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.
Last we visited Ruggsville Texas some naive teens had fallen prey to the Firefly family's underground living-dead chamber only to be slaughtered in dreadfully diverse ways while attempting to escape. Now after finally catching wind of the Firefly's goings-on authorities led by Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) ambush the corpse-crammed farmhouse but only manage to take Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) into custody. Just like cockroaches fleeing light second-generation Fireflys Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and his sister Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon) escape through an underground passageway--but not before warning their dad the carney-faced Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) the homicidal jig is up. Spaulding the owner of the Museum of Monsters and Madmen which doubles as a gas and fried chicken stop arranges to meet the kids at a backwater motel to plot their next move. The fugitive Firefly family continues to kill and pillage while on the lamb from Sheriff Wydell the self-proclaimed "Lord's arm of justice " who is intent on bringing the cruel clan to justice.
The most electrifying entity in Zombie's horror franchise is the crazed Captain Spaulding played in both flicks by veteran B-list actor Haig who ingeniously permeates his character's insanity with an iota of common sense. Underneath that mad PT Barnum face paint rests a man smart enough to run his own business and function within the norms of society. For that we gravitate towards him--and the hopes he will bring an end to slaughter before the sheriff has to. But it is Wydell played by Forsythe (City by the Sea) whom we end up rooting for if not by default even when the God-fearing Elvis-loving lawman turns vigilante. Motivated by grief after the Firefly's killed his brother Forsythe's Wydell is menacing yet unexpectedly empathetic. And while Moseley and Moon--reprising their roles as Otis and the psychotic Baby Firefly respectively--speak volumes here compared to House of 1 000 Corpses both junior Fireflys unfortunately fall victim to the films' zapped character growth.
Zombie demonstrates he knows how to scare and repulse moviegoers but House of 1 000 Corpses and its follow-up have yet to produce any memorable central characters. As evil antagonists the Firefly family--and only recurring characters in both horrors--need to be the folks you root for. Sure Baby Otis and Captain Spaulding are despicable but why not let your audience know what makes them tick? What's their back-story flaws and weaknesses? And why does Tiny (Matthew McGrory) look like that? With his '70s-style cinematography and intriguing storyline Zombie has any horror fan hooked--but even Jason and Michael Myers had pasts that formed their presents. Without adding intensity to the Firefly clan The Devil's Rejects is a one-dimensional tale of slaughter one in which you end of cheering for a Sheriff and religious zealot by default. There's no entertainment value in the torturous killings of the Firefly's victims either--including the traveling rodeo troop (lead by Priscilla Barnes better known as nurse Terri on Three's Company). If we don't identify the motive behind it even one as straightforward as insanity there's no point.
There was little for Hollywood to cheer about this weekend as ticket sales skidded 17 percent from last year and three films opened to modest business.
It was the summer's worst box office weekend compared to last year. The only other down weekend this summer was the weekend of May 31-June 2 when key films dropped a marginal 2.6 percent.
Some insiders speculated Sunday morning that after Wall Street's summer crash Americans just weren't in the right mood this weekend to go out in family groups to have a jolly time at the movies.
"There is a malaise in America and it's impacting on Hollywood," one observer insisted. Although the film industry traditionally does very well during troubled times because it provides a relatively inexpensive form of escape, the present Wall Street crisis has knocked average Americans for a loop as they realize how their retirement plans have plunged in value.
Other insiders, however, countered that the weekend's lackluster grosses really just reflected how moviegoers reacted to the new product arriving in the marketplace.
Stuart Little 2 and Road To Perdition tied for first place with $15.6 million in Sunday's estimates. That horse race will be resolved Monday when final figures are announced.
The Hollywood radar screen had positioned Stuart 2 for a $25 million launch. Columbia said it was encouraged that the sequel, which reportedly cost $110 million, had arrived in line with the $15.0 million opening for first Stuart in 1999.
DreamWorks said it was pleased Road expanded so well in its second weekend and pointed out that its drop of only 29 percent suggested word of mouth is favorable.
Columbia's parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment had cause to celebrate with three films in the Top Five. Besides Stuart 2, Sony's Men In Black II was third with $14.8 million and Mr. Deeds was fifth with $7.3 million. Together Sony's three titles grossed about $38 million, which is roughly a third of the overall marketplace and about 57 percent of the Top Five.
Paramount and Intermedia's submarine drama K-19: The Widowmaker surfaced in shallow fourth place waters to a soggy $12.3 million despite being anchored by superstar Harrison Ford. Insiders had projected that K-19, which was fully financed by Intermedia and reportedly cost in the high $90 millions not counting interest charges, would sail into theaters with as much as $20 million.
