Café


Jennifer Love Hewitt wonders why “Ghost Whisperer” got canceled.

(2011) Drama (Maya Entertainment) Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jamie Kennedy, Alexa Vega, Madeline Carroll, Daniel Eric Gold, Michaela McManus, Khan Baykal, Gavin Bellour, Derek Cecil, Adam Shapiro, Richard Short, Olivia Hoff, Katie Lowes, Hubbel Palmer, Clayton Prince. Directed by Marc Erlbaum

 

A coffee house, a neighborhood place to sit, hang out, surf the web and just talk over a cup of coffee with a friend. Every neighborhood worth its salt has one, whether it be a Starbucks or a local joint, unique to its environment. Some however are much more unique than others.

This particular café has a pair of baristas – Claire (Hewitt) and Todd (Gold). Todd has a thing for Claire, but she’s in a relationship with a brutal, abusive jerk (Bellour) and he’s what you might call a little bit on the mousy side. Just a little bit.

It also has a cast of regulars – a writer (Short) who has a secret connection to Todd. A drug dealer (Kennedy) who is beginning to get the idea that he needs a career change. A married man (Cecil) who attends the movies with a woman (McManus) whom he is desperately attracted to. A cop (Prince) who is looking for his cousin who is a junkie and also a regular at the café.

All of which is witnessed by a man (Palmer) on a laptop who gets a video message from a young girl named Kelly (Lowes) who claims that the café is a computer generated environment she created. The man is at first skeptical but when the programmer makes some things happen, he realizes it’s the truth. He realizes he is face to face with his world’s God.

This is a bit of an allegory, but it’s far from being preachy although there are certainly some Christian overtones. At least you aren’t hit over the head with it, as some faith-based films are prone to doing. No, this can be taken just as easily as a treatise on the nature of reality. Whether the creator is a computer programmer, an all-powerful entity or a series of random events, our existence is shaped by the knowledge – or ignorance – of that which created us.

I have to admit I didn’t expect much from this film, not hearing much of a buzz about it but I was pleasantly surprised. The movie has a great deal of heart and I found myself feeling very comfortable in the café, like one I was familiar with and hung out at all the time which I suspect was the goal of the filmmakers in the first place.

Hewitt is one of those actresses who sometimes doesn’t get the credit that she deserves because of her face and figure which are both spectacular. She’s also a gifted actress who sometimes doesn’t get parts that suit her but here she plays a little bit out of her comfort zone as a battered girlfriend and she does a stellar job.

In fact the entire cast does a pretty solid job. Some of the storylines work better than others (while I like the two characters from the movie infidelity storyline, was it really necessary to the plot?) as is usually the case in movies like this. However, the focus is Gold and Hewitt to a large degree (which is a bit strange given the whole Avatar-Programmer storyline which is the crux of the plot) and they carry it off nicely.

This is probably going to be a little hard to find but worth the effort. It’s a charming film that asks some pretty big questions, doesn’t lead you towards any set of answers and doesn’t seem to conform to any specific philosophy. I like pictures that have both brains and heart – we humans are possessed of both and films that cater to both of them are both rare and appreciated.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice ensemble piece. Had more heart than I anticipated.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all the storylines work as well as they might.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, some bad language, some drug use and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in a working café in West Philadelphia.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diner

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Molly

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The Last Airbender


The Last Airbender

Those guys are just teed off because Aang stole their pajamas.

(Paramount) Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Dev Patel, Cliff Curtis, Aasif Mandvi, Shaun Toub, Keong Sim, Seychelle Gabriel, Katharine Houghton, Francis Guinan, Randall Duk Kim, Damon Gupton, Summer Bishil. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

There is the school of thought that all of us were born for a reason. Whether that reason is to accomplish something, or to be with somebody, we all have a destiny we’re meant to fulfill. That’s the idea, anyway.

Based on the Nickelodeon faux-anime series, the movie takes place in a world that has been divided into four nations, each based on an element – Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Each nation has a group of people within it that can bend the element endemic to their nature; Earthbenders can cause rocks to hurl themselves at aggressors, and protect their Bender by creating a shield wall. Waterbenders can encase their enemy in ice, while Airbenders can create a little tornado. Firebenders can hurl flames at those they wish, which can come in very handy when you want to fricassee someone.

However, Benders can only work with the element they’re native to and none other. Only one person, the Avatar, can bend all four elements. He also can communicate with the spirit world, wherein reside dragons and other amazing creatures who act as mentors and guides. The Avatar is reincarnated whenever he dies and while he lives he keeps the world in balance.

However, Aang (Ringer), the most recent Avatar, ran away before he could be fully trained and disappeared. Without the Avatar to maintain balance, the aggressive Fire Nation attacked the Air Nation and wiped it out, and has occupied the Earth Nation while besieging the Water Nation. The world is at war.

A hundred years later, two war orphans of the Southern Water Tribe are hunting for very scarce food on the ice floe. Katara (Peltz) and her brother Sokka (Rathbone) find something buried beneath the ice which turns out to be an ice sphere, which turns out to contain…drum roll please…Aang, who has remained in suspended animation for more than a century. He is completely unaware of what has transpired. However, releasing Aang sends a bolt of light sure to attract anyone in the vicinity.

And it so happens that in the vicinity is Prince Zuko (Patel) of the Fire Nation, who is in disgrace for showing leniency to the soldiers under his command. He has been banished by his own father, the Fire Lord Ozai (Curtis) until Zuko brings the Avatar to the court of the Fire Lord. The beam of light attracted Zuko’s notice and he, along with his uncle, General Iroh (Taub). They march into the village of the Water People and capture Aang. However, Sokka and Katara rescue the lad with the aid of his luckdragon. Okay, it looks like a luckdragon.

At Sokka’s urging, Aang heads up a rebellion, which gains some steam. After awhile, Aang confesses to Katara that he was only trained how to bend Air, and needs to learn Water, Earth and Fire in order to attain his full power. Sokka and Katara must take Aang to the Northern Water Tribe where they still bend water openly, and get him trained. However, Zuko is pretty hacked off after losing his prisoner and is looking for him with a vengeance, and Ozai has sent his slimiest general, Commander Zhao (Mandvi) to trap the Avatar himself. Considering the armed might of the Fire Nation and their infernal machines, can anyone stand up against the most powerful nation on the planet?

The critics have been universally harsh on this one, and I can see some of their points. Certainly the acting is on the wooden side here. I mean, I know they’re supposed to be one with the earth but do they have to be trees?

I know, har de har har har. However, Shyamalan, who has been on a cold streak lately, cast a kid in the lead role that has a certain amount of natural charisma but not enough acting chops to pull off carrying an entire movie. He has some impressive martial arts moves, but mostly what he does is wire work. Ringer would have benefitted from a few more acting lessons before cameras were rolling. However, the boy has a certain natural charm that you can’t teach; hopefully in future movies he’ll be much better.

Another problem is the battle scenes. If you look at most Asian martial arts movies, the battle scenes look realistic and beautifully choreographed. Here, it looks like a bunch of guys waving their arms around. There’s no sense of conflict.

