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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Moviegoers gave Steven Spielberg's A.I. an A-OK $30 million opening this weekend.
Warner Bros. and DreamWorks' PG-13 rated sci-fi fantasy adventure A.I. Artificial Intelligence topped the chart with an enviable ESTIMATED $30.14 million at 3,242 theaters ($9,295 per theater).
A.I. 's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Written and directed by Steven Spielberg, it was produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Spielbergand Bonnie Curtis. Starring are Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O'Connor, Brendan Gleeson and William Hurt.
"I'm very happy," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "To open at the same level as Saving Private Ryan, which did $30.5 million, and The Truman Show, which did $31.5 million, (is very gratifying). All of these films were critically acclaimed and played primarily to adult audiences. And they all were released in the summer. So I've been watching these movies (box office numbers) carefully.
"In talking to the Spielberg camp, they're very happy. You know, it's a tribute to Stanley (Kubrick). This $30 million opening is the highest opening of any film in which Stanley had been associated. His biggest opening was his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, which did $21.7 million (and went on to gross about $56 million in domestic theaters). Full Metal Jacket, which was his next biggest, had a domestic box office total of $46 million."
Who turned out for A.I. 's opening weekend? "The film attracted couples. About 51 percent of the audience were males and 49 percent were females," Fellman said. "It was primarily moviegoers 25 years and older. Major cities played the strongest, of course, across North America. The three biggest grosses came out of New York -- the Lincoln Square in two days was about $82,000, followed by Broadway, which was $75,000 and the Greenwich Village, which was $65,000.
"Over 80 percent of the audience rated the film good to excellent, so I think we'll be around for a while. It's a very provocative movie. People continue to talk about it. I think they're surprised when they walk in. After they see the movie, it may be a little different than what they expected. But it's certainly the kind of film that people talk a lot about."
Asked where it's heading in domestic theaters, Fellman replied, "Well, I'm certainly looking for the $100 million-plus mark. But obviously the rest of it is based on how we hold. The Truman Show ended up at about $125 million. Of course, Private Ryan is in a class of its own (with) over $200 million. We will definitely be watching this carefully and see what happens."
Universal's PG-13 action drama The Fast and the Furious drove down one notch to second place in its second weekend with a still muscular ESTIMATED $20.0 million (-50%) at 2,723 theaters (+95 theaters; $7,345 per theater). Fast, which was made for a modest $38 million, has a cume of approximately $77.8 million and is heading for $100 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Rob Cohen and produced by Neal H. Moritz, it stars Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster.
20th Century Fox and Davis Entertainment's PG rated comedy sequel Dr. Dolittle 2 slipped one peg to third place in its second weekend with a still funny ESTIMATED $15.4 million (-38%) at 3,053 theaters (+4 theaters; $5,045 per theater). Its cume is approximately $51.0 million.
Directed by Steve Carr and produced by John Davis, it stars Eddie Murphy.
Paramount and Mutual Film Company's PG-13 rated action adventure Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was still plunging in its third week, down one notch to fourth with a softer ESTIMATED $9.8 million (-50%) at 3,349 theaters (+37 theaters; $2,926 per theater). Its cume is approximately $101.2 million, heading for $125 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Simon West, Tomb stars Angelina Jolie.
Columbia's R rated African-American appeal drama Baby Boy arrived in fifth place to a solid ESTIMATED $8.6 million at 1,533 theaters ($5,610 per theater). Its cume after 5 days is approximately $11.7 million.
Written, produced and directed by John Singleton, it stars Tyrese Gibson, Snoop Dogg and Ving Rhames.
"It's a good solid opening in a tough market," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "Certainly, the weekdays look to be very good next week and it should be a great weekend next weekend, as well.
"It's a $16 million negative (cost) picture that we think should end up right where we hoped it would be in the $30-40 million range (in domestic theaters)."
Baby Boy faced competition this weekend for its core audience of African-American moviegoers from Paramount's Chris Rock comedy Pootie Tang. Pootie, which some media observers criticized for opening when it would fragment the African-American audience, only grossed an ESTIMATED $1.55 million and failed to crack the Top Ten (see OTHER OPENINGS below for details).
"I think initially in our movie world it was a little disconcerting when Pootie Tang landed on our date," Blake observed. "But the more we thought about it, (we realized that) certainly you wouldn't hesitate to counter program an inexpensive comedy aimed at white teenagers against a more ambitious project. So I think a bit too much was made of it in this case. And, obviously, I don't think it ended up being much of a factor."
Buena Vista/Disney's PG rated animated feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire descended two levels in its fourth week to sixth place, making fewer waves with an ESTIMATED $7.8 million (-38%) at 3,030 theaters (-41 theaters; $2,573 per theater). Its cume is approximately $58.0 million.
