The Weekend Warrior

The Weekend Warrior: Dec. 25 - 28

Source: Edward Douglas
December 23, 2008

Greetings and welcome back to the Weekend Warrior, your weekly guide to the weekend's new movies. Tune in every Tuesday for the latest look at the upcoming weekend, and then check back on Thursday night for final projections based on actual theatre counts.

Updated Predictions and Comparisons -

(All the following are for the four-day weekend from Dec. 25 to 28)

UPDATE: Forgot to mention earlier that John Patrick Shanley's drama Doubt (Miramax) starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymor Hoffman will be expanding into 1,267 theaters on Christmas Day and with many of the returning movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Disney's Bolt losing theatres, it should be able to get into the Top 10. We're redistributing a bit, giving Fox's Marley and Me and Valkyrie a bit more this weekend as they get more theaters for the weekend. Should be a busy weekend regardless.

1. Bedtime Stories (Disney) – $46.3 million N/A (down .5 million)

2. Marley & Me (20th Century Fox) - $28.6 million N/A (up 1.2 million)

3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount) - $21.5 million N/A (up .2 million)

4. Valkyrie (MGM/United Artists) - $17.8 million N/A (up .2 million)

5. Yes Man (Warner Bros.) - $15.5 million -15% (same)

6. The Tale of Despereaux (Universal) - $14.4 million +42% (same)

7. The Spirit (Lionsgate) - $13.8 million N/A (down .5 million)

8. Seven Pounds (Sony) – $12.5 million -16% (down 1 million)

9. Four Christmases (New Line/WB) – $6.0 million -22% (down 1.2 million)

10. Doubt (Miramax) - $5.5 million

Weekend Overview

It's Christmas weekend and what a crazy weekend it's looking to be with five new movies in wide release, all of which will be vying for the normally increased business that comes when schools let out and people are taking long vacations from their jobs. It's the last chance for the box office to rebound after a pitifully slow December where none of the usual sure-fire box office stars have lived up to their normal standards. This will also be the weekend where we see whether the recession has really hurt the movie business as much as some have claimed. All five movies are opening one day earlier on Thursday (Christmas Day proper) and while some will do their biggest business on that day, others should sustain that business over the busy week that follows and well into January.

The one movie that seems almost too good to be true (depending on your perspective) is Adam Sandler starring in his first family comedy Bedtime Stories (Disney). Family audiences are always looking for something to see together over the Christmas holidays, and this could see a similar success as Ben Stiller's own foray into live action family films with Night at the Museum two years ago. While Sandler has a large army of teen and older male fans, this one should do well among his fans who've already started to breed and have kids of their own (shudder) and the Disney name will certainly help this continue Sandler's run of comedy blockbusters, but possibly with more legs over the holidays and with the slower month of January.

The weekend's other PG movie Marley & Me (20th Century Fox) stars Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and a lovable but destructive Labrador. This isn't necessarily your normal dog movie for kids ala Firehouse Dog of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, instead being based on a best-selling non-fiction novel by John Grogan, which will make it a first choice for many older women, particularly dog-lovers, though it might be too serious and adult for younger kids despite the kid-friendly rating. Even so, this could give Sandler a run for his movie, being more of a movie that families with older kids might go see together; it certainly seems innocuous enough to work as a "group choice."

Most of this weekend's male business will be divided among the other three movies, two by fan-favorite film directors and the third by a comic creator going off on his own to make a movie based on his late friend's superhero. The best bet of three of them is probably David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, reuniting him with Brad Pitt, who himself is reunited with his Babel co-star Cate Blanchett. With lots of awards attention and a strong cast, one can expect that this will bring in a lot of Fincher's male fans, as well as the women who might like to see Pitt in this sort of romantic fantasy role... getting younger with every frame. It should fare better than Fincher's last movie, the thriller Zodiac, due to the casting and holiday release, although business will be more spread out with so many choices this weekend.

It may also be the toughest pill to face by Bryan Singer and Tom Cruise's WWII thriller Valkyrie (MGM/United Artists) if anyone who might normally go to see their movie ends up with one of the other choices, but with strong early reviews and a good premise closer to Cruise's The Last Samurai in tone, this should have a decent opening and hold well as others discover it.

Frank Miller's take on comic creator Will Eisner's classic hero The Spirit (Lionsgate) introduces Gabriel Macht as the title character, surrounding him with gorgeous actresses Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson, as he faces his arch-villain played by Samuel L. Jackson, who has been in WAY to many movies this year--this will be his sixth! Fortunately, Jackson does better in this sort of genre fare than in comedies like the recent flop Soul Men, but the movie will be seen more for Miller's stylish direction than any of the cast. Expect some interest among teenagers and comic fans, especially fans of Miller's Sin City, but the movie will likely do the most business on Christmas Day and Friday, plagued by horrible reviews and weak word-of-mouth that will kill any chance for long-term success at the box office expect it to drop out of the Top 10 by New Year's Day.

Also, John Patrick Shanley's play-turned-movie Doubt starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman will expand nationwide into 1,200 theaters, and it should end up just on the outskirts of the Top 10.

This week's "Chosen One" is Joel Hopkins' British rom-com Last Chance Harvey (Overture) starring Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, while next week's would be Good (THINKFilm), a Holocaust drama starring Viggo Mortensen. You can read about both of them below.

Christmas weekend last year was almost the exact opposite of this year as the box office was dominated by returning blockbusters that had opened in previous weeks with Nicolas Cage's National Treasure: Book of Secrets remaining on top with $36 million, followed by Alvin and the Chipmunks with $29 million and Will Smith's I Am Legend with $27.4 million. The big surprise was the indie comedy Juno (Fox Searchlight), starring soon-to-be Oscar nominee Ellen Page, expanding wide into 1,000 theaters and jumping up to fifth place with $10 million with the highest per-theater average in the Top 10. After opening on Christmas Day Tuesday with $9.5 million, the franchise-melding sci-fi sequel Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem (20th Century Fox) grossed just slightly more over its first three-day weekend to end up in sixth place. Family audiences weren't particularly tempted by the FX-driven The Water Horse: The Legend of the Deep (Sony) which opened in eighth place with $9.2 million with a wider release than AVP-R. Ending up just outside the Top 10 was Denzel Washington's second movie as a director, the period drama The Great Debaters (The Weinstein Co.), which opened in 1,171 theaters and brought home $6 million over the weekend after receiving a surprise Golden Globe nomination. The Top 10 grossed $159 million mainly thanks to the returning movies, and as long as a couple of the new movies deliver, this weekend could match that amount.



Bedtime Stories (Disney)
Starring Adam Sandler, Guy Pearce, Keri Russell, Richard Griffiths, Courteney Cox, Lucy Lawless, Teresa Palmer, Russell Brand, Aisha Tyler, Jonathan Pryce
Directed by Adam Shankman (Hairspray, The Pacifier, Cheaper by the Dozen 2); Written by Matt Lopez (Sky High, upcoming Race to Witch Mountain), Tim Herlihy (Mr. Deed, Little Nicky, Big Daddy, The Waterboy, etc.)
Genre: Adventure, Comedy
Rated PG
Tagline: "Whatever they dream up... he has to survive."
Plot Summary: Skeeter Sandler (Adam Sandler) has been asked to take care of his niece and nephew, but when the bedtime stories he reads them start coming true, he tries to use this to help out their family.

Mini-Review: The thought of Disney making a movie with Adam Sandler might send some parents into convulsions just from the very idea, and yet director Adam Shankman, whose worked frequently for the former, has found a suitable way to combine the two seemingly disparate elements in a way that can be enjoyed by kids and at least tolerated by Sandler's older fans. In fact, the movie doesn't steer too far away from the normal Sandler formula even as he tones down his language and the sexual references. Unlike Jim Carrey in last week's "Yes Man," Sandler plays a far more likeable character, closer to his generally tolerable "average Joe" persona, although every once in a while, he goes into one of his usual bouts of hamming it up for the sake of the kids. Most of the plot involves Skeeter using the kids' ability to change reality with their fictional stories to his advantage in trying to get ahead at his hotel job with four main bedtime story sequences, one involving Sandler as a knight, another a Western, a "Star Wars" space opera and a Roman epic. The movie follows a fairly traditional story arc as things happen much as you might expect until Skeeter starts to show that he's not all about himself, by trying to save the kids' school from being destroyed in place of a larger hotel, but it's the imaginative way these bedtime stories are incorporated into Skeeter's everyday life that makes the movie fun. While this high concept premise might not be nearly as clever as some of Sandler's past efforts, at least this movie is better thought out and more developed than something like "Click" and there's more at work than just its premise. For better or worse, the movie has many of the same strengths of story and character as Sandler's other movies, and fortunately, he doesn't have to dumb himself down too much to work for the kiddies. Shankman finds a suitable balance, maintaining what Sandler does best but incorporating some of the physical and bathroom humor that younger kids require, but the humor doesn't seem to be nearly as painstaking an affair as other recent Disney offerings. That's not to say this is Sandler's funniest movie—far from it—and most of the best laughs come from some combination of Russell Brand as a hotel waiter with sleep panic disorder, and a crazy-looking CGI guinea pig named Bugsy. The latter is cute and funny at first but the gag is way overused trying to win over the audience with goofy bits added into every scene. Kerri Russell is cute enough to be convincing as Sandler's usual "meet cute" love interest, although at times, it seems like she's trying too hard to be light and breezy, which isn't as fun as her initial cold reception. On the other hand, the genius casting of Richard Griffiths as the germophobe head of the hotel Mr. Nottingham, and Guy Pearce as his butt-kissing stoolie works quite well, Pearce even having a song and dance number which is so different from the dour roles we've seen in him, it's hard not to be amused. Jaded adults will probably figure out what's going on and where everything is going, but kids will certainly enjoy the ride and how everything is pulled together at the end. Ultimately, "Bedtime Stories" isn't Sandler's best movie, nor is it his worst; it's just perfectly harmless fun that the kids will probably love just a little bit more than their parents. Rating: 7/10

Analysis:

Being that it's Christmas weekend and all kids will be out of school for the next full week, it makes sense that Disney, the top purveyor of family fare, would make a play for that audience with a big budget family film, and what better way to make money then to team with one of the top box office comedy stars who has consistently opened his movies well? At least that's the hopes of this new comedy that sports possibly one of the easiest premises to sell since last week's "Yes Man." After all, kids tend to be very familiar with the concept of bedtime stories and the Disney name on a family comedy that puts Adam Sandler into crazy situations based on them is just something very easy to understand. There's just way too much going for this movie to not take it seriously as a contender for biggest movie of the holiday season.

It's hard to believe that Adam Sandler has never done a family comedy, although some of his movies, like the 2006 movie Click probably brought in younger audiences than his norm. Even more surprising might be the fact that he's only appeared in one previous Christmastime movie, in that case being James L. Brooks' dramedy Spanglish, which was vying for awards at the time. This makes Bedtime Stories an interesting departure for Sandler, whose had tremendous success while remaining in his comfort zone of doing PG-13 movies for 13 to 25 year old males, resulting in nine movies to top $100 million in the past ten years, and three to cross the $150 million mark. It couldn't come at a better time for Sandler, whose popularity seems to be waning in recent years with his last two movies, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and this year's You Don't Mess with the Zohan barely making $100 million over the past two summers. They also both opened softer than his typical $40 million opening guarantee, which could be as much about the premises of those movies as their unwieldy titles. Fortunately, Bedtime Stories also takes Sandler back to the days of Big Daddy, which to date is still his highest-grossing hit, having grossed $163 million.

Doing a Christmastime family comedy could certainly help Sandler's latest find the strength of legs that he hasn't managed with other recent efforts, as well as help him find a new and younger audience, something that's certainly helped fellow comics Ben Stiller and Steve Martin. Stiller's Night at the Museum was an enormous hit two years ago and while it opened with roughly $30 million (low for Sandler, but generally high for Stiller), it went onto make $250 million and be Stiller's second highest-grossing movie. (His top grossing movie Meet the Fockers also opened over the Christmas weekend, just to give you some idea how the holidays boost post-opening box office.)

This is Sandler's first film helmed by Adam Shankman who has had huge family comedy hits including The Pacifier for Disney and zanier comedy fare with Steve Martin such as Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen 2. Most recently, Shankman took his background as a choreographer to helm the hit musical Hairspray, which already has a sequel in the works. Bedtime Stories takes Shankman back to familiar territory for sure, and this movie almost seems like the "best of both worlds" movie (no, not the Miley Cyrus 3D concert movie!) in that it combines a writer who's done Disney movies with one of Sandler's regular writers (Tim Herlihy), who wrote most of Sandler's earlier films.

Sandler often surrounds himself with some strong talent to help bounce his jokes off and while the two kids are his main foils in the movie, he also has British comic Russell Brand, also doing some VERY rare PG-rated material after starring in the raunchy Forgetting Sarah Marshall earlier this year. Sandler always tends to have a love interest in his movies and this time, that role is played by Kerri Russell, the former "Felicity," who co-starred in Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible III as well as in the late Adrien Shelley's Sundance fave Waitress. Other notable actors include Guy Pearce, doing some rare comedy (and a bit of singing to boot), Richard Griffiths from The History Boys and the "Harry Potter" movies, and Lucy "Xena" Lawless playing the main antagonists.

Disney comedies tend to suck, as they play down to the kids and those with lower IQs than the intelligent comedy people have come to expect from the likes of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen. And yet, Disney comedies always find an audience among the families who go to the mall multiplexes on the weekends. The success of low-brow humor possibly could be credited for Sandler's overwhelming success in recent years but a couple years back, Disney had similar success with their motorcycle comedy Wild Hogs, as well as a few years prior with Vin Diesel in The Pacifier, a formula repeated almost as successfully with Dwayne Johnson in last year's The Game Plan. Needless to say, putting a big star in charge of kids is comedy gold (that's subjective) and Disney is not the only ones who've had success with it as Fox found great success with the first Cheaper by the Dozen over the Christmas holiday by putting Steve Martin with a bunch of kids. Even though this is a different movie for Sandler, one has to wonder if the ennui that has plagued fellow comics Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey might affect his ability to open this movie.

Bedtime Stories has a strange problem in that it's not your typical Adam Sandler movie so one can't expect his normal audience of teen and older males to go see this, and most of them will have other things to see this weekend. On the other hand, one can expect the normal Disney family comedy crowd, which is a really huge audience on a school holiday like this one, so this won't be as frontloaded as Sandler's movies normally are either. The movie has the widest release of anything else in theaters currently and it might seem like a safer bet against the returning movies that haven't been faring well.

Even if older guys have other choices, the movie's success probably won't be hindered as much by all the other movies being released in theaters, as few of them cater to all ages and demographics like this one does, instead being more for older audiences. (The only direct competition for younger kids is The Tale of Despereaux but that would probably be a second choice.) With no new movies in wide release next week and little family fare for much of January, one can easily see Sandler have his first movie since Anger Management to top the box office two weeks in a row as well.

Why I Should See It: If you're a fan of Sandler and dumb family comedy than you should be in seventh heaven with this offering.
Why Not: The foul-mouthed Adam Sandler doing a family comedy? Be scared, be very scared.
Projections: $45 to 48 million over the four-day weekend (roughly $11 million on Christmas Day); with very few strong movies for families over the next month, this has a strong chance of becoming one of Sandler's biggest hits, grossing as much as $200 million.

COMPARISONS



Marley & Me (20th Century Fox)
Starring Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Alan Arkin, Eric Dane, Kathleen Turner
Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, "Entourage," "Sex and the City"); Written by Scott Frank (The Interpreter, Minority Report, Get Shorty, Little Man Tate), Donald Roos (Happy Endings, Bounce, Single White Female)
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Canine
Rated PG
Tagline: "Heel the love."
Plot Summary: After getting married, John and Jenny Grogan (Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston) move to Florida where he gets a job at the local paper, and John gets a Labrador puppy to quell the possibility of Jenny wanting kids. He names the dog Marley and he quickly learns what a troublesome mutt he is, chewing and destroying everything, although he continues to be a large part of their life as they raise a family and John gets a lucrative job as a columnist, writing about his family life and Marley's place in it.

Mini-Review: There's something intriguing about writing a book about your average everyday life and it becoming a bestseller, but making a movie about it? Not so much. That's the main hurdle John Grogan's autobiographical novel has to overcome on its way to screen, as we meet the screen version of him and his wife right after their wedding, when they decide to move to the warmer climes of Florida to start their new life. With the addition of a Labrador puppy, the movie is in danger of going into cute overload, but the dog they name Marley soon turns into a nightmare that chews up or destroys everything in their house. Narrated in the first person like Grogan's book, the film covers all of the high and low points in this couple's life from trying to train their unruly dog—the obedience training is certainly a low point for Kathleen Turner—to their decision to have and raise kids. Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston work fine as the leads in this, Wilson suitably charming and witty while Aniston is basically doing the same thing she always does, which means you're enjoyment will rely on your own tolerance for their limited range. On the other hand, Alan Arkin doing what he does best as John's editor helps bring charm to the movie as he makes witty comments about what's been going in their lives. It's hard to believe Wilson as the older Grogan; any man with three kids and such a crazy dog would probably have lost all that perfect blonde hair by the time they've turned 40, but neither Wilson nor Aniston seem to age very much over the course of the film. The movie starts out so fun and whimsical that when things turn dark and dramatic later on—John and Jenny have marital problems as she can't deal with two kids and a large noisy dog—the movie loses all of its fun, and the shift from laughter to tears is so sudden it's jarring. Grogan's story just covers way too much of their life to be cohesive, though it does make it hard not to enjoy at least parts of the movie. Sadly, the movie doesn't spend very much time with Marley as a cute and lovable pup, and the continuity between the looks of the various dogs playing the older Marley isn't particularly consistent; most dog lovers probably won't care. Those thinking of bringing their kids may want to take into consideration that the film does deal with "making babies" and other serious adult issues, and not all of it is appropriate for those under 7 or 8. It's hard not to discuss the movie's shortcomings without spoiling the end, which is essentially the same as the book, but it's handled in such a grim and morbid way in the movie that it's hard to walk away from the movie feeling very good about anything, especially after two hours of fairly generic slice-of-life storytelling. Maybe those who loved the book will appreciate the movie version of "Marley & Me" more, but otherwise, it's just another innocuous character dramedy that might have been handled better if done independently and avoiding the desire to fill every scene with the type of formula humor and drama that seems mandatory in studio movies these days. Rating: 6/10

Analysis:

The movie that seemingly has come from out of nowhere but could end up being this weekend's surprise hit is this new movie based on the 2005 non-fiction book of the same name by John Grogan, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for over thirty weeks and garnered many diehard fans, including women and dog-lovers. The novel "Marley & Me" basically followed the journalist's domestic life with his wife and family and due to its success, it was optioned by Fox 2000, who produced book adaptations for In Her Shoes and The Devil Wears Prada, the latter being a huge breakout hit. That film's director David Frankel has been put in change of bringing Grogan's novel to the screen along with two respected screenwriters, but the real selling point for the movie will be its casting.

The pairing of Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston seems like it could be a sure-fire combination in the same way that teaming Aniston with Wilson's friend Ben Stiller (Along Came Polly) and with Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty) helped those movies. Wilson never really has done a role like this, more often doing quirky comedies rather than ones tinged with drama and romance ala "Marley." It might be just what he needs for his return after the tragic suicide attempt last year that seemed to waylay his career for a year, something that could have hurt his earlier 2008 comedy Drillbit Taylor, which was the actor's lowest opening studio release in some time. In the past, Wilson had strong comedy hits with You, Me and Dupree and Wedding Crashers with Vince Vaughn. Although both of those were raunchier, they did have a significant female audience and Wilson does seem to appeal more to the ladies than guys, which is fine for a movie like this.

Jennifer Aniston on the other hand is clearly loved by millions of women, going back to her days on the hit NBC sitcom "Friends," and she's one of the few TV actresses who has overcome the hurdle of making the transition to films, having great success with the movies mentioned above as well as The Break-Up with Vince Vaughn. Even the weaker romantic comedy Rumor Has It with Kevin Costner, which opened on Christmas weekend three years ago, ended up making $43 million, and certainly, the holiday bump that helped last year's novel-turned-movie P.S. I Love You should have a similar effect on this movie.

Either way, the huge popularity of the book will play just as big a part in the movie's success as the casting of these two bankable stars, and it won't hurt that it's directed by David Frankel, a veteran of HBO comedies like "Entourage" and "Sex and the City," who successfully turned the semi-fictional novel The Devil Wears Prada into an enormous hit for Fox. Then again, two other recent non-fiction-turned-movies haven't fared as well though Jim Carrey's Yes Man didn't bomb nearly as badly as MGM's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, starring Simon Pegg, a few months back. Since this is based on a book meant specifically for women (like "Devil"), there's a better chance of that audience going to see the movie en masse.

The third key ingredient for the movie's success is the fact that it co-stars a lovable (and precocious) pooch and we've already seen how crazy people are for dogs with the success of Disney's Beverly Hills Chihuahua and of course, Puppy Cam! Most dog movies tend to be geared to kids with Fox having moderate success with the book adaptation Because of Winn-Dixie but not so much with last year's bomb Firehouse Dog. Even so, most dog movies are geared towards younger kids and only get women interested who either are doglovers themselves or have kids to take see it. Disney has had a lot of success with their winter releases of Snow Dogs and Eight Below, the latter which dealt with serious issues rather than being a cutesie talking dog movie.

Though you can't tell by Aniston's last Christmas release, women generally tend to go to movies over the holidays more than the rest of the year, which will greatly help this movie bring in a healthy audience in its opening week. The transition of Grogan's story into two children's books, removing the sexual content and adult drama, might have played a part in why Fox decided to go for a PG-rating on this one. Despite that family-friendly rating, this movie isn't necessarily for kids, since Frankel put a lot of that adult content back into the movie. Parents who've read the book might be worried about the sexual content and some of the more adult themes, though it might be one of those movies where women see it together and then if they think it's appropriate, they'll bring the young ones a second time. (But let's face it, there are way too many irresponsible parents out there and they'll bring their kids to R-rated movies, so this would seem fairly tame.)

Fox has been going all out with the marketing trying to bring in both women and families, first pushing the movie based on the adorable dog and the physical gags and then switching to a more typical rom-com commercial, plus they're giving the movie the second widest release of the weekend. Reviews will probably be mixed at best but like Bedtime Stories, the movie may be review-proof. One can expect that this will probably be one of the few movies that entire families can go see together as a family, although it'll still be fighting for screens and audiences with Sandler's movie. Either way, expect a strong second place finish with strong business over the next few weeks.

Why I Should See It: Because Marley as a puppy is soooooo cute! (Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson aren't so bad either.)
Why Not: Cute puppies grow up to be destructive Labradors that chew everything in your house!
Projections: $25 to 28 million over the four-day weekend ($6 to 7 million on Christmas Day) and it should generate enough long-term interest to end up with $80 to 85 million total.

COMPARISONS



The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount)
Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas, Tilda Swinton
Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Zodiac, Panic Room); Written by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Good Shepherd, Munich, Lucky You, The Horse Whisperer, Suspect)
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Rated PG-13
Tagline: "Life isn't measured in minutes, but in moments."
Plot Summary: As a baby, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was different, having been born with all the characteristics of an 80-year-old man, causing his father to leave him on the doorstep of a maid (Taraji P. Henson) who took the baby in. As Benjamin grows older, he actually starts to get younger, something that allows him to see the world differently as he meets all sorts of fascinating characters including Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the pretty red-headed girl who would grow into the woman who loved Benjamin.

Review (Coming Soon!)

Analysis:

Filmmaker David Fincher is back, doing something a little different then some might expect from him after his examination of historic serial killings in Zodiac. This time he's transforming an esoteric short story by author F. Scott Fitzgerald ("The Great Gatsby") into a magical fantasy that's going to be vying heavily in the Oscar race. Based on a script by Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump, the results are closer to that popular crowd-pleasing movie than any of Fincher's earlier films, although it's also based around a very strange premise of a man who gets younger over time, which might not exactly be everyone's cup of tea. Certainly, diehard Fincher fans (and there are a lot of us) will give it a look, as will those looking for something more fantasy-driven without Adam Sandler to ruin it.

Fincher's last movie Zodiac was critically well-received but generally disappointed at the box office, grossing just $33 million, which was only a few million more than his previous movie Panic Room made its opening weekend. Part of that could be attributed to the cast—after all, Robert Downey Jr. wasn't as popular as he is now—but that's partially what makes "Benjamin Button" a potential return to form for Fincher, since he's reunited with Brad Pitt, who starred in the director's highly-acclaimed Se7en ($100 million gross) and Fight Club ($37 million), but who has become a mega-superstar since those days thanks to movies like Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the "Danny Ocean" movies with George Clooney and Matt Damon. Pitt has generally been bouncing between big budget blockbusters and more experimental indie fare like the long-delayed The Assassination of Jesse James.... A few months back, Pitt helped the Coen Brothers have one of their biggest openings when he was once again paired with Clooney for Burn After Reading, and art movies aside, it still feels like Pitt can be a box office draw when put in the right vehicle. It's doubtful this premise is as strong as Mr. & Mrs. Smith which pit Pitt against his future gal pal Angelina Jolie, but many are thinking that this will be Pitt's second Oscar nomination, having already been nominated for Golden Globe, Critics' Choice and SAG awards.

"Benjamin Button" also reunites Pitt with Cate Blanchett, who co-starred with him in the Oscar-nominated 2006 film Babel, but who has made quite a career for herself, having been nominated for five Oscars (including twice last year), already having won a supporting actress award for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator in 2004. Unfortunately, Blanchett hasn't really proven herself to be much of a box office draw outside the big cities with Oscar buzz movies like Notes on a Scandal and Todd Haynes' I'm Not There and Elizabeth: The Golden Age failing to find much of an audience despite Blanchett's critically-hailed performances. Ironicallly, Fincher's flick also stars Tilda Swinton who beat Blanchett last year at the Oscars with her performance in Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton and Taraji P. Henson, the talented actress who co-starred in Craig Brewer's Hustle 'n' Flow, another movie that was nominated for a SAG Ensemble.

With a lot of awards nominations already in play, one can probably expect that "Benjamin Button" will get an Oscar nominations but it's already going into this weekend with a number of Golden Globes and SAG nominations, which could be used to help market the movie, being the only new movie in wide release vying for awards—John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is expanding wide but not into as many theaters. The movie is already on many critics' Top 10 lists for the year, which will generate even more interest among moviegoers trying to find things to see over the weekend.

Paramount is giving the movie a very wide release although it's likely to do better in the bigger cities and college towns than some of the smaller suburban areas where the concept might be too strange, and people might go for something simple. Then again, this is so different from the other offerings that it's likely to be the first choice for older and more discerning moviegoers. Fincher is the type of director who greatly appeals to diehard film buffs, although that crowd tends to be more male. Really, the success of Fincher's latest movie will depend heavily on whether women want to see Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in this sort of romantic fantasy tale, especially if many of them were disappointed by Baz Lurhmann's Australia, and if this can bring in both audiences, it'll be one of the few movies this weekend that isn't weighed more towards one gender. Taking a cue from that movie, Brad PItt and Cate Blanchett both appeared on Oprah's talk show to let women know that they might like this movie more than previous Fincher films.

One big stopping block for this movie making a lot of money opening weekend is the running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes, something that also hurt Australia, though that was generally plagued with negative reviews. (Ironically, Luhrmann is talking about adapting Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," a full-length novel, so we can probably expect that one to be six hours long.) Since there are so many movies in theaters, this will likely only get one screen per site, meaning that it'll be limited to four screenings per day, something that might keep it from doing the type of per-theater averages other movies can expect with the extended holiday weekend.

Why I Should See It: Fincher is one of the greatest living filmmakers and he's created something truly magical with this terrific cast, something well worth the accolades and any awards attention.
Why Not: Not everyone is going to be able to get into the strange premise of a man aging backwards, even if he does eventually turn into Brad Pitt.
Projections: $19 to 22 million over the four-day weekend with $4 to 5 million on Christmas Day, on its way to $65 to 70 million total (more if it starts winning some of the awards it's up for).

COMPARISONS



Valkyrie (MGM/United Artists)
Starring Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Eddie Izzard, Christian Berkel, Terence Stamp
Directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil, X2: X-Men Divided, Superman Returns); Written by Nathan Alexander (debut), Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, The Way of the Gun)
Genre: War, Drama, Action, Thriller
Rated PG-13
Tagline: "Many saw evil. They dared to stop it."
Plot Summary: After being seriously injured in the war in Africa, German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg returns home to Germany, hellbent on overthrowing the Nazi party and along with a group of co-conspirators, they set into motion plans to kill Hitler and throw a coup using the plans outlined in the little-known Operation Valkyrie.

Press Conference with Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer

Review (Coming Soon!)

Analysis:

One of the more interesting offerings this weekend is the first collaboration between actor Tom Cruise and director Bryan Singer, a WWII based suspense thriller told from the German perspective, showing how there were German soldiers who disproved of what Hitler and the Nazis were doing and decided to do something about it. It's kind of a strange premise to sell to Americans who have spent the last 65 years being told by movies that all Germans were bad during WWII. It's one of three movies this month dealing with the second war from the viewpoint of the Germans, although this is a lot more like a war film, having action and suspense, rather than just being a character-driven drama.

Tom Cruise has a lot to prove at this point, especially after buying United Artists and the studio's first movie Lions for Lambs, directed by Robert Redford, bombing last fall despite a strong cast including Meryl Streep. It was a far cry from Cruise's previous box office success where he'd generally open a movie in the $20 to 25 million range and where a $100 million gross was a foregone conclusion. Cruise's second collaboration with Steven Spielberg, a remake of War of the Worlds, was a huge summer blockbuster, becoming Cruise's highest-grossing movie (and second $200 million blockbuster), but a year later, its follow-up Mission: Impossible III opened weaker than the previous installments and made some to start thinking that Cruise's off-screen antics might finally have hurt him with his long-time fanbase. The absolutely dismal showing for Lions for Lambs cemented this impression and it took an almost unrecognizable appearance in long-time friend Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder to get people to start appreciating the mega-superstar once again. Just a few weeks back, Cruise was even nominated for a Golden Globe award, one of the more surprising showings. Surely, Cruise is back but the question is whether people want to see Cruise as a German soldier, not to mention the fact that he spends most of the movie wearing a patch and missing a limb. Cruise delivered as a bad guy in Michael Mann's Collateral and surely, the thought of him as a military man will appeal to those who remember him in Top Gun.

There may be higher hopes for the movie's success since Cruise is teaming with another highly-respected filmmaker, his first time working with Bryan Singer, so most might feel that the results should interesting enough to check out, especially since Singer is getting away from the superhero fare for the first time in eight years. Singer's last movie was the WB attempt to relaunch the Man of Steel in Superman Returns, a movie which grossed $200 million domestically but was seen as a failure only because it was so damn expensive. On the other hand, Singer's two "X-Men" movies are looked upon very favorably as examples of the genre at its finest. Fans of Singer's work tend to be avid movie buffs, which is oddly the same audience that might go see David Fincher's movie. The question is which movie they'd go see first and which might hold the most interest, though "Benjamin Button" certainly has a screen count and a marketing budget advantage.

Fortunately, Cruise doesn't have to carry this one his own, as Singer has surrounded him with one of the finest supporting casts of the weekend including four-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh, two-time Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard and Tom Kretchman, probably one of Germany's foremost actors, who has played far too many Nazis in his time.

The problem is that Valkyrie is another in a long line of Nazi movies this month, an unfortunate coincidence that's been talked about ad nauseum in every newspaper and blog, although this one is very different from the movies that have already hit theaters (The Reader and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) and the ones out next week. It's really more of a thriller in the vein of Steven Spielberg's Munich though MGM has been pushing the few action scenes to make it look like a standard war movie.

