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 remake of Total Recall never escapes the shadow of its Arnold Schwarzenegger-led predecessor — and strangely it feels like a choice. With a script that's nearly beat-for-beat the original film Total Recall plods along with enhanced special effects that bring to life an expansive sci-fi world and action scenes constructed to send eyes flipping backwards into skulls. Filling the cracks of the fractured film is a story that without knowledge of the Philip K. Dick adaptation's previous incarnation is barely decipherable. Those who haven't seen Paul Verhoeven's 1990 Total Recall? Time to get a few memory implants. 2012 Recall makes little sense with the cinematic foundation but it does zero favors to those out of the know.
Colin Farrell takes over duties from Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid a down-on-his-luck factory worker hoping to escape his stagnate existence with a boost from Rekall a company capable of engineering fake memories. Quaid calls the damp slums of "The Colony" home (one of two inhabitable parts of Earth) but he dreams of moving to the New Federation of Britain a pristine metropolis on the other side of the planet. When the futuristic treatment goes awry — caused by previously existing memories of our blue collar hero's supposed past life as a secret agent — Quaid emerges from Rekall with lethal power hidden under his mild-mannered persona. He quickly goes on the run escaping squads of soldiers robots and his assassin "wife " Lori (Kate Beckinsale) all hot on his tail. Total Recall turns into one long chase scene as Quaid unravels the mystery of his erased memories.
But when it comes to answers and heady sci-fi Total Recall falls short. Farrell isn't a hulking action star like Schwarzenegger but he's a performer that can sensitively explore any human crisis big or small. Director Len Wiseman (Underworld Live Free or Die Hard) never gives his leading man that opportunity. Farrell makes the best of the films occasional slow moment but the weight of Recall's mindf**k is suffocated in a series of fist fights hovercar pile-ups and foot chases pulled straight out of the latest platformer video game (a sequence that sends Quaid running across the geometric rooftop architecture of The Colony looks straight out of Super Mario Bros.). When Jessica Biel as Quaid's former romantic interest Melina and Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston as the power-hungry politico Cohaagen are finally woven into Farrell's feature length 50 yard dash it's too late — the movie isn't making sense and it's not about to regardless of the charm on screen.
The action is slick and the futuristic design is impeccable but without any time devoted to building the stakes Total Recall feels more like a HDTV demo than a thrilling blockbuster. The movie's greatest innovation is the central set piece "The Fall " an elevator that travels between the two cities at rapid speed. The towering keystone of mankind is a marvel but we never get to see it explore it or feel its implications on the world around it. Instead it's cemented as a CG background behind the craze of Farrell shooting his way through hoards of bad guys.
Science fiction more than any other dramatic genre twist demands attention to the details. New worlds aren't built on broad strokes. But Total Recall tries to get away with it in hopes that audiences will recall their own movie knowledge to support its faulty logic. The movie repeatedly prompts viewers to think back to the 1990 version with blatant fan service that's absolutely nonsensical in this restructured version (no longer does Quaid go to Mars but there's still a three-breasted alien?). The callbacks may have given Total Recall a "been there done that" feel but rarely is it coherent enough to get that far. By the closing credits you'll be struggling to remember what you spent the last two hours watching.
Julia Roberts showed great box-office legs as Universal's "Erin Brockovich" held on to the top spot on the chart.
"Erin Brockovich" The R-rated dramatic comedy, co-financed by Universal and Columbia, finished first in its second week with a sexy estimated $19.03 million (-32%) at 2,851 theaters (+3 theaters, $6,675 per theater). Its total to date is approximately $56.3 million.
"This is a picture that is obviously a crowd pleaser," Universal Distribution President Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "The exit polls were very indicative that the picture would have legs, and now we're just playing out.
"It's a difficult marketplace because the Academy Awards (Best Picture nominees) did take a huge visibility on a weekend like this. It's quite obvious when you look at what 'Cider House Rules' and 'American Beauty' did. There were tons of activity last night on the Academy nominated films. We had calculated this into the (release) plan. That's why we opened last weekend."
How will Sunday's Oscar telecast affect "Erin"? "We certainly feel that 'Erin' will suffer," Rocco replied. "We would normally have a great Sunday with this kind of film, and we know it will be impacted to some extent. We show that we're down 32% in our estimate. If it weren't for the Oscars, we probably would have been down 20%."
