The Weekend Warrior: Nov. 6 – 8

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 -

1. Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Walt Disney) – $37.4 million N/A (up 1.1 million)

2. The Fourth Kind (Universal) – $13.5 million N/A (up .5 million)

3. The Men Who Stare at Goats (Overture) – $12.2 million N/A (down .1 million)

4. Michael Jackson’s This Is It (Sony) – $11.8 million -49% (same)

5. Paranormal Activity (Paramount) – $11.0 million -34% (same)

6. The Box (Warner Bros.) – $7.3 million N/A (up .2 million)

7. Law Abiding Citizen (Overture Films) – $4.2 million -43%

8. Couples Retreat (Universal) – $3.7 million -42%

9. Where the Wild Things Are (Warner Bros) – $2.8 million -52% (down .2 million)

10. Saw VI (Lionsgate) – $2.3 million -54% (down .2 million)

Weekend Overview

After two awful weekends, the Weekend Warrior is trying to lick his wounds as we head into November, the start of the winter holiday season where the box office normally picks up quite dramatically.

We’re also back to having a variety of new movies in wide release, although the one that’s likely to make the biggest splash is Robert Zemeckis’ mo-cap animated Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Disney Studios), based on the Charles Dickens classic and starring Jim Carrey in various roles. It will be the biggest draw among family audiences as they start thinking forward to the holidays with the known entity that is a Christmas classic being an easy sell even with Thanksgiving still three weeks away. Opening on the same weekend as movies like Will Ferrell’s Elf and a few of Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” movies, it should do decently this weekend but it should really pick up speed as it gets closer to Christmas, especially over that coveted Thanksgiving weekend.

As far as the other three movies, a star-studded cast including George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey will be the main draw for the political comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats (Overture Films), directed by Clooney’s producing partner Grant Heslov, especially for audiences over 30. Although it might lose some of the older audience to the easier-to-sell Jim Carrey movie and younger audiences will probably be more interested in the alien abduction thriller The Fourth Kind (Rogue/Universal), starring Milla Jovovich, which will hope to capitalize on the success of the low-budget Paranormal Activity with similar commercials and trailers that promise shocks and scares. It might be coming out a bit late to take advantage of the normal pre-Halloween interest in all things horror, although there should be some strong last-minute interest due to the questions arising from how much of the movie is real or faked. (Either way, expect a fairly tight race between “Goats” and The Fourth Kind for second and third place as they mix it up with the returning movies.)

The Fourth Kind is also likely to cut into any potential profits for Richard Kelly’s The Box (Warner Bros.), a high concept thriller based on a story by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson, starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella, which generally has weaker marketing, a lower profile and far too much stronger genre competition.

This week’s “Chosen One” is Lee Daniels’ dramatic adaptation Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, which you can read more about below.

Last November kicked-off with the release of the long-anticipated DreamWorks Animation sequel Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa featuring the return of talking animals who sound remarkably like Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and others; it absolutely destroyed the weekend with $63 million in three days in over 4,000 theaters. Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott teamed up for the comedy Role Models (Universal) from “The State” director David Wain, which scored an impressive $19 million for second place in less than 2,800 theaters, becoming the first surprise hit of the fall season. On the other hand, teaming Samuel L. Jackson and the late Bernie Mac–also providing a voice in “Madagascar 2″–didn’t help the comedy Soul Men (Weinstein Company) score with urban audiences, as it tanked with just $5.4 million to open in sixth place. The Top 10 grossed $123 million, which seems almost impossible to replicate unless A Christmas Carol or one of the other movies does significantly more opening weekend than our projection.

(Sorry, no “Battle Cry” this week. Too many movies to write about.)


Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Disney Studios)
Starring (the voices and performances of) Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes
Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express, Castaway, Forrest Gump, Beowulf, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and many more)
Genre: Animated, Fantasy
Rated PG
Plot Summary: On Christmas Eve, the cranky Christmas-hating Ebeneezer Scrooge (voiced and performed by Jim Carrey) is visited by the ghost of his ex-partner Jacob Marley, who warns him to expect a visit from three more ghosts (all played by Carrey as well) that will scare him into accepting the Christmas Spirit.

Mini-Review: Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas tale has been adapted and remade so many times that filmmaker Robert Zemeckis’ biggest hurdle taking it on is to offer something new or different to make his version stand out. It’s debatable whether he truly achieved that, instead offering a fantastic-looking film that takes full advantage of his performance capture M.O. while remaining entirely faithful to the original material rather than trying to update it or throw in clever gags for modern audiences. There isn’t much to say about the story you won’t already know from the countless previous versions and there are no new revelations or discoveries as Zemeckis remains true to Dickens’ take on the story, while adding the type of action that might not have been possible with live action. Because of this, the movie will probably be more impressive to younger audiences discovering the story for the first time, but offering very few surprises for anyone else.

