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. The Princess and the Frog (Disney) – $25.6 million +3413% (up .2 million)
2. The Blind Side (Warner Bros.) – $14.0 million -30% (up .5 million and one place)
3. Invictus (Warner Bros.) – $13.3 million N/A (down 1.2 million and one place)
4. The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Summit) – $6.6 million -57% (same)
5. Brothers (Lionsgate) – $5.5 million -42% (same)
6. Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Walt Disney) – $4.3 million -44% (same)
7. Old Dogs (Disney) – $3.8 million -45% (same)
8. 2012 (Sony) – $3.6 million -47% (same)
9. Armored (Screen Gems) – $3.3 million -49%
10. Up in the Air (Paramount) – $3.0 million +233% (down 2.5 million)
After a dismal weekend at the box office with no new movies making more than $10 million, we begin the last few weeks before the busy Christmas holiday with Disney’s return to 2D animation, The Princess and the Frog, which has done very well in it its exclusive run in New York and L.A. and hopes to recapture the magic of the ’90s when Disney Animation Studios was cranking out hit animated movies right and left. There are a lot of familiar elements to this one, including the score by Randy Newman, but it also returns the studio to the wholesome old-fashioned sensibilities that might not be as enticing to younger filmgoers accustomed to 3D and modern humor in the vein of Pixar or DreamWorks. Still, it’s a G-rated Disney film that’s usually a safe bet for parents, and bearing in mind how the box office slows down in the weeks before Christmas, expect a moderately decent opening for Disney’s latest and for it to do much more business over the next few weeks as schools are let out and parents look for something to take their kids to see.
Older audiences will probably look at Clint Eastwood’s latest Invictus (Warner Bros.) as a viable option, since it stars popular actor Morgan Freeman as political prisoner-turned-leader Nelson Mandela in an inspirational story about his early days as president. Co-starring Matt Damon, an equally strong draw for slightly younger audiences, the movie’s biggest hindrance might be the subject matter, which crosses African politics with rugby, an esoteric sport that few Americans know anything about. The draw of Eastwood’s reunion with Freeman and the awards potential should bring out the curious and help the film overcome the normal stigmas that have held other African-based dramas at the box office. This may be fighting for second place with Warner Bros.’ other inspirational movie The Blind Side, and though that has the theater count advantage, it’s also been playing for three weeks.
With so few strong returning movies, expect a movie that did well in limited release last week to make a jump into the Top 10 despite playing in less than 500 theatres, following a trend we’ve seen a number of times in the past few months. (UPDATE: The movie in question didn’t expand as much as we thought but we still think it stands a chance at entering the Top 10 despite being in less than 100 theaters.)
This weekend last year, Keanu Reeves starred in the remake of the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (20th Century Fox), which was thought to be one of the bigger holiday films, but its weak $30.5 million opening wasn’t any indicator of how bad the reviews and word-of-mouth would kill it after opening, as it grossed less than $80 million in a season that normally sees good long returns. Even with its no-brainer holiday setting and a strong Latino cast (and Debra Messing), Nothing Like the Holidays (Overture Films) bombed with just $3.5 million in 1,671 theaters to open in seventh place, but that was significantly better than one of the biggest bombs of the year, the animated Delgo (Freestyle Releasing), which grossed $510 thousand in 2,160 theatres, an absolutely horrible per-theater average under $300. The Top 10 grossed $78.5 million and while we don’t think the main movie will make more than $30 million, there’s enough strong fare to help the box office remain ahead of last year.
Sorry, still too busy with other things to write up a “Battle Cry” but check out my first Oscar column of the year right here.
The Princess and the Frog (Walt Disney)
Starring (the voices of) Anika Noni Rose, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, Keith David, Jim Cummings, Jenifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey
Written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet)
Genre: Animation, Fantasy
Plot Summary: In this Disney fairy tale, a beautiful princess named Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) has an amorous encounter with a frog prince, which sends them both on an adventure through the bayous of Louisiana.
