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. The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Summit) – $50.0 million -65% ($67.6 million 5-day)
2. Old Dogs (Disney) – $25.3 million N/A ($34.4 million 5-day)
3. The Blind Side (Warner Bros.) – $21.5 million -37% ($28.3 million 5-day)
4. 2012 – $14.5 million -45% ($20.6 million 5-day)
5. Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Walt Disney) – $14.1 million +15% ($18.6 million 5-day)
6. Planet 51 (Sony) – $13.0 +2% ($17.2 million 5-day)
7. Ninja Assassin (Warner Bros.) – $11.4 million N/A ($17.5 million 5-day)
8. Precious (Lionsgate) – $10.3 million -6% ($14.0 million 5-day)
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox Searchlight) – $10.2 million +4673% ($13.8 million 5-day)
10. The Men Who Stare at Goats (Overture) – $1.7 million -37% ($2.4 million 5-day)
It’s Thanksgiving weekend again, and if you’ve been playing along with the Weekend Warrior at home, you’ll probably be well aware of his absolutely abysmal track record on the holiday box office, because let’s face it, every single rule goes out the book and those who normally go see movies are traveling and those who don’t normally go see movies are out in force. Sure, we know that family movies will do well, as will movies specifically about Christmas, but it’s always hard to tell which movies will make a splash on Wednesday and then tank by the weekend (hello, Alexander) or those that will save all of their energy for the insanely busy Black Friday and beyond.
This year it’s even more interesting because we have an extended five-day holiday weekend following one of the biggest releases to ever be released in November. It’s quite evident that Summit Entertainment’s The Twilight Saga: New Moon will win the weekend again, leaving second place for the latest high-concept Disney PG comedy Old Dogs (Walt Disney), this one teaming Robin Williams and John Travolta in the type of dumb physical humor that America seems to thrive on. Teaming famed actors and comedians with kids has done so well for Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and even Ice Cube. It’s probably the type of innocuous entertainment that families will be able to see as a group on Friday and Saturday so expect it to do a lot more business then, rather than people rushing out to see it on the day before Thanksgiving (normally a travel day) or on the holiday proper.
On the other hand, James (V For Vendetta) McTeigue’s action flick Ninja Assassin (Warner Bros.) will be filling the niche served by the lack of new movies geared towards younger males, as it showcase Korean pop singer Rain slicing and dicing lots of killer ninjas in the type of action-packed gorefest that we haven’t seen in some time. It should do well on Wednesday and Thanksgiving Day, especially among guys not going home for Thanksgiving, but will probably drop off by the weekend, since these things tend to do much of their business early and tail off as the normal action movie frontloading kicks into gear.
Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox Searchlight) featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman and more opens nationwide on Wednesday after a solid platforming run in New York and L.A, and while that catered to Anderson’s ultra-hip cinephile audience, this release will be just as much or more for families with kids. It should do well, but it will probably end up in the lower half of the Top 10 in the same general area as Lee Daniels’ Precious, which may or may not expand further on Wednesday. (You’ll definitely want to check back on Wednesday morning once we have final screen counts.) It should be a busy weekend and there’s a potential for another limited release to get into the Top 10 if wisely expanded on Wednesday.
Last Thanksgiving, Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon’s comedy Four Christmases (New Line/WB) defied all expectations, grossing $46 million in its first five days, totally taking advantage of the desire for holiday movies over the Thanksgiving weekend. After being destroyed by Twilight a week earlier, Disney’s Bolt picked up some slack and even pulled ahead of the blockbuster hit, taking second place. Baz Luhrman’s Australia (20th Century Fox), starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, opened in fifth place with $14.8 million over the weekend and $19.5 million including Wednesday and Thursday. Jason Statham returned as Frank Martin in the action flick Transporter 3 (Lionsgate), which suffered from the same frontloading as other Thanksgiving action movies, earning $6 million in its first two days and another $12 million over the three-day weekend. Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-nominated Milk (Focus Features), starring Sean Penn, opened in tenth place in just 36 theaters, grossing $1.9 million over the five days. The Top 10 grossed $213 million over the five day holiday weekend, an amount that should be bested even if New Moon has a significantly larger-than-normal drop.