Where the movie forces you to take notice is the way Zemeckis uses the medium to get closer to the photo-realistic 3D animation he’s been trying to perfect since “The Polar Express,” whether it’s sweeping shots across old London or the clever imagery used in the film’s more fantastical moments. The various ghosts that visit Scrooge are particularly inventive: The Ghost of Christmas Past is a living flame while the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is a shadow on the wall that reaches out with a black bony hand in moments that make the extra price of seeing this in 3D worthwhile.

The casting and performances across the board are terrific, although one has to quickly accept that for the most part, this isn’t “funnyman Jim Carrey.” The performance capture does give him plenty of opportunities to use the physicality of his humor to create a much more lively version of Scrooge than we’ve seen before. With so many more human characters, the movie doesn’t completely overcome the feeling you’re watching “A Christmas Carol: The Video Game” but it’s obvious how much more time and care was put into making every wrinkle on Scrooge’s face come off the screen as it’s able to capture the variety of facial expressions Carrey brings to the table. Gary Oldman is quite wonderful as Bob Cratchett, maybe because the character looks so different from the actor you really feel as if you’re seeing him transform even further than he’s done in the past. Colin Firth on the other hand essentially looks exactly the same as usual while playing Scrooge’s nephew. For the most part, the secondary characters aren’t as fully realized, some of them looking flat and under-detailed.

As much as one can be impressed by what Zemeckis can do visually in this 3D-animated environment, the movie’s pace tends to drag at times as it’s heavy with dialogue and exposition similar to the original. It tends to bog the movie down in between the scattered action scenes, which might make some younger audiences squirm in their seats. On the other hand, there’s a huge amount of emotion embellished greatly by Alan Silvestri’s effective score, and if you’re a fan of the source material, it’s a perfectly respectable version, even if one wonders whether Zemeckis’ take on Dickens might ever be included in the annals among some of the other memorable versions. By the time it’s over, you’ll have to be a real Scrooge yourself to not have at least a little bit of the Christmas spirit instilled into you. Rating: 7/10

Analysis:

Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis has long been associated with making innovations in filmmaking technology from the hybrid of live action and animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit to his use of computer-enhancement for movies like Forrest Gump and Cast Away. In recent years, those efforts have been focused on animation, starting in 2004, when he released the first venture into his string of animated films using performance-capture technology, reteaming with Tom Hanks for the umpteenth time to adapt the popular picture book The Polar Express into an animated film that became one of the early non-docs to take advantage of IMAX 3D technology. While it opened with roughly $30 million in its first week, it would take advantage of the holiday season to gross over $162 million with Warner Bros. then turning it into an evergreen holiday film that has grossed $18 million theatrically in the years following its initial release. Two years ago, Zemeckis followed that hit with his adaptation of the epic ode of Beowulf, which didn’t fare quite as well as it tried to target teens and older audiences, but it did continue to help the forward movement in moviegoers and theater chains getting on board the 3D phenomenon, which would explode just six months later.

For Zemeckis’ third film in this series, he’s taken on a Christmas classic, one that has been adapted for the stage and screen on a regular basis ever since Charles Dickens wrote it in the mid-19th century, and it’s a story that everyone knows, although it’s been quite a few years since it’s been given a high profile big screen adaptation. Its history on the big screen is quite vast starting in 1901 with a British short, and versions in 1935 and 1951, and the popular musical version in 1970. Bill Murray did his own version of the movie with Scrooged in 1988, and both Mickey Mouse and the Muppets have taken on the source material. One thing different about this from Zemeckis’ last few animated movies is that this time he is teamed with Disney, a corporation that’s built its vast empire on the power of animation, family films and fantasy, all of which fits the bill for Zemeckis’ latest.

On top of that, this is the first time that Zemeckis has been teamed with one of Hollywood’s biggest comedic stars, Jim Carrey, who has a lot of experience both with family holiday blockbusters as well as with animated hits, and A Christmas Carol combines those two things to make it the perfect vehicle for Carrey. Starring in Ron Howard’s Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas back in 2000 certainly helped Carrey’s pull with family audiences, having already had a number of big comedy hits, as well as proving he could do drama. While it opened well with $55 million, it would go onto become a holiday powerhouse, grossing $260 million, due to the seasonal setting. In 2004, Carrey returned to family films with the dark fantasy Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which didn’t fare nearly as well ($118 million total), and last year, Carrey voiced the title character in the animated Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, which did quite a bit better. The number of movies Carrey has starred in which grossed over $100 million is quite impressive, as is the $2.3 billion his combined movies have grossed since he first started making movies 25 years ago. He has also started showing some weakness over the years as copycat movies like Yes Man failed to gross $100 million over the holidays.

One thing that should help bump up the per-theater average is the fact that like Zemeckis’ previous animated offerings, A Christmas Carol is being released both in IMAX 3D as well as in Digital Disney 3D, and the majority of family audiences will probably want to see it in one of those formats, both of which require them to spend a bit more money than traditional 2D screenings. Opening the movie in the first weekend of November is a smart move by Disney, and it’s something that has proven very successful for past releases, particularly Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” movies, because they can open decently but then get a bump from the Thanksgiving weekend and weeks leading up to Christmas. The same thing happened with Will Ferrell’s breakout comedy Elf, which opened big but used the holidays to build on early word-of-mouth. Disney has also used this strategy to help Pixar movies Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles gross well over $200 million, although both of them also opened over $60 million.

Not everyone likes the animation that Zemeckis has created using the performance capture technology, and certainly any animation that focuses on human characters might be fighting a losing battle considering how hard it is to make them look real and not like a glorified video game. Unlike Beowulf, which was geared for teens and older audiences, A Christmas Carol is getting the traditional Disney PG rating, although younger kids might be scared by some of the ghosts and other spooky things that Zemeckis has retained.

So we basically have a respected filmmaker, a proven box office draw, a well-known story that many consider a classic, using technology that requires higher ticket pricing, all of which should lead to a decent opening, even if it’s not going to do “Grinch” numbers right out of the gate. Even so, the impending holidays will guarantee it will bring in a lot of business as more and more moviegoers get into the Christmas spirit.

Why I Should See It: With two movies in this format, Zemeckis is the king of animated adaptations.
Why Not: Sure, we can tolerate Tom Hanks in multiple roles… but Jim Carrey?
Projections: $33 to 36 million opening weekend and roughly $135 to 140 million total.

COMPARISONS


The Men Who Stare at Goats (Overture Films)
Starring George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, Rebecca Mader, Terry Serpico
Directed by Grant Heslov (producer and co-writer of Good Night, And Good Luck); Written by Peter Straughan (How to Lose Friends & Alienate People)
Genre: Comedy, Politics, War
Rated R
Tagline: “No goats. No glory.”
Plot Summary: After being left by his wife, Michigan reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) travels to Iraq, hoping to be embedded with the troops and showing his wife, but instead encounters Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a seemingly crazy former military man who claims to have been trained to harness various psychic abilities by the army. Together, the duo go on a road trip through Iraq looking for the elusive Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), the founder of the New Earth Army, who were responsible for the country’s psychic super soldiers. Instead, they find something much darker.

My Thoughts from Toronto

Interview with Grant Heslov

Analysis:

Every year, there’s one actor who seems to be everywhere and in every single movie. In past years, it was Hugh Jackman and Jude Law who received that “honor” as both appeared in three or four years during a single fall movie season. This year, it’s George Clooney, who fortunately is one of the most reliable and versatile film actors, which may be why the three movies he’s starring in are all different.

The first of them is this political comedy in which Clooney’s long-time producing partner Grant Heslov makes his directorial debut. In previous collaborations, Clooney directed, but the partnership of the duo culminated in 2005 with the Oscar-nominated Good Night, And Good Luck, which Heslov co-wrote. Last year, Heslov produced Clooney’s third movie as a director, the period football rom-com Leatherheads, which did only moderately well in its April wide release. Over the years, Clooney has proven that he generally does better in comedies, which is why the “Ocean’s” movies with Steven Soderbergh have generally fared better than his dramatic fare, and even Leatherheads was able to open with $12 million despite lackluster reviews and an eclectic mix of genres.

Co-starring with Clooney is Ewan McGregor, who doesn’t normally do very much comedy, although ironically, he has an upcoming comedy with Jim Carrey called I Love You, Phillip Morris, which comes out next year after debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Otherwise, he hasn’t really appeared in a comedy since 2003′s Down with Love opposite Renee Zellwegger, which performed rather poorly. Another featured player in the cast is Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey, who also hasn’t done many comedies in recent years–the last one being Vince Vaughn’s Fred Claus–but he plays an antagonist role that suits him just fine. Likewise, Jeff Bridges is once again playing a similar drug-addled character as he did in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. While Clooney is the big draw, each of those three guys has enough fans among older audiences that they are bringing something to the table in terms of creating interest in seeing them on screen together.