There was a time when Disney’s 2D animation was the epitome of what could be done with hand-drawn animation. After all, it was Walt Disney whose work in the ’30s, ’40s and beyond was so hugely influential on almost every animator that came after him with Disney Animation having produced many absolute classics during those decades, something that continued well into the ’80s and ’90s with the likes of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, the latter an enormous blockbuster hit.
Some could easily point to the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989 as the start of the last big wave of 2D animation at the company–it’s covered fairly extensively in a new documentary out next year called Waking Sleeping Beauty–and that film was realized by Ron Clements and John Musker, who went on to make Aladdin, Hercules and the animated bomb Treasure Planet for Disney. In fact, it was probably the latter’s lack of success that contributed to Disney eventually turning their back on 2D Animation, well aware that 3D computer animation was the way of the future, as studios like Pixar Animation and DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky were having enormous blockbuster hits. Only in Japan was 2D Animation still doing big business with Hayao Miyazaki leading the way with his innovative hand-drawn animation.
A few years back, Disney rediscovered their roots with Enchanted, which mixed classic Disney fantasy storytelling with 2D animation that harked back to the early days of Walt Disney. It was a huge hit, convincing Disney to call upon Clements and Musker to create a new project for their return to 2D. Wisely, they also went back to basics, following in the tradition of “Cinderella” and “Snow White” by taking the fairy tale about the frog prince and putting a different spin on it, relocating it to New Orleans and making it one of the first Disney animated movies with a mostly-black cast.
They also found a terrific cast to voice the characters, including Anika Noni Rose, one of the Dreamgirls, as Disney’s latest princess, Tiana, Brazil’s Bruno Campos from “Nip/Tuck” as Prince Naveen (the frog of the title), and Keith David as witch doctor, Dr. Facilier. Other voices are provided by the prolific Terrence Howard and even Oprah herself, the latter who’s likely to have been giving the movie a big push on her show, ’cause that’s what she does so well. John Goodman, a veteran in Disney animated movies, also voices a role.
In order to hedge their bets that “Princess and the Frog” follows in line with some of their biggest animated hits, Clements and Musker brought composer Randy Newman on board to do the music. Newman’s work with Pixar has garnered him seven Academy Award nominations, having won one for an original song for “Monsters, Inc,” and being that the music plays a big part in the movie, much like in Disney’s biggest hits, it was smart to go with someone who mainstream audiences seem to like, for whatever reason that may be.
The Princess and the Frog opened over Thanksgiving weekend in two theaters in New York and L.A., bringing back another Disney tradition of exclusive engagements for their animated movies before going nationwide. This has been a strong gambit by the Mouse House in the past, helping them take the top 8 Highest Theater Averages ever, and their latest claimed the third-highest per-theater-average with $393 thousand per venue. As of this past weekend, it has grossed $2.4 million in just those two theaters. One thing to bear in mind while analyzing that information is that ticket prices for these exclusive engagements were significantly higher than normal ticket prices. The last Disney animated movie to get this exclusive run was Brother Bear although that opened in late October rather than over Thanksgiving weekend, another thing that probably amped up the numbers, and while Brother Bear made $19 million in its first weekend in wide release, that was a two-day weekend (because Halloween was on Friday). That movie went on to make roughly $85 million, which is about the same amount as The Little Mermaid, but that was actually a small drop in the pool compared to the $120 to $150 million floor of most Disney animated movies in the ’90s. In fact, Aladdin grossed $200 million and The Lion King grossed over $300 million, which seems unattainable for Disney’s latest, especially when you consider that there haven’t really been any big 2D animated films since then. (Okay, there was The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, but that had a built-in audience from the show, so it was expected to be big.)
