[10 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Nimród Antal is relatively new to the motion picture game, but the American-born, Hungarian-trained filmmaker has already made a major impact with efforts like Kontroll and 2007’s Vacancy. Now he’s been pegged by producer Robert Rodriguez to handle his update of the famed Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi action epic Predator. In the meantime, December audiences have his heist flick, Armored, to consider. The cast is top notch—everyone from Laurence Fishburne, Jean Reno, and Fred Ward to Matt Dillon and Columbus Short is involved—and the story centers on an armored vehicle inside job gone sour. With his flair for suspense and his ability to navigate complicated plotlines, this could be a decent mainstream entertainment in a month of more “meaningful” movies. It could also be an attempted misdirection, a chance to grab some of those holiday season dollars that aren’t automatically going to potential Oscar fodder.
In the ‘90s, Ireland’s Jim Sheridan reigned supreme. His films, including My Left Foot, The Field, In the Name of the Father, and The Boxer, gave international audiences a look at the ‘troubled’ country he grew up in. A move to the US inspired his last great effort, 2003’s In America, while 2005 saw him jump on the pop culture bandwagon to helm the less than successful 50 Cent biopic, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Now he’s taking on the Danish film Brødre with a remake featuring Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Tobey Maguire. The storyline centers on a Marine who goes missing while on yet another tour of duty in the Middle East. This devastates his wife and younger brother, leading to events that will shake up the entire familial structure. Sounds very intense and dramatic, and if anyone can handle such heartbreaking material, it’s the man who made Daniel Day-Lewis a household name.
After the astounding success of his nostalgic love letter to movies, Cinema Paradiso, then 33-year-old filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore was looking for a worthy follow-up. After all, it’s tough to compete with a title that won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Still, Stanno tutti bene (translation: Everybody’s Fine) was warmly received, and is now being remade with Robert DeNiro stepping in for the opera loving civil servant character played originally by Marcello Mastroianni. British filmmaker Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee) is behind the update, and it looks like he’s changed the storyline ever so slightly. Indeed, preview write-ups talk about DeNiro’s deceased wife, when Tornatore’s film used said status as a “twist” at the end (turns out Mastroianni isn’t reporting back to his spouse, but her grave). One fears this has been too “Westernized” to compete with the original.
After Disney bought Pixar (or put another way—when the CG giants let the House of Mouse finance their masterful work), they hired founding father John Lasseter to revamp their tired animation department. Out went the numerous direct to DVD sequels of classic cartoon titles like Bambi and The Lion King. In was a renewed love of all things hand drawn and 2D. Bringing in directors John Musker and Ron Clements, responsible for such timeless titles as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, the company decided to return to the days of Broadway style storylines while shaking things up in two significant ways: first, the protagonist would be a female this time, not a male, and second, the cultural backdrop would find inspiration in the African American community. So far, Disney and Lasseter have said all the right things and wowed audiences with subtle sneak previews.
It’s tough for a documentarian to make the transition over into fictional films. The storytelling may be the same, but the way of getting there is completely different. For Capturing the Freedman‘s Andrew Jarecki, the true story of Robert Durst, heir to a New York City real estate dynasty, and the disappearance of his first wife Kathleen McCormack in 1982 provided the mandatory inspiration. With Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst in place as the unlucky couple and a supporting cast including Watchmen‘s Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Frost/Nixon‘s Frank Langella, the project has a lot of potential. Once you read the truth about Durst, however, you start to wonder just what material Jarecki will cover. Oddly enough, the mystery surrounding his wife’s disappearance is the least intriguing element in his criminally complex saga.
Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker are a New York couple that witness a murder, and as part of the Witness Protection Program, are relocated to the desolate confines of Wyoming. Culture shock hijinx ensue…we imagine. Since it was written and directed by Marc Lawrence who guided Grant through two of his more recent hits (Two Weeks Notice and Words and Lyrics), expect a sweet, genial comedy with small, simple emotional beats. Granted, the recent trailer overemphasizes the country mouse/city mouse gags in the narrative, and Mary Steenburgen and Sam Sheppard (as local cornpone law enforcement) are a far more appealing couple to follow than Grant and Parker. Still, it seems harmless enough and ol’ Hugh can really deliver those dry bon mots, can’t he?
