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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Holdover hits prevailed this weekend as moviegoers showed little enthusiasm for new arrivals.
Universal's PG-13-rated comedy "Meet the Parents" held on to first place in its second weekend with a still engaging estimated $21.35 million (-25%) at 2,615 theaters (+1 theater; $8,165 per theater). Its cume is approximately $59.4 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.
"It's fabulous," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "This is a bonafide hit, a bonafide blockbuster. Because of the mid-week numbers, we knew that the word of mouth was out already. The question just is, 'How big is big?' It will be well over $100 million. We're at $59 million in 10 days."
Rocco pointed out that "Parents," which opened in first place the previous weekend, is the fourth consecutive film opening via Universal in the number one position this year. It follows "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps," "Bring It On" and "The Watcher." Universal is the first studio to achieve such a first place box office roll since Paramount scored in 1989 with "Major League," "Pet Sematary," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier."
Besides its four-in-a-row streak, Universal has two other first place openings for 2000, to make a total of six - "Erin Brockovich" and "U-571" round out the list.
Directed by Jay Roach (director of both "Austin Powers" hits), "Parents" stars Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller.
Rocco was also delighted with Universal's platform release launch of its critically-acclaimed, R-rated drama "Billy Elliot," the first title from the studio's new Universal Focus banner. "Billy" placed 20th with an estimated $0.22 million at 10 theaters ($22,015 per theater).
"$22,000 per screen is fabulous. When you're only going out with 10 playdates, you have to analyze other films that were of limited release and specialty films. It's certainly better than when 'Il Postino' opened and much better than when 'Ned Devine' opened. 'Ned Devine' was nine playdates and it was much less than this. Quite frankly, 'The Full Monty' opened in six playdates in September of 1997, and their per screen was $29,000. So we're right there. It's extremely encouraging."
"Monty" opened via Fox Searchlight Pictures to $176,585 at 6 theaters ($29,431 per theater) the weekend of Aug. 15-17, 1997. Having opened on Wed., Aug. 13, its five-day cume was $244,375. It went on to gross about $46 million in domestic theaters.
"Devine" opened via Fox Searchlight Pictures to $148,971 at 9 theaters ($16,552 per theater) the weekend of Nov. 20-22, 1998. It went on to gross about $25 million in domestic theaters.
"Postino" opened via Miramax Films to $95,310 at 10 theaters ($9,531 per theater) the weekend of June 16-18, 1995. It went on to gross about $22 million in domestic theaters.
"Billy's" exit polls, Rocco said, were very encouraging: "70% were over 30 (years old). 58% female. 96% in the Top Two boxes (excellent and very good) and 83% definite recommend. This is wonderful. We knew that this picture would play. It's a wonderful film."
The next step in rolling it out, she added, would be, "to bring in a few more markets and maybe expand a little in New York and L.A. for next week. And then the following week, a few more markets, a little more expansion in those that we're opened in, and then by the first or second week of November to be in 400 or 500 playdates. We're being cautious. It's a typical roll-out plan."
Buena Vista/Disney's PG-rated football drama "Remember the Titans" from producer Jerry Bruckheimer retained runner-up honors in its third weekend, still showing good legs with an estimated $13.5 million (-29%) at 2,726 theaters (+25 theaters; $4,958 per theater). Its cume is approximately $64.7 million.
Directed by Boaz Yakin and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Chad Oman, "Titans" stars Denzel Washington.
New Line's R-rated horror thriller "Lost Souls" found the best reception of the weekend's four wide openings, placing third with a spirited estimated $8.4 million at 1,970 theaters ($4,263 per theater).
"We feel pretty good about it," New Line distribution president David Tuckerman said Sunday morning. "I think the ad campaign (done by New Line marketing president Joe Nimziki and his team) was great."
Focusing on the marketplace, which continues to be soft despite the success of "Parents" and "Titans," Tuckerman pointed out, "We're in a malaise. There's no question about it. And I don't think we're going to get out of it until we have a huge opening to jolt the public back into wanting to go to the movies.
"Frankly, I don't think that opening is going to be until 'Little Nicky' (the PG-13-rated Adam Sandler comedy opening very wide via New Line Nov. 10). I think 'Charlie's Angels' is going to open terrific (very wide via Columbia Nov. 3), but I think 'Little Nicky' is going to jolt 'em. Every week in November, there are good films opening that are going to gross."
