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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July 1 marks the halfway point of the movie year, and there is a clear winner among the major Hollywood studios. With the top 3 grossing movies of 2008, Paramount is riding high with both Marvel’s Iron Man and Lucasfilm’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull topping $300M and DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda at $181M now and a cinch for $200M+. The Melrose gang will be the first studio in history with back-to-back-to-back $200M+ grossing movies.
With an estimated $1.054 billion in domestic box office, it will be impossible for anyone to catch Paramount in the market share race for 2008, especially when the studio has 2 sure bets for $100M+ due in the next 6 months. First comes the much buzzed-about DreamWorks comedy Tropic Thunder in August, featuring another standout Robert Downey Jr. performance and a scene-stealing turn by Tom Cruise. Then comes Madagascar 2, also from DreamWorks, in November, which I am hearing very positive reports about.
Paramount is likely to exceed the $1.49 billion in domestic box office it generated last year, and they have an outside shot at surpassing the all-time record $1.71 billion generated by Sony in 2006. To do it, the studio would need Madagascar 2 to be huge and to get help from DreamWorks’ DJ Caruso/Shia LaBeouf re-teaming for Eagle Eye in September, David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in December and perhaps Joe Wright’s follow-up to Atonement, The Soloist, starring Robert Downey Jr. (again), Jamie Foxx and Catherine Keener, which is expected sometime this fall with plenty of Oscar buzz.
The battle is on for the year’s #2 spot, which Fox now holds with almost $650M domestic. Horton Hears a Who ($154M domestic) has led the way for Fox, and the rest of the studio’s year has been comprised of good solid hits like 27 Dresses, starring Katherine Heigl ($76.8M), Doug Liman’s Jumper ($80.15M) and the Ashton Kutcher-Cameron Diaz vehicle What Happens in Vegas ($79M). The always smartly run Fox even managed to wring about $60M out of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening so far.
Meet Dave, starring Eddie Murphy, is Fox’s next release with director Brian Robbins trying to recapture the box office glory of Norbit ($95.6M domestic). If Murphy scores, Fox will have a leg-up on the competition for the year-end 2nd-best market share, although they follow with the animated Space Chimps on July 18 and the long-awaited X-Files sequel on July 25, both of which are viewed as less-than-sure things. The studio’s late year breakout hit candidates include Bill Murray and Tim Robbins in the futuristic City of Ember in October, Baz Luhrman’s highly anticipated Australia at Thanksgiving, a remake of 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (featuring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu) in December and Marley & Me, based on John Grogan’s bestselling memoir and starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, at Christmas.
The surest blockbuster in the second half of 2008 is, without question, The Dark Knight. With $200M all-but-assured for the Christopher Nolan sequel and Get Smart a safe bet to exceed $100M, Warner Bros will have three $100M grossing films (Sex and the City is the 3rd) and one near-miss with Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 B.C., which topped out at $95M domestic. The studio is currently #3 in market share with an estimated $505M in U.S. theaters.
When you consider that Warner Bros still has Star Wars: The Clone Wars due in August, the re-teaming of Diane Lane and Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe in September, Ridley Scott’s House of Lies, based on the excellent David Ignatius CIA thriller Body of Lies and starring Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, in October, and the next Harry Potter installment set for Thanksgiving, Warner Bros is probably the betting favorite to be 2008’s #2 studio.
With $472M banked so far in 2008, you cannot count Sony out of the battle for 2nd place. Although Hancock will be the studio’s first $100M+ hit of 2008, it certainly will not be their last. The year has featured 3 good, solid box office successes with You Don't Mess with the Zohan ($91.67M so far), 21 ($81.15M) and Vantage Point ($72.26M), and the Will Smith superhero film, which opened last night, is a can’t-miss.
Four major blockbusters loom for Sony starting with Step Brothers, starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, on July 25, followed by Judd Apatow’s The Pineapple Express, which will compete with Tropic Thunder for the biggest late-summer hit. (James Franco, who plays a hilarious stoner, could be one of the breakout stars of the year.) The studio will finish the year with the newest James Bond film Quantum of Solace and Will Smith in the Oscar-friendly-but-still-commercial 7 Pounds.
