The Weekend Warrior: July 11 – 13

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.

As we hit what might be one of the slower July weekends, we have a couple real nail biters, the big one being for first place this weekend, as Guillermo del Toro’s superhero sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Universal) will be trying to get past last week’s victor, Will Smith’s Hancock, which did very well last weekend despite its lukewarm reception. While “Hellboy II” doesn’t have nearly the star power of other recent superhero flicks, it should be able to capitalize on del Toro’s increased Q-rating following the Oscar wins for his last movie and the announcement that he’ll be directing The Hobbit. That should be enough to get it close to the $30 million mark, as older males and the comic crowd should help it open bigger than the original movie did four years ago, but it does have competition for other groups this weekend that might keep it from beating Smith even if it wins on Friday. (Frankly, it’s way too close to call without knowing whether Universal will be opening this in more than 3,000 theaters.)

The other two new movies will both be trying to bring in families and kids, and it’s really a tough call which might do better, even though both movies have their pluses and minuses. The stronger movie for kids and families in suburban areas should be the adventure movie based on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (New Line/Warner Bros.) starring Brendan Fraser. What shoud push over the edge is that it will be opening in roughly 800 digital 3D theaters, which will likely be the preferred way for families with small kids to go see it, although it might have a harder time with skeptical teens and older audiences.

Granted, Eddie Murphy has starred in movies that looked stupider than the sci-fi comedy Meet Dave (20th Century Fox), which reteams him with his Norbit director Brian Robbins. The chances of it repeating Norbit‘s success is as doubtful as the movie doing as poorly as The Adventures of Pluto Nash, the biggest bomb of Murphy’s career, although it may not capitalize on the added bump Murphy received from his last few movies. Even though it’s being sold as a kids’ movie, this one could bring in African American audiences, both teens and older folks, that might not be as interested in the other two movies, so it may give “Journey” a run for fourth place even while losing some of its potential audience to the other two movies.

This weekend has seen a lot of big hits including the original Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and the first Fantastic Four, but the three movies might be fighting for too much of the same audience which should break up the business into three pieces, with “Hellboy II” getting a slightly larger chunk of it.

(UPDATE: Not much has changed since Tuesday except it’s a bit clearer that Hellboy II will take the top spot, since it will be playing in over 3,200 theaters, but otherwise, this will be a fairly slow weekend for the summer with it being the only movie to make over $20 million and next week will be all about The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia!, which means it will be the last chance to see some of the movies currently in theaters.)

This week’s “Chosen One” is Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (THINKFilm), the Sundance hit which gets a limited theatrical release after airing on HBO last month. You can read about that here.

Updated Predictions -

1. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Universal) – $30.7 million N/A (up .4 million)

2. Hancock (Sony) – $28.3 million -55% (down 1.1 million)

3. WALL•E (Pixar/Disney) – $20.0 million -38% (up .5 million)

4. Journey to the Center of the Earth (New Line) – $18.8 million N/A (down .4 million)

5. Meet Dave (20th Century Fox) – $15.6 million N/A (same)

6. Wanted (Universal) – $9.4 million -53% (up .2 million)

7. Get Smart (Warner Bros.) – $6.3 million -43% (same)

8. Kung Fu Panda (DreamWorks Animation) – $4.5 million -39% (down .1 millin)

9. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount) – $2.4 million -38% (down .1 million, up one spot)

10. The Incredible Hulk (Marvel/Universal) – $2.3 million -51% (down .3 million and one spot)

Last year, the weekend after the Fourth of July saw the release of the fifth “Harry Potter” movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Warner Bros.), continuing the darker trajectory of the series with the second PG-13 rating, but this time, Warner Bros. released the movie early on a Wednesday with the added bonus of exclusive 3D footage for those who paid extra to see it in IMAX. Opening in over 4,200 theaters, “Order of the Phoenix” grossed $44.2 million on Wednesday, the fifth-biggest opening day for a movie ever and biggest Wednesday opening. It dropped heavily on Thursday with just $18.3 million but then picked up on Friday, adding another $77.1 million over the three-day weekend and roughly $140 million its first five days. The only other new movie that weekend was the long-delayed horror flick Captivity starring Elisha Cuthbert, which missed the Top 10 altogether with just over a million dollars in 1,061 theaters. The Top 10 grossed $169 million and this might be the first weekend in over a month where that amount might not be exceeded even with three new movies.


In this week’s Battle Cry, we’re looking at this summer’s superhero sequels and whether they possibly could live up to the expectations of their predecessors or in some cases, surpass the disappointment from the original movies.

Let’s face it, there’s been a lot of great, good, bad and dismal superhero movies in the last eight years since X-Men relaunched the genre and proved that movies based on comic book characters could bring in more than just the dwindling comic book fans. (Incidentally, comic book sales have increased greatly in the past eight years after a dismal ’90s downturn that many thought would see the end of the hobby.)

Already this summer we saw Marvel Studios’ The Incredible Hulk get generally better reviews and word-of-mouth than its predecessor, and yet, it made less its opening weekend than the original Ang Lee Hulk and that’s five years later with higher ticket prices. It also doesn’t seem to be holding onto moviegoers with so many other comic book and superhero movies coming out. Also this summer, we’ve seen two unequivocal superhero success stories that should see sequels in the next few years (Iron Man and Wanted) with the potential for a third franchise with Hancock‘s success this past weekend.

In the next two weeks, we have two more superhero sequels, each coming into the summer under very different circumstances, but both hoping to surpass the previous installments both in quality and at the box office. This week, we have Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army and next week is the big one (and I do mean BIG), Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and going by early reviews, both have already succeeded on the former, yet one has to wonder if this means both will be more successful than their predecessors. One thing they both share is that they’re opening after many weeks of comic book and superhero movies, making one wonder if there’s already some burnout going on in the minds of moviegoers who might be tiring of so many similar genre movies.

“Hellboy II” is an interesting case because, like The Incredible Hulk, it’s being produced by a different company and a sequel was made despite the questionable box office success of the first movie and perceived demand for a second movie. While the original Hellboy got great reviews across the board and did moderately well considering the lesser-known character and cast, it still grossed only a little more than twice its opening weekend in theaters and barely made back its production budget. The original movie wasn’t perceived as a success and you’ll find few people who’ll put it in their Top 5 or even 10 superhero movies of all time, and yet, it did well enough on DVD to convince Universal to finance and release the sequel. (We’ll talk a lot more about “Hellboy II” below in case you didn’t figure it out.)

The Dark Knight has a lot more going for it, possibly because the original movie Batman Begins was generally beloved among most moviegoers, and the sequel has the biggest buzz of any movie this summer since Iron Man. That’s not only among comic book and action movie fans, because the shocking death of Heath Ledger earlier this year has generated a lot more interest in Christopher Nolan’s sequel among women and older audiences who might not normally care about a superhero movie. Its predecessor Batman Begins made $205 million three years ago after what some considered a weak $73 million five-day opening, and the fact that it was the second-highest grossing of the franchise since the original movie was down-played by the fact that ticket prices had increased greatly in the 15 years since the first movie.

The question is whether The Dark Knight could possibly do what sequels like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and The Matrix Reloaded have been able to do by creating so much anticipation and buzz going into opening weekend that it opens much MUCH bigger than the previous movie. The latter seems like a pretty good comparison because the original “Matrix” only grossed $172 million in theaters and yet the sequel made $134 million in its FIRST FOUR DAYS. That’s 78% of the total gross in one weekend, and a lot of that can be credited to the amazing success the first movie had on DVD in the four years before the sequel. One assumes that like Hellboy, Batman Begins found a lot more eyes on DVD and cable once it left theaters, although it probably didn’t make as much money as the first “Pirates” movie, which was popular enough for the sequel to make $135 million in its first three days, nearly twice what the original movie made in its first five days.

There’s certainly a lot of buzz and anticipation for both movies, much of it bursting at the seams after a series of screenings in L.A. last weekend, not to mention Warner Bros. incessant viral marketing campaign that has created a rabid fanbase for the sequel. The Dark Knight certainly looks much darker than many of the other PG-13 superhero movies currently in theaters, so it won’t be one of those movies you can necessarily bring the kiddies to. (That may have been one of the issues that kept the first movie from going too far past the $200 million mark. While it had sufficient legs from word-of-mouth, it wasn’t able to bring in the extended family audience into theaters it could have if it was lighter.) Certainly, “Hellboy II” has that over The Dark Knight, because it’s lighter and certainly more appropriate for pre-teens, but it also has plenty of competition for younger audiences this weekend.

In a couple weeks, we’ll know whether these two movies lived up to the expectations and whether we’ll see some new footnotes for the box office history books, although it certainly seems like “Hellboy II’s” placement in between Hancock and The Dark Knight might make it hard for anyone besides diehard comic fans and Guillermo del Toro’s growing fanbase to get excited enough to see it in theaters, but we’ll know soon enough.

(Incidentally, you can read my Hellboy II review below, and my special early review of The Dark Knight here.)


Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Universal)
Starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss, Seth MacFarlane, Anna Walton, Brian Steele, Roy Dotrice, John Hurt
Written and Directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Blade II, Hellboy, The Devil’s Backbone, Mimic)
Genre: Action, Fantasy, Thriller
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “Believe It or Not He’s the Good Guy”
Plot Summary: Thousands of years after the crown of the Troll kingdom has been split into three parts to prevent the resurrection of the murderous Golden Army, the formerly exiled elf Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) discovers that his segment is being sold in a New York auction house. After recovering it, Nuada attempts to retrieve the other two pieces, one from his father, the Troll King, and the other from his twin sister Prince Nuala (Anna Walton). With the truce between the trolls and humans destroyed and New York in chaos, Hellboy (Ron Perlman), Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) with their new B.P.R.D. partner Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth McFarlane) must face Prince Nuada’s creatures and stop him from setting the Golden Army loose against mankind.

Mini-Review: This stunning sequel is not just a vast improvement over its predecessor, but the quality on almost every level is almost night and day with a stronger story and better writing, leading to better-developed characters and acting. More importantly, the movie features some of the most mind-blowing creature and FX work we’ve seen this summer. This might be somewhat hard to believe as the film starts with a flashback to Hellboy’s youth where he’s told a bedtime story about the Golden Army from John Hurt’s Professor Broome, a “Lord of the Rings” like prequel recreated using primitive puppetry and stop motion animation. This odd choice might put some people off, but it’s merely a tease of what’s to come later. Having only made “Pan’s Labyrinth” since the last Hellboy movie, one really has to wonder what del Toro was able to come away from that experience that informed this one, because he’s created an action movie that sits well alongside bigger epics like the “Harry Potter” and “Star Wars” movies, and yes, even “The Lord of the Rings.”

While much of that comes from the impressive production design, the movie really belongs to del Toro regulars, Ron Perlman, Doug Jones and Luke Goss, who bring their A-game to a genre that might not be taken as seriously by more established actors. Perlman gives his best performance since “City of Lost Children,” making you completely forget that he’s in tons of make-up and red bodypaint, allowing more myriad sides to Hellboy’s personality to come through. The same goes for Abe Sapien (now voiced by Jones, who also appears as other creatures), and Goss is equally fantastic as the vile Prince Nuada, and his martial arts skills during the various fight scenes are incredibly impressive. By comparison, the women in the story, Selma Blair’s Liz Sherman and Anna Walton’s Prince Nuala, are not quite as strong, usually being involved in the few places where the film lulls while it develops their relationships with Hellboy and Abe, which leads to some genuine silliness–Hellboy and Abe singing Barry Manilow is funny for about a minute before it gets tired. Then there’s the brilliant new addition to the B.P.R.D., Johann Krauss, a favorite from the comics who’s not just a fishbowl filled with ectoplasmic smoke thanks to the genius voice casting of “Family Guy” creator Seth McFarlane, who gives what might have been a frightening and imposing character an unexpected degree of wit and charm.

