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.’
(UPDATE: Not much new to report although with about 300 more theaters than our early estimates, Screen Gems’ Prom Night seems like a solid #1 with Street Kings trailing behind. Also, watch for Sony’s 21 to continue its successful run with additional theaters this weekend. One thing we forgot to mention was that the animated film Persepolis will be releasing an English dubbed version in select cities this weekend, so if you skipped it the first time due to the French language, here’s your chance to see Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s animated masterpiece.)
It’s the weekend of the subsidiaries as three of the studio’s specialty branches show their stuff trying to overcome the slump?there I said the “s” word, so sue me! The most likely to bring in impressionable teen audiences is Prom Night, the latest horror remake from Sony’s Screen Gems, which has the benefits of a PG-13 rating, which means that the target teen high school audience–many of whom are preparing for their own prom night–will be able to flock to see this in groups on Friday night. It probably won’t fare quite as well as their previous horror remake hit When a Stranger Calls, but it should be a strong enough draw for younger moviegoers to win the weekend.
It’s biggest competition for older teen males especially in big cities will be Street Kings (Fox Searchlight), David (Harsh Times) Ayers’ second movie as a director and his second teaming with James (L. A. Confidential) Ellroy. With an all-star cast ranging from Keanu Reeves, Emmy winner Hugh Laurie and Oscar winner Forest Whitaker to rappers Common and The Game, it’s the type of gritty crime movie that could put a crimp in Prom Night‘s business, although the R-rating will probably hold it back somewhat. (Put it this way, if you’re a 15-year-old boy wanting to see this but you can’t get in, what movie will you buy a ticket to? That’s right? Prom Night. Thanks, Screen Gems!)
This weekend’s underdog is the indie dramedy Smart People (Miramax) starring Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church and Ellen Page, which is being given a wide release hoping to capitalize on the star power, especially trying to bring in Parker and Page’s female fans that might not be interested in the other choices. It may be getting too wide an initial release and be hurt by the amount of choices in limited release and vice versa, so it will probably open in the bottom half of the Top 10.
1. Prom Night (Sony/Screen Gems) – $17.5 million N/A (+.3 million)
2. Street Kings (Fox Searchlight) – $10.2 million N/A (-.3 million)
3. 21 (Sony) – $9.8 million -36% (+.1 million)
4. Nim’s Island (Fox Walden) – $8.3 million -37% (same)
5. Leatherheads (Universal)- $7.0 million -45% (same)
6. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who (20th Century Fox) – $5.2 million -43% (same)
7. The Ruins (DreamWorks/Paramount) – $4.1 million -49% (same)
8. Smart People (Miramax) – $3.8 million N/A (+.2 million)
9. Superhero Movie (Dimension) – $3.0 million -45% (same)
10. Drillbit Taylor (Paramount) – $2.0 million -41% (same)
Last year was the weekend where the DreamWorks thriller Disturbia exploded into 2,925 theatres with $22.2 million, effortlessly taking the top spot and leaving the Bruce Willis-Halle Berry thriller Perfect Stranger in the dust with just $11.2 in fourth place. It also began last year’s run of Shia Labeouf becoming a bigger star as the movie remained in the top spot for 3 weeks. Marcus Nispel’s Viking epic Pathfinder didn’t stand a chance with that much competition, grossing a dismal $5 million in 1,720 theaters for 6th place. The Top 10 grossed $91.7 million and continuing this year’s trend so far, this week’s box office should be down once again.
Prom Night (Sony/Screen Gems)
Starring Brittany Snow, Scott Porter, Jessica Stroup, Dana Davis, Collins Pennie, Kelly Blatz, James Ransone, Brianne Davis, Johnathon Schaech, Idris Elba
Directed by Nelson McCormick (long-time TV director; upcoming The Stepfather–another remake!); Written by J.S. Cardone (lots of B-movies and video fare, as well as Reny Harlin’s The Covenant, upcoming The Stepfather)
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Tagline: “It’s Midnight. Everyone’s Ready To Go Home…But Someone Has Other Plans”
Plot Summary: After suffering great personally tragedy, high school senior Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow) is preparing to attend her prom, hoping to put it behind her, but the sadistic killer from her past has other plans as he goes on a killing rampage that will ruin prom night for Donna and her friends… Permanently.
