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.
Apologies that this week’s column is once again late, but we got a bit sidelined trying to wrap up our coverage of Toronto Film Festival and hopefully, we’ll be back on Tuesdays staring next week. (In the meantime, we hope you enjoy all of the mini-reviews we included of movies opening this weekend.)
After a weekend with three $15 million openers, four new movies try to pick up some of their own market share, but the top spot is likely to go to one of the two new movies, the suburban thriller Lakeview Terrace (Screen Gems/Sony) with Samuel L. Jackson as a racist cop or the R-rated rom-com My Best Friend’s Girl (Lionsgate), which pairs Dane Cook and Kate Hudson. The latter might have a slight theater count advantage, but it’s riding on the gut instinct that the fans of Kate Hudson will supercede those of Dane Cook and be into seeing another high concept R-rated romantic comedy. “Lakeview’s” PG-13 rating might make all the difference and the fact that Screen Gems has actually been screening their movie for critics, while Lionsgate once again has not, might be what it takes to give erratic box office star Samuel L. Jackson a slight advantage over a movie by three stars coming off generally bad movies. It should be a close race either way, and it might come down to which movie stands up better over the weekend after people see them on Friday.
The first family film in months is the computer animated Igor (MGM), featuring the voices of John Cusack, Ian McShane and other. While this is the first animated movie to be distributed by MGM, it’s only getting a moderate release as it hopes to capture the magic that made Hoodwinked! the highest grossing non-Dimension movie from The Weinstein Company to date. Even with few family films in theaters, this is catering to a market that’s likely to wait until November for the duo of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Bolt rather than wasting money on a lesser movie.
What’s probably going to end up being the best reviewed new movie of the weekend will probably also end up doing the least business, as David Koepp’s Ghost Town (DreamWorks) starring Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni is getting a moderate release while suffering from a confusing and disjointed marketing campaign that doesn’t seem to know how to sell it. It’s going to be this year’s DreamWorks throwaway movie before they kick out the jams with next week’s Eagle Eye, though it should bring in some of Gervais’ American fans waiting for him to have a leading role that plays to his strengths.
1. Lakeview Terrace (Screen Gems) – $14.7 million N/A (up .2)
2. My Best Friend’s Girl (Lionsgate) – $12.8 million N/A (down .4)
3. Burn After Reading (Focus Features) – $10.9 million -43% (same)
4. Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys (Lionsgate) – $8.9 million -50% (same)
5. Righteous Kill (Overture) – $8.6 million -47% (same)
6. Igor (MGM) – $8.1 million N/A (same)
7. The Women (Picturehouse) – $6.3 million -38% (up .3)
8. Ghost Town (DreamWorks) – $5.1 million N/A (up .2)
9. The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.) – $2.9 million -30% (same)
10. The House Bunny (Sony) – $2.8 million -35% (up .1)
This weekend last year, the third chapter in the video game franchise Resident Evil: Extinction topped the box office with $23.7 million in 2,800 theaters, slightly better than the previous installment three years earlier on its way to grossing roughly the same. Coming into second place was the Dane Cook and Jessica Alba comedy Good Luck Chuck, which brought in $13.65 million in 2,612 theatres, while Amanda Bynes had her first flat-out bomb with the comedy Sydney White (Universal), which grossed just $5.2 million in over 2,000 theaters and settled for sixth place. The Top 10 grossed $75 million, an amount that this weekend’s offerings may be able to surpass, but only slightly.
Lakeview Terrace (Screen Gems/Sony)
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Eva La Rue, Bitsie Tulloch
Directed by Neil LaBute (The Wicker Man, The Shape of Things, Possession, Nurse Betty); Written by David Loughery (Money Train, Passenger 57), Howard Korder (Stealing Sinatra)
Tagline: “What could be safer than living next to a cop?”
Plot Summary: When newlyweds Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington), an interracial couple, move into their new California home, they run into problems with their neighbor, L.A. police officer Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) who disapproves of their relationship and starts to hound and harass the couple until they decide to fight back.
