The Good, The Bad and the Unknown


by Bill Gibron

4 September 2007

For a month supposedly devoted to scares, the diversity available to the average moviegoer is quite amazing. Sure, there are shocks in seasonal abundance, but tempering the terror is history, humor, and heart.

October is usually associated with Halloween and horror films, but there are very few examples of movie macabre this month. Among the few fear factors provided is 30 Days of Night (19 October), based on a classic comic by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith. With an intriguing premise—a local Alaska town that’s dark for an entire month out of the year becomes home to a brood of vampires—and a solid cast (including a coming into his own Josh Hartnett), the messageboards are preparing to praise this seemingly solid scarefest.

If you’d prefer your thrills along the more corrupt corporate espionage lines, then George Clooney’s latest will likely satisfy those serious shivers. Everyone’s favorite mancrush plays the title character in Michael Clayton (12 October), a “fixer”—read: righter of impossible personal wrongs—for a major New York law firm that just so happens to be representing a major agricultural chemical manufacturer. But when lead council Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) goes nuts, our disillusioned operative discovers that their high paying conglomerate client may just be a mindless, amoral mass murderer. It’s up to the unmade man, angry at life and desperate for some manner of redemption, to investigate the claims and, hopefully, recover his soul along the way.

30 Days of Night Michael Clayton

Exploring a similar, if far more devastating dynamic, Reservation Road (19 October) illustrates what happens when a fatal car accident tears two families apart. Mark Ruffalo stars as the absentee father who takes a wrong turn down the title street, causing chaos and grief for Joaquin Phoenix and his wife, Jennifer Connelly. The trailer looks terrific, filled with all the confrontation and big picture propositions that this kind of material mandates. And with Hotel Rwanda’s Terry George behind the lens, this could either be one of the best movies of the Fall, or one of the season’s most overwrought.

Similarly, Atonement (7 October) sounds like a not so clever combination of The Fallen Idol and The Children’s Hour. With its narrative focusing on false accusations, naïve perceptions, and bodice busting romance, Joe Wright has his work cut out for him. Since his last effort—2005’s praised Jane Austin adaptation Pride and Prejudice—proved he could handle period pieces with a certain sense of panache, here’s praying for this otherwise ordinary sounding effort. On the plus side, early reviews from the Venice Film Festival have been exceptional.

Reservation Road Atonement

Rounding out the best bets for the month are two returning champions—well, sort of. The first is indeed a remake, in this case, another take on Anthony Shaeffer’s clockwork thriller, Sleuth (12 October). It’s a homecoming of sorts for Michael Caine. Back when the original 1972 movie version was made, he played the part of lovestruck actor Milo Tindle. Now, he’s the character created by Sir Laurence Olivier, cuckolded eccentric Andrew Wyke. With Jude Law as his co-star, Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, and Harold Pinter providing the adaptation, this stands as one of the month’s must-see efforts.

The other reoccurring concept is an actual sequel—in this case, the second of the Elizabeth I legacy. Cate Blanchett is back in the title role, and so is director Shekhar Kapur, and this time, the storyline focuses on the monarch’s multifaceted relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh. Played by Clive Owen, who has really become a legitimate leading man, and providing more action and intrigue than the original Elizabeth, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (12 October) promises to bring Blanchett another Oscar nod (she’s already won for her take on a famous diva, Katherine Hepburn, in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator).

Sleuth Elizabeth: The Golden Age

True badness is not quantifiable. Instead, it’s subjective, frequently the sum of several potentially impressive parts. Take The Heartbreak Kid (5 October), for example. It offers up Ben Stiller as Neil Simon’s newlywed in ‘just got married’ crisis. It features the infamous Farrelly Brothers as creative guides, and trades the original movie’s mensch in a maelstrom for more post-modern irony and gross-out gags. Somehow, the notion of this storyline being subverted into a matrimonial There’s Something About Mary doesn’t bode well for anyone involved.

Similarly, Saw III sent the series off in spectacular, splatterific style. Now, per plan, there’s yet another installment in the works—and sadly, James Wan and Leigh Whannell have nothing to do with it. Saw IV (26 October) has been tantalizing fans for months with the notion that Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw serial killer will be back, although still quite clearly dead (he died in Part III), and there have been rumors of other returning cast members, as well. Still, how a franchise built squarely on the backs of two Australian newcomers can survive without them remains to be seen. And then there’s the strained saga of a wannabe rapper turned runaway, Feel the Noise (5 October). About the only thing worth noting as part of this crass cross-cultural hip-hop hackwork is the focus on Reggaeton.

