[15 January 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The promise is everywhere: fewer sequels, wider variety, more top of the line talent both in front of and behind the camera. Well known franchises are finding their way back to the local multiplex, while hackneyed genres long thought dead are getting revived by interesting, ingenious artists. Without the benefit of proto-prognostication like test screenings, focus group reports, or demographic determinations, 2008 is shaking out to be a boffo year in cinema. It would take a lot to match 2007—especially after the spectacular awards season stretch from October to December, but at first glance, it looks like the next 12 months are up to the task. They may even surpass it.
Of course, the ongoing battle between the WGA and the major studios could mar all this entertainment goodwill. Several high profile offerings (Oliver Stone’s Pinkville, George Miller’s Justice League of America) have already been cancelled or are considering closing down due to ongoing issues with their screenplays and the individuals who create them. And with no end to the labor dispute in sight, and several independently reached accords muddying the negotiations, it’s hard to tell what will happen to Hollywood next. On the surface, the conglomerates are claiming that there’s enough product to outlast a prolonged protest. On the inside, suits are sweating it out.
This hasn’t stopped old release habits from dying very, very hard, however—especially when it comes to the anticipated films of 2008. As usual, Spring has become the dumping ground for a lot of cinematic filler. Wastes like One Missed Call, In the Name of the King, and Sylvester Stallone’s return as Rambo have arrived, unceremoniously, to pick up any leftover award seasons shillings. As the many nameless comedies, below average examples of CGI kiddie fare, and tepid dramas unfurl, there are a few bright spots on the horizon. 11 January sees the JJ Abrams produced Cloverfield finally coming to a theater near you. This Blair Witch Godzilla, focusing on some found footage shot by young adults during a giant monster’s attack on Manhattan, has been viral marketed to death. Yet beneath all the web-based puzzles, the scavenger hunt hints, and blink and you’ll miss it previews, some are suggesting this unusual effort might just redefine the genre. However, they said that about that boring Burkittsville romp as well.
Another well publicized possibility is Michel Gondry’s follow-up to his quirky and quite clever The Science of Sleep. Be Kind, Rewind stars Jack Black and Mos Def as video store employees who decide to replace their entire inventory with homemade versions of famous movies after all their tapes are accidentally erased. Promising spoofs (or as the characters call it, ‘swedes’) of classics like Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, and Robocop, the original buzz for this project was very, very high. Then someone saw it. Now, reports are that this otherwise promising picture (opening 22 February) may face the same ‘NSFC’ (not screened for critics) fate as other pre-Summer slop.
Be Kind, Rewind
Maybe Will Ferrell can set things right. A week later, on 29 February, his latest collaboration with Old School writer Scot Armstrong hits. On the plus side, Semi-Pro promises to be a ridiculous, raunchy sports comedy—and the recently released ‘red band’ trailer tends to prove this. On the down side, director Kent Alterman is a novice behind the lens. Almost all his credits are for producing, and at least two of them (The Man and Mr. Woodcock) don’t bode well for his satiric acumen. Add to that Armstrong’s last few scripts—School for Scandal, the horrible Heartbreak Kid remake—and things don’t look so great. Perhaps a MVP performance by the star can save things.
Speaking of something that will require a little karmic and creative support to actually work, Fox falls back on its stunt casting ways to turn their version of Dr. Seuss’s beloved tale Horton Hears a Who! (14 March) into yet another example of pop culture quipping 3D animation. Our excitable elephant is played by former flavor of the month Jim Carrey. The microscopic Mayor of Who-ville he indirectly interacts with is essayed by current comic go-to guy Steve Carell. Reading the cast list—Johan Hill, Seth Rogen, Dan Fogler, Dane Cook—there appears to be a lot of heavyweight humor talent involved. And the movie looks marvelous. However, initial trailers have a bad, Ron Howard/Grinch Stole Christmas vibe, and the names behind the scenes have been responsible for less than successful (Santa Clause 2, Robots) family filmmaking.
Horton Hears a Who!
With Summer rapidly approaching, April ends things on a rather quirky note. After falling off the awards season calendar (for unexplained reasons) George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, the football period piece Leatherheads (4 April) promises more pseudo-Coen Brothers riffs from the adept actor turned filmmaker. While the presence of Renee Zellweger is problematic (as is her obvious resemblance to a character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the Coens’ Hudsucker Proxy), this could be a sparkling screwball comedy. On the other side of the funny business fence is the Tina Fey vehicle Baby Mama (18 April). Ms. 30 Rock plays a 37-year-old business woman who, when she discovers she’s infertile, hires a working class gal (Amy Poehler) to be her surrogate. Could be interesting. Could be Juno meshed with Baby Boom.
May officially announces the arrival of mindless blockbuster fare, and there is plentiful popcorn fodder to follow in the next four months. It all begins with Jon Favreau’s intriguing take on the classic comic book hero Iron Man (2 May). From the novel casting (Robert Downey Jr., Terrance Howard, Jeff Bridges) to the intriguing premise, this could be a winner. Besides Favreau has a knack for recapturing the past glory of motion picture entertainment (see Zathura as an example). Equally capable of lighting up the screen are Andy and Larry Wachowski. As their first film behind the lens since a little something called The Matrix Trilogy hit theaters five years ago, the 9 May arrival of their Speed Racer adaptation has fans of the classic ‘60s anime worried. Some have celebrated the cartoon look and eye candy appeal present in the recently released advertisement. Others wonder if the visual scope will undermine the title’s smaller pleasures.
