The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

For F*** Magazine

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 2 

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Donald Sutherland
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 17 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

The Mockingjay sings her last in the conclusion of the Hunger Games saga. The nation of Panem is in the throes of a revolutionary war, with Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) continuing to bear the burden of being the symbolic figurehead of the uprising, the Mockingjay. Katniss teams up with a group of her closest allies – including Gale (Hemsworth), Finnick (Claflin), Cressida (Dormer) and Peeta (Hutcherson) – to infiltrate the palace of President Snow (Sutherland) and assassinate him. After an extended period of captivity in the Capitol, Peeta is deeply shaken by the psychological torture he was subjected to and becomes hostile towards Katniss. District 13’s President Alma Coin (Moore) and her right-hand man Plutarch (Hoffman) are counting on this final assault to be the tipping point that allows them to overthrow Snow. As Snow becomes increasingly obsessed with destroying Katniss and putting a stop to the revolution, Katniss realises that as high as the stakes were before, they are ever higher now, with the future of Panem in her hands.
                The expectations are high for the final instalment in the Hunger Gamesfilm series, not just because of the massive following the Suzanne Collins novels and the films themselves have gained, but because the filmmakers went the route of splitting the last book into two films, increasing the build-up for Part 2. Typically, movies that close out a blockbuster series promise colossal, epic battles and a surfeit of spectacle. For both better and worse, Mockingjay Part 2 takes a different route. The emphasis is on the politics, an element which has set the Hunger Games series apart from most teen-aimed properties. From the word “go”, this is an appropriately bleak affair, an unrelenting downer. True, The Hunger Games was never meant to be particularly happy or uplifting, but Mockingjay – Part 2 will alienate or even confuse viewers who aren’t 100% invested in what has come before. Audiences are expected to be familiar with the preceding films and, preferably, the books as well.
                The Hunger Games series has taken a considerable amount of risks that have been rewarded critically and at the box office. After all, the basic premise of the first movie/book is a tournament in which kids kill each other for the entertainment of the masses. Finally overthrowing the tyrannical rule of President Snow should be a rousing triumph, but for a society as far gone as Panem, a quick fix simply won’t cut it. That the film not only acknowledges this but delves into the myriad ramifications of the revolution is admirably mature, if not viscerally exciting. Particularly during the first act, things can be a bit of a slog, and Mockingjay Part 2 struggles to gain momentum. The action sequences, in which Katniss and the District 13 Unit have to navigate booby-trapped stretches of the Capitol and fend off all and sundry threats that are flung at them, feel more perfunctory than truly thrilling.
                Jennifer Lawrence’s ever-rising star has paralleled Katniss’ journey from starving District 12 girl to bearer of the Mockingjay mantle, though we imagine being J-Law in real life is generally more fun than being Katniss. In a way, it’s a good thing that Jennifer Lawrence won’t be playing Katniss indefinitely and that she’s given an opportunity to see the character’s arc through to completion. Even more than in the earlier instalments, Mockingjay Part 2 asks the question “is this too much for one girl to handle?” point blank, answers “yes” and shows us all the ways in which it is too much. In the film’s opening scene, Katniss is trying to speak as she is being tended to by a nurse, after Peeta nearly crushed her windpipe in the previous film. There are many films about “finding one’s voice”, but instead of manufactured optimism, the Hunger Games series serves up unflinching brutality and Jennifer Lawrence’s final bow as one of this generation’s defining heroes is expectedly affecting and stirring.
                We also get a resolution to the love triangle, which director Francis Lawrence tries his darndest to couch as something secondary to the turning cogs of revolution. The wounded, feral quality that Peeta takes on is heart-rending and does give Hutcherson more shades to play, as well as switching up the dynamic between Peeta and Katniss. Gale’s bond with Katniss as a childhood hunting buddy is played up a little more in this one; Hemsworth has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s not an actor with immense range but not too much is demanded from him here.
There is quite literally an army of supporting players, so it is natural that some will get shorter shrift than others. This reviewer did enjoy that the film is packed with badass female characters in addition to Katniss, including Dormer’s Cressida, Patina Miller’s Commander Paylor, Gwendoline Christie’s Commander Lyme, Michelle Forbes’ Lieutenant Jackson, Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason and Moore’s President Coin. Moore is especially fun to watch as we see President Coin making increasingly questionable but decently justified decisions. Elizabeth Banks, clad in increasingly fanciful ensembles, seems to be crying out from all the greyness that surrounds her. Sutherland proves he was the ideal choice for President Snow from the beginning, exuding a deep malice that is several layers past idle moustache-twirling villainy and making us all the more eager to see Snow get his comeuppance.
In an age where series finale blockbusters seem almost mandated to include no-holds-barred clashes of epic proportions, the Hunger Games series’ more cerebral conclusion is welcome. However, if one has a particularly short attention span and isn’t fully immersed in the world of Panem as established by the earlier films, it is possible to become bored and frustrated by the ponderous proceedings. This is sure to be a smash hit (at least until Star Wars invades cinemas), so we hope Lionsgate doesn’t try to futilely stretch things out with spinoffs and a reboot, though, like the fall of Panem, that does seem depressingly inevitable.
Summary: The Mockingjay’s last song is resonant if not especially rousing, the final chapter of the Hunger Games series largely satisfying but at times overwhelmingly downbeat.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong

            

Paradise Lost

For F*** Magazine

PARADISE LOST

Director : Andrea Di Stefano
Cast : Benicio Del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Brady Corbet, Claudia Traisac, Ana Girardot, Carlos Bardem
Genre : Romance/Thriller
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 2 July 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)
Benicio Del Toro sure has moved up in the drug underworld, going from playing Bond villain henchman Dario in License To Kill to portraying notorious real-life kingpin Pablo Escobar here. It is 1983 and Canadian surfer Nick Brady (Hutcherson) accompanies his brother Dylan (Corbet) to Colombia, where the duo run a surfing camp. Nick meets and falls in love with Maria (Traisac), who happens to be the niece of local politician and drug lord Pablo Escobar. Escobar appears to take a shine to Nick and is keen to welcome him into his large family, Nick spending increasing amounts of time at Escobar’s luxurious Hacienda Nápoles estate. However, when Nick realises that he’s in over his head and the bodies start piling up, it might be too late for him.
Paradise Lost (also released as Escobar: Paradise Lost) is the writing and directing debut of Italian actor Andrea Di Stefano. Instead of making a straight-up biopic, Di Stefano has chosen to tell a story about the ‘King of Cocaine’ from a different angle. Our way in is the fictional Canadian surfer Nick, played by Hutcherson. Many films have an “audience identification character” whom viewers, unfamiliar with the world being portrayed, can relate to. In Paradise Lost, the fictional audience identification character is the primary focus, with the fascinating real-life figure relegated to a supporting role. This ends up being very frustrating, resulting in the nagging feeling that there’s a more compelling story taking place right around the corner from our protagonist, but we’re stuck with him.
This is not necessarily Hutcherson’s fault – he’s competent in the role and the character’s blandness is more a result of the writing than his performance. The romance between Nick and Maria, arguably the story’s linchpin, gets surprisingly little meaningful development. Their relationship progresses at an almost comically fast pace – they meet and are engaged in what is practically the next scene. There are also many times when Nick’s behaviour goes past ‘naïve’ into ‘just plain stupid’. This is clearly a very dangerous, very powerful man you’re tangling with, what did you think was going to happen?
Del Toro is the ideal candidate to play the larger-than-life drug lord. He has enough gravitas, ‘serious actor’ cred and that vital crazy streak required to pull off the part. The nature of the film is that, even though Del Toro has a good amount of screen time, Escobar is a background figure in his own story, which is something of a shame. He manages to find that balance between charming and menacing and, while it isn’t exactly a subtle performance, he never flies into over-the-top histrionics as a lesser actor well could have. There’s also the physical transformation, with Del Toro packing on the pounds to play the slovenly drug lord.
Paradise Lost is handsomely shot by cinematographer Luis David Sansans and was filmed on location in Panama. Production designer Carlos Conti does a laudable job of re-creating Escobar’s sprawling ranch, the grounds decorated with life-sized statues of dinosaurs because he’s just that wealthy. Unfortunately, this atmosphere of authenticity is often marred by how obviously tacked-on Nick’s story feels, to the point where it becomes an obstacle rather than a way in for the audience. Di Stefano does construct several moments that result in a genuine ‘pit of your stomach’ feeling and there is a sense of mounting dread, but it’s ultimately a pity that, with a subject as rich and fascinating as the notorious Pablo Escobar, Paradise Lost only scratches the surface.
Summary: While it boasts a memorable turn from Benicio Del Toro, Paradise Lost’s gamble of making the main character a fictional one doesn’t pay off.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

