The Weekend Warrior: May 29 – 31

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 -

(UPDATE: Not much change in the Top 5 even though the theater counts are slightly lower than our estimates. Reviews for Up and Drag Me to Hell have been excellent across the board and we think that the higher ticket price for 3D is going to go a long way to make sure Up is another big opener for Pixar. The bottom half of the Top 10 is a mess due to a lot of movies losing a lot of theaters and screens. #10 will either be Obsessed or Monsters vs. Aliens, but sadly, The Brothers Bloom is still in less than 200 theaters and that might prevent it from breaking in this weekend.)

1. Up (Disney/Pixar Animation) – $63.4 million N/A (up 1.9 million)

2. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (20th Century Fox) – $26.5 million -51% (up .5 million)

3. Drag Me to Hell (Universal) – $21.7 million N/A (same)

4. Terminator Salvation (Warner Bros.) – $19.1 million -55% (Down .4 million)

5. Star Trek (Paramount) – $13.0 million -43% (same)

6. Angels & Demons (Sony) – $11.7 million -46% (down .1 million)

7. Dance Flick (Paramount/MTV Films) – $5.6 million -48% (same)

8. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (20th Century Fox) – $3.6 million -55% (down .4 million)

9. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (New Line/WB) – $2.5 million -48% (up .5 million)

10. Obsessed (Screen Gems) – $.9 million -45% (down .2 million)

The Brothers Bloom (Summit) – $700 thousand

Weekend Overview

With the two big Memorial Day releases having weaker-than-expected openings–we nearly nailed our prediction for the Stiller family comedy although we thought it would be #2–that leaves a lot of room for this week’s two new movies to bring in audiences as the first month of summer comes to a close. (Boy, the summer is going by fast, isn’t it?) It’s an exciting weekend for quality movies with nary a sequel, prequel or remake in the bunch!

The easy winner for the weekend will be the latest from Disney and Pixar Animation, Pete Docter’s Up, following hot on the heels of their beloved Oscar winners WALL•E and Ratatouille. Even with its strange premise and choice of central characters–an old man and an Asian kid–it should continue the good will of the previous nine movies, partially thanks to it being the first Pixar movie to be released in Disney 3D. Expect a solid opening in the normal $60 to 70 million range of Pixar’s summer movies and solid legs as it quickly becomes a summer movie favorite among a wide range of audiences. We wouldn’t even be too surprised if it becomes the third-biggest movie of the summer behind “Transformers” and “Harry Potter.”

This weekend also sees the return of director Sam Raimi to his horror roots with the revenge thriller Drag Me to Hell (Universal), which should benefit from its PG-13 rating and the number of college-aged moviegoers done with school for the semester that should make this a fun movie to see this weekend as a group, especially since it should get a similar amount of backing among the critical crowd as Up.

As far as the returning movies, it will be interesting to see if Stiller’s hit “Night at the Museum” sequel can continue to hold up business when taking on Pixar’s latest or whether opening Up so close to another family hit might keep it from opening big. Warner Bros.’ Terminator Salvation will probably take a tumble with the introduction of Sam Raimi’s latest, while Star Trek should continue to bring in word-of-mouth business after Memorial Day weekend, as it becomes the first movie of the year to pass the $200 million mark. Also, look for Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom (Summit) to expand further this weekend, and the number of theaters should determine whether it gets into the Top 10 or winds up just outside.

This week’s “Chosen One” is Yojiro Takita’s Oscar-winning drama Departures (Regent Releasing), which you can read about below.

This weekend last year also saw the release of two very different movies with the long-awaited Sex and the City (New Line) bringing back the popular HBO characters to open with $57 million in 3,285 theaters, averaging over $17 thousand per site and effectively keeping the popular HBO characters alive. After being delayed literally for years, Bryan Bertino’s home invasion thriller The Strangers (Rogue/Universal) opened in nearly 2,500 theaters with $21 million, enough to take third place behind Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount), which dropped 55% to second place with $45 million. The Top 10 grossed $163 million last year, which should be similar to the amount made by the two new movies and the returning ones.


