Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review: "We Bought a Zoo"

I think making a family-friendly movie that is also significant is one of the harder tasks a filmmaker can undertake. Making a film that appeals to a wide range of demographics is difficult enough but when you factor in the need to entertain both six and sixty year-olds, you’ve got a tough task ahead of you. This is why Pixar succeeds every year (2011 excluded) whereas Dreamworks is hit or miss, why I’ll see The Muppets a hundred times but will never again take in Bedtime Stories. We Bought a Zoo illustrates these difficulties in some spectacular and truly frustrating ways.

Our protagonist is Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), an adventure writer who recently became a widower. His daughter, six year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), has handled the loss well but Benjamin is constantly at odds with his son, 14 year-old Dylan (Colin Ford). When Dylan finally gets himself expelled from school, Benjamin decides it’s time for a change and after an exhausting search for a new house, he finally finds the perfect home. The only problem is that the property comes along with a small zoo, including 47 species of animals and a crew of employees. Despite the obstacles and the advice of his brother (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin opts to buy the zoo and takes his children off on an adventure that will bring more drama than he could ever dream of along with the healing he and his family so badly need.

I’m a huge fan of writer/director Cameron Crowe and I readily look forward to anything and everything that he does. This outing certainly won’t change that feeling but it isn’t one of his better works. Simply put, We Bought a Zoo wants desperately to be both family-friendly and cinematically relevant and that mix just doesn’t blend seamlessly. Crowe’s usual brand of fresh, casual, and well-versed dialogue is muddled with predictable clichés. It often borders on becoming cheesy and it is almost always cloying, working extra-hard to force a connection that isn’t always there. There are a number of scenes which are just fine in terms of post-Christmas feelgoodery but fall flat in terms of really mattering. This uneven mix seems to negatively affect some characters and actors more than others. Ford and John Michael Higgins (as a zoo inspector) both jump back and forth between good and bad scenes and Elle Fanning, who was so good in this summer’s Super 8, doesn’t have any feel for her character whatsoever. I think she’s supposed to be the teenage version of the manic pixie dream girl but instead she just comes off as an idiot. Add in a will-they-won’t-they romantic relationship between Benjamin and his head zookeeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), that would have been better off left on the cutting room floor and you get a cliché-riddled narrative that doesn’t do much to inspire.

When We Bought a Zoo excels is when it gets real. Damon gives a subtle, craftsman-like performance and does an outstanding job of conveying an awful lot about his character in unspoken ways. You genuinely feel for Benjamin and it is the genuine sympathy that Damon elicits that serves as an example of what could have been had the film gone in a different direction. Interactions between Benjamin and Dylan and Benjamin and Kelly in the second act are powerful, filled with emotion that is wholly appropriate for the situation. There’s a story arc involving Benjamin’s relationship with an aging tiger that hits home on a number of levels. The flip side of this is that these moments are much more tense and dramatic than the family-fun exhibited throughout the rest of the film and if Crowe had continued to expound upon these plot points, there’s no way We Bought a Zoo would succeed with the kiddos.

It should be noted that none of this film’s issues are deal breakers. It is funny, entertaining, and totally acceptable family film that never allows its flaws to become cringe-worthy or painful. In essence, it is Dolphin Tale and there’s nothing wrong with Dolphin Tale. But with Crowe, Damon, and a potentially impactful subject matter involved, it could have been better than it is.

Grade: B 

In Home Viewings Review: "30 Minutes or Less"

Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is a pizza delivery guy with exceedingly low ambitions, one of those guys who doesn't really enjoy what he's doing but doesn't have the drive to change it. With his best friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) not speaking to him and his semi-girlfriend moving, things can't get much worse in Nick's mind. That soon changes, however, when he takes a late-night delivery run to a construction site and finds himself confronted by Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson), two would-be thieves in gorilla masks. In order to obtain the money needed to get a business idea off the ground, Dwayne and Travis strap a home-made bomb to Nick's chest and force him to rob a bank. Frantic, Nick enlists the help of Chet and the pair stumble through a series of obstacles on the way to pulling off a heist and subsequent money exchange.

There were reasons to think that 30 Minutes or Less would be a solid comedy. The reunion of Eisenberg with director Ruben Fleischer was one reason. Their compilation in Zombieland was nothing short of hilarious and that film itself ranks exceptionally high on the re-watchability scale. Then there is the inclusion of Aziz, one of the single funniest humans on the planet. (If you need references on that statement, look no further than his brilliant portrayal on Park and Recreation or his most recent stand-up album which might be one of the best ever). The concept itself has appeal and potential as a perfect way to spend an evening. Where 30 Minutes succeeds is when these three elements come together: the best portions of the concept come alive when it is just Eisenberg and Ansari working together and running through crazy situations. One stretch in particular that sees the pair buy all the necessary equipment for a heist followed by the robbery itself is quite humorous and serves as a taste of what could have been.

But here's why Zombieland works while 30 Minutes falls flat: Woody Harrelson and Emma Stone (not to mention an unnamed cameo in case anyone out there hasn't seen the movie). The supporting characters at play in Zombieland are fantastic, whereas this time around Fleischer surrounds his leads with McBride, Swardson, and Michael Pena, a threesome that is rarely funny in my book. (McBride has his moments but generally speaking, he is at his best when he's the eighth-billed actor. Examples: Tropic Thunder and Up in the Air.) To make matters worse, Fleischer insists on developing a pointless storyline involving Dwayne and Travis that brings absolutely nothing to the movie other than lengthening the runtime. Every moment within 30 Minutes that is spent away from Nick and Chet is at best lackluster and at worst barely watchable. It's quite clear that Fleischer and his team of writers couldn't draw enough out of the main plotline to fill 83 minutes so they turned to the side plots that do nothing but distract from the central figures. As a result, the Dwayne and Travis narrative comes across as nothing more than filler. And let's be honest: if you need filler for an 83 minute movie, your movie isn't very good.

Grade: C

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review: "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"

NOTE: If you have the opportunity to view Ghost Protocol in an IMAX setting, I encourage you to do so. It is the type of experience that could prove to be a game-changer for the industry. 

Say what you will about Tom Cruise (and there’s an awful lot that could be said). For me, his name has always been synonymous with, “entertaining.” For all his shortcomings, including his inability/refusal to incorporate appropriate accents and his wackadoo personal life, he makes wholly entertaining movies. From Top Gun to Knight and Day, he has put together a three decade-long career that is chock full of thrilling excitement. You can’t always say that his films are good but very rarely can you deny the man his ability to enthrall the masses. Ghost Protocol, then, serves as a return to form and a pronouncement to the man’s detractors that Tom Cruise is still a force to be reckoned with.

At the outset, we find Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) locked away in a Russian prison. Within minutes (really seconds), however, his old pal Benji (Simon Pegg) and newcomer Jane (Paula Patton) have busted him out in order for Hunt to resume his duties at IMF. He and his team immediately take on a new assignment that unfortunately goes quite bad, resulting in their being framed for the bombing of the Kremlin. Having been disavowed by the US government, the trio, along with the help of William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst with a mysterious past, is forced to go on the run, one step ahead of Russian operatives who would see them brought to justice. In an effort to both clear their names and, you know, save the world and all, Hunt and his comrades pursue Alex Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a nuclear extremist bent on destroying civilization as we know it, using a variety of elaborate and frantic methods in a host of exotic locations.

