The Weekend Warrior: March 4 – 6


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. (Sorry, we’re a bit late this week due to Oscars and other commitments.)

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

Updated Predictions and Comparisons

1. Rango (Paramount) – $42.7 million N/A (down .7 million)

2. The Adjustment Bureau (Universal) – $19.6 million N/A (Up .8 million)

3. Gnomeo & Juliet (Disney/Touchstone) – $8.5 million -33%

4. Hall Pass (New Line/WB) – $7.5 million -45%

5. Unknown (Warner Bros.) – $7.0 million -45%

6. The King’s Speech (The Weinstein Co.) – $6.2 million -15%

7. Beastly (CBS Films) – $6.1 million N/A

8. I Am Number Four (DreamWorks) – $6.0 million -47%

9. Just Go With It (Sony) – $5.8 million -45%

10. Take Me Home Tonight (Relativity) – $5.4 million N/A

Weekend Overview

With January and February generally having been bad months at the box office, March kicks off with what should be a string of bigger movies with the first animated film by “Pirates of the Caribbean” filmmaker Gore Verbinski, Rango (Paramount/Nickelodeon Films), featuring the voice of Johnny Depp in the title role, being the biggest draw this weekend for kids, teens and some older audiences. Paramount has done a great job marketing the films of DreamWorks Animation, but now they have their own offering and they are pulling out all the stops with non-stop commercials that have been highlighting the humor and Depp’s character to make it clear this isn’t just for kids. It won’t hurt that there’s been a huge demand for family fare which has helped Disney find success with the relatively weak Gnomeo & Juliet, and a renewed interest in Westerns with the success of True Grit, but with the star power of Depp paired with his “Pirates” director, expect this to be the biggest opener of the year so far.

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt star in George Nolfi’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Adjustment Bureau (Universal), an action thriller that’s being marketed to look like Inception in hopes of bringing in any adult too embarrassed to be seen in an animated film. While Damon has not been that big a draw on his own, he’s coming off the enormous hit True Grit that’s kept him on top when it comes to keeping his fans satisfied, and they’ll generally see him in anything he does. The cool sci-fi concept and solid reviews should help make this the choice of audiences over 20 who may not have any interest in Rango, which should help this deliver a strong second place.

With so much starpower appearing in films that appeal to fairly wide demographics, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else, which is why the other two offerings, the R-rated ’80s comedy Take Me Home Tonight (Relativity Media), starring Topher Grace, Ana Farris and Dan Fogler, and the romantic fantasy Beastly (CBS Films) with Alex Pettyfer and Vanessa Hudgens–both delayed a long time–should be thankful for any business they get. The marketing for the latter makes it look absolutely horrendous but there should be at least a few teen girls who’ll give it a chance which is more than we can say for the former, which does little to stand out in a busy market place. Don’t be too surprised if one or both end up in the bottom half of the Top 10 (or even lower!), but they’re more than likely to get caught up in the miasma of films in the $5 to 6 million range.

This week’s “Chosen One” is the dark serial killer thriller I Saw the Devil (Magnet/Magnolia) by Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters), which you can read more about below.

This weekend last year, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (Disney), also starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, exploded into theaters with $116.1 million to become Burton’s biggest opener, the biggest March opener, and the third $100 million opening for Depp following the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels. Its $31.1 thousand per-theater average was huge and it bode well for the future of 3D movies, which had yet to wear out their welcome with poorly-converted last-minute 3D decisions, and it would go on to gross $333 million by the time it left theaters, the second-highest grossing film of 2011 and putting it in the top 20 for all-time domestic grosses. Antoine Fuqua’s police drama Brooklyn’s Finest (Overture Pictures), starring Richard Gere, Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke had a solid $13.3 million opening, just edging out Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island for second place. The Top 10 grossed $182.6 million but unless Rango does as well as “Alice” (which we don’t see happening), this is going to be another down weekend, although it should be up significantly from the last few weeks.

Rango (Paramount)
Starring (the voices of) Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Ray Winstone, Beth Grant, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Alfred Molina
Directed by Gore Verbinski; Written by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Last Samurai, upcoming Coriolanus, Hugo Cabret)
Genre: Animation, Comedy
Rated PG
Plot Summary: A theatrical domesticated chameleon named Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) ends up stranded in the middle of the desert where he comes upon the town of Dirt where the simple folk immediately embrace him as the hero they need, making him Sheriff and putting him in charge of saving the town’s water supply.

Mini-Review: Similar to when Tim Burton made “Nightmare Before Christmas,” Gore Verbinski’s “Rango” is clear proof that a great director can work in any genre and medium and produce great results. It might be somewhat surprising considering how the film opens with a strange monologue that leads to a frenetic pace that it’s somewhat disorienting, but like the best animated films of the last decade, it’s a movie that works on enough levels that grown-ups will be entertained as much or more than kids thanks to jokes meant more for them.

As far as Westerns go, the story is somewhat formulaic, being a fish out of water story about a stranger coming to town and cleaning up its problems, something we’ve seen in so many Westerns. What makes it original is that Rango is a similarly brilliant character as Captain Jack Sparrow, one that allows Depp to take on another wonderfully eccentric role yet one so different from anything we’ve seen either in Western or animated film. The film is filled with the type of characterizations that have played so well in Pixar’s films but also maintaining the quirkiness Verbinski and Depp have brought to the “Pirates” movies. Some of the more interesting characters include Isla Fisher voicing a lizard love interest of sorts named Beans, and the voice cast is filled with so many great characters actors including Ned Beatty, Stephen Root and Harry Dean Stanton, who really bring a lot out of their creatures merely with their voices and inflection. This also extends to a couple of fantastic villain types, particularly Bill Nighy doing an impressive Texan accent as Rattlesnake Jake that might make one do a double take wondering if it’s him. Most of the fun comes from how Rango interacts with the villagers in the town of Dirt who don’t know what to make of someone so flamboyant.

Overall, the film just looks fantastic, everything looking so vivid and radiant with almost photorealistic detail at times as Verbinski works with much of his same crew from “Pirates” as well as bringing in a couple of ringers like Roger Deakins consulting on the lighting. It’s Hans Zimmer who really shines with an uncharacteristic score blending Western tropes and Mexican rhythms, and that music really drives the film’s pace right down to the Mariachi Chorus that narrates the story. The film is clever enough to be subtle with its references that might take one out of this world, such as a nod to Depp’s portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

The movie is not going to be for everyone – small kids might appreciate the action and the physical humor that Depp excels at, but they’ll likely get bored with all the stuff adults will enjoy. Regardless, “Rango” has all the marks of a classic animated film in that you completely forget you’re watching animated talking animals, but anyone disappointed by “True Grit,” will get everything out of this they might hope from a Coen Brothers Western.

Rating: 9/10


March has been a great time to release animated family films since many schools are on Spring Break giving parents even more reason to want to get their kids out of the house and keep them entertained. DreamWorks Animation and 20th Century Fox have taken advantage of this to open movies with the type of numbers we normally would only see in the summer or holidays. Paramount has taken advantage of this by marketing DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon and Monsters vs. Aliens to huge numbers during the previously slow month.

Rango is a bit of an anomaly in that it’s an animated film being released by Paramount through their Nickelodeon Films partnership. Normally, we’d question whether an animated Western about a talking lizard would be of any interest, but this is the brainchild of director Gore Verbinski, and it reunites him with Johnny Depp following the duo’s work on the blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, which grossed $2.7 billion worldwide over the course of four years.

Granted, Johnny Depp was already a huge star before he appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, but that really put him over the top and placed him amongst the top box office stars out there. His regular collaborations with Tim Burton continued throughout the ’00s with another hit in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but their umpteenth teaming last year on a 3D version of Alice in Wonderland proved to be their biggest hit to date. It opened with $116 million this weekend last year, the biggest March opening ever, and went on to become one of the biggest hits of the year, second only to Toy Story 3. While Depp is coming off the disappointing domestic showing for his pairing with Angelina Jolie in The Tourist, that movie had him playing an ordinary guy, which nobody really wants to see. While Rango may not have the namebrand value of Alice in Wonderland or Horton Hears a Who, Depp’s presence means a lot to a movie like this because he has such a devout fanbase and Verbinski has created a character in Rango that will allow Depp to do some of the crazy stuff his fans love. Other than his work with Burton on The Corpse Bride, Depp’s never done a lot of animation voicework before, so one wonders whether the young women who normally flock to his films will bother, knowing that they’ll only be hearing his voice in the body of a cartoon chameleon.