For F*** Magazine

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Woody Harrelson, Evan Ross, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Gwendoline Christie, Donald Sutherland, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence) 
Run time: 123 mins
It’s time to raise the three-finger District 12 salute and whistle that four-note motif again because another Hunger Games movie is in theatres. Following her actions in the Quarter Quell, Katniss (Lawrence) has been whisked away to the secret stronghold of District 13. Her best friend Gale (Hemsworth), sister Prim (Shields) and mother (Paula Malcomson) are among the survivors from the Capitol’s bombing of District 12 taking refuge in 13. President Alma Coin (Moore), along with Plutarch (Hoffman), is in the midst of staging a revolution, calling on Katniss to become the face of the uprising. Despite being reluctant to after the trauma she experienced in the arena, Katniss assumes the role of the symbolic “Mockingjay”. Peeta (Hutcherson), who couldn’t be rescued, is held in the Capitol and forced by President Snow (Sutherland) to make televised appearances exhorting a ceasefire. Because of this, he is branded a traitor by the revolutionaries, but it only strengthens Katniss’ desire to rescue him and the other victors even more.

            Mockingjay – Part 1 has followed in the footsteps of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises by going the “last book adapted into two movies” route. Both Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Breaking Dawn – Part 1 did a lot of treading water in padding things out. While Mockingjay – Part 1 fares far better than Breaking Dawn thanks to its denser plot, there’s still a degree of disappointment to be had from sitting through two hours of set-up, even if it is pretty good set-up. Introducing audiences to the subterranean District 13, there is the credible sense that this revolution is coming to a head. Moving past the Games themselves, we get to see more of the other districts, including the lumber-producing District 7, and power-generating District 5 with its massive hydroelectric dam. There is an increased sense of scale without it feeling like bloated and empty spectacle. There’s also more of the helicrafts in action, two of which Katniss shoots down with her bow and arrow.

            The film still is character-driven, Jennifer Lawrence returning to her star-making role with more of the drive, indignant determination and just the right amount of vulnerability she brought to the first and second films. Unlike a number of young adult novel adaptations, Mockingjay – Part 1 does a good job at establishing that there is much more to the story and the world than the protagonist’s personal struggles and heartache, without downplaying the importance of that. The premise of the franchise is televised bloodsport in which teenagers kill each other for the entertainment of the elite and to keep the masses in line. The role of media manipulation in shaping the perceptions of the public gets further explored here with the introduction of Natalie Dormer’s Cressida, a Capitol film director who defects to District 13. That the resulting propaganda films or “propos” end up looking like movie trailers is a sly, effective touch without having it go all Starship Troopers on us.

            The politics of The Hunger Games is one of the key components that gives it an edge over other film series aimed at a similar demographic. Julianne Moore retains her stern exterior (looking more than a little like Ysanne Isard from the Star Wars expanded universe) but plays a warmer, kinder authority figure than moviegoers are used to seeing her as. Both skilled actors, she and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman make for believable collaborating revolutionaries – this marks their fourth time co-starring in a movie. The film is dedicated to Hoffman’s memory and while he completed shooting all his scenes for Part 1, some of Plutarch’s scenes in Part 2 will have to be distributed to other characters.

            Much of the emotional content of the first two films was derived from the relationship between Katniss and Peeta and director Francis Lawrence uses the fact that the two characters are separated to generate a good amount of tension and anguish. Peeta being used as the Capitol’s new mouthpiece in his interviews with Ceasar Flickerman (Tucci) is contrasted and compared with how Katniss takes up the mantle of the Mockingjay for District 13. The role of Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is also expanded. It seems director Lawrence is all too aware that there are still detractors who dismiss this series as mopey teen romance, so scenes in which the love triangle is addressed appear sparingly.

            If Catching Fire was analogous to Empire Strikes Back, then Mockingjay – Part 1 is like if Return of the Jedi ended right after the escape from Jabba’s clutches. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but there’s no denying that the climactic sequence, which director Lawrence has said was inspired by Zero Dark Thirty, feels like in belongs in the middle of a movie. Still, fans of the first two films are most likely more than willing to wait a year for the series’ conclusion and there is enough that takes place here to enticingly set the stage for the finale.


Summary: Despite suffering from “Part 1-of-a-two-parter-adaptation-itis”, the politics of Mockingjay and the turning gears of the revolution make this an intelligent, absorbing entry in the series.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong