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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Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
It was a Fast moving weekend at the box office as Universal's The Fast and the Furious sped away with over $41 million.
The PG-13 action drama pulled into theaters with a high octane ESTIMATED $41.6 million at 2,628 theaters ($15,830 per theater).
Fast, which only cost $38 million to produce, appears to be well on its way to a very profitable $100 million in domestic theaters.
Fast's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide or limited release this weekend.
Directed by Rob Cohen and produced by Neal H. Moritz, it stars Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster.
"It's the eighth all-time June opener and Universal's sixth highest opener ever," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "And it ranks in the Top 25 of all time openers in history, which is a lot to say for a little film that cost $38 million. It's Rob Cohen's biggest opener and Neal Moritz's biggest opener."
(Exhibitors Relations Co., a film industry statistical research firm, lists The Fast and the Furious as the seventh best June opener if estimates hold.)
Pointing out that Fast is playing in 2,628 theaters, which she felt was the perfect number of theaters for it to open in, rather than in 3,000-plus locations, which has become typical for summer releases. "This is a lesson that you don't need to be in 3,500 playdates to do a huge gross," Rocco said. "I want to point out to filmmakers that if you're not in (over 3,000 theaters) you can still have a blockbuster."
Focusing on Fast's high speed launch, Rocco observed, "Obviously, the grosses speak for themselves as an indication of the enormously successful opening that we've had. What I'm absolutely excited about are the exit polls. To see an excellent rating for all [demographic] categories come in at 60 percent where the norms are 35 percent is extraordinary. The core audience [which is the under-25 group] is 68 percent excellent. These are enormous exit polls.
"The Top Two boxes [excellent and very good] is 89 percent. Now remember, you're taking into consideration [in this score people who are] over 25 years of age. For the core audience, it's 91 percent. The Definite Recommend is 71 percent and 78 percent for the score. It's unbelievably impressive."
Rocco noted that the exits were done Saturday night, "so we're not just getting the must-see people who go out on a Friday night. These were polled on Saturday night. That's what's so amazing to me. The breakdown of the audience last night was 55 percent male and 45 percent female. That's not heavily loaded to males. And it was very ethnically mixed. It was 50 percent white, 24 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, 10 percent black and 5 percent others. So it had a good ethnic mix. And it bodes well for today's business between kids being out of school and Sunday being a good day for films [that play well to ethnic audiences]. That's why we're counting on the business being extraordinary today. There are no [major televised] sporting events to interfere with us.
"I'm just so excited for Rob Cohen and Neal Moritz. And I have to commend our production group and Scott Stuber (co-president of production). This was an in-house developed project. Scott found an article in Vibe magazine about streetcar racing and he developed this. So it's kudos to the production group. Our marketing, distribution and production people have proven -- and this is just a further example -- how we can tap into a certain culture. We did it with Bring It On. We did it with American Pie. And now we've done it with The Fast and the Furious."
Focusing on the film's release, Rocco commented, "The distribution strategy was absolutely perfect. In an environment where it's almost a must that you find 3,000 playdates, we've just proven that 2,600 playdates gets the job done as well as any film opening with over 3,000 playdates. That's not to say that we won't have 3,000 playdates on other films, it's just to say that you go with the flow and do what the marketplace demands of you."
Rocco also tipped her hat to Universal Pictures vice chairman Marc Shmuger "for having the enthusiasm and the drive to convince us to move it from March or April to the summer. After the second test screening, Marc looked at everybody and discussed with the filmmakers the fact that this would be a perfect summer programmer."
Rocco noted that at the time she believed Fast was going to be hit and felt she needed it on the studio's spring release schedule. "Marc had the vision and the guts to say, 'We could do it, team. Let's move it to the summer.' The only date that we felt comfortable with was this date, which was sandwiched between Tomb Raider and A.I. I have to give him a lot of credit for having that vision and the faith.
"I like to space out all my hits and we needed a film in the spring. But everything that Marc said made so much sense that we moved it. He convinced us, so we found this date. We knew we weren't going to go on the Tomb Raider date (or) the A.I. date. We had Jurassic Park 3 set for mid-July, so we didn't want to go there. This was the only reliable date that I could pick. And I didn't want to go earlier and cut into The Mummy Returns."
20th Century Fox and Davis Entertainment's PG rated comedy sequel Dr. Dolittle 2 kicked off in second place to a solid ESTIMATED $26.71 million at 3,049 theaters ($8,761 per theater).
