Friday, October 31, 2008

Ebert's Little Rule Book (plus one of my own)

Roger Ebert has posted twenty iron clad rules for being a film critic. Many of them are obvious (don't talk, text, or be obnoxious in a theater), but several are genuinely insightful. And, little did I know, but many of them are aimed directly at Ben Lyons, who has been defiling 'the balcony' on a weekly basis as co-host of the new, not-improved At The Movies. Oh, and I was right. He looks far more like his normal self with the trademark glasses.

My favorite entry:

“Do the math. If one week you state, “‘Mr. Untouchable’ makes ‘American Gangster’ look like a fairy tale,” and the next week you say, “American Gangster” was “Goodfellas” for “the next generation,” then you must conclude that “Mr. Untouchable” is better than “Goodfellas.”

I constantly notice the opposite problem. I can’t count the number of critics that pan a movie that becomes a surprise hit. Then, when the star or director’s followup movie arrives, they pan it too. Fair enough, but they also compare it negatively to the original film, forgetting that they panned that one as well. If you give There’s Something About Mary 1 star, you can’t then give My, Myself, and Irene 2 stars and then claim that it didn’t measure up to There’s Something About Mary. Oh, and Ebert has did a variation on this back in 2003. If you give The Matrix Reloaded 3.5 stars while giving The Matrix 3 stars, you can't then claim in your Matrix Revolutions review that The Matrix was the best in the trilogy. Of course, Ebert hates the star system so we shouldn't be too hard on him for that.

This brings up a rule of mine, that applies more to general film writing than with criticism.

"Do your homework!!"

I jumped over Dennis Harvey of Variety back in September for lazily assuming that Changing Lanes was a box office disappointment while Crash was a mega-smash (they both made about $95 million worldwide). It's a common phenomenon, especially when dealing with alleged financial success or disaster. But don't just make blanket statements that aren't backed up by the facts. And don't call a movie a critical failure when its failure was merely financial. And don't brand a movie as a financial disaster without actually checking the numbers. This happens most often when writers want to appear snarky and cool by trashing a film or actor. It's amazing how rarely writers make mistakes that prop up a film or filmmaker.

Some common falsehoods corrected-
- Waterworld was not a gigantic flop. It cost $175 million and made $264 million worldwide, plus whatever it made on video. Not a mega-hit, but a solid break-even movie.

- The television show Birds Of Prey was not canceled due to lack of interest. The premiere was the most watched premiere in WB history. Alas, the show was terrible, and the viewers fled in terror.

- King Kong was not a flop and did not fail with critics. It made $218 million in the US and $551 million worldwide on a $207 million budget. As for reviews, it sits with a whopping 84%. In fact, it was the initial wave of 'holy crap, this is great!' reviews that led idiot prognosticators to exclaim that it had a chance at out grossing Titanic, which led to the narrative that it was a financial under performer.

- Ang Lee's The Hulk did not 'fail to entice moviegoers upon release'. It broke the June opening weekend record with $62 million in three days. Alas, it did fail to appeal to said moviegoers and the word of mouth sunk the film in its second weekend.

- While I loathed the picture and its reputation has plummeted since 2002, Die Another Day was warmly received by critics and was the highest grossing James Bond picture of all time. Why they decided to scrap the present continuity and reboot afterward, we can only speculate on the many reasons offered, but it was NOT because of the poor reception to Die Another Day.

- Batman & Robin and Star Trek Nemesis, respectively, did not fail because moviegoers were tired of the franchises. They failed because the marketing made the movies look terrible, the reviews confirmed that fact, and word of mouth crushed them after respectively solid opening weekends (remember, Batman & Robin still opened to $43 million and Star Trek Nemesis still did $18 million).

And, as far as Star Trek 10, it also failed for the same reason Hellboy II and Mary Shelly's Frankenstein underperformed. All three opened within a week of a hugely anticipated and acclaimed movie that targeted the identical demographic (respectively, The Two Towers, The Dark Knight, and Interview With The Vampire). All three of these films posted solid if not fantastic, openings, only to get slaughtered the next weekend. Whether the poorly recieved film would have made it to the customary $70 million Star Trek gross with a different release date is open to debate.
If you want to say that Jim Carrey 'needs a comeback' with Yes Man, best to check and make sure that his last five mainstream comedies didn't all gross over $110 million domestically (whoops).

If you want to criticize Tom Cruise's offscreen antics for the financial performance of War Of The Worlds, make sure that the film isn't his highest grossing film ever (whoops).

And if you want to rag on the general reception of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (as opposed to your own feelings on the film), maybe it's best to remember that A) the film got solid reviews, albeit many of the B or B- variety and B) the film is Steven Spielberg's third highest grossing film of all time, behind only Jurassic Park and ET.

If you're a film writer, Box Office Mojo and Rotten Tomatoes should be your constant proofreading pit-stops. Don't get caught selling the lazy company line.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, October 27, 2008

The cost of love (Terrible horror films my wife has made me sit though)

Anyone can celebrate Halloween by making a list of the ten best horror films of all time. And most of those lists will have some combination of Jaws, Psycho, Halloween, The Exorcist, Evil Dead 1 or 2, and Alien, along with a couple others that are more to the writer's individual taste. So instead, I'd like to celebrate something foul and odious. It's no secret that A) my wife likes horror films and B) my wife has hideous taste in films. These two components combine to create a toxic viewing experience from which I will eventually have to shield my daughter. If it's not too late...

But, here are five of the very worst horror films my wife has forced me to watch.

Deadly Friend (1986) - I can think of no filmmaker today who is less consistent than Wes Craven. Can it possibly be true that the same man who made Wes Craven's New Nightmare also made Vampire In Brooklyn? Can the same man be responsible for Scream and Shocker in seven short years? It appears so. While there may be no pattern for this uncommonly cerebral horror filmmaker (I've rented many a bad Craven movie just to listen to the commentary), no way to tell if you're getting a Red Eye or a Cursed, there is one hard and fast rule - Wes Craven should never, ever make films about robots.

That's right, Deadly Friend is about the previously unknown peril of putting your dead friend's brain into the robot that you created. So, ladies and gents, if you ever happen to create a robot, please don't put your friend's brain in said robot... even if she was kinda cute, sorta liked you, and died violently. Aside from the absurd premise, the film is poorly acted, looks ugly and cheap, and is one of the most boring films Craven has ever made. To be fair, it does have one interesting use for a basketball, but you can probably find that on You Tube. Oh wait... I just saved you 90 minutes.