How do you counterprogram against what promises to be the biggest bang (or bust) at the box office all year. You offer up an intriguing period piece with Oscar winner Rachel Weisz as astronomer-philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria. Set up as a battle between man vs. religion (the rising tide of Christianity in the ancient world plays an important part in the central dramatic conflict), there is also a romantic element as Max Minghella plays a slave who loves Hypatia, but turns to faith as a means of earning his freedom. Thanks to the advances in special effects, the classical setting really comes alive, and Weisz is always good, even in pointless popcorn fluff like The Mummy movies. The wild card here? Co-writer/director Alejandro Amenábar. While both 2001’s The Others and 2004’s The Sea Inside were solid bits of filmmaking, the scope suggested here might throw the Chilean auteur.
When you hear the name Terrence Malick, and see the title, you assume some esoteric experiment in visual philosophizing, centering on the symbolism inherent in the mentioned mystical element. When you learn that this is actually a ‘50s drama starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, dealing with a young man’s coming of age and disillusion with the world he sees around him, all bets are suddenly off. Rumors have Malick, a typically meticulous and detail oriented director, trying something “radical”, and there are hints at something almost Kubrickian about the narrative (there are reports of prehistoric sequences being prepared for the film). The namesake facet will indeed be present, and in conjunction with the fact that Malick doesn’t make many movies (since 1973 he’s only helmed five features…FIVE! ), this has all the appearances of an actual cinematic event in the making.
Upon his death, Heath Ledger was in the middle of making this Terry Gilliam fantasy, yet another bit of bad luck for the moviemaking ex-Python. Luckily, the late actor’s friends, including Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law stepped in to help finish the film, guaranteeing it a major box office push as a kind of poignant filmic farewell to the recently deceased Oscar winner…right? Well, not exactly. Up until a few weeks ago, Parnassus was without US distribution, several studios balking at taking up the task of marketing this mystery of a movie. Gilliam is a true genius, a man whose mad vision rarely translates to major mainstream acceptance. Even with the built in ploy of Ledger’s last performance, few see dollar signs in what he does. Maybe this will be the project that turns those flailing fortunes around.
Nancy Meyers’ transition from writer to hit filmmaker was complicated by the separation from her husband Charles Shyer. Oddly enough, that 1999 event has helped shade such witty RomComs as What Women Want, and Something’s Gotta Give. Now comes the Meryl Streep/Steve Martin/Alec Baldwin laugher which finds the former Wild and Crazy Guy battling the Republican’s biggest nightmare for the affections of the former Miss Mamma Mia. Perhaps the most unusual element at play here is that…there is nothing unusual. Meyers treats her characters like adults, dealing with the problems they face in mature if also comical ways. Her casting is always impeccable, even when the performers don’t quite mesh with her narrative ideals (see Jack Black and Kate Winslet in The Holiday). This is an adult dramedy for a more mature moviegoing audience. And as they have proven all year, playing to the over 50 set can earn big time box office rewards.
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
Apparently, the filmmaking gods hate us. That, or cloying kiddie comedies that turn a decent profit at the box office take precedent over actual examples of motion picture originality. In the long line of unnecessary sequels comes this Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen level atrocity which sees our singing rodents dealing with fame, school, and a competing group of vocalizing vermin known as the Chipettes. Ugh. With Betty Thomas replacing Tim Hill behind the lens, and a script from the same three so-called scribes who stunk up the first film, expect much, much more of the same. More unfunny slapstick. More high pitched poop jokes. More feelings of multiple fingernails repeated scraping the black off a rickety chalkboard. And don’t you worry, somebody already has Part 3 percolating in their laptop. Maybe we can keep it as a direct to DVD deal by not supporting this stupidity.