In the face of many opinions to the contrary, I remain convinced that the “Hunger Games” franchise is one of the most intelligent and socially meritorious young-adult narratives of the last several years. The themes probed are both universal (war, sacrifice, and the will to power) and culturally salient (mass media propagandizing, information warfare, and the alienation of the elites). And “Mockingjay – Part 2,” while not quite matching its source novel’s raw visceral energy, is an excellent finale that doesn’t compromise on those themes.

Like the final “Harry Potter” film, “Mockingjay – Part 2” spends little time on backstory: after rescuing a traumatized Peeta from the evil Capitol’s forces, protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her squad of rebels lead a series of increasingly dangerous missions into the heart of the Capitol’s central city. Their target: the evil President Snow; their goal: building a new society administered by rebel leader Alma Coin.

Forced into an artificially contrived narrative structure, the first “Mockingjay” film was not exactly compelling. No real justification for splitting the films seems to exist at this point (other than crass profit-grabbing), and I look forward to the inevitable fan-edit that seamlessly combines the two. That said, some sacrifices have certainly been made in these final film adaptations to make the narrative more audience-friendly. Chief among these is the excision of Katniss’s own psychological instability, which in the books spawned “unreliable narrator” questions about what exactly is occurring. Other changes include the ways in which plot points left implicit in the novels are spelled out overtly onscreen, and the entire framing of the saga as a “Katniss versus evil President Snow” clash. The end result is that the fierce bite of the novel’s storyline is a bit toned-down – though “Mockingjay – Part 2” is really about as good as it could possibly be. This second part is back on track, hitting just as many high notes as the first two movies.

On the acting front, Lawrence is truly this series’s most valuable asset, infusing Katniss’s character with a steely gravitas that subsequent knockoff franchises (“Divergent,” “The Maze Runner”) have tried and failed to emulate. (Franchise stalwarts Woody Harrelson and Liam Hemsworth, unfortunately, aren’t given much to work with here). What’s more, the action scenes are really, really great, and incredibly intense. If you, like me, are tired of over-CGI’d, Marvel-style, gratuitously explosive set pieces, “Mockingjay – Part 2” will be much to your liking. A subterranean battle against genetic mutants is a true standout here: it’s better than any similar scene I’ve watched since “Aliens” (and I’m including the oft-ballyhooed “The Descent”). Suffused with a terrifying aura of dread and desperation, and shot with the perfect balance of steady-cam footage and fast-cut edits, it’s pulse-pounding in all the very best ways.

(My one complaint: there’s no curated soundtrack. The likes of Lorde, Arcade Fire, The Civil Wars, Coldplay, etc., are missed.)

At the end of the day, the “Hunger Games” series has proven itself artistically and thematically superior to so much of the mass-market dreck that passes for contemporary blockbuster entertainment. “Mockingjay – Part 2” is a fine finale to that project, and one that manages to be intelligently cynical without lapsing into nihilism. Enthusiastically recommended.

VERDICT: 8.5/10
Shaking off the dust of its limp predecessor, “Mockingjay – Part 2” successfully caps off a compelling series.

“Spectre” is a frustrating film to review: in its attempt to provide a resolution to the last several films, it has one hand in the best of modern James Bond (“Casino Royale,” “Skyfall”) and one in the worst (“Quantum of Solace”).

Here, Bond (Daniel Craig) continues his journey into the modern era: MI6 is planning to launch a giant global surveillance program, while villainous organization Spectre (headed by an enigmatic figure allegedly from Bond’s past) has nefarious plans for the technology. A new MI6 intelligence director plans to cancel the 00 secret-agent program, leaving Bond high and dry. Etc., etc. – it’s pretty much your traditional Bond fare, though there’s an overarching attempt here to conclude plot arcs that began in “Casino Royale” and have continued through subsequent movies.

I recall being slightly underwhelmed by the first few Bond films I watched – between the corny one-liners, hinky special effects, and thinly written plots (Roger Moore era, looking at you), I found myself craving a truly high-quality, pull-out-all-the-stops Bondstravaganza. And “Spectre” is decidedly that (at least in its first half). With a budget approaching the total cost of the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the film’s production values are off-the-charts impressive. For instance, “Spectre” kicks off with a classic Bond cold open set in Mexico City, featuring a mesmerizing tracking shot that puts “True Detective” to shame. It captures, within a 4-5 minute shot, the entire Bond ethos – exotic locations, espionage, sensuality, and violence. It’s not as nerve-shredding as the chases that kicked off “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” but it’s still spectacular. This is followed up by a supercar chase through the streets of Rome, an aerial battle in the Austrian mountains, and a merciless fistfight on a desert train. It’s the id of the Bond franchise at its most polished.