The 1998 original -- inspired by the 1967 musical -- opened the weekend of June 26-28, 1998 to $29.01 million at 2,777 theaters ($10,448 per theater). In its second weekend (July 3-5), the original fell 32% and placed second with $19.68 million at 2,871 theaters ($6,853 per theater). It went on to gross $144.2 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Steve Carr and produced by John Davis, it stars Eddie Murphy.
"I'm looking at the overall weekend and I can't believe it -- it's up [over] 40 percent from last year," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning. "It's astonishing. How much can a market expand? What it says is that there's enough pictures that they do want to see. You're looking at five movies over $10 million. It's just amazing."
Looking at Dolittle's opening weekend, Snyder noted, "We were up 16 percent from Friday to Saturday. I was looking for a little bigger bump, but I guess there's just so much business out there. I was also looking at Atlantis and Shrek, which are family movies [like Dolittle]. They did almost $24 million between them and with our $26.7 million, you're looking at $50 million in family movies. It was a terrific weekend and I'm thrilled with our number. I believe we'll be around all summer with it."
Some observes had expected Dolittle to open in first place, which Snyder said had looked likely until this week's tracking data became known.
"If you had asked me that two weeks ago, I would have told you I thought so, too," he said. "As of this week, you could see the heat building on the teenage movie. One thing about teenage movies is that the kids have to get in there immediately. Dolittle you can see this week, next week, the week after. When it comes to teenage movies, (you've got to be there right away), which is why it goes down from Friday to Saturday. [Fast] was off 10 percent, which is not a big drop on such a huge number, but it's indicative of the teenage moviegoing habit vs. family [audiences]."
Looking for a long run on Dolittle, he added, "We'll be talking about it in August."
Paramount and Mutual Film Company's PG-13 rated action adventure Lara Croft: Tomb Raider fell sharply in its second week by two rungs to third place with a less sexy ESTIMATED $20.2 million (-58%) at 3,312 theaters (+4 theaters; $6,099 per theater). Its cume is approximately $84.2 million, heading for $125-130 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Simon West, Tomb stars Angelina Jolie.
"I think it's $125-135 million, in there somewhere, if it continues along this same pattern that X-Men did, which frankly it's just virtually mirrored every day as far as percentage drops," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "Actually, on Thursday X-Men dropped 10 percent from the Wednesday figure and we were flat with Wednesday, so we were a little bit on the positive side. But the percentages have been virtually the same. They were down 57 percent their second weekend."
Buena Vista/Disney's PG rated animated feature Atlantis slid two pegs in its third week, but held well with an ESTIMATED $13.2 million (-35%) at 3,071 theaters (+60 theaters; $4,298 per theater). Its cume is approximately $44.3 million.
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, its voice talents include Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Cree Summer and Leonard Nimoy.
DreamWorks' PG rated computer animated blockbuster Shrek dropped two notches to fifth place in its sixth week, continuing to hold strongly with an ESTIMATED $11.0 million (-16%) at 3,007 theaters (-310 theaters; $3,663 per theater). Its cume is approximately $215.8 million on its way to $250 million or more.
DreamWorks said Shrek hit $200 million on June 19, almost exactly one month after its wide release on May 18.
"Crossing $200 million this early out puts Shrek in the kind of rarified atmosphere that would be a fairy tale come true for any studio," DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp said in announcing the milestone. "The film's success speaks volumes about how well this movie plays to audiences across every geographic and demographic divide. We are thrilled that moviegoers are not only continuing to discover the magic of Shrek for the first time, but are going back again and again -- and taking friends. The resulting word of mouth has been a big part of the box office success and should continue to carry it throughout the summer."
Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, its voice talents include Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow.
Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's R rated action thriller Swordfish dropped two rungs to sixth place in its third week with an OK ESTIMATED $7.7 million (-39%) at 2,660 theaters (-28 theaters; $2,900 per theater). Its cume is approximately $53.2 million, heading for $72-73 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Dominic Sena and produced by Joel Silver and Jonathan Krane, it stars John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry and Don Cheadle.
"It's sensational given the competition in our demographic the last two weeks from Tomb Raider and Fast and the Furious, these are great," Warner Bros. Distribution executive vice president & general sales manager Jeff Goldstein said Sunday morning.
Looking ahead to what looms as next weekend's big film, Goldstein reminded, "A.I. opens up Friday in over 3,000 locations."