Sssssss (1973) - No, I didn't just fall asleep at the keyboard, nor did Allison attempt to write another column. This little-seen flick tries to be the snake-version of The Fly (the 1958 original, since the superior remake wouldn't exist for another 13 years). Basically an unwitting young man is turned into a snake by his mad scientist employer; which displeases both our hero and the scientist's daughter, who fancies the soon-to-be-slithery lad. It's not a terrible idea, it's just a complete lack of follow-through. It's a dreadfully boring film without much pay off till the very end. It's not laughably bad, it's just deadly dull. As my wife said 'Ssssssucks'.

Demonic Toys vs. Puppet Master (2004) - This winner was recommended by my sister-in-law, proving that she should never, ever be allowed to babysit. I vaguely remember Puppet Master and/or Demonic Toys movies, a couple or so each, running at 3:00am in the morning on Cinemax West 2 or what not. Of course, those straight-to-video horror franchises and Die-Hard rip-off action films flamed out in the late 1990s, replaced by kids with HD camcorders making horror films in their backyard. So this could almost count as nostalgic. Not so much. Starring a 33-year-old Corey Feldman as the great-nephew of the fabled original Puppet Master, this down-on-his luck toymaker somehow has a 17 year-old daughter. So either the toymaker is supposed to be older or his kid is supposed to be younger, but they fail on both counts. Thus their interaction has a distinctly Hubert Humphrey vibe throughout.

Aside from that, the film basically attempts to copy the plot of Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch, with a dash of Small Soldiers tossed in for good measure. Oh, and it's PG-13, so any of the gory violence that you might want from a battle between a crazed toy battle is not to be found here. It's dull, it's terribly acted, and the previously 'demonic toys' are now supposed to be quasi-heroic. Not since Jason saved the day in Freddy Vs. Jason (only after committing nearly every onscreen murder) has a moral defection made less sense. Do yourself a favor and just rent Child's Play.

The Gingerdead Man (2005) - Gary Busy, meet 'rock bottom'. Gary Busey (in person) plays a spree killer who is executed, only to magically come back to life in the form of a giant, wise-cracking gingerbread cookie (voice only). From there, he spends the entire movie on a single set, slowly exacting vengeance on the family who sent him to the chair. If this seems like a Z-grade good time, it's not. The production values are non-existent, the characters never leave the bake shop, and the fabled gingerbread man barely shows up on camera. This is the kind of film that might have worked with an actual budget, but as a no-budget slasher film, it's just foul-tasting.

The Worst Witch (1986) - This TV movie isn't technically a horror film, but I was recently forced to endure it as part of the Halloween spirit. For the record, the second film of the night, The Strangers, was much much better. This adaptation of a childrens' book stars Tim Curry, Diana Rigg, and Fairuza Balk. Bulk, it seems, hit her attractiveness peak at twelve - poor thing (Tim Curry apparently agrees). Basically this movie concerns a school for child witches, as they learn how to master the art of witchcraft.

Imagine a remake of Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone - directed by you, filmed in your house and your back yard. That's about the production level of this one. The special effects would have been bad for a music video of that era, the songs are terrible, and even a singing Tim Curry fails to elicit anything other than unintentional guffaws. Feast your eyes on the above musical number. Not only is it not Rocky Horror Picture Show, it's not even Muppet Treasure Island.

Untraceable (2008) - I thought I would like this one because I like the director. Wow, was I mistaken. This may go down as the worst, most repulsive movie of 2008. It is incredibly ironic that while teen-skewing horror films like Saw and Hostel get decried as 'torture porn' and are blamed for the downfall of civilization, this adult-targeting 'grown-up' thriller is far more gruesome, far more perverse and, due to its blatant hypocrisy, ten-times more infuriating than any bad slasher film of late. Directed by the usually great Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, Frequency, Fallen), this sordid little number casts Diane Lane as an FBI agent who must track down a serial killer who is slowly torturing his victims to death on the internet. The gimmick is, the more people log on, the quicker the victim dies.

Of course, considering the sickeningly painful and drawn out scenarios set up, the mass log-ons may in fact qualify as mercy. People are cut to ribbons, then placed pinned to a chair so they can slowly bleed to death from their wounds. Victims are tied to a chair with giant heat lamps pointed at them so they can slowly burn to death. And then there's the bit involving battery acid. The issue is not that these traps are ghoulish, but that they are drawn out and the viewer is forced to watch unbearable agony and suffering for minutes at a time, and then we are lectured about today's voyeuristic society. This movie is the only one I have seen of late that truly qualifies as torture porn. Aside from the bland acting, cliched screenplay, and lack of an ending, this is the rare movie that I would classify as immoral, in that it revels in pain and then lectures us for not turning away.

To be fair, there are many cheesy horror films that were passable and even fun. The above Mega-Snake is one of the better direct-to-DVD horror films of late, in that you actually see the giant snake, frequently and in detail, as well as the carnage it inflicts. And although it was my choice, I heartily recommend the self-referential satire Murder Party. But I do not recommend any of the movies above. They are all so bad, they're scary.

Scott Mendelson

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"But I am the chosen one!" (2nd Harry Potter 6 trailer goes online)

It's a far more conventional trailer than the Tom Riddle-centric teaser from this summer. But it still looks incredibly polished and very impressive. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince is one of the very best books, and this is shaping up to be one of the very best movies in the series. Enjoy.

Scott Mendelson

High School Musical 3 grosses $42 million (Scott Mendelson hides in shame)

Scott Mendelson is still hiding in shame and embarrassment. So today's quick box office mea culpa will be written by a guest writer. Me, Allison Mendelson.

That's right, Scott Mendelson is sending his fourteen-month old daughter to defend him. Loser, coward, infidel!

"And I have to ask, who was floating this stunning stupid notion yesterday that HSM3 was some sort of game-changing new-metric phenomenon of kids seeing the same movie multiple times in the opening weekend to a degree that was just off the charts?" -- David Poland - Movie City News

Well, my father was kind of one of those idiots. We both agree that the idea of repeat viewings in a single weekend was a little dumb, but yes, dad thought it would be a monster weekend. No wonder it takes him five minutes to dress me. Looking at the Hannah Montana numbers, he stupidly thought that HSM3 would do half the per screen average, and end up with about $85 million. He was so sure that HSM3 would be a far more mainstream product than Hannah Montana and attract people who wouldn't be caught dead at a G-rated 3D concert film.

Alas, he was wrong. Really wrong. He's usually smarter than this, but wowsers, did he blow it this weekend. His prediction stunk worse than my last diaper. While his $82 million guess was obviously pie in the sky, I too am shocked that it didn't even beat the October weekend record. We're not saying the movie is a failure. God forbid that dad raise the sort of child who labels a movie as a disappointment because it didn't live up to my inflated expectations. But it did literally 1/4 of the per screen average of Best Of Both Worlds. Considering you were serving the same audience and that (theoretically) High School Musical 3 could draw people that Best Of Both Worlds could not, we're all a little stunned at the number.

