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

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

★★★

Maze Runner The Scorch Trials PosterDirector: Wes Ball

Release Date: September 10th, 2015 (UK); September 18th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Science fiction; Thriller

Starring: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Patricia Clarkson, Aiden Gillen

As a direct follow up to The Maze Runner, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials grants director Wes Ball an opportunity to throw us straight out of the frying pan and into the fire. There is no time to catch up, no dialogue wasted on refresher exposition. You could stitch the final reel of the former onto the first reel of the latter and the flow would be seamless. It’s an approach that respects up-to-date viewers but also risks alienating franchise newbies; unlike the Divergent series, the lingo in this mid-franchise outing is harder to grasp — we suddenly learn of a virus called the Flare, a mountain-based faction who go by The Right Arm, and more about the horribly named corporate wrongdoers WCKD.

Aiden Gillen’s Janson, a facility head with an iffy demeanour, sets the scene: “The world out there’s in a precarious situation”. Perhaps the only thing less stable than civilisation is Gillen’s vacillating accent, though in fairness he does fund the film’s early uneasy air. Having escaped the maze, the Gladers — including Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Minho (Ki Hong Lee) — find themselves holed up in a bunker eerily similar to the one run by Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) in the last film. Free from seclusion, freshly cooked food, their own bunk beds. It’s as if everything is too good to be true.

Only, in reality, nothing’s good anymore. The world outside, aptly rechristened the Scorch, has been ravaged by heat and disease. Zombie-like creatures called Cranks roam freely in search of flesh to chew on. A step up from the maze beasts, these clambering speedsters evoke a 28 Weeks Later vibe, especially as they are positioned within a climate of militant command and clinical action. Thomas, in spite of all this misery, manages to muster up some rebellious positivity. He is the eternal optimist in a pessimistic world.

Maybe they see a ray of hope radiating from Thomas in the wake of his stubborn idealism, but people do trust him too easily and this undermines the credibility of the story. Aris (Jacob Lofland), a loner who spent time in another maze before the bunker round-up, opts to collude with Thomas despite not knowing him. It is a theme throughout: our hero is heralded as a morally, physically, and mentally infallible being. When the group come across a refuge disguised as a dumping ground for old garments and rusty equipment, they all take the opportunity to dawn suitable Scorch clothing. Apart from Thomas, who discovers a suave jacket among the dross, something that could have graced Ryan Gosling in better times.

It’s as if all the others know he is the film’s central star. Fortunately none of this canonisation really matters because Dylan O’Brien is such a charismatic and inviting screen presence (a less capable frontman might’ve been insufferable given the circumstances). The film is arguably at its most compelling during those rare moments when Thomas does have to confront vulnerability. There’s an animosity at the fore, driven particularly by Teresa who begins to question her counterpart’s role in bringing about rebellion. Are they doing the correct thing by evading WCKD? Was the Glade as good as it was ever going to get?

Regardless, we know WCKD boasts an immoral underbelly. Towards the beginning, Thomas and Aris find out that Janson’s apparently safe retreat is actually a giant-shrimp-breeding-cum-human-blood-harvesting factory controlled by the aforementioned organisation. It may be a source material problem, or an issue with mainstream popcorn fiction in general, but the narrative occasionally lacks plausibility. Aside from the Thomas trust issue, even more blatantly obvious coincidences rear with jarring nonchalance: a revealing crisis conversation between Janson and Ava just so happens to occur in the company of Thomas and Aris on the night they break into the secret facility.

The message is clearly anti-corporation and anti-oppression, and T.S. Nowlin’s screenplay not-so-subtly channels that message via Thomas’ middle finger. These mature themes are matched by a horror-inspired underbelly that teeters right on the edge of a 12A UK rating. Fans of the Fallout video game series might mistake certain set pieces for similar looking locations in said game’s nuclear-torn Washington D.C. (an abandoned subway station springs to mind). Cinematographer Gyula Pados has more to play with here and the wider scope benefits Ball’s film greatly. Broken cities incite awe and wariness as they resemble the urban desolation shown at the end of Inception, while seemingly endless storm-strewn deserts echo Peter Weir’s The Way Back.

Giancarlo Esposito is one of a plethora of effective secondary characters — casting director Denise Chamain deserves credit for employing so many actors willing to maximise the potential of their bit part statuses. As leader of a ragtag stowaway group, Esposito purveys a mystery that keeps you on your toes (like Rick from The Walking Dead, he also always greets newcomers with three inquisitive questions). There’s an exquisitely queasy turn from Firefly favourite Alan Tudyk — who could do with a wash — though he is part of an unnecessary sideshow plot. Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel turns up as a Scorch survivor alongside Rosa Salazar’s strong-willed Brenda.

Having run the maze in sufficient time, they’ve now passed the trials with a splash of merit. It has been an entertaining if unspectacular effort so far. Let’s hope when part three — The Death Cure — rolls into the Scorch, SuperTom and co. finish with aplomb.

Maze Runner The Scorch Trials - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox