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.
1. 2012 – $54.2 million N/A (down .3 million)
2. Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Walt Disney) – $18.6 million -38% (down .1 million)
3. Michael Jackson’s This Is It (Sony) – $7.6 million -43%
4. The Men Who Stare at Goats (Overture) – $7.0 million -45%
5. The Fourth Kind (Universal) – $6.0 million -51%
6. Precious (Lionsgate) – $5.5 million +227% (up 1 million)
7. Paranormal Activity (Paramount) – $4.3 million -48%
8. Couples Retreat (Universal) – $3.8 million -38%
9. The Box (Warner Bros.) – $3.6 million -53%
10. Law Abiding Citizen (Overture Films) – $3.5 million -42%
11. Pirate Radio (Focus Features) – $3.4 million N/A
This Friday the 13th, Roland Emmerich isn’t content watching Jason Voorhees have all the fun, and he’s decided to bring the end of the world on a bit early with the big budget disaster movie 2012 (Sony), starring John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Woody Harrelson. Emmerich has built up quite a reputation for destroying things, though not so much for the quality of the acting or writing in them–if you were unfortunate enough to see 10,000 B.C. or Godzilla, you know what I’m sayin’–but that doesn’t really matter when you have such a huge action and FX-driven trailer playing on every channel just weeks before release, not to mention opening in a November weekend with very little direct competition. Expect a big opening weekend, possibly even in the top 10 for the month of November but it will have a hard time sustaining business once those who really want to see it have rushed out opening week.
On the other hand, British filmmaker Richard Curtis is only making his second movie as a director with Pirate Radio (Focus Features), an ensemble comedy set during the ’60s and the advent of sea-based radio stations playing rock music. With an illustrious cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Nick J. Frost and others, it’ll certainly appeal to the scattered Anglophiles throughout the States, although without a star like Hugh Grant or Colin Firth to front it, it’s doubtful it will bring in that many of the 40-something women it’s striving for. Opening in less than a thousand theaters might make it hard for the relatively low-profile movie to do much better than Focus’ similarly nostalgic Ang Lee movie Taking Woodstock, although it’s more likely to hold steady through Thanksgiving with little else for that crowd.
After a huge opening weekend, grossing $1.8 million in just 18 theatres, an impressive average of $100,000 per site, Lee Daniels’ awards-worthy drama Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire will expand into over 100 theaters, so we should see it make a jump into the Top 10, probably somewhere in the range of The Fourth Kind and Paranormal Activity, both which will likely be hit by the release of Emmerich’s movie.
This week’s “Chosen One” is the documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (Arthouse Films), a personal look at the famous Civil Rights and defense lawyer by his filmmaking daughters. You can read more about it below.
This weekend last year, the only new movie was the 22nd James Bond installment Quantum of Solace (Sony), once again starring Daniel Craig, and it dominated the box office with $67.5 million, followed by the animated Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, which came in second with $35 million. The Top 10 grossed $136 million, although even if Roland Emmerich’s latest does very well, it’s doubtful this weekend will reach that amount.
THE BATTLE CRY
This week, we’re looking at the recent trend of bringing added realism and DIY esthetics to genre films in a way that gets moviegoers talking and buying tickets in droves. It’s an odd subject to look at, bearing in mind that this is the same week in which Roland Emmerich releases 2012, probably the least realistic movie we’ve seen in a year where we’ve already had movies from Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers.
Even so, it’s becoming a surprisingly popular trend for genre filmmakers to forsake the cinematic instincts they learn in film school and instead go for something more realistic and believable, hoping that viewers question whether what they’re watching might possibly be at least partially real. Over the summer, Neill Blomkamp’s “alien invasion” movie District 9 begins like a news documentary about the South African slums where aliens have been sequesterd, including man-on-the-streets reactions from the local populace. Part of what made so many people take notice was the way that Blomkamp was able to create elaborate CGI FX within the context of handheld camerawork. The low budget Paranormal Activity works under the pretense that all the footage was shot on a handheld video camera by the subjects of the film, and this past weekend, Universal’s movie The Fourth Kind reportedly mixed dramatizations using actors with “actual footage and audio” of a number of psychiatric patients being put under hypnosis. It was essentially an experimental film that based its structure on a documentary-style format which made the thought of alien abduction far more convincing.
