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.
Top Story: Murphy Brown's Pastorelli Dies
Robert Pastorelli, best known for playing the eclectic housepainter Eldin on Murphy Brown, was found dead in his Hollywood Hills home Monday in what the coroner's office said may have been a drug overdose, The Associated Press reports. He was 49. Coroner's office Lt. Ed Winter said Pastorelli's body was found by his assistant in a bathroom and that an autopsy was planned. "It's a possible accidental death," Winter said, adding, "There was drug paraphernalia found." Pastorelli finished work with John Travolta last month on the movie Be Cool, the sequel to the comedy Get Shorty. "I am still unable to grasp this tragic news," Be Cool director F. Gary Gray told AP. "Robert was a true professional and a total delight to work with. My heart goes out to his family, and he will be sorely missed." Pastorelli also had his share of tragedy in recent years. In 1999, his girlfriend, Charemon Jonovich, 25, was found fatally shot and her death was investigated by police as an accident. The couple have a daughter.
Seinfeld Puts Show on Hold for Son
Jerry Seinfeld postponed his sold-out show in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Saturday to be with his 1-year-old son, who had been hospitalized after a fall, The Associated Press reports. Seinfeld flew to New York Friday to be with his family, according to the statement by his publicist. "Julian is at home and is doing very well," the statement said. "Jerry's tour will continue this weekend as scheduled." The Spartanburg show has been rescheduled for Nov. 13.
Hung "Bangs" With Record Deal
Who says you can only have 15 minutes of fame? American Idol reject William Hung, known for his own special rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs," has certainly proven that point, snagging a record deal with music label Koch Records, Reuters reports. Koch said Hung's album, tentatively titled The True Idol, will be released April 6, and cable channel Fuse Music Network said it would air Hung's "She Bangs" music video.
Simpson Accused of Stealing Satellite Signals
Satellite television provider DirecTV filed a civil suit against O.J. Simpson, claiming the former football player pirated TV signals, CourtTV.com reports. The allegations stem from a police search conducted at Simpson's suburban Miami home on Dec. 4, 2001, as part of an ongoing investigation into a money-laundering and narcotics ring, as well as the sale of pirated, satellite TV decoder equipment. CourtTV.com reports during the raid, police seized equipment from Simpson's home that DirecTV claims were "bootloaders," devices used to unscramble the company's satellite signals. No charges have yet been filed against Simpson in connection with the search.
Carey, Butler Upset With Comic Reality Show
Drew Carey and Brett Butler voiced their objections over NBC's new reality show The Last Comic Standing, in which the two comedians served as talent judges, Reuters reports. Carey and Butler claim NBC execs and producers of the show overruled their votes for the 10 aspiring comics most worthy of advancing to the televised competition set to air this summer. "I thought it was crooked and dishonest," Carey told the Hollywood Reporter. Butler, the former star of Grace Under Fire, posted a message on her Web site saying they were "both surprised and disappointed at the results and…we had NOTHING to do with them." NBC said it was up to network brass and producers to decide who made the cut, weighing the opinions of the celebrity panel as just one factor. An NBC spokeswoman told Reuters a disclaimer to that effect airs as part of the show's credits.
Stewart Thanks Supporters
In her first comments since being convicted in her suspicious stock trading case, Martha Stewart showed gratitude toward her fans for supporting her through her ordeal. After visiting the parole office for the first time, Reuters reports, Stewart gave thanks outside the Manhattan courthouse. "I want to thank my readers, my viewers and the Internet users," Stewart told a throng of reporters. "I just want to thank everyone for their support." Shares of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. also fell nearly 8 percent Monday, following a decline of more than 22 percent on Friday when she was found guilty of one count of conspiracy, two counts of making false statements and one count of obstruction of agency proceedings, Reuters reports. Stewart's sentencing is scheduled for June 17.
Sting, Lennox To Tour Together
Apparently Sting, who lost the Best Song Oscar this year to singer Annie Lennox, has no hard feelings--the two plan to tour together this summer. The Sacred Love tour will kick off June 27 in Philadelphia and will end in Canada Oct. 12. In an exclusive joint phone interview with the AP on Friday, Lennox and Sting said they hadn't decided on how the tour will develop, or whether they'll sing together--but said they're happy to be performing on the same show. "I think that camaraderie and friendship is actually essential and it has to run from the bottom to the top," Lennox said.
Actor Winfield Dies
Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor Paul Winfield, 62, died Sunday in Los Angeles of a heart attack, AP reports. Winfield was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 1972 for his role as a sharecropper in Sounder and was known for his work on such television shows as the 1968 comedy series Julia, and later Touched by an Angel and Picket Fences, for which he won an Emmy.
Hollywood's Golden Age Star Dies
Actress Frances Dee, widow of Western movie hero Joel McCrea and one of the last stars from Hollywood's Golden Age, co-starring with the likes of Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Frederic March, Katharine Hepburn
Insiders thought they knew "Witch" movie would top the Halloween weekend chart, but it turned out to be "Meet the Parents" and not the "Blair Witch" sequel.
Universal's PG-13-rated blockbuster comedy "Meet the Parents" was still meeting and greeting moviegoers in first place in its fourth week with a hefty estimated $15.06 million (-6%) at 2,647 theaters (+28 theaters; $5,690 per theater). Its cume is approximately $100.0 million, heading for a domestic theatrical gross $130-150 million.
"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.
"'Meet the Parents' has surprised everybody in the press," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "All of the estimators swore that 'Blair Witch' was going to be the number one film this weekend -- including myself. I didn't think that we could hold this well. So the truth is a pleasant surprise this weekend!"
Focusing on "Parents'" great legs, Rocco commented, "I don't think anybody thought that we could hold to this number. We were only down 4% last night (Saturday) on the head to head (theaters). That's an incredible accomplishment."
This marks the fourth consecutive weekend that "Parents" has topped the chart. "That hasn't been done since 'Sixth Sense' last year," Rocco pointed out.
Asked where the film is going domestically, she replied cautiously, "Well, who knows? If this finds its way in the marketplace through the holidays, it could be a $150 million film. It could be. I think that $130 million is a given and it could be $150 million. At this point, you don't know."
Directed by Jay Roach (director of both "Austin Powers" hits), "Parents" stars Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller.
Universal is positioned to do very well this holiday season with two high-profile films arriving in theaters. On Nov. 17 it opens Imagine Entertainment's family comedy fantasy "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," directed by Ron Howard, produced by Brian Grazer and starring Jim Carrey. On Dec. 15 it opens the romantic comedy fantasy "The Family Man" from Beacon Communications, directed by Brett Ratner, produced by Marc Abraham, Tony Ludwig, Alan Riche and Howard Rosenman and starring Nicolas Cage, Tea Leoni and Don Cheadle.
Focusing on this weekend's business, Rocco also applauded the critically-acclaimed, R-rated drama "Billy Elliot" from the studio's specialized film arm Universal Focus. "Billy," a likely contender for Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, did not add theaters in its third week, but was up sharply nonetheless.
"Billy" placed 16th with an impressive estimated $0.56 million (+14%) at 37 theaters (theater count unchanged; $15,085 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.6 million.
"As much as I'm excited about 'Meet the Parents,' take a look at 'Billy Elliot,'" Rocco said. "Every theater is up except for where there is a multiple run. Unbelievable! We're head to head (compared to last week because) we didn't add anything.
"It means that the word of mouth is getting around now. People are realizing how very spectacular this movie is. It just takes time for films like this to find their way. Little films need nurturing. That's why we've nurtured it. With the television campaign and the newspaper campaign now, people are realizing that this is a very special film and it becomes a must see."
This Friday (Nov. 3), Rocco noted, "we will be expanding in the markets we're already in. The following weekend (Nov. 10-12) we will be taking (it into) probably the top 100 or 120 markets. So we plan to be somewhere around 120 total playdates next weekend and then the following week we hope to be somewhere between 500 and 550.
"I think it's a great plan, and it gave the film time to find its way. So I'm very excited about it."
Directed by Stephen Daldry, "Billy" stars Julie Walters, Gary Lewis, Jamie Bell, Jamie Draven and Adam Cooper.
Instead of the knock 'em dead $15-20 million first place opening Hollywood handicappers had anticipated, Artisan Entertainment's R-rated "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" finished second with a still enviable estimated $13.1 million at 3,317 theaters ($3,950 per theater).
The original "Blair Witch," made independently for only about $35,000, was picked up by Artisan and grossed about $140.5 million in domestic theaters. The sequel's price tag reportedly was in the $10-15 million range, well below today's major studio average negative cost of about $51.5 million.
Directed by Joe Berlinger, "Blair Witch 2" stars Kim Director, Jeffrey Donovan, Erica Leerhsen, Tristen Skylar and Stephen Barker-Turner.