In some ways, The Men Who Stare at Goats looks like something the Coen Brothers might have directed, a lightly madcap comedy that audiences have slowly grown accustomed to seeing Clooney do, first with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, then with the lesser romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty. Last year, Clooney made his third movie with the Coens, the politically-charged Burn After Reading, and it was an enormous hit, although part of that could easily be attributed to Clooney’s co-star Brad Pitt.

Overture has done a great job marketing their star-driven films, such as the recent hit Law Abiding Citizen and last year’s Righteous Kill starring Pacino and De Niro–which opened against Burn After Reading in fact–although political comedies tend to be a harder sell for average moviegoers, especially when it deals with the Middle East, since few people consider the war in Iraq a laughing matter. Still, having Clooney in a key role will certainly help generate interest in the movie, especially among women over thirty, although being more of a war comedy means that it would be of less interest than something with a little romance ala some of Clooney’s other choices. Unfortunately, the movie will probably have little appeal to anyone under 25 and some older audiences might be equally drawn to the known commodity that is A Christmas Carol.

The movie debuted at a couple fall film festivals to mixed but generally positive reviews, which should create some interest among older, more sophisticated moviegoers who might normally go to some indie limited release movie. One clear stumbling block is the movie’s awkward title. Sure, it’s somewhat intriguing, but it doesn’t give a very clear idea what the movie is about and it’s the type of oddball title that could easily put casual moviegoers off rather than enticing them in. While this might not open very big due to the nature of the humor, it shouldn’t do too badly because Clooney has proven that he can always bring in a certain amount of audiences even with bad movies, and this movie could surprise some with the relevance of its humor.

Why I Should See It: A great cast and a funny Coens-like premise should be enough to interest older audiences looking for something more intelligent.
Why Not: Aren’t we already sick of movies about Iraq and torture and things that seem to have been handled better in documentaries?
Projections: $12 to 14 million opening weekend on its way to roughly $35 to 40 million total.

COMPARISONS


The Fourth Kind (Universal)
Starring Milla Jovovich, Will Patton, Eli
Written and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi (WithIN, Etat)
Genre: Thriller
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “There are four kinds of alien encounters. The fourth kind is abduction.”
Plot Summary: Psychiatrist Dr. Abigail Tyler (Milla Jovovich) discovers mysterious coincidences as she talks to four patients suffering from sleep deprivation, and as she puts them under hypnosis, they all have negative reactions that seem to point to some sort of alien abduction, which has become commonplace in the town of Nome, Alaska.

(Note: While the following Mini-Review doesn’t contain many actual plot spoilers, it does delve into theories about the authenticity of the story being told in the movie. If you’re already planning on seeing the movie and want to make your own decisions, we’d advise you to avoid any reviews, including the one below, and see it fresh.)

Mini-Review: Marketed as a typical thriller but more of a docudrama surrounding a series of alleged alien abductions in Nome, Alaska, filmmaker Olatunde Osunsnmi has created something incredibly original that can be debated and discussed endlessly regardless of whether you accept everything in his film as real or faked or a little bit of both.

“The Fourth Kind” opens with testimonials from actress Milla Jovovich and Osunsnmi explaining what the viewer is about to watch– something fairly unprecedented for a non-doc. It then shows an interview between the director and the “real” Dr. Abigail Tyler years after the incidents that are recreated for the film, a framing sequence that will also act as the narrative for Tyler to tell her story. We’re then introduced to each actor as they portray one of the people involved in the incident that began when Tyler started noticing similarities in the stories of her psychiatric patients suffering from sleep deprivation. As each of her subjects is put under hypnosis, they start reliving a nightmarish situation involving a white owl and things continue to get worse the further Tyler delves into what is happening to them.

Other than the central premise involving alien abduction, we won’t get too far into the details about what you’ll witness as you act as a fly on the wall for Tyler’s hypnosis sessions, but the way Osunsnmi seamlessly incorporates actual audio and video from Tyler’s sessions with the new dramatization is what makes the film so intriguing. It’s hard not to be skeptical considering how many filmmakers have tried to dupe audiences ever since “The Blair Witch Project,” but far more than with “Paranormal Activity,” Olatunde Osunsanmi does a convincing job telling the story in such a realistic way you’ll really believe that everything you’re watching is authentic. In that sense, it’s a movie that’s far more effective not knowing what to expect going in.

On a whole, the movie is sometimes slow and the dramatizations sometimes get hindered by flagrant overacting, but there are more than enough jarring shocks and scares you’ll be on edge anytime someone is put under hypnosis unsure of what might happen next. The split screens showing the footage and dramatizations at the same time is particularly unnerving at times.

