The remarkable life and brilliant career of Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens gets the biopic treatment with this weekend’s Race, starring Stephan James as one of the premier athletes — and most inspiring figures — in American history. While it remains to be seen how critics receive Race, Owens’ story is definitely one that deserves the big-screen treatment, and in honor of its arrival, we’ve dedicated this feature to a fond look back at some Certified Fresh biopics focusing on African-American pioneers.


Malcolm X (1992) 89%

MalcolmX

A lightning rod in life and death, activist Malcolm X was a natural fit for the biopic treatment — but it isn’t hard to understand why producer Marvin Worth had to labor through 25 years of turnarounds, screenplay revisions, changing leading men (including Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy), and multiple directors before Malcolm X finally made its way to theaters in November of 1992. And even with Denzel Washington signed on to play the slain activist, and Spike Lee in the director’s chair, Malcolm didn’t see release without multiple controversies, a creative tug of war between Lee and Warner Bros., and a last-minute influx of cash from a group of donors that included Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan. Somewhat predictably, given Malcolm X’s thorny reputation — not to mention the movie’s three-and-a-half-hour length — this wasn’t a biopic for everyone, but most of those who did see it (including 91 percent of Tomatometer critics) agreed that, for all its struggle in getting to the screen, Malcolm X was a tribute worthy of its subject. It is, wrote Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “An ambitious, tough, seriously considered biographical film that, with honor, eludes easy characterization.”

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What's Love Got to Do With It (1993) 97%

WhatsLoveGotToDoWithIt

Ike Turner justifiably gets credit for his work as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, but his story might have been very different if he hadn’t discovered a young singer by the name of Anna Mae Bullock, christened her Tina Turner, and — at first begrudgingly — ridden her remarkable voice to worldwide stardom. As fans were later dismayed to discover, Ike had a mean streak commensurate with his musical gift, and Tina endured years of physical and emotional abuse before escaping with little more than her name — and finally being vindicated with a multi-platinum, Grammy-winning solo career. That tale of triumph was ably (albeit loosely) dramatized with this 1993 biopic starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as Ike and Tina, with both stars earning Oscar nominations for their work. “It’s a story of pain and courage, uncommonly honest and unflinching,” wrote Roger Ebert. “The next time I hear Tina Turner singing I will listen to the song in a whole new way.”

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The Hurricane (1999) 83%

Hurricane

There probably really isn’t much that could make you feel better about serving almost 20 years of prison time for a triple homicide you didn’t commit, but on the list of things that might come sort of close, having your life turned into a movie starring Denzel Washington must rank near the top. Washington toplined 1999’s The Hurricane as Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the real-life boxer whose long incarceration for three 1966 murders inspired public protests from a number of activists (including Bob Dylan, who wrote the 1975 song “Hurricane” about Rubin). Of course, this being Hollywood, a few liberties were taken with the details of Rubin’s life, which understandably angered some of the people depicted in the film (such as boxer Joey Giardello, who sued The Hurricane‘s producers for libel) as well as a noticeable number of critics (among them the New Yorker’s David Denby, who called it “False, evasive, and factually thin — a liberal fairytale”). No matter how they felt about the film, though, pretty much everyone agreed that Washington was terrific in it — a position exemplified by the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Margaret A. McGurk, who said, “As the center of the drama, Mr. Washington more than fills the screen; he very nearly sets it on fire.”

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Ray (2004) 79%

Ray

Long before he assured a generation of Pepsi drinkers that they were chugging the right one, baby, Ray Charles carved out one of the most brilliantly groundbreaking musical careers of the modern era, fusing rock, soul, country, and anything else he felt like playing into one inimitable sound. Charles’ refusal to be defined by his blindness made him an inspiration for the physically impaired, but Taylor Hackford’s 2004 biopic Ray is no mere hagiography — this is the warts-and-all story of an artist whose once-in-a-generation talent was part of a package that included some fairly significant personal foibles, led by an outstanding, Oscar-winning performance from Jamie Foxx. Calling it “A very good film, regardless of whether or not you love Ray Charles’ music,” the Apollo Guide’s Brian Webster argued, “Even if it was a lesser film, Jamie Foxx’s performance would have made it worth watching.”

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Talk to Me (2007) 83%

TalkToMe

In 2007’s Talk to Me, Don Cheadle starred in a dramatization of the life and career of radio host and Emmy-winning television personality Petey Greene. Though his fame was mostly restricted to the Washington, D.C. area, Greene was an influential figure for many years, using his gift of gab and inspirational journey from prison to the airwaves as the building blocks for a career that earned him acclaim, a visit to the White House (where he famously joked he stole a spoon), and the admiration of followers such as Howard Stern. It wasn’t a huge hit, and members of Greene’s family criticized its historical inaccuracies, but as far as most critics were concerned, Talk to Me was well worth watching. As Neil Smith wrote for Total Film, “If the picture doesn’t ultimately live up to the raw vitality of Cheadle’s performance, it remains an uplifting snapshot that broadcasts its message with zero distortion. Tune in and you won’t be turned off.”

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12 Years a Slave (2013) 95%

12YearsSlave

Solomon Northup was a free citizen of New York when, while traveling through Washington, D.C. in 1841, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. His ensuing ordeal was shared by countless freemen and freed slaves who were forcibly remanded into servitude during the years surrounding the Civil War, but what makes Northup’s story unique is that after finally winning his freedom, he penned a bestselling memoir about his experiences that, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, helped fuel the burgeoning abolitionist movement. More than 150 years later, director Steve McQueen dramatized Northrup’s wrenching odyssey in 12 Years a Slave — and despite the passage of  time, the tale lost little of its impact, earning nearly $200 million and a stack of accolades that included a Best Picture Oscar. “If 12 Years a Slave sounds like a brutal viewing experience then you’d be right,” wrote Gail Tolley for the List. “But in eschewing sentimentality and striving for honesty in the storytelling it is also a powerful, essential drama.”

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42 (2013) 81%

42

If you’ve seen one inspirational sports drama, you’ve seen ’em all — with the notable exception of 42, which dramatizes baseball great Jackie Robinson’s color barrier-shattering first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Chadwick Boseman (who’d later go on to play James Brown in Get On Up the following year) brings Robinson to life, capably shouldering the burden of playing a man who faced down thousands of detractors one stadium at a time, while writer-director Brian Helgeland nimbly splits the difference between holding Robinson up as a hero and reminding viewers he was, in some ways, an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. “For all the hate and hostility it depicts, 42 is a film about decent-hearted people,” wrote David Germain for the Associated Press. “Hate can be infectious, but so can decency. It’s the decency you’ll take away from 42.”

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Selma (2014) 99%

Selma

Director Ava DuVernay set a pretty tall order for herself when she agreed to bring a pivotal chapter from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life to the big screen — and that job didn’t get any easier when the King estate licensed his speeches to another film project. But even deprived of its subject’s eloquent oratory, Selma manages to distill the essence of King’s struggle to effect lasting change in American race relations while facing widespread hostility or indifference across the ideological divide, thanks in no small part to David Oyelowo’s electrifying work in the central role. A historically based biopic that was also uniquely — and unfortunately — of the moment, Selma earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination and nearly universal critical acclaim from writers like Moira MacDonald of the Seattle Times, who argued, “History becomes breathtaking drama in Selma; there’s an urgent realism in the storytelling, as if we’re seeing this just in time. And indeed we are.”

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Straight Outta Compton (2015) 89%

StraightOuttaCompton

How quickly things can change. To kids of the ’80s who witnessed N.W.A.’s rise to national prominence, the idea that Hollywood could ever dream of releasing a biopic about MC Ren, DJ Yella, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E would have sounded nothing short of ridiculous — yet fast-forward a couple of decades, and the confrontational quartet are recognized as one of modern hip-hop’s most important and influential acts. They received their big-screen due with 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, which traces N.W.A.’s rise and fall while injecting that by-now familiar arc with a fresh layer of sociopolitical context (and a killer soundtrack). A number of people involved with the group’s real-life story were less than pleased with the result, but as far as most critics were concerned, it still added up to an entertaining — and thought-provoking — film. Calling it “as enlightening as it is entertaining, as sobering as it is exhilarating,” the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote, “Straight Outta Compton reminds viewers not only who N.W.A. were and what they meant, but also why they mattered — and still do.”

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Bessie (2015) 90%

Bessie

Incredibly popular in life and massively influential in death, Bessie Smith proved to a skeptical (and still quite young) record industry that there was a huge untapped market for releases by black artists, ultimately rising to her exalted status as the Empress of the Blues (and the highest-paid black entertainer of her era). While she broke boundaries as a recording artist, her personal life was often every bit as tumultuous as her music — right up until her tragic death, the details of which were long clouded by rumor, and burial in an unmarked grave. Bessie, aired by HBO in 2015, dramatized a portion of Smith’s amazing life with Queen Latifah in the title role — and Latifah, surrounded by an excellent ensemble cast that included Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, and Mike Epps, made the most of a too-rare opportunity to showcase her range. As Dorothy Rabinowitz argued for the Wall Street Journal, “It takes just the first few raunchy and emotionally searing minutes of Bessie to grasp why Queen Latifah — its star and one of its producers — viewed this story of Bessie Smith’s life and career as a labor of love, or more precisely, passion.”

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Comic book fans should already feel their spidey senses a’ tingling, because this week in home video belongs to a certain web-slinging superhero (Spider-Man 3)! Of course, we’re also amped for the second entry in Russia’s sci-fi horror Night Watch series (Day Watch), Don Cheadle’s latest (Talk To Me), a handful of great new docs (The Devil Came on Horseback, No End in Sight), and Angela Chase’s long-awaited return to DVD (My So-Called Life The Complete Series).



Spider-Man 3


Tomatometer: 62%

Director Sam Raimi closes out his celebrated comic book trilogy with this week’s Spider-Man 3, in which our hero Peter Parker must battle not one, not two, but three deadly foes! This time around, Spidey’s got his hands full doing battle with the likes of Sandman, Venom, and his former pal Harry Osborn, which means tons of great CG effects and fight scenes — $250 million worth of visuals that might make this DVD worth peeping alone. As Raimi told us, Spider-Man 3 is perhaps best viewed in the awe-inspiring luxury of Blu-Ray; even in good, old fashioned regular DVD, you’ll enjoy an extras menu packed with cast and crew commentaries and bloopers. Spring for the special 2-disc edition for even more bonus material like villain featurettes, special effects featurettes, and lots, lots more.

 


Talk to Me


Tomatometer: 81%

Following Reign Over Me with a movie featuring an equally compelling title, Don Cheadle stars in Talk to Me as Petey Greene, an ex-convict who rallies the community through his incendiary radio show. Though Talk to Me didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, now’s your chance to see Cheadle in another much-praised performance. The DVD features deleted scenes and two featurettes: one a look at how the filmmakers recreated 1960s Washington D.C., the other a comprehensive background on Greene.

 


Day Watch


Tomatometer: 65%
Night Watch. As Anton, now a veteran Night Watch operative, falls in love with his new trainee Svetlana — who may just be the most powerful Light Other yet — he finds himself a pawn in the looming war between good and evil. Director Timur Bekmambetov wowed audiences with spooky, inventive visuals in his previous installment, and ups the ante here with an even bigger budget, more daring special effects, and clever editing. A director commentary and insightful making-of featurette round out the release.

 



No End In Sight


Tomatometer: 95%

Filmmakers recently have had an appetite to get their (and others’) thoughts on Iraq down on celluloid, and few of those films were met with more rapturous acclaim than the Certified Fresh No End in Sight. Charles Ferguson‘s documentary focuses not on the events leading up to the occupation, but the blunders that prevented the country from being the democratic beacon on the hill, as it was originally envisioned. Along with the film’s revealing footage of mid-level government employees and military officials painting a picture of what went wrong, special features includes deleted interviews and 11 more scenes, deepening this already comprehensive look at Iraq.

More Worth A Look

This Filthy World
Tomatometer: 100%

The irreverent cult director takes to the stage with his raunchy version of a stand-up routine in this well-received documentary.

The Devil Came on Horseback
Tomatometer: 97%

The ravages of genocide are unveiled in this riveting documentary following one man’s secret photographic tour of Darfur.




Twin Peaks: The Definitive Gold Box Edition

Tomatometer: N/A

David Lynch‘s groundbreaking series is available now in a ten-disc “definitive” edition! In exchange for just one Benjamin Franklin, you’ll get extras like both pilot episodes, deleted scenes, cast interviews, a documentary about the series, Kyle MacLachlan‘s SNL sketches and more.




My So-Called Life The Complete Series

Tomatometer: N/A

Whether you quietly pined for your own Jordan Catalano-type bad boy in high school, or were the nerdy Brian to someone else’s Angela Chase, it’s time you revisit the preeminent, if short-lived, teen drama now that it’s available again! At long last, angst is only a rental away.

Knowing is Half the Battle




In the Land of Women

Tomatometer: 44%

Adam Brody‘s first post-O.C. star turn failed to charm the critics, who found its weak story to be a major turn-off.


El Cantante
Tomatometer: 23%

The idea of a “vanity project” has rarely been so fulfilled as it is in this biopic of Nuyorican singer Hector Lavoe and his wife, Puchi (played obnoxiously by real life couple Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez).


License to Wed
Tomatometer: 8%

This comedy about a betrothed couple being put through a set of premarital challenges by their wacky minister (a typically broad Robin Williams) left critics invariably cold, to the tune of a single-digit Tomatometer.


Captivity
Tomatometer: 8%

The “torture porn” genre has many a detractor, but even horror hounds would rather face intolerable pain and certain death than watch this unclever mess.

Until next week, happy renting!

The Times bfi 51st London Film Festival - RT Highlights
LondonWelcome to the Times bfi 51st London Film Festival, the capital’s annual event celebrating the best in cinema from around the globe. Running this year from 17th October to the 1st November, the festival will play host to many local, national and international films, premieres, actors and directors.

Unlike the hyper-competative and sales-led environments of Cannes and Sundance, the London Film Festival is an altogether simpler affair, inviting members of the public to sample the films on offer. And the festival’s timing puts it in the perfect position to pick early Oscar hopefuls; many of the films in the programme are already generating early buzz and for most in the UK it’ll be the first and only chance to see them before the end of the year.

So it’s with that in mind that RT-UK editor Joe Utichi and film critic Paul Anderson have been hitting the festival to cherry pick the twenty films from the festival you’re likely to be hearing a lot about in the coming months.

Click on the films below to find out more, or click here to browse through the feature from the beginning.The Assassination of Jesse James, The Darjeeling Limited, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Eastern Promises
Enchanted, Funny Games, Grace is Gone, I'm Not There
In the Shadow of the Moon, Into the Wild, Juno, Lions for Lambs
Lust, Caution, Planet Terror, The Savages, Sicko
Son of Rambow, Surprise Movie, Talk to Me, Things we Lost in the Fire

The Times bfi 51st London Film Festival - RT Highlights
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

It’s a long title, long film, long coats and a long time getting to the screen. There’s a lot of long going on here. It took two years to score a release once it was done, so what’s wrong with it? Well, er, nothing.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Brad Pitt‘s labour of love, is slow; very slow. Slow and long. But good westerns should be. The best western is as much about the pace and the look as it is about anything, and this looks amazing. There are sumptuous shots of prairies and sepia tinted men in hats and (long) coats saying a lot without speaking much. The film feels poetic and meditative, like you could be doing yoga while it’s on.

Yes it is Pitt’s movie but the star is Casey Affleck as the titular coward. Robert Ford always wanted to be in the James Gang, he idolised Jesse, wanted to be him, dag nabit he probably fancied him. The poster boy of the 1880’s, so myth would tell us, was a Robin Hood figure and American icon, but Jesse James was a vicious killer and this film doesn’t shy away from that, the source being a fictional version of the story by Ron Hansen.

There aren’t many gunfights as such and those that do happen flash up are brutal and over with quickly, as one suspects they probably were at the time. The parallel with Pitt’s own celebrity is interesting, this is a film as much about fame and idolisation and in the end Robert Ford thought he was doing society a favour by shooting James in the back.

Andrew Dominik is the Australian director of Chopper and in what is only his second film, rivals John Hillcoat’s The Proposition in handling the Wild West with great skill, giving the story time to breathe. Pitt stalks around brooding dark violence and menace while Affleck’s Ford is baby faced, naïve and eager to please. It is evident on this example at least that Affleck is destined to outshine brother Ben in front of the camera.

Take a cushion, you’re in for a fair stretch, but it is worth every ass-numbing minute. Gorgeous to witness, with some modern day resonance, an interesting story and subtle yet lightening performances. Paul Anderson

The Darjeeling Limited

Wes Anderson makes a welcome return to intimately quirkily comedy after the outrageously quirky comedy The Life Aquatic. Or, Wes Anderson makes another one of those quirky comedy things. It largely depends on your point of view.

The Darjeeling Limited tells the tale of three brothers and their pilgrimage across India in search of their mother who abandoned them years prior. Former Anderson collaborators Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson join Adrien Brody as the three brothers exploring India aboard the titular train, along the way learning more about each other than they’d ever learnt before.

Like many of Anderson’s characters, not one of the brothers has much in the way of redeeming qualities, and like many of Anderson’s locations, India is presented as a country of bright colours and strange inhabitants. Indeed, it’s safe to say that if you’re a Wes Anderson fan you can’t go wrong with this film; it’s pretty-much more of the same. For anyone not so enamoured of Anderson, that’ll be a big problem as this certainly won’t be the film to change that.

In the mid to late nineties, Anderson championed the quirky American indie, but as box-office receipts and film-school grads have multiplied, so the quirky American indie is fast enveloping the entire American indie landscape, and whether Anderson’s particular brand of quirk has any originality left at this point is a big topic for debate.

Schwartzman, Wilson and Brody do fine jobs in their roles, and the film’s opener – a fifteen minute segment entitled Hotel Chevalier and co-starring Natalie Portman – makes the project worth checking out on its own. For cineastes, it’s a well-realised portrait of love and lust while Portman fans can admire the lack of clothing on display.

But Hotel Chevalier is available for free on iTunes in the US, and at this point it’s worth wondering if more of the same from Anderson in the film proper really justifies the cost of admission. Joe Utichi

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Julian Schnabel is an artist in the truest sense; he makes art. He attracts like-minded individuals; Johnny Depp is not so much an admirer more a kindred spirit. Transforming a heart-breaking story into an entertaining film needed an artist’s hand and eye and luckily this film got it.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly takes its name from the deeply moving book from Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle magazine in France, who, at the age of 43, suffered a huge stroke that should have killed him but instead left him paralysed save for the ability to blink one eye. His brain was fine, he could understand, but he couldn’t speak. His condition was diagnosed as ‘locked in syndrome’.

The film begins as Bauby’s eyes open after a two-week coma, and for the opening segment the camera becomes his only working eye. Eventually we get to see the twisted, dribbling mouth of the wheelchair bound victim and Schnabel cleverly takes us on a comparison journey, in home movie style, with the ruggedly good looking Parisian Bauby living and loving life.

Beautiful women surround him; Celine, the mother of his three children, (Emmanuelle Seigner), to whom he is still cruel, is a saint. His speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) and the woman charged with dictating the book, Claude (Anne Consigny), are now beyond his once effortless seductive powers.

The narrative unfolds as an internal monologue from Matthew Amalric‘s Bauby, complete with snide remarks at the surgeon and a preoccupation with his nurse’s cleavage. His only releases are his flights of fancy; his imagination is not locked in and consequently he dines where he likes, seduces women, and travels wherever he wants, all the time cursing for being too selfish and unkind to his children.

Henriette and Claude could lend Job some patience, as the alphabet communication system is spelt out over and over until the correct letter, then word is reached. The most moving scenes are with Bauby’s father Papinou (Max Von Sydow) shown both in flashback and in an agonising post-stroke phone call, where a housebound elderly father likens his son’s situation to his own.

The book is a deeply moving, affecting and very funny masterpiece and Schnabel has replicated Bauby’s imagined world superbly to visually stunning effect. Flawless performances deserve a wide audience and make The Diving Bell and the Butterfly one of the Festival highlights. PA

Eastern Promises

A companion-piece to the excellent A History of Violence, David Cronenberg has enlisted the help of Viggo Mortensen again and directed a script from Steve Knight who brought us the story of the London people you see but ignore, Dirty Pretty Things. And he nearly gets away with it.

Mortensen is a Russian driver for an Eastern European gangland family and is tattooed to the max. A teenage girl dies while giving birth and Naomi Watts, a midwife, is so shaken by this she decides to find out more about her. This leads to a discovery of a diary, which in turn leads her to Mortensen. And do you know what? She really shouldn’t go there.

