Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

Alternate Title:  Hunger Overtime

One sentence synopsis:     Katniss Everdeen and her band of freedom fighters take the civil war to the Capitol itself in an attempt to bring down President Snow once and for all.

Things Havoc liked: Some of you may recall that I was not terribly complementary towards the first "part" of Hunger Games' Mockingjay, due entirely to the baffling creative decision (unless you consider the box office possibilities) to arbitrarily divide it in half. The track record for movies that have done this is very poor, even if you don't consider Twilight (and who does?), but I didn't chide the filmmakers because I hated Mockingjay, I chided them because Hunger Games is the only YA series of films that I like, and I wanted it to remain good as it approached its ordained end. In the time since then, we have experienced the pacing disaster that was the third Hobbit film, a film whose flaws were also due to badly-designed cuts between films that should never have been separated, but what's done is done, and no matter what my feelings on dividing movies up into halves or thirds or whatnot, I felt it was important to see the series out, and find out if anything could be salvaged from the mess.

The strength of Hunger Games has always been its cast and its characters, a collection of weird individuals in a larger-than-life world derived from the bastard child of Imperial Rome and Madison Avenue. Jennifer Lawrence has long-since ceased to require this series to prove that she is a good actress, but she inhabits the character as well as she ever did. Katniss by now is a weary, tired soldier, sick to death of war and the losses it forces on her circle of friends and loved ones, animated primarily by the abiding need to take revenge against President Snow, and protect whatever she has left. Snow himself is as delightfully sociopathic as ever, and Donald Sutherland's avuncular evil gets a full stage to work with here, as the rebels advance relentlessly on his glittering Capital, and he is permitted to chew a bit more scenery than the previous films afforded. Even in the face of impending defeat, his Coriolanus Snow (I love these names) is unrepentantly evil in the best tradition of theatrical Bond Villains everywhere, and I'm so glad the film finally saw fit to give him a stage to monologue upon. The role of Peeta remains the only thing I've ever been able to tolerate Josh Hutcherson in, and this time the film gives him a little more to do than simply stand around moping as part of one of the obligatory love triangles that all YA stories must be provided with. Following his capture and rescue from the hands of the Capital forces, Peeta is a badly-damaged individual, conditioned and re-conditioned to the point where he has admitted difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy. The film actually handles this concept reasonably well, particularly given the comedic or overwrought method that any sort of Mental Illness is usually portrayed on screen.

Indeed, there's a couple of pretty decent ideas at the core of this film, particularly in terms of the scale of the piece. The war between Snow and his rebellious districts is in full rage by now, with tens of thousands of troops engaging one another in battles so immense as to dwarf the protagonists. One gets a fine sense of them being more or less lost in the wider war, as Katniss' efforts to get to Snow seem almost incidental compared to the wider sweep of the conflict around them. Normally I'm not fond of movies that miss the forest for the trees (it was one of the big problems with Spielberg's War of the Worlds), but in this case the trees are more interesting than the forest anyway. Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Woody Harrelson, and Jeffrey Wright all resume their roles from earlier films, necessarily small, but welcome, while the late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in his last theatrical appearance, reprises arch-manipulator and gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Given Hoffman's untimely death, the filmmakers plainly did the best they could with his remaining footage, contriving to put a role together for him that mostly doesn't feel pulled together artificially. Considering the circumstances, I'm forgiving of any seems that result.

Things Havoc disliked: I'm considerably less forgiving of everything else.

My original concern with Mockingjay being split in half was not simply that this sort of thing never works (which it doesn't), but that the first film in this pairing was entirely comprised of setup and character establishment, neither of which are bad things to have in a movie, but which meant that there was no actual payoff to anything. Nothing of consequence happened, no battles were fought or issues settled, there was not even any interesting action, resulting in a movie that was flat out boring at points. At the time, I assumed that, given everything, we were being set up for a second part that would be almost entirely paceless action, all of the "boring" setup parts having been gotten out of the way earlier, akin to what happened to Harry Potter 7 or The Hobbit. The good news is that it turns out I was entirely wrong. The bad news is that the reason I was wrong is that this movie is also nothing but setup and character establishment.