Mini-Review: Despite its solid high concept premise of the world’s worst neighbor being a violent racist police officer and a trio of strong dramatic actors, “Lakeview Terrace”, directed though not written by Neil LaBute, could have been better if it were handled more as a thriller like “Disturbia” than as a character drama. Working from a smartly-constructed script where everything ties together leaving very few loose ends, LaBute otherwise does better with material that mixes genre and realism than he did with the ludicrous remake of “The Wicker Man.” Certainly the strong cast helps elevate the material with Samuel L. Jackson creating a surprisingly well-rounded and sympathetic baddie in Abel Turner, one whose motivations for wanting to protect his kids and neighbors is easy to comprehend, even if his flagrant racism prevents you from ever really liking him. The film spends a surprising amount of time following Turner on his beat to show how his stressful job impacts how he behaves while at home. Wilson and Washington are both equally credible as the newlywed couple who move in next door, although Wilson is given some of the juicier scenes with Jackson. LaBute has never shirked from dealing with tough subjects that usually aren’t discussed, and yet, when dealing with the racial tension between characters, the movie often takes the easiest and most obvious route. Abel’s character should anger and offend you as much as the thought of the couple’s inability to do anything about it should make you relate to how they’re feeling, but none of that comes through even with the strong dialogue that does keep things interesting. Many times, it feels like things could have been taken further and maybe LaBute was too worried about turning viewers off to any of the three characters to go there. There really isn’t very much tension or the scares some might hope for, because like in the real world, when your neighbor is disturbing you, either you say something and they comply or you do something to escalate the situation. While there are a few intense scenes with Abel fighting crime on the streets, the movie is still fairly tame and you never really feel as if Abel offers any true danger or menace to the couple. Ultimately, Abel’s off-hand comments do start to create cracks in the couple’s marriage, by addressing issues they’ve tried to avoid, and as the pressure gets to them, the movie deals more with their marital problems than their bad neighbor. At that point, the movie starts to get far too bogged down in being a character drama, even as the plot follows a fairly predictable path to its inevitable conclusion. Because of this, it takes almost the entire movie before LaBute realizes that most people watching this thriller will be expecting thrills, so the movie’s last ten minutes try to overcompensate with lots of action as the tense feud that’s been building for the entire movie finally explodes after nearly 90 minutes of rather mundane mindgames between the two parties. Again, it’s fairly easy to know where things are going once everything is set in place, and while “Lakeview Terrace” is still a notch above similar thrillers due to its strong writing and acting, one has to leave the movie thinking that more could have been done with the premise if it didn’t feel like those involved were always trying to play things safe. Rating: 6.5/10
What It’s Got Goin’ On:
There’s really nothing better for a lazy September weekend than a strong domestic thriller that moviegoers can easily relate to from their own fears, and this one harks back to the 1992 thriller Unlawful Entry with a similar look and feel. In that one, chronic scary guy Ray Liotta played a police officer who got a bit too friendly with a suburban couple, the husband played by Kurt Russell, but this one stars Samuel L. Jackson as a police officer who interferes in a couple’s life and forces them to fight for their privacy. In the past, this kind of thriller tends to be able to get a bigger than normal audience because the idea of this kind of fear is something we can all relate to, the idea of a creepy and obtrusive neighbor, which is why thrillers like Domestic Disturbance and last year’s Disturbia were able to do far better than expected.
This one is a little more cerebral in that it deals with serious and timely issues like race relations, but it’s also the new movie from Neil LaBute, an award-winning playwright and filmmaker, known for his controversial plays and films, although his last big foray into Hollywood, the weak remake of The Wicker Man with Nicolas Cage was mostly loathed and reviled. Still, he’s generally respected for some of his past work like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, small indies that led to his first high-profile comedy Nurse Betty starring Renee Zellwegger pre-Bridget Jones.
While Jackson’s draw at the box office has been erratic at best, the thrillers and horror movies he’s done have generally found fans whether it was 1408 based on Stephen King’s short story or the R-rated B-movie Snakes on a Plane, and while Jackson has played a number of police and military men over the years, this is a different role in that he’s generally playing the bad guy, something which should intrigue his fans. His presence and the general tone of the movie should also allow it to appeal to a black male audience more than anything else currently in theaters.
Jackson’s co-stars aren’t as big a draw, at least not yet, but one imagines that Patrick Wilson is going to explode after starring in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen next year. In the meantime, he’s appeared in bigger movies like The Alamo and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, but had bigger roles in smaller movies like Todd Field’s Little Children and last year’s Evening. Washington’s most high-profile role has been her recurring role in the two “Fantastic Four” movies, plus she played Chris Rock’s sexy love interest in his comedy I Think I Love My Wife, as well as Ray Charles’ beleaguered wife Bee in the hit biopic Ray. After this movie, she’s reunited with Spike Lee for a small role in his WWII epic Miracle at St. Anna, which opens next weekend, but she hasn’t really broken out in a way just yet. The two of them do bring a good amount of serious acting experience that guarantees it to be a stronger dramatic film than other thrillers of this type.
Possibly the best thing going for the movie is its PG-13 rating, which means it can bring in a lot of the teen audience who haven’t really had many strong choices in theaters, and Screen Gems has created strong commercials that play up the movie’s action sequences, as well as the relatable fears that should help get both young and older audiences into theaters.
Why It Might Fail:
LaBute’s last attempt at a Hollywood thriller was the remake of the ’70s horror film The Wicker Man with Nicolas Cage, which was an unmitigated disaster, and one wonders if he might go too smart or socio-political for the average moviegoer who’ll just be looking for thrills, scares and excitement rather than the kind of character-driven drama that LaBute excels at.
