Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Worst performance by a person in the role of an actress goes to...

And the winner is... Thandie Newton. And the losers are... well, let's see. For starters, Oliver Stone & Stanley Weiser, the director and writer of W., the film containing the offending performance by Ms. Newton.
But the list goes on. Everyone who actually had to play out a scene with Ms. Newton, though after sitting through the film, it's hard to recall anything other than how dreadful her mere presence was in even the least of her scenes. In particular, it was Josh Brolin who had to deal with her wooden, mannequin-like delivery and utterly high-school level mimicking. Should Brolin land an Oscar nod, be sympathetic, the man's been through acting hell. Most importantly the losers are the audience, though judging strictly by the numbers, there aren't all that many of us. 

The audience got left in the cheap seats with a film that in most ways featured top talent. Brolin, already mentioned, nailed his role, though whether the role nailed its target is debatable. The other notable thespians moving through this narrative were James Cromwell in the role of "Poppy", former President George H.W. Bush and Richard Dreyfuss (who we have to admit we really enjoy showing up on the big screen now and then) in the role of the infamous Dick Cheney, hitting his marks with a hell of a lot more accuracy than the real Cheney aims a shotgun.

After that, the list devolves into mediocre at best performances from talent that usually gets paid enough to garner higher expectations. Elizabeth Banks was an acceptable Laura Bush mostly for her uncanny physical resemblance. Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush is a throw-away that could have been more effectively acted with almost no additional effort. And practically without exception, the remaining (and numerous) cast members seemed out-of-place and unrehearsed. Even the usually effective Scott Glenn (here walking through the role of Donald Rumsfeld), appeared to have been thrown his first copy of the script as he was leaving the make-up trailer. All of this oddly surprising for a director who usually can be noted for delivering the best from his talent in even the least of his body of work.

But the standout in an absolutely vacant portrayal of Condoleezza Rice was Ms. Newton. My reaction to her every moment on screen, from walking in some kind of caricatured hunch, speaking with a muddled and non-sensical accent or simply appearing to be no more than a prop, a hatrack in the corner of a shot, was to be astounded at her even being included in the film frame. So how's this for clarity, Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice in Oliver Stone's W. delivers the singularly worst performance I have ever witnessed from an actor or actress who can be (even in jest) called a professional in the realm of motion pictures. I will hope that the performance stands as award winningly awful for all time, I can't imagine sitting through anything worse. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

JCVD: shattering stereotypes with a jump-kick.

I had the luck to meet Jean-Claude Van Damme more than a decade ago. In the course of just a brief time, my perception was of a polite, funny and accommodating guy. As we were moving into a side entrance, a fan (a middle aged woman) caught a glimpse and ran over to catch Jean-Claude's attention, calling out in French and trying to get closer to the secured area we were in. Not only did he walk back down a flight of stairs to say hello but asked my permission to do so. Later inside, he made a point to say hello and sign autographs for facility staff that were working near his location. In every respect, he was a gentleman.
It is easy to see action hero movie stars only through the filter of their films and their publicity (unfortunately I've also met one or two who seemed quite happy to live up to the arrogance of that hype). In Jean-Claude's case, his new movie JCVD not only looks to peel away every imaginable layer of hype, but takes it on with the impact of one of his trademark jump-kicks, a straight and unstoppable blow to the action hero image he's cultivated over a career's worth of movies.

I spent part of this morning watching and rewatching the trailer for JCVD, browsing through it's official movie site and watching some of the production videos that have been released and are creating a buzz over at YouTube. The film, a French production directed by Mabrouk El Mechri is being released here in the US on November 7th in limited release and was just exhibited at the Toronto and Austin Film Festivals. 
The reason it's captured my attention and is being featured on the front page of Moviedozer.com is it's unusual nature. There is a tangible strangeness that brings it's blend of action, pathos and sepia tones into shifting focus against Jean-Claude Van Demme's fictional heroics and this beaten down movie reality . An effect not too distant from the script work of Charlie Kaufman in films like Being John Malkovich and the upcoming Synecdoche, New York. The quirkiness of the project, indeed of even just the idea for the project, is what's so dammed (or is that Demme'd, sorry) fascinating. 

