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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Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
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.
Americans played Hardball at the box office this weekend, finding some much needed escape from the week's tragic news.
Ticket sales by key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more for the weekend -- were approximately $61.2 million, up about 29 percent from the comparable weekend last year's total of $47.4 million.
Insiders had speculated that ticket sales this weekend would hinge on whether there was any new big breaking news. In the event that there was major breaking news, Americans would almost certainly have remained glued to their television sets as they had been for most of last week. In the happy absence of new big breaking news, it seemed likely the public would turn to movies for some escape.
"There was resilience (in the marketplace) and it was amazing," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman observed Sunday morning. "I think it was great. The American people wanted to get out of the house. We're 26 or 28 percent ahead of last year (based on Warners' early estimates). There was a huge bump between Friday and Saturday (for many films). I think people needed a little relief and they went to the movies."
Asked about ticket sales in the New York area, Fellman said, "New York was exceptionally strong. I looked at (Paramount's) Hardball on Friday night and the screen average in L.A. was $2,000 and the number two market was New York at $1,800 (per theater for Friday). And usually that's the normal pattern. Now, obviously, there are theaters in Manhattan (where business was down). You can take isolated areas and make an argument (that people stayed away). But, in general, Washington (also) was where it should be on the charts. I think people needed a little escapism."
With neither of the weekend's new films -- Paramount's Little League baseball comedy drama Hardball and Columbia's suspense thriller The Glass House -- being big high profile releases, however, the weekend's box office potential was clearly limited no matter what was happening in the world.
Nonetheless, this weekend's total was down by only about 11 percent from the previous weekend this year when key films took in $68.8 million. That suggested to some industry executives that there would have been a lot more moviegoing this weekend if the films Hollywood happened to have scheduled to open now had stronger commercial appeal.
"Unfortunately, there was nothing compelling (for people to see)," another distribution executive, who asked not to be identified, pointed out Sunday morning. "It would have been a great weekend to open a really great comedy where there's real escapism. There are no sporting events (this weekend) and TV is now becoming more depressing. The truth of the matter is that people are looking for something to escape to."
Paramount's opening of its PG-13 rated urban appeal drama-comedy Hardball hit first place with an energetic ESTIMATED $10.1 million at 2,137 theaters ($4,726 per theater).
Hardball's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by Brian Robbins, it stars Keanu Reeves.
"I expect a strong Sunday," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "We were hurt on Friday. The big urban theaters didn't kick in until Saturday night. We expect a very strong Sunday with the kind of ethnic appeal we have with the film. But it's also playing very well (in general).
"The exit polls went through the roof. It scored a 91 on the index. It's the overall score for the picture after you compile all the information. Anything over 80 is through the roof and a 90 is basically unheard of."
Lewellen noted that Paramount did its "exit polls yesterday and I haven't seen the (details yet). When we did the sneaks last week, 96 percent were in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good). There's no reason to believe that it would change."
Asked if people looked to movie theaters as a means to escape from reality this weekend, Lewellen replied, "I think so. It seemed that they were somewhat preoccupied on Friday because of the Day of Mourning. There were candlelight vigils Friday night. I think there was a lot of participation in that. Everything in the market had a tremendous bump Saturday from Friday. I think you're going to see a continuation of that today -- obviously, unless (there is) some kind of breaking news activity."
Lewellen pointed out that, "The last time we experienced anything like this was the Kennedy assassination. Really, there aren't any records we can refer to. We simply had conversations with people who were around then (in 1963) and remembered the business. Everybody pulled all the movies out of that weekend except for one film. It was a Jayne Mansfield film called Promises! Promises! (a sex comedy starring Mansfield, who was seen naked on the screen for the first time in this film, which was directed by King Donovan and also starred Marie McDonald, Tommy Noonan and Mickey Hargitay). It was the only film that opened (via NTD, an independent distributor at the time) and it set house records. People were looking for escapism and, obviously, the networks as they did now were only broadcasting newscasts. Of course, it does become redundant when there's no new news and they just say the same thing over and over.
"In addition, I think that the fact that the Memorial was held on Friday -- it's not closure, but it sort of said that it's OK to go out (and start trying to get back to normal). And that's why I think we're going to have an extraordinary Sunday (at the box office)."
