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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (2015): Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, directed by Francis Lawrence.  Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, and the indefatigable Donald Sutherland.  Running Time: 137 minutes.  Based on the book series by Suzanne Collins. 

Rating: 3/4


            The Hunger Games franchise, for me at least, has always been a film series whose real importance lies in its greater symbolism as a major break with our decades-long tradition of male-dominated studio action flicks (and book series, for that matter), a refreshingly direct refutation of the stagnant industry “wisdom” that female-driven fantasy/sci-f/dystopia narratives can be neither good, nor profitable.  Its success in becoming a cultural touchstone for a generation of readers and filmgoers is undeniable, even if the films ultimately do nothing new narratively or cinematically.  None of the individual movies rise to the level of stand-alone cinematic greatness, but a good story is still a good story, and it has been a pleasure watching each new film rise further above its literally very shaky first installment.  Mockingjay Part 2, despite its clunky title and the overt cash-grabbing fact of its existence, is no exception to this trend.  It is by far the best movie of the franchise, and will provide most fans of the book with the satisfying ending they wished to see. 

            In almost direct mirror of the last movie, we open with a shot of Katniss at another low point, right after she was attacked by a brainwashed Peeta at the very end of Part 1.  Her throat is covered and bruised, so swollen that she can barely form words.  The story’s embrace of the uncanny PTSD valley Katniss is forced to endure is perhaps the greatest strength of the entire tale, a sly critique of how most action-heavy blockbusters straight-up ignore how deeply war, celebrity, and personal betrayal can psychologically scar a character, yet still allow them to grow and overcome hardship in spite of it.  I have been skeptical of the J-Law craze in the past, and critical of her performance early on in the series (critiques that I still stand by), but like the movies themselves, she has very much come into her own.  The movies lack the internal monologue that the books used to examine Katniss’ existential exhaustion, so Lawrence has had to make it all evident in how she carries herself, and it’s in this movie that I finally felt she hits her stride.  It’s the best performance we’ve gotten from her in several years. 

            While she is recovering (in several senses of the word), and the efforts to un-brainwash Peeta are underway, the rebellion continues to build and move towards its ultimate conclusion.  Only one District is still held by Capital forces, and that is quickly dealt with once the Mockingjay and Gale (Who?  Oh right….wait, who?) arrive on the scene.  After that, the final pieces are put into place for the assault on the capital, as President Snow pulls back all soldiers and civilians into the inner circle of the city, and sends his surviving gamemakers to turn every corner of every street into a terrifying death trap for the incoming rebel army. 

            For obvious reasons, President Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee (oh Lord, how I miss Philip Seymour Hoffman) want Katniss to sit this last one out and hang back behind the lines to shoot propaganda footage, promising her she will be granted the honors of executing Snow herself once the battle is over.  She has other ideas though, figuring that taking Snow out early will lead to a quicker end to the fighting, and she, His Galeness, her camera crew, and a few other soldiers (plus eventually Peeta, for reasons that even in the book make no sense) eventually break off from their assigned mission to make their own way through the blasted city. 

            Further than this, I cannot go, for then I would be way too far up spoiler creek, with nary a paddle to steer back with.  If you haven’t read the book and therefore don’t already know exactly how everything finally plays out, you owe it to yourself to experience the ending cold.  For those who did read the series, rest assured- the ending is faithful to the source material in all its gory glory.  My biggest worry from the start was that the movies would, under studio pressure, pull away from the very un-cheerful, non-fist-pumping nature of most of the third act, but that concern was, thankfully, unfounded, and the movie is a lot stronger for it.  After all these years of building this world bit by bit (and getting better at building it with each new film), each action and character resolution carries real weight.  The best word I can use to describe it is appropriate.  It is the ending both the story and Katniss as a character deserved. 

            Not that the film is perfect.  As I already said, even this last one is held back in a few places, often by flaws of its own design.  Gone is (most) of the atrocious shaky-cam that brought low the first movie, but with the camera now so still I was able to look at the sets more, and that highlighted a new issues- given how recent events in Iraq and Syria have provided the world with far too many examples of what a war-ravaged city actually looks like, the supposedly burned-out Capital looks too….clean, like these are sets on a stage that have been roughed-up somewhat for appearance, but are still basically intact.  It’s a bit unsettling, as if even the war itself was for show. 

            That’s a relatively minor issue though.  A bigger one is pacing, the bugbear of every Hunger Games film, with a great many sequences of characters simply going from Point A to Point B (or even just sitting around in a room somewhere) taking far too long.  The movie feels longer than it is as a result, which kills a lot of the vibe the great scenes achieve.  This could very well have been a desire to build atmosphere, but slowing down the action or story development to do so is a tricky balance to strike, and it often can’t quite pull it off. 

            Thankfully, when the parts fall into place and the movie starts clicking again, it is very good.  My personal highlight was the sequence in the sewers (fellow readers, you know that of which I speak), which, purely in terms of how it builds the tension of the moment until I was just about to burst out of my chair, is the best piece of visual filmmaking in the entire franchise, bar none.  The acting is vastly improved over previous films, and also might feature the most racially diverse cast I’ve seen in an action movie in some time.  But as great as Lawrence, Hoffman, and others are, the MVP award for the entire franchise still goes to Don Sutherland as President Snow, who somehow managed to take his fiendish, scene-stealing abilities from the previous films and makes them even better here.  My sincerest apologies to James Spader’s Ultron, but I think we already have a winner for Noah’s Favorite Villain Performance of 2015. 