The project has a bit more weight around its neck than just Cruise's bad rep, being that it was pushed back then moved around the calendar a few too many times before settling on this busy Christmas date, and it's caused a great deal of skepticism among moviegoers as well as movie critics, especially when MGM decided to essentially hide it and keep it from being considered an awards season contender. Even so, the movie will probably get generally decent reviews, which might peak the interest of those who weren't convinced the movie was worth seeing, but it will really have to win over the guys that might see some of the other movies, since women generally won't be interested in a war story like this.

Why I Should See It: Singer and Cruise have created a riveting suspense thriller unlike any of the WWII movies we've seen, since it's told from a little-seen German perspective.
Why Not: Some people got pretty sick of Tom Cruise a few years back and it'll be hard to convince them that it's time to let it go and give him another chance.
Projections: $16 to 18 million over the four-day holiday weekend with 4 to 5 million on Christmas Day and it probably will be able to bring in roughly $65 to 70 million in total business.

COMPARISONS



The Spirit (Lionsgate)
Starring Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Eva Mendes, Dan Lauria, Paz Vega, Jaime King, Scarlett Johansson, Louis Lombardi, Stana Katic
Written and directed by Frank Miller (creator and co-director of Sin City, creator of 300 graphic novel)
Genre: Action, Superhero, Crime, Adventure
Rated PG-13
Tagline: "My city screams. She is my lover. And I am her spirit."
Plot Summary: After being shot and murdered, police officer Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) returns as The Spirit, a vigilante crimefighter, to help Central City's Commissioner Dolan with the menace of The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his henchman Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson). At the same time, he learns that his childhood sweetheart Sand Serif (Eva Mendes) has returned as a jewel thief who has her own reason for holding onto a vase that the Octopus wants.

Interview with Frank Miller

Review

Analysis:

It's hard to believe that a superhero movie could be the weekend's underdog, especially when you consider that the director of this one is one of the more successful comic book creators of the last quarter century, and the man behind two graphic novels that have been turned into successful movies. Frank Miller co-directed Sin City with Robert Rodriguez and a few years later, Zack Snyder turned Miller's graphic novel 300 into an enormous hit for Warner Bros. Of course, if you read comic books, then Frank Miller really should need no introduction, but he's certainly one of the few that has been able to make the transition from comic books to Hollywood without batting an eye.

For his first movie as a full-on director, he's taken on The Spirit, a character created by his good friend, the late Will Eisner, in the early '40s, shortly after the introduction of Superman and Batman. The Spirit is very much a character who'll be known to long-time comic fans although DC Comics revived the character a few years back for a new series, which might have helped find it a younger audience. Otherwise, very few non-comic readers will know of The Spirit or Eisner for that matter, and they'll have to be swayed by their admiration for Miller's work on those previous two movies.

To play the role of The Spirit, Miller cast the relatively unknown actor Gabriel Macht, who played one of Mandy Moore's love interests in the absolutely abysmal Because I Said So, though few are going to know him beyond this role. On the other hand, his villain The Octopus, is played by Samuel L. Jackson, who has been in six movies this year alone! These range from Jumper in February ($81.7 gross) to the recent bomb Soul Men with Bernie Mac, which barely grossed $12 million. Even so, Jackson would be one of the film's bigger draws, especially among audiences in urban areas who would probably be interested in a movie like this due to its setting. The Octopus' henchwoman Silken Floss is played by the beautiful Scarlett Johannson, a young actress who's generally been hit or miss in recent years, having most recently starred in Woody Allen's critically acclaimed Vicky Cristina Barcelona, her third movie with Allen. Johansson's previous noir experience includes Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia and the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, but she hasn't been able to prove herself as a draw with bigger budget bombs like Michael Bay's The Island.

Miller has derived the movie from one of the classic Spirit stories, that of Sand Serif, who is a femme fatale character to the Spirit, much like Catwoman was to Batman. She's a bad girl, but also she's his former teen love, putting him at odds with himself on whether to kiss her or arrest her. Miller probably couldn't have gotten anyone better than the sexy Eva Mendes, whose previous superhero credentials include playing the love interest in Sony's Ghost Rider opposite Nicolas Cage. Mendes' presence will also help with the urban and inner city crowd that might want to see this movie.

As much as I hate to say it, this is the weak link in a very busy weekend. Originally, the movie was supposed to be released in the winter/spring of '09, giving Miller plenty of time to work on the FX, but it was then decided to move it to one of the busiest Christmas weekends ever, making it harder for the movie to get theaters and screens. The movie has not been received well by those who've seen it, being a visually-driven film that's clearly going to be an acquired taste much like the Wachowskis' Speed Racer. Miller does have the benefits of a stronger name cast, although none of them have really proven that they're box office draws in everything they do.

Even though this is from the creator of "Sin City" and "300," the movie is surprisingly PG-13, which will make it easier for teen and slightly younger guys to go check it out, although not having an R-rating might force Miller fans to question whether it was deliberately softened up. Certainly Lionsgate has never shied away from R-rated fare, but with this one, they clearly are hoping to get the teen male audience who might not be interested in the other movies. Unlike just about every other movie this weekend, this one has absolutely no interest for women, which will greatly limit how much it can bring in, though it will certainly skew younger than the other PG-13 choices as well.

Lionsgate hasn't had much luck with their attempts at comic-based movies with their first "Punisher" movie disappointing a few years ago and then its sequel outright bombing earlier this month. By comparison, The Spirit doesn't even have the Marvel brand name on it, and the sad fact is that Eisner's character just isn't very well known, especially among younger comic readers. The generally older fans of the character and Eisner's work probably won't dig what Miller has done with the material in the movie, which seems geared more towards teens. This is the kind of movie that can do well on Christmas Day and maybe even the day after but word will quickly get around about the movie's problems and the reviews will generally be negative.

Unfortunately, movies like this rely heavily on the fanboys and geeks going out to see it, and they tend to be influenced more by online reviews than anything else, but there's also an audience of fans who don't bother much with reviews and will be enticed by the commercials and Lionsgate's year-long poster campaign, which has been very strong, especially in big cities. These kinds of movies can do well on Christmas day, as seen by Alien vs. Predator - Requiem and Black Christmas, but they're likely to quickly tail off after that, and this is very much a one-weekend wonder if there ever was one.