So far all I've seen is the trailer along with assorted clips in French.  There's also a very odd but intriguing video (one of the French trailers) that is set at the casting session to find an actor to play Jean-Claude, only to have Jean-Claude show up himself. Don't let the French clips throw you though, American's after all get their movie marketing American style and foreign promotional clips may not live up to expectations. This is one to explore on your own and we're betting the exploration will pay off, even if only to offer a lesson in totally shattering stereotypes. That the star is the one responsible for punching through the accepted hype, all the better. Moviedozer.com will be including JCVD in it's November List of movies we're most looking forward to. We'll also feature the American trailer in a review on our Trailer Takes page next week. If you're living in one of those privileged and treasured limited release cities, this one promises a glimpse of an action hero movie star even that French-speaking fan may not recognize but one you may not be likely to forget.

Here's a video clip of the US trailer courtesy of Traileraddict.com:

Friday, October 17, 2008

A sitting President gets Stone'd.

Say what you will about the man, but after eight years of leading this country to what history will distinguish as a legendary low point, you get what you deserve. And that's why a sitting president can't escape his final months in office without having Oliver Stone decide it's time to make a movie.
That movie is W. (For the neophytes, that's pronounced "Dub-ya"). The shortest title for a movie we've covered this year is perhaps also the quirkiest movie, both regardless of and because of it's subject matter.

W., directed by Stone, was written by Stanley Weiser. It's perhaps appropriate that while the country is facing it's greatest economic collapse in a generation or two of memory, Weiser was also the man who penned one of the most classic lines from Hollywood for the fictional character of Wall Street power broker Gordon Gecko, "Greed is Good". Somewhere buried in W. must be the echoes of "executive powers are awesome". ( You can almost hear that snide little muffled George Bush laugh at the thought, a laugh nicely mimicked by W. star Josh Brolin in the new film.)

In interview after interview, Stone has been questioned about the film by reporters who seemed surprised, some seemingly taken aback, at how "fair and balanced" the film's treatment of George Bush seems to be. After a famously opinionated take on JFK's assassination and another on Nixon's resignation ending term in office exacerbated by that President's own deep and personal flaws, anything less than an all out attack on George Bush seems to have been eagerly anticipated, ripe for assault and (taking in account recent approval polls), decidedly deserved in the opinions of more than 70% of the potential audience. Instead Stone takes a more neutral approach and both surprised fans and silenced critics.

There in lies the beauty of satirizing and exposing incompetence and corruption when your subject does such a wonderful job of both all by himself. Stone's experience and savvy as a seasoned Hollywood writer and director has suggested just the right touch on a film that could have easily lapsed into broad parody or heavy handed editorial. In what may be the master stroke of the movie, Stone seems to have simply taken on the role of observer (albeit an observer with a keen eye for cinematic style), of a third person storyteller relating a tale that leaves it's opinions to the audience, leaving them to decide what is exaggeration, inexplicable fact and monumental human error. It's akin to watching a skilled trial attorney catch his witness in a self-incriminating lie on the witness stand. When you want to prove you're subject deserves to be looked on as a moron, simply page back the curtain enough to let your audience watch his moronic backstage behavior. George Bush, this is your life.

With fall films doing what the season implies and serious tone in movies being shunned for talking Chihuahuas, W. is not an easy sell. Politics have run their season and then some, and even the typical sideline humor of a political season in overdrive is getting tempered in this election by the gravity of our condition as a society and our diminished influence on the world stage. W. may have only carried real relevance against the very backdrop that is drawn against, a canvas that helps to reveal the chaotic pallet of crisis we've inflicted upon ourselves with such pathetic and uncontrolled loss of leadership. Though it appears to be proven that the wealth spilled upon the heads of the rich and meant to trickle downward, has instead found random paths into the deep pits of executive and privileged bank accounts, the bankrupted and decimated stores of brave and patriotic leaders has shamefully been supplanted with moral corruption and incompetence. Unfortunately that commodity is raining down on the poor and working class with the ferocity of a levee breaking deluge.

