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.
(UPDATE: Not too many changes this week, although we think that Punisher: War Zone will perform better than we anticipated. Miramax’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas continues to expand quicker than Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, so they’ll be neck and neck on the outskirts of the Top 10.)
1. Four Christmases (New Line/WB) $14.6 million -52% (same)
2. Bolt (Disney) – $13.2 million N/A -50% (same)
3. Twilight (Summit) $12.0 million -55% (up .2 mill.)
4. Quantum of Solace (Sony) $9.6 million -49% (same)
5. Punisher: War Zone (Lionsgate) $9.3 million N/A (up $1.3 mil and one spot)
6. Australia (20th Century Fox) $8.1 million -45% (down one spot)
7. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (DreamWorks) – $6.4 million -55% (same)
8. Transporter 3 (Lionsgate) $5.8 million -52% (same)
9. Role Models (Universal) – $2.8 million -48%
10. Cadillac Records (Sony/Tristar) – $1.9 million N/A (up .1 million)
11. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (Miramax) – $1.5 million -12%
Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) – $1.4 million +4%
— Nobel Son (Freestyle Releasing) – $1.3 million N/A
This being the weekend after Thanksgiving, everyone is generally too busy recuperating and getting back to work to go see movies, which is why it’s a notorious dumping ground weekend for studios that have movies around that have them confused on when to release them. Sure, there have been a few movies that have broken out in the weekend after Thanksgiving like Behind Enemy Lines and Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai but they are few and far between, and the traditional post-Thanksgiving drop-off has kept many new movies from doing well.
With that in mind, it’s somewhat surprising to find the pseudo-sequel Punisher: War Zone (Lionsgate), with Ray Stevenson taking over the role of the Marvel Comics vigilante, being dumped into this weekend with very little fanfare. The Punisher is certainly a popular comic book character with a very distinctive skull logo and modus operandi of getting rid of bad guys, but he’s also suffered from two bad movies that makes it doubtful too many fans will give it another chance so soon (only four and a half years) since the last attempt, especially with a lesser known actor in the main role. It should bring in the few diehard comic book fans aware of its opening, although more than a few might be skeptical that it will be an improvement over the previous two attempts, so this one will probably only make a small bit of money theatrically before finding its audience on DVD. Because of this, one can probably expect it to end up somewhere in the middle of the Top 10 at best.
Opening in less than 1,000 theaters, two other movies are likely to fare even worse. Cadillac Records (Sony/Tristar Pictures) is a biopic about the early days of Blues label Chess Records with Adrien Brody playing Leonard Chess and the likes of Jeffrey Wright, Eamonn Walker, Mos Def and Beyonce Knowles playing the label’s famous artists. The movie might have some interest to music fans but not enough to really make a mark this weekend, and few of those involved have enough appeal among modern African-American audiences to win them over.
Likewise, the thriller Nobel Son (Freestyle Releasing) from Bottle Shock director Randall Miller, starring Alan Rickman and Bryan Greenberg, is being released surprisingly wide this weekend after sitting on the shelves for almost a year and a half after its Tribeca Film Festival premiere and its eclectic premise and cast won’t do much to bring people into theaters. It will probably be lucky to make more than a million this weekend but it won’t need more than that to get into the bottom of the Top 10.
This week’s “Chosen One” is Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon (Universal).
(Note: As the Weekend Warrior is recuperating over a big Thanksgiving weekend dinner, this will be a lighter column than normal.)
This weekend last year, the dumper was the Weinstein Co. thriller Awake starring Hayden Christianson and Jessica Alba, which opened in fifth place with just $5.9 million in 2,002 theaters. Disney’s Enchanted remained on top with $16.4 million followed by Robert Zemeckis’ animated Beowulf with $8.2 million, both dropping 50% from the Thanksgiving weekend. The top 10 grossed $68 million, which might actually be more than this week’s offerings unless The Punisher sequel really breaks out.
THE BATTLE CRY
There are days that I hate critics and those days get more and more frequent. It’s kind of weird to say, considering that some of my best friends are critics and they’re generally an intelligent and pleasant lot when they’re not trashing our favorite movies.
