The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 (2015)

★★★★

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 PosterDirector: Francis Lawrence

Release Date: November 19th, 2015 (UK); November 20th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is an empowering film, and it was likely always going to be that. However, there is no denying the impact that recent tragic events have had on further funding its overarching message of hope. Movie-making, of course, manifests as a trivial pursuit when considered alongside matters of life and death. It’s a luxury, a pastime, a hobby, a passion. But it’s also a love, a source of joy, a triumph, an escape. Cinema is one of life’s most important unimportant things, and when it reflects reality in any form — big or small — cinema is arguably at its most engaging.

The Hunger Games franchise has always had its finger on the pulse of geopolitics and society; the struggle that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) faces, against tyranny and barbarism, is also the struggle that many people in this world are currently caught up in. You can feel the heightened reverence as you watch, and those behind the series — from Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence, from Suzanne Collins to Danny Strong and Peter Craig — deserve credit for bringing those aforementioned weighty themes to the forefront of young adult fiction.

The film opens with Katniss hoarsely attempting to say her name, battling against the damage inflicted by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) towards the end of the previous film. Instantly the outing is reinforcing its central notion of a silenced body fighting against said silence and not giving into an oppressive society. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is the oppressor in Panem, Katniss the symbolic body speaking out. As Snow and his cohorts sit around lavish dining tables, eating and drinking and toasting their own unsavoury greed, Mockingjay — Part 2 initiates the conclusive rebellion.

We know there won’t be any messing about when the title card appears on screen, white letters bluntly protruding from a black background. But the moral structure of this tale isn’t as clear-cut. “It’s war Katniss. Sometimes killing isn’t personal,” says Gale (Liam Hemsworth), whose righteousness has apparently seen better days. For the rebels, cause is supposed to take precedent over spectacle — The Hunger Games and Catching Fire particularly honed in on the consequences of the latter via their televised Gaming exploits — but there are even those in Katniss’ team who adhere specifically to marvel. This blurred morality keeps us on our toes as characters waver on who to trust.

Even Katniss, leader of the rebellion, feels harnessed by the warring tactics invoked by her superiors: “It doesn’t matter what you want,” Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) spits. The film has a grey palette that is quite distinct from the flashiness of earlier films, but that is similar to the chalky aesthetic of something like Saving Private Ryan. Katniss, Gale and co. are part of an insurgent team that takes to the booby trapped Capitol in an effort to fuel their cause and, perhaps, deal with Snow. We think back to Saving Private Ryan again as the rebels carefully navigate the urban decay, threat constantly hanging over the screen like a dark shadow. It really feels like the final battle, especially following Mockingjay — Part 1’s more subdued, poised, and frankly justified prerogative.

Fans of The Walking Dead will see familiarities in the Capital-set roulette game, where death could befall anybody at any moment; as such we sit through nerve-shredding uncertainty. A genuinely scary sewer sequence is coincidentally similar to a scene in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, only this one bears even more edgy ferocity. The underground monsters here are spawns of World War Z’s sprinters and The Descent’s crawlers. Neither Francis Lawrence nor his writers shirk away from tough subject matters which means death, a lot of it, is inevitable. It’s a brave mantra and an honest one in my view (i.e. not exploitative), though there is a truly horrifying moment that some might find too tough for a film rated 12A.

We do get small glimpses of cheer: the wedding of Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson), for instance, ushers in a deluge of celebratory dancing. War thoughts never abate though; Katniss and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) watch the festivities from afar as they debate their separate roles in the rebellion. It’s a scene akin to one in The Return of the King where Gandalf and Aragorn discuss the probability of Frodo’s success while Merry and Pippin party nearby. The brooding calm before the inevitable storm. The screenplay also investigates how individuals scarred by war operate. Johanna, for example, is dependent on drugs. Avox cameraman Pollux (Eldon Henson) bears not only physical but also mental ailments. And Peeta spends much of his time conflicted, Josh Hutcherson playing the tortured soul with a sense of purpose.

Given the large cast involved, some characters only appear fleetingly: Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), to mediate the revamped Hunger Games with despicable aplomb; Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), affording the film greater substance with a simple glance; Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), humanised to the point of no return; Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), a key player in generating emotion; and President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), a burst of thunder amongst the clouded moral spectrum.

There are a few fairly minor problems, namely that the all-seeing Snow constantly believes Katniss has met her demise when it is clear she hasn’t and, without tempting spoilers, the unfair and somewhat puzzling fate of one key character (no death involved). The final half hour is unexpected in many ways — some good, some not-so-good — but it at least ought to be hailed for not conforming to a prerequisite narrative. It’s also worth pointing out that this is an action movie that manages to dazzle without sacrificing its politically-infused roots, which must be worth something in 2015.

Fittingly, we end with a nod to Jennifer Lawrence. Mockingjay — Part 2 packs an emotional punch because it has good writing and good direction, but those are only conduits for a performer and Lawrence’s performance here, just as it has been throughout the entire series, is wholly affecting. She absolutely is a filmmaker’s dream, both talented and marketable. But her commitment, her discernibility, also makes Lawrence a film-watcher’s dream, and it is through her leadership that this smart, pertinent blockbuster franchise has flourished.