A drop of only 20% would have given "Erin" a gross of about $22.5 million for the weekend, about $3.5 million more than it's likely to wind up with, given its Oscar competition.
"We've got our version of Super Tuesday going the weekend of April 7, where we have six major (international) territories releasing, including the U.K., Spain and Germany," Sony Pictures Releasing President Jeff Blake said Sunday morning.
"I think it's a real sign of the times that even though Erin Brockovich is not a familiar name (abroad), certainly Julia Roberts is not an unfamiliar name. So we felt good about being aggressive and putting the international territories very close to the U.S. date. I think the tremendous publicity it's getting out of its back-to-back No. 1 finishes -- and I wouldn't bet against it next week, either -- will really put us in a great place. I think pretty much everyone around the world has now heard of 'Erin Brockovich.'"
Sony and Universal, he noted, "are 50% partners in everything around the world. They're releasing domestic, and we're releasing internationally."
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it stars Roberts, Albert Finney and Aaron Eckart.
Warner Bros.' R-rated hip-hop, kung-fu movie "Romeo Must Die" kicked off in second place with a knock 'em dead estimated $18.58 million at 2,641 theaters ($7,035 per theater). Its total to date after five days is approximately $25.1 million.
Its per-theater average was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak and produced by Joel Silver and Jim Van Wyck, it stars Jet Li, Aaliyah, Russell Wong, DMX and Delroy Lindo.
"'Romeo' is performing extremely well," Warner Bros. Distribution President Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "The exit polls are excellent. CinemaScore actually ranked it an A-minus, which parallels our own exits. The majority of the audience is split evenly between male and female under 25. That's driven by Jet Li, Aaliyah, the music, the MTV video and, of course, a fantastic campaign created by (Warners' creative advertising head) Joel Wayne.
"It's the second-largest three-day opening of any action-adventure movie from January through April. That's only behind 'The Matrix.' Joel Silver has one and two (having produced 'Matrix' for Warners)."
New Line's R-rated suspense thriller "Final Destination" held on to third place in its second weekend, holding well with an estimated $7.10 million (-29%) at 2,587 theaters (theater count unchanged, $2,744 per theater). Its total to date is approximately $20.3 million.
Directed by James Wong, it stars Devon Sawa, Ali Larter and Kerr Smith.
"We're thrilled out of our minds," New Line distribution head David Tuckerman said Sunday morning. "For a teen-age horror picture to drop 29% when we had two teen-age pictures plus 'Romeo Must Die' open up on top of us -- it's terrific. We were hoping (for only a) 40% drop. Six million dollars would have been great."
Where does it wind up? "I would say it's going to be $35 million," Tuckerman speculated.
Buena Vista/Touchstone's "Mission to Mars" was falling in its third week, down two orbits to fourth place with a slower estimated $5.80 million (-48%) at 3,101 theaters (+41 theaters, $1,870 per theater). Its total to date is approximately $49.3 million.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13-rated romantic drama "Here on Earth" arrived in fifth place with a quiet estimated $4.60 million at 1,712 theaters ($2,687 per theater).
Directed by Mark Piznarski and produced by David T. Friendly, it stars Chris Klein, Leelee Sobieski and Josh Hartnett.
Columbia's PG-13-rated teen-appeal romantic comedy "Whatever It Takes" from Phoenix Pictures took only enough ticket sales to open in sixth place with a calm estimated $4.30 million at 2,272 theaters ($1,893 per theater).
Directed by David Raynr, it stars Shane West, Marla Sokoloff and Jodi Lyn O'Keefe.
"It's a $15 million picture (in terms of cost), and we should gross that," Sony Pictures Releasing President Jeff Blake pointed out Sunday morning. "And with spring break coming up, the weekdays should be pretty good. We certainly won't get hurt. And it should have nice ancillaries."
DreamWorks' R-rated drama "American Beauty," the front-running Best Picture Oscar contender, held on to seventh place in its 28th week with a still beautiful estimated $3.90 million (+25%) at 1,662 theaters (+1 theater, $2,347 per theater). Its total to date is approximately $108.4 million.
Directed by Sam Mendes, it stars Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening.
