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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Paramount's "Mission: Impossible 2" took a predictably big second weekend drop, but held on to first place despite big competition from Fox's "Big Momma's House."
"M:I-2" escaped with an ESTIMATED $27 million (-53%) at 3,653 theaters (theater count unchanged; $7,355 per theater). The PG-13-rated action adventure sequel's cume is approximately $130.7 million.
The original "Mission" dropped 52% in its second weekend (May 31-June 2, 1996) and had a cume at that point of $107.2 million. The sequel's cume is running about 22% ahead of the original.
Paramount had anticipated a drop of 50-55% for "M:I-2's" second weekend, saying that was the range to expect after having just opened to blockbuster business for the four-day Memorial Day weekend.
"M:I-2" should wind up grossing $200-250 million in domestic theaters and $300-350 million in international theaters. Its worldwide cume should total $500-600 million. The first "Mission" did $181 million domestically and $284 million internationally for a worldwide cume of $465 million.
Directed by John Woo, "M:I-2" was produced by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner through their Cruise/Wagner production company, which also produced the 1996 blockbuster "Mission: Impossible." Besides Cruise, the sequel stars Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Richard Roxburgh, John Polson, Brendan Gleeson, Rade Sherbedgia and Ving Rhames. It was written by Robert Towne and executive produced by Terence Chang and Paul Hitchcock.
(NOTE: Today's percentage drops are calculated against the Friday-Sunday portion of the previous four-day holiday weekend.)
The weekend's big story, however, was 20th Century Fox's PG-13 comedy "Big Momma's House."
"Momma," this weekend's only wide opening, was a hefty second with a full-figured ESTIMATED $25.6 million at 2,802 houses ($9,136 per theater). Insiders said Fox's decision to go for a PG-13 rather than an R rating was a key factor in achieving its solid success.
"Momma's" per-theater average was the highest for any film playing in wide or limited release this weekend.
"Momma" out-performed industry expectations that it would gross around $20 million given its strong tracking scores going into the weekend. Insiders said late last week that the film had 83% awareness and 43% definite interest and was a 13% overall first choice and a 59% first choice for African-Americans.
"In the immortal words of Bobby Carradine in 'Revenge of the Nerds II' - 'We're back,'" a very pleased Tom Sherak, 20th Domestic Film Group chairman and senior executive vice president of Fox Filmed Entertainment, said Sunday morning.
"For us, it's the beginning of what we think will be a big summer. We have (the animated sci-fi feature) 'Titan A.E.' next and then 'Me, Myself & Irene' (starring Jim Carrey and directed by Bobby & Peter Farrelly) and then 'X-Men' (based on the best-selling sci-fi/fantasy comic book) and then 'Bedazzled' (directed by Harold Ramis and starring Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley). This couldn't start the summer off better."
Sherak said Fox's exit poll scores "were incredible. Excellent was 60%, very good was 28% -- 88% in the Top Two Boxes. Definite recommend was 80% overall." Young males, he added, gave it a definite recommend of over 90%.
Who was "Momma's" core audience? "The core audience was young females - 58% of the audience was under 25 and 60% was female," Sherak replied. "It played huge urban and very good white. You see it crossing over already. There's no color in this. The small little markets did what the small little markets normally do. But the theaters that cross over were huge. When you get to totally white America, the numbers aren't as good, but they're okay."
Emphasizing that the film has good playability for a broad audience, Sherak added, "The critics missed this one. Let's keep a record of how they're doing."
Directed by Raja Gosnell, it stars Martin Lawrence and Nia Long.
Buena Vista/Disney's PG-rated computer animated feature "Dinosaur" took one step down to third place in its third weekend with a less bulky ESTIMATED $12.0 million (-52%) at 3,319 theaters (+17 theaters; $3,616 per theater). Its cume is approximately $96.8 million, heading for $170 million-plus in domestic theaters.
Directed by Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton, "Dinosaur" features such voices as D.B. Sweeney, Ossie Davis, Joan Plowright, Della Reese and Alfre Woodard.
Buena Vista/Touchstone and Spyglass Entertainment's PG-13-rated action comedy "Shanghai Noon" fell one rung to fourth place in its second weekend with a less happy ESTIMATED $8.6 million (-45%) at 2,745 theaters (+34 theaters; $3,133 per theater). Its cume is approximately $31.9 million.
Directed by Tom Dey, it stars Jackie Chan, Owen C. Wilson and Lucy Liu.
DreamWorks' R-rated action adventure "Gladiator" slipped one notch to fifth place in its sixth week, still fighting hard with an ESTIMATED $8.1 million (-40%) at 3,056 theaters (-132 theaters; $2,651 per theater). Its cume is approximately $138.7 million, heading for $175-200 million in domestic theaters.
"Gladiator's" 40% drop was the lowest for any film in this weekend's Top Five.
"Gladiator" is half owned by Universal, which is releasing it internationally.
Directed by Ridley Scott, it stars Russell Crowe.
DreamWorks' R-rated youth appeal comedy "Road Trip" finished sixth, down one peg in its third week but showing good legs with an ESTIMATED $6.7 million (-39%) at 2,654 theaters (+23 theaters; $2,524 per theater). Its cume is approximately $45.5 million.
Directed by Todd Philips, it stars Breckin Meyer and Sean William Scott.
New Line's "Frequency" held on to seventh place in its sixth week, continuing to show terrific legs with an ESTIMATED $2.1 million (-27%) at 1,605 theaters (-198 theaters; $1,293 per theater). Its cume is approximately $38.0 million, heading for about $45 million in domestic theatres.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit, it stars Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel.
"Every week, it's had minimal drops," New Line distribution head David Tuckerman said Sunday morning. "The picture's actually doing exactly what we thought it would do - once we got it in the marketplace, word of mouth would carry it."
DreamWorks' Woody Allen PG-rated comedy "Small Time Crooks" dropped two rungs to eighth place in its third week, still holding well with an ESTIMATED $1.7 million (-45%) at 874 theaters (+45 theaters; $1,945 per theater). Its cume is approximately $11.2 million.
Written and directed by Woody Allen, it stars Allen, Tony Darrow, Hugh Grant, George Grizzard, Jon Lovitz, Elaine May, Michael Rapaport, Elaine Stritch and Tracey Ullman.
"U-571," Universal's PG-13 World War II submarine drama, descended one notch to ninth place in its seventh week with a quiet ESTIMATED $1.42 million (-45%) at 1,591 theaters (-453 theaters; $892 per theater). Its cume is approximately $71.0 million, heading for about $75 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow, "U-571" stars Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Columbia's PG-13-rated youth appeal dance film "Center Stage," down one slot in its fourth weekend with a calm ESTIMATED $1.1 million (-49%) at 1,362 theaters (-144 theaters; $808 per theater). Its cume is approximately $14.4 million.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, it stars Amanda Schull, Zoe Saldana, Susan May Pratt, Peter Gallagher, Donna Murphy and Ethan Stiefel.
Columbia's G-rated family drama "Running Free" opened in 21st place to a slow ESTIMATED $0.055 million at 100 theaters ($545 per theater).
Directed by S rgei Bodrov, it stars Chase Moore.
This weekend saw no national sneak previews.
On the expansion front, Miramax's R-rated comedy "East Is East" added a few more theaters in its eighth week, placing 17th with a quiet ESTIMATED $0.25 million at 157 theaters (+3 theaters; $1,575 per theater). Its cume is approximately $2.4 million.
Produced by Leslee Udwin and directed by Damien O'Donnell, "East" stars Om Puri and Linda Bassett.
USA Films' PG-13-rated drama "Up At The Villa" went a little wider in its fifth week, placing 18th with a dull ESTIMATED $0.19 million (-18%) at 112 theaters (+4 theaters; $1,685 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.8 million.
Directed by Philip Haas, it stars Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, James Fox, Derek Jacobi and Anne Bancroft.
Paramount Classics' PG-13-rated drama "Passion of Mind" went wider in its second week, placing 20th with a weak ESTIMATED $0.099 million (-47%) at 122 theaters (+18 theaters; $815 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.4 million.
Directed by Alain Berliner, it stars Demi Moore.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 for the weekend -- took in approximately $96.89 million, up about 19.86% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $80.83 million for four days.
This weekend's key film gross for three days cannot be compared to this year's previous weekend, which was a four day holiday weekend.
