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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After last weekend's Super Bowl madness, audiences were in the mood for a different kind of game--be it mind games or the challenge of cheating death--as the top three box office spots were dominated by new releases.
The new spy drama The Recruit took top honors with a decent $16.5 million*, while second place holder Final Destination 2 nearly caught up to The Recruit with $16.2 million. The third spot belonged to Biker Boyz with a slim $10.1 million.
Pushed down to the number four and five spots were last weekend's winners Kangaroo Jack at $9 million and Darkness Falls with $7.5 million.
THE TOP TEN
This weekend's box office topper, Buena Vista's PG-13 The Recruit, opened with an ESTIMATED $16.5 million at 2,376 theaters ($6,944 per theater).
Directed by Roger Donaldson, it stars Colin Farrell, Al Pacino, Bridget Moynahan and Gabriel Macht.
The film revolves around a brilliant college graduate (Farrell) who is recruited by a CIA veteran (Pacino), sent to The Farm--the Agency's treacherous, mind-boggling training program--and programmed to be one of the spy elite.
"Al Pacino always delivers a great performance, and when you put him with Colin Farrell, the combination just whetted the appetite of the public on all sides," Chuck Viane, head of distribution for Disney, told the Associated Press.
Ever wonder how you could cheat death? New Line Cinema's R-rated Final Destination 2 gave us a few hints, as it opened at No. 2 with an ESTIMATED $16.2 million at 2,834 theaters ($5,716 per theater), just barely missing the top mark.
Directed by David R. Ellis, it stars A.J. Cook, Ali Larter and Michael Landes.
The sequel to the 2000 horror hit Final Destination further explores the possibility of escaping the vindictive Death, as a girl, with a premonition of a horrific car pileup on a highway, saves her friends from that particular fate, only to see them picked off one by one in other, more gruesome ways.
AP reports Final Destination 2 easily out-grossed its predecessor, which opened with $10 million. Russell Schwartz, president of domestic marketing for New Line, told AP he expects the sequel to at least match the $53 million total gross of the original Final Destination.
Coming in the third spot, DreamWorks' PG-13 Biker Boyz opened with an ESTIMATED $10.1 million at 1,766 theaters ($5,719 per theater).
Directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood, it stars Laurence Fishburne, Derek Luke, Orlando Jones, Kid Rock and Lisa Bonet.
The film follows the lives of lawyers and city workers who take to the streets by night in their leather gear to race in the world of underground motorcycle clubs.
Amazingly, Warner Bros. PG-rated Kangaroo Jack slipped only two notches to the No. 4 spot with an ESTIMATED $9 million (-22%) at 2,848 theaters ($3,172 per theater), even beating last weekend's top winner Darkness Falls. Its cume is approximately $45.8 million. Crikey!
Directed by David McNally, the silly comedy about a kangaroo who inadvertently makes off with some mob money into the wilds of the Australian Outback stars Jerry O'Connell, Anthony Anderson and Estella Warren.
Sony Pictures' PG-13 Darkness Falls certainly toppled from its top perch to claim fifth place with an ESTIMATED $7.5 million (-38%) at 2,865 theaters (+28 theaters; $2,618 per theater). Its total haul is approximately $22.2 million.
Pic revolves around a young man who, having escaped the Tooth Fairy's unrelentingly evil clutches as a boy, must return to save his hometown from the curse which has plagued it. This weekend, however, cheating death is apparently more exciting than cheating the Tooth Fairy.
Directed by Jonathan Liebesman, it stars Chaney Kley, Emma Caulfield and Lee Cormie.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Miramax Films' PG-13 Chicago lost a little of its jazz, dipping from third place to sixth with an ESTIMATED $7.1 million (-13%) at 623 theaters (+7 theaters; $11,461 per theater). Yet, if Miramax opens this musical extravaganza wide, you may see the Oscar-touted film shoot back up the charts. Chicago's cume is $50.7 million.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
The box office charts wouldn't be complete without a few Hobbits. New Line's PG-13 smash The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers still held power in its seventh week, slipping two spots to No. 7 with an ESTIMATED $5 million (-24%) at 2,175 theaters (-491 theaters; $2,299 per theater). But here's the real kicker--its total box office grosses to date is now approximately $315.9 million. Not too shabby.
