DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The final film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' best-selling dystopian "Hunger Games" novels is "Mockingjay - Part 2." The movie concludes the story of Katniss Everdeen, who won a government-sponsored, televised battle-to-the-death against other children and has since become the face of a revolution. Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss, and the cast includes Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moore. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "The Hunger Games" series of books and films is not just another disposable piece of young adult pop-culture dystopianism. The three books turned into four films, ending with "Mockingjay - Part 2," add up to a potent, antiwar saga - bleak, savage and very modern in the depiction of an unholy union between political manipulation and showbiz. The Mockingjay is the warrior persona of the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, and she hates it. She's sickened by how her heroism is exploited for military propaganda. The movie begins with Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss in close up, getting a brace taken off her bruised neck - the result of an attack by Peeta, the man she loves and whose life she saved now brainwashed into wanting to kill her. It's a bewildering opening if you haven't seen "Mockingjay - Part 1," and few things fuel my cynicism about Hollywood's greedy franchise mentality than a studio taking the last book in a series and needlessly splitting it in two to add another billion dollars to its coffers. But even if you don't know the end of the last film, it's clear that the assault is big news, that Katniss's celebrity looms as large in her war-ravaged society as, well, Jennifer Lawrence looms over the box office. She has survived two fight-to-the-death competitions overseen by the satanic-looking President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland. She's now an icon of the rebel alliance. Her image, form-hugging black suit, wings, bow and arrow, used like Delacroix's painting of liberty leading the French people at the barricades. A film crew follows her into battle, and her moves are broadcast in real time to the beleaguered outlying districts, firing up the citizens for the fight against the capital, District 1, home of a decedent elite and its mass-murderer president. I can't imagine how Katniss could be played more vividly. Lawrence's performances in all four films, even the first, which was poorly directed by Gary Ross, caught the distinctive YA element of Suzanne Collins's novels, the character's discomfort with her celebrity. She's especially vulnerable to the taunts of Johanna Mason, a ravaged former political prisoner played by Jena Malone, who wakes up every movie she's in. During a celebration on the eve of battle, Johanna mocks the Mockingjay's break with her beloved Peeta.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 2")
JENA MALONE: (As Johanna Mason) You saw Peeta, didn't you? Did you tell him hi for me? We're old friends you know. We had adjoining cells in the capital. We're very familiar with each other's screams.
JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Katniss Everdeen) I'm going to kill Snow. Nothing good is safe while he's alive. And I can't make another speech about it.
MALONE: (As Johanna Mason) Now you're talking.
EDELSTEIN: Katniss knows whom she's fighting against. What becomes more and more an issue in "Mockingjay - Part 2" is whom she's fighting for. The president of the rebel alliance, Alma Coin, is played by Julianne Moore with a white streak in her hair like Susan Sontag or a skunk. And she's all tight smiles and bland, canned rhetoric. With her preference for showbiz over ideology, who's to say she's not President Snow's mirror image? The movie takes a while to build up momentum, and it suffers from two bad casting decisions carried over from the first "Hunger Games," Josh Hutcherson as Peeta and Liam Hemsworth as Katniss's first boyfriend, Gale. Hemsworth remains a stiff, but Hutcherson is better than usual. He hits some good anguished notes as Peeta fights against his brainwashing. Director Francis Lawrence never lets the dull love triangle upstage the real story of a war being fought with bombs, bullets and symbols. But the most problematic actor is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the sly media consultant Plutarch Heavensbee - not because he isn't fine but because he died in the middle of shooting. And his absence from later scenes hurts, even though Lawrence cuts in reaction shots borrowed from other movies and at the end, adds an obvious digital image of Hoffman. Showbiz trickery is powerful but can't yet reanimate the dead. I'm not slighting "Mockingjay - Part 2" when I say it ends less with a bang than a whimper, that whatever the military victories, what lingers is the horror of wasted lives. Throughout "The Hunger Games" killing is obscene - the upshot of a malevolent state that holds power by pitting citizen against citizen and most notoriously, child against child. This is the rare superhero movie that makes you root for the hero to shed her costume and leave the field.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's show, we'll listen to some great music and speak with Peter Guralnick about record producer Sam Phillips. Phillips discovered Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin' Wolf and Roy Orbison and recorded them all for his label, Sun Records. Guralnick's new book is "Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock 'N' Roll." Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.