The fairly lame holiday season so far is hoping for a bit of a revival in the last month of the year with a number of bigger movies. The fact we’re already looking at a year where neither a “Transformers” movie nor a “Hunger Games” movie have been able to crack $300 million, one can only be dubious that this holiday’s offerings won’t do much better. The weeks leading up to Christmas are notoriously shaky, because so many people are spending their weekends holiday shopping or saving up for presents, and going to the movies sometimes takes a back seat to finishing up work and school before taking a long holiday break.
Director Ridley Scott returns with the biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings (20th Century Fox), based on the Old Testament tale of Moses trying to free the Hebrew slaves belonging to the Pharaoh Ramesses of Egypt, played by Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton respectively, joined by Edgerton’s fellow Australian Ben Mendelsohn and in some of the weirdest casting of the year, Sigourney Weaver and John Turturro. No, Scott, doesn’t have many Jewish or Middle Eastern actors in key roles in his movie about one of the first Middle East conflicts—basically two, Hiam Abbass and Golshifteh Farahani—but it may not matter for those looking for a big FX spectacle based around the same story previously depicted in The Ten Commandments.
Ridley Scott’s recent career has been erratic, to say the least, with some of his bigger movies like 2012’s Prometheus, 2010’s Robin Hood and 2007’s American Gangster being countered by bombs like last year’s The Counselor, Body of Lies and A Good Year, all of whom have had equally poor showings after less-than-great reviews.
One would think that after starring in the global blockbusters that were Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, Christian Bale would be a pretty big deal among moviegoers, but it’s really more about the character and premise he’s playing. Last year, he starred in the crime drama Out of the Furnace, which bombed, but that was followed by David O. Russell’s American Hustle, a substantial holiday hit that opened in limited release but did well on expanding over the holidays, leading to $150 million domestic gross and another Oscar nomination for Bale.
Joel Edgerton has been working for decades as a relative unknown, although he did appear in George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones, but he’s gotten more attention in recent years appearing in films like last year’s Baz Luhrmann hit The Great Gatsby and he has more high profile films on the way.
It’s really about the character and Moses and the story is fairly well known among audiences, especially those of faith, and this year has already seen a number of biblical hits with the success of the History Channel mini-series “The Bible,” which was repackaged into the Fox theatrical release Son of God earlier this year that opened with $25.6 million but only made $59.7 million total domestically, being very frontloaded. Exodus probably has more in common with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, starring regular Scott collaborator Russell Crowe in the title role. That opened with $43.7 million in late March, grossing $101.2 million total, again showing signs of heavy frontloading. These two movies have a number of similarities including an auteur filmmaker tackling the bible (although Scott has had way more box office hits than Aronofsky at this point).
December is a strange time to release this movie since it would make more sense to release it closer to Easter and Passover when the story of Moses is more on people’s minds, probably why Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston almost always airs on television during that time.
Reviews so far haven’t been great and that might prevent the usual cinephile Ridley Scott fans from rushing out to see it, especially since there isn’t nearly as much buzz for this as some of his other movies. It should see a light opening weekend with $25 to 28 million, maybe slightly more, and it’s going to have a big drop going against next week’s “The Hobbit” finale. It may get a big enough bump in the weekend after Christmas to make its way to close to $100 million but it also might fall short.
As a frequent Ridley Scott apologist who has loved or at least appreciated a lot of his movies more than others, it’s disappointing to see him tackle a subject matter I know so well in such a half-assed way. The story of Moses freeing the Jews from Egypt is a classic hero’s story, but the casting is laughably bad at times, and many characters appear for only one or two scenes before disappearing, leaving the focus (as it should be) on Christian Bale’s Moses and Joel Edgerton’s Ramses. Edgerton does a lot more scenery chewing than we’ve seen before, even compared to Bale, but neither actors gives as strong a performance as either Charlton Heston or Yul Brynner in the Cecil DeMille classic. Then there’s also the depiction of God as a temperamental child, which gets points for trying to be original, but man, there’s only so much of Bale arguing with this kid that one can endure without snickering. The film gets a little better during the FX-laden scene of the plagues and even moreso when Rameses finally allows the Hebrews to leave Egypt and we get a much more realistic version of the parting of the Red Sea than we’ve seen before. The exciting action-filled last act just isn’t enough to make up for the first ninety minutes of absolute garbage, and ultimately, this is a forgettable attempt at capitalizing on a renewed interest in the Bible and biblical epics—which is hopefully a trend that has run its course.
Offered as counterprogramming but not really opening wide enough to make much of a mark is Chris Rock’s comedy Top Five (Paramount), which started a bidding war at the Toronto International Film Festival a few months back before being picked up by Paramount for a reported $12.5 million, which is a lot for a festival movie. Rock is joined by the likes of Rosario Dawson, Cedric the Entertainer, JB Smoove, Tracy Morgan and Kevin Hart, as well as some of the new cast of “Saturday Night Live” to create a comedy supergroup of sorts.