As an action movie junkie, I have a healthy respect for two of the previous three Mission: Impossible films. The first M:I is the prototypical mid-‘90s action flick, smarter than what we were treated to in the ‘80s but not quite intelligent enough to fit our standards in a post-Inception world. M:I2 is a heap of rubbish, plain and simple. From a plot standpoint, M:I3 is the best of the group and it’s a movie I quite like though I believe I am in the minority. Even still, the Mission: Impossible franchise has long been just another set of action movies that blends together with a host of other acceptable-to-above-average entertaining exhibitions in special effects.

Ghost Protocol is different, however. MUCH different. This is the very rare sequel to a sequel to a sequel that is by far and without question, the best of the group (see also: Fast Five). No longer can this series be relegated to the overcrowded ranks of “fun-but-forgettable” action flicks. Ghost Protocol is a clever cross between Bourne and Bond with a touch of cool intelligence that is reminiscent of Ocean’s 11. This is a much smarter film than the average action movie, much of which should be attributed to director Brad Bird (Incredibles). “Smart” should not be confused with “complex” or “real”; Ghost Protocol has more than its fair share of plot points that could be blasted for inaccuracies and absurd stunts that could never, ever happen. But these potential issues are presented in such an overwhelmingly appealing way that it seems foolish to quibble when it’s so much easier to just get on board. The gadgets and technologies used by the team are better than anything James Bond ever had at his disposal and each item is used splendidly. In essence, this is a popcorn blockbuster with a Pixar brain, which turns out to be just as glorious as it sounds.

From the opening shot, Ghost Protocol moves a mile a minute and delivers some of the most ambitious action sequences of the year. The impact of this movie goes deeper than the outlandish stunts, however. It would be easy to film what will undoubtedly be an awesome scene and leave it at that. But Bird and his crew take these shots to a whole new level with impeccable technical work. The cinematography and shot selection are about as good as you can ask for in a blockbuster. Some of the camera work, especially the scenes in Dubai, is absolutely stunning. Likewise, the sound mix is perfect, adding to the impact of each gun shot, car crash, and punch to the jaw. These elements serve to put the audience into the heart of the action and give the impression that Bird cared about creating a great film not just a passable popcorn flick.

The supporting cast around Cruise rounds into form nicely, coming together to make up Hunt’s best team yet. Pegg’s brand of comedic relief is predictable but nonetheless enjoyable and he displays a little more grit than he has in the past. Patton is a welcome addition and she brings real value to her role, the rare female action hero who actually carries her weight. This is what I think Zoe Saldana is supposed to be and I look forward to seeing more of her in the future. And then, of course, there’s Renner who plays slightly against type and, while he’s certainly not reinventing the wheel, he displays enough quiet power behind his character’s lack of confidence to make his role work very well.

But Ghost Protocol goes nowhere without a strong lead and Cruise is more than up to the challenge. I have always been a serious fan of the man and I feel like he’s gotten an unfair shake over the last half-decade or so. What I have always appreciated about Cruise is his earnest desire to make his movies great (whether he succeeds or not). A buddy of mine hit the nail on the head regarding Cruise when he said that he always tries really hard. Every movie, every scene, every shot, Cruise strives to make it the best he’s ever done. I think he truly cares about his films in a way that most movie stars do not. Ghost Protocol is no exception as Cruise goes after every scene like it’s the one that will bring home an Oscar. For me, it is this commitment to the moment that sells Ghost Protocol as more than just a run-of-the-mill action movie and makes it one of the most deliciously appealing, wonderfully entertaining, and decidedly multi-dimensional films of the year.

Grade: A

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Collected Works: Cameron Crowe

Whenever anyone asks me who my favorite underrated director is (this has happened all of twice), I always respond with the same answer: Cameron Crowe. Underrated might be the wrong word but the point is, if you asked 25 film buffs to make a list of the top ten directors in the industry today, Crowe probably doesn't even come up. And I think that's wrong, especially if you made the list exclusive to writer-directors. He has an incredible ability to create characters that are inherently easy to invest in and therefore, he is able to connect with his audience in whatever setting he chooses to work in. Crowe is also, of course, a soundtrack marvel, the rare filmmaker who not only knows music but also knows how to use music. And that last part is the key. Crowe always gets credit for picking great songs but the reason those songs are so great is because they fit the film, the scene, the moment. He does this better than anyone else. Crowe loves music and he loves film, two things I happen to love myself. (If he ever makes a sports movie and combines my three pastimes, my head will probably explode upon viewing the first trailer.) With We Bought a Zoo opening this weekend (Crowe's first non-documentary since 2004), I thought it prudent to take a brief look back at the director's career and consider the merits (and faults) of each of his films (excluding documentary features).

6. Vanilla Sky (2001) - Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
I just rewatched this film for the first time in about a decade and I have to say, it's not nearly as bad as I remembered. It isn't good, you understand, but I've been pegging it as "terrible" whereas in reality, it's only "below average." Vanilla Sky has some promising concepts at its core and I actually think Cruise delivers an earnest, quality performance. It is so overly complex, however, that it quickly becomes convoluted and tiresome. I can understand why Crowe took on the project and why he would want to stretch himself. But the film seems unsure of itself and I think that's indicative of Crowe's feelings. In a post-Inception world, there's a place for Vanilla Sky but it simply couldn't work (at least in this configuration) in 2001.

5. Say Anything (1989) - John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney
I saw this movie for the first time only a year or so ago and therefore my opinion of it is probably somewhat lower than those who experienced it as teenagers. I don't think it's one of Crowe's better films but it is one of the better performances by Cusack. His boombox-over-the-head scene is iconic, of course, but it is his disaffected, directionless persona that makes Say Anything work. His "plans for the future" diatribe is one of my favorite scenes from the '80s.

4. Singles (1992) - Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon
Like Say Anything, I was late to the party on Singles. In fact, I just watched it for the first time all the way through a few days ago. The feeling I get from this film is that it is a personal project trying not to be a personal project. Crowe was living in the Seattle area at the time of its filming and wanted to do something about the burgeoning grunge music scene. Personally, I would watch a movie about a fictitious band or group of bands coming together in early '90s Seattle but maybe I'm alone in that. Anyway, the interconnected story lines of several twentysomethings are woven together nicely and the occasional fauxumentary interviews that pop up from time to time are enjoyable. Pulling Eddie Vedder into the mix was a nice touch, too.

3. Jerry Maguire (1996) - Tom Cruise, Renee Zellweger, Cuba Gooding Jr.
It bothers me that it has become accepted, even expected, to bash on Jerry Maguire. Yes, it has been cheapened over the years by constant replays on TNT and yes, its more iconic lines have been spoofed a thousand times. But that's because it's a good movie. Crappy movies don't get replayed over and over or quoted in lame sitcoms. To me, the backlash against Jerry Maguire is like dissing a quality rock band because their song gets picked up on top 40 radio. It's not their fault that the song gets driven into the ground. I will always argue that if you woke up from a 15-year long coma and had never heard anyone say, "Show me the money", you'd really dig Jerry Maguire. This is one of Cruise's better roles and perhaps the only time Zellweger hasn't made me want to punch a puppy.

2. Elizabethtown (2005) - Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon
The difference between the dislike directed at Jerry Maguire and that aimed at Elizabethtown is that I understand it this time around. Elizabethtown is not for everyone; it moves at a snail's pace and if truth be told, it doesn't cover just a whole lot of ground. But that's what I love about it. Elizabethtown is primarily about self-discovery and sometimes self-discovery isn't a roller coaster of excitement and a whirlwind of activities. It also serves as Crowe's ode to the American road and it delves deep into the father-son relationship, a topic that goes uncovered in most of his other works. I will say that I think Bloom was a poor choice; it's not that he's bad so much as he just doesn't quite fit the character. But Dunst is near-perfect and the soundtrack is SPECTACULAR.