"We made the film for under $15 million," Artisan distribution head Steve Rothenberg said Sunday morning. "How many studios can actually say that they grossed their negative cost for the most part over the opening three days? So, clearly, this film is going to be very profitable. We basically earned our negative (cost back) in the first weekend of release."
Asked if industry expectations that "Blair Witch 2" could open to $15-20 million were wildly out of line, Rothenberg replied, "Clearly, it looks like it was. It seems to me, just looking at the tracking over the past three or four months, a lot of the tracking numbers haven't necessarily correlated with the weekend grosses. I can see how some people (might have anticipated a bigger opening for 'Blair Witch 2')."
Did opening over Halloween weekend and having to compete with Saturday night holiday parties hurt the film? "One of the things we did look at was that last year there was another film in the same genre called 'House on Haunted Hill' (from Warner Bros.) that came out Halloween weekend. Last year, in fact, Halloween was on Sunday. And they still did (nearly) $16 million. So we looked at that and it certainly reassured us that with a properly themed movie you could certainly open on Halloween weekend."
Buena Vista/Disney's PG-rated football drama "Remember the Titans" from producer Jerry Bruckheimer continued in third place in its fifth week, holding well with an estimated $8.0 million (-19%) at 2,803 theaters (+2 theaters; $2,855 per theater). Its cume is approximately $87.7 million.
Directed by Boaz Yakin and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Chad Oman, "Titans" stars Denzel Washington.
20th Century Fox's PG-13-rated comedy "Bedazzled" slid two notches to fourth place in its second week with a less glittering estimated $7.7 million (-41%) at 2,570 theaters (+2 theaters; $2,996 per theater). Its cume is approximately $24.0 million.
Directed by Harold Ramis, "Bedazzled" stars Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley.
Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated drama "Pay It Forward" dropped one peg to fifth place in its second weekend with a still hopeful estimated $6.88 million (-29%) at 2,130 theaters (theater count unchanged; $3,228 per theater). Its cume is approximately $19.1 million.
Directed by Mimi Leder, "Pay It Forward" stars Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment.
New Line Cinema's PG-rated family film "The Little Vampire" took only a little bite out of the box office, opening in sixth place to an estimated $5.5 million at 2,009 theaters ($2,738 per theater).
Directed by Uli Edel, "Vampire" stars Jonathan Lipnicki.
"We're thrilled with it," New Line distribution president David Tuckerman said Sunday morning. "And we've got three weeks before there's really a kid's film in the market, which is the 'Rugrats' (Paramount and Nickelodeon Movies' animated sequel 'Rugrats in Paris -- The Movie,' opening Nov. 17 at 2,800 to 3,000 theaters). So we've got three weeks to run."
"Vampire" should be nicely profi able for New Line. Tuckerman confirmed that the studio picked it up very reasonably, adding, "I can't even tell you (how little) it cost. It's too embarrassing!"
Paramount's opening of its R-rated romantic comedy "Lucky Numbers" was an unlucky seventh with an estimated $4.6 million at 2,497 theaters ($1,842 per theater).
Directed by Nora Ephron, "Numbers" stars John Travolta and Lisa Kudrow.
DreamWorks' R-rated political thriller "The Contender" fell two votes to eighth place in its third week with a quiet estimated $2.5 million (-29%) at 1,639 theaters (+68 theaters; $1,514 per theater). Its cume is approximately $14.0 million.
Written and directed by Rod Lurie, "Contender" stars Gary Oldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Christian Slater.
Dimension Films' R-rated action adventure "The Legend of Drunken Master" skidded four rungs to ninth place in its second week with a sobering estimated $2.3 million (-40%) at 1,345 theaters (+3 theaters; $1,710 per theater). Its cume is approximately $7.3 million.
Directed by Lau Ka Leung, it stars Jackie Chan.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated comedy "Best in Show," up one notch in its fifth week with a still happy estimated $1.78 million (-18%) at 497 theaters (theater count unchanged; $3,581 per theater). Its cume is approximately $9.1 million.
Directed by Christopher Guest, "Best" stars Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Guest and John Michael Higgins.
OTHER OPENINGS This weekend also saw the arrival of Buena Vista's reissue of its 1993 PG-rated animated family film "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," placing 22nd with an uneventful estimated $0.15 million at 72 theaters ($2,084 per theater).
Directed by Henry Selick, its voice talents include Danny Elfman,Chris Sarandon and Catherine O'Hara.
Universal Focus' R-rated romantic comedy "Loving Jezebel" opened in 24th place to a calm estimated $0.048 million at 74 theaters ($645 per theater).
