In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
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.
Saving a crew of Russian submariners from a watery grave should prove an easier task for Harrison Ford than winning this weekend's box office derby against a spunky mouse with human-like qualities.
K-19: The Widowmaker represents Ford's first action thriller since 1997's Air Force One, but that by no means guarantees a bigger opening than Stuart Little 2. The sequel to 1999's surprise smash hit scurried into 3,255 theaters, runs a mere 77 minutes and enjoys huge awareness among young audiences who have already turned Scooby-Doo and Lilo & Stitch into summer blockbusters. Based on a true Cold War-era incident, K-19 will crash-dive into 2,824 theaters, but runs 138 minutes and faces stiff competition from Tom Hanks' Road to Perdition for adults looking for an intelligent summer offering.
Essentially a Cold War remake of Run Silent, Run Deep, K-19 recounts how Russian bureaucracy and inefficiency led to the 1961 disabling of a Soviet submarine and a possible nuclear meltdown. Ford, serving as the submarine's captain, spends as much of his time trying to save his men as he does clashing with second-in-command Liam Neeson. Director Kathryn Bigelow tells K-19 solely from a Russian perspective, which could provoke apathy from some teens uninterested in Cold War politics.
Oddly, Ford serves as both K-19's primary asset and liability. Ford's decision to adopt a Russian accent as the commander of a disabled Soviet nuclear submarine might distract audiences from the task at hand. It does seem unnecessary for Ford to try his hand at such an accent considering the Russians have no verbal interactions with their U.S. counterparts.
Yet audiences always turn out en masse to see Ford save the day. The 1990s saw Ford score with The Fugitive ($183.8 million), Air Force One ($172.6 million) and Clear and Present Danger ($122 million). Plus, this is an opportunity to see Han Solo butt heads with Qui-Gon Jinn.
Also, audiences seem to enjoy spending time trapped within the confines of a jeopardized submarine. The Hunt for Red October ($17.1 million opening; $120.7 million total), Crimson Tide ($18.6 million opening; $91.3 million total) and U-571 ($19.5 million opening; $77 million total) all weathered rough seas to become successful by varying degrees.
Given Ford's stature, K-19 should open around The Fugitive's $23.7 million. (In a twist of irony, K-19 won't muster enough energy to exceed The Sum of All Fears's $31.1 opening and $115 million total through Sunday. Ford declined to star in the fourth Jack Ryan yarn, allowing Ben Affleck to revitalize the franchise.)
K-19's future then depends upon whether it can withstand strong competition from Road to Perdition. If so, K-19 could dock somewhere between the totals of Crimson Tide and U-571.
Road to Perdition widens by several hundred theaters this weekend after a superb $22.1 million at a modest 1,797 theaters. That could put some older adults in a bind as they found themselves choosing between Road to Perdition and K-19.
DreamWorks deliberately kept the theater count low in order to prevent the 1930s-era gangster saga from rapidly burning out, a strategy that's worked thus far. Road to Perdition opened better than Hanks' The Green Mile ($18 million) and close to Apollo 13 ($25.3 million) and Forrest Gump ($24.4 million).
With $31.8 million through Thursday, Road to Perdition could hit $50 million by this weekend. The presumed Oscar contender is on track to break $100 million long before Labor Day. This would give Sam Mendes his second consecutive $100 million smash, following his Oscar-winning American Beauty ($130 million).
Keep an eye on your cheese, Mickey Mouse, 'cause Stuart Little's back!
Families embraced the smartly dressed rodent during the winter of 1999, when Stuart Little debuted with $15 million
en route to a $140 million total. The first film introduced the CGI-animated Stuart Little, voiced by Michael J. Fox, as the adopted child of Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie. The sequel, also directed by Rob Minkoff, now requires the brave mouse to traverse New York City in order rescue a bird voiced by Melanie Griffith.
Interest is waning in Lilo & Stitch and Scooby-Doo, so Stuart Little 2 should appease children and parents alike family market until the Aug. 7 arrival of Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams. The talking mouse should fend off an attack next weekend by those singing grizzlies, The Country Bears.
Stuart should squeak with joy this weekend. Stuart Little 2's built-in audience should allow it to double its predecessor's debut. Aiding Stuart's cause: families have thoroughly rejected Hey Arnold! The Movie ($12.6 million through Sunday) and The Powerpuff Girls Movie ($9.6 million). Still, Stuart's second escapade might not be as popular as his first, which showed strong endurance after a good debut. Stuart Little 2 should settle for about $110 million after a dynamic opening.
Stuart Little 2 will stop kids from making their second or third trips to Lilo & Stitch and Scooby-Doo. The Disney-animated yarn, which has $123.4 million through Thursday, should slightly exceed Dinosaur's $137.7 million total. With $144.9 million through Sunday, Scooby-Doo will dig up a $155 million total, certainly enough to justify its projected 2004 sequel.
Reptiles don't seem to bother Steve Irwin, but a rodent such as Stuart Little might scare away his audience.
The family-friendly The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course last weekend took in a less-than-snappy $9.5 million, and has just $14 million through Thursday. No doubt Irwin's diehard fans caught him in theaters last weekend, and Stuart Little 2 will likely take a big bite out of The Crocodile Hunter's pre-teen audience this weekend.