THE BATTLE CRY

Since this is somewhat of a slower week, it seemed like a good time to tackle some of the topics that have been floating around, especially when it comes to the summer movies, how they’re doing, the effects of reviews and journalism, etc.

Some might remember that I wrote a Summer Box Office Preview, as I do every year, and it certainly seems like things aren’t going the way expected, mainly because of factors that are impossible to foresee. One of those is the actual quality of the movies and how reviews and word-of-mouth affect them sticking around after opening weekend. I don’t think anyone goes into summer thinking that so-and-so movie will be bad. Most people have high expectations for certain movies that have been hyped up in the earlier months of the year, and when you’re talking about franchises and sequels, it’s more of a disappointment when they don’t live up to our expectations. It’s something that invariably affects the box office prospects of these movies, as well as allows surprise sleeper hits.

This weekend represents the last weekend of the first month of summer, and so far, we’ve had four weekends with eight new wide releases. While on the one hand, it would seem like we’re way down from the last few years without a single $100 million opening, as has been the case in both years, the money does seem to be spread out more, because on a week-by-week basis, the Top 10 has grossed more than the same weekend last year. (This past Memorial Day weekend was an exception.) Because of this, it was looking like we were in danger of having one of the first years since 2006 where we don’t have a single movie grossing $200 million by Memorial Day. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek will hit that mark this weekend, but it’s still surprising, because we may finally be seeing the effects of the economy on box office that have been written off for the past few months. Besides Star Trek, there really only seems to be three others summer movies that stand a chance of making $200 million barring any surprises.

What’s been interesting this summer is the critical reaction to movies and how that has affected whether people want to see them or not. For instance, the reaction to Star Trek has been overwhelmingly positive, starting with rave reviews weeks before its release, and that’s driven people into theaters maybe even more than the marketing for the movie. When all is said and done, it probably will gross twice as much as the next biggest installment of “Star Trek” before Abrams took over. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has pulled out just as many stops marketing McG’s Terminator Salvation and yet, it couldn’t even make as much as “Trek” in five days, which may be proof that summer audiences want lighter fare ala Iron Man as opposed to dark movies like The Dark Knight. Of course, it wasn’t helped by generally dismal reviews for a movie that many were hoping would relaunch the “Terminator” franchise like Casino Royale and Batman Begins.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine had the biggest opening of the summer so far, and it probably will retain that honor at least until Michael Bay’s “Transformers” opens next month, yet it’s barely made twice its opening after four weeks. A lot of that seems to be due to the typical fanboy frontloading. Like Watchmen earlier this year, the movie has been unable to find an audience outside of them. What generally seems to be happening is that moviegoers are being wary of seeing movies that don’t get positive reviews which has amounted to sequels/prequels like Angels & Demons, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Terminator Salvation doing far less than expected.

That wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that there’s a lot of media spin going on when it comes to reporting the box office, where writers will bring their own personal tastes and feelings towards a movie into the mix. The truth is that you never allow your own personal feelings and preferences come into play when it comes to reporting news, and that seems to be a foreign concept to the invasion of the geek bloggers who’ve overrun the internet in the past year. I’ve long said that film critics shouldn’t try to predict box office, one of my issues with Variety‘s reviews that always have some comment on how a movie might do, which is usually affected by whether they like it or not. Me, I’ve always tried hard to keep separate compartments of my brain when watching movies – one part looks at the movie critically, the other tries to think if it might have any sort of mass appeal and the third is formulating questions for interviews. The difficulty in separating those three areas becomes clearer when you have people who clearly don’t like a movie saying that however much money it’s made is a “disappointment” merely because they didn’t like it. So far this summer, we’ve seen that with “Wolverine,” Angels & Demons and “Terminator,” and while none of those will be profitable based solely on U.S. box office, at least the first two have the chance of making it back internationally. It’s also interesting to see that this phenomenon is having more of an effect on domestic box office than internationally, where movies like “Wolverine” and Angels & Demons are huge.

