The Weekend Warrior: February 6 – 8

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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 theater counts.

Updated Predictions and Comparisons

1. He’s Just Not That Into You (New Line/WB) – $24.4 million N/A (up . 7 million)

2. The Pink Panther 2 (MGM/Sony) – $19.4 million N/A (down .8 million)

3. Taken (20th Century Fox) – $13.1 million -47% (down .4 million)

4. Coraline (Focus Features) – $10.3 million N/A (up .8 million)

5. Push (Summit Entertainment) – $9.7 million N/A (up 1 million)

6. Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Sony) – $8.0 million -43% (same)

7. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) – $5.9 million -25% (same)

8. The Uninvited (Paramount) – $5.5 million -48% (same)

9. Hotel for Dogs (DreamWorks) – $5.0 million -43% (same)

10. Gran Torino (Warner Bros.) – $4.7 million -45% (same)

Weekend Overview

February kicks off in earnest with four new movies in wide release, though fighting for the top spot will be two star-studded comedies, each opening in over 3,000 theaters.

Steve Martin’s return as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther 2 (Sony) probably would seem like the most obvious choice to win the weekend, being a sequel to a popular family film. Kids tend to have short memories but the sequel is coming into a market just as busy as the original movie and choices like Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Hotel for Dogs may have run their course. While the movie might find some teen audiences and families with small kids on Saturday, it’s not the type of rush-out-to-see sequel that people will have to see in theaters opening weekend, so it might not necessarily open bigger than the original movie.

On the other hand, the chick flick He’s Just Not That Into You (New Line/WB) is the kind of movie that many women really want to see based on the popularity of the book of the same name and the great ensemble cast that includes Jennifer Aniston and Drew Barrymore. Women should be out in droves on Friday and Saturday night to see this, which should allow it to win the weekend even if The Pink Panther 2 catches up on Saturday.

Opening in roughly a thousand fewer theaters, the other two new movies feature teen actress Dakota Fanning, essentially competing against herself. The stop-motion animated Coraline (Focus Features), directed by Henry Selick of The Nightmare Before Christmas from Neil Gaiman’s novel, should steal some of the family business away from Martin’s comedy, based mainly on the popularity of Selick’s previous work and Gaiman’s novel. The subject matter might help bring in teen and older audiences rather than just being for young kids, too. (In fact, it might be too scary for kids under 6 or 7, which might put off some parents from taking them.)

The one movie this weekend geared solely to the young male set this weekend is the superhero thriller Push (Summit Entertainment) which could do some business among those not interested in the other choices, but being compared unfavorably to last year’s Fox action movie Jumper is not a good thing for a movie that has the least built-in audience since it’s not based on a known comic book property. Expect a moderate opening but not much in terms of legs even with few stronger choices on the way.

This weekend last year, the romantic action-comedy Fool’s Gold (Warner Bros.), reuniting Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, took the top spot with a $21.6 million opening in 3,125 theaters. It kept Martin Lawrence from having another #1 hit with his comedy Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (Universal), which settled for $16.2 million in 700 fewer theatres and second place. Opening well outside the Top 10 at #24, the comedy concert film Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show (Picturehouse) bombed with just $464 thousand in 962 theaters, averaging less than $500. Opening in just 28 theaters, the Irish crime-comedy In Bruges (Focus Features) opened with just $7,000 less. The Top 10 last year grossed $83 million, an amount that should be bested with this week’s offerings.


The Pink Panther 2 (Sony)
Starring Steve Martin, Jean Reno, Alfred Molina, Emily Mortimer, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Andy Garcia, Lily Tomlin, John Cleese
Directed by Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks, One Night at McCool’s, upcoming The Karate Kid); Written by Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber (upcoming (500) Days of Summer), Steve Martin
Genre: Comedy
Rated PG
Tagline: “Inspect the Unexpected.”
Plot Summary: Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin) is back on the case when the Pink Panther Diamond is stolen again, traveling to Rome to retrieve it.