Where music is concerned, let’s face it up front: Sam Smith is no Adele. That said, my distaste for “Writing On the Wall” is mitigated by the gorgeously hyperstylized title sequence, which ranks with the “Casino Royale” titles as one of my favorites of the Daniel Craig era. Juxtaposing sinister and erotic imagery, it’s an eerie echo of the title sequence from David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and sets the tone nicely. (It also bears mention that the booming “Spectre” score is a highlight).

As top-notch as the “Spectre” production values are, however, the film suffers from several glaring weaknesses.

First off, it’s abundantly clear that the screenwriters never intended to make a coherent quartet of films (plot elements from “Skyfall” feel shoehorned in at best, and glaringly out-of-place at worst). Though dedicated fans could no doubt piece together the web of alliances and organizations that ballooned in “Quantum of Solace” and are insanely overcomplicated here, it’s probably best not to think too hard about internal coherence.

That being said, “Spectre” works much better if it’s not viewed as “Bond 24” but rather as the fourth and final entry in the Daniel Craig Bond saga (which, I think, may eventually come to be viewed as the “Dark Knight Trilogy” of the long-running Bond franchise). Like “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Spectre” is overstuffed and doesn’t always successfully draw its predecessor films together. But in the context of a plotline that definitively began with “Casino Royale,” “Spectre” is much better – and indeed, serves as a thematic capstone for the reboot. One might even characterize it as Bond’s redemption story.

But as “Bond 24,” “Spectre” is a mess.

Second, Christoph Waltz’s archvillain (it’s not much of a spoiler to say that yes, he’s playing Ernst Stavro Blofeld, right down to the cat) is painfully underdeveloped. Here, Blofeld’s villainy hinges upon a half-baked backstory involving childhood grudges turned patricidal. It’s more than just frustrating: it’s insultingly banal. He never comes off as satisfyingly malignant, nor is it exactly clear what his endgame is. I’ll take Le Chiffre (or, heck, even Dominic Greene) any day.

Third, “Spectre” erodes the distinctive elements that have always defined the Bond franchise. Namely, I suggest the last few years have witnessed a distinct convergence in narrative and style within the action-entertainment genre. Some elements of this convergence include: a “topical” story involving surveillance, computers, artificial intelligence, or some combination of the above; team-based action in which everyone gets a chance to cause mayhem; near-future timeframe involving cool gadgetry; gargantuan budgets; the vague suggestion of cyborg technology; world-spanning villainous organizations that instantly disintegrate when their headquarters is blown up; etc. Films that rely on this convergence include “Mission: Impossible,” “Fast & Furious,” “Call of Duty,” Christopher Nolan’s “Batman,” “Iron Man,” and many others. (You could argue that some of these tropes have always been common to the genre, but the technological themes and team-based approach to action are pretty distinctive).

“Spectre” is the first James Bond film to join those ranks – and this is not at all a positive development.

James Bond is a compulsively watchable hero because he is a one-man army: even in the most horrific situations, he manages to prevail through sheer luck and his own raw proficiency. He works alone and frequently breaks the rules. Here, M, Q, and Moneypenny (Bond’s longstanding British Intelligence support staff) all get their chance to be action heroes during the film’s third act. And this doesn’t feel progressive or pro-social: it feels like lazy writing.

In the end, is “Spectre” worth seeing? In many ways, “Spectre” is the consummate Bond film. It’s phenomenally high-quality, brings in elements that bridge Bond generations old and new, and brings long-running plot arcs to a close. I prefer to see this as the end of the Craig era – a context in which “Spectre” is both enjoyable and largely satisfying.

As a stand-alone Bond film, it doesn’t come close to rivaling “Casino Royale” or “Skyfall.” But to expect it to reach such heights is perhaps unfair. “Spectre” is still Bond doing what he does best – and I, for one, look forward to seeing where the franchise heads next (here’s to Idris Elba as the next Bond!)

As merely part of the Bond canon, “Spectre” doesn’t fully satisfy; as a coda to Daniel Craig’s tenure, it’s a compelling finale.


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