The thing is that for every one person who hates a movie, there’s apt to be at least one or two people who might like it who will never see a movie because they look at a grouchy review or see that a movie isn’t doing as well at the box office as expected. Since they’ll probably skip seeing it in theaters, it becomes this ridiculous domino effect that ends up hurting movies that aren’t necessarily bad that a lot of people have put a lot of time and hard work into making. People have to remember that just because a movie doesn’t make a lot of money or as much money as expected, that doesn’t make it a bad movie, and likewise, just because a movie makes a lot of money, that doesn’t make it good or worth seeing. It’s just a shame that so many people automatically associate box office with quality, because they’ve become inured to the fact they are bad movies merely by whichever voice shouts the loudest, and people end up missing movies they might have enjoyed otherwise. Sure, some of that can be attributed to the recession and people’s lack of extra spending money, and not wanting to spend it on a bad movie, but is it too much to ask for a little more responsibility in reporting, especially when it comes to the box office?


Up (Disney/Pixar Animation)
Starring (the voices of) Ed Asner, Jordon Nagai, Christopher Plummer, John Ratzenberger, Delroy Lindo
Directed by Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) with Bob Peterson; Written by Bob Peterson (Finding Nemo, Ratatouille)
Genre: Animated, Adventure, Comedy, Family
Rated PG
Plot Summary: After the death of his wife, 78-year-old widower Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) decides to go on the adventure of a lifetime, attaching thousands of helium balloons to carry his house through the skies to his South American destination. Unfortunately, he ends up with an unwitting castaway in a young Wilderness Ranger named Russell (Jordon Nagai) and the two of them end up on the adventure unlike anything either could ever expect.

Interview with Director Pete Docter with Producer Jonas Rivera

Mini-Review: At this point, it’s doubtful Pixar Animation could ever make an even remotely bad movie, thought they’ve certainly set the bar fairly high for themselves. Even though the characters and premise for their latest may seem like a strange choice on paper, Pete Docter (and collaborator Bob Peterson) pull off quite a coup in creating an endlessly entertaining adventure tale featuring the unlikeliest heroes of the summer.

We meet Carl Fredricksen as a young boy just before he meets his best friend and life-long mate Ellie, leading ten minutes of the finest filmmaking you’ll see this year – a montage showing the two of them going through the life cycle of dating, getting married, trying to have kids. Without a word spoken, it’s truly one of the most heart-breaking moments in any Pixar movie ever, beautifully rendered with a lush, moving score by Michael Giacchino. At 76, Carl is clearly a broken man, having never fulfilled his dreams of going to South America, his house surrounded by the construction of large complexes with the developers clearly wanting the space. When Wilderness Ranger Russell is introduced, we have the perfect foil for this cranky old man whose only interaction with kids is while selling balloons at the zoo. At the core of this adventure are these two wonderful characters, brought to life so brilliantly by veteran Ed Asner and newcomer Jordan Nagai that you easily believe them to be real; their interaction drives the film from beginning to end, entertaining with the obvious pairing of two people you would never expect to see on an adventure together.

The introduction of a zany colorful bird (who Russell immediately names “Kevin”) and the talking canine Dug, voiced by co-creator Bob Peterson, brings a new level of humor to the movie, one so clearly influenced by Looney Tunes where you almost expect Dug to start talking about his friend “George” at times. It all leads to the second half plot where Carl’s new entourage encounters his childhood hero, the adventurer Charles Muntz, who has been living in the remote South African mountains for many decades with hundreds of talking dogs as his companions. He’s gone quite mad, paranoid that Carl and Russell are there to steal the rare ancient bird he’s been trying to find. At this point, the film sets aside its humor to become more of a straightforward action-adventure, with some of the best choreographed action you’re likely to see this year.

