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
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Moviegoers were still feeling angry this Easter Weekend, keeping Anger Management at the top of the box office with a passionate $25.6 million.*
Holes dug into second place with a surprisingly solid $17.1 million, while Malibu's Most Wanted was third with $14.3 million.
Bulletproof Monk barely made its way into fourth place with a small take of $8.6 million; Phone Booth phoned into fifth place with $5.6 million.
Despite Anger Management's impressive take, the Top 12 films this week totaled $90.2 million--down more than three percent from last year's $93 million. Business, meanwhile, was up over 7 percent from the previous weekend's $84.2 million.
THE TOP TEN
Sony Pictures' PG-13 rated comedy Anger Management, which became the best April opener of all time when it debuted last week, held onto the No. 1 spot for the second week in a row. The laffer, which stars Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson managed a still strong ESTIMATED $25.6 million (-39%) box office take at 3,570 theaters (+19 theaters, $7,171 per theater average). Its cume is approximately $80.2 million, headed for the $100 million mark.
Directed by Peter Segal, it also stars Marisa Tomei and John Turturro.
Buena Vista's PG rated teen comedy Holes debuted in second place with an impressive ESTIMATED $17.1 million at 2,331 theaters. Holes' $7,336 average per theater was the highest for any film playing this weekend.
The pic, based on Louis Sachar's award-winning children's novel, focuses on the adventures of troubled teens forced to dig holes in a dry lakebed.
Directed by Andrew Davis, it stars Rick Fox, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Tim Blake Nelson and Shia LeBeouf.
"Holes was sort of off the radar," Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations told The Associated Press. "But kids know this book, and there's really no movies out there for kids right now. Almost every time when there's a void in the marketplace for family films, all of a sudden one pops up, and families rush out."
Warner Bros.' PG-13 rated comedy Malibu's Most Wanted debuted in third place with a "rizz-eal" ESTIMATED $13.1 million at 2,503 theaters with a high $5,250 per theater average.
The film revolves around a white wannabe rapper named B-Rad who thinks he is the dopest thing Malibu has to offer.
Directed by John P. Whitesell, it stars Jamie Kennedy, Taye Diggs and Anthony Anderson.
MGM's PG-13 rated martial arts pic Bulletproof Monk debuted at No. 4 despite a head start on the competition. Bulletproof Monk, which opened Wednesday, took in a disappointing ESTIMATED $8.6 million at 2,955 theaters with a $2,910 per theater average.
The film revolves around a Tibetan monk charged with protecting a sacred scroll.
Directed by Paul Hunter, it stars Chow Yun-Fat and Seann William Scott.
Twentieth Century Fox's R rated sniper thriller Phone Booth fell three rungs to fifth place in its third week with an ESTIMATED $5.6 million (-26%) at 2,448 theaters (-41 theaters, $2,318 per theater). Its cume is approximately $35.1 million.
Directed by Joel Schumacher, it stars Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland and Forest Whitaker.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Warner Brother's PG rated What a Girl Wants dropped three places to third in its third week with an ESTIMATED $4.8 million (-24%) at 2,930 theaters (-34 theaters, $1,640 per theater). Its cume is approximately $27.5 million.
Directed by Dennie Gordon, it stars Amanda Bynes, Kelly Preston and Colin Firth.
Buena Vista's PG-13 rated comedy Bringing Down the House continued to show strong legs although it dropped from fourth to seventh place in its seventh week of release with an ESTIMATED $3.3 million (-27%) at 2,284 theaters (-546 theaters, $1,445 per theater). Its cume is approximately $122.7 million.
Directed by Adam Shankman, it stars Steve Martin and Queen Latifah.
New Line Cinema's R rated cop drama A Man Apart fell from fifth to eighth place in its third week with an ESTIMATED $2.6 million (-42%) at 2,174 theaters (-321 theaters, $1,196 per theater). Its cume is approximately $22.5 million.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, it stars Vin Diesel and Larenz Tate.
In its 17th week of release, Miramax's PG-13 rated musical Chicago continued its run in the Top Ten at ninth place with an ESTIMATED $2.4 million (-23%) at 21,711 theaters (-403 theaters, $1,452 per theater). Its cume is approximately $160.7 million.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
Rounding out the Top Ten is Lions Gate's R rated House of 1,000 Corpses. The horror thriller fell from seventh to tenth in its second week with an ESTIMATED $2.4 million (-31%) at 847 theaters (+252 theaters, $2,834 per theater). Its cume is approximately $6.9 million.
Directed by Rob Zombie, it stars Karen Black, Sid Haig and Jeanne Carmen.
This weekend also saw the arrival of two limited-release films, A Mighty Wind and Chasing Papi.
Warner Bros.' PG-13 rated "mockumentary" A Mighty Wind opened with an ESTIMATED $2.2 in 133 theaters, with a whopping $16,541 per theater average.
The film is a spoof about a reunion concert of '60s folk groups.
Directed by Christopher Guest, it stars Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr, Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Dooley and Eugene Levy.
Warner plans to expand A Mighty Wind to over 500 theaters by early May.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG rated romantic comedy Chasing Papi opened with an ESTIMATED $2.2 million at 585 theaters with a $3,778 per theater average.
The film revolves around three young women who discover they are in love with the same man.
Directed by Linda Mendoza, it stars Jaci Velasquez, Roselyn Sanchez, Sofia Vergara and Eduardo Verastequi.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $90.2 million, up 7.07 percent from last week when they totaled $84.2 million.
The Top 12 were down only 3.08 percent from last year when they totaled $93 million.
Last year, Universal's PG-13 rated The Scorpion King premiered at the top of the box office with $36 million at 3,444 theaters ($10,475 per theater); Paramount's R rated Changing Lanes came in second in its second week of release with $11 million at 2,642 theaters ($4,189 per theater); and Warner Brother's R rated Murder by Numbers debuted in third with $9.3 million at 2,663 theaters ($3,495 per theater).