Friday, September 30, 2011

Release Date Musical Chairs - Dreamworks moves Puss In Boots to October 28th.

Well this comes out of left field, or perhaps not.  As you can see above, Dreamworks Animation has shifted the release date for their Shrek spin-off from the plum 'start of the holiday season' date of November 4th (where cartoons such as The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, Megamind, and Madagascar 2 all successfully debuted) to the crowded Halloween weekend.  What is odd about this is that November 4th was a pretty open weekend, with only Brett Ratner's Tower Heist and A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas representing competition.  But October 28th already has four wide releases - In Time, Anonymous, Johnny English Reborn, and The Rum Diary.  Puss in Boots would have likely won the weekend no matter which of these two weekends it chose to debut on, so the question is, 'why the date change?'.

Chris Nolan to use his extensive capital at Warner Bros to... helm another Twilight Zone Movie? And is Warner missing out by having Nolan go it alone?

First off, the various articles all chiming with SHOCK that Chris Nolan is at the top of Warner Bros' list to helm a new Twilight Zone Movies is pretty funny.  OF COURSE Chris Nolan is on the top of Warner's list for this project.  I'm pretty sure he's on the top of the list for every single project at Warner Bros, including a Sex and the City prequel and whatever variation on Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve they trot out next year (Halloween?  Oh wait...).  Saying that Chris Nolan is the preferred choice to direct anything at Warner Bros. is like saying that the connoisseurs at Ruth Chris would prefer to have a fillet as opposed to chicken or ribs.  He's the studio's most valuable resource, and he has delivered the critical and commercial goods on a shockingly consistent level.  So it stands to reason that he's at the top of the list for any project that Warner deems a high priority.

Thanks to the glory of time travel, enjoy this Real Steel trailer from 1987!

It's a frankly amusing coincidence that there are two remakes (official or not) of 1980s films coming out over the next two weeks; both films remade from originals that featured theme songs by Kenny Loggins.

Scott Mendelson

Because the twist was beside the point... What those who've ripped off The Sixth Sense over the last twelve years have gotten wrong about its finale.

With Dream House opening today, sans press screenings, audiences will get a chance to discover, if they choose, just how much of the film has been spoiled by the trailer.  Early reviews indicate that the movie is both stunningly boring and basically a hodge-podge of classic twist ending cliches.  While it's fashionable to blame The Sixth Sense for the last ten years of last-minute 'gotchas!', the would-be thrillers that have followed in M. Night Shyamalan's footsteps missed a crucial distinction.  The last minute reveal that closes The Sixth Sense isn't really the finale of the film.  It's not a big zinger that the entire movie revolves around.  The movie, at its core, is a human drama about a troubled young boy and his struggling single mother.  With painfully good work by Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette (both of whom damn-well should have won Oscars) and a genuinely sympathetic and thoughtful screenplay by M. Night in his prime, the climactic reveal, and really all of the supernatural material is merely a means to an end.  It is, to paraphrase one of the film's last lines, always second to the heartbreaking human drama.  The movie doesn't climax with the revelation about Bruce Willis's ultimate fate.  It truly climaxes one scene earlier, as mother and son finally open up to each other and reach an understanding that will truly strengthen their relationship.  The emphasis on character over thrills and chills is among a handful of reasons why The Sixth Sense is still a masterpiece and one of the best films of the 1990s.  The scene above, the true finale to The Sixth Sense, is probably the best thing M. Night Shyamalan has ever filmed, and it is one of the main reasons I still haven't given up on him.

Scott Mendelson     

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Fault of Abduction (2011) lie not with the star, but with its script, stunts.

105 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

A good movie can overcome a weak central performance (see - On Her Majesty's Secret Service), just as a sparkling central performance can make a mediocre movie feel like a great one (see - Iron Man).  But a poor story combined with a mediocre lead performance is a pretty toxic combination.  Thus we have Taylor Lautner's Abduction.  I had a token amount of hope for the picture because I like trashy thrillers, even ones that star actors I don't generally care for (see - Shooter).  But the movie is just-plain bad.  It's not bad because Taylor Lautner can't act, although this is surely not a convincing testament to his star power.  It is weak because it fails to excel in the areas that had little to do with whether or not its lead actor was up to the task.  John Singleton is saddled with a weak script and a shocking lack of big-scale action.

