‘Mockingjay — Part 2’ Sees A Franchise Sputter To A Stop

20 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Hunger Games’: Moviegoers say goodbye to a still-rare female protagonist.

You are to be forgiven if you can’t recall, precisely, what happened in the first half of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” the first half of the last book of the young-adult dystopian trilogy, for those of you still keeping score. The Hunger Games, which kicked off in a blaze of guts ‘n’ glory in 2012, ends now with a sad whimper, along with a lot of big bangs signifying nothing.When The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” debuts this weekend, analysts expect it will earn $120 million, which would make it the lowest opening of the four films for Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. franchise, despite having the highest budget at a reported $160 million. “A sizable percentage of the audience for ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Catching Fire’ didn’t show up for ‘Mockingjay – Part 1,’” Box Office analyst Phil Contrino wrote. “The franchise isn’t as popular as it was only a few years ago and it’s possible the franchise’s audience size could still erode even further as a result. “The growing anticipation for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ may cut into potential for ‘Mockingjay – Part 2’ among more casual fans of ‘The Hunger Games’ franchise.” A $120 million opening would still put the film in the top five biggest opening weekends of the year, and it would be more than enough to come out on top of the weekend box office. There she was, longbow in hand as usual, arrows in the quiver on her back, weaponized with touching modesty in the midst of a high-tech rebellion against the higher-tech forces of a pitiless dictator.

In the movies, based on Suzanne Collins’ novels, Katniss volunteers for the deadly, titular Games and ends up leading a revolution against a totalitarian government. In the outside world, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian epic is a merchandising machine and the inspiration for a running Stephen Colbert gag. “Mockingjay — Part 2,” the fourth installment in the movie franchise, wraps up the story in spectacular, deeply satisfying fashion. The final “Hunger Games” chapter hits theaters tomorrow and will wrap up the saga of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her war with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol, as well as several other subplots. Dividing the final film of the franchise is so de rigueur, but in truth, it’s a decision that’s often more successful financially than it is artistically.

Sony Picture’s R-rated holiday comedy “The Night Before” starring Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie will also debut this weekend. Katniss is a conflicted heroine, but the story shows her moral fortitude – volunteering to participate in the Games saves her beloved younger sister from having to enter the deadly arena.

At the helm is director Francis Lawrence, who also directed the previous two movies in the series, “Mockingjay Part 1” and “Catching Fire.” Lawrence talked to Speakeasy about the challenges he faced in staging the franchise’s most complicated scenes, some of his influences, and how he worked to satisfy the book series’ ardent fan base. In Part 2, the actress and her character both seem a little out-of-sorts, dispirited and perhaps even disinterested in what is unfolding as the story rumbles on to its deadly conclusion (and to its wholly unreal, dreamlike denouement).

Katniss has remained, in Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal, a vividly vulnerable creature of flesh and blood surrounded by sci-fi extravagance of variable quality. She’s accompanied by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who still battle for her affections, and a band of former Hunger Games winners working for rebel leader Coin (Julianne Moore). It most likely helps that Katniss is portrayed by actress Jennifer Lawrence, who has won over many, but a love for “Games” and Katniss in particular caused even the popularity of archery, Katniss’s famous skill, to surge. When conceiving the look for his “Hunger Games” films, Lawrence said he started with two points: Pure imagination and the emotional value of a scene or sequence. “If a scene is going to be about loss, I’ll try and think of imagery that conjures those kinds of feelings and marry it to what my imagination might have pictured originally when reading the book,” he said. Of the three “Hunger Games” books, “Mockingjay” was the most sprawling and the least focused, as author Suzanne Collins struggled to maintain the arena setting of her previous two novels.

Framing, blocking, color, set design: “All of those things are ideally working toward that emotional value.” Lawrence cites the 1979 Ridley Scott classic when he describes putting together the sewer sequence in “Mockingjay Part 2.” Without spoiling too much, it involves the good guys being stalked by creatures, known as “mutts,” unleashed by President Snow’s Capitol forces. Katniss and her bow and arrow headed up one of the most lucrative franchises in film history, and the fact that a female character was at the head of this big-budget series is something that’s still a rarity in Hollywood. Yet even more than in the “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” or “Hobbit” film series, the final installment should have consisted of one film rather than two.

The action in “Mockingjay—Part 2” is slow to gather, even though “Mockingjay—Part 1” was all about setting the stage for the decisive battle. Oscar hopeful “Spotlight,” about the true story of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of a major child-molestation scandal and coverup, is expanding to 598 theater locations this week, and is expected to earn $4.6 million for independent film company Open Road. The self-importance of it all also becomes insufferably self-important, as if this is the complete history of humanity itself and not just one more treatise on the struggle between freedom fighters and fascism, with sub-themes about the nuances brought into play by family, friends and questions of loyalty and trust. That’s not so much a fault as the nature of this production, which was directed by Francis Lawrence from an adaptation, by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, of the Suzanne Collins novel. Animated movie “Inside Out” doesn’t show its lead actress onscreen, while “Cinderella” has its heroine attending a ball rather than taking charge of a revolution. “Pitch Perfect 2,” however, has a female ensemble cast leading the comedy.

