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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Times were hard.
The stock market had crashed. The national unemployment rate hovered around 25%. Banks foreclosed on countless homes and farms. A series of large-scale environmental disasters had disrupted the economic livelihood of whole regions. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the movie fantasies Americans turned to in the 1930s represented an escapist contrast to the hardship facing much of the United States. And there was no greater embodiment of that silver-screen escapism than Fred Astaire. With his top hat, white tie, tails, and cane, Astaire waltzed into moviegoers hearts with the high thread-count, “Putting on the Ritz” charm of movies like Top Hat and Swing Time. A decade later Astaire had given way to low-key crooner Bing Crosby, who was the top box office draw every year from 1944-48 and remains the third highest movie-ticket seller of all time, behind only Clark Gable and John Wayne. The audiences that opened up their pocket books en masse to see Astaire and Crosby thought nothing of the fact that they would spontaneously “break into song” in their films. It was just a convention of the genre, and, more important, an expression of cinematic joy.
In 2012, however, the movie musical is far from its former place as the most popular of Hollywood film genres. The attention given Les Misérables, opening on Christmas Day, is the exception that proves the rule. Today, audiences even complain about the difficulty they have suspending disbelief at the very act of movie characters “breaking into song.” And if something as fundamental as breaking into song is now a dealbreaker, no wonder any given movie year features only one or two musicals, as opposed to the dozens Hollywood used to produce annually. “The reality is that people need to be coaxed toward a musical today,” says Alan Menken, eight-time Oscar winner and composer of Disney’s blockbuster animated musicals from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast to Tangled. “They need to understand why it’s a musical. ‘Do I have to hear people sing their thoughts and feelings? Oh, no!’ And then they end up loving it.”
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That kind of coaxing never used to be necessary at the height of the movie musical in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Is it a cultural shift that explains this change? Ana Perlstein, a musical fan and recent dance major graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, thinks so. “We’ve become too jaded to accept the kind of escapist musicals that the ‘30s provided,” Perlstein says. “People really think, ‘No, you can’t just magically break into song and dance and everything will be okay. The world doesn’t work that way.'”
Then why do we think that when superheroes put on capes, masks, and Spandex “everything will be okay”? Why have boy wizards, hobbits, and Jedi become easier to believe in than people breaking into song? Audiences’ capacity for fantasy remains as strong as ever, but the types of fantasies for which they’re willing to suspend disbelief has changed. The respective evolutions of both the movie musical and the sci-fi/fantasy spectacle explains this phenomenon. As different as both genres are, both have been subject to the advent of “high concept” storytelling. And that pretty much explains exactly why successful movie musicals are few and far between, while sci-fi/fantasy flicks are routinely blockbusters.
There was a time when musicals, on Broadway and in movies, were only about people breaking into song. In the ‘20s, New York’s Ziegfeld Follies never had stories. They were glorified vaudeville acts with an emphasis on sex and spectacle, one-off musical showcases punctuated by two-bit comedy sketches. Early movie musicals like Best Picture Oscar winner The Broadway Melody followed a similar pattern. That all began to change with the debut in 1927 of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat, often considered the first truly story-driven musical, in which the songs advance the narrative and illuminate the characters. It also became the major template for the “integrated musicals” that Hollywood eventually found to be most conducive to its storytelling, musicals that didn’t have spectacle for spectacle’s sake but deployed their songs organically within their narratives. As much of a show-stopper as Agnes DeMille’s dream-sequence ballet is in Oklahoma! it doesn’t stop the show. It reveals fundamental truths about the central character, her thoughts, feelings, fears, and dreams. By narrativizing the musical, people embraced the genre more than ever. They suddenly had characters they could identify with, even if those characters broke out into song, not just chorus lines and showgirls. In a superstar like Fred Astaire the Depression Era audience found a perfectly-tailored embodiment of their own champagne-fizzy fantasies—and lifestyle aspirations.
