Friday, June 24, 2016

"The Big Short" and "Spotlight" Tackle Uncomfortable Truths Enroute to Screenplay Oscars

The Big Short uses Jenga to explain the unsound structure of CDOs.
Late in The Big Short, Brad Pitt, who gets to play a voice of reason and anger in a landscape of sly schmucks just as he did in 12 Years A Slave and Killing Me Softly, chastises his compatriots, saying, “If we're right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings. People lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here's a number - every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?” It’s a sobering moment, one that is undercut by the character’s willingness to go along with the scheme he's involved with, as well as his assurance that excitement is ok as long as you “just don’t fucking dance.”

That scene perfectly highlights the fact that while the featured players in The Big Short pride themselves on being anti-Wall Street crusaders, they're actually worse than all the amoral scum that started the problem by banking on high risk subprime loans, because they know better and still opt to short the investments. No matter how you slice it, these are men who looked at a terrible situation and decided to profit off of it instead of doing something about it, making the situation 10 times worse in the process. They may have thought they were sticking it to the big banks for screwing the American people, but by trying to profit in the offing, they guaranteed the American people would be left holding the bag. 

The Big Short doesn't shy away from the issue, even while it's courting viewers to root for all these shifty characters. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) opts to leave hedge funds behind because "business kills the part of life that is essential," while the film's smug narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) cops to being a douche, saying “I can feel you judging me. It’s palpable.” Vennett admits he's not the hero of this story, right after which a quick cut to Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), the most incensed of our protagonists, acts as movie code for "here's your hero."
And he is... sort of. He's the lead of the film, the one with a tragic back story that has filled him with anger and made him obsessed with taking on the system. He's hubristically convinced he can hurt the big banks where it counts, but in doing so he fails to account for just how sneaky they can be. When he finally realizes that type of victory is impossible – when he dines with a particularly vile piece of work and learns the banks have responded to the short sales on their collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) by shorting the shorts with synthetic CDOs comprised of credit default swaps – he decides if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. He tells his team to "short everything that man has touched," further adding to the mounting crisis. Later, when he finally opts to sell, the movie asks us to sympathize with Baum, because the banks got bailed out and he rightly predicts that in a few years everyone will just "be blaming immigrants and poor people.”
I don't know how to respond to that -- part of me loves that the film coaxes us to root for these guys, making us complicit in their scheming, only to have us come out the other end incensed and angry at everyone, these characters included. But most of me just wants to take a bath. There’s an ingrained desire in a film like this to have a character to gravitate toward, someone who distances him or herself from all the hustlers and sort of condemns them for what they've done, ala Bud Fox in Wall Street. But ultimately, I think writer/director Adam McKay made the right call avoiding that type of plotting, and that's specifically because it left me so much more outraged as a result. 
Like The Wolf of Wall Street before it, The Big Short employs a flippant dark-comic approach in its depiction of financial corruption, even going so far as to break the fourth wall with multiple celebrity cameos to make the financial terminology easier to understand. The tone works, and so too does the disdainful and cynical mood that is engendered by an ending note that warns CDOs have come back into the current market as "bespoke tranche opportunities," not to mention the ludicrous moment in which the leads are mentioned in the same breath as Robert Redford in All the President's Men.
Dogged investigative journalism unearths a major Church sex
scandal in Spotlight.
That Redford comparison would be far more apt for the characters of Spotlight, which takes a far more serious approach to what is essentially a very similar story. Sure, The Big Short takes aim at the 2008 financial crisis brought on by the U.S. housing bubble, while Spotlight tackles child molestation cover-ups by the Catholic church, but both function as cinematic activism about uncomfortable truths, or, put another way, as dramatized public service announcements about renegades railing against entrenched institutional villainy. The main characters in each film even sit on their scandalous information for an extended period of time, but while analysts in The Big Short do so to reap the financial benefits (and because the banks won't allow the other shoe to drop until they distance themselves a bit from the fallout), the reporters in Spotlight do so to ensure they write a strong story built on evidence so they can truly make a difference and enact change (and because of delays related to the tragedy on September 11).
Spotlight is a procedural set against the backdrop of a unique time in journalism, right when the proliferation of Internet content brought on a whole slew of cost-cutting measures and online poser "journalists" that crippled the previously prestigious and powerful print media. Long-term investigative journalism in which a reporter (or in the case of the Boston Globe's Spotlight team, a whole team of reporters) spent months breaking a huge story by rooting out actual nuggets of verifiable information used to be common practice, but now there's barely enough money to adequately staff breaking news coverage and even less time to properly confirm sources. The Globe's Spotlight team is still doing this type of work, but such opportunities are increasingly few and far between. As such, Spotlight also serves as a love-song to a profession that has fallen on hard times, but that, at its best, can expose corruption and righteously check institutional injustice as the fourth estate.
At the outset of the film, Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), a new editor from outside the city, is brought in to take over the Globe, and immediately the newsroom is whispering about potential layoffs and apprehension over his lack of Boston roots. His first order of business is to question the staff about a column that mentioned 25 defendants have hired lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to bring a civil lawsuit against a catholic priest accused of sexually abusing more than 100 children. The records are sealed, and unlike the rest of the Globe staff, many of whom have ties to the church, Baron, a Jewish outsider unfamiliar with the power and influence the church wields in the city, wonders why. And so he puts the four-man Spotlight crew on the case, all of whom have a different reaction to the case, especially as the number of potential victims continues to grow.
Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is so shaken by the victims and perpetrators she interviews that she stops going to mass and finds it difficult to talk with her devout grandmother. Meanwhile, Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) is alarmed that the church has a house for "retired" priests right down the block from his family home, and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) is angry, so angry that he wants to publish the information as soon as possible to protect the public. Section editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) wants to wait, mostly to get the story right (he needs to convince a source he has a personal relationship with to confirm information), but also partly because of the shame he feels because he, and anyone who came across this information in the past, deserves some blame for not exposing all of this a long time ago. As Garabedian says, "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one."
In a story like this, process trumps character, but writer/director Tom McCarthy (who shed light on the less attractive qualities of modern journalism as an actor on season 5 of The Wire) peppers in a series of effective character moments without ever tipping the scales into heavy-handed melodrama. It helps to have such a phenomenal cast giving one lived-in performance after another. Ruffalo and McAdams received nominations for their work, but everyone is on point here, especially Keaton, Schreiber and Tucci. They bring gravitas, authenticity, compassion, and a palpable sense of tenacious professionalism.  
The Big Short and Spotlight are two of 2015's tightly-structured films, and so it should surprise no one that they walked away with the screenplay awards at this year's Oscars. Both cover infuriating systemic treachery, albeit in completely different walks of life and with completely different point of views. If I prefer Best Picture winner Spotlight, it's mostly because it left me entirely satisfied by its well-oiled machinery and the win for the good guys, especially compared to The Big Short, which, by design, left me unsettled and foaming at the mouth.
The Big Short A-, Spotlight A

