Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Red Dawn, Rise of the Guardians or Life of Pi? John Gosling previews the Thanksgiving weekend's new releases.

Red Dawn is a remake of the controversial 1984 film of the same name, which was written and directed by John Millius. Made as the threat of nuclear war was prevalent, it saw Russia and its allies invading America, with the picture focusing on a small town and a group of high school kids turned resistance fighters. Apart from its notoriety in 1984, it also became the first picture to receive a PG-13 rating and was deemed the most violent film ever made by the Guinness Book of Records, with a total of 134 acts of violence committed in its run time. Thought to be unsettling (and all too possible) at the time, it has since become something of a cult classic. At the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, MGM announced plans to remake the movie and set stunt co-ordinator and second unit director Dan Bradley to helm. The idea was to shoot the film in 2009 with a view to release in November 2010. For the lead role of Jed Eckert, Bradley cast the relatively unknown (at that point) Chris Hemsworth, based on footage he had seen of his work in Cabin in the Woods (another MGM flick). Josh Peck, signed on to play Jed's brother Matt, and was joined by Josh Hutcherson, (who has since gone on to star in The Hunger Games) and Friday Night Lights alumni Adrianne Palicki. Kurt Russell was said to be up for playing the role of downed-pilot Lt. Col Tanner, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan would ultimately take on the job. The plot would follow that of the original quite closely, but substitute an invading Russian army for a Chinese one - something that  would become the cause of much criticism during the film's production. Shooting took place as planned in late 2009 and photos of Chinese propaganda posters from the set soon showed up online. Apart from the 'enemy' controversy, filming went smoothly and everything started to come together for the 2010 release date.

However, MGM's financial problems (which would also affect Cabin in the Woods and production on the 23rd James Bond film) resulted in Red Dawn's release being shelved for the foreseeable future. When the studio emerged from Chapter 11 restructuring in January 2011, it released the first official cast still and stated that the picture would make its debut within the year. In March 2011, the studio announced that they would be altering the film's antagonists to North Korean, a move seen by some as a way to avoid losing out on access to the now huge Chinese cinema-going market. Changes, which are said to have cost just under a million dollars, included a new opening sequence detailing the current state of the world, along with the digital altering of Chinese words and motifs to those of North Korea. MGM wouldn't set a release date for Red Dawn until September 2011, when they announced a deal with Film District which would see the picture out in November 2012 (in a similar deal, Lionsgate agreed to release Cabin in the Woods in April 2012). The first and only trailer debuted in August of this year, and has since been supported by clips and featurettes. Red Dawn received its premiere at the Alamo Draft House, as part of Fantastic Fest, to mainly mixed reviews. Given the time since the release of the original, the remake is unlikely to benefit from much built-in audience recognition and also faces competition from Skyfall, Breaking Dawn and Life of Pi this weekend. However, since its production, Chris Hemsworth has become a major star thanks to his turn in Thor and The Avengers (along with a role in Snow White & The Huntsman), something which will help raise the picture's profile. Red Dawn opens on Wednesday at 2,600 theatres.

Life of Pi is based on the award winning book by Yann Martel, first published in 2001. The plot follows the fourteen year old Pi, who winds up stranded on a life boat with a Bengal tiger when the ship on which he was travelling, sinks. The book was rejected a number of times before Martel secured a publishing deal. It went on to become a best seller and won, among many other awards, the Man Booker Prize in 2002. Life of Pi has had a long and bumpy journey to the screen. In 2003, Fox 2000's Elizabeth Gabler secured the rights to produce a film based on the book and set Dean Georgaris to write the screenplay. By October 2004, a deal had been brokered with director M.Night Shyamalan, who would also rewrite Georgaris' screenplay once work on The Village was complete. However, despite working on the project for some time, he opted to write and direct Lady in the Water instead. Fox then entered into talks with Alfonso Cuarón, but the Mexican director decided instead to take on Children of Men. Gabler kept the project alive and by October 2005 had hired Amélie helmer Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Like Shyamalan, Jeunet would write his own version of the screenplay with Guillaume Laurant. Things seemed to be moving forward and a summer 2006 start date was penciled in, but concerns over the budget (something which would return to haunt the project later) caused Jeunet to exit the project.

In early 2009, word emerged that Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee was in talks with Fox 2000 to direct an adaptation of Life of Pi. Just as things seemed to be moving forward again, the studio balked at Lee's proposed $70M production budget, and the project stalled for a time while a compromise could be found. Things eventually did get back on track and while Lee searched for an actor to play Pi, David Magee, who wrote Finding Neverland, began work on what would be yet another version of the screenplay. Out of the 3,000 potential actors he auditioned, Lee chose newcomer Suraj Sharma, who would make his debut on the film. Shooting on Life of Pi finally commenced in January 2011, counting India, Taiwan and Canada among its locations. The director also opted to shoot in 3D for the first time in his career. The first footage was unveiled as part of a presentation given by Fox in April 2012, and wowed everyone who saw it with its staggering visuals and sensational creature FX work, not to mention its impressive use of 3D. The general public got to see what all the fuss was about in July with the release of the first trailer - which lived up to the hype. The studio had originally set Life of Pi as a December release but when The Hobbit moved into the same slot, they chose to bring the film forward to Thanksgiving. The picture isn't an easy sell, and can't rely on the success of the book to the same degree as something like Twilight or Lord of the Rings. On its side are those sumptuous 3D visuals (which Avatar director James Cameron has praised in the last couple of days) and the fact that initial notices are incredibly strong, with award recognition already being hinted at. With the budget now rumored to be closer to $100M, Director Lee and Fox 2000 will be hoping the public take an adventure with a boy and a tiger this Thanksgiving.