The great thing about Disney’s G-rated movies are that they’re not just wholesome entertainment for the youngest kids, but they’re also idea for the more conservative older (50 plus) folk in the heartlands who don’t want to see movies with lots of sex and violence. Compared to everything else out there, Disney’s animated movies represent the wholesome entertainment that will likely appeal to them. The fact that it features a mostly-black cast should make it a bigger draw for African-American audiences than most Disney movies, though older African-Americans without kids might choose something like Clint Eastwood’s Invictus over this. The biggest problem is that audiences seem to have mostly lost interest in 2D animation and even Miyazaki’s acclaimed and award-winning films have barely made a dent at the box office. His most recent movie Ponyo grossed just $15 million despite being his first wide release in the States.
Fortunately, The Princess and the Frog has the entire Christmas holiday week ahead of it where every day is like a very busy Saturday and while the opening of Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks” sequel might take the wind out of its sales, we can certainly see this doing at least as well as Brother Bear, but probably a little bit better.
Why I Should See It: Fans of animation should be delighted that the studio that pioneered hand-drawn animation are returning to it.
Invictus (Warner Bros.)
Starring Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon
Directed by Clint Eastwood (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, Flags of our Fathers, Gran Torino, Letters from Iwo Jima and many, MANY more.); Written by Anthony Peckham (upcoming Sherlock Holmes)
Genre: Drama, Politics, Sports
Tagline: “His people needed a leader. He gave them a champion.”
Plot Summary: After being elected President of South Africa, former political prisoner Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) realizes it’s going to be difficult to bring the whites and blacks of the country together, so he devises a play to motivate the local underdog rugby team, the Springboks, led by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to inspire his people by them getting to the 1995 Rugby World Cup being played in South Africa.
As he gets closer to his 80th birthday next year, actor/filmmaker Clint Eastwood isn’t resting on his laurels, having delivered nine feature films in the past decade, including his biggest hit Gran Torino, which grossed nearly $150 million earlier this year. In that time, Eastwood has also been nominated for seven Oscars, winning two for Million Dollar Baby in 2005. While Eastwood has clearly found more success as a filmmaker in the last decade, it’s good to note that Eastwood’s three biggest hits at the box office were the ones he starred in as an actor, which shows what a draw he can be, while other recent movies like Changeling and Flags of Our Fathers have barely made a third of those biggest hits. Eastwood has also had the most success with movies that have received Oscar and awards buzz, a tradition that began with Unforgiven, then more regularly with Mystic River, but that buzz has only helped his strongest movies that also got critical raves.
Invictus treads familiar ground in terms of being a historical movie but it’s also somewhat new ground for Eastwood, because it’s about a beloved black political figure, an icon, even though it’s not necessarily a biopic per se. The more cynical might presume that Clint is overcompensating for the tongue-lashing he received from Spike Lee about the lack of black soldiers in Flags of our Fathers. The symbol of freedom Mandela represents is a powerful one to African-Americans even in our country, which is likely to make this a strong draw for African-American audiences, and it also draws parallels to the first days in office of our own President, which makes the movie far more timely and relevant than some might think from the surface.
It marks the third time that Eastwood is working with actor Morgan Freeman, having first teamed for Unforgiven. The last time the two aging actors worked together in Million Dollar Baby, Freeman won his first Oscar for the role of a boxing coach. For long before that, Freeman was already a popular and prolific actor, who has appeared in a variety of roles and genres over the years, from smaller indies to giant blockbusters. For instance, he played God in Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty, which was a huge hit, as well as a mentor to assassins in last year’s Wanted, and he was teamed with Jack Nicholson for the breakout hit The Bucket List, in which Freeman clearly was the second lead. Freeman already has some experience playing a president, having taken that role for the summer disaster movie Deep Impact. Of course, playing Nelson Mandela is a different story, because this is very well known historical and political figure that has captured the interest and attention of the media and the public ever since the story of his imprisonment in South Africa.