That said, skeptics are likely to go home and Google “Dr. Abigail Tyler” and be surprised by the lack of information on her fascinating story, which is somewhat surprising, considering how many other historical events and crimes are rife with theories and speculations on the internet. Taking that into account, one has to assume every single thing has been created specifically for this film, which actually makes it more amazing considering the amount of work and time it would have taken to create the original filmed sessions and then recreating them using actors.

With that in mind, either Osunsanmi has discovered one of the greatest mysteries involving alien abduction and found an equally innovative way to share it with the world, or he’s just a clever filmmaker who has figured out a way to dupe audiences in an extremely convincing manner. Either way, “The Fourth Kind” is a film experience like none other that will leave you wondering how much (if any) of what you’ve watched is real. Rating: 7.5/10

(Next week’s “Battle Cry” will go into the phenomenon of hoax-like realism in films like this.)

Analysis:

With Paramount’s surprise horror hit Paranormal Activity still doing gangbusters in theaters and all sorts of “phenomenon” comparisons being made to The Blair Witch Project, it’s somewhat unfortunate that this alien abduction thriller starring Milla Jovovich, which had been planned for this weekend for some time, is suddenly being thought of as a copycat that missed its opportunity by coming out second.

The movie itself works under the pretense that it’s using actual footage and audiotapes of incidents that took place in Nome, Alaska that point to the possibilities of alien abduction. Over the years, moviegoers have proven time and time again how much they’re in movies about UFOs, alien invasions and abduction whether it was with Steven Spielberg’s related Close Encounters of the Third Kind, considered by many to be a classic, or M. Night Shyamalan’s blockbuster hit Signs. In recent years, alien invasion movies have been bigger budget fantastical sci-fi such as the recent District 9 and last year’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, but The Fourth Kind seems to be more of an investigative piece similar to the classic television series “In Search Of” combined with dramatizations to fill in the blanks.

Milla Jovovich has long been a favorite among genre fans, whether it’s from her semi-clothed appearance in former fiance Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element or her current love Paul W.S. Anderson’s string of “Resident Evil” movies, the fourth currently in production. Jovovich’s last appearance was in David Twohy’s paradise thriller A Perfect Getaway, which bombed when opening against G.I. Joe back in August, although her new movie has a lot more going for it that doesn’t necessarily rely on whether or not she can get people into theaters.

The movie is being marketed well with commercials and trailers that feature Jovovich giving a testimonial about the truth behind the story and its use of “real” audio and video footage to embellish the dramatizations. As with most of their movies, Universal has been screening the movie in advance to get people talking and try to build buzz on the commercials, although the viral marketing they’re trying to use for the movie is somewhat new territory for them. Reviews will probably be mixed, and probably mostly saved until opening day, so it’s not like Universal will be able to capitalize much on advance buzz much like Paramount did with their unexpected hit. Not that it will matter because this one will mostly be sold on its trailers and commercials, and the good thing about this following Paranormal Activity is that many theaters are playing this trailer in front of it so those who are susceptible to this sort of marketing will be aware of this movie.

In recent years, Universal has been faring better with the horror movies produced by Rogue Pictures, the one exception being the similarly enigmatic ‘fact-based’ thriller White Noise also produced by Gold Circle, which kicked off 2005. While the Alaskan location might remind some of the Antarctica setting for Warner Bros. long-delayed and mostly-ignored Whiteout, younger moviegoers tend to be more intrigued by the unknown which could turn this into a buzzworthy movie as they go to see it and talk about it with their friends. Reactions and word-of-mouth will probably be mixed, because the movie is done in a rather strange docudrama format that’s fairly slow and expository at times. That said, the scares are definitely there, and people who see the movie, whether they believe it or not, should be suitably freaked out, and they’ll tell their friends about the experience. The Fourth Kind might have fared better as a potential sleeper if released earlier in the fall season but with Roland Emmerich’s 2012 and New Moon nipping at its heels, it will have to be happy with a strong opening weekend and we’ll have to see where it goes from there.

Why I Should See It: This is a super-creepy movie that will leave you questioning the existence of UFOs and the potential for alien abduction.
Why Not: Does anyone really believe that this is based on true events?
Projections: $11 to 14 million opening weekend and roughly $35 million total.

COMPARISONS


The Box (Warner Bros.)
Starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella
Written and directed by Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales)
Genre: Thriller
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “You Are the Experiment”
Plot Summary: Arthur and Norma Lewis (James Marsden, Cameron Diaz) are an average suburban couple with a young son who are approached by a mysterious man (Frank Langella) who presents them with a million dollars if they’ll push a button that will cause an unknown person somewhere in the world to die.