Analysis:

Looking to give Kevin James’ Paul Blart: Mall Cop its first real competition since opening is this sequel to one of the surprise hits of 2006. The reintroduction of Peter Sellers’ most famous character, Inspector Clouseau, in The Pink Panther, reunited director Shawn Levy and comic Steve Martin after their family hit Cheaper by the Dozen. After being moved from a plum summer release to February, many were worried that it was a dog destined to bomb, but in fact, the movie opened with $20 million and ended up making nearly four times that amount (and almost $160 million internationally). Even with that amount of success, the people who saw the movie probably weren’t clamoring for a sequel, and yet, three years later, MGM and Sony have made one hoping that a sequel would do as well as the original.

Since the previous movie, Steve Martin hasn’t been doing very much, pretty much laying low except for a small role in Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s comedy Baby Mama last year. The Pink Panther was the third in a string of comedy comebacks for the star that helped prove he had enough of a diverse fanbase that were willing to see his movies. Taking three years off might have been good, since he did seem to be somewhat overexposed, but that absence may have allowed people to forget whether or not they liked Martin as Inspector Clouseau. Martin is generally great at promoting his own movies, and he returned to “Saturday Night Live” this past weekend in hopes of bringing teen and older moviegoers in to see the movie, rather than just families and kids. The good thing about Martin is that he has a lot of older fans, who’ll be just as likely to see this movie as those with kids, and in some ways, Martin has successfully dumbed Clouseau’s schtick down for modern-day moviegoing audiences, so that teens might find the movie as funny as kids.

Since Shawn Levy has moved on to Ben Stiller’s far more profitable “Night at the Museum” franchise over at Fox, Martin is joined for the sequel by Harald Zwart, who directed Frankie Muniz’s Agent Cody Banks – Levy previously worked with Muniz in Big Fat Liar, in case you’re wondering how they all tie together. Oddly, the film is scripted by a pair of writers who received a lot of attention at the recent Sundance Film Festival for their Fox Searchlight rom-com (500) Days of Summer.

Martin also has a great ensemble cast surrounding him, but the only one who really stands out in terms of commercial time is John Cleese, who replaces his A Fish Called Wanda co-star Kevin Kline, who played Chief Inspector Dreyfus in the previous movie. Jean Reno is back as Clouseau’s partner in crime Ponton and Emily Mortimer is playing Nicole – his assistant? (Seriously, I’ve mostly forgotten the first movie.) While he last movie had Beyoncé Knowles as its token beauty, the sequel goes with Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai. The impressive cast also includes the likes of Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, Jeremy Irons and though she’s not featured in the commercials, the movie reunites Martin with fellow comic Lily Tomlin for the first time since they starred together in the comedy All of Me almost 25 years ago.

Martin’s previous attempt at playing Clouseau is by no means considered a family comedy classic and kids tend to have very little loyalty when it comes to sequels. Martin saw this in 2005, when he starred in Cheaper by the Dozen 2, which opened at about half the amount of its predecessor two years earlier, and Sony saw this phenomenon with the Ice Cube movie Are We There Yet?, which did very well in theaters, grossing $82 million, though two years later, the sequel Are We Done Yet? sputtered to about 60% of the previous movie’s gross. Similarly, Harald Zwart’s Frankie Muniz hit Agent Cody Banks had a sequel just a year later which bombed. It’s just one of those strange phenomenons where sequel to live-action family comedies rarely do well.

To make matters worse, the reviews for the original movie were pretty bad (24% on Rotten Tomatoes)–not that it affected its box office performance–but even more telling is how poorly it ranked among IMDb users with just 5/10, which tells you that at least the teens and adults who saw the first movie didn’t exactly like it enough to be clamoring for a sequel.

The big difference between this and some of the other family comedies is that this is Steve Martin, who is somewhat of a comedy institution, and his popularity among diverse audiences should keep the movie from totally bombing, although it seems like it’s facing a much tougher market than the original movie did three years ago, so expect a softer opening and a shorter box office run.

Why I Should See It: Steve Martin has been one of the funniest movie comics for the last thirty years, and being able to do Clouseau in another movie might help him improve the character.
Why Not: The sequel looks even dumber than the original, if that’s even humanly possible, and surely, America got enough dumb with the last three weeks of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, right?
Projections: $19 to 21 million opening weekend and roughly $65 million total.

