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.
1. Saw VI (Lionsgate) – $27.2 million N/A (down .4 million)
2. Paranormal Activity (Paramount) – $20.3 million 0% change (same)
3. Where the Wild Things Are (Warner Bros) – $16.8 million -49% (down .2 million)
4. Astro Boy (Summit Entertainment) – $12.7 million N/A (down .5 million)
5. Law Abiding Citizen (Overture Films) – $11.0 million -48% (up .7 million)
6. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (Universal) – $9.6 million N/A (down .4 million)
7. Couples Retreat (Universal) – $9.2 million -47% (same)
8. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sony) – $5.8 million -28% (same)
9. The Stepfather (Screen Gems) – $5.5 million -50% (same)
10. Zombieland (Sony) – $4.2 million -46% (same)
11. Amelia (Fox Searchlight) – $3.5 million N/A (down .2 million)
This is going to be an interesting weekend, especially after the impressive showing for a number of movies last week, making one wonder whether four new movies might have any impact against such strong returning competition.
With that in mind, this might be the first year in which the annual “Saw” movie–that’s Saw VI (Lionsgate) for those keeping count–doesn’t hit the $30 million low-end opening of the last three installments. After all, it’s going to be competing against the widest release of Paramount’s surprise horror hit Paranormal Activity as well as the diminishing returns of the franchise as each successive movie has made less money after opening. There’s still many fans of the franchise though, who’ll want to see whether they can top the previous installment and they’re more likely to be out opening weekend if they’re going to see it.
Acting as counter-programming for the kiddie set is the animated action-adventure based on the long-running Japanese comic book Astro Boy (Summit Entertainment), featuring the voices of Freddie Highmore, Nic Cage, Bill Nighy, Kristen Bell and more. While it might not have the strongest marketing, it does look like a fun movie for younger kids, especially boys, and it might bring in some of the geek crowd familiar with the original comic books. It’s likely to be kept from getting too big by the second weekend of Where the Wild Things Are.
Falling somewhere in the middle of those two is the new fantasy-horror-adventure based on a teen book series, Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (Universal) featuring an ensemble cast including John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek and directed by Paul Weitz. There may be some teen girls enticed by the vampires and others by the humor of the trailer, but this looks like a kid’s movie as well, one that’s likely to turn off any guy over 13 years old, even as it tries to bring in young women by looking like a cross between Tim Burton and Twilight.
Hilary Swank shows up with her annual Oscar bait movie, starring as the famous woman aviator Amelia Earhart in Mira Nair’s biopic Amelia (Fox Searchlight) along with Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor. There certainly will be some older women interested in this early feminist, but Fox Searchlight hasn’t done much to market the movie and its opening in just 800 theaters. In fact, it might end up outside the Top 10 unless Swank can generate some interest doing the talk show rounds this coming week.
This weekend last year, after three consecutive years of topping the box office, the “Saw” franchise fell to a Disney Channel phenomenon as it hit movie theaters with High School Musical 3: Senior Year (Walt Disney), which opened strongly with $42 million to become the third-highest grossing movie for the month of October. Even so, Saw V (Lionsgate) took a strong second place with another $30 million opening, although it would wind up being the second-lowest grossing chapter after the original. Edward Norton and Colin Farrell starred in the police drama Pride and Glory (New Line/WB), which opened weak with $6.3 million in 2,600 theaters to take fifth place. The Top 10 grossed $116 million and this weekend should see that amount bested even if Saw VI doesn’t do as well as its predecessor.
The Battle Cry
I wasn’t going to write a “Battle Cry” this week, mainly out of laziness, but then I started to think about something interesting that seemed very relevant and timely to two movies released last week, both of which seemed to divide people who saw it, one of them even seemingly forming different factions of critics depending on whether they liked or hated the movie.
Movies that divide or polarize audiences are nothing new, and they’re somewhat of a regular occurrence especially in the world of indie and auteur films, which aren’t meant to appeal to everyone. While we’ve discussed at length the divide between critics and moviegoers–Couples Retreat anyone?–there’s also those movies that even the critics can’t agree about amongst themselves. With a movie like Pixar’s Up and others, the majority of critics are going to love the movie, and the reverse can be said about most high concept comedies, horror remakes, 3quels, etc.
Last week, we saw two very distinct examples of people seeing the exact same movie–either in the same theater or in different environments–and walking out with completely different experiences. You might have noticed that we have two very different opinions on Overture Films’ crime-thriller Law Abiding Citizen–I liked it and my esteemed colleague Joshua Starnes hated it. But we both saw the exact same movie–granted in two different states, theaters and environments–but still, how is it possible for a movie to be both good and bad at the same time?
That’s the thing. It can’t. And that’s where other factors come into play, things like expectations and preconceived judgments on a movie or its cast or its director before the first frame even starts to roll through the projector. This was also clearly the case with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are this past week, which seemed to have far more positive reviews than Law Abiding Citizen, but more than its share of detractors. What’s interesting is that in at least the case of Jonze’s movie, expectations about what the movie might or should be played a huge factor in whether people liked or loathed the movie, and we’re not just talking about critics here either.
Personally, I feel that a lot of the critical types who went into see Spike Jonze’s latest, including myself, went in with huge expectations and a lot of excitement for Jonze’s return to filmmaking, because it had been so many years since his last movie. Some went in hoping that the movie would live up to the book they read as a child; others hoped it would just be as good as Jonze’s previous film work. What we ended up with were those who loved what Jonze did and didn’t care that a movie based on a book for kids might not appeal to that audience, and those who were bored with how Jonze expanded upon what was a fairly simple story in its original form and made it less approachable for mainstream audiences. Both factions were fairly vocal and equally critical of the other.
Law Abiding Citizen didn’t have that same problem, although it did face a lot of perceptions of what the movie might be and whether it delivered on those. People who saw the movie went in either loving or hating the ever-present Gerard Butler and or having some opinion about Jamie Foxx, and while granted, it wasn’t Foxx’s most challenging role, a lot of critics bashed the movie because of Foxx’s performance which seemed to meet the needs of the role. Personally, I thought it was a terrific take on normal serial killer premises, but a lot of people didn’t like or even hated the ending, and apparently that killed the whole movie for them. Me, I had problems with the ending but not enough for me to totally disregard that I was thoroughly entertained and surprised for the rest of the movie, and because of that, I gave it a good review and I would still recommend it wholeheartedly. Our other critic Josh Starnes felt differently and his opinion seemed to be in the majority going by Rotten Tomatoes.
The simple fact is that if you’re a critic and you’re going into a movie ready to love it or hate it, chances are that you are probably going to love it or hate it. The proper way for anyone to properly see a movie, especially critics, is to go in fresh without any preconceived notions or expectations and with as little advance knowledge of what you’re about to see as possible. That of course gets difficult when your job entitles being aware of movies coming out, watching trailers and commercials and the like, and it’s almost impossible when you’re a consumer paying to see your movies and wanting to know whether it will be worth your time or money before wasting it.
Those are a few of my random musings on the subject of how expectations and perceptions can make one movie seem like completely different experiences to different people, probably just the tip of the iceberg really, but it’s certainly something to think about when you encounter someone who has an opposing opinion on a movie that you either like or hate. Instead of getting mad, just thank the heavens that we’re living in a world where we’re all individuals capable of independent thinking and not just one big hive mind who have to think the same thing about everything. (And yes, this was meant as an exercise to create an analogy between movies and religion, politics and anything else that we can never seem to agree upon.)
Saw VI (Lionsgate)
Starring Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Mark Rolston, Peter Outerbridge, Shawnee Smith, Samantha Lemole, Caroline Cave, George Newbern, Darius McCrary, Shauna MacDonald, Devon Bostick, Tanedra Howard
Directed by Kevin Greutert (editor of all five previous “Saw” movies); Written by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan (Feast, Saw IV, Saw V)
Tagline: “He helped me.”
Plot Summary: After the death of Agent Strahm in the fifth installment, Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) is now the unchallenged successor to Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) but the FBI is getting closer, forcing him to set a new game in motion.
Mini-Review (Held Until Friday)
This will now be the sixth time in six years where we’ve written about the “Saw” franchise. This is by no means the first horror franchise to get to a sixth installment, and in fact, it’s following a great tradition of horror movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, which all had numerous sequels before finally being given the remake treatment. The big difference is that most of them didn’t have a movie out every year in theaters nor did any of them have huge opening weekends for each successive sequel. By the time “Nightmare” and “Friday the 13th” got to their fifth or sixth chapters, the quality had gotten so bad they were doing moderate business at best, but still enough for the studio to feel it was worth keeping the franchise alive. Some might say the same of the “Saw” franchise.
For the last few years, we’ve expected the immutable laws of diminishing returns to hit the “Saw” franchise and it hasn’t happened, even as director Darren Bousman (director of the first three sequels) moved on, leaving the franchise to his production designer. For this sixth movie, Kevin Greutert, the editor of the previous five movies steps into the directing chair to continue the tradition, but it’s also the third movie in a row written by Marcus Dunston and Patrick Melton, best known for writing Feast as part of “Project Greenlight III,” and who recently helmed the horror bomb The Collector.
There really isn’t much to say about the cast, since for the most part, it’s the same characters and actors from the previous five movies, including those who have already died. One expects that Costas Mandylor’s Detective Hoffman, who has played a large part in the last few movies will continue to do so. The only notable addition is Tanedra Howard, who got her role in the movie by winning VH-1’s “Scream Queen.”
Looking at the history of the franchise at this handy-dandy chart on TheNumbers.com, we can see that the franchise peaked with the first sequel Saw II. What’s amazing is that regardless of how well or poorly each successful film might have done in the long one, the next one always would open to at least $30 million. Unfortunately, this year’s “Saw” movie also has a lot more direct competition than previous installments, specifically from the buzzed-about horror movie Paranormal Activity, which expands into nearly 2,000 theaters this weekend, and that could force audiences in some areas to make a choice. One assumes that those who’ve followed the franchise so far will go see Saw VI first, but it’s not as likely to get the casual moviegoers as some of the previous installments.
Lionsgate has long ago stopped screening the movies for critics because they know that won’t help anything–very few franchises can get this far with good reviews–so getting the critics on board at this point is a lost cause at best. At the same time, the IMDb User Ratings for the movies have gotten lower and lower with each successive installment, starting with a 7.7 out of 10 for the original Saw and down to 5.8 out of 10 for the last movie.
Eventually, this franchise will have to falter and start the journey to DVD movies only like The Grudge and others, but for now, there are enough gore-loving friends who’ll go out to see this opening weekend. As long as they keep making the movies fairly cheaply–the costs are still under $20 million for any one installment–and quickly, we can expect these to be recurring write-ups in this column. (In the tradition of the franchise, I plan to have my editor do the write-up for Saw VII.)
Why I Should See It: If you really want to find out what happens next, you’ll have to see the sixth installment now, won’t you?
Astro Boy (Summit Entertainment)
Starring (the voices of) Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, Nathan Lane, Bill Nighy, Eugene Levy, Matt Lucus, Donald Sutherland, Charlize Theron
Directed by David Bowers (Flushed Away); Written by Timothy Harris, David Bowers
Genre: Animated, Adventure, Comedy, Science Fiction
Tagline: “Built for Adventure”
Plot Summary: After his son Tobey (voiced by Freddie Highmore) is killed in a science experiment gone awry, the brilliant scientist Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nic Cage) takes his memories and put it into a super-powered robot that will come to be known as Astro Boy!
Mini-Review: Osamu Tezuko’s perennial Manga superhero is turned into a futuristic take on “Pinocchio” in this competently-made animated adventure that probably will wow kids more than it will keep adults entertained for more than a few minutes at a time due to its fairly limited storytelling range.
Years into the future, floating high above the surface world is Metro City where the rich live comfortably with robots of all shapes and sizes with all their refuse dumped to the surface world below. The mastermind behind this world is the brilliant scientist Dr. Tenma who is testing out his latest invention “The Peacemaker.” Unfortunately, his equally smart son Tobey becomes collateral damage in the experiment and before you can ask, “What would Geppetto do?” Tenma has built a lifelike boy robot to contain the memories and spirit of his late son. For a while, this robot actually thinks he’s Tobey and Tenma does what he can to keep the truth from him, but eventually, he discovers all of the “extras” built in like rocket boots before ending up on the surface world and getting involved with a group of robot-scavenging orphans and their Fagin-like ringleader who “pimps” bots they find in the scrapyard with found parts to fight in gladiator-like battles.