Old Dogs (Walt Disney)
Starring John Travolta, Robin Williams, Kelly Preston, Seth Green, Ella Bleu Travolta, Lori Loughlin, Matt Dillon, Luis Guzman
Directed by Walt Becker (Wild Hogs, Van Wilder); Written by David Diamond and David Weissman (The Family Man, Evolution, upcoming When in Rome)
Tagline: “Sit. Stay. Play Dad.”
Plot Summary: Charlie and Dan (John Travolta, Robin Williams), two bachelors living very different lifestyles are put in charge of six-year-old twins (Ella Bleu Travolta, Conner Rayburn) just as they’re about to close an enormous business deal, leading to all sorts of hilarious situations that will probably make this the funniest comedy in the history of cinema. In fact, I don’t think any other filmmaker or studio should bother making a comedy after this one, because it could never possibly be as original or funny as having Robin Williams and John Travolta as two bachelors taking care of kids.
If you read the above plot summary and didn’t think I was being sarcastic then you obviously haven’t been reading this column long enough to be aware of my hatred for absolute schlock. Here, we seemingly have another groan-worthy high concept PG comedy from Disney that uses the formula of having a well-known actor or comedian paired with kids. In this case, they actually have one of each. They’ve also reunited actor John Travolta with director Walt Becker, who helmed Travolta’s road comedy Wild Hogs, which paired him with Martin Lawrence and Tim Allen to the tune of $168 million, making it one of Travolta’s biggest hits. Robin Williams is considered to be an equally big star, although most of his biggest hits have been animated movies with the exception of his small part in Ben Stiller’s “Night at the Museum” movies, both which did extremely well, although it’s hard to tell how much of that was due to Williams. Williams’ last family comedy for Disney was the remake Flubber, which did very well when it was released over the Thanksgiving weekend 12 years ago, grossing $36 million, and that amount would probably be higher with inflation.
It certainly doesn’t feel like either actor is at a place where they need to revive or save their careers, so it’s odd to see them doing a movie like this, which is clearly a money grab. These movies have certainly done well for other veteran stars like Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin, so maybe Williams and Travolta know what they’re doing. Most notoriously, Disney pretty much salvaged Vin Diesel’s career with the high concept family comedy The Pacifier, which also teamed the unlikely actor with kids. The last time a movie like this opened over Thanksgiving, it was Dennis Quaid’s Yours, Mine and Ours, a remake of the 1968 comedy starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda, but it didn’t fare too well, maybe because it was released by Paramount, who has not had much success with the genre. (Their most recent attempt at teaming a comedian with kids was Eddie Murphy’s Imagine That, which bombed over the summer.) It’s also possible that Quaid just isn’t really known for doing comedy, so it wasn’t a good match of project and actor, whereas, this one doesn’t seem like much of a stretch.
The comedy’s secret weapon may very well be Seth Green, the younger cast member who has been featured prominently in the commercials, and who generally has a younger college age audience, thanks to his earlier career, appearing in movies like Can’t Hardly Wait, The Italian Job and the “Austin Powers” movies. In recent years, he’s been focusing most of his time on the stop-animation show “Robot Chicken,” and he co-produced the comedy Sex Drive, which bombed last year. The movie also includes appearances by Matt Dillon (who appears in the thriller Armored in a couple of weeks) and the ever-present Luis Guzman.
The movie was shot over two years ago, and it originally was going to come out in April, but not long after the tragic death of comedian Bernie Mac last October–he had already shot a supporting role, making it his last film–the movie was delayed until Thanksgiving, maybe because no other family film had claimed the weekend as of yet. There’s no word how much, if any, of Mac’s role in the movie remains, although they certainly aren’t showing him in the commercials.
There really isn’t that much more to say, because this is a film that will easily capitalize on the combination of star power, high concept premise and the amount of free time that people have over the long holiday weekend. Plus the fact that comedies tend to do very well and there hasn’t been one in theaters for a long time. The annoying thing is that no matter how bad the movie is or reviews will surely be, this is one of the few movies that can appeal to a wide variety of people, which makes it the perfect family movie for a holiday that’s known for bringing families together. The mysterious phenomenon in which dumb comedies seem to bring in loads of dumb moviegoers has been seen many times, especially this year which began with Kevin James’ blockbuster Paul Blart: Mall Cop and that’s the case with some of the worst Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler movies as well, so this should follow suit.