There has been some grumbling that the bad guys are mostly played by Indian actors. I mean, can we just take a chill pill for a moment? The director wanted the four nations to look ethnically similar, so the Earth people look Chinese and Mongol, the Water people look Scandinavian and Germanic and the Fire people look like Eastern Indians. Shyamalan is of Indian-American background; how people would have had a coronary if the Fire People all were African, or Italian. Take it easy people; this is a fantasy movie, not an indictment of any particular ethnic group back here on Earth and certainly not the director’s own. Sheesh.

To the good, the art direction is marvelous. Shyamalan succeeded in creating distinct cultures with their own architectural look, from the steampunk-styled warships of the Fire people to the igloo-like dwellings of the Water people. The costumes and the overall look of the movie is very satisfying, to say the least. The bending effects of fireballs, ice walls, flying rocks and tornadic dust clouds while not groundbreaking are at least reasonably high on the wow factor scale.

The dialogue could have used some work, but then again what do you expect for a movie based on a Nickelodeon animated series? It’s simplistic in places, full of pretentious New Age babble, and portentous pronouncements. I suspect some of the acting performances would have been better had the actors had more naturalistic dialogue to work with.

This isn’t a very good movie, to be sure but it does have some redeeming qualities, despite the critical bashing that it has been taking for awhile. I haven’t seen the original anime that this is based on so I went in as something of a blank slate, without any preconceived notions of how this movie should look or feel. Without any knowledge of the show’s canon, I can safely say that the premise is very intriguing, if a little child-friendly, and I liked some of the concepts here. Unfortunately, those concepts weren’t well-served by the script. The movie did moderate box office in its first weekend and unless it turns out to be word-of-mouth proof, chances are those numbers are going to take a nosedive in the coming days. So, it is sad to say that this will take its place in a long line of recent attempts to create a new fantasy franchise that have ended after a single chapter (see Eragon, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, The Dark is Rising: The Seeker, Inkheart, The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Golden Compass, to name just a half dozen). Maybe the studios should stop looking for the next Harry Potter and try some adult fantasy fiction, like the Wheel of Time, or the Shannara series or perhaps the Magic of Xanth. I wouldn’t mind any one of those making it to the screen.

REASONS TO GO: Great concept and some truly impressive visuals. The set design is just outstanding.

REASONS TO STAY: Really bad acting in some key roles. Battle sequences look just awful. Dialogue too “Nickelodeon Cartoon” to make sense in a live action film.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fantasy violence and a few battle scenes, but nothing bloody or disturbing enough that you wouldn’t think twice about letting most kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the series this is based on is entitled “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Paramount dropped the “Avatar” to avoid confusion with the James Cameron movie released in 2009, and also to avoid possible legal action from 20th Century Fox, who had already registered the name.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the sequences are visually impressive and deserve to be seen on a big screen; otherwise, it’s your call.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Death Race

Top 10 Movies of 2009


Top 10 Movies of 2009It is traditional amongst those who write about movies that as one year ends and another year begins that there is a certain amount of reflection that goes on about the year that has just passed and the movies seen in that period. In this list-happy society, most critics put together a list of the top ten movies of the year in order to give their readers some sense of perspective about the year in review.

Far be it for me to argue with tradition. I have always found top ten lists to be somewhat arbitrary – for example, why choose ten movies? What if there are more movies worthy of being honored as the year’s best than just ten? What if there are fewer? How does one distinguish between a big budget Hollywood epic and a micro-budget indie? How can you compare a romantic comedy with a historical drama?

I’ll admit the system isn’t perfect. Although I’m calling this piece the Top 10 Movies of 2009, what it really should be called is an arbitrary list of ten movies I thought worth singling out. Certainly, these are the movies that I found most praiseworthy of those released in Orlando theaters during the calendar year of 2009 – at least the ones that I saw (I was unable to see the very much acclaimed Up in the Air by the time this was written). These are all movies that, in some way large or small, affected me the most or I found to be the most innovative.

2009 will go down in the record books as a record box office bonanza as movie theaters took in over $10 billion in box office receipts for the first time in the history of the movies. Some of the movies on this list contributed a good deal to that bottom line, while others barely made a dent. It was a year of giant robots and of heart-fluttering teen vampires. Franchises were reborn while others were shown the door.

Hollywood continued to be youth-driven as movies tended to be skewed towards teen and family markets, the two demographics that tended to be responsible for the most repeat business. Studios resorted to innovative and alternative methods of marketing their films, sometimes eschewing traditional mean of marketing entirely in lieu of internet and viral campaigns meant to generate buzz. The stakes for the publicity machines have never been higher; most big budget releases have to make at least one third of their budget back in the opening weekend in order for the movie to have even a small chance of making back their budget. Hollywood began to live and die on a steady diet of buzz.

The Internet and sites like Latino Review, Ain’t It Cool News and Collider began to be major players in determining the marketability of films to the target audience of internet-savvy young people, whose buy-in to a movie was critical to a film’s success – and whose lack thereof could be lethal. Movies like Paranormal Activity became critical and commercial successes despite having almost no budget and no star power, being solely driven on a clever internet marketing campaign and word of mouth as generated over the net. Studios took note of the success of the movie and are quietly gearing up sub-divisions to develop smaller-budget movies for niche audiences.

While many complained that Hollywood relied too heavily on concept films, sequels and merchandising-driven films in an overall litany of accusations that there is no originality in Hollywood anymore (a claim, ironically enough, that is unoriginal in itself), certainly there was plenty of innovation to go around. From new means of storytelling to breakthroughs in special effects, movies continued to push the boundaries of filmmaking in 2009. Avatar released near the end of the year ended years of speculation and delivered on director James Cameron’s assertion that it would change moviemaking forever – and it will. That is why it is on the list below.

As with most lists, this is meant to generate discussion and I invite you to participate by adding your comments. Certainly, you won’t agree with every movie on this list – I can almost guarantee you that even I won’t agree with every movie on this list in a week’s time. What I can guarantee is that every one of these ten movies deserves at least a viewing, whether in a theater if the opportunity is still there, or at home on DVD, Blu-Ray, On-Demand or Cable. I’m sure you’ll find something worthwhile about all of them. Therefore, without further ado, here is my list. Enjoy.

The Hangover10.  THE HANGOVER

(Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Heather Graham, Justin Bartha, Sasha Barese, Jeffrey Tambor, Ken Jeong, Rachel Harris, Mike Tyson, Mike Epps, Jernard Brooks, Ken Jeong. Directed by Todd Phillips

Released June 5, 2009 In a summer crowded with sequels, big budget science fiction and action movies and high concept films, this comedy from the people who brought you Old School didn’t attract a lot of attention; that is, until people actually saw it. One of the funniest movies to come along in years, it took the conventions of male buddy movies and turned them on their ear. It would establish the three leads of Cooper, Galifianakis and Helms as legitimate box office stars and establish box office records for “R” rated comedies.

WHY IT IS HERE: We’ve all had lost weekends, but none like this. Waking up with no memory of what happened the night before in a totally trashed suite at Caesar’s Palace is the stuff that dreams are made of, or in this case box office gold. As the events of a wild night of debauchery are slowly pieced together, everything becomes significant and nothing is left to chance. This is as well-written and well-conceived a comedy of this type as I’ve seen in decades.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The madness of Ken Jeong, as a kidnapped Asian high roller who leaps out of the trunk of the Mercedes stark naked and screaming invectives. It is one more surreal moment in a movie filled with them.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $277.3 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $459.4 total.

