Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II

One aspect of films that I have always looked at is their willingness to be brave. The Hunger Games as a franchise has looked at braveness and courage in a great deal: Katniss being brave as she volunteers for her sister during her first Games; Katniss' mother being brave for Prim once Katniss leaves; Gale being brave standing up the peacekeepers in the build up to the Quarter Quell. Additionally, both the original and sequel Catching Fire were brave films in their own right. Both understood that a story of this calibre must be character driven, and neither film rushed to get into their respective arenas in order to kick off the action. They favoured smaller, intimate moments over high wire set pieces, and it ultimately made the eventual action sequences even more exhilarating. Where Catching Fire even improved over its predecessor was in the action sequences it constructed; they were all bigger, more sophisticated and much more brutal. Film three, last year's Mockingjay Part I, was not so good. Whilst it remained enjoyable throughout, and tightened its grasp on the franchise's political themes, it suffered heavily from a severe lack of plot and by the time we cut to black for the credits to roll it was difficult to feel satisfied. The brave and risky storytelling techniques from films one and two had been dropped, and The Hunger Games franchise had one film left to pick up the ball before it left the big screen for good. And let me tell you this: it delivered right when it needed to. 

Whilst I wouldn't quite put this at the same level as the superb Catching Fire, this is an undeniable improvement over Part I, and I'd even place it solidly above the franchise's first entry too. Mockingjay Part II has a fantastically firm hold on its characters and its narrative, and it returns to the character driven efforts of the franchise's first half. Whereas supporting characters slipped under the radar with the previous installment, more care is placed this time around for us to acknowledge them and recognise how vital they are to Katniss' world. Her dance with Prim at Finnick's wedding turns into an elongated and emotional wordless embrace, and is heightened further by some unusual cinematography. Gale and Peeta's brief conversation while Katniss sleeps does more to advance the story's atypical love triangle than Part I managed across two hours. This story is about Katniss, yes, but the supporting characters are important too, and this closing entry does an excellent job at giving them all a victory lap before we surge into an insanely action packed second half. And with the body count and brutality that said second half proposes, these characters moment really needed to matter, so it's wonderful that they're done with such delicacy and emotion. 

One thing that really sets The Hunger Games as a franchise apart from many other young adult novel adaptations is the quality of the acting. Divergent, for example, was just about a pleasant enough experience, but the performances weren't even close to the calibre of acting that any entry in The Hunger Games offers. Whilst this does, obviously, fall down onto the quality of script writing too, Mockingjay II features a plethora of superb performances. Lawrence is as reliably strong as ever, doing wonders to humanise Katniss and allow us to feel every inch of pain she endures. Hutcherson injects Peeta with more emotion and trauma than this character has had across the entire series, his internal struggle and inability to tell fact from fiction is foregrounded and Hutcherson really steps up to the game. Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moore are strong and powerful as the two opposing Presidents. Even smaller performances, like those from Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Sam Claflin, are perfectly solid. No cast member feels out of place, and any time that something big is required it's nice to be in a position, as an audience member, where you don't need to worry about whether or not they will pull it off. They always do. 

But what really pushes this film the extra mile, the element that really drives this film and makes it stand out so vividly from the rest of the franchise, is how relentlessly grim it manages to be. This series has always been politically adept, but Mockingjay Part II pushes this to new levels, levels unheard of in this kind of film. The thematic concepts of war and revolution aren't skimmed over or simmered down, returning director Francis Lawrence has been incredibly brave in how unflinchingly brutal his film's depictions of these themes are. Fan favourite characters are slaughtered in morbid ways, moments which you expect to have happy endings culminate in tears. This is, obviously, entirely down to the work of author Suzanne Collins, but the direction brings her material to life almost seamlessly. Whilst there is little to no blood and deaths aren't shown on screen, this never weakens any moment: everything that should hit hard does so, even harder than anticipated in fact. The film's pacing may be occasionally sketchy, but whenever the film has a good stretch (which it does very often), it hits heights of intensity that not many others can pull off. It all builds to an emotionally and thematically excellent final act, and the franchise goes out on a tremendous high. 

Mockingjay Part II may not be quite as good as the series' second installment, it's let down mildly by some occasional ropey dialogue ("There has to be another way!", "We've only got one shot, make it count!") and perhaps being split across two entries left this film with less plot than it should have. But while Part I made me frustrated that Mockingjay would be two films, this concluding entry has made me appreciate it. It's made Part I an undeniably weaker film, sure, but I'll take the hit with that because it has strengthened Part II fantastically. There is more time for the small, intimate moments again. The story regains its character driven roots, the political themes flourish more than ever before and the action and violence exceed anything this franchise has even glimpsed at. I've thoroughly enjoyed The Hunger Games as a series across all four films, in fact I can confidently say that over all 548 minutes of film that the series has offered us I have not been bored once. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Francis Lawrence have ensured that this franchise remains predominantly grounded but soars whenever it needs to, and we've been treated to a film series that has dared to walk on territory that most other blockbusters wouldn't even consider. And, like I said at the start of this review, boy do I love it when films are brave. 

To Summarise: Unflinchingly grim and relentlessly intense, Mocking Part II is a thrilling, superbly acted and emotionally satisfying conclusion to the stellar Hunger Games franchise.

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