As one might expect based on the source material, the movie is very much an action-adventure set in the context of a superhero origin story, and it doesn’t rely nearly as much on sight gags and sly inside humor as some of the year’s other animated films. Instead, it tries to tell a fairly straightforward story laced with character humor in the form of an overabundance of comic relief characters with only the robotic “dog” known as Trash Can really delivering laughs as it steals many scenes. Otherwise, do we really need a callback for the squeegee and spray bottle from an earlier gag that falls flat? Overall, the writing isn’t that strong and the voice casting is somewhat uninspired as is the voicework itself, which makes it hard to separate the actors from their characters. The movie also tries way too hard to create emotion in the viewer by resorting to abject sentimentality, which rarely works very well. The movie probably could have done without the sociopolitical messages, such as having a warmongering President voiced by Donald Sutherland who would prefer to power the giant “Peacemaker” robot with the destructive Red Core energy vs. the more peaceful Blue Core energy. The latter aspect of the story is a good example of how much thought has been put into the story, but it also adds another layer of needless exposition which tends to detract from the energy of the well-choreographed action scenes, which are definitely the movie’s strong point. Likewise, the animation looks decent and distinctive, not easily bearing comparisons to other recent animation from more prominent studios, and director David Bowers does an impressive job designing various robots that stay true to Tezuko’s vision but giving them more weight and dimension.
In some ways, “Astro Boy” finds a way to straddle the divide between the mainstream pandering of DreamWorks Animation movies like “Monsters vs. Aliens” and the more artistic genre-driven “9.” It’s a perfectly fine introduction to the character and a perfectly fine bit of harmless entertainment. It’s not the type of movie anyone over 15 might cherish in the same was as someone under 10. Rating: 7/10
The one movie opening this weekend that’s bound to be the first choice for kiddies is this animated movie based on the long-running Japanese comic book and animation series by Osamu Tezuka, the “Grandfather of Anime.” Directed by David Bowers, who last helmed Aardman Studios’ first fully CG movie Flushed Away, it builds upon the easy-to-sell premise of a robot boy fighting lots of giant robots that should thrill younger boys for sure.
The diverse voice cast includes the likes of the ever-present Freddie Highmore from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Arthur and the Invisibles, the equally ever-present Nicholas Cage and Bill Nighy (who provided a voice in Bowers’ previous movie) and Kristen Bell. Summit haven’t gotten to the point where they’re using commercials that showcase the voice talent, maybe because that’s not something that generally works unless there’s a big comic star like Jack Black or Ben Stiller involved.
The thing about Astro Boy is that it is based on a Japanese comic book that has found fans in the States among teens and older comic lovers as they’ve been imported here. That might help the movie in bring in some older “kids” as well–similar to Focus Features’ recent animated movies 9 and Coraline–although mostly, this will be geared towards families with younger boys. It’s not likely to do as much business as Coraline did though, because it won’t be helped by the higher price of 3D tickets as that film had going for it.
Summit is giving the movie a very wide release into over 3,000 theaters which should help the movie do decently even if the business is spread out, but chances are, a movie like this will play very well with the family audiences in suburban areas, especially once parents realize that Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are isn’t for younger children.
Why I Should See It: Tezuka’s original “Astro Boy” is to Japan what Mickey Mouse is to the United States, and American kids should love the character as much as Japanese kids have for decades.
Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (Universal)
Starring John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Josh Hutcherson, Chris Massoglia, Ray Stevenson, Patrick Fugit, Orlando Jones, Willem Dafoe, Salma Hayek
Directed by Paul Weitz (American Pie, American Dreamz, About a Boy, In Good Company, upcoming Little Fockers) with Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire, Payback, Mystic River, Blood Work, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3)
Genre: Fantasy, Comedy, Adventure
Tagline: “Meet Darren. He’s 16 going on immortal.”
Plot Summary: Two very different school friends, Darren and Steve (Chris Massoglia, Josh Hutcherson), come upon the mysterious Cirque Du Freak and fall foul of its resident vampire Crepsley (John C. Reilly) who convinces Darren to become his half-vampire assistant, putting both boys in the middle of a war between vampire factions, orchestrated by the evil Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris).