It’s that attention to detail in the creature design that leaves a lasting impression, whether it’s the nasty little carnivorous Tooth Fairies or the flying mechanical hand of Mr. Wink, and even the Mos Eisley-inspired inhabitants of the Troll Market, who are almost overshadowed by the giant Elemental that Hellboy faces. All of the creatures are far better developed than the original movie with the blending of CG, on-set make-up, props and production design being so fluid you really believe you’re watching these fantastic creatures inhabiting our world. The fact that del Toro is able to keep the tone of the film light and whimsical amidst such darkness is impressive, although it gives the sequel an air of “Men In Black” with all of the creatures faced by the B.P.R.D., but what creatures they are! Clearly, this is a movie that could only come from the mind of del Toro, adding a much bigger scope and creating a sequel that’s vast and epic.

There’s a lot of ideas that keep the movie going at a fairly rapid pace with only a few lulls, and the storytelling only stumbles in a few places like explaining why Luke Goss’ Nuada might want to unleash the Golden Army in the first place–telling so much backstory in the first ten minutes really doesn’t give enough time for the viewer to get acclimated before hitting them with a lot of exposition. Even so, for the doubters questioning the cinematic viability of the character after seeing the first movie, those doubts should be dispelled forever with this fun and entertaining sequel. It also makes it blatantly obvious that “The Hobbit” has been left in more than capable hands. Rating: 8.5/10

Roughly four years ago, a very different superhero movie showed up in theaters starring an enigmatic character named “Hellboy.” Who knows how many people who saw the movie knew that it was based on a Dark Horse comic book character created almost a decade earlier by artist Mike Mignola, and that he had a fairly rich publishing history since then. What generated a lot of attention was the fact the movie was directed by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who was enjoying the benefits of coming off his biggest movie to date, the superhero sequel Blade II which far exceeded expectations and the box office of its predecessor a few years earlier. Del Toro used that success to shepherd his passion project through a studio system that was basking from the interest in superhero movies thanks to the $400 million made by Spider-Man and the success of other genre flicks.

Despite stellar reviews (79% on Rotten Tomatoes!), the movie only opened with $23 million, losing some important business to the Rock’s action-thriller Walking Tall that weekend. It ended up grossing about $59 million, just shy of its $60 million production budget. The movie ended up making another $40 million internationally, but it wasn’t exactly seen as a huge success or a classic in the superhero genre, so a sequel seemed unlikely. A couple things happened since then, the first being the success the movie found on DVD and the second being a smaller budget Spanish movie called Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s magnum opus which received rave reviews, ended up on many critics’ year-end Top 10 lists, and was nominated for numerous Oscars, winning three. This gave the dark R-rated fantasy a lot more attention than it might have otherwise and helped it become one of the most successful Spanish language films ever released in the United States, grossing almost $38 million after a strong nationwide expansion in early ’07. That amount was quite an amazing jump from del Toro’s previous Spanish language movie The Devil’s Backbone and it helped increase del Toro’s fans beyond his comic book and genre work.

As much as “Hellboy II” is “the new movie from Guillermo del Toro” with the added respect from the success of “Pan’s,” the sequel still suffers from one of the same problems as the original in that there are no real box office stars. Ron Perlman reprises the role of “Big Red,” rejoined by Selma Blair as Hellboy’s gal Liz Sherman and creature performer Doug Jones returns as Abe Sapien and plays a couple other creatures. Perlman hasn’t really done much to capitalize on the success of the first “Hellboy,” maybe because he was covered in so much make-up, ironically much like his earliest gig, playing the Beast in the television drama “Beauty and the Beast,” a popular cult show for three seasons during the late ’80s. Perlman would go on to become an in-demand character actor as well as a del Toro regular, going back to his first movie Cronos, and Perlman has probably done more voicework for superhero cartoons than any other actor. (It’s true! Check out his IMDb listing!) Unfortunately, Perlman still isn’t very well known among the public at large, which may be why most of his public appearances have been in character as Hellboy.

Genre fans have shown a lot of love for Doug Jones in recent years due to the fantastic creatures he played in Pan’s Labyrinth, but he’s appeared in many other genre films like Men in Black II, Doom and The Time Machine, as well as bringing the Silver Surfer to life in last year’s Fantastic Four sequel. Jones’ return as Abe Sapien is more notable for the fact that this time, he’s providing the voice, whereas in the first movie, Abe’s voice was provided by David Hyde Pierce from “Frasier.” Selma Blair has appeared in lots of smaller indie movies–her role in John Waters’ A Dirty Shame is quite eye-opening!–and she’s only been in a few big studio movies apart from the “Hellboy” movies, including the Screen Gems remake of The Fog in 2005 and some of her early breakout roles in Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde, both with Reese Witherspoon, who went on to have a much stronger career than Blair. Luke Goss is another returnee from a previous del Toro film, having played the baddie in his previous comic book sequel Blade II but his female counterpart Anna Walton is fairly new and unknown.

What’s interesting about this sequel is that it wasn’t produced by Revolution Studios or distributed by Sony like the first movie, as Universal stepped in to finance it, and they’re giving the movie a more confident summer release than Sony gave Hellboy. The big question this weekend is whether “Hellboy II” can defy the recent trend of superhero sequels not doing as well as their predecessors as seen by The Incredible Hulk and last year’s FF sequel. Sure, we can take ticket price inflation and the sequel’s summer opening into account, both things that should help “HBII” open bigger. The question is whether there were enough fans of the first movie who feel that a sequel was necessary. The original movie received a 6.7 out of 10 in IMDb User Ratings, which isn’t too bad. (It’s better than both the first Hulk and FF movies, although it’s also with roughly 10,000 fewer votes, showing that fewer people saw it.) One big difference between Hellboy and other comic book movies that have come out in the past few years (except Wanted) is that it’s based on a lesser-known third string character, one that hasn’t built up a reputation among non-comic readers from live action and animated television shows like some of Marvel and DC’s big characters.