One things for sure, by 22 May no one will care. After a gestation period longer than any other title coming out (Last Crusade was 19 years ago!), and more questions about the cast and creators than should technically be allowed, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Harrison Ford are once again resurrecting the classic serial action icon, Indiana Jones. The superstar archeologists latest adventure, subtitled The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, suggests a sort of family reunion. Internet rumor mills have speculated that the return of Marion Ravenwood and the casting of Shia LaBeouf argue for a love child subplot on top of the typical dimensions of daring-do. As for the rest of the story? As usual, it’s a heavily guarded secret that only a quick trip onto the World Wide Web can uncover. It’s powerhouse presence makes the rest of the month’s movies (a Chronicles of Narnia sequel—16 May and the unnecessary Sex and the City adaptation—30 May) seem unnecessary.
Speaking of unnecessary, June’s first two titles seem like unnecessary trips back to the same cinematic well. Of the two, The Incredible Hulk (13 June) appears the most superfluous. Love it or hate it, Ang Lee’s decent interpretation of the material is still a solid bit of spectacle. All Louis Leterrier can do is bring his Transporter series style of thrills to the table with a differing collection of actors. Until we actually get to see the CGI version of the Marvel Comics monster, however, judgment remains reserved. The same can be said for Will Smith’s latest high concept comedy. Hancock (2 June) has the international megastar playing a reluctant superhero hoping to recapture his past glory and erase the stigma of his scandal plagued public persona. Jason Bateman is his spin doctor. Charlize Theron is his put upon wife. With painful memories of My Super Ex-Girlfriend still reverberating in audiences’ minds, this better deliver. Otherwise, it will be viewed as a talented man treading box office water.
Another former funnyman who needs to elevate his game is Mike Myers. Unfortunately, the premise for his return to live action comedy, The Love Guru (20 June) is about as cheesy as they come. Everyone’s favorite Scottish brogued ogre plays an American self-help therapist, raised by foreign shaman, who comes to the aid of a professional hockey player with sex life problems. Expect lots of English as a second language malapropisms and standard rom-com clichés. There is still some small hope for those looking to laugh over the same summer weekend, however. Steve Carell is back again, this time paired with The Devil Wears Prada‘s Anne Hathaway, for an update of the classic Buck Henry/Mel Brooks TV spy spoof Get Smart. While physical comedy and sight gags are usually reserved for the Epic Movie crowd, this one has possibilities.
That just leaves Pixar to pick up the pieces. The already overhyped Wall-E (27 June) has been stunning preview audiences with its 3D look at a lonely robot, and the alien visitors who suddenly soar into his life. This heavily guarded project, proposed long ago by the creative minds behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Cars, promises to be the movie of 2008. The geeks have already crowned it a must-see masterpiece without ever viewing a single fully realized frame, and with limited family friendly options coming to the marketplace during the season, this could be the biggest hit of the year as well.
From here on out, it’s defiant double headers and some rather sketchy Fall features. On the 11th of July, the first of a pair of daunting twofers arrive. On the one hand is the Ben Stiller directed Tropical Thunder. In this crackpot comedy, a group of actors starring as soldiers in a war film become unlikely recruits in a real life skirmish. Sounds like The Three Amigos meets Platoon. For those who want more comic book chaos, Guillermo Del Toro is back with the sequel to his spectacular Hellboy. This time around, the Hellspawn hero takes on The Golden Army, the rebellious forces of a mythical realm. With a bigger budget, and a lot more creative cred (thanks in part to the international acclaim for Pan’s Labyrinth), we could finally be witnessing the birth of another favored franchise.
Similarly, 18 July sees the return of the brilliant Christopher Nolan and his continuing take on the Batman legacy, this time entitled The Dark Knight. After kvetching over the casting of Heath Ledger as the latest incarnation of The Joker, the trailer has proved that the British auteur knows what he’s doing. This down to earth take on crime and corruption in Gotham is poised to be the kind of revisionist revelation that Nolan’s Batman Begins was. Anyone not interested in seeing a caped crusader battle a harlequin horror for truth and justice can merely wander over to the next theater. There, Meryl Streep will be exercising her acting AND singing chops as she stars in the big screen adaptation of the ABBA musical Mamma Mia. While the story seems simple (a young girl, looking for her biological father, discovers it could be one of three differing men), the sight of Streep belting out the title tune is enough to win over even the most mean-spirited musical hater.
Once August arrives, all bets are off. Indeed, with the continuing effects of the writer’s strike still being assessed, what will and will not be released in 2008 becomes a question for a near psychic level of speculation. Another Judd Apatow produced farce, the stoner comedy Pineapple Express, promises to land on 8 August. In October, Ridley Scott is expected to deliver his latest, Body of Lies, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. November brings the return of everyone’s favorite boy wizard (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince) while David Fincher switches gears from 2007’s Zodiac to bring the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button, to theaters. Oddly enough, the year ends where it began—with JJ Abrams hyping the hell out of his take on the Star Trek series. The unnamed number XI promises to look at the crew of the Enterprise during their Starfleet Academy days.
All of this could change tomorrow, especially with the work stoppage continuing to loom large over the industry. Studios actually sent out previews back in December, but over the last few weeks, many reps have been reconfiguring the schedule, hinting that some titles may be held to keep 2009 from being a bare cupboard disaster. Remember, a movie takes a long time to make, what with star perks, creative conflicts, and unforeseen production problems. Writing may be the least labor intensive element of a film, but without the printed word basis for the narrative, there’d be no characters or story—or movie. So take all these coming attractions with a massive grain of show business salt. 2008 might be a great year for cinephiles. It could also be a bust.