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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"Maybe I need to remind you of a little movie called Deliverance " one of the film's protagonist tells his girlfriend after she suggests knocking on the door of a mountain cabin they have just stumbled upon. How they got there however was not exactly the accident it appears to be. Jessie (Eliza Dushku) and her four friends are heading up to West Virginia for a weekend of camping when their SUV's tires blew out on a dirt road. Solo motorist Chris (Desmond Harrington) is distracted by road kill and slams into their truck. In usual slasher fashion the group splits up: two (Kevin Zegers and Lindy Booth) stay at the scene of the accident while the other four go off into the woods looking for help. This is when the foursome out of desperation enters the seedy cabin--a decision they will soon regret. The dilapidated place is filled with old junk including broken doll parts and rusty old music boxes but what they find in the fridge not to mention the bathtub tells them they should scram. But before they can open the front door they spot the cabin's inhabitants approaching and are forced to take refuge under a bed where they witness three gruesome mountain men perform unspeakable acts. Their aim is to get out of the cabin alive and out of the woods--for good.
The film begins with six teens but gets whittled down to four in like 10 minutes: Carly (Emmanuelle Chriqui) Scott (Jeremy Sisto) Chris and Jessie (moviegoers can rejoice in the fact that the most annoying two get rubbed out at the very beginning). Harrington's (Ghost Ship) polished character Chris emerges as the group's leader and the actor takes this responsibility seriously. Chris is an urbane man of few words a med student who takes charge for the good of the group especially Jesse with whom he forms a strong bond. Unlike most slasher-flick heroines Dushku's (City by the Sea) character is not a helpless victim but a quick thinking fighter. Perhaps she picked up a few tips from her appearances as Faith in TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer but it is nice to see a woman in a horror movie that is not waiting around to be rescued. That role is actually reserved for co-star Chriqui (On the Line). Her character Carly trips at all the wrong places and breathes too loudly under pressure. Her poor boyfriend Scott played by Sisto (May) spends most of the film with his hand over her mouth to keep her from yelling--and getting everyone killed.
Director Rob Schmidt's Wrong Turn will make you rethink your plans for a getaway mountain retreat and for that reason alone it works. Although the story sticks to the tried-and-true horror formula it delivers plenty of scares and enough suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat. The visual effects by Stan Winston Studios are so detailed from the putrid lungs in a moldy Tupperware to the mountain men's mangled limbs that the film is horrifying even before the gruesome story gets underway. Surrounded with old junk trucks and old broken bicycles the cabin oozes with depravity before any of the characters even set foot inside. Schmidt (Crime and Punishment in Suburbia) never gives the audience a chance to examine the cabin-dwellers at length which makes them even more sinister and mysterious. Producer Stan Winston a leading figure in modern movie effects has been grossing out moviegoers for almost 20 years and Wrong Turn's grotesque effects definitely lift this film to a higher level. His studio has created some of film's most fantastic figures including the monster effects of Aliens The Terminator trilogy the razor-fingered Edward Scissorhands and the grotesque Penguin makeup in Batman Returns.