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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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
The second Men in Black finished first for the second time in its second weekend with $25 million and a $133.3 million cume.
Opening at half the theaters that MIBII has, Road to Perdition was second with a first-class $22.1 million.
Reign of Fire opened third with a fiery $16 million. Halloween: Resurrection kicked off fourth with a sharp $12.3 million. Mr. Deeds inherited fifth place, holding well with $11 million.
The weekend's other wide opening, MGM's The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course bit off less than it hoped to chew, finishing sixth with $10 million.
Ticket sales were up nearly 19 percent from last year. Key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more -- took in $138.5 million versus last year's $116.8 million.
THE TOP TEN
Columbia's PG-13 rated blockbuster sequel Men in Black II topped the chart again in its second week with a still impressive ESTIMATED $25.0 million (-52%) at 3,611 theaters (+54 theaters; $6,923 per theater). Its cume after 12 days is approximately $133.3 million.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, it stars Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.
"We certainly hope we're in position to make it to $200 million," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "That would make everyone very happy and (generate) plenty of profits for everybody."
The film's second weekend drop of 52 percent was well below predictions some insiders were making late last week that it would fall 60 percent or more. "This shows this (film) is really being taken as it was meant to be, which is (as) a terrifically entertaining summer picture," Blake said. "It's basically for everybody and I think that adds up. Any time anybody is this high profile and as wide as we are and adding up as quickly as we are, I guess there's some question of how long it can last. But, in the meantime, it certainly is adding up pretty quickly."
With MIBII and Mr. Deeds both performing well, Sony Pictures Entertainment saw its domestic theatrical gross for the year soar past the $1 billion mark this week. "We haven't added it up yet, but I know we're probably around $1.03 billion or something like that at this point in time," Blake noted. "I believe we passed ($1 billion) last Friday." The studio is hoping and planning to break the record it set in 1997 with its gross for that year of $1.27 billion. It's presently running about two months ahead of where it was in '97.
Sony's next release, Stuart Little 2, arrives Friday (July 19) at 3,000 or more theaters. The first Stuart Little opened to $15 million the weekend of Dec. 17-19, 1999 and went on to gross $140 million in domestic theaters.
DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox's R rated adult appeal drama Road to Perdition, a Zanuck Company production, opened in second place to critical acclaim, an early Oscar buzz and a heavenly ESTIMATED $22.11 million at 1,797 theaters ($12,305 per theater).
Perdition's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by Sam Mendes, it stars Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law.
"It's outstanding," DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp said Sunday morning. "The nature of this kind of movie is to play strong Sunday and mid-week. With the adult audience, they don't always turn out the first weekend to see a movie. Many times they wait for the word of mouth and show up in subsequent weeks.
"The idea of going out initially with the 1,797 runs was to allow the movie to play well through the summer and into the fall. And I think this release pattern allows that."
Recalling DreamWorks' 1998 summer blockbuster Saving Private Ryan, Tharp noted that it opened to an average of $12,414 per theater with 2,463 runs. Ryan arrived to $30.58 million the weekend of July 24-26, 1998 and wound up grossing $216.1 million in domestic theaters. "On a per theater basis, (this) is about the same and it's in fewer theaters," Tharp said.
Asked about talk that Perdition is on the road to the Oscars, Tharp replied, "We're aware of all of that. It's not something we're addressing at this point. We're trying to maximize the box office of the movie with our marketing and release pattern."
On the distribution side, DreamWorks plans to go a little wider with the film this week. "We actually had conversations with (exhibitors) last week, many (of whom had) wanted to open the movie," Tharp said. "So we'll add a few hundred runs this coming Friday. But, again, we're still restraining ourselves from really blowing the movie out and taking what we think is an inappropriate number of runs."
As for those who questioned whether it made sense to release a film targeted to adults in mid-summer, Tharp observed, "Well I think (this strong opening) does counter that. I think a good movie can play any time of the year. This kind of movie that plays really well on Sundays and mid-week is even stronger in the summer than it is any other time of the year. So for the total box office for the movie, we think the summer was a perfect time to release it."
Looking at the first exit poll information coming in Sunday morning, Tharp said DreamWorks was told, "Audiences for Road to Perdition were evenly divided by gender and evenly split under and over 35. The movie played substantially above average in the excellent, very good and definite recommend categories."
Buena Vista/Touchstone and Spyglass Entertainment's Reign of Fire, a Zanuck Company production, arrived in third place to a hot ESTIMATED $16.0 million at 2,629 theaters ($6,095 per theater).