Mini-Review: Having not read the books, it’s not quite clear who this movie is intended to target–one presumes either young boys or slightly older girls–but it’s fairly obvious Paul Weitz is trying to mimic the style of Tim Burton, and it’s hard not to immediately fault the movie for failing to achieve the same impeccable blend of dark humor and wonder upon which Burton has built his career.
As soon as we meet the two school chums Darren and Steve, we can gather that Darren is the straight-A student while Steve is the troublemaker and bad influence, dragging his friend to see the mysterious Cirque Du Freak where they encounter all sorts of strange beings including the vampire Crepsley. Obsessed with vampires, Steve begs Crepsley to turn him into a vampire as well, but instead, Crepsley chooses Darren to be his assistant creating a wedge between the two boys.
There’s a lot going on here, including the conflict between two factions: the semi-placid vampires and the blood-thirsty “vampeze” and in the middle of it all is Mr Tiny, an ominous Tor Johnson-looking character trying to instigate a war between them. It’s the type of premise one imagines would make for a fun movie, but it never really delivers on the idea in a way that convinces the viewer it’s worth spending 90 minutes watching. Similarly, one would expect a movie filled with all sorts of unusual characters with strange powers–Selma Hayek is a precognitive bearded lady, Ken Watanabe as a really tall guy, Orlando Jones as a living Visible Man, etc–to be entertaining, but the denizens of the Cirque are generally underused as the movie focuses more on Darren and his training under Crepsley.
Massoglia isn’t the strongest actor to carry the movie, even if he does have an eerily similar look and demeanor to a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but his chemistry with Josh Hutcherson isn’t very strong compared to Hutcherson’s previous film pairings. The romance between Darren and a young girl at the circus feels forced. Likewise, Reilly is a rather bizarre choice for the vampire Crepsley for reasons that are hard to put into words, but it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of Willem Dafoe, probably the best thing going for the movie as he channels Vincent Prince as a vampire named (in case someone misses the connection) “Vincent.”
In general, the movie doesn’t seem to know its audience with much of the humor dumbed down for younger kids, even as the PG-13 rating and some of the plot points are steered more towards teens. That audience is not likely to be impressed with the cheesy and unimpressive FX, which mainly involve vampires “blipping” around at fast paces and a cheap-looking CG spider that looks like a reject from the first “Spider-Man” movie.
That’s not to say the movie is terrible or unwatchable, as surely, there will be those who find it entertaining enough, maybe even funny at times, although those moments are generally fleeting amidst an intricate plot that often feels like ideas are being thrown against the wall to see what will stick. Because the movie is loosely adapted from the first quarter of Darren Shan’s 12-issue vampire epic, the movie leaves things open-ended enough so those who enjoy it might have a chance to see more of this story, such as the war between factions foreshadowed throughout the film. Even so, the movie is such a hodge-podge of ideas and confused tonality one can’t imagine there will be many that excited to see more of the story once it ends. Rating: 6/10
This weekend’s oddest movie release is this adaptation of the first chapter in Darren Shan née O’Shaughnessy’s book series “The Saga of Darren Shan,” a series of 12 books that have captured the imagination of teen girls with its story of two teen boys caught up in a war between vampire factions.
The early books have been adapted by Paul Weitz, who is best known for co-creating the “American Pie” series, as well as a number of adult-oriented comedies like About a Boy, but not really known for doing big FX-driven fantasy films. Maybe he’s trying to follow in the footsteps of his brother Chris, who co-directed many of their early hits before taking over direction on The Golden Compass and scoring the gig directing the second chapter of the hit vampire franchise, The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Obviously, his brother must have felt like getting into the franchise game was the way to go and what better than another series of novels about vampires? Obviously, this is very much trying to capitalize on the immense success of movie franchises like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” especially the latter as well as the booming vampire trend right now.