Directed by Janusz Kaminski, "Souls" stars Winona Ryder and Ben Chaplin.
Paramount's R-rated urban appeal comedy "The Ladies Man" opened in fourth place with a quiet estimated $5.7 million at 2,022 theaters ($2,819 per theater).
Directed by Reginald Hudlin, "Ladies" stars Tim Meadows, Karyn Parsons and Billy Dee Wiliams.
With very good reviews, DreamWorks' R-rated political thriller "The Contender" opened in fifth place to a hopeful estimated $5.53 million at 1,516 theaters ($3,646 per theater).
Written and directed by Rod Lurie, "Contender" stars Gary Goldman, Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Christian Slater.
"We're pretty pleased with the fact that the movie grossed more in its opening weekend than it cost," DreamWorks distribution executive Don Harris said Sunday morning.
"The movie seemed to play across the board. It played in the South and the Mid-West, which we were pretty happy about. We'll probably add some runs this week. That will get determined tomorrow when we see some more information. The plan all along was to open it at about this level and then add as we go through into the fall."
Warner Bros.' reissue of its R-rated 1973 horror classic "The Exorcist" expanded in its fourth week, sliding two pegs to sixth place with a still-solid $5.4 million at 1,655 theaters (+505 theaters; $3,263 per theater). Its cume is approximately $30.7 million, heading for $40 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by William Friedkin, "Exorcist" stars Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair and Max von Sydow.
Artisan Entertainment's R-rated romantic comedy "Dr. T and the Women" arrived in seventh place to an uneventful estimated $5.2 million at 1,489 theaters ($3,492 per theater).
Directed by Robert Altman, "Dr. T" stars Richard Gere, Helen Hunt, Farrah Fawcett, Laura Dern, Shelley Long, Tara Reid, Kate Hudson and Liv Tyler.
Warner Bros. and Franchise Pictures' R-rated Sylvester Stallone action adventure "Get Carter" plunged five rungs in its second week to eighth place with a slow estimated $2.72 million (-59%) at 2,315 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,173 per theater). Its cume is approximately $11.5 million.
Directed by Stephen Kay, "Carter" stars Sylvester Stallone, Miranda Richardson, Rachael Leigh Cook, Alan Cumming, Mickey Rourke and Michael Caine.
Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated comedy "Best in Show," which went wider in its third week, placed ninth with a very promising estimated $2.35 million at 291 theaters (+238 theaters; $8,060 per theater). Its cume is approximately $4.1 million.
"That's huge," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellm n said Sunday morning. "The picture has (very good legs). It only dropped 8% in the existing theaters."
Directed by Christopher Guest, "Best" stars Jennifer Coolidge, Christopher Guest and John Michael Higgins.
Rounding out the Top Ten was DreamWorks' R-rated dramatic comedy "Almost Famous," down four notches in its fifth week with a less lively estimated $2.27 million (-39%) at 2,262 theaters (+177 theaters; $1,001 per theater. Its cume is approximately $26.7 million.
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, "Almost" stars Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Patrick Fugit, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
"Famous" is being released internationally by Sony's Columbia Pictures, which co-financed the production and will share equally with DreamWorks in its success.
OTHER OPENINGS This weekend also saw the arrival of Universal's critically-acclaimed, R-rated drama "Billy Elliot," the first title from the studio's new Universal Focus banner.
"Billy" went into limited release, placing 20th and giving Universal something to dance about with a very promising estimated $0.22 million at 10 theaters ($22,015 per theater).
Now playing in six top markets (New York, L.A., Boston, Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco), "Billy" will roll out slowly in the coming weeks as word of mouth builds and its favorable reviews circulate.
(Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco's comments about "Billy" are included in today's Top Ten grosses report.)
Directed by Stephen Daldry, "Billy" stars Julie Walters, Gary Lewis, Jamie Bell, Jamie Draven and Adam Cooper.
SNEAK PREVIEWS Warner Bros. held sneak previews this weekend at about 750 theaters of its PG-13-rated drama "Pay It Forward."
No details were available Sunday morning. Warners' sneaks the previous Saturday night at 350 theaters had been well attended. Those on hand scored it 81% in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good). "Pay" opens Friday (Oct. 20) at between 1,500 and 1,800 theaters.
Directed by Mimi Leder, "Pay" stars Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment.