Warner Bros. PG-rated family drama "My Dog Skip" from Alcon Entertainment fell four rungs to eighth place in its 11th week with an OK estimated $3.24 million (-38%) at 2,331 theaters (theater count unchanged, $1,390 per theater). Its total to date is approximately $26.2 million.
Directed by Jay Russell, "Skip" stars Frankie Muniz, Diane Lane, Luke Wilson and Kevin Bacon.
Miramax's PG-13-rated Best Picture Oscar contender "The Cider House Rules" fell one notch to ninth in its 16th week with a solid estimated $2.80 million (+13%) at 1,671 theaters (-67 theaters, $1,675 per theater). Its total to date is approximately $49.7 million.
Directed by Lasse Hallström, it stars Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, Paul Rudd and Michael Caine.
"It was at $23 million before the nominations," Miramax's David Kaminow, senior vice president for marketing, pointed out Sunday morning. He noted that "Cider" had more than doubled its total to date thanks to its high profile in the Oscar race (with seven nominations).
Rounding out the Top Ten was Warner Bros.' "The Whole Nine Yards," the R-rated 'hit' comedy from Morgan Creek and Franchise Pictures, down four pegs in its sixth weekend with a quieter estimated $2.08 million (-37%) at 2,109 theaters (-394 theaters, $985 per theater). Its total to date is approximately $54.2 million.
Directed by Jonathan Lynn, "Yards" stars Bruce Willis and Matthew Perry.
OTHER OPENINGS Last weekend also saw the arrival of USA Films' R-rated drama "Waking the Dead," placing 26th with a not very lively estimated $0.18 million at 63 theaters ($2,860 per theater).
Directed by Keith Gordon, it stars Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly.
SNEAK PREVIEWS Last weekend saw MGM hold 640 sneak previews Saturday night of its PG-rated romantic comedy "Return to Me."
"They were s upendous," an MGM spokesperson said Sunday morning. "About 60% were either sold out or three-quarters full. We did exit polls, and 85% were in the Top Two Boxes (excellent or very good) with an 80% definite recommend. They're pretty tremendous. It was 60% female."
"Return" opens Apr. 7 at about 2,000 theaters.
Directed by Bonnie Hunt, it stars David Duchovny and Minnie Driver.
EXPANSIONS On the expansion front, last weekend saw Fox Searchlight's "Boys Don't Cry" widen in its 24th week, placing 17th and benefiting from its Oscar acting nominations with an estimated $0.77 million (+51%) at 285 theaters (+25 theaters, $2,712 per theater). Its total to date is approximately $7.9 million.
Directed by Kimberly Peirce, it stars Hilary Swank, a leading contender in the Best Actress Oscar race, and Chloë Sevigny, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee.
"It's caught four waves of publicity," Fox Searchlight Distribution President Stephen Gilula said Sunday morning. "The year-end Best Actress critics awards. Then it got the Golden Globes. Then it got the (Oscar) nominations. Two weeks ago, (Swank) had a round of publicity through all the talk shows -- from Charlie Rose to Rosie -- and then this week we've got the awards. With The Wall Street Journal (prediction that Swank would win), she got a whole new wave (of publicity). It's absolutely phenomenal.
"The surge that we've seen (is) in many of the theaters that have playing a long time. At the Sunset (in West Hollywood), in the 23rd week, it's up 80% this weekend. It's quite extraordinary. In New York City, theaters are up 40-50-60%, theaters that have been playing it for months. Each time we've had a round of publicity, it sort of reaches the consciousness of another group of moviegoers."
USA Films PG-rated suspense drama reissue "Rear Window" widened in its 10th week, placing 29th with a quiet estimated $0.069 million (-22%) at 39 theaters (+2 theaters, $1,780 per theater). Its total to date is approximately $1.4 million.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it stars James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Robert Harris and James Katz restored the 1954 film classic.
WEEKEND COMPARISONS Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 for the weekend -- took in approximately $80.41 million, up about 23.20% from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $65.27 million.
This weekend's key film gross was down about 6.95% from this year's previous weekend, when key films grossed $86.42 million.