Universal is currently #6 with $447M domestic, but the year is heating up for them. Although the Marvel-financed and -produced Incredible Hulk appears to have stalled out and will finish its domestic run with less than Ang Lee’s version 5 years ago, it still should reach about $130M. Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy, is just beginning what should be a healthy run well above $100M. The studio follows next Friday with Hellboy II, a Guillermo Del Toro sequel to his wildly original 2004 movie Hellboy. The franchise-starter generated a domestic gross of only $59.62M, but the movie found new fans on DVD and cable and Del Toro had a few more dollars to play with this time. If Universal connects with Hellboy II, a streak of five $100M+ grossing films is not out of the question because both Mamma Mia! and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor are good bets to pass that magical threshold.
The end of the year for Universal features a few Oscar contenders, including Flash of Genius and Frost/Nixon, an important prestige film with both Oscar pedigree and some box office upside, Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie, and the animated Tale of Despereaux.
Disney's biggest 2008 hit to-date is The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian with an underwhelming $138M, but Wall-E, after a $60M+ opening weekend, is a game-changer with $250M domestic not out of the question. Disney has generated a total of $475M domestic so far, but its only remaining titles that show blockbuster potential are High School Musical 3 in October, the animated Bolt in November and Adam Sandler's Christmas comedy Bedtime Stories. Because of its strictly limited number of releases, Disney is unlikely to compete for the #2 market share in '08.
Among the 5 studios above, I consider Warner Bros to be the favorite to finish the year with the 2nd-best market share with odds of 5/2. Sony is the next best bet at 7/2 followed by Fox at 6/1, Universal a live underdog at 8/1 and Disney 15/1.
In the tradition of Batman Begins and Casino Royale the clock is rolled back on the legendary icons the D—the self-proclaimed greatest band in the world—as the curtain is pulled back on their secret origins and the demons that drive them are unveiled… OK so it’s not really that deep. Though the heavy metal/comedy combo of Jack/JB/”Jabeles” (Jack Black) and Kyle/KB/”Kage” (Kyle Gass) have long played hip clubs cut an album starred in their own short-lived HBO series and amassed a devoted cult of fans their first feature film reveals how the pudgy duo first meet form the band meet their first fan (Jason Reed as TV holdover Lee) go questing the fabled Pick of Destiny—a shard of Satan’s tooth turned into a guitar pick passed among rock’s most accomplished shredders—and ultimately smack down with the devil himself. Believe it or not it’s a love story. Thanks to their long professional partnership Black and Gass comprise two perfectly crafted sides of a very polished comedy coin: Black is the wild-eyed uncontrolled id Gass is the low-energy manipulative slacker and they meet in the middle with an equal amount of unchecked delusion about their musical ability and potential. They both deftly pull off the trickiest types of comedy: smart jokes in the guise of dumb characters and it’s nice to see Black—obviously the bigger film star of the two—share the funniest bits equally with Gass. Of course all of this hinges on the audience’s tolerance for the ambitiously clueless ego-cases (and moviegoers who only love Black for his tamer version of the same persona in School of Rock should be warned—this is the cruder ruder and more profane incarnation) but we admit we’ve long had a taste for the D. They boys carry they movie squarely on their shoulders though longtime D supporters Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller stand out in cameos—the first Stiller cameo in ages that’s both amusing and non-gratuitous! Also appearing in small bits: SNL’s Fred Armisen and Amy Poehler Oscar-nominee Amy Adams Colin Hanks hard rock hero Ronnie James Dio Foo Fighter Dave Grohl as Satan and an uncredited John C. Reilly though you’ll never ever recognize him when he’s onscreen. And kudos to whoever had the inspired notion to cast Meat Loaf as JB’s pious father and Troy Gentile as the young rockin’ JB (Gentile also played a junior version of Black in Nacho Libre). Helmer Liam Lynch who also collaborated on the screenplay with Black and Gass and directed their music video “Tribute ” understands the absurd world of the D completely and demonstrates a clever assured sense of straight-faced silliness. Indeed the first ten minutes of the film alone—a mini-rock opera in itself—announce him as a comedy director to watch. Although we’re sure the bandmates themselves would take full credit for the film’s success. After all they may not have made the greatest movie in the world but in D-speak they came up with a pretty rockin’ tribute version.