Vincent Cassel plays Mortensen’s tighter-than-tight buddy and in usual Cassel style can make you feel the need to change your underwear with just one look. This is an extremely violent film and although not a horror picture in Cronenberg’s usual sense, some scenes are certainly horrific.

Mortensen is brilliant (Aragorn… who knew?), and Watts her usual high standard, while Cassel is just nuts.

Unlike Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises doesn’t capture the underbelly of the unseen so well. The homoeroticism is overplayed (why does Mortensen need to be naked to get a tattoo on the shoulder?) and there is no tangible sense of being an outsider looking into a closed world through the crack in the door, which would have made a half-decent thriller into a tense and buttock-clenching one.

Is this the end of horror for Cronenberg? Unlikely, but Eastern Promises is a disappointing follow-up to A History of Violence. Come on Dave, bring on the gore. PA

The Times bfi 51st London Film Festival - RT Highlights
Enchanted

Disney’s first attempt at hand-drawn animation in years, Enchanted, is perhaps one of this year’s family film highlights.

The tale of a tried and true Disney Princess, Gisele (Amy Adams), who finds her Prince Charming (James Marsden) before being sent to a faraway land by an evil stepmother (Susan Sarandon), is primarily live-action, book-ended by 20 minutes of hand-drawn Disney.

The faraway land in question is New York City, and so we open with an animated Gisele singing, dancing, and generally sickeningly happy as she engages a gaggle of woodland animals in some spring-cleaning. When she’s later sent down a well and into New York City we see her struggling with her surroundings and generally having trouble living a Disney life in a cold, harsh real world.

Fortunately, the film’s ultimate message, that real life isn’t a Disney cartoon, is unlikely to play to its young target audience, but it’s the biggest gag for parents and allows the whole family to enjoy the comedy and adventure without resorting to cheap and cheerful Dreamworks-esque innuendo.

Marsden is every inch the Prince Charming and Adams, while clearly not as beautiful as most outrageously sexy Disney princesses, moves with so many obvious Disney flairs that it’s a wonder they didn’t animate the whole thing and have her mime the animations.

The joke wears thin towards the end, and the film threatens to undermine years of classic animation from Disney of old, but when it works it really works, and it’s a joy to behold. It’s also worth a trip just for some hand-drawn animation, though on that score a CGI squirrel during the New York sequences rather ironically ends up stealing the show. JU

Funny Games

Funny Games is Michael Haneke‘s shot-for-shot remake of his German version for an American audience. It was just as nasty with subtitles.

A wealthy couple take peachy son and cuddly dog to summer home for a well-earned break. While dad and son sort out the sailing boat, that nice polite boy staying with friends’ next door pops round for some eggs. D’oh, he smashes them, asks for more and smashes those too. Hang on why is he wearing gloves?

So begins a descent into torture, bondage, humiliation, violence, blood and audience culpability. Yes, as an audience member one feels complicit and voyeuristic, as the so-called games are unveiled. Haneke wants to evoke this feeling; he wants the troubled youth and aggressive society in which they inhabit to be all your fault.

Funny Games is a deeply unlikeable film, but there is no criticism implicit in that, it is meant to be unlikeable. No one cries better on screen than Naomi Watts and as ever she is willing to visit the land of raw for her art and as usual does it brilliantly. Tim Roth as the husband is a bit-part once he gets clobbered with a golf club and it is Michael Pitt who steals the show as the creepily polite psychopath accomplice to Brady Corbet‘s egg-smasher. It was ever thus with cinema psychos that the more ‘normal’ they seem the more sinister they really are.

The nods and winks to the camera are a touch irritating as is the rewind bit in the middle but if you’ve seen the original you’ll be expecting all that. Funny Games is an uncomfortable, disturbing film perfect for festivals. PA

Grace is Gone

Lonesome Jim writer James C. Strouse marks his directorial debut with Grace is Gone, a moving portrait of a man struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife in Iraq and his role as a single parent to two young girls.

What’s most remarkable about the film is that it doesn’t attempt to politicise its story at all. As John Cusack‘s Stanley Philipps opens the film, leading his team at an out-of-town shopping complex in a chant about how the customer is always right, we instantly connect with him, and as he learns of his wife’s fate a couple of scenes later we’re already invested in his life. So when his brother, unaware of Grace’s passing, later attempts to chastise Stanley for his position on the war he’s quickly silenced. It’s a film about family conflict, not political conflict, and it’s all the stronger for it.

The film takes a journey with Stanley as he abandons his commitments, pulls his kids out of school and takes them on a road trip with the sole purpose of keeping the news of their mother’s death from them. It becomes an albatross that hangs over Stanley, but it’s just as much an enabler, for on the journey he gets to grips with his role as a parent and his relationship with his kids.

Cusack has never been better, his nack for engaging an audience more essential here than ever due to some of the more dubious decisions Stanley makes along the way, and Strouse directs with much-needed reserve, never allowing the film to get in the way of Stanley’s story. JU

I'm Not There

Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes‘ film about a seventies glam rock idol, split filmgoers down the middle. You either get it and it’s a masterpiece or you think there was nothing glamorous about the seventies and all bands look like bricklayers in make up. This time round Haynes is lucky, Bob Dylan already polarises people.

Haynes has taken six moments in Dylan’s life in I’m Not There, married them to what he believes is the musician’s personality at the time, and cast six different actors to play him, including a woman and a black kid.

Littered throughout the piece are references to characters in Dylan songs and well-documented events throughout his life. None of the characters is called Bob Dylan however. Ben Whishaw is Arthur Rimbaud, reflecting the singer’s love for the poet, Heath Ledger plays him as an actor troubled by his success and disappearing from view; Richard Gere, whose sequence is the weakest in the film, is Billy The Kid, a nod to Dylan’s appearance in Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, and Marcus Carl Franklin is supposedly a black 12 year-old Woody Guthrie, a youth out of time. The stand-out performance and the one that takes up most screen time is Cate Blanchett‘s as Jude, a singer at the height of fame struggling with the constant barrage of questions about the meaning of the songs and the singer’s authenticity. To her credit, five minutes in you forget she’s a woman.

Ambitious and inspired, it’s a little long and full of too many Dylan in-jokes and references. It won’t change your mind either way about Dylan but it might encourage other filmmakers to try future biopics in this way. PA

The Times bfi 51st London Film Festival - RT Highlights
In the Shadow of the Moon

Theory: There’s nothing more exciting than listening to the former astronauts for the Apollo missions tell their tales of visiting the lunar surface. Except perhaps being one of them. Yes, David Sington‘s In the Shadow of the Moon is a little heavy on the America-the-Great, but it’s also one of the best documentaries of the year; a fascinating portrait of men so brave that most regular Joes couldn’t possible comprehend their journey.

And, to its credit, it allows them to get on with it – there’s no narrator – we’re just shown fascinating footage from the moon’s surface, from the launch pad, from the shuttle, and in between these men tell us their story.

