The Good, The Bad and the Unknown


by Bill Gibron

3 September 2007

Fall begins on a surprising violent foot as an assortment of hyper, stylized hitmen, gangsters, vigilantes and cowardly assassinations battle terrorists, train robbers, and the living dead for first dibs cinematic supremacy.

September starts out with a bang as a classic genre gets an A-list update, while the tired tenets of the action film receive an equally refreshing, John Woo-ish jerryrigging. In the guise of an unnecessary remake, James Mangold, flush from his success with the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, has managed to nab a stellar cast—Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Peter Fonda—to guide the 3:10 to Yuma (7 September) back into theatrical stations. The simple story of a desperate rancher, hard up for cash, who volunteers to escort an outlaw to the title train, the original was more of a battle of wills vs. a blaze of ammunition. But to his credit, Mangold does not try to do the revisionist or deconstructionist thing. Instead, he allows his actors to fully inhabit their roles, resulting in a movie that’s as powerful in its presence as it is knowing in its nostalgia.

On the other end of the firefight spectrum is Shoot ‘Em Up (7 September). With another amazing collection of talent (Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Belluci), relative feature film newcomer Michael Davis has gone from raunchy teen sex comedies and middling horror to this highly stylized crime cavalcade. While anyone paying homage to the Hong Kong school of violence runs the risk of overplaying their hand (see Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium as an example), previews at the recent San Diego ComicCon drew definite geek praise.

3:10 to Yuma Shoot ‘Em Up

Oddly enough, brutality is the theme for the following week’s best bets. Eastern Promises and The Brave One (both 14 September) use crime and punishment as their central conceits. Equally interesting is that fact that each film is helmed by one of the medium’s resident cinematic geniuses—Promises by David Cronenberg, Brave One by The Crying Game‘s Neil Jordan. It’s in the narrative and approach where the comparisons end. Jodie Foster is already generating significant Oscar buzz for her work in Brave. She plays a woman who resorts to aggressive vigilante justice when a brutal attack shatters her sheltered world. But it’s a journey that’s far more personal, and problematic, than your standard revenge flick.  Co-star Terrance Howard is the cop who may or may not be covering up for her.

In Promises, Viggo Mortenson plays a Russian mafia hitman who crosses paths with a curious midwife (Naomi Watts) who stumbled upon information that could undermine the entire London syndicate. Jordan is striving for post-modern social commentary, linking the empowerment of taking the law into one’s own hands to the helplessness inherent in the modern mindset. Cronenberg, on the other hand, is fooling around with classic cat and mouse mystery while providing an intriguing character dynamic.

Eastern Promises The Brave One

The rest of the month sees a drop off in potential quality fare. Into the Wild (21 September) is a Sean Penn-helmed road picture about a young man who abandons his life and possessions to live in the wilderness of Alaska. It’s as much about the inner voyage toward self as the collection of eccentric characters one meets along the way. Peter Berg should expect a blazing bonfire of controversy when his jingoistically brilliant The Kingdom (28 September) hits theaters. Its anti-Muslim rhetoric is ferocious, with or without a complex, considerate Saudi Arabian policemen (a fantastic Ashraf Barhoum) acting as a Arab surrogate to Jamie Foxx and the gang’s FBI heroes. On that same day, an amazing collection of Award winning talent brings Charles Baxter’s novel Feast of Love to life for Hollywood legend Robert Benton. Even in his late ‘70s, the two time Oscar winner shows no signs of slowing up.

Into the Wild The Kingdom

Finally, one of the year’s most anticipated films gets a limited release the last weekend in September. Major metropolises will be the lucky recipients of Wes Anderson’s latest quirky journey of the human spirit when The Darjeeling Limited (28 September) heads out into theaters. With its intriguing tale of three brothers trying to reconnect on a railroad excursion through India, we could be seeing the next phase in this almost auteur’s stellar career.

The Darjeeling Limited

As a film critic, it’s not hard to see which movies the studios are betting on. Press releases pour in from all manner of sources, and invitations to screenings can’t come rapidly or readily enough. On the other hand, those projects abandoned by the brass and all but forgotten by the marketers are like little lost children, constantly calling out to their Madison Avenue mommies and getting very little love in return. Though it’s poised to appear on movie screens in less than three weeks, Sony has yet to schedule any previews for their Resident Evil tre-quel, Extinction (21 September). The Road Warrior theme seems ‘inviting’, but apparently, that’s as far as the RSVP analogy goes.