The second horror movie in a row after DreamWork’s The Ruins failed to find an audience, this pseudo-remake of the 1980 horror film is more in the vein of the teen slasher flicks we’ve seen so much lately. While might think the genre has been faltering, it’s going to benefit greatly from its PG-13 rating, since it will be able to bring in younger audiences as well as entice groups of teen girls that might not normally go see a horror film. This was certainly the case with Screen Gems’ 2006 remake of the horror film When a Stranger Calls, which opened with $21.6 million over Super Bowl weekend on its way to $48 million total, and three years ago, MGM’s remake of The Amityville Horror opened with $23.5 million on its way to $64 million.
The original Prom Night came out in 1980 amidst a wave of teen slasher flicks spurred by the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, and though Screen Gems has borrowed the title, this is by no means a direct remake, since it has a very different premise for the horror, more in line with the serial killer premise used for the 2005 remake of Black Christmas for Dimension, which opened on Christmas Day to decent numbers but quickly dive-bombed after that. In some ways, the key to these seasonal/holiday horror movies working is when they’re released and right now, many high school seniors are preparing for their own proms which is what makes the timing of this movie perfect, because the film’s target audience will be able to relate. Then again, Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween disproved this theory somewhat last year by doing very well with a release over Labor Day weekend rather than trying to face Saw IV in its traditional pre-Halloween weekend. This type of movie tends to be very formula and cliché-driven, which means that older moviegoers won’t generally be interested in the last, and its PG-13 rating will be a double-edged sword because younger moviegoers will be able to see the film, while diehard horror fans probably won’t be that interested since the blood and gore will be kept at a minimum.
Like the cast of The Ruins last week, there aren’t any huge marquee stars although both Brittany Snow and Idris Elba have appeared in big movies last year, Snow having a supporting role in last year’s Hairspray, which presumably brought in some teen girls but presumably a completely different audience than might see a horror movie like this. Otherwise, Snow only has John Tucker Must Die and the long-running “American Dreams” television show under her belt. Idris Elba, the star of HBO’s “The Wire,” is playing the obligatory detective who has to try to stop the serial killer before he kills any more teenagers, even though prom night should offer him a veritable buffet of targets. Elba has some experience with the genre, having starred in last year’s 28 Weeks Later and The Reaping, both during the spring season, but he’s becoming just as well known for his urban ensemble work in movies like Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls and This Christmas, also both released last year. One might presume that he could bring in some of the African-American audience that might see this movies as too “whitebread” but you would probably be presuming wrong. Oddly, Elba is reunited in this movie with Jessica Stroup, the token white person in This Christmas who appeared in last year’s The Hills Have Eyes 2, and she’s appeared in various television shows including “Reaper” but she probably won’t be much of a draw. The only other “name” is Ming-Na from “ER” and all I can ask is… what’s she doing in this? Like The Ruins last week, the cast will have very little impact on anyone who might want to see or avoid this, nor will the director, a TV director who is kicking off a run of horror remakes with this followed by The Stepfather.
In the last year, there seems to have been a drop-off in the success of slasher flicks which have been relabelled “torture porn” and recent stalker flicks like Captivity and P2 both bombed last year, though they were both rated R. Neither of them had quite as strong or succinct a title as “Prom Night,” another thing that will help the latest Screen Gems offering. Unlike some of their past PG-13 horror offerings, this seems to be getting a more moderate release into closer to 2,500 theatres than the normal 3,000, maybe because it was something they picked up from Newmarket Films when it was dissolved. It does have some competition for guys with the R-rated crime thriller Street Kings (see below), but there should still be enough teens looking for scares that either couldn’t get into last week’s The Ruins or were too freaked out by the gore to check it out. One also can’t overlook that teen males who might want to see Street Kings could just as easily buy tickets for this and then sneak in. This should be a somewhat safe movie to open at #1 although the audience will generally be under 20, since it’s being marketed directly towards the younger audience rather than older horror fans.
Why I Should See It: Because you’re too young to have been burnt by Screen Gems’ previous horror stinkers.
Why Not: If this is half as bad as When A Stranger Calls… actually, I’m not sure if that’s even possible.
Projections: $16 to 18 million opening and $43 million total.
Street Kings (Fox Searchlight)
Starring Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, Hugh Laurie, Chris Evans, Naomie Harris, Jay Mohr, John Corbett, Cedric the Entertainer, Amaury Nolasco, Terry Crews, Common, The Game
Directed by David Ayer (Harsh Times, writer of Training Day and co-writer of Dark Blue and The Fast and the Furious); Written by James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, Dark Blue), Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller, Police
Tagline: “Their City. Their Rules. No Prisoners.”
