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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Queen Latifah and Steve Martin's romantic jailbreak comedy Bringing Down the House locked up the box office this weekend with a cool $31.7 million* take--the third best ever March opening.
Bringing Down the House stole the No. 1 spot from this week's other new release, the war actioner Tears of the Sun, which debuted in second place with a spartan $17.2 million.
After holding on to the No. 2 spot for two weeks in a row, the laffer Old School dropped a notch to third place with a still chugging $9.2 million. Best Picture Oscar nominee Chicago gained some ground, placing fourth with a tuneful $6.9 million, while the romantic comedy How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days continued its Top Five reign with a still gallant $6.7 million.
THE TOP TEN
Buena Vista's PG-13 rated comedy Bringing Down the House won the box office crown in its debut weekend with an ESTIMATED $31.7 million at 2,801 theaters. Its $11,317 per theater average was the highest of this week's Top 10 grossing films.
In the film, a convict from the 'hood asks an uptight lawyer to help her clear her name. When he refuses, however, she turns his perfectly ordered life upside down.
Directed by Adam Shankman, it stars Steve Martin and Queen Latifah.
Sony Pictures' R rated war actioner Tears of the Sun premiered in second place with an ESTIMATED $ 17.2 million at 2,973 theaters ($5,785 per theater).
The film revolves round a Navy SEAL lieutenant and his elite band of soldiers, who are dispatched to retrieve an American doctor from Nigeria after the country's democratic government collapses.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, it stars Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci.
DreamWork's R rated buddy comedy Old School fell a notch to No. 3 in its third week of release with an ESTIMATED $9.2 million (-34%) at 2,707 theaters (-35 theaters). Its cume is approximately 50.8 million.
Directed by Todd Phillips, it stars Luke Wilson, Will Farrell and Vince Vaughn.
In its 11th week of release, Miramax's PG-13 rated musical Chicago continued to expand and gained a spot, coming in fourth with a still strong ESTIMATED $6.9 million (-12%) at 2,600 theaters (+153 theaters, $2,672 per theater). Its cume is approximately $114.5 million.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
Paramount Pictures' PG-13 rated How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days dropped from fourth to fifth position in its fifth week of release with an ESTIMATED $7.1 million (-34%) at 2,897 theaters (-26 theaters), with a $2,330 per theater average. Its cume is approximately $86.9 million.
Directed by Donald Petrie, it stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Last weekend's box office champ, Warner Bros.' R-rated martial arts actioner Cradle 2 the Grave, plummeted to sixth place in its second week with an ESTIMATED $6.5 million (-60%) in 2,625 theaters (unchanged) with a $2,509 per theater average. Its cume is approximately $27 million.
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, it stars DMX, Jet Li, Gabrielle Union, Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13 live-action comic book adaptation Daredevil fell from third to seventh place in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $5.1 million (-54%) at 2,728 theaters (-456 theaters, $1,854 per theater). Its cume is approximately $91.4 million. The film could become the first movie this year to pass the $100 million mark.
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, it stars Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan.
Buena Vista's G rated animated feature The Jungle Book 2 fell two notches in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $4.2 million (-40%) at 2,553 theaters (-261 theaters, $1,645 per theater). Its cume is approximately $39.5 million.
Directed by Steven Trenbirth, it features the voices of Haley Joel Osment, John Goodman, Bob Joles and Tony Jay.
Buena Vista's PG-13 rated buddy actioner Shanghai Knights fell from seventh to ninth place in its fifth week with an ESTIMATED $2.7 million (-46%) at 1,905 theaters (-610 theaters, $1,417 per theater). Its cume is approximately $54.7 million.
Directed by Tom Dey, it stars Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson.
Rounding out the Top 10 is Universal's R rated drama The Life of David Gale, which fell two notches to eighth place in its third week of release with an ESTIMATED $2.1 million (-54%) at 1,872 theaters (-131 theaters) with a $1,122 per theater average. Its cume is approximately $17.1 million.
Directed by Alan Parker, the film stars Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $95.4 million, up 10.4 percent from last week when they totaled $86.4 million.
The Top 12 were up 14.81 percent from last year when they totaled $83.1 million.
Last year, DreamWorks' PG-13 rated The Time Machine debuted at the top of the box office with $22.6 million at 22,944 theaters ($7,680 per theater); Paramount's R rated We Were Soldiers came in second with $14.2 million at 3,143 theaters ($4,521 per theater); and New Line's R rated All About the Benjamins debuted in third with $10 million at 2,399 theaters ($2,932 per theater).