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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The allure of a jump scare that perfectly-timed loud noise that sends a horror movie audience jumping is hard to ignore. They're easy but effective — if you want to shake people up nothing works as well as a well placed violin screech or slamming door sound effect. Thankfully the new evil ghost movie Sinister mostly avoids the easy way out by developing its lead character a novelist with a drinking problem and exploring an inventive twist on "found footage" (the guy actually finds footage). It all works quite well… that is until it starts relying on jump scares.
True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn't had a hit book in years but he hopes to change his life around by investigating a set of murders committed in the backyard of a suburban home. To immerse himself in the history Ellison moves his entire family into the house where the committed murders took place (and without telling them their new home's little secret). He immediately falls down the rabbit hole discovering a series of Super 8 movies depicting the first killings and a string of other bizarre murders all captured on gritty film. Ellison loses himself to the movies only flinching when his wife Tracey (Juliet Rylance) begs him to come to bed or his son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) wakes up in a fit of terror from an anxiety ailment. But as he watches and rewatches the snuff films Ellison begins to see a connection between them: a shadowy figure who it turns out might be a supernatural entity.
Great horror rides on its lead and Hawke serves Sinister well. He's ambitious and overly confident of his abilities as he digs deeper and deeper into the history of the Super 8 movies. He makes some poor choices — why writers in movies are continually keeping secrets from their families and drinking way more whiskey than their finances would allow is one of Hollywood's great mysteries — but Hawke is adept at making the act of watching someone watch something interesting. His obsession with the mystery his slowly disintegrating mind is reminiscent of Jack Torrence in The Shining.
But before Sinister gets that involved with its central character it strays into run-of-the-mill haunted house territory. Vincent D'Onofrio pops up for a quick expositional Skype chat to inform Ellison that the dark being in his home movies might be a Pagan deity that eats the souls of children. That would explain all those pesky kid ghosts that keep whispering in the ear of Ellison's Ashley (Clare Foley) and making creepy bumps in the night.
Sinister's most terrifying material comes from the grainy "found footage." When director Scott Derrickson moves back and forth between Ellison and the films the writer illuminated only by the flickering projector it's chilling. But the movie progresses away from that into its own conventional horror movie. Weighed down by explanation and meandering action Sinister loses track of its character angle in favor of the almighty jump scare. It's exhausting — but then again as the nickname suggests they never fail to make one jump.
Nothing about the action-packed cop genre is left untouched in Hot Fuzz. It starts off by introducing Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) a sort of supercop with an arrest record 400 percent higher than anyone else's on the London force. He's so good he makes everyone else look bad—so his superiors reassign him to the sleepy English village of Sanford. Angel is then paired up with the well-meaning but bumbling Police Constable Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) who is also an affirmed action-movie junkie. He views Angel as a chance to possibly see some real gun-blazin’ action—except nothing much happens in Sanford. Or does it? A series of grisly deaths leads Angel to believe this quiet burg may not be what it seems even though the elders of the town (police inspector Jim Broadbent and local grocery story owner Timothy Dalton among others) shrug them off as “accidents.” It just might be time for these small-town cops to break out some big-city justice. Yippee ki-yay! Pegg and Frost have way too much fun with this. The boys were friends long before Shaun of the Dead and their natural camaraderie is obvious. Pegg is the perfect Abbott to Frost’s Costello as the no-nonsense Angel teaches the affable Butterman a few things about law enforcement while Butterman teaches Angel how to loosen up a bit. Plus that wonderfully dry British sense of humor they both share is infectious which clearly must be the reason the myriad of veteran British actors appear in supporting roles. Along with Dalton and Broadbent there’s Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman as Angel’s superiors who ship him off to Sanford. Around the World in 80 Days' Steve Coogan Cate Blanchett and Extras’ Stephen Merchant make uncredited appearances. Even lesser-known but still recognizable Brits show up including the original The Omen’s Billie Whitelaw (Mrs. Baylock) and Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman (Belloq). Everyone is not only laughing on the outside but on the inside as well. Pegg and Frost’s third partner in crime is co-writer/director Edgar Wright. After the three of them cooked up 2004’s Shaun of the Dead their side-splitting send-up of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead none of them could have imagined the cult success it would achieve. Simon Pegg went on to co-star with Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III while Nick Frost starred in the British indie Kinky Boots. But it’s Wright who seems to have gained the most attention notably from Quentin Tarantino who took Wright under his wing even asking the Brit to shoot one of the “trailers” for Grindhouse’s intermission. Wright is very creative with Hot Fuzz employing hard quick cuts and framing the action much like the genre he’s poking fun at. The best is after one of the climactic gun battles Angel and Butterman stand in the town square as the camera revolves around them 360 degrees á la Bad Boys. The one drawback to Hot Fuzz is its troubled ending. After what would seem to be a perfect way to conclude the film drags on for another 20 minutes trying to pack in more action-movie clichés. But overall this won’t really detract from the fun you’ll have.