Columbia's opening of its PG-13 rated suspense thriller The Glass House cracked the chart in second place with a solid ESTIMATED $6.1 million at 1,591 theaters ($3,834 per theater).
Directed by Daniel Sackheim, it stars Leelee Sobieski, Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgard.
"Not an expensive picture -- $22 million," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "We had a rather moderate release (with) pretty focused advertising, a reasonable number of prints and I think our caution was rewarded with a decent start that should get it into the $20 millions (in domestic theaters) and break even or make a little profit."
The studio's marketing efforts, Blake explained, "were focused toward younger females. It's a PG-13 thriller with Leelee Sobieski and I think that certainly the research going in indicated that that was the crowd. And we were specific in our advertising towards them. A focused mid-September release that turned out fine."
Commenting on how this weekend played out, Blake commented, "On the one hand, it looks like the lowest of the year. On the other hand, it's up over last year. It's hard to say, but I'm sure as we all look at our individual figures we all would have liked to have a little more -- but from Day One we thought a $6 million opening on Glass House was a reasonable expectation. It didn't seem like the events (of last week) took us away from that one way or the other."
Universal and Miramax's PG-13 rated action adventure acquisition The Musketeer fell two rungs to third place in its second week with a less dramatic ESTIMATED $5.31 million (-49%) at 2,476 theaters (+38 theaters; $2,145 per theater). Musketeer, which Universal picked up for North America for only about $3.75 million, has a cume of approximately $17.6 million, heading for $25-30 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Peter Hyams, it stars Catherine Deneuve, Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Tim Roth and Justin Chambers.
"There was a tremendous jump between Friday and Saturday," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning, referring to the marketplace in general.
Musketeer, for instance, was up about 59 percent on Saturday from Friday. There were similar big increases on Saturday for such films as Hardball (up about 69 percent), The Others (up about 55 percent), Rush Hour 2 (up about 82 percent), Rat Race (up about 70 percent) and American Pie 2 (up about 58 percent).
Asked what accounted for such increases across the board, Rocco replied, "There was nothing else to do. People were home all day. On Friday, people came home from school and from work and wanted to catch up on the (news). But by Saturday, there was nothing else to do. There was no football. There was no baseball."
Focusing on Musketeer, Rocco said, "It's a very successful acquisition for us. We're very happy that we made this deal for domestic rights (for only $3.75 million)."
Dimension Films' PG-13 thriller The Others rose one slot to fourth place in its sixth week, still holding well with an ESTIMATED $4.8 million (-20%) at 2,843 theaters (+106 theaters; $1,688 per theater). Others, which cost only $17 million to make, has a cume of approximately $73.6 million, heading for $80-85 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar, it stars Nicole Kidman.
Asked where Others is heading, David Kaminow, senior vice president, marketing for Dimension's parent company Miramax, replied, "$80 million looks like it's pretty much a sure thing (so probably) $80-85 million. It's a tidy little winner!"
Sony's Screen Gems label's R rated urban appeal romantic comedy Two Can Play That Game slipped three pegs to fifth place in its second week with a still playful ESTIMATED $4.7 million (-39%) at 1,297 theaters (theater count unchanged; $3,624 per theater). Made for only $6 million, its cume is approximately $13.9 million, heading for the mid-$20 millions in domestic theaters.
Written and directed by Mark Brown, it stars Vivica A. Fox and Anthony Anderson.
"Two Can Play That Game continues to be a nice little success story for us," Sony's Jeff Blake said Sunday morning. "It's another film headed towards the mid-$20 millions, perhaps. And this one only cost $6 million. Again, a very focused campaign. I feel pretty good about what we had lined up for September and what we're spending (on marketing) to get there."
New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated action comedy blockbuster sequel Rush Hour 2 held on to sixth place in its seventh week with an OK ESTIMATED $4.35 million (-24%) at 2,266 theaters (-280 theaters; $1,920 per theater). Its cume is approximately $211.4 million, heading for $220 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Brett Ratner, it stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
MGM's Jeepers Creepers, the R-rated horror film from the studio's United Artists label, fell four slots to seventh place in its third week with a slow ESTIMATED $3.85 million (-38%) at 2,847 theaters (-97 theaters; $1,353 per theater). Its cume is approximately $29.7 million.