Why I Should See It: Frank Miller is one of the pioneers in modern-day comics, just as Will Eisner was to the Golden Age of Comics... and lots of sexy half-dressed actresses certainly can't hurt either.
Why Not: Anyone who may be influenced by the early reviews are likely to stay away from seeing this in theaters and will wait until DVD.
Projections: $13 to 15 million over the three-day holiday weekend with $4 to 5 million of that on Christmas Day; It should end up with roughly $30 million total, maybe slightly more.

COMPARISONS



THE CHOSEN ONE:

Last Chance Harvey (Overture Films)
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Eileen Atkins, Richard Schiff, Liane Balaban
Written and directed by Joel Hopkins (Jump Tomorrow)
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Rated PG-13
Tagline: "It's about first loves, last chances and everything in between."
Plot Summary: Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) is a veteran New York jingle writer about to be involuntarily retired when he travels to London to attend his daughter's wedding. Once there, he has trouble reconnecting with his estranged family as he fearfully tries to keep his job. When he misses his flight, he ends up spending time with a 40-something statistician named Kate (Emma Thompson), as the two spend a day of solace walking around London. It opens in New York and L.A. on Thursday, Christmas Day.

Interview with Joel Hopkins

Mini-Review: One doesn't have to know much going into Joel Hopkins' second movie beyond the fact that it features two terrific actors, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who are so well-matched to the material and with each other that one can't help but feel like they're watching something special unfold on screen. While Thompson can rarely do wrong, Hoffman tends to only be as good as the material, and Hopkins has given him a juicy role as Harvey Shine, a meek composer trying to keep his job and reconnect with his estranged daughter, while trying to adjust to being in a foreign country. At the same time, Kate is living her drab life, going on blind dates with younger men and always at her elderly mother's beck and call. After missing each other a few times, you know right away they're destined to meet, and when they do finally come together, that's where the movie really becomes enthralling. The title of the film is used quite literally in this case because Kate does seem to be Harvey's last chance at happiness. With that in mind, Hopkins' influences aren't particularly well hidden as he tries to tell a classic European love story with Richard Curtis' presence looming heavily over it due to the setting. Then again, there are just as many elements one might find in better American indie films, creating an exquisitely unique and honest look at the first stages of romance later in life. Much of that comes from the beautiful simplicity of Hopkins' naturalistic writing, but he also has the benefit of two of the finest living actors whose unquestionable chemistry elevates the material to an even higher class of British rom-com. Hoffman is on fire in this role, delivering a subdued but effective performance, one that's poignant and funny at the same time, much like Jack Nicholson in Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt," and Thompson is right there with him beat for beat, giving a performance that's on par with her previous work. Watching these two perfectly-matched individuals walking and talking along the Thames River is one of the film's great moments, reminding one of Richard Linklater's "Before Sunset." There's also a terrific breakout performance by Liane Balaban as Harvey's daughter that works well. The material might not have worked as well if Hopkins wasn't able to handle it so subtly, including the wedding scenes which are short and sweet compared to the long-form wedding video that was "Rachel Getting Married." Towards the end, he throws in a brief bit of drama, but it doesn't spend too much time dragging the movie's tone down, as it's accompanied by a sparse score that keeps things light and free, without being whimsical or trying too hard to drive the scenes. At times, the movie spins off into classic rom-com fodder and there are a few too many coincidences and cutesy moments at times making it that much more predictable. There's also a fun subplot about Kate's mother and a creepy neighbor, which one will want to stick around for the end credits to see the story resolved. When it comes down to it, this is just a wonderfully romantic movie that you don't have to be in your 40's or older to appreciate and enjoy. It's simply a lovely second film from Hopkins, a really pleasant and touching one that proves that he could very well give Richard Curtis a run for his money if he continues writing such strong material. Rating: 8.5/10

Honorable Mention:

Good (THINKFilm)
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Jason Isaacs, Jodie Whittaker, Mark Strong, Steven Mackintosh, Gemma Jones
Directed by Vicente Amorim (The Middle of the World); Written by John Wrathall (Magic Moments)
Genre: Drama, Holocaust
Unrated
Plot Summary: German literature professor John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) sees his career status in the newly formed Nazi Party increase after he writes a novel advocating euthanasia, not realizing that the material supports the new government's feelings on how to deal with racial purity. Halder's change in fortune seems to coincide with the decrease in status for his Jewish friend Maurice (Jason Isaacs), but it takes too long for Halder to realize what is really happening in the country. Based on the play by C.P. Taylor, it opens in New York and L.A. on Wednesday, December 31.

Interview with Jason Isaacs (Next Week!)

Mini-Review:

Also in Limited Release:

The Secret of the Grain (IFC Films) - Abdellatif Kechiche's prize-winning drama deals with the relationships amongst an Arabic family living in a French port city where the estranged patriarch dreams of opening a fish restaurant on a renovated boat, and in order to convince the financiers, his entire family (including his ex-wife) must band together to help throw a big dinner party for the money men and women. It opens on Wednesday, December 24 at the IFC Center in New York.

Mini-Review:

Theater of War (White Buffalo Entertainment) - Filmmaker John Walter (How to Draw a Bunny) follows the rehearsals and production of Tony Kushner's adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" as it was presented in Central Park starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, while also dealing with the history of the theater piece, Brecht's life and politics, and how the play relates to the current world at war. It opens on Wednesday, December 24 at the Film Forum in New York.

Mini-Review: Hard as it may be to believe, Meryl Streep is absolutely the least interesting thing about this inventive doc that takes an unprecedented look at the staging of a high-profile theater production, as well as a comprehensive look at the life of Bertolt Brecht, leading to his creation of the controversial play about war profiteering. Walter has a lot of thoughtful ideas of what needs to be covered, and he jumps between topics to keep things moving, though at times there's clearly too much going on in the movie for it be fully coherent. Even so, Walter has done a great job recreating the original 1949 production of Brecht's play using photos and audio, then juxtaposing those between the rehearsals and staging of Tony Kushner's modern production. All of the principals involved are interviewed but Walter also talks to experts on theater and Marxism to create a bigger picture of why "Mother Courage” was such an important theater piece both then and now. Some of the interview subjects sound somewhat pretentious in their over-praising of the work, but the film's most fascinating segment covers Brecht being put on trial in America, accused of being a Communist and showing the 1947 footage of him testifying before the Senate. "Mother Courage” was first staged two years later, and its relevance to what's going on in Iraq is eerie, though the film's coverage of 2004 anti-war protests seems dated, redundant and almost unnecessary, since it's been covered so much better in plenty of other docs. After all that build-up, watching Streep on stage performing "Mother Courage” is almost anti-climactic, though it might have been a bigger let-down if Walter didn't include a good chunk of the final production after showing so much of its development. Either way, if you're a fan or student of theater than this film is almost mandatory viewing, not only to see how a high-profile production is staged but also to study the logic and reasoning that went into the decisions behind it. Rating: 7.5/10

Waltz with Bashir (Sony Classics) - Filmmaker Ari Folman used different forms of animation to retell an autobiographical story about his time spent in the Israeli Army fighting in the Lebanon War of the early '80s and how he had repressed memories of the brutal Sabra and Shatila Massacre where 3,000 Palestine men, women and children were slaughtered. It opens in New York and L.A. on Thursday, December 25.