1. Almost Famous (2000) - Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup
Just about anytime someone asks me to recommend a movie they might have missed somewhere along the line, I answer with Almost Famous. It is easily one of my ten favorite films of all-time and one of the few that I will hold up as a masterpiece. Based on Crowe's own experiences as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone, Almost Famous is an exceptionally well-crafted film filled to the brim with powerhouse performances, exquisite dialogue, and brilliant music. Crowe put together a perfect cast and got the absolute best out of each member, especially Crudup (Russell Hammond is one of my favorite characters ever) and Hudson (go watch Something Borrowed and marvel at how Crowe managed to get that woman an Oscar nomination). Almost Famous isn't underrated, it is criminally underrated. This scene is just one of the many wonderful sequences contained within.

"War Horse" Review

Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of animals. I enjoy a good dog movie as much as the next guy and I think zoos are just swell. It may come as a surprise then to learn that I don’t care much for horses. I’ve just never understood their appeal. As such, horse movies haven’t historically been a favorite genre of mine. I enjoyed The Black Stallion as a kid but if I’m being honest, I think I liked that one because it had a scene or two involving a cobra and I was really into cobras at the time. But I’ve never been able to muster up much excitement for Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Hidalgo or any other horse-related movie you might name. I imagined, however, that War Horse would put these feelings to the test because if any storyteller could make me give a rip about horses, it would probably be Steven Spielberg. But were my imaginings proven true? Yes and no.

War Horse tells the story of World War I through the experiences of a very special horse. We open with an introduction to Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved horse, Joey (worst horse name ever). After Albert’s father, Ted (Peter Mullan), foolishly purchases Joey, Albert trains the horse and teaches him to pull a plow despite not being the sort of work horse the family so desperately needs. The two are inseparable until the day comes that Ted is short on the rent and has to sell Joey to a British cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) who swears to take care of Joey and bring him back when the war is over. But war is an ugly affair, of course, and soon Joey sets off on a years-long journey that will see him change hands a half-dozen times and come close to death a hundred more while bringing him closer to being reunited with Albert than either man or beast could ever imagine.

What I enjoyed most about War Horse is exactly what I would have expected to be my least favorite part: the horse. Spielberg does a magnificent job of creating and honing the film’s tone to emphasize the horse properly without allowing that narrative to become tiresome. What I mean is, I think it is very easy in an animal-focused film to focus on said animal so much that it becomes difficult for the audience to relate. Instead, Spielberg uses the horse to shine a light on the lives of the people he comes in contact with and in doing so, allows for more opportunities for the audience to get invested (this works to varying degrees but more on that in a moment). As Joey moves from place to place, we are introduced to a litany of characters, most of whom are caught in some sad state of affairs, and all of whom are impacted in one way or another by the horse. It is a very intriguing and unique concept and one that Spielberg works well within.

As War Horse progresses, it gets stronger and hits its stride when Joey comes into the possession of a sickly French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). Buckens is a real delight and her character plays well to the whimsy of the film’s lighter moments, providing one last breath of fresh air before War Horse truly delves into the darkness that is war. But while Joey finds himself in more and more dire situations, the film itself comes together nicely and it seemed to me that at this point, Spielberg found a comfortable groove that is missing in the early goings. In the third act we are treated to a series of scenes that reek of Spielberg in the very best sense of the word and display the true heart of the film. One sequence in particular, in which a British soldier and a German soldier meet on the field between their foxholes to come to Joey’s aid, is one that, in my mind, belongs on the Spielberg highlight reel. Indeed, there is an awful lot to like about War Horse in the final two acts.

What I did not enjoy about this film was that blasted first act. Early on, it is unclear whether War Horse intends to be a family-friendly, holiday movie or a hard-hitting war drama. In one scene a goose is chasing an unwanted guest through the Narracott’s yard and in the next we’re hit hard with the sobering reality of life below the poverty line. Later, Spielberg blunts the brutality of war in order to secure a PG-13 rating (which I understand) and then follows that up with the non-explicit but no less depressing execution of two young soldiers. In addition, I didn’t care for the shot selection in the first act, a shocking criticism considering I don’t believe I have ever questioned Spielberg’s work with the camera before. His persistent close-up of the plow as Joey pulls, for example, comes across as cheap and distracting and left me scratching my head. But perhaps the film’s biggest issue in the early stages is the performance of Irvine. I wouldn’t go so far as to say his portrayal is unwatchable but that terminology wouldn’t be too far off. Irvine had very little cinematic experience coming into War Horse and like the film, he gets better as he goes. But if I’m being completely honest, his work in the first act made me cringe more than once. I thought he was terrible.

All told, what you have with War Horse is a good film that is being treated as a great film because of its final act. If the audience in my theater is any indication, this is a film that has the power to invoke real emotion, enough to make you forget the lackluster first third. I won’t argue that Spielberg didn’t know how to blend the family-oriented portions of this film with the harsher realities of war contained in other parts but I would say that he tried too hard to reach out to everyone rather than focusing in on a target audience. A PG family film would have brought a ton of cash and an R-rated serious look at war through the eyes of the horse would have undoubtedly garnered serious award consideration. And hey, it’s entirely possible that he’ll be able to get both by splitting the difference; that combination just didn’t quite work for me.  It did, however, make me kind-of-sort-of care about a horse and that is somewhat of an achievement in and of itself. 

Grade: B+

"The Hobbit" Trailer

My fellow nerds, the day has finally come. Just under a year from now the first chapter of The Hobbit will hit theaters and today Peter Jackson gives us the film's first trailer. I'm insanely excited about this film. In fact, I've been excited about the mere prospect of this film since I read the book for the first time at around age eight. Knowing that Tolkien's vision will be brought to the screen in less than a year is a thrilling concept. This is little more than a teaser trailer with a ton of quick cuts and scene changes but that, that song is dead on, exactly how I would have imagined it. (My nerdiness is really starting to show now but I don't care.) Have a look for yourself and expect plenty of Hobbit-related coverage over the next year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

In Home Viewings Review: "The Change-Up"

Dave (Jason Bateman) and Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) live very different lives. Between the demands of his wife (Leslie Mann), his children, and soul-crushing job, Dave doesn't have enough hours in the day. Mitch, on the other hand, spends his time playing video games, smoking pot, and sleeping with a variety of women while waiting for his acting career to take off. On a rare night spent hanging out with one another, the two friends end up peeing in a fountain together (because, you know, that happens) and voicing a mutual desire to have the other's life. Of course, when they wake up, they have switched bodies, granting the hastily-made wish from the night before. But as they each go through a litany of shenanigans, they soon discover that their own lives weren't so bad after all.

I'd like to take a moment and list for you, dear readers, the reasons why I saw The Change-Up.

1.) I was bored (always a good start);
2.) I wanted to watch something that wasn't too serious, too time-consuming, or too intelligent. Usually in these situations I end up renting a bad action movie or a lame comedy;
3.) (And I swear this is the truth.) I've given out a ton of positive reviews lately. When I've seen so many good movies in a row and I start to feel like I'm becoming Peter Travers, I often feel the need to watch something terrible just so I can rail against it and feel better about myself.

That's the recipe for watching a crapfest like The Change-Up (and by the way, if that wasn't your recipe for seeing this movie, if you actually wanted to see it, we need to talk). It was essentially a personal challenge to see if I could make it through the are-you-serious-it's-that-long??? 112 minute runtime and a chance to use all my favorite negative adjectives, like "excruciating" and "painful." Mission accomplished. This movie is, to put it nicely, completely and totally worthless. I laughed only a handful of times and even those moments were semi-awful. The characters are miserable and while director David Dobkin would like you to invest in their transitions, they start off so low and unappealing that I found it impossible to care whether or not they'd get their lives together within the runtime (again, 112 minutes; that's only 9 minutes less than Star Wars). In addition, haven't we all had enough with the body switching plotline? I'd be fine if Hollywood retired this concept forever; it's tired.

My biggest issue with The Change-Up, however, is in its need to tie the whole mess up with a nice and neat, "everyone learned their lesson and became better people" bow. This is a conclusion that simply does not fit the tone of the movie. One of the things that made The Hangover so successful (besides being, you know, actually funny) is that the characters don't suddenly become great people because of the events of their night out. Sure, Stu comes back with a spine and Phil softens up a bit but there's no "moral of the story" ending because that doesn't fit the film. The Change-Up goes the exact opposite route, tacking on a conclusion that goes against the grain of the movie. As a result, the movie seems like a PG-13 movie that was raunchy-ed up to get an R-rating, which is one of my biggest pet peeves. Either go full bore into that realm or stay out of it altogether. Of course, nothing could have made The Change-Up worth seeing but it could have at least been tolerable. As it is, however, this is an abysmal movie that will certainly wind up on more than a few "worst of the year" lists.

Grade: D

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be

Make sure you read this excellent article on Walt Disney, written by Jon Favreau. Good stuff!

David Fincher says that his potential Dragon Tattoo sequels would shoot back-to-back which makes sense. Very curious to see what sort of reception the first one gets over the next few weeks.

Spike Lee is having some trouble putting a cast together for his Oldboy remake and has now offered roles to Mia Wasikowska and Clive Owen.

Cinema Blend picks the year's 10 best performances from terrible movies. Always a fun type of list to discuss. Although, can we really trust any list that cites Channing Tatum in a good light?

Weekend Box Office Results
Quite a disappointing weekend at the box office. In fact, I saw one report that pegged this as lowest grossing weekend in December since 1999. Ouch! The disappointing take for Sherlock is the biggest surprise, down $22 million from the debut of the first film. I didn't make it out myself but a Sherlock Holmes viewing is in my near future and I can't wait to check out MI4.

1. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - $40.02M
2. Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked - $23.5M
3. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - $13.6M
4. New Year's Eve - $7.42M ($24.82M)
5. The Sitter - $4.4M ($17.72M)
6. Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I - $4.3M ($266.4M)
7. Young Adult - $3.65M ($4.09M)
8. Hugo - $3.62M ($39.07M)
9. Arthur Christmas - $3.6M ($38.54M)
10. The Muppets - $3.45M ($70.93M)

New to DVD
What I'll Be Renting This Week
Midnight in Paris - Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates
This is the last of the real awards contenders that will hit DVD before the year is up. I stayed away when Midnight had its theatrical run this summer, mainly because I've never been a big fan of Woody Allen. I understand the genius and appreciate it, I'm just not a fan of his style. But the unending wave of positivity has won me over and it seems like a strong candidate for a "bottom of the list" Best Picture nominee.

What I've Seen and You Should, Too
Warrior - Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte
If I had to pick a "Favorite Sports Movie of the Year" it would definitely be Warrior and Moneyball wouldn't really be that close. There are some differing opinions out there regarding this movie (and by people that I usually agree with) but I think Warrior hits on all fronts: it provides outstanding and realistic sports scenes to go along with a set of wholly compelling plot points and brought together by three stellar performances. Nolte and Hardy have gotten all of the attention (Nolte could have an outstide shot at a Best Supporting Actor nod) but for me, it is Edgerton's personal and genuine portrayal that makes the film work. Warrior could find a spot in my top 10. We'll see. (Also worth your time: Blackthorn and Dolphin Tale.)

What I Haven't Seen and Neither Should You
Colombiana - Zoe Saldana, Michael Vartan, Jordi Molla
This was supposed to be Saldana's jump into the realm of leading lady. Instead, it turned out to be a complete disaster that no one (and I really mean no one) could recommend with a straight face. Jump over to Rotten Tomatoes and look this one up. Virtually every fresh review is a "sure, but" review as in, "Sure it's full of plot holes, bad acting, and meaningless explosions but it's a relatively harmless way to spend two hours." I've written my share of "sure, but" reviews and I would never want to watch any of those movies again. Also, it resulted in this magnificent piece from IFC identifying just five of the bigger anachronisms within this film.

Also New
Dolphin Tale - Nathan Gamble, Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr. (Perfectly reasonable family fare)
Blackthorn - Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea (Butch Cassidy back in action; quality performance by Shephard)
Margin Call - Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey (Slight possibility at a nomination or two)
Catch .44 - Malin Ackerman, Bruce Willis, Forest Whitaker
Glee: The Concert Movie - Who cares
Straw Dogs - James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard
The Tempest (2010) - Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones
A Farewell to Arms (1957) - Rock Hudson, Jennifer Jones, Vittorio De Sica

Coming to a Theater Near You
This week, as always, is a monster. No less than eight mainstream movies and a host of indie films will hit theaters over the next 10 days, making it virtually impossible for a completist like myself to get through everything in time for my end-of-year rankings columns. (Seriously, Hollywood, couldn't you have released even a couple of these movies between Thanksgiving and now? Boooo.) Anyway, what you're getting this week is a mixed bag of fun and exciting "movies you take the family to see after all the presents have run out of newness", smaller films looking to grab a piece of the award pie, and Oscar bait of the highest order. Also, this year you can treat yourself to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, quite possibly the most disturbing movie you'll ever see on Christmas.

War Horse - Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson
I saw War Horse last week (review to come soon). I'm not entirely sure what I think about it yet. It's definitely Spielbergian and it's definitely a good movie. Not sure how great it is, though, and I haven't really framed my feelings yet. It's a near lock for a Best Picture nod, however, and will likely pull in more than its fair share of the Christmas Box Office market. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 91% (That is as close to a shot in the dark as I could possibly make. I have no idea how well this film will be received.)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer
I need all of my readers to pay attention here as this is probably one of the most important things I have ever or will ever say in this space: if you haven't read this book, seen the European version, or at least done a cursory Google search into this film's plot, do not, under any circumstance, see this movie. I mean this. I read the book. It's incredible and I imagine this film will be incredible as well. But as a friend of mine said, "There are scenes in that book that horrified me while reading them and I cannot imagine seeing them in a movie and having them forever burned into my memory." I concur. More importantly than ever before: KNOW WHAT YOU'RE GETTING YOURSELF INTO before heading into the theater. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 88%

We Bought a Zoo - Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church
Currently sitting at 58% (and rotten) at the time of this writing, the reviews are wide ranging in tone. The positives are overwhelmingly so and the negatives are pretty harsh. Personally, I'm still optimistic that We Bought a Zoo will at least equal out to Dolphin Tale as a worthwhile family movie. But then again, I'm rooting HARD for anything and everything related to Cameron Crowe (except Vanilla Sky) so... Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 63%

The Adventures of Tintin - Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig
Tintin has already been Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (currently sitting at 82%) and it seems to be one of those movies that you either love or hate. The motion capture shooting method has met a somewhat unspectacular reception but it's never been in the hands of a craftsman like Spielberg. The real question is will American audiences care about a movie based on a comic they've never heard of?

The Darkest Hour - Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella
Yikes. I mean...this looks pretty horrible. And with serious competition for the "teenager on Christmas break" money, why release this movie now? Why not hold it until the first or second week of January which is clearly when this movie should be released? Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 21%

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock (Limited)
The big question with this movie is, will it turn out as a genuine and stirring tale of father and son or will it play like stuffy and contrived Oscar bait? Stephen Daldry has never NOT been nominated for a Best Director so this movie is in good hands but still, the questions remain. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 96% (Shot in the dark part two.)

