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 theater counts.
1. Bride Wars (20th Century Fox) $23.5 million N/A (down .2 million)
2. Gran Torino (Warner Bros.) $14.6 million 592% (up .3 million)
3. Marley & Me (20th Century Fox) – $13.1 million -46% (down .4 million)
4. Bedtime Stories (Disney) $12.4 million -40% (same)
5. The Unborn (Rogue Pictures) $11.6 million N/A (up 1.1 million)
6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount) – $10.3 million -45% (up .2 million)
7. Yes Man (Warner Bros.) – $7.9 million -44% (down .1 million)
8. Valkyrie (MGM/United Artists) – $7.8 million -45% (up .3 million)
9. Seven Pounds (Sony) $5.6 million -44% (same)
10. Doubt (Miramax) – $3.9 million -22% (same)
– Not Easily Broken (TriStar/Sony) – $2.6 million N/A (up .1 million)
– The Reader (The Weinstein Co.) – $1.9 million +54% (down .3 million — not expanding as wide as originally thought)
Welcome to 2009 and the first official week of new releases. It’s a busy one for sure, far busier than past years when a single movie might open and exceed expectations, which was the case with White Noise, Hostel and last year’s One Missed Call. This year, we get three new movies in wide release and two expanding wider, but the amount of strong movies still in theaters from Christmas could keep any of them from really breaking out as in years past.
Either way, the best bet of the weekend has to be the wedding day chick flick Bride Wars (20th Century Fox) pitting Kate Hudson against Anne Hathaway, because there’s no way you can avoid the obvious, that pairing two actresses who are favorites among female moviegoers in a high concept wedding premise with such a great title is guaranteed to do well. Expect it to top the box office with $20 million being its low point, though one probably shouldn’t expect the kind of opening it might get in a better release month.
That should take care of most of the younger women, but older men who won’t have any interest in that movie will have another easy choice in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (Warner Bros.), which expands nationwide after three strong weeks in select cities. Even having played in many cities for weeks, the word-of-mouth has been good and being able to see Eastwood on screen for the first time in four years (and possibly for the last time) should get enough people into theaters to allow it second place against the strong holiday releases.
While there haven’t been many horror movies in recent months, David Goyer’s fourth film The Unborn (Rogue Pictures/Universal) hasn’t been marketed very well, although it could still be of interest to male teens who won’t have interest in the other two movies. Either way, it’s probably shooting for fifth place at best, especially since it could lose some of its horror business in the areas where After Dark’s third annual Horrorfest is playing (see “Limited Releases” below).
Based on the novel by the Bishop T.D. Jakes, the Bill (Hoodlum) Duke directed drama Not Easily Broken (Sony/Screen Gems), starring Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson, will mainly be playing to the older African-American women who follow the pastor’s work. The movie isn’t being advertised enough to really make much of a mark, so expect it to wind up outside the Top 10. Likewise, Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, will expand nationwide this weekend but until it starts winning some awards, the subject matter might not fly with wider audiences.
We’re already falling somewhat off schedule from last year, because the first weekend of ’08 was actually the last weekend of ’07; we’ll try to catch up this week by covering two weekends for reasons that will make sense next week. 2008 kicked off with the release of the J-horror remake One Missed Call (Warner Bros.), which fared better than expected, opening in fifth place with $12.5 million. The following week, three movies were released, but it was the Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman comedy The Bucket List (Warner Bros.) that would top the charts with $19.3 million as it expanded nationwide into nearly 3,000 theaters. Settling for second, the Ice Cube comedy First Sunday (Sony/Screen Gems) opened with $17.7 million in 2,213 theaters, while Jason Reitman’s Juno starring Ellen Page continued to kick ass in third place with another $13.6 million, as it reached the $70 million mark. The second “VeggieTales” movie, The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything (Universal), opened weak with $4.2 million, while Uwe Boll’s fantasy epic In the Name of the King (Freestyle Releasing) opened outside the Top 10 with less than $3 million in 1,600 theaters, another bomb from the Ed Wood of the 20th Century. That weekend, the Top 10 brought in $99 million, an amount that should be bested by this weekend’s offerings.
THE BATTLE CRY!
While it’s highly improbable that the “Battle Cry” will be a consistent offering this year, especially with the Sundance Film Festival taking up much of the Weekend Warrior’s time in the next few weeks, we thought we’d start this year with something fairly simple, being my Top 15 Most Anticipated Movies of 2009:
1. Terminator: Salvation (Warner Bros.) – I’ve been a fan of the franchise since the very first movie played in theaters, and I actually dug Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines more than most. I just have a feeling this will be the movie that finally redeems director McG and forces the world to take him seriously, so he doesn’t have to keep defending himself for Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (one of my favorite guilty pleasures). This just looks like it could be a really good look at the near future that relaunches the franchise in the right way, and I can’t wait to see some more early footage next week at a special presentation.
2. Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros.) – I’m only a marginal fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary detective, but when I heard Guy Ritchie was going to be reimagining the character as his next movie and found out who he got for Holmes and his trusty wingman Dr. Watson (Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law), I got really excited. That excitement increased greatly when I visited the set and watched Guy shooting an action scene then talked with the two actors, who are bringing their A-game to this one for sure. I just have a feeling this movie is going to be an amazing coup for Ritchie that no one is going to see coming. (Plus it co-stars both Eddie Marsan and Mark Strong, two of my favorite British actors!)
3. Final Destination: Death Trip 3D (New Line/WB) This might seem like an odd movie to be placed so high, sure, but if you knew how obsessed I was with this series and the premise of death having a design for us, then you might understand why I’m psyched to see Dave Ellis, director of the second and best movie, return to the franchise. This one starts out at a race track which promises lots of the great gore Ellis brought to the highway pile-up in FD2. I’m just bummed that Warner Bros. is releasing this (appropriately enough) in the death week of August where few movies do well–remember Ellis’ highly-anticipated Snakes on a Plane anyone?–and we just learned that it now has to compete with Quentin Tarantino’s WWII movie. As much as I’d hate to wait longer, I’d really love to see this franchise continue, so releasing it in the fall might be a better bet.
4. Star Trek (Paramount) – I’m not even remotely a Trek fan, having seen the original show and TNG but only maybe one or two of the previous movies. J.J. Abrams looks like he’s taken the idea behind the show and turned it into what looks like a fun summer action movie, which is exactly what Gene Roddenberry’s franchise might need right now in order to stay alive. Any doubts I had about the casting were put aside by the footage I saw a few weeks back, and this really looks like it will be the next generation of Star Trek that the rest of the world (i.e. not Trek fans) have been waiting for.
5. Watchmen (Warner Bros.) I think this will probably be higher on most people’s lists, but I’m already kind of sick of the hype surrounding this movie after writing about it for years. Certainly, I’m interested in seeing what Zack Snyder does after he turned Frank Miller’s 300 into something better than the source material, but I also think that expectations have become so overblown that there’s no way this can live up to them. Sure, I’m looking forward to this, but I still contest that “Watchmen” is not Alan Moore’s greatest work or as good as so many people claim and that it could never possibly work on screen anywhere near as well as it does in graphic novel format. Prove me wrong, Mr. Snyder!
6. Year One (Sony) This is another movie that I was excited about long before I visited the 5-acre Babel set that director Harold Ramis had built in Shreveport, Louisiana, but knowing what Ramis plans to do with the bible along with Jack Black, Michael Cera and Oliver Platt, I have a feeling this will be that comedy hit of the summer that everyone’s raving about for months afterwards. There’s just so much humor to be found in biblical times, and not since Mel Brooks has anyone decided to tackle it head on like Ramis is doing.
7. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (20th Century Fox) – However much I hated X-Men: The Last Stand and however skeptical I am of Gavin Hood helming this one, I freely admit that I loved the footage I saw at Comic-Con and I’m enough a fan of the character as played by Hugh Jackman that I can’t wait to see him face-off against Liev Schreiber’s Sabretooth and the other mutants. Here’s hoping that it allows Jackman to do more Wolverine spin-off movies since it’s the one character who has a rich enough history to deserve it.
8. The Wolfman (Universal) Continuing the theme of the previous film, another movie about a man who loses control and turns into a hairy beast, this one more literally. I haven’t really seen much about this movie starring Benicio Del Toro, but the original Lon Chaney movie is one of my favorite Universal monster movies, and I’m excited to see if they can give the character a much needed revival while keeping the story in period times.
9. Up (Disney/Pixar) – Considering that Ratatouille and WALLE were two of my favorite movies from the last two years, and the latter could end up becoming one of my favorites of all time, I certainly am eager to see Pixar’s next movie although the premise seems a lot more low-key and one wonders if they can make a movie about “normal humans” be exciting.
10. Funny People (Universal) – This is another movie where the director’s previous offerings, in this case The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, have proven that Judd Apatow can do no wrong. I expect that teaming with long-time friend Adam Sandler could make this one of the latter’s funniest movies, especially dealing with the stand-up comedy world they both know so well. (It is kind of odd that I’m anticipating this less than Year One, which Apatow produced, but I’m sure it will change once the first trailer drops.)
