The Weekend Warrior: January 15 – 18

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Greetings and welcome back to the Weekend Warrior, your weekly guide to the weekend’s new movies. Tune in every Tuesday for the latest look at the upcoming weekend, and then check back on Thursday night for final projections based on actual theatre counts.

Updated Predictions and Comparisons – (all four-day predictions)

UPDATE: Not much to add except that it’s even more obvious that Avatar is going to kill the other movies this weekend, just like last week.

1. Avatar (20th Century Fox) – $41.0 million -19% (up .5 million)

2. The Book of Eli (Warner Bros.) – $35.7 million N/A (down 1.9 million)

3. The Spy Next Door (Lionsgate) – $18.4 million N/A (down .3 million)

4. The Lovely Bones (Paramount) – $15.3 million +3850% (same)

5. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (20th Century Fox) – $12.4 million – 25% (same)

6. Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros.) – $11.1 million -33% (same)

7. It’s Complicated (Universal) – $8.8 million -20% (up .4 million and one spot)

8. Daybreakers (Lionsgate) – $8.2 million -46% (down .4 million and one spot)

9. Leap Year (Universal) – $6.5 million -30% (down .3 million)

10. The Blind Side (Warner Bros.) – $5.8 million -23% (same)

Weekend Overview

It’s the first four-day holiday weekend of the year where we celebrate the birthday of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and we’re doing so with the release of two new movies in wide release and one expanding after almost a month-long platform release.

Denzel Washington stars in the Hughes Brothers’ triumphant return with the post-Apocalyptic action thriller The Book of Eli (Warner Bros.), a movie that should be the main draw this weekend for the 17 and older guys who have already seen Avatar. This should bring in a mix of urban audiences, mostly on the younger side, Denzel’s fans, both male and female, and maybe even a few Christian audiences interested in the film’s religious undertones. Regardless, it’s a strong vehicle for the popular actor, one that should be helped by the four-day holiday weekend, although it has a tough battle against James Cameron’s Avatar which is looking to beat Titanic‘s $30 million record for a fifth weekend. Book of Eli should win Friday with ease, but then Avatar should catch up over the weekend, and it’s probably going to be a close race, but we think that Avatar still has the slightest advantage since it’s playing in IMAX and 3D theaters.

Aiming for the kiddie crowd over the extended school weekend is Jackie Chan’s The Spy Next Door (Lionsgate), the type of stupid family comedy that has always done well over this weekend in the past (see below), and it should be helped greatly by the lack of school on Monday even if it doesn’t have the biggest opening day, so one can expect this one to have a solid third place showing over some of the Christmas movies.

After almost a month playing in New York and L.A., Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Jodi Picoult’s bestseller The Lovely Bones (Paramount), starring Saorsie Ronan, Mark Wahlberg and Stanley Tucci, expands nationwide into roughly 2,400 theaters, and it should have enough support among teen and older women not so interested in the other new movies, even if it’s competing against Universal’s romantic comedy twosome for that business.

This week’s “Chosen One” is Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (IFC Films) starring Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender, which you can read about below.

Last Martin Luther King Jr. weekend saw the release of four new movies, but the biggest surprise (at least for the Warrior) was the enormous opening for Kevin James’ first solo comedy vehicle, Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Sony), which destroyed the weekend with a remarkable four-day take of $39 million. Opening in third after Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino was the horror remake My Bloody Valentine 3D (Lionsgate) with $24.1 million, coming out just ahead of the rap biopic Notorious (Fox Searchlight) with $23.4 million. The weekend’s other family movie Hotel for Dogs (Paramount) also did well, opening with nearly $23 million over the extended weekend. The Top 10 grossed $186 million over the four days, and it will be interesting to see if this weekend’s offerings can match it, especially with strong movies like Avatar still doing big business.


THE BATTLE CRY

The seed for this week’s “rant” came to me while I was sitting in a screening for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, of all things. I sat there uncomfortable in my seat for what seemed like hours of those annoying critters and their antics, and I began to think, “What is the point of me reviewing this movie?” It was clearly for kids and it was obvious to me that they would love it, and I’m pretty sure there are no 5-year-olds reading this column or site, so I really got somewhat disenchanted with the entire concept of trying to review the movie and I didn’t.

Then I started thinking about whether film critics need to take into account the audience a movie is trying to reach when they’re thinking about how to review it or whether they should just share their opinion of what they saw regardless of who the movie was meant to entertain. If they’re watching a movie meant for kids, does that mean they need to change their way they’re thinking to take in mind the audience who appreciates the movie is mainly going to be under 10? Is that even possible for an adult when watching a movie? Should critics be more lenient toward the “Twilight” movies since they’re meant for the core audience of the novels which is teen girls?

We’ve talked a lot in this column about the divide between critics and the moviegoing populace, and I’ve certainly fallen victim to allowing my own tastes (or lack thereof, as some commenters might claim) to color my opinion of a movie that might be hugely popular among certain groups. For instance, I trashed It’s Complicated, not because I had huge expectations but I did expect better from everyone involved. That movie was clearly geared towards older women, of which I am most definitely not–some of my colleagues may disagree–and it was also made for a mainstream audience so it generally goes for the low-hanging fruit of comedy whenever possible. By comparison, last week’s romantic comedy Leap Year is just as unoriginal and predictable but the material is elevated by the fact the two lead actors are so great on screen together (in my opinion), which is the most important thing about romantic comedies. It was also geared towards younger women, teen and slightly older, not to middle-aged men or even younger male critics. And they had a field day with it. I was mixed on it, but it certainly seemed like many critics went into the movie, knowing full well this was a light romantic comedy, nothing more and nothing less, and they pulled out the knives ready to go on the attack, not even criticizing the movie for being bad, so much as just trying to come up with clever quips to insult Adams’ choice to be in the movie after being in other movies they liked better. It doesn’t take a Brainiac to realize that most middle-aged men and younger “fanboys” won’t have interest in a movie like Leap Year, so why are they going to see the movie and sharing their opinion when they obviously can’t set aside their own tastes to review it for the audience who might want to see the movie?

I would hazard a guess that roughly 90% of critics go into movies already knowing whether they’re going to like or hate the movie. There’s also the lazy critics who will just assume any movie released in January will be bad and they write it off in advance. Going in with that mindset almost guarantees they’ll steer negative. For better or worse, critics are a stubborn lot who don’t like people trying to change their minds on something once they have their opinion set. (Oh, and I’m sure they don’t like having their tastes or standards questioned by the likes of me.)

On top of that, there’s a new wave of generally younger film critics, some recently out of film school, who act as little more than film snobs. They will rave about foreign films and the latest from one auteur or another that 99% of the general populace will have absolutely no interest in whatsoever, mainly so they can show how much smarter they are than the “old guard.” I’m sorry, but as much as it’s my job as a film critic to advise moviegoers what’s good or bad, it’s not my job as a film critic to improve the quality of their taste or tell them what they should or shouldn’t see or like. And it certainly isn’t my job to criticize them for having taste that conflicts with my own, which also seems to be standard operating procedure among some film writers these days.

There were many criticisms of James Cameron’s Avatar for its simple storytelling, but it’s easy enough to watch it as a regular moviegoer and realize the movie offered something for everyone, which is so rare these days and is what made it an easy movie to recommend. There are those who are so set in their criticisms that they cannot comprehend why anyone might like the movie or why it might make so much money. To me, this further proves that most movie writers are out of touch not only with moviegoers in general, but also those reading their reviews.

When people I meet discover what I do for a living, they invariably ask me about good movies I’ve seen or that they should try and see. I don’t immediately start rattling off the movies I liked, but I find out what kind of movies they enjoy or the last movie they liked and determine whether our tastes are even remotely similar, and I go from there. (For instance, I can tell readily that my editor/boss probably wouldn’t like half of the movies I recommend in “The Chosen One” section each week and that doesn’t make me think any less of him.)

Even so, when you write reviews either for a living or a hobby, you can’t really personalize your reviews to every single person reading them. That said, you do always need to know who your own audience is, who is reading those reviews and for the most part, your writing needs to be tailored towards them, but not to the point where you compromise your own tastes or beliefs trying to second guess what they might like. For instance, one can’t give an action movie a positive review because one thinks someone reading that review might enjoy it even if the reviewer didn’t. Similarly, for someone to tell a person they should see a movie like Where the Wild Things Are because they personally loved it is doing a disservice not only to the filmmaker but to the person asking for an opinion, because no one can watch a movie like that and not realize it’s not for everyone.

The key thing is that if everyone on this planet agreed about every movie we would never have surprise sleepers like The Blind Side which has found a huge audience, not from all of the positive reviews so much, but from positive word-of-mouth from the general populace who tell their friends to go see it. In that case, we can see how moviegoers find things they like and build their own groundswell of support even once many critics have forgotten about it.

With that in mind, I suggest that in 2010, my fellow critics try a bit harder to leave their baggage at home and view each movie in respect to whom it’s meant for. Not every movie can be The White Ribbon or The Hurt Locker or Summer Hours or whatever other movie they’re trying to shove down moviegoers’ throats on a daily basis, and there are many people who go to movies not because they want to be enlightened or wowed by the depth of the filmmaker’s knowledge of a subject or their clever imagery; most moviegoers are paying their hard-earned money because they want to be entertained.

And no, that doesn’t mean that I’m recommending Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel to anyone any time soon either.


The Book of Eli (Warner Bros.)
Starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Tom Waits
Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes (From Hell, Dead Presidents, Menace II Society); Written by Gary Whitta (debut; upcoming Akira)
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Rated R
Tagline: “Some will kill to have it. He will kill to protect it.”
Plot Summary: The world has been devastated by a global disaster and a lone man (Denzel Washington) travels across the wasteland that remains on a mission that involves him trying to protect a sacred artifact, a book that the overlord of a town he comes across (Gary Oldman) will do anything to get his hands on it.

Interview with the Hughes Brothers

Review

Analysis:

It’s probably a forgone conclusion in Hollywood by now that if you combine a bankable box office star with a strong premise that will appeal to his fanbase, you’re guaranteed to have a hit. With that in mind, it shows tremendous foresight by the filmmakers behind this movie that they thought of putting Denzel Washington in the type of “Man Without a Name” role that helped make Clint Eastwood a household name. Two of the men behind that decision were the Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert, who seem to have disappeared from the public eye since adapting Alan Moore’s From Hell to the screen with Johnny Depp starring. Before that, they had a name for themselves with their violent and gritty urban crime films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. Pairing the brothers with Denzel is genius, since the three of them really know what appeals to their fanbases in urban areas, and this one seems to have the type of action and storytelling elements that should appeal to them.

What makes The Book of Eli such a sure fire hit is that it combines Denzel with genre fare, something that has proved successful for Will Smith countless times, such as recently when he starred in the big budget version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and it became Smith’s biggest opening and second-highest grossing movie to date. The follow-up Hancock also grossed over $200 million. Of course, Will Smith had already starred in a number of huge hits by the time he did I Am Legend, so that shouldn’t have been that big a surprise. By comparison, Washington has only had three movies reach the $100 million mark and the first of those, The Pelican Brief, teamed him with Julia Roberts. The last time that Washington has been given such a perfect vehicle was when he starred in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster which opened with over $40 million and went onto become Washington’s highest-grossing movie to date, and that’s still very much in the minds of his fans. Over the summer, Washington was paired with John Travolta for The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which should have been a big hit but it only performed moderately, maybe because it was a remake or because summer wasn’t the best time to release it.

The other names in the cast include the always-great Gary Oldman, a veteran actor who has starred in many big blockbusters including the “Harry Potter” movies and Ridley Scott’s Silence of the Lambs sequel Hannibal. Of course, he’s best known these days for playing Commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which would also appeal to a similar audience as this movie. The Book of Eli also stars Mila Kunis from “That ’70s Show” whose main foray into movies has been the romantic comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Max Payne movie, and it features the return of Jennifer Beals, best known for her roles in the original Fame and Flashdance back in the ’80s.

Usually a movie like this would get released in the summer or fall, the latter being the case with I Am Legend, but Warner Bros. sees the opportunity offered by the longer Martin Luther King Jr. weekend which helped Cloverfield open so big two years ago. For the most part, the movie is being marketed well with some great commercials and posters that play it up like a summer movie, but with a release that takes advantage of the holiday weekend. Reviews will probably be mixed due to the somewhat slow pace and tone of the movie, but in general, mainstream audiences should dig it in a similar way as I Am Legend, although the film’s R-rating will certainly limit its audience in terms of keeping out younger teens that might be interested in the movie.

Unfortunately, it still has its work cut out for it in terms of beating James Cameron’s Avatar since that’s still doing a huge amount of business in IMAX and 3D, but both that and Sherlock Holmes have already been in theaters for nearly a month, and neither of them have much of an appeal to the African-American audiences who could give a movie like this a huge boost. Because of those things, we expect this one to be big enough to become one of the top five biggest openings for this holiday weekend. In fact, we think that Book of Eli may become the highest-opening movie by an African-American director whose name doesn’t rhyme with “Tyler Perry.” (One of our astute readers reminded us of John Singleton’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, which currently holds that opening weekend record… sorry, Hughes Bros.)

Why I Should See It: Putting Denzel in this sort of action genre fare is guaranteed to get guys into seats.
Why Not: Can the movie be anywhere as good as anyone is hoping?
Projections: $35 to 38 million over the four-day weekend on its way to roughly $80 million total.

COMPARISONS


The Spy Next Door (Lionsgate)
Starring Jackie Chan, Madeline Carroll, Alina Foley, George Lopez, Billy Ray Cyrus, Amber Valletta, Katherine Boecher
Directed by Brian Levant (The Flintstones, The Flintstones in Viva Las Vegas, Snow Dogs, Are We There Yet?); Written by Jonathan Bernstein, James Greer (Max Keeble’s Big Move, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, Just My Luck)
Genre: Action, Comedy, Family
Rated PG
Tagline: “Spying is easy, babysitting is hard.”
Plot Summary: Bob Ho (Jackie Chan) is a CIA superspy who has decided to give up espionage and settle down with his next-door neighborhood and girlfriend Gilliam (Amber Valleta)–okay, people, this is a movie so don’t immediately start saying “That can never happen,” okay?–but first the has to win over her three kids, which he has to do when he agrees to babysit them in hopes of winning their approval. But when the kids download a top-secret formula to his computer, a Russian terrorist comes after them, forcing him to juggle his abilities as a spy with his inability as a babysitter. (Okay, NOW you can start laughing at how crazy this high concept premise is!)

Analysis:

Being that this is the first four-day holiday weekend of the year, families with younger kids will be looking for something to keep their kids busy with school off Monday, rather than everyone getting stir crazy from the bitter cold winter weather. This is why so many studios have jumped on this weekend for their dumber-looking family films, yet have generally managed to have hits, whether it was Disney’s Snow Dogs and Kangaroo Jack or Warner Bros. with Racing Stripes or last year, when both Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Paramount’s Hotel for Dogs cleaned up, making $60 million between them over the four-day weekend.

Along comes China’s #1 martial arts and comedy star Jackie Chan in his first American movie since the action-adventure The Forbidden Kingdom, which pit him against Jet Li to solid success, as he proves that he’s still willing to lower himself to high concept American family fare. Probably the closest Chan has come to a family movie like this one was Disney’s The Tuxedo, which opened with $15 million in a non-holiday weekend, though that was done with DreamWorks, which had more experience with family films. Chan’s previous attempt at a family film was the expensive remake of Around the World in 80 Days with Disney and Walden Media, which bombed in its summer release. One has to wonder about Chan’s popularity these days, especially in a non-“Rush Hour” situation and whether this movie hits or flops could make the difference whether we see him in this type of vehicle again. Even so, Chan is already starring in the summer’s anticipated The Karate Kid remake, which should keep him in the American public eye for the rest of the year.

Chan isn’t the first action star to be paired with a group of kids, and he probably won’t be the last, especially seeing how successful it was for Vin Diesel when Disney cast him in The Pacifier. Diesel’s “XXX” replacement Ice Cube had a minor hit with Are We There Yet? and a sequel that didn’t fare ss well. The difference with Chan is that he does have a strong background in comedy, so this is more like Steve Martin in Cheaper by the Dozen or Eddie Murphy in Daddy Day Care. None of these movies might ever be considered movie classics, but in terms of entertaining kids, they’ve all offered the things they generally go for.

By comparison, Lionsgate hasn’t really made many forays into family films, their most recent PG movie being the animated Happily N’Ever After in early ’07, which only grossed $15 million. The Spy Next Door is a clear sign of the company wanting to branch out and make some of the money other studios have been able to bring in by targeting kids with physical hmor, and they seem to have found the perfect premise to target audiences in Middle America who might only be familiar with Jackie Chan from the “Rush Hour” movies. Then again, there are probably a number of fathers who have grown up with Chan’s martial arts flicks who might want to bring their kids to see this, as dumb as it might look. The commercials and trailer feature a couple funny gags and some of Chan’s martial arts which should be enough to get people interested. (They also feature the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez in case that might give the movie a bit more credibility among their respective fans.)

Currently, the only competition for family audiences right now is Fox’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: the Squeakquel, which has been in theaters for nearly a month. While it will still offer an alternative for family audiences who might not have seen it or for kids who might want to see it again. Even so, kids looking for something new to see will probably go with this choice, and on Monday, everyone will once again be surprised by how much a stupid-looking movie like this makes over the weekend.

Why I Should See It: Jackie Chan is a great entertainer when it comes to action movies.
Why Not: This looks like the type of dumb family comedy that might make money.
Projections: $17 to 20 million over the four-day weekend and roughly $50 million total.

COMPARISONS


The Lovely Bones (Paramount)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Michael Imperioli, Saoirse Ronan
Directed by Peter Jackson (The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, King Kong, Frighteners, Heavenly Creatures); Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh (Frighteners, Heavenly Creatures), Philippa Boyens (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy)
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Thriller
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “The story of a life and everything that came after…”
Plot Summary: In a suburban neighborhood during the ’70s, a young girl named Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) goes missing–having been murdered by her creepy neighbor (Stanley Tucci)–causing great worry in her parents as her father (Mark Wahlberg) desperately tries to find out what happened to his daughter.

Analysis:

In the past decade, New Zealand’s master of fantasy and genre Peter Jackson became one of the most acclaimed filmmakers when he pulled off an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” a mega-blockbuster trilogy that culminated in the last movie sweeping the Oscars in 2004. After following that up with his remake of the classic monster movie King Kong, Jackson decided to tackle a relatively smaller-scale movie by bringing Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel “The Lovely Bones” to the screen, and it was probably a surprise to many when that long-awaited adaptation took years to finish.

Considering how long it’s taken to get the movie to theaters, it’s somewhat surprising that the movie has hit a bit of a stumbling block once it was finally released as Paramount decided to give it a nominal three-theater platform release on December 11 and then just let the movie sit there as it planned for its inevitable release. A month later, the movie has grossed less than $500,000–compared to the $100 million it cost to make–seemingly joining the likes of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, John Hillcoat’s The Road and Rob Marshall’s Nine in the list of expensive bombs of the fall season. Then again, Paramount has apparently been using the last month to work up a plan for the movie’s nationwide release with the New York and L.A. exclusive mainly to insure the movie was available for awards. (More on those below).

Sebold’s 2001 novel was a nationwide bestseller, a hugely popular phenomenon that sat on The New York Times bestsellers list for over a year, selling over a million copies, and one assumes that the many women readers who loved the book will be interested to see how Jackson handles the subject matter. While Jackson has become better known for big budget FX and action epics, him and his wife Fran Walsh were doing smaller fantasy-based movies earlier in their career, such as the original movies Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures, starring a teenage Kate Winslet. While one can assume that Jackson probably has a mainly male fanbase due to his choice in genre fare over the years, the “Lord of the Rings” movies probably had just as many female fans, and they are certainly the ones being targeted with his latest.

Lots of huge bestselling novels have been brought to the big screen with varied results with one of the bigger recent successes being the holiday release Marley & Me. Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper was the first novel of hers that became a feature film (rather than a Lifetime movie) and it opened moderately last summer despite having a big name star in Cameron Diaz. The adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife with Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams did quite a bit better.

Jackson has assembled an amazing ensemble cast, showcasing young Irish actress Saorsie Ronan, who took the role of Susie Salmon in this movie after starring in Joe Wright’s Atonement, for which she received an Oscar nomination. Since then, she’s appeared in the fantasy film City of Ember and the Houdini biopic Death Defying Acts opposite Guy Pearce and Catherine Zeta-Jones, both which bombed. She’s already been nominated by the Broadcast Film Critics for her performance in this but she didn’t get the same love either from the Golden Globes or the Screen Actors Guild. Her parents are played by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz, both Oscar nominees themselves–Weisz won an Oscar for The Constant Gardener–and Wahlberg generally is getting more attention since he plays the more important role in the story, although this doesn’t seem like the type of movie his fans would normally want to see. Even so, the actor who seems to be getting the most awards attention for the movie is Stanley Tucci as the creepy murderer next door, a role that’s very different than what Tucci has played in recent years, and many think that’s what it will take to get him his first Oscar nomination. (Previously, Tucci has won two Emmys and two Golden Globes.) The movie also stars Susan Sarandon, who also has won an Oscar after four previous nominations.

Originally, Jackson’s The Lovely Bones was going to be released last year but it’s been delayed twice by Paramount as Jackson worked on the FX, before they eventually settled on a late 2009 release, hoping the movie would be worth of some awards attention. What’s odd is that Paramount seems to have backburnered the movie in favor of Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, giving it a tiny platform release in New York and L.A. in early December and then just allowing it to sit in those theaters making a scant amount of money (less than $500,000) while they put all their focus on opening that movie wider. In the meantime, they decided to try to focus a lot of their marketing towards younger women, who either have read Sebold’s book or are interested in a mix of romance and the supernatural after the success of the “Twilight” series. Even so, it’s sort of odd they would be selling the movie as a romantic fantasy for teen girls considering it’s about a teen who is raped and murdered, but who knows what Paramount is thinking except that they have a $100 million movie that needs to recoup its exorbitant cost.

Although one can’t really look at the film’s platform release as a good sign for a strong expansion, one also has to remember that holding off the movie’s wide release might have helped build anticipation among those who wanted to see it outside New York and L.A., which is likely a lot of people. That said, reviews haven’t been great with it currently being at 40% on RottenTomatoes, but it has been nominated for a number of awards including seven Critics Choice awards from the Broadcast Film Critics and if it wins any of them–their awards show airs Friday–that could help the movie over the long weekend.

Even so, with the renewed marketing push and with few other movies being of much interest to women and girls in the 15 to 30 range, we can see this bringing in a fair amount of business over the four-day weekend though the dark subject matter might keep it from having any sort of long-term success based on word-of-mouth.

Why I Should See It: Peter Jackson is a visionary filmmaker who brings something to everything he does, regardless of how difficult the source material.
Why Not: Reviews have been mixed at best and that’s because this movie isn’t going to be for everyone.
Projections: $13 to 16 million over the four-day weekend leading to roughly $40 to 45 million total.

COMPARISONS


THE CHOSEN ONE:

Fish Tank (IFC Films)
Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Harry Treadaway
Written and directed by Andrea Arnold (Red Road)
Genre: Drama
Unrated
Plot Summary: 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) has already had a lot of problems at home with her dysfunctional mother (Kierston Wareing) before she brings home her new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), a charming man who Mia starts bonding with, but immediately creates new problems for the girl.

Interview with Michael Fassbender

Back in September, one of the last movies I caught at the Toronto Film Festival was this low-budget character drama from Andrea Arnold that effectively introduces the world to Katie Jarvis, another amazing British newcomer on par with Carey Mulligan, only with far less previous acting experience. Very few people who’ve seen this movie have not been impressed with her portrayal of Mia, a troubled teen girl whose love for hip hop dancing helps her escape from her dysfunctional household in a council estate in Northern England. Things look to be getting even worse when her mother’s gregarious boyfriend Connor, played by Michael Fassbender, moves in with the family, but he proves to be a positive influence for the girls, as he does his best to try and bond with Mia.

Using a similar storytelling approach as Red Road, we meet Mia through her normal everyday life. She’s essentially a loner, not getting along with the other girls her age, and doing whatever she wants, which involves skipping school and finding ways to stay out of her house. Her mother, played by Kierston Wareing, is one of those women in their late 30s who still acts like they’re teenagers, a woman still on the prowl for men and in denial of her responsibility as a mother, another thing the film has in common with Precious.

Like so many slice-of-life films, it takes the simplest approach to establishing and developing the characters by allowing us to be a fly on the wall watching their lives unfold. In that sense, Arnold has an impressive way of capturing the character’s most intimate moments in a way that makes you feel as if you’re there in the room with them, which is quite a talent. While it may not immediately seem like every scene is about moving the plot forward, all of it is important to Mia’s story even a subplot of Mia finding an aging white horse in a scrapyard, at first feeling like the most esoteric aspect of the movie. The hyper-realism Arnold creates with her cast keeps you riveted to the screen to see what might happen next, and watching the movie a second time recently allowed more of the film’s minutiae to reveal themselves in the subtlety of all the performances.

Like with Red Road, it’s hard to believe such a simple story can have such an effect on you but that’s partially what made Arnold’s previous film so memorable, and Fish Tank confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that Andrea Arnold’s previous film Red Road was no fluke. Along with Shane Meadows and Ken Loach, she’s become one of the best filmmakers at representing the British working class and life in council flats, also doing a fine job showing how pop culture and the media are so influential on the poorer communities in suburban areas.

The last act is fairly intense as Mia goes to confront Connor about him leaving, and the story goes in directions no one could possibly see coming, and it will leave you shocked by how that translates using this naturalistic approach. True, some aspects of the plot can be easily sussed out, but it’s the way that Arnold chooses to reveal these sharp curves in the road that makes the overall experience hard to easily dismiss.

Not that the film is all dark and serious, because like with Precious, there are moments of joy found in the situational humor, not only from the film’s more pleasant moments like when Connor takes them on a family outing, but even watching the three women squabble is quite entertaining, mainly due to Mia’s younger sister Tyler, played by Rebecca Griffiths, who gets a lot of laughs with her sassy behavior.

It’s great to see a simple but well-crafted film like this appearing so early in the year offering an alternative to some of the studio fare and reminding us that there are young women like Mia who are going through life-changing experiences like this one everywhere, and Andrea Arnold has a way of leaving things open-ended yet hopeful.

Fish Tank opens in New York at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and then in L.A., Boston and San Francisco on Friday, January 29.

Honorable Mention:

The Last Station (Sony Pictures Classics)
Starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff, Kerry Condon
Written and directed by Michael Hoffman (A Midsummer’s Night Dream)
Genre: Drama, Historical
Rated R
Tagline: “Intoxicating. Infuriating. Impossible. Love.”
Plot Summary: In the early 20th Century, author Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) was surrounded by sycophants and yes men, including his right hand man Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who enlists an ambitious young writer (James McAvoy) to trail Tolstoy at his compound, mainly to insure that his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) doesn’t try to prevent the author from assigning the rights to his work to the people of Russia.

Interview with Michael Hoffman

Interview with Christopher Plummer

Mini-Review: As much as one might want to write off a movie about the last days of Russian author Leo “War and Peace” Tolstoy as potentially being a snoozefest, director Michael Hoffman uses Tolstoy as a reference point to explore two very different romantic relationships, one being the troubled marriage of Tolstoy with his long-time wife the Countess Sofya, the other being that of young lovers caught up in Tolstoy’s ideology. It’s the first half of that equation that proves infinitely more interesting with the Tolstoys being played by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren.

As in “The Last King of Scotland,” James McAvoy acts as the audience’s eyes and ears into this world playing Valentin, a writer assigned to trail Tolstoy by his sycophantic right hand man Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). Once he arrives at Tolstoy’s commune, he falls for the beautiful Masha, a fellow comrade played by Kerry Condon, although Chertkov disapproves of all sexual relationships. Tolstoy isn’t quite the believer in the movement that has sprouted up around him, but having gotten old, he is convinced by Chertkov to change his will to give the rights to his literature to the people of Russia. This decision would not be good for his wife, the Countess Sofya, a classic drama queen, doing whatever she can to get her way, knowing how to use emotions to play all those around her. Paul Giamatti’s Chertkov makes as good a foil to her as Valentin is a confidante caught in the middle of this power struggle.

Plummer’s Tolstoy is just fantastic, a jovial man mystified by the adulation he receives from his followers one moment, then getting into a furious shouting match with Sofya the next. These scenes between Plummer and Mirren are nothing short of explosive, and by comparison, McAvoy’s scenes are a little bland, and it’s never quite clear what a strong-headed woman like Masha sees in Valentin as he doesn’t have much charm going for him. Throughout the movie, there are strange tonal scenes, as even in some of the more dramatic scenes where Tolstoy and Sofya are squabbling, there is an element of humor with Mirren even doing a pratfall at one point, and that sort of humor followed so closely by drama is a tough mix that takes for some adjusting. There are a number of layers to the various relationships, as Hoffman cleverly juxtaposes the two couples, always having the media present to capture every aspect of the tumultuous relationship falling apart. The two stories come together in a satisfactory way in the third act, once the movie has decided on a tone and we see a sick and frail Tolstoy holing up in a train station in the middle of nowhere waiting to die.

Hoffman has certainly turned Tolstoy’s last days into an entertaining enough dramedy, and despite its tonal issues, Plummer is just fantastic overall, and easily the best reason to sit through the film’s two-hour running time. Rating: 7.5/10

It opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.

Also in Limited Release:

44 Inch Chest (Image Entertainment) – Ray Winstone stars in Malcolm Venville’s drama, written by Louis Mellis & David Scinto (Sexy Beast, Gangster Number 1, as Colin Diamond, a violent man broken up about his wife (Joanne Whalley) cheating on him, so his friends (Tom Wilkinson, Ian McShane, Jon Hurt and Stephen Dillane) kidnap her French lover (Melvil Poupad) and hold him hostage in order for Colin to enact his revenge. It opens in L.A. on Friday and then in New York, D.C. and San Diego on Friday, January 29.

Mini-Review: Coming Soon!

Chance de Pance (UTV Communications) – Ken Ghosh directs this movie based on the real-life experiences of actor Shahid Kapoor who plays an ator who is struggling to get his foot in the door of the movie biz through a series of auditions and commercials. It opens in select cities.

House (Hausu) (Janus Films) – Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 psychedelic horror film gets a revival as six Japanese schoolgirls go to spend the summer in the country home of their classmate, only to be horrified by strange happenings. It opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday.

Mini-Review:


Next week, three more films will open nationwide including another biblical Apocalyptic thriller in Legion (Screen Gems), another silly family comedy, this one starring Dwayne Johhson as Tooth Fairy (20th Century Fox) and the medical drama Extraordinary Measures (CBS Films), starring Harrison Ford and Brendan Fraser.

Copyright 2010 Edward Douglas