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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
"Storm" clouds unexpectedly dominated the July Fourth weekend box office skies, raining on what was expected to be Mel Gibson's parade.
Nonetheless, there was plenty of room in the holiday marketplace for both Warner Bros.' "The Perfect Storm" and Columbia and Centropolis Entertainment's "The Patriot" to do blockbuster business. "Storm" made big waves with ticket sales of nearly $42 million, while "Patriot" marched ahead, grossing nearly $22 million with very encouraging exit polls.
Despite expectations based on tracking scores that "Patriot" would capture the top spot, it was "Storm" that won the battle with an estimated $41.68 million at 3,407 theaters ($12,234 per theater). Its cume for the five days ending with July Fourth should be about $63 million.
"Storm's" per-theater average was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Distribution sources said "Storm" benefited from the broad playability of having a PG-13 rating, while "Patriot's" R rating (for violence) restricted its audience to moviegoers over the age of 17.
In addition, "Storm" had the advantage of being a contemporary special effects adventure drama while "Patriot" is a period piece drama set during the Revolutionary War, a period that historically has not worked well in movies. "Storm," with its running time of about 2 hours 5 minutes, also was able to have more showings than "Patriot," which runs about 2 hours 40 minutes.
Going into the weekend, "Patriot" had looked stronger with its 26 percent first-choice tracking. "Storm," with its 21 percent first-choice tracking, looked like it would sail into second place.
"Our three-day gross represents about 34 percent of the top 13 pictures tracked, doubling the second place movie," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "The record three days for the Fourth of July was about $126 million back in 1996. This weekend the 13 films that I've tracked are $122 million -- plus all the other movies out there -- so I'm sure it's going to be very close to that same number. And, of course, we'll surpass that with the holiday falling on Tuesday. We have two more huge days ahead of us."
Looking at "Storm's" performance against previous records, Fellman pointed out, "The largest three-day opening for the month of July in Warner history was $34 million with 'Lethal Weapon 4.' It's the second-largest opening of the year, behind 'Mission' ('M:I-2'). And it's the third-largest July opening of all time - behind 'Men in Black' with $51 million and 'Independence Day,' which was $50 million. And it's Wolfgang's (Petersen) biggest and, of course, it will be Clooney's biggest."
Assessing what went into the film's blockbuster opening, Fellman said, "I have to congratulate Wolfgang Petersen for his masterful direction. He was so committed to this film. Along with cutting-edge effects from ILM and great performances by Clooney and (Mark) Wahlberg. This is what really was responsible for our success.
"I've got to take my hat off to Brad Ball (Warners' theatrical marketing president), who directed this great campaign created by (Warners creative advertising executive) Jim Frederick."
Fellman also cited help from "our new partners at AOL. They supported us in our first synergistic internet campaign, which was a gigantic effort, delivering us (approximately) 265 million impressions (on America On Line). And I want to congratulate Lorenzo (DiBonaventura, Warners production president) for having developed the project."
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, "Storm" stars George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.
"Patriot's" flag was flying high in second place with a muscular estimated $21.7 million at 3,061 theaters ($7,089 per theater). Its five-day cume is approximately $31.0 million (including $5 million last Wednesday and $4.3 million last Thursday).
"Patriot" should wind up with about $42 million for its first seven days in theaters, which ends on July Fourth.
"We're a bit relieved that the competition with 'The Perfect Storm' is at an end, and we can now go on and both do what we're going to do," Sony Pictures Releasing president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "We think we're going to do extremely well. At the end of our first week, we'll have in over $40 million. We've got A+ CinemaScores. And close to 90 percent Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good) and 75 percent definite recommend (in the studio's exit polls) and equally between men and women.
"Basically, what we've got here is a start that was a bit more adult than anticipated. A little less reliant on the younger action crowd. We think we can get them eventually. But that does put you in a different place. The disadvantage of it is, perhaps, it doesn't open at quite the same frenzied level when your (audience is) a little older as opposed to younger. By older, I mean 20s rather than teens. But there are some advantages, too. I think we got the first of it on Saturday when we were up 25 percent, which is a very strong expansion (from Friday) for an R-rated film. I think we'll continue to get advantages today and through the rest of the weekend - and, particularly, in holding throughout the month."
Dean Devlin, who produced "Patriot" with Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn, said Sunday morning, "The big question for all of us was, 'Can two films survive the weekend?' And, I think, the big relief is that obviously, we can. Not only did we have two films do more than $20 million this weekend, but we have four movies that made more than $10 million. That was really good news.
"For us, personally, the expansion of 25 percent from Friday to Saturday and CinemaScores of A+ for an R-rated movie at 2 hours 45 minutes, where we have a screening less per day, it's a real encouraging sign that we're going to be there for the distance."