While the overall premise is a good one, there aren’t as many clever moments, most of the funniest bits taking place in the first half, and this is partially because there are fewer characters, each with only one funny defining trait, which makes it harder to sustain that humor. On the other hand, the 3D in the film is spectacular, bringing a lot of subtle depth to the details and making the textures really pop out, without ever being used gratuitously. One can’t stress strongly enough how much the 3D brings to the film, whether it’s how it enhances the sight of an old house being pulled from the ground by balloons or some of the later action scenes. The movie never loses sight of the heart of the story, which always comes back to the relationship between Carl and Russell. Even if it loses this focus during its action segment, it does lead to a number of moving moments that will bring a tear even to the most cynical eye. (Don’t worry. No one can see you crying when you’re wearing 3D glasses.) Mileage will certainly vary depending on your expectations and what you hope to get out of the movie, but it’s certainly more of a fun adventure ride ala “The Incredibles” than a film with many layers, and it’s somewhat more erratic in tone than previous Pixar offerings. Again, that bar has been set high, and “Up” is still better than at least 90% of the non-Pixar animated movies being produced, as well as a film experience that can be fully embraced for its originality of vision and tone. Rating: 8.5/10

Analysis:

For five of the last eight years, Pixar Animation has released a movie that wound up in the top 5 for the year, and now they’re back with their tenth movie since redefining the animation genre with the first CG animated feature film, Toy Story, in 1995. Since then, seven of Pixar’s movies have grossed over $200 million with 2003′s Finding Nemo being their biggest hit, grossing $340 million. Four of the five movies since Finding Nemo have also won the coveted Oscar for animated feature, and the studio has gotten to the point where they can make movies faster, so that one can expect at least one movie from the animation house a year.

While last year’s WALL•E ended just outside the Top 5 of Pixar grossers, it received a lot of critical acclaim, ending up on many year-end Top 10 lists and generally being seen as one of the best movies of last year, easily winning the Oscar for Animated Feature earlier this year. The year before, Ratatouille proved to be one of the studio’s first box office disappointments since A Bug’s Life in 1998, being the first movie to open with less than $50 million since that movie. It made up for it over the summer, eventually grossing $200 million and also winning an Oscar. Up is the latest from Pete Docter, the director of their 2001 offering Monsters, Inc., which grossed $252 million after opening with $63.5 million, making it the third-highest grossing and third-biggest opening for the company.

Pixar have never relied on big names to sell their movies, and Up continues that tradition. Voicing the lead is veteran actor Ed Asner from “The Mary Tyler Moore” show with Pixar’s young discovery, Jordan Nagai, voicing his travelmate Russell. While other voices include Christopher Plummer and Delroy Lindo, Pixar has never made much of an effort to promote their movies through the voice cast. It’s actually something that may have helped their movies in a way, since people, especially kids, go to see the movies believing in characters like Nemo and Woody and the others, rather than just thinking, “Oh, that’s Jack Black as a panda.” Two notable exceptions to this were the “Toy Story” movies, Docter’s previous movie Monsters, Inc. and John Lasseter’s Cars.

Because it’s not resorting to easy things like talking animals or robots or monsters, it might be a more difficult sell than previous Pixar movies, even ones about cooking rates, but Docter and his producer Jonas Rivera have been doing the con and festival circuit showing off footage from the movie, starting with Butt Numbathon last year, going into the New York Comic-Con and WonderCon, as well as ShoWest. (You can see our own interview with the duo above.) One thing different is that they’ve been showing off more footage from the movie than ever before, previewing the entire first half of the movie in many cases. More importantly, Up became the first Disney animated movie to open the prestigious Cannes Film Festival earlier this month, which is quite an achievement, because the snooty French festival is obviously taking this movie seriously as a cinematic achievement, something that will carry a lot of weight with older moviegoers. In fact, one can easily see that they might be interested because they might relate to the Ed Asner character, just as kids might relate to Russell. That said, the commercials do tend to push the funnier moments with the adorable talking dog and the big funny bird, knowing full well that kids will be more interested in that than a grumpy old man.

Another thing that’s huge is that Up is the first Pixar movie to be released in 3D, something that could very well make up for the premise and characters maybe not be something that get parents and kids rushing out to see the movie. The 3D aspect will play a huge factor, because the love that moviegoing audiences already have for Pixar’s knack for storytelling and detail will be greatly embellished by the depth that 3D brings to the mix. DreamWorks Animation had a huge hit earlier this year with Monsters vs. Aliens, which opened with $59 million, a good portion of that coming from the movie’s high profile 3D screenings and one can assume that Up will be doing a lot of business in the theaters showing it in 3D. This is also more of an action-adventure along the lines of The Incredibles and Cars, which will mean it’s a stronger draw for young boys than some of Pixar’s other recent movies.

It’s also opening earlier in the summer than other Pixar summer movies going back to Finding Nemo–not coincidentally, it’s opening on the same weekend–which means the movie has the ability to earn more money over the summer. Unfortunately, opening this early in the summer also means that school is still in session in many places, something that didn’t necessarily hurt the opening of Finding Nemo, but does need to be factored in. Pixar movies that opened later in the season (except for Ratatouille) were able to guarantee opening days in the range of $20 million. That may be a push for Up, because it has a good deal of family competition, firstly with Ben Stiller’s “Night at the Museum,” which won last weekend, but also over the next few weeks, starting with Will Ferrell in Land of the Lost next week. Even so, it should be able to hold onto its 3D screens for the next month because there isn’t another 3D movie until 20th Century Fox’s “Ice Age.” One does wonder whether audiences are starting to get burnt out on summer already based on last week’s weak showing over Memorial Day weekend but Pixar Animation has proven themselves to be reliable among moviegoers, and that should help Up be another substantial hit.

Why I Should See It: Pixar Animation are master storytellers and filmmakers who have proven they can do no wrong, and this one should join the others in receiving a lot of adulation and attention this summer.
Why Not: Who wants to watch a movie starring a grumpy old man and a talkative Asian kid? (Probably a LOT of people.)
Projections: $61 to 64 million opening weekend and $235 to 240 million.

COMPARISONS


Drag Me to Hell (Universal)
Starring Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Jessica Lucas, David Paymer, Dileep Rao
Written and directed by Sam Raimi (The “Spider-Man” trilogy, the “Evil Dead” trilogy, A Simple Plan, Darkman and more) with Ivan Raimi (Darkman, Army of Darkness, Spider-Man 3)
Genre: Horror
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “Christine Brown has a good job, a great boyfriend and a bright future. But in three days, she’s going to hell.”
Plot Summary: Loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) ends up earning the wrath of an old gypsy woman named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) when she turns her down for an extension on her home loan, which would put the old woman out on the street. As hard as Christine tries to make up for her decision, she ends up being the target of a curse that has her terrorized by demonic visions.

Review

Analysis:

For the last seven years, director Sam Raimi has been completely caught up in the world of “Spider-Man,” directing three blockbuster movies that have grossed over a billion domestically and $2.5 billion worldwide. They’ve set and broken box office records and all three movies are among the Top 20 highest-grossing movies of all time. So where do you go from there? Well, if you’re Sam Raimi, you return to your genre roots by making your first flat-out horror movie in over a decade in hopes that all the new fans you’ve made with a blockbuster franchise will follow you to your latest venture. Drag Me to Hell is a true Raimi movie, co-written by the filmmaker with his older brother Ivan, who previously was involved with the writing of two popular Raimi favorites, Darkman and Army of Darkness. It deals with the thought of gypsy curses and mysticism and the idea of demons literally dragging you to hell if you mess with the wrong person.

In this case, the person doing the messing is a pleasant loan officer played by Alison Lohman, the 30-year-old actress who first got attention when she starred in the ensemble cast of the book adaptation White Oleander, followed a year later by being teamed with Nicolas Cage in Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men. A few years ago, she starred in the Fox remake Flicka, but she generally hasn’t broken out as a box office star, her biggest movie being a small role in Tim Burton’s Big Fish. Raimi cast popular comic actor Justin Long (Live Free or Die Hard, Accepted) as her boyfriend, although his role is being kept fairly low-key in the commercials for whatever reason.

The popularity of horror films is clearly evident from the success of David Goyer’s The Unborn, the Lionsgate offerings The Haunting in Connecticut and My Bloody Valentine 3D, and the relaunch of Friday the 13th. What might make the biggest difference with Drag Me to Hell is that it’s helmed by a popular and acclaimed filmmaker like Raimi. In some ways, Drag Me to Hell is to Sam Raimi what The Prestige was to Christopher Nolan, a movie made in between the two Batman movies to cleanse his palette, something that paid off when he returned to direct The Dark Knight. (It’s already been reported that Raimi will be returning to the “Spider-Man” franchise for a fourth movie for 2011.)

Even with Raimi’s involvement, some might be wary of the genre, just because there have been so many substandard horror offerings this year. Word-of-mouth and reviews for this one have generally been great, which might make all the difference, but it’s also a horror movie that’s funny and fun rather than serious, and being the summer, moviegoers are certainly looking to be entertained as much as scared.

The movie is opening during a very busy summer month where a lot of high-profile franchises and sequels are still in theaters, though as we’ve seen, only a few of them are really pulling in repeat business and showing legs. With that in mind, this weekend might actually be a good time for an unlikely horror movie to bring in business. Universal opened long-delayed The Strangers on this same weekend last year, and although that was R-rated, it did decent business against Sex and the City (see above), mainly because there were younger guys looking for an alternative. Drag Me to Hell is opening in a similar range of theaters, roughly 2,500 to 2,600, rather than the typical oversaturation of 3,000 theaters or more we often see in the summer. Part of that has to do with the subject matter and the fact that this isn’t a sequel, but that should allow more business in the theaters showing it.

The movie might lose some older audiences to the new Pixar movie, because the animation house has successfully found audiences among teen and older genre fans thanks to movies like The Incredibles and WALL•E. Those who still see those as “kids’ movies” will be looking for other things to see, and this will generally be bringing in an audience of teens and slightly older guys, as well as the growing female horror fanbase. We’re thinking that the Sam Raimi name will go a long way to getting people into theaters, although this is likely to be more of a sleeper as word gets around that it’s not just another bad quality horror movie with lots of cheap scares.

Why I Should See It: Sam Raimi has always been a master of fun, scary horror and Drag Me to Hell is a return to the great stuff he did with the “Evil Dead” series.
Why Not: If you scare easily, you might want to stick with Up.
Projections: $21 to 23 million opening weekend and $60 to 65 million total.

COMPARISONS


THE CHOSEN ONE:

Departures (Regent Releasing)
Starring Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo
Directed by Yojiro Takita (When the Last Sword is Drawn, Onmyoji, Onmyoji 2); Written by Kundo Koyama (a writer from the original Japanese show “Iron Chef”)
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rated PG-13
Tagline:
Plot Summary: After his orchestra disbands, cellist Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) returns to his home village with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) and finds himself answering a want ad which gets him a job at the “DK Agent,” a company that specializes in preparing bodies for cremation. Having to hide his new job, Daigo uses his time back home to come to terms with some of the reasons why he left.

Interview with Director Yojiro Takita and Actor Masahiro Motoki

The winner of the Foreign Language Oscar earlier this year was a surprise to many, maybe because Yojiro Takita’s film hadn’t been released in the United States, so most had their money riding on the animated Waltz with Bashir or the Cannes winner The Class. To me, there was something inherently “Oscar-worthy” about Departures just from the clips and trailers I’d seen, and that was well before I had a chance to see the movie. When I finally had a chance to catch it before the Tribeca Film Festival last month, I was even more surprised that it wasn’t merely a movie about a cellist as I gathered from the poster and trailers. Instead, it’s a warm and moving story of a young man trying to escape from his past who faces it head on when he returns home and accepts an unconventional job as an encoffiner, a person who prepares bodies for cremation.

The encoffining ceremony is a somber and spiritual event, so it’s surprising when within the first few minutes of the procedure that opens the movie, we get a bit of humor, which immediately allows you to let out a sigh of relief that this won’t be a stuffy overly-serious drama about death, but one that’s often light and entertaining as well. That opening scene will be revisited later from a different angle, but it’s fascinating to see how the film evolves from a comedy about the awkwardness of the job to the story about Daigo having to deal with the stigma of performing a duty that most people around him don’t understand or accept. (The reaction that people have to Daigo’s job may seem strange to Westerners, but having spoken to Mr. Takita and Masahiro Motoki, I learned a lot more about how Japan sees those who handle corpses as “impure” – you can read more about that in the interview linked above.)