Plot Summary: After the death of his wife, veteran L.A. police officer Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is accused of killing a fellow police officers, so his supervisor (Forest Whitaker) teams him with a young detective (Chris Evans) to find the true killers in the crime-ridden streets of L.A. while Ludlow tries to stay away from the corrupt officers in the force.
Offering an option for older guys that might not be so easily swayed by a PG-13 horror remake, this gritty crime story pairs the writer of Training Day with the author of L.A. Confidential in a gritty police drama by one of the most respected crime writers alive, James Ellroy. The author is especially popular for his L.A.-based police dramas having won a coveted Scripter award for his work turning his own novel “L.A. Confidential” into an Oscar nominated film. Since then, a number of his other novels have been adapted including Brian De Palma’s take on Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia,” another period police film, and “White Jazz,” which is being adapted by Joe Carnahan. Originally, this movie was going to be directed by Spike Lee, coming off the success of his crime drama Inside Man, but instead, it ended up being helmed by David Ayer, who collaborated with Ellroy on his 2003 police drama Dark Blue. Ayer has also become known in L.A. crime circles for his work, most notably the script for Training Day, and Street Kings is his directorial follow-up to the poorly-received Harsh Times, which bombed in ’06.
While Ayers’ first movie starred Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez, this one has a much stronger cast including a bonafide box office star in Keanu Reeves, who is doing something different by playing the role of a police officer, having spent a lot of time doing dramas and action movies, most notably the “Matrix” trilogy. This is Reeves’ first movie appearance since reuniting with Sandra Bullock for The Lake House almost two years ago, but this one is hoping to appeal more to the male fans Reeves gained from doing movies like The Matrix and the supernatural action flick Constantine. In Street Kings, Reeves partners up with another superhero, Chris Evans, best known as Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch in the “Fantastic Four” movies, but he also headlined the New Line thriller Cellular a few years back. The cast also includes Emmy winning “House” star Hugh Laurie–allowing some synergy between Fox television and Searchlight–as well as comedian Cedric the Entertainer and Naomie Harris from 28 Days Later and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels. The most credibility will be given to the movie by the presence of Forest Whitaker, who was recently part of the strong ensemble casts of Sony’s Vantage Point and Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters following his Oscar win for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, which clearly increased Whitaker’s Q-rating after years of solid work as a strong dramatic actor. A bigger draw for younger guys in big cities will be the presence of rappers The Game and Common, the former appearing in his second role since last year’s surprise hit Waist Deep and Common following up from last year’s Smokin’ Aces and Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Still, there’s little proof that the presence of the rappers helped that movie and films like 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ haven’t done huge business despite his popularity among this film’s target audience. Either way, it’s a really impressive cast for a second feature, something that could help it offer enough disparate offerings that it will seem like a stronger option from the cast alone.
This type of movie usually appeals to 15 to 25 year old guys in big cities, and it’s geared more towards the “urban” audience with the setting and cast, so it should do particularly well in places like New York, L.A., Chicago, Detroit, etc. Unfortunately, Fox Searchlight has not proven themselves to be good at reaching that audience as seen by DMX’s Never Die Alone which bombed a few years back, but they wisely changed the film’s title from the original “The Night Watchman” which just isn’t nearly as strong as the present title. They’ve also managed to get the movie into over 2,500 theaters, more than the other new movies, but that means its getting a far wider release than most urban-targeted crime films, maybe because Searchlight is hoping that Reeves’ presence will give the film a much more expansive audience. Unfortunately, this will have very little women interested and because the movie looks like so many other movies, including Training Day, it’s likely that most people will see this as something that can easily be watched on DVD down the road. (And let’s face it, a DVD of a movie like this will probably be on the streets by Friday afternoon.)
Why I Should See It: If there’s anyone who knows the gritty streets of L.A., it’s James Ellroy and David Ayer, although this already might look like too many other movies.
Why Not: Not to knock Keanu’s acting skills (having not see the movie) but you have to wonder if he can pull off something like this.
Projections: $10 to 12 million opening and $26 million total.
Smart People (Miramax)
Starring Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Haden Church, Ellen Page, Ashton Holmes, Camille Manna
Directed by Noam Murro (debut from the DGA award-winning commercial director); Written by Mark Poirier (author of
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Tagline: “Sometimes the smartest people have the most to learn.”
Plot Summary: Professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a brilliant but arrogant English professor at Carnegie-Mellon still trying to get over the death of his wife years earlier, but things change when he gets into an accident that leads to a relationship with a disgruntled former student Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker) who agrees to date him. At the same time, his adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) has moved in with Lawrence and his overachieving daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page)
Full Review (Coming Soon!)
Most of the time, it’s easy to tell if a movie is a comedy or a drama but in recent years, that’s quickly been changing in part due to the work of indie filmmakers like Spike Jones, P. T. Anderson and Alexander Payne, the latter who teamed with producer Michael London for his fourth film Sideways starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, a movie which found a lot more success than previous character-driven indie films, because it gave moviegoers a chance to see people they could relate to in real situations. The success of Sideways with five Oscar nominations (including Best Picture!) and a gross of $71 million?the highest grossing film for the fledgling Fox Searchlight?was helpful in the decision for Fox Searchlight picking up Little Miss Sunshine at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, and getting behind Jason Reitman’s second film Juno and the rest is history, as both of them received Oscar Best Picture nominations while proving very popular both commercially and critically. Even though London didn’t produce either of those, he certainly helped propagate a trend that included Disney releasing Dan in Real Life starring Steve Carell, a smaller-budget sleeper hit, last year, followed by Lars and the Real Girl. London himself has kept busy with a number of movies in the genre including the similar-vibed dramedy The Family Stone and Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor which opens in limited release this weekend. (See below.)
For this first film from commercial director Noam Murro and novelist Mark Poirier, London brought back two of the stars of his previous hits, Thomas Haden Church, who received an Oscar nomination for Sideways, and Sarah Jessica Parker, the star of The Family Stone and HBO’s “Sex and the City.” While Church is very funny, he’s not likely to be as big a draw as Parker or the film’s main star Dennis Quaid, who returns to similar territory as Paul Weitz’s In Good Company, a sleeper hit that was very different from Quaid’s normal fare, which runs the gamut of thrillers, dramas and comedies. His box office track record isn’t particularly solid as he’s starred in moneymaking Oscar fare like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Roland Emmerich’s global warming blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow but then has appeared in movies like The Alamo and Cold Creek Manor that barely topped $20 million. Certainly, this type of material will appeal to Quaid’s older fans and those who like him when he does quirkier roles like when he played a ’50s bread-winner who was secretly gay in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven.
On the other hand, Sarah Jessica Parker has proven that she has a sizeable audience of female fans due to the success of “Sex and the City” and this movie might be seen as a taster for what will surely be one of the biggest female-driven movies of the summer. Although Parker has been acting since she was very, very young in the mid-
’80s. Some of the peaks include Honeymoon in Vegas with Nicolas Cage in 1992 and The First Wives Club four years later, but she had her biggest starring hit in 2006 with Failure to Launch opposite Matthew McConaughey, which grossed $88 million. Regardless, she’s one of those actresses who women love, right up there with the likes of Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock, and this sort of movie is right up her alley.
Even with those three known actors, the real draw for the film might be the happy circumstances that allowed the filmmakers to hire actress Ellen Page to play Quaid’s daughter Vanessa before she exploded with last year’s Juno, which was “storming the box office castle” just as this movie was making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. What’s great is that gives Miramax an additional secret weapon to sell the movie to people who might generally like this sort of movie anyway, and Page actually plays a fairly large role in the movie so it’s a bonus for the movie.
One has to presume that this movie will lean more towards older women, but there are plenty of guys in their ’20s and ’30s who enjoy well-made indie films, and reviews should generally be good. The problem is that this kind of movie usually would open in select cities and then build on word-of-mouth, much like Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine and Juno did, but Miramax have decided to give it a wide release out of the gate in hopes that the 20 to 40 somethings and older that might normally be interested in a movie like this
They’re giving it a moderate release into 1,100 theaters with a decent advertising campaign, but it will still play better in the big cities and probably in certain areas over others, so the per-theater average might be lower than some of the other movies mentioned above. Even so, it should be able to build some word-of-mouth on this weekend to maintain business for as long as theaters are willing to hold it, especially with so little strong fare for adults
Why I Should See It: Combining a great script and cast, this is more than a romance comedy, as much as it’s a dysfunctional indie family comedy.
Why Not: Some people might think it looks too much like previous movies from the cast.
