The Weekend Warrior: July 18 – 20

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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.

This weekend has the potential of being one of the biggest weekends of the summer at least since May, much of that having to do with the long-awaited release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.), the sequel to his 2005 Batman relaunch Batman Begins. All of the cast from the first movie is back including Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman, this time facing reinvented villains, most notably Heath Ledger’s 2nd-to-last film appearance as The Joker, Batman’s greatest foe, plus Aaron Eckhart is introduced as District Attorney Harvey Dent. (We all know who he turns out to be, right?) They’re joined by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who replaces Katie Holmes, and the rest of the returning cast, and there’s lots of anticipation to see what Nolan does this time, especially considering that he shot a good chunk of the movie using IMAX cameras, something that’s never been done before. The only things that might hold The Dark Knight back from setting a new opening weekend record are the fact that it’s probably too dark and violent for kids and that it isn’t opening completely on its own like other previous record-breakers.

Rather, Universal has decided to offer a bit of strong female-driven counter-programming with the ABBA movie musical Mamma Mia! starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, which hopes to attract the millions of female and gay male fans of the original Broadway musical and replicate the success of last year’s Hairspray. In the same way, it’s likely to lose some of its younger female audience to The Dark Knight but there should be enough older women left over who’ll want another alternative, and with Sex and the City gone from theaters, this will be it.

(UPDATE: Well, The Dark Knight has indeed set a new record for the number of theaters a movie is released into and Fandango has reported hundreds of sell-outs, although there’s still a limit to how much the movie can make competing against Mamma Mia, which has been picking up steam going into the weekend. The returning movies probably won’t be able to bring in much business with those two movies splitting up all audiences, but we still expect The Dark Knight to be extremely frontloaded to the Friday and Thursday midnights although it should end up making around $55 million in the next 24 hours alone. Incidentally, that’s more than most of the Batman movies have made their opening weekend.)

Hoping to bring in some of the families with younger kids that wouldn’t take them to the other new movies, 20th Century Fox releases the new G-rated CG animated movie Space Chimps. It looks like so many other movies that only parents with very young kids will have any interest in it, and it already has way too much competition for that particular audience that it’s doubtful it will make much of a mark.

While The Dark Knight might fall just short of setting a new opening weekend record (for reasons listed in our full analysis below), there’s a good chance this weekend will set a new record, that of Top Aggregated Box Office in terms of the largest gross for the Top 10 or 12 movies at the box office, putting it just ahead of the weekend where Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest opened in July ’06. The only other thing of interest this weekend might be the continuing battle between Will Smith’s Hancock and Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy II,” which should be neck and neck for the second weekend in a row even if the latest superhero movie should knock them both down a couple pegs. Sadly, with The Incredible Hulk out of the Top 10, we’ll have to contend with there being only four comic book/superhero movies in the top 10, which has to be some kind of first.

Updated Predictions -

1. The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.) – $129.7 million N/A (up $3.5 million)

2. Mamma Mia! (Universal) – $25.6 million N/A (up $1.5 million)

3. Hancock (Sony) – $14.5 million -52% (down .9 million, up one spot)

4. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Universal) – $14.3 million -59% (down 1.2 million and one spot)

5. Journey to the Center of the Earth (New Line) – $10.8 million -48% (down .1 million)

6. WALL•E (Pixar/Disney) – $10.1 million -46% (same)

7. Space Chimps (20th Century Fox) – $6.7 million N/A (same)

8. Wanted (Universal) – $5.5 million -53% (down .1 million)

9. Get Smart (Warner Bros.) – $3.7 million -45% (down .3 million)

10. Meet Dave (20th Century Fox) – $2.2 million -57% (new entry)

Last year this weekend was considerably lighter with two new movies opening, as Adam Sandler and Kevin James hooked up in the homocentric comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry which topped the box office with just $34 million, one of Sandler’s softer openings. As counter-programming, New Line released the movie musical Hairspray starring John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken–mirroring this weekend’s release of Mamma Mia!–that opened in third place with $27.5 million in 3,121 theatres, which was quite impressive, being the biggest opening weekend for a movie musical ever. In between the two, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Warner Bros.) dropped 58% in its second weekend with $32.5 million, and the top 10 grossed $144 million, an amount that should be clobbered by the three new openers alone.


In this week’s “Battle Cry”, we’ll look at why independent movies don’t stand a chance. It’s not like I’m exactly happy with this sad fact, because there have been a lot of good and great independent movies this year, including a number over the next few weeks, but how on earth are these movies supposed to find an audience when the distributors have a much smaller amount of money to spend advertising and marketing their movies? It’s become very much a David vs. Goliath type situation where indie distributors with lots of money to spend have to sell audiences on coming out to see their already hard-to-sell movies. When so many people know that The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia! are opening this weekend, why would they seek out something like Felon, a smaller and more personal crime story, or go see a movie featuring the music of Lou Reed over that of ABBA?