Though the focus is almost entirely on Depp, Rango also reunites the “Pirates” duo with Bill Nighy who is voicing the film’s main bad guy Rattlesnake Jake, and the eclectic voice cast includes the likes of Isla (Wedding Crashers) Fisher, Abigail (Little Miss Sunshine) Breslin, and versatile character actors Stephen Root, Ray Winstone, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton and Alfred Molina.

Paramount have been marketing the hell out of the movie (in a good way) with non-stop commercials during big television events like the Golden Globes and Super Bowl, which focus on the humor and on Depp’s presence in the film, which hopefully should be enough to get parents interested. Currently, the other family movie in theaters, Disney’s Gnomeo and Juliet, has been doing exceedingly well over the last few weeks, but it shouldn’t offer too much competition considering it had already dropped under $15 million last week.

The real key to whether Rango will work or not is whether it brings in grown-ups and the non-family audience. It’s not exactly a straight kiddie movie, owing more to animated films like Pixar’s Ratatouille and DreamWorks Animation’s Over the Hedge, being talking animal films that adults can enjoy. Early reviews for the movie should be strong, especially among the online geek crowd who will be thrilled to have another cool animated film as well as another unique Western so soon after the Coens’ True Grit, which has crossed the $150 million mark to second-highest grossing Western of all time. Being a Western means it might appeal more to guys than animated films normally do, but in general, the premise, the cast and those reviews will help it bring in those teens and 20-to-30-somethings who normally would snub their noses at an animated film that looks like kiddie fare.

With all that in mind, we expect Rango to do exceptionally well this weekend, definitely somewhere in the $40 million range, and it should have decent legs once word-of-mouth gets out how much fun it is and not just for kids. It shouldn’t have any problems taking on Disney’s new animated movie Mars Needs Moms next week either.

Why I Should See It: Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp have previously paired for some of the most entertaining high-sea adventure movies, and they do just as well in a Western setting with talking animals.
Why Not: The fact that it is talking animals may put off adults who have yet to experience the joys of Pixar.
Projections: $40 to 45 million opening weekend and roughly $155 million total


The Adjustment Bureau (Universal)
Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Michael Kelly, Terence Stamp
Written and directed by George Nolfi (debut by writer of Ocean’s 12 and The Bourne Ultimatum)
Genre: Science Fiction, Drama, Thriller
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “Fight for your fate.”
Plot Summary: Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story, a politician named David Norris (Matt Damon), after losing his bid for New York Senate, meets a beautiful and mysterious dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) and they have a moment, but when he runs into a second time, Norris learns of a secret organization who controls destiny who will do anything to keep them apart.

Interview with Anthony Mackie

Interview with George Nolfi


March and April are going to be big months for science fiction fans, kicking off a year in which the genre is thriving, and what better way to start things off than the latest movie based on one of the works of the late, great Philip K. Dick? Most science fiction fans are familiar with his work, and movie lovers have been given adaptations of varying qualities by many filmmakers, the best of them being Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, followed by Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall and then Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.

This one is produced, written and directed by George Nolfi, a Hollywood screenwriter who had worked with Matt Damon on a few of his films and having gotten the rights to Philip K. Dick’s short story, convinced the popular actor to star in the movie. It’s probably no surprise that a movie with Damon would get greenlit since he’s become a fairly reliable box office star following his appearance in hit franchises that came from out of Ocean’s 11 and The Bourne Identity. The film’s distributor Universal Pictures has a great track record with Matt Damon with the “Bourne” movies and The Good Shepherd, although audiences seemed fairly uninterested in Green Zone, even if it opened better than some of the films Damon has done with Warner Bros. including Clint Eastwood’s Invictus and Hereafter and Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!. In general, Damon had settled into a comfortable $32 to 35 million domestic gross for his last few solo movies, but his recent pairing with Jeff Bridges and the Coen Brothers for True Grit has brought Damon back to the forefront as it’s become the second-highest grossing Western of all time.

For his first romantic lead role in quite some time, Damon is paired with Emily Blunt, the British actress who has been everywhere in the last couple months, co-starring in the bomb Gulliver’s Travels opposite Jack Black and providing a key voice in the Disney hit Gnomeo & Juliet. She’s still best known for her supporting role in The Devil Wears Prada, though she hasn’t been able to have many breaks since then, despite appearing in last year’s remake of The Wolfman. The cast is rounded out by Anthony Mackie from The Hurt Locker, John Slattery from “Mad Men” and Terence Stamp in another great character role, none of whom might convince people to see the movie but who will add to the guarantee of quality.