Buena Vista/Touchstone and Jerry Bruckheimer Films' PG-13 rated three hour epic action romance Pearl Harbor fell two rungs to seventh place in its fifth weekend with a less explosive $7.0 million (-29%) at 2,668 theaters (-472 theaters; $2,618 per theater). Its cume is approximately $172.1 million, on its way to $200 million by late summer.
Directed by Michael Bay, Pearl was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. Starring are Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnet, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight and Alec Baldwin.
20th Century Fox's PG-13 rated romantic musical drama Moulin Rouge held on to eighth place in its sixth week, continuing to hold well with an ESTIMATED $3.84 million (-24%) at 1,592 theaters (-492 theaters; $2,411 per theater). Its cume is approximately $43.4 million.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann, it stars Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.
"It's off (only) 24 percent and yet we lost 25 percent of our theaters," Fox's Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning. "I think something's happening there. (The cut-back in theaters) funneled the business back into the theaters that were strong."
Where is it going? "I've got to think we can get to $55 million and that will be delightful," Snyder said. "This is not an easy movie. It doesn't fit the cookie cutter molds that I'm accustomed to dealing in, so I'm delighted."
DreamWorks' and Columbia's PG-13 rated sci-fi comedy Evolution fell three pegs in its third week with a calm ESTIMATED $3.6 million (-46%) at 2,258 theaters (-355 theaters; $1,578 per theater). Its cume is approximately $32.6 million.
Directed by Ivan Reitman, it stars David Duchovny, Orlando Jones, Seann William Scott and Julianne Moore.
Rounding out the Top 10 was Columbia's release of Revolution Studios PG-13 youth appeal comedy The Animal, down three rungs in its fourth weekend with a quiet ESTIMATED $3.0 million (-48%) at 2,228 theaters (-513 theaters; $1,346 per theater). Its cume is approximately $51.3 million, heading. for $55 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Luke Greenfield, it stars Rob Schneider.
On the expansion front, this weekend saw Fox Searchlight's R rated drama Sexy Beast widen in its second week with a very sexy ESTIMATED $0.65 million at 57 theaters (+48 theaters; $11,426 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.97 million.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer, it stars Ben Kingsley.
"It's playing extremely well across the country -- from Boston to Houston to Seattle to Chicago," Fox Searchlight distribution president Stephen Gilula said Sunday morning. "I think what's happened is that the Don Logan character than Ben Kingsley has created is fascinating people. It's a larger than life character and people are really talking about it. It's almost like a Travis Bickel or a Hannibal Lecter. People are just mesmerized and they're talking about it.
"In New York, where we're in our second week, all of the four theaters went up this weekend, which is just excellent. We're adding another 21 markets this week and we'll go to over 100 theaters and we have additional cities (that we'll be adding) every weekend in July. We're going to get to 150 to 200 theaters."
Focusing on where it's playing best at this point, Gilula noted, "It is not crossing over yet into the pure commercial suburbs. But our suburban runs in New York were actually quite good. We seem to be the art film or the limited release film of the summer so far. (Fine Line's) Anniversary Party is doing pretty well, in addition."
Asked where Beast is heading, Gilula replied, "I hesitate to give you a number yet in terms of where we're going to end up, but I think we'll get past $5 million, which for us on a small film will be just fine.
"Even in a mega-summer, there's an audience out there that really seeks out alternative sort of smart film entertainment. It is not a monolithic market, at all. There are audiences that are out there all year long always looking for all kinds of movies."
Fine Line Features' R rated comedy The Anniversary Party went wider in its third week with a still encouraging ESTIMATED $0.62 million at 85 theaters (+69 theaters; $7,335 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
Written and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, its ensemble cast includes Jane Adams, Jennifer Beals, Phoebe Cates, Alan Cumming, Kevin Kline, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey and John C. Reilly.
Lions Gate Films' PG-13 rated drama Songcatcher expanded in its second week with an uninspired ESTIMATED $0.06 million at 13 theaters (+6 theaters; $4,630 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.12 million.
Directed by Maggie Greenwald, it stars Janet McTeer and Aidan Quinn.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $14.33 million, up about 42.34% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $100.69 million.
This weekend's key film gross was up about 10.97% from last weekend this year when key films took in $129.15 million.
Last year, Fox's opening week of Me, Myself & Irene was first with $24.21 million at 3,019 theaters ($8,019 per theater); and DreamWorks' opening week of Chicken Run was second with $17.51 million at 2,491 theaters ($7,028 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $41.7 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $68.3 million.