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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The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Hollywood's summer, which came in like a lion with Spider-Man in early May, went out like a lamb over Labor Day weekend with ticket sales down nearly 12 percent from last year.
Nonetheless, there were strong holiday weekend ticket sales for two of the summer's big successes -- Signs and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Both pictures have performed very considerably better than insiders ever expected.
Signs, the summer's last mega-blockbuster to arrive, remained posted in first place with $15.8 million for four days. It is this summer's only film to place first for three weeks. Although no film did it consecutively, Signs was number one its opening weekend and then returned to the top spot in weekends four and five. With its cume now over $194 million and heading for $225 million,Signs ranks as Mel Gibson's biggest grossing film ever, eclipsing What Women Want with $182.5 million.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the summer's sleeper hit, added 290 engagements and soared to second place with $14.1 million. Made for only about $5 million, its cume is now $81.5 million and on its way to an enormously profitable $100 million.
XXX nailed down third place with $12.6 million. feardotcom logged on quietly in fourth place with $6.6 million. Austin Powers in Goldmember rounded out the top five with $6.5 million.
With no new openings to drive ticket sales, key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more -- fell 11.8 percent from last year with $100.1 million for four days versus $113.5 million last Labor Day weekend. This was the seventh consecutive weekend in which the marketplace was down compared to last year.
Hollywood was happy to see that Sunday's weather map showed rain up and down the East Coast as well as along the Gulf Coast and in parts of the mid-west. That could give Sunday ticket sales across the board a boost and help raise today's estimates a notch when they are fine tuned Monday.
THE TOP TEN
Today's grosses are for the four day holiday period from Friday through Monday and reflect industry estimates circulating Sunday morning. Studios will announce their four day estimates Monday and will release final figures Tuesday. Percentage comparisons are not indicated today because the prior weekend was a regular three day weekend.
Buena Vista/Touchstone's PG-13 rated supernatural thriller blockbuster Signs held solidly atop the chart in its fifth week with an ESTIMATED $15.8 million at 3,437 theaters (-16 theaters; $4,597 per theater). Its cume is approximately $194.2 million, heading for $225 million. (Its three day gross was an ESTIMATED $12.9 million.)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, it stars Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix.
"By the way, the last movie to be number one in its fifth week was The Sixth Sense," a spokesperson for BV pointed out Sunday morning. Sixth Sense, of course, was also directed by Shyamalan.
"It's remarkable to think we finally have a picture this summer that was number one for three weeks," Buena Vista Distribution president Chuck Viane said Sunday morning. "Everything else seems to have had two weeks and then got bumped off. We only had one week (in first place) and then we came back and picked up two more. The legs of this picture really speak volumes for how much the public likes the movie.
"Yesterday (Saturday), the picture became Mel Gibson's highest grossing film ever. And we still have probably $30 million worth of gross left. What Women Want did (about) $182 million. That as Mel's biggest picture."
Focusing on Signs' success, Viane observed, "It's the movie. The movie is playing great and the audience is responding that way. There's not many pictures that come into a Labor Day weekend and actually go up in gross over the previous weekend and this is one of them."
IFC Films' release of Gold Circle Films and HBO's PG rated romantic comedy sleeper hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding continued to expand in its 20th week, rising two pegs to second place with an amazingly hot ESTIMATED $14.13 million at 1,619 theaters (+290 theaters; $8,727 per theater). Its cume is approximately $81.9 million, heading for $100 million or more in domestic theaters. (Its three day gross was an ESTIMATED $11.1 million.)
Wedding's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by Joel Zwick, it stars Nia Vardalos and John Corbett.
Revolution Studios and Columbia's PG-13 rated action adventure thriller XXX slipped one notch to third place in its fourth week with a still muscular ESTIMATED $12.6 million at 3,536 theaters (+19 theaters; $3,550 per theater). Its cume is approximately $123.3 million. (Its three day gross was an ESTIMATED $10.2 million.)
Directed by Rob Cohen and produced by Neal H. Moritz, it stars Vin Diesel, Asia Argento and Marton Csokas.
MDP Worldwide's R rated horror film feardotcom opened in fourth place to a weak ESTIMATED $6.6 million at 2,550 theaters ($2,588 per theater). (Its three day gross was an ESTIMATED $5.6 million.)