Over the course of the film, we start to learn Daigo is so sullen on returning home, because his father walked out on him and his mother when he was a young boy; thirty years later, he can’t even remember his father’s face. Once Daigo becomes more comfortable with the procedure, he realizes how important his role is, and he clearly has a knack for it. Even when his normally supportive wife disapproves, he sticks by his guns to do the job, realizing that the only way to change the opinion of those around him are by having them experience the ceremony for themselves.

Motoki is quite a talented actor, able to muster the comical expressions and reactions required in earlier scenes where Daigo encounters his first dead body, a scene reminiscent of Sunshine Cleaning. Later, Motoki adds a true poignance to the scenes where he tries to come to terms with his father abandoning him as a boy. There are also lots of great characters around Daigo, from his eccentric boss who is obsessed with food and eating, his loving wife played by the adorable and delightful Ryoko Hirosue, and others who try to help Daigo work through the issues from his past.

There is so much beauty inherent in the film, especially with the way Daigo’s cello playing becomes a part of the driving force behind the film’s emotional content. Director Yojiro Takita also uses the picturesque surrounding countryside and the changing seasons to create an environment for this layered story that deals with the death and loss of loved ones in such a unique way. Personally, I would challenge anyone to watch this film without tearing up especially as things come together for Daigo and are resolved at the end. Having seen the film twice, I was deeply moved both times I saw it, even knowing where things were going, which is one of the reasons why Departures is the first movie of the year to receive my highest possible ranking of 10 out of 10. This is truly masterful and glorious filmmaking that’s guaranteed a spot in my Top 10 of the year.

Departures opens in New York, L.A., San Francisco and Chicago on Friday with plans to expand after that.

Honorable Mention:

Pressure Cooker (Bev Pictures)
Starring Wilma Stephenson, Erica Gaither, Tyree Dudley, Fatoumata Dembele
Directed by Jennifer Grausman & Mark Becker
Genre: Documentary
Plot Summary: At Frankford High School in Philadelphia, Wilma Stephenson teaches the Culinary Arts like a “boot camp” trying to get her inner city students ready for a cooking competition that offers valuable scholarships for those that win. It opens on Wednesday at the IFC Center in New York.

Mini-Review: This doc takes its time setting itself apart from similar movies, but once it does, it really is something quite special. The gist of the film is that it follows as it follows three inner city high school students from Philadelphia preparing for a cooking competition that offers valuable scholarships as the top prizes. What sets their efforts apart is that they’re taking Wilma Stephenson’s Culinary Arts class, which is beneficial to them making a difference in their lives, as Stephenson pushes them to be the best they can be and to rise above their environment. Even though most of the focus is on the three central students chosen by Grasuman & Becker, the driving force is clearly Stephenson herself, a hard-nosed no-nonsense woman, who takes a cue or two from Gordon Ramsey in the way she tries to get the best results out of her students by being tough and not pulling any punches. It’s clear that Stephenson truly loves her students, getting herself involved in all aspects of their lives, which makes her a far better teacher than most. The filmmakers have done a solid job capturing the many angles of this complex teacher-student relationship from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, brilliantly editing the footage together with a solid soundtrack from DJ/producer Prince Paul and Donald Newkirk. That said, there seems to be a good amount of extraneous and almost unnecessary material, mainly used to show other aspects of these student’s lives outside of school and that tends to drag down the overall movie. Even so, it does all come together as they get deeper into the competition, and we realize how important it is for them to be able to achieve their goals. As much as this doc often comes across like a culinary version of “Freedom Writers,” it’s such a heartfelt inspirational story that one can fully understand why it seemed like such a worthwhile effort to capture the results of Stephenson’s efforts on film. Rating: 8/10

Also in Limited Release:

Pontypool (IFC Films) – In this new horror movie from Bruce McDonald (The Tracy Fragments), Stephen McHattie plays a local talk radio host in the quiet town of Pontypool, Ontario, Canada, who starts receiving shocking reports from the town where people are running amuck killing each other. It plays at the Cinema Village in New York and in L.A.