We’ve seen a lot of really good movies this year that have faltered badly including Son of Rambow, a popular comedy from the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, which was bought for $8 million by Paramount Vantage; it came and left from theaters with very little notice. Some smaller movies have been able to make a mark including Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins, a nice sleeper hit, Helen Hunt’s Then She Found Me and the crowd-pleasing documentary Young@Heart, but all of these were released in April and then built on word-of-mouth as they expanded. Movies like the indie comedy The Wackness, another Sundance purchase, have had trouble getting moviegoers away from the big movies and only time will tell if they’ll be able to stick around long enough for people to get to them.

In bigger cities, there are arthouse theaters that focus on these movies that have their own built-in audience of moviegoers who prefer smaller indies, docs and foreign films. It’s harder to bring them in when the bigger studio movies are being helmed by former indie filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro and Timur Bekmambetov who insure the quality of their studio movies are on par with their previous indie work. In New York City, there are seven smaller indie arthouse theaters within an area of 50 blocks between Houston Street and 14th Street, and while some of them probably get more localized business of residents who will go see whatever’s currently playing there, it creates a lot more choices for the stalwart indie movie fan, an ever-decreasing niche moviegoing market.

This year, we’ve already seen a number of the studio subsidiaries that specialized in these movies close down, notably Time Warner dependents Picturehouse and Warner Independent, neither who’ve been able to have consistent and substantial hits to sustain themselves in between the few standouts. Paramount Vantage might be on the way out, and smaller indies like IFC and Magnolia might have a hit from time to time, but otherwise, both companies are releasing a lot of movies that are probably making more money on pay-per-view than in theaters. One wonders how these companies are able to survive when they’re depending entirely on cable and DVD to make back the money spent on buying, marketing and distributing these movies.

It’s an ongoing problem and who knows when we’ll have another Juno or Little Miss Sunshine, but it’s definitely getting harder to have those kinds of breakout hits over the summer. Hopefully, we’ll see more of these strong indie movies moved to the fall and winter, and fewer indie distributors trying to compete against the summer blockbusters, because it’s become obvious that this isn’t a problem that’s just going to go away.

What can be done about it? That’s a good question and probably not one that can be easily answered, but if you live in a big city, you can start by going to see The Dark Knight or Mamma Mia! on Friday but then save some money to go see an indie on Saturday or Sunday. (It’s the reason why I include the limited releases in every column, although I always get the feeling that little of it is being read.) If you rent an indie movie on DVD that you enjoy, go ahead and shell out the bucks to own that movie, because a lot more of the money you spend on that DVD will go to help the filmmaker recoup the cost, giving a much better chance for these indie filmmakers to continue making movies with the possibility of moving into the big leagues with the aforementioned filmmakers.


The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.)
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Directed by Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Prestige, Memento, Insomnia, Following); Written by Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan (The Prestige, Memento)
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama, Superhero
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “Why So Serious?”
Plot Summary: Batman (Christian Bale) has been keeping the crime rate down in Gotham City, but two new cogs enter the machinery in the form of D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and the ruthless and deadly Joker (Heath Ledger), a killer who challenges Batman to give himself up in order to save the lives of his future victims. Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne (also Christian Bale) is trying to deal with the fact that his childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has been seeing Dent and they’ve gotten quite serious.

My Review

While in summers past, we’ve seen a lot of the biggest movies released between the first weekend in May and the 4th of July, one of the most eagerly anticipated summer event movies has been saved for the last six weeks of the summer. It’s the third comic-book related sequel of the summer and the fifth comic book or superhero movie released in the last month and a half, but it’s also the seventh feature-length movie based on one of the top 3 most popular comic book characters OF ALL TIME. Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger and introduced into comic books in Detective Comics #27 over 70 years ago, the dark superhero Batman has been consistently in the public eye since then, spawning thousands of comics and dozens of cartoons and television shows, creating a self-perpetuating icon known worldwide.

While many older folk will remember the Adam West version of the character from the ’60s television show, the birth of the modern Batman movie franchise began in 1989 with Tim Burton’s original movie which made the odd choice of putting Michael Keaton under the cowl and Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson under the make-up of his arch-nemesis The Joker. It was a dark take on the character, but it retained some of the whimsical humor of the television show that was able to sustain three movies and one box office disappointment, the almost universally loathed Batman & Robin, which nearly killed the franchise. Frustrated with the showing of Joel Schumacher’s second movie which had George Clooney playing Batman–yes, that’s how bad it had gotten–Warner Bros. spent years trying to figure out how to save the franchise and develop a way to relaunch the character.

