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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Bobby Garfield (David Morse) returns to his small hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood friend and remembers the fateful summer in 1960 when his whole world changed. The story flashes back to when 11-year-old Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his best friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully-John (Will Rothhaar) capture the pure joy of youthfulness. When a mysterious stranger named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves upstairs and starts to pay attention to Bobby the boy suddenly realizes what's truly missing from his life--the love of a parent. Bobby's mother Liz (Hope Davis) is embittered by the death of Bobby's father and shows little compassion for her son's growing needs. Ted fills a void with the boy opening his eyes to the world around him and helps Bobby come to terms with his real feelings for Carol--and his mother. But Ted also has some deep dark secrets of his own and Bobby tries hard to stop danger from reaching the old man.
The performances make the film especially in the genuine camaraderie of the kids. Yelchin Boorem and Rothhaar never deliver a false move with an easiness that makes us believe we are simply watching three 11-year-old children grow up together. Yelchin in particular is able to get right to the heart of this young boy who misses his father and clings to the only adult who will listen. And his scenes with Boorem simply break your heart. (Davis) does an admirable job playing a part none too sympathetic. She manages to show a woman whose been beaten down but who does truly love her son in her own way. Morse too is one of those character actors you can plug in any movie and get a performance worth noting. In Hearts you want to see more of him. Of course the film shines brightest when Hopkins is on the screen. It may not be an Oscar-caliber performance but the actor is unparalleled in bringing a character to life--showing the subtleties of an old man looking for some peace in his life.
If you are expecting the Stephen King novel you may be disappointed. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) deftly extracted the King formula of telling a story through a child's eye and explaining how the relationships formed as a child shaped the adult later. Hicks did an amazing job with his young actors especially Yelchin and Boorem. But where the novel continued into a supernatural theme explaining Brautigan's fear of being captured by "low men in yellow coats" (a reference to King's The Dark Tower series) the movie downplayed the mystical elements instead giving real explanations for Brautigan's man-on-the-run. That was the one problem with Hearts--we needed more danger. Introducing men from another dimension may not have been the way to go but had there been more tension the film would have resonated more especially when Bobby risked his own safety to save Ted.
It wasn't a glittering weekend for Hollywood as its only wide opening, Glitter, failed to make the Top Ten.
The weekend's biggest success story was Warner Bros.' well attended sneak previews Friday and Saturday night of Castle Rock Entertainment's PG-13 rated drama Hearts in Atlantis, directed by Scott Hicks (Shine) and starring Anthony Hopkins.
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on New York and Washington, several studios decided to pull films from this weekend's release schedule. Two movies that had loomed as strong box office contenders were suddenly seen as having inappropriate content--Warner Bros.' police corruption drama Training Day, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke; and Buena Vista/Touchstone's comedy Big Trouble, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring Tim Allen and Rene Russo.
In the absence of any strong new arrivals, Paramount's PG-13 rated urban appeal drama-comedy Hardball easily held on to first place with an okay ESTIMATED $8.2 million (-13%) at 2,210 theaters (+73 theaters; $3,710 per theater). Its cume is approximately $19.4 million.
Hardball's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in over 500 theaters this weekend.
Directed by Brian Robbins, it stars Keanu Reeves.
"It held up very well," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "Obviously, we're very pleased with it. I think it's the kind of movie, a feel good movie, that [works well because] of everything that's going on right now. It's also a good movie. It plays very well to the audience."
Asked where it's heading, Lewellen replied, "Right now, with this strong a hold I think it's in the $40 million-plus range."
Ticket sales by key films--those grossing $500,000 or more for the weekend--were approximately $52.9 million, down only about 5.6 percent from the comparable weekend last year's total of $56.1 million. The relatively modest drop from last year suggests that moviegoing did not fall dramatically this weekend and that had there been stronger films entering the marketplace, ticket sales would most likely have been up from last year.
In fact, looking back at this weekend last year, the top grossing film then was Columbia's Urban Legends: Final Cut, which opened to only $8.5 million, very much in line with this year's first place Hardball gross of $8.2 million.
Dimension Films' PG-13 thriller The Others rose three pegs to second place in its seventh week, still showing great legs with an ESTIMATED $5.2 million (+13%) at 2,801 theaters (-42 theaters; $1,856 per theater). Others, which cost only $17 million to make, has a cume of approximately $80.2 million, heading for $90 million or more in domestic theaters.
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar, it stars Nicole Kidman.
"In its seventh week it's the highest it's ever been in the Top Ten," David Kaminow, senior vice president, marketing for Dimension's parent company Miramax, said. "We're sneaking Serendipity next weekend both Friday and Saturday and, obviously, we'll sneak [in theaters playing] The Others. So that will help (boost the thriller's cume). $85 million seems ridiculous (as a projection now and $90 million-plus seems more likely)."
Asked about the film's recently increased television advertising, Kaminow explained, "That was kind of always the plan just in terms of looking at the competitive landscape. We came in on Aug. 10 and we knew that if we could get it into the fall we would still have a couple of solid weeks into September before [the arrival of strong new competition]. This [coming] weekend will be the first time it's really going to face [major competition] between the Michael Douglas movie (20th Century Fox and Regency's thriller Don't Say a Word) and Zoolander [from Paramount, directed by and starring Ben Stiller] and Hearts in Atlantis. In the planning process, this was always on course. It, of course, exceeded expectations. But our goal was to keep it going. The way we released it, starting on 1,600 screens and adding 400 more [the next weekend] was really sort of building and building and building. I think it's a nice model [to use but] you have to have the movie to do it with, though, so it doesn't burn itself out."
Kaminow also pointed out that Others' success adds strength to Nicole Kidman's prospects as an Oscar and Golden Globes best actress contender. "It's great for Nicole," he said. "We definitely think she has a campaign ahead of her."
Columbia's PG-13 rated suspense thriller The Glass House fell one rung to third place in its second week with a slower ESTIMATED $4.4 million (-23%) at 1,591 theaters (theater count unchanged; $2,766 per theater). Its cume is approximately $11.7 million.
Directed by Daniel Sackheim, it stars Leelee Sobieski, Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgard.
"It's a nice small movie that has taken advantage of a pretty soft marketplace and looks like it could get to $20 million," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning.
Universal and Miramax's PG-13 rated action adventure acquisition The Musketeer fell one notch to fourth place in its third week with a less rousing ESTIMATED $3.51 million (-36%) at 2,500 theaters (+24 theaters; $1,405 per theater). Musketeer, which Universal picked up for North America for only about $3.75 million, has a cume of approximately $22.6 million, heading for $30 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Peter Hyams, it stars Catherine Deneuve, Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Tim Roth and Justin Chambers.
New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated action comedy blockbuster sequel Rush Hour 2 rose one rung to fifth place in its eighth week with a solid ESTIMATED $3.65 million (-11%) at 2,129 theaters (-137 theaters; $1,714 per theater). Its cume is approximately $215.7 million, heading for $220-225 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Brett Ratner, it stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
"It keeps rolling along," New Line distribution president David Tuckerman said Sunday morning. "This is actually what our game plan was--that it would roll all the way through September."
Asked if the fact that Rush 2 is a comedy is helping it during these troubled times, Tuckerman replied, "I think so. I think that the fact that it's a comedy (is a plus) and you just go in for an hour and a half and have a good time. There's nothing else to think about. It's very simple and very funny. I think there are a lot of people in the country who are interested in not thinking about things."
Tuckerman pointed out that other comedies are also benefiting from the public's desire for escapist entertainment these days: "Rat Race is continuing to play well. And American Pie 2 has continued (doing well). They're still stuck in the Top Ten. It looks like [people] are looking for comedy."
Bel-Air Entertainment's R rated drama Rock Star, distributed by Warner Bros., which was tenth last week, tied for sixth place in its third week. Rock got a big boost from Warners' well attended sneaks Friday and Saturday of Castle Rock Entertainment's Hearts in Atlantis.
Thanks to those sneaks, Rock looked a lot livelier with an ESTIMATED $3.2 million (-6%) at 2,162 theaters (-363 theaters; $1,480 per theater). Its cume is approximately $15.4 million.
Directed by Stephen Herek, it stars Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Aniston.
"We had the best sneaks, I think, in the history of Warner Bros.," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "There were 510 sneaks and we were 85 percent capacity. We had 94 percent in the Top Two boxes (excellent and very good). [The audience was] 53 percent female and 47 percent male. And, of course, Rock Star was the beneficiary of that. Rock Star moved from number ten to [tie for] number six."
Directed by Scott Hicks and written by William Goldman, Hearts stars Anthony Hopkins.
Hearts opens this Friday (Sept. 28). "We had planned to open at 1,200 theaters, but due to the great reaction and response from our campaign--and, by the way, [Warner Bros. creative advertising executive] Jim Fredrick did a great job--we're probably going to be in close to 1,700 theaters now," Fellman said. "We bought the (additional) prints anticipating a good weekend. We're thrilled that it was well attended, but we didn't expect it to be that [exceptionally] strong."