Kinda neat: IMAX schedules a week of discounted 'old favorites'.
Since Contagion isn't exactly burning up the IMAX box office and Real Steel still has a week before opening, IMAX is trying something a little different.  For one week, starting tomorrow, various IMAX theaters will be showing a slate of three popular IMAX titles over the last three years.  For just $7 a ticket, you can opt to revisit Star Trek, Inception, and Fast Five on the large-screen format.  Nothing much to add here, but I almost hope this starts an occasional trend.  I'm not sure if my schedule would permit such a thing, but I'd love the opportunity to revisit Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in their IMAX glory before seeing The Dark Knight Rises.  Anyway, click on the link below the big banner ad for tickets and what not, otherwise consider this a plug for what I think is a rather fun and smart idea.  Will you be attending any of next week's bargain rereleases?  What movies would you like the chance to revisit in IMAX, or what older movies would you pay to see reconverted to IMAX (IE - the Lord of the Rings trilogy?).  Share below if so inclined.

Scott Mendelson

Avengers assemble in poorly-photoshopped Entertainment Weekly cover.

It's no great tragedy, but the photo-shopping on display is pretty terrible.  The only real harm is that this poorly constructed and awkward Entertainment Weekly cover will probably count as a 'first look' for a large number of general moviegoers, just the sort that need to be intrigued to get this sure-to-be expensive comic book epic over the $185 million mark that seems to be the ceiling that non-Iron Man Marvel Studios projects seem to be reaching for.  Of course, Tony Stark is in this picture, but it really isn't going to be Iron Man 3 (especially since Thor and Captain America both did well this summer).  Anyway, enjoy Mark Ruffalo giving his best 'blue steel' look.  Derek Zoolander would approve.

Scott Mendelson

Did Sony just kill 3D? Who foots the bill when studios won't pay for 3D glasses?

The Hollywood Reporter uh, reported (sorry) yesterday that Sony Pictures will be the first of the major studios to no longer pay for the 3D glasses in the Real-D format (as opposed to specialized IMAX 3D glasses), but rather demand that exhibitors pay for the $3-4 glasses themselves.  Several studios have apparently been looking into such an arrangement, but Sony struck first blood, in a move that could have devastating consequences for the 3D movie business in America.  The policy is set to go into effect May of next year, just in time for Sony's two big summer films, both live-action 3D franchise pictures.  Men in Black 3D comes out over Memorial Day weekend while The Amazing Spider-Man drops on July 3rd.  While the reality is that the situation won't affect most kinds of 3D (Real-D is just one of several kinds offered in first-run theaters today), the perception could do real damage to the format if the theaters choose to pass down this extra expense to the consumers.  And all-things considered, I can't imagine why they wouldn't.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Begun, these IMAX wars have? Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in IMAX will go head-to-head with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows after all.

In the category of 'here's an interesting idea', Paramount and director Brad Bird announced today that Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (see trailer) will be opening five days early in select IMAX theaters.  So while the film's wide release will stay occur on Wednesday, December 21st, the film will have its IMAX debut on Friday December 16th, 2011.  This is more-or-less a first of its kind.  Paramount did hold sneak previews the day before the wide release of Super 8 which occurred in most of its IMAX locations, but this selective sneak opening basically gives the fourth Mission: Impossible film a pre-release opening weekend of sorts.  Point being, it looks like M:I4 will be going head-to-head against Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (see trailer) after all, as December 16th is the wide-release opening day for the Robert Downey Jr/Jude Law sequel.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Trailer: Katherine Heigl's One For the Money panders to gender stereotypes.

This one dropped a couple days ago, so pardon the tardiness.  Anyway, I know nothing about the Stephanie Plum character or the Janet Evanovich novels that this film is adapted from.  All I can say is that it's a big clearer why Lionsgate moved this film from its original mid-summer 2011 slot to January 27th, 2011.  It's no secret that I'd be all smiles about a female-centric action franchise.  But this looks quite terrible, feeling like a rehash of The Bounty Hunter (of course the novel in question was published in 1994) and, most crucially, refusing to take its premise remotely seriously.  Again, I can't say if this is faithful to the novels, but why must this female-driven action film be burdened by camp and in fact sell the idea that women cannot be convincing action stars?  Before she became a star on Grey's Anatomy, Heigl dabbled in action (macing Everett McGill in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) and sci-fi tinged adventure (she had a supporting role on Roswell).  The basic source of the comedy seems to be "ha ha, look at how incompetent that chick is with traditional action tropes!").  I'm surely giving more thought to this trailer than it deserves, but it really was eye-poppingly bad.

