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 it was the 3-D glasses that helped, but the game went into overtime this weekend for Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over.The third installment in the franchise about a family of super spies took the top spot with a healthy $32.5 million*, making it the highest opener of the three. The first Spy Kids opened 2001 with $26.5 million, while the second, Spy Kids: Island of Lost Dreams, opened 2002 with $18.7 million. The ghostly swashbuckler Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl held on to second place with $22.4 million while the naughty actioner Bad Boys II dropped from the top of the heap last week to third with $22 million, barely slipping under Pirates .Not as many people, however, cared to see Angelina Jolie strut her stuff again. The outrageously stunt-laden sequel Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life opened at No. 4 with $21.7 million, making less than half of what the original 2001 smash hit Lara Croft: Tomb Raider did when it opened at $47.7 million. The heart-tugging Depression drama Seabiscuit rounded out the top five's home stretch with $21.5 million, though it managed to take the highest per average screening award; opening in 1,989 theaters, its $10,809 per theater average was the highest of any film playing wide this weekend.Other notable indies opening this week included the Bob Dylan starrer Masked and Anonymous, which debuted at $32,167, and the controversial Buffalo Soldiers at $29,000.Overall, box office numbers were up this week, nearly 10 percent from the same weekend last year and nearly 6 percent from last weekend. THE TOP TENDimension Films' PG-rated Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over premiered at the top of the box office with an ESTIMATED $32.5 million in 3,344 theaters ($9,719 per theater).In this third installment, junior agents Juni and Carmen Cortez have to go into a video game and shut it down before it and its creator can take over the world.Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, it stars Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Sylvester Stallone, Salma Hayek and Ricardo Montalban.Buena Vista Pictures' PG-13 rated fantasy actioner Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl held on to second in its third week with an ESTIMATED $22.4 million (-34%) at 3,416 theaters (+57 theaters; $6,557 per theater). Its cume is $176.1 million.Directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, it stars Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.Sony Picture's R rated buddy actioner Bad Boys II dropped from its first place perch to third with an ESTIMATED $22 million (-53%) at 3,202 theaters (+16 theaters; $6,871 per theater). This high-octane sequel, which follows narcotics detectives Mike Lowry and Marcus Burnett in another case, has made $88.4 million so far.Directed by Michael Bay, it stars Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jordi Molla, Gabrielle Union and Peter Stormare.Paramount Pictures' PG-13-rated action-packed Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life debuted at a disappointing fourth place with an ESTIMATED $21.7 million in 3,222 theaters ($6,754 per theater).In her latest adventure pic, Lara Croft journeys to an underwater temple in search of lost treasures. During her expedition, she stumbles upon a sphere that contains the key to Pandora's box.Directed by Jan De Bont, it stars Angelina Jolie, Gerald Butler, Chris Barrie, Ciaran Hinds and Noah Taylor.Universal Pictures' PG-13-rated tear-jerker Seabiscuit opened with an ESTIMATED $21.5 million in 1,989 theaters. Its $10,809 per theater was the highest average of any film playing wide this week.Set in the 1930s, this is a true story about a down-and-out racehorse named Seabiscuit pulled out of obscurity by three men and turned into a national hero.Directed by Gary Ross, it stars Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper. *Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.As the box office numbers dropped off considerably, Warner Bros.' R rated sci-fi actioner Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines fell two places to No. 6 in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $5 million (-46%) at 2,689 theaters (-744; $1,895 per theater). Its cume is approximately $137.4 million.Directed by Jonathan Mostow, it stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes and Kristanna Loken.Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13 rated period thriller The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen crashed four places to come in seventh place in its third week with an ESTIMATED $4.8 million (-52%) at 2,532 theaters (-470; $1,919 per theater). Its cume is approximately $52.7 million.Directed by Stephen Norrington, it stars Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Tony Curran, Stuart Townsend, Shane West and Jason Flemyng.Universal Pictures' PG rated spy spoof Johnny English slipped three places to No. 8 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $4.3 million (53%) at 2,236 theaters ($1,923 per theater). Its cume is 18.4 million.In the film, the British Secret Service calls upon bumbling secret agent Johnny English when a plan to filch the monarchy's Crown Jewels comes to their attention.Directed by Peter Howitt, it stars Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller and John Malkovich.Buena Vista/Disney and Pixar Animation Studios' G rated computer-animated feature Finding Nemo fell three spots in its ninth week to No. 9 with an ESTIMATED $4 million (-45%) at 2,025 theaters (-455 theaters; $1,975 per theater). Its cume is approximately $312.6 million.Directed and co-written by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, it features the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe and Brad Garrett.MGM's PG-13 rated Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde rounded out the top ten in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $2.6 million (-57%) at 2,120 theaters (-1,085 theaters; $1,250 per theater). Its cume is approximately $82.1 million. Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, it stars Reese Witherspoon, Sally Field, Regina King, Bob Newhart and Jennifer Coolidge. OTHER OPENINGSSony Pictures Classics' PG-13-rated Masked and Anonymous debuted with an ESTIMATED $32,167 in 4 theaters ($8,042 per theater). Set somewhere, sometime in an unnamed country torn by civil war, concert promoter Uncle Sweetheart is scheming to find a headliner for a benefit show--benefitting himself, that is. Veteran TV producer Nina Veronica is put on the job to make sure the concert is an international spectacle. The clincher? Uncle Sweetheart manages to get the iconic cult star Jack Fate, just released from prison, to perform.Directed by Larry Charles, it stars John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Luke Wilson, Jeff Bridges, Angela Bassett and Bob Dylan, in his screen debut.Miramax Film's R-rated Buffalo Soldiers opened with an ESTIMATED $29,000 in 6 theaters ($4,833 per theater).In Stuttgart, West Germany in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is about to fall, Ray Elwood of the 317th Supply Battalion has turned his military servitude into a blossoming network of black market deals--more out of boredom than ambition. When a new top sergeant arrives with the avowed intention of cleaning up the base, Elwood thinks can handle the new blood. If he could only find out what to do with the $5 million in stolen arms that just landed in his lap…Directed by Gregor Jordan, it stars Joaquin Phoenix, Scott Glenn, Anna Paquin and Ed Harris.WEEKEND COMPARISONThe Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $145.5 million, up 9.91 percent from last year's take of $132.4 million. The Top 12 films were also up 5.20 percent from last weekend when they grossed $138.3 million.Last year's top three included: New Line Cinema's PG-13-rated Austin Powers in Goldmember debuted on top with $73 million in 3,613 theaters ($20,225 per theater); DreamWorks' R rated drama Road to Perdition came in second in its third week of release with $11.1 million at 2,250 theaters (+91 theaters; $4,936 per theater average), Sony's G rated Stuart Little 2 dropped to third in its second week with $10.6 million at 3,282 theaters (+ 27; $3,233 per theater).
Go to our Box Office section for recent weekend movie analysis.