BUDGET: $35 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video. A sequel is scheduled to be released Memorial Day weekend, 2011.

Red Cliff9. RED CLIFF

(Magnet) Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Zhang Fenyi, Lin Chiling, Shido Nakamura, You Yong, Ba Sen Zha Bu, Hou Yong, Philip Hersh (voice), Jiang Tong, Song Jia, Tong Dawei. Directed by John Woo

Released November 18, 2009 John Woo was once the most acclaimed action movie director in Asia, with some of the best movies of the ‘90s to his credit. Hollywood beckoned, and Woo went on to make memorable movies like Face Off and Mission: Impossible II. In his first movie in his native country in more than a decade, Woo surprisingly did an epic period movie, something he wasn’t particularly known for. With his action movie flair and his over-the-top visual style, Woo would create the most expensive movie ever made in Asia but the gamble paid off when it became a huge hit there.

WHY IT IS HERE: Hollywood has not made many movies with this kind of scope except in replication by CGI. Here, there is literally a cast of thousands. Every scene is filled with subtle visual nuances as well as grand, epic scale. Soldiers march in disciplined formations, a massive flotilla floats majestically down the Yangtze River and arrows fly like a swarm of deadly locusts. These kinds of movies are prohibitively expensive to film, so chances are we won’t see many of them ever again.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The sea battle scene in which Zhuge Liang entices Cao Cao’s forces to loose 100,000 arrows at his straw bale-covered ships.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $485,186 domestic (as of 12/27/09), $531,538 total (note that these figures are for the truncated single-film release here in the States, not the massive, two picture extravaganza originally released in Asia where it set box office records).

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Playing in limited markets. Aired on HDNet cable in December. Scheduled for home video release March 23, 2010.

Star Trek8. STAR TREK

(Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Rachel Nichols, Faran Tahir. Directed by J.J. Abrams

Released May 7, 2009 When Star Trek: Nemesis tanked and the television ratings for “Star Trek: Enterprise” were disappointing, it appeared the franchise had lost its steam. Paramount, not willing to give up on one of its most important assets, took some time off to retool and put the fate of the franchise squarely in the hands of producer-director J.J. Abrams, creator of such television fare as “Lost” and “Alias,” as well as movies like Cloverfield and Mission: Impossible III.  The move proved to be a wise one as anticipation grew among not only diehard Trekkers but among summer action movie junkies as well, especially once the trailer hit. Paramount was rewarded with the biggest box office for any Star Trek movie.

WHY IT IS HERE: While I admit to having a bit of a blind eye when it comes to Star Trek, this really is a terrific movie. It is action packed and character driven, a rare combination. Perfectly cast, the actors recreate the roles of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew with nary a false note, adding the actors’ own takes while remaining true to the spirit of the character. Dizzying special effects, a script that paid respect to the original Federation mythos while making logical sense was a feat in itself. This is a movie even non-Trekkers can love.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The halo dive from a shuttle craft to the mining platform by Kirk, Sulu and an expendable security officer was breathtaking.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $275.7 million domestic, $385.4 total.

BUDGET: $150 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video. A sequel is in the planning stages.

Inglourious Basterds7. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS

(Weinstein) Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, Daniel Bruhl, Samm Levine, B.J. Novak, Til Schweiger, Michael Fassbender, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, Mike Myers, Denis Menochet, Sylvester Groth. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Released August 21, 2009 Tarantino can always be counted upon to take something conventional, turn it on its ear and then give it a Wet Willie besides. Here, he takes the war movie, revs it up a notch, dials up the amp to 11 and unleashes it on the late summer audience. The result is Tarantino’s best opening weekend ever and one of his biggest grossing movies to date. He also gave us Christoph Waltz, one of the nastiest villains since Goldfinger and certain to get an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor next month.

WHY IT IS HERE: You have never seen a movie like this. You will never see a movie like this again. Hip and retro and intelligent all at once, nobody can make B movie conventions seem so damn smart like Tarantino. His movies are maniacal grins, fueled by tequila and mescaline, meant to be experienced as the kick-off to a weekend-long bender. Did I mention this movie rocks?

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: There are several, but the one that made me sit up and take notice came near the end when Hans Landa interrogates Bridget von Hammersmark in the theater office. He knows, you know he knows, she knows he knows but what follows is still shocking and brutal.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $120.5 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $311.7 total.

BUDGET: $70 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video.

Avatar6. AVATAR

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Peter Mensah, Matt Gerald. Directed by James Cameron

Released December 18, 2009 They say that James Cameron’s entire career has pointed to this. When the dust settles, it will undoubtedly be the phenomenon of 2009, the movie that changed everything. It is expected to be second only to Cameron’s own Titanic on the all-time box office list and is almost certain to spawn several sequels – Cameron himself said that it would be a waste if the programs that created Pandora were not used for a second movie at the very least.

WHY IT IS HERE: This is the most fully-realized alien environment ever captured. The ecology makes sense; the technology makes sense as well. Earlier, we talked about traditional epic movies going out of fashion; this is what will replace them. Worthington delivers a star-making performance that is sure to elevate him to the top echelon of Hollywood actors.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Where to begin? I love some of the scenes in the forest as the various phosphorescent flora are explored, but the last battle sequence will take your breath away.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $352.1 million domestic (as of 1/4/10), $1.018 billion total.

BUDGET: Not available, but the general consensus in Hollywood is that it is north of $300 million.

STATUS: Still in wide release, as well as selected IMAX and 3D venues.

Invictus5. INVICTUS

(Warner Brothers) Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Marguerite Wheatley, Leleti Khumalo, Patrick Lyster, Penny Downie, McNiel Hendricks, Louis Minaar, Zak Feaunati. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Released December 11, 2009 As an actor, Clint Eastwood could be counted upon to display toughness. As a director, he can be counted upon to create compelling movies that are Oscar contenders year after year. This one is no exception. While it hasn’t gotten the box office love that many of his other efforts have created (see below), it is nonetheless a brilliant movie that gives us a peak into a time and place most of us have little or no knowledge of.

WHY IT IS HERE: It’s Clint Eastwood, right? As underdog sports dramas go, most have little impact beyond the moment they portray in the community that is depicted. The moment here shows a country, once bitterly divided, coming together and learning to co-exist. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The final scene, which portrays a moment of historic importance in the history of South Africa. It will send chills up your spine.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $30.89 million domestic (as of 1/4/10), $30.89 worldwide.

BUDGET: $60 million.

STATUS: Still in wide release. General release has yet to take place overseas.

4. DEPARTURES

(Regent) Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasato, Taro Ishida, Yukiko Tachibano, Genjitsu Shu, Sanae Miyata, Toru Minegishi, Tetta Sugimoto. Directed by Yojiro Takita

Released May 29, 2009 The winner of the 2008 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was this entry from Japan. Reviewed recently on this site, it deals with mourning and death in a way that Western filmmakers would never have even considered. Because so few movies deal with the grief of losing a loved one in a truly realistic way, it makes movies like this one all the more impactful.