For the real space-junkies, there’s doubtless little in here to learn, but for the rest of us the film is full of fascinating factoids and, like the best movies set in space – fictional or not – it’ll leave you feeling smaller than the smallest needle in the biggest haystack. JU
Into the Wild

While most outside America will be unfamiliar with the name Christopher McCandless, the story of his abandonment of civilisation in favour of hiking across America on his way to Alaska is one we can probably all relate to. Who hasn’t thought about throwing off the shackles and experiencing nature in all its glory?

Of course most of us are either too scared or too sensible ever to attempt to do that and that’s perhaps why McCandless’ tale is so intoxicating; his journey is one we all wish we had the courage to take.

Sean Penn directs Emile Hirsch in this adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, about McCandless, and while it runs a little long, at 140 minutes, in takes in some of the most breathtaking scenery imaginable and keeps us gripped throughout as we join our young lead on his journey into either enlightenment or insanity.

Penn deifies McCandless a little too readily, encouraging us to make an idol out of him, and while most will happily do just that, it also makes it hard for us to engage with the film. Penn’s embrace of no-frills solitariness is flawed by the trailers, catering and crew we know to be behind single shot.

No, real credit must go to Hirsch, who goes out of his way to inhabit McCandless regardless of the creature comforts available to him off-screen, for it’s with him and him alone we must ultimately spend two hours of our time with. JU

Juno

Jason Reitman‘s debut feature, Thank You For Smoking, coming, as it did, in the same year as his father Ivan’s My Super Ex Girlfriend, was a brilliantly biting satire about the tobacco industry and suggested that perhaps dad’s talent had been well and truly passed on.

His second, Juno, continues his trend for witty comedy, casting Ellen Page as a high-school girl whose desire to lose her virginity leads to an unfortunate bout of pregnancy. She meets Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner through an ad in the Penny Saver and agrees to adopt the infant their way. But nine months is a long time, and pregnancy seems sure to bring with it a whole heap of inconvenience.

Page is brilliant as Juno, and a cast of recognisable supporting players back her up with aplomb. It’s definitely full of quirk – it’s an American indie after all – but, like Thank You For Smoking, there’s something real at the film’s heart and we’re encouraged to believe the quirk rather than let it wash over us. JU

Lions for Lambs

The most high profile of the recent glut of war themed releases – due mainly to its stellar cast – Lions For Lambs gets its title from an alleged quote from a World War One German General who said of the British troops, “never before have I seen such lions led by such lambs”. Apocryphal or not the debate over right against might is real enough.

There are three layers to the film. The first is a moral, ethical, hypothetical discourse with Robert Redford as a scarily convincing looking college Professor and Andrew Garfield as the owner of a fine mind behind a surfer exterior; the second is a political and strategic debate with media and PR consequences featuring an electrifying face off between Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. Thirdly is the actuality of the troops in a war zone.

The performances are flawless with Cruise on his best smarmy bastard form as the ambitious senator and cheerleader for the masters of war trading blows with Streep’s journalist, over a new plan for the war in Afghanistan. Streep pleads mea culpa over the media’s acquiescence during the first Iraq/Afghan surge, but is less compliant this time even in the face of an exclusive story. Redford and Garfield debate whether seriously smart people should ‘do something’ with specific reference to two soldiers, Redford’s ex pupils, from neighbourhoods ignored by Uncle Sam who worked hard for their college grades then enlisted to make a real change.

And yes it is those same soldiers we see in the war zone, injured and low on ammo. Lions for Lambs is a one eyed view on the futility of the war on terror. Redford’s politics are all over it despite his best efforts at balance with Cruise’s hawk view. Nothing happens in the film in terms of action bar a few exchanges from the pinned down troops; it’s all about the dialogue and its evident that this is what Redford wants to achieve. When you leave the cinema and go to the pub he wants you to engage and discuss the politics of a war that few in the US want anymore.

There are many Vietnam references and lots of questions needing answers and decisions to be made as a consequence. What do you want to do? Do you want to end the war on terror? Do you think you should act/protest/enlist/run for the Senate? America’s liberal, artsy intelligentsia is pricking consciences but does anyone or should anyone outside the US care? PA

The Times bfi 51st London Film Festival - RT Highlights
Lust, Caution

Ang Lee‘s startling ability to jump between projects as diverse as Hulk, Crouching Tiger and Brokeback Mountain is almost as exciting to behold as every new film from the director is.

Lust, Caution is no exception; it’s a thrilling, breathtaking, dramatic, devastating and enrapturing film about a young girl who goes undercover in World War II-era Shanghai in an attempt to woo and then assassinate a key political figure.

Based on an Eileen Chang story, Tony Leung is Mr. Yee, a seemingly untouchable man whose heart is won by Tang Wei‘s Wang Jiazhi. And while Leung is outstanding, it’s Tang Wei, in her first role, who really steals the show, delivering a nuanced and emotional performance as a girl torn apart by politics and her heart, two elements that rarely see eye-to-eye.

Key sexual moments between Yee and Wang are shot explicitly, though never exploitatively, and it’s interesting to note that the film will be released as an NC-17 in the US. The rating is commercial suicide, but the film simply wouldn’t have the power it has without the sex scenes so it helps that it’s penned by the exec in charge of the studio, long time Lee collaborator James Schamus.

Breaking box-office records in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Lust, Caution deserves to have the same cross-over effect as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and here’s hoping this is the NC-17 film that breaks down the confines of the curious American ratings system. JU

Planet Terror

Let’s get the disappointment out of the way first; Machete is the only fake trailer attached to the theatrical standalone print of Planet Terror. It makes sense that it’s Robert Rodriguez‘ trailer that made the cut, but for those of us outside the United States for whom the idea of pirating the camcorder jobs done on Grindhouse doesn’t sit right, it’s a crying shame. We’re missing out on Edgar Wright’s brilliant Don’t, Eli Roth’s inspired Thanksgiving, and Rob Zombie’s brilliantly-titled Werewolf Women of the S.S. You can sit all the way through the credits; you’ll be wasting your time.

Honestly, the idea of experiencing the whole, balls-to-the-wall grindhouse experience was the biggest disappointment facing fans outside North America, but the Weinsteins’ needs must, and their decision to split the flicks could have been forgiven had the full experience, at the very least, survived two ticket prices. We got some extra time with Death Proof, but the Planet Terror that’s hitting cinemas is the same cut premièred as part of Grindhouse, providing ample opportunity to queue up all the fake trailers within it. As it is most theatregoers outside of the US will, in fact, be missing that full experience at the very least until the DVD arrival of Planet Terror. So why bother?

Well, for starters, perspective is important. As much as the brothers Weinstein plan to reap the rewards that come from double-dipping the Grindhouse experience internationally, we are still getting two films from a pair of the most creative film-makers on the planet. Death Proof is unadulterated Tarantino, and Planet Terror is the funniest zombie movie since Shaun and the goriest since 28 Days.

