Wednesday, January 13, 2016

SCREAM: a review of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2"

Based upon the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Screenplay Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong
Directed by Francis Lawrence
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

I have to say that I really wasn't exactly holding my breath to see this film.

Dear readers, you have heard me go on more than enough about my personal fatigue with the excess amount of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes and re-imaginings that have permeated our theaters. And to add to that list would be the extended, multi-chapter "final" installments of serialized films, which began admirably with the "Harry Potter" film series but, as these things go, have been abused for solely financial gains as we have seen with the "Twilight" series, and most egregiously with Peter Jackson's downright unnecessary and mercenary three film series of the one novel known as The Hobbit.

With the cinematic adaptations of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy, I felt that these films began at a high point with Director Gary Ross' initial installment from 2012 and even ascended to greater heights with Director Francis Lawrence's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (2013). Yet, by the time we reached the third and final book in the series to adapt for the silver screen, here we went again to a more financially driven decision to cleave one volume into two parts, which by most accounts of those who have read the original novel, have all informed me that this could have easily worked as one film (By the way, I have read the first two novels but not the final one as I just did not respond well to Collins' prose style.)

When I did see Lawrence's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1" (2014), I did feel severely let down by the proceedings. While it was overall a film of value with challenging, thought provoking content and it did indeed improve over the course of its running time, the entire enterprise did feel to be nothing more than a place holder, the wheel-spinning preamble for the inevitable war film to come. And that is where I found myself at my most disheartened, because if there as anything that I just didn't need to see even one more time was yet another "chosen one" mythology storyline leading up to a war driven finale filled with soulless, bombastic CGI effects from end to end and all signifying absolutely nothing. Frankly, I've seen it all before and better and what was really the point of going through it all over again?

That said, and feeling that since I had traveled this far into the story, I once again plunked down my hard earned money for a ticket and to my surprise, the film not only demonstrated a supreme rebound in quality from the turgid third installment, Francis Lawrence's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2," delivered a finale that was an impassioned, often wrenching and ultimately sobering ode to the nature and consequences of war, especially in a world of "eye for an eye" politics and inhumane grandstanding. Now that we have reached the conclusion, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2," much like the first two episodes of this series, proved itself to be a better, stronger and more thought provoking series than it had any right to be and the rewards are all ours as a result. This indeed was a grand finale.

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" opens just moments after the conclusion of the third film with the rescue of the captured, tortured and now brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol and the clutches of the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as well as the evisceration of District 12, the home of our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the former "Girl On Fire" now known as the titular "Mockingjay," the symbol of the revolution against Snow.

After surviving an assassination attempt, and desiring only to kill President Snow herself, Katniss sneaks away from the rebels' underground compound led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) to join the squadron, which includes Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Clafin), Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and even a manacled and not fully recovered Peeta (due to his intimate first-hand knowledge of the Capitol) among others on their march through the booby trapped streets to invade the Capitol. Yet, unbeknownst to Katniss and her friends, President Coin has her own duplicitous plans underway to not only usurp power from Snow but doing so in a way that will completely undermine Katniss's mission to end the tyranny of this fascist regime as well as endanger Katniss' life and the future of Panem.

As promised, Francis Lawrence's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" is indeed a war film but thankfully, it is not the CGI overload that I was fearing the film would become. After a somewhat sluggish opening (which really is inexcusable considering the slog of the entire third film), Lawrence keeps his film urgently paced with mounting tension and presented with many sequences of furious intensity. I especially loved the sections set just above and within the depths of the Capitols' sewer system, where our heroes are confronted by attacking Peacekeepers, a sea of deadly black tar, an army of mutated creatures called "mutts" and even heated lights that incinerate upon contact. As Katniss and crew encounter one death defying trap after another, there were points when the film recalled for me nothing less than the heights set by Director James Cameron's "Aliens" (1986).

