[10 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Like the sainted sigh of relief that comes after another shriek-filled All Hallow’s Eve, November usually means the start of the ‘nominate me’ process for the proposed prestige pictures of 2008. Yet looking over the list below, there’s more commerciality than classicism on display. With the exception of two films on the 14th, everything else looks like it’s aimed directly at the coffers, not the critic’s year end Best Of lists. And who said the reverberations from the writer’s strike would subvert Tinsel Town’s business model as usual approach?
Quantum of Solace
When it was announced that relative unknown Daniel Craig was taking over the role of the world’s most famous spy, fans started foaming at the messageboard mouth. One massive hit (Casino Royale) later, and all is quiet on the James Bond front. With Monster Ball‘s Marc Forster behind the lens and a short story by Ian Fleming as an iffy foundation, the only real controversy so far centers on the movie’s slightly clunky title. Audiences can expect more of the same from the revamped 007—more hot tempered confrontations, more pseudo sexist banter, more shirtless moments for everyone’s favorite government agent. It’s been a long time since Bond seemed this relevant—or interesting.
Madagascar: Back 2 Africa
After the daring, and quite delightful Kung Fu Panda, it’s a shame to see Dreamworks applying the automatic “success = sequel” formula to this half-baked quasi-comedy. Sure, Ben Stiller and Chris Rock can be very funny, just not voicing anthropomorphized zoo animals. The plot has the New York bound characters from the first film crash landing in their native habitat. Hijinx supposedly ensue. We can expect lots of strangers in a strange land lameness and cross cultural clumsiness from the artless all star creatures. There is so much more to CCI than stunt casting and pop culture riffing. It’s just too bad that the suits who started the trend (with Shrek) have failed to learn this lesson.
Repo: The Genetic Opera
Parlaying his long dormant Saw cred on this peculiar pet project, director Darren Lynn Bousman offers up a song and dance dystopia where plastic surgery disasters demand their own financial repo men. Much bloody bedlam and anarchic arias follow. With Paul Sorvino, Paris Hilton, and Texas Chainsaw II‘s Bill Mosley in tow, this all singing surrealism is poised to be the next Rocky Horror Picture Show—misunderstood upon release, revered come time for cult consideration.
In what seems like a return to the worst parts of the ‘80s high concept comedy phase, Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott slum in this humorless, hackneyed Big Brother mentoring mess. On the positive side, everyone’s favorite Superbad supporting player, the fake ID flouncing McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) plays one of the troubled teens. On a less comforting note, The State‘s David Wain is in the director’s chair. His uneven creative catalog suggests something equally problematic and patchy.
After fussing over his next possible project (believe it or not, it’s been seven years since Moulin Rouge! ) Aussie madman Baz Luhrmann has decided to pay tribute to the land of his birth. This Giant-sized epic, promoting the pioneer spirit of the former British penal colony has favorite son Hugh Jackman opposite divined daughter Nicole Kidman as World War II era lovers forced to drive cattle across the forbidding Down Under outback. As luck would have it, the nearby town of Darwin is also under attack. So far, a teaser trailer has hinted at the film’s luxuriant scope, and some have suggested that Luhrmann is actually attempting an all encompassing homage to similarly styled movies from the past. The look sure is the same. Here’s hoping the drama is equally dynamic.
After the unqualified success of No Country for Old Men, elusive author Cormac McCarthy should have expected the success of his latest novel. Thanks to a Pulitzer Prize, and some Oprah aided buzz, The Road became a monster bestseller. Still, translating the harrowing journey of a nameless father and son through a post-apocalyptic nightmare that is the former United States doesn’t sound like guaranteed motion picture product. The hiring of Viggo Mortensen as the male lead showed promise. Bringing The Proposition‘s John Hillcoat on was another genius move. But getting untried playwright Joe Penhall to write the script could be the translation’s undoing. We’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best. The book deserves it.