By any normal rationale, $42 million for a movie that cost $15 million is a great number. I guess dad was just expecting something more epic (if he wants epic, wait till he see show long I keep him up tonight). Of course, dad swears that it could theoretically pull a Phantom Menace and pull in another $35 million next weekend (I liked that movie just fine, but then I'm just a 14-month infant). But otherwise, especially if the Friday to Saturday drop suggest long term frontloading, it may struggle to even hit $100 million. What was less likely? That it would earn $80 million on opening weekend or that it would fail to earn $100 million total?

But what do I know? I'm just a baby. Well, I knew that High School Musical 3 wasn't going to do $85 million last weekend, that much I did know! Yeesh, and this is the guy who's supposed to take care of me and install character? Between my dad who has lost his box office 'mojo' (no pun intended) and my mom who likes A View To A Kill, Grease 2, and Batman & Robin, maybe I should take over this column. I even have fill-in writers all lined up. And they didn't think High School Musical 3 would do more than $50 million either!

Allison Mendelson

How Marvel can do right - cast Jon Hamm as Captain America

I didn't get to see Mad Men till just before the first season came out on DVD/BluRay. Everything you've heard about the show is true. It really is that good. And Jon Hamm is truly the real deal. The idea occurred to me when I first started watching, but since I had not seen him in anything else I was reserving judgment. Well, last night he did a smashing job hosting Saturday Night Live, anchoring what was easily the best all-around show of the season (go here for clips). So yes, without further hesitation, let us state the obvious - Jon Hamm would make an ideal Steve Rogers.

He obviously has the look. Tall, somewhat muscular, handsome, with a genuine masculinity that is nearly absent from the male stars of today. His deep, baritone voice only helps a visual that just screams 1950s superhero more so than anyone since Bruce Campell in the late 80s/early 90s (and, no offense, Hamm is a better actor). If they ever reboot Superman yet again, and if Warner has the decency to cast someone who is old enough to shave, the guy would make a perfect Clark Kent. But, being realistic, there is another vacancy in the super hero film world that he would be just as appropriate for. Most importantly, his commanding presence would make the Steve Rogers scenes just as compelling as the Captain America action scenes.

I'm not the only person to say this, and I may not even be the first to write about it. But that doesn't mean it doesn't make an obscene amount of sense. He is a consummate actor, a genuine screen presence, he can do drama and comedy without breaking a sweat, and he's unknown enough to not produce comparative snickers when he puts on the suit. And, perhaps most importantly to Marvel and co, he's probably gonna come really cheap to boot. Why spend $20 million on Brad Pitt when you can have Jon Hamm for $1 million?

To paraphrase The West Wing, Jon Hamm may not be their first choice... but he should be their last choice, because he's the best choice. This is the climactic bit from the season 01 finale of Mad Men, but it's not technically a spoiler.

Scott Mendelson

Marvel screws up again (Incredible Hulk deleted scenes)

I wrote back in June that, although I didn't care in the slightest for the Hulk 2.0 reboot, I was holding off complete judgment until I got a look at those fabled 45 minutes of deleted material. The infamous dramatic, character building moments that directer Louis Leterrier and star Edward Norton fought over with Marvel and lost, resulting an a nearly character-less and dumbed down smash fest. Well, the DVD/BluRay hit the streets last Tuesday and, alas, my instincts were correct. Many of the issues that I had with the picture would have been lessened if not erased with the inclusion of this new material. Granted, few probably would've wanted to sit through a 170 minute Incredible Hulk movie, but surely there could have been an extra 20 minutes or so to justify including some of the terrific stuff detailed below. The bulk of the footage concerns three things, subplots that resulted in three complete characters being more or less excised from the film.

My favorite material involves the (professional) relationship between General Ross and Major Kathleen 'Kat' Sparr (Christina Cabot). Apparently this character is in the comics, and the presence of this intelligent, opinionated, and fleshed-out female character would have done much to lessen my annoyance at the paper thin character of Betty Ross. There is an obvious mutual respect, if not always trust, between General Ross and Major Sparr, and their scenes allow William Hurt to come off as far less cartoonish and more misguided. The best deleted scene in the set is a conversation between the two of them, where Hurt waxes poetically that Bruce Banner's transformation is one of those rare moments where the universe releases a secret about itself (like the splitting of the atom). In every scene between the two of them, you have professional adults reacting like intelligent adults to a completely insane situation.

Far briefer, but still noteworthy, are the few scenes between General Ross and General Joe Greller (Peter Mensah). These mainly involve the aftermaths of the major action scenes, and it's a fun look at the real world reactions (from the military standpoint) to these comic book plot developments. Again, both of these characters are intelligent and opinionated, and their confrontations brought a credibility to the story that was sorely lacking.

The biggest chunk of footage involves a much more fleshed out subplot involving Dr. Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell), Betty Ross's current boyfriend. While Liv Tyler and Ed Norton still lack chemistry, the scenes involving Burrell are genuinely compelling. I stated back in June that my favorite scene in the film was the quick confrontation between General Ross and Samson, as its the only scene with the dramatic gravitas that much of the deleted footage contains. There is a wonderful moment when the three of them are eating dinner and Ed Norton breaks down in tears after laughing at a humorous anecdote ("It's been awhile since I felt light about anything"). The reason this character and these scenes were cut is pretty obvious - he occasionally acts the pants off of his more famous costars and he is presented as such a sympathetic and morally upstanding person that you end up feeling sorry for him. The best scene is the one below:


Other footage is the fabled alternate opening with a glimpse of the frozen Captain America, as well as scenes that flesh out Major Emil Blonsky (Eric Roth) and make him a more complicated villain. Some of the extra footage in the first act didn't need to be there (just more of Banner running around Brazil). A shocking scene after the bottle factory fight, which clearly displays three body bags, is marred by William Hurt's overacting. And, as mentioned above, the scenes with Betty and Bruce aren't any better than the ones in the final film, even if a few allow Betty to talk like a scientist. And, of course, that aforementioned opening scene is impossible, since it makes no sense until you understand that The Hulk won't letter Banner kill himself (which is why he believes he will survive his climactic airplane drop). That was in the novelization, but I honestly can't remember if that line was in the footage.