Originally, the movie was meant to come out in late July on the same weekend as the Universal hit The Bourne Ultimatum, but a few last-minute reshoots meant that it would be delayed, so they moved the movie back to early March. This may seem like a bad thing except that it gave the studio time to figure out a way to market what may have been a difficult sell in a way that will get audiences interested. They’ve done this via a combination of stylish film posters and intriguing commercials and trailers that make the movie look like Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a similarly difficult sci-fi action flick that ended up grossing nearly $300 million and winning four Oscars this past Sunday. It certainly has helped generate interest, especially among the many fans of Damon’s Jason Bourne movies.

Reviews should generally be decent which will help get interest among those still unsure if this movie is for them, and older moviegoers, say 25 and up, won’t really have too many other choices after seeing the Oscar movies. The =film’s biggest stopgap is whether or not the movie will bring in the women who normally might check it out for Damon, or whether they’ll continue their allegiance to Johnny Depp and flock to Rango despite it being an animated film.

Why I Should See It: Science fiction fans know what great concepts Philip K. Dick has brought to fiction and cinema.
Why Not: Do people seeing the commercials and trailer know that this is essentially a love story?
Projections: $18 to 20 million opening weekend and roughly $55 million total.


Take Me Home Tonight (Relativity Media)
Starring Topher Grace, Anna Faris, Dan Fogler, Teresa Palmer, Chris Pratt, Michelle Trachtenberg, Lucy Punch, Michael Ian Black, Demetri Martin
Directed by Michael Dowse (Fubar: Balls to the Wall, It’s All Gone Pete Tong, Fubar); Written by Jackie and Jeff Filgo (“That ’70s Show,” Diary of a Wimpy Kid)
Genre: Comedy
Rated R
Tagline: “Best. Night. Ever.”
Plot Summary: Shortly after graduating from college, 23-year-old Matt Franklin (32-year-old Topher Grace) is back in his hometown working a dead-end job when he runs into Tori Frederking (Teresa Palmer), the girl who had a huge crush on in high school. When an opportunity arises, Matt and his twin sister Wendy (34-year-old Anna Faris) and best friend Barry (34-year-old Dan Folger) go to meet her at a big party in hopes Barry will get another chance with Tori.



The first of two weekend underdogs (to put it nicely) is this long-delayed R-rated romantic comedy from the director of the popular Canadian film Fubar and its sequel, which will have its U.S. debut at the SXSW Film Festival next week. But here is a movie that Michael Dowse shot in early 2007–yes, FOUR YEARS AGO–produced by “That ’70s Show” star Topher Grace as a tribute to the ’80s comedies of John Hughes.

Grace seems to be proving the adage about TV stars not being able to make it in the movie business even if his first movie was the Oscar-winning Traffic from Steven Soderbergh. Grace’s first starring role in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! tanked, though his co-starring role with Dennis Quaid in In Good Company was a lot more promising as was his casting as Eddie Brock a.k.a. Venom in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. He then played a part in the ensemble rom-com blockbuster Valentine’s Day last year as well as being an odd casting choice for Robert Rodriguez’s Predators, but Grace still hasn’t proven himself as a box office draw in his own right, and it’s been a long time since his popular sitcom was on the air.

Grace might have some help from Anna Faris who actually has had a fairly solid box office history, mainly due to her appearance in the “Scary Movie” series as well as her own starring role in the comedy The House Bunny, but she’s also appeared in duds like Just Friends, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Observe and Report and been involved in dodgy family films like last year’s Yogi Bear. Her choice in comedies is so erratic that one wonders whether her presence will make a difference. The same can be said for Dan Fogler, who made waves on the Broadway stage in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” before being cast in films like Balls of Fury, Good Luck Chuck and Fanboys. Fogler’s been doing a lot more animation voicework in the last few years including in next week’s Mars Needs Moms, but he’s yet to achieve the status as a comic star some may have been hoping. Lastly, the movie also stars Teresa Palmer, the Australian actress who appeared recently in the action-thriller I Am Number Four and in last year’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as the main love interest, and she’s actually quite good doing comedy, as well as being one of the few members of the cast actually playing a character closer to her own age.