Rock hasn’t been that visible in recent years, bouncing between franchises like the animated “Madagascar” and Adam Sandler’s own “Grown-Ups” movies, which uses a similar idea that the more comedians you bring together, the funnier a movie will be… except unlike the “Grown-Ups” movies, Top Five really is funny. He’s surrounded himself with a lot of popular comics with Kevin Hart being particularly hot right now thanks to hits like Ride Along, but one also can’t deny that Cedric the Entertainer has many fans thanks to movies like Barbershop and its sequel and Marlon Wayans’ A Haunted House, the first movie which was a decent sized hit, and having these comics in the movie will add to the audience interested in seeing it.
In fact, it plays like gangbusters with audiences, one of the reasons why Paramount snatched it up, and it’s opening in a time where they haven’t any movies specifically for geared towards African-American audiences, with comedy sequels currently in theaters are already falling away.
Paramount is being smart by releasing the movie very soon after its buzz from Toronto but with just enough time to cut a hilarious trailer and commercials that have played just as well as the raunchy R-rated movie does. This also may be a good time for a comedy targeting that African-American audience because of everything that’s been going on in Missouri and New York that’s been bringing people down, and they may be ready for a bit of escapist laughs that Rock can deliver.
For whatever reason, Paramount is giving this a moderate release into less than a thousand theaters, although that just might be to allow them to expand as other movies give up theaters closer to Christmas. (Paramount has two more wide releases this season with two opening on Christmas Day.) Unfortunately this may also keep Top Five under the $10 million mark this weekend, meaning a third place opening, but word-of-mouth should be great, and we can see it grossing upwards of $50 million by the time it leaves theaters sometime early next year.
This weekend last year, things got a bit screwed up as Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (New Line/WB) came out one week earlier than it did this year and it ended up grossing $73.6 million in 3,903 theaters, down from the opening of the previous installment a year earlier. It ended up grossing $258 million compared to the over $300 million of its predecessor, potentially losing some of the audience after the disappointing first movie. Offered as counter-programming was Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas (Lionsgate) which should have done gangbusters with the holidays coming up and Tyler reprising his popular character, but clearly his audience had moved on as it only made $16 million in 2,194 theaters or $7,300 per theater. That wasn’t Perry’s lowest opening, but it was the lowest opening for a Madea movie although it ended up grossing over $50 million thanks to the upcoming holidays, yet it still didn’t have the type of legs these movies normally do. The Top 10 grossed $138 million, but without a Tolkien movie, this weekend won’t even come close.
This Week’s Predictions –
Here’s a text version of this week’s predictions:
1 Exodus: Gods and Kings (20th Century Fox) $28.1 N/A
2 The Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 1 (Lionsgate) $11.5 -48%
3 Top Five (Paramount) $9.5 N/A
4 The Penguins of Madagascar (DreamWorks/Fox) $6.4 -42%
5 Big Hero 6 (Walt Disney) $5.3 -29%
6 Horrible Bosses 2 (New Line/WB) $4.8 -45%
7 Interstellar (Paramount) $4.2 -46%
8 Dumb and Dumber To (Universal) $2.2 -48%
9 The Theory of Everything (Focus Features)$1.8 -32%
10 Gone Girl (20th Century Fox) $1.0 -29%
The completion of two trilogies with Peter Jackson finishing up his three-part The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (New Line/WB) while Shawn Levy, Ben Stiller and friends wrap up the family trilogy Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (20th Century Fox)—no, we never knew it was meant as a trilogy either. Also, the youngest Oscar nominee ever, Qhvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of a Southern Wild) plays Annie (Sony) in the updated musical, co-starring Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz.
This Week’s Must-Sees
Salt of the Earth (Sony Pictures Classics)
Director: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
Stars: Sebastião Salgado
Of Note: Legendary filmmaker Wim Wenders co-directs this portrait of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado along with his son Juliano, showing how he’s travelled the globe over the past three decades capturing images of situations few people would rarely see otherwise, including the famine in Africa during the ‘80s, the situation in Rwanda in the ‘90s and more. The film gets a one-week release in New York and L.A. on Wednesday for awards consideration but opens for real on March 27, 2015.
I’m not big on photography but there’s no denying that seeing Salgado’s photography in this light really moved me. Wenders begins his film with a photograph taken by Salgado at a Brazilian mine filled with thousands of impoverished workers (see upper left) and from there, it follows his journeys to Africa and war-torn Europe to see all of the death and devastation. Often, the photographer would have to leave his own family behind for months while he’s off travelling the globe, often putting his own life in danger to get some of the most amazing photos, like of the genocide in Rwanda. The last act of the film covers Salgado’s decision to replant the rain forest on his family’s ranch, showing that there are people actually trying to preserve the beautiful nature of Brazil, but this environment turn never feels preachy, and the portrait of Salgado ultimately does paint a picture that’s as powerful as his photographs.