There may be some worries that this is another Freedomland for Jackson, since he’s once again playing a police officer, and the movie already looks like a lot of other similar genre films. It may still be facing some competition for older moviegoers from last week’s Burn After Reading and Righteous Kill, plus it’s not really a tense thriller as much as a suburban drama and once people see it and word gets around, so it’ll probably lose a lot of the younger audience after opening weekend. On the other hand, older audiences might make this an option after opening weekend if word gets around that it’s smarter than it looks.
The film’s title is pretty bad, kind of like the similar movie Pacific Heights. It says absolutely nothing about the movie like other titles and it’s not a very interesting title like “Righteous Kill” or “Burn After Reading.” You’d be amazed how much a title can do for getting people into theaters or hurting a movie, especially when it comes to the casual moviegoers who go by whatever’s on the marquee.
Why I Should See It: It looks like a strong and smart thriller that puts Samuel L. Jackson in a role we haven’t really seen him in.
Why Not: With Neil LaBute at the helm, it’s likely to be more of a character drama, which might not bode well if it’s not what people are expecting.
Projections: $13 to 15 million opening weekend on its way to around $35 to 38 million total.
My Best Friend’s Girl (Lionsgate)
Starring Dane Cook, Kate Hudson, Jason Biggs, Alec Baldwin, Lizzy Caplan
Directed by Howard Deutch (The Replacements, The Whole Ten Yards, The Odd Couple II, Grumpier Old Men); Written by Jordan Cahan
Genre: Romance, Comedy
Tagline: “It’s funny what love can make you do.”
Plot Summary: When Dustin (Jason Biggs) gets dumped by his girlfriend Alexis (Kate Hudson) he gets his best friend Tank, an @$$hole who’s developed a rep for seducing women and taking them out on the worst dates of their lives, to give Alexis the treatment so she’ll come back to Dustin crying. Instead, Tank finds a new challenge and starts to fall for Alexis himself, which puts the three of them at odds.
What It’s Got Goin’ On:
The success of this movie relies on two very simple things: its easy-to-comprehend high concept rom-com premise and the presence of Kate Hudson, whose built a career around starring in just this kind of movie, starting with her first pairing with Matthew McConaughey in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which grossed $105 million, followed by the bomb Alex & Emma (with Luke Wilson) and the mediocre Raising Helen with director Gary Marshall. Hudson then followed that with three back-to-back hits, a departure into genre territory with The Skeleton Key followed by You, Me and Dupree and this year’s Fool’s Gold, the latter two both trashed by critics but still grossed over $70 million. There is no question that Hudson has fans, mostly female ones, which will give anything she does a look, and they’re generally going to be the main market for this movie.
On the other side of the aisle is Dane Cook, a stand-up comic who has been making waves in the movie world since becoming a lead star in movies like Employee of the Month with Jessica Simpson and last year’s Good Luck Chuck with Jessica Alba, plus he took on a more serious role when pitted against Kevin Costner in the 2007 thriller Mr. Brooks. Even so, the film’s secret weapon may end up being Alec Baldwin, who has become exceedingly cooler in recent years due to his role on NBC’s “30 Rock” as Jack Donaghy, but he hasn’t had much success in movies in recent years, his biggest movie being Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, but playing larger parts in smaller indies that only got limited releases. Still, he’s being featured more prominently in the commercials and trailer for the movie in hopes he’ll give this comedy a bit more credibility.
Why It Might Fail:
The fact that it’s directed by Howard Deutch should set off some alarms, since he’s mainly directed bad sequels like Grumpier Old Men and The Whole Ten Yards. If that’s not enough to scare people away, Kate Hudson’s last movie Fools’ Gold reunited her with Matthew McConaughey, and while it did fairly well, it was generally received poorly, receiving a 5.3/10 from IMDb Users. Dane Cook’s last movie was received only slightly better. Dane Cook seems to have a ceiling for opening movies, at least going by his last two Lionsgate comedies.
Lionsgate is marketing My Best Friend’s Girl like a typical rom-com chick flick, which means that many of Cook’s male fans probably won’t go anywhere near this anyway, and the R-rating might be a killer for the younger teen girls who might be into this type of humor (and might not even be aware it’s R-rated.) One presumes Lionsgate is hoping that it can find a similar audience as R-rated rom-coms like the recent Forgetting Sarah Marshall or last year’s Knocked Up or the perennial R-rated rom-com There’s Something About Mary.
At this point, Jason Biggs is kind of a non-starter, having had absolutely no success outside of the “American Pie” movies, with back-to-back movies that grossed less than $20 million after the first movie in the series, and then appearing in one of Woody Allen’s most hated movies ever. Earlier this year, he co-starred in Over Her Dead Body with Paul Rudd and Eva Longoria, which ended up with less than $8 million–another bomb that added to New Line’s untimely death–and Biggs’ other movie Wedding Daze didn’t even get a theatrical release. With that in mind, one has to wonder who thought it would be a good idea to make him the third wheel in this romantic comedy over someone like Justin Long.