COMPARISONS


He’s Just Not That Into You (New Line/WB)
Starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, Kevin Connolly, Bradley Cooper, Ginnifer Goodwin, Scarlett Johansson, Kris Kristofferson, Justin Long
Directed by Ken Kwapis (License to Wed, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, lots of TV shows); Written by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (Never Been Kissed)
Genre: Romance, Comedy
Rated PG-13
Plot Summary: A group of Baltimore-based 20 and 30-somethings try to navigate their relationships whether it’s trying to deal with the dating scene or with married life as they try to figure out the opposite sex.

Mini-Review: Not nearly as painful as some guys might think, this anthology film comes across like a cross between “Coupling,” “Friends” and “Love American Style,” following eight or nine good-looking Baltimore individuals trying to navigate their way through relationships and the dating scene to learn the true meaning of love. The results are four concurrent stories that give far too many characters a chance to spout witty parables and pithy philosophical advice about relationships and dating. The writing is generally decent as are the performances, though this may not be the romantic comedy some may be expecting, as most of the stories deal with serious relationship issues. Clearly, the best of the bunch is the central story revolving around Ginnifer Goodwin as the neurotic Gigi, who is obsessed with finding Mr. Right. Goodwin proves herself more than capable of carrying the movie, as she successfully steals it from under the bigger name stars as we watch her connect with Justin Long as a restaurant manager who helps straighten her out on how a guy thinks. The two of them are great on their own and together, which makes it a bigger shame when Ken Kwapis cuts away to the weaker stories, which involves one couple (Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck) breaking up over the decision to get married and another marriage in trouble. On the other hand, the movie avoids the normal case of guys being treated as antagonists and sex objects making characters by Long and “Entourage” star Kevin Connolly somewhat of a revelation since they generally have good intentions even though they do dumb things. Connolly’s realtor Connor might seem insensitive at first for ignoring Gigi, but he’s always there for Scarlett Johansson’s Anna, despite her manipulating him while chasing after the already-married Ben (Bradley Cooper). Even Affleck proves to be generally likeable as he comes around and is there for Aniston when she needs him. Johansson has never looked sexier and that lucky bastard Bradley Cooper gets his hands all over that in one scene, but Jennifer Connelly delivers an unconvincing performance as his neglected wife. Oddly, the film’s exec producer Drew Barrymore gives herself a small, inconsequential role that involves some of the more ridiculous thoughts about having relationships in the internet world, many of the ideas already outdated by the film’s time on the shelf. The thing is that many of these stories aren’t necessarily fun or entertaining, as things often get very serious and dramatic, as much as it attempts to deal with serious issues in a light-hearted manner. In the long run, there are too many characters and stories and not all of them are nearly as interesting as the story involving Goodwin – clearly a breakthrough role for her. If you’re paying attention, you’ll probably easily figure out where everything is going for most of the characters, though having to resolve so many stories makes the film much longer than it ever should be. Even so, you can do far worse than this when it comes to a date movie, since it does try its best to keep things balanced; knowing so much about how the opposite sex thinks will surely put a quick and sour end to date night. Rating: 6/10

Analysis:

With Valentine’s Day still a week away, movies targeted specifically towards the fairer sex are starting to hit theaters, this one being the kind of movie that chicks dig, one that takes some self-help book or another and turns it into entertainment for those who’ve experienced similar relationship woes. That was the case with How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, an adaptation of a cartoon book which first paired Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey this same weekend six years and went on to gross $100 million. This ensemble comedy is based on the self-improvement book by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo inspired by an episode of “Sex and the City”; after being featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” it became a New York Times bestseller, partially thanks to its great title.

The option for the book was picked up by Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films and the film was produced in 2007 with the plan to be released last October. After the merger of New Line into Warner Bros., the movie was pushed back to February, which might end up being a great decision since this February is a much better time for a movie like this. Certainly this is very familiar territory for Drew Barrymore, who has starred in these kinds of romantic comedies for years opposite Hugh Grant (Music & Lyrics) and Adam Sandler (50 First Dates and The Wedding Singer) and going back to movies like Never Been Kissed.