11. Where the Wild Things Are (Warner Bros.) – As a kid I loved Maurice Sendak’s book almost as much as I did “Curious George,” and with Spike Jones making this his third feature film, I’m sure this will be a strange and bizarre experience, rather than the typical Warner Bros. family movie ala Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Scooby-Doo. Maybe that’s a bad thing, since it’ll be geared more towards adult fans of the book, but hopefully, Warner Bros. will take a similar approach as past October releases and give this a surprise premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, where it will divide the critics into two competing camps who’ll go at each other with rocks and sticks. (Okay, maybe just the first part.)
12. Angels & Demons (Universal) – While Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ take on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was overblown with exposition, his previous novel (and originally the precursor to “Da Vinci”) was all about the action and thrills, so I have high hopes that Howard and Hanks will bring it this time in their take on a murder mystery involving the death of a Pope and the Illuminati plot against his possible replacements.
13. The Soloist (DreamWorks) – I’m kind of bummed this movie was moved out of awards season, because considering the premise, the cast and having Atonement director Joe Wright at the helm makes one think that it was deserving of attention, especially after Wright was snubbed by the Academy. Either way, I’ll be looking forward to seeing this when it comes out in March, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed it’s not another Reign Over Me.
14. Whiteout (Warner Bros.) – Yeah, I realize that this has been delayed for years and been in development hell even longer, and it’s getting a low-key September release over two years after a teaser was shown at Comic-Con, but I love the original graphic novel. It’s just such a great story and I can’t wait to see the new-and-improved Kate Beckinsale tackle this material, even though I guess she shot this before her recent dramatic turn.
15. The Lovely Bones (Paramount) I’ve owned this book since it was first published and I’ve never read it. I now have 11 months to get around to it thanks to all the delays, but I still have to admit that I’m dying to see what Peter Jackson does with his return to smaller films like this one. Hard to believe, but it’s been over three years since King Kong and Jackson is long past due for getting his name back out there, especially building to the even more anticipated The Hobbit.
Honorable mention: I’m not sure if Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, based on the Mark (Wanted) Millar comic, will come out in 2009. After all, it doesn’t even have a distributor at this point, which is pretty insane, but maybe we’ll see it debut at Comic-Con or Toronto. I probably should include Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on the list, but I haven’t read the book yet, so the excitement just isn’t quite there yet for me.
Feel free to post your own most anticipated lists in the comments below.
Bride Wars (20th Century Fox)
If there’s a surer way of getting women into theaters than pitting two popular actresses against each other in a high-concept comedy where they’re paying competing brides, than I’d like to know what it is. This one is almost genius in the way that it can be sold based on its casting and its near-perfect title alone, and that’s all it will take to get the intended target audience of women interested in it. Based on a screenplay written by two women, the comedy is helmed by Gary Winick, the indie filmmaker who had a rom-com hit with Jennifer Garner’s 13 Going on 30 a few years back, and this certainly seems like the kind of movie that could find a similar appeal among a moviegoing demographic that’s becoming more and more viable towards theatrical success for movies.
At first glance, it would seem like a fairly even battle to have the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway take on 29-year-old Kate Hudson in a contest for whom can have the bigger and better wedding, but in terms of box office, the younger actress is clearly in the lead, having starred in three $100 million movies and a fourth bubbling just under. Hudson has only had one $100 million movie (the 2003 rom-com How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) though two of her three most recent movies made more than $70 million, while her most recent rom-com My Best Friend’s Girl tanked. Around that same time, Hathaway was appearing in Jonathan Demme’s indie drama Rachel Getting Married (set at a wedding no less), a performance that is likely to take her all the way to the Oscars in February. Earlier in the year, they each had a significant hit, Hathaway with Get Smart over the summer and Hudson reuniting with Matthew McConaughey for the romantic action-adventure Fool’s Gold months earlier. Certainly putting two strong leading ladies and bonafide box office draws in a comedy together should bring out a good number of their fans, as well as going a long way towards ending the bitter rivalry between the two ladies’ fanbases that’s been going on for years. (Okay, I made that last part up, but you know me… anything to start a catfight!)
Some might not realize what a good thing it is for Bride Wars to be getting an early January release, which most would see as a sign of weakness. In fact, there have been plenty of successful romantic comedies opening this month including Just Married, which starred Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy, and Jennifer Lopez’s The Wedding Planner years earlier. Last year, Katherine Heigl from “Grey’s Anatomy” starred in the wedding-based rom-com 27 Dresses, also released by Fox, though over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. That brought in $23 million in its first three days against the hit Cloverfield, although granted, it was opening after a slower month of releases where there was a lot more room for it to break out. The latter does show the general trend for female-friendly movies centered around weddings doing huge business. Who knows why it is that women are so easy to seduce into theaters simply by putting humor into a wedding setting, but it’s worked so many times in the past that there’s little reason for Hollywood using the same formula over and over.
The best thing going for Bride Wars other than the cast, the wedding premise and the title (if that weren’t enough) is that women continue to be a force to be reckoned with at the box office as more and more movies geared specifically towards them do big business. Last year alone, there was Sex and the City ($152 million gross), Mamma Mia! ($143 million), Twilight ($176 million) and most recently Marley & Me ($106 million so far), all proving that women are more likely than ever to go see movies their opening weekend. There’s little keeping this from finding a big audience of women especially with Fox’s other female-friendly hit Marley & Me having already played in theaters for two weeks, and they’ll probably give some screens up to make room in hopes of having back-to-back hits. Otherwise, none of the new movies might have much of an effect on the audience that would be interested in this high concept comedy premise.
The chance of the movie having any word-of-mouth legs will depend on whether women like it better than last year’s 27 Dresses, but unless the movie really stinks–and is anyone seriously expecting good reviews for this regardless?–it should find some word-of-mouth business over next week’s 4-day holiday weekend.
Why I Should See It: Anne Hathaway is usually great and Kate Hudson has her moments and surely even a few guys might want to see these two foxy ladies duke it out.
The Unborn (Rogue Pictures/Universal)
Mini-Review: No filmmaker sets out to make a bad movie, and you can tell that David Goyer is a more than capable filmmaker with a good eye for setting up a shot and creating a tone. Even with that in mind, his attempt at making a creepy supernatural horror movie tries its hardest to be original but it does so by mixing so many overused horror plot devices that it ultimately ends up feeling blandly derivative. It’s also a movie so frontloaded with cheap scares and cliches that you might become desensitized to the horror aspect as things become more and more telegraphed as the terrors faced by Odette Yustman’s Casey continually turn out to be just a nightmare or one of her visions, it quickly stops being effective. As the movie progresses, Goyer throws more and more horror cliches at the audience with not one but two creepy kids–one real, one imagined; there’s a dead mother–committed suicide in an asylum of course–and then it starts going off the rails. There’s something about Holocaust experiments to change eye color and something coming through a dead twin from the other side, and those creepy kids keep showing up to do creepy and rotten things. Essentially, there are too many ideas being piled on top of each other to try to create something different, though the plot becomes so weighed down in its own convoluted mess, you’ll need a MENSA degree to keep track of all the pieces and try to fit them together. Then again, if you were that smart, you probably wouldn’t be going to see this movie because far too often, it caters to dumb audiences who’ll take anything thrown their way.
Unfortunately, the younger cast can barely keep up with the premise. As hot as Yustman might look in her underwear–she spends a good amount of time wearing nothing but–she’s just not a very convincing actress, possibly on the level to carry a TV drama but not strong enough to sell this premise. Some of the more dramatic scenes with Meagan Good are especially bad. When they’re not acting overly-scared or trying to be dramatic while face-to-face, they get on their laptop and start overacting via webcam. Cam Gigandet isn’t much better as Casey’s boyfriend, but it’s such a nothing no-brainer role that he’s perfectly cast. In trying to create characters that might feel hip for the teens, it instead feels like Goyer is trying too hard and their dialogue rings false. At least Gary Oldman shows up halfway through the movie to class it up as a rabbi who seems to have a better idea how to help Casey than anyone else.
Throughout the movie, Goyer shows off his budget with sweeping aerial shots of Chicago and the impressive locations he found to shoot the movie. Overall, the movie does look very good with appropriately creepy music, but by the third or fourth time we’ve revisited the asylum where Casey’s mother committed suicide, we’ve had enough. We get it. Even when the body count starts rising with various people Casey encounters being killed by strange creatures called “dybbuks”–as we’re told in some of the film’s over-expository scenes–it’s hard not to feel like we’ve seen it all before.