Scott Mendelson     

More thoughts on Drive, in response to Salon's "The Drive backlash: Too violent, too arty or both?" (where I am paraphrased).

I was paraphrased, somewhat disparagingly in an article from Salon last week that dealt with audiences not quite being as on-board with Drive as critics. I was referred to as "champion of the mainstream, audience-pleasing cinema" and held up as one of the few critics who did not like Drive.  This was my response (HERE is my original review), and I thought I'd share it here as well.

I suppose I've earned the 'defender of the mainstream' tag, as I've long felt that it's important to point out when a major studio picture does it right, as much as when an arthouse picture does it wrong. As I've often said, when we write-off The Mummy or Avatar, we deserve Prince of Persia or Tron: Legacy.  Having said that, what I most disliked about Drive were what I felt its bids at mainstream pandering, or at least its ideology that seems more fit for a fourteen-year old boy.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Why Jason Statham can't break out of the B-movie action genre.

For all intents and purposes, Jason Statham has been an action star since 2002, when Fox released the Luc Besson-produced The Transporter.  Yes, more hardened film fans knew him from his Guy Ritchie work and from his supporting role in The One (a Jet Li vehicle from late 2001, the first of three times he would spar with Jet Li onscreen).  But for general moviegoers and action junkies, Statham was introduced as Frank Martin eleven years ago as of October 11th.  In that time, Statham has arguably become the king of an all-but vanished genre.  He is basically the last action hero, the lone movie star known primarily for kicking ass in a non-fantasy and non-period setting.  But nine years is a long time to toil in the underbelly of grind house B-movie cinema.  He's had the occasional high-end picture (The Bank Job), supporting roles in A-level studio thrillers (The Italian Job) and flirtations with the big time (playing the second lead in The Expendables).  But nine years since he literally kicked down the door to stardom, Jason Statham remains pretty much where he started.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Weekend Box Office (09/25/11): Moneyball scores near-record for a baseball pic, comes in second to Lion King 3D anyway.

 Defying even the most optimistic of predictions, The Lion King 3D (HERE for the film's big not-so-fatal flaw) repeated at the top of the box office this weekend.  The shockingly popular 3D-converted re-release dropped just 27% in its second weekend, grossing $21.9 million in what was allegedly the last weekend of its 'limited engagement'.  I cannot imagine Disney not keeping this one in theaters until it plays out naturally, as we could easily be looking at a $100 million domestic total for the refurbished 17-year old cartoon.  The Lion King 3D now has $61.4 million, giving the film a $390 million domestic total.  Once it gets past $67 million, it will surpass the 1997 re-release of The Empire Strikes Back and become the second-biggest re-release of all time, behind the $137 million gross of Star Wars: Special Edition.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A place at the table: Patty Jenkins (Monster) to direct Thor 2. Why it matters.

Variety has apparently confirmed that Marvel Studios is indeed in talks with Patty Jenkins to replace departing Kenneth Branagh in directing Thor 2, which is due for release on July 26th, 2013.  I generally don't comment on news about who is 'in talks' or who is 'on the wish-list', but Patty Jenkins inclusion on this specific wishlist is worth commenting on.  Jenkins is best known for having helmed Monster, which won Charlize Theron a Best Actress Oscar in 2003 for her portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos.  Since that triumph, she has unfortunately been relegated to directing occasional episodes of television, most recently helming the pilot for the AMC series The Killing.  This is a pleasantly out-of-left field choice that plays to Marvel's greatest strength as a studio, picking talented filmmakers who aren't necessarily known for comic book spectacle and/or aren't 'the hip new flavor of the month'.  While much of the coverage will focus on 'YAY, Marvel is possibly hiring the first-ever woman to direct one of its superhero movies!', there are two things worth noting.  First of all, Lexi Aexander, who directed Punisher: War Zone in 2008 (review) is also of the female persuasion.  Second of all, the lack of credits on Jenkins's IMDB page brings up a troubling double-standard.  Had a male, arguably any male, directed a critically-acclaimed and Oscar-winning drama like Monster, they surely would have been on every studio's wishlist for every major project (see Hopper, Tom or Forrester, Marc).  But, Jenkins has barely worked in the last eight years.

Review: Puncture (2011) is low-key, intriguing, half-hearted true-life legal drama.

