured journey. On final assessment—as a literary trilogy translated into four films—"The Hunger Games" kicked off with such a bang that it's mildly disappointing "Mockingjay: Part 2" is just merely good. With that said, it's still the right conclusion that Katniss deserves, and hopefully, her fans will agree.


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