When imagery stolen directly from “The Grudge” runs out of steam, we get an exorcism, but this is not a normal everyday exorcism. No, this is a Jewish exorcism with Oldman blowing the shofar and reading Hebrew, and that’s certainly something we don’t see every day. It leads to a ridiculous last minute epilogue “twist” that most will have seen coming and have realized so much earlier that one wonders how one can end a movie on something so obvious. The whole thing ends up feeling ridiculous and silly. If you’re one of those people who loves every dumb horror movie they see regardless of quality, than “The Unborn” probably isn’t any worse than, say, “Boogeyman.” Who knows whether David Goyer set out to make the smartest dumb horror movie ever, but any intelligence gets lost in an unsatisfying ending that doesn’t justify the brain cells lost while getting there. Rating: 4.5/10
If it’s January, it must be time for the return of horror, having been a good release period for the genre with four horror movies placing in the Top 15 January openers with $19.5 million or more. This week’s offering is the latest from David Goyer, the genre-centric filmmaker who has been involved with some of the biggest comic book based movies, including the Warner Bros. hits Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Before that, Goyer was heavily involved with the “Blade” franchise, having written all three movies, directed the third and been involved with the production of a television spin-off. Goyer’s last film The Invisible opened at the end of April 2007, only performing moderately having not been given much of a marketing campaign by the Hollywood Films division of Disney. Even so, Goyer’s horror movie is mainly being sold on Goyer’s involvement with last summer’s blockbuster and current #2 highest grossing movie of all time The Dark Knight although Goyer didn’t direct or write the actual script. Even so, that might be the best way to sell a horror movie that looks like an amalgam of supernatural horror ideas that were already well-explored in classics like The Exorcist and The Omen.
As derivative as the movie might look or seem, Goyer has assembled a great cast centering around the lesser known Odette Yustman, part of the ensemble cast of last January’s monster movie Cloverfield, currently the #1 opening movie for the month. Goyer was able to use his connections from the Batman movies to get veteran actor Gary Oldman on board, making him one of the stronger draws for those who respect his work in some of the biggest blockbusters of the past few years. To recap Oldman’s entire career would be foolhardy, but he played Commissioner Gordon in the last two “Batman” movies and Sirius Black in the last few “Harry Potter” movies. The movie also stars Carla Gugino, who is quickly becoming a genre queen from her roles in Frank Miller’s Sin City and the upcoming Watchmen movie. British actor Idris Elba has appeared in a number of horror films, most notably The Reaping with Hilary Swank and last year’s remake of Prom Night, while Meagan Good recently appeared in Saw V. They’re all solid actors although as we’ve seen far too many times, horror fans rarely care about having quality name actors in their movies, and some of the biggest horror hits have starred relative unknowns.
Rogue Pictures has had mixed luck with their own horror offerings, their remake of The Hitcher bombing in 2007 and other movies like The Return and Cry Wolf barely making a mark. They had better luck when Universal took over, having a huge hit with the long-delayed The Strangers last summer, and they’re probably hoping to have similar success with Goyer’s movie. One key thing going Goyer’s way is the fact that his movie has a PG-13 rating, which means it can bring in a much younger audience of male and female teens who dig horror, something that greatly helped last year’s One Missed Call and Universal’s White Noise a few years earlier. In both cases, those horror movies opened in early January, usually a bad time to open movies since everyone’s recovering from the holidays, but Lionsgate also opened Eli Roth’s Hostel in the first weekend of 2006, and it fared very well despite its hard-R rating. Unlike those January horror movies, The Unborn isn’t opening by itself, which could make a big difference on how well it does.
The Unborn takes the more supernatural approach to horror, something that’s often brought in moviegoers who don’t normally go to slasher flicks or “torture porn.” With Goyer’s involvement, one would assume this is a far more intelligent horror film than the norm, not that it might mean much to the movie’s intended target audience of teens. There are certainly many other choices for older guys including Clint Eastwood’s latest, Valkyrie and Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, though they’ve had two full weeks to see the latter two. It might be hard for The Unborn to bring in the younger female audience who often get dragged to horror movies by boyfriends, since Bride Wars will be a stronger choice to see with their girlfriends. On top of that, Goyer’s movie has to contend with the latest After Dark Horrorfest in select cities, which might be a bigger draw for true horror fans, although this could be something to see as part of the weekend horror viewing.
The commercials for this horror movie aren’t great, but neither were the ones for White Noise or One Missed Call, so obviously that stuff doesn’t matter either to young audiences looking for scares. Oddly, Universal is screening this one for critics, despite having snubbed them for past genre films like Dead Silence and last year’s Doomsday. Maybe they’re hoping that they’ll give the movie enough love to help generate interest. It’s not very likely, and the fact that Rogue/Universal are giving this a moderate opening into just over 2,200 theaters doesn’t show a lot of confidence that there’s interest in seeing this, although that’s roughly the same number of theaters as the above-mentioned January horror hits.
Why I Should See It: David Goyer is a really smart writer and filmmaker who’s likely to put a unique spin on the supernatural horror genre.
Gran Torino (Warner Bros.)
Clint Eastwood continues his quest to show that old age won’t slow him down as his second movie of 2008 gets a wide release this weekend. Unlike Changeling, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, this movie returns Eastwood to being in front of the camera for the first time since his Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby in 2004, something that could make a huge difference for how this movie fares this weekend.
Eastwood has long been a popular actor among older folks, but as he’s become more and more involved in the Oscar race each year, he’s found a younger following among 20-to-30 something movie lovers. To date, most of Eastwood’s higher grossing movies were the ones he starred in with both Million Dollar Baby and his previous Oscar winner Unforgiven each grossing $100 million, while Mystic River, which he directed but didn’t appear in, grossed slightly less. The character Eastwood plays in Gran Torino will remind many of his longtime fans of his most popular character, police enforcer “Dirty Harry” Calahan, though put in a suburban setting. The resulting tone is a revenge thriller ala Jodie Foster’s The Brave One but with a second act tone in the vein of Tom McCarthy’s acclaimed indie drama The Visitor. (Oddly, it looks like Eastwood’s primary competition for receiving a third Oscar nomination in the lead actor category is that movie’s star Richard Jenkins, a true underdog who has yet to be nominated once.)
Eastwood’s latest opened in select cities on December 12, and it did decent business over the holidays, holding steady at #15 for two weekends in a row in just 84 theaters. Often when a movie expands wide after playing in bigger cities for a few weeks, especially over the holidays, its per-theater average drops exponentially by how many more theaters its getting. In this case, the difference between 2,300 theaters and 84 means that Gran Torino will be playing in many areas where it hasn’t been playing including suburbs and Middle America, both places where Eastwood has fans and where anticipation has been building. Million Dollar Baby didn’t expand until it had already received a number of Oscar nominations, but Warner Bros. is hoping there’s enough interest and buzz in Eastwood returning to the screen, possibly for the last time, as well as possibly pulling an awards repeat. While reviews have been mixed, they’ve mostly been positive with a 73% Fresh on RottenTomatoes.com and an astounding 8.4/10 from IMDb Users, showing how many people approve of Eastwood’s return to playing cranky characters bearing firearms.
Warner Bros. had great success last year with the comedy The Bucket List starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, platforming it on Christmas and then expanded very wide this weekend to do far better than any expectations. By comparison, that movie only grossed $1.3 million in 16 theaters over the holidays after opening on Christmas Day, while Gran Torino has already grossed $9 to 10 million in 5 times as many theaters, but there’s a good chance that the interest in the movie is there, especially with the award nominations and positive word-of-mouth, so expect this to open wide in the same range as other Eastwood movies ($10 to 15 million) but having strong legs through Oscar season, especially if the Academy continues to show their love for Eastwood.
Why I Should See It: Clint Eastwood is one of the country’s finest living actors and filmmakers from “old Hollywood” who has continued to be relevant as he explored various film genres.
Not Easily Broken (Sony/Tristar)
In case the Kate Winslet-Leonardo DiCaprio reunion in Revolutionary Road wasn’t enough of a depressing anti-date-movie choice in theaters, here’s another drama about a failing marriage, this one geared towards the African-American women who worship every word written and uttered by the pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes. You’re probably thinking, “Who?” just as I was when his novel Woman Thou Art Loosed was turned into a movie starring Kimberly Elise a few years ago and given a semi-wide release by Magnolia Films. It grossed just under $7 million after opening in the Top 10 despite a low-key release. It was the first time I heard the name Tyler Perry, too, as he adapted Jakes’ earlier novel, and he would go onto find huge success among that audience with his seven movies over the next three years that grossed nearly $300 million between them.
This second Jakes adaptation has the benefits of being directed by Bill Duke, an established director of urban-tinged fare like A Rage in Harlem (1991), Deep Cover (1992) and Hoodlum (1997). Duke’s return to filmmaking was the 2008 bomb Cover (which was near the bottom of my Terrible 25 for the year), although he does have enough of a name to bring some credibility to the project.
He’s also assembled a strong African-American cast including Morris Chestnut, a veteran of many popular “urban” romantic dramedies including The Brothers and Two Can Play That Game, both which helped bring Chestnut to the attention of African-American women. Chestnut had been shying away from these sorts of movies for African-American audiences since co-starring in Jamie Foxx’s bomb Breakin’ All the Rules, but he did return last year for Queen Latifah’s The Perfect Holiday… which also bombed. Chestnut’s wife is played by Taraji P. Henson, whose done her fair share of these movies including Tyler Perry’s last one, The Family That Preys. Henson first got attention as part of the SAG nominated cast of Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow, which she followed with eclectic choices like Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces. Most recently, she can be seen in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a role which some feel will get her an Oscar nomination. The movie also features some much-needed comic relief from comedian Kevin Hart, who unfortunately has made a name for himself in many of the recent bad spoof movies, but he does have a moment featured prominently in the commercials to try to make the movie look funnier than it probably is.