99 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Adam and Mark Kassen's Puncture, with a screenplay by Chris Lopata and a story by Paul Danziger and Ela Thier, is a rare film based on a true story where one cannot help but wonder if the actual nonfiction version is more interesting than what we see on the screen.  The film details a true story of a suit filed by a young nurse (Vinessa Shaw) who was pricked by an HIV-contaminated needle while on the job.  But the film spends less time on the legal aspects of the case than on the personal life of its lead crusader.  That the film would rather be a character drama than a legal thriller is I suppose admirable, but the legal story is far more interesting than the character melodrama.

A cast photo for Tim Burton's Dark Shadows.

From left to right, we have... Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman; Chloe Moretz as Carolyn Stoddard, Eva Green as Angelique Bouchard, Gulliver McGrath as David Collins, Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters, Johnny Depp as Barnabus Collins, Ray Shirley as Mrs. Johnson, Jackie Earle Haley as Willie Loomis, Jonny Lee Miller as Roger Collins, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard.  

Anyway, it looks pretty sharp, and Depp's make-up certainly looks less weird than the paparazzi photos that made him look like Michael Jackson.  I know nothing of the Dark Shadows television show and would prefer to keep it that way so as to judge this picture as open-mindedly as possible.  It's no secret that I'm not the world's most optimistic Tim Burton fan at the moment, but the horror-fan has never actually dabbled with vampires before, so it would seem that this is something more than a paycheck job.  It is probably too much to hope that Warner Bros. lets this out with an R-rating, but that would certainly be a step in the right direction.  Come what may, the picture will be released on May 12th, 2012 (alas, the second weekend-of-summer death slot), so we'll see.

Scott Mendelson

David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake gets a second trailer.

This is actually over a minute longer than a regulation-sized 2:30 trailer.  At 3:46, it's basically a trimmed down version of the footage that the press saw last week in front of selected press screenings of Straw Dogs or Moneyball.  As such, there isn't much new to add, other than to again remark how visually dynamic the picture looks.  This thing is chock-full of character and narrative exposition, and it's good that Sony now seems unafraid to highlight the somewhat unique title character.  Otherwise, I direct you HERE to read my thoughts on the eight-minute preview from last week.

Scott Mendelson

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Moneyball (2011) is a light, intelligent baseball drama that doesn't over-inflate its importance or historical significance.

133 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

The greatest strength of Moneyball is arguably also its greatest weakness, at least in terms of mainstream appeal and would-be Oscar love.  It is a film adaptation of the Michael Lewis book which chronicles how Oakland A's manager Billy Beane (played in a near-flawless movie star turn by Brad Pitt) used Peter Brand's (Jonah Hill) groundbreaking statistical analysis to build a winning team out of low-cost players that were considered borderline useless by the bigger and richer teams.  That's the movie in a nutshell.  What is most refreshing about the picture is that it simply accepts that it is a small drama about one baseball team and how they achieved one successful season back in 2002. Moneyball is, give or take a few needless detours into Beane's family life, primarily about the game of baseball.  It's about how two people changed how the game was played by trying a different strategy that would allow poorer teams to compete against the likes of the New York Yankees.  If you are a fan of the game, a fan of statistical analysis, and/or a Brad Pitt fan, you'll more than get your money's worth. But the film makes little effort to appease casual viewers or those who don't already have an interest in its subject matter.  Like Gettysburg or Miracle, it is a procedural drama about its specific subject matter.  If you don't like baseball, then what you are even doing reading this review?   

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: Alas, Kevin Smith's Red State (2011) is an artistic mess and a social/political failure.

Red State
88 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

There is something almost heartbreaking about seeing a popular filmmaker finally getting the chance to make his or her passion project, only to watch said film turn out to be an utter wreck and completely irrelevant both to cinema and to the subject matter that it attempts to discuss.  Such is Kevin Smith's Red State.  It is a failure on nearly every level and counter-intuitive to the ideas it seemingly wants to express.  Despite a cast of fine actors young and old, the film is a structural mess and resembles nothing less than the kind of bargain-basement direct-to-DVD thrillers that have littered the Netflix queues and Blockbuster shelves over the last ten years.  Whether or not this is Kevin Smith's worst film is beside the point (I have only seen about half of his films).  What matters is that Red State was his chance to put all of his cards on the table, to make a grand statement about a subject close to his heart.  Yet with a cast of his choosing and apparently no limitations beyond budget, Smith has failed artistically and ideologically. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Weekend Box Office (09/18/11): What the massive opening of The Lion King 3D really means for 3D and the popularity of the theatrical experience.