Finally, they went to director Christopher Nolan, who was coming off the semi-successful crime thriller Insomnia with Al Pacino for Warners after making lots of waves with his previous independent crime drama Memento. He took a similar approach to his previous films, bringing on a strong dramatic cast including the likes of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. More importantly, he hired veteran actor Christian Bale to play Bruce Wayne and the Batman, another unconventional choice that proved popular. The movie was generally loved by critics and audiences alike, scoring 84% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.3 out of 10 from IMDb Users putting it just outside the Top 100 favorite movies of all time. (That’s with 172,000 votes, which shows that a LOT of people saw this movie on DVD and cable after its theatrical release; all of those people will have been clamoring for this sequel for over three years!) Comic book fans are a fickle lot, but in general, the reaction to Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman was loved enough that Batman Begins is considered by many comic book fans to be their favorite superhero movie, which must feel great considering how badly Warner Bros. effed up the franchise with the Joel Schumacher movies. It had a decent but not spectacular opening, making $73 million in its first five days after opening on Wednesday. More importantly, it had a negligible drop-off as word-of-mouth got around but eventually, it was overtaken by other big movies that followed and only grossed $210 million theatrically, which isn’t that impressive, although it was the second-biggest gross for any movie in the franchise.

For the sequel, Christopher Nolan worked on the screenplay with his brother Jonathan, who had co-written their earlier film Memento, for which they were nominated for their first and only Oscar, as well as The Prestige, the movie made in between Batman movies. A lot of the same factors that contributed to the success of the previous Batman movie are still in play–iconic popularity of the character from the comic books, cartoons and television shows, the great dramatic cast, for instance–but the biggest thing about this sequel is that it reintroduces the Joker, unarguably Batman’s greatest foe. In the last movie, they went with Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul, neither really big enough players to have appeared in previous movies, but they brought out the big guns this time with the one Batman villain that every fan has been awaiting a return since Burton’s movie nearly 20 years ago. In Tim Burton’s 1989 movie Batman, The Joker was played by Jack Nicholson and his version was very popular, but Nolan brought on the much younger Heath Ledger, fresh off his Oscar nomination for Ang Lee’s Western Brokeback Mountain. It was a long road for Ledger to get there having starred as Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot eight years ago, leading A Knight’s Tale a year later and then meandering from one bomb to the next, movies like The Order and Lords of Dogtown and Ned Kelly, which barely got noticed here. With Brokeback Mountain, Ledger was finally getting the respect of his peers, he had met and had a baby with actress Michelle Williams and things were going great for a while until they broke up. Then this past January, Ledger died suddenly and tragically from an accidental drug overdose. Ledger’s death sent shockwaves across the nation, but it also immediately (and quite morbidly) raised awareness and interest for The Dark Knight and what some were already considering Ledger’s most memorable film role sight unseen. Ledger’ startling portrayal of the Joker would be his second to last film performance–he had started filming a new movie with Terry Gilliam who had worked with on 2005′s The Brothers Grimm–and it created a mystique around the film, not unlike the one that surrounded Brandon Lee’s mysterious death during the filming of the comic movie The Crow. Already, critics have been raving about Ledger’s performance and claiming that the actor will be nominated and possibly win a posthumous Oscar, which would be ironic, but also bittersweet.

The other major player introduced in the sequel is Aaron Eckhart as Gotham D.A. Harvey Dent, better known as the villain Two-Face, and like with Ledger, Nolan went with the strongest dramatic actor, rather than the biggest name. Eckhart had a major role in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-nominated Erin Brockovich opposite Julia Roberts, which was the actor’s biggest movie to date, and since then his career has been eclectic, bouncing between indies and mediocre studio movies like The Core and John Woo’s Paycheck. Eckhart received a good amount of attention for his starring role in Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking a few years ago, which led to roles in the romantic comedy No Reservations opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones and Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia with Josh Hartnett.

Almost all of the cast of characters from the first movie are back, notably Christian Bale, reprising the role of Bruce Wayne and Batman, although Bale has kept plenty busy in between, starring in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn and James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, as well as Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There. The middle one of those, which pit Bale against Russell Crowe, found the most success in theaters despite an early September opening. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, who play Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth and his CEO Lucius Fox, respectively, have also been keeping busy, Freeman having just been seen in the breakout action hit Wanted. The one weak link from the first movie most agreed with was that of Katie Holmes as Bruce Wayne’s love interest Rachel Dawes, but for the sequel, she’s been replaced by hot indie actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who surprisingly has not been in many big studio movies, most notably Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Stanger Than Fiction opposite Will Ferrell.

It’s another great cast, but much of the excitement surrounding The Dark Knight comes from the fact that Christopher Nolan shot a lot of the movie in the larger IMAX format, something that’s never been done for a conventional dramatic feature, and it’s something that’s caused increased demand to see the movie in IMAX wherever available. Fandango has seen an incredible number of advance ticket sales and already advance sell-outs for most of the movie’s IMAX opening weekend screenings has made the movie one of the hottest tickets in the format. This caused theaters to start adding screenings at 3am and 6am, which likely will also sell out (there’s that much demand) and the only other movies that has caused this much fanaticism were George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels. Greatly adding to that craziness is the insane viral marketing campaign that Warner Bros. has conducted for almost a year, creating possibly one of the most intricate and involved marketing campaigns ever that has forced fans to play games and search for times, throwing lots of new surprises and cool prizes at the fans who’d been following the campaign since the beginning. This mania has been increased in the past few weeks as more journalists and critics have seen the movie and rave reviews have been hitting the internet, turning the unstoppable buzz into an unprecedented roar.