Projections: $3 to 5 million opening weekend and $18 to 20 million total.
THE CHOSEN ONE:
Normally, I’d go with something like Smart People (see above) which is very good, but I’d like to draw attention to some of the films opening quieter in limited release this weekend such as?
[email protected] (Fox Searchlight)
Starring the [email protected] Chorus, Bob Cilman
Directed by Stephen Walker
Tagline: “Prepare to be entertained by this New England senior citizens chorus that has delighted audiences worldwide with their covers of songs by everyone from The Clash to Coldplay.”
Plot Summary: This documentary follows the [email protected] Chorus of Northampton, Mass., ranging in age from 60 to 93, as they prepare for their new season with director Bob Cilman, rehearsing some of their toughest material before the big show which is overshadowed by personal tragedy within the group.
There’s something absolutely hilarious about this festival favorite documentary coming out mere days after Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert film Shine a Light because while everyone is raving about how much energy and life Mick Jagger has going into his ’60s, this look at Northampton, Mass’ [email protected] Chorus shows that with an average age of 20 years plus on the Stones, these old-timers have far more life, energy and most of all, personality. This is very much a slow-builder documentary (much like this week’s Honorable Mention Body of War–see below) one that seems fairly mundane as it starts. As amusing as it is seeing these adorable grannies and grampas first experiencing Sonic Youth and the Talking Heads, it’s how things develop over the course of the movie in terms of members passing away and how the group reacts that really makes it something memorable. The group’s versions of classic rock and punk songs are fun but nothing tops their version of Coldplay’s “Fix You” which will have you tearing up (as will other moments). Then on top of that, you have choir director Bob Cilman, who is quite a character, really pushing the group to try to learn these difficult songs, and all together, you end up with a well-layered film with lots of emotions, one that’s incredibly crowd-pleasing regardless of your age, but definitely something that you can bring your older parents or grandparents to see and win lots of brownie points, while enjoying yourself at the same time. After terrific showings at the L.A. and Sundance Film Festivals, this will open in select cities on Wednesday, and it’s really worth seeking out, even if you’re not normally a fan of documentaries.
Chaos Theory (Warner Bros.)
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Emily Mortimer, Stuart Townsend, Sarah Chalke, Mike Erwin
Directed by Marcos Siega (Pretty Persuasion, Underclassman)
Tagline: “This man will bring order to the universe? or not.”
Plot Summary: Frank Allen (Ryan Reynolds) is a compulsively organized efficiency expert whose life is turned upside down when his wife (Emily Mortimer) decides to make life “easier” by giving him ten more minutes but inadvertently setting the clocks back ten minutes instead of forwards. This begins a series of events that lead to Frank discovering that his 7-year-old daughter might have come from an affair between his wife and best friend Buddy (Stuart Townsend) and things go downhill from there.
I’m going to save most of my thoughts on this one for my review, but I’m very excited that this is getting a last-minute release in select cities this weekend after a successful test run a few weeks back. I really like the director, not so much for his previous films, but because he’s a really cool guy, and his first two movies weren’t made under ideal circumstances. I think this one was more of a success and I’m glad to see that it’s getting a release finally and that he got such a great career-defining performance from Ryan Reynolds.
Review (Coming Soon!)
Body of War (The Film Sales Company)
Starring Tomas Young, Senator Robert Byrd
Directed by Phil Donahue (legendary talk show host and journalist) and Ellen Spiro
Plot Summary: Five days after arriving for his tour of duty in Iraq, a young soldier named Tomas Young was shot in the spine leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. As he dealt with the realities of his incapacitated state, the truth comes out about the justification for the U.S. sending soldiers to Iraq being fault and inaccurate at best. This documentary spearheaded and co-directed by Phil Donahue shows a personal side of how the war has affected those sent there.