            So here we are.  Three books, four movies, and a worldwide phenomenon all wrapped up (for now).  Sure, they have their individual flaws, and the last two both suffer from being two separate halves of what worked best as a combined whole, but thankfully, in the end that was not enough to sink them.  The Hunger Games franchise ends on a fitting high note, leaving viewers both young and old with a lot more questions to chew over than any of its imitators on the market (looking at you, Divergent) can offer.  It’s been an interesting ride, and I am glad I experienced it. 


-Noah Franc 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: Omoide no Mani (When Marnie Was There)

When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Mani) (2015): Written by Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.  Starring: Sara Takatsuki and Kasumi Arimura.  Running Time: 103 minutes.  Based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson. 

Rating: 3.5/4   


             There is a wonderful way in which movies produced by Studio Ghibli seem to breath, move, and live at their own special pace, even as you are watching them.  This is especially true for their quieter works that are consciously set in very normal, real-world settings, and many of which are lesser-known as a result.  Films like Whisper of the Heart, My Neighbor Totoro, Only Yesterday, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Arrietty, while perhaps containing some fantasy or fairy-tale characters or elements, eschew the more overtly-astounding visuals and grander themes of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, or Grave of the Fireflies, choosing instead to focus on small stories in times and places you could easily imagine yourself occupying.  They are meditative, lavishing an almost heart-rending level of attention to every detail of the postcard-perfect worlds they create, making every frame seem like a home someone has lived in for a very long time.  When Marnie Was There, possibly (though not yet certainly) the last feature-length movie Studio Ghibli will gift to the world, falls into this category.  If it really is to be their last act, what a beautiful final movement it is. 

            As is overwhelmingly the case where Studio Ghibli is concerned, our main character is a young girl, a 12-year-old orphan named Anna.  We first meet her in the city of Sapporo, where she lives with her foster parents.  Anna is, to put it very mildly, not your usual innocent-and-happy-as-a-clam preteen Disney protagonist.  She struggles with depression, passive resentment towards her dead parents, and (this is hinted at later) a strong dislike of her somewhat-foreign physical appearance.  She sits apart from the other children at school so she can draw out the fantasies in her head, seeing herself as outside a circle occupied by everyone else.  Worried that the environment of the city is too much for her (she has asthma, and the film opens with her having a particularly bad attack), the mother decides to send her to spend the summer with some relatives of hers in a small seaside town, thinking a few months of fresh sea air will be just what she needs, both physically and mentally. 

            The place is charming enough when Anna arrives- the couple she is sent to stay with is jovial and friendly, and her room has a stunning view of a nearby cove.  When she first goes out to explore, she notes a grand, but aging, mansion across a marsh, and runs over to check it out.  Finding that is has clearly been empty for years, and noting that evening is upon her, she turns to leave, only to realize that the tide has come in and she is cut off from the other shore.  Thankfully, a local fisherman (known, we later learn, for almost never speaking) happened to be coming by on his way in, and he takes her back with him on his small boat.  Relieved, she turns back for one last glimpse of the house and….wait, are those lights in the upper bedroom window???

            This is the first of a number of major twists in the story; each one is expertly executed and, bit-by-bit, they build up a remarkably multi-layered mystery yarn.  When Anna goes back to the house, at first abandoned but then suddenly lit-up and new-looking again, she meets a cheerful, vivacious, blond-haired girl about her own age, named Marnie.  Marnie is everything Anna is not- lively, outgoing, and endlessly cheerful- but they immediately feel drawn to each other (indeed, Marnie drops hints she’s been expecting Anna), and as the days go by Anna starts to think only of when she will see Marnie next, and what sort of new adventures they will have together. 

            If an empty house suddenly coming alive with apparently real people only at night wasn’t enough of a tip-off for you, all is not as it seems.  Is Marnie a ghost?  An angel?  Something worse?  Or is Anna hallucinating the entire time?  As simple as the core narrative of the film is, much of its brilliance lies in how all but the best guessers will feel in the dark about what’s really going on right up until the scene of final revelation comes about at the end.   

            Tied into the central mysteries of the main story are a lot of side themes that, unfortunately, are for the most part only hinted at- issues surrounding depression, emotional abuse, crisis of identities, passive xenophobia, the struggles of being an orphan, and even sexuality can be glimpsed in scenes here and there.  Most of them ultimately center on Anna’s crisis of identity, and that is the main focus of the film by the end.  One of the biggest things she wrestles with throughout is her complicated feelings about not knowing her real parents, which are tied up into her equally complicated feelings about her foster parents.  Her foster mother, despite only appearing at the beginning and the end, leaves an especially big impression- we see so clearly how much she loves Anna, and how hurt she feels that she doesn’t know how to help her more.  A crucial moment at the very end between her and Anna (which I will not dare spoil here) is one of the film’s most powerful moments, an incredible example of brilliant character animation.   

            Speaking of the animation itself, this movie is, of course, visually stunning; this is Ghibli, after all, so what else would you expect?  Blues and greens are the order of the day, with the sea and sky combining with the greens of the island marches and forests to create a calming effect, which aids in the dreamy quality of many of the film’s best scenes. 

            Sadly, not all of the potential threads or problems the film sets up are brought to play at the end.  The silent fisherman, for example, looks like he might end up being someone important to the story of who (and what) Marnie really is, but whether or not that is the case is never really resolved.  And while the scene that, for the audience, answers all hanging questions is great, it’s undercut a bit by the fact that Anna herself apparently only puts the pieces together in another scene 5 minutes later.  It’s not a flaw or failing of the film, per say, but arranging the scenes that way was an odd choice, to say the least.  But with that said, even if you are ultimately not entirely satisfied (or maybe even more confused) by what explanations are offered by the end, When Marnie Was There is nonetheless an incredibly moving and beautifully rendered coming-of-age tale, easily one of the best animated films of the year thus far, and if it must be so, a graceful last note by the Meisters of Studio Ghibli. 


-Noah Franc