Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Good news everyone! The first terrible movie of 2013 is in theaters in both 2D and barely 3D and it's called Texas Chainsaw! The special effects are terrible the plot is riddled with holes and it's unintentionally funny. The upside is that it's funnier than Parental Guidance and Leatherface is looking at least as rough around the edges as Billy Crystal. The downside is that any horror fan will be disappointed by its cheap tacky-looking effects and people who shelled out the extra money for 3D are being taken for a ride.
As fans of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre know you can make a bloody great horror movie for not a lot of dough. Part of the charm of the first was its gritty sleazy aftertaste and the crazy family dynamics of an all-male clan whose most-bullied member is a giant freak who wears other people's faces on top of his face. It was a fairly simple set-up loosely based on Ed Gein's propensity for digging up corpses decorating his home with their body parts and wearing the skin of dead ladies. Unlike other horror movies there wasn't a great formula that could be replicated over and over again — no Crystal Lake with horny teens or endless nightmares to invade — so most of the follow-ups have tried to untangle the Sawyer family tree. As the wonderful/terrible Drayton Sawyer says in the wonderfully bonkers Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 "The saw is family!" Would that filmmakers would just leave it at that.
The latest Chainsaw tries to add another branch to its tree with the arrival of Heather (Alexandra Daddario) a young woman who finds out that she was adopted if you can call being stolen from the arms of her dying mother after hicks burned her house down “adopted.” Heather is part of the infamous Sawyer clan and a cousin of Leatherface and she's inherited a strangely fancy old house somewhere in Texas from a grandmother she never knew she had. She also inherits Leatherface who lurks in the basement but she doesn't realize that until after he's killed all of her friends because she forgot to read her grandmother's letter until it's too late. But by then the mantra "Family is family" has been drilled into her and the script has been flipped; the monster that killed her friends and countless others is the victim of cruel townspeople who killed her family. (To be fair Heather's friends were stultifyingly dumb and boring and deserved to be killed.)
What makes this iteration so puzzling is that it features footage at the very beginning from the original movie which leads longtime fans to believe it will fit into that particular family configuration as opposed to later movies that added in random family members. Instead Chainsaw veers crazily in another direction and actually creates an entirely different family history that doesn't make sense on its own terms or in the original first two Chainsaw movies.
Texas Chainsaw had no less than four people involved in its script (the story was by Adam Marcus Debra Sullivan and Kirsten Elms while Marcus Sullivan and Stephen Susco are the credited screenwriters) which could explain why it's such a mess. The 3D is a joke; occasionally Leatherface will thrust the chainsaw at the screen or even better someone will throw the chainsaw. While the gore will definitely be too much for the squeamish it looks like bargain basement Halloween effects to the eye of an experienced horror movie fan. The cast isn't much better; Bill Moseley who appeared in the second movie plays a young Drayton Sawyer since the original actor Jim Siedow died in 2003. Marilyn Burns who played the final girl in the original movie shows up briefly as Heather's grandmother in a flashback. Daddario isn't given much to work with so it seems almost unfair to judge her based on this performance; her co-stars especially singer/songwriter Trey Songz are uniformly terrible. Even Leatherface played by Dan Yeager seems exhausted by this whole ordeal. The original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen appears in the beginning as one of the Sawyer clan. One can only imagine what he and Burns talked about around craft services.