The Assassination of a High School President
With a title that ends up being more provocative than the actual premise (a comic conspiracy at a snooty Catholic School is uncovered), there are a lot of potential pitfalls for the undeniably odd sounding effort. First up is novice feature filmmaker Brett Simon. His untried status actually cost him the job of bringing Juno to the big screen (and that script was pretty much a slam dunk). Second, the storyline seems overly complicated, trying to mimic All the President’s Men via a half-hearted Heathers. In the end, there’s too many cons to suggest a satiric success.
Until a few months ago, no one had ever heard of this comedy-drama from Undercover Brother helmer Malcolm D. Lee. Then co-stars Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes both died within days of each other. Suddenly, this story of a pair of backup singers putting their 20 years of angry differences aside to reunite for a cross country concert tour has the unexpected tinge of a last act elegy. Some have even forgotten that Samuel L. Jackson is the actual lead. Here’s hoping the film succeeds on its own terms, and not just out of morbid media curiosity.
When Pixar’s John Lasseter took over as guide for the House of Mouse’s animation output, he promised some radical changes and a return to old school Disney values. This movie sure looks like the bi-furcated product of such competing company mindsets. On the one hand is the attention to detail, fine tuned characterization, and sense of cinematic wonder that came from the studio’s traditional pen and ink products. Then there is the blatant catering to computer generated concerns and the everpresent stunt voice casting (Miley Cyrus? There’s a surprise). A lot will be riding on this release. Lasseter replaced original director Chris Sanders when he resisted the changes he suggested. Here’s hoping he was right.
Oh god - get ready. Like a hornier Harry Potter, adolescent girls apparently go ga-ga over the syrupy supernatural series from author Stephenie Meyer, and this adaptation of the first novel in the quadrilogy already promises to be an overhyped ogre come release date. The studios have already inundated critics with cheat sheets, interview material, publicity puffery, and any possible marketing angle they can readily conceive—and all for the teen dream story of a young girl falling in love with a local vampire. Sheesh. There’s a possibility that director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) can deliver the mainstream muggle goods. If so, get ready for another three films of horror as raging hormones.
Nathan Ayers was a musical prodigy that developed schizophrenia during his second year at Julliard. He eventually ended up on the streets, playing his violin for spare change. Jamie Foxx, clearly hoping for a repeat of Ray-sized glory, essays the troubled troubadour. Robert Downey Jr. plays the LA journalist who uncovers Ayers identity, and Catherine Keener plays his editor. Director Joe Wright, who wowed audiences with his adaptation of Atonement, has the credentials to pull this off. Here’s hoping his cast lets him.
It’s clear by now—Jason Statham has a concrete career death wish. Every time it looks like he will finally shed his musky, man of any action movie image (The Bank Job), he returns to the ADD addled genre that apparently keeps him well paid and underfed (does the man have ANY body fat whatsoever?). Following the failure of Paul W.S. Anderson’s underrated Death Race, the brawny Brit returns to the franchise that made him an unintended international icon. That sound you just heard is the collection yawn from an unimpressed, “been there, done that” fanbase—and if they aren’t happy, this series seems DOA.
Warner Brothers has poured a lot of star power into this otherwise unknown comedy quantity. It features four Oscar winners—Reese Witherspoon, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, and Robert Duvall—and adds in a couple of country music superstars (Tim McGraw and Dwight Yoakam) for good measure. And we loved Seth Gordon’s last film, the fascinating documentary The King of Kong. Still, it’s hard to get a handle on a holiday film that sees a young couple competing for the affection of their divorced and remarried families (hence the title trouble).
Nothing Like the Holidays
After changing its name from Humbolt Park (the setting for this ethnic tearjerker), Overture Films has been rather silent about this John Leguizamo led tale of a troubled Puerto Rican family and what very well may be their last Christmas together. Director Alfredo De Villa definitely understands the narrative terrain. His entire indie career has been forged via stories of individuals—minority or otherwise—and their life on the edge of social acceptance. We will just have to wait and see.