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 - Katniss & Gale

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Francis Lawrence

Release Date: November 21st, 2013 (UK); November 22nd, 2013 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

They always say it. It’s almost an unwritten rule in franchise filmmaking. Premature reviewing at its most uninspiring. “The sequel will never beat the original.” Of course I am paraphrasing here and my source is general social cinematic norms rather than cold, hard evidence. But it is certainly true that sequels have a lot to live up to, particularly when they find themselves following on the heels of a successful franchise opener.

Interestingly, even after The Hunger Games delivered thought-provoking sub-plots, new Hollywood superstars and overall cinematic enjoyment in abundance, the onset of Catching Fire has been met with optimism and even more positive hype than its predecessor. Of course there’s pressure, but there hasn’t really been any noticeable apprehension over a potential disaster in regards to the second big-screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novels.

And why should there be?

Under new leadership, with fresh faces and even fresher faces, Catching Fire forcefully retains all of the progress made by The Hunger Games and elevates the franchise to new heights. The film is weightier, slicker, more intense, and once again boasts a number of glowing performances. Francis Lawrence (no relation) directs an orchestra lead by The Girl on Fire as they collectively strike all of the correct notes, creating a sequel which has its volume up loud as it transmits a clear message of hope and defiance.

A short time after their unprecedented joint-victory in the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are distant with each other and the world around them, and are preparing to embark on a Victory Tour. Still reeling psychologically from her experiences in the games, Katniss finds herself thrown directly under President Snow’s evil spotlight as he strives to quench any potential district-driven rebellion against his autocratic Capitol. The film opens moodily, reflecting the ominous on-edge feeling amongst the district-dwellers that the previous instalment developed so well. Its physical scope travels far and wide with landscapes displaying an icy exterior mirroring that of the mechanical, desensitised hierarchy — an unrelenting mechanism represented at its most negligent by the metal claw disposing of the deceased.

Perceived by the oppressed as a beacon of hope against fear, Katniss and Peeta are subject to re-entry into the Hunger Games tournament, this time alongside fellow victors from the past in a master-plan devised by recently introduced Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee. Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his Hunger Games debut as Heavensbee, demonstrating Darth Vader-esque inequalities at times. His deceiving, snake-like delivery is as skin-crawling as it should be. Katniss represents all that is right in a world riddled by wrong, therefore she must be stopped and placing her back into the murderous tournament is Snow’s means of doing so. After all, “Nobody ever wins the Games”.

There is an underlying sense of good versus evil here, but more significantly a battle of hope versus fear. Katniss defines hope, regardless of whether she herself believes it, and having been plagued by fear for seventy-five years, the people of Panem are finally bearing witness to a means of resistance. This notion of defiance plays out in various subconsciously related instances as the film progress; be it through Gale’s encounter with the viscous and ironically-named Peacekeepers, or Cinna’s symbolic garment creations. The actors, writers and director each fulfil their role in successfully creating a dynamic which sees the audience entirely on the side of Katniss, without proceedings ever balling over into a territory of jadedness. Any semblance of an upper-hand gained by the resistance is a triumphant one.

Jennifer Lawrence once again shines as Katniss (sometimes literally) as she steers the bow-wielding heroine through the emotionally wrought rigours, and is quite simply a delight to watch on screen. Her steady evolution from a reluctant and isolated victim of the games to a determined leader is unblemished. Both Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson have more to do this time around and Hutcherson’s volunteer scene is perhaps the most poignant of the piece.

Newcomers Jena Malone and Sam Claflin embody the characteristics of past victors Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair to a T, with both the latter’s charm and the former’s abrasiveness in full flow. “Attitude” is the new “mahogany” for Elizabeth Banks’ Effie, who is as flamboyant as before but who also delivers movingly on occasion. An abundance of tension lies beneath the pretension of the Capitol resident — she essentially becomes a token of distinction between the harmless ignorant and pure tyranny, a tyranny of cruelty displayed by Donald Sutherland as President Snow. The ensemble cast deliver performances devoid of weakness, providing Catching Fire and the lead actors a solid backbone to impress from.

A common criticism aimed at The Hunger Games was the extensive use of shaky cam by director Gary Ross, intended to bring a sense of immediacy and danger to proceedings (which, incidentally, it did). Francis Lawrence opts for far less of the bumbling camera work this time around, instead focusing on the contrast between the expansive, free landscapes and capturing the troubled, constrained essence of the Katniss and company. These contrasts diverge further from just the narrative, as melodic instrumentals battle the thumping, grandiose Capitol soundtrack.

Catching Fire is far more encompassing that its predecessor, both visually and thematically, and as a consequence of delving further into the themes of oppression, resistance and trust, it carries more burden that the first instalment. Distressing scenes are almost commonplace in a distressing universe. Francis Lawrence has done exceptionally well in getting a 12A rating for his film here in the UK, and should also be commended for pushing the envelope when it would’ve been far simpler to develop a film containing less weighty elements than those Catching Fire rightly and necessarily displays.

The film is the most anticipated sequel of the year — possibly one of the most anticipated of the last number of years — and it without doubt lives up to its title. The Hunger Games conglomeration certainly is catching fire, and on this evidence who knows when its spark will burn out.