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This model of musical moviemaking remained more or less in place until the early 1970s, though the “meta musical,” musicals that self-consciously displayed and embraced the artifice of the genre also became popular: movies like Singin’ In the Rain and The Band Wagon that tweaked the genre’s conventions while still expressing the greatest admiration for them. Musicals would become more and more self-aware throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s until they, like sci-fi/fantasy around the same time, veered toward “high concept.” “Most successful musicals today need to attach themselves to something bigger, a concept that will make people feel immediately connected to it,” says Menken, who himself blurred the parameters of the musical and sci-fi/fantasy genres with his score for Little Shop of Horrors, an ‘80s musical based on a ‘60s Roger Corman cheapie about human-eating plants. “Years ago, Howard Ashman [Menken’s lyricist on Little Shop] believed you should be able to say about a musical that ‘This is the blank musical.’ Little Shop is ‘the monster musical.’ Dreamgirls is the ‘Motown girl-group musical.’ People like the form to be ruffled up and reinvented, to be something familiar. But with a twist. And if they understand the concept, if they really get it, the ‘breaking into song barrier’ isn’t that daunting after all. It just depends how strong your storytelling is.”
While recent animated blockbusters have aimed to viewers of all ages starting with fantastical concepts and breathtaking visuals but tackling complex emotional issues along the way Ice Age: Continental Drift is crafted especially for the wee ones — and it works. Venturing back to prehistoric times once again the fourth Ice Age film paints broad strokes on the theme of familial relationships throwing in plenty of physical comedy along the way. The movie isn't that far off from one of the many Land Before Time direct-to-video sequels: not particularly innovative or necessary but harmless thrilling fun for anyone with a sense of humor. Unless they have a particular distaste for wooly mammoths the kids will love it.
Ice Age: Continental Drift continues to snowball its cartoon roster bringing back the original film's trio (Ray Romano as Manny the Mammoth Denis Leary as Diego the Sabertooth Tiger and John Leguizamo as Sid the Sloth) new faces acquired over the course of the franchise (Queen Latifah as Manny's wife Ellie) and a handful of new characters to spice things up everyone from Nicki Minaj as Manny's daughter Steffie to Wanda Sykes as Sid's wily grandma. The whole gang is living a pleasant existence as a herd with Manny's biggest problem being playing overbearing dad to the rebellious daughter. Teen mammoths they always want to go out and play by the waterfall! Whippersnappers.
The main thrust of the film comes when Scratch the Rat (whose silent comedy routines in the vein of Tex Avery/WB cartoons continue to be the series highlight) accidentally cracks the singular continent Pangea into the world we know today. Manny Diego and Sid find themselves stranded on an iceberg once again forced on a road trip journey of survival. The rest of the herd embarks to meet them giving Steffie time to realize the true meaning of friendship with help from her mole pal Louis (Josh Gad).
The ham-handed lessons may drag for those who've passed Kindergarten but Ice Age: Continental Drift is a lot of fun when the main gang crosses paths with a group of villainous pirates. (Back then monkeys rabbits and seals were hitting the high seas together pillaging via boat-shaped icebergs. Obviously.) Quickly Ice Age becomes an old school pirate adventure complete with maritime navigation buried treasure and sword fights. Gut (Peter Dinklage) an evil ape with a deadly... fingernail leads the evil-doers who pose an entertaining threat for the familiar bunch. Jennifer Lopez pops by as Gut's second-in-command Shira the White Tiger and the film's two cats have a chase scene that should rouse even the most apathetic adults. Hearing Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) belt out a pirate shanty may be worth the price of admission alone.
With solid action (that doesn't need the 3D addition) cartoony animation and gags out the wazoo Ice Age: Continental Drift is entertainment to enjoy with the whole family. Revelatory? Not quite. Until we get a feature length silent film of Scratch's acorn pursuit we may never see a "classic" Ice Age film but Continental Drift keeps it together long enough to tell a simple story with delightful flare that should hold attention spans of any length. Massive amounts of sugar not even required.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
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).