Directed by William Malone, it stars Stephen Dorff, Natascha McElhone and Stephen Rea. It was produced by Moshe Diamant and Limor Diamant and executive produced by Elie Samaha, Andrew Stevens, David Saunders, Mark Damon, Rudy Cohen, Frank Hubner and Romain Schroeder.
feardotcom is being distributed by Warner Bros. through its overall rent-a-system deal with Samaha's Franchise Films.
New Line's PG-13 rated comedy sequel Austin Powers in Goldmember rose two rungs to fifth place in its sixth week with a less amusing ESTIMATED $6.5 million at 2,506 theaters (-299 theaters; $2,594 per theater). Its cume is approximately $202.9 million. (Its three day gross was an ESTIMATED $5.2 million.)
Directed by Jay Roach, it stars Mike Myers, Beyonce Knowles and Michael Caine.
Miramax/Dimension Films' PG rated family comedy sequel Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams slipped three pegs to sixth place in its fourth week with a slow ESTIMATED $6.3 million at 3,250 theaters (-57 theaters; $1,938 per theater). Its cume is approximately $68.1 million. (Its three day gross was an ESTIMATED $5.3 million.)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, it stars Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino.
Universal and Imagine Entertainment's PG-13 rated romantic surfer girl comedy Blue Crush fell two waves to seventh place in its third week with a less sexy ESTIMATED $5.23 million at 2,820 theaters (-195 theaters; $1,855 per theater). Its cume is approximately $34.4 million.
Directed by John Stockwell and produced by Brian Grazer and Karen Kehela, it stars Kate Bosworth, Michelle Rodriguez, Matthew Davis, Sanoe Lake and Mika Boorem.
Paramount and Mandalay's PG-13 rated comedy Serving Sara dropped two posts to eighth place in its second week with an unfunny ESTIMATED $4.4 million at 2,174 theaters ($2,045 per theater). Its cume is approximately $12.0 million.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin, it stars Matthew Perry and Elizabeth Hurley.
Fox Searchlight Pictures' R rated comedy The Good Girl went wider in its fourth week and placed ninth with a still impressive ESTIMATED $3.5 million at 667 theaters (+479 theaters; $5,247 per theater). Its cume is approximately $7.1 million. (Its three day gross was an ESTIMATED $2.7 million.)
Directed by Miguel Arteta, it stars Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal and John C. Reilly.
"It's a terrific expansion," Fox Searchlight distribution president Stephen Gilula said Sunday morning. "The film is playing very well across the country in large and small cities, suburban and urban areas. I think people are intrigued by the nature of the story. It has hilarious moments and it also has some dark moments and some very touching family and very personal moments.
"It's a very distinctive film that people have interest in. The ensemble performances of Jennifer Aniston, Jake Gyllenhaal and the rest of the cast really have generated a lot of word of mouth."
Based on Sunday morning estimates there was a close race for tenth place. DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox's R rated adult appeal drama Road To Perdition, which was 11th last week, tied for tenth place in its eighth week with an okay ESTIMATED $3.1 million at 1,763 theaters (-100 theaters; $1,758 per theater). Its cume is approximately $98.1 million. (Its three day gross was an ESTIMATED $2.4 million.)
Directed by Sam Mendes, it stars Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law.
Fox Searchlight Pictures' R rated thriller One Hour Photo, which began expanding in its second week, tied for tenth place with a very encouraging ESTIMATED $3.1 million at 163 theaters ($19,018 per theater). Its cume is approximately $3.6 million. (Its three day gross was an ESTIMATED $2.5 million.)
Written and directed by Mark Romanek, it stars Robin Williams.
"This is another very distinctive film, a very singular vision of the writer-director Mark Romanek," Fox Searchlight's Stephen Gilula said. "He got a terrific performance out of Robin Williams. It has clearly captivated the public and was done largely with word of mouth. We haven't done much in advertising. But I think that (its success reflects) Robin Williams' performance, which has been talked about a lot, combined with a very, very compelling concept -- that the man that develops your photos could be watching you and looking at your life. Everyone understands that concept. It's a very mesmerizing performance and a very chilling, creepy movie.
"Both The Good Girl and One Hour Photo really stand out at the end of summer. The big movies have all played and if you want to go out and see something that's more stimulating and thought provoking, (these are perfect choices). We're very, very pleased and very fortunate how well these films (have been embraced by moviegoers)."