Interview with Bruce McDonald

Mini-Review: Anyone familiar with the Laurie Anderson song “Language is a Virus” will have a hard time not thinking of it as they watch Bruce McDonald’s intriguing twist on the zombie genre, which allows most of its horrors to happen off screen but is no less creepy because of it. “Pontypool” maintains the strangeness of McDonald’s previous film “The Tracey Fragments,” starting with the title, the name of a city in Northern Ontario that’s likely to evoke internal snickers every time the word is said by radio shock jock Grant Mazzy, played by character actor Stephen McHattie. Even so, his opening monologue explaining the name’s origins, accompanied merely by an audio wave, sets the tone for what will be Mazzy’s strangest day on air. After a strange encounter on the snow-covered roads, he arrives at the town’s church basement radio station for another rant-filled day of business as normal, much to the consternation of his producer and the young news girl. Soon, they start receiving frantic reports from the station’s field traffic reporter about riots with hordes of people randomly killing themselves and others. Completely unsure of what to believe, they’re soon joined by a doctor caught in the thick of it, but when the newsgirl catches the virus, they find themselves trapped inside as the dangers become more real.

We’re not going to get too deep into the trigger that sets people off, but it’s certainly an interesting premise and a unique idea, similar to Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” Some might find it surprising that a film driven mainly by the dialogue between three people can be so effective. Much of that comes down to the solid group of local actors assembled by McDonald with McHattie really tearing it up as the core of the story; he’s clearly never been given a role as rich and fun as this local morning talk show host.

The way the nightmare taking place outside the radio station is described in vivid detail by callers to the statio might remind some of Orson Wells’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, because you’re not sure whether to believe what is being described. Since most of the movie takes place in the one location, it tends to come across more like a play than a movie. That’s not to say that McDonald entirely shies away from the gore, because once one of Mazzy’s coworkers gets infected, we get more than our fair share of splatter. By that point, you’re likely to either be confused or thoroughly freaked out, especially as things get crazier and crazier, and it’s fascinating to see how everything gets tied together. From watching this, some might immediately assume McDonald is either against talk radio, Valentine’s Day or possibly the English language itself.

One scene that’s more effective than one might expect is when Grant starts reading the obituaries of those who have died in the frenzy surrounding the spreading virus. Very few horror movies have dealt with the victims and the dead in such an upfront way. That’s not to say it’s a perfect movie, because it sometimes gets bogged down in its own weirdness, and the desire to be different does take some getting used to. Because of that, this will certainly be somewhat of an acquired taste, but if you’re into innovative apocalyptic movies like “The Signal” or “The Mist,” this is a great addition to the midnight cult genre, being a genuinely unique piece of horror filmmaking. Rating: 7.5/10

What Goes Up (3 King Productions) – In this movie from Jonathan Glatzer set in 1986, Steve Coogan plays New York reporter Campbell Babbitt, who travels to New Hampshire to cover the story of local teacher Christa McAuliffe being on board the space shuttle Challenger. Instead, Babbitt begins to bond with the students of a long-time friend who recently committed suicide. Played by the likes of Hilary Duff and Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby (from The Wackness), the teens have been deeply affected by the death of their mentor and find it difficult to trust the reporter, who may just be looking for a story. It opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.

Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)

Offshore (Big Pictures) – Diane Cheklich’s comedy deals with how outsourcing affects a furniture company’s call center when the CEO needs to figure out how to cut costs and he does so by replacing the company’s veterans with a call center in India. Except that this call center is barely functioning, something they don’t want their trainers to find out. It opens at the ImaginAsian Theater in New York on Friday and in North Bergen on June 5.


Next week, the month of June kicks off with not one, not two, but THREE comedies. May be the best man or woman win. The real contest will be between Will Ferrell’s comedy version of the television show Land of the Lost (Universal) taking on the R-rated Vegas adventure The Hangover (Warner Bros.) Trying to pick up a few crumbs will be the romantic comedy My Life in Ruins (Fox Searchlight) featuring the return of My Big Fat Greek Wedding‘s Nia Vardalos.

Copyright 2009 Edward Douglas

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