Surprisingly, Barrymore took a fairly small role but filled this one with a really strong cast, especially the women, as some might see former “Friends” star Jennifer Aniston as the real draw for women over Barrymore herself. After all, Aniston’s last two movies have grossed over $100 million, her most recent appearance in Marley & Me being a surprise holiday hit that few could ever have imagined could gross $138 million. There’s also Scarlet Johansson and Jennifer Connelly, two respected actresses who have both been nominated for various awards but haven’t really proven themselves as box office draws, particularly in movies geared towards women. Connelly’s last movie was the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, which opened well but didn’t perform nearly as well as anyone thought. The movie’s real secret weapon would have to be Ginnifer Goodwin, star of the HBO series “Big Love”, who has appeared in Walk the Line and Mona Lisa Smile, but who gets her own storyline in the movie.

As is often the case, the male cast isn’t nearly as strong, although the movie is significant in that it’s bringing Ben Affleck back to a romantic role for the first time in many years, probably since Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl. Affleck’s role is played down slightly in favor of Barrymore’s former boyfriend Justin Long, who most recently appeared in Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, but hasn’t really broken out in a movie that might appeal to women. (Long’s biggest movie is Alvin and the Chipmunks in which he voiced the title character.) Kevin Connolly, star of HBO’s hit comedy “Entourage,” hasn’t appeared in too many movies so playing this kind of love interest role is a big deal for him, while Bradley Cooper has experience with the chick flick genre, having co-starred in Failure to Launch. One of the more clever marketing things to promote the movie was an online promo (watch it here) featuring the latter three guys making fun of romantic comedy cliches, which would normally keep guys away from seeing the movie, plus it also lets women know how funny the movie should be.

In general, this movie is taking the approach that the sum is greater than the parts, a formula that was used quite successfully by Richard Curtis in his popular British rom-com hit Love Actually. In theory, there’s enough variety in terms of cast that every woman should find one character or situation they can relate to, but more importantly, it’s the movie’s catchy title and premise that will get women interested in seeing this with their friends after work on Friday.

The movie has the same Warner Bros. marketing behind it that helped movies like Fool’s Gold, Music & Lyrics and other high concept chick flicks do decently, as well as being released by the same studio behind last year’s huge female-centric hit Sex and the City. It’s strange that the film is opening the week before Valentine’s Day because it could probably kill if it opened next weekend, although there should probably still be word-of-mouth buzz about it among women, who’ll then try to convince their boyfriends and husbands to see it with them on Valentine’s Day. The only thing that might hinder that plan slightly is next week’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, although that romantic comedy doesn’t seem like it could work as a date movie, and word-of-mouth for this movie should help it bring in some long-term business rather than exploding out of the gate ala Sex and the City.

Why I Should See It: A really impressive cast could make this one of those rare chick flicks that even guys can stomach.
Why Not: Oh, who am I kidding? Lines like “MySpace is the new booty call” already makes this movie seem very dated.
Projections: $22 to 25 million opening weekend on its way to $75 to 80 million total.

COMPARISONS


Push (Summit Entertainment)
Starring Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning, Camilla Belle, Djimon Hounsou, Maggie Siff, Scott Michael Campbell
Directed by Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin, Wicker Park, The Reckoning, Gangster No. 1); Written by David Bourla
Genre: Action, Thriller
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “One Push Can Change Everything.”
Plot Summary: In a world full of people with special mental powers, the telekinetic Nick Grant (Chris Evans) and teen clairvoyant Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) try to track down the powerful “pusher” Kira (Camilla Belle), putting them on the run from the government agency The District and their top agent Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou), who are trying to turn those with powers into weapons.

Mini-Review (Coming Soon!)