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"Captain America: Civil War" Does the Warring Super Hero Thing Better Than "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice"

Both Dawn of Justice and Civil War promise super hero smack downs.
It's pretty hard not to compare Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Not only did they come out within weeks of each other, but they both feature a super hero throw down built around a disagreement over civilian casualties during world saving battles. Furthermore, they both focus on normally squeaky clean, super-powered American icons acting as renegades while traditionally darker billionaires with major tech advancements try to stop them. The big difference is that Civil War features coherent conflict rooted in long-term character development, while Dawn of Justice is an uneven mish-mash of incomprehensible plot turns and motivations, with some nonsensical foreshadowing thrown in.

Before going any further, I should probably list my reviewer baggage in the interest of transparency. Going into these films, I expected to like Civil War more than Dawn of Justice. That’s basically because I have long admired Marvel’s gutsy move to do a slow build with their cinematic universe, while I suspected D/C was rushing theirs in an effort to get to that big Avengers-type money as quickly as possible.

That doesn’t mean I hate D/C. I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, liked Man of Steel quite a bit, love Ben Affleck, and appreciate the cinematic grandiosity director Zack Snyder is trying to bring to this whole thing. It also doesn’t mean I’m totally in the tank for all things Marvel. They rely far too heavily on macguffins, generally lack compelling villains and tend to prioritize synergistic plotting over artistic identity. Sure they gleefully embrace a lot of genres and develop good characters, but there’s a reason many of their directors have been culled from the television world. Unlike in traditional cinema where individualism and idiosyncrasy is praised, TV values a director’s ability to blend and make his or her episode(s) feel like one piece in a larger puzzle. So too does Marvel.