I’m somewhat mixed on the directorial debut by former talk show host Phil Donahue, working with long-time documentary filmmaker Ellen Spiro, but I do think it’s a noble effort for showing another side of the effects of the Iraq War, in this case the suffering of Tomas Young, who was paralyzed from a shot to the spine after being in Iraq for five days. The film follows him around as he speaks out on the war and how the American people and those who joined the military were deliberately deceived and given false information to justify it. The film shows this through footage from C-SPAN of the Senatorial debates that led to the vote whether to send troops to Iraq, speeches that are cleverly edited together in a comical way to show how many of those arguing for war were basically just reading or repeating what they were told. While listening to politicians speak can get tiring, the way it’s juxtaposed with Tomas’ plight is very effective, especially when it culminates in a meeting between Tomas and Robert Byrd, the nearly 90-year-old senator who was the most vocal opposition for the country going to war. The toughest part of the movie is watching Tomas suffer through all the indignities of his new condition and situation, something that was necessary for the film to drive home its point, although it’s somewhat excruciating to watch Tomas’ humiliation as his mother has to insert his catheter, and there’s nothing in any modern horror movie that might make you nearly as squeamish. Otherwise, it’s a fairly straightforward film documenting the personal and health hardships faced by Tomas since returning from Iraq, and it’s his charisma and personality that drives the movie. While this might be coming out way too late to make a difference to the thousands of lives that have been lost over this unnecessary war, it’s a strong documentary effort that gives a very strong argument for doing something to get the soldiers out of Iraq as soon as possible.
After playing at the Toronto Film Festival last year, this will open in New York at the IFC Center on Wednesday, in L.A. at the Nuart Theater on April 25 and in other cities over the next couple months.
Also in Limited Release:
Stalags (Heymann Brothers Films) – Ari Libsker’s documentary looks at the underground paperbacks in Israel that featured female SS officers with whips and boots having sex with captured American and British prisoners, which were popular until the authors were put on trial for distributing anti-Semitic porn. It opens on Wednesday at the Film Forum.
Dark Matter (First Independent Pictures) – Meryl Streep and Aidan Quinn co-star in the directorial debut by opera director Chen Shi-Zeng, a drama about a Chinese science student (Liu Ye) who comes to America and tries to make his mark in the world of cosmology but finds that he has to deal with too many obstacles including a professor who wants to steal his research (Quinn) that ultimately leads to him going down a dark path, unwilling to accept help from a willing benefactor who believes in him (Streep). Despite concerns about the film’s endgame being too similar to recent school shootings, this is being released in select cities on Friday following its screening as part of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects” series.
Mini-Review: A seriously misguided effort in attempting to explore what might lead a normally quiet and intelligent university student to lose control and go on a shooting spree as typified by last year’s Virginia Tech massacre. While the only thing in common here is that the perpetrator is Asian, you have to wonder why Chen thought this would make for a good movie. In fact, it’s a fairly tawdry affair that spends most of its time following the day-to-day life of Liu Xing, a beleaguered Chinese exchange student who discovers that there isn’t nearly as much freedom in coming to America a he imagined, as he sees his original ideas about dark matter being denegrated and stolen by his mentor. Liu Zing’s hopes and dreams being smashed are juxtaposed with his letters back to his parents in China which are far more hopeful, so when the film explodes into violence in the last few minutes, it really seems to come from out of left field if you’re not aware of the endgame before seeing the movie. There’s nothing about this mild-mannered student that makes one feel he might have the ability to do what he does, since the character just isn’t developed well enough in the time leading up to it, and the seriousness of the subject matter is lessened by an equally silly subplot where he’s spurned by a girl he likes who works at a coffee shop. Actor Liu Ye has absolutely no presence as an actor, not nearly enough to carry this movie with his awkward broken English?maybe that’s why she turns down his advances!?and that leaves it to the likes of Streep and Quinn to overact and try to make their characters more interesting. In fact, those characters add to the film’s overt reverse racism of “typical Americans” being condescending to clearly smarter foreigners that trust them. It’s a pretty repulsive indictment which might leave as bad a taste in your mouth as the embarrassing performance by Meryl Streep, who really needs to start being more selective in her roles. Who knows what anyone involved with this movie was thinking by making, let alone releasing, this movie, especially with school violence being such a horrifying aspect of modern-day living, but despite its desire to be timely and controversial, it’s a surprisingly boring affair that leaves you scratching your head whether the ending is meant to be some sort of pay-off or if it ultimately ruins any chances of enjoying the movie. Rating: 5/10
The Dhamma Brothers (Balcony Releasing) – This documentary by Jenny Phillips, Andrew Kukura and Anne Marie Stein takes a look at an overcrowded maximum security prison in Alabama where life-long convicts are offered a demanding ten-day Vipassana retreat to teach themselves how to use meditation to get over their personal issues. Showing how treatment through meditation can improve the mental state of the most brutal prisoners, this intriguing doc opens in New York at the Cinema Village on Friday.