Directed by Rob Bowman, it stars Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale.
Miramax's Dimension Films launched its R rated horror sequel Halloween: Resurrection in fourth place to a bloody good ESTIMATED $12.3 million at 1,954 theaters ($6,294 per theater).
Directed by Rick Rosenthal, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis.
Columbia and New Line's PG-13 rated comedy Mr. Deeds dropped three rungs to fifth place in its third week, showing good legs with an ESTIMATED $11.0 million (-40%) at 3,239 theaters (+8 theaters; $3,396 per theater). Its cume is approximately $94.1 million.
Directed by Steven Brill, it stars Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder.
"We're particularly pleased that it's down 40 percent," Sony's Jeff Blake said. "This is a movie that will hit $100 million by Friday and seemingly is headed to $120-130 million, which is a wonderful place to be -- especially on a picture that cost $55 million.
"Adam continues to show that he has great staying power. There's nothing like a big summer comedy."
MGM's PG rated family adventure The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course opened sixth to a tame ESTIMATED $10.0 million at 2,525 theaters ($3,960 per theater).
Directed by John Stainton, it stars Steve Irwin and Terri Irwin.
Buena Vista/Disney's PG rated animated family appeal feature Lilo & Stitch slid four pegs to tie for seventh place in its fourth week with a less lively ESTIMATED $7.6 million (-40%) at 2,940 theaters (-282 theaters; $2,575 per theater). Its cume is approximately $117.9 million.
Written and directed by Chris Sanders, it was produced by Clark Spencer. Its original score is by Alan Silvestri.
20th Century Fox's PG rated urban appeal basketball comedy Like Mike skidded three hoops to tie for seventh place in its second week with a less funny ESTIMATED $7.6 million (-37%) at 2,436 theaters (+26 theaters; $3,128 per theater). Its cume is approximately $32.6 million.
Directed by John Schultz, it stars Lil' Bow Wow, Morris Chestnut, Jonathan Lipnicki, Robert Forster, Crispin Glover and Eugene Levy.
"It's only off 37 percent, which is terrific," Fox executive vice president, distribution Rick Myerson said Sunday morning. "The way things have been going this summer, everything is off 50-55 percent on the second weekend. This is just sensational and we're really happy about it. It looks like Like Mike's got a little slam dunk here."
20th Century Fox and DreamWorks' PG-13 rated sci-fi fantasy thriller Minority Report tumbled five pre-cogs to ninth place in its fourth week with a slower ESTIMATED $7.41 million (-41%) at 2,419 theaters (-310 theaters; $3,063 per theater). Its cume is approximately $110.3 million, heading for $135-140 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, it stars Tom Cruise.
"Off 41 percent is a very good hold because it's an adult oriented movie and you had Road to Perdition open up (which also is targeted to adults and) did very well," Fox's Myerson said.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Universal's PG-13 sleeper hit The Bourne Identity, off four slots in its fifth week with a still solid ESTIMATED $5.77 million (-37%)) at 2,199 theaters (-313 theaters; $2,625 per theater). Its cume is approximately $99.0 million, heading for $110 million or more in domestic theaters.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Sony Pictures Classics' R rated romantic comedy My Wife Is an Actress to an encouraging ESTIMATED $46,000 at 7 theaters ($6,594 per theater).
Directed by Yvan Attal, it stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Yvan Attal and Terence Stamp.
Focus Features' R rated romantic comedy Never Again opened to a hopeful ESTIMATED $33,000 at 5 theaters ($6,677 per theater).
Written, produced and directed by Eric Schaeffer, it stars Jeffrey Tambor and Jill Clayburgh.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front this weekend Gold Circle Films and HBO's PG rated romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding added a few more theaters via IFC Films in its 13th week with a still terrific ESTIMATED $2.4 million (-5%) at 501 theaters (+2 theaters; $4,760 per theater). Its cume is approximately $27.3 million.
Directed by Joel Zwick, it stars Nia Vardalos and John Corbett.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $138.54 million, up 18.64 percent from last year when they totaled $116.78 million.
Key films were down about 6.53 percent from the previous weekend of this year when they grossed $148.22 million.
Last year, MGM's opening week of Legally Blonde was first with $20.38 million at 2,620 theaters ($7,778 per theater); and Paramount's opening week of The Score was second with $19.02 million at 2,129 theaters ($8,933 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $39.4 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $47.1 million.