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.
Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees teamed up this weekend to defend their No. 1 title at the box office--and it worked: Freddy vs. Jason managed to murder the competition for the second week in a row with $13.4 million*.
Freddy vs. Jason was followed by the '70s inspired police pic S.W.A.T., which claimed the No. 2 spot with $10.8 million, while the Western Open Range and the family remake Freaky Friday tied for third place with $9.4 million apiece. The Jackie Chan martial arts actioner The Medallion, the only one of this week's new wide releases to crack the Top Five, followed with $8.2 million.
The two new comedies, however, failed to tickle the fancy of moviegoers. The finally released, two-year-old Ashton Kutcher laffer My Boss's Daughter premiered in tenth place with $5 million while the hip-hop comedy Marci X disappeared off the charts with a paltry $865,000.
Although Freddy vs. Jason dropped off significantly from its $36.4 million high last week, it is the first summer film since X2: X-Men United to spend two weekends in a row at the top of the box office. But after a full month of $30 million plus openers, the box office lost its typical end of summer steam.
This week's Top 12 films grossed a total of $86.1 million, down a little more than 35 percent from last week, when they earned $132.6 million. The total, however, was up almost 33 percent form this time last year, when the Top 12 films grossed $64.8 million.
THE TOP TEN
New Line Cinema's R rated horror flick Freddy vs. Jason defended its No. 1 title for the second week in a row with an ESTIMATED $13.4 million (-63%) in 3,014 theaters (unchanged). Its $4,463 per theater average was the highest of any movie playing wide this week. Its cume is approximately $61.4 million.
Directed by Ronny Yu, it stars Robert Englund and Ken Kirzinger.
Sony Pictures' PG-13 rated S.W.A.T. retained in its No. 2 spot in its third week with an ESTIMATED $10.8 million (-40%) in 3,204 theaters (-16 theaters; $3,371 per theater). Its cume is approximately $88 million.
Directed by Clark Johnson, it stars Colin Farrell, Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J and Michelle Rodriguez.
Buena Vista's R rated Western Open Range also held on to third place in its second week with an ESTIMATED $9.4 million (-33%) in 2,075 theaters (+88 theaters; $4,346 per theater). Its cume is approximately $29 2 million.
Directed by and starring Kevin Costner, it also stars Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Diego Luna and Michael Gambon.
Buena Vista's PG rated family remake Freaky Friday tied for third place in its third week with an ESTIMATED $9.4 million (-30%) in 3,058 theaters (+79 theaters; $3,074 per theater). Its cume is $74.5 million.
Directed by Mark Waters, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Lindsay Lohan, Chad Michael Murray and Mark Harmon.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
Sony Pictures' PG-13 rated martial arts actioner The Medallion premiered in fifth place with an ESTIMATED $8.2 million at 2,648 theaters, with a $3,097 per theater average.
The film, Jackie Chan's first theatrical release in three years without a famous co-star, revolves around a Hong Kong detective who must protect a Buddhist monk child and a mysterious medallion from a ruthless crime lord.
Directed by Gordon Chan, it stars Jackie Chan, Lee Evans and Claire Forlani.
Buena Vista Pictures' PG-13 rated fantasy pic Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl remained strong in sixth place in its seventh week with an ESTIMATED $7.3 million (-20%) at 2,404 theaters (-306 theaters; $2,500 per theater). Its cume is approximately $261 million.
Directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, it stars Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
Universal Pictures' PG-13 rated equestrian drama Seabiscuit gained a spot to finish in the No. 7 position in its fifth week with ESTIMATED $6.3 million (-22%) in 2,534 theaters (+72 theaters; $2,500 per theater). Its cume is approximately $93.1 million and headed for the $100 million mark.
Directed by Gary Ross, it stars Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper as three down-and-out men who find fame and fortune in an equally down-and-out racehorse.
MGM's PG-13 rated riches-to-rags tale Uptown Girls dropped three rungs to place eight in its second week with an ESTIMATED $5.6 million (-50%) in 2,495 theaters (unchanged; $2,244 per theater). Its cume is approximately $22.3 million.
Directed by Boaz Yakin, it stars Brittany Murphy, Dakota Fanning, Donald Faison, Marley Shelton and Heather Locklear.
Universal Picture's R rated teen comedy American Wedding fell two spots to finish ninth in fourth week with an ESTIMATED $5.7 million (-34%) at 2,467 theaters (-518 theaters; $2,260 per theater). Its cume is $90.6 million.
Directed by Jesse Dylan, it stars Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Alyson Hannigan, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Thomas Ian Nicholas.
Rounding out the Top Ten is Dimension Films' PG-13 rated fowl comedy My Boss's Daughter, which debuted in tenth place with an ESTIMATED $5 million in 2,201 theaters with a $2,272 per theater average.
In the film, a young executive housesits for his boss and tends to his prized pet owl in hopes of skipping a few rungs up the corporate ladder.
Directed by David Zucker, it stars Ashton Kutcher, Tara Reid, Molly Shannon and Andy Richter.
Paramount Pictures R rated hip-hop comedy Marci X opened to a disappointing $875,000 in 1,200 theaters with a $721 per theater average.
In the film, a New York Jewish socialite is forced to take over a hard-core hip-hop label and deal with a controversial rapper whose record is gaining some negative publicity.
Directed by Paul Rudnick, it stars Lisa Kudrow, Damon Wayans, Richard Benjamin, Christine Baranski and Jane Krakowski.
Fox Searchlight's R rated teen drama Thirteen, meanwhile, opened in five theaters to an impressive $112,213 with a $22,443 per theater average.
The movie focuses on an innocent, pigtailed 13-year-old who enters junior high with a promising future ahead of her, until she falls in with the ultra-popular, hottest girl in school and is introduced to a world of sex, drugs and misdemeanors.
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, it stars Holly Hunter, Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed.
Miramax Film's PG-13 rated comedy The Battle of Shaker Heights, winner of the 2002 Project Greenlight competition developed by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, also opened in limited release this week. The film took in $52,000 in 5 theaters with a $10,400 per theater average.
Set in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, the film is about a teenage World War II buff and battle re-enactor, Kelly Enswiler, who is encouraged by a new friend to take on the school bully.
Directed by Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle, it stars Shia LaBeouf, Kathleen Quinlan, Amy Smart and Shiri Appleby.
Last year's top three included: Buena Vista's PG-13 rated sci-fi thriller Signs, which reclaimed the No. 1 spot in its fourth week of release with $14.2 million at 3,453 theaters ($4,137 per theater average); Sony's PG-13 rated actioner xXx, which dropped to second place its third week with $13.2 million in 3,517 theaters ($3,770 per theater average); and Dimension's Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, which came in third in its third week with $7.5 million at 3,307 theaters ($2,295 per theater).