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 Northeast is blanketed in 10 of inches of snow — sounds like the perfect time to curl up in a blanket in front of the TV and catch up on your Netflix queue. Great for you (and the hot cocoa industry), but kind of a bummer for the movies that opened in theaters this weekend. If people in Massachusetts can’t leave their homes under orders from the governor, what will become of Identity Thief and Side Effects, the biggest new releases of the week?
While their box office numbers may certainly take a hit, Hollywood.com’s President of Box Office Paul Dergarabedian says that this weekend’s massive blizzard (unofficially dubbed “Nemo” by the Weather Channel) won’t necessarily affect how much money the movies earn over the weekend.
“The weather plays a factor, obviously,” he says. “If people can’t get to a movie theater or the weather is so inclement that the better option is to stay home, there’s no question that on a regional or local basis that can hurt the box office. Studios want every available audience member to have the opportunity to get to a theater. However, in my experience, if the weather in the rest of the country is good, you can still have a solid box office. If the box office is down for a particular movie, it means that the weather affected it, but it probably wasn’t going to do very well anyway.”
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Essentially, inclement weather is a wonderful excuse for movie studios that need to point fingers for an under-performing movie. “The weather is a great scapegoat,” Dergarabedian says. “There have been plenty of bad weather weekends where the box office was up versus the comparable weekend the year before.”
That said, there’s no question the blizzard will cause problems. Some of the highest-grossing theaters in the country are located in New York City, which is bad news for everyone. And because Steven Soderbergh’s films tend to perform better in cities like New York and Los Angeles, if NYC traffic is impeded, Side Effects will certainly take a hit.
With that in mind, Hollywood.com decided to take a cursory look at how past weather disasters have affected the nationwide box office haul in recent years.
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Hurricane Sandy (Oct. 26-28, 2012)
There’s no question the weather certainly played a part in the low box office numbers as a hurricane ravaged the Northeast, but while Argo came in first place in its third weekend of release (a strong showing) with $12.35 million, hard weather (and anticipation of the storm’s landfall) hammered new releases Silent Hill and Fun Size. Silent Hill tied for fifth, while Fun Size barely made 10th place.
Hurricane Irene (Aug. 26-28, 2011)
The storm didn’t really hit the U.S. until the Sunday, Aug. 28, so it makes sense that Sunday was a particularly low-grossing day. None of the new releases could stop the reign of The Help, which came in first place for the third week in a row with $14.5 million, per BoxOfficeMojo, but all three — Columbiana ($10.4 million), Our Idiot Brother ($7.0 million), and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark ($8.5 million) — finished in the top five.
Hurricane Katrina (Sept. 2-4, 2005)
The year was already unimpressive in terms of ticket sales, but Katrina’s effect on movie-going could certainly be felt. The storm destroyed movie theaters across the Gulf Coast — among so many other things — as people in the rest of the country watched their TV screens helplessly. Plus, the weekend after the storm, Labor Day weekend, is a typically low-grossing time. Still, the widest new release, Transporter 2, managed to come in first with $20.1 million over the holiday weekend, while the previous weekend’s winner, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, pulled in a respectable number too with $16.6 million.
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What did we learn? Essentially, the severity of the storm matters. Hurricane Irene caused massive destruction in certain areas, but nothing as wide-ranging as Katrina (or even Sandy). Therefore, the box office didn’t suffer too much that particular weekend. Katrina’s height of destruction came mid-week, so although the Gulf Coast was devastated, the overall box office numbers didn’t take a massive hit. In the case of Sandy, though, which struck over a weekend, the new releases performed poorly — which means Identity Thief and Side Effects could suffer similarly.
As Dergarabedian notes, the only bad weather that means good things for the box office is a heat wave. “People tend to cocoon and stay indoors during bad weather. The only time when bad weather is a good thing for movies is when it’s very hot. People want to go into movie theaters and stay cool.”
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[PHOTO CREDIT: Open Road Films]
Doesn't it seem like, more and more, the Oscars are only handed out to a select few that Hollywood has deemed worthy? It's like anything that Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep, or Amy Adams does gets a nomination more as a reflex than as an actual consideration. If Meryl had actually faked an orgasm in Hope Springs you could expect to see her name up there on the official nominees list. This year the nominations seem to spell a trend away from nominating people for the first time. It's hard to find a virgin to sacrifice this year.
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There are only six people nominated for Best Director or in all four of the acting categories who haven't been nominated before. Of those six people two – Hugh Jackman and Bradley Cooper – are already giant Hollywood stars, one – QIWillNeverLearnHowToSpellThis Wallace – is only 9 years old and hasn't had time to act in anything else, and one – director Michael Haneke – we shouldn't even count because his 2009 movie The White Ribbon won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Who does that leave us with? Emmanuelle Riva, who is a French actress and, well, Americans really hate subtitles, don't they? Yes, they do. The only one who really leaves us with is Benh Zeitlin, the director of Beasts of the Southern Wild. That is an acceptable first-time nominee.
Aside from Ben(Don't Forget The)h, it's almost as if these newbies don't even count. Meanwhile, for the first time ever, the Best Supporting Actor category is full of men who have each won at least one Oscar. Yes, these people are going to be getting the gold for the second time and meanwhile John Hawkes, who gave the performance of the year in The Sessions, didn't get any love at all. Or what about Jack Black totally changing gears in Bernie? But no, let's dip back into the well-worn Oscar well. In fact, of the 25 nominees, there are 19 Oscars already awarded, and that goes up to 21 if you count Spielberg's two trophies he didn't win for Best Director.
This is a recent trend because back in 2010, 14 of the 25 nominations were first timers and four of the five winners (Kathryn Bigelow, Sandra Bullock, Christoph Waltz, and Mo'Nique) had never seen the Nominees Luncheon before. In 2011 that was down to 11 nominees and 2 wins (Tom Hoopper and Christian Bale) and that number shrunk again last year with 10 nominees and 3 wins (Michel Hazanavicius, Jean Dujardin, and Octavia Spencer) with two of those winners making their American film debut. This year we can have a max of three new winners, but it will probably be more like zero (and not of the dark thirty variety). None of these people, right now, are frontrunners.
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So, why are we just recycling old material when it comes to the Oscars? It might be because the voters are older and nominate and then vote for people they already know. It's easier to write down Naomi Watts than try to figure out how to spell the young Ms. Wallace's first name. And when it comes to campaigning, so much of it has to do with past snubs and oversights that the Oscar often goes to someone as sort of a lifetime tribute rather than for that one specific role. (Heck, Melissa McCarthy even won an Emmy because she lost an Oscar.)
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It's also harder to get a movie made these days, especially if there isn't a known quality. Getting someone to plop down a bunch of coin for anything by Spielberg or for a giant movie musical based on one of the most popular stage shows of all time (Les Mis, of course) than some experimental allegory about giant beasts and post-Katrina New Orleans. But when they do put that money down, it can really pay off.
The Oscars shouldn't just be about glad-handing the usual suspects (except, when Kevin Spacey won) but also about discovering and rewarding new talent so that the luster of the ceremony can rub off on the most deserving so that they can go on to bigger and better projects. A nomination is not only a chance to win, but a launching pad, something that has given us some of our best and brightest stars. We wouldn't have Amy Adams 100th consecutive nomination if she didn't get plucked from obscurity and nominated for Junebug. Sure, sometimes it doesn't work out (I haven't seen Mo'Nique's apostrophe in quite some time) but we're always grateful when it does. While Daniel Day-Lewis may be deserving of his third (third!) statuette, maybe it would behoove the Academy to start making the next generation of celebrities before this one goes entirely extinct.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Universal Pictures]
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Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.