The Weekend Warrior: July 23 – 25

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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. This week is Comic-Con in San Diego, so there’s a good chance, we won’t be able to update the numbers, and next week’s column is going to be stripped down due to it.

Speaking of which, the Weekend Warrior will be appearing on the “Masters of the Web” panel at Comic-Con on Thursday, July 22, at 3PM in Room 32AB along with some of the top writers, editors and webmasters from some of those OTHER sites whose very existence we try not to even acknowledge here on ComingSoon.net. (But most of them are nice enough people even if they are the competition.) You can find out more about this exciting event and let us know if you’ll be there on the event’s official Facebook Page.

If you aren’t doing so already, you can follow The Weekend Warrior on Twitter where he talks about box office, movies and all sorts of random things.

Predictions and Comparisons

1. Inception (Warner Bros.) – $36.4 million -42%

2. Salt (Sony) – $34.8 million N/A

3. Despicable Me (Universal) – $20.1 million -38%

4. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Disney) – $9.8 million -44%

5. Ramona and Beezus (20th Century Fox) – $8.3 million N/A

6. Toy Story 3 (Disney/Pixar) – $7.3 million -39%

7. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Summit) – $6.5 million -52%

8. Grown Ups (Sony) – $6.0 million -40%

9. The Last Airbender (Paramount) – $3.7 million -52%

10. Predators (20th Century Fox) – $3.2 million -54%

Weekend Overview

This may be a tough weekend to predict with two solid action-thrillers vying for the top spot, and it really may come down to actual theater counts and how Inception holds up over the weekdays. In other words, this will be such a tough battle that we’re remaining somewhat noncommittal at this point.

The return of Angelina Jolie in Phillip (Patriot Games) Noyce’s action-thriller Salt (Sony) has a lot going for it in terms of bringing in a wide and diverse audience from teens to older adults. Being Jolie’s first action movie in two years is a big draw, as is the film’s genre, its short running time and PG-13 rating, all which should allow it to open strong. It’s also a more straight-forward action-thriller than Christopher Nolan’s #1 hit Inception, though the almost-universal praise Nolan’s movie has received and it being a movie that benefits from repeat viewings should help it hold up well. Even if Salt wins Friday, and it probably will, Nolan’s movie should pick up slack over the weekend to just barely eek out a win. One interesting X-factor is that Comic-Con International is happening in San Diego this week, starting on Wednesday, which may affect that city’s movie business, though there’s a good chance attendees looking for something to do as a group will either go see Inception or Salt, helping both movies gross over $30 million. While Nolan’s Inception looks like it could have strong word-of-mouth legs, both of Jolie’s previous action movies Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Wanted did $50 million, far better opening weekend than anyone expected, so we can’t rule her out just yet.

Vying for the ‘tween and under girl crowd is the big screen movie based on Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Beezus (20th Century Fox/Walden Media), which is not likely to make much waves in a market with plenty of family films and with some of the weakest marketing for a movie this summer. While there may be a small audience who checks this out due to the namebrand of Cleary’s character, this is by no means the type of rush-out-to-see movie we normally see in the summer and it will have to settle for the drippings from the stronger family films in theatres.

This week’s “Chosen One” is Tamra Davis’ Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (Arthouse Films), a look at the famous New York street artist of the ’80s, which you can read more about below.

This weekend last year saw three new releases, but the clear winner of the weekend (ironically enough) was Jerry Bruckheimer’s CG animal action-comedy G-Force (Disney), which opened in first place with $31.7 million in nearly 3,700 theaters. Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler faced off in the “battle of the sexes” comedy The Ugly Truth (Sony), which had a solid opening of $27.6 million for third place behind Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which tumbled 62% from its opening weekend. The creepy kid horror film Orphan (Warner Bros.) opened in fourth place with $12.9 million in 2,750 theaters. The Top 10 grossed $138 million, which is probably right around where this weekend will end up.


THE BATTLE CRY

There’s been something going on in recent weeks I’ve wanted to address, something that started a long time ago, but has become more prominent and public this past summer. It started with Pixar’s Toy Story 3 a few weeks back when every critic was raving about it and then Armond White came along and gave it a negative review, lowering it from a perfect score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes to a 99%. To date, only three critics gave Toy Story 3 a negative review. Now, we’ve gotten accustomed to commenters on Rotten Tomatoes getting upset when someone comes along and ruins a movie’s perfect score, whether it’s a highly-anticipated movie they’re hoping will get unanimously positive reviews or a presumably bad movie they’re hoping will get 0%. They tend to go after anyone who ruins these dreams of theirs, whether or not they’ve seen the movie and agree or not.

The thing is that it’s not longer just Rotten Tomatoes commenters but prominent movie critics, even including one of the country’s most respected critics Roger Ebert, who have made it their mission to go after anyone who doesn’t conform to the unanimous praise or pans a movie gets. In the case of Toy Story 3, there were a few internet journalists who were just seething that anyone might hate Pixar’s latest. It even got to the point where one of my colleagues at CinemaBlend went after the two critics who gave it a negative review.

This happened again fairly recently with Christopher Nolan’s Inception when all the junketeers in Los Angeles were raving about the movie before Warner Bros. screened it for New York critics. Once they did, David Edelstein of New York Magazine was the first unlucky soul to share the first negative reaction, and he was immediately made a target in articles like the one in the L.A. Times. While Roger Ebert has taken a more zen approach, as shown in his recent blog post, this only came out after numerous tweets questioning those who didn’t like the movie. The weird thing is that because Warner Bros., maybe wisely, hadn’t screened the movie in New York before all those raves came out of L.A., it then turned into a thing where everyone, both critics and the vocal RT commenters who had yet seen the movie, started to point fingers at New York itself, claiming critics there always negative or that they just didn’t “get” what Nolan was trying to do. Some of the review were singled out like the one on Blastr.com, and people started going after those who hated the movie, saying they were just trying to get attention for themselves.

The fact is that the New York critical crowd is just a lot more discerning and yes… CRITICAL, something that the studios are well aware of, but they’re not the angry contrarians everyone assumes them to be. Granted, there’s a group of critics in New York that includes Armond and Stephanie Zacharek and the guys from Slant Magazine and others that I consider to be “auteur snobs” more than they are contrarians. The chances of them liking any sort of mainstream studio movie is doubtful; the chances of them liking a mainstream studio movie for kids is even less likely. This doesn’t make any of them any less respectable or credible as the critics who enjoy mainstream studio movies, but it just makes them a target for those that don’t appreciate a good art film.

This may be hard to believe from his reviews, but Armond White is a really good guy. I’ve probably spent more time talking to him than many of the onliners who have attacked and criticized him. Sure, he has his own tastes that don’t necessarily gel with others, but that doesn’t make his reviews any less credible, because he’s an incredibly smart man who always goes to great lengths to explain his opinion, whether you agree with him or not.

Even so, these two movies specifically have created factions of those who love them and those who hate them, and the former group seems to have taken on the guise of a “Critics’ Maffia” doing whatever they can to make the latter group feel worse for diverging from their opinion. The problem is that some people are just too zealous in their attacks and in some case, they’ve gotten personal with disparaging critics even receiving death threats, which is why this whole mentality about defending your personal tastes, at least when it comes to movies, may have gone too far. Toy Story 3 and Inception has taken this discord to a new level.

Part of it may have to do with what I’ve said before about how critics, for whatever reason, are unable or outright refusing to be in touch with the audiences for whom the movie is intended, but in the case of Inception, it’s just as much about personal taste.

As you can see from my review, I loved Inception; in fact, I loved Toy Story 3, too. Currently, those are my Top 2 movies of the year. The thing about Inception is that it can be a difficult movie to get into for some people, which may depend very much on how they view dreams and dreaming. Going by the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, the positive opinions on Inception weren’t nearly as unanimous as those for Toy Story 3 and yet the critics who loved Inception have been relentless on criticizing those who didn’t. It goes back to a theory I once concocted about Chicago vs. Moulin Rouge!, where you’ll find very few people who absolutely love both movies equally, and many who like the former won’t like the latter and vice versa. It’s the contrast between people who need realism in their entertainment and those who enjoy escapist fantasy, and obviously, critics can be divided into two camps just like moviegoing audiences.

This is the thing. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, whether you agree with it or not, and this isn’t just a matter of freedom of speech or expression any more, as much as about the amount of energy the seeming majority spends ganging up on those who think differently from them.

Sure, it would be lovely if every movie striving for perfection could receive unanimous critical praise and movies that disappoint receive the opposite, but it probably won’t happen as long as everyone on the planet has their own brain rather than us all living as part of one giant hive mind. It all goes back to what I’ve said before about individuality and thinking for yourself and not letting others bully you to thing one way or another. We don’t do it with politics or religion, so why should we relent when it comes to what we consider entertainment. As much as it’s easy to agree with everyone around you and not make waves, there’s something to be said about standing up for your own ideals even if they don’t gel with the mainstream or the mob. Heck, if being unique or original were outlawed, then movies like Toy Story and Inception may never have been made in the first place.


Salt (Sony)
Starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Dead Calm, The Bone Collector, Catch a Fire); Written by Kurt Wimmer (Law Abiding Citizen, Street Kings, Ultraviolent, The Recruit, Sphere, The Thomas Crown Affair)
Genre: Action, Thriller, Conspiracy
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “Who is Salt?”
Plot Summary: CIA Agent Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) finds herself on the run from her own colleagues when a mysterious man walks into the agency claiming she’s a sleeper agent, and she needs to find her missing husband, while coming to terms with the truth.

Interview with Phillip Noyce

Interview with Angelina Jolie

Interview with Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura (Check back later in the week!)

Mini-Review: Those whose only reason for going to see this political thriller is to watch the always-alluring Angelina Jolie running around and kicking butt shouldn’t be disappointed in its focus on action over exposition. Those looking for something a little more depth or intelligence due to the involvement of Philip Noyce, who has made some of the best political thrillers of the last twenty years, let’s just say that they may want to bring an extra heaping dose of suspension of disbelief if they want to get through the movie that has so many ridiculous twists that it’s sometimes hard to keep up.

Jolie’s CIA agent Evelyn Salt is introduced as she’s been taken captive in North Korea, having been made, but her government and her handler Ted Winter, played by Liev Schreiber, makes a trade to get her back. Some years later, Salt has taken a desk job in Washington when an older Russian man walks into the agency claiming to have information about Soviet sleeper agents, including Salt herself. Before she has a chance to get clarification, she’s on the run, not only from her long-time friend Winter, but also counter-intelligence agent William Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who aren’t taking any chances that Salt is indeed a Soviet spy, especially knowing her capabilities. Salt’s only concern is to get home to her husband, who seems to be missing, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get to the bottom of the truth.

The idea of Soviet sleeper agents living in our country for decades, to be awoken for a dastardly plot by our former enemies is not that farfetched. The problem is that the more you think about the movie, and recent developments in the news makes it hard not to, it becomes not just about suspending disbelief as much as literally shutting off your brain, and once you’re put in that position and any connections to reality are gone, then you’re just watching a popcorn flick.

There isn’t a ton of talking or exposition to worry about, as much as a lot of Jolie running around, hitting or killing anyone who gets in her way, but the lack of explanations makes what’s a fairly simple story confusing and unclear, because so much is left to the viewer’s imagination. Salt has obviously been trained and programmed to take part in this Soviet “Day X” attack but was she completely unaware this whole time and acting otherwise until something was triggered in her? At first, you’re unsure whether Salt is indeed a sleeper agent, but even when it’s made apparent she is one, she does something to change your mind about whether she’s good or bad. Because of this grey area, Salt isn’t the typical movie “hero,” if we can even use that word, but that also makes it hard to empathize with her.

As perfect as this role and movie is for Jolie, the casting around her is fairly uninspired. It’s hard to tell whether Schreiber and Ejiofor are just phoning in their performances for a paycheck but neither of them are doing their best work. We know they’re both great actors, but the best Ejiofor can come up with is providing suitably exaggerated reaction shots to everything that happens in his presence.

For a PG-13 movie, it’s surprisingly violent and its disturbing how much of that violence is against Salt and the ease with which many of the male characters are able to brutally hit this female agent. Maybe because we know she’s been highly-trained to take care of business, it’s not supposed to bother us, but it does make some of the more violence scenes hard to watch.

Noyce wisely brought on a superstar team including Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit and “Casino Royale” editor Stuart Baird, to ensure the action in his movie stands up to the movie’s clear influences, and it allows the movie to maintain a brisk pace of visceral action and brutal violence, so you don’t really have time to think about what is happening.

Because the movie is so perfectly paced and quite well-made, it isn’t a complete loss. Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of movie that doesn’t really stick with you for very long afterwards, and it’s more than a little frustrating that like far too many other movies this summer, it’s left open-ended for potential sequels rather than being concerned about telling a complete story. In that sense, it’s not nearly as successful as the movies that influenced it. Rating: 7/10

Analysis:

As the summer continues to roll along and we come to the end of Month 3, here we have another movie that should be a sure thing, Angelina Jolie in an action movie, her first since 2008’s Wanted, this one teaming her with Australian director Phillip Noyce, who she first teamed with for the Denzel Washington serial killer thriller The Bone Collector.

Jolie has a number of successful action movies under her belt, starting with the Jerry Bruckheimer remake Gone in 60 Seconds with Nicolas Cage, and followed a year later by the video game movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which opened with $48 million, a new record for an action movie with a female lead. It would then be four more years before Jolie had another hit as big as that when she was paired with future partner Brad Pitt for Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which opened with $50 million and would become one of Jolie’s biggest live action hits with $186 million. It was a great precursor for Jolie helping Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of the comic book Wanted, which also opened over $50 million. Salt also takes place in the world of spies that’s familiar to fans of Jolie’s role in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and she also starred in Robert De Niro’s spy drama The Good Shepherd though she basically played Matt Damon’s wife in that one. Salt will be Jolie’s first movie since being nominated for her second Oscar in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, also in 2008, so her return to the screen certainly will get the movie more interest than it might otherwise.

The movie teams her with a couple of dramatic actors who’ve done this sort of movie before, Liev Schreiber, who appeared in Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate and the third Jack Ryan movie The Sum of All Fears, and British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor has also had his share of political thrillers and action movies, most recently co-starring in Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster 2012 for Sony, as well as in the smaller thriller End Game, directed by Pete Travis, who helmed the political thriller hit Vantage Point, also for Sony.

There are many other good things going in this movie’s favor, including its PG-13 rating, which means that teens who want to hang out at the movies can pick this as an option, the other is the short running time of 93 minutes, which means that theaters will be able to get a lot of showings regardless of the number of prints. Either way, the movie may be mainly capitalizing on the popularity of Ms. Jolie, but it’s also hoping to pull in audience looking for the next Jason Bourne, after the success of Universal’s successful summer franchise (and with Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass supposedly calling it quits).

Sony is easily one of the most capable studios in terms of marketing their movies, and they’ve done an amazing job with this one, keeping a good amount of the plot and premise a secret with enigmatic posters and commercials while focusing almost entirely on the action. Unlike other movies for which a similar approach has been tried, this one really does have a ton of action, too, and you don’t need to have a college degree to understand what’s going on. The movie has benefited greatly by something that Sony could never have planned, the discovery of nearly a dozen Russian spies in our country, including one rather attractive one. That coincidence has been a good way for Sony to sell the movie to the press and in turn, to audiences. Salt is a strange movie for Sony, because normally the realm of spies is Universal territory, but they had decent luck with the aforementioned Vantage Point, but not as much with the more cerebral The International starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts.

One odd drawback that might not seem like a big deal is that the rather generic and mundane title of “Salt” really has no significance or relevance to anyone except maybe those with high blood pressure, who may avoid the movie. (You really didn’t think I’d go through this analysis without making one obvious joke about the name of the lead character, did you?) Seeing the word “Salt” on a marquee is not something that will make people want to stop their cars and rush into the theaters, which is why Sony’s marketing is so important to create awareness.

That being said, the biggest roadblock for Salt opening as big as Jolie’s previous action movies is the mostly positive response to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which will likely get a lot of repeat and word-of-mouth business this weekend. Being the summer, one would think there’s enough room for two espionage-laden action thrillers, which may be true, because these are different movies that offer relatively complimentary experiences.

Why I Should See It: Angelina Jolie tends to be best when doing action, and Phillip Noyce has proven himself to be the master of the political thriller genre.
Why Not: Even with recent headlines, will anyone really be able to take this premise seriously?
Projections: $33 to 36 million opening weekend and roughly $100 million total.

COMPARISONS


Ramona and Beezus (20th Century Fox/Walden Media)
Starring Selena Gomez, Joey King, John Corbett, Bridget Moynahan, Ginnifer Goodwin, Josh Duhamel, Sandra Oh
Directed by Elizabeth Allen (Aquamarine); Written by Laurie Craig (Ella Enchanted, Face the Music), Nick Pustay (Camille)
Genre: Family, Comedy
Rated G
Tagline: “A Little Sister Goes a Long Way.”
Plot Summary: 9-year-old Ramona Quimby (Joey King) is an imaginative girl whose older sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) has started discovering boys, but the two girls have to pull together when their father (John Corbett) loses his job possibly forcing the family to move out of their neighborhood.

Mini-Review: Unless you’re the parent with a young girl, you can probably stop reading now, because there’s really no reason to even consider “Ramona and Beezus” as a viewing option unless of course you’ve braced yourself readily for the overload of cutesy moments that permeate this adaptation of the children’s book from the ’50s.

Beverly Cleary’s young heroine Ramona Quimby is introduced through a sequence in which she traverses a playground contraption, imagining she’s crossing a gap between two mountains with some truly awful animated graphics to create that illusion. “Brazil,” this is not. We then meet Ramona’s exasperated older sister Beezus (Disney Channel star Selena Gomez) and her parents, who are going through a bit of a crisis when Ramona’s father (John Corbett) loses his job.

Essentially, the movie follows a few weeks in the life of this extended family including Ramona’s Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) and various things that happen to them. If this were an indie movie, it probably would focus on some sort of story that builds the characters. Instead, this is essentially a bunch of vignettes involving Ramona and those around her. If you’ve seen any kids movie in the last five years, you can probably figure out what to expect and guess where things are going.

The movie’s major plus and its saving grace is newcomer Joey King, who is quite charming and adorable as Ramona Quimby, and though some of her behavior may be a bad influence on little kids, she effortlessly carries many a scene with her antics. For all of Selena Gomez’s popularity on television, she’s not particularly impressive as an actress, essentially playing a typical role of a teenager girl trying to figure out her feelings for her hunky guy-friend Henry Huggins, clearly something to play up to young girls’ fantasies about romance. John Corbett hams it up and makes himself look like a buffoon as needed to keep his girls entertained and the young actresses humor him by acting like he’s funny. Ginnifer Goodwin’s involvement with the movie is fairly puzzling, because here is a talented actress who has clearly on the rise, and here, she’s forced to take part in all sorts of embarrassing slapstick schtick, as well as playing one half of an equally awkward romance with Josh Duhamel, who seems to be in his element doing same.

The sad truth is that Elizabeth Allen isn’t a strong enough filmmaker to elevate the material above a very specific audience of moon-eyed young girls. As grueling as the movie may be to anyone else, at least at first, it does eventually settle into a fairly steady pace of sweet and tender movies dealing with family dynamics, tempered by some of the most ridiculous bits of schtick we’ve seen since “Marmaduke.” (For whatever reason, every studio family movie feels the need the dumb physical humor as a fallback to keep the kids entertained.) Somehow, it manages to never wear out its welcome, and adults probably won’t want to stab themselves .

With very little to differentiate this movie from dozens of other movies meant solely for young girls, “Ramona and Beezus” certainly shows potential to be a better movie than it is. We’ve seen much worse and if you’re a parent of a young girl, you can certainly do a lot worse than this. Rating: 5.5/10

Analysis:

Since not everyone is going to care about seeing Angelina Jolie kicking ass as a spy, here’s a movie essentially for the fickle ‘tween and under girls who may be looking for something to see this weekend, and maybe some of them have heard of or read Beverly Cleary’s 1955 book about two sisters, the younger one Ramona being an imaginative girl who is always getting into trouble with her schemes, and the older one Beezus having to deal with her younger sister’s shenanigans. Co-produced with Walden Media, who have adapted many popular kids’ books to the big screen, this one is coming off the enormous success of Fox’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Like that movie, Ramona and Beezus is based on a series of books that have become quite popular among kids. Now I won’t pretend that I’ve heard of these books, because I’m not a parent nor have I ever been a little girl, but one has to figure that having books in print for over fifty years means that people have read and enjoy them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean a lot in terms of whether they’ll pay to see a movie or just wait until it hits cable or DVD.

The cast is an odd one for sure. Playing Ramona is newcomer Joey King, who is quite good, but most young girls will be more familiar with the actress playing her older sister Beatrix a.k.a Beezus, Selena Gomez, who has starred on the hugely-popular Disney Channel show “Wizards of Waverly Place” since 2007. Fox’s best hopes for the movie are if the fans of the show are interested in seeing her in a movie, which is never a good way to sell a movie. (In fact, director Elizabeth Allen’s previous Fox movie Aquamarine, also based on a book, failed to get much interest despite starring popular singer JoJo.) Much of the adult cast is made up of HBO veterans including John Corbett (“Sex and the City”), Sandra Oh (“Grey’s Anatomy”) or Ginnifer Goodwin (“Big Love”). Goodwin is actually reunited with her Win a Date with Hamilton! co-star Josh Duhamel, who has mainly been playing romantic leads and a soldier in the “Transformers.” Duhamel probably can be seen as having the largest box office pull of the bunch even with Corbett starring in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the recent “Sex and the City” sequel, though neither of them are really being featured.

This is an old book compared to the others mentioned above, and while it’s remained in print, there’s nothing to say younger kids will be very familiar with the main character Ramona or her antics. The movie’s rare G-rating is generally positive, since there are many people out there in the country who are against sex and violence and are only looking for the most pure-minded entertainment, and the commercials have been focusing heavily on the family element of the movie.

The marketing and promotion on the movie has been almost non-existent, which is somewhat surprising, but clearly, this is looking like another one of those family movies released by Fox that they don’t feel has enough of an audience to waste too much time and money promoting. After all, they’ve already seen that backfire with previous summer family releases like Eddie Murphy’s Planet Dave, the animated Space Monkeys and last year’s Aliens in the Attic, the latter having a similar pedigree in terms of it starring the Disney Channel’s Ashley Tisdale. Most recently, Fox failed to have the success bringing the popular cartoon dog Marmaduke to the screen after having better success with Garfield.

Ramona and Beezus isn’t even getting the ultrawide 3,000 theaters which Fox and Walden would normally give one of their adaptations in hopes that the extra theaters will make the weekend numbers look better even if business is fairly spread out. The movie isn’t terrible, but it’s also not the kind of movie that doesn’t tend to get good reviews, because critics just can’t seem to understand that all movies aren’t meant for their age, gender or taste in movies. That being said, one can expect that at least some of the girls or their mothers that grew up with the book will be interested, even if this isn’t a rush out and see movie. While we don’t think this one will be another Fox movie that tanks with $5 to 6 million, we don’t have much confidence in it making more than $10 million this weekend either, so figure somewhere in between

Why I Should See It: Joey King is actually kind of adorable as the lead character, and there’s enough touching moments to not make this
Why Not: Yeah, if you’re not a little girl or haven’t been one, then you’re probably not going to be into this movie.
Projections: $8 to 10 million opening weekend and $25 to 27 million total.

COMPARISONS


THE CHOSEN ONE:

Although there are a number of limited releases that tie-in well to Phillip Noyce’s Salt, dealing with the Cold War and nuclear weapons, we’re sticking a bit closer to home with…

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (Arthouse Films)
Starring Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tamra Davis, Thurston Moore
Directed by Tamra Davis (Crossroads, Half Baked, Billy Madison, Guncrazy)
Genre: Documentary, Art
Plot Summary: Filmmaker Tamra Davis explores the life of New York street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who rose to fame quickly in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but then died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

While I never would consider myself an art expert or aficionado, the legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat is still felt today, and it couldn’t be any more obvious than the proximity of this biographical doc to the release of Banksy’s innovative Exit to the Gift Shop, a movie about a movement that may never have happened if not for Basquiat’s early work as graffiti artist SAMO. The crazy thing is that one of the reasons I moved to New York City was because I was hearing about all this cool stuff happening here with music and art, and no sooner had I moved here, it all ended, partially due to the back-to-back deaths of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

So here comes this movie from filmmaker Tamra Davis, who began her career making music videos for many of the denizens of the New York art scene during the ’80s and who befriended Basquiat just as he was breaking out in the artworld. She has created a fairly comprehensive doc, starting with his appearance on the scene as the graffiti artist known as SAMO, which smoothly transitioned into creating unique postcard visuals, then having full paintings displayed in some of the trendiest art galleries as his work would sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. So what happens with a guy used to living on the street suddenly finds himself becoming a millionaire and hobnobbing with the likes of Andy Warhol? The only thing that could happen was that Basquiat would burn out even faster than he rose through the ranks of the art world. That rise is told through interviews by Basquiat’s friends and acquaintances, taking a more conventional approach to telling Basquiat’s story than the Julian Schnabel biopic—Schnabel appears in the movie with some of the more interesting insights about his fellow artist, and the story is. You can tell that he has greatly loved and respected by everyone, just an amazing personality who exploded onto the New York art and music scene of the mid-’80s until the death of his friend Andy Warhol led Basquiat to depression and drug use that eventually killed him.

Davis filmed Basquiat while he was working during the ’80s as well as sitting down for a full interview with him just as he was really exploding in 1986. The latter provides the crux of information about Basquiat’s childhood before coming to New York City as well as getting into his head about how he paints and how he’s been able to cope with all of the sudden fame countered with racism and being exploited by those around him.

What keeps “Radiant Child” from feeling like a talking heads movie is the way Tamra incorporates a lot of great music from the time, whether it’s No Wave, rap, dance music, jazz and classical, and then of course there’s Basquiat’s art, a wide array of examples inserted between the interview to show that his talent was a lot more than just talk or hype. Despite his relatively short life, Basquiat was incredibly prolific, painting on doors and refrigerators as well as canvas and all phases of his evolution as an artist are captured beautifully on film. There’s also so many great photos of Jean-Michel and never-before-seen archival footage from the times that only could come from an insider like Davis.

There are very few films that successfully capture the look and feel of an era in pop culture as Davis’ portrait of Basquiat and his place in a hipster scene that quickly faded away after his death. This is just a brilliantly-realized look at this influential artist, and really the definitive word on why he had such an impact.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child opens on Wednesday at the Film Forum in New York

Honorable Mention:

Farewell (NeoClassic Films)
Starring Emir Kusturica, Guillaume Canet, Ingeborga Dapknaite, David Soul, Dina Korzun, Phillipe Magnan, Yevgeni Kharlanov, Willem Dafoe, Fred Ward
Written and directed by Christian Carion (Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas))
Genre: Drama
Rated
Tagline: “Some Secrets Have the Power to Change the Course of History”
Plot Summary: Pierrre Froment (Guillaume Canet) is a French professor living in the Soviet Union in 1981, the height of the Cold War, who is enlisted to deliver secrets from a KGB officer named Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) that could help the United States win the war, but the two men establish a strong bond of friendships that makes it harder to keep their meetings to business only.

MIni-Review: There have been many films made about the Cold War from the American perspective, and a few dealing with the Soviet side of things, but none (at least none that we’re aware of) that explores the groundwork laid down to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. That’s partially why the latest from Christian Carion, director of the Oscar-nominated “Joyeux Noel,” is so fascinating, even if it maintains a similar dialogue-heavy M.O. of so many French films. Those who enjoyed “The Lives of Others” should be able to appreciate the pace of the story even if the story isn’t as rich or complex as that Oscar-winning foreign film.

Pierre is a French professor living in Moscow enlisted by France to act as the go-between with a disgruntled KGB officer codenamed “Farewell” (real name: Grigoriev) who hopes the information he provides the West will put an end to the grim conditions within his country. Though based on a fairly well known piece of Cold War era spy history, this drama is first and foremost the story about friendship between two very different men, but it’s also about how their attempts to maintain the secrecy of their meetings eventually hurts their family lives and how the latter falling apart ultimately exposes their relationship.

For such a performance-reliant film, Carion has two strong assets in Canet and Kusturica, who really carry the film whether they’re in their many scenes together or dealing with the resulting family drama. The rest of the cast is equally strong, including Alexandra Maria Lara and Ingeborga Dapkunaite playing the men’s wives and Dina Korzun as the co-worker Grivoriev has an affair with, creating even more problems within his marriage.

We spend so much time with these two men that when the film cuts to the United States with Fred Ward as President Reagan and Willem Dafoe as the head of the CIA, all speaking in English, it feels somewhat jarring and out-of-place, even though it’s really important to see how the U.S. government acts on the information provided by “Farewell.”

Carion clearly wanted to show the repercussions of the meetings between the two men and how it affects what the United States knows about their Soviet counterparts, and these scenes do a good job breaking up the relatively monotony of just showing the two men talking for such long periods of time. Some scenes don’t seem like they fit such an extended scene of Grigoriev’s son miming to Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” a scene that may have worked better in a different movie.

What Carion does particularly well is create a mood and a tone with the stark visuals, particularly while showing the Russian scenery during the wintertime, and the gorgeous minimalist score by Clint Mansell is the perfect companion to these visuals.

By the time we get to the last act and the repercussions of the “Farewell” operation fall into place, Carion has successfully created a subdued tension where you’re not sure how either Pierre or Kusturica will be able to get out of the predicament they’ve created for themselves.

Even if this Russian spy movie is significantly slower than “Salt” (obviously) and requires more patience and focus, it’s ultimately more satisfying in that Carion realizes the importance of establishing and developing the characters. It goes a long way towards making you care about them so that the film never has to rely on action scenes like a crutch.

Rating: 8/10

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

Also in Limited Release:

Todd (Welcome to the Dollhouse) Solonz returns with Life During Wartime (IFC Films), a thematic sequel to his 1998 movie Happiness as pedophile Bill Maplewood (now played by Ciaran Hinds) is released from prison and tries to reconnect with his family. Meanwhile, his wife Trish (Allison Janney) has met a new man (Michael Lerner) and her son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) tries to come to terms with his father’s sexual predilections. At the same time, Trish’s younger sister Joy (Shirley Henderson) has been trying to come to term with her own man problems, running off to Florida to visit her family. It will open at the IFC Center on Friday.

Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson) directs the Viking drama Valhalla Rising (IFC Films) starring Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as “One Eye,” a mute Viking warrior who escapes from his captivity to make his way to the New World, killing anyone who looks at him wrong. It’s already playing at the IFC Center in New York, and it opens in L.A. at the Laemmle Sunset 5 and in Brattle Theater in Cambridge this coming Friday.

Interview with Nicolas Winding Refn

Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)

Lucy Walker’s documentary Countdown to Zero (Magnolia) takes a look at the race towards nuclear armament by various nations around the globe, not only during the Cold War but also today, as it addresses the concerns of governments and terrorists to have access to nuclear technology that could lead us to a third World War. Produced by Lawrence Bender, who also produced Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar winning An Inconvenient Truth, Walker’s film plays a part in the Take Part campaign to permanently denuclearize the globe. It will open in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and AMC Empire 25, as well as in Washington D.C. at the E. Street Cinemas. It then hits California and other cities on July 30. You can see the full list of theatres here.

Mugabe and the White African (First Run Features) is a documentary by Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson about Michael Campbell, a white farmer in Zimbabwe who faces the country’s tyrannical President Robert Mugabe, who has set up a policy to reclaim white-owned land for the poor black Zimbabweans. Having suffered numerous and violence on his farm, Campbell decides to take the fight to court. It opens at the Cinema Village in New York on Friday.

Victor Nuñez, director of Ulee’s Gold and Coastlines returns with Spoken Word (Variance Films) a drama starring Kuno Becker (Goal!) as a famous rock star who travels the West Coast on a poetry circuit until he gets a call that his father (Rubén Blades) is sick, so he rushes home to manage a hip-hop club in Santa Fe. It opens in New York at the BIG Cinemas and then in L.A. at the Laemmle Sunset 5 and the Laemmle Playhouse 7 on July 30. Full theater listing is on the official site.

Frank V. Ross’s drama Audrey the Trainwreck premieres and opens at the brand-new reRun Gastropub Theater at 147 Front Street in Brooklyn (DUMBO to be exact) this Friday. It stars Anthony Baker as a 30-year-old office worker whose frustrations and anxiety culminate in an accident with a dart that makes him reevaluate his life, as does him meeting Alexi Wasser’s delivery woman Stacy. No, I have no idea who Audrey is.

Tirador (Slingshot) (Ignatius Films) is a crime-drama from Philipine filmmmaker Brillante Mendoza set in the Manila slums, which opens at INDIEHouse in New York City.


Next week, the month of July comes to an end with one of the busiest weekends of the summer as Paul Rudd and Steve Carell reunite for the Jay Roach comedy Dinner for Schmucks (Paramount), cats and dogs are reunited for the 3D half-animated sequel Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (Warner Bros.), while Zac Efron plays Charlie St. Cloud (Universal)… or maybe he plays someone else in the movie and there’s someone else named “Charlie St. Cloud.” Tune in next week to find out, although it will be a more minimal column.

Copyright 2010 Edward Douglas