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, its voice talents include Michael J Fox, James Garner, Cree Summer and Leonard Nimoy.
DreamWorks' PG rated computer animated blockbuster Shrek dropped two rungs to seventh place in its seventh week, still holding well with an ESTIMATED $7.1 million (-32%) at 2,704 theaters (-303 theaters; $2,605 per theater). Its cume is approximately $227.5 million on its way to $250 million or more.
Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, its voice talents include Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow.
Buena Vista/Touchstone's PG-13 teen appeal drama crazy / beautiful arrived in eighth place to a not so beautiful ESTIMATED $4.5 million at 1,601 theaters ($2,815 per theater).
Directed by John Stockwell, it stars Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez.
Buena Vista/Touchstone and Jerry Bruckheimer Films' PG-13 rated three-hour epic action romance Pearl Harbor fell two pegs to ninth place in its sixth weekend with a calm $4.4 million (-35%) at 2,305 theaters (-363 theaters; $1,918 per theater). Its cume is approximately $179.4 million, on its way to $200 million by late summer.
Directed by Michael Bay, Pearl was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. Starring are Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight and Alec Baldwin.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's R rated action thriller Swordfish, down four rungs in its fourth week but still in the box office swim with an ESTIMATED $4.0 million (-48%) at 2,225 theaters (-435 theaters; $1,798 per theater). Its cume is approximately $60.5 million, heading for $70 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Dominic Sena and produced by Joel Silver and Jonathan Krane, it stars John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry and Don Cheadle.
This weekend also saw Paramount PG-13 rated African-American appeal comedy Pootie Tang arrive to a not so funny ESTIMATED $1.4 million at 712 theaters ($2,020 per theater).
Written and directed by Louis C. K., it stars Chris Rock.
Miramax's R rated French comedy The Closet opened as a Miramax Zoe label release in New York and San Francisco to an encouraging ESTIMATED $0.080 million at 4 theaters ($20,000 per theater).
Directed by Francis Veber, it stars Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, Thierry Lhermitte and Michele Laroque.
"This Friday we're adding another five markets, so we'll probably be in about 12 to 15 screens for this weekend," Miramax senior vice president, marketing David Kaminow said Sunday morning.
TriStar's R rated crime thriller The Crimson Rivers, opened to a slow ESTIMATED $0.035 million at 7 theaters ($5,000 per theater). Its theatrical run sets Rivers up for a home video release.
Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, it stars Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel.
USA Films' PG-13 drama Pandaemonium opened quietly to an ESTIMATED $2,477 at 1 theater in Los Angeles.
Directed by Julien Temple, it stars John Hannah, Linus Roache, Samantha Morton and Emily Woof.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front, this weekend saw Fox Searchlight's R rated critically acclaimed British crime thriller Sexy Beast continue to widen in its third week with a still hot ESTIMATED $0.72 million (+17%) at 109 theaters (+48 theaters; $6,580 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.9 million.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer, it stars Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley.
"I feel very good (about its performance)," Fox Searchlight distribution president Stephen Gilula said Sunday morning. "In many of the core urban markets -- Manhattan, L.A., Washington, D.C., San Francisco -- the film is holding extremely well. A number of the new regional markets actually did quite well in addition. Portland was quite good. It's good everywhere and some of them are actually outstanding.
"So we feel very, very good that we're going to continue to expand and play through the summer and hold for long runs. We're adding another 20 cities for an additional 25 theaters this week so we'll be in about 135 runs this coming Friday."
Fine Line Features' R rated comedy The Anniversary Party went wider in its fourth week with a less lively ESTIMATED $0.42 million (-30%) at 103 theaters (+18 theaters; $4,110 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.9 million.
Written and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, its ensemble cast includes Jane Adams, Jennifer Beals, Phoebe Cates, Alan Cumming, Kevin Kline, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey and John C. Reilly.
Lions Gate Films' PG-13 rated drama Songcatcher expanded in its third week with a quiet ESTIMATED $0.13 million at 37 theaters (+24 theaters; $3,390 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.27 million.
Directed by Maggie Greenwald, it stars Janet McTeer and Aidan Quinn.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $120.56 million, down about 6.22% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $128.56 million for the Friday-Sunday portion of the five day July Fourth holiday weekend. July Fourth fell on a Tuesday last year, which allowed for a five-day weekend. This year the holiday falls on a Wednesday and is not part of the weekend.
This weekend's key film gross was down about 12.47% from last weekend this year when key films took in $137.74 million.
Last year, Warner Bros.' opening week of The Perfect Storm was first with $41.33 million (for three days) at 3,407 theaters ($12,129 per theater); and Columbia's opening week of The Patriot was second with $22.41 million at 3,061 theaters ($7,322 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $63.7 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $50.1 million.
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