The films exist in something of a shared universe. For those who’ve seen Death Proof first, nods to Jungle Julia’s fate and an expansion of that somewhat cryptic Dr. Block/Earl McGraw scene will bond the two films even if they’re covered by separate admissions, and the fake film grime and dodgy projection effects cross both features.

Multi-hyphenate Rodriguez creates a stunning world in which he unleashes his zombie plague, draws delicious characters straight out of seventies B-movies, and lets his actors run wild with them. Freddy Rodriguez Rose McGowan shine, but with the remaining cast performing so brilliantly around them it’s the ensemble that sells it. JU

The Savages

It’s a tricky thing, the what-to-do-with-the-old-folks-when-they-start-to-lose-it movie. Filmmakers are always battling with the question of balance between dark humour and pathos, not forgetting to allow just enough dignity to prick everybody’s conscience about dealing with the elderly. One of the better more recent attempts was Away From Her based on the short story by Alice Munro with Julie Christie as an Alzheimer’s victim. The Savages nails the balance beautifully.

Directing her own script, Tamara Jenkins has landed two of cinema’s best in the lead roles. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are John and Wendy Savage, siblings suddenly thrown together after years of non-communication, to take care of their father who is rapidly descending into dementia. John is writing a book on Brecht, he is also about to end a long-term relationship and Wendy is a penniless playwright in an unfulfilling relationship with a married man.

So they’re pretty uptight people, right? What plays out is a beautifully told story of responsibility, guilt, communication and selfishness with a heavy dose of realism. Philip Bosco is dad Lenny, a heady mix of deaf, cantankerous and incontinent, who beat his kids when mum left and wasn’t as bothered about caring for them as they are about him now.

Hoffman plays the pragmatist, managing the situation with the adroitness of a nursing home administrator. Linney’s Wendy is more emotional and tries to get dad into a beautifully landscaped home but sadly dad fails the test, so she buys a lava lamp for his room. What is prevalent throughout is the brilliant comedic touch in Jenkins’s script, which allows some hilarious bickering between Hoffman and Linney, especially when he puts his neck out playing tennis.

To its credit The Savages doesn’t bash you over the head with its message about being good to the old folks. Some people get ill and old, Lenny cuts a pathetic and pitiful character, but we all die and luckily the script is funny and nuanced enough, while being executed brilliantly by the leads, not to make it maudlin. PA

Sicko

Michael Moore is back with a new documentary about the healthcare system in America and its ill-treatment of patients who are paying through the nose for medical cover.

Sicko presents a compelling case against HMOs, but as with most of Moore’s work it is more than obvious that while the facts are indisputable there are plenty more he’s chosen to ignore. For this British critic, his portrayal of the socialised system of our NHS made that abundantly clear. Yes, as Moore shows us, we don’t pay for our hospital visits, and the cashier in hospitals gives us money for transport home after an operation, and our doctors are, indeed, incentivised to offer the best care to their patients.

But Moore neglects to ask how long we need to wait for a hospital bed in many cases. Or if people ever get sick because the hospitals they’re staying in aren’t clean enough. This is where our NHS fails, but because it doesn’t support Moore’s case it’s simply not mentioned.

That the treatment of patients in America is shockingly inhuman in many cases is obvious, and Moore uncovers a huge number and variety of horror stories about it. Like much of his work, though, while the film will inspire plenty of discussion through its accessibility, the discussion about Moore himself will outweigh that of the subject he examines. JU

The Times bfi 51st London Film Festival - RT Highlights
Son of Rambow

You can tell that Son of Rambow came from a pair of creative types. There’s something about the notion of a couple of friends getting together after school with a video camera and a vague memory of cool things they’d seen in movies and putting together their own tribute that just screams creativity and one wonders how much of the film came from Nick Goldsmith and Garth Jennings‘ own experiences as kids.

When his parents strict religious beliefs force him out of a Geography lesson and into the hallway, Will meets troublemaker Carter and strikes up an unlikely friendship. Carter teaches Will a little of his streetwise attitude and, when he’s shown First Blood, Will convinces himself he’s Rambo’s son and shows Carter a sketchbook full of colourful illustrations which tell a slightly odd but rather wonderful story.

The pair set out to make a sequel in which Will, as the Son of Rambow, attempts to rescue his dad and save the world. Along the way they pick up some collaborators, but when tensions fray on set their friendship, Carter’s relationship with his brother, and Will’s relationship with the church are all called into question.

Best known for producing and directing Hitchhiker’s Guide as well as any number of the nineties greatest music videos as Hammer and Tongs, Goldsmith and Jennings bring their creative flair to an independent level with this heart-warming coming-of-age story that’s been gathering momentum since its debut at this year’s Sundance.

But what’s most important is that Son of Rambow is so much more than its basic premise. Those of us who grew up with grand designs to make the next Indiana Jones will identify with Will and Carter, but all can identify with the film’s grander themes. Lead brilliantly by its two confident young leads, Son of Rambow may well be the best British movie of the year. JU

Surprise Movie: No Country for Old Men

The last few years haven’t been kind to the Brothers Coen. Indeed, you have to go back to 2001 – past The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty – to get back onto comfortable ground when it comes to their work, and considering these are the guys who brought the world Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski, that’s a crying shame. Fortunately with this year’s offering, which played as the surprise movie at the LFF, the Coens have gone back to those roots and have delivered a film worthy of the standards they’ve previously set. No Country for Old Men is classic Coen, both sumptuously involving and wickedly funny.

Based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, the Coens have brought their unique sensibilities to bear on a tale of a drug deal gone wrong and the $2 million in cash found at the scene by a hunter living a modest life in Texas. His name is Llewellyn Moss and he’s smart enough to know that someone will be coming for the loot. But it soon becomes obvious you can’t prepare for Chigurh, an assassin with a flair for creative execution and an enthusiasm for high body counts.

On the trail, too, is an aging Sheriff called Bell who’s convinced the world has changed on him a little too much as he jumps from crime scene to crime scene hoping to track Moss down before Chigurh has a chance.

Full of just the right mix of drama, action and comedy, this is the sort of movie that’ll have you engrossed until its final moments. And if it does get a little bogged down in Texan philosophizing in those final moments, they do nothing to touch what’s come before. JU

Talk to Me

It’s easy to forget in this multimedia, mass media, and global communications world just how important radio used to be at times of major unrest or trauma. The 1960s was a turbulent decade of change and 1968 in particular was the most incredible year. Martin Luther King was assassinated, so too Bobby Kennedy and, in Washington DC at least, there was a man who gave hope to those with a sense of hopelessness following those two tragedies. Talk to Me is his story.

Ralph ‘Petey’ Green was an ex con, raised by his maternal Grandmother, who learned to DJ in jail playing records his Grandma sent him. Between songs he would speak the felon’s point of view. A recovering junkie and alcoholic he spoke the same language and had been to the same places. Released early thanks to a deal he cut with the warden, he bullied his way into a job at Washington radio station WOL, whose head of programming, Dewey Hughes, was the brother of a fellow inmate. Don Cheadle plays Green and Chiwetel Ejiofor is Hughes.