Alas, the stuff highlighted above would have made the film far more compelling and, yes, far more entertaining. Yes, the difference is almost as severe as the two cuts of Daredevil. I rented the BluRay purely for the purposes of viewing these scenes. If Universal ever puts out another version with the majority of this footage put back in, I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

Scott Mendelson

Friday, October 24, 2008

Review: Saw V (2008)

Saw V
2008
89 minutes
rated R (grisly bloody violence and torture, language, nudity)

by Scott Mendelson

What we see right off the bat in Saw V is a series trying to regain its footing by pulling back. After the completely absurd Saw IV, they have nowhere to go but a little more down to earth. Like Friday The 13th, the fifth chapter represents an alleged new beginning. This is easily the smallest-scale of the sequels, and it has the feeling of a massively scaled down budget. That does creates a problem as many scenes are simply a couple characters walking through a hallway, or one character sneaking into a building. It's not a good film, and it almost has a whiff of 'direct-to-DVD' to it, but I did appreciate the buttoned-down tone.

There will be no plot synopsis, other than to say that the film again picks up right at the end of the previous film, and that the surviving characters all return. First of all, I can't imagine anyone deciding to see a Saw picture based on the story. The fans are either already invested in the long-running John Kramer mythology, or they don't care a whit about plot. Second, one thing I have appreciated about the series is that, because of the complete lack of preview screenings, and the spoiler-free marketing campaigns, the Saw films are among the few major movies that I can go into relatively blind. I'll give you the same courtesy.

From the very start, the opening trap has a logic and near-plausibility that has eluded this franchise since the end of part II. The violence and gore-level has been severely dialed down, with less total violence and gore than any Saw film since the original. There is certainly nothing to match the hideous body-piercing curtain-raiser of Saw III, or the scalping device in Saw IV. The traps are far less elaborate, and far less painful. Similar to part II, the deaths are quick and brutal, rather than drawn out and excruciating. One almost wonders if the filmmakers were annoyed at the series being called 'torture porn' simply because it contained gruesome violence. The problem with the film is the problem that has plagued the series since the get-go. First of all, the Jigsaw philosophy of 'I don't kill people because I put them into positions to kill themselves' has always been abhorrent and naive. I always appreciated the second film as the lone picture to actively call out the foolishness of this thinking. Yes, John is confronted by failure in Saw III, but he continues to rant and rave about 'helping people cherish life' in the next two sequels as well, and on some level we're supposed to be intrigued by his ideas.

Second of all, the Saw sequels have had an obsession with going back to previous entries and showing us a 'behind the scenes' view of the previous traps and plot developments. A solid third of the picture is made up of flashbacks (both new footage and old) to previous scenes from the previous films (even Danny Glover appears in old footage... you can guess which actor does not). I can't speak to everyone who is a fan of this series, but I couldn't care less about seeing how John Kramer set up that 'gun rigged to the door gag' from Saw II. Of course, without those pointless scenes, there is now no way to bring Tobin Bell into the story, so the filmmakers are in a bit of a bind. Good acting versus story progression. The biggest problem, most apparent in the third film, is the idea that John Kramer wants to teach his victims a grand moral. Fair enough, but if John succeeds in that, then the audience doesn't get to see what it came for - ghoulish traps successfully ensnaring their victims. Conversely, if the audience is invested in the character arcs of the victims, such as Saw III's genuinely compelling story of Angus Macfadyen learning to forgive the people who played a hand in his son's death, we don’t root for the traps. We sit there in disappointment as MacFadyen's Jeff fails again and again in making the right moral choice in time to save those in peril.

Maybe the filmmakers realized this, because the last two films have severely dialed down the seriousness of the moral flaw. The last film hilariously was about punishing a cop who cared too much, who saw the good in people too easily (don't want THAT in a cop, do we?). This one is more or less about, well, not trusting your instincts. So, in five films, we've gone to teaching junkies and murderers to appreciate their lives to going after cops who care too much and follow their instincts. I predict in Saw VI that Jigsaw will be punishing people for titling pinball machines, loving their children too much, and driving in the carpool lane unaccompanied. Point being, if you've followed the series this far, you are already aware of these issues and don't care. Me, I just go for Tobin Bell and because it's a quasi-anniversary tradition celebrating the first date with my eventual wife (we met on 10/28/05 and our first date was Saw II - her choice). While far less grand and less entertaining, the film is less over-the-top than Saw IV. And although it's far less ambitious, it's better written and acted than the overwrought and absurd Saw I.

I'm not sure where the Saw franchise can go from here (although a major plot point is left deliberately unresolved), but as long as Tobin Bell is getting his annual acting showcase, then I'll be happy to support the grizzled character actor who ruined the ending of Saw, since I recognized him as the cancer patient and did the math. Although casting Michael Emerson (who had just won an Emmy for portraying a serial killer on The Practice) as the assistant didn't help either.

Grade: C-

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Return of Box Office Bingo! (predictions for Oct 24-26)

It's been awhile since I did the whole weekend box office thing, but now that the holiday season has started more or less, it's time to return the world of meaningless predictions, boastful proclamations of accuracy, and mea culpas. Besides, history will likely be made this weekend, the question is just how much history.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year: $85 million. The general predictions are $40 million. I think they're way off (and Box Office Prophets agrees with me). Make no mistake, the above is a cautious estimate based on the math. The first two movies have been rented or viewed on The Disney Channel by something around 50 million people since 2005. The second film scored a whopping 17.2 million viewers on its debut evening back in August, 2007, by far the biggest audience in basic cable history (at $7 a ticket, that would have equaled $120 million). The franchise has sold hundreds of millions (billions?) of dollars worth of merchandise and tie-in product over the last few years. For better or worse, this is Grease of the present youth generation. If cult musicals like Mamma Mia and Hairspray can do $30 million, then the sky is the limit for this one.

Hannah Montana: Best Of Both Worlds scored a $45,561 per screen average early this year on 683 screens. Let's assume (and this is a safe assumption) that anyone that showed up for the concert film will likely show up for HSM3 (to say nothing of people like myself, who genuinely liked the first film and likes quality musicals in general). So, let's have fun and do the math for this weekend's 3623 screen release.

$45,561 per screen (obviously not going to happen, but for comparison): $165.1 million
$22,760 per screen (50% off; below the top 25 all-time per screen averages): $82 million
$15,187 per screen (only 33%): $55 million

So basically, at worst it does $55 million and butchers the previous October opening weekend record (Scary Movie 3 - $48 million in 2003). But if it even approaches the per-screen average top-20, we could get something dangerously close to a $100 million weekend.

Additionally, this will be a battle between epic frontloading and the weekend matinee factor. As most people reading this site know, kids films often see a huge uptick (as much as 50% increase) on Saturday and Sunday as the matinee business surpasses the Friday evening numbers. On the other hand, this is the third film in a major franchise, so frontloading could reach Dark Knight/Sex & The City levels. Still, the former should cancel out the latter so we could see something approaching a 3x multiplier (god, I've missed this stuff).

