David’s Review: MOCKINGJAY PART 2

David Reddish
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Jennifer Lawrence returns to her star-making role as Katinss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, an awkwardly titled, mostly satisfying and thoroughly entertaining conclusion to the Hunger Games saga.  While the cultural footprint of both the films and the novel might not match the size of those left by Harry Potter or the Star Wars films, they none the less have a devoted enough fanbase that, while this purports to end the series, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself writing about a fifth Hunger Games film in five to ten years…or less.

Katniss has weathered the life or death Hunger Games, including an All-Star round, political upheaval and a teenage love triangle in the previous outings, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that she opens this film in a neck brace. Her fellow competitor/sometime boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) barely survived brainwashing by the authoritarian government of Panem, and her friends Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Finnick (Sam Claflin), Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Joanna (Jenna Malone) and her sister Prim (Willow Shields) have come under the protection of rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) in the decimated District 13.  Coin plots to use Katniss to sway public opinion to her band of rebels, liberate the capitol of Panem and overthrow the despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland, a national treasure).  Peeta, suffering from post-traumatic stress and brainwashing, keeps trying to kill Katniss, which relegates him to a padded room for the first third of the movie.  After that, someone thinks it’s a good idea to send him on a mission with Katniss, which suggests a number of other characters from this mess could benefit from a rest in a padded cell.

If the previous entry, Mockingjay Part 1, suffered from too little action, too little plot, and well, too little purpose beyond raking in the box office dollars in a needless splitting of Suzanne Collins’ original novel, the suspense and excitement that made the series soar has returned.  Francis Lawrence, director of the last two films, returns again to helm with utter relish, populating the film with inventive sets, images and action.  In one of the film’s best sequences, Lawrence sets his actors in a claustrophobic sewer, waist deep in filth as they tray to evade Capitol “Mutts,” eyeless creatures that seem left over from The Descent.  Lawrence borrows heavily from that film, as well as the Alien series to toy with his audience as the characters evade capture.  The sequence has real tension and fright, and audience members who have not read Collins’ original novel probably won’t assume who does or does not make it out alive.  The scenes go on a bit too long for their own good, showing our young heroes clobbering one Mutt after the next, but then, what do you expect from a studio that took the first third of the novel in which little happens and stretched it over two hours?

The first Hunger Games film suffered from a lack of charismatic performers, relying mostly on Jennifer Lawrence to carry the film.  The later entries populated themselves with veteran actors, and thus had more impact. While some of the returning players like Stanley Tucci and Jeffry Wright amount to little more than set dressing, most are given at least a moment to shine.  Foremost among them, Sutherland underplays his role with quiet malevolence.  He and Lawrence have a delicious scene that crackles with dramatic tension.  Likewise, Moore and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman (sigh) approach their characters with an almost giddy enthusiasm.  Moore, in particular, walks the thin line between broad scenery chewing and unhinged madness to great effect.  Josh Hutchinson, way out of his league in the first movie, settles nicely into his role as Peeta, as do Clafin and Harrelson.  Less fortunate is Liam Hemsworth, who, despite beautiful eyes and a square jaw, is about as compelling as a soaked dish towel. (His delivery of one life-or-death serious line actually solicited giggles from the audience.)

Jennifer Lawrence, of course, commands the film with still concentration, and in a delightful surprise, Malone steals every one of her scenes as Joanna, the wild survivor of the games.  By turns flirty, ruthless and bitter, she and Lawrence feed into each other in their moments together, rising to new heights of passion.  Just as Moore threatens to devour the set, Malone, out of focus in the background, snatches our attention to her even when doing nothing more than sitting down or leaning against a table.  Critics often cite Lawrence as the best actress of her generation, and while that’s open to debate, Malone is without question one of the most underrated.

For all the tension in the first two acts of the movie, the third builds to something of an anticlimax given the horrors that came before.  On the other hand, rather than trying to resolve the story with a pixelated storm of special effects, everything rests on a choice Katniss must make.  In that way, Mockingjay Part 2 delves into something deeper, addressing real ethical and philosophical questions which do not have easy answers. For that reason alone, the movie matches or even bests the climactic moments of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, and makes me quite sure that, regardless of the overtones of finality, we will all see Katniss Everdeen pay tribute again.