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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Liam Neeson is that rare breed of actor who grows more badass with age who at the cusp of 60 appears quite credible besting men 30 years younger – or anyone else foolish enough to provoke him. In The Grey – a gripping but ponderous man-versus-wild epic directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) – his foe is no less formidable than Mother Nature in all her fury. She has met her match.
Neeson plays Ottway a man whose sole job on an Alaskan oil rig consists of gunning down the occasional wolf that makes a run at an oilworker. (Fences apparently being in short supply in the Arctic.) Ottway is a hard stoic sort and one gets the strong sense that he tended toward irascibility even before his wife departed (for reasons not made clear till late in the film) taking with her his remaining purpose for living. He gains a new one appropriately enough when his flight home crashes down in the Alaskan wilderness killing all but a handful of its passengers. Ottway his survival skills honed in a previous life emerges as the only person capable of guiding them to salvation.
Carnahan surrounds Neeson with an ensemble of familiar types the most notable of which are Talget (Dermot Mulroney) the family man Henrick (Dallas Roberts) the conscience and Diaz (Frank Grillo) the jerk. They encounter the predictable male team-building hurdles puffing chests and locking horns before Ottway asserts himself as the Alpha Male. Figuring they’ll perish before salvation arrives they agree to make the perilous trek to the nearest human habitat braving any number of dangers the most fearsome of which are the ravenous “rogue wolves” that roam the landscape. (The film shot in British Columbia in conditions that were apparently every bit as brutal as they appear on-screen certainly looks authentic – both beautiful and ominous.)
When they aren’t battling the predatory lupine menace the men have time – far too much time – to reflect upon their plight and its existential implications. The Grey would have been perfectly enjoyable as a straightforward survival epic the “Liam punches wolves” movie promised by the trailer but Carnahan is intent on imbuing the film with a philosophical poignancy wholly unsuitable for a film featuring lines like “We’re in Fuck City population five and dwindling ” and “We’re gonna cook this son of a bitch!” – the latter uttered at the capture of one of the wolves. As a film Carnahan’s macho metaphysics leave The Grey feeling a bit overcooked.
When Platinum Dunes the production house created by Michael Bay Andrew Form and Brad Fuller first came into being it took on the father of modern horror films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's safe to say everyone expected it to be a total failure given who was involved; when it turned out that it actually wasn't too bad of a film fans were justifiably surprised. A few mid-level misfires later Platinum Dunes raised their aim at iconic horror franchises even higher bringing back TCM's director Marcus Nispel to tackle Jason Voorhees. Again people weren't expecting much so it was another pleasant surprise that 2009's Friday the 13th turned out to be a thoroughly entertaining respectful recombination of the cabin-in-the-woods slasher. From there the studio didn't even bother to go back to lesser franchises they notched their crosshairs as high as they could go; Freddy Krueger.
Fast forward twelve months. The main thing anyone will want to know about A Nightmare on Elm Street is whether it is at the very least a worthy remake of the original Wes Craven film about a slain pedophile who resurrects in the dream world to kill teenagers in their sleep. The short answer is a resounding yes. Samuel Bayer's film is the best remake in the Platinum Dunes stable; Jackie Earle Haley is an excellent successor to the original's Robert Englund; and Freddy Krueger isn't just scary again he's the most disturbing he's ever been. The long answer is of course a little more complicated and requires plenty of qualifiers.
Yes A Nightmare on Elm Street is the best remake Platinum Dunes has produced but the reason behind that is also the film's handicap. For the most part Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer's screenplay hems incredibly close to Craven's original. There comes a point in the film however where staying faithful to the source material becomes a bit too problematic. Mainstream audiences particularly those who didn't grow up with Krueger will be unaffected but horror fans may soon grow bored with the lack of individuality in the scripting department. And then just as the film threatens to overthrow its predecessor by changing (for the better) Krueger's origin story it backs off once again sacrificing innovation for tradition.
It would appear to be a contradiction but that adherence to tradition in turn becomes the remakes' greatest strength. Bayer and company dive even deeper into the Elm Street mythos giving the audience in the process two crucial looks at what Krueger was like before the parents of the molested preschoolers delivered their gas-can brand of mob justice. Haley's astounding amount of talent makes profound use of every second of these brief glimpses into a pre-burn Freddy. Then once the kind soft-spoken kid-loving mask of the pedophile-in-hiding has been literally burned off the true monster underneath emerges. This contrast between the Freddy the kids knew and the Freddy they now know as teens makes for some legitimately bothersome bedroom nightmares toward the film's end.
As for the teens they too are marked improvements this time around. Johnny Depp may have emerged from the '84 classic but he was about it. Rooney Mara Kyle Gallner Thomas Dekker and Katie Cassidy all do an admirable job with the at times thin characterizations they're given. It's a testament to the talent of each of them that they overcome the limitations of the script to warrant some investment in their fight against their dream killer. And as for that dream killer...Haley is the perfect replacement for Englund. His take on the voice may be indistinguishable from his work as Rorschach in Zack Snyder's Watchmen adaptation but considering it fits Haley's commanding presence as Krueger as snugly as the iconic bladed glove whose newly stylized dragging across the pipes in Freddy's dream boiler room sounds skincrawlingly likely a cross between nails on a chalk board and an arc welder that's not too much of a complaint.
A little more worthy of complaint are a few failed attempts to reinact iconic moments from the original most notably Freddy's emergence from the wallpaper above Nancy's bed. It's inexcusable that a special effect in the year 2010 should look worse than the effect from the 1984 film it's imitating but CGI the perpetual enemy of the horror fan once again rears its ugly head. That embarrassing failure aside this film could not look better. Bayer did a tremendous job of altering the reality of the dream world with subtle visual distortions (a lot of straight lines are skewed obtusely outward while the edges of the frame curve oh so slightly inward) when necessary. And the effects work on Krueger's face is appropriately gruesome in all the right spots. One can even forgive the terrible wallpaper CGI scene in exchange for inspired touches like a partial singed cheek that flaps slightly when he exhales or moves too quickly.
While this rebirth of Krueger no doubt boasts a number of glorious kills (the bold opener sets the gore precedent quite nicely) its biggest strength in the fear department is this new far more disturbing structuring of the character as a joyless disgusting psychopath. Craven's original used Krueger's actions mainly as the logistical justification for why he would be killing these teenagers whereas Bayer's handling of the material leverages the origin story beyond just physical torture and into mentally disturbing psychosexual territory. The original franchise gradually acclimated to the idea of Krueger as a sexual threat but this iteration makes no qualms about it. It's not just the burns to Krueger's face that have been updated for realism; his motivations have as well — and that makes this new Nightmare on Elm Street scary as hell.