Even with all of that pulse pounding action and even more that follows, I was surprised and pleased by the level of restraint Lawrence offered to the proceedings by having many sequences of quiet, demonstrating that "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" will be a war film not showered in ear shattering sound, CGI frenzy and hollow fury but a war that is depicted as moving forwards in laborious inches--emotionally and psychologically as well as physically. Really, just regard the sights we witnessed in both Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug" (2013) and even disastrously worse, "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" (2014), compare them with what Francis Lawrence has delivered and you will certainly notice a marked difference in quality, intention, and execution. Instead of having Katniss and her crew just running around in circles, Lawrence ensured that his war film will carry a rightful weight making Katniss and the rebels' attempts to overtake the Capitol on foot would exist as a step-by-step siege unto itself, and one where the nature and consequences of war are never disregarded.

Now, at the outset of this review, I mentioned that "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" was better than it really had any right to be, a sentiment that I have expressed for the first two films in this series as well. This may not make that much sense initially, but hopefully, the following explanation will clear up matters. While watching, I was reminded of a criticism that I had seen in several reviews where there were complaints that the film was relentlessly dark and terribly grim. To that perception, I offer a gobsmacked, "Well...yeah!" because it should be relentlessly dark and terribly grim!

While the entire "Hunger Games" series is set within the realms of dystopian science fiction, what sets it apart from the likes of "Star Wars," "The Lord of The Rings," and the "Harry Potter" series is that where those collections all live within fantasy, "The Hunger Games" is presented as allegory. What else has this series been but an indictment of political fascism and oligarchical society as driven by the big business of war and a fear based power structure designed to keep the masses at bay and entirely subjugated? What else has this series been but a condemnation of the wealthy power structure who recklessly and heartlessly make the decisions to send children to die in war and how the media had been utilized as a tool for propaganda based messages to misinform, confuse and even terrify the public at large? What else is this series saying other than the quotation attributed to Catholic historian, politician and writer Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."  

Because of these clear, passionate messages from the source material of Suzanne Collins' novels, it would have been a tremendous mistake to transform her story into edge-of-our-seat popcorn films. These movies have to be relentlessly grim for we are dealing with a story where children are being forced to murder each other on live television at the beginning and now engaged with fighting and dying for their own emancipation at the end. It is a story where we are asked to seriously contemplate what it means when the government is conspiring against you rather than representing the will of its constituents. It is a story that criticized totalitarianism while it also explores the shifting sands of rebellion and revolution, suggesting that we are all pawns in a much larger and more sinister "game," and therefore, no one's hands are clean...not even Katniss' whose own agenda carries deadly consequences, to which she must perform her own soul searching should she retain any sense of humanity within an inhumane world.

Francis Lawrence, his writers, his crew and his entire cast, again led beautifully and brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence (and even an especially strong Josh Hutcherson), pay strict attention to all of those concepts and ideas, making sure that "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" never becomes a cinematic thrill ride. This is a sobering, painful film that unleashes profound tragedy, a haunting conclusion and rightfully so, for in this world there is no safe place and any potential for peace arrives at a high cost. In fact, I think the film even questions the concept of peace itself by wondering aloud if it is something that can ever be found in a world that has already been so disastrously compromised and abused. These are not the themes to be found within a straightforward popcorn movie and thankfully, the filmmakers adhered to Collins' original vision and not to any desires of the Hollywood bean counters who are already attempting to find ways to keep those "Hunger Games dollars" flowing even further with potential prequels. And what is this that I have read about some sort of "Hunger Games" theme park, of all things? Clearly those people have no idea whatsoever of the story being told. And none of those ideas are remotely worthy of our time and dollars, so let us not give them any credence.

With "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2," the series has concluded upon a high note. It was a series, due to the mistake of separating the final chapter into two parts, threatened to voyage from a blood curdling scream to a muted whisper but with this final installment, Francis Lawrence ensured that the story, the characters and the literary vision of Suzanne Collins returned to its passionate scream.

And scream it did at full throated volume and also with thought, compassion, and the deepest sense of humanity.

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