If the amount of time this movie was sitting on the shelves wasn’t worrying enough–few will even remember this was once called “The Kids in America,” another reference to an ’80s tune that doesn’t appear in the movie–then the fact that so much of the cast are in their 30s playing younger and trying to appeal to older teens is a problem. It has that in common with Christopher Columbus’ I Love You, Beth Cooper, another long-delayed comedy that paired 18-year-old Hayden Panettiere with nearly 30-year-old Paul Rust and tried to make us think they’re the same age. An even bigger problem is the film’s R-rating because it’s clearly trying to bring in younger audiences with its type of humor but the R-rating will age out the teens who may be interested in it. That may have been part of the problem wth MGM’s Hot Tub Time Machine, which also tried to market ’80s nostalgia towards college age students who weren’t even alive back then.

Not that any of that will matter because reviews for Take Me Home Tonight won’t be great, not much of a surprise since critics generally lack a sense of humor, but at this point, the movie just feels like a tax write-off for Relativity, clearly being dumped into a busy weekend in hopes it will be forgotten with all the bigger budget movies released this month.

Why I Should See It: This comedy harks back to better times… the ’80s!
Why Not: The cast would probably know because they’re all slightly older than the characters they’re playing… if you consider 10 years “slightly.”
Projections: $4 to 6 million opening weekend and roughly $12 million total.


Beastly (CBS Films)
Starring Vanessa Hudgens, Alex Pettyfer, Mary-Kate Olsen, Neil Patrick Harris, Peter Krause
Written and Directed by Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland)
Genre: Romance, Drama
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “It’s what’s underneath”
Plot Summary: A gregarious high school student named Kyle Kingson (Alex Pettyfer) plays a cruel prank on his strange outcast classmate Kendra (Mary-Kate Olsen) who gets revenge by casting a spell that transforms Kyle’s appearance to make him look hideous. Despised by what he’s become, Kyle goes into hiding but he sees the chance for redemption by helping Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens), the daughter of a troubled drug addict, with the condition she stays with him for her own protection.


Updating fairy tales seems to be an ongoing trend these days and this take on “Beauty and the Beast,” adapted from the novel by Alex Flinn by Daniel Barnz, the indie director whose debut Phoebe in Wonderland debuted at Sundance a few years back, is the first of two weeks of fairy tale reinventions. Previously, the tale about how beauty is only skin deep was turned into a popular television show during the ’80s starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman, but it was Walt Disney Animation who really made the story popular with their animated musical of the same name. Others have played with the themes like Hal Hartley in his indie No Such Thing, but otherwise, there hasn’t really been a movie version of it in quite some time.

So why is now the time for a movie about a teen girl and a horribly disfigured guy? Well, it probably has something to do with a little movie called Twilight and how Stephenie Meyers’ novel was turned into a blockbuster franchise that has grossed billions worldwide. Alex Flinn’s novel was the first project optioned by the relatively new CBS Films who saw it as an opportunity to bring the story to the same younger female audience by pairing two good-looking younger actors.

Alex Pettyfer had only really done a couple of British films before getting the dual-role gig as the gregarious Kyle and his beastly alter ego, but many had thought he would be one of 2011’s breakout stars, something that hasn’t quite materialized as his other movie I Am Number Four has done okay, but not spectacular. That means that the real draw for the movie will have to be actor-singer Vanessa Hudgens, who made her name from Disney’s enormously successful “High School Musical” series, which transitioned well to theaters with High School Musical 3: Senior Year, which grossed $90 million. Hudgens followed that up with Bandslam, a movie mostly promoted based on her role in it, but that bombed horrifically despite generally good reviews. Hudgens will next be appearing in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, which could help change her image although that’s more as part of an ensemble.

Beastly is also the first movie starring Mary Kate Olsen in quite some time, and she’s being featured fairly heavily in the marketing, and also stars popular actor Neil Patrick Harris from “How I Met Your Mother” and Peter Krause, formerly of “Six Feet Under.”

This is the fifth release from CBS Films, who had their biggest hit last year with Jennifer Lopez’s comedy The Back-up Plan, which topped out at $37.5 million last April, and they followed that with two action flicks starring high-profile stars, neither which made more than $30 million. They’re probably still smarting from how their debut Extraordinary Measures bombed last year with just $12.5 million despite starring Harrison Ford. The problem is that they just haven’t found their feet just yet when it comes to marketing movies and what started as a viable project has slowly floundered the longer it’s been delayed.

