[1 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Spring used to be the artistic dead end period of the cinematic season; a dull time now that the Oscars are over, a somewhat depressing time for the studios that would have to cut their creative loses. It was a time for dumping the detritus of less-than-stellar films and for creating a landfill of ill-advised star turns, hubris based hackwork, and high concept calls that ended up just crapping out. Like the dire dog days of summer, when August would announce the blockbuster also-rans leading into September’s equally uneventful lull, film fans knew that spring movies gave them little in return for their winter-worn buck. Indeed, when filmmaking went from an artform to a commodity, when bean counters started outnumbering the creative element, spring was considered Tinsel Town’s time to just throw the lot overboard and see what would float.
Then, like a promise detected in the breeze, something changed. Instead of featuring all wannabes and wastes of time, the months between Oscar and Memorial Day became a time for some substantial Cineplex hits to come forth. In 2002, Panic Room delivered almost $100 million at the box office, providing the argument that a smart, stylized thriller could indeed, float. Then Anger Management and Daredevil did the same thing the spring of the very next year. Each argued for a fanbase ready to enjoy decent, if derivative, fare at this time of year.
But without a doubt, it was Mel Gibson’s ballsy Bible epic The Passion of the Christ that cemented the spring’s fiscal fortitude. A worldwide phenomenon, perfectly timed to coincide with the Christian celebration of Easter, Passion placed nearly $371 million in the coffers of motion picture moneychangers, and before you knew it, the one time entertainment deadzone known as Spring got a major marketing overhaul.
Now, Hollywood bets on these March/April celluloid showers to bring many happy monetary flowerings. From 2005’s Hitch to last year’s Ice Age sequel, the industry is now jockeying for prime product positioning. And it’s starting earlier every year. We’ve already seen Nicholas Cage’s long delayed comic book movie Ghost Rider finally make a mid-February bow (and about $79 million), while the hungry-for-a-hit Jim Carrey has just opened his attempted psychological chiller The Number 23. Indeed, between now and a certain web-slinger’s arrival the first weekend in May, an eccentric collection of movies will find its way into your local Bijou.
In order to separate the worthy from the worthless (as we know, not all that floats is gold), PopMatters’ “Short Ends & Leader” editor is highlighting 10 new films he’s looking forward to this spring. Unless release dates get retrofitted for unknown creative (or economic) reasons, here, in alphabetical order, are the titles that revitalize his slowly thawing aesthetics:
If Sin City was responsible for anything—and the conversation between fans and critics can be quite daunting—Robert Rodriguez proved that computer animation and CGI effects can be used for more than just pretty little spacescapes laced with all kinds of anthropomorphic beings. If done correctly, it could wholly revamp an entire cinematic genre (in Sin City’s case, the crime noir). Zack Synder, who was last seen revising George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, has now upped the ante, taking another Frank Miller graphic novel concerning the last stand between 300 Spartan warriors and hordes of Persian attackers and transforming it into a work of technological art. For those who thought Gladiator was the last word in contemporary sword and sandal spectacle, get ready to have your peplum proclivities rewired.
It has the unnerving look of an exploitation epic circa 1960, and a scandalous storyline that centers around a small Southern town, a nympho-maniacal local gal, and a former bluesman who tries to “cure” her with some very unusual tough love. There is just something so Baby Doll about star Samuel L. Jackson dragging around leading lady Christina Ricci by a big metal chain. The advanced word regarding Craig Brewer’s follow-up to his Indie hit Hustle and Flow has been mixed, with some finding the racy rural approach a bit too baroque for such a simple idea. Others acknowledge Brewer as a breakthrough artist, a white filmmaker finding intriguing ways of visualizing major minority themes. Either way, expect this effort to lift the director’s already high profile, which already appears poised to turn him into a major Hollywood heavyweight.
While it sounds like an inverse reconfiguration of the classic Saturday Night Live skit with Martin Short and Harry Shearer as the world’s first all male synchronized swimmers, these two dudes on ice skates spoof may be a certified sleeper. After all, it has the puzzlingly popular Will Ferrell and the so far underused Jon Herder as the sowcowing studs. Adding fuel to the fires of uncertainty, this is the first major movie for directing duo Josh Gordon and Will Speck, based on a script from untried screenwriters Jeff and Craig Cox. Perhaps the biggest fear many critics have is that this entire enterprise could degenerate into 90 minutes of mindless homophobia (the trailer seems to play on that tendency). It will also be interesting to see how the film handles the obvious athletic limitations of its less than physical cast.