Also Available
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, rapidly becoming one of the more appreciated popcorn films of the year, expands from IMAX to wide release...Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gets a slightly wider release, though not nearly large enough dadgumit...In the Land of Milk and Honey, directed by Angelina Jolie, will find a few theaters...and A Separation, which has made its way into a number of important top 10 lists, also gets released in a few arthouse theaters.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Weekend Movie Guide

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris
Director: Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels)
Rated: PG-13
The sequel to 2009's smash hit finds Holmes (RDJ) and Watson (Law) pursuing thie most ingenious adversary, Professor Moriarty (Harris), through a series of wild and outlandish plot twists. As I said in my Monday column, it came as a surprise to me to learn that a lot of people did not like the first Sherlock. The early reviews have been less positive than I would have imagined and suddenly we're left to wonder how well this movie will perform with audiences. That said, I really, really enjoyed Sherlock and I expect to enjoy this as well. In my mind, this is basically a comic book movie, a genre that I usually appreciate even if it doesn't generate much critical acclaim.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg
Director: Brad Bird (The Incredibles)
Rated: PG-13
After his team is implicated in a major international incident, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is forced to do what he does best: go rogue. My anticipation for this movie has grown with each and every viewing of the outstanding trailer(s). Even still, I am shocked at the overwhelmingly positive reception it has received. This just isn't the type of film that critics usually get on board with but that's exactly what's happened (so far). I'm probably waiting until next week when MI4 opens in regular theaters (I'm slightly afraid of IMAX screens; I have no reason for this) but I'm hoping the good vibes keep a'comin'.

Side note: Why didn't one of the studios involved with the aforementioned films grab a Thanksgiving slot this year instead of opening against the other? There was a decided lack of action available post-turkey this year and anyway, the audience for Sherlock and MI4 is essentially the same group, right? Dumb.

Carnage - Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly
Director: Roman Polanski (Chinatown, The Pianist)
Rated: R
Based upon a play by screenwriter Yasmina Reza, Carnage centers around two sets of parents who get together to discuss a school-yard fight between their children and end up in a heated confrontation themselves. I can't figure this one out. The trailer would have me believe this is a dark comedy but Roman Polanski isn't exactly known for his comedic chops. The cast is outstanding but none of them are "absolutely must get to the theater" names for me. And it seems like would-be Oscar bait which is always a risky proposition. I have no idea what to expect out of this one. You're on your own.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked - Justin Long, Jason Lee, David Cross
Director: Mike Mitchell (Sky High)
Rated: G
While on a cruise, Alvin and his cohorts fall overboard and wash up on a deserted island where they, like, sing or something. You know how some theater in Washington has made texting acceptable within a certain section of their theater? I feel like theaters should offer a similar service to parents who are forced to take their children to see a Chipmunks movie. Maybe they should hand out iPads that play Scorsese movies or Dumb and Dumber or something, anything, to distract from the awfulness that undoubtedly will be running across the scree. Sorry, parents.

Also New
A documentary about the career of legendary B-movie creator Roger Corman, Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel sounds like an entertaining choice on Netflix in a few weeks...Anson Mount (Hell on Wheels) returns from prison to find his home has been turned into a drug lab in Cook County...and Young Adult expands into wider release.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Movie News Today

Extremely sorry for the lack of reviews the last two weeks. The great thing about saving up vacation for the end of the year is that I can walk away in two short days and not think about work for, like, 19 days or something. The down side to that is preparing to leave requires cramming, like, 19 days or something worth of work into the preceding weeks. All that to say, I'm been swamped. But beginning next week, I will have a rich cornicopia (yeah, I said cornicopia) of reviews, predictions, and lists to provide for you, dear readers. Bear with me.

Rachel McAdams is in talks to join Brian De Palma's thriller Passion. I tell you this because I feel it is my duty to forward any and all Rachel McAdams news that might hit the web.

George Takei has called upon Star Trek and Star Wars fans to unite against Twilight, a sentiment I think we can all get on board with.

Speaking of Star Wars, the 2011 Black List has been published and as always, it's worth a look. If you don't know, the Black List is a collection of the best undeveloped screenplays in Hollywood. Number three on the list is a Chewbacca film. Two questions: 1.) Why is that not number one? 2.) Why hasn't this made it to theaters already?! Come on, George!

And speaking of Lucas, he spoke with EW regarding the development of Indiana Jones 5 and told us...well, pretty much nothing.

Christopher Nolan sat down with Hero Complex (LA Times) and discussed Bane and his Batman films in general. Be sure to read this one. The man is brilliant.

Gary Oldman compiled a five favorite films for Rotten Tomatoes and stuck around to talk Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for a bit.

The Critics Choice Awards nominations have been announced and aside from the ommission of 50/50 in most of the important categories (yes, I'm going to keep harping on this), it's a solid list.

This has nothing to do with movies but make sure you check out these photos of an abandoned Disneyland knock off in China. Super cool and a little creepy. Thanks to /Film for the notification on this.

Chris Pratt could be up for the lead in Kathryn Bigelow's Osama bin Laden thriller, which would be a decidedly different sort of role than he's used to. Could be interesting.

Paradise Lost, which will star Bradley Cooper as the devil (this joke is too easy so I'm going to let it slide), has been put on hold while some budget concerns are worked out. It isn't shocking that this film has gone over budget until you learn that the budget was around $120 million. Yikes. You can already bet this one will be tough to sell, at least domestically.

Because I'm never going to see The Artist (I just can't muster up any interest, sorry), check out the glowing analysis at Fast Film Reviews. Good stuff.

Flix Chatter gives us six unnecessary big bidget sequels. While I disagree with a couple on the list, I always enjoy the thought that goes into these pots. Check it out!

And make sure you have a look at "My Favorite Ladies of Science Fiction" from the Morning Thunder Buffalo.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Trailers! Trailers! Trailers!

I've never done a weekly column dedicated to trailers because the truth is, you never know what a week's going to bring in that department. Sometimes there won't be a trailer worth mentioning for a month, then we get a stretch like this in which I simply could not keep up. Please enjoy what will undoubtedly be the most extensive Trailers! Trailers! Trailers! ever.

In order to keep expectations low (really low), we start off with The Three Stooges, courtesy to you by the Farrelley Brothers; you know, the guys that brought you Hall Pass! You know how you know a movie is going to be bad? When a scene involving Snooki is the best shot in the trailer.

Next up is Madagascar 3 featuring a long list of solid voice actors. Before How to Train Your Dragon, I think the first Madagascar is at least in the conversation for Dreamworks' best animated feature and I genuinely like it. The sequel was worthless. Judging from this trailer, the third installment looks like it could be closer in quality to the first one.

This brings us to The Five-Year Engagement, which features Jason Segel and Emily Blunt. This movie comes with a serious comedy pedigree (produced by Judd Apatow, director by Nicholas Stoller of Muppets and Forgetting Sarah Marshall fame). This trailer, though, makes me slightly nervous. I love Emily Blunt but I'm not entirely sure she can flourish in this environment.

Now to the previews you're really here to see. I think we can all agree that Men in Black is a stellar popcorn flick. Smart, fun, exceptionally entertaining. Likewise, we all know for a fact that Men in Black II is one of the worst movies of the decade. It's not up for debate. So what should we expect to get from Men in Black 3? Honestly, I have no idea. As an unabashed Will Smith fan, I've been looking forward to this film for a while now. I'm nervous.