Since the release of the first movie, there have been a number of animated movies produced by Del Toro, released straight-to-DVD, which probably weren’t as widely-seen as Marvel’s Saturday morning cartoons but they certainly could help maintain interest and build anticipation for the sequel among the fans. There’s also a good chance that the sequel will not only appeal to fans of the comic book but also to those who enjoy fantasy films, and what might really give the movie an added bump is the recent announcement that Guillermo del Toro would be directing The Hobbit with executive producer Peter Jackson overseeing it. The “Lord of the Rings” franchise has a huge and avid fanbase who might go check out “Hellboy II” to see if del Toro is up to their standards.

Already, the movie has been getting glowing reviews, even better than the first Hellboy, which was generally praised. After Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro probably can do no wrong among critics and moviegoers, so fans of his previous movies will be out opening weekend for this one. There are a lot of new Guillermo del Toro fans out there on top of his already burgeoning fanbase and in theory, “Hellboy II” should appeal to a fairly wide demographic from younger teens to older adults, though it does have some strong competition for younger kids from both Journey to the Center of the Earth and Meet Dave, both light-hearted genre fare that could have a similar appeal even if both have their own issues. (You can read about those below.) Despite a huge marketing push by Sony for the first movie, it didn’t do much to stir moviegoers’ fancy and many waited until the DVD release, which may be the case once again, especially with that competition for younger audiences.

While Universal has been focusing a lot of their money on their other big summer movies, they have released some interesting and innovative commercials for the movie, creating a synergy by putting Hellboy into spots based on NBCUni shows like “American Gladiators” and “Inside the Actors’ Studio.” They’re fairly clever and really stand out, although they should be able to sell the movie based on the action and creatures rather than having to take what seems somewhat like a desperate approach.

It’s really hard to gauge how moviegoers, especially non-comic fans, will accept another comic book based movie at this point after a month full of them. Opening between Hancock and next week’s anticipated The Dark Knight will make it hard for “Hellboy II” to stand out. The main battle for the movie is trying to tackle Hancock in its second weekend to take the top spot. Although the Will Smith movie has not been received as well as his last movie, it’s still more likely to bring in audiences familiar with his work, and one has to wonder whether “Hellboy II” will have the same pull with urban audiences as it will with white guys between the ages of 15 and 30, who’ll be all over this. (Presumably, del Toro will have fans in the Latin/Mexican communities in bigger cities that might see the movie?)

Still, there should be enough interest among del Toro’s fans and fans of the genre for it to open better than the first movie, probably somewhere in the $30 million range. It may be a hollow victory though, because however well or poorly it does, it will get killed by the release of The Dark Knight next week and The X-Files the week after, so it’s really all or nothing to bring in the most business possible in its first weekend.

Why I Should See It: Guillermo del Toro gets another chance at Mike Mignola’s demonic hero and this time, he and his cast are clearly firing on all cylinders.
Why Not: Even four years later, do people have any reason to want to see a movie about a character called “Hellboy”?
Projections: $28 to 31 million opening weekend and roughly $80 to 85 million total.

COMPARISONS


Journey to the Center of the Earth (New Line/Warner Bros.)
Starring Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, Seth Meyers
Directed by Eric Brevig (directorial debut of visual FX supervisor for Michael Bay, M. Night Shyamalan and James Cameron); Written by Michael Weiss (The Butterfly Effect 2, Octopus, Octopus 2, Disaster), Jennifer Flackett & Mark Levin (Little Manhattan, Nim’s Island)
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
Rated PG
Tagline: “Same Planet. Different World.”
Plot Summary: Geologist Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) has been following his missing brother’s studies about the possibility of a world underneath the earth’s crust, and when he’s left in charge of his teen nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson), Trevor finds a breakthrough that takes the two of them to Iceland, where a pretty tour guide (Anita Briem) leads them on the adventure of a lifetime.

Mini-Review: It’s hard to believe that someone would be able create a fun update on a literary classic like “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and capture all of the excitement and wonder that it must have generated back in its day. After all, so much has changed in the world in the 140 years since it was written that one couldn’t imagine Jules Verne’s vision translating well. That’s why it’s more than a pleasant surprise that the creators of this family adventure have figured out a way to do it in a highly entertaining way. Essentially, FX specialist Eric Brevig has created a movie that’s funny and exciting and even poignant at times, one that captures the sense of wonder that Disney brought to their live action adventure movies of the ’60s and ’70s, classics like “Swiss Family Robinson” and “The Apple Dumpling Gang” but bringing them into the 21st Century. What makes this work more than anything is the pairing of the three main actors, their terrific chemistry and the way they deal with every situation, which keep things interesting. While Fraser has been hit or miss in some of his family films, his ability to play an average Joe works well against Josh Hutcherson’s teen cynicism. The real find of the movie is Anita Brien, a perky Icelandic actress who creates a surprisingly sweet love triangle between the three that creates a sense of one-upmanship that never gets tiring. She’s also quite nice to look at, which should keep the dads happy while their kids gush at all the creatures and cool things they see. Sure, it’s not perfect as a movie with a fair amount of silliness that even kids might scoff at, like the cell phone that mysteriously gets a signal at the earth’s core, and at times, the CG effects look fake despite (or maybe due to) the 3D. That said, the incredible CG environments really make you believe you’re in Pangea, and the entire film is such a fun experience from the mine cart ride to the underwater ocean that it’s easy to forgive minor issues and problems and just enjoy the ride. There are so few family films that can really appeal to everyone in the family, and this is an amazing adventure for both kids and adults who refuse to grow up, one that absolutely MUST be seen in 3D! Rating: 8/10

Interview with Director Eric Brevig

Interview with Anita Brien (Coming Soon!)

What might be seen as this weekend’s underdog but one that has the potential of being a breakout sleeper hit is this adaptation and updating of Jules Verne’s 1864 literary classic Journey to the Center of the Earth, a book that some saw as one of the earliest examples of fantasy and science fiction literature with its amazing story of a journey to the planet’s very core. The modern day version of the story was produced by Walden Media with New Line, but what makes it interesting is that it’s the first live action feature to be filmed entirely using RealD 3D technology that we’ve only seen used in animated movies like last year’s Beowulf and Disney’s Meet the Robinsons. It’s also the directorial debut of Eric Brevig, a long time FX specialist and second unit director, who’s most notable movies include The Abyss, Pearl Harbor and The Day After Tomorrow, and who has a lot to prove with this movie.