Written and directed by Victor Salva, it stars Gina Phillips, Justin Long, Jonathan Breck and Eileen Brennan.
Paramount's PG-13 comedy Rat Race held on to eighth place in its fifth week, still holding nicely with an ESTIMATED $3.63 million (-19%) at 2,495 theaters (-56 theaters; $1,453 per theater). Its cume is approximately $47.8 million, heading for $55-60 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Jerry Zucker, it stars Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Seth Green, Jon Lovitz, Breckin Meyer and Amy Smart.
Universal's R-rated youth appeal comedy hit sequel American Pie 2 slid two pegs to ninth place in its sixth week with a less sexy ESTIMATED $3.56 million (-25%) at 2,339 theaters (-438 theaters; $1,520 per theater). Pie 2, which cost about $30 million to make, has a cume of approximately $135.9 million, heading for $140 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by J.B. Rogers, it stars Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Natasha Lyonne, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Tara Reid, Seann William Scott, Mena Suvari, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Eugene Levy.
Rounding out the Top Ten (and virtually tied for ninth place) was Bel-Air Entertainment's R-rated drama Rock Star, distributed by Warner Bros., down six slots in its second week with a dull ESTIMATED $3.53 million (-41%) at 2,525 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,396 per theater). Its cume is approximately $11.2 million.
Directed by Stephen Herek, it stars Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston.
This weekend did not see the arrival of any other high profile or wide openings.
This weekend saw no national sneak previews.
On the expansion front, this weekend saw Fox Searchlight Pictures R-rated hit thriller The Deep End go wider in its sixth week with an OK ESTIMATED $0.75 million (-22%) at 412 theaters (+11 theaters; $1,823 per theater). Its cume is approximately $6.9 million.
Written produced and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, it stars Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic and Jonathan Tucker.
MGM's release of United Artists' R-rated youth appeal comedy Ghost World continued to widen in its ninth week, holding well with an ESTIMATED $0.37 million (even) at 104 theaters (+13 theaters; $3,667 per theater). Its cume is approximately $4.2 million.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff, it stars Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas and Steve Buscemi.
Miramax's R-rated Apocalypse Now Redux widened in its seventh week with an OK ESTIMATED $0.2 million (-30%) at 105 theaters (+13 theaters; $1,904 per theater). Its cume is approximately $3.5 million.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it stars Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford.
Paramount Classics' R-rated drama Our Lady of the Assassins went wider in its second week with a still hopeful ESTIMATED $0.055 million (-2%) at 12 theaters (+8 theaters; $4,595 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.1 million.
Directed by Barbet Schroeder, it stars German Jaramillo and Anderson Ballesteros.
On the international front, Universal reported that it opened The Fast and the Furious in the U.K. this weekend to a solid $1.7 million on 400 screens for Friday and Saturday. That total does not include the 63 screens where the film is playing in Ireland, where theaters were closed Friday as a national day of mourning for the U.S.
Universal said Fast's two-day U.K. gross was 20 percent higher than the $2 million that Scary Movie 2 kicked off to in the U.K. a week ago.
Universal also reported that its international release of Bridget Jones's Diary (co-financed with Miramax, which distributed it domestically) is now up to $130 million, making it this year's seventh biggest grossing film internationally. It still has 14 countries in which it will be opening -- including Japan on Sept. 22.
Universal said that Jurassic Park III's international cume is now at $165 million, making it the fifth highest grossing film of the year internationally. There still are eight countries in which JP III will be opening.
Universal's American Pie 2 had its first international opening this weekend in Israel, kicking off to a strong $217,000 on 30 screens ($7,200 per screen) and capturing first place. The studio will be releasing Pie 2 over the next four months. Its next openings are slated for Sept. 27 in Germany and Austria.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $61.23 million, up about 29.29 per cent from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $47.36 million.
This weekend's key film gross was down about 11.05 percent from last weekend of this year, when key films took in approximately $68.82 million.
Last year, Universal's second week of The Watcher was first with $5.81 million at 2,745 theaters ($2,115 per theater); and Warner Bros.' opening week of Bait was second with $5.49 million at 2,352 theaters ($2,332 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $11.3 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $16.2 million.