The Weekend Warrior: January 30 – February 1

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Greetings and welcome back to the Weekend Warrior, your weekly guide to the weekend’s new movies. Tune in every Tuesday for the latest look at the upcoming weekend, and then check back on Thursday night for final projections based on actual theatre counts.

Updated Predictions and Comparisons

(UPDATE: A bit of reshuffling after seeing a couple of the movies and reading a bunch of reviews; New in Town probably won’t do as well as originally projected but The Uninvited will probably do okay despite losing business to Taken, which should do very well this weekend. Also, both Milk and The Wrestler will expand nationwide this weekend but only the latter has a chance of getting into the Top 10.)

1. Taken (20th Century Fox) – $17.3 million N/A (up 2.9 million)

2. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Sony) – $14.0 million -35% (up .4 million)

3. The Uninvited (Paramount) – $10.7 million N/A (up 2.4 million and four spots)

4. Gran Torino (Warner Bros.) – $10.2 million -37% (up .1 million)

5. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) – $10.0 million -10% (up 1 million)

6. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (Screen Gems) – $9.5 million -54% (samd)

7. New in Town (Lionsgate) – $8.2 million N/A (down 1 million)

8. Hotel for Dogs (DreamWorks) – $7.8 million -37%

9. My Bloody Valentine 3D (Lionsgate) – $4.5 million -55% (down .5 million)

10. Inkheart (New Line/WB) – $4.4 million -42% (same)

The Wrestler (Fox Searchlight) – $4.0 million 7%

The Reader (The Weinstein Co.) – $3.5 million +150% (same)

Milk (Focus Features) – $2.5 million +161%

Weekend Overview

It’s Super Bowl weekend, which usually means that movie theater business will crash and burn on Sunday. Even so, three new movies will open in wide release, trying to make enough money on Friday and Saturday that it won’t matter. Shooting for the top position with the widest release of the three new movies is the action thriller Taken (20th Century Fox) from the mind of French action producer Luc Besson, who put Liam Neeson in the role of a father on a mission to find his 17-year-old daughter. Directed by District B13‘s Pierre Morel, the high concept premise and promise of kick-ass action should make this a first-choice for guys from 15 and up in the days before the Super Bowl, though the subject matter and Neeson’s presence should have a wide enough appeal to reach older audiences as well. It’s likely to be fighting tooth and nail to keep Kevin James’ Paul Blart: Mall Cop from pulling what would be an astounding three-peat at the top of the box office. Our faith in the presence of a higher being will allow Neeson to have his sixth #1 movie.

Filling the obligatory chick flick slot that seems to surface every time the Super Bowl comes around is New in Town (Lionsgate), starring Renée Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr. It’s the type of high concept fish-out-of-water romantic comedy that should be able to interest the female fans of Zellweger’s “Bridget Jones” movies, although its minimal release makes one realize that Zellweger isn’t the type of draw she might have been in the past. Even so, going by past hits like Debra Messing’s The Wedding Date and Because I Said So…, women are trying to find entertainment while their husbands and boyfriends are preparing for the Super Bowl, which should allow this to find itself a place in the Top 5.

Taken‘s main competition for younger audiences is likely to be horror remake The Uninvited (Paramount), which follows in the footsteps of other horror flicks that have opened Super Bowl weekend. It’s opening in nearly a thousand fewer theaters than Taken plus it’s following closely behind stronger horror fare, so it’s not likely to find the success of previous PG-13 Super Bowl horror hits like When a Stranger Calls and Boogeyman. (Both of those were released by Screen Gems, who have a far better track record marketing horror.)

Stephen Daldry’s German drama The Reader (The Weinstein Co.), starring Golden Globe and SAG winner Kate Winslet, surprised many experts by being nominated for numerous Oscars, including Best Picture. Wisely, it’ll be expanding nationwide into over a thousand theaters this weekend to try to entice the audiences who haven’t had a chance to see it yet. While it might not be able to get into the Top 10, it should still do decently without that many other new choices for older audiences.

Last year’s Super Bowl weekend saw the release of one of the biggest movie phenomena of 2008 as the 3D concert movie Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: The Best of Both Worlds (Disney) exploded with $31 million in just 684 theaters, breaking the previous per-theater averages set by Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Last year’s token horror offering, the remake of The Eye (Lionsgate), starring Jessica Alba, came in a distant second with $12.4 million in four times as many theaters. The comedies Over Her Dead Body (New Line) and Strange Wilderness (Paramount) both opened in over a thousand theaters but ended up outside the Top 10 with $4 million and $3 million, respectively. The Top 10 grossed $94 million but that was with the help of the Hannah Montana concert movie, and this weekend’s business will probably be somewhat lighter.