The Heartbreak Kid Saw IV

Tyler Perry also finds himself at a crossroads, the less than successful returns of his Daddy’s Little Girls indicating that audiences don’t necessarily appreciate his ‘chitlin circuit’ melodramas without the filmmaker himself dolled up in drag. Sadly, Madea is still nowhere to be seen in the pre/post-nuptials of the oddly titled Why Did I Get Married? (12 October). Also on the sour side is his selection of Janet Jackson as his lead. A decade ago, this would have been a smart, savvy move. Back then, Michael’s baby sister was a music industry megastar. Today, she’s lost in a corrupt commercial conceit that sees no-talents trade on the format she helped solidify as a means of making her more or less obsolete. A comeback as part of a Perry project may appear wise, but not necessarily at this point in the phenoms-fading fortunes.

And then there’s Ben Affleck. Left for dead after a string of stinkers and his highly touted tramping about with a certain Jenny from the Block, he now tries to reestablish some indie cred with his pet project Gone Baby Gone (19 October). Based on a novel by Dennis LeHane (who also wrote the award winning Mystic River), this tale of two cops chasing after a kidnapped kid has promise. And Affleck is staying behind the camera this time out. But as a first-time filmmaker, Matt Damon’s partner is unproven. This could sink what’s generally considered to be a solid sign of things to come from the one time wünderkind.

Why Did I Get Married? Gone Baby Gone

One of the aspects of a film that makes it an unknown quantity is its choice of subject matter. Regardless of the artist’s interest in the material, or the perceived level of appreciation inherent in the audience, certain concepts create an undeniable lack of clarity. Take Lars and the Real Girl (12 October), for example. Hot off his efforts in the award-worthy Half Nelson, Ryan Gosling switches gears and becomes a slightly askew loser who discovers love with a sex toy. For those who are unaware, a “Real Doll” is a life sized, fully articulate manqué that replicates, as closely as possible, the actual human form and function. The trailer looks tempting, but the question remains whether general audiences will appreciate such a quirky, kinky tale.

Rendition (19 October) also has a tough premise to sell. With America still simmering in an unpopular war, the notion of a narrative asking questions about illegal CIA detention centers, with their rumors of torture and death, seems like a losing proposition. Still, Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhal will try to make it a reality. Helping their cause is Tsotsi director Gavin Hood.

Lars and the Real Girl Rendition

After the less than successful returns of Bridge to Terabithia and Stardust, it’s clear that audiences aren’t quite ready to give up their allegiance to Tolkien and Lewis quite yet. Still, this Fall will see a selection of fantasy novels turned into tentative films, beginning with The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (5 October). Aside from the overlong title, few are probably familiar with the Susan Cooper books this potential series is based on. With a no name cast, and the relatively untested David L. Cunningham at the helm, there’s a definite atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding this effort.

The same could be said for anything associated with James Gray. After his Little Odessa caused a stir 13 years ago, he only managed one more film (2000’s forgotten The Yards) before returning with We Own the Night (12 October). Still shuffling through familiar territory (law and lawlessness involving the Russian mafia), this Mark Walhberg/ Joaquin Phoenix film could be a winner, or the final nail in Gray’s creative coffin.

The Seeker: The Dark is Rising We Own the Night

And here’s hoping that Halle Berry and Benecio Del Toro can enliven what sounds like a dreadfully dire drama entitled Things We Lost in the Fire (26 October). Centering on a widow who allows her late husband’s troubled best friend to live with her and her kids, it feels like one big dysfunctional grief fest. There’s a thin line between depressing and dramatic, and this is the kind of movie that threatens to cross it frequently and unabashedly.

Rounding out the rest of the month’s unfamiliar entertainments, Steve Carell (who bombed with his Noah’s Ark take on the DOA Almighty franchise) is Dan in Real Life (26 October), another spouseless character who falls for his brother’s betrothed. Are you laughing already? If not, blame directorial novice Peter Hedges. While his screenplays for such solid motion pictures as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? , About a Boy, and A Map of the World prove he has talent, his big screen debut—2003’s Pieces of April—does not.

Things We Lost in the Fire Dan in Real Life

Likewise, everyone loves Simon Pegg, especially when he’s mocking movie genres as in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But in Run, Fat Boy Run (26 October) he’s being Americanized, sort of. Ex-Friend David Schwimmer is not known for his cinematic craftsmanship. And Michael Ian Black is not a proven film scribe. Still, this slightly askew take on romance could work, but it definitely has a lot going against it.

Finally, the oddest entry in the seasonal sweepstakes remains Funny Games (26 October). German director Michael Haneke (who scored with his 2005 thriller Caché) is actually remaking his own movie from 1997 about a pair of psychotic criminals who hold a lady hostage in a cabin. Though he promises to remain faithful to his original, the last time we heard that kind of quantification, George Sluzier was destroying the reputation of his superlative original The Vanishing with a pointless Tinsel Town remake.

Run, Fat Boy Run

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