The weekend's other wide opening, Warner Bros and Village Roadshow's low budget horror film Eight Legged Freaks, didn't make the Top Five. It crawled into seventh place with an unlucky $6.7 million.
Key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more -- took in $116.3 million versus last year's $140.2 million.
THE TOP TEN
Columbia's PG rated family comedy sequel Stuart Little 2 kicked off in a tie for first place with a hopeful ESTIMATED $15.6 million at 3,255 theaters ($4,793 per theater).
Directed by Rob Minkoff, it stars Geena Davis.
"The first one opened to $15.0 million on Dec. 17, 1999 and did $140 million," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning.
"As I've heard our friends at Disney say so many times and patiently explain about family films, sometimes with a good opening it just keeps getting better because it is a seven day a week business. It's a matter of organizing the family to go and if you've got a picture that people enjoy it plays a very long time."
Asked about projections that had suggested Stuart 2 would open to $25 million, Blake replied, "I think that family films are always hard to predict because it's not a matter of dropping kids off (as it is with) teenagers who make their own plans. It's always subject to the events that are going on for the family, which I think is why it gets spread out a little bit. We're counting on good business straight throughout the week and good holdovers similar to the first one."
Another aspect of the family films business that Disney has experienced over the years is the fact that lower priced tickets for youngsters result in lower grosses than an adult film would have with the same number of admissions. "There's no question (about the effect of lower priced tickets). A lot of little people went to see this show," Blake explained. "Certainly, our audience was families with kids of all ages attending with their parents. This is not a drop off at the mall picture."
In addition, he said, it's a film that is expected to have "great ancillaries (and the original) was one of the best selling titles (in home video) that Sony ever had."
All told, Blake pointed out, "We're pleased with the opening, pleased to be in the same ballpark as the original and hope we have that kind of playability. Our exit polls are even better than the original. We have over 90 percent in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good) and an A-plus CinemaScore.
"And really (it's a film) that not only younger children enjoy, (but) if truth be told, older children once attending enjoy as well. So it really is the perfect film for the whole family. We know that word will keep spreading. I hope it keeps unrolling through the rest of the summer and certainly we expect good mid-week business right off the bat."
As for the overall marketplace, Blake observed, "It's one of the first down weekends (this summer). Everybody got a certain segment, but you didn't have one of those pictures that absolutely got everybody. You had two really high chart openings (last year in Jurassic Park III with nearly $51 million and America's Sweethearts with just over $30 million). As you look ahead, though, you've got three weeks coming of tremendous product -- Austin Powers in Goldmember, Signs and XXX."
DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox's R rated adult appeal drama Road To Perdition, which was second last weekend, went wider and tied for the top spot in its second week with a solid ESTIMATED $15.6 million (-29%) at 2,159 theaters (+363 theaters; $7,225 per theater). Its cume is approximately $47.5 million.
Perdition's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by Sam Mendes, it stars Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law.
"It's a great hold, down 29 percent in a summer where movies drop 40 percent and more from opening weekend -- so it's a fantastic hold," DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp said Sunday morning, adding that word of mouth about the film is "very good."
Looking ahead, Tharp said, "We'll add a few runs this week, not many." As for where Road is heading in domestic theaters, he said, "It's really difficult to tell at this point."
Given Road's mostly favorable reviews, insiders are already talking about it as a likely nominee for Golden Globes and Oscars later this year.
Columbia's PG-13 rated blockbuster sequel Men In Black II slid two pegs to third place in its third week with a still enviable ESTIMATED $15.0 million (-39%) at 3,641 theaters (+30 theaters; $4,120 per theater). Its cume is approximately $158.6 million.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, it stars Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith.
"It continues to add up," Sony's Jeff Blake said. "The drop in the 30-percents at this point shows that this picture really is in it for the long run, as well. I think we certainly have high hopes to get to $200 million and beyond (in domestic theaters)."
Paramount and Intermedia Films' opening of their PG-13 rated Russian submarine drama K-19: The Widowmaker sank in fourth place with a grim ESTIMATED $13.1 million at 2,828 theaters ($4,632 per theater).
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.
"Obviously, we were looking for a little more than this, but if you look at the market overall it's off about 25 to 30 percent versus last week and last year for the same period and I don't really know why," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning.