Mockingjay 2, or whatever we're calling it at this point, is a dreary, boring, leaden affair, a movie that has some of the worst pacing I've seen in quite some time, whether you consider it its own film or part of a unified whole with its predecessor. It is a film that consists almost entirely of the main cast sitting around in basements, bunkers, or other dark holes in the ground, talking in hushed, whispered tone to one another about how horrible things are, something I would normally be more forgiving of if the movie had focused on those horrible things and the ugly reality of war. That theme is in the film, don't get me wrong, but takes a second place to the love triangle built up between Peeta, Gale (Liam Helmsworth at his least memorable), and Katniss. This element, a staple of YA fiction, was in all of the previous movies I'm sad to say, but in the previous movies there were other elements to distract us with. Here there are not. The strange, decadent, world of Panem, both alien and familiar, is barely here, partly due to the understandable reason that the Capital is in the middle of a brutal street-to-street civil war, but that hardly excuses relegating characters such as Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman or Elizabeth Banks' Effie to barely a minute of screentime, characters which were the mainstay of my level of interest in the previous films. Here was an opportunity to watch the Capital's degenerate society collapse upon itself in the midst of violent, fiery upheval, to watch characters we've come to know get pressed to their breaking point, and all the filmmakers can think to do is show us mopey people walking through ruins and worrying about which interchangeable boring hearthrob will wind up with Jennifer Lawrence? Even the action scenes, which while not the draw of the previous films, were at least there, are muted and boring this time around. There is one, one action sequence worth remembering, a standout piece that starts in sewage tunnels inhabited by demons straight out of the later versions of Doom, and escalates from there. This one sequence however takes place hours before the end of the movie, and doesn't even serve as a climax to anything, being buttressed on both sides by yet further scenes of the characters sitting in basements engaging in long, pregnant gazes at one another.

But no, let's be fair, there's more than just moping and love triangles going on here. There's also some of the most ham-fisted "political" drama I've seen in a while.Julianne Moore  is not exactly my favorite actress in the world, and long-time readers may recall my identification of her character as being a designated bad guy designed to teach lessons about the abuse of power in the next movie. I don't want to give the game away, but let's just say that a character who shows up, apropos of nothing, and announces that all elections are suspended until further notice, and that the first thing that the rebels should do following the defeat of the capital is to put on a new set of Hunger Games, may not be quite as subtle as the filmmakers intend. What justification the filmmakers have in tearing all of the interesting parts of this setting out and replacing them with a Juliette Lewis performance that would not be out of place in Escape from LA, I have no idea, but it seems to be part and parcel with this film's utter lack of ambition, content, and elements of interest.

Final thoughts:  With Mockingjay Part 2, The Hunger Games, a series I once enjoyed enough that I gave its second installment a place on my yearly top-10 list of best films, ends not with a Bang, but with a Whimper. If nothing else, it proves, assuming anyone didn't already know, that arbitrarily hacking a book up into two components is, and will remain, a terrible idea, one done purely for the sake of squeezing more money out of a franchise that has proven popular enough to be squeezed. I can't say I didn't see this coming, but I do admit a sense of profound disappointment with the end of the series. Movie franchises often end this way, everything from Terminator to Alien to the terrifying collapse of the Matrix series showed me as much, but this film hurts more than most, if only because it didn't have to be like this. Hunger Games was a special franchise, one of the only series of its genre that I could stomach at all. If the filmmakers had only concentrated on making an actual movie instead of deadening all possible forward motion with a blatant cash grab, then we might well have had something special. Instead, all we have now is the lurching remains of a series I once admired, and the epitaph of a once-promising series to remind us that there exists no story in the world so simple or idiotproof that someone in Hollywood can't be found to fuck it all up.
Final Score:  4/10

Next Time:  The Interview, Take 2.

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