Although this is the definition of a critic-proof hit, the few reviews that have trickled out have so far been positive, giving grownups the possible excuse needed to check it out without kids. A huge percentage of kids who saw the first two will be in the theaters this weekend. A decent amount of kids who have not seen the previous entries will be there, perhaps going with friends, or just wanting to see a (somewhat) big budget, super colorful musical. Older teens and adult women have read all about the teen stars, especially Efron and Tisdale, in their various gossip rags so awareness is covered there. And if you're a parent who just wants to take the kid to the movies and Saw V is sold out, well, it's gotta be better than Beverly Hills Chihuahua, right? Unless you're a male teen without a girlfriend (see your movie choice below) or too old for G-rated confections, you're pretty much a targeted quadrant this weekend.

So, with everything factored in, it's just a matter of how big this will be. I've been wrong before (The Dark Knight, Mars Attacks!), and I've been right when everyone else was wrong (The Mummy, Pearl Harbor). We'll see which column this goes in on Saturday morning. Let's call it at $85 million. I'd 'bet on it'.

Saw V: $25 million. Why, oh WHY, was this not moved to Halloween night? Granted, we're dealing with two big franchises with next to no overlap, but surely Lionsgate would have liked the bragging rights of a number 1 opening weekend? Every Saw film since the original has opened to number 01 (part one came in third place with $18 million, behind Ray and the second weekend of The Grudge).

Putting that aside, the series isn't exactly basking in audience goodwill at the moment. The fourth film was pretty terrible, probably worse than the first film (I'm weird in that I prefer 2 and 3 to the original). The lead character is now definitively dead, so who knows how Tobin Bell is going to return this time? The poster boasts 'you won't believe how it ends', but I'm not sure implausibility is something you want to be boasting about.

Still, this is a dependable franchise that has rooted itself in a deep, tangled story and somewhat complicated mythology. Unlike the many hard-R gore fests that followed in its wake, the Saw franchise has always boasted adult actors playing adult characters. While the acting quality may vary (Danny Glover has rarely been worse than he was in Saw, while Tobin Bell shines in Saw II), enough fans will genuinely want to know what happens next, aside from the usual gore hounds who like the blood and guts. Even if the series will never again hit $30 million on opening weekend, the series is still cheap enough that it will be profitable for years to come.

Pride And Glory: $10 million. As saddened as I was at New Line Cinema's death last winter, it's good to know that Warner Bros. has treated most of New Line's lineup with respect. Sex And The City and Journey To The Center Of The Earth 3D were solid smash hits, and Appaloosa is a slow, steady earner. Despite being in release limbo for awhile, this allegedly so-so cop drama is getting a 2585 screen release. It's not gonna break the bank, but good for Warner for not gutting the New Line product that was already in place.

We'll see if my pie in the sky HSM3 prediction pans out. For the record, if the HSM3 numbers are more earthbound, that doesn't mean the film is a 'disappointment', only that I was off the mark. Updates on Saturday if there is anything out of the ordinary.

Scott Mendelson

Nowhere to go but up, right? (Friday the 13th trailer


Will it measure up to... uh... the groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece? Frankly, I have no objection to a remake of Friday The 13th. We're not talking about a classic like Halloween. This isn't even A Nightmare On Elm Street, which somehow needs to find someone to measure up to Robert England (aside from that, a remake would be fine, as the kids in the original are pretty bad actors).

This is Friday The 13th folks. It was crap in 1980, and it'll likely still be crap this coming February 13th. Now, if they touch the surprisingly self-referential and hilarious Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, then they're asking for it! On the other hand, maybe they can remake Friday The 13th Part VII, this time with enough money to allow Jason to, I dunno, actually 'take Manhattan'? Otherwise, I know full-well that my wife is going to drag me to this, probably on opening night. So, I'll put my best face forward, wear my shirt with the collar-up, buy some Skittles, and party like it's 1988!

But then, I'm the guy who thinks that Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is the best, scariest, and most character-driven of the entire franchise.

Scott Mendelson

And, no, I will not be adding Jason Vorhees to my MySpace friends list, thank you much.

Slumdog Millionaire gets an R (and why it may deserve it)

As always, Box Office Mojo has a rundown of the weekly MPAA ratings updates and as usual, there is a bit of news.

Despite my research indicating that Slumdog Millionaire was to be rated PG-13, taken from pages that quickly corrected themselves and thus make me look bad, the film has been somewhat surprisingly slapped with an R rating. And fans are not happy at all. It was rated R for 'some violence, disturbing images and language'. First of all, the movie opens with a somewhat explicit torture scene, and something pretty awful happens just offscreen to a child during the first act. Truth be told, the entire film is pretty intense (although it was heightened by the obscenely loud audio mix at my screening). Aside from general intensity and tone, which would not be a just reason, the main reason I could think of was the possibility that there were more than one 'f-bomb' dropped that I didn't notice. If this is the case, then it's an iron-clad R. The easiest way to lose that PG-13 is to put in more than one variation of 'fuck'. If Danny Boyle and co didn't realize this, or thought they could bluff the MPAA, then they have only themselves to blame.

Many of the complaints are using The Dark Knight as an example of a movie that somehow gamed the system and scored a PG-13 due to big-studio pressure or what not. Hogwash. The movie feels violent, it feels adult, and it feels R-rated. But, judging purely by the content and how its presented, it is a PG-13 film. And it's a good example of how the MPAA correctly operated, basing its rating not on tone or intensity, but on objective onscreen content.

There is no hard profanity and absolutely no sexual content. There is (if I recall) no drug content in the film whatsoever. As for the violence, it's very much managed in a way so as to ensure a PG-13. There is not a drop of blood, and only the appearance of Two-Face qualifies as gore (surely an image that 90% of the ticket buyers are used to and thus weren't shocked by). The many shootings are entirely offscreen, with not a single squib used. The more grotesque violence is offscreen and heavily implied. We don't see a pencil go into a man's head. We don't see The Joker slash a man's mouth open with a knife, but rather the reactions of the bystanders. In fact, much of the violence, as I noted in July, is presented in an obtuse, just offscreen manner that sometimes rendered it difficult to follow on the first viewing.

But back to Slumdog Millionaire. This could all be a case of free-publicity, as the outcry gets the film countless articles and blog entries such as this one as the award season kicks up (all of which will discuss how good the film is). If the R-rating is mainly for language, then I see no reason why those offending F-words can't be removed. If they were there, I didn't even notice them, so it certainly wouldn't harm the film. If the rating is because of the general intensity and tone, then I oppose the rating and believe that Fox Searchlight should appeal. Come what may, a terrific R-rated film has just as much of a shot at the Oscars as a terrific PG-13 rated film, if not more so (higher ratings can sometimes create the impression of being more adult and mature, however faulty that logic really is).