In a slightly shocking result that has several notable meanings, Disney's 3D-converted re-release of The Lion King (essay) cruised into the number one spot over the weekend with a mighty $30.1 million.  Acting as both a two-week advertisement for the October 4th Blu Ray release and a test run for possibly reviving the old 'out of the vault and back into theaters' strategy of old, the film didn't just top the box office but very nearly set a record for the Mouse House.  In the realm of Disney cartoons that are NOT Pixar releases, The Lion King 3D is actually fifth on the opening weekend list, behind Tarzan ($34 million), Chicken Little ($40 million), The Lion King ($40.8 million), and Tangled ($48 million).  It is the fifth-biggest September opening in history and came within $600,000 of besting the $30.7 million domestic gross of Disney's Toy Story/Toy Story 2 double-feature 3D re-release October, 2009.  That re-release, which was both an advertisement for the Toy Story/Toy Story 2 Blu Ray releases as well as the upcoming Toy Story 3, opened with $12.4 million despite Disney offering two shows for the price of one (IE - half the show times in a given day).  So simply taking the Toy Story 3D opening weekend and doubling it gives you around $25 million, meaning that this weekend's result was not quite as unexpected as its being reported.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review: Drive (2011) isn't 'cool', but rather just an art-house, navel-gazing version of any direct-to-DVD action picture.

100 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

There is an old Robert Rodriguez interview where he comments about how shocked he was by the positive reviews that greeted the release of El Mariachi.  He hinted at certain biases that critics have toward films that are supposed to automatically be 'better' than the rest.  To paraphrase, Rodriguez thought he was making an exploitation film, but because it was a foreign movie with subtitles, critics found all kinds of symbolism that wasn't really there.  Nicolas Winding Refn directs the hell out of Drive, itself based on a novel by James Sallis.  But the visual poetry is in service of a painfully contrived and hilariously generic narrative, and even said 'coolness' is so overwrought that it eventually turns into self-parody and becomes as boring as the story being told.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Blu Ray Review: Star Wars - The Complete Saga (2011)

This will not be an exhaustive breakdown of the set, as I do not have the time to watch and critique each bonus feature.  But I will offer a few words for those who are inexplicably on the fence about the set.  Point being, I'm guessing you've either already ordered or purchased this, or have decided for whatever reason (not the original versions, already like the DVDs, etc) not the pick up this HD upgrade.  Anyway, all six films look varying degrees of spectacular.  I'd argue that the prequels look shinier and what-not, while the original trilogy looks more impressive in relation to its age and relative production value.  There has been talk that The Phantom Menace looks lousier than the others, but I had no real objections as I scanned to a few highlights (Duel of the Red Shirts looks super).  As you all know, my sound system is whatever my Samsung DLP TV offers, so I can only say that the audio sounded fine, with a clear distinction between dialogue, the score, and various sound effects with a generally even volume level at all times (offhand, the big screw-up with the music during the 'Battle of Yavin' has been fixed).

The eternal problem with The Lion King: "Where's the middle?"

As most of you know, Disney is re-releasing The Lion King in 2,330 3D theaters this weekend as a two-week advertisement for the upcoming Blu Ray release.  So weak is the current crop of openers (financially, not artistically), that there is a good chance that the re-release of this 17.25 year old movie could top the weekend box office yet again.  Anyway, I come not to discuss what that means for the industry, or for the new-found trend of re-releasing old movies retrofitted with 3D, but merely to point out the big problem that I've always had with the film.  It's still pretty great overall (I watched it just under two years ago), with dynamite animation, a sober and moving story, plus terrific vocal work from what was arguably the first major animated film filled with an all-star cast of human actors.  Yes, the film's success basically caused the current trend of filling up animated features not with professional voice-over actors but with whatever A-list or B-list celebrity you can get to say yes, but I digress.  I do have few qualms here and there.  Simba's primary moral dilemma is based on a falsehood, Simba only defeats Scar because the villain stupidly confesses his sin just before his ultimate triumph, and the romantic subplot is a waste of time and space.  But overall, the film still kills as an emotional journey and a towering achievement of the 1984-1994 Disney Renaissance period.  Jeremy Irons probably should have gotten an Oscar nomination, and the Hans Zimmer score may be the best in Disney history save Alan Menkin's Hunchback of Notre Dame score.  But what I'm describing is the film's first and third acts.  What about the second act?  Well, it doesn't have one.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Trailer: The Muppets spoof Girl With the Dragon Tattoo teaser in a bit that is actually better than the original.