The movie is going to have the most competition from last week’s openers, trying to appeal to the same female audience of The Women and comedy lovers who’ll probably be hearing mostly good things about the Coen Brothers’ latest Burn After Reading
Big surprise! Lionsgate doesn’t seem to be screening the movie for critics again, and like Disaster Movie and Bangkok Dangerous, this means the movie is getting very little promotion. Who knows when Lionsgate is going to figure out that moviegoers no longer trust their movies because they don’t have enough faith and confidence to show them to the critics who can give them advance warning if the movie is worth seeing? Maybe Tyler Perry can still sell movies without reviews, but Kate Hudson? We’ll see.
Why I Should See It: If you really like Kate Hudson and Dane Cook and Jason Biggs and think the three of them could possibly make a good comedy together, well good luck with that!
Why Not: If you’re like me, you probably want to bitch-slap the producer who brought these three together.
Projections: $12 to 15 million opening weekend and roughly $38 to 40 million total.
Starring (the voices of) John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, John Cleese, Jennifer Coolidge, Arsenio Hall, Sean Hayes, Eddie Izzard, Jay Leno, James Lipton, Molly Shannon, Christian Slater
Directed by Anthony Leondis (Home on the Range, Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch); Written by Chris McKenna (“American Dad!”)
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Family
Tagline: “All men aren’t created Evil.”
Plot Summary: Igor is a hunchback who dreams of becoming a scientist, an opportunity that he finally attains when his cruel master dies a week before the Evil Science Fair, so Igor works with his creations Brain and Scamper to create a ferocious monster, instead creating Eva, a perfectly harmless female monster.
What It’s Got Goin’ On:
While this looks like a cute movie that’s been in development for some time from a couple of Disney vets breaking out on their own, the only real thing it has going for it is that it’s the only PG family movie in theatres this weekend, which means that any kids who want to go to the movies this weekend will only have one choice. One can certainly be impressed with the voice cast which features John Cusack in the title role, joined by regular animated voices Steve Buscemi (Monsters, Inc.), John Cleese (Shrek 2) and others, and assume it might get parents to bring their kids to see the movie, although there’ve been plenty of animated movies with stronger casts that barely made a dent (like Warner Bros.’ The Ant Bully for instance).
It’s the first animated film from the Exodus Film Group and Exodus Productions, a company set-up by some of the men behind Disney’s blockbuster hit The Lion King, The Iron Giant and others, as well as the director of Disney’s Home on the Range working from a script by Chris McKenna, a writer from Seth McFarlane’s animated show “American Dad!”
While the commercials have been scattered and the trailers haven’t had much to attach themselves to, some of the things used to promote the movie include a presentation at the New York Comic-Con on “Kid’s Day” and a tie-in comic book from IDW, although that probably would be more for parents and teens than the film’s kid demographic.
Why It Might Fail:
The Weinstein Company has had mixed results with kids’ movies, and for all the success they had with Hoodwinked!, it was followed by a huge bomb with Luc Besson’s Arthur and the Invisibles a year later. Their revamping of the European hit The Magic Roundabout as Doogal failed miserably and we won’t even mention Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker (Oops, guess we just did.) In fact this is being distributed via MGM, the Weinstein Company’s partners, the first family movie to be released under this deal, so we’ll see if they’re able to have more success. Even so, it’s still seems like a far cry from the success of Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films when teamed with Disney for the three “Spy Kids” movies.
In general, computer animated movies have not been faring as well as they used, unless they’re produced by DreamWorks or Pixar, who have the best reputation for releasing quality computer animated films. While both of their summer offerings opened with over $60 million, other studio’s movies like Space Chimps from 20th Century Fox have mainly been ignored, while Summit Entertainment’s 3D animated Fly Me to the Moon has only made about $10 million after six weeks in semi-wide release, although it generally seems to be doing much of its business from being the only family movie in theaters.
Like so many companies before them, MGM is trying to sell the movie based on the strength of its voice cast, but seriously, so few people have been swayed by the voice cast of previous computer animated films that it’s really more about the premise, and doing a horror-based kids movie is somewhat risky. Just ask Tim Burton who followed up the hugely successful The Nightmare Before Christmas and his take on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the moderate hit The Corpse Bride voiced by the super-hot Johnny Depp. While it brought in nearly $20 million its opening weekend almost exactly three years ago based on Burton and Depp, it quickly tailed off in successive weeks.
As far as the box office draw of this voice cast, Cusack recently starred in The Martian Child, a sweet family-friendly film from New Line, which bombed badly, and his festival award-winning turn in Grace is Gone, also from the Weinstein Company, bombed even worse, and it’s doubtful the many who went to see him in the horror film 1408 might associate him with an animated movie in which he voices a hunchbacked man-servant.
