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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Sex and violence prevailed at the box office this weekend as R rated films opened in the top two slots.
Mel Gibson captured first place as We Were Soldiers invaded theaters and marched off with $20.2 million.
40 Days and 40 Nights kicked off in second place with a sexy $12.5 million, a less arousing arrival than the $15-20 million that Hollywood handicappers anticipated.
Top Five ticket sales also got a boost from three holdovers. John Q was alive and well in third place with $8.5 million. Dragonfly was an okay fourth with $6.8 million. And Return to Never Land showed good legs in fifth place with $6.5 million.
Key films--those grossing $500,000 or more--did nearly $98 million, up 18 percent from about $83 million last year.
THE TOP TEN
Paramount and Icon Productions' R rated Vietnam war drama We Were Soldiers blasted its way into first place with an energetic ESTIMATED $20.2 million at 3,143 theaters ($6,427 per theater).
Written and directed by Randall Wallace, it stars Mel Gibson.
We Were Soldiers' average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
"It's the biggest gross for this weekend (beating last year's opening of) The Mexican with $20.1 million," Paramount Distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning.
"The exit polls were through the roof. The top two boxes were 91 percent--70 percent excellent and 21 percent very good. The definite recommend was 80 percent. The index score was an 89.4. It's the highest exit polls we've ever had (and suggests the film) should have a long run. That was sort of proven out by the bump that we got Saturday over Friday of 43 percent."
Asked who was on hand opening weekend, Lewellen said, "The audience was a little older. 70 percent were over 25. It was 56 percent males and 44 percent females, which is really higher than we expected for the female audience (given the film's R rating and violence). So it bodes well for the playability of the picture."
Miramax's R rated romantic comedy 40 Days and 40 Nights opened in second place to an engaging ESTIMATED $12.5 million at 2,225 theaters ($5,617 per theater).
Hollywood handicappers had been anticipating a sexier launch in the $15-20 million range.
Directed by Michael Lehmann, it stars Josh Hartnett, Shannyn Sossamon and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
"We're very happy with the opening," Miramax senior vice president, marketing David Kaminow said Sunday morning. "It's another great partnership with Universal after last spring's Bridget Jones's Diary. The film played about 60 percent female, 40 percent male. (It was mostly) 17-34 with a concentration of 17-25. So it's definitely skewing young.
"We're going to try and keep that audience strong and then expand this weekend in terms of trying to get a broader (demographic with) some of the older audience, as well -- some of the 25-34 year old date crowd, who may respond more to the fact that it's from the producers of Bridget Jones and Notting Hill and so we'll highlight some of the better reviews that we got. So that's the plan, moving forward. But we're real happy with this opening."
New Line's PG-13 rated man-against-the-system drama John Q fell one rung to third place in its third week, continuing to show good legs with a robust ESTIMATED $8.4 million (-33%) at 2,456 theaters (-49 theaters; $3,420 per theater). Its cume is approximately $51.1 million.
Directed by Nick Cassavetes, it stars Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Kimberly Elise and Ray Liotta.
"It's touched a nerve," New Line Distribution president David Tuckerman said Sunday. "I think (it's) the storyline about HMOs. Everybody's got their own horror story about an HMO. People relate to it in that way. They either know somebody who's had a bad experience or they've had one themselves."
Asked where it's heading, Tuckerman said, "$70 million," pointing out that it wasn't an expensive production and "somewhere around $40 million I think we started to make money."
Universal and Spyglass Entertainment's PG-13 afterlife thriller Dragonfly slid one notch to fourth place in its second week but held respectably with an ESTIMATED $6.81 million (-33%) at 2,507 theaters (theater count unchanged; $2,715 per theater). Its cume is approximately $19.4 million.
Directed by Tom Shadyac, it stars Kevin Costner.
Buena Vista/Disney's G rated animated Return to Never Land dropped one peg to fifth place in its third week, still holding very well with an ESTIMATED $6.5 million (-28%) at 2,618 theaters (-8 theaters; $2,470 per theater). Its cume is approximately $35.3 million.
Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's R rated vampire thriller Queen of the Damned plunged five rungs to sixth place in its second week with an anemic ESTIMATED $5.83 million (-61%) at 2,511 theaters (theater count unchanged; $2,320 per theater). Its cume is approximately $23.8 million.