Last but not least, I present to you the first trailer for GI Joe: Retaliation. 2009's GI Joe is an atrocity and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise. Just horrible. I'd like to believe this sequel will be much better in a Fast Five/Expendables kind of way. It certainly won't hurt to have a White Stripes song rocking the background like it does in this trailer.

In Home Viewings Review: "Beginners"

Growing up, Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor) always felt there was something off about his parents' relationship. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), showed great affection for his family but was very distant and that left his mother (Mary Page Keller) often feeling alone. Stuck in the middle, Oliver internalized the lessons learned at home and as a thirtysomething in 2003, he lives a guarded life filled with broken relationships that he never really invested in. His way of living begins to change however, when Hal informs him that not only is he gay, but that he has been stricken with terminal cancer. Beginners spends its time cutting back and forth between Oliver's final interactions with Hal and the start of his relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent), a French actress who immediately puts his new outlook to the test.

I confess I was not all that interested in Beginners when it debuted earlier this summer. Despite its positive reception, the subject matter isn't within my general level of interest. But as Award Season draws closer, I often find myself playing catch-up on this sort of film when it becomes clear that it will be a player when nominations start rolling out. What brought me to Beginners is the esteemed performance of the impeccable Christopher Plummer, a role that will almost certainly warrant a Best Supporting Actor nod (and you'd have to say he's the favorite to win at this point). Always a commanding figure in each of his films, this is perhaps the best and certainly the most vulnerable. Plummer plays Hal with a double portion of charm that is only somewhat dampened by an ever-present undercurrent of shame for the distance he kept between himself and his family and the life he feels he wasted. His demeanor is happy-go-lucky and lively but his eyes convey a sense of pain and sorrow and it is this combination that makes his portrayal seem so genuine. This is a landmark performance for Plummer and one for which he deserves any and all attention that comes his way.

The rest of Beginners, however, fails to measure up to Plummer's work. Simply put, I couldn't stand to watch any of the other characters. McGregor's wary loner with childhood scars is adequate but he is routinely overshadowed by Plummer. I'm not sure if the blame for that should fall on McGregor or if he was given little to work with but in their shared scenes, I felt Plummer ran circles around him. Meanwhile, Laurent's take on the manic pixie dream girl (maybe this phenomenon doesn't work in French) annoyed the fire out of me, beginning with the early scenes in which she only communicates by writing out questions and answers on a pad of paper. I guess this is supposed to be charming but it didn't work for me. Then there's Hal's young lover Andy (Goran Visnjic), who may or may not have been retarded but I'm not sure. I truly did not understand this character. Likewise, the non-linear storyline was distracting for me and it kept Beginners from ever getting into a solid groove and even when it was working within its element, it was all a bit too boring for me. As a result, I never could invest in the characters or their interactions and the overall product suffers mightily from these shortcomings.

Grade: B

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be

Check out this new poster for The Dark Knight Rises which may indeed hint at the film's ending...

Speaking of DKR, Christopher Nolan's prologue for next year's second biggest film (The Hobbit, duh) was screened for filmmakers and select media members. Check Empire's recap. The six minute prologue will be available to the "masses" as a trailer for Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, but only in select cities. Or you can just wait until it gets leaked online like, 12 hours later.

In celebration of the ten year anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, Empire reunited the Hobbits and provides an outstanding interview with the group. We're only one year away from The Hobbit debuting at a theater near you; time to start getting psyched (if you haven't already).

NPR interviewed Gary Oldman to discuss his role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which I so desperately want to see.

Steven Soderbergh bailed on Man From U.N.C.L.E. a couple of weeks ago and Warner Brothers has tapped Guy Ritchie to replace him. Should be interesting to see what Ritchie with his newly reinvigorated career, thanks to Sherlock Holmes.

Ben Kingsley will join Hugo co-star Asa Butterfield as a principal cast member for Ender's Game. Getting more and more interested in this project...

And in "Why would you do that" news of the weekend, Lionsgate is developing an American Psycho remake. Because, you know, the original is over ten years old so we definitely need a new version.

Weekend Box Office Results
I am so pleased with all of you, weekend moviegoers. Not only did you finally knock Twilight off of its perch atop the box office returns, you did so while also preventing New Year's Eve from taking home a huge sum. In doing so, you've probably saved us all from future versions of the film like Columbus Day, Boxing Day, and of course, Cinco de Mayo. This turned out to be a pretty lackluster week at the box office and maybe a small portion of that is due to Hollywood's insistence on giving worthwhile movies a limited release, a concept which drew my ire this weekend. But regardless, with so many big releases on the horizon, most of these films had better enjoy the short-lived spotlight.

1. New Year's Eve - $13.7M
2. The Sitter - $10M
3. Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 - $7.9M ($259.5M)
4. The Muppets - $7.07M ($65.84M)
5. Arthur Christmas - $6.6M ($33.49M)
6. Hugo - $6.13M ($33.49M)
7. The Descendants - $4.84M ($23.64M)
8. Happy Feet Two - $3.75M ($56.85M)
9. Jack and Jill - $3.2M ($68.64M)
10. Immortals - $2.44M ($79.85M)

New to DVD
For a number of semi-professional (read: "blog owners") critics like myself, this time of the year is a killer as we try to balance the need to stay current with the crap load of significant films hitting theaters and the need to fill out our top 10 lists with the films we missed hitting DVD. I find myself prioritizing the DVD releases each year and planning out what I can and cannot get to before year's end. Kind of turns this whole thing into a little more of a job than I'd like but hey, this is how I choose to spend my free time so...

What I'll Be Renting This Week
Kung Fu Panda 2 - Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Gary Oldman
You know what's kind of an awesome kid's movie? Kung Fu Panda. I didn't see KFP until a year or so ago but I enjoyed it a hundred times more than I had anticipated. Jack Black is seriously hit or miss but he's possibly at his best when shooting for the "kids and their parents" demographic (see: The Muppets). I didn't get a chance to see this one but I expect to rectify that soon.

What I've Seen and You Should Too (I Guess)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes - James Franco, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow
Okay, so I didn't really love Apes like a lot of people did. I thought Franco was fine and the origin story was cool, but the supporting actors (I'm talking to you, Tom Felton) were atrocious and the plot played out like something out of a '50s B-movie. But. BUT. The visuals of the film are incredible and more importantly, the work of Andy Serkis, who provided virtually all of the movements for the apes, are exquisite. Apes is worth the cost of a rental based solely on Serkis.

What I Might Pick up at Best Buy When it's on Sale for $7.99
The Rocketeer (1991) - Billy Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Alan Arkin, Timothy Dalton
Sure, it was a huge commercial failure and sure, it failed to spark the a genre (and franchise) the way it was intended to. But man, The Rocketeer is a blast and it's been far too long since I've seen it. Hook me up, Best Buy.

Also New
Fright Night (2011) - Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Toni Collette
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) - Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien
Family Guy: Volume 9 (2010) - Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein

Coming to a Theater Near You
For those of you keeping track at home, I did pretty well with my Rotten Tomatoes score predictions. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was Certified Fresh at 86% (predicted 92%), Young Adult came in at 77% (predicted 88%), The Sitter was almost right on par (23% rotten versus the predicted 22%) and New Year's Eve dropped below even my dismal expectations and finished at 5% rotten (12% predicted). This week will bring us the first major releases of the Christmas season and you can bet on a ton of money being spent.