The film plays out as a ‘what Petey did next’ to a glorious soundtrack of soul and funk music over two decades. Cheadle plays Petey with such exuberance, even when showing his many flaws, that all thoughts of ‘that accent’ in Ocean’s are banished forever. This guy was bling way before bling existed. Green set up volunteer programmes all over the city and encouraged poor kids from the projects to get educated and avoid the path leading to incarceration. Can you imagine Wogan having the same effect? TV snapped him up and he became a big star and eventually quit drinking.

he performances of the two leads are what save the film from becoming a plodding catalogue of Petey adventures. Ejiofor plays the black man working in the white man’s world brilliantly; the initial exchanges between him and Cheadle when Petey derides him by calling him Mr Tibbs are lightning. Hughes went out on a limb for Green and the two became firm and lifelong friends.

The studio boss is Martin Sheen; comically corporate and at first exasperated by Hughes’s decision to employ Green. But it soon becomes apparent to everyone that Green has a connection to the street and the listeners the station wants to reach, through his own experiences and his articulation of the civil rights issues and the plight of the Afro-American; evidenced by his heartfelt announcement of the shooting of Dr King, equal parts sad and angry. Suddenly the voice of the street was being heard by ‘The Man’.

Green had bucket loads of self-belief which the film overall lacks. Take the lead performances away and Talk to Me doesn’t go anywhere, which is a shame because the story deserves better. PA

Things we Lost in the Fire

Are there any better ‘lived in’ faces than Benicio Del Toro‘s? If he saw you at the bus stop and introduced himself as a recovering heroin addict you’d believe him right? Conversely Halle Berry is too beautiful, that smile, those cheekbones, that skin! Luckily they got cast in the right roles, then.

Berry and David Duchovny are prosperous and sexy and utterly devoted to each other and their two kids. Then he gets shot and killed trying to help a woman being attacked and suddenly lives are shattered and the people involved are ill equipped to pick up the pieces. Del Toro plays Jerry, he and Duchovny’s Brian have been best friends forever. He’s a failed lawyer and junkie going to his addict meetings and working as a janitor. Berry turns to him after the shooting to help her get her life back on track. She asks him to come live in the garage, converted after the fire of the title, so they can lean on each other and patch up their lives. This works up to a point but their relationship is strained as Del Toro gets on with the kids really well, knows some of their secrets (because their dad told him), and fulfils some of the role that Duchovny hadn’t a chance to. Berry’s character Audrey is in denial and not coping with her loss.

It is a gently humorous film with a brilliantly convincing performance from Del Toro, especially during cold turkey after a relapse into the old ways. Berry is tearful and luminous but it seems as if it’s nothing more than just a job, emotionally there is no depth. Yes there is a lot of sad, and a drizzle of schmaltz and a surprising amount of emotional intimacy; Bier handles the pace, relationships and chemistry with the actors with expert ease. The kids are really cute too.

Overall it’s unclear what Things We Lost in the Fire is trying to say. Life goes on? We all suffer loss and face traumatic events and sharing is good? Whatever the message, it would be ignored without Del Toro’s mighty performance. PA

This week at the movies, we got amnesiac spies (The Bourne Ultimatum, starring Matt Damon and Julia Stiles), loser daredevils (Hot Rod, with Andy Samberg and Isla Fisher), salsa singers (El Cantante, starring Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez), school girls (Bratz: The Movie, starring Nathalia Ramos and Jon Voight), flying canines (Underdog, starring Jason Lee and Peter Dinklage), and radio personalities (Talk to Me, starring Don Cheadle and Chjwetel Ejiofor). What do the critics have to say?

The third in a series is rarely the best — witness the critical response to the latest Shrek and Spidey installments. However, if you found the thrills and chills of The Bourne Identity and Supremacy too sedate, you’re in luck; critics say The Bourne Ultimatum is one of the most exciting, action-paced movies of the summer, and is easily the best in the series (not too shabby, considering the other two were both Certified Fresh). Yet again, Matt Damon isn’t really sure who he is or how he became such an awesome killing machine, and yet again, he’s on the run from the authorities. But in this episode, pundits say Damon really comes into his own as an action star here, and director Paul Greengrass is well on his way to becoming an auteur of commercial filmmaking. Critics say the dizzying camerawork, rapid-fire editing, and overall craftsmanship make for one wild ride. At 92 percent on the Tomatometer, this may be the ultimate Bourne.



Damon’s still hunting, but not for goodwill.

Critics are musing: is Bratz much better than Barbie? Since 2001, the ethnically diverse dolls have built an empire based on their unique brand of girl power and lip gloss, including this film adaptation featuring four girls overcoming their differences and joining together in holy BFFness. But critics deem Bratz: The Movie a vapid and clueless enterprise, with characters who don’t seem to have any discernable characteristics beyond fashion and material wealth. And it freely employs stereotypes (girls must be skinny, boys must be dreamy, and adults are idiots) while paradoxically arguing stereotypes are bad. At 11 percent Tomatometer, these Bratz need a lesson in filmmaking.



“Picking Bad Movies To Star In For Dummies.”

You loved him when he was drinking Mr. Pibb with a Red Vines straw, and you loved him when he was cutting holes in boxes. But will you love Andy Samberg in Hot Rod, his feature-length debut in which he stars as an awful amateur daredevil trying to raise money for his ill stepfather? Though Samberg is singled out for his enthusiastic, mischievous charm, little else appears to impress the critics. They say Hot Rod tries for an anarchic brand of physical and lowbrow jokes, but ends up irritating and random instead, the kind of disjointed comedy that gives SNL movies its bad name. At 30 percent Tomatometer, Rod is anything but hot. (Check out our interview with Samberg and his Lonely Island pals here.)



One method to escape the theater.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Don Cheadle is one of the best actors in Hollywood today. In his latest, Talk to Me, Cheadle gives a performance that some pundits are calling Oscar-worthy — while noting his co-star, Chjwetel Ejiofor, is no slouch as well. Cheadle plays proto-shock jock Petey Green, an ex-con who brought freshness, humor, and irreverence to the medium during the tumultuous and heady late 1960s. While some pundits note that the film has some bumpy patches – often a problem for biopics — they say the performances and energy are strong enough to overlook most flaws. At 79 percent on the Tomatometer, the Certified Fresh Talk to Me is a movie worth talking about.



Oscar-worthy performances from Cheadle and Ejiofor.

Hector Lavoe isn’t widely known with the American public. And that probably won’t change much with the release of El Cantante, a biopic based on the late Puerto Rican salsa singer’s life. Marc Anthony stars as Lavoe, but it’s the life of Lavoe’s wife (played by Jennifer Lopez) that, for better or worse, you’ll remember the most vividly from the movie. Critics call Lopez’s scenery-chewing a vanity acting job, as the rest of the movie is too loosely loose structure, creating a vacuum of character and narrative focus. And while El Cantante revels in biopic clichés, it never bothers revealing why Hector Lavoe was even worthy of an inspiring biopic in the first place. At 26 percent Tomatometer, El Cantante hits a sour note.



