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.
Former cellmates Michael (Russell) and Murphy (Costner) are leaders of a posse that plans to pull off the heist of a lifetime: robbing the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas during International Elvis Week. This means of course adopting full-on spangled jumpsuits sunglasses and "thank yuh thank yuh vurry much"-es. But when Murphy turns against the crew to keep all the loot for himself Michael escapes with it instead and heads for the border to launder it. He's sidelined along the way by a dalliance with a grifter (Courteney Cox) and her young son. Meanwhile Murphy's hot on his trail.
Costner turned down the chance to play Russell's part to take on the villain instead - and he looks like he's having the time of his life. Less filled out but more amoral than his baddie in the underrated "A Perfect World " Costner bats well as a foil to Russell who shows a barely visible vulnerability under the necessary roughness. Cox to her credit does a complete 180 from her uptight role on "Friends" as the sexually aggressive con-chick Cybil. Christian Slater David Arquette and Bokeem Woodbine make small appearances as part of the Elvis crew Howie Long and Ice-T kick some tail and Kevin Pollak and the long-absent Thomas Haden Church ("Wings") provide comic relief as bumbling lawmen.
"3000 Miles to Graceland" may seem like a caper reminiscent of last month's "Snatch " except there's a lot of bloodshed particularly during the casino robbery where machine gun blasts fling people across the room to land on cha-ching!-ing slot machines. Novice director Demian Lichtenstein's music video background is evident in his Guy Ritchie-esque cuts zooms and a way-bizarre computerized scorpion fight that kicks off the movie (what was that about?). His style and the Vegas ambience give the film a kitschy edge that disappears once the guys shed their Elvis garb. Stay for the credits - you'll see a costumed Russell lip-synching in his own music video as Costner Cox and crew dance about.
Hollywood delivered a one-two box office punch this weekend with big openings targeted to adult and family audiences.
Minority Report reported the majority of moviegoer votes, claiming first place with $36.9 million. Lilo & Stitch, which out-grossed Minority on Friday, wound up second with livelier than expected ticket sales of $35.8 million.
Insiders had projected only an $18-20 million launch for Lilo. Minority fell into the $30-40 million range that Hollywood handicappers had anticipated, although some had gone out on a limb speculating about a $50 million kickoff.
With stiff competition on two key demographic fronts, all three Top Five holdovers suffered big drops. Scooby-Doo slid 55 percent to third place with $24.4 million. The Bourne Identity fell 46 percent to fourth place with $14.8 million. The Sum Of All Fears skidded 41 percent to fifth place with $7.9 million.
Driven mostly by Minority and Lilo, ticket sales were up nearly 16 percent from this weekend last year. Key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more -- took in $159.4 million versus last year's $137.7 million.
THE TOP TEN
20th Century Fox's opening of its and DreamWorks' PG-13 rated sci-fi fantasy thriller Minority Report took first place with a hot ESTIMATED $36.9 million at 3,001 theaters ($12,296 per theater).
Directed by Steven Spielberg, it stars Tom Cruise.
Minority's average per theater was the highest for any film playing this weekend.
"We had terrific results in big cities, urban and suburban (and in) sophisticated (markets)," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning. "The audience breakdown was 52 percent male, 64 percent 25 and over. (It had) great scores all around, especially from the younger folks even though they weren't there in the bigger numbers. But they actually had the better scores. So that bodes well for the future."
Focusing on the weekend day by day, Snyder noted, "We had a decent bump from Friday to Saturday. It seemed to be a little bit soft in the bump there for all movies. But we were up 13 percent. I've got $11.9 million for Friday and $13.4 million for Saturday -- 13 percent up. And 13 percent down (estimated) for Sunday to $11.6 million."
Minority's reviews, Snyder said, "were spectacular. There's always some negatives in there, but overall across the country it was a really wonderfully reviewed movie."
In Friday's grosses Lilo out performed Minority. "I've got them at $12.5 million on Friday and we were $11.9 million, so they were (ahead)," he said, pointing to the animated hit's strong matinee showings that day. "Lilo & Stitch's average was $4,000 for the matinees on Friday. Our average was $2,325. When they ended up having the same basic average when day was done, what it tells you is that they had the possibility to crank all day long with a much shorter movie. We have a two hour and 22 minute movie and ended up with one main show at night."
Is Minority's length a drag on its grossing potential? "It's a slight one," Snyder replied, "especially with a movie that kind of plays adult. Eventually we will get more and more teens, but (right now) we're not getting those 15 year olds that will be in there at 11 o'clock. So you really get that one main show. And it's a long show, so your eight o'clock show is your main show and that's what you've really got to work off of.
"Saturday you can get two shows, but Friday's a one show (day). I think that's how the grosses end up as they are. They cranked all day long, had a short movie and probably had five great matinees and we were working off really one main show at night."
Buena Vista/Disney's PG rated animated family appeal feature Lilo & Stitch arrived to much better numbers than expected, placing second with a colorful ESTIMATED $35.8 million at 3,191 theaters ($11,218 per theater).