Given the length of this piece, I think it's best not to go over the plots of the films. If you need a plot refresher, head over to Wikipedia, because otherwise I'm just diving right in to analysis.

The biggest appeal of both these films is the fact that they’re packed with super heroes fighting against each other. You can tell that much simply by looking at the posters, which feature heroes on opposite sides staring at each other intently. And action-wise, both films are pretty great. The central fight of Civil War is amazingly fun, and while nothing in Dawn of Justice is quite up to that level, it totally owns the Batman (Affleck) fights, showcasing both the fluid choreography of the Nolan films and all those wonderful toys of the Tim Burton ones.

Promising a big melee like that is a fun, but dangerous proposition for a film, one that can lead to great action, but muddled narratives. Overcrowding in comic book movies rarely works because it requires too much juggling and doesn’t allow for enough development. Spider-Man 3 and Batman and Robin are great examples, of this, and to an extent, so are the mostly good X-Men movies, which consistently marginalize huge chunks of the team in favor of Wolverine, Magneto and Xavier.

Cap's team operates as rouge agents once the Sarkovia accords are passed.
There’s no doubt Civil War is far more crowded than Dawn of Justice, but while it has four times as many super heroes, it does a better job of servicing their stories. Spider-man (Tom Holland) and Ant-man (Paul Rudd) are ringers for each side (and provided the highlights of the blowout fight), but everybody else has strong motivations rooted in actual character development. Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, the soul and stealth MVP of the MCU) get particularly strong material to play. The same can’t be said of Dawn of Justice, which relegates Superman (Henry Cavill) to a bit player in favor of doing what’s basically a Batman movie on drugs.

Discounting Dawn of Justice’s “blink and you’ll miss ‘em” cameos from Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), each film actually introduces two new super heroes, one of whom (Batman, Black Panther) is far more central to the story than the other (Spider-man, Wonder Woman).

Batman and Black Panther have similar revenge arcs, and both actors make strong impressions. However, although Batman is basically the main character of Dawn of Justice, he’s very one note, and structuring his about-face around the fact that both he and Superman have mothers named Martha is pretty goddamn stupid. Meanwhile, Black Panther isn’t asked to carry the load of his film, and yet he still feels more dimensional and his turnaround tracks better dramatically.

The inclusion of Spider-man and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in these films is inorganic and reeks of corporate desire to sell toys and advance the universe engines at play. Wonder Woman is kept intentionally mysterious, so Spider-man ends up feeling like more of a character. He’s also a hell of a lot more fun, which helps mitigate issues surrounding his inclusion.

But really, inserting characters into these stories as setups for future films doesn’t bother me all that much. To some degree, these movies are always going to do that, so you just have to hope they can also stand on their own as well. Spider-man and Wonder Woman function fine, and the D/C cameos found in the videos Wonder Woman watches are appropriate teases.

However, sometimes these things go a bit too far, and I’d venture to say Dawn of Justice oversteps when it has Flash come from the future to warn Batman in a dream sequence. I assume Superman will become evil, maybe due to red kryptonite, and this message will tie in with The Justice League somehow, but, as a piece of this movie, it’s just confusing and feels like wasted minutes. In fact, all the Batman dreams feel that way. If all that time dedicated to dream sequences was spent on further developing characters, the film would’ve benefited greatly.

In stories like this, it’s a fait accompli that the main bad guy is going to be sidelined. That’s because narratively speaking, the main bad guy isn’t the main adversary; the other super hero serves that function until the third act at which time the super heroes basically hug and realize they need to join forces to stop the actual bad guy.

To it's credit, Dawn of Justice definitely looks cool.
I fully expected this dynamic going into these movies, but, once again, it’s pretty surprising just how similar the set-ups are. Neither Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) nor Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) are some side threat looking to take over the world; instead both are just interested in coercing super heroes into killing each other.

Their reasoning is what separates the two. Zemo was a Sarvokian special ops type whose family was killed during the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The movie implies he’s trying to gather a collection of super soldiers for a nefarious purpose, but that’s just a red herring. All he wants is to get revenge on the Avengers, and his whole plan is built around exposing the fact that Bucky Barnes killed Tony Stark’s parents to accomplish that task. The plotting’s not airtight – it’s left unclear how Zemo knew such information existed or how he knew Captain America would react the way he does, but it’s simple and it works.