Mini-Review: On the one hand, this is an interesting story that takes a unique look at the Alabama penal system and what happens when someone takes a new approach to treating the inmates rather than just storing them, but too often, the film feels like an advertisement for the Vipassana meditation system rather than being an unbiased documentation of the events. Much of it might leave you wondering how much of this is real and how much is scripted or staged and whether the process is little more than brainwashing. For instance, the film doesn’t include any interviews with the inmates before the treatment to see what they were like, so it’s a doc that’s always working in hindsight as most of these “ruthless killers” already seem rather tame and subdued. That’s only a part of the issues regarding the confusing timing of events, but it’s still an interesting story and the film successfully breaks up the talking heads with a terrific ambient soundtrack featuring the likes of Low and Sigur Ros. Really, this is for those who are interested in the powers of meditation and chanting to overcome personal obstacles and few others. Rating: 7/10
The Take (Destination Films) – In this crime-drama from Brad Furman, John Leguizamo plays Felix, a struggling armored car driver who survives a violent hijacking by a greedy criminal (Tyrese Gibson), and who becomes obsessed with tracking them down before they implicate him in the crime. After playing at the Toronto Film Festival last year and closing the Gen-Art Film Festival, the film gets a limited release in New York and L.A. on Friday.
Mini-Review (Coming Soon!)
Remember The Daze (Freestyle Releasing) ? Amber Heard and Alex Vega star in Jess Manafort’s film about teenagers trying to get through their last days of suburban high school in 1999. It opens in New York, D.C. and L.A. on Friday.
Bra Boys (Berkela Films) ? Narrated by Russell Crowe, Sunny Abberton’s documentary looks at the warring gangs of Australia’s Marouba housing projects, a surfing community shaken up when two of the group known as “Bra Boys” (the filmmaker’s brothers) are indicted for murder. It opens in New York at the Quad Cinemas, as well as Long Island, L.A. and in Hawaii on Friday.
The Visitor (Overture Films) ? Tom McCarthy’s follow-up to the beloved indie classic The Station Agent stars Richard Jenkins (“Six Feet Under”) as college professor Walter Vale, who comes to New York City and finds foreign squatters living in his apartment, but instead of kicking them out, he befriends them and gets involved in their day-to-day lives. It will open in New York and L.A. this weekend and then expand into other cities.
Mini-Review: McCarthy’s follow-up to “The Station Agent” could never be accused of being a sophomore slump even if it’s not nearly as strong as his debut, though it does continue his theme of studying people from disparate backgrounds meeting and connecting under unconventional circumstances. He succeeds in capturing the spirit of New York as melting pot with the multi-cultural characters, and Richard Jenkins is great as the focal point for exploring this world, giving a subdued performance that often relies on his ability to bring a subtle humor to many scenes without saying a word. McCarthy has found equally capable co-stars in Haaz Sleiman as Tarek, the Syrian percussionist who helps Walter discover a new passion, and Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother. The chemistry and dynamics between Jenkins and these lesser-known actors drives the film, but the pace rarely accelerates above a death crawl as it meanders between the characters, making it hard for the viewer’s interest to stay focused on walter’s story. Despite the light tone of the majority of the movie, it switches gears after an unexpected incident, leading up to a downer of a last act with the fate of one key character being made completely off-camera, making you wonder if there’s any way for things to recover since Jenkins’ character (and us through him) feel powerless to do anything. Things are left fairly open-ended allowing the optimists to look at where things leave off as hopeful for the future, but it’s hard to really be satisfied when so little happens and the film’s few active plot developments build to a big nothing. McCarthy’s exploration of the immigrant process never feels completely politically-motivated, but it does straddle the line between being a character drama and being a message movie. Ultimately, it’s far too much of a mixed bag to be completely effective in either, but it does allow for some fun and unexpected moments and solid performances that keeps the film from being one that can be completely written-off. Rating: 7/10
Next week, the month of April gets interesting?so sue me for being optimistic!?with three more new movies in wide release. (Apparently, everything comes in three with movies these days, whether good and bad.) Knocked Up‘s Jason Segel writes and stars in the romantic disaster comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Universal), Jet Li and Jackie Chan face-off in the adventure epic The Forbidden Kingdom (Lionsgate) while Al Pacino stars in the thriller 88 Minutes (Sony/TriStar). And only two more weeks until the summer!
Copyright 2008 Edward Douglas