Last year, DreamWorks' second week of "Forces of Nature" was first with $9.44 million at 2,224 theaters ($4,244 per theater) and Warner Bros.' fourth week of "Analyze This" was second with $8.67 million at 2,537 theaters ($3,418 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $18.1 million. This year, the top two films grossed an estimated $37.6 million.
STUDIO MARKET SHARES Based on business by key films, last weekend's top six distributors were the following:
Warner Bros. was first with four films ("Romeo Must Die," "My Dog Skip," "The Green Mile" and "The Whole Nine Yards") grossing an estimated $24.52 million or 30.5% of the market.
Universal was second with one film ("Erin Brockovich") grossing an estimated $19.03 million or 23.7% of the market.
Buena Vista (Disney, Touchstone) was third with four films ("Mission to Mars," "The Tigger Movie," "The Sixth Sense" and "Fantasia 2000") grossing an estimated $9.40 million or 11.7% of the market.
New Line was fourth with one film ("Final Destination") grossing an estimated $7.10 million or 8.8% of the market.
20th Century Fox (Fox and Fox Searchlight) was fifth with two films ("Here on Earth" and "Wonder Boys") grossing an estimated $5.37 million or 6.7% of the market.
Sony Pictures Releasing (Columbia and TriStar) was sixth with one film ("Whatever It Takes") grossing an estimated $4.30 million or 5.3% of the market.
(11) "The Ninth Gate"/Artisan Theaters: 1,684 (+37) Gross: $1.72 million (-51%) Average per theater: $1,015 Total to date: $15.4 million
(12) "Fantasia 2000"/BV/Disney Theaters: 54 (0) (all IMAX) Gross: $1.40 million (domestic) (-8%) Average per theater: $26,123 Total to date: $36 million (domestic)
(13) "The Sixth Sense"/BV/Touchstone Theaters: 876 (-2) Gross: $1.30 million (+25%) Average per theater: $1,500 Total to date: $290.3 million
(14) "Snow Day"/Paramount Theaters: 1,924 (-463) Gross: $0.88 million (-60%) Average per theater: $455 Total to date: $57.7 million
(15) "The Tigger Movie"/BV/Disney Theaters: 1,360 (-341) Gross: $0.90 million (-49%) Average per theater: $665 Total to date: $43.0 million
(16) "Drowning Mona"/Destination Theaters: 1,126 (-587) Gross: $0.79 million (-54%) Average per theater: $705 Total to date: $14.8 million
(17) "Boys Don't Cry"/Fox Searchlight (see EXPANSIONS above)
(18) "Wonder Boys"/Paramount Theaters: 1,210 (-248) Gross: $0.69 million (-42%) Average per theater: $570 Total to date: $18 million
(19) "The Next Best Thing"/Paramount Theaters: 1,682 (-353) Gross: $0.66 million (-60%) Average per theater: $390 Total to date: $14.5 million
(20) "Pitch Black"/USA Films Theaters: 917 (-467) Gross: $0.65 million (-55%) Average per theater: $705 Total to date: $37.6 million
(21) "The Green Mile"/Castle Rock/Warner Bros. Theaters: 438 (-335) Gross: $0.51 million (-15%) Average per theater: $1,164 Total to date: $135.1 million
(22) "Reindeer Games"/Dimension Theaters: 941 (-760) Gross: $0.49 million (-63%) Average per theater: $515 Total to date: $22.8 million
(23) "Beyond the Mat"/Lions Gate Theaters: 298 (0) Gross: $0.38 million (-61%) Average per theater: $1,260 Total to date: $1.6 million
(24) "3 Strikes"/MGM Theaters: 544 (-134) Gross: $0.36 million (-64%) Average per theater: $650 Total to date: $9.3 million
(25) "Scream 3"/Dimension Theaters: 763 (-553) Gross: $0.32 million (-65%) Average per theater: $415 Total to date: $86.5 million
(26) "Waking the Dead"/USA Films (see OTHER OPENINGS above)
(27) "The Hurricane"/Universal Theaters: 306 (-30) Gross: $0.13 million (-35%) Average per theater: $425 Total to date: $50 million
(28) "Topsy-Turvy"/USA Films Theaters: 101 (-8) Gross: $0.13 million (-6%) Average per theater: $1,260 Total to date: $5.6 million
(29) "Rear Window"/USA Films (see EXPANSIONS above)