TOP SUMMER GROSSING FILMS
This summer's top grossing films -- releases that have either grossed $100 million-plus or are clearly on the track to do so shortly -- are ranked below according to their approximate cumes through Labor Day weekend:
(1) Spider-Man - Columbia Pictures - $403.7 million
(2) Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones - 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm - $300.6 million
(3) Austin Powers in Goldmember - New Line Cinema - $202.9 million
(4) Signs -- Buena Vista/Touchstone - $194.2 million
(5) Men In Black II - Columbia Pictures - $190.2 million
(6) Scooby-Doo - Warner Bros. - $151.9 million
(7) Lilo & Stitch - Buena Vista/Disney - $141.6 million
(8) Minority Report - 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Pictures - $130.6 million
(9) Mr. Deeds - Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures - $124.2 million
(10) XXX - Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures - $123.3 million
(11) The Sum Of All Fears - Paramount Pictures - $118.3 million
(12) The Bourne Identity - Universal Pictures - $118.0 million
(13) Road To Perdition - DreamWorks Pictures and 20th Century Fox - $98.1 million
(14) My Big Fat Greek Wedding - IFC Films - $81.9 million
This summer produced a dozen films that cracked $100 million and two others that are about to do so. Last summer 10 films hit $100 million and three films wound up grossing in the low $90 millions. Last summer's top grossing film, DreamWorks' animated feature Shrek, grossed $262.9 million.
Notably lacking from the list of summer successes starring superstars is Paramount and InterMedia Films' costly budget action adventure K-19: The Widowmaker, starring Harrison Ford, one of the summer's biggest disappointments. After opening to negative reviews, the Russian nuclear submarine drama sank immediately at the box office. Its cume is approximately $34.4 million.
Also not making the superstar success list is Warner Bros.' The Adventures of Pluto Nash, starring Eddie Murphy. It, too, was slaughtered by the critics and opened poorly. Its cume is approximately $4 million.
TOP TEN SUMMER OPENINGS
This summer's Top Ten films ranked by their opening weekend grosses were:
(1) Spider-Man - Columbia Pictures - $114.8 million
(2) Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones - 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm - $80.0 million
(3) Austin Powers in Goldmember - New Line Cinema - $73.1 million
(4) Signs -- Buena Vista/Touchstone - $60.1 million
(5) Scooby-Doo - Warner Bros. - $54.2 million
(6) Men In Black II - Columbia Pictures - $52.1 million
(7) XXX - Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures - $44.5 million
(8) Mr. Deeds - Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures - $37.2 million
(9) Minority Report - 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Pictures - $35.7 million
(10) Lilo & Stitch - Buena Vista/Disney - $35.3 million
This weekend also saw the arrival of Sony Pictures Classics' R rated Spanish drama Mad Love to an okay ESTIMATED $29,000 at 3 theaters ($9,798 per theater).
Directed by Vicente Aranda, it stars Pilar Lopez de Ayala.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front this weekend Focus Features' romantic drama Possession went wider in its third week to a promising ESTIMATED $2.4 million at 612 theaters (+269 theaters; $3,985 per theater). Its cume is approximately $6.4 million.
Directed by Neil LaBute, it stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart.
Buena Vista/Disney's PG rated animated family appeal feature Lilo & Stitch widened again over Labor Day weekend in its 11th week to mop up an ESTIMATED $1.2 million at 1,653 theaters (+1,175 theaters; $765 per theater). Its cume is approximately $141.6 million.
Written and directed by Chris Sanders, it was produced by Clark Spencer.
Paramount Classics' PG rated German romantic comedy Mostly Martha went wider in its third week with an okay ESTIMATED $0.5 million at 66 theaters (+39 theaters; $7,245 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.8 million.
Written and directed by Sandra Nettelbeck, it stars Martina Gedeck.
United Artists' R rated comedy 24 Hour Party People, released through MGM, continued to widen and hold well in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $0.18 million at 32 theaters (+9 theaters; $5,595 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.6 million.
Directed by Michael Winterbottom, it stars Steve Coogan.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $100.05 million for the four day weekend, down 11.82 percent from last year when they totaled $113.46 million for four days.
Key films cannot be compared to the previous weekend of this year, which was a regular three day weekend.
Last year, MGM's opening week of Jeepers Creepers was first with $15.83 million at 2.944 theaters ($5,378 per theater); and New Line's fourth week of Rush Hour 2 was second with $11.71 million at 2,825 theaters ($4,146 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $27.5 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $29.9 million.