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows - Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace
Apparently there are people out there (and perhaps a number of them) who dislike the first Sherlock Holmes. This fact caught me off guard because I don't personally know anyone who didn't at least half-way enjoy themselves while watching this movie. I'm not saying Holmes should be held up as one of the greatest movies of all time but honestly, I'm not sure how you could sit through that film and not have a bit of fun. I've been looking forward to this sequel with genuine anticipation and can't wait to see the RDJ-Law dynamic explored further. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 76%.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol - Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg
This will be released only on IMAX screens this week with a full release on tap for next weekend. I have the sneaking suspicion that MI4 is going to be strong to quite strong. Now, I'm a fan of two out of the first three installments (MI2 is awful) but this one has much more promise in my mind. I haven't seen a movie on an IMAX screen in years but I'm thinking about changing that this weekend. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 84%.

Carnage - Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz
This is the type of film that causes the most trouble in terms of predicting critical reception. Could be an Oscar contender, could be a total dud. What would scare me most about Carnage is that its runtime is a whopping 79 minutes. So... Rotten Tomatoes Prediction: 80%

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked (2011) - Jason Lee, Justin Long, Amy Poehler
The best thing I can say about the Alvin series is that I wasn't forced to watch the...*gulp*...Squeakquel. I saw the first one and it hurt me inside. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 23%

Just Let Me See Your Movie!

Before I went to bed last night, I headed over to Moviefone to have a look at Friday's midday schedule. I have a busy weekend ahead of me, you see, and the only opportunity I would have to make it to the theater would be the first showings of the day. To say that I was excited to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be an understatement. The prospect of Gary Oldman in a rare leading role, and one that promised to provide serious award consideration, has been bounding around in my mind grapes and I've been looking forward to this film for the better part of the year. I based my work schedule around seeing this film, for goodness sake, and if that seems sad, be it. But to my surprise, Moviefone (and really the entire movie industry) let me down. TTSS wasn't showing at any of the theaters I frequent, nor was it available at the arthouse theaters in Dallas. What the what?!, I thought to myself. I Googled the subject and found a release schedule from Focus Features, the studio behind TTSS, and discovered that the film was only opening on four US screens this weekend, all of which are, of course, in Los Angeles or New York. To make this injustice even worse, the release schedule informed me that TTSS would not be available near me until the 23rd and even then, only at a single arthouse theater 45 miles away. Considering the advertising campaign TTSS has received for the last six months, this move is unbelievably short sited and goes to prove a deeper issue within the movie industry as a whole.

Let's rewind a few months, back to the September release of Drive. Nothing about Drive suggested that it should receive a wide release, at least as far as the typical distributor rules go. It's a hyper-violent, artsy-action mix backed by a synth-pop soundtrack, made by a foreign director (Nicolas Winding Refn) who has no mainstream credits to his name, and starring an actor (Ryan Gosling) who is certainly well-respected but hardly the type of guy who draws the average moviegoer. It also happens to be a near-masterpiece and the best movie of the year in my book (thus far, anyway). And remarkably, Drive was given a nation-wide release that didn't require interested viewers to make a trek to an out-of-the-way arthouse theater or wait until it came to DVD (or steal it off the Internet). And guess what: people went to see it. Despite it's challenging subject matter, Drive pulled in a hearty $34 million domestically (and another $30 million overseas). While that number may not seem like a huge breakthrough, remember that this film cost $15 million to make and was shown on only 2,900 screens (compare that to 4,375 screens for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2). That's a wildly successful release. Likewise, 50/50, another indie film that I absolutely loved and that received a wide-release, pulled in $34 million domestically while showing on 2,479 screens and working from a budget of only $8 million. So in summary: both of these movies were independent films, both received a reasonable release, both made a considerable amount of money, and both were available in a theater three miles from my office, allowing me to see them in the middle of a slow day. 

Now compare those numbers to those of Take Shelter. If you haven't heard of Take Shelter, don't worry, it's not your fault. Starring Michael Shannon (one of the kings of obscure, challenging roles), Take Shelter focuses on a family man who has hallucinations about an apocalyptic world event and begins building a shelter to protect his family, though it is unclear whether he wishes to protect them from the coming events or from himself. Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly (more on him in a moment) said of Michael Shannon's performance, "...the more people see this movie, the more votes he gets. It's that simple." That's a powerful statement coming from a leader in the critical community. The problem is, no one is going to see this movie. To date, it has earned $1.5 million (against a $5 million budget) through its release on a whopping 91 screens. Right now, the most important time for an independent film like this, it is available on 55 screens.  No one has seen this movie and when it comes time for "educated voters" to make their lists of nominees for Best Actor, you can bet most of them will not have seen Michael Shannon's portrayal. And maybe more importantly, even if they have been given the opportunity to see Take Shelter, I haven't and neither have you. So even if Shannon or the film itself gets nominated for an Oscar, why would any average moviegoer care to root for it when most have never heard of it, let alone been given the chance to see it?
In a recent column for Grantland, Harris listed out the likely candidates for a Best Picture nomination (a list that includes a couple of independent films but is, overall, dominated by bigger features) and asked his readers to Tweet in their picks for which other films deserved to be included on the list. Today he released the results and unsurprisingly, the list was topped by Drive, a film that, by traditional Hollywood standards, should never have been given a wide-release. Moreover, every other film on the list (including 50/50 and Take Shelter) was an independent film. 

I highlight this because it illustrates two trends. 1.) In spite of what Hollywood big wigs would have us believe, viewers are willing to see smaller films; and 2.) Hollywood is doing a crappy job of giving their viewers what they want. This industry is fixated, even obsessed, with online piracy as well as preserving the box office and DVD rental/sales returns. To make this happen, the studios have gone to extremes to limit the viability of On Demand and streaming services while consistently raising ticket prices, effectively pricing-out a number of would-be customers. (Side note: I recently held a Family Movie Night event for the participants of my youth sports program. You would be SHOCKED at the number of kids/parents who came up to me afterward and informed me that they'd never been to a movie before because they couldn't afford it.) At the same time, studios have dictated what the average moviegoer can and cannot see, and have thereby cut out a fairly significant profit margin based solely on a single assumption: that viewers are too stupid, too unsophisticated, to buy into indie films. 

That's exactly what is playing out with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Universal/Focus Features is telling you and I that because this is a slow-burn of a film that will feature far more dense dialogue than it will action sequences, we won't get it and therefore, won't like it. In doing so, Universal has not only ensured that their film will not turn a profit on these shores (a $31 million budget can't possibly be recovered with a 40 screen release), they've also relegated moviegoers to the host of horrible, stupid selections that await us at the local theater. I do not want to see New Year's Eve because I'm not a moron and I do not want to see The Sitter because I'm not stoned but these are my choices in terms of new releases since both TTSS and Young Adult are only being given the "limited release" treatment. Don't get me wrong, I love mainstream, big budget, popcorn films and my record as a proponent of comic book movies and dumb comedies speaks for itself. But I am proof that there are in fact moviegoers out there (and recent box office numbers suggest there are a lot of them) who can thoroughly enjoy both Drive and Captain America, both 50/50 and Super 8, both Tree of Life and X-Men: First Class. Yet despite the trends suggesting that viewers are ready and willing to take on smaller films and despite the fact that I live in the fifth-largest media market in the country (let that sink in for a moment), Hollywood continues to look down upon the average moviegoer and deprive middle America of the opportunity to avoid Twilight or Jack and Jill. It is a crappy, elitist, short-sited mentality that is costing Hollywood money, films cross-country notoriety, and moviegoers themselves a chance to see some outstanding films. Something needs to change and never should that be more obvious than this coming Sunday when we see New Year's Eve top $40 million despite its atrocious reviews. We didn't have a choice, Hollywood, and the blame falls squarely on you. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Weekend Movie Guide

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Mark Strong
Set during the Cold War, a superspy (Oldman) is called out of retirement to pinpoint a Soviet mole inside of MI6. Words cannot express my level of anticipation regarding this film and it all boils down to one reason: Gary Oldman. The rest of the cast is incredible, the film is based on a well-respected novel, and it received outstanding reviews overseas. But none of that holds a candle to the potential of Oldman in a starring role that seems tailor made for him. I'm just warning all of you in advance, there's a very good chance that my review (shooting for early next week) will be undeniably biased toward this film as I've been saying all year that this would be the role that would FINALLY get Oldman an Oscar nod and I'm already acting like I love this film. Can't wait.