By tumbling by at least 50 percent in its second weekend, The Crocodile Hunter will barely make it past $25 million. That might make MGM executives think twice about exploiting the popularity of a cable-TV star without providing audiences with a viewing different experience from what they already receive on the small screen.
The summer could belong to Jonathan Lipnicki. When not playing with adopted brother Stuart Little, Lipnicki's hanging out on the basketball court with Lil' Bow Wow.
Stuart Little 2 should not cause too much harm to the NBA fairy tale that is Like Mike, which draws slightly older boys. Besides, Stuart Little 2 doesn't feature Lil' Bow Wow going one-on-one with the troubled Allen Iverson.
Like Mike dropped a respectable 37 percent in its second weekend, from $12.1 million to $7.8 million, and has $36.9 million through Thursday. Like Mike should easily exceed the $53.1 million total generated by the kiddie baseball fantasy tale Rookie of the Year.
Scared of spiders?
Then avoid Eight Legged Freaks, a campy throwback to the old monster B-movies of the 1950s. Spilled toxic waste turns ordinary spiders into gigantic killing machines. Only David Arquette
and direct-to-video vixen Kari Wuhrer can stop the destruction of their small Arizona town. Perhaps it doesn't bode well for Nevada's Yucca Mountain, employed as the nation's nuclear waste repository.
More Tremors than Arachnophobia, Eight Legged Freaks offers an easygoing but unimaginative combination of laughs and chills. Arquette doesn't make a particularly charismatic hero, but with Eight Legged Freaks, all that matters is how the spiders end up splattered. The special effects certainly don't rival those of Men in Black II, but the same folks who giggle at the antics of Agents Jay and Kay will lap up Eight Legged Freaks wholeheartedly.
Eight Legged Freaks got a jump on the competition by opening Wednesday. Its two-day total of $2.5 million might justify Warner Bros.' decision to delay the formerly titled Arac Attack from the spring to summer. Eight Legged Freaks could emerge as a summer sleeper if it can double Arachnophobia's $8 million opening and exceed its disappointing $53.2 million total.
The serious-minded Reign of Fire took a slight hit following Wednesday's spider invasion. The post-apocalyptic showdown between man and dragon dropped $1.6 million on Tuesday, to $1.4 million on Wednesday, and to $1.3 million on Thursday. Audiences, though, might prefer to see the lighthearted Eight Legged Freaks this weekend than the dark and brooding Reign of Fire, which has $21.9 million through Thursday.
Reign of Fire's less-than-sizzling $15.6 million opening slightly beat the $15 million debut by 1996's Dragonheart. Losing too much heat this weekend could result in Reign of Fire barely matching Dragonheart's $51.3 million total. That task is made all the more difficult by the presence of those Eight Legged Freaks.
MIBII's illegal extraterrestrial aliens also could fall victims to those mutated spiders. The sequel to the 1997 smash sci-fi spoof dropped a 53 percent in its second weekend, from $52.1 million to $24.4 million. That tumble was expected following tepid reviews. In comparison, Men in Black eroded by 41.1 percent in its second weekend, from $51 million to $30 million, for a total of $139.5 million.
With $143.5 million through Thursday, MIBII certainly won't top its predecessor's $250.1 million total. Instead, Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and director Barry Sonnenfeld should brace themselves for a third weekend of about $13 million and a total barely breaking $200 million. Still, MIBII already ranks as the biggest hit for the three since Men in Black.
Halloween came early this year, and that benefitted one of the horror genre's most notorious serial killers. Halloween: Resurrection sliced up $12.2 million during its opening weekend. Michael Myers' bloody rampage claimed an unexpected victim, which no doubt attracted many during its debut but could ultimately prove the franchise's undoing.
Resurrection failed to top the $16.1 million debut of its predecessor, Halloween: H20, which profited solely from the return of Jamie Lee Curtis. Resurrection, which has $16.4 million through Thursday, certainly won't top H20's $55 million. And, given that Myers' biggest fans have already cheered on him during his latest killing spree, Resurrection will likely take a 50 percent tumble in its second weekend. The body count will come to an end at around $30 million. Still, don't expect this to be the last we see of Myers.
Also, can we soon expect to see CIA assassin Jason Bourne on the run again? Matt Damon's The Bourne Identity earned a total $100.4 million on Tuesday, making it the ninth 2002 release to attain blockbuster status. Next up would be The Bourne Supremacy, based on the second in the trilogy of novels by Robert Ludlum.
Damon also was to star in Minority Report, but dropped out to complete Ocean's Eleven. Minority Report has done OK with Colin Farrell in the role of on-the-run cop Tom Cruise's pursuer, having earned $113.6 million through Thursday.
Mr. Deeds on Thursday became the 10th 2002 release to cross $100 million. Adam Sandler's unnecessary remake of director Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town has $100.3 million through Thursday, with a total $120 million to $130 million likely. Fans clearly prefer Sandler when his archetypal buffoon with a heart of gold doesn't come with horns and a pitchfork.