Even if W. doesn't nail down a big audience this weekend and return box-office numbers to build ad campaigns around, the return on investment from a creative standpoint is still assured. This was the right timing for this film, indeed this is a film about timing. Oliver Stone took the right tact and President George W. Bush should stand accountable for the audiences that will follow over time. Audiences who, with the benefit of perspective, should heed the story of the film as an artistic expression uniquely inspired by the very canvas it is painted upon.

If you're interested n learning more about the film, Moviedozer.com is currently featuring clips from AMC's Shootout on our Sprocket Holes page, just click here. There are also news clips about the film and it's release on our front Previews page here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Fireproof finds faith may be all about the timing.

"Never leave your partner behind." Not the tagline of some politically fueled war movie or a new gritty urban cop flick. This time the tag plays on the motto of firefighters and then takes a twist. It's the twist and how it's framed that makes Fireproof, the new movie distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films that opened on September 26th in limited release, a bit different in today's box-office lineup.
Playing in only about 840 theaters, Fireproof opened at number three in box-office on it's first day of release, taking in more than 2 & 1/4 million, or about 230 grand ahead of Samuel L. Jackson's Lakeview Terrace. Lakeview Terrace would go on to take the number three slot that weekend but Fireproof would hold on as number four, just a couple of hundred grand behind. Why's any of this impressive? Fireproof is essentially a small budget Christian made and Christian produced film with a heavily Christian theme and influence. It's star, Kirk Cameron has been involved with faith based television programming for years and is an influential force for faith based themed television and film projects.

If you were watching television in the eighties you'd remember Cameron from his role as the irrepressible Mike Seaver on Growing Pains opposite Alan Thicke and Joanna Kerns. The show ran from 1985 to 1992 and cemented Cameron as one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood, eclipsed perhaps only by Michael J. Fox. Cameron went on to some minor projects but by 2000 had moved toward Christian programming and the lead role as Buck Williams in the movie adaptation of the first book in the popular series Left Behind.

Left Behind had a box-office take of just over $4 million in the US on a production budget that exceeded $18 million, not a strong argument for marketing faith based movies to the masses. That has apparently changed as Fireproof enters it's third weekend of release and has seen its box-office numbers climb to $13.3 million. Put that in contrast to its production budget of just $500 thousand. That's called finding religion.

In hard times, religion prospers. That's not a knock or a slight, it's simply a fact. Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama tried to make that point during the primary season and had his words twisted into a jab at "ordinary voters". The political slant was the lie, the truth is that during hard times, economic or otherwise, people tend to fall back on their values, whether they be guns or bibles. There's nothing insulting about that, rather it's comfortingly humanistic. So has Fireproof benefitted by the good fortune of entering into public perception just as it's subject matter feels particularly reassuring. Of course it has. Does anything about that circumstance diminish it's value or story? Of course not. The story, released with this timing, just has an opportunity to fall on more receptive eyes and ears.

The narrative at the core of Fireproof is about marriage and divorce, commitment and of course, faith. Kirk Cameron plays Caleb Holt, a firefighter who, in spite of his belief in the creed "never leave your partner behind" is about to do just that in his marriage. As the impending divorce looms, Caleb's father offers his support with the caveat that Caleb postpone any move toward divorce for 40 days. In that time he simply asks his son to commit to following through on a kind of guide book called "The Love Dare". As a side note, in the real life story that has become part of the success of the film, the movie's fictional book has now actually been authored by the brothers who wrote the screenplay and as of this writing is the #8 best selling book on Amazon.com.