Walden Media previously tackled Jules Verne’s work in 2004 with their version of Around the World in 80 Days pairing then mostly-unknown Steve Coogan with the then-hot Jackie Chan. It was a notoriously famous bomb for the fledgling production company, grossing just $24 million against a production budget over $100 million. (One key issue that’s been rectified with “Journey” is that the latter is set in the present day rather than being a period piece.) Walden followed that up with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe with Disney, which was a huge hit, but otherwise, they’ve been spotty at the box office at best with bombs like last year’s The Seeker and their previous New Line collaboration Hoot. Two other interesting comparisons are the effects-laden 2002 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the following year, there was The Core, which was also about traveling to the center of the earth. Both movies were scheduled to be released in the summer but were delayed until March to rework effects, but H.G. Wells’ movie brought in a lot more viewers opening weekend ($22 million’s worth), showing that there’s something to be said about namebrand recognition from a well known story.

Fortunately, this time, Walden has help from actor Brendan Fraser, who came on board to produce as well as star in the movie. Granted, Fraser’s career has been up and down over the past few years but Journey to the Center of the Earth marks his return to big-budget summer action movies for the first time since The Mummy Returns set a new non-holiday opening record when it kicked off the summer of ’01. Fraser’s career began fairly young, starring in movies like Encino Man and School Ties by the time he was 25. Fraser’s big hit was a family film, as he became the cartoon character George of the Jungle, a character that most teens who were kids in the ’90s will remember him as, and Fraser followed that with a remake of The Mummy, which kicked off the summer of ’99 with an impressive number, grossing $155 million, and leading to an even bigger sequel The Mummy Returns two years later. Oddly, the success of the “Mummy” movies and “George” haven’t translated into Fraser’s other forays into family films, Dudley Do-Right (also based on a cartoon) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (co-starring cartoons), both which bombed horribly. Maybe that’s why in recent years, Fraser has been doing more dramatic films like The Quiet American with Michael Caine to the Oscar-winning ensemble drama Crash from Paul Haggis, not too surprising considering Fraser’s 1998 appearance in the Oscar-nominated Gods and Monsters. “Journey” marks Fraser’s return to big budget summer action and FX movies for the first time since The Mummy Returns, and this movie will very much be an appetizer for that franchise’s return next month with the third “Mummy” film. While Fraser’s presence in “Journey” may not be something that kids will care about one way or the other, he’s certainly someone that older moviegoers either love or hate – something that could either help or hurt the movie.

Besides being joined by hot new Icelandic beauty Anita Brien, who fathers will appreciate for her tight outfits, Fraser is also joined by Josh Hutcherson, who is becoming a young actor on the rise after starring in the little-seen but critically praised family film Little Manhattan and Jon Favreau’s adaptation of Zathura, which also didn’t fare very well. He did star in Walden’s other non-Narnia hit Bridge to Terabithia last year, and he’s becoming popular enough among young girls that they could be more interested to see him. He also has a starring role in the upcoming Cirque du Freak movie, which is also based on a book.

Chances are that younger readers may or may not be familiar with Verne’s novel because it’s not exactly the kind of book that’s been kept as mandatory reading and it might seem somewhat outdated compared to some of the more recent children’s fantasy like “Harry Potter” and “Spiderwick.” Parents might be more familiar with the original source material, but it probably won’t matter because the commercials do a good job selling it as a modern family adventure like the kind Disney often releases. A big selling point will certainly be the fact that the movie is in 3D, something that greatly helped Robert Rodriguez’s 3-quel Spy Kids 3D: Game Over and less so The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl. That was a different kind of 3D though, and the RealD technology used for “Journey” is more in line with that used for Miley Cyrus & Hanna Montana: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour, which was one of the highest opening movies in less than 1,000 theaters thanks to the limited release into roughly 850 digital 3D theaters. “Journey” is getting slightly more than that, plus Warner Bros. (who picked it up with the recent New Line merger) is releasing it into roughly 2,000 non-3D theaters as well. Originally, the movie was only meant to go into Digital 3D theaters but that plan was scuppered when it was realized there wasn’t enough.

Still, “Journey” should be a viable option for younger audiences from “Hellboy II” and the new Eddie Murphy movie Meet Dave (see below), although the latter will certainly try to win some of them away with its PG rating. Unfortunately, cynical older audiences might see the movie’s 3D as some kind of gimmick and might not be so interested, especially since the effects might not stack up to other summer movies. Also, Disney/Pixar’s WALL•E is still doing very well, even if it hasn’t really caught on as well with younger kids as it has with adults. Journey to the Center of the Earth got a really big push from New Line at the ShoWest exhibitors’ convention and Warner Bros. has generally picked up the reins and been pushing the movie as well, but at this point, it’s all about whether people who go see it like it enough to tell their friends, because it’s the kind of fun family movie that could do well based on word-of-mouth ala Pirates of the Caribbean.

Why I Should See It: This fun and exciting family adventure is even cooler when seen in 3D. This could definitely be the summer’s sleeper movie as people find it while looking for other movies to see.
Why Not: For some reason, it’s hard to imagine Jules Verne stacking up to the likes of Mike Mignola, Will Smith or Pixar.
Projections: $18 to 20 million opening weekend on its way to roughly $55 to 60 million.

COMPARISONS


Meet Dave (20th Century Fox)
Starring Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy, Elizabeth Banks, Gabrielle Union, Ed Helms, Judah Friedlander, Pat Kilbane
Directed by Brian Robbins (Norbit, The Shaggy Dog, The Perfect Score, Hard Ball, Ready to Rumble); Written by Rob Greenberg (writer of “Frasier” and “How I Met Your Mother”), Bill Corbett (Writer of “Mystery Science Theater 3000″)
Genre: Comedy, Science Fiction
Rated PG
Tagline: “Eddie Murphy in Eddie Murphy in…”
Plot Summary: When a crew of tiny aliens crash land on Earth in a spaceship that looks exactly like a human being, they try to fit in with other humans by pretending to be a man named Dave Ming Chang (Eddie Murphy), but their plans go awry as their ship becomes smitten with an Earth woman (Elizabeth Banks).