Seriously, The Dark Knight isn’t even a huge event movie any longer as much as it is a bonafide sensation, and these factors are playing into the overwhelming hype that The Dark Knight might set a new opening weekend record. Already, millions of guys across the nation are planning on taking off work on Friday in order to catch one of the first screenings of the movie, preferably in IMAX where available, so we could already see the nation’s productivity hit an all-time low that day. Opening on a Friday rather than on a Wednesday like the last movie and Superman Returns will certainly help it do better over the three-day weekend. Also, it’s opening later in the summer season than any previous Batman movie, which might actually help it do more business than the normal June release that other Batmovies have received, since there’s no school and fewer of the big movies that tend to open in May.

To some, it might seem strange that a movie which grossed just over $200 million might open that big, but just looking back a couple years, we can see a perfect example of how this might be possible. Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl grossed $70.6 million its opening weekend in 2003, which is less than Batman Begins, but it quickly found an audience of diehard fans who saw it repeatedly and told their friends, so by the time it left theaters six months later, it had amassed over $300 million. The sequel “Dead’s Man Chest” opened three years later with $135.6 million in three days, breaking the previous record set by Spider-Man. It grossed $100 million more than the first movie, showing how time can build up the excitement for a sequel to a popular movie. Warner Bros. had a similar amount of anticipation and excitement when the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix Reloaded opened earlier in the summer of ’03, and even though the original movie only grossed $175 million in theaters, the sequel made $42 million on opening day and another $93 million in the three-day weekend that followed.

Although Nolan’s first Batman movie was very dark with a few scenes that might have been too scary for kids, the sequel is even darker and more violent than all of the previous movies, which means parents might be hesitant to bring their kids and definitely not their youngest kids. That might play a large factor in keeping The Dark Knight from setting a new opening weekend record, as well keeping it from having substantial legs. It’s also substantially longer than the previous Batman movies with a running time of 2 and a half hours, which might hold back the number of screenings that theaters will be able to fit into a single room per day, and it’s slower and more dramatic than most “summer superhero movies” which might cause somewhat of a backlash from those expecting lots of action from beginning to end.

Possibly one of the strangest decisions might be the title, “The Dark Knight,” which is missing one important thing to let people know what to expect… the word “BATMAN”! That’s right. In an odd decision that Nolan and Warners decided to go with the secondary name for the crime-fighting hero that gained prominence from Frank Miller’s ’80s mini-series “The Dark Knight Returns,” which had been greatly influential on the series. The problem is that those who don’t read comic (and that’s a lot of people) might not be familiar with this moniker and may not realize that “The Dark Knight” is the new Batman movie. Sure, if they see the posters or commercials, it’s easy to figure it out, but going to the theater and just seeing the title on the marquee might throw some of the dumber moviegoers off. (Hey, let’s face it, they’re out there!! The success of Meet the Spartans is proof positive! How many people who saw it thought they were seeing a sequel to 300?)

Unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean and Spider-Man sequels, The Dark Knight isn’t opening in a vacuum and it has two other new movies competing for the older women and younger kids who won’t necessarily want to see an even darker crime drama. Lastly, It’s also opening later in summer, which means it’s also competing with the movies in theaters although they are likely to make way as they’re moved to smaller and less screens to meet the demand. For all of these reasons, The Dark Knight won’t be beating the current opening weekend record held by Spider-Man 3 from early 2007, and it might be hard-pressed to make enough to beat Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. An opening day of $45 to 50 million is a foregone conclusion–odd in itself considering that the highest opening “Batman” movie only made $53 million in its first three days–but it’s still likely to shoot for third-highest opening, currently set by Shrek the Third last year. Really, it’s all about how much of the movie’s business it does opening day and how front-loaded that makes it for the weekend, but this should easily join Iron Man and “Indiana Jones” in this year’s exclusive club of $100 million openers that go onto make more than $300 million.

Why I Should See It: It’s the sequel to one of the Top 5 comic book/superhero movies of all time with an amazing cast and Christopher Nolan doing some of his best work. (See the review linked above.)
Why Not: David Edelstein of New York Magazine didn’t like it, so it couldn’t possibly be any good. (Just kidding!!! Please save your angry negative letters!)
Projections: $126 to 130 million opening weekend on its way to $360 or 370 million total, putting it into contention to be the top movie of the summer and the year.

COMPARISONS


Mamma Mia! (Universal)
Starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Julie Walters, Dominic Cooper, Amanda Seyfried, Christine Baranski
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd (debut of the director of the original musical); Written by Catherine Johnson (various television shows)
Genre: Musical, Comedy
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “A mother, a daughter, three possible fathers. A trip down the aisle you’ll never forget.”
Plot Summary: As Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) plans to get married at the Greek island villa owned and run by her single mother Donna (Meryl Streep), the young girl has borrowed her mother’s diary and discovered the names of the three men who could potentially be Sophie’s father and invited them to her wedding. The fun (and lots of singing of ABBA songs) begins when Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), accountant Harry Bright (Colin Firth) and adventurer Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgård) all show up on the island at the same time under the impression that Donna invited them.