Taken (20th Century Fox)
Starring Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Katie Cassidy, Goran Kostic
Directed by Pierre Morel (District B13); Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (Transporter 2, Transporter 3, Unleashed, Bandidas)
Genre: Action, Thriller
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “They took his daughter. He’ll take their lives.”
Plot Summary: When his teen daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) is kidnapped while vacationing in Paris, former government operative Bryan Mills has 96 hours to find her if he ever wants to see her again. Using all of his skills as an agent, Mills goes after the Armenian sex trafficking ring that got her.

Review

Analysis:

While Super Bowl weekend has generally seen very specific movie genres opening well (and others being dumped), this new action flick from 20th Century Fox and French mega-producer Luc Besson is somewhat of an anomaly in that it’s a film that’s been in the can for some time, making it seem as if it’s being dumped. In fact, it’s getting the widest release of the weekend hoping to build on the favorable online buzz that’s been generated from the fact that many action buffs have already seen the movie due to a highly-publicized online bootleg.

One thing to note is that Taken is not your typical mindless action-thriller popcorn movie from Hollywood, instead being an intelligent, dramatic thriller in line with some of Besson’s strongest work during the ’90s like The Professional and La Femme Nikita. In 2002, Luc Besson hired Guy Ritchie regular Jason Statham to play the role of Frank Martin in The Transporter, and the popularity of that character and film franchise has created a niche for Besson’s work among action fans. Taken is different in that it’s a more serious film, which can be appreciated by older audiences, but one certainly can see this movie appealing to the same audience.

It’s not often that you see an actor of Liam Neeson’s caliber appearing in an action-thriller like this, but Neeson actually has a good deal of experience doing action in George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace as well as Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and even going back to Sam Raimi’s early film Darkman, so it shouldn’t be too big a surprise to see him playing a bad-ass father trying to get back his daughter. Neeson’s appearance in blockbuster franchises have probably helped raise awareness of his work among the younger male audiences who would normally want to see a movie like this, but he also has a respectable amount of older fans from his more awards-worthy fare like Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List and the biopic Kinsey. Neeson’s daughter Kim is played by Maggie Grace from “Lost,” whose only major film roles have been in a remake of The Fog and The Jane Austen Book Club, while Famke Janssen (“Jean Grey” from the “X-Men” franchise) plays his ex-wife. Really, this is Neeson’s movie to carry from beginning to end, and it’ll be a really good test to see whether people will go see a movie where he has to carry the weight.

The odd thing is that the film was completed over a year ago and it’s already been released in France, England and really just about everywhere except the United States and Canada – check out its release slate. Because of this, copies of the movie have already been readily available online and on DVD as bootlegs for months now. Even though many of the people who want to see this movie might have already seen it, it’s a good movie and its fans will probably want to try and catch it on the big screen as it was intended. While one has to imagine the availability of the film online so far in advance could keep it from doing huge business, it should still be able to bring in enough business from those who don’t normally download movies (which is a much bigger audience) to win the weekend even with a sharp drop-off on Sunday as the film’s primary target audience stays home for the Super Bowl.

Why I Should See It: Luc Besson is responsible for some of the best action thrillers of the last two decades, and he has a great new leading man in Liam Neeson.
Why Not: Because you’ve already watched it online?
Projections: $13 to 15 million opening weekend and around $36 to 38 million total.

COMPARISONS


The Uninvited (DreamWorks/Paramount)
Starring Emily Browning, Elizabeth Banks, Arielle Kebbel, David Strathairn
Directed by Thomas and Charles Guard (Debut); Written by Craig Rosenberg (Half Light, After the Sunset), Doug Miro (The Great Raid, upcoming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time)
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “Fear moves in.”
Plot Summary: After the death of her mother, Anna (Emily Browning) spent some time in a psychiatric facility, but when she returns home, she discovers that her mother’s former nurse Rachel (Elizabeth Banks) has moved into the house and become engaged to her father (David Strathairn). With the help of her sister (Arielle Kebbel), they must find a way to put a stop to their father’s fiancee, who isn’t what she pretends to be.

Review (on Friday)

Analysis:

For the fifth year in a row, a studio is releasing a horror movie over Super Bowl weekend, hoping to continue the success of the genre on this weekend going back to when Screen Gems’ Darkness Falls topped the box office with just $12 million in 2003. This one is a remake of the Korean horror film A Tale of Two Sisters by Kim Jee-woon (a movie I reviewed way back when), though it’s definitely a lesser-known cult film than some of the other Asian horror films that have been remade in Hollywood.

