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.
Movie audiences weren't afraid of a little blood and gore this weekend; on the contrary, they were compelled to find out who won the ultimate monster battle.
Freddy vs. Jason, which pits A Nightmare of Elm Street's steely-fingered Freddy against Friday the 13th's machete-wielding Jason, simply slaughtered the box office competition, debuting at No. 1 with a head-splittin' $36.4 million* and shoving last week's headliner, the police-drama S.W.A.T., down to second place with $18.6 million.
Combining the two horror franchises turned out to be a brilliant idea, generating more opening box office dollars than either individual series has seen lately. The last Friday the 13th installment, Jason X, debuted in 2002 at $6.6 million, while the last Elm Street chapter, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, opened in 1994 at $6.6 million as well.
"[Freddy vs. Jason] worked because it's a brand new series. It's an original movie with name recognition," Russell Schwartz, head of domestic marketing for New Line Cinema told The Associated Press. "We took it seriously and didn't turn it into Scary Movie. Not that it doesn't have humor, but we didn't want to go too campy."
Oscar-winning Kevin Costner's western saga Open Range premiered at No. 3 with a respectable $14.1 million, making it the second best opener of Costner's last five movies. Only the romantic Message in a Bottle topped Range's figure when it opened in 1999 at $16.7 million. Other recent Costner vehicles haven't fared as well: Dragonfly took $10.2 million, 3,000 Miles to Graceland $7.1 million, Thirteen Days $46,688 and For Love of the Game $13 million.
The body-switching comedy Freaky Friday took fourth place with $13.1 million, while the girl-powered Uptown Girls debuted in the fifth spot with $11.2 million. Other newcomers this week included the skateboarding laffer Grind, which premiered with a measly $2.6 million, and the underground comic book indie American Splendor, which debuted in limited release and took in $156,000.
Overall, box office grosses were up, up, up this weekend, nearly 4 percent from last weekend and a whopping 34 percent from the same weekend last year.
THE TOP TEN
New Line Cinema's R-rated horror fest Freddy vs. Jason spooked its way to the top spot with an ESTIMATED $36.4 million in 3,014 theaters. Its $12,085 per theater average was the highest of any movie playing wide this week.
Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees leaves the cozy confines of Camp Crystal Lake for Elm Street, where he meets his most dangerous adversary yet--A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger. But this town only has room for one slasher.
Directed by Ronny Yu, it stars Robert Englund and Ken Kirzinger.
Sony Pictures' PG-13-rated S.W.A.T. dropped from the top spot to No. 2 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $18.6 million (-50%) in 3,220 theaters (+18 theaters; $5,776 per theater). The film, revolving around a newly trained S.W.A.T. team, has garnered $70 million so far.
Directed by Clark Johnson, it stars Colin Farrell, Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J and Michelle Rodriguez.
Buena Vista's R-rated Open Range moseyed into third place in its opening weekend with an ESTIMATED $14.1 million in 2,075 theaters, taking in an average of $6,795 per theater.
In the film, a posse of "freegrazers"--rogue cowboys who drive their own cattle--runs into trouble in prairie town run by a kingpin rancher.
Directed by and starring Kevin Costner, it also stars Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Diego Luna and Michael Gambon.
Buena Vista's PG-rated Freaky Friday fell a couple of spots to No. 4 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $13.1 million (-41%) in 2,979 theaters (+25 theaters; $4,397 per theater). Its cume is $57.9 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.
MGM's PG-13-rated Uptown Girls giggled all the way to No. 5 in its premiere weekend with an ESTIMATED $11.2 million in 2,495 theaters ($4,489 per theater).
In this riches-to-rags tale, the daughter of a late rock-and-roll star gets a rude awakening when all her money is embezzled and she has to take a job as the nanny to a very uptight 8-year-old girl.
Directed by Boaz Yakin, it stars Brittany Murphy, Dakota Fanning, Donald Faison, Marley Shelton and Heather Locklear.
Buena Vista Pictures' PG-13-rated fantasy actioner Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl collected more booty, slipping to sixth place in its sixth week of release with an ESTIMATED $8.5 million (-35%) at 2,710 theaters (-460 theaters; $3,137 per theater). Its cume is approximately $247.9 million.
Directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, it stars Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
Universal Picture's R-rated comedy American Wedding plummeted four spots to seventh in its third week with an ESTIMATED $8.16 million (-47%) at 2,985 theaters (-210 theaters; $2,735 per theater). Its cume is $80.6 million.
Directed by Jesse Dylan, it stars Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Alyson Hannigan, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Thomas Ian Nicholas.
Universal Pictures' PG-13-rated drama Seabiscuit fell three notches to No. 8 in its fourth week, taking in an ESTIMATED $8.12 million (-32%) in 2,462 theaters (+34 theaters; $3,300 per theater). Its cume is approximately $83 million.
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.
Dimension Films' PG-rated Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over dropped three spots to No. 9 in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $5.2 million (-46%) in 3,003 theaters (-385 theaters; $1,745 per theater). Its cume is approximately $96.8 million.
Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, it stars Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Sylvester Stallone, Salma Hayek and Ricardo Montalban.
Sony Picture's R-rated buddy actioner Bad Boys II continued to move down the list to take 10th place in its fifth week with an ESTIMATED $3.2 million (-47%) at 1,785 theaters (-664 theaters; $1,793 per theater). Its cume is approximately $128.8 million.
Directed by Michael Bay, it stars Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jordi Molla, Gabrielle Union and Peter Stormare.
Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated Grind opened with an ESTIMATED $2.6 million in 2,253 theaters ($1,161 per theater).
Four free-wheelin', skateboarding buddies head cross-country to try to get into a pro-skateboarding demo tour.
Directed by Casey La Scala, it stars Mike Vogel, Adam Brody, Vince Vieluf, Joey Kern and Jennifer Morrison.
Fine Line's R-rated American Splendor debuted in limited release with an ESTIMATED $156,000 in 6 theaters ($26,000 per theater).
In this true story, hospital administrative clerk Harvey Pekar goes from rags to (relative) riches with his homegrown autobiographical comic book series, American Splendor.
Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, it stars Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis and Harvey Pekar.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $132 million, up 33.2 percent from last year's take of $99.1 million. The Top 12 films were also up 3.6 percent from last weekend when they grossed $127.4 million.
Last year's top three included: Sony's PG-13-rated actioner xXx, which stayed in first place its second week in a row with $22.1 million in 3,388 theaters ($6,526 per theater average); Buena Vista's PG-13 rated sci-fi thriller Signs, which held on to second place for two consecutive weeks with $19.3 million at 3,344 theaters ($5,790 per theater average); and Universal Pictures' PG-13-rated Blue Crush which opened in third with $14.1 million in 3,002 theaters ($4,720 per theater).