The commercials look cute but the movie doesn’t seem to have that strong a marketing campaign compared to some of the other summer movies, and one wonders how many people have actually heard of this movie or will be interested enough by posters of the main character to want to see it.
Why I Should See It: If you have kids climbing up the walls to go to the movies, this might be a better choice than Bangkok Dangerous, but only slightly.
Why Not: This seems like another cookie-cutter computer animated family film using the formula of trying to get adults to bring their kids due to the star voice cast, but that trick rarely works.
Projections: $7 to 9 million opening weekend and $26 to 28 million total.
Ghost Town (DreamWorks)
Starring Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Kristen Wiig, Tea Leoni, Billy Campbell
Written and directed by David Koepp (Stir of Echoes, Secret Window and writer of Spider-Man, Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and many more) with John Kamps
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Tagline: “He sees dead people… and they annoy him.”
Plot Summary: Bertram Pincus DDS (Ricky Gervais) doesn’t like people very much, so when he has a near-death experience during a routine operation and begins to see the spirits of the dead, he’s not particularly happy about it. One particularly pushy spirit named Frank (Greg Kinnear) wants Bertram to prevent his widow Gwen (Téa Leoni) from marrying the wrong guy.
What It’s Got Goin’ On:
The best thing going for this high concept feel good comedy is its star Ricky Gervais, who has built up quite a fanbase in this country, first from his Golden Globe winning British series “The Office” (on which the hit NBC sitcom was based) and then with HBO’s “Extras,” which got Gervais his first Emmy. On top of that, Gervais recently played a number of sold out shows in New York and L.A. that solidified his fanbase in those two cities, which also coincidentally tend to be the biggest North American areas for moviegoers. After appearing in smaller roles in movies like Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust and the Ben Stiller blockbuster Night at the Museum, Gervais finally has his first leading role and it’s playing a character that fans of his type of humor certainly can appreciate. Wisely the commercials have been playing up that humor and DreamWorks certainly has been piledriving the commercials on this one to the point where it would be very hard to miss them. This past weekend, there was also a special all-day “Office” marathon on BBC America to spotlight the movie, though it will probably just be increasing awareness among those familiar with Gervais’ work who might see it anyway.
Gervais’ co-stars Téa Leoni and Greg Kinnear, while not exactly huge box office draws, are generally reliable actors who can help deliver quality material, although Leoni has had mixed results with past movies like her teaming with Jim Carrey in Fun with Dick and Jane and the smaller indie You Kill Me with Sir Ben Kingsley.
The premise of a guy who can see ghosts is nothing new as we’ve seen in many movies from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense to The Frighteners and even Ghost Town writer/director David Koepp has explored the subject with his earlier film A Stir of Echoes, which starred Kevin Bacon as a guy who could communicate with the spirit world. Ghost World takes a more comic approach to the material by having a cranky and anti-social guy having to deal with annoying ghosts in New York, and in that way, it looks a lot like the early Robert Downey Jr. vehicle Heart and Souls.
Despite treading familiar territory, Ghost Town should get great reviews from the critics, particularly the ones in New York, who’ll be able to appreciate what Koepp has done within their city. It’s currently 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, which is rare for a comedy.
Why It Might Fail:
Neither Kinnear nor Leoni have had much luck at bringing people in theaters, so it’s relying very much on Gervais’ fans to show up if it’s going to make any kind of mark. Maybe that’s why Leoni is barely appearing in the commercials, which have generally been terrible. They started by focusing on the high concept of Gervais seeing these ghosts everywhere but realizing those weren’t working, they shifted to just show Gervais doing his thing by cracking wry jokes to those around him.
There’s so much more to the movie in his character arc that isn’t coming out in the commercials, particularly the romantic feel-good aspect of the movie, which might attract those who aren’t that familiar with Gervais. The movie would also appeal to older audience than those younger ones who normally like Gervais’ humor, but they might not be as interested if they’re not familiar with Gervais’ style of humor (which are a lot of people when you consider that both his television shows were aired on cable here). The movie is also competing directly against Lionsgate’s My Best Friend’s Girl, which has a stronger cast (as far as box office) and clearer idea what it’s about.
David Koepp has been one of the more successful screenwriters, writing screenplays for many big blockbusters including Spider-Man and the recent Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but his previous films have generally been thrillers, and the one significant hit Secret Window had the benefit of a big star in Johnny Depp and being based on a Stephen King story.
Despite the abundance of commercials and how you feel about them, DreamWorks is only giving the movie a moderate release into 1,400 theaters, which is never a good sign going by some of their previous fall releases such as The Last Kiss and Things We Lost in the Fire last year.
Why I Should See It: Ricky Gervais is clearly one of the funniest exports from Britain maybe since Monty Python.
Why Not: Who knows if his fans will want to see him in a Hollywood-style high concept romantic comedy.
Projections: $4 to 6 million opening weekend and roughly $15 million total.