Meanwhile, Luthor’s motivations are far more complicated. He’s basically a megalomaniacal millionaire driven mad by a grab-bag of shit, including thirst for supremacy, the very existence of metahumans, and daddy issues. If I think hard enough about it, I’d guess his daddy issues caused him to become a cut-throat social climber/innovator, which brought about a sort of hot-shit god complex that was completely obliterated by the existence of meta-humans, chiefly Superman. But that requires a lot of work on my part, while asking very little of the screenplay.

Truth be told, that’s really not a bad arc, and could totally play if given the proper development. But when you’re fitting all your world-building into the margins, it just doesn’t work because it doesn’t have the time too. If you’re going to have a sidelined bad guy, better to have one with streamlined motivations, instead of ambitious overreaching that leads to a crazed Luthor inexplicably gaining access to the information within the Krytonian ship and, even more ridiculously transforming the corpse of Zod (Michael Shannon) into Doomsday.

But that's generally the whole deal with Dawn of Justice, which looks great and gets some things right, but continuously borders on ridiculousness. And it's so far beyond the Doomsday crap, the Martha thing (god, the Martha thing), and the Flash dream sequence. It's also the fact that Batman is gullible as hell, or that he nonsensically abandons his kryptonite spear, or that Superman's super hearing super sucks (not only can he not hone in on his kidnapped mother's location the way he does routinely with Lois (Amy Adams), but he can't even hear a bomb that's like 10 yards away from him).
This meme that references Step Brothers is the perfect takedown of
a major plot point in Dawn of Justice.
Many of Dawn of Justice’s problems are born of D/C’s insistence in taking short-cuts toward a team-up movie instead of laying the proper foundation over a series of films like Marvel did. I can imagine a world in which D/C Comics wasn’t taking short-cuts to The Justice League, but instead decided to make a legit Man of Steel sequel that took place during the 18 months skipped between the two movies, allowing for some development of the Clark and Lois dynamic, as well as the Luthor’s obsession and a hint about his search into metahumans (say for instance, a post-credit sequence indicating he found footage of Wonder Woman).

They could’ve then followed that up with their Wonder Woman movie, which could’ve ended with a post-credit sequence showing Wonder Woman discovering Luthor has her picture. This would’ve effectively laid the seeds for her whole story thread in Dawn of Justice, while also grounding her and Luthor as actual characters worth giving a shit about, not to mention lending further shading (and thus further shit giving) to Lois, Clark and they’re relationship. Then, you could let Dawn of Justice play out as a Batman introduction, while setting up The Justice League.

But no. Instead they decided to bum rush Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor and metahuman concept into one movie all because they wanted their own Avengers without waiting through years of buildup. As a result, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is hit-and-miss entertainment, especially compared to the well-oiled, emotionally involving Captain America: Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War A-, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, B-

For added fun, here's my personal rankings from all these franchises.

Marvel Cinematic Universe
  1. Captain America: The First Avenger A
  2. Iron Man A
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy A- (review)
  4. Captain America: Civil War A-
  5. The Avengers B+ (review)
  6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier B+
  7. Thor B+
  8. Ant-Man B+ (review)
  9. Iron Man 3 B+ (review)
  10. Avengers: Age of Ultron B
  11. Thor: The Dark Ages B-
  12. The Incredible Hulk B-
  13. Iron Man 2 C+

Batman Films
  1. The Dark Knight A+
  2. Batman Begins A
  3. Batman Returns A
  4. The Dark Knight Rises A- (review)
  5. Batman B+
  6. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice B-
  7. Batman Forever C+
  8. Batman and Robin D+

Superman Films
  1. Superman A-
  2. Superman II B+
  3. Man of Steel B+ (review)
  4. Superman Returns B-
  5. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice B-
  6. Superman III D
  7. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace haven’t seen it

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Tarantino Entertains with Darkly Funny Western "The Hateful Eight"

Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins lead an amazing cast in
Quentin Tarantino's latest, The Hateful Eight.
And so the pattern repeats.

Three years ago, I wrote a review comparing Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino that discussed how each director had plowed through mid-career criticisms by taking a hard left into the idiosyncratic approaches that were supposedly holding them back, only to emerge once again as critical darlings.