After that, the production’s pre-visualization team took a crack at conceiving the sequence, but it still lacked sufficient detail, according to Lawrence. It is the practice – all too prevalent now – of splitting what otherwise would be a perfectly fine motion picture into two sluggish, overbearing, barely watchable ones.

Critically, Part 2 is sadly bereft of the salty humour provided by Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy — an element that previously provided a light-hearted balance to the darkness. The run-up to the rebels’ assault is thoughtful and affecting; it’s dramatized on a human scale. “There’s got to be a better way,” Katniss says as she realizes that her comrades’ battle plan will entail extensive civilian casualties. At the same time, recurring characters Haymitch and Effie (Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks) have been relegated to extended cameos, while the charismatically insane Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) never gets a chance to cut loose. In this final film, however, his character is just along for the ride — as are Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, Willow Shields as Primrose Everdeen, Julianne Moore as rebel president Alma Coin, the sad ghost of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee and even the titan Donald Sutherland as the despotic Panem president.

The “Twilight” film series, which was based on the successful books of the same name by Stephenie Meyers, center on Bella (Kristen Stewart) and her supernatural adventures involving vampires and werewolves. Another issue faced by Lawrence and his writers is that when the first film came out, it wasn’t clear if these very young actors could anchor an enormous franchise, so they were surrounded by veterans like Woody Harrelson, the aforementioned Sutherland (who is having a better time than anyone here), Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci. Throughout the series, the story’s core appeal to young audiences has been her struggle to break free from manipulative embraces and become her authentic self. Fans and critics alike derided some of Bella’s actions and qualities, including a lack of personal interests outside her romantic relationship and unhealthy behavior following a break-up. And it is just part of a plot twist that any attentive person can see coming long before Katniss’ commando squad and Coin’s rebel troops storm the Capitol.

Given current events, it may be uncomfortable to face those issues over your $10 popcorn, but that’s the beauty of fantasy blockbusters: they can tackle Big Ideas without completely bumming out the audience. But then the same filmmakers turned around and pumped The Hobbit full of hot air, stretching what had been one thin story into three films so full of longueurs you could have read the book aloud in less than their eight-hour run time. There is still plenty of excitement and romance, and even a little humor (thanks, as usual, to Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch and Jena Malone’s Johanna). That means you rarely see the likes of Haymitch or Effie, though when you do they’re a welcome sight, punching up a very dark movie that takes itself very seriously.

I can only dimly recall the first Hobbit – the memory is a haze of pain – but I do remember the entire enterprise stopping cold for endless minutes while dwarfs sang a dirge (with verses!). Instead of slow and thoughtful, however, the tone becomes hurtling and grim, and not so human, with long chases through sewers, rising tides of digital sludge and slippery, slithery lizard mutts that look for all the world like standard-brand zombies. That’s also Hutcherson’s fault; his acting limitations are more exposed as a man whose mind has been warped by Snow’s drugs, and who can’t distinguish reality from fantasy. What has not changed is the core tension between Lawrence’s conflicted Katniss and the two young men in her life, Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark and Liam Hemsworth’s Gale Hawthorne. We obviously don’t know yet whether “Wave” will seize the public imagination, but Hollywood executives must have been thinking at least a bit of Katniss as they greenlit the upcoming movie.

Lawrence, the director, has deftly molded a very R-rated subject into a PG-13 packaging, and if there’s little laughter to be found here, the seriousness is in good hands, as Lawrence, the actor, is open, raw and vulnerable in her last turn as Katniss, and Hutcherson is always dependable. The film puts as much emphasis on how Lawrence will choose between Peeta and Gale as it does to how her Katniss will survival the final battle at the Capitol. She gives of her best in a few emotional scenes but slogs through the rest, as if completing a homework assignment she didn’t want to do but had to finish to graduate from an obligatory class. In the end, due to its adherence to its source material, its strong cast, solid action sequences and its striking design, the second part of “Mockingjay” will fulfill its duties, taking those who have followed Katniss’ journey to its end, and delivering almost exactly what they read on the printed page. I can almost hear Hollywood saying, “See, it’s not just a craven cash grab – we’re giving the fans more time with their beloved characters, even if it costs us a bit more.” Well, that may have been true when Quentin Tarantino split Kill Bill into two volumes in 2003 and 2004.

Though I believe that everything is made better with judicious cutting, his story’s spilling into two came from a creative overflow, not a stretching. Why, for example, would Panem litter itself with elaborate, unwieldy booby traps that the rebels can circumvent with a scanner that looks like it came from Radio Shack?

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