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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Well, what do you know — it looks like scary nuns, aliens, insane Nazi doctors, and Adam Levine bring in more traffic than Connie Britton and a guitar. American Horror Story: Asylum brought in insane ratings last night, while Nashville took a hit none of us saw coming. But there was plenty of other news today — mostly involving pilots and production deals. It's that time of year, y'all! (Err... sorry, Nashville):
ABC Gets Dirty: Pilots, pilots everywhere! In the absence of their Desperate Housewives, ABC has bought a Mark Gordon pilot called Dirty Girls, based on the Gillian Telling book Dirty Girls: The Naked Truth About Our Guilty Secrets. Scandalous! The pilot will be a single camera comedy, which will focus on the dirty, scandalous lives of a group of women. Cha-ching! [Deadline]
Desperate Housewives Producer Finds Religion: No, not more GCB. In more ABC pilot news, former Desperate Housewives producer Bob Daily is working with the network on Rev, a half hour comedy based on the award-winning British series of the same name. The US version will focus on an Episcopal priest from rural Wisconsin, who moves to a failing inner city Chicago parish and deals with its zany congregation. [Deadline]
Samberg Gets a Show: In a big piece of casting news, recent SNL alum Andy Samberg has moved to Fox, to star in an unnamed show from the Parks And Recreation duo of co-creator/exec producer/showrunner Mike Schur and executive producer Dan Goor. The show will be a single-camera comedy, focusing on a precinct of NYC detectives — of which Samberg is the lead. He'll also help produce the show, making it surefire pilot order bait. [Deadline]
Brendan Fraser Goes Legend: Brendan Fraser is headed to TV! The Mummy star will headline TNT’s Legends, a drama pilot from Homeland exec producer Howard Gordon. The pilot is based on a spy novel by Robert Littell, so it's only fitting that Fraser will play a a skilled (but conflicted) undercover agent. [TVLine]
American Horror Story Scares Up Big Ratings: FX can pop open that champagne — last night's Season 2 premiere of American Horror Story: Asylum was the number two-ranked primetime program on TV Wednesday in Adults 18-34, Women 18-34 and Men 18-34. Who beat them out? Why, Modern Family, of course — one of television's most massive hits. Not too shabby, FX! Even better, AHS was numero uno in the 10 p.m. time-period in those demos, as ABC's Nashville took a shocking hit. [Via Release]
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[PHOTO CREDIT: FX]
TV Tidbits: Dylan McDermott to Guest on 'American Horror Story', 'Mad Men' Gets Lei'd
TV Tidbits: 'Sons' Vet Moves On, Bette Midler Goes 'Glee'
TV Tidbits: Dave Navarro Joins 'Sons of Anarchy' While Rachel Zoe Gets a New Project
In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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It's good to be the King.
Taking in a regal $34.1 million on its record-breaking opening day Wednesday, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third and final installment of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic fantasy epic, easily lorded over the competition this weekend, rightfully claiming the throne with $73.6 million* and hitting a five-day total of $125 million--the best five-day Wednesday opening of all time.
The Return of King defeats previous record holder Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace, which opened in 1999 and took a five-day total of $105.6 million, while also beating out its predecessor The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which opened the same weekend last year and managed a $102 million five-day haul. The first part of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, opened in 2001 with a five-day total of $66.1 million.
"That is amazing. The worldwide sweep of this movie is unprecedented. To have a quarter-billion-dollar gross in five days shows what a broad swath this movie cuts," Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations, told The Associated Press. "These would be good numbers for a film to do in its entire run, but this is just the beginning."
The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers went on to take in $861 million and $921 million respectively, leading New Line Cinema to hope The Return of the King may break the $1 billion mark. "This thing is so gigantic, we really don't know where we're going," David Tuckerman, New Line's head of domestic distribution told AP Wednesday. The only film to ever earn $1 billion was Titanic, which took $1.8 billion worldwide.
Although the rest of the top 10 box office contenders paled in comparison, another newcomer to the box office race, the Julia Roberts' starrer Mona Lisa Smile, managed to take second place with $12 million. The romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give came in third with $11.5 million, while the sword-clashing The Last Samurai dropped to fourth place with $7.3 million. The conjoined twin comedy Stuck on You rounded out the top five with $5.4 million.
Other smaller fare openers this week included the delightful Calendar Girls and the tragic House of Sand and Fog.
THE TOP TEN
New Line Cinema's glorious PG-13-rated fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King premiered at No. 1 with an ESTIMATED $73.6 million in 3,703 theaters. Its $19,876 per theater average was the highest of any film playing wide this week. Since opening on Wednesday, its five-day cume is approximately $125 million.