Directed by Peter Jackson, it stars Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen.
20th Century Fox's PG-13 Just Married fell one spot to take eighth place with an ESTIMATED $4.9 million (-24%) at 2,408 theaters (-297 theaters; $2,035 per theater). The tale about a honeymoon from hell has gained a respectable $49.8 million so far.
Directed by Shawn Levy, it stars Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy.
Ninth place belonged to DreamWorks PG-13 Catch Me If You Can with an ESTIMATED $4.8 million (-26%) at 2,316 theaters (-460 theaters; $2,073 per theater). Its cume is approximately $151.9 million.
The biopic about con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken.
New Line's R-rated About Schmidt dropped one spot to tenth, rounding out the list with an ESTIMATED $4.7 million (-13%) at 1,236 theaters ($3,803 per theater). The classic slice of Americana has gathered a noteworthy $44.3 million to date with only limited release. Imagine what it could do if it goes wide.
Directed by Alexander Payne, it stars Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney and Kathy Bates.
Universal Pictures' R-rated The Guru opened in limited theaters with an ESTIMATED $648,000 at 62 theaters ($10,452 per theater).
The comedy is about an Indian man who comes to seek his fame and fortune in America but winds up becoming the next "It" guru, spouting sexual advice to New York's lonely elite. Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer, the films stars Jimi Mistry, Heather Graham and Marisa Tomei.
Overall, the box office numbers for the top 12 films jumped 18 percent from last weekend's dismal $79.9 million, with a total haul of $94.6 million.
"This was a really strong weekend for a January, which is usually kind of slow," Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations told AP. "To have two films over $16 million is not bad at all."
This weekend also saw a 20 percent increase from the same weekend last year, which took in only $78.5 million.
Last year, Sony's R-rated Black Hawk Down dominated the box office in its sixth week with $11.1 million at 3,143 theaters ($3,536 per theater); Buena Vistas' G-rated Snow Dogs was second in its third week of release with $10.1 million at 2,454 theaters ($4,156 per theater); and Warner Bros.' PG-13 teen drama A Walk to Remember held the third spot in its second week with $8.8 million at 2,420 theaters ($3,651 per theater).
Psychiatric nurse Maggie O'Connor (Kim Basinger) raises her drug-addicted sister's baby who grows up to be a girl with "special" gifts like the ability to rock a dead bird back to life. When Cody turns 6 her mother returns to claim her. The trouble is mom is now married to Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell) leader of a Satanic cult masquerading as a self-help group. Stark wants Cody to use her powers for the "dark side " and will kill her if she refuses. Aunt Maggie enlists the aid of FBI agent John Travis (Jimmy Smits) to help her track down and save Cody.
Basinger 's passive bearing and scrubbed-down glamour seem out of place in the dingy New York settings. When Stark's snarling teenage-runaway groupies attack her they seem as angry at her smooth blond coif as anything else. Sewell does what he can with lines like "death would be a kinder fate" and "she will be ours" (this last line uttered while practically shaking his fist at the heavens). Vastly underused is Smits whose all-talk-and-no-action FBI agent wouldn't have lasted a day in "NYPD Blue's" precinct.
Although director Chuck Russell captures a rich textured look and lays on the ghoulish special effects (a river of red-eyed rats ominous whispers wraithlike demons) "Bless the Child" doesn't generate any real chill. It's not helped by the script which throws in every clich‚ possible about angels demons hellfire and brimstone. There's no avoiding comparison with "The Sixth Sense " the success of which surely must have put some heat under this project. Unfortunately it's a little too cooked.