Any impulse to dismiss Fireproof as a Christian movie or merely a film that will appeal only to a faith driven audience would be misguided. With Hollywood's usual trepidation toward taking risks, Fireproof alone won't bring on a wave of like films to your cineplex in the coming months, but there is a trend lingering in the box-office statistics of this movie. Hard times will drive ordinary people back to their comfort zones. Entertainment in all formats will have to absorb a drop in revenue like most industries but as some subject matter will begin to feel heavy and burdened,  an opportunity will open for studios, directors, writers and actors to create comforting, inspiring and positive emotions through their art.

Our guess at Moviedozer.com will be a shorter list of raunchy comedies, politically biased dramas and heavy emotional pieces next year.  Instead we're betting on Hollywood reassuming it's role as an entertainer with a return to light adult comedies, uplifting emotional tales and inspiring character dramas. In short, for your next coming attractions, go take a cruise through the films  that studios were releasing in the war years of the forties. Absent perhaps will be the overwhelming patriotic sentiment, but most assuredly you're about to see Hollywood's memory jolted back to remembering that people go to the movies to forget their problems, not to be reminded of them.

Monday, October 6, 2008

While the US tries to get a newspaper under the economy, Disney takes out the dog.

Movie box-office receipts fall like colored leaves in the fall though there's nothing colorful about it. If you want a clear picture of why studios bank on blockbusters and desperately try to extend the summer season, take one look at autumn weekend box-office numbers and feel their pain.
So far the biggest post summer hit has been the very summer movie like Eagle Eye starring Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan for Dreamworks/Paramount. At 54.6 million after ten days in release, that's a certified back to school hit. Compared to typical summer takes, that would be a respectable opening weekend. But still, Eagle Eye is the exception, Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna tallying only 6.3 million in ten days would be the rule. The hit/miss factor has been just about even so far this fall, with about seven films living up to expectations and seven falling short. The fall is also the peak release season for limited releases, which get their chance at breaking out through awards appeal rather than box-office returns. This fall's limited releases haven't set any fires though the awards buzz is already hot and heavy on films like Ed Harris' acting and directing western Appaloosa and Keira Knightly's The Duchess.

What's this all set the stage for? A movie about a female chihuahua from Beverly Hills trying to get back to the high life from the meager streets of Mexico. I won't even get into what that says about our values system or what we push on our kids as funny. Let's leave the high mindedness behind, much as the Disney Studios did, and just talk about the movie business. Beverly Hills Chihuahua opened last weekend in the number one spot and brought in the second highest box-office of the fall season so far. With an even 29 million, the numbers so far indicate it missed Eagle Eye's opening by just 150 grand while opening in nearly 300 fewer theaters. All indications are that Disney's BHC will also have longer "legs", giving the film a larger total box-office by the end of it's first theatrical run. 

So who cares? Well, likely no one except the current crop of players in the industry who count on their "artistic vision" to nail down their yearly bonus checks. But in an economy that shows signs of tanking all over the world, the true contest is about to become a guessing game of not what films are best, most artful or even most interesting, but what kind of movie will be most efficient at wedging currency from the wallets of a globally declining marketplace. Is there anyone surprised that the all American Dalmatian has been ditched for the accents and heavily ethnic humor of Mexican Chihuahuas now?

Studios have clearly seen the need to pull from a bigger pool of cash and that means realizing that, as in most everything else these days, America can't buoy the movie industry alone. 
In fact, it's international markets that have truly defined all but a few of this year's hits. Everyone who went to the movies this summer knows that The Dark Knight was the mega hit, raking in more than 500 million in Washingtons, Lincolns and Hamiltons. But did you know that Mamma Mia, which has grabbed up a cool 143 million stateside, has more than doubled that figure overseas and is now well over 500 million worldwide. That would put it sixth, just behind Iron Man in world wide box-office this year. (Now you have a better idea why no one is complaining about Pierce Brosnan's singing voice anymore.)

So get used to talking Chihuahuas, you may not have a choice. And get used to films like Blindness, starring Julianne Moore, Danny Glover and Mark Ruffalo (less than 2 million in it's opening last weekend), getting retooled for foreign markets before they even see a US release date. The times like the economy, are a-changing and what that means to your choices at the local cineplex is anybody's guess.