While these movies deal with the fantastical subjects of aliens and demons that normally wouldn’t be believable, the filmmakers have found ways to sell viewers into thinking that what they’re watching couldn’t possibly be manufactured by filmmaking trickery. The idea of a movie being “based on a true story” is taken to a new level when we’re presented with images that looks convincing enough despite a film’s DIY sensibilities. Not having known actors in at least two of those three movies makes them a lot more convincing.
Where this starts to get interesting is when these films cross the divide between realism and out-and-out trying to fool the viewer into believing something that isn’t real, essentially creating a hoax and trying to make it go viral as people debate the issue. The most famous example of this was The Blair Witch Project which for a long time was thought to be actual found footage of a trio of college kids lost in the woods as they try to investigate an urban myth, which itself was probably created for the movie. The filmmakers did such a good job convincing audiences the movie was something that really happened that everyone rushed out to see the movie to decide for themselves. This sort of trickery does have diminishing returns if too many filmmakers go out of their way to try to fool moviegoing audiences, because they stop buying it. While both Paranormal Activity and District 9 have been huge box office phenomena, some could say that people went to see them, not because they thought any of it was real, but because the results were entertaining despite the format and low budgets. This past weekend, The Fourth Kind opened rather moderately, and only the next few weeks will tell whether people were curious enough about what they saw to tell their friends or if it ends up being a failed attempt at fooling them.
What’s interesting about all three examples above is that they’re all studio movies distributed and marketed using means that generally would involve a lot more money than any of these movies would have had if they were distributed independently. Over the past few years, many indie films have used similar techniques, featuring unknown actors or non-actors and using a similar style of cinema verité improvisation to make them more realistic, yet mainstream audiences don’t seem as interested in seeing low budget realistic movies without the genre elements. One would think the success of Paranormal Activity proves that moviegoers don’t necessarily need big budgets or high production values to enjoy a movie, but so far, that movie’s success hasn’t translated into non-genre indie films or documentaries about real subjects.
It certainly would be interesting to know how many people who saw and enjoyed those movies did so because of the added realism or not knowing what was real… or just that they were entertaining movies that didn’t need big budget production values to be enjoyable.
Starring John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson
Written and directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 B.C., Godzilla) with Harold Kloser (10,000 B.C.)
Genre: Disaster Movie
Tagline: “We Were Warned.”
Plot Summary: Eons ago, the Mayans foretold the end of the world on December 21, 2012, and now those predictions have started to come true as a global disaster threatens the earth, leaving a small group of people including sci-fi writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), the government’s environmental expert Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and conspiracy nut Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson), to figure out what’s going on and how humanity can be saved.
Mini-Review: “This might sound crazy…” About 90 minutes into Roland Emmerich’s latest magnum opus, those words are uttered through the constantly-gritted teeth of a Russian pilot played by Johann Urb, whose dead-serious delivery of every line in fractured English is just one of the many things that will have you chortling your way through this movie. One might safely assume that wasn’t the desired effect Emmerich was going for when he decided to tackle the end of the world in such a bombastic way as “2012.” Either way, by that point in the movie, nothing could possibly sound crazier than anything we’ve already seen and yet Emmerich still finds a way to have John Cusack’s part-time sci-fi writer and full-on limo-driving stuntman, drive a Bentley out of the back of a giant airplane to the Himalayas below it. Of course, by then, we’ve already seen Cusack outrace the greatest disasters to ever hit Los Angeles… and Las Vegas… and Yellowstone Park, usually by driving or flying mere yards in front of them as they swallow up the earth behind him.
After a brief opening montage that covers the years 2009 to 2011 introducing Chiwetel Ejiofor’s scientist Adrian Helmsley as he first discovers the earth’s impending doom, and as we arrive at 2012, we meet the film’s hero, Cusack’s Jackson Curtis, who is taking his estranged kids on a camping trip to Yellowstone Park, which has been transformed into a government installation to study the changing conditions. Woody Harrelson’s Charlie Frost, a crackpot conspiracy theorist seems to know everything about it but he also seems completely crazy.
