The Weekend Warrior: September 5 – 7

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.

It’s the weekend after Labor Day, another notorious dumping ground for studios who know full well that with school back in session everywhere, people take a break from going to movies after the huge summer movie season. After a dismal weekend with most of the new movies underperforming, this weekend sees only one new movie, the Pang Brothers’ remake of their Asian action-thriller Bangkok Dangerous (Lionsgate), this time starring Nicolas Cage. With no other new movies, it shouldn’t have much problem being #1 but going by past September kick-off weekends–how could anyone forget five years ago when David Spade’s Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star won the weekend with just $6.7 million?–it could claim that position with less than $15 million, although one would think that $10 million is in its reach based on Cage and the genre alone.

Without going too far out on a limb, we can predict that this will be one of the worst weekends at the box office in quite some time with the Top 10 grossing less than $50 million, although the lack of new movies might open more room for the better returning movies and independents to bring in a bit more business this weekend.

This week’s Chosen One is the French period drama A Secret (Strand Releasing) starring Cecile de France and Ludivine Sagnier, which you can read about below.

This Week’s Predictions -

1. Bangkok Dangerous (Lionsgate) – $10.7 million N/A

2. Tropic Thunder (DreamWorks) – $7.3 million -37%

3. The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.) – $5.5 million -36%

4. The House Bunny (Sony) – $4.6 million -45%

5. Traitor (Overture Films) – $4.5 million -43%

6. Babylon A.D. (20th Century Fox) – $3.8 million -61%

7. Death Race (Universal) – $3.4 million -46%

8. Mamma Mia! (Universal) – $2.8 million -35%

9. Disaster Movie (Lionsgate) – $2.5 million -57%

10. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (MGM/Weinstein) – $2.1 million -25%

This weekend last year, Lionsgate had relative success with James (Walk the Line) Mangold’s remake of the Western 3:10 to Yuma, starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, which opened at #1 with $14 million in 2,652 theaters, beating out New Line’s action flick Shoot ‘Em Up starring Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti, which tanked with just $5.5 million. Even so, that movie didn’t do nearly as bad as the Sony comedy The Brothers Solomon with Will Arnett and Will Forte, which didn’t even make it into the Top 10 with its measly $510 thousand in 700 theatres, averaging less than $800 per site. The Top 10 grossed under $62 million, which should still be significantly more than this weekend’s movies gross unless Nicolas Cage’s action movie really explodes.


THE BATTLE CRY

Thanks a lot for all the comments last week about this sporadic section of the column. I’ll try to continue with these as time permits, although next week I can guarantee there won’t be a “Battle Cry” as well as a stripped-down column

The summer is officially over and looking back in hindsight is always fun and interesting, if not a bit humiliating, especially if you reread my Summer Box Office Preview where I got a couple right but only a couple. I certainly had no idea that The Dark Knight would gross $500 million, more than twice the gross of the previous installment Batman Begins, even though I figured it would do very well. I also thought “Indiana Jones” would bring in a lot of business, and I did nail how much it would make, but it had to settle for #3 this summer behind Iron Man. Let’s not even talk about Disney’s “Prince Caspian” or WALL•E, my projected #3 and 4 movies, though at least the latter didn’t do so badly. I certainly didn’t see Michael Myers having his first major bomb in years, nor Adam Sandler’s latest comedy disappointing so much after the commercial went over so well during the Super Bowl earlier this year.

But looking back, who were the real winners of the summer? As far as distributors, we have to give a high five to Paramount, who did very well this summer and would have come out on top as predicted if not for the merger of New Line with Warner Bros. that pushed it over the top. While Paramount’s biggest movies of the summer were produced by DreamWorks and Marvel Studios, you have to give them credit for marketing those movies in a way that got enough people excited to see them in theatres, multiple times in fact. It started with Iron Man opening to nearly $100 million, and it had grossed $250 million by the time Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opened, although both would end up grossing over $300 million. DreamWorks’ summer animated movie Kung Fu Panda did similar business to Pixar’s summer offering, something we haven’t seen for any non-”Shrek” movie from the studio’s animated division. That might have been it for the studio, but after having difficulty opening comedies with three back-to-back flops from stars like Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Mike Myers–the latter’s The Love Guru being the studio’s only misstep–Paramount proved they were able to market comedy with the late summer success of Tropic Thunder, which has been #1 for the past three weekends, following four weekends of The Dark Knight holding that spot. If you look at how well movies marketed and released by Paramount fared this summer, following two $300 million blockbusters in the summer of ’07, it’s clear that the studio has come out of an apparent slump where it couldn’t have a hit no matter how hard it tried. You can get a clearer of that by looking at Paramount’s box office track record; the movies from this summer and last stand out amongst a movies that mainly opened in 2000 and earlier.

The real winner for this summer in terms of box office has to be Warner Bros. mainly due to the unbelievable success of just one movie, which we probably don’t have to mention anymore than we have already, although their other substantial summer hit was their remake of Get Smart, also produced by Chuck Rovin. Warner Bros. also distributed two hits produced by New Line, the Sex and the City movie, which grossed $152 million, and the 3D family adventure Journey to the Center of the Earth, which has grossed an amazing $95 million, about 4.5 times its opening weekend. Detracting from that success, Warner Bros. also released Speed Racer and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, neither which came even close to grossing the $100 million we thought they should be able to make based on the filmmakers involved.

The other studio that had a notably good summer was Universal who released three big action movies based on comic book properties: The Incredible Hulk, followed by Wanted and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Maybe their “Mummy” franchise has stagnated a bit with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor having not even grossed $100 million, but two of those comic properties grossed over $130 million after $50 million openings. The movie that proved the most successful for the studio (compared to its budget) was their big screen version of the musical Mamma Mia!, which has grossed $130 million in the past five weeks, and probably will pass “Hulk” and Wanted very soon. “Hellboy II” ended up with $75 million domestically and another $25 million internationally, which could warrant a third movie some day. Sony’s big hit was Will Smith’s 4th of July action movie Hancock, which grossed $226 million, less than the first Men in Black but more than its sequel, but their two comedies, Sandler’s “Zohan” and the R-Rated Step Brothers failed to make $100 million despite big stars.

Unfortunately, the studio that is the biggest loser of the summer would have to be 20th Century Fox, who just couldn’t get a hit, even with what seemed like a no-brainer in the return of “The X-Files” franchise. They started the summer with a romantic comedy hit in What Happens in Vegas with Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz, but things went downhill from there. M. Night Shyamanlan’s The Happening opened better than expected with $30 million, but it tanked after that, followed by back-to-back family bombs including Eddie Murphy’s Meet Dave, and then the studio’s intended tentpole The X-Files: I Want to Believe grossed less than $22 million total. While Mirrors is doing okay for a late summer horror movie, their final summer movie Babylon A.D. with Vin Diesel just joined their list of bombs, and their hopes for the year rest on longshots that will try to appeal to genre fans.

Otherwise, the indies and smaller subsidiaries like Focus Features had trouble getting moviegoers away from the big movies, making them the other losers of the summer, particularly Lionsgate, who once again proved they’re unable to open a summer movie. The closest we had to an “indie” hit was when Rogue Pictures’ The Strangers grossed $50 million after being delayed for years, but the movie was also distributed and marketed by big brother Universal. The success of Overture Films’ Traitor over this past Labor Day weekend, scoring the top per-theater average of a new movie in wide release is a good sign that they’ll be a player in the coming years.

In terms of the filmmakers, certainly Robert Downey Jr. would be at the top of the list of winners as he bookended the summer with two big hits that did far better than anyone expected. Certainly, Downey’s popularity playing Tony Stark in Iron Man helped get people interested in seeing him in Ben Stiller’s comedy Tropic Thunder, even if he was barely recognizable as a white actor playing a black soldier in a Vietnam War movie. Still, it was Downey Jr.’s memorable lines that sold the movie and have gotten many people back to the tune of $83 million in three weekends, and it should be a strong contender over the next month as well. It’s clearly the comeback of the century when you consider that he was an actor who was in jail eight years ago for his drug problems, and in the last few years, he was mainly appearing in indie movies that did disappointing business despite critical raves for Downey’s performances.

The other big winner is Christopher Nolan who returned to the Batman franchise, but went out on a limb by making a very different movie from Batman Begins, one that diverged further from the comic books and past movies, a decision that paid off due to the casting of the late Heath Ledger, and the cult-like fanbase that flocked to see the movie repeatedly, mostly at higher IMAX ticket prices.

In the end, the real winners this summer were the moviegoers, who got a lot of great movies, but also whom finally decided that life is too short to waste money on bad movies, voting with their dollars so that dogs like Mike Myers’ The Love Guru and George Lucas’ Star Wars: The Clone Wars and the latest in a line of spoof movies Disaster Movie wouldn’t take their hard-earned dollars.



Bangkok Dangerous (Lionsgate)
Starring Nicolas Cage, Shahkrit Yamnarm, Charlie Yeung, Panward Hemmanee, Nirattisai Kaljaruek, Dom Hetrakul
Directed by Danny and Oxide Pang (The Messengers, The Eye, Bangkok Dangerous); Written by Jason Richman (Swing Vote)
Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller
Rated R
Tagline: “There’s only one way out.”
Plot Summary: A ruthless assassin known only as “Joe” (Nicolas Cage) travels to Thailand to stage a hit on four enemies of a crime boss, and ends up mentoring a street pickpocket (Shahkrit Yamnarm) and falling for a local shop girl. By letting his defenses down while trying to find his humanity, Joe becomes a target himself when the person who hired him tries to tie up loose ends.

In case the Asian remake thing hadn’t gotten completely out of hand already, the Pang Brothers, who originally directed The Eye, one of the Asian movies that was recently remade, have made an English language version of their earlier movie Bangkok Dangerous as a vehicle for the prolific Nicolas Cage, who has built a solid career as an action star since he first appeared in the movies of Jerry Bruckheimer.

Over the past seven years I’ve been writing this column, I must have written about Nicolas Cage’s career maybe a dozen times or more, so I’m not going to do that again. One thing that can definitely be said is that his career choices have been very erratic, as has been his track record at the box office, something you can see by looking at his box office chart. Just look at last year where in between the $115 million made by Ghost Rider and $220 million made by National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Cage also starred in the long-delayed Next, which grossed just $18 million. That’s pretty messed up, if you think about it, but in theory, a crime drama starring Nicolas Cage should do well based on past movies especially if it promises some action, because that’s the kind of movie that Cage’s mostly male fans thrive upon. Possibly the closest comparison for this one is the last movie he made for Lionsgate, the 2005 action-thriller Lord of War, which was also released in September, although later in the month. Like that movie (and Next for that matter), Bangkok Dangerous was finished a long time ago, actually back in May 2007, and has been sitting on the shelf for a while. It was originally supposed to be released during the summer but then was delayed until this less-than-ideal weekend. At one point, it was thought that a movie being delayed so much before being released was bad for it, but we’ve seen many times (and as recently as the summer horror hit The Strangers) that delaying a movie gives time for the filmmakers to work on it and for the studio to figure out a marketing strategy.

That being said, only one movie has ever opened in the weekend after Labor Day with more than $15 million, that being the horror-thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose which exploded with a $30 million opening making it the third biggest September opener to date. Otherwise, very few movies opening this weekend have grossed more than $10 million, last year’s Western 3:10 to Yuma (also from Lionsgate) being one of the few exceptions. The fact that Bangkok Dangerous is opening by itself will certainly help it to cross that mark, although there have been lots of high-profile movies (with PG-13 ratings no less) that haven’t been able to make $10 million their opening weekend, including Screen Gems’ The Covenant and others.

This is the Pang Brothers’ second English-language movie–or at least we assume it’s mostly in English despite taking place in Thailand–after last year’s horror-thriller The Messengers, another movie that was delayed with rumored reshoots though it ended up doing fine when finally released. Even though Lionsgate is pushing the movie as an action-packed crime-thriller ala last year’s Shoot ‘Em Up (which bombed despite a strong marketing campaign), the movie’s probably more of a character drama than some might expect which might ultimately hurt its legs, especially with a number of stronger movies opening a week later. In general, the movie will only appeal to older guys, since it’s doubtful teen males and women will have much interest in the premise.

The movie doesn’t look too bad thanks to a decent trailer and dynamic posters that focus fully on Cage, the only known actor in the movie, at least here in the States. (It’s actually kind of odd that the brothers Pang didn’t bring back any of the actors from the original movie.) It’s another example of Lionsgate’s policy not to screen their movies for critics, which immediately makes one think the movie either isn’t very good or they have little confidence in it. Either way, it will probably hurt the movie as it has some of their other recent movies, since fewer people will know about the movie’s release and the lack of reviews might be enough to get others to avoid it. With few other choices, there’s a chance that moviegoers will give this one a look due to Cage, but it probably won’t open very big and will lose business against stronger movies opening next weekend.

Why I Should See It: The Pang Brothers are true visionaries and making an action-thriller with Nicolas Cage should be an interesting venture for them.
Why Not: Cage is spotty as an actor and with his knack for picking erratic and non-commercial projects, combined with the fact Lionsgate isn’t screening this for critics in advance (again) is worrying about whether the movie stands up to the trailer. .
Projections: $10 to 12 million opening weekend and roughly $28 million total.

COMPARISONS


THE CHOSEN ONE:

It’s not often that we’ve changed our “Chosen One” in hindsight, but we picked Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django last week since it was one of the few good movies we’d seen. This past weekend, I was able to catch Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England (Sony Pictures Classics), and I’m pretty sure it would have been my “Chosen One” if I’d seen it. You can read my mini-review here. This week’s “Chosen One” actually deals with similar subject matter and era, though in a different country.


A Secret (Strand Releasing)
Starring Cecile De France, Patrick Bruel, Ludivine Sagnier, Julie Depardieu, Mathieu Amalric
Written and directed by Claude Miller (La Petite Lili, The Accompanist, The Little Thief) with
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Memoir
Not Rated
Plot Summary: Adapted from Philippe Grimbert’s autobiographical novel “Memory” about an imaginative young Jewish boy named Francois who invents an imaginary brother and a secret history for his family while growing up in post-WWII France. When Françoise turns 15, learns that his father Maxime (Patrick Bruel) and mother (Cécile de France) held a dark family secret about his father’s previous wife (Ludivine Sagnier) and the son they had together before the war.

While not too many French films have been considered worthy of “The Chosen One,” this has been a great year for films from that country, first with the thriller Roman de Gare earlier this year and the upcoming I’ve Loved You So Long, plus this new adaptation of a best-selling memoir based on the family secret of the author that had haunted his father for decades. Coming off his stirring turn in Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Mathieu Amalric plays the present day Francois, who narrates the story in a similar way as that standout French film from last year, although halfway through the movie, it becomes more about his father’s reflections than his own. The first half of the movie deals with François growing up as a meek and sickly boy, who is brainy and studious but a disappointment to his athletic father, though we don’t find out why until much later. François has created an imaginary brother who can do all the things he can’t, but that story line is very much a red herring despite its relevance to the overall story.

Director Claude Miller is another one of France’s veteran filmmakers who’s made movies for many decades, and that experience is quite evident from the way every scene is beautifully shot with a glossy look not found in many other WWII movies, not even this year’s Academy award winner The Counterfeiters. The film uses an interesting non-linear structure to jump back and froth in time with the twist being that Miller shot the present day scenes in black and white with the flashbacks being full of color. I sometimes take issue with putting flashbacks within a movie that’s essentially a flashback, but in this case, it’s necessary for the unveiling of the big revelation in the story. Since we already know where things end up, it’s not hard to figure out where the backstory is going, and it does seem to slow down, although it’s no less shocking to see things play out, because it’s surprising that so many of the people around the family could keep it a secret so long. Certainly the passage of time and the growth of the characters is handled better than recent movies like Savage Grace and much of that has to do with the great performances by the three principles: Patrick Bruel, Ludivine Sagnier and Cecile de France, a love triangle that takes time to develop. De France looks amazing in the film and when she’s wearing a tight-fitting one-piece bathing suit, you can understand why any man would lust after. (She isn’t nearly as convincing in the modern-day scenes because she looks far too young to be Almaric’s mother.) The rest of the cast is equally good, including the younger actors who play the two boys in the story, all of them handling the subject matter with class. This is certainly a different film than what we’ve seen, exploring the Jewish experience in France leading up to WWII, and how anti-Semitism forced many Jews to turn their back on their Jewish heritage in order to survive. Maybe it’s my own family background or just the way that the story is unpeeled layer by layer, but it’s a somber and haunting personal film told with the scope of “The Godfather” trilogy that’s sure to leave a lasting impression on anyone who sees it.

A Secret opens in New York at the IFC Film Center and the Paris Theatre, which also celebrates its 60th Anniversary this month.

Honorable Mention:

Mister Foe (Magnolia)
Starring Jamie Bell, Ciarán Hinds, Sophia Myles, Claire Forlani, Ewen Bremner
Written and directed by David McKenzie (Young Adam, Asylum) with Ed Whitmore (based on the novel “Hallam Foe” by Peter Jinks.
Genre: Drama
Rated R
Tagline: “Some people see life differently.”
Plot Summary: Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell) is a troubled young Scottish man with a penchant for spying on his family including his father (Ciarán Hinds) and new stepmother (Claire Forlani) who he believes to have killed his mother. Running away to Edinburgh, Hallam gets a job at a hotel and finds a new peeping subject in the hotel’s pretty manager (Sophia Myles) who bears more than a passing resemblance to his dead mother.

Mister Foe opens at the Angelika Film Center in New York on Friday.

Mini-Review: Closer in tone and feel to McKenzie’s earlier movie “Young Adam” than his 2005 adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s “Asylum” (which greatly benefited from a script by Patrick Marber), “Mister Foe” similarly follows the journey of an outsider, this time being Jamie Bell’s Hallam Foe, a shy and sullen loner trying to get over the alleged suicide of his mother. The film spends some time with Hallam spying on those around him, trying to find proof his wealthy father (another great role for Ciaran Hinds) was responsible for his mother’s death, a slow and quiet way to set-up a story that shows its first signs of intensity with a fiery confrontation with his manipulative stepmother, played by Claire Forlani. Afterwards, Hallam runs away to Edinburgh and the film gets progressively more interesting as Hallam interacts with the various characters at the hotel including eccentric fellow workers played by Ewen Bremner and Maurice Roeves. The comely Sophia Myles gives a revelatory performance as the damaged hotel manager whose innocent relationship with Hallam is perverse due to his creepy obsession with watching her and seeing her as his mother. Like “Young Adam,” the film isn’t afraid to bare its fangs when necessary, nor does it shy away from graphic sexuality, but it does maintain your interest in this character who one might not assume would be particularly interesting at first. Much of that comes down to this being the first movie in some time where we get to really see what Bell is capable of as an actor. Though he doesn’t talk for much of the movie, when he opens his mouth, he’s clever and funny and far more likable than Ewan McGregor in “Young Adam,” and the story itself is far more focused. The voyeuristic nature of the film does create many quiet scenes of just watching Hallam peeping on his subject, and it’s hard to adjust to the disjointed pace, but McKenzie does an exemplary job creating a distinctive mood with the film’s music and camera shots. You probably couldn’t find a better filmmaker who can capture Edinburgh as beautifully as McKenzie does, as one admires Hallam’s ability to navigate the rooftops and ledges of the city to get a better view of his latest subject. There are a few odd decisions that keeps the movie from completely winning you over like the strange opening credit animation that seems to have little in common with the rest of the film, but ultimately, it’s a strong character-driven story with many terrific scenes and a satisfying resolution where everyone gets their due. It’s a striking film but certainly more of one that grows on you rather than one that’s immediately compelling. Rating: 7.5/10

Also in Limited Release:

The Pool (Vitagraph Films) – Chris Smith (American Movie) travels to India for this adaptation of Randy Russelll’s short story about an 18-year-old Indian boy (Venkatesh Chavan) who works for pennies at a hotel whom dreams of diving into the pristine swimming pool of the upper class family living next door. In order to achieve his goal, he starts working for the head of household and hanging out with his teen daughter, causing a rift with his much younger best friend. It opens on Wednesday, exclusively at the
Film Forum in New York.

Mini-Review: This is such a different movie from the Americana Chris Smith has covered in his previous films, so it’s almost hard to believe he’s the filmmaker behind it, but it’s a refreshing departure that gives us a different glimpse at the people of India than we’ve seen in common Bollywood fare. Other filmmakers have explored similar observational storytelling, such as Gus Van Sant and Ramin Bahrani, and Smith similarly cast mostly unknown actors to play the characters, making the story seem more realistic than it would have with actors. There’s certainly something intriguing about first-timer Venkatesh Chavan as a simple working class teen that makes it easy to take pleasure in watching him and his young orphan friend Jhangir going through their day-to-day lives. When he’s not working long hours at a hotel, Venkatesh spends his time longingly admiring and fantasizing about the pristine swimming pool next door, coming up with a gameplan to have a chance to swim in it, unlike their owners. Teaching himself how to garden, the young man makes contact with the head of the household, offering to help him with his garden, while also practically stalking his rebellious teen daughter Ayesha. Jhangir is privy to Venkatesh’s plans and the two of them hang out with the girl and become friends, but it’s obvious Venkatesh has interest in her beyond wanting a chance to swim in her pool, but it ends up coming between the two friends. It’s fairly obvious that Nana Patekar is the most experienced actor in the cast, playing Venkatesh’s wealthy benefactor, but the interaction between the four characters always seems natural and enjoyable. Even though it’s not shot in a flashy way, Smith handling much of the camerawork himself, the film does have a great look due to the organic way he captures the characters and their surroundings. While at times, not a lot happens, it’s the quiet and subtle way that it follows Venkatesh doing what it takes to achieve his dreams and facing the consequences that follow, which makes this fable of a tale such a pleasant experience. Rating: 7/10

August Evening (Maya Entertainment) – Chris Eska’s independent drama centering around a pair of illegal immigrants living in San Antonio who try to work through the deaths of a number of close family members while finding jobs and a place to live. The winner of the John Cassavates Award for Best Feature under $500,000 at the Independent Spirit Awards, this poignant drama opens at the Village East Cinemas in New York on Friday, then in San Antonio on Sept. 19 and Los Angeles on Sept. 26.

Mini-Review: Like “The Pool” (reviewed above), this is a slice-of-life movie based around the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, in this case Mexican farmworker Jaime (Pedro Castaneda) and his widowed daughter-in-law Lupe (Veronica Loren), as they try to move on following the death of Jaime’s wife and son while trying to find work and a place to call home. The subject of undocumented immigrants is a timely one, but unlike other recent movies, it’s not thrown in your face, instead dealing with the very human story of these two damaged individuals trying to get their lives back together. It’s rather sad to see Jamie suffering from poverty while being passed off from one of his remaining children to another as they try to create lives for themselves separate from their Mexican heritage. Much of the film deals with Jaime’s attempt to find work and to reconnect with his one living son Victor (Abel Becerra), but they’re all trying to set Lupe up with a new man so she can get over her dead husband, but she doesn’t feel that Jaime can be left on his own. Some may be surprised watching the movie how many of the characters are played by first-time actors, but that might account for why they all seem like real people, and why the interaction seems natural rather than scripted. The results really makes you feel for these two lonely souls going through hard times, although it’s not all sadness and tears. The movie is often uplifting with a couple warm and witty scenes, the best of them being the moments between Lupe and her suitor Luis, played by Walter Perez, a relationship so sweet and touching you may question why Lupe is so hung-up on her ex that she’s not willing to reciprocate his feelings despite their obvious chemistry. Some might also find it strange that for much of the film, she carries around an acoustic guitar without actually playing it, even after it becomes a third act plot device with no explanation for why she owns it. (One might imagine she would pull it out and sing a song called “August Evening” sometimes towards the end, but that never happens.) First-time filmmaker Chris Eska doesn’t just try to watch these characters’ lives or tell their story, as much as create a mood and tone for the film by exploring the beauty of their surroundings with beautifully-shot random images of their environments. It’s a technique used most notably by the likes of Wong Kar-Wai, and they’re accompanied by haunting ambient music that makes quite a counterpoint to the otherwise low-fi production values. Either way, it’s hard not to get frustrated with the movie’s deliberately slow pace, and there’s absolutely no reason why this movie has to be over two hours long since so little happens, and Eska should have been able to get from Point A to Point B without as many tangents. Despite its slow pace and excessive length, it’s still a striking debut from the filmmaker that thrives on the simplicity of the characters and storytelling. Rating: 7/10

Everybody Wants to be Italian (Roadside Attractions) – Jake (Jay Jablonski) has spent ten years trying to win back his ex-girlfriend who has been married to another man with three children, so his Italian co-workers at the fish store set him up with a beautiful woman (Cerina Vincent) they think is Italian, and convince him to pretend he’s Italian as well. The madcap romantic comedy from Jason Todd Ipson opens in select cities (and roughly 80 theaters) on Friday.

Mini-Review: Central casting explodes onto the screen with a movie that throws every possible Italian stereotype and cliché into the mix of a corny and formulaic romantic comedy, hoping to capitalize on the ethnic draw of its title in the same way as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” but without the quality of writing, storytelling and acting that made that film what it was. Instead, this movie is likely to hurt your brain trying to figure out why anyone might have any interest in the hopeless schmuck played by Jay Jablonski, whose friends try to set him up with Angie, a sexy woman clearly out of his league. You do have to admit that Jablonski and Vincent do make a cute couple and they have a couple nice scenes together that won’t make you want to barf or kill the both of them, but why they needed a ridiculously silly plot device of them both pretending their Italian is confounding. There’s no guy on the planet dumb enough to continue chasing his less attractive married ex-girlfriend, even as he gets closer to Angie. The movie unapologetically rips off “When Harry Met Sally” as the two try to be friends, but after that, the plot grinds along using every possible formulaic plot device to get Jake and Angie together, break them up, then get them back together again, forcing the story into all sorts of odd shapes to try and make things work out in their relationship. The corny dialogue and hammy acting are compounded by the movie’s continuous bad taste in the form of sexist comments about women made by Jake’s horny married buddies at the fish shop who are an embarrassment not just to Italians, but to the entire male gender. It’s an old trick trying to make the males characters in a chick flick look worse, but they go too far by being offensive to the film’s biggest potential audience. Not that it matters, because there aren’t real people, as all of them, particularly the women, are just bad movie stereotypes. The movie just gets dumber and dumber as it goes along to the predictable ending, but then to make matter worse, the filmmakers proudly fess up to their Danish background in the end credits, as if that might help cover their own butts. Unlike the excellent Danish rom-com “Italian for Beginners,” this is just pointless and dumb, and probably as insulting to Italians as it is to women, essentially formula filmmaking for idiots who need to be spoon-fed their entertainment. If Italians had their own term for “schmaltzy,” this awful, derivative and painfully cringe-worthy piece of steaming crap would be the most loathsome example of such an adjective. You’d be well advised to skip it. Rating: 2.5/10

Ping Pong Playa (IFC Films) – Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu (Protagonist) directs this comedy starring Jimmy Tsai as Christopher “C-Dub” Wang, a cocky Asian-American guy who has to fill-in for his brother teaching a group of kids to play ping pong and mentoring a young boy named Felix, but who ends up defending the family honor against a tough competitor in a tournament. It opens in New York, L.A. and San Francisco on Friday.

Mini-Review: Your enjoyment of this movie might depend heavily on your tolerance for Jimmy Tsai’s over-the-top characterization of a cocky Chinese guy who is constantly cracking wise to everyone. The sad truth is that Tsai isn’t nearly as funny as he thinks he is, and you might wish there was more to his character than just a no-good slacker who talks like he’s black and thinks he’s God’s gift to basketball and women. There are a couple of funny bits like seeing him beating a group of kids at basketball, but they’re just bits, and in general, the writing isn’t particularly strong, as everyone seems to be trying to hard, and the movie is just too self-aware of its own influences, referencing many of them by name. The story itself isn’t bad, though kind of obvious, turning into a “Bad News Bears” like sports comedy with “C-Dub” teaching a group of outcast kids how to play ping-pong. Of course, there’s a pretty girl who he’s interested in and a close buddy who quarrels with him, but all the characters are obvious plug-in comedy cliches, which leaves it up to the kids to save the movie. It seems somewhat strange that an American-Asian character would make so many cracks about Chinese ethnic stereotypes, which seems about as appropriate as a Polish person making Polish jokes, but even odder is the decision to cut between the regular story and “C-Dub” being interviewed by some local community television show, something that adds absolutely nothing to the movie. Jessica Yu doesn’t do a bad with her first dramatic feature, editing together what is obviously a no-budget indie with music to make it seem like it has better production values, but this movie is a strange choice, the extreme polar opposite to her poignant and thought-provoking documentaries. (It’s never good when the montages are funnier than the actual written jokes.) While one can give the movie credit for setting a movie within the Chinese-American community that’s easier to palate than last week’s fairy tale “Year of the Fish,” the movie overall is just really dull, predictable and unoriginal compared to other stronger Asiamerican-centric comedies like Justin Lin’s “Finishing the Game” or Michael Kang’s “The Motel.” Like this week’s “Everybody Wants to be Italian,” you have to wonder whether it can appeal to the ethnic demographic represented let alone anyone else, since the main character is so annoyingly silly it’s hard to put up with him for an entire movie. Rating: 4/10

Save Me (First Run Features) – In Robert Cary’s drama, Chad Allen plays a sex and drug addicted gay man enrolled into Genesis House, a Christian ministry run by a couple (Judith Light, Stephen Lang) determined to cure homosexual men of their demons.

Surfer, Dude (Anchor Bay) – Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Scott Glenn and Willie Nelson star in S. R. Bindler’s comedy about professional surfer Steve Addington (McConaughey) who returns home to Malibu to find that it’s vibe has been corrupted by video game and reality TV companies who want to sponsor him. Refusing to surf for corporate sponsors, Steve finds himself out of work even as the local waves flatline leaving him with a tough choice. It opens in Austin this weekend and then in more cities on September 12.


Next week, the Weekend Warrior will be in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival, but we hope to have a stripped-down column about the four wide releases. Tyler Perry is back (as if he’ll ever go away) with Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys (Lionsgate). Al Pacino and Robert De Niro reunite for the first time since Michael Mann’s Heat in Righteous Kill (Overture). George Clooney and Brad Pitt continue to be inseparable in the Coen Brothers comedy Burn After Reading (Focus), and the week’s token chick flick is Diane English’ The Women (Picturehouse), starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Debra Messing.

Copyright 2008 Edward Douglas

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