Those who haven’t read the books might look to see who’s in the movie and the most recognizable and prominent member of the cast is John C. Reilly, the Oscar-nominated character actor who has gone from being a P.T. Anderson indie mainstay to co-starring with Will Ferrell in two hit comedies, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. Unfortunately, he hasn’t really had any hits on his own with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story being a memorable bomb despite the involvement of Judd Apatow as producer. Playing the role of Darren Shan is little known TV actor Chris Massoglia, while his best friend Steve is played by the more recognizable Josh Hutcherson who appeared in two previous book adaptations, Jon Favreau’s Zathura and the 3D hit Journey to the Center of the Earth, the latter which grossed over $100 million. The cast of circus freaks is rounded out by the likes of Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe, Ken Watanabe, Patrick Fugit and Jane Krakowski, none of whom are featured enough to draw people to theaters, even though that makes four Oscar-nominated actors, for those counting.
Even so, the movie’s best chances lie on the teen and ‘tween girls who’ve read the books and those who’ve seen the trailers and commercials as something they might enjoy even without having read the book. Movies based on popular children and teen novels have had mixed results at the box office, maybe because book readers and moviegoers are somewhat different audiences. Fox Walden had two major bombs when trying to bring City of Ember and The Dark Is Rising to the big screen, and even movies like The Golden Compass and Eragon, which should have been slam dunks due to the sales of the novels on which they’re based, underperformed; the same goes for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events starring Jim Carrey. While Cirque Du Freak isn’t as big a movie as the latter three, it is hoping that young girls will be interested in the vampire aspects. After all Anne Rice’s books have produced at least one successful movie and Alan Ball’s HBO show “True Blood” based on another is more popular than ever.
One thing that’s somewhat odd about the movie is that it looks like a family film for kids, but it’s actually a PG-13 movie geared more for teens. Although the books are more popular among young girls, the movie seems more like something for guys, and while there may be some teens interested in this, there probably won’t be many guys over 15 interested in seeing it over the latest “Saw” movie. The vibe of the movie is similar to the earlier films of Tim Burton, most notably Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, and Universal has actually been marketing it in a similar way as Disney did the animated A Nightmare Before Christmas maybe hoping that it will pull in some of the older Goth audience. It may work, but mostly its hopes lie in the vocal fans of the books who’ll try to convince their friends to check it out, and how well the movie does beyond its opening weekend will depend on whether those who see it, like it enough to talk it up to friends. Either way, it should make a great choice for older kids on Halloween next weekend, so expect it to hold up well for at least two weeks.
Why I Should See It: Apparently, Darren Shan’s books have their fans and hopefully, they’ll like this movie.
Amelia (Fox Searchlight)
Starring Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Mia Wasikowska
Directed by Mira Nair (Moonsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair, The Namesake); Written by Ronald Bass (Stepmom, Snow Falling on Cedars, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Dangerous Minds), Anna Hamilton Phelan (Gorillas in the Mist, Girl, Interrupted)
Genre: Biography, Drama
Tagline: “Defying the Impossible. Living the Dream.”
Plot Summary: The story of Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank), a young woman from Kansas who would become one of the great women aviators by flying across the Atlantic Ocean twice, the second time solo, and then attempting a daring and unprecedented flight around the world. At her side was her press agent and backer George Putnam (Richard Gere) and the “other man” Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor).
In most cases, a biographical drama set in the late ’20s or early ’30s would be released by Universal Pictures who have seemingly cornered the market on that era with movies like Cinderella Man, Seabiscuit and Clint Eastwood’s Changeling last year. This one is a production of Fox Searchlight as a vehicle for two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank to possibly return to the race for the third time. The historical biopic is directed by Mira Nair, who is most famous for her debut Mississippi Masala starring Denzel Washington, as well as her later sleeper hit Monsoon Wedding. A few years back, she directed an adaptation of the popular Indian novel The Namesake through Searchlight and that made roughly $13.6 million, which is the general ballpark for most of her movies.
Since winning her second Oscar for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which grossed $100 million, Swank has appeared in a number of mid-range genre films like Brian de Palma’s The Black Dahlia ($22.2 mil. gross) and the thriller The Reaping ($35.6 mil.), as well as the true-to-life drama Freedom Writers ($25.2 mil.) and the romantic comedy P.S. I Love You, Swank’s biggest hit as the solo star with a gross of $53.7 million. Obviously, Swank still has many fans, presumably many women, and this seems like the perfect vehicle for her, playing another strong woman making waves in the world of men. As a co-producer on the project, Swank will also be out and about doing the rounds in the coming week to try to help generate some last-minute awareness.