I still believe that the film is appropriate for children 10 and up, especially if parents are in tow for discussion afterward. But again, this is a case of the MPAA seemingly ruling based on objective content, rather than how harsh or light the movie feels. Countless youth-based films that felt younger-skewing were justifiably rated R because of an abundance of profanity (Rushmore, Almost Famous, etc). That doesn't mean that those movies were inappropriate for kids, but they earned their ratings based on the objective rules of the MPAA. It may not always make sense, but the real problems come about when the MPAA does make decisions based on things like 'intensity' or 'it just feels like an R'. If Slumdog Millionaire was rated R because of profanity, then it seems like a clear-cut case. I just wish I could remember if there was more than one 'f$$k' in the film.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, October 20, 2008

The (terrible) new Bond theme song, plus five better ones.

This isn't exactly new news, but the new Bond theme is out and it's not very good. Worse, it's very unmemorable. To be fair, most Bond songs are pretty lousy. Yet every time a film comes out, the theme song gets trashed by critics and everyone acts like they're despoiling a scared tradition. At least half of all Bond songs are terrible. Even Goldfinger sounds like a puritan schoolmarm finger-wagging and lecturing her female pupils about the evils of men and their own bodies. And 'Another Way To Die' lives up to the tradition.



But, in the name of trying to stay positive, let us take a brief stroll through five Bond theme songs that are actually good:


A View To A Kill - Duran, Duran (1985)
Easily the worst Bond film ever, but with one of the very best theme songs. It may not make much sense lyrics-wise (many Bond songs, like The Living Daylights, make absolutely no coherent sense), but this is a kick ass rock song that still holds up. Dance into the Fire, indeed.


Nobody Does It Better - Carly Simon (1977)
This Oscar-nominated tune, from the best Roger Moore 007 picture, is the rare Bond song that stands on its own as a love song, set apart from the film in question. It helps that the song doesn't use "The Spy Who Loved Me" as its title, simply slipping it on near the beginning almost unnoticed. It's also one of the few Bond themes that qualifies as a genuinely romantic song.


Live And Let Die - Paul McCartney (1973)
Once again, one of the lesser Bond films produces a worthwhile theme song. This one also works somewhat as a stand-alone rock n' roll song. It's not a great song, but it is undeniably catchy and the lyrics are easy to pick up. It's also one that most people can recognize from the opening bars (you know you can, you know you can, you know you can...).


We Have All The Time In The World - Louis Armstrong (1969)
Again benefiting from not having to use the wordy Bond title for the theme title, this one runs over the end credits
and is a charming little ditty. On its own, it's a sweet little song of its own accord. Of course, paired with the movie, it takes on a bitter undercurrent and a tragic pathos.

Goldeneye - Tina Turner (1995)

Written by Bono, this Tina Turner ditty has a nice, steady beat and strong vocals. It is marred only by the inability to logically insert the word 'Goldeneye' into the narrative. It does has an interesting line, 'you'll never know, how I watched you in the shadows as a child', that seems to acknowledge that the Bond musicians of today where the child-fans of the Connery/Moore films. It's a nice touch that gives the song an extra kick.

There are others that work well enough (Licence To Kill is a decent Gladys Night song save the awkward insertion of the title), and others that are really lousy (The Living Daylights, Goldfinger, Die Another Day, The The World Is Not Enough). To this day, I admire Tom Jones' ability to make anything even resembling a song with the word 'Thunderball' in the title. Still, next time someone complains about how this artist or that artist made the worst Bond song ever, something that doesn't compare to the canon, call them on it. The James Bond films may be a proud tradition, but their theme songs are usually not.

Scott Mendelson

Sunday, October 19, 2008

TV Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)

I was a bend-over-backward to be fair defender of this August's Star Wars: Clone Wars movie. It was never meant to be Episode VII and it was overall pretty entertaining. It had one innovative set-piece (the wall-climbing battle) and a solid climactic light saber fight (Anakin and Dooku dueling in a barren dessert; no jumping from platform to platform above bottomless pits, no lava explosions and vine-swinging, just two hated enemies desperately trying to kill each other). But I must concede that the 95 minute movie did come up short. It was a little juvenile and didn't do much to advance character.

It's been sitting in my DVDR for a few weeks, and I've only watched two of the four aired episodes. But, I'm happy to report that the actual Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series is actually a solid improvement over the pilot movie. The animation is certainly more suited to television, and the stories are smaller in scale but richer in character. Since we know much about the lead Jedis and the lead villains already, this show seems to be about the soldiers themselves, the clone troopers.

Both episodes dealt with clones being trapped in no-win situations and being guided to survival by their Jedi generals. They know full well that they are clones and meant to be primarily canon fodder, but the Jedi of course don't see it that way. As Yoda points out in the first episode, they may be clones, but the Force has given them all individual souls. Of course, the more these troopers grow as individual humans, the more tragic their inevitable fate will become. By making the faceless stormtroopers faceless no more, the series may add an extra poignancy to episodes III-VI.

The writing is sharp, with a bare-minimum of cheesy humor or Jedi-exposition ('we must find that weapon!'). Even the dreaded Ahsoka, Anakin's teen girl padawan, comes off better. She's less prone to wisecrack, and it's amusing watching Anakin deal with a student who has the same recklessness that Obi-Wan has had to deal with. It'll be a shame when she eventually dies.


As for the action, each of the first two episodes has boasted at least one worthwhile set-piece. The first episode climaxed with an extended sequence of Yoda laying waste to an entire droid patrol, in a sequence just as fantastic, but far more realistic than similar beats in the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars series (to be fair, chapters 18 and 19 of that series boasts one of the finest light saber duels ever). The second episode has something I've never seen before - a Jedi vs. droid troops sequence literally set in outer space, with Jedi Master Plo Koon fending off separatist attacks from the outside of a battered rescue pod.

So far, so good. I know many people felt burned by the movie, but that really wasn't the series at its best. It's no Batman: The Animated Series, but Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a good solid action adventure show that boasts decent writing, acceptable acting, and promises to actually add to the vast Star Wars canon. If you're a fan, it's at least worth a try.

Grade: B+

Scott Mendelson

Saturday, October 18, 2008

And now for something positive - Entertainment Weekly's Star Trek story

Entertainment Weekly has always been a stalwart Star Trek fan, and Star Trek covers have often graced their biggest selling issues. Their new issue has a decent-sized (for EW) article filled with new tidbits and exclusive photos from the JJ Abrams Star Trek adventure. I've quibbled with Paramount's decision to spend $150 million and to move the film to the summer death slot that is the 'second big movie of summer'. Those complaints still stand. The article states that the movie is finished and they could have kept it in December of this year. And, had they known that Harry Potter 6 was going to flee to July, I'm sure that Kirk and co would have stayed put.