There's always room for dessert, as Universal proved this weekend.
American Pie 2 managed to hold on to the top of the box office charts two weeks in a row, which in this summer of one-week wonders is quite a fait accompli.
Lack of competition and weak late summer openings no doubt helped sustain the Pie sequel. The R-rated comedy earned $21.4 million at 3,072 theaters ($6,966 per theater).
Even though that was a 52 percent crash from last week, it remained the highest average per theater of any film this week.
It also adds to Universal's string of summer hits that include The Mummy Returns, The Fast and the Furious and Jurassic Park III. American Pie 2's cume is approximately $87.8 million and should well surpass the original American Pie, which grossed a total of $102.7 million domestically.
American Pie 2 is directed by J.B. Rogers and stars Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Natasha Lyonne, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Tara Reid, Seann William Scott, Mena Suvari, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Eugene Levy.
New Line Cinema's Rush Hour 2 also repeated its No. 2 position from last week. In its third week at the box office, it earned a meaty $19.2 million, averaging $6,234 per theater. Though it fell 42 percent from last week, the picture may be on its way to surpassing the $200 million mark. It's cume so far is $164.8 million.
Directed by Brett Ratner, Rush Hour 2 stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
Rat Race, Paramount's PG-13-rated comedy, opened up in third place to an estimated $11.8 million at 2,550 theaters ($4, 627 per theater).
A soft opening was predicted for the film, which falls between the cracks in terms of genre. It did however surpass American Outlaws and Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which both opened this weekend.
Rat Race is directed by Jerry Zucker and stars John Cleese, Whoopi Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson, Jon Lovitz, Seth Green, Breckin Meyer and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Miramax's The Others held on to fourth place in its second week, taking in an estimated $10.8 million, That is only a 23 percent drop from its opening week. It expanded to 2,153 theaters, about 500 more than last week, and took in an average of $5,016 per theater.
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar, The Others stars Nicole Kidman.
Dropping two rungs to No. 5 was Disney's G-rated comedy The Princess Diaries. Playing across 2,726 screens, it made an estimated $9.5 million and averaged $3,485 per theater.
The Princess Diaries is directed by Garry Marshall and stars Julie Andrews and newcomer Anne Hathaway.
No doubt the most talked-about film of the week, Captain Corelli's Mandolin came in at a No. 6, earning a dismal $7.1 million.
Jeff Sakson, Universal's Senior Vice President for National Publicity, pointed out that while the per screen average wasn't bad, the total earnings were lower than what they had expected.
"We would have liked it to have done better, so of course we are disappointed," he said Sunday morning. "Everyone worked really hard on this film. Unfortunately, reviews from London were bad."
"But apparently, word of mouth is good and it received an A - in the cinema scores," he added.
All the attention the film received when Penelope Cruz showed up at the premiere with Tom Cruise in tow obviously didn't pay off. The film averaged $4,454 per theater and opened on 1,594 screens.
Directed by John Madden, Captain Corelli's Mandolin stars Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz.
Dropping two notches to No. 7 was 20th Century Fox's PG-13 Planet of the Apes. In its third week the sci-fi adventure film pulled in an estimated $6.87 million (-45 percent) at 3,059 theaters. Its cume is $160.9 and may also be on its way to the coveted $200 million mark.
Planet of the Apes is directed by Tim Burton and stars Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Clarke Duncan.
American Outlaws opened at No. 8. Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated western adventure earned a bleak $4.8 million. Playing across 2,348 screens, it averaged a dismal $2,049 per theater. Looks like Irish heartthrob Colin Farrell couldn't get American audiences interested in this Western.
Directed by Les Mayfield, American Outlaws stars Colin Farrell, Scott Caan, Ali Larter and Timothy Dalton.
Universal's Jurassic Park III, which roared into theaters with a whopping $50.8 million, slipped three notches in its fourth week to No. 9. The PG-13 adventure fantasy raked in a mere $4.3 million (-43%) at 2,516 theaters (-659). Averaging $1,709 per theater, its cume is $168.2 million.
Jurassic Park III is directed by Joe Johnston and stars Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, John Diehl and Bruce A. Young.
No. 10 went to MGM's PG-13-rated Legally Blonde with a reasonable $2.57 million in its fifth week at the box office. Playing at 1,770 theaters, it averaged $1,454 per theater. So far, the comedy has accumulated $83.3 million domestically.
Directed by Robert Luketic, Legally Blonde stars Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Victor Garber and Jennifer Coolidge.
In total, the top 10 films this weekend grossed about $98.9 million.