New Year's Eve - Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, Jessica Biel, Zac Efron
An ensemble that focuses on the lives of several New Yorkers on, you guessed it, New Year's Eve. This is a semi-sequel to Garry Marshall's 2010 "classic" Valentine's Day which somehow pulled in over $100 million despite being, you know, one of the five worst films of the year. (And I mean that. The fact that I was able to make it through my screening of that movie is a testament to my resolve to never walk out of a movie. Because boy, did I want to. That movie is horrible.) Amazingly, New Year's Eve looks even worse. You know your film sucks when you have cringe-inducing moments in the trailer! Watch the trailer again and think about how awful the dialogue sounds and then remember that all that was needed to advertise this film was three minutes of decent footage and the studio couldn't even find that. And yet, Rotten Tomatoes currently reports that 83% of users want to see this movie. This is why people hate America.

The Sitter - Jonah Hill, Ari Graynor, Sam Rockwell
A college student (Hill) with no long term job prospects is hired on to babysit some neighbor kids and winds up taking them on a wild ride as he tries to hookup with a crush (Graynor). In a year that has been overrun by lackluster R-rated comedies, it's no wonder that no one seems to be paying any attention to the final Fat Jonah Hill movie. Even the studio behind this film has sort-of abandoned it after a fairly heavy marketing campaign earlier this year. I'm less than interested.

Young Adult - Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson (Limited)
The reunion of director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody (Juno) brings forth a DARK comedy about a juvenile 30-something (Theron) who moves back to her small home town and begins pursuing an ex-boyfriend. Theron is very likely to receive a Best Actress nomination for her role and Oswalt is drawing some real attention in a down year for quality Supporting Actor work. In addition, all of Reitman's films are exquisitely put together and the idea of a woman-child character instead of the classic man-child is appealing to me.

W.E. - Abbie Cornish, James D'Arcy (Limited)
Focuses on the romance between King Edward VIII (D'Arcy) and his romance with a divorced American woman (Cornish), which if you remember, was a subplot in last year's The King's Speech. Directed by Madonna, W.E. is receiving a one week theatrical run in order to qualify it for award consideration. Doubtful that this plan works.

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller (Limited)
The mother (Swinton) of a boy who went on a Columbine-esque killing spree attempts to deal with her grief and shame. This is another film that will run for only a week in order to qualify for award consideration. Also, is it Tilda Swinton's goal to never be in another movie that I have any interest in seeing?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In Home Viewings Review: "Another Earth"

Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) is an exceptionally intelligent 17 year-old with a very bright future ahead of her. On the same night that she is out celebrating her acceptance into MIT, a new planet is discovered that scientists deem identical to earth (cleverly named "Earth 2"). While driving home drunk, Rhoda looks up into the sky to get a look at this new planet and smashes into another car, instantly killing the wife and child of Yale music professor John Burroughs (William Mapother) who goes into a coma. Four years later, Rhoda is released from prison and finds herself drawn to John who never saw her face or read her name during the trial. Posing as a cleaning woman, she works her way into John's life, hoping to find the courage to confess her crime and thereby clear her conscience. Simultaneously, earth and earth 2 are drawing closer to one another (more on this later) and it is learned that the planets are exact copies: anyone who exists on earth also exists on earth 2 and theoretically, their events of their lives would be the same leading up to the moment of mutual discovery. Displeased with the direction of her life, Rhoda enters and wins a contest to be among the first to travel to the new planet (more on this later as well), an opportunity she sees as a chance to start over. But as her relationship with John deepens, she must decide not only whether or not to leave for the new world but also if she can confess her identity to the man she took everything from.

Somewhere inside Another Earth there exists a worthwhile indie drama that has a bit of promise. Marling, who also wrote the film, has genuine appeal and you can see why she's become a hot name around Hollywood. This is an actress who could really be something in a few years, provided she finds the right projects. There's no reason she couldn't fill some of the roles going to Felicity Jones or pick up the scraps from Jennifer Lawrence's table. Likewise, I think director Mike Cahill (also co-writer) shows some talent behind the camera and a knack for finding the right shot for the situation, heightening the drama in the already tense atmosphere of his film. Both of them will go on to bigger and better things...

...which is good because Another Earth is a convoluted mess. The problem with this type of indie drama is the hook; in order to set your film apart from a glutted market of similar films, only a few of which receive any kind of mass marketing, you have to come up with something different that brings attention. If you're a studio executive and Mike Cahill is pitching this film to you (which I know is not the way it works for these films but go along with me), you're saying something to the effect of, "Okay, so you've got a messed up relationship between two opposites who are brought together by tragedy. That's great. But tell me, why am I going to see your movie instead of Like Crazy or Away We Go? Oh, there's a subplot involving a second earth that's (inexplicably) getting closer and closer to our own planet? Bingo!" The end result is essentially a sci-fi concept film and as I've said before, concept films, even artsy ones like this, rarely work. Science fiction is tough enough to get right (and that's coming from a huge sci-fi nerd) and it's even tougher when you've got an inexperienced hand guiding the ship. Cahill and Marling pay little attention to the details surrounding their sci-fi subplot and as a result, these sloppy elements are almost all I could focus on.

Don't get me wrong; there are a number issues with this film that have nothing to do with the haphazard hook. Every actor outside of Marling and Mapother ranges in talent from, "extra who was given a couple of lines" to "professional actor who should probably start looking for another profession." None of these supporting players are given much screen time (mercifully) but when they are...ouch. All of the characters are extremely shallow, making their transitions seem insignificant. And the storyline itself is so slow and unclear that I actually had to go online and search forums in order to piece together the film's intent.

But none of these issues hold a candle to the sheer idiocy of the subplot. I pride myself on my ability to not hold movies to the laws of reality. It's a movie; things are going to happen that could never happen in real life and honestly, that's the way we all want it more often than not. All I ask of a film is that it either A.) Stay within the realm of "reasonably realistic enough to pretend I don't notice the inaccuracies" or B.) Outs itself in the beginning as a film that should in no way shape or form be taken seriously. But I would maintain it is impossible to sit through Another Earth without asking some real questions. For example, in the beginning earth 2 is a tiny blue dot in the far distance but by the end of the film, the planet is a giant colossus dominating the skyline both day and night. No reason is given for this change nor does it ever seem to bother the inhabitants of either planet that they are headed for, you know, a catastrophic collision. This made me more than a little crazy. Another major issue comes along with the whole, "win a seat on the first trip to earth 2" which is organized by a Richard Branson-like billionaire. So, basically, we're to believe that a new planet is rapidly invading our orbit and not only does NASA not make a trip of their own, they're totally cool with renting out their equipment to a rebel businessman. Even a cursory line about this being the "first commercial trip" to earth 2 would have sufficed but apparently this never occurred to anyone involved with the making of the film. These (and many others) are stupid mistakes that only come along when a filmmaker doesn't know how to handle a given topic or doesn't care enough to try and make the subplot blend with the main theme. And if the people behind a film don't care enough to make their film work, then why should anyone else care enough to see it?

Grade: D