Mark Gordon, another of "Patriot's" producers, pointed out Sunday morning, "This is not a movie where we said, 'Oh, my God, we're going to make a billion dollars opening weekend.' These movies just don't do that. Even though it was a PG-13, 'Apollo 13' did $25 million its first weekend. 'Saving Private Ryan' did $30 million. 'My Best Friend's Wedding' did (about) $21.5 million. 'The Firm' opened to $20-25 million and did $160 million. So there are all these pictures (over the years) that need to find their audience. Many of them are R rated. It's just harder with that rating and the fact that we are not a special effects driven movie where our audience runs to the theaters the first weekend.
"We believe we are going to be there for the long haul. We were up 25 percent from Friday to Saturday, which is great. It's great to win the weekend. It's always wonderful to win the battle. (But) we've always said we're not in competition with anybody. I think it's sad that in our business now, it's all about who wins the weekend. Let's be looking where we are in a month and not be looking at 'Perfect Storm' or 'Patriot' as compared to each other. Both of these pictures can make money. We think we have a terrific picture. The exit polls are great. CinemaScore is an A+. This movie will have long legs, we believe."
Directed by Roland Emmerich, "Patriot" stars Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger.
DreamWorks' G-rated animated feature "Chicken Run" was showing strong legs in third place, down only one peg to third in its second week with an estimated $12.8 million (-27 percent) at 2,851 theaters (+360 theaters; $4,490 per theater). Its cume is approximately $41.1 million, heading for $80-100 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Peter Lord & Nick Park, "Chicken" features such voices as Mel Gibson and Miranda Richardson.
"Based on the drops that I see in everything else, it's a great hold," DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp said Sunday morning. I think that 'Perfect Storm' did substantially more than anyone thought, which probably increased our drop more than you might expect going into the weekend. But we're pretty happy with it, based on everything else that we see."
20th Century Fox's R-rated Jim Carrey comedy "Me, Myself & Irene" plunged from first to fourth place in its second week with an unfunny estimated $12.0 million (-48 percent) at 3,082 theaters (+63 theaters; $3,894 per theater). Its cume is approximately $47.6 million.
Directed by Peter & Bobby Farrelly ("There's Something About Mary"), "Irene" stars Jim Carrey and Renee Zellweger.
The weekend's other new arrival, Universal's PG-rated live-action/ computer-animated comedy drama "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle," rounded out the Top Five with a not so lively estimated $6.61 million at 2,458 theaters ($2,690 per theater).
Directed by Des McAnuff, "Rocky" stars Rene Russo, Jason Alexander and Robert De Niro.
Paramount's R-rated urban appeal remake "Shaft" fell three slots to sixth place in its third week with an unexciting estimated $6.45 million (-49 percent) at 2,433 theaters (+26 theaters; $2,651 per theater). Its cume is approximately $53.2 million, heading for the low $70 millions.
Directed by John Singleton, "Shaft" stars Samuel L. Jackson and Vanessa Williams.
20th Century Fox's PG-13 comedy "Big Momma's House," one of this summer's biggest success stories, slid two rungs to seventh place in its fifth week with a still attractive estimated $5.5 million (-36 percent) at 2,413 theaters (-433 theaters; $2,279 per theater). Its cume is approximately $94.7 million, on its way to $100 million-plus.
Directed by Raja Gosnell, it stars Martin Lawrence and Nia Long.
Buena Vista/Touchstone's PG-13-rated action thriller "Gone In 60 Seconds" skidded four notches down in its fourth weekend with a quiet estimated $5.0 million (-47 percent) at 3,003 theaters (-86 theaters; $1,665 per theater). Its cume is approximately $78.6 million.
Directed by Dominic Sena and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Mike Stenson, "Gone" stars Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie.
Paramount's blockbuster "Mission: Impossible 2" dropped three pegs to ninth place in its sixth week with a calm estimated $4.75 million (-37 percent) at 2,667 theaters (-578 theaters; $1,781 per theater).
The PG-13-rated action adventure sequel is the summer's biggest hit to date. Its cume is approximately $196.9 million, heading for $210-220 million in domestic theaters. The first "Mission" did $181 million domestically.
Directed by John Woo, "M:I-2" stars Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Richard Roxburgh, John Polson, Brendan Gleeson, Rade Sherbedgia and Ving Rhames.
Rounding out the Top Ten was DreamWorks' R-rated action adventure blockbuster "Gladiator," down three swords in its ninth week with an okay estimated $2.4 million (-38 percent) at 1,411 theaters (-401 theaters; $1,701 per theater). Its cume is approximately $169.7 million, heading for about $180 million in domestic theaters.
"Gladiator" is half owned by Universal, which is releasing it internationally. Directed by Ridley Scott, it stars Russell Crowe.