If Morgan Freeman were the only star of the movie, one might question how well the movie could open, but it also stars Matt Damon, who has either starred or been a part of the ensemble of huge blockbusters including the entire “Bourne” trilogy and all three “Ocean’s” movies. This movie is slightly smaller and more on the scale of The Good Shepherd, the Robert De Niro-directed spy thriller which opened in December a few years back, or Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, but it’s definitely more of a subject matter of interest than Damon’s recent movie with Soderbergh, The Informant!.
The odd thing is that there have been very few successful movies set in Africa, let alone in South Africa, most of them being made independently for small budgets and only released in select cities. In fact, the two biggest recent African-based movies that were up for major awards, including Oscars, were The Last King of Scotland and Hotel Rwanda, neither of which made more than $30 million. That makes the decision to make a movie about Mandela an even bigger challenge for Eastwood, even though he certainly has a lot more weight in Hollywood and with moviegoers than any of the others who tackled the subject matter.
The rugby aspect of the movie is also somewhat worrying, because as we’ve seen with far too many soccer movies, most Americans just don’t have much interest sports they don’t understand, and those who think it’s a sports drama involving rugby might find that to be a viable turn-off. There’s also the weird coincidence the movie is going directly up against Warner Bros.’ ginormous football hit The Blind Side, which has been running rampant over the box office these past few weeks. If Americans are going to see an inspirational sports drama, why would they want to see one involving rugby set in South Africa? Then again, moviegoers might see Invictus as a more suitable follow-up for the Sandra Bullock drama – only this time with the races reversed, if you think about it. It’s clear from that movie’s success that Americans are definitely in the mood for inspirational fare during the holiday season.
With that in mind, it’s kind of odd that Warner Bros. is giving the movie a moderate roll-out into roughly 2,200 theaters, which isn’t so bad if you look back at Eastwood’s past few wide releases, because this is more theaters than Million Dollar Baby and even the war movie Flags of Our Fathers. One difference is that the movie hasn’t been playing in limited release for a week or two, which has often been the case for all but a few of Eastwood’s movies, which in theory could have taken away from their expansion nationwide, but the movie also won’t have a couple of weeks of word-of-mouth to help it out of the gate. (It certainly won’t help that the movie has a strange title, in Latin no less, which might be somewhat off-putting to Clint’s usual fans in Middle America.)
While one can’t expect Invictus to open anywhere near as well as Clint’s last movie Gran Torino, it should do significantly better than his weaker offerings from the last couple years, especially if it gets the expected awards attention, which should bring in people who wouldn’t normally be as interested in the movie due to its setting or the unconventional sport at its core.
Why I Should See It: Another fine Eastwood historical epic with another great performance by Morgan Freeman, this time as a historic political figure.
THE CHOSEN ONE:
A Single Man (The Weinstein Co.)
We’ve seen a lot of first-time directors coming out of many different fields of expertise with varying results with this year alone seeing a number of writers, producers, choreographers and editors giving it a try. Tom Ford might be one of the first to come from out of the world of fashion who could legitimately switch gears and become a reputable filmmaker going by his debut, which is based on a book by Christopher Isherwood.
Part of what makes the film so appealing is the mood and tone Ford sets, but it also features Colin Firth giving a poignant performance as the main character, George Falconer, a British ex-pat living a closeted lifestyle in L.A. of the early 60s, who has just lost his partner of 16 years, played by Matthew Goode. You don’t have to be gay to understand what George is going through, as we watch him go through his day trying to cope with the loss and unsure what to do. He’s really at his wit’s end and has already decided to end his life.
Firth is just so good in his role, not only because he’s able to play the part so low-key but he has that dry wit that actually comes into play a few times, and he’s even able to turn what might have been a dour suicide scene into something rather amusing to watch. (Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler!) Probably the closest one can find for comparison might be Peter Sellers in “Being There,” and there’s another interesting layer to George via his co-dependent relationship with his long time confidante and fellow ex-Pat Charley, played by Julianne Moore with a British accent and some of the wildest hair and make-up we’ve seen on her. They have some terrific scenes together including one drunken scene where we see how much she truly loves George, despite his sexual preferences always guaranteeing the feelings will be unrequited. There are also some decent moments with Matthew Goode, as George’s former lover (in flashback), and Nicholas Hoult (the boy from About a Boy) as a student who has the hots for teacher.