Written and directed by Chris Sanders, it was produced by Clark Spencer. Its original score is by Alan Silvestri.
"We are thrilled," Buena Vista Distribution president Chuck Viane said Sunday morning. "We never anticipated coming in in first place (but) I truly believe that's where we're at. In our hearts, we truly believe we're number one. We will speak as though we're number one."
Whatever Lilo's ranking for the weekend, Viane said, "The amazement here is that this is the second best opening in June on an animated film we've ever had -- second only to The Lion King (which opened to $40.9 million the weekend of June 24-26, 1994)."
Focusing on Lilo's terrific numbers, Viane said Disney is, "a very happy place. It's great. It's amazing how this one apparently didn't show up on some people's radars. But obviously the public was out there in masses. I was over at the Promenade (multiplex in L.A.) yesterday and I cannot tell you how many kids walked into the theater with those little Stitch cuddly dolls. It'll be an eminently successful film. I think the directors and the animators and everybody (who worked on the picture) did a magnificent job."
Warner Bros.' PG rated family comedy Scooby-Doo stumbled two steps to third place in its second week with a still sizable ESTIMATED $24.36 million (-55%) at 3,447 theaters (theater count unchanged; $7,067 per theater). Its cume is approximately $101.2 million.
Directed by Raja Gosnell, it stars Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Matthew Lillard, Linda Cardellini and Rowan Atkinson.
"It's the first hundred million dollar movie of the year for us," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "$101.195 million in 10 days. We're very thrilled about it. We've announced a sequel (for 2004). We're going to build a franchise on Mr. Doo. Audiences still love this movie. I'm very pleased with that hold considering the $35.8 million that Disney (grossed with Lilo)."
Universal's PG-13 espionage thriller The Bourne Identity starring Matt Damon slid two pegs to fourth place in its second week -- holding respectably given Minority's strong opening -- with an ESTIMATED $14.76 million (-46%)) at 2,643 theaters (+5 theaters; $5,585 per theater). Its cume is approximately $54.1 million, heading for $85 million.
Paramount's PG-13 rated thriller The Sum Of All Fears dipped one notch to fifth place in its fourth week, holding its own in the face of strong competition from Minority with an ESTIMATED $7.9 million (-41%) at 3,039 theaters (-191 theaters; $2,601 per theater). Its cume is approximately $97.4 million, heading for $120 million or more in domestic theaters.
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson and produced by Mace Neufeld, it stars Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman.
"I think the biggest (film based on a Tom Clancy book) was $122 million. Whether or not it surpasses that is a question mark at this point," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning, noting that Fears was impacted by both Minority and Bourne. "We're very happy with the hold. Obviously, we would have liked to have held better than the 41 percent, but given the level of the competition it's a good hold."
MGM's R rated World War II drama Windtalkers retreated three trenches to sixth place in its second week with a wounded ESTIMATED $6.7 million (-54%) at 2,898 theaters (theater count unchanged; $2,312 per theatre). Its cume is approximately $26.7 million.
Directed by John Woo, it stars Nicolas Cage.
Morgan Creek's MPG-13 rated urban appeal basketball theme comedy Juwanna Mann opened in seventh place via Warner Bros. to an unexciting ESTIMATED $6.0 million at 1,325 theaters ($4,528 per theater).
Directed by Jesse Vaughan, it stars Kevin Pollak, Tommy Davidson, Kim Wayans, Ginuwine and Lil' Kim.
"The picture played (best) predominantly in the urban ethnic markets and did little to cross over (into mainstream situations)," Warners' Dan Fellman said.
Warner Bros. and Gaylord Films' PG-13 rated drama Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood fell two slots in its third week to eighth place with a less divine ESTIMATED $5.69 million (-36%) at 2,310 theaters (-197 theaters; $2,461 per theater). Its cume is approximately $46.4 million.
Directed by Callie Khouri, it stars Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Fionnula Flanagan, James Garner, Ashley Judd, Shirley Knight, Angus Macfadyen and Maggie Smith.
"It had the best hold of any of the wide releases, only down 36 percent," Warners' Dan Fellman said. "And with the strong mid-weeks that this picture's getting we'll be past $50 million by the end of the week (and) heading into the $60 millions."
20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm's PG rated franchise installment Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones dropped three rungs to ninth place in its sixth week with a slower ESTIMATED $5.1 million (-46%) at 2,107 theaters (-294 theaters; $2,421 per theater). Its cume is approximately $279.8 million, heading for $300 million in domestic theaters.
Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace took in $431.1 million in domestic theaters. Its worldwide total (domestic plus international) was $923 million.
Directed by George Lucas, it stars Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Columbia's PG-13 sci-fi fantasy blockbuster Spider-Man, down three pegs in its eighth week with a less energetic ESTIMATED $4.4 million (-41%) at 2,278 theaters (-424 theaters; $1,932 per theater). Its cume is approximately $390.2 million heading for $400 million-plus in domestic theaters.