The family-aimed release this week is the Dreamworks Animation picture, Rise of the Guardians. The film is based on the William Joyce series of books, The Guardians of Childhood, and features such characters as the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Joyce has a background in children's books, having written over fifty. Not only that, but he has also had a hand in film and TV work too, including as a conceptual artist on Toy Story and A Bug's Life, as well as writing Meet The Robinsons and the 2013 release Epic. If that wasn't enough, he won an Oscar this year for his animated short "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore". Work on a Guardians film began in 2005 when Joyce announced a joint project with Reel FX to produce a series of animated features, one of which would be based around the Guardians of Childhood books. Sadly this didn't come to fruition, but the deal did bring about the animated short, The Man in the Moon, which introduced the Guardians concept and would serve as a starting point for the eventual film. In 2008, Dreamworks secured the rights to produce a picture based on the books, and to ensure they kept the integrity and vision of the characters, they hired Joyce to co-direct with Peter Ramsey. Pulitzer prize winning writer David Lindsay-Abaire was hired to script what was at that point entitled The Guardians. Work progressed steadily for a couple of years but Joyce left his co-directing role after the death of his daughter (who was directly responsible for the creation of the stories in the first place when she asked her father if he thought "Santa had ever met the Easter bunny"). He would stay on board as executive producer, alongside  Guillermo del Toro, whom Dreamworks had hired at the project's inception to help shape the story and its structure, along with character designs.

Despite being adapted in part from the book series, the film itself is set 200 years after they take place. Joyce stated this decision was made so that people would not compare the movie to the books, and to also give a sense of surprise to those who were familiar with the source material. By early 2011, the title had been changed to Rise of the Guardians, and the studio took this opportunity to announce the voice cast involved, which included Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Hugh Jackman and Isla Fisher. The plot would see Jack Frost (Pine) enlisted to help the Guardians (Baldwin's Santa Claus, Jackman's Easter Bunny, Fisher's Tooth Fairy and a voiceless Sandman) when Pitch the Nightmare King(voiced by Jude Law) threatens to engulf the world in darkness. The first trailer for Rise of the Guardians debuted in March 2012 and has been followed up by further trailers and individual shorts for each of the characters. Dreamworks had originally set the film for release early November, but moved the film to Thanksgiving to avoid Monsters University (which itself had moved to avoid Twilight: Breaking Dawn). In the end, the Pixar's sequel was pushed to June 2013 and Wreck-It Ralph slotted into the November 2nd spot. The picture's main competition this week will be the aforementioned videogame themed Wreck-It Ralph, but there's no reason why the market won't support them both, more so given that Ralph is now looking towards its fourth weekend on release. Rise of the Guardians is the widest opening of all the new movies this Thanksgiving.

Out in limited release this weekend is the biopic Hitchcock, which is directed by Sacha Gervasi and based on the book  Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello. Development on the project began in 2005, when TV network A&E secured the rights to Rebello's book with the idea of producing a mini-series based around it. In 2007, the book was optioned as the basis for a movie by Ivan Reitman and Tom Pollock, with a view to produce through their Montecito Picture Company. The duo set up the project at Paramount, but after four years in development, it was moved to Fox Searchlight (The Montecito Picture Company remained on board as producer). John J. McLaughlin began work on the screenplay, with further passes done by the book's author Stephen Rebello, with a view to concentrate the story further on Hitchcock's relationship, both personal and professional, with his wife, Alma, during the making of Psycho. In November 2011, Sacha Gervasi, who made his directorial debut with the documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil, was announced as director and casting quickly got underway. 

By December, Gervasi had secured Anthony Hopkins for the role of the legendary director, with Helen Mirren set to play his wife, Alma Reville. Further casting was announced in March, with Scarlett Johansson and James D'arcy taking on the guise of Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins respectively. In addition, Jennifer Biel would play Vera Miles, who worked with Hitchcock on a number of occasions, and Toni Collette as Peggy Robertson, the director's trusted assistant. Shooting got underway in April of this year and was completed by the end of May. With no release date set, it came as something of a surprise when Fox Searchlight announced on September 20th that the film would make its debut in just two months time (meaning it was eligible for Oscar contention). A trailer was issued three weeks later and the picture received its world premiere on November 1st. Early reviews were very strong, and there's already award talk for Hopkins, Mirren and Gervasi. Hitchcock opens at 16 locations on Friday, and with success, should expand further in the coming weeks.

The Silver Linings Playbook, which debuted to an impressive $458K at sixteen locations last weekend, expands into an estimated 420 theaters on Wednesday.

John Gosling

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