It really feels like more and more critics think their job is mainly to take apart and take down every single movie that comes along, and it’s gotten to the point where their criticism seems to go far beyond what’s on screen and is more about their own personal tastes or just a clear case of being burnt out on the number of movies they’re “forced” to sit through for their jobs. (A job that I’m sure anyone reading this would LOVE to have incidentally.)
Maybe the problem isn’t the critics as much as the bloggers who spin the reviews to fit their own personal biases. For instance, a couple of bloggers recently decided it was their job to take down Baz Luhrmann’s epic Australia. One of them saw the movie and didn’t like it, but the other two probably hadn’t seen it and were basically just going by what they were told, but they both decided to “report” that Australia was unanimously hated and that its Oscar chances were now completely nil and that it was destined for box office failure. Well, yeah, except that they weren’t taking into account that moviegoers might actually enjoy the simplicity of Luhrmann’s latest effort. In fact, many people who went to see Australia this past weekend were probably aware that it wasn’t a perfect movie and had problems, but I’d say more people I talked to were generally positive and enjoyed it or appreciated what Baz was trying to do, whereas the generally mixed reviews, split almost down the middle positive and negative, were being spun to make it look like the worst movie ever made. Some critics were even getting personal, attacking Nicole Kidman’s appearance in the movie, saying that it’s due to Botox and surgery operations that took all the life and emotion out of her performance. Personally, having seen the exact same movie, I disagree and feel that her performance is exactly what Luhrmann wanted, but that’s beside the point.
There’s another instance where a critic at a high circulation weekly entertainment magazine (oh, what a giveaway) gave the Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a ridiculously low rating, and then a week later, the same magazine took up valuable news space to trash the film one more time, saying that its one movie that has absolutely no chance at an Oscar nomination because it was so reviled… Yeah… By one critic. THEIRS. How on earth is that fair and unbiased reporting? (Check out how well the movie’s been doing at the box office incidentally, proving that there is definite interest in the film’s subject matter, regardless of that one bad review.) Granted, we’re talking about blogs and weekly magazines here, not exactly the best source for fair and unbiased news, but unfortunately, they’re widely read enough that at least those in the industry might actually believe these vocal detractors.
In my opinion, if film critics aren’t going to be fair to the movies they’re reviewing, going in without preconceived biases or prejudices, then maybe they should be fair game for others to start criticizing them. My pal Erik Childress has done this for many years over at EFilmCritic, but granted, he tends to go after the low-hanging fruit, the junket whores and Ben Lyons. He certainly has the right idea, but sometimes I feel that it’s not being taken far enough. Why aren’t more people going after the veteran critics who demand to be taken seriously because they write for one local newspaper or other or are nationally syndicated? Or after the bloggers who rant and rally against the movies they personally don’t like? What makes their opinion better than any Joe Schmoe off the street? We won’t even get into the Oscar race and how clearly biased bloggers are considering themselves “prognosticators,” sharing their own opinions rather than making an effort to analyze data or think like the industry people who actually nominate and vote for these awards.
Going back to the critics, I was sitting in a crowded screening room mostly full of critics who were laughing quite heartily through much of Four Christmases and yet where are the reviews saying that the movie, a comedy, made them laugh? There seems to be a lot of glad-handing and group-thinking where no one wants to be the one to stand up and say “You know what? That movie was stupid but it was funny. It made me laugh and I was entertained. Thumbs Up!” (or whatever catchphrase they use to share their opinion) Believe me, I’m not saying that I’m any better than anyone else, but at least I always try to be fair and honest, even if it means praising a movie that every other critic hates or trashing one that they all love. I always have you wonderful CS commenters to keep me on the straight and narrow, right?
And yet, critics are being let go from their jobs right and left, the divide between critics and audiences is getting wider and wider just as the opinions between those in the industry and those on the outside looking in seem to drift further and further apart. Every other profession has rules of professional ethics and a protocol for doing the job, and yet film criticism is a freeform mostly acquired skill that requires very few prerequisites except the ability to watch lots of movies and put your thoughts about them down on paper or pixels and relay them to the masses. I’m sure there will be plenty of other examples, but maybe those who’ve taken up blogging about the subject of critics being fired and badly-reviewed movies making lots of money should take an inward look at themselves when complaining about the situation.