Last year, 20th Century Fox's third week of "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - Episode One" was first with $32.89 million at 3,024 theaters ($10,877 per theater); and Universal's second week of "Notting Hill" was second with $15.01 million at 2,752 theaters ($5,455 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $47.9 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $52.6 million.
STUDIO MARKET SHARES
Based on business by key films (those grossing $500,000 or more), last weekend's top six distributors were:
Paramount was first with two films ("Mission: Impossible 2 and "Rules of Engagement," grossing an ESTIMATED $27.51 million or 28.4% of the market.
20th Century Fox was second with two films ("Big Momma's House" and "Where the Heart Is"), grossing an ESTIMATED $26.6 million or 27.5% of the market.
Buena Vista (Disney and Touchstone) was third with two films("Dinosaur" and "Shanghai Noon"), grossing an ESTIMATED $20.6 million or 21.3% of the market.
DreamWorks was fourth with three films ("Gladiator," "Road Trip" and "Small Time Crooks"), grossing an ESTIMATED $16.5 million or 17.0% of the market.
Universal was fifth with three films ("U-571," "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas" and "Erin Brockovich"), grossing an ESTIMATED $2.48 million or 2.6% of the market.
New Line was sixth with one film ("Frequency"), grossing an ESTIMATED $2.1 million or 2.2% of the market.
(11)Where the Heart Is/Fox: Theaters: 1,087 (-281) Gross: $1.0 million (-37%) Average per theater: $920 Cume: $30.1 million
(12)Erin Brockovich/Universal: Theaters: 736 (-62) Gross: $0.55 million (-36%) Average per theater: $750 Cume: $122.3 million
(13)Rules of Engagement/Paramount: Theaters: 555 (-238) Gross: $0.51 million (-15%) Average per theater: $920 Cume: $60.2 million
(14)The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas/Universal: Theaters: 1,105 (-386) Gross: $0.50 million (-60%) Average per theater: $455 Cume: $30.9 million
(15)Love & Basketball/New Line: Theaters: 450 (-90) Gross: $0.4 million (-49%) Average per theater: $889 Cume: $26.0 million
(16)Battlefield Earth/Warner Bros./Franchise Pictures: Theaters: 641 (-1,946) Gross: $0.25 million (-70%) Average per theater: $390 Cume: $20.9 million
(17)East Is East/Miramax: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(18)Up at the Villa/USA Films: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(19)Screwed/Universal: Theaters: 242 (-561) Gross: $0.1 million (-70%) Average per theater: $415 Cume: $7.0 million
(20)Passion Of Mind/Paramount Classics: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(21)RUNNING FREE/Columbia: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
Sultry culinary genius Isabella (Penélope Cruz) leads an idyllic life running a seaside restaurant in Brazil with her husband Toninho (Murilo Benício) - until she finds Toninho in bed with another woman that is. Heartbroken she heads off to San Francisco and immediately finds work as -- what else? -- the host of a TV cooking show. Screwball comedy complications ensue as a prayer to a Brazilian goddess goes awry Isabella's show becomes a hit and a penitent Toninho arrives to try and win his wife back.
Perma-pouting Spanish dish Cruz ("All About My Mother") is a solid actress with an excess of on-screen charisma but she isn't particularly well served by her first Hollywood starring vehicle. Hampered by their thick accents she and hunky Brazilian co-star Benício ("Orfeu") fight their way through hokey exchanges that have no business being in English anyway. (The whole film would have gone down more smoothly in Brazil's romantic tongue Portuguese.) Of the supporting players Harold Perrineau ("The Best Man") generates the most sparks putting a surprisingly fresh spin on one of the more tired modern screen clichés: the strapping black drag queen.
Venezuelan-born helmer Fina Torres ("Celestial Clockwork") adopts the candy-shop approach to commercial storytelling packing her film with enough sexy stars bright South American colors and tangy bossa nova tunes to distract viewers from the lame predictability of Vera Blasi's script. Pinching ingredients from the Mexican food-and-sex smash "Like Water For Chocolate " the filmmakers cobble together a passable romantic fantasy in the Latin American magical-realist tradition. Too bad most of the comedy falls flatter than a Brazilian crèpe.