Interview with Paul McGuigan from San Diego

Analysis:

The one movie this weekend that will be geared primarily towards the young male audience who used to dominate theaters and now seem to be relaxing at home with video games and large-screen TVs is this new super powers thriller that tries to continue the trend of doing original superhero movies not based on any particular comic book. Last year saw the release of Jumper and the Will Smith summer blockbuster Hancock, which created their own characters and situations geared around people with powers.

Push isn’t really a superhero movie per se, more of a futuristic thriller set in a world of telepaths battling against each other. It’s helmed by Scottish director Paul McGuigan, who made popular cult British films before coming to Hollywood to make a couple Josh Hartnett movies, the bomb Wicker Park and the crime film Lucky Number Slevin, which only did slightly better.

The main stars within this movie’s ensemble cast are Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning, both of whom have starred in big summer movies and smaller indie fare, though Evan’s turn as the Human Torch in two “Fantastic Four” movies would probably be the best precursor for this role. Fanning’s previous genre movies included the thriller Hide and Seek and Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, though her choices have been all over the place from the family films Charlotte’s Web and Dreamer to last year’s drama The Secret Life of Bees. They’re joined by Camilla Bell, who starred in the hit horror remake When a Stranger Calls and Roland Emmerich’s prehistoric epic 10,000 BC, and the main baddie is played by two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou (In America, Blood Diamond, The Island).

One thing working in the movie’s favor is that it’s spinning off the success of NBC’s “Heroes,” which has helped put people with powers into the mainstream media. There looks like there could be some cool action scenes in the movie, but in many people’s minds, they’re remembering last year’s Jumper, a big budget action/FX movie which did decently but wasn’t exactly embraced by the geek community.

While Summit is still rolling in the cash they made on the first Twilight, they haven’t quite proven themselves as an entity capable of marketing original film concepts. Their highest-grossing movie after Twilight was last year’s mixed martial arts drama Never Back Down, which grossed just $24 million after an $8.6 million opening. Push isn’t even getting that wide a release, so it may have a problem opening over $10 million even with a stronger cast and premise, especially if it doesn’t figure out a way to get younger audiences interested.

To promote the movie, Summit featured it at last year’s Comic-Con in San Diego, though it was one of the lower-key presentations that was completely overshadowed by the Twilight phenomenon. They also worked with DC and Wildstorm to release a comic book adaptation of the movie in advance to try to get the concept out early to the comic fans who might be the most open to the premise.

Beyond its premise and the potential for cool action, the movie just doesn’t have a lot going for it, so there’s little reason why this might get much attention among the geek audience, who’ll mostly be waiting for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and the summer movies. With no other choices, it won’t completely bomb but it has very little long-term potential.

Why I Should See It: This is an interesting concept for a movie with lots of intelligent sci-fi ideas and cool powers.
Why Not: Seriously, does anyone want to see another movie with Dakota Fanning acting all serious and Chris Evans making wisecracks?
Projections: $8 to 10 million opening weekend and $23 to 25 million total.

COMPARISONS


Coraline (Focus Features)
Starring (the voices of) Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ian McShane
Written and directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas)
Genre: Animation, Family, Fantasy
Rated PG
Tagline: “Be Careful What You Wish For…”
Plot Summary: Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) has just moved into a new home with her parents, and she discovers a secret doorway that leads to another world where everything in Coraline’s life seems much more exciting and better, including her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher). The young girl soon learns that not everything is what it seems as she becomes trapped in this world and she must try to escape and save her real parents.

Review (Coming Soon!)

Interview with Henry Selick

Analysis:

Hoping to get some of the family audiences away from the Steven Martin sequel is this strange stop-motion animated movie that brings together the director of the Disney hit Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas with one of the most prestigious and respected writers from the world of comic books. Henry Selick has been working on this animated version of Neil Gaiman’s novel for over four years, and it should be exciting for fans of his dark and quirky work, being his first stop-motion feature film since his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach twelve years ago. (Since then, Selick directed the combo live action/animated bomb Monkeybone with Brendan Fraser.)