Interview with Ari Folman

Revolutionary Road (Paramount Vantage) - Oscar-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs this adaptation of Richard Yates' 1961 novel reuniting his wife Kate Winslet with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since James Cameron's Titanic. This time, they play Jack and April Wheeler, a New York couple who moves to the suburbs of Connecticut to raise a family and within a number of years, see their dreams and hopes trashed by the realities of life. Let the squabbling begin. The movie opens in select cities on Friday, December 26.

Interview with Kate Winslet

Review

Defiance (Paramount Vantage) - Daniel Craig, Liev Shreiber and Jamie Bell star in Edward (Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai) Zwick's war drama about the three Russian Bielski Brothers who battle against the Nazi invasion while trying to protect the local Jewish population by creating a hidden community within the Eastern European woods. It opens in select cities on Wednesday, December 31, with plans to go wide on January 16.

Mini-Review: Even after all the Holocaust and WWII movies released this season, it's hard to be completely cynical when talking about movies that handle such a serious subject matter, and yet somehow Edward Zwick's attempt at telling one such story relies so much on filmmaking formulas and genre clichés, it's equally hard not to sneer snidely at the epic failure that has resulted. The Bielski brothers are essentially criminals who did a good deed by setting up a makeshift camp where Jewish survivors of the Nazi invasion could be protected, and one major difference from other Holocaust movies is that it makes a big deal about showing how some Jews fought back rather than just complaining or going meekly into the gas chambers. And yet, most of the time in the forest, we watch as the survivors kibbitz and kvetch about their situation, as the three brothers squabble and get into fistfights about how to run the camp before Liev Schreiber goes off to join the Revolution and get more directly involved in the fight against the Germans, and Craig's character starts running the camp in a tyrannical fashion that foreshadows the coming Communism. The performances by the three main actors are sub-standard, so overwrought with drama as they speak in shaky Russian Jewish accents that casually slip in and out with very little consistency. Just as one is adjusting to the film's premise, we get a number of bad scenes, including one on which Craig gives the the type of rousing war speech we've seen in so many war epics... of course, while riding on horseback. Who knows where he got the horse, which we haven't seen anytime up until then, but sadly, the horse is quickly shot for food, guaranteeing no further speeches. Otherwise, the movie is fairly disjointed as it tries to edit in straight war scenes of the Bielskis fighting the Nazis, trying way too hard to offer something for everyone and throwing one flimsy plot development after another into the mix. One can't just have the invading Germans as the bad guys, so the camp is filled with bad Jews who stir things up, and even the Russian Resistance has its own share of anti-Semitism. Of course, all the brothers need to be given love interests and each of them have to go through some sort of ordeal as well as take part in a blatant scene where they're gleefully bathing in a stream. On top of that, we get a father and son who argue as comic relief and a less than subtle message about the importance of brotherhood and unity. All the while, James Newton Howard abuses his string section to the point where his swelling score makes scenes feel more fake than dramatic. Once the movie settles into a groove, there are a few quieter scenes, but the sad fact is that Edward Zwick just isn't a strong enough visionary to tell this story effectively, and the poor dialogue and flagrant overacting wears the viewer out long before it hits the two hour mark. As important as this little-known story about Jewish Resistance during WWII might have been to share, the movie is just one long ridiculous string of moviemaking clichés that prevents the film from having any of the desired impact. Rating: 5.5/10

Cargo 200 (The Disinformation Company) - Taking place in the USSR in 1984, Alexey Balabanov's 11th film is a thriller involving the police investigation of two separate events: the disappearance of the daughter of a high-ranking diplomat and a brutal murder. The festival favorite opens on Friday, January 2 at the Cinema Village in New York.

Mini-Review: Like Michael Haneke's original "Funny Games," this new movie from the veteran Russian filmmaker seems to delight in its ability to be sadistic and cruel, although it's generally ineffective at getting across any real point Balabanov might have been trying to make by setting his thriller during the last days of Communism. After a rather innocuous conversation between two men, a professor and a military man, we see the fiancé of the latter's daughter picking up one of her friends at a disco and bringing her to a remote farm where a drunken Russian brute has already gotten into a fierce debate with the professor we met earlier. From the beginning, the film has a strange look and tone, almost like a '70s B-movie with characters who look like they're stuck in the '50s; once it gets to the farm, it turns into a full-on '70s exploitation flick like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" with the young woman being terrified of the creepy men in the house while the one other woman around tries to protect her. By the time a creepy old man has raped the young girl with a bottle and dragged her off to his remote house to do even worse things to her, your brain will likely have shut down to any potential message that Balabanov was trying to get across about the corrupt Soviet police. The seems to be little sense to the meandering point of view that jumps from one character to the next, never spending enough time with any of them to really make you care. It also fails as any sort of suspense thriller, since we essentially have seen the main villain's crimes as they are perpetrated and even his fate doesn't seem to quite seem satisfying enough compared to some of his previous actions. The villain's identity is somewhat of a twist but Balabanov does nothing to disguise the surprise as the character is introduced so poorly to begin with. Overall, the writing is flat as are the performances but most of the movie seems to be Balabanov trying to be as sadistic as possible merely for shock value. Any good will built up from the intellectual debates about religion or politics earlier in the movie, which might have made this an intelligent and important film, is quickly trashed as soon as it turns into a bad exploitation film. You're likely to leave this movie wondering what you've just watched, as if you've been worse than the poor kidnapped girl. Rating: 5/10



Next week, the Weekend Warrior takes a well-deserved week off, but be back with us in 2 weeks for 2009 (!) when Kate Hudson will take on Anne Hathaway in Bride Wars (20th Century Fox), while director David Goyer (Blade: Trinity) helms the horror film The Unborn (Rogue) and Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson star in the drama based on Bishop T.D. Jakes' Not Easily Broken (Sony/Screen Gems).

Copyright 2008 Edward Douglas




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