The movie that’s going to try its best to completely screw up the chances for the other two movies to open big is this new high concept sci-fi comedy from Eddie Murphy that hopes to find a similar success as Murphy’s 2007 comedy Norbit, or some of his many successful PG-rated family flicks that opened in summers past.

Eddie Murphy has had an interesting career, which we won’t recap in its entirety in fear of giving our editor a premature coronary embolism. Starting with his career as a popular member of the cast of “Saturday Night Live” and going through his successful action-comedy franchise “Beverly Hills Cop,” Murphy immediately found popularity among black and white audiences alike, but he found a new niche in his bag of tricks when he starred as Doctor Dolittle ten years ago, a high concept family film where he could hear what animals around him were saying. (Kind of like Look Who’s Talkin’ with animals.) It proved very popular with family audiences grossing nearly $300 million worldwide just two years after his remake of The Nutty Professor found similar success. Murphy’s success among family audiences continued with the sequel Doctor Dolittle 2 but by then, Murphy had voiced what may be his most popular character to date, Donkey from Shrek, which led to Murphy charging over $10 million to voice the two blockbuster sequels, both which grossed over $300 million. Even so, Murphy’s live action non-family career started to take a bit of a downturn after the “turn of the century” with back-to-back bombs including Showtime with Robert De Niro and I Spy. During this period, Murphy also had his biggest bomb, the sci-fi comedy The Adventures of Pluto Nash, which reportedly cost $100 million to make and ended up grossing just $4.4 million in total in the summer of ’02.

It took Murphy’s return to family films with Daddy Day Care and The Haunted Mansion for him to return to his previous success, and the continued success of Shrek probably helped Murphy be taken more seriously when he co-starred in the musical Dreamgirls and get nominated for an Oscar. Despite being the frontrunner, some thought he lost because of the proximity of the awards to the release of Norbit, a grossout comedy that built upon the popularity of Murphy playing multiple characters in the same film. Not surprisingly, Norbit became Murphy’s biggest opening non-family movie since The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, in which he ALSO played multiple characters.

Meet Dave seems to be somewhere between those movies and his family films, and it reteams Murphy with Brian Robbins, the director of Norbit, who’s quite a renaissance man in Hollywood, having gotten his start playing Eric on the sitcom “Head of the Class” before going onto direct sports movies like Varsity Blues, Hard Ball and Ready to Rumble and the 2006 Disney remake of The Shaggy Dog starring Tim Allen. The movie also co-stars Elizabeth Banks and Gabrielle Union, but let’s face it, any Eddie Murphy movie is all and only about Eddie Murphy, right?

Sci-fi comedy can be a tough sell, but one reason why so many movies have been made in the genre can be traced back to the success of Will Smith’s Men in Black over ten years ago, which led many studios to try and produce similar comedies. (Hey, that’s how Hollywood works! If someone has a hit, you gotta find something that can capitalize on that success.) Tim Allen’s Galaxy Quest did decently over the holidays back in 2000, but Evolution, a big budget sci-fi comedy from Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) was a memorable summer bomb that didn’t deliver despite a hard sell marketing campaign. Unfortunately, Murphy’s biggest bomb was also in this genre, and some might immediately lump Meet Dave in with The Adventures of Pluto Nash because of their similar genre.

While some might feel that Murphy’s latest looks silly or stupid, it has the kind of fun premise that offers similar possibilities as Disney’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kid and sci-fi classics like The Incredible Shrinking Man. Frankly, the movie’s title sucks and it’s the worst thing going for it, because it tells you nothing about the movie whatsoever. For the longest time, Murphy’s latest was called “Starship Dave” which is much cooler and more descriptive. Certainly kids might still fall for it because there’s something neat about little aliens living inside a giant Eddie Murphy, at least that’s what Fox is hoping, although adults generally will have little to no interest and Journey to the Center of the Earth might seem more like something that can appeal to the entire family over the weekend.

With Murphy on board, there’s a good chance that this high concept comedy could appeal to the same urban and teen audience who flocked to see the Wayans Brothers in their dumb comedies White Chicks and Little Man, both which were shockingly successful. Unless you’re in the African American community, it’s hard to gauge how much of Eddie Murphy’s appeal might make this interesting, although it’s not exactly quite on par with the level of humor that comes from putting him in drag ala Norbit (or other urban comedy hits like Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma’s House and Tyler Perry’s movies). Wisely, Fox has started marketing the movie more to kids than the earlier advertisements, but that might turn off any teens who might have interested beforehand.

While Murphy’s starpower is clearly at a peak and he should be able to bring in people who don’t often go to the movies, one telltale sign of a possible dog is that the movie is not being screened for critics until two days before opening, maybe because 20th Century Fox knows that most of them will tear into this one like it’s a free buffet and wisely, they know that the movie will do even worse if it’s gets trashed the way Myers’ The Love Guru was a couple weeks back. Come Sunday, Murphy might be learning a hard lesson that his “Shrek” co-star Mike Myers recently learned, that you can’t just put yourself in a stupid-looking movie and expect that everyone who went to see your last previous movies will show up for this one. Still, it’s hard to judge what kids might want to see, and there’s something kind of silly about this “little people” premise that could appeal to kids as much or more than Journey to the Center of the Earth, although one can expect that parents will probably prefer taking their kids to the latter.

Why I Should See It: It’s kind of an interesting and original premise for sure, one that will allow Murphy to do his thing and get lots of laughs.
Why Not: Coming from the makers of Norbit you gotta wonder if this will be any better than that.
Projections: $15 to 18 million opening weekend and $40 to 45 million total.