Directed by Michael Rymer, it stars Stuart Townsend and late recording artist Aaliyah.
Universal's PG rated family comedy Big Fat Liar fell two rungs to seventh place in its fourth week, holding well with a still funny ESTIMATED $4.75 million (-25%) at 2,232 theaters (-205 theaters; $2,130 per theater). Its cume is approximately $38.8.
Directed by Shawn Levy, it stars Frankie Muniz, Paul Giamatti and Amanda Bynes.
Big Fat Liar, which was made for only about $15 million, should be very profitable for Universal.
Universal, DreamWorks and Imagine Entertainment's PG-13 rated drama A Beautiful Mind, which has eight Oscar nominations including best picture and won the Writers Guild of America's best adapted screenplay award Saturday night, held on to seventh place in its 11th week with a still attractive ESTIMATED $4.41 million (-17%) at 1,962 theaters (-107 theaters; $2,245 per theater). Its cume is approximately $138.7 million, heading for $150 million-plus, depending on how well it does Oscar night.
Directed by Ron Howard, the Brian Grazer production stars Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly.
Paramount's PG-13 rated Britney Spears comedy Crossroads dropped four notches to eighth place in its third week with an unfunny ESTIMATED $4.04 million (-42%) at 2,301 theaters (-80 theaters; $1,754 per theater). Its cume is approximately $31.2 million.
Directed by Tamra Davis, it stars Britney Spears.
"I think it's going to push $40 million now," Paramount's Wayne Lewellen said, looking ahead to the film's likely domestic theatrical cume. "I had it (getting to) like the high $30 millions, but it held up a little better this weekend than I anticipated."
Rounding out the Top Ten was New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated blockbuster The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, up two pegs in its 11th week with a still solid ESTIMATED $3.13 million (-10%) at 1,303 theaters (-207 theaters; $2,380 per theater). Its cume is approximately $287.4 million, heading for $300 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Peter Jackson, Rings' ensemble cast is led by Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen.
"We're going to be in the low $290 millions before we get to Oscar weekend," New Line's David Tuckerman said. "Just hype alone should get us to $300 million. We're going back in the marketplace on Mar. 22 and then on Mar. 29--we've just revised our plan--we're going to add (something special at the conclusion of the film).
"Peter Jackson has made a four minute preview--not a trailer--of (the next film in the Rings trilogy) The Two Towers (opening this December). He basically did it as a thank you to the fans. So we're going to switch out the last reel for Friday, Mar. 29. On Mar. 22 we're going to do a big push to get back into the theaters. I hope to get back to (around) 2,000. So we'll get ourselves through that weekend. If we win, that's great. If we don't win, we have a thank you for the fans on Mar. 29 (that will continue to play) until it leaves theaters."
There were no other key openings this weekend.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front this weekend USA Films' R rated whodunit Gosford Park, which has seven Oscar nominations including best picture and won the Writers Guild of America's best original screenplay award Saturday night,, widened in its 10th week with an upbeat ESTIMATED $1.8 million (-10%) at 915 theaters (+94 theater; $1,976 per theater). Its cume is approximately $30.9 million.
Directed by Robert Altman and starring an extensive ensemble cast, it was written by Julian Fellowes and produced by Altman, Bob Balaban and David Levy.
"That's really good," USA Films distribution president Jack Foley said Sunday morning, referring to Gosford Park's ticket sales and Fellowes' WGA award. "We have Julian at ShoWest this week (where he's being honored at the annual convention of exhibitors and distributors as) the screenwriter of the year."
Lions Gate Films' R rated drama Monster's Ball, which has two Oscar nominations, expanded quietly in its 10th week with an ESTIMATED $1.6 million (-22%) at 660 theaters (+106 theaters; $2,485 per theater). Its cume is approximately $13.0 million.
Directed by Marc Foster, it stars Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Heath Ledger and Peter Boyle.
Miramax's R rated romantic comedy Italian For Beginners widened in its seventh week to a still hopeful ESTIMATED $0.35 million (+1%) at 66 theaters (+10 theaters; $5,303 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.6 million.