Sony’s Screen Gems division has had decent luck with movies geared towards African-American audiences, but TriStar, the production company behind this movie, hasn’t. A few years ago, their basketball drama Crossover tanked in its late summer release and their recent musical biopic Cadillac Records also didn’t fare particularly well. Even their attempt at capitalizing on the dance movie craze that had been so successful for Screen Gems resulted in the bomb Feel the Noise that just didn’t deliver the same amount of profits.
Like “Woman,” this movie hasn’t really been promoted very heavily, hoping to bring in grassroots word-of-mouth business from Jakes’ churchgoing flock, which is why it’s hard to predict whether the African-American women that might normally be interested in this movie will know about it or care enough to go see it in theaters. With a moderate release into less than 800 theaters, mostly in urban areas, this might get lost in the shuffle of so many stronger movies.
Why I Should See It: I guess if you’re a fan of the Bishop T.D. Jakes, then this might be of interest.
THE CHOSEN ONE:
Silent Light (Palisades Tartan)
My hatred for Carlos Reygadas’ second movie Battle in Heaven is almost legendary among the publicists who worked on that movie a few years ago–it was #3 on my Terrible 25 that year–and yet, I decided to give his third movie a chance, not because of all the rave reviews and Top 10 lists it was showing up on, but despite of them. I’ve seen far too many film school critics cream their pants over artsy auteur-driven movies with beautiful imagery and very little plot, but I fully expect there to be a story and characters in the movies I watch and enjoy. Well, the one in this movie is far clearer, basically a story about one man’s adulterous indiscretion and how it affects him and his family. What makes the movie different is that it’s set in the Mennonite community of Mexico, essentially Dutch religious immigrants whose strong beliefs are similar to the Quakers or the Amish here in America. This is one of those slow films we’ve seen that doesn’t rely on a lot of cleverly-written dialogue, but more on setting a tone and creating a mood and Reygadas does that along with one of the most able cinematographers in Alexis Zabé, whose camerawork is nothing short of amazing. The way the two of them capture what might seem like mundane scenes of the film’s “protagonist” Johan are pretty amazing, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie… maybe because he didn’t keep showing us some big fat ugly loser having sex in every other scene. I had a few problems, which you can read about in the mini-review below, but for the most part, this is a step up well worthy of the gushing accolades the film has been getting. It opens on Wednesday at the Film Forum
Mini-Review: Opening with a gorgeous time-lapsed shot of a sunrise over the Mexican plains, you’re immediately drawn into the pastoral environment in which Carlos Reygadas creates his intimate portrait of a Mennonite family’s traditional life disrupted by the man of the house falling for another woman. Like Reygadas’ previous films–as well as recent movies from Gus Van Sant and indies like “Ballast”–this is a slow, quiet and introspective film that shows the characters going through mundane everyday activities, some which might not serve any immediate purpose. Even so, from the first time we meet Johan, sitting with his family at the table praying before their meal, we realize something is deeply wrong. Johan has fallen for another woman and is ready to leave his family even though it’s completely against the traditions of their faith. Much of the film is spent showing Johan and his family at work on the farm or swimming in a stream, just simple scenes to show their everyday life within the Mennonite community, but there’s an undercurrent of tension running through these scenes knowing what Johan has on his mind. What little of the actual dialogue there is doesn’t always feel right because in trying to go for realism, the performances by the cast of non-actors sometimes comes across as stiff. On the other hand, both Cornelio Wall and Miriam Toews (playing his wife Esther) have expressive faces that make their deeply emotional scenes so powerful; the best-trained actors would likely overthink things and make these scenes seem acted rather than natural. After filming some of the most horrifying, unerotic sex scenes ever put on film for “Battle in Heaven,” Reygadas shows a greater degree of self-control with the love scene between Johan and Maryanne, actually handling it in a tasteful manner. Clearly, this is a far more mature effort from Reygadas, fascinating for the way his cameras linger on a shot for a long time before moving in for a closer look. You can’t help but marvel at how Reygadas doesn’t just capture nature, but seemingly controls it. Every leaf and tree seems to sway just the right way in the wind, a flock of birds flies from a roof seemingly on cue, and one wonders whether Reygadas is just the luckiest director of all time to be able to get these amazing shots. The film’s equally admirable for its sound design, foregoing a normal film score for sounds of nature and everyday sounds like a ticking clock. The latter provides fruitful symbolism, as the film’s passage of time is another interesting aspect, because we see the world changing around these characters, though we only learn what has happened since the last scene through the actions and dialogue. Sure, this story could probably have been told in less than 2 hours and 15 minutes, though there’s something about the way the sanguine tone is maintained that by the time you get to the last act, you fully understand what Johan and Ester are going through, and can understand how she must feel about his actions. For all the naturalism Reygadas tries to invoke in every scene, there’s a twist near the end of the movie that almost kills its credibility. It’s certainly a strange way to resolve the story, one that might lose some of the audience who’ve been along for ride, but there’s something special about the way the films ends with an equally gorgeous sunset that bookends the story beautifully. Reygadas has upped his game with this intriguing film, showing that he’s able to tell a more traditional love story, creating something that’s far more easily accessible to outsiders while maintaining his vision as an auteur. Whether or not you fully understand the importance of every scene or shot used, there’s something about this movie that lingers with you for a long time. Rating: 8/10
Also in Limited Release:
After Dark Horrorfest 2009 (After Dark Films) – The third annual indie horrorfest with 8 more films “to die for” culled from various film festivals including Sundance plays in select theaters over the next week. This year’s festival includes films like Sean Ellis’ The Broken starring Lena Headey and Richard Jenkins, Adam Gierasch’s Autopsy, the time-traveling 3quel The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations, Phedon Papamichael’s From Within and four others. You can see more information about each of the individual movies over on ShockTillYouDrop.Com and see trailers, theater locations etc. at the Official Site.