COMPARISONS


THE CHOSEN ONE:

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (THINKFilm)
Starring Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow, Samantha Geimer, Roger Gunson, Michael Caine, Dick Cavett
Directed by Marina Zenovich
Genre: Documentary
Not Rated
Tagline: “The truth couldn’t fit in the headlines.”
Plot Summary: Marina Zenovich’s amazing documentary about the rise and fall of Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski after being arrester for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

Those who haven’t followed movies or the industry for more than a couple decades may know the name Roman Polanski more from his reputation than from his movies, a situation that resurfaced when he was nominated and eventually won his first Oscar for The Pianist in 2003, a Oscar that he wasn’t on hand to receive because of the outstanding warrant for an incident that happened over 30 years ago. This intriguing documentary covers some of Polanski’s history and his legacy in filmmaking as well as the tragic murder of his wife Sharon Tate, but most of it’s included to frame the 1977 arrest and court trial accusing Polanski of statutory rape with a 13-year-old girl, a case that’s still open and pending after Polanski exiled himself to France, unable to return to Hollywood. One can’t help but appreciate the irony of the old interview with Polanski that kicks the movie off with him talking about the “injustices in Hollywood”, referring to the themes of his Oscar-winning movie Chinatown. Sadly, the movie only includes interviews with Polanski done in the past, because a newer interview with Polanski might have done wonders to answer many questions people still have about what happened. Otherwise, the film’s comprehensive look at the court case has tons of interviews with the lawyers and law enforcement officials involved, including the actual victim, who has long since absolved Polanski for his actions and took part willingly in the making of the film. While there isn’t any footage from the court trial—these were different times—it does use testimony from Polanski and his victim to narrate terrific archival news footage of the mayhem that surrounded the case. Polanski has been judged by the media for three decades without anyone knowing what really happened, but the interviews in this doc give a far clearer picture of what was going on behind the scenes of the case then anything captured by the news cameras at the time. (It’s amazing how well everyone remembers what happened, despite it taking place thirty years ago.) Zenovich’s film is obviously biased towards Polanski and goes out of its way to paint a bad picture of the corrupt and camera-happy Judge Rittenband, who passed away years ago leaving far too many questions unanswered. This is a doc that’s likely to be somewhat controversial, especially with the small changes made to the ending due to new information that’s arisen since the film’s Sundance premiere. However you feel about what Polanski did, there’s little denying that this film is an amazing piece of investigative journalism and a documentary not to be missed by anyone interested in this legendary filmmaker and the long-standing rumors about his arrest. The movie does well in separating the facts from the gossip. After debuting on HBO last month, this fascinating doc will get a limited theatrical release starting in New York on Friday and L.A. on July 18 with plans to open in other cities later in the month.

Honorable Mention:

Death Defying Acts (Third Rail Releasing)
Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Saoirse Ronan
Directed by Gillian Armstrong (Charlotte Gray, Little Women, Starstruck, Oscar and Lucinda); Written by Tony Grisoni (Tideland, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Brothers of the Head), Brian Ward (The Interpreter)
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “There is no escape.”
Plot Summary: The legendary escape artist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) arrives in Edinburgh offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who could contact his dead mother and local “psychic” con artist Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) accepts the challenge with help from her young daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan). When Houdini falls for Mary’s charms, it’s obvious that she’ll have to tell him the truth about her con.

Gillian Armstrong’s first dramatic feature in six years will open in New York and L.A. on Friday.

Mini-Review: There’s something uniquely special about the way Gillian Armstrong set this fictional romance within the last days of escape artist Harry Houdini, played here with great panache and charm by Guy Pearce. On the surface, it treads similar ground as other period films set in the world of magic like “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige”, but it’s able to maintain a fairly light tone despite being one of the heavier times in Houdini’s life following the death of his mother. That’s not to say this could ever be deemed any sort of “biopic” because it only focuses on this one piece of fiction during Houdini’s visit to Edinburgh, Scotland and the relationship Houdini and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Mary McGarvie, a local con woman and faux mystic trying to trick him out of ten grand by calling forth the spirit of his mother. While Pearce might not look like Houdini, he does a great job recreating some of his classic stage performances, and the blending of old archival footage and Pearce’s recreations are surprisingly seamless. Even so, it’s Oscar-winner Saoirse Ronan who steals every scene from her more experienced co-stars as Mary’s precocious daughter Benji. Because the story is told from her viewpoint, it’s not too much of a surprise, but she certainly helps keep things from ever getting too serious, the most amusing scenes being when she butts heads with Houdini’s cynical and beleaguered manager Mr. Sugerman (Tim Spall). Most of the film’s entertainment value comes from the interaction of these four main characters, and even though neither Benji nor Mr. Sugarman want to see Mary and Houdini together, it’s somewhat inevitable since there aren’t any deliberate twists or turns that aren’t expected. Even so, it’s a somewhat sweet and poignant romance without being sappy, and you might be surprised how much you’re enjoying it as it tells its story at a brisk pace. A devout Houdini fan might complain that the film’s not historically accurate, but Armstrong does a commendable job recreating Scotland of that time period with great production values and a glorious and uplifting score. Ultimately, “Death Defying Acts” is quite an enchanting take on the Houdini mythos, one that’s enjoyable from beginning to end. Rating: 8/10

Also in Limited Release:

Full Battle Rattle – This documentary by Tony Gerber & Jesse Moss takes an inside look at the National Training Center’s simulated Iraqi village Medina Wasl, built inside California’s Mojave Desert with actual Iraqis living there for months in order to train soldiers on dealing with the natives. It opens exclusively at the Film Forum in New York on Wednesday, July 9.