Originally, the movie was going to open in late July (against The Adjustment Bureau, ironically enough) but it was moved to avoid conflicts with Charlie St. Cloud, the movie starring Hudgens’ then boyfriend Zac Efron. He released his movie and it did okay, and then they broke up, leaving Hudgens with a weak March release. Originally, it was going to be released later in March, but CBS must have wanted to get it away from Sucker Punch, moving it up and giving them less time to market it. The trailers have generally gotten better since the first one last year, but the commercials are atrocious, resorting to the actors talking about what a great movie they’re in, which is almost always an act of desperation.

Either way, this one really has very little hope, since it’s a relatively low-key movie trying to take on Johnny Depp, who still is a huge draw for women of all ages, even if he’s merely voicing a lizard, and because of that, we’ll be shocked if it even makes its way into the Top 10.

Why I Should See It: Because the classic fable of “Beauty and the Beast” is long overdue for a revival.
Why Not: Have you seen the commercials and trailers? This looks lucky to get a theatrical release at all.
Projections: $5 to 7 million opening weekend and roughly $15 million total.



I Saw the Devil (Magnet/Magnolia)
Starring Lee Byung-hyun, Choi Min-sik, Oh San-ha, Kim Yoon-seo
Directed by Kim Ji-woon (The Good, The Bad, The Weird, A Tale of Two Sisters); Written by Hoon-jung Park
Genre: Thriller, Crime
Tagline: “Evil Lives Inside”
Plot Summary: After a brutal serial killer (played by Old Boy star Choi Min-sik) kills his pregnant fiancée, a secret service agent played by Lee Byung-hun decides to take things into his own hand to find and get revenge on the psychotic murderer, leading to a chase across the city.

Interview with Kim Ji-woon

I’ve been a fan of Korea’s Kim Ji-woon ever since I first saw his horror movie A Tale of Two Sister, a really disturbing take on a ghost story, and while I thought the premise for his latest I Saw the Devil sounded a bit too similar to the Korean film The Chaser, I was not prepared for what I would witness when I first saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.

Serial killer films have been a cinematic mainstay, especially in the last 10 or 15 years with David Fincher’s Se7en and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs paving the way for many international knock-offs. South Korea has particularly embraced the genre, but in exploring this territory, Kim Ji-woon takes things to the extreme just like with everything else he does, making the viewer uneasy from the very opening as a pretty young woman is stranded in the middle of nowhere and is found by an odd-behaving stranger who happens to be exactly the wrong person you want to meet when you’re alone and vulnerable. But her fiancé, a special agent played by Korean superstar Byung-hun Lee, is also the wrong guy you want to mess with, and when he finds out what has happened to the pregnant mother of his child, he swears to find and make the perpetrator pay. It doesn’t take him long to find Choi Min-sik’s character, breaking a lot of bones along the way, but instead of outright killing him, he knocks him unconscious and forces a GPS tracker into his system so he can keep tabs on what he does.

Director Kim always gets great performance out of his casts and this time, he has two of Korea’s biggest male stars at the top of their game playing polar opposites and each delivering some of their finest work. The character played by Choi Min-sik is fairly despicable because he doesn’t just kill women, he also uses them to fulfill his sexual urges, something we see in two of the film’s most disturbing scenes. Throughout these tortures, Ji-woon’s camera never flinches and it’s really hard to look away as well, which makes the viewer question their own entertainment by what they’re watching.

Eventually, the killer seeks refuge among a group of similarly-minded murderers who actually cannibalize their prey for food, but he’s eventually found again and their battle resumes. In that sense, I Saw the Devil isn’t just a creepy and disturbing thriller but also quite a solid action flick, though one that’s extremely violent and brutal, and it’s always clear that Choi’s character is quite outmatched by Lee.

While it’s difficult to wholeheartedly recommend I Saw the Devil because it’s not for the squeamish and some viewers may be highly disturbed by what Kim puts you (and Choi) through, those looking for a journey into the darker side of human nature that’s on par with some of the best serial killer thrillers should be significantly impressed with the results.

I Saw the Devil opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.