Similarly, the studio has had an impossible time with the press over the whole Across the Universe (14 September) debacle. After completion, the film was taken out of the hands of director Julie Taymor and ‘retooled’ by supposed cinematic know it all, studio head Joe Roth (he of Christmas with the Kranks fame).  Apparently, neither version is very appealing. Oddly enough, everyone should have seen the writing on the wall early on. A project like this was really destined to dumbfound, even within the noblest intentions. After all, when was the last time you heard of an all Beatles musical featuring a Fab Four approach to the life and times of the turbulent ‘60s (or an era somewhat similar) set within their sonic psychedelic universe ever working? Apparently, no one remembers Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or worse, All This and World War II (look it up).

Resident Evil 3 : Extinction Across the Universe

And then there’s Dane Cook. You’ve got to give the self-made superstar credit. He’s managed to manipulate the Internet ideal of his comedic ability (which, frankly, is questionable at best) and expand it into a steady Tinsel Town paycheck. After substantially stinking up the joint with Jessica Simpson in Employee of the Month,  Cook finds himself hooked up with another society determined sex doll—in this case, Jessica Alba—for Good Luck Chuck (21 September) a retarded RomCom about a good natured goof cursed with the ability to make other relationships work. Sounds as pathetic as it appears.

Another name making massive waves on what has been, at least so far, very little telltale talent is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. His latest leap of motion picture faith finds him sticking fairly close to his 2006 sports effort, Gridiron Gang. The Game Plan (28 September) however, also has the House of Mouse imprint all over its collection of clichés. That means our tough talking football jock discovers that he’s an unexpected daddy of a smart talking tween. Sadly someone did indeed get paid for cooking up that dino dropping of an idea.

Speaking of potential old hat hogwash, a name most moviegoers automatically associate with offal is back. That’s right, Uwe Boll brings Postal (28 September) his latest vile videogame adaptation to a Cineplex near you. Though those who’ve seen it are amazed at how audacious and brazen it is, a tongue in cheek take on the source material doesn’t mean it will be any good. And with Boll’s reputation, it’s a safe bet its not.

Good Luck Chuck The Game Plan

Moviemaking is not an exact science, and as such, predicting what will be good or bad is equally elusive. In the wake of such considerations then is a pile of unpredictable titles, films one can’t quite figure out. Take Lust, Caution (28 September) from Ang Lee. It recently earned an NC-17, which either indicates a lack of artistic compromise on the part of the Oscar winner, or mere MPAA excess. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see what this director does with the WWII espionage thriller. Equally intriguing is Hatchet (7 September), a horror effort getting lots of web zone hype. While the plot description makes it sound like a standard slasher revamp, early reviews have touted its throwback terrors.

On the opposite end of the buzz meter is Mr. Woodcock, a soiled little comedy featuring Billy Bob Thornton as one character’s ex-gym teacher from Hell. How Susan Sarandon was suckered into this project (she plays the mother of self-help guru Sean William Scott—and the beloved of the title character) is anyone’s guess. Here’s hoping it’s not a case of cinematic slumming by an Oscar winning actress, especially one who definitely deserves better.

Mr. Woodcock Hatchet
Lust, Caution

Independents will also try to make some early waves this year, with December Boys and In the Valley of Elah (both 14 September) competing for our attention. Boys offers a fresh from Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe as one of four orphans hoping to win the affection, and a possible adoption, of an interested family, while Valley marks Academy Award winner Paul Haggis’ latest bid for more glittering gold statues. With the War in Iraq as a backdrop, we meet a couple desperate to discover what happened to their son upon his return from a tour of duty in the Middle East. Maybe the impressive cast can make up for some of Haggis’ more melodramatic leanings.

Speaking of actors enlivening potentially pathetic films, there are three more titles opening in September that appear to need all the star power they can muster. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (21 September), aside from having the worst moniker of the month, also has one of the most troubled production histories. Apparently, the suits were not happy with Andrew Dominik’s take on the western genre, and mandated reshoots to insert more “action”. Sounds like a desperation move by a very displeased studio.

December Boys In the Valley of Elah

Similarly, The Brothers Solomon (7 September) keeps getting bumped from release date to release date in a maddening attempt to avoid direct competition with a certain Mr. Apatow and his comedy cavalcade. Even with its lowbrow lite laughs, this still seems like an unimpressive mess. Last but not least, Amanda Bynes gives director Joe Nussbaum a chance to prove that his sensational short George Lucas in Love was not all this filmmaker had to offer to the medium. But this modern take on the seven dwarves classic—here, relabeled Sydney White (21 September)—sounds suspicious at best.

The Brothers Solomon Sydney White

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