Fellman agreed that it helped that many people were looking for something new to see this weekend. "And they loved it," he noted. "It's a feel good movie. It comes in at the right time."
Focusing on the health of the current marketplace, Fellman pointed out, "The marketplace being only 16 percent behind last year for the 13 pictures we track is an indication that the marketplace is stronger than we [think it is] because the major companies moved pictures away from this period. We were going to open Training Day this weekend and we moved it back. The tracking is huge. What these numbers show is that without any very strong films in the marketplace, people still went to the movies. There was nothing new that opened [wide] this weekend except Glitter."
Sony's Screen Gems label's R rated urban appeal romantic comedy Two Can Play That Game, which was fourth last week, tied for sixth place in its third week with a less playful ESTIMATED $3.2 million (-31%) at 1,308 theaters (+11 theaters; $2,446 per theater). Made for only $6 million, its cume is approximately $18.2 million, heading for the mid-$20 millions in domestic theaters.
Written and directed by Mark Brown, it stars Vivica A. Fox and Anthony Anderson.
Paramount's PG-13 comedy Rat Race rose one rung to eighth place in its sixth week, still showing good legs with an ESTIMATED $3.0 million (-16%) at 2,417 theaters (-78 theaters; $1,241 per theater). Its cume is approximately $51.6 million.
Directed by Jerry Zucker, it stars Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Seth Green, Jon Lovitz, Breckin Meyer and Amy Smart.
Where is Race heading? "Between $55-60 million," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "I think it's got a shot at $60 million."
MGM's Jeepers Creepers, the R rated horror film from the studio's United Artists label, fell one notch to eighth place in its fourth week with a less scary ESTIMATED $2.79 million (-27%) at 2,576 theaters (-271 theaters; $1,083 per theater). Its cume is approximately $33.6 million.
Written and directed by Victor Salva, it stars Gina Phillips, Justin Long, Jonathan Breck and Eileen Brennan.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Universal's R rated youth appeal comedy hit sequel American Pie 2, down two pegs in its seventh week with a less stimulating ESTIMATED $2.65 million (-27%) at 2,117 theaters (-222 theaters; $1,250 per theater). Pie 2, which cost about $30 million to make, has a cume of approximately $139.6 million, heading for $145 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.
This weekend also saw the arrival of 20th Century Fox and Columbia's PG-13 rated musical drama Glitter out of the Top Ten with a tarnished ESTIMATED $2.5 million at 1,202 theaters ($2,080 per theater).
Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall, it stars Mariah Carey.
Fox, which is releasing Glitter domestically, had planned to open it in late August, but delayed its release after Carey suffered what widespread media reports called a breakdown.
Also arriving was 8X Entertainment's PG-13 rated sequel drama Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, which failed to set the world on fire with an ESTIMATED $1.4 million at 315 theaters ($4,350 per theater).
Megiddo, whose ads do not credit a director, stars Michael York and Michael Biehn.
This weekend saw Warner Bros. hold sneak previews of Castle Rock Entertainment's PG-13 rated drama Hearts in Atlantis. For details see comments above by Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman in connection with Rock Star, the film whose theaters were used for the Hearts sneaks.
On the expansion front, this weekend saw MGM's hit comedy Legally Blonde go wider in its 11th week, providing some light entertainment for moviegoers wanting to escape briefly from television news.
The PG-13 comedy's expansion generated a sexy ESTIMATED $1.3 million at 1,304 theaters (+649 theaters; $998 per theater). Its cume is approximately $92.1 million.
Directed by Robert Luketic, it stars Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Victor Garber and Jennifer Coolidge with a special appearance by Raquel Welch.
MGM's release of United Artists' R rated youth appeal comedy Ghost World continued to widen in its tenth week, still holding well with an ESTIMATED $0.38 million (even) at 128 theaters (+26 theaters; $2,916 per theater). Its cume is approximately $4.7 million.
Directed by Terry Swigoff, it stars Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas and Steve Buscemi.
Key films--those grossing more than $500,000--took in approximately $52.92 million, down about 5.6 per cent from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $56.06 million.
This weekend's key film gross was down about 11.06 percent from last weekend of this year, when key films took in approximately $59.5 million.
Last year, Sony's opening week of Urban Legends: Final Cut was first with $8.51 million at 2,539 theaters ($3,350 per theater); and Warner Bros.' opening week of its reissue of The Exorcist was second with $8.18 million at 664 theaters ($12,313 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $15.7 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $13.4 million.