Talk about resting on your considerable laurels. It was way back in 2003 when James Wan became a genre cause celeb for his turn behind the lens (and help behind the typewriter) in the psychological shell game, Saw. Since then, rumors have been rampant over what his next directorial project would be—this, while buddy Leigh Whannell went on to oversee the next two films in the Jigsaw franchise. The answer is this obvious homage to ‘70s Italian terror in combination with the standard scary doll dynamic. Using the well worn formula of a local legend (here, the vengeful spirit of a female ventriloquist) and a man seeking answers for a tragedy in his past, this gloomy ghost story promises to be a major departure from the Hitchcockian histrionics of Wan’s previous work.
What is it with the sudden fascination with exploitation? While those film fans in the know understand the massive impact the business had on the medium overall (including the breakdown of certain censorship restrictions), it seems the Naughts have inspired a sudden desire to look back to the drive-in for creative inspiration. In this case, two of modern moviemaking’s most exciting stylists offer a bravura reminder of when the sleaze of 42nd Street merged with the profitability of the passion pit. Robert Rodriguez takes on terror with his zombie stomp Planet Terror while Quentin Tarantino gives Kurt Russell the Travolta treatment as a psychotic stuntman in Death Proof. Featuring fake movie trailers and theatrical ads from the likes of Rob Zombie, Eli Roth and Edgar Wright, this promises to be the film geek happening of the pre-Blockbuster season.
It takes a great deal of talent to find something new and novel in a dead and dying genre, but Brit wits Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright found such innovation with brilliant horror comedy Shaun of the Dead. Now the duo take on the police procedural as Pegg plays Sergeant Nicholas Angel, a big city London cop unceremoniously transferred to an idyllic English country town. Along with partner PC Danny Butterman (the always hilarious Nick Frost), the pair stumbles upon a series of accidental deaths that may or may not have sinister underpinnings. With the obsession over hyperstylized violent action films as the foundation for their funny business, the team behind some of the UK’s more inventive comedies (TV’s Spaced) promise to deliver the kind of massive crossover hit that has so far eluded the duo.
When it comes to its animation department, Disney has been all over the map the last few years. First, they announced a phasing out of all hand drawn animation. Then they battled with Pixar over a collaborative contract extension. Then their own 3-D effort Chicken Little tanked, and suddenly, they were buddy-buddy with John Lassiter and the gang again (even naming the Toy Story titan head of their cartoon department). Now comes this under the radar effort, a bit of futuristic surrealism that looks like Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius meshed with Back to the Future. There’s an uncertain pedigree behind the motherboards (director Stephen J. Anderson is helming his first major mainstream effort) and a standard House of Mouse dynamic (lots of anarchic ancillary characters) on screen, so this could be a decent diversion. It could also be the last nail in the previous regime’s creative coffin.
The events of 9/11 have inspired a great deal of discussion, but until recently, very little cinematic catharsis. Yet after the relatively tame returns for the two fact-based looks at the events that terrible September day (United 93 and World Trade Center) Sony is betting that Americans are ready for a fictional drama based on the disaster… one starring a notoriously sophomoric comic looking to make his serious film debut, to boot. That is indeed the challenge facing this intriguing effort from filmmaker Mike Binder. It’s Adam Sandler in the role of a man devastated by the loss of his family in the attacks, and Don Cheadle as the college roommate trying to bring him back to the world of the living. While it sounds a lot like a politically aware rewrite of The Fisher King, one hopes the subject matter stifles Sandler’s inherent immaturity.
One doesn’t readily associate British auteur Danny Boyle with science fiction, but then again, that could be said for any of his directorial choices. Who could have imagined that the man who made the Zen drug rave-up Trainspotting would next reinvent the living dead genre with 28 Days Later, only to follow that up with Millions, a well-meaning family film. As part of his continued cinematic shapeshifting, this latest movie finds the filmmaker mining Solaris territory, as a ragtag crew of diverse astronauts race to re-ignite a dying sun. Rumor has it that the rest of the world will see this film before people in America will, where it may be pushed back to the Fall of 2007 for possible awards consideration. That could be a real sign of significant promise, or the standard US treatment for a film the industry feels no one will appreciate.
David Fincher has been MIA since delivering his über-intellectualized thriller Panic Room five years ago. Along the way, he’s been associated with everything from another take on the Alien franchise to a mega-budgeted realization of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. While those two possibilities languish in the realm of rumored possibility, Fincher decided to revisit the dark serial killer territory he mined in Se7en. The result is this stylish ‘70s throwback, based on the famed San Francisco murder spree of the title terror. With a fascinating cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo) and the Polyester ambience of the Me Decade as a backdrop, this promises to be a mind-bender…which is no big surprise coming from the man who helmed The Game and one of the ‘90s best films, Fight Club.