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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Cannes, after all, is not the Oscars. So it's no surprise when the big winners at the chi-chi film festival assume the largely unknown (to us) names of, uh, Lars von Trier and, er, Wong Kar-wai.
Danish director von Trier's modern-day musical "Dancer in the Dark" nabbed the top prize, the Palm D'Or, for best feature as the 53rd Cannes Film Festival closed out its 12-day run Sunday. The film's first-time actress, Icelandic pop diva Bjork, took home the award for best actress.
"Dancer in the Dark" is about a blind Czech immigrant (played by Bjork) who escapes to an imaginary world of musical fantasies.
Another big winner was Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai, whose "In the Mood for Love" won the best actor award for male lead Tony Leung. The film, set in mid-1960s Hong Kong, follows two neighbors who gradually discover that their spouses are having an affair.
Other winners included a best screenplay nod for Neil Labute's "Nurse Betty," starring Renee Zellweger. "Nurse Betty" was the only U.S. film to be singled out for a main Cannes honor.
Here's the complete list of this year's Cannes winners:
Palm d'Or: "Dancer in the Dark" (Denmark/France/Sweden), directed by Lars von Trier Grand prix: "Devils on the Doorstep" (China), directed by Jiang Wen Best actress: Bjork ("Dancer in the Dark") Best actor: Tony Leung ("In the Mood for Love") Special mention: Ensemble of actors in "The Wedding" Best director: Edward Yang ("A One and a Two ...") Best screenplay: John Richards, James Flamberg ("Nurse Betty") Prix du Jury (shared): "Blackboards" (Iran), directed by Samira Makhmalbaf, and "Songs From the Second Floor" (Sweden), directed by Roy Andersson Palm d'Or for short film: "Anino" (Phillippines), directed by Raymond Red Technical Award: Christopher Doyle, Mark Li Ping-bing, William Chang Suk-ping for "In the Mood for Love" Camera d'Or (best first feature): shared by "Djomeh" (Iran), directed by Hassan Yektapanah, and "A Time for Drunken Horses" (Iran), directed by Bahman Ghobadi International Critics' Association Awards: Best film in an Official Section: "Eureka" (Japan), directed by Shinji Aoyama; Best film in a Parallel Section: "A Time for Drunken Horses" Ecumenical Awards: Best Film: "Eureka"; Special prizes: "Fast Food, Fast Women" (U.S.), directed by Amos Kollek, and "Code Unknown" (France), directed by Michael Haneke Fondation Gan Award: (Best feature in Un Certain Regard): "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" (U.S.); Special mention: "Me, You, Them" (Brazil)
Universal's "Meet the Parents" continued to meet box office success, becoming the year's third film to place first for three consecutive weeks.
The PG-13-rated comedy was still laughing all the way to the bank in its third weekend with an estimated $16.32 million (-23%) at 2,619 theaters (+4 theaters; $6,230 per theater). Its cume is approximately $81.0 million, heading for a domestic theatrical gross of $130 million or more.
"Parents'" international release is through DreamWorks Pictures, which co-financed the film and will share equally in its success.
"Parents" had the highest per-theater average for any film playing in wide release last weekend.
"Being number one for the third week in a row is extraordinary," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "It's only been twice this year that that's happened. The last time was with 'Erin Brockovich' (also from Universal) and the time before was in February with 'The Whole Nine Yards' (from Warner Bros.). Two of the three are ours. Of course, we went through the entire summer without anything being number one for three weeks in a row."
"Brockovich" placed first the weekends of Mar. 17-19, Mar. 24-26 and Mar. 31 - April 2. "Yards" was number one the weekends of Feb. 18-21, Feb. 25-27 and Mar. 3-5.
Asked where "Parents" is heading in domestic theaters, Rocco replied, "I'm sure it will go to $130 million, at least."
The film is playing so well, she explained, because it's "a broad appeal comedy."
Directed by Jay Roach (director of both "Austin Powers" hits), "Parents" stars Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller.
Rocco also pointed with pleasure to Universal's critically-acclaimed, R-rated drama "Billy Elliot," the first title from the studio's new Universal Focus banner. "Billy" expanded gracefully in its second week and tied for 17th place with an estimated $0.5 million at 38 theaters (+28 theaters; $13,240 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.8 million.
'Billy Elliot' is coming along nicely," Rocco said. "It's a very slow roll out. The new engagements looked spectacular. We had solid increases in the old engagements, where we didn't expand in the marketplace. So we're very happy and will continue to roll out.
"We did another set of exit polls this weekend. Once again, it was (very strong) with 96% in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good) and an 80% definite recommend, which only proves that last weekend's exit polls were very solid. The numbers are strong and they're well above average. People's top reason for coming to see it was the story and the reviews."
20th Century Fox's PG-13-rated comedy "Bedazzled" opened with better-than-anticipated energy to a sparkling estimated $13.72 million at 2,568 theaters ($5,344 per theater).
"We feel great about it," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning. "The whole market looks like it's come back pretty strong. 'Meet the Parents' won't go away. Even with another comedy coming in, it's real strong. The marketplace is terrific. We're very pleased."
