The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Mockingjay Part 2Director: Francis Lawrence

Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, and Suzanne Collins

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, and Julianne Moore

First things first.  I would like to share a quote about last year’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 from one of my favorite critics, me:

“As a set of films, this could have been a very solid trilogy with a biting finale. The choice to split it up will forever prevent these films from achieving that overall status…of the three films in the series, this is the worst, but hopefully will give way to a superior conclusion.”

I was outstandingly  astute!   Splitting these films up single-handedly removed The Hunger Games from the zeitgeist.  Now, the superior Part 2 is released with buzzless fanfare and to the series’ weakest opening regardless of it being a loftier achievement than Part 1.  I will review The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 as a stand-alone entry in the series, but hope secretly that director Francis Lawrence and editor Alan Edward Bell are sitting in a studio somewhere restoring this series as a trilogy by working on a 145 minute, single-film director’s cut of Mockingjay.

Mockingjay – Part 2 picks up right after Part 1’s sudden and violent conclusion.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) opens the film as she receives treatment and vocal therapy to repair the damage Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) inflicted when he attacked her.  His brainwashing by the Capitol was successful and now he’s a loose cannon and a prisoner of the rebels.  The plot from the previous film obviously continues as well.  The series of propaganda films that rebel leader, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) had commissioned to build up Everdeen as a symbol of revolution have worked.  Now it’s time to march on the Capitol and take down President Snow (Donald Sutherland), a man’s whose fate has been hinted at since the moment his first name was revealed to be Coriolanus!

The march on the Capitol is the bread and butter of this film.  For those upset by the lack of traps and kill-or-be-killed confrontations in the last film will have their appetites satisfied this time around.  As the rebel army advances, a team led by Katniss plays clean-up crew, avoiding deadly hidden traps called pods.  Katniss’s team has the unique job of trailing the rebel army and shooting more propaganda videos that show “The Mockingjay” in various feats of victory.  This team is also the impetus for reuniting Katniss with her hometown sweetheart, GalePeeta-in-handcuffs-300x200 (Liam Hemsworth) and her fellow tribute turned fiancé turned nemesis Peeta, who was sent by Coin as part of the team to demonstrate how the Capitol’s grip on Peeta has ended – except he’s still pretty messed up.

A word about Jennifer Lawrence.  She is so good in this role.  Arguably, the role of Katniss is what made Jennifer Lawrence famous, although her critical acclaims are rather abundant.  Still, imagining anyone else in these films is nearly impossible.  Her commitment and emotion lift Katniss off the pages and into our hearts the way Judy Garland was able to do with Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.  The impact of these films owe a lot to her performance.

Performances aside, this film does have some substance to it. Mockingjay – Part 2 proceeds to improve upon the comparison made in Part 1 between the futility of the “games” and a dogmatic battle to further one’s own cause.  At this, the film is quite successful.  The world itself is the arena and it is a battle of ideologies, not just the individuals who populate it.  It is eerily easy to draw countless associations between the conflicts in this film and those going on around us today.  The film works very well as a social commentary and one that could and should allow for some meaningful conversations between parents and teenagers.

I say teenagers and not kids because this film is unabashedly grim, and that’s in comparison to the other films in the series where kids try to kill other kids until only one is left.  This grim element does work slightly to the film’s deficit in that as a series of films, the true direction and ultimate ending point is not very fluid.  We feel less like we’ve been on a journey and more like we’ve been dragged through the mud.  To this point, Mockingjay –Part 2 is very much a different film that Part 1.  Readers of the third book know what to expect, but unlike the Harry Potter books and films that incrementally grow darker; Mockingjay sprints towards the finish line, especially in the darkness department.

The capstone film in the Hunger Games series has arrived.  The girl is still on fire, but the flame may not be as eternal as we once thought.    B+

Mockingjay is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes.

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Spectre

Spectre Movie PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Screenwriters: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Whishaw

The end may be near for James Bond…at least the one that looks like Daniel Craig.  In a recent interview, Craig made it wildly clear that he is not into doing another Bond movie.  While that may change, it means that Spectre, the 24th official Bond film, may be one that passes the torch to a new Bond, a distinction that only five of the films really have (although it gets kind of messy with Lazenby and Connery).  Craig’s four Bond films have been received rather tremendously.  His unconventional approach and downplaying of Bond’s silly side has seemingly revitalized the franchise and brought an air of respect back to the character.  Still, Spectre makes nearly all of the same mistakes that caused me to knock Skyfall last time and Quantum of Solace before that.   Fool me once shame on you, fool me 24 times, shame on me.

****Warning, minor spoilers regarding Christoph Waltz follow.  Do not read any further if you do not want to know about his character.****

Like Skyfall, Spectre starts in classic Bond style with a strong, action-packed opening as 007 sleeks through Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festival to track down and kill a man who plans to blow up a packed stadium on behalf of a mysterious organization.  These opening scenes are certainly the crown jewel in the Bond film formula and have been elevated to a new level in the Mendes/Craig era.  The rest of the film revolves around this mysterious organization, later revealed to be SPECTRE, and the hunting down of its leader, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  Unlike many previous Bond installments, the Craig films capping with Spectre are actually a much more woven series of sequels than their predecessors.  Director Sam Mendes, who made the two most recent Bond films, used Skyfall to introduce a thematic thread about chastising the egoism of youth and praising the wisdom of age. The film delved deeper into the inner workings of James Bond and by the end, casual throwbacks to earlier “older” Bond trappings were scattered throughout including vintage Aston Martins and the introduction of a Miss Eve Moneypenny.  Now with Spectre, even casual Bond fans are aware of what director Mendes and his screenwriters are doing here.  Fifty years of films are coming full circle as the supervillain that sought to destroy Sean Connery in From Russia with Love is rebooted and reloaded to strike again!

Rebooting and remaking is definitely the name of the game in entertainment lately and while some are hits, I am not excited about seeing James Bond go back to square one.  This is especially a grim turn for female characters.  Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) does her best to keep this film from being too shallow, but it still may be the most sexist film since San Andreas. Still, the thing that makes Bond tick is the brazen confidence in the face of unspeakable danger, and Spectre has a good dose of that.  The action scenes in this film deliver.  Does it have as much as Skyfall?  No.  Is it miles above other recent tent pole action films in its genre like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation?  No.  To me Spectre feels like a set-up film much like 2013’s Man of Steel felt like a set-up film.  Yes it’s another installment of something that’s been around a while.  Yes, all of the familiar things you expect to see are there, but at the end it feels stretched out, belabored, and even a little monotonous until the end where the hints at what’s to come make you wish you could skip this movie and go right to the next one.

Aside from its pacing, the other unfortunate letdown is Waltz as Blofeld.  What seemed like brilliantly ideal casting at first kind of fizzles out when implemented.  First of all, Waltz does not appear in the film for nearly an hour into the already overlong film.  Perhaps the original intent was to have Waltz’s casting and/or character be a surprise, but the marketing would have you believe otherwise.  Secondly, his introduction after the build-up is absurdly underwhelming, which is a shame when you ponder the potential of having Christoph Waltz play your hero/anti-hero supporting role…it’s kind of his thing!  Javier Bardem’s turn as Silva in Skyfall, while not perfect was far more satisfying than the missed opportunity that is Waltz in Spectre.

Spectre is in full nostalgia mode and not looking forward.  If this is a good thing, remains to be seen, but apparently everything old is new again in the world of Bond. C+

Spectre is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes.