The Weekend Warrior: August 13 – 15

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.

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

Weekend Overview

You know what? We’re going to do something a little different this week, something you’re either likely to love or hate. Hopefully, it will be the former, because I don’t want to get the same angry comments I get whenever I choose to do one of my world-famous and apparently universally-loathed “Vs. Reviews.”

That aside, we’re getting closer to the August “Dog Days of Summer” and this is one of the craziest weekends in some time, because we have three movies, all very strong, each which has quite a bit going for them whether it’s marketing or star power or other factors. The predictions about which one might win the weekend will probably be all over the place, but they all should be able to bring in somewhere in the $20 to 30 million range rather than any of them taking the lead with an explosive opening in the $50 million range. In some ways, this is similar to this past Presidents Day weekend where three movies opened, each targeting a different audience, and all three of them scored big with roughly the same amount. This is another “share the wealth weekend” and while we may be off the mark, we’ve decided not to spoil our predictions by posting them at the top of the column like we normally do, just to build up a little suspense… Fun, huh?


The Expendables (Lionsgate)
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Couture, Steve Austin, David Zayas, Giselle Itie, Charisma Carpenter, Gary Daniels, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke
Directed by Sylvester Stallone; Written by David Callahan (Tell Tale), Sylvester Stallone
Genre: Action
Rated R
Tagline: “Choose your weapon.”
Plot Summary: A group of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and former S.A.S. Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) are sent on a mission to South America to overthrow the dictator of a small island, General Gaza (David Zayas), along with a local freedom fighter (Giselle Itie), only to face a deadlier enemy in a rogue ex-CIA operative (Eric Roberts) and his vicious henchman (Steve Austin).

Mini-Review: The idea of Sylvester Stallone putting together an amazing supergroup of action stars from the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s sounds like something that could be really cool, but it’s also something that has the potential to go horribly wrong.

Stallone hasn’t aged gracefully, something made more obvious by all the younger action stars surrounding him. Much of the movie is based around the camaraderie and friendly competition between Sly’s Barney and his knife-wielding SAS agent partner, played by Jason Statham, something we see in the opening standoff between their band of mercenaries and some hostage-taking terrorists. Most of the movie involves this sort of macho d*ck-measuring, and though the fight scenes are generally well-choreographed, they’re not particularly well-filmed or edited, combatants sometimes resorting to wrestling holds as might be expected when “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is among the cast.

Normally, Jet Li would be the best reason to see any movie but he’s mostly taking a backseat to Stallone and Statham, and even a fight between Li and Lundgren only brings a few minutes of excitement to the movie. The cast is rounded out with Terry Crews and Randy Couture’s “Toll Road” a two of their crew and Sly even gets his own love interest with Giselle Itie’s Sandra, a South American revolutionary. It would have been nicer if Dolph Lundgren’s return to the screen was stronger than playing a violent drug-addled soldier who leaves the group after an altercation, only to end up fighting against his former team. There are lots of baddies including a South American general, a rogue CIA agent played by Eric Roberts, who gives a gruelingly bad performance compared to Patrick Wilson or Jason Patric, who played similar characters in “The A-Team” and “The Losers.”

Having so many scenery-chewers in one place makes “The Expendables” like the “Gosford Park” of bad acting and a good percentage of the movie is “straight to video” bad, especially in the moments when it tries to be serious and dramatic, where it fails in every respect. The dialogue is pretty bad, every single line being the type of cliché we’ve heard in many of the cast’s previous movies. It’s hard to determine whether it’s meant as an homage or if Stallone and his writing partner David Callahan are incapable of coming up with much better than that, but it leads to a fairly predicable outing.

Some of the most ridiculous scenes involve Statham protecting his ex-wife from her violent new man, which just seems so out of place with the rest of the movie. Mickey Rourke’s tattoo artist Tool has some of the best moments, probably realizing that an Oscar-nominated actor should act like one. Some of his scenes seem out of place with the rest of the movie, though, including a long dramatic monologue and a closing scene between him and Statham that’s both silly and embarrassing.

Jean-Claude Van Damme’s agent will probably be very happy at his client’s reticence at joining this group, but anyone going to see the movie based on the idea of Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger being in a movie together will get exactly one scene, which feels more than just a little like a rip-off.

In a year when “The A-Team,” “The Losers” and even “Predators” have paid homage to Stallone’s glory years by banding a group of mercenaries together to much better effect, “The Expendables” seems like it’s arrived late to the game without adding anything new to the genre. This is one throwback that should have been thrown back.

Rating: 4.5/10

COMPARISONS

Eat Pray Love (Sony)
Starring Julia Roberts, James Franco, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins
Written and directed by Ryan Murphy (Running with Scissors, creator of “Nip/Tuck” and “Glee”) with Jennifer Salt
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “Let Yourself Go This August”
Plot Summary: After getting divorced, Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts) doesn’t know what to do with her life so she starts off on a journey around the world to find herself, eating in Italy, praying in India and finding true love in Bali. (Basically, the title says it all, except that it would be nice if it included a “Please” ’cause it’s kind of pushy.)

Review

COMPARISONS

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal)
Starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman
Written and directed by Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) with Michael Bacall (Manic, Bookies, upcoming 21 Jump Street)
Genre: Action, Comedy, Romance
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “An epic of epic epicness”
Plot Summary: When Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), 22-year-old bass player for the Canadian band Sex Bob-omb, falls for American Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he discovers that he has to fight off her 7 evil-exes to win her heart. FIGHT!

Interview with Edgar Wright

Interview with Ellen Wong (Check back later this week!)

My Review

COMPARISONS

You can get some idea what the three competing movies are about from the info above, but what it comes down to is that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel series by popular British genre director Edgar Wright, Eat Pray Love is the adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling novel by Ryan Murphy, the creators of “Glee” and “Nip/Tuck,” starring Julia Roberts, while The Expendables is Sylvester Stallone’s new action movie that pairs him with an ensemble of action stars from yesterday and today including Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren and many others.

The Star Power

While one would arguably say that Julia Roberts has the biggest star power of anyone else this weekend, you can’t deny Sylvester Stallone is a pretty big star in his own right, having starred in a number of iconic movies going back to the ’70s. With The Expendables, he’s assembled a veritable action movie supergroup including stars from his heyday and newer action stars. The latter includes the likes of Jason Statham and Jet Li who have had a number of hits alone and together, though they’re both erratic. Stallone also created quite a coup by getting Mickey Rourke in the movie after his Oscar nomination for Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and his appearance earlier this summer in Iron Man 2. While the movie also includes the likes of Randy Couture and Steve Austin from the sports entertainment world, a bigger selling point will be the fact that the movie has a scene featuring Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger all in the same room. It’s really only one scene and the other two former ’80s/90s action stars don’t have huge roles, but Lionsgate has been selling the movie based on that scene, which could bring in many of the fans of those movies.

As far as Eat Pray Love, having Roberts will do a lot to get women into see the movie, because many of the over-30 women into the book will also have been fans of Roberts during her heyday. While Roberts had a bit of a career lull during the ’00s as she raised a family, she appeared in the hit rom-com Valentine’s Day earlier this year and she played a big part in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 and its sequel. In between, she only appeared in a few movies that did moderate business like Charlie Wilson’s War with Tom Hanks and Duplicity with Clive Owen, though neither were as suited to her audience as Eat Pray Love, which is the first movie Roberts is carrying on her own since starring in Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich for which she won her first Oscar. Before then, there were few actresses who had such a sway over bringing women to the box office with earlier hits like Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Playing Liz Gilbert in Eat Pray Love is certainly in a similar vein as some of those roles.

For the most part, Scott Pilgrim relies entirely on Michael Cera, which may not be a good thing considering how many people have kvetched about how he doesn’t have much range beyond what he did on “Arrested Development” and in Superbad. This questionable consensus may have hurt some of his more recent movies, such as when he was teamed last summer with another comedy powerhouse, Jack Black, for Harold Ramis’ Year One and that opened rather weakly with $19 million against the Sandra Bullock rom-com The Proposal. Earlier this year, the Weinstein Company finally released Cera’s dark comedy Youth in Revolt, which showed he could do something different, but it only grossed $16 million. Superbad is still Cera’s biggest movie and no other one has opened with more than $20 million. Others in the cast that add greatly include Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the lead female role as Ramona Flowers. Winstead has quite a lot of geek cred, having starred in Final Destination 3 and appeared in Quentin Tarantion’s Grindhouse installment “Death Proof.” Some of the baddies are played by Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh and Chris Evans, the latter two already having quite a bit of comic book cred themselves, playing Superman and The Human Torch in the “Fantastic Four” movies, respectively. Evans also appeared in The Losers earlier this year and is currently filming Captain America for Marvel.

The Filmmakers

While Stallone does get points for the length of his career in Hollywood and his involvement with the “Rocky” and “Rambo” movies, there’s little question that Edgar Wright is the bigger name in terms of filmmakers because his track record with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz have gained him many fans, and he’s achieving the status of a Quentin Tarantino or a Robert Rodriguez or a Guillermo del Toro in terms of being a director whose movies appeal to movielovers who will see anything he does. In fact, Edgar Wright directing the movie will probably be more of a draw then Cera, so it’s strange that his involvement isn’t mentioned in more commercials. While Wright’s biggest movie Hot Fuzz only grossed $23 million domestically, both that and Shaun of the Dead are huge DVD and Blu-ray sellers and rentals where even more film enthusiasts have discovered them.

Eat Pray Love director Ryan Murphy has established himself more for his television work, creating “Nip/Tuck” for FX and “Glee” for Fox, two highly successful and popular shows, but as far as movies go, his last adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors tanked at the box office despite a prestigious cast. Unlike “Scott Pilgrim,” the commercials do mention Murphy’s involvement, mentioned as “The Creator of Glee.”

The Genre

This is where things get interesting, because while Expendables is a straight-ahead action movie containing guns, knives, explosions and gory kills that guys love, Eat Pray Love is a chick flick that mixes food, drama and romance, three things that women adore. Both movies hark back to successful movies from the past, the former being similar to many of the actor’s previous action movies, the latter not just to some of Roberts’ past movies but also movies like The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and other that have been quite successful. Eat Pray Love also follows into the “travelogue chick flick” category, essentially the type of romantic comedy set in distant vacation spot where the female lead finds herself, often after having trouble fitting in. This sort of movie is very glamorous and romantic, especially for women who are too busy working to actually go to any of the places, but putting a movie in that sort of setting has helped movies like Mamma Mia! and Diane Lane’s Under the Tuscan Sun.

Scott Pilgrim has somewhat of a disadvantage in that it mixes a lot of genres, being a comedy with action and romance that doesn’t allow it to be pinned down to one genre. That makes it harder to sell it to mainstream moviegoing audiences who like to know what exactly they’re seeing, but it certainly will appeal to younger audiences looking for something different this summer. The idea of a visionary like Wright taking on something with so many genres has a similar appeal to moviegoers as Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies, but that still makes it harder to market than the other two movies.

Based Upon

Both “Scott Pilgrim” and “EPL” have the benefit of being based on previous material. While we don’t have exact circulation information on either of the sources–Eat Pray Love has reportedly sold six million copies worldwide–they both have very strong fanbases in their respective circles, “Scott Pilgrim” among comic book and manga fans, and “EPL” by it being a featured selection in the Oprah Book Club, which guarantees literally millions of readers. (Even the highest selling comics only sell 100,000 copies a month, just for comparison.) With that in mind, it’s more of a comic book adaptation in the vein of Ghost World or American Splendor than a superhero movie. The last movie to be based on an Oni Comics release was Warner Bros.’ Whiteout, which was delayed for years before tanking.

The Expandables is an original movie that harks back to the action movies of the ’80s, and in some ways, it is based upon Sly Stallone’s back catalogue, since it promises to offer the type of action his fans enjoy.

The Title

This ties into the above because obviously the two movies based on existing properties will have some namebrand value, though without knowledge of the original material, none of the titles are that great on their own. The name “The Expendables” doesn’t really say much about it being an action movie, sounding a bit too much like “The Losers,” another ensemble action movie from earlier in the year. And those seeing the posters for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” who don’t know about the comics, their first question will probably be “Who is Scott Pilgrim, why is he fighting the world, and why should I care?” Will anyone unfamiliar with Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel think much of the words “Eat” “Pray” or “Love” when it comes to a movie? Probably not.

Target Audiences

The Expendables will be all about the guys while Eat Pray Love will be all about the women, though in both cases, they’re likely to skew older than 25, which is actually a pretty big demographic since adults have more money to spend on recreation/movies, but Expendables might be able to bring in some younger guys due to the wrestlers and the genre. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World benefits from targeting a younger audience, even teenagers, and it offers something for couples going to the movies this weekend because it combines things that both genders can appreciate. While this would normally give “Scott Pilgrim” the advantage, the fact it won’t have much appeal to anyone over 25 who hasn’t read the comics will not make it something that will jump out as something worth seeing compared to the other two. In general, the other two movies being focused on specific target audiences is definitely a plus.

Theater Counts

Sly Stallone’s movie wins here, because Lionsgate is releasing “Expendables” into over 3,000 theaters. While we’ll probably see Sony matching that amount, Universal may fall just short of 3,000, which means “Scott Pilgrim” would have to make more per theater to keep up with the other two movies.

Marketing

Clearly, Universal have achieved a new level in marketing with “Scott Pilgrim” from all the different character posters, to numerous different TV spots, an interactive trailer, a bunch of music remix teasers, and then there’s the entire craziness of Comic-Con which we discussed in last week’s column. The thing is that there is so much anticipation for this movie, both from fans of the comics and Edgar Wright’s fans, that when the trailer first premiered in front of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass this past April, “Scott Pilgrim” ended up trending on Twitter, something that rarely if ever happens for a trailer. Things like that and the rave response to the movie at and after Comic-Con shows how the power of the internet can create a huge amount of buzz for a movie, something that can help a movie even more than the marketing. (A couple of clear cases of this include last year’s District 9 as well as Cera’s Superbad, which also debuted at Comic-Con.)

On the negative side of that marketing is that Universal may have already released too much information and may already be annoying those who have been looking forward to the movie because they may feel they’ve seen way too much. Fortunately, the movie has the all-pervasive internet on its side as anyone who reads the thousands of movie sites and blogs out there will already know about the movie. Universal tried a similar approach with the comedy Get Him to the Greek–starring Cera’s Superbad partner in crime–earlier this summer and that opened weakly with just $17.6 million and has only grossed $61 million to date.

Lionsgate has done a decent job pushing The Expendables mostly based on the star power with posters that feature all of the stars of the movie lined up, while the commercials mostly focus on Stallone and the cameos by Willis and Schwarzenegger. They’ve also done some clever marketing by pushing it as a “manly” movie, playing it up as counter-programming to the Julia Roberts movie. Unlike “Scott Pilgrim,” Stallone and the cast haven’t made themselves as available to do press and publicity for the movie which means “Scott Pilgrim” is everywhere this week, Expendables will be relying heavily on the movie’s core male audience to already know about the movie.

Then again, Sony has proven itself to be an unbeatable and unstoppable powerhouse, especially this summer where they already have four movies that have opened over $35 million. Eat Pray Love is sort of an easy slamdunk sell because they can get lots of time on “Oprah” and anywhere else that Julia Roberts chooses to appear, plus they’ve been able to run tie-in promo spots on channels like The Food Network and Bravo. Like with Julie & Julia last year, these ads are perfectly-placed to appeal to the people who might be interested in this sort of movie, particularly the foodie aspects of it.

Reviews

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could win here, except that Eat Pray Love really hasn’t screened much for critics; at this point, we have no idea whether the movie plays well or will just be coasting along on Roberts’ involvement and knowledge of the original book. The Expendables isn’t likely to get many good reviews and certainly, the crankier critics will go after it with knives drawn. We think word-of-mouth will generally be better on the first two movies as well.

The Drawbacks

Reviews may be the true killer for Stallone’s movie, because if the internet geek crowd hasn’t gotten behind the movie–Harry Knowles already gave it a rave review but will anyone really take that seriously?–then they’re not going to be able to convince any of the 17 to 25-year-old crowd to check it out. The R rating will guarantee younger teen males looking for straight action won’t be able to see the movie. Another drawback may be the fact that it’s coming after ’80s throwback movies like Predators, The A-Team and The Losers, all of them involving a gang of tough guys (and a couple equally tough gals) facing insurmountable odds. In this case, some might feel that many of those who joined Stallone for the movie (*koff*Dolph Lundgren*koff*) were doing it for a paycheck.

For Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, just the fact the movie relies so much on Michael Cera to sell the movie may be problematic. Sure, Cera has a lot of young female fans, and they certainly will be the main draw for the movie, but will guys over 17 who aren’t familiar with the comics care at all about this movie? Director Edgar Wright is a star in his own right and his name will bring in the guys who liked his previous two movies, but the commercials don’t even mention him. One also wonders whether or not, however good or great the movie is, it has been set up to be another overhyped comic book movie ala Kick-Ass, which was everywhere, receiving similar amounts of love, but then failed to even open over $20 million. It’s disheartening to even think that this may end up similar to that or New Line’s Snakes on a Plane, which had a similar overwhelming buzz on the internet which never translated into box office.

The X-Factor

This is where things get interesting because we’re dealing with factors one might not consider that might affect the movies this weekend, such as the fact that there are no movies specifically for women in theaters, which could help Eat Pray Love bring in all of the female demographic. One thing working in favor of Roberts’ movies in terms of legs is that women don’t always rush out to see movies, which is why the movie should perform strongly throughout the normally slower part of the summer however well it does this weekend.

The Expendables, while it isn’t a reboot or sequel, doesn’t look that original even though it’s entering a market where there are no action movies for older guys. One factor that’s hard to judge is whether the negative reviews coming later in the week will be ignored by guys who’ve been looking for this type of action movie. The previous movies that have targeted that audience this summer haven’t fared particularly well either.

The X-Factor for Scott Pilgrim is trying to determine how many people unfamiliar with the comics or Edgar Wright’s previous work will give the movie a look either based on Cera or the type of humor, although the movie may just be too quirky for audiences outside major cities and college towns which will limit the audiences compared to the more mainstream offerings this weekend. There’s also a possibility that Universal has over-screened the movie too much in advance leaving very few people who really want to see the movie who haven’t already.

Which Movie Should I See? Having not seen Eat Pray Love yet, it’s hard to be fair but of the two movies we’ve seen, we’d go with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which is funny, warm, has some very cool martial arts fights and is just a lot of fun, especially if you’ve ever been into video games.

Why Shouldn’t I See the Other Two? The Expendables is way too macho and Eat Pray Love is way too girly. Neither would make as good a date movie as “Scott Pilgrim.”

And the Winner Is…

(drumroll)

This weekend could be really close but we’ll give the advantage to Sly Stallone’s The Expendables which will win Friday with ease, and should dominate the weekend, having such a strong cast to draw in a wide variety of demographics. It’s going to be hugely frontloaded which should allow Julia Roberts’ Eat Pray Love to catch up but still fall short of winning the weekend. As much as we want to see Scott Pilgrim beat them both, it’s likely going to have to settle for third with a similar opening in the low-20s, since it’s relying so heavily on far-too-fickle younger audiences who could be swayed to see either of the other movies. The Expendables may win the weekend with between $29 and 32 million but then tank pretty quickly after opening to end up closer to $72 million, while Eat Pray Love should end up between $24 and 27 million then hold well to end up just below $100 million. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World probably will open in the $18 to 20 million range but have strong enough legs to take it to $65 or 70 million by the time it leaves theaters. (We hope we’re wrong but too many things point to “Scott Pilgrim” having trouble getting mainstream moviegoing audiences away from the other two movies.)

Updated Predictions and Comparisons -

1. The Expendables (Lionsgate) – $31.1 million N/A (up .4 million)

2. Eat Pray Love (Sony) – $27.0 million N/A (up 1.2 million)

3. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal) – $19.3 million N/A (up .7 million)

4. The Other Guys (Sony) – $16.8 million -52% (Down .2 million)

5. Inception (Warner Bros.) – $11.5 million -38% (down .1 million)

6. Step Up 3D (Disney) – $6.8 million -57% (down .3 million)

7. Despicable Me (Universal) – $6.3 million -32% (down .2 million)

8. Salt (Sony) – $5.8 million -47% (same)

9. Dinner for Schmucks (Paramount) – $5.5 million -47% (up .5 million)

10. Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (Warner Bros.) – $3.8 million -45% (down .2 million)

This weekend last year saw the release of four new movies in wide release, the biggest of them being the directorial debut of South Africa’s Neill Blomkamp, the sci-fi action flick District 9 (Sony) starring newcomer Sharlto Copley, which exceeded all expectations with an opening of $37.4 million, roughly $7 million more than the movie cost to make. Offered as counter-programming, The Time Travelers’ Wife (New Line/WB) teamed Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams for the adaptation of the romantic drama, which opened in third place with a solid $18.6 million. Jeremy Piven from HBO’s “Entourage” starred in the comedy The Good: Live Hard. Sell Hard (Paramount), which bombed with $5.6 million for sixth place while Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo (Disney) opened in ninth place with $3.6 million in roughly 900 theaters. The movie hit the worst was Vanessa Hudgen’s musical Bandslam (Summit), which tanked with just $2.2 million, not even getting into the Top 10 as it averaged a pitiful $1k per venue. The Top 10 ended up grossing $119 million, and while none of the new movies will likely do as well as District 9, cumulatively, the three should be able to bring in what the Top 3 did last year.


THE CHOSEN ONE:

Animal Kingdom (Sony Pictures Classics)
Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville
Written and directed by David Michôd (debut)
Genre: Crime, Drama
Rated R
Plot Summary: After the death of his mother, a Melbourne teenager named J Cody (James Frecheville) moves in with his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) and her sons, who are all involved in various crimes–bank robberies, drug dealings, etc.–and J enters the picture just as the Melbourne Anti-Crime division led by Captain Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) have decided to come down on the Cody crime family.

Interview with Director David Michôd

Interview with Ben Mendelsohn (Check back later this week!)

This year, there’ve already been a number of impressive feature film debuts, but David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom is particularly intriguing being that it’s the second great movie to come out of Melbourne, Australia from a group of filmmakers known collectively as Blue Tongue Films. The first of these movies, Nash Edgerton’s The Square, was “The Chosen One” back in April, though we never had a chance to write a full review.

Animal Kingdom has a couple obvious things in common with The Square–the location, the genre and the fact they both star Joel Edgerton (who co-wrote the latter)–but what really distinguishes Michod’s film as something special is the way he quickly introduces the characters then weaves them through a slow and steady set-up for a story that doesn’t really explode (at least emotionally if not figuratively) until late in the movie.

We meet James Frecheville’s teenager “J” sitting on a couch with his mother, who we soon learn has just overdosed on heroin. He’s picked up by his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) and taken to live with her sons (and J’s uncles)–Sullivan Stapleton’s Craig, Joel Edgerton’s Baz, and Luke Ford’s Darren who is only a few years older than J. The Cody brothers are all involved in some aspect of the Melbourne crime life, which is mainly why J’s mother left to raise him away from them. J has been brought back into the fold as things start to get dangerous for the family with the local Anti-Crime Unit stepping up their efforts to stop their robberies. Shortly after J’s Uncle Andrew, known as “Pope” (and played by Ben Mendelsohn), shows up at the house, one of the brothers is killed by the police under suspicious circumstances, and “Pope” wages a war against the Anti-Crime Unit, starting a chain of occurrences that threatens to break up the family.

The gritty realism Michod imbues into every frame of his film puts the viewer into the position of fly on the wall watching the interactions between members of hte family and how they cope with their lives falling apart when the police try to put an end to their crime reign. It’s not hard to fathom this group of actors as being a real family due to the quality performances across the board that help create that sense of family. Mendelsohn’s “Pope” is one of the great screen villains of the last few years. You’re never sure if he’s a total sociopath or if there’s a crafty mind in there who knows exactly how uncomfortable he makes those around him, especially J. The best comparison for the character would probably be Dennis Hopper in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” Pope’s female counterpart and equal is Jacki Weaver’s matriarch of the family, lovingly known as “Smurf” being the only woman in the house. Throughout the film, she displays an always-smiling, sunny disposition that seems almost abnormal, but we also see an incredible amount of emotion from Weaver as her sons are killed in the war with the police. Later on, she steps up to show she’s clearly a woman in full control of the situation and not just a dumb blonde who will allow her family to be torn apart. What makes the relationships so interesting are the different personalities with the family and the varying degrees of criminal psychosis with Sullivan Stapleton being somewhat less in control than his brothers.

Michod’s greatest strength is his ability to pace the movie like a slowburn as J silently watches these things going on around him without much of a reaction, newcomer Frecheville delivering a subdued, mostly emotionless performance in the process. Things start to heat up as J encounters Guy Pearce’s Nathan Leckie, the head of the Anti-Crime Unit, making his uncles think the teenager has turned against them. This set-up creates a movie that keeps you on edge unsure of what will happen next since the behavior of the characters is so erratic and different from our own lives. MIchod’s choice to pace the story in a slow way really pays off at a point where most filmmakers would have ended their movie, but this is where Michod is just getting started, as he delivers one of the most amazing fourth acts where everything comes to a head. This is part of what really sets the movie apart from other modern crime films, because that last 20 to 30 minutes is such an enormous pay-off to the viewer’s patience up until that point.

Michod’s directing style is quite a bit different from that of Nash Edgerton, his influences being more in the Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese vein rather than Hitchcock and older noir, though the two filmmakers have established a burgeoning film Renaissance in Melbourne comparable to the early days of Scorsese and Coppola. Animal Kingdom offers the quality storytelling of those ’70s crime classics but with an edge that makes it feels far more contemporary than other films influenced by that era.

Animal Kingdom opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.

Also in Limited Release:

Tales from Earthsea (Disney) is the animated debut by Goro Miyazaki, son of Hayao Miyazaki, who adapts Ursula K. Le Guin’s popular fantasy story about the journey of a master wizard named Lord Archmage Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton) and his young liege Arren (Matt Levin) as they try to find out what is causing a disturbance in the land of Earthsea and try to defeat an evil wizard named Cob (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Also featuring voices of Cheech Marin and Marisa Hargitay, the animated fantasy opens in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu on Friday.

Produced by Danny Glover, Annemarie Jacir’s drama Salt of This Sea (Lorber Films) stars Suheir Hammad as Soraya, a woman born in Brooklyn who returns to Israel to search for her Palestinian roots near Jaffa from where her grandparents were ejected 60 years earlier, only to have her quest obstructed. It opens in New York at the Quad Cinemas.

Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live (UTV Motion Pictures) about two farming brothers who lose their land due to an unpaid government loan, and when an unsympathetic local politician suggests they kill themselves, it becomes a national scandal as the two brothers become entrenched in the upcoming elections. The Indian-based comedy opens in New York at the BIG Cinemas Manhattan and the AMC Empire 25, as well as in other cities.

Josh Crook’s thriller La Soga (7-57 Releasing) is about a 10-year-old named Luisito living in the crime-ridden streets of the Dominican Republic who sees his father murdered by a criminal and then 20 years later, the boy’s turned into a heartless killer set on getting revenge. It opens at the Village East Cinemas in New York on Friday.

Alex Rotaru’s award-winning documentary They Came to Play (Area 23a) takes a look at an international piano competition held by the Van Cliburn Foundation in Forth Worth, Texas featuring a wide gamut of pianists, both professionally-trained and self-taught amateurs who try to balance their lives with their love for playing and taking part in the competition. It opens in New York City at INDIE House.

The People I’ve Slept With (People Pictures) – Quentin Lee’s sex comedy about a promiscuous Asian woman who sleeps with so many men that when she gets pregnant, she needs to figure out who the father is so she can get married and lead a “normal” life. It opens in New York at the Clearview Chelsea and then in L.A. and San Francisco after that.

Micki Dickoff & Tony Pagano’s documentary Neshoba: The Price of Freedom (First Run Features) looks at the 1964 case about Klansmen who murder three Civil Rights workers, two Jews and an African-American, who were helping to register African-American voters in Mississipi. They weren’t convicted until 2005 when Edgar Ray Killen, an 80-year-old Baptist preacher was indicted for masterminding the murders. It opens at the Cinema Village in New York on Friday.

Also, the 14th Annual DocuWeeks is continuing at the IFC Center in New York with six more first-run documentaries being made eligible for the Oscars with their one-week run.


Next week, the month of August rattles along with what could possibly be the worst line-up of the entire summer. At least that’s all we can think when the best looking movie of the weekend is Piranha 3D (Dimension)! On the opposite side of the fang scale is the spoof comedy Vampires Suck (20th Century Fox) and hoping to take a bite out of their box office will be the urban comedy Lottery Ticket (Warner Bros.), Emma Thompson’s long-awaited sequel… No… it’s not More Sense and Sensibility but Nanny McPhee Returns (Universal) while Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman make The Switch (Miramax/Disney).

Copyright 2010 Edward Douglas

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