Directed by Lone Scherfig, it stars Anders Berthelsen.
USA Films' R rated romantic comedy Monsoon Wedding added theaters in its second week with a tasty ESTIMATED $0.2 million at 11 theaters (+9 theaters; $18,500 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.3 million.
Directed by Mira Nair, it was produced by Nair and Caroline Baron.
"It's wonderful," USA Films' Jack Foley said. "This is a little movie. We go into the next 12 big markets out there this weekend. It comes to around 30 additional screens."
Key films--those grossing more than $500,000--took in approximately $97.69 million, up about 18.14 percent from last year when they totaled $82.69 million.
Key films for this three day weekend were down about 7.33% from the previous weekend of this year's total of $105.42 million.
Last year, DreamWorks' opening week of The Mexican was first with $20.11 million at 2,951 theaters ($6,814 per theater); and MGM's fourth week of Hannibal was second with $10.05 million at 3,272 theaters ($3,072 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $30.2 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $32.7 million.
For all the controversy and hype surrounding "Eyes Wide Shut," the film will most likely be remembered as director Stanley Kubrick's last opus -- finished just days before he died in his sleep March 7.
The 70-year-old eccentric filmmaker's career was founded on spectacle, from the shocking "A Clockwork Orange" to the profound "2001: A Space Odyssey." It somehow seemed fitting that "Eyes Wide Shut," despite the star talent of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, would make its mark by bearing the director's ghost.
The year that was marked the passing of other legends, as well -- from George C. Scott (Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" star) to singer Mel Tormé to movie critic Gene Siskel.
Some, like Sylvia Sidney and DeForest Kelley, died after long, rich careers; others, such as Dana Plato and David Strickland, succumbed in relative youth to their inner demons.
From marquee names to behind the sceners, Hollywood will mourn:
Kirk Alyn, 88, died March 14. In 1948, the first actor to play Superman on the big screen.
Hoyt Axton, 61, died Oct. 26, heart attack. Singer-actor who wrote hits such as Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World"; appeared in "Gremlins" and "The Black Stallion."
Ian Bannen, 71, died Nov. 3, car accident. Theater veteran who starred in "Waking Ned Devine," appeared in "Braveheart" and was nominated for an Oscar in 1965 for "Flight of the Phoenix."
Mary Kay Bergman, 38, died Nov. 11, suicide. Actress who voiced numerous "South Park" characters in the TV series and film.
Dirk Bogarde, 78, died May 8, heart attack. British veteran of more than 70 films, including "Death in Venice."
Rory Calhoun, 76, died April 28, emphysema and diabetes. Western film actor in the 1940s and '50s and star of CBS' "The Texan" series.
Allan Carr, 62, died June 29, cancer. Producer of the hit 1978 musical "Grease" and Tony Award winner for "La Cage aux Folles" on Broadway.
Iron Eyes Cody, about 90, died Jan 4, natural causes. American American actor best known as the "Crying Indian" in 1970s anti-litter public-service announcements.
Ellen Corby, 87, died April 14. Oscar nominee for the 1948 film "I Remember Mama"; Emmy winner for her grandmother role on TV's "The Waltons."
Harry Crane, 85, died Sept. 14, cancer. Co-created the TV sitcom "The Honeymooners''; wrote for entertainers such as the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton and Bing Crosby.
Charles Crichton, 89, died Sept. 14. Acclaimed British director of film comedies, including "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "A Fish Called Wanda."
Frank De Vol, 88, died Oct. 27, congestive heart failure. Film composer who received Oscar nominations for "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," "Pillow Talk" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.'' Wrote the theme music for TV's "The Brady Bunch."
Edward Dmytryk, 90, died July 1, heart and kidney failure. Directed films such as "The Caine Mutiny"; one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten during the 1940s Red Scare.
Allen Funt, 84, died Sept. 5, complications from stroke. Hosted and created prankster TV show "Candid Camera."
Betty Lou Gerson, 84, died Jan. 12, stroke. Provided the voice for villainess Cruella De Vil in Disney's 1961 animated "One Hundred and One Dalmatians."
Ernest Gold, 77, died March 17, complications from stroke. Composer for films such as "It's a Man, Mad, Mad, Mad World"; won an Academy Award for "Exodus."