Yonkers Joe (Magnolia) – This drama from Robert Celestino stars Chazz Palminteri as a dice hustler trying to make one more big score in Vegas, a plan that is complicated by the return of his mentally-challenged son (Tom Guiry) into his life. It opens in New York at the Quad Cinemas and in L.A. at the Laemmle Music Hall.
Mini-Review: There’s great potential in Robert Celestino’s film to be a classic Vegas indie drama ala “Swingers” or “The Cooler” though it’s only 60% its way to getting there. What tends to kill its momentum is the overused film cliché of having the main character dealing with a mentally-challenged relative who becomes the catalyst for change in the main character’s life, something we’ve seen far too many times over the years. The ever-present problem of actors playing the mentally-challenged is how far to go with the effects of such retardation, and Tom Guiry’s inexperience as an actor shows, ultimately dragging down what could have potentially been a great film with his weak scenes. It’s a shame, since Celestino certainly has a lot going for his movie, a strong script and premise, and a great cast who does a good job with the material. Playing the title character isn’t exactly a breakthrough role for Chazz Palminteri–he’s played similar characters before–but it’s a fitting role, since he’s convincing both as a dice hustler and the father of his estranged and troubled son. Palminteri has many great scenes with Christine Lahti as his girlfriend Janice and Michael Lerner as his partner in the crime of trying to beat the craps table. The latter aspect of the film is what makes the film so fascinating, especially if you’re a novice to the Vegas dice game, and Celestino really seems to know what he’s talking about. At one point, the movie seems like it might go the direction of “Rain Man” with Joe Jr. figuring out a way to beat the craps table, but instead, it veers down a more traditional character drama route with Joe and Janice trying to deal with the disturbed young man’s destructive urges which take a particularly creepy turn when he makes an aggressive pass at Janice. Celestino and his cast sometimes go overboard with the drama, but fortunately, these scenes never completely derail the film. The movie gets back on track in the third act as it builds to a satisfying conclusion as Joe goes through with his big plan to win big at the Miami craps tables. Celestino’s filmmaking experience shows in the way he makes the movie look and feel bigger than its indie roots, especially the scenes at the racetrack and in the casino, and that could help the movie eventually find a larger audience. This would certainly have been a very different movie without Joe’s mentally-challenged son as part of the mix; it’s hard not to feel like it would have been a better movie as a straight Vegas drama or with a better actor in the role. Rating: 7/10
Just Another Love Story (Koch Lorber) Ole Bornedal’s crime thriller follows the story of married crime scene photographer Jonas (Anders Bertelsen) who becomes obsessed with the beautiful Julia (Rebecka Hemse) as she lies a coma after crashing her car into his. Jonas’ obsession leads him to a double life in which he has Julia’s parents believing he’s her boyfriend, culminating in terrible repercussions when he true boyfriend turns up. After premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, it opens Friday at New York’s Cinema Village.
Next week, the Martin Luther King Jr. four-day holiday weekend sees the release of four new movies in wide release including Lionsgate’s remake of the slasher flick My Bloody Valentine 3-D, the hip hop biopic of Biggie Smalls Notorious (Fox Searchlight). For the kids, there’s the doggie comedy Hotel for Dogs (DreamWorks/Nickelodeon Films) and Kevin “The King of Queens” James is Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Sony).
Copyright 2009 Edward Douglas