A year later, Anderson continued to prove my point with Grand Budapest Hotel, and it seems Tarantino has followed suit with The Hateful Eight, a western that revolves around a collection of nasty sorts trapped together at a secluded stopover during a blizzard not long after the conclusion of the Civil War.

Intoxicating in the way that only great Tarantino can be, The Hateful Eight is the quickest three hours I’ve ever spent in a theater. And that's the case even though I saw the film in its glorious 70mm Roadshow Exhibition, which ran with an introductory musical overture and an intermission between acts, while also providing wider, more detailed images... because, you know, Tarantino.

Like many of the director’s films, The Hateful Eight is told in chapters, some of which are out of order, and built around a series of long, tense and often side-splitting conversations that eventually boil over into violence. For all the pomp and circumstance that came with the roadshow experience, the film is basically a talky chamber piece with the attitude and accoutrements of a mean-spirited western.

More specifically, The Hateful Eight is a western-flavored dark comedy mash up of And Then There Were None, Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs, and any number of plays by Sartre or Pinter with the racial tensions of post Civil-War Americans hanging over every moment. It's thought-provoking, titillating and, above all, entertaining as hell.

Other than a win for the eerily foreboding score from the legendary Ennio Morricone and a nomination for Jennifer Jason Leigh's hilariously gnarly performance, the Oscars stayed away from The Hateful Eight, which makes quite a bit of sense given the content. However, this is a master class in acting, writing, directing, editing and costuming, with Goggins and the underrated Jackson (who easily could've been included in my piece on #OscarSoWhite) providing standout work.

Having said all of that, I have some issues with the film, all of which are built around character motivation and plotting. To talk about them, I kind of need to spoil the movie a bit, so, spoiler warning. Enroute to Red Rock to deliver the fugitive Daisy Domergue (Leigh) for hanging, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) encounters Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a black bounty hunter and former Union solider in possession of three dead bounties, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a former Lost-Causer militiamen who now claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Ruth allows both men aboard his stage coach, and they set out for Minnie's Habadashery to seek refuge from the storm.

Upon arriving at the habadashery, they meet hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), former Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Bob (Demián Bichir), a Mexican watching over the place while Minnie visits her mother. Tensions escalate on multiple fronts. Suspicious that any of this lot could be in cahoots with Domergue, Ruth forcefully disarms all but Warren since they have met before and have agreed to protect one another's bounties. Meanwhile, Warren feuds with both Smithers and Mannix over race and doubts the legitimacy of Bob's standing as the operator of the habadashery, an establishment he has frequented many times.

A third act flashback reveals Mobray, Gage and Bob are all members of the Jody Domergue gang and that they, along with Jody (Channing Tatum), arrived at the habadashery ahead of Ruth’s party so that they could kill him and free Jody’s sister. They kill Minnie and all other inhabitants of the habadashery except Smithers (they reason another occupant will add to their cover), hide several guns around the place, and then Jody hides beneath the floor boards just before the rest of the lead characters arrive.

During an argument between Warren and Smithers in which Warren arms Smithers and then baits him to draw on him so Warren can kill the older man, Gage secretly poisons the coffee, ultimately leading to the very gruesome poisoning of Ruth and his driver OB. Ruth almost kills Daisy before he dies while her brother remains in hiding and the his conspirators simply watch instead recovering their hidden weapons and taking advantage of the fact that Warren and Mannix are completely distracted. This is particularly problematic for Gage. He may have acted on his own in poisoning the coffee and thus surprised his compatriots, but then why is he also so unprepared to react to the aftermath?

Instead, they stand around like innocents allowing Warren to take control, arm Mannix and kill Bob. Only then does Jody fire upon Warren from below the floor boards, but once again he and his gang fail to act decisively (something made even more annoying by the later revelation that Mobray has already armed himself off screen) allowing Mannix and Warren to gather themselves and regroup. Although this development sets up a dynamic Mexican standoff and leads to a strong ending that unites Warren and Mannix against these outlaws, it also stretches credulity. What was the point of lying in wait and having a cover if you were just going to act like total fools at every opportunity? Sure they could’ve never anticipated that Warren and Mannix would show up with Ruth, and they absolutely never would’ve known about the dynamic between those men and Smithers, but those surprises still don’t explain their awful play here.