Mini-Review: Adapting a short story by Richard Matheson would seem right up the alley for filmmaker Richard Kelly to get his groove back, having not exactly done anything to live up to impressive and compelling debut “Donnie Darko.” If you’ve seen the commercial or the trailer you already know the simple high concept premise that Kelly tries to build upon by setting the story within the context of NASA’s exploration of Mars during the ’70s. We’re introduced to James Marsden and Cameron Diaz as the content suburban couple living in the shadow of Langley, complete with a background that might make them the perfect subjects for Frank Langella’s enigmatic Arlington Steward and his “button device,” which we learn from the opening crawl is the core of some unknown experiment. After a bit of talking about possible consequences, the couple decide to push the button and they learn what we already know, that there are strings attached to every deal, and that makes up the crux of the story. Now one might think such a premise could be used to create some sort of suspense or tension, but instead, the story is told in a flat and lifeless manner that’s hard to buy and overly odd to the point that it’s not particularly interesting.

James Marsden isn’t bad in his role, especially when compared to Cameron Diaz who is just plain awful, especially with her ridiculous attempts at an unnecessary Southern accent. Langella might as well have phoned his performance as Steward in, as he essentially shows up every once in a while with a face that would do Jonah Hex proud, says a few words then leaves. It’s not really quite clear who or what he is, whether he’s possessed by an alien being that allows him to control the minds of the rest of the people in the town or just a government puppet master channeling the forces of “employees” in order to play mind games with his test subjects.

Where Kelly fails in his ability to create tension and muster convincing performances from his actors, he makes up for with interesting visuals, especially using the Langley setting. It’s fairly obvious Kelly is trying to pay homage to the thrillers of the ’50s and ’60s, including “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and early Hitchcock, which is the only explanation for the stiff delivery and the overpowering score that tries to create tension where there’s none. It’s a strange direction for a color film set in the ’70s, but his fixation with the period gets somewhat tiring as he tries to throw in clever period references, which if nothing else, offer some much-needed levity in what’s a fairly grim excursion otherwise.

For the most part, it’s also the kind of movie that hopes to get the viewer thinking, but then repeatedly hits them over the head with an obvious message about the consequences of one’s actions. Yes, we got it the first time, Richard. The whole thing leads to a climax where the couple run around trying to figure out what is happening while everyone around them stares blankly at them and acts strangely leading to some soft of “gateway,” and we’re made privy to all sorts of gateways. Some of the seemingly pointless subplots introduced earlier do play an important part later, such as how the disfigured foot by Diaz’s character allows her to relate better to Steward later. When the big twist you’ve been expecting the entire time finally comes, it’s pretty lame, making you wonder who pressed the button that got this grim, dull and lifeless borefest greenlit, then quickly reminding you that this is the studio that also brought us “The Invasion” and “The Wicker Man.” It’s almost, but not quite, as ludicrous as “Knowing.” Otherwise, there’s very little meat on the bones of this movie that’s little more than an extended “Twilight Zone” episode at best and a Stephen King TV movie at worst. Rating: 5/10

Analysis:

What’s likely to be the underdog of the weekend is this high concept thriller from the eccentric auteur Richard Kelly, based on a novel by acclaimed sci-fi author Richard Matheson. Kelly broke onto the scene when his indie sci-fi thriller Donnie Darko, starring a very young Jake Gyllenhaal, which found an avid cult audience, enough that the movie was re-released in a director’s cut years later. Kelly’s second movie Southland Tales premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 where it received a mostly negative reaction and then took over a year to find a distributor. It ended up bombing, making just $350 thousand worldwide. (It cost over $15 million to make the critically-loathed movie.) In between the two movies, Kelly also wrote the action-thriller Domino for Tony Scott, which also bombed, making one wonder whether Kelly’s career had ended with Donnie Darko, making him a classic one-hit wonder.

But no, he is back and this time around, he’s adapting a known story and working with a major studio in Warner Bros, and he has a strong cast including one box office star, an Oscar-nominated actor and James Marsden. The big draw of course would be Cameron Diaz, who has continually proved herself at the box office, although she hasn’t had much success with dramatic fare. Even so, it’s all relative, and her recent drama My Sister’s Keeper did nearly gross $50 million despite tepid reviews, so she does have fans.

James Marsden made his name appearing in blockbuster superhero movies like the “X-Men” trilogy and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, but Kelly’s movie is his first step to be taking more seriously as a dramatic actor with this followed up by Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs remake sometime in the next year. Frank Langella is a veteran actor who has been respected by his peers for many decades, but it came to a head last year when he received his first Oscar nomination for one of the title roles in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon.

There’s a lot of curiosity for this project among film aficionados, just because everyone was so impressed with Donnie Darko and so vexed by what went wrong with Southland Tales. A lot of people are pushing for Kelly to make a triumphant return with this movie, although it seems somewhat doubtful it will happen for various reasons, including the poor choice of when to open it. (Originally, the movie was opening on Halloween weekend and it might have done some decent business being the only new horror flick.)