WHY IT IS HERE: This is a movie about dealing with death in our lives, and as such can be a really useful tool. It is beautifully made, covering the gamut of human emotions. There is some surprisingly subtle humor, as well as pathos that will make your heart ache and your throat constrict. There are tears and laughter and turmoil, and this is as cathartic a movie as you will find ever.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: There is a scene where a husband, who has berated the lead characters for being five minutes late, breaks down at the funeral of his wife. Even just writing about it here is bringing tears to my eyes.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $1.49 million domestic (as of 1/3/10), $67.9 total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Currently available on home video.

Up3. UP

(Disney) Starring the voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo, John Ratzenberger, Bob Peterson, Jerome Ranft, David Kaye, Elie Docter, Jeremy Leary, Mickie McGowan, Danny Mann. Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson

Released May 29, 2009 Year after year, Pixar outdoes itself not only in the look of their animated films, but in the complexity of their stories. This is their best outing yet, a movie that appeals not only to children with its exotic locations, sense of whimsy, talking dogs and brightly colored big birds but also to adults. The relationship between Carl and Ellie Fredericksen is real, believable and something we all aspire to. The regrets of Carl Fredericksen are the regrets we all feel as we age.

WHY IT IS HERE: Quite simply, it is perhaps the best animated feature ever made. It is certainly in the running for a Best Picture nomination for the Oscars later this month, and it is a shoe-in to win the Best Animated Feature. There are plenty of animated movies that have made me laugh; there is only one that has made me cry. All right, two if you count the time I saw Bambi when I was four years old and was devastated by the death of his mother.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The opening montage that depicts the life of Ellie and Carl together; it is one of the most emotionally effective sequences of any movie, let alone an animated feature.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $293.0 million domestic (as of 1/6/10), $683.0 total.

BUDGET: $175 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video.

Capitalism: A Love Story2.  CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY

(Overture) Michael Moore, Wallace Shawn, William Black, Marcy Kaptur, Elizabeth Warren, Baron Hill, Elijah Cummings, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Robert Powell, Sarah Palin, John McCain. Directed by Michael Moore

Released September 23, 2009 Some movies are just going to be polarizing no matter what. Conservatives hate this movie with a passion while extreme liberals tend to love it. I guess its placement on this list gives you an idea where my political beliefs lie. Moore, one of the most controversial documentarians of all time, takes on one of the most sacred of cows in the American landscape – capitalism itself. Long held as the source of our freedoms and prosperity, Moore skewers it on the lance of logic and humor and shows that it is the source of freedom and prosperity only for a very few.

WHY IT IS HERE: When I heard about this movie, even I thought he was going over the top. Like most people in America, I had always believed capitalism to be a good thing, and socialism and other economic systems to be failures. However, Moore is able to show very effectively how the system has failed us and how it has become a monster, designed to keep the very wealthy in power and to make them wealthier. It is a compelling argument, even if you don’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions. He also makes me hope that Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) runs for president someday; she would make a far more effective leader than Secretary Clinton or even, IMHO, President Obama.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Moore’s attempted citizen’s arrest of banking executives.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $14.3 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $15.9 total.

BUDGET: Not available.

STATUS: Scheduled for home video release on March 9, 2010.

(500) Days of Summer1. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER

(Fox Searchlight) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Clark Gregg, Minka Kelly, Matthew Gray Gubler, Chloe Moretz, Rachel Boston, Geoffrey Arend, Patricia Belcher, Yvette Nicole Brown, Maile Flanagan. Directed by Marc Webb

Released July 17, 2009 There are a lot of critics who have declared the romantic comedy is dead, and certainly it appears to be a bloated corpse in many ways. Hollywood seems to be content to churn out formula rom-coms with the same attractive stars and the same invariable results. They continue to do it because we, the audience, gobble them up like a kid with his candy bag on Halloween. Perhaps that is why Webb decided to make an anti-romantic comedy. Despite the presence of the hysterically funny The Hangover on this list, this is what makes the top spot as not only the funniest movie of the year but also the best.

WHY IT IS HERE: Webb takes filmmaking conventions and turns them on their ear, telling a non-linear story using a variety of techniques and makes each of them work. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel make the most attractive couple of the year and even after they explain why it would never work, you nonetheless root for it to. There isn’t a false note in this movie; from the moment I saw it at the Florida Film Festival back in April of 2009, I knew this was something special. Some people look at indie movies with the same high regard they hold picking up dog feces in and I will admit, this is as indie a movie as it gets – still, it is a groundbreaker and a game-changer in the way cinematic storytelling is done, perhaps not as obviously as Avatar is but still. When choosing the best movie of the year, it has to meet the criteria that if you were going to recommend only one movie made in 2009 for someone to see, which one would it be. I chose this one. I hope you take the opportunity to go see it on home video if you missed it in the theaters (and many of you did, given its limited release). You won’t regret it.

HIGHLIGHT SCENE: There are a ton of them, but for me the best scene was the one in which Tom goes to a party that Summer is hosting; shown on split screen are what he is anticipating will happen and what actually does. The differences are subtle but devastating.

BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $32.4 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $46.6 total.

BUDGET: $7.5 million.

STATUS: Currently available on home video.

Avatar


Avatar

A gunship moves through one of the majestic landscapes of Pandora.

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Peter Mensah, Matt Gerald. Directed by James Cameron

A race with superior technology has a responsibility to protect those races that are less advanced than they. However, the history of humankind has shown that to rarely be the case in those sorts of situations.

In the year 2154, Marine Jake Sully (Worthington) was a grunt whose spine was injured during a campaign in Venezuela, leaving him confined to a wheelchair. His identical twin brother was a scientist who had been leaving for the wondrous world of Pandora, an Earth-sized moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, as part of the avatar program. The journey was supposed to take five years of cryo-sleep just to arrive but it would never happen; Jake’s brother was killed during a mugging.

Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans. The planet is full of flora and fauna, much of which is aggressive and lethal. There is an indigenous race of humanoids called the Na’Vi, a race of 10-12 foot tall tailed bipeds that have a great deal in common with Native Americans. Even their language sounds similar.

Humans communicate with the Na’Vi through avatars, genetically engineered creatures utilizing human and Na’Vi DNA that humans link through a machine that transfers the human’s mind into the avatar allowing the human to experience what the avatar sees, tastes and touches. The Na’Vi call the avatars “dreamwalkers” because when the humans return to their own bodies, the avatars lose consciousness and appear to sleep.

Because avatars are so hideously expensive, it is determined that Jake will take his brother’s place on Pandora despite the fact that he has had no training in an avatar and is abysmally ignorant of Pandora and its dangers. When Jake arrives on Na’Vi he finds a bit of a power struggle going on in the human fortress-encampment between the scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), a cantankerous botanist, and Col. Miles Quaritch (Lang), a gung-ho ex-Marine employed as a mercenary by the RDA Corporation and its smarmy representative Parker Selfridge (Ribisi) – notice the similarity to the word “selfish” here – who are after a rare mineral called, somewhat irreverently, unobtanium. One particular Na’Vi settlement sits on a particularly rich deposit of the stuff.