Mini-Review: Many directors have tried to recreate the war in Iraq, and it might be surprising to some that the government has created a realistic simulation of an Iraqi village in the Mojave Desert to prepare soldiers for interacting with the natives. War games have long been a part of training the military for actual combat, but this is something different, like a complex variation on laser tag with actual Arab role players acting as if they’re normal inhabitants of a similar village. The filmmakers got some incredible access and coverage of both sides of a routine mission as one battalion tries to deal with the internal politics of the fictitious Medina Wasl, with another battalion of soldiers whose sole job is to act like the local insurgents trying to cause mayhem, destruction and death. The most interesting aspect of the film are the interviews with the Iraqis who are acting as the villagers, basically working for the military, assigned a role and then improvising their way through pre-organized scenarios, and everyone wear special suits that shows when they’d been shot or blown up with realistic dummies used to prepare soldiers for dealing with the dead and wounded. One of the problems with recent Iraq films like “Redacted” and “Battle for Haditha” are that the real soldiers and Iraqis in the movie tend to overact and kill any realism, so it’s surprising to see these soldiers and villagers acting more comfortably and naturally in this make-shift environment. Because we’re only shown an edited version of the mission, the movie itself isn’t nearly as interesting as the premise and the fact that this is going on unbeknownst to most Americans, and even more shocking is the conclusion when these poor soldiers have to go to the real Iraq and face real bullets and explosions, something that no amount of play-acting could prepare them for. The doc is worthwhile for bringing these war games to light, but the filmmakers probably could have cut together their footage with narration and graphics to make it more interesting. Rating: 7.5/10

August (First Look Studios) – Josh Harnett stars in this New York based drama as one of two brothers (Adam Scott is the other one) running a start-up internet company that’s about to go public despite financial difficulties and the impending bubble burst. With an amazing ensemble cast including Rip Torn, Naomie Harris and David Bowie, Austin (XX/XY) Chick’s second film opens in New York on Friday after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.

My Thoughts from Sundance

Interview with director Austin Chick and writer Howard Rodman (Coming Soon!)

Eight Miles High (Dokument Films) – Achim Bordak’s biopic about the German socialite Uschi Obermaier (played by Natalia Avelon), who after achieving notoriety as a nude cover model became an it-girl on the Munich club scene, leading to romances with Jimi Hendrix and two of the Rolling Stones, as well as becoming a figurehead for the revolutionary left. It opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.

Mini-Review (Coming Soon!)

Garden Party (Roadside Attractions) – Five people from different backgrounds try to find their way in the seedier side of L.A. in Jason Freeland’s drama that brings together a pretty teen trying to stay out of the adult business, her realtor mother (Vinessa Shaw from “3:10 to Yuma”) trying to move beyond her own past, a porn-addicted artist who agrees to help her get revenge on a blackmailer, an optimistic guy from Nebraska who hopes to become a dancer and the cunning street kid who wants to make it as a musician. It opens in New York, L.A., Portland and Seattle.

Harold (City Lights) – Spencer Breslin plays a 13-year-old suffering from VERY early male pattern baldness who has to face his first day at a new high school as the “bald kid,” but who finds friendship with the school’s janitor Cromer (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Co-starring Nikki Blonsky from Hairspray and many familiar faces, T. Sean Shannon’s comedy opens in select theaters this Friday.

Mini-Review: The presence of Cuba Gooding Jr. in this odd little indie comedy should set off early alarm bells, but the nearly impenetrable premise makes it hard to sit through, which is a shame considering Spencer Breslin’s semi-decent performance while looking and acting like a teenage George Costanza. Essentially, this is just another high school fish-out-of-water comedy with obvious, poorly-written high school humor that mostly relies on the fact that Harold looks and acts like a middle-aged man to get laughs. The premise does grow on you but it still suffers from weak writing that mainly goes for obvious and easy laughs whenever it can, basing most of its humor on the fact that Harold is 13 but looks and acts like a middle-aged man, something that he eventually uses by buying beer for his classmates. It’s unclear why it was deemed necessary to show Harold’s snarky sister being immediately accepted by everyone at the school, furthering how poorly this movie was thought out as it mostly goes for easy and obvious laughs whenever possible. Much of the plot revolves around Harold the outcast trying to be cool and fit in by getting himself a go-kart. I mean, seriously, a Go-Kart race? Way to be in touch. This is clearly a bad case of adults trying too hard to figure out what teens might find funny and failing miserably. With an afro that makes him look like a grown-up Buckwheat from the Little Rascals after his homeless drug addict phase, Gooding adds to his resume of bad movies that spit in the face of the Academy, while Nikki Blonsky quickly makes short work of the good will she got from “Hairspray” playing a far weaker role in exactly the same way. (And for those wondering what happened to Ally Sheedy. Surely, she must watch her performance in this movie and wonder the same thing.) The film’s slick studio look shows that Shannon does have promise as a director, but we’ve seen so many better movies in this vein, and this one’s boring and unfunny by comparison, despite small appearances by the likes of Fred Willard, Rachel Dratsch, Chris Parnall and others. Ultimately, this is such a pointless waste of time that you might wonder how this was able to get a theatrical release while so many better movies end up abandoned to DVD. Rating: 4/10

The Stone Angel (Vivendi Entertainment) – Ellen Burstyn and Christine Horne star in Kari Skogland’s adaptation of Margaret Laruence’s novel about Hagar Shipley, a feisty woman who has been at odds with her family and friends because of her attitude, and in her last days, she tries to make up for past recriminations. It opens in New York, L.A. and other select cities in Landmark and Laemmle theaters.

A Man Named Pearl (Shadow Distribution) – This documentary by Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson takes a look at the self-taught topiary artist (that means he cuts bushes into strange shapes) Pearl Fryar, an African-American man whose early experiences with racism in South Carolina led to him finding his true calling as well as winning a prestigious award for his work. It opens in New York at the Angelika and in L.A. on July 25.


Next week, what could possibly be the biggest movie of the summer (I know, I know, we said that about Iron Man, too, but that was the START of summer)… the one, the only, THE DARK KNIGHT!!!! Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale are joined by Heath Ledger (in his second to last acting role) and Aaron Eckhart for the sixth Batman movie in twenty years. Also, Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth star in the big screen version of the musical Mamma Mia! (Universal) and to keep the kiddies quiet, there’s the animated Space Chimps (20th Century Fox). I know which one I’ll be seeing… how ’bout you?

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