While the original movie was a creepy affair which used similar imagery as other Asian horror films like The Ring and The Grudge, it was actually a far more dramatic film than normal horror. With that in mind, British filmmakers Thomas and Charles Guard, making their feature film debut, have hired two great dramatic actors in David Strathairn, who was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck, and Elizabeth Banks, who has appeared in a wide variety of films including Oliver Stone’s W. Neither has been able to prove themselves as box office draws, but this being a horror film, casting rarely makes much of a difference. That’s why they can have a lesser-known actress like Emily Browning (who appeared in Darkness Falls no less!) in the lead instead of someone like Dakota Fanning, pairing her with Arielle Kebbel, who appeared in the horror sequel The Grudge 2.

While DreamWorks was one of the first studios to jump on the Asian horror remake bandwagon–in fact they got the whole ball rolling with The Ring–they haven’t had a lot of success with their horror movies since joining forces with Paramount. Last year’s R-rated The Ruins only opened with $8 million despite a heavy marketing campaign, and while The Uninvited has similarly strong commercials, it looks more like a straight thriller compared to the original movie. In fact, it looks a lot like the Dakota Fanning-Robert De Niro thriller Hide and Seek, which opened with over $22 million on the same weekend four years ago (as well as involving a similar premise as the original A Tale of Two Sisters.) Like that film, The Uninvited might benefit from its PG-13 rating as much as from its strong marketing, although one can’t deny the more than usual competition for male audiences from the action flick Taken.

Unlike The Ring, The Grudge and The Eye, this remake isn’t even bothering to use the original movie’s title, which is somewhat worrying, since it further alienates the fans of the original movie by not letting them know this is a remake (which is partially the point of changing the name). Also, the movie’s new title could possibly be one of the worst movie titles since The Unborn… not that having a bad title hurt Rogue Pictures’ flick from having a big opening.

These days, it’s almost impossible to tell what horror movies will go over well with the casual teen moviegoers, though the fact this is opening so soon after strongly performing horror movies like the similarly titled The Unborn (which tanked after opening) and My Bloody Valentine 3D could hurt its chances among the teen audiences who might be burnt out on horror or waiting patiently for the return of Jason Voorhees in the new Friday the 13th.

Why I Should See It: The original horror movie was one of the best of the genre to come out of Asia in the wave following The Ring; if the remake maintains even 50% of what made that so great, it’s likely to be a scary affair.
Why Not: The fact that the title has already been changed makes one think this is another bad horror movie being dumped in hopes teens aren’t too fussy.
Projections: $8 to 10 million opening weekend and around $20 to 22 million total.

COMPARISONS


New in Town (Lionsgate)
Starring Renee Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr., J.K. Simmons, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Frances Conroy, Mike O’Brien, Rashida Jones
Directed by Jonas Elmer; Written by Kenneth Rance, C. Jay Cox (Sweet Home Alabama)
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Rated PG
Tagline: “She’s an executive on the move. But her career is taking her a little farther than she expected.”
Plot Summary: Ambitious but spoiled Miami executive Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger) gets offered an assignment to restructure a manufacturing plant in Minnesota, which she agrees to do in order to help her career. She quickly learns that life in the cold MidWest is very different from the one she’s accustomed to, but it seems worth it when she meets the rugged Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick Jr.)

Mini-Review (Coming Soon!)

Analysis:
Even more of a sure thing on Super Bowl weekend than releasing a horror movie is having a high concept romantic comedy that appeals directly to the women who might care the least about football. This one takes a similar premise as Reese Witherspoon’s enormous hit Sweet Home Alabama, even being written by one of its writers, but it’s been modified as a vehicle for Renée Zellweger, who could really use a hit right now to prove she’s still viable as a box office star.

This is Zellweger’s first romantic comedy since the barely-released Miss Potter a few years back, and in some ways, her return to the genre might be an attempt to recapture the acclaim she first achieved when she starred in Bridget Jones’ Diary, a movie that grossed $71 million and got her an Oscar nomination. Of course, by then, she’d already played Tom Cruise’s love interest in the similar awards-worthy hit Jerry Maguire and appeared in popular films like Empire Records, but the success of “Bridget Jones” put Zellweger into a different category and a few years later, she starred in the blockbuster hit musical Chicago and was nominated for another Oscar. Even though her pairing with Ewan McGregor in the retro rom-com Down with Love bombed, Zellweger would win her first Oscar in a supporting role in the late Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain in 2003. After that, things started to go wonky, as Zellweger started providing her voice for lesser DreamWorks animated movies and appeared opposite Russell Crowe in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, which failed to get the expected Oscar buzz. Last year, she appeared opposite George Clooney in another period film Leatherheads followed a few months later by Ed Harris’ Western Appaloosa, neither which did well enough for one to think that Zellweger has been able to maintain her status. (Oddly, Zellweger’s own Paramount horror flick Case 39 has been delayed for over two years.)