But I am very impressed with the photos and articles that have come out, from EW, MTV, Yahoo, and other sources. This is a huge step in the right direction. Paramount needs to as fearless for the next nine months as Warner Bros was last January after Heath Ledger died. Idiot columnists from Google Blog and Film Threat bitching about the budget and release date? To hell with him, take a look at these screen shots and let him eat crow.

And they are gorgeous images. What stands out, aside from the sheer scale of the production (I guess that $150 million didn't go toward catering) are the bright, bold colors, which seems to align with Abrams' statements about making an movie to contrast with our current moody times. Although the article's statement about optimism being an Abrams staple obviously comes from someone who's never watched Alias, Lost, or Cloverfield. Still, I'm pleased to see that Abrams isn't going to try to do the 'hip and 'cool' thing and attempt to make a dark and gloomy Star Trek universe.

Apparently, the first trailer will be attached to Quantum Of Solace, so that's another smart step. If this thing is any good (and we'll assume for the moment that it is), they need to start screening this as soon as the Oscar season ends. Do fan screenings, do female-only screenings, do kids and family-screenings. The only way to get non-Trekkies and the uninterested into that theater is to convince them that this is the rollicking good time that many people feel that didn't get from Indiana Jones 4 or the Star Wars prequels.

Wolverine will be dark and gloomy. Terminator: Salvation will surely end with the world in further chaos. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince... well, you've seen the last two movies right? Transformers 2 will likely be an audio-visual nirvana, but an emotionally hallow experience. Star Trek's best bet is to be the high-IQ tent pole of the summer that is actually fun, that actually has something positive to offer on the state of humanity.

Spider-Man managed the same feat in 2002 (a film that also had uncommonly bright and shiny colors). It would have been a huge hit regardless, but it soared to record-levels as a denfitinely American piece of allegedly feel-good, high-quality, big-budget adventure that indirectly capitalized on the fresh wounds of 9/11 (no one seemed to notice that every character was psychologically screwed up and the film more or less had an unhappy ending). Star Trek has always been one of more optimistic and idealistic stories. It was colorblind in the 1960s, it was saving the whales in the 1980s, and it was making peace with lifelong enemies in the 1990s. The easiest and best way for Star Trek to matter again is be be a shining example for the best in humanity. The film needs to remind us that these people are and shall forever remain... our friends.


This gives me goosebumps everytime I see it, fitting that its the teaser for my favorite Trek film.

Scott Mendelson

Quantum Of Solace - most of my worst fears confirmed?

Five reviews have leaked out of the recent UK Quantum Of Solace screening. Two positive, two mixed, one very negative. What concerns me is that the mixed and and negative reviews (and to a lesser extent, the positive notices) seem to act as if they read my prior post concerning my fears with QoS and checked off the answers in the affirmative. Apparently, the answers are - yeah, yup, yes, and afraid so.

Is the film in fact 105 minutes with credits, thus feeling somewhat rushed and choppy? Check.

Is the film basically non-stop action with minimal character and story? Seems so.

Has the coherent and expertly staged action from Martin Campbell been replaced by the frenetic, sloppily edited and impossible to follow style from the later Bourne films? Apparently.

Has the realism and real-world plausibility been replaced by something resembling Moonraker? Fraid so.

I'm still hopeful, but I'm concerned at how especially the negative review at the bottom (to be fair, from the least official source) feels like a checklist of what I was afraid would happen. Here's hoping that The Times is more on the mark than The Guardian. For the record, all of these reviews are pretty spoiler-free, although the BBC review hints at an already revealed spoiler.

Positive from The Times
Positive from The BBC
Mixed from The Independent UK
Mixed from Guardian UK
Negative from The Shiznit.co.uk

Scott Mendelson

Friday, October 17, 2008

Give This Man A Job - Michael Wincott

What Just Happened is opening today in limited release. The grim reviews mean that I won't be racing out to see it (why Magnolia didn't give it their customary advance-night sneak preview on HDNet Movies I cannot say). But no matter how toothless it is and how sitcom-ish it allegedly becomes, I did notice right away that the disgruntled director who sets the plot in motion is played by none other than Michael Wincott. You remember him right? He's never really been a star, but he's almost always a highlight of every project he appears in. He worked quite a bit in the 1990s, often as the lead villain or evil sidekick before more or less disappearing during this decade. He has his fanbase, but the work has not been there. Aside from a prominent supporting role in the Peirce Brosnan/Liam Neeson western Seraphim Falls in late 2006, his resume since 2001's Along Came A Spider is made up of glorified cameos and video game voice overs. I'd like to think this is his choice, that he's found happiness outside of Hollywood and only acts when it suits him. But, gosh-darn it, I miss him. I miss that voice that says 'I'm really evil because I have congestion and haven't cleared my throat since high school' or 'I'm so evil that I barely have to talk above a throaty whisper to scare you'.

Although he spent some time in TV-guest starring appearances (like every actor on earth, he cameoed on Crime Story back in 1986), he got his proverbial break with supporting roles in Oliver Stone's Born On The Fourth Of July and The Doors. Most of us first saw him as Guy Of Gisborne in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Granted Alan Rickman and Morgan Freeman dominated the movie, but Wincott had fun as the enforcer of order, a brutal thug who wasn't nearly as bright or as loved by his cousin as he presumed. He basically replayed this role in 1993, with more panache and wit, as the second in command to Cardinal Richelieu in Walt Disney's The Three Musketeers. He cut a lean, nasty figure as a murderous former musketeer, the Darth Vader to Tim Curry's Palpatine. The movie is dumb and hilariously unfaithful to the original book, but it's loads of fun and has aged well.  A year later he got a promotion, playing the lead villain in The Crow. His swaggering, long-haired gangster Top Dollar brought much humor and bawdiness to a very self-serious movie. Despite most of the press (understandably) concentrating on the late Brandon Lee, Wincott's comic-book drug kingpin nearly stole the movie. He also delivered one of my favorite lines ever: "Our friend T-bird won't be joining us this evening on account of a slight case of death."  A year later he had a notable role in Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days.