Directed by Sam Raimi, it stars Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Sony Pictures Classics' PG-13 drama Sunshine State to a sunny ESTIMATED $92,000 at 10 theaters ($9,202 per theater).
Written, directed and edited by John Sayles, it stars Jane Alexander, Angela Bassett, Gordon Clapp, Edie Falco, Miguel Ferrer, Timothy Hutton, James McDaniel and Mary Steenburgen.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front this weekend IFC Films' PG rated romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding added a few more theaters in its 10th week with a still impressive ESTIMATED $1.7 million (-1%) at 459 theaters (+4 theaters; $3,785 per theater). Its cume is approximately $16.3 million.
Directed by Joel Zwick, it stars Nia Vardalos and John Corbett.
Miramax's PG rated comedy The Importance Of Being Earnest expanded in its fifth week to an uninteresting ESTIMATED $0.5 million (-18%) at 201 theaters (+21 theaters; $2,487 per theater). Its cume is approximately $4.2 million.
Directed by Oliver Parker, it stars Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O'Connor, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson.
Think Film's R rated dark comedy The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys went wider in its second week with an uneventful ESTIMATED $0.2 million at 76 theaters (+67 theaters; $2,510 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.3 million.
Directed by Peter Care, it stars Kieran Culkin.
Miramax's R rated classic drama Cinema Paradiso: The New Version added theaters quietly in its second week with an ESTIMATED $28,000 at 7 theaters (+4 theaters; $4,000 per theater). Its cume is approximately $67,000.
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, it stars Philippe Noiret.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $159.42 million, up 15.74 percent from last year when they totaled $137.74 million.
Key films were down about 1.00 percent from the previous weekend of this year when they grossed $161.01 million.
Last year, Universal's opening week of The Fast and the Furious was first with $40.09 million at 2,628 theaters ($15,255 per theater); and 20th Century Fox's opening week of Dr. Dolittle 2 was second with $25.04 million at 3,049 theaters ($8,212 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $65.1 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $72.7 million.
It seems that while the big Hollywood donkeys got their rest after Day One of the Democratic National Convention, President Clinton had a little more partying to do. Especially since he was about to receive Tinseltown's biggest honor.
Yep, that's right -- after he wistfully practiced an acceptance speech with Kevin Spacey's Academy Award (and having Spacey take it away from him) during his famous "Clinton: The Final Days" video spoof, President Clinton finally received an "Oscar" for Best President at the Democratic Party's Welcoming Party Monday night.
The trophy, in true Hollywood fashion, was presented by California Gov. Gray Davis at Paramount Studios. Clinton, accompanied by wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea, joked, "I had Kevin Spacey's Oscar and he was ungracious enough to come and take it away from me just because he won it and I didn't.
"So now that I have one of my very own, I'll be able to lord it over him."
But the real question of the evening was not whether Gov. Davis was hoarding one of the missing Oscar statuettes all this time, but where the "star-studded" part of the evening was to commence. After all, the biggest stars on the red carpet (lined with 'Academy Award' statues, of course) were Jim Carrey (well, actually a pretender, complete with Ace Ventura hair and talking out of his butt) and Marilyn Monroe (ditto, but no butt-talking).
Where were all those high-profile Gore supporters, like TV's "West Wing" president, Martin Sheen, or Kevin Costner, or Dylan McDermott? Where was Enrique Iglesias?
Presidential Partyer Gary Busey By 9 p.m., much to the infuriation of all reporters, the biggest star on the scene was ... Gary Busey. Nonetheless, Busey drew such a desperate press frenzy (likely the largest of his career) that one journalist was asking, "Who is that? Is that God?"
By 9:30 p.m., with press cages bare and reporters sipping Coronas, hope of finding any famous face among the thousands faded quickly.
"My friend thinks she saw Jeff Bridges pull up in a car," one lady offers. We think we spot the skimpy-dressed Christina Aguilera -- until she looks our way. (Turns out we were off by 30 years).
Other sightings included Tobey Maguire, Carmen Electra, Anjelica Huston, Victoria Rowell ("The Young and the Restless"), Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols and '80s popster Tiffany.
Meanwhile, the available star power did their best. Actor Joe Pantoliano ("The Matrix") and Kevin Pollak ("The Whole Nine Yards") made the introductions, the latter bombing through a number of stand-up jokes (including impressions of Ross Perot and Gore's running mate Joseph Lieberman). Celebrity Democracy Readings featured Frances Fisher, Noah Wyle, Laurence Fishburne and Alfre Woodard reciting famous orations by John F. Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few.
We'd like to think that Whoopi and Barbra didn't pass the disorganized but ultra-tight security entrance, but we're pretty sure they were hiding out in the V.I.P lounge instead, laughing as the masses sway to "Lean On Me," meant to be a unifying Democratic anthem, led by Michael Bolton.
Yes, Michael Bolton. And no, Gary Busey did not join in.