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 first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
The Tourist is about as difficult to get through as spotting the vowels in the name of its director. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was last seen receiving a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2007 for The Lives of Others which was about a couple living in East Berlin who were being monitored by the police of the German Democratic Republic. Its positive reception made way for the assumption that Donnersmark would continue to populate the USA with films of seemingly otherworldly and underrepresented themes. But his current project is saddening in its superficiality and total implausibility.
The film’s only real upside is its stars: two of our most prized Americans. Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo a math teacher from Wisconsin who travels to Europe after his wife leaves him presumably because of his weakness and simplicity. While en route to Venice he meets Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie) who situates herself in his company after she receives a letter from her criminal lover Alexander Pearce (who stole some billions from a very wealthy Russian and the British government) with instructions to find someone on a train who looks like him and make the police believe that he is the real Alexander Pearce to throw the authorities and the Russians off his track. Elise picks Frank and after they are photographed kissing each other on the balcony of Elise’s hotel everyone begins to believe Frank is the real Pearce and so begins the chase.
While Donnersmark could not have picked two better looking people to film roaming around Venice his lack of faith in the audience is obvious. Every aspect of the characters is hammed up again and again as if Donnersmark felt burdened with the task of making us see his vision. Doubtful that we’re capable of getting to where he wants us he has crafted a movie completely devoid of subtlety. Elise’s strength and superiority over Frank are portrayed by close-ups and repeated instances of men burping up their lungs upon seeing her (as if her beauty is in any way subjective?). And in case we forgot that Frank is the victim in this story -- even though he’s been tricked chased and shot at - Donnersmark still felt the need to pin him with a lame electronic cigarette to puff on. Frank and Elise somehow manage to lack mystery even though we get very few factual details about each of them.
Nothing extraordinary comes to us in the way of the film’s structural elements either. There is very little of the action that The Tourist’s marketing led us to believe and the dialog is often painful. The plot itself is almost shockingly unbelievable especially when we’re asked to believe that Elise falls in love with Frank after a combination of kissing him once and her disclosed habit of swooning over men she only spent an hour with (yes that was on her CV).
The Tourist is rather empty and cosmetic. It’s worth seeing if you’re a superfan of Jolie or Depp but don’t expect to walk out of the theater with anything more than the stub you came in with.
The God of Legion secular Hollywood’s latest Biblically-inspired action flick is old-school an angry spiteful Almighty with a penchant for Old Testament theatrics. Fed up with humanity’s decadent warmongering ways He’s decided to pull the plug on the whole crazy experiment and start over from scratch.
Fortunately for us the God of Legion is also a rather lazy fellow. Instead of doing the apocalyptic work himself and wiping us out with a giant flood which worked perfectly well last time He opts to delegate the task to His army of angels — a questionable strategy that starts to fall apart when the archangel charged with leading the planned extermination Michael (Paul Bettany) refuses to comply.
Michael who unlike his boss still harbors affection for our sorry species abandons his post and descends to earth where inside the swollen belly of Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) an unwed mother-to-be working as a waitress in an out-of-the-way diner sits humanity’s lone hope for survival. Why is this particular baby so important? Is it the one destined to lead us to victory over Skynet? Heaven knows — Legion reveals little details its script devoid of actual scripture. What is clear is that God’s celestial hitmen want the kid whacked before it’s born.
But Michael won’t let humanity fall without a fight. Armed with a Waco-sized arsenal of assault weapons he hunkers down with the diner’s patrons a largely superfluous collection of thinly-sketched caricatures from various demographic groups led by Dennis Quaid as the diner’s grizzled owner Tyrese Gibson as a hip-hop hustler and Lucas Black as a simple-minded country boy.
Together they mount a heroic final stand against hordes of angels who’ve taken possession of “weak-willed” humans turning kindly old grandmas and mild-mannered ice cream vendors into snarling ravenous foul-mouthed beasts. They descend upon the ramshackle diner in a series of full-frontal assaults commanded by the archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand) the George Pickett of End of Days generals.
Beneath its superficial religious facade Legion is really just a run-of-the-mill zombie flick a Biblical I Am Legend. Bettany an actor accustomed to smaller dramatic roles in films like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code looks perfectly at ease in his first major action role wielding machine guns and bowie knives with equal aplomb. Conversely first-time director Scott Stewart a former visual effects artist does little to prove himself worthy of such a promotion serving up some impressive CGI work but not much else worthy of note.
The competition had a devil of a time catching up to this weekend's top grosser.
While it's no surprise the new comic book actioner Daredevil took the No. 1 spot on the weekend's list, the fact it simply stomped 'em with a whopping $43.5 million* is truly astounding, making it the best President's Day weekend opening ever in box office history. It's also the second best February opening ever, behind MGM's Hannibal, which took in $58 million when it opened Feb. 9, 2001.
After all the box office business was sucked up by Daredevil, little was left over for the rest. With the numbers going down considerably, last weekend's first place winner How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days dropped to second at $19 million and the Oscar-nominated Chicago, in its first wide release, took in $12.6 million, holding onto third place for the second weekend in a row.
The other new opener, the animated sequel The Jungle Book 2, took the fourth spot with a small but sufficient $11.9 million, while last weekend's No. 2 Shanghai Knights took fifth with $11.4 million.
THE TOP TEN
Proving that audiences either wanted to see a super cool comic book hero, watch hunky Ben Affleck or simply escape the impending doom and gloom heralded on the CNNs and FoxNews channels of the world, 20th Century Fox's PG-13 Daredevil swept up with an ESTIMATED $43.5 million at 3,471 theaters (that's an amazing $12,532 per theaters).