Among small roles and extended cameos, he played two more major heavies in 1997 and 2001. As the ice-cold jewel thief in Metro, Wincott gave us the rare villain who was imposing because his heart-rate rarely rose above 60. He started the new decade as Gary Soneji in Along Came A Spider, the second and last Morgan Freeman-starring Alex Cross movie in 2001. In the James Patterson novels, Soneji was a long-running nemesis, the Moriarty or Joker to Alex Cross. Wincott brought his usual level-headed, premeditated intensity to the part, and the implausible but extremely entertaining movie was better for it. Why Paramount didn't make countless Cross movies based on the countless novels, I don't know. They were both very profitable, and the star-driven mid-budget thriller used to be Paramount's bread and butter (change in management I presume).

After a small role in The Count Of Monte Cristo in 2002, Wincott pretty much vanished for the remainder of the decade. There are several actors that I desperately wish to see more of, but Michael Wincott is one of the few who makes a movie more exciting just by his presence. He may never win an Oscar and he may never guest on Inside The Actor's Studio. But Michael Wincott never fails to entertain me. Let's hope this re-emergence is a sign of things to come.  His next project is actually an untitled film that represents his writing debut.  Let's hope it turns out well for the guy.

Scott Mendelson

Roger Ebert's funniest, sharpest review in a long time....

Roger Ebert has been back as a full-time writer since reviewing Shrek The Third in May of 2007. And while it's great to have him back, many of his reviews have had a certain rote quality. Not bad, but almost like they could have written by many other critics. And he has been sloppy here and there. For example, his four-star Dark Knight review blatantly revealed the climax of the movie and got a key plot detail wrong (that of The Joker's back story about his father being a lie). It's not the first time he has tossed off a film ending spoiler (thank goodness I had seen Frequency at a sneak preview the week prior to opening), but I expect Ebert to get plot details right.

It's a little like seasons 10-15 of The Simpsons or seasons 5-7 of Scrubs... still good stuff, better than most, but far below their own obscenely high standards. Although this probably isn't his fault, the headlines for Ebert's reviews on the Chicago Sun Times page are really terrible. They are on the noise, lengthy, and often juvenile.

Fortunately, I'm not here to complain. I'm happy to report that his review for Sex Drive is a whiff of the ole, a concise, sharp, and hilariously adult and snarky review of a movie that probably doesn't deserve the effort. And, of course, it also gives me a solid idea of whether or not I would like the movie (a good review doesn't just say whether I liked the movie, but whether you would). The second to last paragraph is especially droll, and the final sentence almost feels improvised, if such a thing is possible in the written word. It's the first time in a long time that I have laughed out loud while reading film criticism.

Also of note is his one-star review of Tru Loved, arguably the only film review I've ever read that actually contains a plot twist at the end. Follow that up with his blog entry dealing with certain ethics of film criticism. Enjoy and discuss. It's good to have the most famous and finest film critic in history back in prime form.

Scott Mendelson

PS - Truth be told, the shocking nature of his current appearance is less his slight facial deformity and more the fact that he no longer wears his trademark glasses. It would be like Gene Siskel suddenly sporting a toupee.

Obama and McCain at their best - The Annual E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner


The annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner is political event of sorts,a charity event organized by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York for the benefit of needy children. It's usually a night where the politicians spend time practicing their stand-up comedy skills often at each others' expense. Barack Obama and John McCain were both in top form last night. They were both very funny and John McCain was almost touching when speaking of his respect and admiration for his opponent (3:45 - "political opponents can have a little trouble seeing the best in each other"). Obama was razor-sharp, spending most of his time making fun of himself ("Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jorel to save the planet Earth ..."). It's long, but worth watching for both men at their most heartfelt and most humorous.

Scott Mendelson

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire
2008
120 minutes
rated R (language, adult situations, violence)
opens November 12 in limited release

by Scott Mendelson

There has been an ongoing debate for the last several years about the very concept of knowledge. With the advances of the internet and billions of people literally having any piece of information at their fingertips, what is the real benefit of knowledge? Why teach children facts when they can look them up in five seconds on Wikipedia or Google? Why devour trivia books (such as Uncle John's Bathroom Reader) when any random fact is available upon request? While there will always be such people as myself who take pride in knowing as much as possible about as much as possible (I'm not a 'know-it-all', I'm a 'want to know-it-all'), what practical purpose remains for storing facts, dates, names, and events when the answer key to the world is sitting at your fingertips?

Loveleen Tandan and Danny Boyle's delightful fable Slumdog Millionaire suggests that our lives can be considered a sum of our knowledge. The more we do, the more we experience, then the more we know. Hence, the more we know, the richer our lives have been and can be. The film concerns a single life, up to the age of eighteen, told against the backdrop of an event that could transform that life forever.

The plot - Jamil Malik (Skins' Dev Patel) has lived a tough and brutal life as an impoverished child in Mumbai, India. But now, through luck and perhaps intent, he sits in the winner's circle of the Indian version of 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?'. As he awaits the final question that will award him 20 million rupees, he is arrested and detained by Mumbai police on suspicion of cheating. Doctors, lawyers, and scientists have never won as much money on this show, so how could a poor kid from the slums possibly know so much? With his life possibly hanging in the balance, Malik tells his interrogator the story of his life up to that point, with highlighting key events that will explain how be came to know the answers to the questions thus far.

That's all you get, and that's all you want going in. The film is a simple one, and the life of Malik sometimes flirts with cliche. But the movie succeeds as a sum of its parts, and its slow-building power becomes intoxicating. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, with widescreen vistas of India contrasting with sharp, intrusive closeups during interrogation scenes. The scenes set on the game show itself are both electric and claustrophobic, with Boyle doing his best to approximate the feeling of being on that once legendary show.

The acting is uniformly excellent, but it never stands out never overpowers the narrative. Each of the leads is played by three different actors as they age, and each young actor blends seamlessly with the one following or proceeding. Of the case, only Anil Kapoor stands out. He has fun playing the game show host, a seemingly jovial man of shifting motives and complicated feelings about having his spotlight stolen by this genuinely interesting young man.

And, unlike several other Danny Boyle pictures, the film actually has a compelling third act and an emotionally involving climax. No spoilers, but the film does not go sliding off the rails in the manner of 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and The Beach. Granted, he was loosely adapting Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A, but I was genuinely fearful that Boyle would once again drop the third-act ball. No worries, the last act is, if anything, superior to its somewhat dragging initial first act set-up.

In the end, Boyle and Tandan have made an enchanting story about the power of knowledge, knowledge gained from experiences and gained from life itself. The film sneaks up on the audience, slowly building emotional investment until the moviegoers are playing along with Malik and holding their breaths at the end. It is easily one of the more charming and original movies of this year and is absolutely perfect family entertainment for anyone over the age of ten. It is a celebration of not just the usual triumph of the human spirit, but a celebration of the human experience. For it's not just what you know, it's how you came to know it.

Grade: B+

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