What makes this an interesting venture is that it foregoes the CG animation that’s become so common and old hat and goes old school with the type of stop-motion animation that was so popular in the early days of cinema and that Selick and others like Nick Park (“Wallace & Gromit”) have kept alive. In the time that Selick has been working on Coraline, Tim Burton returned to the genre with the stop motion movie The Corpse Bride, which was thought to be the thematic follow-up to “Nightmare,” with voices provided by regular Burton collaborator Johnny Depp and his Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter. The movie did decently, paving the way for Selick’s return with a dark fantasy tale that’s consistent with the feel of his popular cult hit.

The voice cast consists of Dakota Fanning as the title character and “Desperate Housewives” star Terri Hatcher as her mother and her “other mother,” with other character voices provided by the ever-present Ian McShane and the British comedy duo French & Saunders. It’s a good cast, but the question is whether either Neil Gaiman or Henry Selick’s name is enough to get people into theaters despite the amount of success each has had in their respective fields. Despite being animated, Coraline isn’t necessarily going merely for a kids audience, since both creators have many teen and older fans including many young women. Even so, the fantasy film Stardust based on a Neil Gaiman work did disappointing business in its summer release a few years back, as did MirrorMask, the movie Gaiman did with frequent collaborator Dave McKean, which didn’t fare very well in limited release.

With that in mind, the best thing going for the movie is the fact it’s being released in many places in Digital 3D, the second movie of the year to use the technology. 3D is becoming huge business, and it’s very much in the mindset of the public after this past Sunday’s Super Bowl commercials that were watched by millions of Americans. (Unfortunately, there wasn’t a commercial for Coraline, since that might have made sense.) At this point, 3D animated movies have become very popular among kids and parents with Disney’s Bolt and Meet the Robinsons generally doing better in Digital 3D, plus Disney has made it a tradition to rerelease Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D every year. The continued success that film has had over a decade after its initial release is a good sign that those who’ve enjoyed that experience will check out Coraline.

Unfortunately, Focus Features has not had any experience marketing movies towards kids or promoting 3D movies, so they’re relying solely on that continued fanbase for “Nightmare” and the desire by fans of both Selick and Gaiman to see this movie. That should be enough to help the movie do decent business this weekend and there’s little reason why it can’t bring in repeat business especially over next week’s holiday weekend.

Why I Should See It: Neil Gaiman’s book is a wonderful dark fantasy tale that should fit perfectly with Selick’s style of animation.
Why Not: It might be too scary for young kids while also feeling too “kiddie” for non-parents.
Projections: $9 to 11 million opening weekend and $30 to 35 million total.
COMPARISONS


THE CHOSEN ONE:

The 2008 Academy Award-Nominated Short Films (Magnolia/Shorts International)
Written and directed by Various

This week’s “Chosen One” comes with reservations and only because while I’ve always loved the idea of Magnolia and Shorts International making all the Oscar-nominated shorts available to see in theaters, something that’s greatly helpful when filling out those online contests and office pools, this year’s offerings just don’t seem nearly as immediate or worthwhile as past years. Actually, the five animated shorts are all very good but they make up such a small part of the program this year (less than 40 minutes) and the live action shorts just don’t stand up in quality. The thing is that these shorts will be available later as individual downloads for 2 bucks a pop, yet there’s only a couple that seem worth the money. In theory though, being able to see all ten for $10 to 12 seems like a much better bargain.

Even so, most people will have already seen Doug Sweetland’s “Presto” in front of Pixar’s WALL•E either in theaters or on DVD, so it’s not exactly a draw for seeing this program. Similarly, Smith & Foulkes’ “This Way Up,” which might offer the most competition for the gold statue, has gotten quite a bit of play as part of “The Animation Show” last year and playing at the Sundance Film Festival (and being available as an iTunes download) just a couple weeks back. If you haven’t seen the latter, it involves two gravediggers who run into serious problems with what seems like an ordinary burial, and it’s extremely witty and clever. The nicest surprise in the Oscar shorts program is the Russian “Lavatory-LoveStory,” a lovely, mostly black-and-white animated film using simple line drawing, that tells the story of a romance-seeking female attendant at a men’s room who discovers she has a mystery suitor. It’s really the perfect way to start off the “show” that works so well as a standalone that it’ll be worth downloading when it becomes available. The Japanese “La Maison en Petits Cubes” is the only animated short that’s not a comedy, and it’s generally a beautiful piece, done in what looks like chalk or pastels, which reminds one of the work of Bill Plympton (though without the dark humor). The French “Oktapodi” is a short and mostly forgettable CG bit about two octopi in a chase through the streets of France. Within those 40 minutes of animation, there’s barely any dialogue, but it’s generally a strong selection that does highlight some of the best in the field.