With that in mind, expect a solid opening in the general 20-something range of most Disney family comedies, hindered by the general family/holiday competition in theaters of things like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Disney’s A Christmas Carol, which will now look a lot more appealing to holiday shoppers.
Why I Should See It: If you have any extra cash lying around and you want to help fund the dumbing down of America, then by all means spend your money on this crap.
Why Not: Scientific studies have shown that Disney comedies have a greater effect on the loss of brain cells than crack, cocaine and heroin combined.
Projections: $9 to 11 million on Wednesday and Thursday, and $24 to 26 million over the three day weekend and roughly $85 to 90 million total.
Ninja Assassin (Warner Bros.)
Starring Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yun
Directed by James McTeigue (V For Vendetta); Written by Matthew Sand, J. Michael Straczynski (creator of “Babylon 5,” Changeling, upcoming They Marched into Sunlight)
Genre: Action, Thriller
Tagline: “Fear Not the Weapon but the Hand That Yields It”
Plot Summary: Trained as a ninja since childhood by the Ozunu Clan, Raizo (Rain) finds himself in opposition with his deadly former classmates after the execution of a good friend by his adversary Takeshi (Rick Yune). At the same time, a pair of Europol agents stationed in Berlin (Naomie Harris, Ben Miles) have found connections between a series of brutal murders that seem to point to a group of unstoppable ninja killers.
Mini-Review: An ambitious and mostly faithful attempt at recreating the look and tone of Japanese manga and Asian martial arts films is marred by the fact that doing so involves equal parts action and exposition, and only one half of that equation lives up to the promise of the film’s title.
After a violent opening scene of a group of young cocky thugs getting the “ninja treatment,” the movie gets down to the main plot, cutting between two Europol agents trying to solve the case of a series of gruesome murders that seem to point to unstoppable ghost-like ninjas, including the film’s protagonist Raizo, played by Korean pop sensation Rain, who is trying to stop the murderous ninjas for his own reasons. As the investigation moves forward, we’re shown flashbacks to Raizo’s youth being trained as part of the Ozunu Clan by a ruthless master, played by martial arts legend Sho Kosugi, who tortures his young pupils if they don’t show improvement in their studies. These scenes will be very familiar to anyone who has read any of the great martial art manga out there, although the amount of dialogue and exposition necessary in these scenes also slows the pace down to a crawl.
After the opening scene, there’s a long gap before we get to see some of the movie’s more impressive action set pieces, all a worthy showcase for James McTeigue’s talents as a filmmaker, focusing on the “art” in martial arts and creating spectacular visual fireworks with swords blazing, shuriken flying and blood splashing like paint on his celluloid canvas. Filled to the brim with the type of stylish gore and violence one might see in the more graphic comics from Asia, the action is on par with the famous sword fight in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” as McTeigue and his team are able to do things that would seem impossible to do with live actors, seamlessly blending on-set stunts with CG FX to make the ninja slip in and out of shadows.
As difficult as it might have been to create these fantastic set pieces, the gory fun that’s to be had whenever ninjas start fighting is often ruined by the poor quality of writing and acting in the scenes between Naomie Harris and her supervisor played by Ben Miles, both giving performances so awful one can’t believe they are trained actors. It’s hard to blame McTeigue for the weak cliché-filled script, but one has to imagine a better director would have realized how ridiculous his actors were coming off with their overwrought performances and made an attempt to tune them back. In fact, Rain ends up showing up the “real actors” in the movie with a performance that requires very little dialogue, which is good, because whenever anyone opens their mouth to deliver a line, it’s done in such an over-the-top manner that one immediately remembers why so many moments that work so well in comic books don’t work so well when filmed.