Sandra Gould, 73, died July 20, stroke. Played nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz on TV's "Bewitched."
Huntz Hall, 78, died Jan. 30, heart failure. Starred in more than 100 "Dead End Kids" and "Bowery Boys" films in the 1930s through the '50s.
Brion James, 54, died Aug. 7, heart attack. Played the murderous droid Leon in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner."
Madeline Kahn Madeline Kahn, 57, died Dec. 3, ovarian cancer. Oscar-nominated actress-comedian who starred in "Blazing Saddles" and "Paper Moon."
Garson Kanin, 86, died March 13, heart failure. Oscar-nominated screenwriter ("Adam's Rib," "Pat and Mike"); penned hit play "Born Yesterday." DeForest Kelley
DeForest Kelley, 79, died June 11, long illness. Starred as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy on TV's original "Star Trek" series and in several of the franchise's big-screen movies.
Richard Kiley, 76, died March 5, bone marrow disease. Actor/singer best known for introducing audiences to original power ballad, "The Impossible Dream," via Broadway's "Man of La Mancha."
Stanley Kubrick, 70, died March 7 in his sleep. Acclaimed director of films such as "Dr. Strangelove," "Spartacus," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange" and "The Shining."
Desmond Llewelyn, 85, died Dec. 19, car accident. British actor who played James Bond's gadget-guru Q through "From Russia With Love" (1963) to "The World Is Not Enough" (1999).
Victor Mature, 86, died Aug. 4, cancer. Hunky star of the 1940s and 50s, with leading roles in "Samson and Delilah" and "My Darling Clementine."
Jay Moloney, 35, died Nov. 16, suicide. Talent agent known as the "boy wonder," who once represented Hollywood heavies such as Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Clayton Moore, 85, died Dec. 28, heart attack. Longtime star of TV's "The Lone Ranger."
Dana Plato, 34, died May 8, apparent accidental drug overdose. Former child star of the 1970s sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes."
Abraham Polonsky, 88, died Oct. 26, heart attack. Oscar-nominated screenwriter ("Body and Soul"); one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.
Mario Puzo, 78, died July 2, heart failure. Novelist/screenwriter ("The Godfather") who two Oscars for his screenplays for "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather Part II" (1974).
Irving Rapper, 101, died Dec. 20. Golden-era director best known for collaborating with Bette Davis on four films, including "Now, Voyager" (1942).
Oliver Reed, 61, died May 2, apparent heart attack. British actor best known for starring in "Oliver!" and "Women in Love."
Charles "Buddy" Rogers, 94, died April 21, natural causes. Starred in 1927's "Wings," the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar; widower of silent-star Mary Pickford.
George C. Scott George C. Scott, 71, died Sept. 22, ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. Gruff-voiced leading man who starred in "Dr. Strangelove" and "Anatomy of a Murder." Won (and refused) the Oscar for 1970's "Patton"; won Emmy and Golden Globe for 1997's Showtime film "12 Angry Men."
Sylvia Sidney, 88, died July 1, throat cancer. Veteran actress whose career spanned the 1930s through the 1990s. Nominated for an Oscar for 1973's "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams." Gene Siskel
Gene Siskel, 53, died Feb. 20, brain tumor. With Roger Ebert, the nation's most influential movie critic and purveyor of the "thumbs up/thumbs down" rating system on their syndicated TV series. Writer for Chicago Tribune.
Susan Strasberg, 60, died Jan. 21, breast cancer. Theater/TV/film actress ("The Diary of Anne Frank"); daughter of famed acting guru Lee Strasberg; cohort of Marilyn Monroe.
David Strickland, 29, died March 23, suicide. Co-star of the NBC sitcom "Suddenly Susan"; played a lovelorn ex-boyfriend in "Forces of Nature" (1999).
Mel Torme, 73, died June 5, complications from stroke. Velvety crooner of jazz and pop, who co-wrote "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)."
Norman Wexler, 73, died Aug. 23, heart attack. Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "Joe" and "Serpico." Also wrote "Saturday Night Fever" and "Stayin' Alive."
John Woolf, 86, died June 28, heart failure. British producer of "Oliver!" and "The African Queen."