My Review

Maybe one of the ballsiest moves of the summer has to be the one by Universal, coming off three fairly successful comic book movies this summer, who decided to open a movie against the most anticipated comic book movies of the summer, The Dark Knight. Not only that, but they decided to release a high profile musical with a star-studded cast in hopes of replicating the success of last year’s Hairspray, the biggest opening movie musical of all time. Like that movie, Mamma Mia! is a fairly recent Broadway hit, having done huge business in London after opening in April 19999 and then two years later, taking Broadway by storm after replacing “Cats” at the Winter Garden Theatre. In 2003, the musical took up the stages of the Mandalay Bay for an extended run in Las Vegas, and it’s been regularly touring the globe finding more fans for the Swedish pop group that inspired it.

The big screen version is co-produced by Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who’ve had a number of big hits including the similarly female-centric My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and unlike many of the other Broadway musicals brought to the big screen, the original creative team has adapted it for the screen including British theater director Phyllida Lloyd making her feature film directing debut from a script by Catherine Johnson, the original writer of the musical. It’s odd to have so many of the original players involved but they’ve hired a lot of big name actors to fill the roles, something that wasn’t the case with the musical’s Broadway run.

For the role of Sophie’s mother Donna, they brought on one of the most acclaimed actresses of the past thirty years, one who holds the record for most Oscar nominations, Ms. Meryl Streep, making her movie musical debut. With 15 Oscar nominations under her belt, there’s no denying Streep’s abilities and the prolific actress has appeared in twelve movies in the last five years alone as well as the award-winning HBO mini-series “Angels in America.” She certainly hasn’t rested on her laurels since her last Oscar win in 1983 for “Sophie’s Choice” (yes, it’s called irony!) and she’s appeared in a wide variety of big studio and small independent movies, both comedies and dramas, that have grossed over $2 billion worldwide. Unfortunately, as busy as Streep has been, she’s on a bit of a drought, having starred in four back-to-back bombs, the most recent one being Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, which only made $15 million despite a star-studded cast. Streep’s previous two dramas Rendition and Evening fared even worse, and it’s possible that moviegoers are tired of seeing her in those serious ensemble dramas and want something lighter. Certainly, the producers are hoping that the role Streep plays in this movie will be as popular among Streep’s older female fans as was playing Miranda Pristly in the 2006 adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, which took on Warner Bros.’ Superman Returns in late June and did surprisingly well. Streep certainly will help the movie bring in the older female audience who won’t be interested in the other alternatives this weekend.

The oddest casting might be that of Pierce Brosnan as one of Sophie’s three fathers, because Brosnan, best known as James Bond 007 and from his ’80s television work, has not done very much comedy, most notably Brett Ratner’s After the Sunset, a disastrous bomb that teamed him with Woody Harrelson, and Richard Shepherd’s indie crime comedy The Matador with Greg Kinnear. On the other hand, Colin Firth is in familiar territory, having co-starred in many popular chick flicks including Bridget Jones’s Diary, its sequel and Richard Curtis’ directorial debut Love Actually and Firth is certainly a popular actor among the film’s female audience, because of his generally likeable disposition on film. This is Firth’s third movie of the summer, having starred in Helen Hunt’s Then She Found Me and Anand Tucker’s When Did You Last See Your Father?. The third prospective father is played by Stellan Skarsgård, the Swedish character actor who has appeared in a bunch of Lars von Trier’s films and other indies, and whose prominent role to date was playing Orlando Bloom’s father “Bootstrap” Bill Turner in the two “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, plus he also played Father Merrin, in not one but two “Exorcist” prequels.

Streep’s daughter Sophie is played by Amanda Seyfried, the pretty 22-year-old actress who appeared in Mean Girls and on the HBO show “Big Love,” while her fiancé is played by Dominic Cooper, who spent a number of years in the London musical “The History Boys” before reprising the role in the 2006 movie. Donna’s long-time friends are played by Christine Baranski, a regular of Broadway and soap operas who also had a role in the 2002 musical Chicago, and Julie Walters, best known as Mrs. Weasley from the “Harry Potter” movies. And yet, not a single one of them beyond Streep, Brosnan and maybe Firth will have any effect on whether anyone goes to see this movie whatsoever.

The dawn of the current wave of movie musicals can probably be traced back to Rob Marshall’s Chicago which was nominated for many Oscars while racking up the second-highest gross for a musical after Grease. It’s success got many other musicals greenlit including Chris Columbus’ version of the long-running off-Broadway hit Rent, although it didn’t find nearly as much success. Oddly, the big screen version of the musical The Producers tanked despite being one of the most successful Broadway musicals in recent memory, and the movie based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera did decently but nowhere near to the amount made by the musical worldwide after playing for decades. Finally, DreamWorks and Bill Condon tackled Dreamgirls with an all African-American cast including Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Beyonce Knowles, and that really exploded, receiving a number of Oscar nominations including a win for first-time actress Jennifer Hudson. (Controversially, it didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination like Chicago did years earlier.)

“Mamma Mia!,” the musical, is a global hit that’s known across the country by the thousands of tourists to New York and Las Vegas who’ve seen it and sung and danced along with the ABBA tunes–a big part of the appeal of it–and then return home with fond memories of the experience. It’s more like Julie Taymor’s movie musical Across the Universe being based solely on the music of one musical group, although that wasn’t based on a Broadway hit like Mamma Mia! Last year this weekend, New Line opened the star-studded movie based on the musical “Hairspray,” which itself was based on John Waters’ movie Hairspray, but instead of doing a platform limited release like so many other movie musicals, they just opened it big in the summer in over 3,000 and found a huge audience, opening with $27.5 million and grossing $118 million with a sing-along version doing very well. The big difference is that it only had to contend with Adam Sandler’s latest comedy and the second weekend of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It also was able to bring a lot wider demographic including urban audiences and some guys who weren’t as interested in Sandler’s latest. That isn’t the case with Mamma Mia!, which might be able to bring in some teen girls but will probably be more of interest to women over 30 who rarely go to movies and have few movies targetted directly to them.

Even though The Dark Knight will be hogging up many screens, there’s still a demographic of older women who would probably rather see something fun and light rather than a dark and over-serious movie based on a comic book character. Since there really isn’t anything else out there for women with Sex and the City mostly gone from theaters, this should definitely be a strong choice, and not only just for those who’ve seen or know the original musical, because so many women are familiar with ABBA’s music. The movie should do decently, bringing in many women who don’t often go to the movies.

Reviews are generally good so far–mine is an exception apparently–and most of the appeal should be to the women wanting to go out and bond over some ABBA, so it makes perfect counter-programming to The Dark Knight in that sense, much like The Devil Wears Prada was when it opened against Superman Returns.

Why I Should See It: The original musical is quite popular and beloved among women, as is ABBA and Meryl Streep, so the movie must have seemed like a no-brainer.
Why Not: There’s little in this world that’s lamer than ABBA… well except for a musical based on their songs.
Projections: $25 to 27 million opening weekend and $80 to 85 million total.

COMPARISONS


Space Chimps (20th Century Fox)
Starring (the voices of) Andy Samberg, Cheryl Hines, Patrick Warburton, Kristin Chenoweth, Stanley Tucci
Directed by Kirk De Micco (writer of Racing Stripes and Quest for Camelot) with Robert Moreland (Happily N’Ever After)
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Family
Rated G
Tagline: “On July 18, Go Bananas!” (Wow, that must’ve taken a couple minutes to come up with.)
Plot Summary: Three monkeys–Ham III, the slacker grandson of the first chimp in space (voiced by Andy Samberg), the fearless Luna (Cheryl Hines), and their commander Titan (Patrick Warburton)–are blasted off into space and become stranded on the other side of a black hole. Once there, Ham needs to step up his game in order to save a peaceful planet from the evil dictator Zartog (Jeff Daniels) and get back to earth.

Why I Should See It: It’s an animated movie about monkeys in space!!
Why Not: Because it’s a movie about MONKEYS in SPACE! (Aren’t you listening?)
Projections: $5 to 7 million opening weekend and less than $25 million total.

Not going to fly, eh? Okay, fine.

There’s been an ever-growing number of computer animated movies in the past couple years, some that have been huge blockbusters and others that haven’t done so well. Space Chimps is the latest venture from Vanguard Animation, the animation company behind some of the latter. Their last movie was Happily N’Ever After, an animated movie released through Lionsgate, after their previous movie, the British wartime animated movie Valiant, was released by Disney in the middle of August. Neither movie grossed more than $20 million.

As is often the case, they have a decent cast for their third movie, but no names that could really sell the movie. The main monkey is voiced by Andy Samberg, one of the newer “Saturday Night Live” members, whose comedy debut Hot Rod bombed last year. He’s joined by the voices of Patrick Warburton, who has a ton of experience doing cartoon voicework, most notably as “The Tick” and the voice of the video game superhero “Blasto!,” but Warburton might hold some sort of record for how many of these animated movies he’s appeared in, including Happily N’Ever After its predecessor Hoodwinked!, Chicken Little, Open Season and many more. He even stepped in for Tim Allen to voice Buzz Lightyear for the animated cartoon based on the Toy Story character. Cheryl Hynes from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and comedies like last year’s Waitress voices the third “space chimp.” Other recognizable actors providing their voices include Jeff Daniels, playing the bad guy, and Stanley Tucci, who recently co-starred in the G-rated bomb Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, as the Senator who blasts the monkeys into space. The star power is so important that all these names are prominently featured in the trailer and ads… NOT!

20th Century Fox probably doesn’t have much to lose with Space Chimps, since they’re only distributing the movie and didn’t fund the production, so it’s getting a soft sell based on the fact that it’s “from one of the primates who brought you ‘Shrek’.” Indeed, producer John H. Williams was one of the producers of the “Shrek” series but he didn’t write or direct either movie, and it’s not likely that bit of deceptive advertising will be enough to bring people into see it.