THE CHOSEN ONE:
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Magnolia)
Starring Henry O, Faye Yu, Vida Ghahreman, Pasha Lychnikoff
Directed by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Chinese Box, Maid in Manhattan, Last Holiday, The Center of the World); Written by Yiyun Li (author of the short story)
Plot Summary: A retired widower from China, Mr. Shi (Henry O) comes to the United States to stay with his daughter Yilan (Faye Yu) after a painful split from her husband. While she wants to move on with her life, he wants to try to save her marriage, putting the two at odds and forcing them to come to an understanding between the very different ways they see the world.
This week’s “Chosen One” is proof that you don’t need big stars or a huge budget, a lot of snappy dialogue or even strong plot developments to make a great movie. Director Wayne Wang has become known for some of his high concept studio movies like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday, but before then, he was making smaller and more personal Chinese films. His latest is both a departure and a welcome return to form for Wang as an indie auteur, a beautiful and incredibly moving story of real life relationships, one that exudes subtlety and self-control in a refreshing way. Character actor Henry O gives a subdued performance as Mr. Shi, an elderly man from mainland China who recently retired and lost his wife, who’s come to America to be with his daughter during her divorce. Mr. Shi barely speaks English, and when his daughter goes off to work, he goes out and explores the world and meets various people, trying to communicate with them in his broken English. Much of the film is in Chinese and it’s very much a subdued slice-of-life film that feels much more like the smaller films Wang has made in the past but his experience as a filmmaker insures that the movie never looks small. In fact, it’s beautifully shot to convey a very deliberate tone of these quiet lives that are very much like our own. Not a lot happens in the movie in terms of plot development but with very few words, Henry O and Faye Yu steal (and break) our hearts as this father and daughter trying to find common ground, expressing genuine heartfelt emotions in their scenes together. Even with all the drama, the movie has some humorous moments like watching Mr. Shi try to communicate with an Iranian woman he meets in the park, who speaks even less English than him; there are lengthy scenes of the two of them babbling to each other in a combination of different languages that’s surprisingly enjoyable. After a while, you can tell that Mr. Shi’s overbearing behavior is annoying his Americanized daughter, who has very little patience with his old world ways, and she starts to stay out all night leaving him alone to worry. Other filmmakers would be tempted to build this tension up to an explosive dramatic scene with the temptation to throw in lots of shouting and crying but the film takes a different approach with the inevitable confrontation between father and daughter. Maybe it’s the fact that like Faye Yu’s character, I have older parents who are very traditional, and I can understand her frustrations, but it’s also understandable why Mr. Shi is worried about his daughter. Unfortunately, some of the actors playing the supporting characters Mr. Shi encounters aren’t as strong, but the two main actors are just amazing talents, and the way Wang works with them to create this believable relationship makes the film so poignant and special.
If you enjoy the films of Tom McCarthy, such as his recent film The Visitor, or the films of Mike Leigh, you should be in the right head to appreciate Wang’s story about a father trying to connect with his daughter. A lovely film and already one of my favorites of the year, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers opens in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on Friday with plans to expand to other theaters in the coming weeks, and you’ll be able to watch its thematic counterpart The Princess of Nebraska on YouTube on October 17.
The Duchess (Paramount Vantage)
Starring Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell
Directed by Saul Dibb (The Bullet Boy, The Line of Beauty); Written by Jeffrey Hatcher (Casanova), Saul Dibb and Anders Thomas Jensen (After the Wedding)
Genre: Drama, Period Piece
Tagline: “There were three people in her marriage.”
Plot Summary: When young headstrong Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) becomes the Duchess of Devonshire, she has to contend with her new husband the Duke (Ralph Fiennes), a cold and emotionless aristocrat who believes his new wife’s only role is to bear him a son. Instead, Georgiana gets involved in the worlds of fashion and politics, making her husband angry and their relationship gets worse when he sets his sights on Georgiana’s new best friend Lady Elizabeth (Hayley Atwell) and invites her to move in with them.
Mini-Review: One could be truly cynical about the “costume drama” genre, saying there’s nothing new or original one can convey with pretty young actresses flaunting around wearing big dresses and wigs. A movie like “The Other Boleyn Girl” probably helped prove this theory, and while “The Duchess” does have some similar story elements as that movie and Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” director Saul Dibb and his production team have created a far more elegant and lavish film that thrives on the fact that the Duchess of Devonshire was one of the more interesting British royals. Anyone who feels Keira Knightley has already played too many characters like this one before shouldn’t fear this being “Pride & Prejudice 2” merely due to the time period, because this is a very different movie. Decked in amazing costumes and wigs, Knightley plays Georgiana as a smart and spunky woman who has to endure the world’s worst husband, a stern and emotionless tyrant played by Ralph Fiennes who openly cheats on his wife with her best friend. Knightley is as good as ever, but her powerful performance tends to be overshadowed by Fiennes, who delivers some of the movie’s best lines with such cold contempt that he turns the Duke into an unforgettable character, one that works so well because he’s not even remotely sympathetic. The film is well-scripted with strong arcs for both characters, but when Georgiana finally speaks up and fights back, it leads to some of the most powerful dramatic fireworks we’ve seen on screen in a long time. Other great supporting roles includes Charlotte Rampling as Georgiana’s mother, who takes her to task for not delivering the Duke a son, Hayley Atwell, as Georgiana’s best friend who becomes the Duke’s mistress and Dominic Cooper as her love interest. There comes a point about three-quarters through the movie where we get it, the Duke is a bad husband, and it becomes a bit too much as he continues to pile the misery and oppression onto his wife, turning her into a prisoner in her own home. When Georgiana becomes pregnant by her lover, she’s forced to give up the baby for adoption, and things start to get pretty dark, and the movie becomes harder to watch as Georgiana’s mental health continues to spiral downwards, but there’s a method to the madness and the riveting story often prevails in making “The Duchess” a worthwhile addition to a genre that’s been driven into the ground by weaker filmmakers who know where to rent the costumes, but don’t understand the importance of storytelling. Rating: 8/10
Also in Limited Release:
Virtual JFK – Koji Matusani’s documentary looks at the origins of the Vietnam War and how things might have been different if President John F. Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, using hundreds of hours of archival material including speeches and press conferences from Kennedy and his successor President Lyndon B. Johnson. Almost like a prequel to Owen Morris’ Oscar-winning The Fog of War, it opens at the Film Forum in New York on Wednesday.
Mini-Review: Acting almost like a prequel to Errol Morris’ far superior “The Fog of War,” but not nearly as riveting as that superior movie, this film does take an interesting approach to the subject matter by studying the global events during the Cold War leading up to the Vietnam War including the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and the building of the Berlin Wall. It features lots of press conferences, archival footage and speeches by John F. Kennedy and other world leaders, many which haven’t been seen in decades, but the combination of these elements is generally slow and dry, and the talking heads analysis that ties the footage together doesn’t do very much to ground covered via archival footage. For the most part, the filmmaker’s intention is to run scenarios of how if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, he might have avoided our involvement in the Vietnam War, but once Kennedy dies about an hour into the movie, it leaves the last 20 minutes to wonder what might have happened if he were still alive. The suggestion that maybe Kennedy’s assassination may have been associated with other parties’ desire to go to war seems to be pushing it a bit, making the movie more like last year’s “The Assassination of a President.” It seems like a lot of speculation about what Kennedy might have done and how what happened could have been prevented, although there doesn’t seem to be very much point in exploring this conjecture since there’s no way to undo history, which is essentially what the movie seems to be trying to do. While the movie is fascinating for the footage Matusani compiled for an interesting look at American history, it doesn’t necessarily succeed at proving its point for what the movie is claiming or attempting to do. Rating: 7/10
Appaloosa (New Line/Warner Bros.) – Ed Harris directs this Western adaptation of Robert Parker’s 2005 novel about two gunfighters (Harris and his A History of Violence co-star Viggo Mortensen) who arrive at a small New Mexico town to clean up the crime-ridden streets of the local mob boss (Jeremy Piven). Instead, they end up encountering a lonely widowed woman (Renee Zellwegger) who comes between the two long-time partners. It opens in New York, L.A. and Toronto on Friday with plans to expand wide on October 3.
Review (Coming Soon!)
All of Us (Pureland Pictures) – This documentary from Emily Abt follows South Bronx doctor Dr. Mehret Mandefro and her studies into why black women have been getting infected with the HIV virus so much in recent years, following two of her patients whose struggles put them at risk.
The next two movies have some interesting thematic elements in common…
Battle in Seattle (Redwood Palms Pictures) – Actor Stuart Townsend makes his directorial debut with this star-studded drama including Charlize Theron, Ray Liotta, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jennifer Carpenter and Martin Henderson as various individuals involved in the 1999 Seattle riots when the World Trade Organization conference was rocked by thousand of environmental and consumer advocate protesters who converged on the streets of Seattle to protest unfair global trade policy. It opens in select cities on Friday.