The sad fact is that Zellweger has become somewhat of a joke in the industry, constantly mocked on the red carpet and by critics for her sourpuss expressions in movies, and New in Town certainly won’t do much to win those critics over. On the other hand, doing a simpler romantic comedy could help Zellweger win back some of the women she might have lost with the negative spin she’s been given by the tabloid media. Her love interest is played by musician Harry Connick Jr., who played a similar romantic role in Hilary Swank’s P.S. I Love You. Connick’s film choices have been so erratic, it’s hard to tell whether enough female fans of Connick’s musical output will be interested in seeing him in this kind of role.

New in Town continues Lionsgate’s attempt to branch into more mainstream non-genre fare, which they’ve had only moderate success with. While the combination of Dane Cook and Jessica Alba in Good Luck Chuck did decently, Cook’s follow-up with rom-com superstar Kate Hudson, My Best Friend’s Girl, didn’t fare nearly as well. The good thing they have going for this movie is that there have been a number of rom-com hits on Super Bowl weekend in the past, with Because I Said So… starring Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore, but more relevant is how two years earlier, The Wedding Date starring Debra Messing opened with $11 million despite playing in less than 2,000 theaters.

There’s been similar concerns about New in Town doing well considering its moderate release, though the success of The Wedding Date was proof that a movie doesn’t have to open in 3,000 theaters to do well. In fact, both of Zellweger’s “Bridget Jones” movies both opened well despite only moderately wide releases. In a strange decision, Lionsgate decided to appeal the film’s PG-13 rating and get it reevaluated as PG, seeing how movies like Bride Wars and Marley & Me have been able to bring in wider audiences, but there’s little to show that anyone under 15 will have any interest in this movie.

Either way, it’s a cute premise, one that isn’t too difficult to comprehend or appreciate by casual female moviegoers looking for something to see this weekend, and it’s a good chance for Zellweger to try to prove her worth, even though this is likely to get shut out next week with the opening of New Line’s He’s Just Not That Into You, which seems like a much better chick flick draw.

Why I Should See It: It looks like Renée Zellweger is returning to the type of romantic comedies that helped make her career.
Why Not: If you’re a guy, you’ll probably find her antics to be excruciatingly annoying.
Projections: $8 to 10 million opening weekend and $24 to 28 million total.

COMPARISONS


THE CHOSEN ONE:

Medicine for Melancholy (IFC Films)
Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins (debut)
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Tagline: “A night they barely remember becomes a day they’ll never forget.”
Plot Summary: After a drunken one-night-stand, Mica and Joanne (Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins) spend a day trying to get to know each other and the city of San Francisco despite their very different views on life.

I was charmed by Barry Jenkins’ debut when I first saw it as part of Independent Film Week last September and it’s even more enchanting on second viewing, mainly as a showcase for the talented Wyatt Cenac (regular correspondent on “The Daily Show”) and Tracey Heggins as Mica and Joanne, a man and woman who first meet in an awkward morning-after post-coital moment and then spend a day trying to get to know each other as they ride their bikes through San Francisco. Being that it’s shot in black-and-white, it’s hard not to think of Spike Lee’s early fillm She’s Gotta Have It and not since Lee’s early work has a filmmaker been able to capture a more honest portrait of the African-American experience when it comes to dating and romance (Sorry Tyler Perry!) As the film begins, these two individuals seem to have very little in common and you might not think one could sustain a film with such characters, but after they part ways, he finds her wallet in their shared cab and decides to follow-up and she realizes he’s not going to be so easy to shake. Mica has serious racial issues, but Cenac plays the character with so much humor and charm and he’s such a genuinely nice guy, that he wins the audience over just as he wins Joanne. Jenkins has found two great actors to bring these characters to life with a growing chemistry that’s only marred when they start debating issues like interracial dating. The film is beautifully shot as the camera follows the two of them as they travel silently around the city of San Francisco accompanied by indie rock tunes and a gorgeous ambient soundtrack. There’s certainly aspects to the simplicity of the storytelling that reminds one of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset or Once, just showing the evolution of a relationship over the course of a day, but this is just as much Jenkins’ love poem to San Francisco, taking the two characters to all sorts of hip lesser-known places in town. It’s certainly a romantic film, leading to a love scene that could have been part of any French or Italian film, but the film doesn’t end there, as the film cuts away from Mica and Joanne to play fly-on-the-wall to a debate about housing. On the one hand, it might seem like a bizarre tangent, but it does add something to the nature of Jenkins’ desire to make a statement about the environment that would bring these two disparate people together. Whether or not this is your cup of tea, the film shows Jenkins to be an innovative and original voice to indie filmmaking, one certainly worth watching if he can deliver a second effort as enjoyable as this debut.