Punisher: War Zone (Lionsgate)
Starring Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchinson, Colin Salmon, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok, Julie Benz
Directed by Lexi Alexander (Green Street Hooligans); Written by Nick Santora (“Prison Break” and “Law & Order”), Matt Holloway and Art Marcum (Iron Man)
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller
Tagline: “Vengeance has a name.”
Plot Summary: After the death of his family at the hands of the mob, Frank Castle becomes The Punisher, a ruthless arms-bearing vigilante who sets his sights on mob boss Bill Russoti (Dominic West), leaving him horribly disfigured and seeking revenge under his new alias Jigsaw (no relation to the serial killer from the “Saw” franchise). Jigsaw assembles an army to take down The Punisher causing a huge gang war.
In keeping with this week’s attempt at a minimal, stripped down column, there’s not really much to say about this new crime-thriller reintroducing Marvel’s vigilante character that will have much of an effect on its box office either way, because it’s essentially being dumped into the usually dead post-Thanksgiving weekend.
The Punisher was created in 1974 as a recurring character in “The Amazing Spider-Man” but by the ’80s, he was popular enough to warrant a number of limited series and a notoriously bad 1989 movie starring Dolph Lundgren before he was given a number of monthly series. In April 2004, Lionsgate released their own movie based on the character, inherited from a deal between Marvel and the indie Artisan Films. After opening with $13.8 million against the tougher competition of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2, it wound up making $33 million, which wasn’t bad compared to its cost but was nowhere near the amount being made by other comic book movies around that same time.
Lionsgate, Marvel Studios and producer Gale Anne Hurd (responsible for both of the original movies) decided to give the character a second chance and have relaunched the property in a new and presumably more violent direction. Thomas Jane, the actor who played Frank Castle/The Punisher in their previous movie, was replaced by Ray Stevenson, best known for playing Titus Pullo on the HBO drama “Rome,” and the directorial reins have been handed to Lexi Alexander, the German stunt coordinator who directed the festival favorite Green Street Hooligans starring Elijah Wood. They’ve also brought in one of the Punisher’s most deadly foes from the comic book, Jigsaw, a character who was introduced almost the exact same time that the Punisher was introduced in the pages of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” played by Dominic West who played one of the baddies in the comic-based blockbuster 300 and starred in the other popular HBO drama, “The Wire.” The one thing that can be said in the positive about this casting is that “The Wire” is a popular show among the similar urban crowd who dig The Punisher. (Interestingly, they’ve also brought in the co-writers of “Iron Man” to punch up the script.)
In recent years, the popular character has moved further into more adult territory as the lynchpin for Marvel’s Max series, and as one might expect, the second movie has continued the original’s R-rated action violence, which will also appeal to the 18 to 25 male crowd, but probably won’t have much interest beyond that demographic and specifically the fans of the character, which seem to be waning in recent years.
The fact that the movie is getting dumped into this weekend with very little money being put into promotion and marketing is daunting, but it’s fairly obvious that Lionsgate is more concerned with giving Frank Miller’s The Spirit its fullest attention, and the R-rating certainly limits when and where the movie can be promoted. With a moderate release into roughly 2,500 theaters, it would seem like $10 million is probably the high-end opening for this, although it will probably fall short of that mark against stronger returning fare.
Why I Should See It: Marvel gets a third chance to get it right with The Punisher, this time under the guidance of Lexi Alexander, a talented filmmaker looking to break out with a high profile project like this.
Why Not: The last movie was awful and the rumors swirling around the problems behind this movie make one wonder if this can be that much better.
Projections: $7 to 9 million opening weekend and roughly $20 to 22 million total.
We’re not going to waste a lot of time analyzing the other two movies, both of which are opening in less than a thousand theaters and will probably make less than $2 million.
Cadillac Records (Sony/Tristar Pictures)
Starring Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Beyonce Knowles, Gabrielle Union, Columbus Short, Cedric the Entertainer, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Eamonn Walker, Mos Def
Written and directed by Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That, Prison Song and various episodes of “Law and Order” and other shows)
Genre: Music, Drama
Tagline: “If you take the ride, you must pay the price.”