This is easily the funniest and cleverest of the ongoing trailer parodies for this Thanksgiving's The Muppets.  Come what may, these things better be on the eventual Blu Ray.  No explanation necessary, just enjoy.

Scott Mendelson

Review: Straw Dogs (2011) unneeded, but effective as a B-movie thriller.

Straw Dogs
110 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

If not for the fact that it were a remake of a beloved 1971 Sam Peckinpah film, Rod Lurie's Straw Dogs would be a prime example of what we claim we want in our popcorn entertainment.  It is, quite simply, an old-fashioned star-driven thriller with an emphasis on character and relationships.  It stars adults, concerns adults, and deals with explicitly adult subject matter.  That it doesn't quite work as a piece of social commentary is merely a strike against it, but the picture remains intelligent and tense throughout.  I suppose we can discuss the irony of something that was quite controversial back in 1971 being rather run-of-the-mill today.  To paraphrase The Tower of Power, what's hip yesterday, will today become passé.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part I gets a trailer.

There isn't much to add here.  Once again I am intrigued at how much these trailers seem to be treating the seemingly sought-after finale (Edward and Bella get married) as a genuine tragedy, with the resulting pregnancy-of-doom as some kind of punishment.  As it is, each installment looks and feels more cinematic and polished than the last and this Bill Condon installment is no exception.  I enjoy these pictures more or less as guilty pleasures, relishing the time spent with the supporting cast as opposed to the three main romantic leads.  Of course, even many a fan kinda hated the final book of the series, so it will be interesting to see if said literary failure has any effect on the box office for the last two installments.  Come what may, the second-highest three-day weekend of 2011 is all-but guaranteed.  Breaking Dawn part I drops on November 18th.  As always, we'll see...

Scott Mendelson

An oft-told tale: Why Point Break is this era's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The film world rolled their eyes in collective disgust yesterday after it was announced that Warner Bros. was financing and/or distributing a remake of Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break.  That 1991 cult-favorite of course starred Keanu Reeves as FBI Agent Johnny Utah, who goes undercover as a surfer to catch a gang of bank robbers, led by Patrick Swayze, who pull heists to finance their endless summer.  The film is cheesy to the point of being high opera, but I always admired how straight-faced it was, and how seriously it took its violence.  The picture takes awhile to achieve a body count, but when it does, its jolting.  In this film, the loss of any life, be it an innocent bank guard or one of the robbers, was tragic and cause for mourning.  And the finale was refreshingly grim, acknowledging that a violent crime story doesn't have a happy ending just because the bad guys all died.

So desperate for water that I'll drink the sand: Why I still want to see Abduction.

As a film critic, I'm not supposed to want to see this one.  I'm supposed to recoil in horror and the genuinely bad acting on display in the two trailers from lead Taylor Lautner.  I'm supposed to roll my eyes at the apparent cynicism that comes with giving this untested (as in 'open it yourself') actor several action franchises on the strength of a supporting role in a popular series.  After all, I've complained about the same circumstances in regards to Jeremy Renner.  But come what may, the film itself looks like a glorious throwback to the trashy, borderline exploitative cheese ball action thrillers that went away at the beginning of the last decade.  And I do miss this stuff with a passion.  If someone other than Lautner were in the lead (or if the previews made it apparent that Lautner gave a better performance), I'd be rather jazzed to see it.  Without a lead actor I can endorse, it's still probably going to be worth seeing.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: Contagion (2011) stumbles by giving us Cliff Notes to much grander story.

105 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

The 106-minute cut of Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is a generally engaging and always intelligent film.  It is clearly Soderbergh's attempt to play around in the Irwin Allen disaster genre in a style that befits the director's more buttoned-down and vérité style.  But like Traffic before it, this would-be epic feels like the abridged version of a much longer film.  Traffic was supposed to be an all-encompassing look at the futility of America's Drug War and the damage that it causes at home and abroad, but it played out like as a choppy, unfocused, 'highlights-only' variation of the British mini-series from which it was based.  Contagion, which is not based on any prior source but rather an original Scott Z. Burns screenplay, has the same problem, even more so because it is nearly an hour shorter than Traffic.  Contagion is more successful in imposing its viewpoint on the audience, and it's arguably a better film, but I still can't help but wonder how much more effective the 150-minute version of Contagion would have been.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Weekend Box Office (09/11/11): Contagion easily tops, Warrior tragically fumbles, Creature hilariously tanks.