True, there could be some parents looking for something to take their younger kids to see and this looks tame and innocuous enough with enough gags to make the kids laugh, but opening when movies like WALL•E are still doing very well is not going to help this movie make a mark. Even odder is the premise is very similar to the 3D animated movie Fly Me to the Moon, which opens next month.

The year’s latest animated movie is only opening in 2,400 theaters, presumably on one screen each, since few theater owners will want to give up screens that can be used for the much in-demand “Dark Knight.” For any summer release, let alone a family-friendly film, this is pitiful, so this animated movie probably won’t make very much of a mark in theaters, but stands a good chance at finding an audience of younger kids once it hits DVD.

COMPARISONS


THE CHOSEN ONE:

Lou Reed’s Berlin (Third Rail Releasing)
Starring Lou Reed, Emmanuelle Seigner, Fernando Saunders, Steve Hunter, Tony Smith, Rupert Christie, Rob Wasserman, Sharon Jones, Antony
Directed by Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,
Genre: Music, Documentary
Not Rated
Plot Summary: In December of 2006, Lou Reed performed his controversial 1974 album “Berlin” for the first time live in over 30 years and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Julian Schnabel captured it on film in this innovative concert film.

I’ve spent much of my lifelong sidejob as a music-lover with an unexplainable love/hate relationship for Lou Reed. There are some albums like “Transformer” and “New York” that I could listen to endlessly, but some of his albums have seemed like artsy muso wanking that I’ve never fully understand the amount of admiration he has received for some of those musical decisions. At the time of its release, 1974′s “Berlin” was a “difficult” album, stirring up controversy and angering the critics who were hoping for more poppy tunes like “Sweet Jane” or “Walk on the Wild Side.” It told the stirring love story gone wrong between two junkies that could only end in brutal tragedy. Even so, there were those who loved it and one of those fans was painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who prior to getting an Oscar nomination for his The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (my #2 movie of 2007, mind you), probably jumped at the chance at designing the stage show and filming Reed’s decision to perform the album in its entirety for the time in 30 years in a handful of shows in Brooklyn. Performed live, the haunting material finds new life with Reed’s excellent extended band including horns, a youth choir and strings, with terrific arrangements that greatly enhance the songs. Guitarist Steve Hunter is a great roster to Lou Reed’s roster of regulars that include both of his long-time bassists, Rob Wasserman and Fernando Saunders, and you can tell they’re really having fun on stage even with the dour tone of the musical work. Sure, maybe there isn’t anything more pretentious than having a conductor on stage with a rock band but watching the auxiliary musicians for the production groovin’ behind the band is quite something. Schnabel has created an incredibly artistic experience out of the concert with many moments that will give you goosebumps from the way Schnabel (working with his daughter Lola) embellish the music with haunting films and visuals featuring French actress Emmanuelle Seigner playing the part of “Caroline.” It’s not quite “Pink Floyd’s The Wall” in that it’s still very much a concert movie rather than a dramatic recreation of the story, but it’s as good or better than many of this year’s other concert offerings. (*koff*Shine a Light*koff*) Certainly being a fan of Lou Reed’s musical swagger will help, but this film is a terrific introduction to this misunderstood and maligned material. The band’s encore of the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says,” a duet with Antony–apparently mandated to appear in every music film and tribute doc–is quite memorable and the more recent song “The Rock Minuet” fits in well with the earlier material. Both are fine moments to cap off the show, though the grudging version of “Sweet Jane” seems tacked on merely to appease the more pop-minded Lou Reed fans who might rudely be yelling “Sweet Jane!!” at the screen for 70 minutes before then.

After playing Toronto, Tribeca and numerous film festivals, Lou Reed’s Berlin opens on Friday at the Film Forum in New York and if you’ve ever been a fan of Lou Reed or the Velvet Underground, it’s a concert movie worth seeking out.

Honorable Mention:

Felon (Stage 6 Films)
Starring Stephen Dorff, Val Kilmer, Sam Shephard, Harold Perrineau, Marisol Nichols
Written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Rated R
Tagline: “No Rules. No Hope. No Way Out.”
Plot Summary: Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) is a family man who accidentally kills a burglar while trying to protect his family. He is charged for murder and sent to the notorious California prison where he ends up in the wrong place and wrong time. After being sent to the Security Housing Unit where the prison’s most dangerous offenders are held, Wade is forced into violent gladiatorial matches with other inmates by the ruthless head of the division (Harold Perrineau) while befriending his cellmate, the life-long inmate John Smith (Val Kilmer).

This stirring prison drama opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.

Interview with Ric Roman Waugh

Mini-Review (Coming Soon!)

Also in Limited Release:

A Very British Gangster (Anywhere Road) – This documentary from reporter Donal Macyntire examines the life of Manchester gangster Dominic Noonan, who leads a band of young men and boys in acts of murder, kidnapping and the sale of narcotics. It opens in L.A. and at the Cinema Village in New York.

Mini-Review: Paced like an extended newspiece and shot about as well, this documentary about an untouchable British mobster, Manchester’s answer to John Gotti, may have made a more interesting movie if it spent more time trying to get into the motivations behind Dominic Noonan’s crimes, rather than just following him around and allowing him to play up to the cameras. Sure, he makes some funny jokes and there’s some poignancy to the scenes where he mourns his dead brother, but you might be left wondering why anyone would want to give this guy the attention and humanize him in order to glorify the criminal lifestyle he leads? In his attempt to remain unbiased and get continued access, Macyntire doesn’t get into the real heart of the matter, which is how Noonan justifies all of his alleged involvement in kidnappings and murder, all of which he shrugs off with a wink and a smile having not ben convicted of any of them. It’s not particularly well shot and Macintyre is too in love with his musical soundtrack without spending the time necessary to make the sound mix consistent so that the music in some scenes don’t jump out too loud over others. As much as I hate to sound like Jeffrey Lyons, many of the characters are hard to understand and the film could have benefited from subtitles even with everyone speaking English albeit in heavy Mancunian accents. There are a few revelations about Noonan’s sexuality, which may be surprising but otherwise, there isn’t too much depth to his character, and it’s a fairly inconsistent effort assembled in a slipshod manner that doesn’t do much to help one understand where this British gangster is coming from. Rating: 6/10

The Doorman (Gigantic Pictures) – This faux documentary from Wayne Price follows the day-to-day activities of Trevor W. (Lucas Akoskin), a New York doorman at an exclusive club who knows everybody, but who falls upon hard times when he’s blacklisted. It opens at the Village East Cinemas in New York.

Mini-Review: The influences for this poorly-made mock documentary are fairly obvious and if Lucas Akoskin was even 1/10th as funny as Sacha Baron Cohen, this movie might have worked. Instead, the movie puts the clearly unfunny Akoskin into all sorts of situations as his character Trevor, a club doorman who knows just everybody and vice versa, and it gets annoying so quickly that no matter of good will can save it. There really isn’t very much if any story here, and we’re never made to understand why anyone would want to see a movie about Trevor or why anyone might care when he gets fired and blacklisted from the club “industry.” Trevor’s search for a new job is accompanied by fake interviews from many in the New York club scene, probably friends of the director or producer who were game for playing along with this mockery of a sham. The problems always return to this ridiculous character played by the absolutely uncharismatic Akoskin and his silly buffoonery, acting effeminate and sporting an undiscernable foreign accent, because apparently, that’s enough to get laughs in this day and age. Even the attempts at physical humor as we watch Trevor working out and doing yoga fall short because it’s just another character acting like an idiot to try and get laughs. Like Borat and Bruno, Trevor does a few fake interviews trying to find a job and it’s surprising how much of a trooper filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich is to sit through a lunch with Akoskin’s character grilling him about joining the cast of “The Sopranos. There really are only a few even remotely funny scenes, one involving Trevor and one of the cast of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” who presumes Trevor is gay, but the fact that this is about as funny as the movie gets is fairly telling and few people will be able to get that far into it. On top of that, this isn’t a very well made film, and Wayne Price, who appears in this “doc” as himself, has very little charisma or personality even compared with Trevor, but the movie’s shoe-string budget is worn on its sleeve, knowing full well that there’s a limited audience for this sort of movie. If Borat is seen as an homage to precursors such as Yakov Smirnoff or Andy Kaufman’s Latke, then Trevor W is a carbon copy of a color Xerox and a poor man’s attempt at getting the same laughs without having nearly the talent or ability to improvise in situations. That alone single-handedly makes this one of the most moronic and pointless exercises using the mockumentary format so far, and Sacha Baron Cohen has no worries about these young upstarts stealing any of his glory. Rating: 3/10

Two movies opening at the IFC Center in New York on Friday are:

Mad Detective (IFC Films) – Johnnie To’s latest crime thriller is about the hunt for a serial killer by a rookie cop, who is teamed with a detective with the supernatural powers to see people’s “inner personalities.”

Before I Forget (Strand Releasing) – Jacques Nolot wrote, directs and stars in this drama about a former gay street hustler trying to deal with his age, poverty, loneliness and the complications of HIV after the death of his rich benefactor that threatens to send him back to the streets he left behind 30 years prior.

Take (Liberation Entertainment) – Charles Oliver’s drama stars Minnie Driver and Jeremy Renner as two people whose lives tragically intersected seven years prior and what happens when they are reunited in the present as one of them spends his last hours on death row for what happened. It opens in New York at the Landmark Sunshine on Friday and in L.A. on July 25.

Transsiberian (First Look) – Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer and Sir Ben Kingsley star in this new thriller from Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) about a young couple taking the train across Russia and getting caught up in a web of intrigue involving drug smugglers and corrupt cops. It opens at the Angelika Film Center in New York on Friday.

My Thoughts from Sundance

Interview with Brad Anderson


Next week, the month of July comes to a close with two very different movies, the return of Mulder and Scully in the new movie The X-Files: I Want to Believe, and the return of Ferrell and Reilly in the R-rated comedy Step Brothers. The Truth may be out there, but so are an excessive amount of F-bombs.

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