With a budget of nearly $80 million, Daredevil opened at the high end of expectations, but the figure was not "shocking," Bruce Snyder, Fox's president of domestic theatrical distribution, told Reuters. Setting the record for the President's Day holiday, the film beat previous record holder John Q, the Denzel Washington drama that opened February 2002 at $23 million.
Even though Daredevil pales in comparison to the huge opening of last year's Spider-Man (at $114 million), Snyder thinks the more obscure Daredevil obviously has its supporters.
"The first tier of comic books would be Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men. This would probably be a second-tier character, but from the audiences that showed up Friday night, there's a big fan base," Snyder told the Associated Press.
Daredevil centers on blind attorney Matt Murdock, whose other four senses function with superhuman acuteness. By day he is a lawyer representing the poor and defenseless, but by night he is Daredevil--a relentless avenger of justice.
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, it stars Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan.
Paramount Pictures' PG-13 romantic comedy How To Lose a Guy, about a magazine columnist whose assignment is to meet, woo and then do all the wrong things to lose a guy in 10 days, still managed to offer an alternative to superhero action. Last week's winner at the box office (and fourth best February opening) came in second with an ESTIMATED $19 million (-20%) at 2,923 theaters ($6,500 per theater). Its total haul so far is approximately $47.7 million.
Directed by Donald Petrie, it stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.
Holding on to its third place spot, Miramax Films opened the PG-13 Chicago to its first wide release and watched it sing and dance its way to an ESTIMATED $12.6 million (+17%) at 2,268 theaters (+427 theaters; $5,556 per theater). Hoping to gain some serious momentum after its recent 13 Academy Award nominations, the film, now in its eighth week, has accumulated approximately $80.7 million to date.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
The other newcomer on the block, Buena Vista's G-rated animated The Jungle Book 2, took fourth place, boogying to the tune of an ESTIMATED $11.9 million at 2,808 theaters ($4,238 per theater).
In the sequel to the 1967 original The Jungle Book, Mowgli and his friends are back for more adventures as the young boy tries to adjust to his new life in a human village while missing his old animal pals back in the jungle.
Directed by Steve Trenbirth, it uses the vocal talents of Haley Joel Osment, John Goodman, Bob Joles and Tony Jay.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
In its second week, Buena Vista's PG-13 Shanghai Knights got karate-chopped from second to fifth place with an ESTIMATED $11.4 million (-42%) at 2,755 theaters (+2 theaters; $4,138 per theater). Its cume is approximately $34.6 million.
Directed by Tom Dey, the martial arts sequel to Shanghai Noon reunites stars Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson for another Wild West adventure, this time in the more refined London, England.
Yet another Buena Vista stayed in the top 10, the PG-13 The Recruit, which dropped from two spots to No. 6 with an ESTIMATED $6.8 million (-26%) at 2,336 theaters (-40 theaters; $2,911 per theater). The spy thriller about a CIA recruit trying to figure out whom to trust has made approximately $38.8 million in its first three weeks.
Directed by Roger Donaldson, it stars Al Pacino and Colin Farrell.
Whether or not you can cheat Death, New Line Cinema's R-rated Final Destination 2 still managed to scare up some box office business, sliding from fifth to seventh with an ESTIMATED $6.2 million (-26%) at 2,238 theaters (-596 theaters; $2,782 per theater). Its cume is approximately $36.1 million.
Directed by David Richard Ellis, it stars Ali Larter, A.J. Cook and Michael Landes.
Focus Features' R-rated Deliver Us From Eva fell a few rungs to No. 8 with an ESTIMATED $4.3 million (-34%) at 1,139 theaters ($3,830 per theater). The romantic comedy about taming one badass shrew has brought in approximately $12.2 million.
Directed by Gary C. Hardwick, it stars LL Cool J and Gabrielle Union.
Incredibly, Warner Bros.' PG-rated Kangaroo Jack stayed on the top 10, dropping a couple notches to ninth place with an ESTIMATED $4 million (-34%) at 2,535 theaters (-313 theaters; $1,584 per theater). The raucous comedy about a kangaroo's intent to spend some mob money has made approximately $57.9 million in its five weeks in theaters.
Directed by David McNally, it stars Jerry O'Connell, Anthony Anderson and Estella Warren.
Despite losing some of its theaters, the tenth spot belonged to New Line's R-rated About Schmidt, whose move up one notch with an ESTIMATED $3.5 million (+18%) at 1,208 theaters (-32 theaters; $2,939 per theater) was probably fueled by its recent Academy Award nods. The film's approximate take so far is $53 million in 10 weeks.
Directed by Alexander Payne, the quirky comedy about a repressed retiree stars Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates (both of whom received Oscar nominations), Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney.
Fueled by Daredevil, this weekend's top 12 totals saw a 27 percent increase from last weekend with a haul of $130.1 million, as well as a 21 percent increase from the same weekend last year, which took in $106.7 million.
This time last year, New Line's PG-13 John Q toppled the competition in its opening with a total of $23.6 million, followed by other newcomers, Paramount's PG-13 Crossroads at $17 million, and Buena Vista's G-rated Return to Neverland at $15.6 million.
Other big President's Day weekend openers included New Line's PG-13 The Wedding Singer, which opened Feb. 13, 1998, and took in $21.9 million over four days and Paramount's PG-13 Down to Earth, which opened Feb. 16, 2001, gaining a four-day total of $20 million.