It was good news/bad news at the box office this weekend.  Two critically-acclaimed adult entries squared off and only only came out shining.  The winner for the weekend was Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (review), grossing $22.4 million from 3,222 screens.  The all-star pandemic thriller fits squarely into the realm of Soderbergh's 'commercial ventures'.  With the exception of Erin Brockovich (which was a Julia Roberts vehicle), Soderbergh alternates between artier and sometimes experimental fare of varying quality (Bubble, The Limey, King of the Hill - good!  The Girlfriend Experience, The Good German, Full Frontal - bad!) and all-star genre entries that are inherently populist and commercial even with their occasional artier sensibilities (Ocean's 11, Traffic, Out of Sight, etc).  But even his commercial ventures are generally aimed at adults with adult sensibilities, so the solid opening weekend is to be celebrated.  The well-reviewed film played mostly to the over-25 set, which means it has a chance at solid legs as the younger kids check it out over the next month. It earned a B- from Cinemascore, which is probably owed to the fact that it's genuinely unnerving in its plausibility (audiences claim to love horror but don't like to be actually disturbed or frightened) and artier than its trailer lets on. I haven't seen it yet as my son had a contagious infection over the weekend.  We considered taking him on Friday afternoon and hoping he would cough in all the right places for maximum comedy, but we thought better of it (we saw it Sunday evening instead).

Friday, September 9, 2011

For those who care - Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part I gets 'final' posters.

I'm a little busy today, so I'm using this 'straight from the horses' mouth' press release worth of posters as a lazy attempt to drum up hits.  Anyway, enjoy and I'll hopefully have something more substantial later in the weekend.

Scott Mendelson

Thursday, September 8, 2011

2011 Summer Movie Review part III: General thoughts and lessons learned.

 This will not be a blow-by-blow of Summer 2011 but more like free association regarding the just-ended summer.  First and foremost, summer 2011 was a terrific success for two reasons.  A) Most of the movies were pretty good.  B) The most obscenely crowded summer season in recent history, one that I wondered aloud would doom the industry, did not in fact crash and burn.  Most of the movies, thanks to record overseas grosses, made at least as much as they needed to in order to break even or make a tidy profit.  Up until the very end of August, there were actually very few out-and-out flops.  The biggest whiffs of the summer are arguably Green Lantern, Cowboys and Aliens, and Conan the Barbarian.  And all three films would have been mere disappointments had they not cost so much.  Green Lantern was a $200 million picture that looked like it cost maybe $100 million.  Cowboys and Aliens was a $165 million film that looked like it cost only a bit more than True Grit ($40 million).  And Conan the Barbarian... well, I haven't seen that one yet.  But I cannot imagine why Lionsgate (or whomever funded the picture) thought there was enough of a yearning for the return of Conan to justify $90 million.  The lesson  this summer is the same one it is every summer: it's the movies, stupid, and those movies shouldn't cost more than they are worth.

UPDATED - Just for fun: How does The Hangover franchise compare with other R-rated sagas?

UPDATED with end-of summer numbers.  I mentioned last week that The Hangover series, with just two movies under its belt, is just under $100 million away from becoming the biggest R-rated franchise of all time in domestic grosses.  In case anyone wants a comparison, here is a list, best I could accumulate... An asterix (*) means that one of the titles in the series in question squeaked by with a PG-13.  Obviously, to be counted, the series has to be predominantly R-rated, so Police Academy does not count despite its initial installment indeed being rated R.  And you have to have at least one sequel, so The Passion of the Christ ($371 million all by itself) does not count either, but I will include remakes and reboots into the respective horror franchises where applicable.  And yes, for those who care, I have also included the list of said franchises with 'adjusted-for-inflation' grosses.  Enjoy...

Scott Mendelson

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Two films for the price of one! How DVDs ruined the theatrical documentary.

I hesitated before watching Knives Over Forks on Netflix Instant yesterday.  I had an interest in the picture, and the DVD was in my Blockbuster quque, so there was seemingly no reason for me not to just watch it right from my Netflix streaming system, right?  Well, first I had to go online and look up the reviews for the Blu Ray.  Specifically, I needed to check what kind of supplemental materials were on the disc.  To my relief, there was only about six minutes of PSA-type material to be found, so I watched the movie yesterday (quick review - the information is worthwhile, but it's a terribly amateurish documentary with few real insights beyond its broad thesis).  I have discussed before the problem of films coming out on DVD 3-5 months after theatrical with significantly altered or extended 'director's cuts' and how that negates the whole purpose of seeing a film in a theater.  Documentaries are a different story.  When you watch a documentary in theaters, you get the final film.  But when you rent a documentary on DVD, there is a good chance that you'll actually get two films for the price of one, with enough extra material in the form of deleted scenes and unedited interviews to constitute a second look at the same subject.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Go big or go home. Why, in an era when mainstream films are stuck in limited release, the relative successes of The Debt and Our Idiot Brother matter.