Regardless of whether you’re straight or gay, it’s easy to relate to what George is going through, trying to remember his long-time love but also trying not to quell his own desires and sexuality at a time when most of the world around him believes it to be wrong. Some of the homoeroticism might turn off those uncomfortable with their sexualities, though Ford never handles that aspect of George’s lifestyle in a way that’s meant to be shocking, more on par with last year’s Milk. That’s just a natural part of George’s life and his process of getting over his late lover.
It’s hard not to be reminded of Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven, since this is set during a time where people weren’t so open about homosexuality, but Ford’s influences are clearly European, everything from Truffaut to Almodovar. Visually, the film is on par with Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, showing how someone from one visual medium can translate that vision into another. At times, the film approaches gretyones as all the hues are pulled out of the images, but other times, the colors are bright and vibrant, and you’ll probably have to watch the movie a few times to understand how and why Ford used this technique.
The problem is that as gorgeous as the film is to behold, it doesn’t really feel like it’s going anywhere as it sort of meanders a long. A few of George’s interactions are shot very simply and they go on for far too long, especially a dialogue-heavy dalliance with a Hispanic hustler he meets at a liquor store. Some might also feel slightly disappointed by the film’s “twist ending.” Even so, it’s a beautiful-looking film, very poignant and moving, showing Ford to be a real filmmaker and not some flash in the pan trying his hand at a new medium. This is filmmaking as art more than as light throwaway entertainment and those who appreciate the craft should be impressed by Ford’s achievement.
It opens in New York, L.A. and San Francisco on Friday, then expands further on December 25 and January 8.
The Slammin’ Salmon (Anchor Bay)
Interview with Broken Lizard and Michael Clark Duncan (Coming Soon!)
It took some time before I became an appreciative fan of Broken Lizard, the upstate New York institution who stepped up to fill the shoes of National Lampoon back in the ’90s, and who’ve clearly maintained their youthful, some might say sophomoric, sense of humor, despite all of them having crossed into their 40s last year. (Believe me, I’m as shocked by that fact as you are.) Oddly enough, it was The Dukes of Hazzard movie directed by Jay Chandrasekhar that really sold me on them, then the time spent talking to them while they were on the long road promoting Beerfest, a movie that delivered more laughs per-minute than many other recent comedies.
This time, Kevin Heffernan steps up to the plate to direct without missing a beat, and it’s a similarly high concept premise as their previous movies, this one involving a heated contest at a high-end Miami restaurant to try to earn enough money to save the restaurant being used to pay off a gambling debt. Anyone who has worked in a restaurant or anyone who regularly frequents them can appreciate what the guys have done this time around, once again fulfilling their mission to include as many laughs as humanly possible into a 99-minute movie. Like Monty Python, they repeatedly prove that as funny as they are individually, the sum greatly enhances the parts, making it hard to decide which is your favorite character.
Heffernan and Lemme taking center stage, the former as the unfortuante waiter-turned-manager and the latter as a humiliated actor forced to go back to his old waiting job back, a pseudo-autobiographical role that inspired the movie to begin with. Paul Soter kills in a dual role as the restaurant’s sadistic chef and his dim-witted twin brother who is promoted from busboy to waiter in order to pump up the numbers, while Stolhanske plays a pompous tanned poser. Chandrasekhar once again gets the short-end of the stick playing “Nuts,” the awkward medicated waiter who turns into the smooth-talking “Zongo” when he goes off his meds.
