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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Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.
They ride together. They die together. They conquer the box office together.
The buddy sequel Bad Boys II proved a formidable opponent for an angst-y teen girl, a ship of cursed pirates and a bumbling secret agent at the box office weekend. The shoot 'em up actioner gunned down the competition with a lawful *$46.7 million, defeating the espionage spoof Johnny English, which snuck in at fourth place with a furtive $9.3 million, and the adolescent drama How To Deal, which opened in eighth position with a meager $5.8 million.
Bad Boys II also trounced last week's box office topper, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The swashbuckling tale, however, did not experience the typical second week drop off and continued to sail smoothly with an impressive $33.3 million--down only 29 percent from last week.
But while moviegoers demonstrated they hadn't had their fill of pirates just yet, they certainly weren't interested in learning how to deal. How To Deal failed to strike a chord with teen audiences, and it looks as though star Mandy Moore will find out what happens when the box office "gets turned upside down."
Rounding out the Top Five were the period thriller The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which came in third with $10.1 million, and the sci-fi actioner Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which landed in fifth place with $9.1 million.
THE TOP TEN
Sony Picture's R rated buddy actioner Bad Boys II premiered at the top of the box office with an ESTIMATED take of $46.7 million at 3,186 theaters. Its $14,658 per theater average was the highest of any film playing wide this weekend.
In the sequel, Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett become part of a high-tech task force assigned to stem the flow of designer ecstasy into the city and inadvertently uncover a deadly conspiracy involving a ruthless drug lord.
Directed by Michael Bay, it stars Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jordi Molla, Gabrielle Union and Peter Stormare.
Buena Vista Pictures' PG-13 rated fantasy actioner Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, last week's box office champ, came in second in its second week with an ESTIMATED $33.3 million (-29%) at 3,359 theaters (+90 theaters; $9,914 per theater). Its cume is $132.2 million.
Directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, it stars Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
Twentieth Century Fox's PG-13 rated period thriller The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen fell one spot to third place in its second week with an ESTIMATED $10.1 million (-56%) at 3,002 theaters (unchanged; $3,364 per theater). Its cume is approximately $42.4 million.
Directed by Stephen Norrington, it stars Sean Connery, Naseeruddin Shah, Peta Wilson, Tony Curran, Stuart Townsend, Shane West and Jason Flemyng.
Universal Pictures' PG rated spy spoof Johnny English took fourth place with an ESTIMATED $9.3 million at 2,236 theaters with a $4,159 per theater average.
In the film, the British Secret Service calls upon bumbling secret agent Johnny English when a plan to filch the monarchy's Crown Jewels comes to their attention.
Directed by Peter Howitt, it stars Rowan Atkinson, Natalie Imbruglia, Ben Miller and John Malkovich.
Warner Bros.' R rated sci-fi actioner Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines dropped two places to No. 5 in its third week with an ESTIMATED $9.1 million (-53%) at 3,404 theaters (-100; $2,701 per theater). Its cume is approximately $127.7 million.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow, it stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes and Kristanna Loken.
Buena Vista/Disney and Pixar Animation Studios' G rated computer-animated feature Finding Nemo fell only one spot in its eighth week to sixth place with an ESTIMATED $7.3 million (-14%) at 2,408 theaters (-163 theaters; $2,944 per theater). Its cume is approximately $303.8 million.
Directed and co-written by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, it features the voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe and Brad Garrett.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
MGM's PG-13 rated Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde fell three rungs to seventh in its third week with an ESTIMATED $6.1 million (-49%) at 3,205 theaters (-170 theaters; $1,903 per theater). Its cume is approximately $75.4 million.
Directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, it stars Reese Witherspoon, Sally Field, Regina King, Bob Newhart and Jennifer Coolidge.
New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated drama How To Deal debuted disappointingly in eighth place with an ESTIMATED $2.5 million at 2,319 theaters with a $2,501 per theater average.
Based on a combination of two young adult romance novels by Sarah Dessen (Someone Like You and That Summer), the film revolves around a teenage girl who doesn't believe in storybook romance--until she meets the right guy.
Directed by Clare Kilner, it stars Mandy Moore, Trent Ford, Alexandra Holden, Allison Janney and Peter Gallagher.
Sony Picture's PG-13 rated Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle dropped three places to ninth in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $3.7 million (-48%) at 2,261 theaters (-941 theaters; $1,636 per theater). Its cume is approximately $89.1 million.
Directed by McG, it stars Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Bernie Mac.
Fox Searchlight's R rated sci-fi thriller 28 Days Later dropped one place to round out the Top Ten in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $2.5 million (-40%) at 1,310 theaters (-86 theaters; $1,947 per theater). Its cume is approximately $33.4 million.
Directed by Danny Boyle, it stars Cillian Murphy, Naomi Harris, Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns.
Miramax's R rated crime drama Dirty Pretty Things opened in five theaters this weekend and took in an ESTIMATED $101,000 with a strong $20,200 per theater average.
In the film, a kind-hearted Nigerian doctor who works at a seedy West London hotel finds a human heart in one of the toilets and uncovers something far more sinister than just a common crime.
Directed by Stephen Frears, it stars Chewitil Ejiofor, Sergi Lopez and AudreyTautou.
Fox Searchlight's R rated musical comedy Garage Days, meanwhile, opened in 23 theaters and took in an ESTIMATED $21,160 with a $920 per theater average.
The film is a coming-of-age comedy about a young Sydney band trying to get a foothold in the competitive world of rock n' roll.
Directed by Alex Proyas, it stars Kick Gurry, Maya Stange, Pia Miranda and Chris Sadrinna.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $137.6 million, up a whopping 33.63 percent from last year's take of $102.9 million. The Top 12 films were also up .58 percent from last weekend when they grossed $136.8 million.
Last year, DreamWorks' R rated drama Road to Perdition topped the box office in its second week of release with $15.4 million at 2,159 theaters (+326 theaters; $7,139 per theater average), Sony's G rated Stuart Little 2 debuted in the No. 2 position with $15.1 million at 3,225 theaters with a $4,644 per theater average and Sony's PG-13 rated Men in Black II followed in third place in its third week with $14.5 million at 3,641 theaters ((+30; $3,997 per theater).