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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A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.
Welcome to the "Ice Age."
Fox's animated romp should set the pace for a blistering summer-like weekend at the box office.
Fellow rookies include the action/comedy Showtime, pairing stoic Robert De Niro with bigmouth Eddie Murphy, and Resident Evil, a gory adaptation of the popular video game. Things will fry if No. 1 champ The Time Machine can withstand lousy word-of-mouth during its second weekend.
Fox is no DreamWorks when it comes to out-Disneying Disney. Anastasia made a less-than-regal $58.4 million in 1997. Titan A.E. imploded with $22.7 million in 2000. Once Upon a Forest earned a withering $5.2 million in 1993.
Fox will finally hit the jackpot by inadvertently remaking Monsters Inc. As with that Disney smash, Ice Age follows an attempt to rescue an oh-so-cute baby from a fate worse than death. Our unlikely heroes: a grouchy mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) with a haunting past; an ingratiating, but accident-prone, sloth (John Leguizamo); and a saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) with a hidden agenda.
The result is a funny, touching and occasionally frightening undertaking that should enchant children. Although nowhere near as sardonic as Shrek, Ice Age boasts enough adult-themed gags to keep grown-ups in stitches.
Ice Age arrives at a time when demand is high for such family fare as Snow Dogs ($77.4 million through Sunday), Big Fat Liar ($43.9 million through Tuesday) and Return to Never Land ($42.3 million through Tuesday).
Given its March berth, Ice Age cannot hope to give Shrek ($42.3 opening; $267 million total) or Monsters Inc. ($62.5 million opening; $252.5 million total) a run for their money. Ice Age should sail past Antz's $17.1 opening in October 1998 to match last weekend's $22.5 million debut by The Time Machine. It also helps that Ice Age comes complete with the new trailer for Star Wars Episode II - Attack of the Clones. Fox used the same ploy in 1998 with The Siege, which enjoyed a $13.9 million opening on the strength of being paired with the Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace trailer.
Ice Age could very well exceed Antz's $90.7 million if it can weather next weekend's reissue of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.
Ice Age will cause Return to Never Land to endure a chilly fifth weekend. The Peter Pan sequel, though, is well on its way to $50 million. Not bad for what was once a direct-to-video project.
The inspired pairing of Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy could pose a threat to Ice Age's bid for box office supremacy. In Showtime, grizzled LAPD detective De Niro is forced to partner with cocky rookie Murphy for a Cops-styled reality TV show produced by Rene Russo. Think 15 Minutes played for laughs, only with De Niro playing a less media-savvy cop.
Warner Bros. clearly has high hopes for Showtime, which was pushed up from July 19. De Niro seems to have found a new audience since showing a willingness to poke fun at his tough-guy image with 1999's Analyze This. The mob comedy, co-starring Billy Crystal, opened with $18.3 million on its way to a bang-up $106.8 million. Meet the Parents, which saw De Niro butt heads with prospective son-in-law Ben Stiller, represented a personal best for De Niro in terms of opening ($29.1 million) and total ($166.2 million).
Murphy's also on a roll since reviving his career with 1996's The Nutty Professor. And of course, Murphy detained audiences worldwide as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop and its glossy but successful sequel (the less said about Beverly Hills Cop III, the better).
Accordingly, partnering De Niro with Murphy should produce a $20 million to $25 million opening. Showtime could hit $100 million given that it has no direct competition until Russo's cracked crime caper Big Trouble debuts April 5.
Showtime can only mean trouble for All About the Benjamins. The Ice Cube/Mike Epps action/comedy opened with $10 million and has $11.5 million through Tuesday. All About the Benjamins' predominately black audience turned out last weekend to watch Ice Cube cause mayhem in Miami but will likely abandon the rapper-turned-actor to see Murphy hold his own against De Niro. If this is the case, All About the Benjamins should experience a 50 percent drop for a second weekend haul of $5 million. Its likely total: just south of Friday's $27.3 million.
Those mortally disappointed with Queen of the Damned can take solace in Resident Evil.
Turning a video game into a successful film is a risky prospect. Witness what happened last summer. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider beat its way to $131.1 million solely on the brains, brawn and beauty of star Angelina Jolie. The visually dazzling, but emotionally vacuous, computer-animated Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within crashed with a nightmarish $32.1 million.