The movie received mixed reviews when it opened in Australia last week, but we’re not likely to see many more reviews until Tuesday or Wednesday, which won’t really be enough to get people excited if the movie is indeed as good as some hope. The delays in screening it aren’t promising and one thinks that Warner Bros. doesn’t have nearly as much invested in the movie even if they do believe in supporting auteurs like Kelly. (Like the recent Invention of Lying, Kelly’s movie was actually produced and financed by MRC and is just being distributed by Warner Bros. so they clearly don’t have nearly as much invested in its success.)

Why I Should See It: Kelly has done some fascinating things with dark sci-fi particularly with Donnie Darko so one wonders what he might do when paired with a visionary like Richard Matheson.
Why Not: If you saw Southland Tales, you’re likely to be skeptical of Kelly’s very sanity.
Projections: $6 to 8 million opening weekend and roughly $19 million total.

COMPARISONS


THE CHOSEN ONE:

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (Lionsgate)
Starring Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, Paula Patton, Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz
Directed by Lee Daniels (Shadowboxer, producer of Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman); Written by Geoffrey Fletcher (debut)
Genre: Drama
Rated R
Tagline: “Life is hard. Life is short. Life is painful. Life is rich. Life is… Precious.”
Plot Summary: 16-year-old Claireece “Precious” Jones (“Gabby” Sidibe) is pregnant with her second child after being raped by her father, something her abusive mother (Mo’Nique) failed to stop, but Precious suddenly sees the light at the end of the tunnel when she’s admitted into an “alternative school” and starts communicating with her teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton) while also making friends with similarly-troubled women.

Interview with Lee Daniels

It took me a long time to get up the nerve to see Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Sapphire’s popular urban novel, probably because I hated Daniels’ previous movie Shadowboxer so much–come to think of it, I wasn’t too kind to Monster’s Ball, which Daniels produced, either. I certainly couldn’t imagine the director of that movie could make another movie that could possibly rid me of the bad taste that earlier movie left in my mouth, so even after hearing raves at Sundance and it winning numerous awards, I didn’t really make too much of an effort to see it until I finally had the chance at this year’s New York Film Festival, where the movie had a packed press screening. I’m glad to say that I was completely and totally wrong.

It’s a tough movie, sure, because it deals with very real domestic issues faced by impoverished African-Americans living in ghetto conditions, specifically in Harlem of the late ’80s. It does this through the eyes of the title character, played by newcomer Gabby Sidibe, an obese 16-year-old who barely speaks, except for her optimistic inner narrative that tells us about her hopes and dreams, which we see realized in brief bouts of colorful fantasy. Precious might not seem like the most obvious choice in lead characters for a movie, but there’s something about the way Sidibe pays the girl that makes this often-harrowing experience one that feels more welcoming, and one immediately wants to embrace the teen despite her obvious flaws. Equally as unforgettable as this performance by a newcomer is the dramatically uncharacteristic performance by comedienne Mo’Nique as her monster of a mother who is constantly berating and abusing the girl, blaming her for her man–the rapist of the house–leaving them. This role involves a lot more than Mo’Nique simply yelling and cussing at Sidibe, because we see how she uses passive/aggressive behavior to manipulate everyone around her, using her daughter’s problems to get welfare while she sits around the house watching television.

The film moves forward at a steady pace following Precious’ turbulent home life and counterbalancing it with her time at an “alternative school” where she’s inspired by her patient teacher Ms. Rain–a seriously underrated performance by Paula Patton that hasn’t received nearly as much attention as it deserves. She also forms bonds with her new classmates, all young women with similar troubles, making the film a fine testament not only to teaching and teachers but also to the importance of school in helping in other aspects of life besides learning. Even with her new family and support group bolstering her morale, things just get worse and worse for Precious, as giving birth to her second child just puts her mother over the edge after the teen disappears for a number of days to recover in the hospital.

While watching Precious’ mother hit, throw things and spew endless bile at the girl isn’t easy, possibly because one realizes this type of domestic abuse is happening at an alarming and disturbing rate even today, Daniels is able to fill the movie with enough humorous and poignant moments.

The conflict between mother and daughter comes to a head with one of the most powerful film scenes you’re likely to witness this year as Precious finally confronts her mother with the aide of a sympathetic social worker, played by a glammed-down Mariah Carey. In this moment, we learn through a disturbing revelation why her mother acts that way, and though at that point, it’s also impossible to forgive or excuse her, it adds to the pull-no-punches attitude Daniels brings to the film.