Sadly, “Ninja Assassin” is a classic case of an action film that only works as long as there are ninjas on-screen slicing and dicing each other, and not so much when anyone opens their mouth and speaks. Rating: 6/10
While Thanksgiving has primarily been known as a time for holiday movies and family comedies with only a few notable exceptions in the movie that broke out and grossed over $30 million in five days, there have been a number of filmmakers and producers who have tried to offer counter-programming for guys who might not be spending time with family and want to get a bit of action in a season that’s not generally known for it. Usually these are seemingly more intelligent action movies like Spy Game or Déjà Vu, both directed by Tony Scott, but two years ago, 20th Century Fox released the video game based Hitman starring Timothy Olyphant, and it made $21 million in the five days. Last year, Lionsgate followed suit with Jason Statham’s Transporter 3, which made slightly less. While neither movie made a ton of money, the studios started seeing that they could find a niche audience for smaller-budgeted action movies and offer guys something different over the holidays.
Along comes Warner Bros., who in the past have often tried to release artier star-studded fare on the weekend and failed miserably–movies like Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain–so they’re going the route of trying to tak advantage of the lack of movies for guys by releasing this straight-out R-rated martial arts flick that will offer entertainment to anyone who doesn’t feel like seeing Robin Williams and John Travolta yucking it up on screen. It’s a straight-ahead Asian-style martial arts thriller directed by James McTeigue, who directed the adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta, which was also produced by Joel Silver and the Wachowski Brothers. That movie was marketed based on the latter’s involvement, but on this one, McTeigue’s getting all the credit for it.
This one stars a fairly new name and face to these shores, that being Korean pop star Rain, who had a role in the Wachowskis’ version of Speed Racer last year, but hasn’t really built much of an audience outside the Asian market, although there are enough young Korean-American women who’ll know who he is and maybe they’ll be old enough to get in to see the movie. (But probably not.) The one actor who might be known to larger audiences is Naomie Harris, who first made waves in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, but also had a key role in the last two “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. Unfortunately, neither of them are known enough to be mentioned in the advertising, and it’s really being sold mainly on the concept.
Even though the movie has been delayed a number of times–it was originally meant for release in January–the extra time might have done it some good, and Warner Bros. certainly has done a good job with the commercials by focusing on the visuals and the violent action, as well as the Asian connections that made Tarantino’s Kill Bill so popular. It’s also getting released at a time when there are very few movies strictly for guys, as it’s not following a week after a James Bond movie as has been the case the last couple of years.
Guys will generally see it as fun escapist action but maybe not a must-see, and the lack of solid starpower won’t help either. The movie should certainly play well among urban male audiences who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in anything else in theaters, although they’re also likely to avoid the movie in theaters if they don’t hear good things from the early week screenings, something that could affect the movie’s chances at sustaining business through the weekend.
Most of the competition for the movie might be in the select cities where The Road is playing, as that will be a bigger draw for older guys, but there should be some room for this to do decently in its first five days, even if it’s unlikely to have strong legs despite the lack of strong competition in the weeks to come.
Why I Should See It: McTeigue has proven himself as a solid visual action director and Ninja Assassin has a lot of that going for it.
Why Not: Decent acting and writing? That’s another story.
Projections: $7 to 8 million on Wednesday and Thursday and another $11 to 12 million over the three-day weekend, probably around $35 to 40 million total.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox Searchlight)
Starring (the voices of) George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker
Directed by Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Bottle Rocket and more); Written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Squid and the Whale)
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Family
Tagline: “Dig the life fantastic.”
Plot Summary: Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s stories about Mr. and Mrs. Fox (voiced by George Clooney and Meryl Streep) and their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) and nephew Kristopherson (Eric Anderson) who move into a tree where the temptation of three nearby farms is too great for Mr. Fox, a former chicken thief, who plans a series of elaborate heists with his friends that ends up threatening their new lifestyle.
This Thanksgiving’s big anomaly in terms of wide releases might have been John Hillcoat’s The Road (see below) but since it’s only getting a limited release for now, that honor will go to Wes Anderson’s take on Roald Dahl’s children’s book done as a stop-motion animated movie. It’s intriguing not only because it’s Anderson’s first attempt at an adaptation but because he’s adapting a children’s book using animation in a way that retains much of his own sensibilities, that in the past have mainly appealed to the 20-to-30 something city hipsters. This is following just a month after another so-called auteur filmmakers tried their hand at a PG family, that being Spike Jonze, whose version of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are opened big last month but then quickly tailed off as parents realized that the movie wasn’t necessarily of interest to their kids. The difference is that this is being marketed less based on Anderson’s involvement and more to the younger, hipper parents with young kids and/or the families with older teens looking for something a little more intelligent.
Even with this new film medium, Anderson tends to work with many of the same actors, which is why we see the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe and Owen Wilson returning to provide the voices of various animal characters. The big draws in this case will be the voice cast pairing of George Clooney and Meryl Streep, two Oscar-winning actors who haven’t really done much animation voice work. Streep provided a voice for Warner Bros’ animation bomb The Ant Bully, but Clooney is new to the medium, and not surprisingly, Mr. Fox retains much of Clooney’s personality rather than him having to do a high silly voice or anything.
This is Anderson’s second release with Fox Searchlight, who also distributed his previous movie The Darjeeling Limited, although it performed considerably weaker than Anderson’s two previous movies with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures. It is Fox Searchlight’s first animated release ever, which is pretty wild considering how many different types of films they’ve released. Earlier this year, another studio subsidiary Focus Features had a huge hit with Henry Selick’s stop motion Coraline, which grossed $70 million, and then followed that up with the CG-animated 9. One presumes that Searchlight can do for this animated movie what they’ve done with other difficult-to-market comedies in turning them into hits, although this has not been a good year for the studio subsidiary, and they desperately need a hit at this point.
Still, the commercials announce that it’s from “the studio that brought you ‘Ice Age,’” because yes, in fact, the stop-motion animation was produced by 20th Century Fox (with some help from Blue Sky Studios who produced Ice Age and last year’s Horton Hears a Who). Reviews for the movie have been solid across the board (except from this writer, who really didn’t think much of it), which certainly could help convince some dubious parents to go see it, but it’s clear that the snobbier film critics are raving over it because it’s an animated movie from Anderson rather than it being a great animated movie on par with Pixar’s Up or any of the other solid offerings this year. (Seriously, the movie is about on par with the Weinstein’s Hoodwinked!.)
Anderson’s new movie opened in select cities two weeks ago, and it’s been playing well, but on Wednesday, Searchlight is expanding the movie into 2,200 theaters across the country, which is twice the size of Anderson’s widest release to date. While the name Wes Anderson doesn’t have that much of a pull outside major cities and college towns, and certainly not with grandparents or soccer Moms, the fact that the movie can appeal as much to the 20-30 somethings in bigger cities and college towns as the families with smaller kids can only be a good thing. It certainly looks innocuous enough to be an alternative to the dumber studio comedies and animated movies in theaters.
The problem is that the older hipsters who are fans of Anderson’s work might not be as interested in watching an animated movie that is being marketed towards kids, and the negative reaction to Spike Jonze’s movie might put off some parents from giving this one a chance. Similarly, the commercials don’t seem to have a lot of humor that kids might enjoy, and the look of the movie is definitely very different from the CG eye candy audiences have gotten used to. (The lack of 3D might also be a detriment as seen last week with the disappointing opening for Sony’s Planet 51.)
Why I Should See It: Anderson’s certainly one of the quirkier directors out there, and he does a better job with material potentially for kids than Spike Jonze.
Why Not: It’s also probably better than sitting through Old Dogs!
Projections: $4 to 5 million on Wednesday and Thursday and another $9 to 10 million over the three-day weekend. Probably should end up in the $30 to 35 million range total.
THE CHOSEN ONE:
This was another tough week to pick just one movie, which is a good thing, because that means that those lucky enough to live in New York and L.A. will have a couple of other choices to see this weekend rather than Old Dogs.
The Road (Dimension Films)
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Guy Pearce
Directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition); Written by Joe Penhall (Enduring Love, Nick Wechsler
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Tagline: “In a Moment, the World Changed Forever”
Plot Summary: A man and his son (Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) try to survive in a world full of cannibalistic militia men after an apocalyptic event.
Probably one of the most anticipated movies of the year for many will be this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel which was delayed almost an entire year. While being marketed as an apocalyptic thriller might not be doing John Hillcoat’s movie any injustice, it is indeed one of the more powerful film experiences you’re likely to have this year. I’ve already written quite about this in my thoughts from Toronto (above) but wanted to talk a little more about why I found the film to be so effective now that it’s at least getting a limited release.
Anyone who saw Hillcoat’s previous film The Proposition, a gritty Australian Western written by singer Nick Cave, will already know what a fantastic filmmaker he is, capable of combining stark visuals with strong dramatic performances, two things that certainly came in handy while realizing McCarthy’s unique vision of the end of the world.
This is a slow, dark and grim film to be sure, something that certainly might put some people off; others have taken issue that the event leading up to the end of the world is never shown or explained. That is very much secondary to what happens afterwards and what humans will do to survive in a world with limited food. Hillcoat’s film has a vibe not unlike The Assassination of Jesse James, not only due to the slow pace and the composers they have in common–Nick Cave and Warren Ellis–but the fact that it’s a more artistic take on a genre that’s normally full of action and FX. As much as there are commonalities with I Am Legend, the subject matter is handled in a far more naturalistic and visceral way. Knowing that going in might help one from being shocked or disappointed by Hillcoat’s approach.
Going in knowing to expect a slower and more visceral approach to the material might help one from being disappointed or shocked by Hillcoat’s approach. While at least one of the tougher scenes from the book has been cut out, Hillcoat never sugarcoats or pulls his punches in showing what a horrifying world may await us. A lot of what makes the film so effective are the fantastic locations found and created by Hillcoat to realize the world as described by McCarthy in the novel.
At its core, the film offers one of the simplest premises of the year–a man and his son trying to survive on their own in a dangerous world–but it explores deeper themes about fatherhood and setting the right example for your son in a world where the grey area between good and bad is harder to discern. This is part of why the movie will probably have an even bigger emotional impact on fathers with small children as it did on me.
This is a not the type of movie that throws in laughs to try to entertain you, and it always remains true to its emotions, some of the most powerful dramatic scenes being the flashbacks to the man’s time with his wife, played by Charlize Theron, as they try to talk about the danger with staying in their home while the world goes crazy around them. Along the way, father and son meet a lot of different characters who have found their own ways of surviving, if only barely, but the tension in the film comes from the fact that around every corner, there’s the danger of the militia groups that prey and feed on the weak.
Regardless of the dark tone, the movie does leave you with the sense of hope that there may be some good people left in the world, and some might even find it uplifting (although going by the reaction to Lee Daniels’ Precious, they’ll be few and far between).
Either way, it warms the heart to know that there are still what are esssentially Hollywood studios making movies like “The Road,” which hark back to the more daring filmmaking of the ’60s and ’70s, movies that don’t necessarily cowtow to the shiny happy people who just want easy-to-digest mainstream entertainment, but a movie that can be appreciated as much for the artistry in the execution as its message.
The Road opens in select cities on Wednesday. If you’ve enjoyed some of Viggo’s other recent films like A History of Violence or Appaloosa or Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James, this is definitely worth checking out whenever it comes to your area.
Me and Orson Welles (Freestyle Releasing)
Starring Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Ben Chaplin, Kelly Reilly, Eddie Marsan, Leo Bill, Imogen Poots, Aidan McArdle
Directed by Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, School of Rock, Dazed and Confused, Fast Food Nation and many more); Written by Holly Gent Palmo, Vincent Palmo Jr.
Tagline: “All’s fair in love and theater.”
Plot Summary: In pre-WWII New York, an ambitious teenager Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) is able to get a job playing a minor role in the Mercury Theatre production of “Julius Caesar,” being staged by a young genius director known as Orson Welles (Christian McKay), and learns that life in the theater isn’t all fun and games, especially with a loony like Welles in charge.
Our alternate “Chosen One” this week couldn’t be any more different from The Road, although it’s another one of my favorites from the Toronto Film Festival, the one from last year this time, and it’s a wonderful movie from Richard Linklater that takes a look at the heyday of Orson Welles as a theater director, as he staged his production of “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theater.
Even if you’re not necessarily a fan of theatre or unfamiliar with Welles’ non-film work, one certainly can’t get a better entry into the filmmaker’s early days than Zac Efron’s character, the “me” of the title, an ambitious but naïve teen named Richard Samuels who is inadvertently thrust into Welles’ circle at a time when the 22-year-old prodigy was making his way up the ranks of the New York theater world.
Some might immediately want to discount the movie based on Efron’s questionable Disney past, but they’ll be pleasantly surprised that the young actor does a fine job carrying his part of the film with personality and charm, most of that being used to woo the theater’s manager Sonja, played by Claire Danes. Even so, Efron doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, and it’s McKay’s performance as the younger Welles that leaves the biggest impression. He plays Welles as an arrogant blowhard who shows up late for rehearsals and then proceeds to make the entire troupe’s life hell, and yet, you can’t help but enjoy his very presence every time he’s in a scene.
Working from a terrific script, Linklater follows Richard’s story from the early rehearsals of Welles’ play to opening night, and it’s fun to get a glimpse into how Welles worked and got the best out of his actors and crew, even as he drove them crazy with his erratic behavior. Richard is a cocky kid always trying to earn the respect of the man who everyone else is afraid to confront, and it leads to a number of great scenes between them. Surrounding the three leads is a terrific ensemble cast epitomizing all of the archetypes one might expect within a theater company, which keeps the movie fun even when McKay isn’t on screen, and I particularly loved seeing the always-great Eddie Marsan portraying John Houseman.
It feels like a very different movie for Linklater, mainly because of the period and setting, but he uses the opportunity to team for the first time with the great cinematographer Richard Pope, who the arthouse crowd may be familiar with from his terrific work with Mike Leigh.
Besides looking great, the film has a romanticism that we haven’t seen very much from Linklater in recent years as he’s explored science fiction or the fast food business, but it does hark back to his work in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and it’s just an all-around warm and entertaining film that hopefully will find its well-deserved audience.
Me and Orson Welles will open in New York and L.A. on Wednesday with plans to expand into more cities on December 4 and December 11. If you like films like Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy or Stephen Frears’ Mrs. Henderson Presents or Linklater’s Before Sunset, then this should be a nice alternative to the Hollywood movies currently in theaters.
Also in Limited Release:
The Princess and the Frog (Walt Disney) – Disney Animation Studios returns to 2D animation with a new movie directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) putting a twist on the classic fairy tale, this time with a beautiful princess named Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) who goes on an adventure through Louisiana’s French Quarter with Prince Naveen, who has been turned into a frog but needs to find a way back to being human. It opens exclusively in New York City at the Ziegfeld and in Los Angeles at the Walt Disney Studios Theater on Wednesday, then opens nationwide on December 11. Look for more on the movie in that week’s column.
Home (Lorber Films) – Ursula Meier’s French comedy stars Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet as a middle class couple enjoying their idyllic lives in a remote house next to a highway in the middle of nowhere, a happy life that’s disrupted as construction leads to a completely change in existence as thousands of cars start entering the area. It opens in New York at Cinema Village.
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Screen Media) – Robin Wright (Penn) stars in Rebecca Miller’s new movie adapting her own novel about the titular wife of a famous publisher (Alan Arkin) thirty years older than her and how she tries to deal with creating a new life as a Connecticut housewife despite having a dark and turbulent past. When she meets a soulful young man (Keanu Reeves), she begins her journey to find her true self. It opens in select cities on Friday.
Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)
Next week, the month of December kicks-off with the heist thriller Armored (Screen Gems) starring Laurence Fishburne, Jim Sheridan’s drama Brothers (Lionsgate) starring Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rober De Niro stars in the road dramedy Everybody’s Fine (Miramax) and the wacky college vampire comedy Translymania (Full Circle Releasing). And if that’s not enough… you can still see Old Dogs! Either way, it’ll be a quieter week to help everyone digest after Thanksgiving.
Copyright 2009 Edward Douglas