The Na’Vi don’t trust the humans and with good reason. The humans look around Pandora and see a dangerous world whose resources exist for their exploitation for corporate gain. The Na’Vi sees a living world that is beautiful and inter-connected.

Jake goes on his first mission into the forest accompanied by fellow rookie Norm Spellman (Moore) and Dr. Augustine and immediately gets himself into trouble, winding up being chased by a rhino-like creature (with the head of a hammerhead shark) into a chasm where he is separated from his fellow avatars. Day turns into night and the forest becomes even more dangerous as a pack of black canine-like creatures attacks Jake. He is saved by one of the Na’Vi, the beautiful Neytiri (Saldana) who has nothing but contempt for the avatars,who as she puts it walk through the forest like ignorant children and “see nothing.” However, when a jellyfish-like lifeform becomes curious about Jake, Neytiri interprets this as a sign and takes Jake to their village.

There her father Eytukan (Studi), the clan chief and her mother Moat (Pounder), the shaman of the clan, make the determination that Jake should be trained as a hunter for the clan. Tsu-tey (Alonso), the clan’s best hunter who is also heir to the position of chief and as thus betrothed to Neytiri, is skeptical that this can be done.

My son characterized the plot as “Dances With Aliens” and he has a point. There are many similarities between the plots of Avatar and Dances With Wolves but this definitely has its own take on it. The conflict between the needs of the corporation and the world of the Na’Vi eventually come to a head. There are some intense battle sequences but in all honesty, these are not why you come to see this movie.

Never before in motion picture history has so complete an alien environment ever been created. The look of Pandora is astonishing and realistic. It is certainly alien with some familiar elements; lush vegetation, grasses and trees and many unusual flora and fauna. There is literally no way to take it all in with a single viewing which is what the filmmakers intended undoubtedly.

Some movies become event movies simply on the basis of hype and a precious few because they are game changers. Star Wars was one of the latter and so is Avatar. This is a movie that many will see simply because everyone will be talking about it and they want to get in on the conversation. Director Cameron has once again proven himself one of the most visionary directors of his generation. While some think of him as the director of Titanic, the biggest-grossing movie of all time, his legacy may rest with Avatar. This will literally change how movies get made.

The acting is surprisingly good. Weaver has made a career of delivering strong, capable performances and her Grace Augustine may rank with Ripley as the character most associated with her in the future. Worthington delivers a star-making performance that has already landed him the lead in high-profile movies and undoubtedly will continue to do so. He has all the qualities to be a big star and while his performance in Terminator Salvation hints at it, he delivers big time here. Michelle Rodriguez, an actress I’ve never really connected with before, is superb as a sympathetic pilot.

The movie runs two hours and forty minutes which is a bit long; the 3D glasses are bulky and uncomfortable and I wound up with a sore nose where the glasses rested. I have to admit that Cameron’s strong point is not dialogue and some of the characters utter lines that made me groan out loud. His points on corporate greed and its role in wiping out the ecology of our own world, the treatment of aboriginal races and the general irresponsibility of humankind are well-taken but at times he uses a 2×4 to whack us over the head with it when an ostrich feather would have done the trick.

Reviews for this movie are almost superfluous other than to pile on superlatives for a movie that richly deserves them. Avatar may be the closest thing to a visit to an alien world that most of us will get to experience in our lifetimes, but I’m sure most people have either already seen it or were planning to see it anyway without my endorsement. Still, count me in among the endorsers of this film; widely-hyped, intensely scrutinized and greatly anticipated, it delivers as one of the year’s very best.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals, the visuals, the visuals. This is a detailed, realistic world that has an internal logic. Even the elements of the fantastic make sense.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is probably about 20-30 minutes too long and can cause a bit of sensory overload at times. Some of the film’s points get hammered in a bit too strongly.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair bit of violence and some language, but pretty much okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The avatars have five fingers and toes while the Na’Vi have four.

HOME OR THEATER: This absolutely must be experienced on the big screen, preferably in 3D and in the IMAX format if you have a theater equipped for it nearby.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: World Trade Center

New Releases for the Week of December 18, 2009


Avatar

Exotic lifeforms abound in the world of Pandora as envisioned by James Cameron.

AVATAR

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi. Directed by James CameronIt’s here at last, the most anticipated movie of 2009 and if early reports are correct, this could be a game-changer for the way movies are made. Director Cameron, in his first non-documentary feature since Titanic, creates the world of Pandora from the ground up; it involves a conspiracy by humans to grab an extremely rare element from the ground beneath a peaceful indigenous tribe. They send in a wounded marine in the form of an avatar, an artificially grown lifeform with the DNA of both human and Na’vi (said indigenous lifeform) with the marine’s consciousness imprinted on the avatar. However, the perfect plan goes awry when the marine begins to suspect that the humans aren’t necessarily the good guys.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking)

Did You Hear About the Morgans?

(Columbia) Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen. A sophisticated New York couple on the verge of splitting apart witness a murder and are whisked away into the Federal Witness Protection Program with a contract killer on their tails. Unfortunately, their new home in rural Wyoming seems to only be exacerbating their marital issues. Will these citified fish in country waters adjust to their surroundings, rekindle their relationship and avoid getting shot?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references and momentary violence)

Me and Orson Welles

(Freestyle) Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Ben Chaplin. The latest from indie director Richard Linklater is based on a novel by Robert Kaplow. It’s a coming of age tale about a young actor who lucks into a role of a 1937 New York stage production of Julius Caesar directed by none other than Orson Welles.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references and smoking)

Fall/Holiday Preview


Fall PreviewFall means back to school, the start of football season and new television programs on the networks. For the movie industry, it means the end of the summer blockbuster season and the beginning of releases seriously vying for Oscar gold. That doesn’t mean there won’t be its share of blockbusters; after all, James Cameron’s first movie since Titanic is bound to sell a whole lot of tickets, particularly when it’s as hyped as Avatar is. There is also a re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes and a new Disney full-length animated feature to keep the cash registers ringing.

September tends to be a dumping ground for movies that don’t quite fit into the Summer or Fall movie seasons, and with the exception of 9 and The Informant! probably don’t merit consideration in this feature; since we’re already into September we’re just going to skip the month altogether for the purposes of this preview and start with October (you can see previews for each week in September however on the blog and in the newsletter) and run through December.

There are always a few movies that open in Los Angeles and New York City for Oscar consideration but don’t get a general release until January or sometimes even February; those will be covered in our 2010 preview, scheduled for the end of December. As per our usual modus operandi, we will stick to wide-release movies scheduled to open in Orlando, along with a few high-profile limited release films that have a decent chance to show up either the Enzian or the Regal Winter Park. As always, these dates are very subject to change, and some may turn from general releases to limited markets. Things are very fluid when it comes to studio release schedules. In any case, check out what’s going to be on your list of must-sees this fall!

OCTOBER

Amelia_3

TOUCHDOWN

AMELIA

RELEASE DATE: October 23, 2009

STUDIO: Fox Searchlight

STARRING: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan MacGregor, Mia Wasikowska, Christopher Eccleston, Joe Anderson

STORY: She was a small-town girl who just wanted to fly to exotic places around the world. She became the heroine of a nation for being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic by herself. She became the darling of society for her breezy, natural charm. She became a legend for her mysterious, tragic final flight. She is Amelia Earhart and this is her story.

PROSPECTS: In a very weak month of releases, this has the best chance of Oscar buzz and with the right kind of push might hit box office gold as well.

OBSTACLES: Going up against the popular Saw franchise is going to be a tough sell to general audiences, particularly younger audiences who may have less interest in the Amelia Earhart story than older viewers.

FACTOID: While director Mira Nair was born in India, she has spent most of her career making movies in the United States.

FIELD GOALS

SAW VI

RELEASE DATE: October 23, 2009

STUDIO: Lionsgate

STARRING: Costas Mandylor, Mark Ralston, Betsy Russell, Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Peter Outerbridge, Larissa Gomes

STORY: The studio has kept details of the movie close to the vest, but apparently the grand design behind Jigsaw’s handiwork is going to be revealed in this entry of the highly successful horror franchise.

PROSPECTS: The Saw franchise has been among the most successful in horror film history.  Despite the onscreen death of the main villain of the first movies, the franchise has shown no signs of slowing down and has become a fixture in the October line-up.

OBSTACLES: This is the sixth installment in the franchise and horror fans are notoriously fickle. It’s quite possible they will have grown tired of it.

FACTOID: Tanedra Howard won her role in the film on the “Scream Queens” reality series.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

RELEASE DATE: October 16, 2009

STUDIO: Warner Brothers

STARRING: Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Max Records, Lauren Ambrose, James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Forrest Whitaker

STORY: The beloved book by Maurice Sendak is brought to life by director Spike Jonze. A young boy, misunderstood at home, finds a strange island populated by the Wild Things, a race of unpredictable creatures longing for a ruler. When they elect the young boy as their king, he finds that being a ruler is not all it’s cracked up to be.

PROSPECTS: Sendak’s book has delighted generations of kids, and given that the highly inventive Jonze is directing, this may have broad appeal with families as well as adult moviegoers.

OBSTACLES: Jonze can be a bit avant garde at times; general audiences may not warm to that.

FACTOID: The Wild Thing costumes were designed by the Jim Henson Company.

EXTRA POINT

A SERIOUS MAN

RELEASE DATE: October 2, 2009

STUDIO: Focus Films

STARRING: Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Aaron Wolf, Sari Wagner, Jessica McManus, Adam Arkin

STORY: A Jewish physics professor is having a tough time in 1967. His wife is leaving him for a pompous colleague, his son is a discipline problem, his career is being threatened by an anonymous letter-writer, his daughter is filching money from his wallet to save for a nose job, and his attractive next-door neighbor sunbathes in the nude. He turns to three different rabbis to help him be a mensch – a serious man.

PROSPECTS: This is the latest from the Coen brothers, who have Fargo and No Country for Old Men on their resume.

OBSTACLES: The subject matter may not appeal widely to a non-Jewish audience. The trailer is, shall we say, a tad unconventional.

FACTOID: This is Stuhlbarg’s first lead role as a professional actor.

HAIL MARYS

October 2, 2009

THE INVENTION OF LYING (Warner Brothers) finds comedian Ricky Gervais writing, directing and starring in this comedy set in a world where people only tell the truth. Gervais’ character tells the first lie – and discovers that he can manipulate his alternate reality to his own reality. However, things quickly get out of hand as things will whenever you lie, kids. WHIP IT (Fox Searchlight) is also the directorial debut of someone better known in front of the camera, in this case actress Drew Barrymore. It’s a coming-of-age movie set in the world of the roller derby. ZOMBIELAND (Columbia) is a comedy in a George A. Romero world; one taken over by flesh-eating zombies, where hapless losers like Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg become the hope of humanity. Disney is also re-releasing TOY STORY/TOY STORY 2 (Disney/Pixar) in Disney 3-D for the first time, in anticipation of the May release of the long-awaited Toy Story 3.

October 9, 2009

COUPLES RETREAT (Universal) is a Vince Vaughn comedy about four Midwestern couples who go to a luxurious Tropical resort ostensibly for a vacation. When it turns out to be a couple’s therapy resort, all four are forced to face the problems in their relationship, whether they admit to it or not. MORE THAN A GAME (Lionsgate) follows five talented young basketball players from the Akron, Ohio area – including the great LeBron James – as their friendship is tested by the pressures brought on by a looming state high school championship game and the exploding popularity and notoriety of James. AN EDUCATION (Sony Classics) comes from writer/director Nick Hornby concerning the coming-of-age of a young girl in 1961 Britain. She is forced to choose between her long-held dream of going to Oxford or a glittering, sensual jet-set life with her thirtysomething boyfriend.

October 16, 2009

THE STEPFATHER (Screen Gems) is a remake of a 1987 thriller that featured “Lost” star Terry O’Quinn. Dylan Walsh takes his role as a new suitor for a widow whose teenaged son begins to suspect that his prospective stepfather has a far more sinister agenda. LAW ABIDING CITIZEN (Overture) stars Gerard Butler as an upstanding family man whose wife and daughter are brutally murdered. He goes on a rampage against the city fathers and legal system that let one of the murderers get off with a light sentence. It’s up to the prosecutor who initially worked his case and is now in the crosshairs of the grieving man. BLACK DYNAMITE (Apparition) is a spoof of blaxploitation crime dramas from the ‘70s. It was one of the big hits of the Sundance Film festival. It’s getting a limited release but may expand if the numbers warrant it.

October 23, 2009

ASTRO BOY (Summit) is a feature-length animated film starring the venerable Japanese robotic superhero who has been thrilling audiences all over the world for almost 50 years. Based on the popular young adult series of novels, CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE’S ASSISTANT (Universal) is about a normal, bored teenager who is sucked into the world of freaks and monsters after being turned to a vampire by a traveling sideshow, promptly getting embroiled in a war between rival vampire clans. Sounds familiar, no? ANTICHRIST (IFC), opening in limited release, is the latest from maverick Danish director Lars van Trier, concerning a couple whose marriage has been brought to the brink by tragedy going to an isolated cabin in the woods to try and save it, but find something far more sinister instead. Finally, ONG BAK II: THE BEGINNING (Magnet) is the prequel to the astonishing Thai martial arts hit starring Tony Jaa, this time as a warrior fighting for justice in ancient Thailand.

October 28, 2009

MICHAEL JACKSON: THIS IS IT (Columbia) features rehearsal footage taken from April 2009 until the King of Pop’s untimely death this summer as he prepared for a series of concerts in London. This gives his fans a unique look at the creative process of the pop superstar as he perfects the music, dancing and spectacle that may well have heralded his return to the spotlight after years of legal issues. This documentary will only be out for a two-week limited run, so if you haven’t seen enough of Michael Jackson on “Entertainment Tonight,” Access: Hollywood” or the E! Network, here’s your chance.