There are movies that deeply affect you because you immediately relate to what is happening on screen, and there are those that move you because they tell a story in such an effective way that it allows you to understand how other people think and live. For me, this was the latter, and as hard as the subject of incest and rape and abuse can be, it’s a truly inspirational tale of overcoming the odds and never losing sight of your dreams. When the movie is all over the awards in the coming months, no one should be even remotely surprised by it, even if I was surprised by Daniels’ incredible second film.

Precious opens in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, but one can probably expect it to be nationwide by the end of the month.

Honorable Mention:

Collapse (Vitagraph Films) – Documentary filmmaker Chris Smith (The Yes Men, American Movie) interviews former L.A. police officer Michael Ruppert who predicted the current financial crisis in his newsletter when most Wall Street and government analysts were still in denial. It opens in New York on Friday at the Angelika Film Center and in Los Angeles on November 13 at the Laemmle Sunset 5

Mini-Review: Chris Smith’s latest doc should probably have been called “Everything You Might Ever Want to Know That Michael Ruppert Wants to Tell You… but Not Really” because that’s basically what this is–a long soliloquy from a former CIA insider who has a lot of inside information he’s willing to share, but only if you’re willing to listen to all of his other seemingly hair-brained theories about everything else. That said, it’s still one of Smith’s better docs and more effective than his last political effort, as he takes a cue from the likes of Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War.” That also means that it’s the epitome of talking heads movies, essentially ninety minutes of Ruppert talking in his somewhat condescending tone, as he shares his wealth of knowledge about the oil industry and how it led to the crash of the economy. He clearly knows what he’s talking about and he covers a lot of ground and territory as he shares his insider information, even if it might sound like rambling to those of us who aren’t as knowledgeable about the politics of business already. Because of this, Ruppert does come off a bit like a crackpot, but it makes the film no less fascinating for it, even if he doesn’t have the necessary personality or charisma that can keep one entertained amidst all the data and information. Conspiracy theorists should love the movie, because it feeds into the paranoia and angst they’ve been thriving on for years, but while there’s a lot of insider info about the oil trade, there’s just as much stuff we’ve heard countless times from watching far better docs that’s being regurgitated by Ruppert, but one will either leave the movie thinking he’s the smartest man in the world or a completely crazy conspiracy nut. He does tend to go overboard at times, like when he starts comparing what’s going on in this country to another Holocaust and telling everyone they should prepare accordingly. Sure, he has a proven track record for knowing what he’s talking about, but his skepticism towards the current administration doing something about it detracts from his opinion being taken with anything but a grain of salt. Ultimately, it’s a grim but gripping film that foresees doom and gloom, not just for the economy but for the entire country as a whole, and one can decide for themselves whether or not his claims are valid. Rating: 7.5/10

Also in Limited Release:

La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (Zipporah Films) – Frederick Wiseman’s doc follows the Paris Opera Ballet through rehearsals and performances. It opens on Wednesday at the Film Forum in New York City.

That Evening Sun (Freestyle Releasing) – Scott Teems’ dramedy stars Hal Holbrook as Abner Meecham, an aging farmer who escapes from the nursing home where he was abandoned by his son to go back to the farm to live out his days in peace only to learn that the farm has been leased to his sworn enemy Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), so he moves into the farm’s shack, refusing to leave before his competition. It opens in New York on Friday and in L.A. on November 20.

Endgame (Monterrey Media) – Pete Travis, director of last year’s hit thriller Vantage Point, returns with this new thriller revolving around the secret talks between England and South Africa that ultimately helped end Apartheid. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, William Hurt and Mark Strong, it plays in New York at the Quad Cinemas on Friday, having premiered on PBS last week.

Splinterheads (Atlantic Pictures) – Brant (Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story Sersen’s new comedy stars Rachael Taylor (Transformers) as a con artist who forms a relationship with a slacker named Justin, played by Thomas Middleditch. After playing at this year’s SXSW Festival, it opens in New York on Friday at the Regal Union Square.

Turning Green (New Films International) – Timothy Hutton, Alessandro Nivola and Colm Meaney star in Michael Aimette and John G. Hofmann’s dark comedy about an American teenager (Donal Gallery) shipped to Ireland with his younger brother, where he quits school to make money by working for a local bookie and his partner (Nivola, Hutton) until he discovers a box of old wank mags that might help him get the money to return home. It opens L.A. on Friday, in New York on November 13 and then in Chicago on November 20.


Next week, Germany’s most destructive filmmaker Roland Emmerich returns to… you guessed it… destroy the world in 2012 (Sony), while Britain’s popular filmmaker Richard Curtis returns to these shores with the ensemble musical-comedy Pirate Radio (Focus Features).

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