I think it would be foolish to suggest I have a better idea how to craft a script than Tarintino, but I’ll give it a go anyhow. I think the whole sequence would’ve played a lot better if Gage wasn’t one of the Domergue gang, but rather just another inhabitant of the haberdashery like Smithers and another wrinkle in their plan. Maybe he shows up in between when Jody goes down below the floor and Ruth’s arrival or maybe they just opt to keep him alive too, but what if he was just a cowboy visiting his mom just like he says, one that made the isolated decision to poison Ruth, not because he wanted to free Daisy, but because he was enraged that Ruth took his gun. That would certainly explain why the gang wasn't prepared to take advantage of Ruth's poisoning, while adding an extra level of chaos to the proceedings. Obviously, I’m just spit balling here, but I think something should’ve been done to diminish this narrative annoyance, which seems to be one of those "the plot required it" situations.

Regardless, even though this element of the film bothered me, it’s really just a problem that keeps me from viewing the film as perfect, because otherwise that’s what it is. Like the best of Tarantino, the film is shot beautifully and populated with great actors cutting loose with a well-observed and irreverent script filled to the brim with long, tense moments that seem tailor-made for the stage. And the ending, oh boy that ending -- it's some kind of perfect.

Friday, June 3, 2016

"Mockingjay: Part 2" Caps Off the Better-Than-Necessary "Hunger Games" Franchise with a Worse-Than-It-Could've-Been Finale

Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is a sad panda. A sad, genocidal panda.
The first Hunger Games came out just after I started cataloging reviews on this site, and I realize now I've written quite a bit about this franchise over the last several years. Given that I reviewed each of the first three films, I've decided to review Mockingjay: Part 2 to close off the loop. If I wasn’t a completest, I probably wouldn't be reviewing this film. There are a lot of other movies I'd rather spend my limited time dissecting, mainly because so much of Mockingjay: Part 2 feels like pointless wheel spinning.

That's thematically the point, I get it, and, in fact, I like it. I really like it. The fact that this whole franchise and this final passage in particular, is basically a subversion of young adult genre tropes is pretty awesome in my book. I love that this isn't some heroic “chosen one” thing. I love that the romantic triangle is simultaneously treated as real and silly by these characters. I love the wary melancholy and the ruminations on perception over content, packaged violence and idealism turned rotten. And I love that the main character basically plays no part in the climactic battle, and that nearly everything she does in this film is pointless until the final 10 minutes or so.

At the same time, this really doesn't work as a movie, particularly because of that last point. Katniss is just a propaganda tool to the rebels, enslaved in many of the same ways she was by the Capitol. She's the inverse of Captain America, a hero who started as a bullshit rallying ploy but quickly became an assertive hero. She takes the opposite journey, and while that's a pretty awesome and downbeat concept for a blockbuster film to explore, it all plays so lifelessly here. Thank heavens for Jennifer Lawrence, who does so much heavy lifting here to make this thing play. It’s probably become cliché to adore her work, but goddamn she is amazing as Katniss Everdeen.

When I reviewed part 1, I suggested it was an artistic mistake to split Mockingjay into two films, and part 2 confirms it. This whole thing would've been far more potent if it was culled down to one film. Mockingjay: Part 1 was actually pretty effective on its own, because there were so many flavorful character moments to enjoy. Here, other than Katniss, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Coin (Julianne Moore), and Snow (Donald Sutherland), nobody has anything to do, and even many of those players aren’t afforded much. If you're going to break this relatively short book into two films, I feel like I'm at least entitled to more worthwhile moments with this great cast. Sadly, in this form, it all feels like a giant misuse of talent.

There are other annoyances too. For instance, I think it was a questionable character decision to cake so much makeup on Katniss toward the end of the film. And, at this point, given the size and success of these films, I am bewildered by how consistently mediocre and tacky the effects have been in this series. This is a multi-billion dollar franchise, so why do the effects look like something out of a direct -to-video Mimic sequel?

Ultimately this is an honest and poignant end to a series that was way better and far more nuanced than it needed to be. Author Suzanne Collins made some really great decisions with her books, and this film doesn’t shy away from those in the interest of pleasing the plebs, and I really like that. The film makes some strong points about heroism, sacrifice, disillusionment, and bull-shit trafficking. I just think it could've been even better if the filmmakers would’ve tightened these two parts into one instead of opting to milk every last dollar out of the cash cow. B