Then we get to the live action shorts, most of which seem like filmmakers trying to fit the storytelling of a feature film into far less time and few of them working as standalone shorts. The Swiss “Auf de Strecke” by Reto Caffi involves the relationship between a security guard and a bookstore clerk who he watches on his monitors. At 30 minutes, it drags and doesn’t really deliver a satisfying conclusion. In fact, there was a better European short about a security guard at last year’s “New York Film Festival” which was far more entertaining. Without any question, the best live action short of the bunch is the Irish selection “New Boy” by Steph Green, based on a short story about a young African boy trying to acclimate to his new environment. At just 11 minutes, it’s the shortest of the live action offerings, but none of that time is wasted, as it juxtaposes the boy being taunted by his fellow students and reflecting back to happier days in Africa. This really is a wonderful short, one that deserves the Oscar more than the other live action shorts. But then along comes the German “Spielzeugland (Toyland),” a bland Holocaust piece by Jochen Alexander Freydank about two kids that features poor writing and acting, though it will remind some of the recent The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. That’s followed by “Grisen” a Danish film about an old man in a hospital who becomes obsessed with a painting of a pig on his wall, essentially an overly-long one-gag story that’s stretched out for 22 minutes delivering an unsatisfying punchline. The 15-minute French short “Manon on the Asphalt” seems like it should be part of a much bigger movie, but it’s poignant and well-written, told via the voice-over narrative of a young woman involved in a bad accident who speculates about how her friends and family might react to her death. Kinda grim sure, but beautifully done, making you think filmmakers Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont are likely to be making interesting longer features in the future.

Anyone who takes the opportunity to watch this program might be even more confused about which way the Academy might go, especially when it comes to the live action shorts. In a perfect world, “New Boy” would win without a hitch but the Academy’s preference for Holocaust-related movies is legendary, which gives the inferior “Spielzeugland” a chance, which is fairly depressing. While the Pixar-produced “Presto” might seem like the obvious choice for the Oscar, it has strong competition in “This Way Up” and “Lavatory,” both of which are just as clever and memorable.

If you’re curious about this year’s offerings, The 2008 Academy Award-Nominated Short Films can be seen in select theaters starting Friday and then the shorts will be available individually on iTunes starting on February 17 (though I certainly wouldn’t recommend paying 2 bucks for many of the live action shorts).

Also in Limited Release:

Fanboys (Weinstein Co.) – It’s 1998 and four childhood friends and long-time “Star Wars” fans (Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette, Dan Fogler, Jay Baruchel) travel across country with plans to break into George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in order to be the first people to see Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace. Directed by Kyle Newman and co-starring Kristen Bell, Seth Rogen with dozens of cameos, the long-delayed geek road comedy opens in select cities on Friday.

Review

Memorial Day (Artists Public Domain) – Josh Fox’s experimental film about a group of young Memorial Day partiers whose actions start to get out of control with everything captured on camera. It opens on Wednesday at the IFC Center in New York.

The Objective (IFC Films) – The Blair Witch Project director Daniel Myrick’s latest supernatural thriller centers around a group of US Special Ops forces who get lost in the mountains of Afghanistan and encounter all sorts of strange and evil forces. It opens two days later at the IFC Center on Friday.


Next week, the Presidents’ Day weekend kicks off on Friday the 13th with the long-awaited relaunch of the horror franchise Friday the 13th (New Line/WB), while Isla (Wedding Crashers) Fischer makes Confessions of a Shopaholic (Disney/Touchstone), and Clive Owen is The International (Sony).

Copyright 2009 Edward Douglas

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