Mini-Review: An ambitious directorial debut from Irish actor Stuart Townsend that does an impressive job recreating the 1999 protests that accompanied the World Trade Organization’s arrival in Seattle to discuss worldwide issues that often favor corporations over the rights of the individuals. While the film deals mainly with the protesters, the police and others caught in the crossfire when things got out of control, it does successfully relate a slightly left-leaning description of the WTO that a layman can comprehend. It also creates a fairly balanced look at the events, involving both good and bad police officers, and good and bad protesters, to show that not everything is black and white. Townsend accomplishes this with a strong ensemble cast with a couple standout performances including Ray Liotta as the city’s mayor, caught between doing what’s right for the people of his city and making sure the WTO talks go smoothly with peaceful protest. Woody Harrelson continues his prolific run of roles with another solid performance as a police officer with a pregnant wife (Theron) who gets caught in the middle of the war between the police and protesters, and Martin Henderson is also very good as a head protester. Townsend’s screenplay is decent though the dialogue isn’t particularly flashy nor is his directing style, which involves a lot of shaky camerawork to emulate a documentary-style approach. Even so, one has to marvel by how well Townsend is able to seamlessly cut together the dramatizations involving the actors with actual footage from the riots. The attention to creating realistic police brutality is somewhat jarring, particularly one disturbing scene that some might find hard to get past, but there are many strong moments where we see what’s going on inside the talking, including the frustrations of some of the delegates and those trying to get their message to the corporate entities involved in making decisions. The film ends with a few about the results of the “Battle in Seattle” told using a documentary-like narrative, which some might feel is somewhat preachy, but this movie is clearly not one for moviegoers looking for escapism, instead being a fairly well-balanced fictionalized view of what happened in Seattle, which is probably as close as you can get without actually having been there. Rating: 7/10
Elite Squad (IFC Films) – Already a film festival favorite, the Brazilian crime thriller from José Padilha (Bus 174) takes a look at the volatile slums of Rio de Janeiro with special police forces battling against the drug militias that run the favelas with the captain of the team (Wagner Moura) having to find his replacement among two very different new recruits, one with a quick-trigger finger, the other more idealistic. It opens at the Landmark Sunshine in New York on Friday.
Mini-Review: While dealing with some of the same subject matter of “City of God,” this raw, violent look at the Rio de Janeiro favelas takes a different approach by looking at them from the viewpoint of the officers of BOPE, a police force more like a disciplined military unit than what we normally see in police and crime flicks. The film follows the journey of three very different officers trying to circumvent the fundamentally corrupt system, the main story revolving around the force’s tough Captain Nascimento, played by Wagner Moura, and his attempt to find a replacement so he can settle down with his wife and new son. While the film sets itself up as an action movie in which an actor like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme could feel right at home, it quickly settles into a slower character-driven pace using a similar structure as “Infernal Affairs,” the Hong Kong influence for Scorsese’s “The Departed,” showing the two rookies working their way up through the ranks and discovering that most of their superiors are as crooked as the drugdealers. Moura gives a strong performance, but Nascimento isn’t exactly the type of protagonist viewers might fully appreciate, since he seems to be worse than the corrupt police officers he loathes, torturing and killing innocents in the favelas for information. (There’s some strange irony in this movie coming out the same weekend as “Lakeview Terrace” and “Battle in Seattle,” both which also deal with police brutality.) Musician André Ramiro is terrific in his first acting role as the rookie Matias, creating a character who’s infinitely more interesting than some of the film’s other stereotypes, as he’s forced to hide the fact he’s a police officer from his fellow students who are admittedly anti-police. It ultimately leads to tragedy when the favela crimelords discover his true identity. Other than Matias’ story arc, director José Padilha generally takes a fairly predictable route in telling this story, even if it is fascinating to see how things work from a different angle. The movie does start to lose some credibility during an extended training sequence, basically a 15 to 20 minute boot camp sequence where Nascimento tries to break the officers who are hoping to join BOPE, but this section of the movie seems completely out of place with the realism the film has displayed thus far. One also might wonder why Nascimento might hire a replacement from a duo of rookies rather than advancing one of his subordinates already on the force. At nearly two hours, it does feel like Padilha takes far too long to get to the meat of the story, losing some focus along the way, but the complexity of the characters and storytelling do ultimately make up for those problems. Padilha clearly is trying to address important and serious social issues in this violent world rather than just creating something sensationalistic or exploitative, and that does give “Elite Squad” an edge over normal police thrillers. Rating: 7/10
Hounddog (Empire Film Group) – Dakota Fanning stars as Llewellyn, a poor Southern girl from a broken family whose love for Elvis helps her overcome an abusive father and a negligent mother who left her alone with him. After causing controversy both before and after Sundance Film Festival for one particular scene, it finally opens in select cities on Friday with plans to expand elsewhere in the coming weeks.
My Thoughts from Sundance ’07 (Note: The film has changed a lot and some of the things discussed in my original review are no longer in the new version, including the scene where David Morse crawls into bed with Fanning, and while the new movie is better, it still has problems and issues with the storytelling that make it hard to enjoy.)
Next week, the fastest month of September ever wraps with the second movie teaming actor Shia LaBeouf with director D.J. Caruso, the action-thriller Eagle Eye (DreamWorks). Also, Richard Gere and Diane Lane reunite for the romantic drama based on Nicholas (The Notebook) Sparks’ Nights in Rodanthe (Warner Bros.), while Spike Lee takes on WWII in the drama Miracle at St. Anna (Touchstone Pictures).