The Captive (A24)
Director: Atom Egoyan
Stars: Rosario Dawson, Ryan Reynolds, Scott Speedman, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Alexia Fast, Bruce Greenwood
Of Note: Canada’s premiere auteur directs another crime-thriller, this one involving a father (Reynolds) whose daughter has gone missing, presumably kidnapped by a child pornography ring as a special investigation unit led by Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman spend years trying to find the girl.
This isn’t the first film by Toronto’s Egoyan that covered a creepy subject matter as the pedophile ring at the center of this kidnapping mystery, but the story is told in a far more riveting way than his recent Devil’s Knot, about the West Memphis Three killings. It’s a little confusing at first trying to figure out what is happening, but what makes it a far more intriguing film and one that keeps you invested is that its non-linear storytelling jumps forwards and backwards in time from before the kidnapping to years later when the special crime unit trying to take the ring down is getting closer. Rosario Dawson is a stand-out in the cast as the woman driven to stopping the pedophiles and rescuing girls from their hands, who ends up becoming a victim herself, while Kevin Durand is so creepy as the head of that ring that it makes your skin crawl (and not in a good way—think of him like you would the Ted Lavine Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs.”) Alexia Fast who plays the teen girl who has been kidnapped is also quite fantastic, although there are aspects to the film that won’t ring true, most notably the criminal’s decision to have a hidden camera on the mother of the kidnapped girl (Mireille Enos) for those on the internet who get a jolly from watching those suffering. (I also have to say that parents with young daughters will not want to see this movie, because there are aspects that are just too disturbing even if it doesn’t show anything.)
Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (Cohen Media Group)
Director: Chuck Workman
Of Note: The life and career of the famed stage and film actor and director are explored in this new documentary, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday.
While Workman’s film is very much a talking heads movie and it covers a lot of territory that any Orson Welles enthusiast will already be aware of, it’s nice to see all that information in one place in a fairly well-structured documentary that covers Welles’ entire career with lots of archival footage of him being interviewed and appearing in various places and footage from some of his unfinished work. This is for true cinephiles only as it’s not a very accessible doc otherwise.
Other Limited Releases of Note:
Inherent Vice (Warner Bros.)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newson
Of Note: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s quirky crime-drama starring Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello, the pot-smoking hippy detective, whose ex-girlfriend mysteriously disappears so he starts looking for her while interacting with all sorts of eccentric local California characters.
As you can tell from the review below, I hated this movie with a passion, but it opens in select cities Friday before expanding in January.
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (Dada Films)
Director: Arthur Allan Seidelman
Stars: Gena Rowlands, Cheyenne Jackson, Julian Sands, Jacki Weaver, Rita Moreno
Of Note: Based on the play of the same name, Rowlands plays a retired woman who hires a dance instructor for private lessons which turns into a friendship.
Free the Nipple (IFC Films)
Director: Lina Esco
Of Note: Although it was made legal over 20 years ago for women to go topless in New York City, the police—i.e. the world’s biggest spoilsports—continue to arrest women who exercise their right to go topless. And it’s still illegal for women to go topless in 37 of the 50 states, so what’s up with that? Apparently, someone decided to make a movie showing the activism to allow women to wear less clothing, which I fully support even though I haven’t actually seen this movie.
We Are the Giant (Music Box Films)
Director: Greg Barker
Of Note: Not quite as intriguing as “Free the Nipple” is this doc about the Arab Spring, a collective of uprisings and protests in a number of Arab nations with the film being made up of portraits of some of the primary activists.
The Color of Time (Starz Digital)
Writer/Directors: Edna Luisa Biesold, Sarah-Violet Bliss, Bruce Thierry Cheung, Gabrielle Demeestere, Alexis Gambis, Brooke Goldfinch, Shripriya Mahesh, Pamela Romanowsky, Tine Thomasen, Shruti Ganguly, Virginia Urreiztieta, Omar Zuniga Hidalgo
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Jessica Chastain, Zach Braff, Bruce Campbell
Of Note: James Franco produces this anthology film about Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams (played by Franco) who struggles to create new work while being haunted by his past. Oddly, it features three of the cast of Franco’s blockbuster Oz the Great and Powerful, so maybe they did this on the off-hours.
After the Fall (eOne Films)
Director: Saar Klein
Stars: Jason Isaacs, Wes Bentley, Vinessa Shaw
Of Note: “American Beauty” star Wes Bentley, who seems to be everywhere these days, stars in this movie about a man who takes on a life of crime after losing his job.
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Copyright 2014 Edward Douglas