Honorable Mention:

Rendezvous with French Cinema 2011

Following hot on the heels of “Film Comment Selects,” the Film Society of Lincoln Center has another great annual series, this one done in conjunction with UniFrance and IFC Center, in which they premiere 22 new French films, many of which will get their U.S. theatrical releases in the coming year. To be honest, I generally have a tentative relationship with French cinema, having my favorite filmmakers and sometimes finding a few surprises, but generally feeling there’s too much formula within the country’s output, which I often find frustrating. That being said, “Rendezvous” tends to offer a variety of the current crop of films, but it does tend to play up to Lincoln Center’s older patronage, so it’s often hard to find films that I really enjoy.

This year’s festival starts on Thursday at the Paris Theater with the latest from François Ozon, Potiche (Music Box Films), reuniting Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu for Ozon’s first comedy in quite some time, this one taking place in the ’70s involving a worker’s dispute and a love triangle between Denueve, her husband who has been taken hostage by angry workers, and Depardieu’s union leader who still has feelings for her.

We only became fans of Claude (A Man and a Woman) Lelouch with his 2009 film Roman De Gare, but we enjoyed his latest film What Love May Bring (“Ces Amours-La”), a WWII-based drama that involves a number of interlinked stories, but mainly focuses on a French woman who bounces between a number of different men including a Nazi officer. It’s quite an ambitious film that Lelouch ties into his own history, and fans of Lelouch’s work will have a chance to hear him talk about his 50 years in cinema in “A Conversation with Claude Lelouch” which follows the screening of From One Film to Another, the director’s self-portrait documentary premiering on Saturday, March 5 at 3:30PM at the Walter Reade.

One of our favorite French actresses, Ludivine Sagnier, faces off against Kristin Scott Thomas in the late Alain Corneau’s final film Love Crime (Sundance Selects), a thriller that takes office politics to great extremes. Corneau’s 1979 film Série noire will also get a rare theatrical screening.

Bernard Tavernier’s The Princess of Montpensier (Sundance Selects) is a period piece starring the gorgeous Melanie Thierry as a young woman married off in the middle of a Civil War who nearly causes another one due to the number of men who desire her; those guys include Lambert Wilson, Gaspard Ulliel and two others, which gives you some idea how hot she is. (Tavernier also has a special conversation about his history in cinema scheduled as part of the program.)

We’re also intrigued by Benoit Jacquot’s thriller Deep in the Woods starring Isild de Besco, featured in the aforementioned “Film Comment Selects” series, as a woman who falls under the spell of a vagabond, and Catherine Breillat’s follow-up to Bluebeard with another take on a classic fairytale, The Sleeping Beauty (Strand Releasing). Lastly, René Féret’s Mozart’s Sister (Music Box Films) is a very different look at the legendary composer through his equally talented sister who is constantly in her brother’s shadow.

“Rendezvous with French Cinema” runs from March 3 to March 13.

Also in Limited Release:

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Strand Releasing) is the latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady), an odd drama about an elderly Thai man suffering from kidney failure who chooses to spend his last days traveling through the jungle with his loved ones, including his dead wife and a lost son who has returned in an animal form. It opens at the Film Forum on Wednesday and in L.A. on Friday.

Steven Mena’s horror film Bereavement (Crimson Films) about a17-year-old girl (Alexandra Daddario) who visits her uncle in the countryside and discovers that things aren’t what they seem at a farmhouse down the road, only to discover the evil being perpetrated by a psychotic loner who lives there.

Josh Radnor wrote, directed and stars in HappyThankYouMorePlease (Anchor Bay Films) as Sam Wexler, a novelist who comes across a young boy who has been separated from his family, but when Sam learns the boy has had problems with social services and various foster families, he agrees to take the boy into his crazy bachelor living situation. It opens in select cities on Friday.

Old Cats (Elephant Eye Films), the second film from Sebastian Silva and Pedro Peirano (The Maid) follows an elderly woman possibly suffering from dementia whose daughter Rosario shows up with her girlfriend Hugo (The Maid‘s Catalina Saavedra) trying to get money out of her mother.

Next week, the month of March rolls along with three movies, including Jonathan Liebesman’s sci-fi action flick Battle: Los Angeles (Sony), as well as Catherine Hardwick’s reinvented fairy tale Red Riding Hood (Warner Bros.), starring Amanda Seyfried, and the animated adventure film Mars Needs Moms (Disney).

Copyright 2011 Edward Douglas