Medicine for Melancholy opens in New York at the IFC Center on Friday, and will be available on IFC in Theaters Video on Demand starting on February 4.

Also in Limited Release:

The Class (Sony Classics) – François Bégaudeau stars in Laurent Cantet’s documentary-style adaptation of Bégaudeau’s own novel about a normal year in the life of a teacher at a Parisian middle school, dealing with a variety of students who continually challenge François’ method of teaching. It opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, having been nominated for an Oscar in the Foreign Language category on the behalf of France.

Interview with Laurent Cantet

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh (Balcony Releasing) – This documentary from Roberta Grossman looks at the life of Hannah Senesh, a poet and author who became a resistant fighter against the Nazis by joining a rescue mission to save Jews in Hungary. Told through the writings and photographs from Hannah and her mother Catherine. It opens on Wednesday at the Landmark Sunshine.

Shadows (Mitropoulos) – The Macedonian thriller from Milcho (Before the Rain) Manchevski is about a good-looking young doctor (Borce Nacev) whose life changes after a disastrous car crash, when he starts experience strange visions and receiving messages from bizarre characters he meets in his building.

Mini-Review: While the Koreans may think they’ve cornered the market on bizarre ghost stories, the latest offering from an award-winning East European filmmaker treads similar ground as films like “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Angel Heart,” handling the after life in a strange and almost sexy way that requires a small degree of patience before any of it pays off. Dr. Lazar Perkov is a family man with a cheating wife whose survival of a terrible car crash leads him to encounter strange characters and situations until he meets Menka, a mysterious and vibrant young woman who might have the answers to his unexplainable experiences. From the very beginning, this movie has a distinctive oddball tone that one could easily write off to the vast cultural differences. Manchevski’s untenable obsession with semi- clad women and sex makes this seem very much like something Brian De Palma might have come up with in his heyday, but his sense of the bizarre–the most notable example of this being the old man carrying a baby who keeps appearing over the course of the movie–is more attributable to the work of David Lynch. Manchevski doesn’t make it easy for the viewer to figure out exactly what is going on as the story jumps between Lazar running into these strange characters in his building, having casual flirtations with Menka, and then casually watching a young woman upstairs having sexual encounters with various men. None of these things seem to have very much in common, even after what-the moments like Lazar’s reaction to finding a strange old woman in his apartment – he drags her out and throws her into the hallway. Even so, the film makes for an intriguing mix of erotic thriller and straight ghost story that’s unapologetically derivative at times but also quit charming in the way Manchevski incorporates his own culture and environment into a film that’s often a throwback to the ’80s. To the director’s credit, he’s found a great leading man in Borce Nacev, who’s able to carry the story and keep you interested, even as he’s experiencing all sorts of strangeness, and Vesna Stanojevska is equally captivating as his enigmatic romantic interest. Manchevski makes every scene look and feel cinematic, even when you’re not sure exactly what you’re watching, but his strength is clearly in the film’s deeply erotic scenes which culminate after Manchevski’s creepy camera spends a lot of time ogling a vast array of sexy Eastern European women. By the last twenty minutes of the film, all these elements thankfully start to come together and things start to make more sense as it’s explained why Lazar has been encountering all these strange characters. It might be somewhat frustrating that so many confusing ideas and images might lead to such a banal and obvious resolution, but the charm of Manchevski’s film clearly lies in its ability to embrace its eccentricities and pull together a number of disparate ideas into what’s generally a satisfying thriller. Rating: 7/10

Shadows opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in New York, as does…

As Seen Through These Eyes (Menemsha Films) – Maya Angelous narrates this documentary from Hilary Helstein about a group of artists who fought against Hitler using their art.

Luck by Chance (Adlab Films) – Zoya Akhtar’s tale looks at a variety of characters trying to make it big both from inside and outside the Bollywood film system opens in select cities on Friday.


Next week, the month of February begins with Steve Martin returning as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther 2 (MGM/Sony), the star-studded novel-based chick flick He’s Just Not That Into You (New Line/WB), the futuristic superhero thriller Push (Summit Entertainment) and Henry (The Nightmare Before Christmas) Selick’s animated take on Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy Coraline (Focus).

Copyright 2009 Edward Douglas

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