EXPANSIONS On the expansion front, Fine Line's R-rated drama "Dancer in the Dark" went wider in its fourth week, placing 17th with a calm estimated $0.41 million at 123 theaters (+12 theaters; $3,330 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.6 million.
Written and directed by Lars Von Trier, "Dancer" stars Bjork and Catherine Deneuve.
WEEKEND COMPARISONS Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 for the weekend -- took in approximately $78.99 million, up about 6.79% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $73.97 million.
This weekend's key film gross was down a marginal 0.20% from this year's previous weekend when key films grossed $79.15 million.
Last year, 20th Century Fox's opening week of "Fight Club" was first with $11.04 million at 1,963 theaters ($5,622 per theater); and Paramount's fourth week of "Double Jeopardy" was second with $10.23 million at 2,936 theaters ($3,485 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $21.2 million. This year, the top two films grossed an estimated $34.9 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 "Bring It On"), grossing an estimated $22.99 million or 29.1% of the market.
Buena Vista (Disney and Touchstone) was second with one film ("Remember the Titans"), grossing an estimated $13.5 million or 17.1% of the market.
Warner Bros. was third with four films ("Get Carter," "The Exorcist," "Space Cowboys" and "Best in Show"), grossing an estimated $11.05 million or 14.0% of the market.
DreamWorks was fourth with three films ("The Contender," "Almost Famous" and "What Lies Beneath"), grossing an estimated $8.51 million or 10.8% of the market.
New Line was fifth with one film ("Lost Souls"), grossing an estimated $8.4 million or 10.6% of the market.
Paramount was sixth with one film ("The Ladies Man"), grossing an estimated $5.7 million or 7.2% of the market.
ADDITIONAL ESTIMATES (11)Digimon: The Movie/Fox: Theaters: 1,825 (+2) Gross: $1.82 million (-57%) Average per theater: $998 Cume: $7.2 million
(12)Bring It On/Universal: Theaters: 2,167 (-195) Gross: $1.64 million (-28%) Average per theater: $750 Cume: $64.8 million
(13)Urban Legends: Final Cut/Columbia: Theaters: 2,221 (-318) Gross: $1.32 million (-49%) Average per theater: $595 Cume: $20.3 million
(14)What Lies Beneath/DreamWorks: Theaters: 1,027 (-348) Gross: $0.72 million (-36%) Average per theater: $697 Cume: $153.2 million
(15)Space Cowboys/Warner Bros.: Theaters: 1,002 (-501) Gross: $0.59 million (-34%) Average per theater: $585 Cume: $89.1 million
(16)Nurse Betty/USA Films: Theaters: 1,018 (-455) Gross: $0.5 million (-55%) Average per theater: $495 Cume: $23.7 million
(17)Dancer in the Dark/Fine Line: (see EXPANSIONS above)
(18)The Watcher/Universal: Theaters: 879 (-870) Gross: $0.37 million (-68%) Average per theater: $415 Cume: $28.6 million
(19) Nutty Professor II: The Klumps/Universal: Theaters: 540 (-252) Gross: $0.25 million (-43%) Average per theater: $460 Cume: $121.8 million
(20)BILLY ELLIOT/Universal Focus: (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(21)Scary Movie/Dimension Films: Theaters: 493 (-268) Gross: $0.21 million (-49%) Average per theater: $435 Cume: $156.0 million
(22)Girlfight/Screen Gems/Sony: Theaters: 253 (0) Gross: $0.19 million (-61%) Average per theater: $765 Cume: $1.2 million
(23)Gladiator/DreamWorks: Theaters: 173 (-76) Gross: $0.11 million (-40%) Average per theater: $645 Cume: $186.6 million
(24)Bamboozled/New Line: Theaters: 17 (0) Gross: $0.1 million (-45%) Average per theater: $6,140 Cume: $0.4 million
(25)Requiem For A Dream/Artisan: Theaters: 2 (0) Gross: $0.047 million (-27%) Average per theater: $23,704 Cume: $0.2 million
(26)Two Family House/Lions Gate: Theaters: 4 (-5) Gross: $0.021 million (-31%) Average per theater: $5,201 Cume: $0.064 million
(27)Tigerland/Fox: Theaters: 5 (0) Gross: $0.016 million (-42%) Average per theater: $3,152 Cume: $0.060 million