Co-starring with her is Richard Gere whose last movie for Fox Searchlight was the drama Bee Season, which bombed, and he’s been appearing in a lot of movies that disappointed at the box office such as The Hoax for Miramax and The Hunting Party for the Weinstein Company, neither which did particularly well. His last hit in face was his reteaming with Diane Lane for the romantic drama Nights in Rodanthe, released by Warner Bros. (who has a lot deeper pockets for promoting their movies). There’s a smaller romantic role for Ewan McGregor as “The Other Man,” which hopefully won’t remind people of his last biopic Miss Potter with Renee Zellwegger, which grossed just $3 million, never playing in more than 102 theaters.
The latter is a good example of how you can put a big star in a biopic and not have huge success, and while even Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, which many thought did disappointing business compared to the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, did relatively decently. It also opened in the summer with a lot more promotion, while Amelia seems to be getting a rather half-hearted release in a generally busy weekend.
At one point, it was thought that this movie might generate Oscar buzz but those feelings have cooled off slightly only because the movie hadn’t really been screened very much, and it opens in just 800 theaters on Friday with very little advance promotion. (Apparently, it was down to the wire for Nair to finish the movie in time for release, but it’s incredibly hard to get people aware of your movie without months of stories about it.) So where we’re at right now is that it’s going to be relying on the older women who probably won’t have very much else to see this weekend although the low theater count might not even allow it to get into the Top 10, making this the third movie from a female director in a row to seemingly tank. One presumes, Searchlight is starting light and hopes to build upon word-of-mouth and add more theaters later but they might have blown this one.
Why I Should See It: The story of Amelia Earhart is an interesting one, and it’s handled admirably by Nair and Swank.
THE CHOSEN ONE:
Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (Content Film International)
One thing you clearly need to know about this new documentary from British auteur Peter Greenaway is that it’s a companion piece to his recent film Nightwatching, a movie that the filmmaker had spent much time researching and in this doc, he essentially “shows his work.”
What’s interesting is that the movie never got a theatrical release, instead being released straight to DVD, and yet this doc, which is essentially a DVD extra, is being given a limited theatrical release. Both movies cover the same subject matter, the famed painting by Dutch master Rembrandt, “The Night Watch,” and how that painting might have been painted as proof of a conspiracy by a local Dutch militia in the 17th Century to kill a local dignitary in what was believed to be a hunting accident.
Narrated by Greenaway himself in a somewhat pompous way, the film investigates 31 clues within the painting that act as evidence that Rembrandt meant to indict a few of his financial backers in the conspiracy, something that ended up sending the painter down a road to ruin, even as for hundreds of centuries, few art experts understood the painting’s intentions. The various clues are interspersed with scenes from Nightwatching that probably make more sense when put them into context via Greenaway’s analysis of the painting, often using computer animation to dissect very fine details about the painting that might have gone unnoticed by any casual viewer.
The funny thing is that you can actually learn as much or more about Greenaway and his way of working from this doc as you can about Rembrandt’s painting. The scale of Rembrandt’s garish images are often mirrored in many of Greenaway’s films, and the filmmaker’s claims that “The Night Watch” was meant as a theatrical piece makes more sense when you see the way he has Rembrandt (played by Martin Freeman) staging the “players” as they pose for a painting. The results do seem somewhat long-winded at times because Greenaway has a lot of information he wants to convey to the viewer, but he does a suitably convincing job in collecting clues and presenting his case.
Either way, this doc probably makes more sense than the actual movie that inspired it, because not knowing where Greenaway was coming from, a lot of the dialogue between Rembrandt and the various people in the famed painting seems rather random. When viewed as part of this documentary, these scenes actually help to corroborate Greenaway’s evidence as the filmmaker often speaks directly to the characters, interrogating them if you will, to try to decipher the clues he’s discovered from examining the painting. In terms of showing a new way to view and interpret classic paintings, it’s doubtful any art expect could do nearly as thorough a job, even if they had 80 minutes to study the painting by themselves.