Plot Summary: In 1947, Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) met blues singer Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and the two of them set up a recording studio and a record label to release Muddy’s music, a venture that ultimately grew to release hit records by Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), despite turbulent times faced by their acts.
Mini-Review: As much as one might want to appreciate and respect Darnell Martin’s attempt at exploring the roots of rock and roll via the early blues releases of Chess Records, the artistic license taken by making Leonard Chess’s brother Phil, who co-founded the record company and produced most of the records, a background character in the story is just one of the many grievous errors with “Cadillac Records” that will keep music purists from taking it too seriously. As hard as the movie tries following the same biopic formula as “Ray” and “Walk the Line”, it barely even musters the impact of “Walk Hard” in telling the story of this pivotal label, instead being a disjointed attempt covering far too many angles and artists to make for a cohesive film. Adrien Brody gives one of his flattest and most lifeless performances of his career as Leonard Chess, doing absolutely nothing that might make the viewer feel anything but complete lack of interest in him, while Jeffrey Wright is only slightly better as Muddy Waters. One can certainly admire his Southern accent and his ability to mime to the classic Blues music, and one can say the same for Eamonn Walker, Said from “Oz,” who gives a few rousing performances as Muddy’s chief rival Howlin’ Wolf. Likewise, Columbus Short does fine when pretending to play harmonica on stage as Muddy’s sideman Little Walter, but his performance off-stage is horrendous, as he basically acts like a modern-day gangsta, ruining many scenes with his overacting that could have been far more effective with a stronger actor in the role. Much of the first half of the film deals with the tenuous relationship between Leonard, Muddy and Little Waltermostly their issues with how Leonard paid his acts using cars rather than cashbut even the rivalry when Wolf becomes one of Chess’ prize acts gets tiring fairly quickly. Fortunately, the film takes a turn for the better when Mos Def shows up as Chuck Berry, absolutely perfect casting that makes his fleeting scenes some of the most enjoyable. Eventually, the entire movie turns into the “Beyonce Knowles Show” as the pop singer shows up playing Etta James and is given far more screen time than any of the other acts, performing all her own vocals unlike the others. The writing is generally weak and Martin isn’t a strong enough filmmaker to make this mess of a movie work and the weak production values (and presumably low budget) really hurt the film, as the sets, costumes and wigs look so cheap that they really hurt the film’s credibility. The scene where the Rolling Stones show up at the studio to pay homage to their idols seems superfluous and unnecessary except to drive home the obvious – how influential these musicians were on more famous artists. Sure, there’s a lot of interesting things about the early days of rock and roll and the musicians who were so influential on Elvis and The Stones, but sadly, this isn’t the movie that’ll make much of a difference in getting these musicians the respect they deserve. Fortunately, there’s another less star-studded movie about Leonard Chess in the works, so music enthusiasts should keep their fingers crossed that this other filmmaker does a better job focusing their efforts in paying better tribute to these musicians and their contribution to the last five decades of music. Rating: 5.5/10
And that brings us to our very first installment of DEFEND YOUR MOVIE! where a filmmaker addresses the questions posed by a review:
Darnell Martin on making Phil Chess more of a background character:
“Also, Bo Diddley is missing from this as well. There are a number of people missing from this but that would have been a mini-series. The main reason for making Phil a background character was because I wanted to really concentrate on the relationship between Muddy and Leonard. The film for me is like a series of love stories, and the relationship between these two men, if Phil were there, then he becomes Leonard’s confidante, it becomes a story about these two brothers. I really wasn’t interested in telling the Chess story. I was really interested in talking about how Mississippi Blues became popular music, that’s the story I wanted to tell and how it affected civil rights, and how these musicians, these bands, came together, and those families and those love stories became more important than their own love stories. Muddy’s closer to Little Walter in a very strange way than he is to Geneva, and that betrayal is this kind of double betrayal. Those are the ideas that I really wanted to explore and having Phil would have given Leonard another place to go.”