Written and directed by Kwyn Bader, it stars Hill Harper and Laurel Hollowman.
Lions Gate's R-rated drama "Once in the Life" arrived in 25th place to a dull estimated $0.034 million at 15 theaters ($2,250 per theater).
"Life" was written and directed by Laurence Fishburne, who also stars in the film.
USA Films' R-rated dark comedy "A Room For Romeo Brass" opened in 26th place to a slow estimated $0.007 million at 3 theaters ($2,304 per theater).
Directed by Shane Meadows, "Romeo" stars Andrew Shim and Ben Marshall.
SNEAK PREVIEWS There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
EXPANSIONS On the expansion front, Miramax's R-rated suspense drama "The Yards" went wider in its second week, placing 19th with a dull estimated $0.31 million at 146 theaters (+138 theaters; $2,123 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.4 million.
Directed by James Gray, it stars Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Charlize Theron and James Caan.
WEEKEND COMPARISONS Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 for the weekend -- took in approximately $74.44 million, up about 21.79% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $61.11 million.
This weekend's key film gross was down about 3.29% from this year's previous weekend when key films grossed $76.98 million.
Last year, Warner Bros.' opening week of "House on Haunted Hill" was first with $15.95 million at 2,710 theaters ($5,884 per theater); and Universal's second week of "The Best Man" was second with $6.28 million at 1,348 theaters ($4,660 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $22.2 million. This year, the top two films grossed an estimated $28.2 million.
STUDIO MARKET SHARES Based on business by key films (those grossing $500,000 or more), last weekend's top six distributors were:
Universal was first with two films ("Meet the Parents" and "Billy Elliot"), grossing an estimated $15.62 million or 21.0% of the market.
Artisan Entertainment was second with one film ("Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2"), grossing an estimated $13.1 million or 19.2% of the market.
Warner Bros. was third with three films ("The Exorcist," "Pay It Forward" and "Best in Show"), grossing an estimated $10.22 million or 13.7% of the market.
Buena Vista (Disney and Touchstone) was fourth with one film ("Remember the Titans"), grossing an estimated $8.0 million or 10.8% of the market.
20th Century Fox was fifth with one film ("Bedazzled"), grossing an estimated $7.7 million or 10.3% of the market.
New Line was sixth with two films ("The Little Vampire" and "Lost Souls"), grossing an estimated $7.0 million or 9.4% of the market.
ADDITIONAL ESTIMATES (11)The Exorcist/Warner Bros.: Theaters: 1,401 (-307) Gross: $1.56 million (-46%) Average per theater: $1,113 Cume: $37.2 million
(12)Ladies Man/Paramount: Theaters: 1,823 (-220) Gross: $1.53 million (-46%) Average per theater: $837 Cume: $11.9 million
(13)Lost Souls/New Line: Theaters: 1,708 (-262) Gross: $1.5 million (-54%) Average per theater: $878 Cume: $15.3 million
(14)Dr. T & the Women/Artisan Ent.: Theaters: 1,204 (-285) Gross: $1.2 million (-48%) Average per theater: $997 Cume: $11.0 million
(15)Almost Famous/DreamWorks: Theaters: 707 (-1,000) Gross: $0.68 million (-45%) Average per theater: $967 Cume: $29.8 million
(16)Billy Elliot/Universal Focus: Theaters: 37 (0) Gross: $0.56 million (+14%) Average per theater: $15,085 Cume: $1.6 million
(17)Bring It On/Universal: Theaters: 861 (-890) Gross: $0.37 million (-62%) Average per theater: $430 Cume: $66.6 million
(18)Bamboozled/New Line: Theaters: 243 (-1) Gross: $0.33 million (-43%) Average per theater: $1,337 Cume: $1.5 million
(19)The Yards/Miramax: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(20)Digimon: The Movie/Fox: Theaters: 968 (-681) Gross: $0.32 million (-65%) Average per theater: $330 Cume: $9.0 million
(21)Nutty Professor II: The Klumps/Universal: Theaters: 348 (-97) Gross: $0.18 million (-26%) Average per theater: $505 Cume: $122.4 million
(22)TIM BURTON'S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS/ Buena Vista (reissue): (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(23)The Watcher/Universal: Theaters: 157 (-209) Gross: $0.075 million (-41%) Average per theater: $480 Cume: $29.0 million
(24)LOVING JEZEBEL/Universal Focus: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(25)ONCE IN THE LIFE/Lions Gate: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(26)A ROOM FOR ROMEO BRASS/USA Films (see OTHER OPENINGS above)