October 30, 2009

YOUTH IN REVOLT (Dimension) stars Michael Cera in dual roles as a somewhat spineless twerp and as the confident ladies man he wants to become in a filmed version of a cult novel. THE BOONDOCK SAINTS II: ALL SAINTS DAY (Apparition) is the sequel to Troy Duffy’s cult hit with Duffy and much of the original cast returning in this limited release. The brothers MacManus return to Boston from Ireland after a priest is murdered to administer a little justice, Saint-style.

NOVEMBER

The_Twilight_Saga__New_Moon_3

TOUCHDOWN

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON

RELEASE DATE: November 20, 2009

STUDIO: Summit Entertainment

STARRING: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Dakota Fanning, Michael Sheen, Ashley Greene, Rachelle Lafevre, Billy Burke.

STORY: When Edward Cullen and his family leave Forks, Washington to protect Bella Swan from the dangers of their supernatural world, Bella is heartbroken, but finds solace in a budding new romance with childhood friend Jakob Black. She soon discovers that Jakob has secrets of his own, and Edward’s departure may not have been all that it seemed.

PROSPECTS: The first was a major box office smash last year, prompting mini-major Summit to immediately greenlight the next two installments in the series of young adult novels for release now and in the summer. Tweener girl hearts are already a-flutter over the prospects of the new movie, which promises more romance, more danger and more….just more.

OBSTACLES: A new director (Chris Weitz) is helming the sequel, and there may be some backlash to the highly successful franchise. Chances are, however, not enough to keep the freight train that is the Twilight Saga from roaring all the way to the bank.

FACTOID: Director Chris Weitz’ brother Paul is directing Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (see above), also based on a best-selling young adult novel involving vampires.

FIELD GOALS

DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL

RELEASE DATE: November 6, 2009

STUDIO: Disney (duh)

STARRING: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Michael J. Fox (voice).

STORY: Yes, it’s that Christmas Carol. The one in which a crabby old miser is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve and is transformed. God bless us, every one.

PROSPECTS: Given Carrey’s track record with holiday movies and Disney’s mighty promotional machine, this has a good chance at box office gold, if not holiday classic-ness.

OBSTACLES: This is a bit of a leap of faith. While director Robert Zemeckis hit a home run using the motion capture system on The Polar Express, it didn’t do the box office it deserved. Its follow-up, Beowulf was less well-received either by critics or audiences. I’m not 100% convinced that audiences have warmed up completely to motion capture yet.

FACTOID: This is the first Disney film that Jim Carrey has been involved with.

NINE

RELEASE DATE: November 25, 2009

STUDIO: Weinstein

STARRING: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Dame Judy Dench, Kate Hudson, Stacey Ferguson, Sophia Loren.

STORY: Not the animated feature that opened on September 9 but rather the big screen version of the Tony-winning Broadway musical based on Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½. The story concerns a world-famous director and his relationships with his wife, his mother, the movie star that is his muse, his confidant/costume designer, a fashion journalist and a prostitute he knew in his youth.

PROSPECTS: Director Rob Marshall brought another Tony-award winning Broadway musical to the screen. You might have heard of it; Chicago. Given the success of Mamma Mia last summer, Broadway musicals are definitely in.

OBSTACLES: This is less obviously a slam-dunk than Mamma Mia was, but perhaps more so than Chicago so who knows? Day-Lewis is not known for his singing voice, and a movie based on a stage production that was itself based on a Fellini movie might be a bit of a hard sell for mainstream audiences.

FACTOID: Javier Bardem was originally cast in the role eventually played by Day-Lewis; both men won Oscars in 2007. Catherine Zeta-Jones was initially set to play the role that Kidman wound up playing; they both won Oscars in 2002.

EXTRA POINT

THE ROAD

RELEASE DATE: November 25, 2009

STUDIO: Weinstein

STARRING: Viggo Mortensen, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Garret Dillahunt.

STORY: Based on the best-selling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a man and his son embark on a journey through a dangerous, post-Apocalyptic world trying to survive by any means necessary.

PROSPECTS: Mortensen is an actor who has mass appeal as well as indie cred, so he walks easily in both worlds. Australian director John Hillcoat last did the critically acclaimed The Proposition, so he knows a thing or two about desolate landscapes.  

OBSTACLES: This movie has been delayed for more than a year, rarely a good sign. The dense narrative was considered unfilmable by some. Post-apocalyptic road movies haven’t traditionally fared well, box office-wise (remember The Postman?), although if it’s a good one, people might buy tickets.

FACTOID: In order to simulate a post-apocalyptic world, filming was done in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged sections of New Orleans, an abandoned stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and in empty buildings in Pittsburgh.

HAIL MARYS

November 6, 2009

THE BOX (Warner Brothers) features Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a couple in serious financial difficulties who are approached by a disfigured man who hands them a wooden box who will give them (insert Dr. Evil impression here) one MEEEELLION dollars if they press the red button within. The caveat is that if they do, a total stranger will die. THE FOURTH KIND (Universal) stars Milla Jovovich as a psychotherapist in Nome, Alaska interviewing several patients who have disturbingly similar experiences revolving around alien abduction. Based on actual events, with archival video footage integrated into the overall movie, my son pronounced the trailer as the most disturbing he’s ever seen. THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS (Overture) stars George Clooney as a man who claims to be part of an elite but shadowy military unit that possesses psychic powers, including the ability to pass through solid walls, read the thoughts of the enemy and kill goats with the power of their mind. Inspired by a non-fiction article on U.S. military attempts to harness psychic abilities, the movie takes a reporter through a war between rival psychic units – and yes, it’s a dark comedy.

November 13, 2009

2012 (Columbia) is how director Roland Emmerich tops The Day After Tomorrow. Here, the auteur of Independence Day and 10,000 B.C. John Cusack stars in this examination of the end of the world as predicted by the Mayan calendar and several prominent scientists – including Albert Einstein. If you like special effects-stuffed disaster epics, your ship has definitely come in. PIRATE RADIO (Focus) takes place in an era when the BBC played only two hours of rock and roll per week and British pop music was exploding in the wake of the Beatles. Most Brits got their rock fix from pirate radio stations, broadcasting from international waters off the coast of the UK. An outstanding ensemble cast takes on the man, man. WOMEN IN TROUBLE (Screen Media) is an ensemble drama about ten disparate women all dealing with various crises in their lives. While this is listed as a general release, chances are this won’t be getting the number of screens that 2012 will. THE YOUNG VICTORIA (Apparition) is the story of the romance between the young queen of England and Prince Albert (who is not in a can, as it turns out) in this limited release.

November 20, 2009

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE (Lionsgate) may well have the worst title of any movie this year, but was the talk of Sundance this year, nominated for awards in every major category. This is the story of an African-American girl named Precious, who has had two children by her own father and although possesses a great intelligence and serenity, has fallen through the cracks of the system. It’s a harrowing look at a life in the pits of despair but it’s a movie that has hope and self-betterment at its core. Arriving in limited release, THE MESSENGER (Oscilloscope) stars Ben Foster as a soldier who is given the worst assignment in the Army with a partner he can’t stand. Complications arise when he falls in love with the widow of a soldier. THE BLIND SIDE (Warner Brothers) is the amazing true story of football star Michael Oher, who was a homeless young African-American boy taken in by a well-to-do white family in Texas and blossoms into an All-American. Directed by John Lee Hancock, who first dipped his toe in the true sports underdog waters with The Rookie. PLANET 51 (Tri-Star) is a science fiction animated feature about the invasion of a strange, malevolent creature on a peaceful but xenophobic planet. That strange, malevolent creature happens to be a human – there goes the neighborhood. Seeing limited release is RED CLIFF (Magnet), John Woo’s first Chinese movie since 1982. The acclaimed action director depicts the epic Battle of Red Cliff, in which a force of 50,000 triumphed over an army one million soldiers strong. The battle determined the course of ancient China nearly two thousand years ago.

November 25, 2009

UP IN THE AIR (Paramount) is the latest from director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking) and stars George Clooney as a corporate consultant who specializes in firing people in a humane manner. He literally lives in airports, hotels, and planes but is faced with the horrifying process of living (gulp!) at home just as he approaches a major frequent flier milestone. THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (Fox Searchlight) is an animated feature starring the voice of…George Clooney (sheez, the guy gets around) and is the brainchild of the late author Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and quirkmeister director Wes (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). In it, a clever fox tries to outwit three dim-bulb farmers out to do away with Mr. Fox and his family. NINJA ASSASSIN (Warner Brothers) is about an assassin trained by the nearly mythic Ozunu clan who has trained assassins for generations. When one of their number leaves the clan after the brutal execution of his friend, he is tracked down by merciless and relentless killers throughout the streets of Europe and must use all of his skills to stay alive. OLD DOGS (Disney) stars John Travolta and Robin Williams as a pair of old friends whose lives are turned upside down when one of them discovers that he is the father of twins and is forced to care for them on the eve of the biggest business deal of their lives.

November 27, 2009

BROOKLYN’S FINEST (Overture) opens in limited release the day after Thanksgiving and is three interweaving stories, each involving a police officer in Brooklyn.

DECEMBER

Avatar_7

TOUCHDOWN

AVATAR

RELEASE DATE: December 18, 2009

STUDIO: 20th Century Fox

STARRING: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Stephen Lang.

STORY: A former Marine finds himself in the middle of hostilities between humans and alien races on a planet full of exotic life forms. He takes the role of an Avatar, a human mind in an alien body. However, as he learns more about the alien race he is observing, he begins to see his loyalties towards his own species waver.

PROSPECTS: This is James Cameron’s first non-documentary movie since 1997 when he did a little movie called Titanic. The CGI and 3D technology are said to be game-changers in the movie industry, completely revolutionizing the way big special effects movies will be done. There has been serious buzz about this movie for almost a decade and fanboys the world over have been salivating for it for some time.

OBSTACLES: The first trailer for the movie was less than overwhelming, although given the expectations surrounding the movie, it might be very difficult to live up to them. Cameron has also been busy with his oceanographic pursuits rather than filmmaking – even given that his last movie was the largest-grossing movie of all time, a decade is a long time to be out of the game by Hollywood standards.

FACTOID: Cameron originally slated this to be his follow-up to Titanic back in 1999, but special effects technology at the time drove the budget up to prohibitive levels. It was only after seeing Gollum in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers that Cameron felt technology had progressed to the point that made making the film feasible.

FIELD GOALS

SHERLOCK HOLMES

RELEASE DATE: December 25, 2009

STUDIO: Warner Brothers

STARRING: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, James Fox, Hans Matheson

STORY: The Arthur Conan Doyle character receives a new makeover as he takes on a new nemesis threatening England with utter ruin.

PROSPECTS: Downey has been on a critical and commercial hot streak with Iron Man and Tropic Thunder under his belt. The trailers have received a lot of positive buzz.

OBSTACLES: Sherlock Holmes as an action hero? Purists might cringe but modern audiences may be more accepting of a makeover than in years past. Also Downey’s last film, The Soloist, performed below expectations.

FACTOID: The set for Sherlock Holmes’ residence was also used in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as the home of Sirius Black.

INVICTUS

RELEASE DATE: December 11, 2009

STUDIO: Warner Brothers

STARRING: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Scott Eastwood, Langley Kirkwood, Robert Hobbs, Bonnie Henna, Grant Roberts

STORY: Based on a true story about the early days of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, when he struggled at healing the racial divides of apartheid and used the national rugby team’s unlikely run for the world championship as a means of uniting his country.

PROSPECTS: Clint Eastwood directed this so it is guaranteed Oscar scrutiny based on that alone. Damon is extremely marketable and Freeman one of the most respected actors of his generation.

OBSTACLES: There has been almost zero publicity on this movie; it may wind up flying too far below the radar. Also the cast is largely unknown besides the two leads and movies about apartheid haven’t fared well in recent times.

FACTOID: It’s based on the John Carlin-penned book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation.”

EXTRA POINT

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS

RELEASE DATE: December 25, 2009

STUDIO: Sony Classics

STARRING: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Lily Cole, Vern Troyer, Johnny Depp, Colin Ferrell, Jude Law

STORY: Dr. Parnassus makes a bet with the devil for immortality, and then gives it up for true love. Now, fighting to save the soul of his daughter, he offers her hand in marriage for anyone who can help him defeat the devil.

PROSPECTS: This has been getting quite a bit of buzz on the internet. It reunites director Terry Gilliam with his Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen screenwriter Charles McKeown.

OBSTACLES: Gilliam has always been a bit of an acquired taste and while his movies are exceedingly imaginative, he hasn’t achieved commercial success since 1981’s Time Bandits.

FACTOID: This is Heath Ledger’s final performance, completed shortly before his death.

HAIL MARYS

December 4, 2009

ARMORED (Screen Gems) is about a seemingly foolproof plan by armored car guards to rob their own company going awry, causing the loyalties of the men involved to be severely tested. BROTHERS (Lionsgate), from director Jim Sheridan, has the ne’er-do-well brother of a decorated Marine moving in to assume his role in the family when he is listed as killed in action. But when those reports turn out erroneous, the return of the hero leads to tension, suspicion and confrontation. EVERYBODY’S FINE (Miramax) stars Robert DeNiro as a widower who discovers that his relationship with his adult children had been through his late wife, and decides to visit his children during the holidays to establish the bond he had been missing. This is currently scheduled for a limited run.

December 18, 2009

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? (Columbia) stars Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as a bickering couple on the verge of divorce. They witness a mob killing and are forced to go into the FBI Witness Relocation Program together when they can’t stand each other. To make matters worse, the certified city-dwellers are sent to a small town in the Rockies and put a new spin on the term “fish out of water.” 

December 25, 2009

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKUEL (20th Century Fox) returns Jason Lee as David along with his lovable CGI rodent friends, who now take on a female trio of Chipmunks, the Chipettes. Those of you with small children will probably be forced to see this one. Our condolences. IT’S COMPLICATED (Universal) is the latest comedy from director Nancy Meyers. This time, a divorced Alec Baldwin tries to woo a new sweetheart – his ex-wife Meryl Streep, who may not be completely against the idea.  

That’s it. It’s a pretty lean season, due mostly to the writer’s strike of a couple of years ago forcing a drastic rearrangement of the movie schedule. However, we can look forward to a lot of promising new arrivals in 2010.