The acting isn’t bad considering what the generally decent cast has to work with, the most interesting character of the bunch is Oliver Platt as a corrupt politician, looking to capitalize on the impending catastrophe to move up in government, as they sell their limited seats on the ark to the richest people of the world. (It’s unfortunate that they called his character “Anheuser,” which one assumes will someday lead to a “Rocky Horror” like audience participation drinking game.) The kids get increasingly annoying as the film progresses, only trumped by a yappy little dog and Amanda Peet as their overprotective mother who is constantly freaking out at the danger Jackson puts her kids through. For the most part, it’s all typical Hollywood typecasting of the kind of characters one might expect to come together in any disaster movie. The worst of the lot is Yuri Karpov, a Russian billionaire who has bought his way onto the ark, alternating between being a pompous windbag and a downright rogue, but having more than a few hero moments as well.
It doesn’t take long for all the coincidental meetings and connections between the characters to reach a ludicrous pitch, leading to a last act where all the survivors try to get into one of the high tech arks as Emmerich piles danger upon danger in front of them. Meanwhile, you’ll probably be too busy marveling at the ark’s computer system as it creates elaborate graphics to illustrate every new situation and miraculously has a camera everywhere necessary below deck so that those above can see the progress of the survivors. By that point, the movie has gone from “Armageddon” level silliness to full-on “Poseidon” dreck, causing one to groan through the last hour as one could never possibly sustain the amount of disbelief to buy any of it, especially the techno-babble that explains the situation: how the earth’s core is heating up due to solar flares, causing the plates to shift, which ultimately leads to tsunamis and floods. You’re not likely to believe any of it, but it does allow Emmerich to outdo himself with some of the most spectacular CG destruction with only a few moments where the green screen is obvious.
It never quite overcomes the amount of melodrama and weepy phone calls that supports the theory that Emmerich’s co-writer and composer Harald Kloser wrote all of the movie’s sweeping musical cues first before he realized he needed to write scenes that went along with them.
Sure, at times, all of the outright silliness can be quite entertaining – Helmsley’s obsession with Curtis’ book “Farewell Atlantis” reaches a level of hysterical moments long before he starts talking over its significance with Thandie Newton. Even so, it’s not particularly satisfying to watch a movie spend so much time developing characters you can’t possibly care about as you wait for Emmerich to throw in the next wave of destruction. Rating: 4.5/10
It’s been over five years since Roland Emmerich destroyed the world with all kinds of inclement weather in The Day After Tomorrow, but now he’s back to finish the job with a movie that ups the ante on the destruction that the filmmaker first displayed in his blockbuster alien invasion hit Independence Day and in almost every single movie since then. This time he’s not messing around as he’s going right to the source of doom and gloom predictions, The Mayans, who foretold the end of the world on their calendar. Or at least so says the scientists and experts fluent in Mayan. Who knows? They probably just got sick of wasting time writing a stupid calendar and gave up writing it when they got to December 21, 2012, so essentially, everyone is freaking out for nothing.
But for the sake of Roland Emmerich, let’s say that the world will really end, and who better to visualized it than the German filmmaker whose name has become synonymous with big budget FX movies that involved lots of destruction and devastation? Emmerich is well aware how moviegoing audiences have thrived on the disaster genre going back to the ’70s and the movies of Irwin Allen such as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, as well as Earthquake, movies that really tweaked moviegoers’ imagination with what might happen and brought them to theaters in droves. In the mid ’90s, the genre was revived, partially by the success of Emmerich’s alien invasion movie Independence Day and Twister. A year later, Hollywood put out a couple volcano movies, followed a year later by two summer blockbusters about devastating meteor showers, Deep Impact and Armageddon. Even so, the world wasn’t quite ready for Emmerich to unleash the forces of weather on the world with The Day After Tomorrow, which had the biggest opening for a disaster movie ($68 million) over Memorial Day weekend. 2012 very much follows in that vein, but going even further with the destruction with earthquakes and floods and other natural disasters sweeping the globe.