Director Paul Anderson logged a high score the last time he played the video game. His Mortal Kombat enjoyed a game-ending $70.4 million. (He didn't stick around for the 1997 sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which earned $35.9 million.)
Just like Mortal Kombat and its ilk, Resident Evil doesn't offer much of a plot. Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez match wits with an out-of-control computer seemingly responsible for killing everyone working at a hush-hush research center. Let's not forget about the airborne virus that turns scientists into the undead.
You can't blame Anderson for going back to what he knows--especially as he does a good job turning Resident Evil into a silly, but shock-filled, roller coaster ride. He followed Mortal Kombat with the genuinely creepy, but shamefully ignored, Event Horizon ($26.6 million) and the bone-headed Soldier ($14.6 million).
Resident Evil fans will no doubt turn out in droves this weekend to see Jovovich and Rodriguez kick butt a la Lara Croft, but Anderson's plans for a sequel are premature. The blood-soaked Resident Evil hits theaters with a prohibitive R rating. That means Resident Evil cannot possibly hope to match Mortal Kombat's surprising $23.2 million debut in 1995.
It doesn't help that films based on video games free-fall after their opening weekends. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, for example, opened with $47.7 million and then dropped 58.5 percent in its second weekend to $19.7 million. Resident Evil also must contend next weekend with Blade 2: Bloodhunt.
Expect Resident Evil to open with between $12 million and $15 million but burn out at around $40 million. It also will drive a stake through the heart of Queen of the Damned. The anemic sequel to Interview with the Vampire has a mere $27.9 million through Sunday, or less than the $36.3 million that the first film took in its opening weekend in 1994.
The Time Machine, based on the H.G. Wells novel, faces a greater evil than the Morlocks: bad buzz.
Critics scolded director Simon Wells for bastardizing his great-grandfather's classic tale of progress run amok. Audiences didn't care. The lure of a $70 million special-effects bonanza--even one that never realizes its full potential--proved irresistible.
Yet Mission to Mars, which opened in March 2000 with $22.8 million, saw its earning slashed by 50 percent in its second weekend, following scabrous reviews. Expect The Time Machine to earn about $11 million if it follows the same path, especially as audiences now have an embarrassment of riches to choose from this weekend.
We Were Soldiers should remain the top choice for audiences seeking a film with dramatic bite. Mel Gibson's Vietnam tour of duty took $14.2 in its second weekend, easing by an acceptable 29.7 percent from its $20.2 million opening. Its total through Tuesday: $42.8 million. That's a little less than the $45.1 million ($46 million) than Gibson's Payback made during the same period of play in early 1999.
Unless war fatigue sets in, We Were Soldiers remains on course to beat Braveheart's $75.5 million but fall short of Payback's $81.5 million.
John Q's assault on managed healthcare persists. Denzel Washington's hostage thriller has $60 million through Tuesday, after dropping 30 percent in its fourth weekend from $8.5 million to $5.9 million. The prognosis: a $70 million total.
Josh Hartnett's vow of celibacy might not last 40 Days and 40 Nights, or even to the end of Lent. The sexless comedy went limp in its second weekend, dropping from $12.2 million to $7 million. Its total through Tuesday is $24.2 million. Hartnett has one weekend left to score before he faces the Some Like It Hot-inspired Sorority Boys.
The wings have all but been pulled from Dragonfly. Kevin Costner's supernatural love story abated by 39.2 percent in its third weekend, from $6.6 million to $4 million, and has a lowly $25.4 million through Tuesday. Dragonfly won't even match the $34.5 million that his flop Thirteen Days made last year.
This is the last full weekend before the Oscars, so the various contenders do not have much longer to state their case by way of the box office.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring continues its journey toward a precious $300 million. Peter Jackson's epic has $291.7 million through Tuesday. Fellow Best Picture nominees Gosford Park and In the Bedroom have, respectively, $33.3 million and $30.7 million through Sunday. Monster's Ball, with Best Actress nominee Halle Berry, hit $15.4 million on Sunday.
An alleged smear campaign did not slow down Russell Crowe's A Beautiful Mind, which has $145 million through Tuesday. Ron Howard's inventive biography of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. looks set to hit $150 million before the Oscars ceremony begins. A Best Picture win could see A Beautiful Mind surpass Gladiator's $187.6 million total and rank as a box office best for Crowe. Unless Crowe decides to ruin things by throwing another temper tantrum....