Wednesday, October 3, 2012

It's Frankenweenie versus Taken 2 as John Gosling previews the week's new releases (10-05-12)

Along with Tim Burton's Frankweenie and the return of Liam Neeson in Taken 2, last weekend's surprise chart entry, Pitch Perfect expands into wide release. Frankenweenie's origins stretch right back to 1984, when Tim Burton worked at Disney. The young director got his first break thanks to a short film he made while at college, entitled Stalk of the Celery Monster. The short drew Disney's attention, who offered him an animation apprenticeship, where he would work on The Black Cauldron and The Fox and The Hound, amongst others. In 1982, he made his first stop-motion short for Disney, an ode to his childhood hero, Vincent Price. 'Vincent' played the Chicago film festival and was followed up by the director's first foray into live action in the guise of Hansel and Gretel. Burton gave the Grimm fairy-tale a Japanese spin, culminating with the titular heroes in a kung fu battle against the evil witch. The film aired just once and prints have since become so scarce that for a number of years many thought the project was a myth. By 1984, the young director/animator was ready for his next live action short, a tale of a boy whose dog is killed by a car and his attempts to bring it back to life. A homage to Frankenstein, Frankenweenie ended up getting Burton fired from his job at Disney, who felt he had squandered time and money on a film that was too scary for children (It had been set to debut with the re-release of Pinocchio).  

Curiously, it would be Frankenweenie that got the director his big break in Hollywood when Paul Reubens (AKA Pee-Wee Herman) saw the short and decided that Burton was just the man to direct Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The rest, as they say, is history.  The idea to expand Frankenweenie into feature length began to take shape in 2005, when scripts by Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon were turned in. A year later, screenwriter John August (who has worked with Burton on a number of occasions) was approached to rewrite but wouldn't officially join the project until 2009, when Frankenweenie was announced as part of a two-picture Disney Digital deal (the other film being Alice in Wonderland). Instead of live action, the feature would utilize stop-frame animation, and also be shot in black and white. Burton is no stranger to stop-frame work, not only from his earlier shorts but from producing Henry Selick's Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. He went one step further in 2005, when he directed the stop-motion flick, Corpse Bride. Indeed, many of the Corpse Bride team would return for Frankenweenie, which began production in July 2010. '

The crew built three large sets, which were then divided into a number of sections to enable multiple scenes to be worked on at the same time. Such was the complexity of the production, especially the character of Sparky the dog, that the model makers had to employ watchmakers to create some of the tiniest components. The picture would follow a similar plot to the original short - a young boy named Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is distraught when his dog Sparky is killed and sets about bringing him back to life using the power of science.  However, success brings a new set of problems when the dog escapes and accidentally causes trouble all over town. Alongside Tahan, the director cast Winona Ryder and Catherine O'Hara, two actors whom he had worked with on Beetlejuice, along with Martin Short and Martin Landau (who won an Oscar on Burton's Ed Wood). Originally Frankenweenie was set to open in November 2011 but was moved back to March 2012. It would receive one further release date change, to October 2012, Disney slotting John Carter into the vacant March slot left by the move. Early word on the movie is said to be very strong, with many citing it as a real return to form for Tim Burton. This is the third spooky-fantasy film in as many months, ParaNorman opening in August and Hotel Transylvania just last week, setting a new September record. Will there be enough interest in one more? 

Taken became a domestic sleeper hit when it was released back in late January 2009. Starring Liam Neeson, the Luc Besson/Robert Mark Kamen penned tale saw an ex-CIA agent attempting to track down the people who have kidnapped his daughter while she holidayed in Paris. Working against the clock, Neeson's Bryan Mills is willing to use his 'particular set of skills' (which runs to coercion, torture and murder) to rescue his daughter (Maggie Grace) before she is sold into sex slavery. Produced for just $25M, Taken became a smash hit overseas, making over $80M on the back of very little hype. It would be almost a year after Takenhad made its French debut that  the film would land in North America. By that point word of mouth was white hot. Hoping to maximize the situation, Fox re-edited the film to secure a lower certificate, opening the picture up to a much bigger potential market. The plan worked, with Taken opening to a then-record breaking $24M over Superbowl weekend. From that point it continued to impressive, dropping just 17% and 8% in weekend two and three (something that is practically unheard of for a release seeing no major expansion). 