In the final installment to the Tolkien trilogy, the good people of Middle-earth continue their fight against the evil Sauron, while Hobbit Frodo Baggins carries on his arduous quest to destroy the Ring and rid the land of its dark forces forever.
Directed by Peter Jackson, it stars Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan.
Sony Pictures' PG-13-rated drama Mona Lisa Smile opened in second place with an ESTIMATED $12 million in 2,677 theaters with a $4,483 per theater average.
The film centers on a 1950s free-spirited, novice art history professor who encourages her students at an all-female college to strive for a more enlightened futures.
Directed by Mike Newell, it stars Julia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles.
Given its mighty competition, Sony Pictures' PG-13-rated romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give last week's topper dropped to No. 3 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $11.5 million (-28%) at 2,677 theaters (unchanged; $4,296 per theater). The film, in which an older man dating a pretty twentysomething falls in love with her dynamic mother, has accumulated approximately $33.5 million to date.
Directed by Nancy Meyers, it stars Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Amanda Peet and Frances McDormand.
Warner Bros.' R-rated period actioner The Last Samurai, fell two spots to fourth place in its third week with an ESTIMATED $7.3 million (-48%) in 2,938 theaters (+30; $2,497 per theater average). Its cume is approximately $59 million.
Directed by Edward Zwick, it stars Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Tony Goldwyn and Timothy Spall.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13-rated comedy Stuck on You also fell two spots to No. 5 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $5.4 million (-43%) at 3,007 theaters (+4; $1,796 per theater). Its cume is approximately $17 million.
Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, it stars Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Eva Mendes and Cher.
New Line Cinema's PG-rated holiday comedy Elf held onto sixth place in its seventh week with an ESTIMATED $5 million (-17%) at 2,451 theaters (-425 theaters; $2,040 per theater). Its cume is approximately $154.3 million.
Directed by Jon Favreau, it stars Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel and Mary Steenburgen.
Miramax Films' R-rated dark comedy Bad Santa held steady in seventh place in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $4.25 million (-29%) at 2,225 theaters (-315 theaters; $1,914 per theater). Its cume is approximately $42 million.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff, it stars Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Tony Cox and John Ritter.
Buena Vista's PG-rated horror comedy The Haunted Mansion dropped three notches to No. 8 in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $4.2 million (-32%) at 2,414 theaters (-587 theaters; $1,740 per theater). Its cume is approximately $59.1 million.
Directed by Rob Minkoff, it stars Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Nathaniel Parker, Marsha Thomason and Jennifer Tilly.
Dropping considerably, Warner Bros. PG-13-rated teen comedy Love Don't Cost a Thing tumbled five spots to take ninth place in its second week with an ESTIMATED $3.9 million (-37%) at 1,844 theaters (unchanged; $2,148 per theater). Its cume is approximately 11.4 million.
Directed by Troy Beyer, it stars Nick Cannon, Christina Millian and Steve Harvey.
Rounding out the top 10, Universal Pictures' PG-13-rated hip-hop drama Honey dropped two spots in its third week with an ESTIMATED $2.5 million (-47%) in 1,824 theaters (-148 theaters; $1,420 per theater). Its cume is approximately $23.4 million.
Directed by Bille Woodruff, it stars Jessica Alba, Mekhi Phifer and Lil' Romeo.
Buena Vista's PG-13-rated lighthearted Calendar Girls debuted in 24 theaters with an ESTIMATED $161,000, with a $6,708 per theater average.
Based on a true story, the film is about a group of older women who pose for a charity pinup calendar, become instant celebrities, and learn life lessons on their journey from England's Yorkshire Dales to Hollywood and back again.
Directed by Nigel Cole, it stars Helen Mirren and Julie Walters.
Dreamworks' PG-13-rated tragedy House of Sand and Fog opened in two theaters with an ESTIMATED $44,000,.
The film explores what happens when the American Dream goes terribly awry as a displaced Iranian colonel and an addict clash over the ownership of a small home.
Directed by Vadim Perelman, it stars Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $133.5 million, up a whopping 66.53 percent from last weekend's $80.2 million take but only up less than 1 percent from last year's $132.6 million.
Last year, New Line's PG-13-rated The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers opened at No. 1 with a hefty $62 million in 3,622 theaters ($17,120 per theater); in second place came Warner Bros. PG-13-rated romantic comedy Two Weeks Notice with $14.3 million in 2,755 theaters ($5,201 per theater); Sony Pictures' PG-13-rated romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan dropped to third place in its second week with $10.7 million at 2,866 theaters ($3,738 per theater).