It opens in New York at the Film Forum on Wednesday.
Also in Limited Release:Antichrist (IFC Films) – Danish madman Lars von Trier tackles horror in this movie starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple whose marriage is put to the test after the accidentaly death of their son, taking them to a secluded cabin in the woods where they try to work out their issues in violent and disturbing ways. It opens in New York, L.A. and San Francisco on Friday, but is also available On Demand starting on Wednesday.
The Wedding Song (Strand Releasing) – Karin Albou’s Tunis-based WWII drama tells the story of two young women, one Muslim and one Jewish, as their friendship is put to the test as the Nazis enter their town forcing them apart. It opens in New York at the Quad Cinemas.
Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)
(Untitled) (Samuel Goldwyn Films) – Adam Goldberg stars in Jonathan Parker’s comedy as Adrian, an experimental music composer who is constantly competing with his successful painter brother (Eion Bailey), which comes to a head when Adrian starts sleeping with his brother’s art denizen girlfriend Madeline (Marley Shelton) when she commissions Adrian to compose a piece for a gallery showing. It opens in select cities on Friday.
Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)
Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (Magnet Films) Tony Jaa returns in this historical prequel to his cult action movie, this time co-producing and co-directing the tale of Tien, a young prince who is captured and trained by bandits in the martial arts, skills he uses to get revenge for the murder of his parents. It opens in ten theaters in select cities on Friday.
Mini-Review: Tony Jaa takes part of the directorial reins and a lot of other responsibilities of this loose prequel to his 2003 breakout martial arts hit which takes a long time to get to the point where we can make any connections to the story or main character of that movie. It opens hundreds of years before the first movie with a chase through the forest as a young prince is captured by a group of slave traders who throw him into a pit to fight an alligator. He’s saved by a group of bandits who see the potential in the young fighter, training him in all sorts of techniques to turn him into the perfect warrior.
The fact that it takes nearly 20 minutes before we actually see Tien grow to the age where Tony Jaa can step into the shoes is somewhat disconcerting, but once he shows up, we get to see Jaa do what he does best while breaking away from his usual bone-crunching Muy Thai. Much of Tien’s motivations revolve around him getting revenge on those responsible for the murder of his parentsnot exactly groundbreaking storytelling there.
This time around, we get to see Jaa fight a Japanese kendo swordfighter and a Brazilian wrestler using their own fighting styles, most of these fight sequences being staged and choreographed like a dance. One of the more impressive scenes involves Jaa running across the backs of a tribe of stampeding elephants, done in a way that you know this is for real and not movie trickery. As much as one can marvel at whatever Jaa does, so much of it seems like he’s just showing off, something he can readily do now that he’s been given more control of the storytelling, and he uses that opportunity to do whatever he wants. As he tries to get closer to the man responsible for his parents’ murders, Jaa even stages an elaborate musical dance number to show that his physical prowess can be used in other circumstances besides fighting.
A few times, the movie flashes back to happier times as Tien plays with his young female friend and a strange village idiot character, played by the comic relief from the first movie; these are fleeting scenes that seem almost unnecessary to the overall story and adds to the inconsistent tone.
In terms of historical epics set back when Thailand was still Siam, this doesn’t quite live up to the epic battles seen in “The Battle of Sukothai” and it isn’t nearly as painful to get through as the Weinsteins’ bastardization of “Tom Yum Goong,” but those looking for more of the innovative modern-day action that made the original “Ong Bak” such a breath of fresh air in a somewhat tired genre might not be as thrilled by the historic setting and some of the unnecessary silliness. Rating: 6/10
Motherhood (Freestyle Releasing) – Uma Thurman stars in Katherine (Diggers) Dieckmann’s dramedy as a 40-something New York City mother going through a mid-life crisis while trying to deal with the travails of living in the world’s most stressful city. Also starring Anthony Edwards and Minnie Driver, it opens in select cities on Friday.
Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)
Next week, this is it. No, I mean it. THIS IS IT!!!! Michael Jackson’s been brought back from the Great Beyond to star in the concert movie Michael Jackson’s This Is It (Sony). It’s probably already sold out, so there might not even be a point writing about it. We’ll see.
Copyright 2009 Edward Douglas