"Our tracking indicated that we would do maybe $18-20 million on K-19 so I fully expected a $15-20 million opening. If you put another 25 percent on our number, you're going to be right there (where it was expected to open). So it seems to be the market overall. People just didn't come out to the movies for some reason."
Assessing K-19's opening, a competing distributor suggested, "I think they did the best they could. The movie had no playability and they weren't able to market it. They took all the cliche shots of the submarine. They almost hid the fact that (Ford's character) was a Russian. (Moviegoers) just didn't buy him in that role."
Columbia and New Line's PG-13 rated comedy Mr. Deeds held on to fifth place in its fourth week, still showing good legs with an ESTIMATED $7.3 million (-33%) at 2,823 theaters (-416 theaters; $2,586 per theater). Deeds, which was made for only $55 million, has a cume of approximately $107.6 million.
Directed by Steven Brill, it stars Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder.
"We crossed the $100 million mark on Thursday, day 21," Sony's Jeff Blake said. "It's continued good news on Deeds. There's nothing like a summer comedy to really hold in the market. It continues to stay in the Top Five despite the new openings. We're certainly hoping for $125-130 million (in domestic theaters)."
Buena Vista/Touchstone and Spyglass Entertainment's Reign of Fire, a Zanuck Company production, dropped three slots to sixth place in its second week with a less hot ESTIMATED $7.1 million (-54%) at 2,629 theaters (theater count unchanged; $2,695 per theater). Its cume is approximately $29.0 million.
Directed by Rob Bowman, it stars Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale.
Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's PG-13 rated horror film Eight Legged Freaks opened in seventh place to a disappointing ESTIMATED $6.7 million at 2,530 theaters ($2,648 per theater). Its cume after five days is approximately $9.3 million.
Directed by Ellory Elkayem, it stars David Arquette.
"It was a co-venture between us and Village Roadshow," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "It's not a very expensive movie so nobody's going to get hurt. It's a little disappointing for us. The exits were pretty good so we'll just have to wait and see how it plays out."
Miramax's Dimension Films launched its R rated horror sequel Halloween: Resurrection added theaters in its second week but still plummeted four pegs to eighth place with a deadly ESTIMATED $5.4 million (-56%) at 2,094 theaters (+140 theaters; $2,578 per theater). Its cume is approximately $21.8 million.
Directed by Rick Rosenthal, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis.
Buena Vista/Disney's PG rated animated family appeal feature Lilo & Stitch fell two notches to eighth place in its fifth week with quiet ESTIMATED $5.1 million (-36%) at 2,127 theaters (-813 theaters; $2,383 per theater). Its cume is approximately $128.5 million.
Written and directed by Chris Sanders, it was produced by Clark Spencer.
Rounding out the Top Ten was MGM's PG rated family adventure The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, down four pegs in its second week with a soft ESTIMATED $4.8 million (-50%) at 2,525 theaters (theater count unchanged; $1,901 per theater). Its cume is approximately $18.9 million.
Directed by John Stainton, it stars Steve Irwin and Terri Irwin.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Miramax's PG-13 romantic comedy Tadpole to a hopeful ESTIMATED $80,000 at 6 theaters ($13,333 per theater).
Directed by Gary Winick, it stars Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, Bebe Neuwirth and Aaron Stanford.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front this weekend Gold Circle Films and HBO's PG rated romantic comedy hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding added theaters via IFC Films in its 14th week with a strong ESTIMATED $2.5 million (+11%) at 524 theaters (+29 theaters; $4,720 per theater). Its cume is approximately $30.8 million, heading for $40 million or more in domestic theaters.
Directed by Joel Zwick, it stars Nia Vardalos and John Corbett.
Focus Features' R rated romantic comedy Never Again went wider in its second week with a quiet ESTIMATED $54,000 at 35 theaters (+30 theaters; $1,530 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.1 million.
Written, produced and directed by Eric Schaeffer, it stars Jeffrey Tambor and Jill Clayburgh.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $116.28 million, down 17.08 percent from last year when they totaled $140.24 million.
Key films were down about 16.47 percent from the previous weekend of this year when they grossed $139.22 million.
Last year, Universal's opening week of Jurassic Park III was first with $50.77 million at 3,434 theaters ($14,785 per theater); and Columbia's opening week of America's Sweethearts was second with $30.18 million at 3,011 theaters ($10,024 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $81.0 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $31.2 million.
The story of Terri Morgan, a former gang leader who becomes a Catholic nun. The would-be series was to depict Sister Terri's experiences teaching youngsters at a Catholic grammar school. In the pilot episode, Sister Terri attempts to stop a rumble involving her former gang.