Monday, December 7, 2015

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 2 Is Too Much Filler, Only Some Killer


So ... that was The Hunger Games. In the sum total of things, there is a lot to like about these movies: Jennifer Lawrence's consistently fantastic lead performance, an intriguing mytharc about rebellion against a totalitarian regime, and an overall message of empowerment that is a net positive for the series' primary audience of kids and teens. But watching yet another Part 2 of what should have been a one-and-done film, a little cynicism can't help but creep in. MOCKINGJAY PT. 2 is stretched-out storytelling, mostly filler - balanced out by a handful of killer sequences that give the movie some desperately-needed injections of excitement. But where previous Hunger Games films have managed to shed a lot of the genre-trappings of the YA world in order to deliver some surprisingly gritty and epic narrative, this final chapter constantly reminds you that it's YA all the way. Why worry about the fate of the world when there's pining and brooding to be done?

The final Hunger Games film picks up directly after the events of the previous chapter - the resistance forces are mounting their ultimate attack on President Snow and the Capitol, even as Katniss - whom the resistance leaders still view mostly as a figurehead - deals with the fallout of Peeta's mind-altering infection by Snow. Peeta is now in a mentally-unbalanced state, slowly regaining some semblance of his old self, but still prone to turning on his friends at any moment and sabotaging their plans. Katniss, for her part, is determined to be more than just a spokesperson - she sneaks her way into the ground troops and devises her own plan to splinter off, leading a group of trusted allies on an attack designed to take out Snow once and for all.

Here's the thing - the movie has at least two major sequences that are total stunners. There's no question that director Francis Lawrence has action-movie chops, and when he gets to cut loose - as he does in a legit-awesome sequence in which Katniss and her friends are attacked by rabid subterranean creatures - he turns in some fantastic stuff. The aforementioned action scene, set in the sewer system leading into the Capitol, ranks as perhaps the best single action scene in the entire franchise. It's that good. There's also a climactic scene - in which Katniss holds the fate of Snow in her hands - that's staged to perfection. It's got exactly the sort of epicness and high-stakes drama that you'd want out of the final chapter of this series. Even though you can sort of see the big "twist" in the scene coming, it hardly matters - it's just a riveting, nail-biting, goosebump-giving scene.

So why isn't the movie as a whole better? Because in between these big moments, there's a ton of padding. And it's not even the right kind of padding. The movie would actually benefit, for example, from spending a lot more time with Julianne Moore's President Alma Coin, who plays a pivotal role in the film. But because we've only spent a short amount of time coming to undersand- really understand - her character, her big moments feel sort of arbitrary. What is spent time on is endless doe-eyed pining. And sadly, the teen-romance stuff in The Hunger Games has always fallen pretty flat. I mean, Liam Hemsworth's Gale is pretty much useless throughout the entire series - and his upped screentime here can't hide the fact that he's a hollow character who never seems at all worthy of Katniss' affections. Josh Hutcherson's Peeta is an even bigger dork - and the fact that his main role in this film is to brood and hate himself doesn't help. Sadly, the supporting characters who really popped in previous films - like Jena Malone's Johanna Mason, Natalie Dormer's Cressida, Jeffrey Wright's Beetee, and Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket - are largely sidelined here (even more sadly, this film does feature some final scenes from the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch - and he is, as always, excellent).

And so the burden of carrying the movie and elevating it largely falls on J-Law's capable shoulders. Luckily, Lawrence always seems to be up to the task of bringing depth, intensity, and likability to Katniss - singlehandedly giving the movie a gravitas it might never have come close to approaching otherwise. A scene in which a devastated Lawrence returns to her old home is a perfect example - there's not much to the scene, but Lawrence kills it with an emotional, raw performance. Suffice it to say, Lawrence more than earns her paycheck on these films.

There are some interesting thematic things going on here, and for that I give the movie, and the series, credit. It should be no surprise that a series about kids being forced to battle to the death can go to some dark places, but the series' YA sheen sometimes makes you forget its darker thematic aspects. In this film, there is a legitimately interesting narrative thread about the inherent corruptness of government and the flaw of assuming that the new regime will be better than the old. Again, it makes you wish that the series dared to spend more time and energy on these threads. But the fact that they are there at all makes this a bit more than mere YA fluff, and certainly there are some interesting concepts here to digest post-viewing.

Ultimately, The Hunger Games is what it is, and I give the film series credit for giving us a politically-charged action franchise with a great female protagonist and an interesting universe. But MOCKINGJAY PT. 2 is far from the franchise's strongest entry, even in spite of a couple of franchise-best moments. The pacing here is just too labored and too filled with filler to solidify this as the killer ending that the series needed to truly go out with a bang. Hopefully, the series' legacy will be more thoughtful sci-fi films of this ilk that meld blockbuster sensibilities with character diversity and thematic depth.

My Grade: B

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