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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The Hunger Games:
- Part 2  (2015)
3 Stars
Directed by Francis Lawrence.
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Willow Shields, Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Mahershala Ali, Toby Jones, Paula Malcolmson, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Eugenie Bondurant, Sarita Choudhury, Stef Dawson, Meta Golding, Patina Miller, Omid Abtahi, Joe Chrest, Michelle Forbes, Gwendoline Christie, April Grace, Phillip Troy Linger.
2015 – 137 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and some thematic material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, November 19, 2015.
To say that it has all been leading to this is a given; after all, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" is the final film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' literary trilogy. However, it also is the culmination of something much less tangible and altogether more emphatic for District 12 victor Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and, by extension, the faithful audience who has followed her journey across four features. Living in the dictatorial society of Panem under the tyrannical thumb of President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), she has narrowly survived two Hunger Games—mandatory fights to the death against fellow chosen underage tributes—and the initial first steps of an uprising against the malevolent government that has for so many years controlled the country's thirteen districts. Katniss has experienced heartache, trauma, grief, confusion and disdain while having the warrior spirit within her to become a beacon of hope for her nation. She may only be 17, but she has lived through enough to fill ten lifetimes.

As a cinematic franchise, "The Hunger Games" has been consistent in its inconsistency, each entry—the 2012 original, 2013's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," and 2014's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1"—exceedingly provocative as a political allegory but not quite as airtight in its delivery of action-adventure nirvana. As much life as the actors have brought to their respective roles in these movies, Collins' books were more thorough in their complexity of Panem's strife and the inner workings of Katniss' struggle. As Katniss comes of age in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2," this particular series finally does as well, the tough, thoughtful, uncompromising themes arrestingly walking hand in hand with a narrative both intensely orchestrated and emotionally cathartic. The final hour, especially, is so strong it is impossible to imagine any fans walking away dissatisfied.

Katniss' District 12 co-victor, confidante and potential soulmate Peeta Mellark (John Hutcherson) has been rescued from Snow's clutches, but the broken young man who returns is no longer the kind-hearted soul he once was. Tortured and severely conditioned to see Katniss as the rabble-rousing enemy who has been the single-handed cause of death and destruction within the country, he is a dangerous, vitriol-spouting loose cannon who must find himself—his true self—anew. Seeing Peeta in such a state has fueled Katniss' fire. She wants Snow's imperial, murderous reign to end, but she also wants something more: to personally put a finite stop to him, and force him to look into her eyes while she's doing it. Defying District 13 leader Alma Coin's (Julianne Moore) orders, she sneaks away from the hospital where she has been convalescing and joins the front lines of resistance in storming the Capitol where Snow resides. Also joining the fight: childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the still psychologically ailing Peeta, who has been sent by Coin under self-serving, not-quite-valiant circumstances.

As befits a film that has been cut down the middle for predominately financial reasons, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" opens in midstream as the latter half of Collins' climactic series installment, "Mockingjay." In the decidedly padded "Mockingjay - Part 1," the lack of a three-act structure was the one sizable hurdle it never quite overcame. In this continuation, perhaps because there is a fitting payoff, it doesn't have the same problem. Returning director Francis Lawrence (2011's "Water for Elephants") and screenwriters Peter Craig (2010's "The Town") and Danny Strong (2013's "Lee Daniels' The Butler") allow the narrative to breathe as they live with and listen to these characters rather than mechanically hit all the beats of the book.

Set up long ago by Snow's gamemakers, the Capitol has been rigged for an impending rebellion. Thus, Katniss and her squad effectively walk straight into the unofficial 76th Hunger Games. What follows is dramatically riveting and shockingly potent, ratcheting a level of heightened, sustained tension not captured as successfully in the previous pictures. A rapturous extended setpiece where the group is stalked by something in the darkness of the Capitol's underground tunnel system is as nerve-jangling as a great horror movie, a cross between 1986's "Aliens" and 2006's "The Descent." Never losing sight of the human component, this sequence leads to a series-best moment between Katniss and Peeta, so sincerely written and urgently performed it is certain to cause one's heart to beat a little faster. As the third act shifts into play and Katniss moves closer to Snow's mansion, the proceedings take turns at once unforeseen and inevitable. What follows forces vital reassessments of certain characters while giving last-minute layers both good and bad to heroes and villains alike. Indeed, things are going to grow ever darker before there is a new day's ray of light.

It is not an understatement to declare Jennifer Lawrence (2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past") stunning as Katniss, the evolution of her character over the last four years seen not only in her actions, but also in her piercing conveyance of emotions and experience. As an actor, Lawrence never takes the safe or predictable route; everything she goes through is raw and authentic, the subtlest of facial expressions often telling all that needs to be said. Potentially minor scenes, such as a late one where she returns to her home in a now-destroyed District 12 and encounters little sister Prim's beloved cat Buttercup, are some of the most powerful as they endeavor to legitimately explore Katniss' psyche. Josh Hutcherson (2012's "Detention") is on an even playing field with Lawrence when it comes to his full, perfect embodiment of Peeta. The arc Peeta has been given is as significant as any other player in the story, and the war within himself over what has been brainwashed into him and what he knows to be the truth is grippingly portrayed as the love between him and Katniss—a love no longer captured by the peering cameras of the Capitol—is actualized. Hutcherson and Lawrence share such chemistry together it is easy to forget about Liam Hemsworth's (2012's "The Expendables 2") Gale, the uninteresting final piece of a love triangle that has never really worked.

Supporting participants receive gratifying moments in the spotlight, from free-thinking District 7 victor Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), whom Katniss confides in about wanting to kill President Snow, to Katniss' faithful, fashion-forward escort Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks), who has had her own change of heart through the course of the films, to Katniss and Peeta's hard-drinking mentor and former District 12 winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), finally beginning to sober out as the stakes have raised. Jena Malone (2014's "Inherent Vice"), Elizabeth Banks (2015's "Love & Mercy") and Woody Harrelson (2013's "Out of the Furnace") make their every scene count, but so do the rest of the performers. The great Donald Sutherland (2011's "Horrible Bosses") is ferocious in his evil stillness as President Snow, finally abiding by his promise to be honest with Katniss, while Julianne Moore (2014's "Still Alice") is increasingly chilling as more is learned of Alma Coin's underlying motives. As Plutarch Heavensbee, it is bittersweet but quite nice to see the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (2012's "The Master") in his final screen performance.

The best was saved for last as "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" elevates the respectable YA-novel-to-film-saga to new heights. As Katniss has grown into a person tougher and wiser yet as humanly fallible as ever, the movies have likewise deepened and matured. The final scenes are just right, not ending in big flourishes but allowing the weight of what has occurred and the cursory steps of moving on to percolate in the souls of the characters. Katniss and Peeta and Haymitch and Effie have earned these lingering beats, and the film excels in understanding that "The Hunger Games" has never been about lavish special effects, otherworldly creatures, or blazing costumes made of fire, but about them, their futures, and the need for a new, better way of life.
© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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