As usual, Emmerich has assembled a fairly impressive and unlikely cast, mostly of those who normally one wouldn’t expect to see in a movie like this. That has generally been the M.O. with disaster movies going back to the days of Irwin Allen and Earthquake, filling their rosters with stars who can bring suitable drama and pathos to the devastation. Using what worked with The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich hired a strong lead in John Cusack, a generally well-liked leading man who has been around since the ’80s and who has had a number of peaks and valleys over his extensive career. In recent years, Cusack’s thrillers like Identity and 1408 have fared better than smaller indie dramas and more eclectic fare. For the third time, Cusack has been paired with actress Amanda Peet, having first appeared together in Identity and last appeared together in the long-delayed New Line drama The Martian Child.
England’s Chiwetel Ejiofor continues to be a respected actor who has yet to truly breakout as a solo lead actor. After audiences first saw what he could do in dramatic films like Spielberg’s Amistad and Stephen Frear’s Dirty Pretty Things, Ejiofor appeared in box office hits like John Singleton’s Four Brothers, Spike Lee’s Inside Man and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster–the latter two opposite Denzel Washington–but his most recent attempt at headlining a movie, being David Mamet’s sports drama Redbelt, didn’t fare as well. On the other hand, Woody Harrelson appears in Emmerich’s latest shortly after his biggest hit in many years with Zombieland, also for Sony, and the same weekend he appears in the critically-lauded drama The Messenger, which some think might get Harrelson his second Oscar nomination. The rest of the cast includes Danny Glover as the President, Thandie Newton as his daughter, Oliver Platt and others, but as is always the case with these big budget movies, the actors might as well just be window dressing as they react to all the crazy CG destruction Emmerich and his team can muster.
Although a lot of anticipation has been created from the trailers and commercials, Emmerich has the stigma of his last movie 10,000 B.C. to overcome. Although it opened well, its sub-5 out of 10 rating on IMDb is fairly damning, and it failed to gross $100 million, which even his much maligned version of Godzilla managed to make. Those who were sold on that movie’s eye candy but were disappointed by the results might have second thoughts about giving 2012 a chance, although there are just as many younger people who will gladly endure more bad writing and acting to watch the world be destroyed again. Because of the presence of lots of water and a cruise liner, it’s going to be hard for the movie to avoid comparisons to Wolfgang Peterson’s Poseidon, another insanely expensive disaster movie by a German filmmaker that bombed, and one can expect that the critics will be merciless.
On the other hand, this is Emmerich’s first movie for Sony who has gone all out with their promotion for the movie, creating a number of viral campaigns and even buying commercial time on every network last month for an extended trailer essentially showing similar footage to what they showed at Comic-Con over the summer. 2012 would normally be the type of movie that would be released over the summer to take advantage of schools being out, so releasing it in early November, essentially the holiday season, is a strange decision, but being the only high profile new movie after a weekend of moderately-received duds means there aren’t many other choices for moviegoers. This type of movie also tends to cross many demographics as the premise can be understood and appreciated equally by men and women, young and old. One possible killer for Emmerich’s latest doing another humongous opening in the range of $60 million or more is the absolutely insane running time of the movie at 2 hours and 40 minutes. One would expect that theaters would realize the demand and would insure they get enough prints that they can get in a solid number of screenings a day, but it’s likely to limit the opening weekend for sure.
While this seems very much like a one-weekend wonder, next week’s The Twilight Saga: New Moon will have very little appeal to guys so one could see this doing a little bit of sustained business at least until Thanksgiving weekend, although chances are that the long running time might hurt any chance of positive word-of-mouth so expect a relatively large drop next week.
Why I Should See It: Not since Irwin Allen has any filmmaker been better at disasters and destruction than Roland Emmerich…
Why Not: But that also includes a disastrously bad script and acting… and at 2 hours and 40 minutes, many viewers will hope the world ends before the movie’s over.
Projections: $53 to 56 million opening weekend and roughly $140 million total.
Pirate Radio (Focus Features)
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Talulah Riley, January Jones
Written and directed by Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, writer of Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral and more.)
Genre: Comedy, Musical
Plot Summary: In 1966, a young man named Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent to live with his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy), who happens to be the captain of one of England’s top pirate radio stations, broadcasting from the North Sea just off the coast of England with a motley crew of DJs from all over the world including The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) from America, Dr. Dave (Nick Frost) and the mysterious Gavin (Rhys Ifans).
We’re not sure who thought offering a movie about a little boat in the North Sea would be good counterprogramming to a movie about a bunch of enormous arks surviving the entire globe being flooded, but here we have the second movie from Richard Curtis, a veritable British institution who has successfully made waves–see what I did there?–on these shores with some of his earlier movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, which opened roughly six years ago.
This one is a little different because it shies away from his usual romantic comedy formula, as well as separates him from the ever-present Hugh Grant, who some might consider the main draw for many of Curtis’ earlier films, at least in the United States. Instead, the cast features Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, Simon Pegg’s ever-present sidekick Nick Frost, Curtis regulars Bill Nighy (Love, Actually) and Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill), Rhys Darby from HBO’s “The Flight of the Conchords” who had a funny role in Jim Carrey’s Yes Man last year, as well as appearances by the super-hot January Jones from “Mad Men,” and Gemma Arterton, who famously played Agent Strawberry Fields in last year’s Quantum of Solace. It’s a pretty wild mix of actors from different paths, and one would expect that having someone like Nick Frost or Rhys Darby might interest some younger audiences if the thought of a radio station on a boat.
More than the cast, the rock music angle is likely to play a larger part in bringing in baby boomers who remember that British Invasion era music fondly, and it makes for an interesting backdrop for Richard Curtis’ type of ensemble comedy that could be a draw. That wasn’t the case with Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, released by Focus nationwide a few months back to a generally poor reception despite tying into the highly-publicized 40th Anniversary of the famous music festival. Likewise, Don Cheadle’s Talk to Me about a famous talk radio DJ and also released by Focus failed to bring in the African-American audiences expected. The failure of those two movies are fairly clear indicators that even with the built-in audience Curtis has built for himself on these shores, American moviegoing audiences wouldn’t necessarily be interested in the subject matter for his second movie.
Ironically, one problem with waiting too long to release a movie that was released in England many months ago is that pirate copies of the movie are already available online, as well as import DVDS. That was thought to be a problem with the action-thriller Taken when 20th Century Fox waited six extra months to release it, but that wasn’t the case and that movie exploded. It might not have that much of an effect here either, because the audience who might be interested in a movie like this would not be tech-savvy to have already downloaded and watched the movie; likewise, the mostly younger male audience who might download movies wouldn’t necessarily be going to see this movie in theaters anyway.
That’s a minor problem compared to the uninteresting premise, and the delays the film suffered may have been because Universal realized that the movie was a hard sell, which is why they decided to hand it over to their specialty branch, Focus Features. Unfortunately, Focus isn’t having a particularly good year though with their only significant hits being the stop-motion animated hit Coraline which grossed $75 million and the recent 9, which grossed less than half of that. In most years, they’ll have at least one or two potential Oscar candidates that will help their fall/holiday business, but this isn’t that kind of movie, nor is it the type of holiday comedy that bring in entire families.
They’re opening the movie in less than a thousand theaters, which is par for the course for British comedies produced by Working Title, since a good portion of them have opened moderately, including Love Actually and both “Bridget Jones” movies, as well as Nick Frost’s movies with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Often the movies will do well enough to warrant an expansion, especially when they open before Thanksgiving, but we don’t think that will be the case this time around, partially because unlike Love Actually, Curtis’ latest doesn’t even have the Christmas themes that helped make that movie explode. It will be aiming for the low portion of the Top 10 at best and possibly hang on one more week and be gone from many theaters as more movies start opening over Thanksgiving.
Why I Should See It: When it comes to British comedy, Richard Curtis is a mainstay.
Why Not: His comedy is also fairly safe compared to some of the other more modern comedians coming out of England such as “Little Britain/”
Projections: $3 to 5 million opening weekend and roughly $10 to 12 million total.
THE CHOSEN ONE:
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (Arthouse Films)
Starring William Kunstler, Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler
Directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler (Tulia, Texas: Scenes from the Drug War)
Plot Summary: Filmmakers Emily and Sarah Kunstler tell the story of their controversial lawyer father William Kunstler, who took the stand for Civil Rights and freedom in the ’60s, then turned around and became the defense lawyer for some of the most vile human beings, including rapists and terrorists.
There have been many great docs commemorating the lives of infamous and controversial public figures with Alex Gibny’s Gonzo and Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future is Written being two strong examples of how knowing the subject but having some detachment allows for a reliable relaying of the important facts.
Celebrated lawyer William Kunstler became as hated for some of the criminal cases he took later in his career, especially in New York City, as he was respected and loved for his involvement in the Civil Rights movement early on. One would think it would be hard for anyone to create an unbiased account of his career, even moreso with the thought this his film biographers are also his daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler.
Surprisingly, the results are a lot less one-sided than you may imagine, since towards the end of their father’s life, the filmmakers even went on television to express their disapproval of him taking on the defense of one of the young men responsible for the brutal raping of a Central Park jogger. With that caveat introduced early on, the film goes about trying to get to the heart of what drove Kunstler to take on such undesirable cases after spending so much of his life fighting for Civil Rights and the First Amendment, even when it meant potentially getting himself thrown into jail for contempt or even worse situations.
While this isn’t a movie about glorifying Kunstler’s life or career, it does spend more time on the good things he did in terms of fighting against prejudice and racism. It does so by combining candid interviews with many of Kunstler’s colleagues and people he worked with on his greatest cases with an impressive amount of rare archival footage and never-before-seen home movies. The film’s strongest moments involve its coverage of the prison riots at Attica State Prison in New York and the protests at Wounded Knee. (The famous Chicago Conspiracy trial was far better documented in Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10 and wisely, Kunstler’s daughters realized this as to not spend too much time rehashing their father’s involvement in the case.)
Later in his career, Kunstler was defending drugdealers, rapists and Muslim terrorists as he chose to fight against oppression and injustice, to the point where even his daughters began to think he was losing his mind, and the film deals with how their whole family was caught in the backlash of people rioting outside their house when he successfully got a hate crime killer acquitted. For all his daughter’s ire about their father defending Yusef Salaam in the Central Park jogger case, years after their father’s death, DNA was used to prove that the young man had been convicted unjustly confirming their father’s instincts. The filmmakers even get Salaam to speak on camera about how their father believed in him, even if he wasn’t alive to see justice served.
It’s not a perfect film, as the narrative writing and voiceover is somewhat stiff and less emotional than one might expect from a daughter talking about her late father, possibly the filmmakers’ attempt at remaining somewhat clinical and detached although their relationship with the film’s subject creates a fairly unprecedented niche for the film as a doc. There are also moments that feel somewhat manipulative when the women visit the locations of some of their father’s greatest achievements, even if it does a good job driving home how their father’s deeds impacted so many lives.
The results are a vivid portrait of this controversial lawyer often misunderstood, even by his own family, due to the amount of time he spent in the public consciousness, both positively and negatively. The Kunstler’s doc is particularly effective in showcasing the good Kunstler did for so many people, evident from the way the people he helped still worship him, and that good tends to overpower all the bad stuff for which the majority probably remember Kunstler for later in his life.
It opens in New York at the Cinema Village and in Boston on Friday, and then in L.A. on November 20 at the Landmark Nuart, as well as San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
The Messenger (Oscilloscope Labs)
Starring Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Eamonn Walker
Written and directed by Oren Moverman (co-writer of I’m Not There) with Alessandro Camon
Plot Summary: After returning from service in Iraq, Army officer Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) accepts an assignment to the Army’s Casualty Notification service, traveling around with his partner, a fellow officer named Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to tell the families and loved ones of fallen soldiers of their deaths. Will finds himself drawn to one army widow (Samantha Morton) after telling her about her husband’s death, causing him to cross a line that might help him come to terms with his own emotional detachment since coming home.
Mini-Review: In the past few years, there’ve been quite a number of dramas about the lives and experiences of soldiers after returning from Iraq, which makes perfect sense considering how the ongoing war continues to be a hot political topic, even as Americans tend to forget about it when it’s not mentioned on the news. For his directorial debut, screenwriter Oren Moverman has found a different angle that as yet to be explored, the issues faced by those unfortunate individuals assigned to contact the loved ones of soldiers killed in the line of duty.
Ben Foster gives a genuinely heartfelt performance as Will Montgomery, a soldier who returns home damaged more than most to learn his sweetheart is engaged to another man. He’s teamed with an equally damaged partner to perform one of the most difficult tasks in a world at war. Most of the film focuses on the relationship of these men and how it changes over the course of their duties due to the pressures that come with each encounter. Neither Foster or Harrelson’s characters are the normal soldier we’ve seen, married with a kid, but they’re both loners who’ve returned to throw themselves into their job, but Will becomes infatuated with Samantha Morton as a mother made single by the death of her husband, breaking one of the cardinal rules of the job. As much as this is Will’s story, one is equally impressed by Woody Harrelson’s equally-rounded performance as his partner that does everything by the book, but also has his own issues that have him cut loose while off-duty. There’s a sad loneliness to his character that counter-balances his boisterous attitude, and that’s the beauty of Harrelson’s performance, which really sells the character. One thing that sometimes detracts from Foster’s performance is that his voice tends to get whiny and shrill in pitch whenever he raises his voice, which would make it hard to believe him as a military man with any potential authority, obvious from a scene where he chews out a mechanic in the auto pool.
Even with a few scenes that go overboard on the tears as people learn about their dead loved ones, one has to be impressed by the like of Steve Buscemi playing smaller supporting roles that actually play a pivotal part in Will’s arc. Morton is also quite strong playing a different type of love interest than we’ve seen, harking back to the non-traditional films of the ’70s–Cassavetes is clearly an influence on Moverman’s own sensibilities.
For the most part, the subdued tone of the movie works and the filming is kept fairly simple in order to maintain the important sense of realism rather than ruining the tone by trying to be overly flashy or cinematic, allowing the film to be driven by the strong script, the performances and a subtle but effective score by Nathan Larson. Overall, Moverman’s directorial debut makes a fine bookend to Katheryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” showing another side of how the war at home can be just as rigorous as the one abroad. Rating: 8/10
It opens on Friday in New York at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and in Washington, D.C. at Bethesda Row and E Street Cinemas and in more cities on November 20. You can see a full list of theaters on the Official Site.
Also in Limited Release:
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox Searchlight) – Wes Anderson takes on Roald Dahl in this stop-motion animation version of the children’s book about a crafty fox (voiced by George Clooney) who plans with his friends to hit the farms of three farmers named Boggis, Bunce and Bean. It opens in select cities on Friday and then nationwide on Wednesday, November 25. (Look for more about the movie in that week’s column.)
Mini-Review: When Wes Anderson made “The Life Aquatic” five years ago, one of the more memorable aspects of the film was how he teamed with Henry Selick to create stop-motion animated sea creatures. Around that same time, Anderson announced that he had decided to adapt Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” into an animated movies. With Selick having long moved on to “Coraline,” any excitement about a creative filmmaker like Anderson tackling the likes of Dahl is somewhat short-lived as soon as one realizes how poorly matched their sensibilities are.
Anderson fans have probably become accustomed to forgiving the director for his quirks and eccentricities, and though a number of Anderson regulars are present, the movie never really feels like a “Wes Anderson movie,” because he puts a lot of his own personality on the backburner to tell a far more traditional tale. Even so, the results are far too weird for mainstream audiences who expect certain things from their animated movies in terms of look and feel that’s mainly missing here.
Anderson has earned a rep for being a creative visual filmmaker and one would expect that working in an animated environment would allow him to explore even more fantastic imagery, though character designs and backgrounds are fairly bland, lacking the vibrancy of other recent stop-motion animated films. The animal creatures just don’t look very well developed and the movement is awkward and choppy, and Anderson also uses a lot of long shots during the action scenes, making those parts of the movie look no better than a side-scrolling video game. It’s also nearly impossible to separate the characters from the voices, especially George Clooney and Meryl Streep, because their voicework is so bland and unexciting, almost phoned in, that it’s amazing their characters can sustain the viewer’s interest as long as it does. The one exception is Jason Schwartzman’s voicing of Mr. Fox’s mopey teen son Ash, who is constantly having to compete with his cousin for his father’s love and attention; it’s also the one aspect of the story that really connects and overcomes the movie’s other problems.
Once again working with his “Life Aquatic” collaborator Noah Baumbach, Anderson delivers a script that isn’t nearly as inventive or clever as his previous work with a lot of the humor being kept subdued. It’s almost as if Anderson is trying hard to be himself while forcing himself to tone down the quirkiness in order to reach a younger and more mainstream audiences. Anderson’s decision to replace curse words merely with the word “cuss” is just one of the gimmicks that quickly gets old. When push comes to shove, Anderson falls back on his love for classic rock music, trying to win over his 30-something fans with the use of obvious favorites like the Beach Boys or the Stones, neither of which fits in with the general tone of the animation and story.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is at least somewhat more coherent than some of Anderson’s other recent work and there’s probably enough physicality and movement to appease younger kids, but it just never quite achieves what Anderson was striving for… whatever that might have been. Ultimately, it’s a throwback to Anderson’s weaker “Life Aquatic” sensibilities and like Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” here is a filmmaker trying to recapture the spirit of being young while being completely out of touch with what regular people require from their entertainment. Maybe if the movie looked nearly as good as “Wild Things,” we could forgive the intrusion of Anderson’s personality as it strives to overpower the story. Anderson’s first foray into animation is far from fantastic and tragically, his attempt to stay true to his gut while maintaining the integrity of Dahl’s storytelling is a losing battle. Rating: 5.5/10
Uncertainty (IFC Films) – Joseph Gordon Levitt and Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) star in this two-part film from David Siegel and Scott McGehee (The Deep End), as a couple on the Brooklyn Bridge can’t decide what to do on the 4th of July, so they flip a coin and go in two opposite directions and into the two stories. In Manhattan, the couple get into trouble with criminals when they find a missing cell phone, but in Brooklyn, they have a tranquil day spent with the family and trying to decide whether to tell them about her pregnancy. It opens in New York at the IFC Center
Interview with Siegel and McGehee (Coming Soon!)
Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)
Dare (Image Entertainment) – This dramedy directed by Adam Salky, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, stars Emmy Rossum as a high school senior who goes after mysterious bad boy played by Zach Gilford (“Friday Night Lights”) only to end up in a love triangle with her shy best friend Ben (Ashley Springer). Also starring Alan Cumming, Sandra Benhard and Ana Gaseyer from “SNL,” it opens in New York and L.A.
Love Hurts (Lantern Lane Entertainment) – Barra Grant’s romantic comedy stars Richard Grant as a middle age man whose wife (Carrie-Anne Moss) leaves him, leaving him in a funk until his 17-year-old son gives him a new look and forces him to date again, making him popular among a group of eclectic women. It opens at the Laemmle theaters in Santa Monica and Encino.
Oh My God? (Mitropoulos Films) – The likes of Hugh Jackman, Seal, Ringo Starr and Sir Bob Geldof appear in Peter Rodger’s documentary that tries to explore the question “What is God?” through a variety of religions and cultures. It opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.
Women in Trouble (Screen Media Films) – Carla Gugino stars in her boyfriend writer-director Sebastian (Rise) Gutierez’s new comedy about the lives of ten very different women, many in the adult entertainment business, Gugino playing a porn star called Elektra Luxx who discovers that she’s pregnant. Also starring Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Simon Baker, the movie opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.
Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)
Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon (50 Eggs Films) – Mary Mazzio’s doc takes a look at several inner city teens from Harlem and Compton who take part in an annual business competition run by the Network for Teaching Entrepeneurship. It opens in select cities on Friday.
Four Seasons Lodge (First Run Features) – New York Times journalist Andrew Jacobs directs this documentary about a group of Holocaust survivors who gather every year in the New York Catskills to celebrate their lives. It opens on Wednesday at the IFC Center.
Next week, the sequel to last year’s mega vampire hit is unleashed as The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Summit) fills theaters with teen and older girls, Sandra Bullock stars in the football drama The Blind Side (Warner Bros.) and Sony releases the animated Planet 51 (Sony).
Copyright 2009 Edward Douglas