And on that other Chess Records that was in the works:
“The other movie, I didn’t really think about honestly, because that was a movie about the Chess Brothers. I wasn’t making a movie about the Chess Brothers. I was making a movie about how black people made black music that became the music that we all listen to right now, and how this white guy was part of that, but it wasn’t about how white guys made this music. So I don’t see them as the same film at all.”
Nobel Son (Freestyle Releasing)
Starring Alan Rickman, Bryan Greenberg, Shawn Hatosy, Mary Steenburgen, Bill Pullman, Eliza Dushku, Danny DeVito
Written and directed by Randall Miller with Jody Savin (Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, Bottle Shock)
Genre: Thriller, Comedy
Tagline: “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”
Plot Summary: Barkley Michaelson (Bryan Greenberg) is trying to finish his college thesis when his father (Alan Rickman) wins the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. When Barkley is kidnapped for gambling debts, his father refuses to pay the ransom, causing Barkley to want to get revenge.
Note: Randall Miller’s second film debuted at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival and was delayed so long it’s being released after his third film, Bottle Shock, which grossed roughly $4 million over the summer.
THE CHOSEN ONE:
Starring Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfadyen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell
Directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code, Cinderella Man, and lots more) ; Written by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Last King of Scotland)
Genre: Political, Drama
Tagline: “400 million people were waiting for the truth.”
Plot Summary: In 1977, British television producer David Frost (Michael Sheen) successfully scored the interview of the century, convincing former president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) to sit down for an extended interview to discuss his tenure as the country’s leader and the scandal that forced him to resign. The resulting televised interview made history. (Incidentally, you can actually watch those original interviews on which this movie is based with Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews from Liberation Entertainment, released on DVD on Tuesday, December 2, which can be purchased at Amazon and other fine DVD retailers.)
Review (Coming Soon!)
Hunger (IFC Films)
Starring Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Helena Bereen, Larry Cowan, Liam Cunningham, Dennis McCambridge, Liam McMahon, Laine Megaw, Brian Milligan, Rory Mullen, Lalor Roddy
Written and directed by Steve McQueen with Enda Walsh (noted Irish playwright)
Tagline: “A compelling and unforgettable portrayal of life within the maze prison at the time of 1981 IRA hunger strike.”
Plot Summary: Documents the final six weeks in the life of IRA member Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who went on a hunger strike in 1981 to protest the treatment of prisoners and died nearly two months later from the effects starvation.
Also in Limited Release:
Dust (Icarus Films) Hartmut Bitomsky’s German documentary about dust opens at New York’s Film Forum on Wednesday.
The Black Balloon (Neoclassic Films Ltd.) – Elissa Down’s Australian dramedy is about a young man named Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), who is put in charge of his autistic older brother (Luke Ford) when they move to a new home, a challenge he takes on with his new girlfriend (Gemma Ward). It opens in New York on Friday.
Let them Chirp Awhile (Houston King) – Jonathan Blitstein’s directorial debut is this indie dramedy starring Justin Rice as a struggling screenwriter whose latest idea about a movie with talking pigeons is leaked to his arch-rival (Zach Galligan) by his friend Scott (Brandon Sexton III), forcing him to work harder to get his film made. It opens in New York at the Cinema Village on Friday, followed by Chicago on December 12 and L.A. on Jan. 2.
Local Color (Empire Film Group) – In Bad Boys co-creator George Gallo’s drama, Trevor Morgan plays a troubled teen who gets advice from a cranky oil painter, played by Armin Mueller-Stahl (Eastern Promises). Based on real characters in Gallo’s life, this long-delayed 2006 film will finally get a limited release.
Extreme Movie (Dimension Films) – Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson’s sketch comedy about the joys and embarrassments of teen sex stars Michael Cera, Ryan Pinkston (from College), Jamie Kennedy and Frankie Muniz. After originally being earmarked for a DVD-only release, it’s getting a very limited theatrical in select cities.
Next week, Keanu Reeves stars in the remake of the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (20th Century Fox) and a cast of Latin actors discovers there’s Nothing Like the Holidays (Overture Films), joined by the animated fantasy film Delgo (Fathom Studios).