What audience is it attracting? "It looks like everybody," Snyder replied, "because we've got kids coming Saturday afternoon, also. We're off to a good start."
Directed by Harold Ramis, "Bedazzled" stars Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley.
Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated drama "Pay It Forward" kicked off in fourth place with a very encouraging estimated $10.16 million at 2,130 theaters ($4,768 per theater).
"The exits are sensational," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "We had 91% in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good). We had 80% definite recommend, which is huge. So I think this movie is going to leg it out.
"We seemed to be hurt more than any more last night because of the World Series. We're playing to a much older audience (than other films in the Top Five). In New York, 'Titans' was up 23% (from Friday), 'Bedazzled' was up 7%, 'Parents' up 14%. We were up zero."
Asked if "Forward" will go wider this weekend, Fellman replied, "We're not going to spread. We're going to hang in and see how we hold the second week. Hopefully, the Yankees will finish (the Series) off quickly."
Directed by Mimi Leder, "Pay It Forward" stars Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment.
Buena Vista/Disney's PG-rated football drama "Remember the Titans" from producer Jerry Bruckheimer gave up two yards on the box office gridiron in its fourth weekend, still holding well in fourth place with an estimated $10.0 million (-23%) at 2,801 theaters (+75 theaters; $3,545 per theater). Its cume is approximately $77.4 million.
Directed by Boaz Yakin and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Chad Oman, "Titans" stars Denzel Washington.
Dimension Films' R-rated action adventure "The Legend of Drunken Master" opened with less energy than insiders anticipated, placing fifth with an estimated $3.7 million at 1,342 theaters ($2,757 per theater).
Directed by Lau Ka Leung, it stars Jackie Chan.
DreamWorks' R-rated political thriller "The Contender" fell one ballot to sixth place in its second week with an okay estimated $3.6 million (-33%) at 1,571 theaters (+55 theaters; $2,274 per theater). Its cume is approximately $10.6 million.
Written and directed by Rod Lurie, "Contender" stars Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Christian Slater.
New Line's R-rated horror thriller "Lost Souls" plunged four pegs to seventh place in its second weekend with a calm estimated $3.25 million (-59%) at 1,970 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,650 per theater). Its cume is approximately $12.9 million.
Directed by Janusz Kaminski, "Souls" stars Winona Ryder and Ben Chaplin.
Warner Bros.' reissue of its R-rated 1973 horror classic "The Exorcist" dropped two notches to eighth place in its fifth week with a less scary $2.9 million (-45%) at 1,708 theaters (+53 theaters; $1,698 per theater). Its cume is approximately $34.8 million, heading for $40 million or more in domestic theaters.
"Halloween's coming up and that should give us a push," Warners' Fellman reminded. "So we'll get into the $40 millions."
Directed by William Friedkin, "Exorcist" stars Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair and Max von Sydow.
Paramount's R-rated urban appeal comedy "The Ladies Man" slid five rungs to ninth place in its second week with an unloved estimated $2.85 million (-47%) at 2,043 theaters (+21 theaters; $1,395 per theater). Its cume is approximately $9.7 million.
Directed by Reginald Hudlin, "Ladies" stars Tim Meadows, Karyn Parsons and Billy Dee Wiliams.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Artisan Entertainment's R-rated romantic comedy "Dr. T and the Women ," down three slots in its second week with an unexciting estimated $2.5 million (-50%) at 1,489 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,678 per theater). Its cume is approximately $9.1 million.
Directed by Robert Altman, "Dr. T" stars Richard Gere, Helen Hunt, Farrah Fawcett, Laura Dern, Shelley Long, Tara Reid, Kate Hudson and Liv Tyler.
OTHER OPENINGS This weekend also saw the arrival of Keystone Entertainment's PG-rated family film "MVP: Most Valuable Primate," placing 22nd with a slow estimated $0.14 million at 185 theaters ($745 per theater).
Directed by Robert Vince, it stars Kevin Zegers and Jamie Renee Smith.
Miramax's R-rated suspense drama "The Yards" opened in New York, L.A. and Chicago, placing 26th with a short estimated $0.052 million at 8 theaters ($6,500 per theater).
Directed by James Gray, it stars Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron and James Caan.
Miramax's G-rated documentary "Calle 54" opened in New York for a one week Oscar qualifying run, placing 27th with a quiet estimated $8,000 at 1 theater.
Directed by Fernando Trueba, it stars Paquito D'Rivera and Tito Puente.
SNEAK PREVIEWS There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
EXPANSIONS On the expansion front, Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated comedy "Best in Show" went wider in its fourth week, placing 11th with a still-promising estimated $2.16 million (+1%) at 497 theatres (+206 theaters; $4,346 per theater). Its cume is approximately $6.8 million.
Directed by Christopher Guest, "Best" stars Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Guest and John Michael Higgins.
New Line's R-rated Spike Lee satire "Bamboozled" went wider in its third week, placing 18th with a calm estimated $0.43 million at 244 theaters (+227 theaters; $1,742 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.8 million.
Written and directed by Spike Lee, "Bamboozled" stars Damon Wayans, Savion Glover and Jada Pinkett-Smith.
Universal's R-rated drama "Billy Elliot," the first title from the studio's new Universal Focus banner, added theaters in its second week and tied for 16th place with a very encouraging estimated $0.5 million at 38 theaters (+28 theaters; $13,240 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.8 million.
(Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco's comments about "Billy" are included in today's Top Ten grosses report.)
Directed by Stephen Daldry, "Billy" stars Julie Walters, Gary Lewis, Jamie Bell, Jamie Draven and Adam Cooper.
Fine Line's R-rated drama "Dancer in the Dark" went slightly wider in its fifth week, placing 19th with a dull estimated $0.33 million (-17%) at 126 theaters (+3 theaters; $2,595 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.8 million.
Written and directed by Lars Von Trier, "Dancer" stars Bjork and Catherine Deneuve.
Artisan Entertainment's controversial unrated drama "Requiem For A Dream" expanded in its third week, placing 25th with a still sexy estimated $0.087 million at 5 theaters (+3 theaters; $17,400 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.3 million.
Directed by Darren Arnonofsky, "Requiem" stars Jared Leto and Ellen Burstyn.
"We just opened up our second market, L.A., and the numbers were tremendous," Artisan distribution head Steve Rothenberg said Sunday morning. "We got a great review in the L.A. Times. The (Laemmle) Sunset, alone, is going to do about $26,000, which for L.A. is a pretty darn good (gross).
"On Nov. 3 we go into the top 12 cities. We're in New York and L.A. now. Then we go into San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philly, D.C., etc."
WEEKEND COMPARISONS Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 for the weekend -- took in approximately $76.48 million, up about 9.68% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $69.73 million.
This weekend's key film gross was down a marginal 0.65% from this year's previous weekend when key films grossed $76.98 million.
Last year, Universal's opening week of "The Best Man" was first with $9.03 million at 1,346 theaters ($6,710 per theater); and Paramount's fifth week of "Double Jeopardy" was second with $7.62 million at 3,002 theaters ($2,539 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $16.6 million. This year, the top two films grossed an estimated $30.0 million.
STUDIO MARKET SHARES Based on business by key films (those grossing $500,000 or more), last weekend's top six distributors were:
Warner Bros. was first with four films ("Get Carter," "The Exorcist," "Pay It Forward" and "Best in Show"), grossing an estimated $16.3 million or 21.3% of the market.
Universal was second with two films ("Meet the Parents" and "Bring It On"), grossing an estimated $14.86 million or 19.4% of the market.
20th Century Fox was third with two films ("Bedazzled" and "Digimon: The Movie"), grossing an estimated $13.7 million or 19.1% of the market.
Buena Vista (Disney and Touchstone) was fourth with one film ("Remember the Titans"), grossing an estimated $10.0 million or 13.1% of the market.
DreamWorks was fifth with two films ("The Contender" and "Almost Famous"), grossing an estimated $4.93 million or 6.4% of the market.
Miramax (Miramax and Dimension) was sixth with one film ("The Legend of Drunken Master"), grossing an estimated $3.7 million or 4.8% of the market.
ADDITIONAL ESTIMATES (11)Best In Show/Warner Bros.: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(12)Almost Famous/DreamWorks: Theaters: 1,707 (-555) Gross: $1.33 million (-39%) Average per theater: $780 Cume: $28.8 million
(13)Get Carter/Warner Bros.: Theaters: 1,925 (-390) Gross: $1.09 million (-63%) Average per theater: $565 Cume: $13.9 million
(14)Bring It On/Universal: Theaters: 1,736 (-436) Gross: $1.04 million (-36%) Average per theater: $600 Cume: $66.2 million
(15)Digimon: The Movie/Fox: Theaters: 1,655 (-170) Gross: $0.87 million (-55%) Average per theater: $525 Cume: $8.5 million
(16)Billy Elliot/Universal Focus: (see EXPANSIONS above) (tie)
(16)Urban Legends: Final Cut/Columbia: Theaters: 1,081 (-1,140) Gross: $0.5 million (-58%) (tie) Average per theater: $465 Cume: $21.0 million
(18)Bamboozled/New Line: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(19)Dancer in the Dark/Fine Line: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(20)Nurse Betty/USA Films: Theaters: 516 (-502) Gross: $0.2 million (-59%) (tie) Average per theater: $390 Cume: $24.1 million
(20)Nutty Professor II: The Klumps/Universal: Theaters: 421 (-104) Gross: $0.20 million (-31%) (tie) Average per theater: $465 Cume: $122.1 million
(22)MVP: MOST VALUABLE PRIMATE/Keystone Ent.: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(23)The Watcher/Universal: Theaters: 351 (-520) Gross: $0.12 million (-70%) Average per theater: $330 Cume: $28.8 million
(24)Girlfight/Screen Gems/Sony: Theaters: 229 (-24) Gross: $0.11 million (-50%) Average per theater: $460 Cume: $1.4 million
(25)Requiem For A Dream/Artisan: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(26)THE YARDS/Miramax: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(27)CALLE 54/Miramax: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)