Even with so much potential for laughs from the group itself, it’s Michael Clarke Duncan, who constantly steals every single scene as former boxer Cleon Salmon, the tyrannical moron who owns the restaurant, a very different role for the actor played so over-the-top that you can’t help but be impressed and amazed. Duncan creates the type of whacked-out character that just immediately sells on the movie and leaves the most lasting impressionhe’s kind of like Tracy Jordan’s character on “30 Rock” only far bigger and scarier. The waitstaff is rounded out by the lovely Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”) and April Bowlby, two actresses who refuse to sit back and let the boys to have all the fun, the latter putting herself through the wringer as the unfortunate waitress whose plan to use her looks to win the contest backfires badly. There’s even a bit of an inter-staff romance going on, but anyone familiar with the Lizards’ M.O. will realize that they’re setting things up merely to pull the rug out from under the unsuspecting viewer.
Like with Super Troopers and Beerfest, the humor is situational and while some of the set-ups lead to predictable outcomes, many of the recurring jokes are cleverly used to build up to an even bigger laugh by the end. Most of those jokes rely on the impressive array of talent playing restaurant customers, the Miami setting allowing for a lot of pretentious characters, including the type of faux-celebrities who would normally turn up in a restaurant like this merely to be seen. These customers include the like of Will Forte as the customer who wastes time at a table, and Sendhil Ramamurthy (“Heroes”) and G4’s Olivia Munn, as tabloid celebrities on a date for him to pop the question. When he suggests the waiter put the ring in a piece of chocolate cake, you can guess where that’s going.
While some jokes work better than others, and some just fall flat, you still can’t find a more sure-fire way of busting a gut from laughing than the Broken Lizard’s latest offering, another solid effort that will make you wish that they could be more prolific.
The Slammin’ Salmon opens in select cities this weekend.
Also in Limited Release:
The Lovely Bones (DreamWorks Pictures) – Peter Jackson directs this adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel. The story centers on a young girl who has been murdered and watches over her family and her killer from heaven. She must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal. Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Michael Imperioli and Saoirse Ronan star.
My Son, My Son, What Have ye Done? (Absurdia) – Willem Dafoe and Michael Shannon stars in Werner Herzog’s second crime-thriller of the year, this one involving the strange case of a man locked up in his house holding two hostages after killing his mother. It opens on Friday exclusively at the IFC Center.
Tenderness (Lionsgate) – This new thriller from John Polson (Hide and Seek) stars Jon Foster as Eric, a high school student who kills his parents in a rage, and years later falls in love with a teen girl suffering from sexual abuse (Sophie Traub). Russell Crowe plays Lt. Cristofuoro, the officer assigned to Eric’s case becomes suspicious when he leaves town with her hiding in his trunk. The movie is opening at the Quad Cinemas in New York and maybe other cities. Reading the plot, we think that it’s being dumped.
The Vicious Kind (72nd Street Productions) – In Lee Toland Krieger’s drama, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a young man (Adam Scott) brings home his new girlfriend Emma (Brittany Snow), who proceeds to tear the family apart. Co-starring J.K. Simmons, the movie opens in select cities.
Yesterday Was a Lie (Helicon Arts Cooperative) – In James Kervin’s odd sci-fi romance, Kipleigh Brown plays Hoyle, a girl investigating the life of artist/archeologist John Dudas (John Newton) uncovers a bunch of earth-shattering secrets as she gets closer to the introverted man. It opens in L.A. on Friday.
Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (Yash Raj Films) Shimit Amin’s comedy stars Ranbir Kapoor as a college graduate with poor marks who decides to try his hand as a salesman. It opens in select cities.
Hannah Free (Ripe Fruit Films) – Sharon Gless stars in this movie about two girls who grow up in a Midwest town that’s unaccepting of their love for one another, a relationship that’s put through the test of time. It opens at the Quad Cinema in New York.
Next week, it’s the pinnacle of outer space fantasy adventure involving blue humanoid aliens… it’s James Cameron’s
Avatar (20th Century Fox). (Hurray!) And for something a little more down-to-earth, Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant have been teamed for Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Sony). (Note: next week’s column may also be slightly late due to other commitments.)
Copyright 2009 Edward Douglas