By the time Taken had left theaters in July, it had made $145M, bringing its global total to an astounding $226M - and all against that $25M budget. It performed well on the home market too, selling in excess of 4.4 million DVDs up to March 2011. Furthermore, it introduced Neeson to a whole new action-fan base, something he has capitalized on since with roles in UnknownThe A-Team and The Grey. A sequel was obviously a no-brainer but ended up taking some time to pull together due in part to Neeson's busy schedule (he has featured, in one capacity or another, in fifteen films since the release of the first Taken) and at one point it looked as if the actor would not return at all. Schedules were finally smoothed out and Neeson officially joined the sequel in March 2011. Someone who wouldn't be returning was director Pierre Morel, who at that point was knee-deep in pre-production on Dune (since abandoned). Instead, Transporter 3/Columbiana helmer Olivier Megaton would be on directing duty, with Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen again providing the story. 

This time around, Bryan Mills is in Turkey on business when he gets a surprise visit from his daughter Kim and ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen). Unbeknownst to Mills, the father of one of the men he killed in the original film has sworn revenge, and puts in place a plot to kidnap Mills and his family. Cornered, Bryan manages to get word to Kim to find safety, before setting off to track down the now kidnapped Lenore, ready to take on anyone who gets in his way. Filming took place earlier this year, with an October release date set. The first (of many) trailers debuted in June. With such success in North America, Fox sought a PG-13 (or equivalent) for Taken 2's global roll out, hoping to maximize the potential audience. While this makes sense business-wise, more than a few reviews have highlighted the film's choppy editing as a result of removing violent footage and sound effects. Whether this gamble brings in more business remains to be seen, but Taken 2 is already getting a rough ride from critics, unlike the original, which had a 58% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The action flick also faces competition from last weekend's sci-fi hit Looper, along with the upcoming Argo, Seven Psychopaths and Sinister. On a hugely increased budget (said to be $80M), Neeson and Taken 2 have got their work cut out.

Out in limited release this frame is Butter, a long delayed comedy from director Jim Field Smith whose previous film was the Jay Baruchel comedy, She's Out Of My League. Butter is set in Iowa and is the story of a young girl named Destiny, who has a particular talent for butter sculpting. Her skills pit her against the wife of the reigning champion (played by Jennifer Garner and Ty Burrell respectively). The picture also features Hugh Jackman, Alicia Silverstone and Oliva Wilde. While on the surface the film is about butter carving, it's actually meant to be a metaphor for the 2008 Barrack Obama/Hilary Clinton Iowa Caucus. The script actually featured on the 2008 Black List - a round up of the best unproduced screenplays in that year, and shot sometime during 2010. Despite having debuted at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, with further appearances at numerous U.S film festivals through October and November, the picture sat without a release date for a number of months. Eventually, the 5th October 2012 was settled on, with Butter due to open at around 75 locations. It will also make its North American VOD debut on the same day.

Our final release this weekend is The Paperboy, a movie adapted from the Pete Dexter book of the same name. It's directed by Lee Daniels, who was Oscar nominated for his work on the 2008 picture, Precious.The Paperboy follows the sultry Charlotte Bless, played by Nicole Kidman, as she attempts to get the death penalty sentence against her boyfriend Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack) overturned due to inconsistencies and a lack of evidence. She hires brother reporters Jack and Ward Jenssen (Matthew McConaughey, Zac Ephron) to investigate the event but thanks in part to Bless' overt sexuality and the need for the brothers to make a name for themselves, the situation quickly gets out of hand. An adaptation has been in the works for the past ten years, with author Dexter working alongside  Pedro Almodovar. While the Spanish director ultimately handed the reigns to Daniels, he still retains a producer credit. The film debuted at Cannes to mixed opinion, though many were quick to highlight Kidman's outstanding turn. The Paperboy opens at a handful of theaters this weekend.

John Gosling


ACOD said...

Last week after seeing Judge Dredd, I was shocked to see Oct 5th at the bottom of the Taken 2 poster. There has been zero buzz or build up to the picture. I remember being bombarded by the trailer for the first Taken for weeks up until release during every NFL game. The first played like gangbusters, this should be a lay up.
My guess is that the inspiration for a second film never materialized and the whole thing just turned out too obligatory and now the powers that be are trying to save money by not throwing good money after bad at this project.

I couldn't be less interested in Frankenweenie.

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