Normally I would not spend a column championing a small $5 million comedy that is on track to gross over $30 million as anything other than a 'gee, I like when that happens'.  And while there are many reasons to praise the $14 million six-day opening of The Debt, the most surprising thing about it is that Focus Features debuted the film wide enough to achieve that kind of opening in the first place.  In a movie-going world where any number of seemingly mainstream pictures die in the art-house, peaking at 500 screens and unable to capitalize on mainstream buzz or word of mouth, kudos to the Weinstein Company and Focus Features for just opening these movies the old fashioned way.  They may have sensibilities that differ from the most popular versions of their respective genre.  Our Idiot Brother is (allegedly) a bit more painful and quirky than a Judd Apatow film, while The Debt is closer to John le Carré than Jason Bourne.  But they are both damn-well mainstream entertainments, and both films will be quite profitable because their respective studios treated them as such.  

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Weekend Box Office (09/04/11): Adult films trash the cheap exploitation fare and dominate Labor Day weekend, as The Help and The Debt defeat Shark Night and Apollo 18.

Summer must be over, as grownups as seemingly returning to the marketplace.  In what was always going to be a light moviegoing holiday weekend, the low-key adult thriller (on 1,826 screens) defeated the more heavily advertised and wider-playing genre entries.  First of all, The Help once again topped the box office for the third weekend in a row ($19 million for its four-day holiday weekend, with a $14.6 million Fri-Sun total, actually rising 0.5% from last weekend).  I'm not sure what the record is for the most consecutive weekends at number one for a movie that did not debut in first place, but the crowd-pleasing period drama has to be high on the would-be list.  With $123 million in a month, the film now sits as the eighth-highest grossing drama of all-time released in the summer, a list that becomes even shorter when you discount war-themed action pictures (Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor, Gladiator).  It is still outpacing Bridesmaids by a significant margin ($106 million after four weekends) and could very well flirt with $180 million if it can hold onto screens and fend off adult-skewing pictures (Warrior, Contagion, Moneyball) in the next month.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: Warrior (2011) takes well-worn sports-film tropes, adds engrossing drama, fine acting, terrific dialogue, and an uncommon intelligence.

139 minutes
rated PG-13

I cannot count how many times I have watched a sports-related drama and thought to myself "How much better would this movie be if the main opponent wasn't a two-dimensional villain?".  Whether adult-aimed Oscar bait (Cinderella Man) or family-friendly faith-based dramas (Soul Surfer), any number of underdog sports movies have dramatically shot themselves in the foot by feeling the need to make the opponent into a vicious, selfish, and occasionally murderous antagonist who 'must be taken down'.  There are exceptions (Akeelah and the Bee, Miracle), but the majority of sports films feel the need to pander to the audiences' baser instincts by not just making the big game about the triumph of our hero, but about the defeat of a genuine villain.  Writer/director Gavin O'Conner (who directed the aforementioned Miracle) finds a neat way out of this contrived set-up, and I'm a little shocked that no one thought of it before.  Instead of focusing on one underdog who must triumph in an athletic event, Warrior focuses on two would-be athletic opponents, giving them both equally valid reasons to want to succeed and refusing to give either of them the moral advantage.  This is just one of a handful of thoughtful choices that O'Conner makes in shaping Warrior into a top-notch entry in its respective genre and an all-around fine character drama.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Review: Bunraku (2011) is visually stylish, exciting, substance-free action picture

124 minutes
rated R
In theaters September 30th.  Available On Demand September 1st.

by Scott Mendelson

There is a certain danger to any movie that spends the first five minutes explicitly explaining why the picture looks and sounds as it does.  In this case, we have to understand why the world of Bunraku looks like a hybrid between the 1960s Batman TV show and a blood-drenched martial arts drama.  The film is certainly a case of style over substance, and the utter lack of substance may be fatal for some viewers.  But the picture boasts a unique visual palatte and some interesting ideas.  It also boasts at least two wonderful action sequences, creative in their design and accomplished in their execution, that makes the film almost worth watching.  Bunraku is not quite a good film, but it is surely a bad one worth watching for those who know what they are getting into.


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