“Do you really want to hurt me?”

“Never fear — Underdog is here!” So went the rallying cry of everyone’s favorite super-pooch back in the day. Now? It appears the people behind Underdog have plenty to fear from critics, since the film wasn’t screened before hitting theaters. The usually-dependable Jason Lee and Peter Dinklage star in the tale (or is it tail?) of a mutt who, after an experiment, gains superpowers. Kids, after you’re done taking Fido for a stroll around the block, Guess the Tomatometer.



At 11 percent on the Tomatometer, Underdog is underwhelming.

Also opening this week in limited release: Summer ’04, a riveting tale of a summer holiday gone awry, is at 92 percent on the Tomatometer; Blame it on Fidel, a Parisian coming-of-age tale about a young girl and her radical activist parents, is at 92 percent; Them, a tense and existential horror flick from France, is at 81 percent; The Willow Tree, a Bergman-esque Iranian drama of a man coming to grips with death, is at 80 percent; Colossal Youth, a sprawling drama about urban life in Portugal, is at 71 percent; Becoming Jane, a biopic of Jane Austen’s early life, is at 62 percent; and The Ten, an anthology of comic vignettes based on the Ten Commandments, is at 57 percent.



The Austen Diaries

Finally, props to love_flag for coming the closest to guessing Who’s Your Caddy‘s nine percent Tomatometer, and to SplendidIsolation and icon2008 for approximating I know Who Killed Me‘s six percent.

Recent Matt Damon Movies:
———————————–
69% — Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
56% — The Good Shepherd (2006)
93% — The Departed (2006)
74% — Syriana (2005)
38% — The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Bart, Lisa, and the whole gang from Springfield will charge into multiplexes across North America and much of the world this weekend in the highly anticipated animated comedy The Simpsons Movie which looks to easily conquer the box office. But competing studios do have other menu items in store for moviegoers. Catherine Zeta-Jones stars in the romantic comedy No Reservations, Lindsay Lohan headlines the grisly thriller I Know Who Killed Me, and hip hop star Big Boi tries out the world of golf comedy in Who’s Your Caddy?

Fox is aiming for hardcore followers and casual fans alike with its long-in-the-works comedy The Simpsons Movie which hits screens at midnight on Thursday night. The PG-13 film has a substantial built-in audience and should play out like a semi-sequel. To some extent it will be one of the more unpredictable openings of the summer since there is no track record of Simpsons fans leaving their TVs and paying money at the box office, however the fan base is sizable and will definitely come out upfront. Reviews have been good too so those who tuned out a decade ago and miss the Bobo years should return to try out what the feature-length entree is like.

The studio gets major points for executing what is certainly one of the best marketing campaigns of the year. From turning a dozen 7-11s into Kwik-E-Marts to the SimpsonizeMe web promotion, The Simpsons Movie has been generating substantial interest and has jumped from the entertainment pages to the front pages becoming a major pop culture event. That should lead to a powerful opening weekend, even if large drops follow. The marketplace will get crowded this weekend, however Simpsons will tower over its foes with ease. In fact its nearest competitors should only be in the teen millions so Krusty and company will get the attention of most folks. Busting into 3,922 theaters, The Simpsons Movie could open in the neighborhood of $54M.


The Simpsons Movie


The German film Mostly Martha gets transformed into a star-driven Hollywood vehicle in the comedy No Reservations featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, and Abigail Breslin. The PG-rated film features the T-Mobile lady playing a control freak chef who must care for her niece when her sister is killed. Warner Bros. offered sneak previews last weekend to help get some buzz going since the marketplace is getting so crowded now. No Reservations should skew more female making the hotter-than-expected Hairspray a formidable competitor. Starpower is not too high here which will make for another challenge at the box office. Serving up love and laughs in 2,425 locations, No Reservations could gross roughly $9M over the weekend.


No Reservations


What seemed like a good idea a year ago – Lindsay Lohan headlining a thriller – now looks to become an unfortunate casualty of the summer box office race. I Know Who Killed Me, an R-rated scarefest from Sony, hits theaters on Friday riding a wave of bad publicity surrounding its star. Is all publicity, good publicity? Will Lohan’s arrests and substance abuse problems help sell more tickets? Moviegoers will decide that, but Killed enters the marketplace without a lot of fanfare. Hollywood has run the horror genre into the ground this year with an overabundance of product and this one’s harsh rating will make it much tougher to get Lohan’s fan base in. The film looked promising a month ago when scenes of the mean girl doing a stripper routine were released online. But most of the intrigue has evaporated and the pic now stands as yet another scary movie that ticket buyers don’t need. Debuting in about 1,200 locations, I Know Who Killed Me may collect around $4M.


I Know Who Killed Me


MGM releases the golf comedy Who’s Your Caddy? which stars hip hop players Big Boi and Lil Wayne. The PG-13 pic tells of a rap mogul who invades and turns upside-down an elite country club. Opening in only 1,019 theaters with a low-volume marketing push, Caddy is not looking to lead the pack at all but comes as a small offering for teens on summer vacation too bored to see anything else. Given the high amount of competition and the low amount of starpower, the grosses should be small. Who’s Your Caddy? might take in about $2M this weekend.


Who’s Your Caddy?


As if the weekend wasn’t crowded enough, a handful of films that have posted impressive results in limited release test the waters in many more theaters. MGM widens the acclaimed military drama Rescue Dawn from 57 to more than 500 runs, Fox Searchlight expands its sci-fi thriller Sunshine from ten to over 400 locations, and Focus jumps from 36 to 115 playdates with its well-reviewed Don Cheadle starrer Talk To Me. All three should find themselves in the Top 20.


Rescue Dawn


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix took a beating last weekend when the final wizard book hit the shelves. The drop could stabilize this weekend despite the arrival of Apu and friends. A 45% decline would give the Hogwarts clan about $18M and a 19-day cume of $242M.

Adam Sandler comedies typically drop by 45-50% on the second weekend depending on how well received they are. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is not exactly a fan favorite so sales could get sliced in half and fall to about $17M. That would still give the Universal comedy about $70M after ten days.

New Line enjoyed a better than expected bow for the musical Hairspray which gave the studio its best opening in two years. However its Friday-to-Saturday drop of 15% last weekend indicates that it might be a front-loaded title. Look for a 50% fall to around $14M giving the John Travolta vehicle a ten-day tally of $59M.

LAST YEAR: Universal’s summer action entry Miami Vice opened atop the charts with $25.7M on its way to $63.5M domestically and $164M worldwide. After three weeks at number one, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest slipped to second with $20.6M. Fox’s teen comedy John Tucker Must Die enjoyed a solid opening in third with $14.3M leading to a $41M final. The animated film Monster House followed with $11.7M in its sophomore frame. Rounding out the top five was rival toon The Ant Bully with a $8.4M opening on its way to a disappointing $28.1M for Warner Bros. Introducing herself to the world in limited release was Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine which went on to become a critical and commercial hit grabbing $59.9M at the box office plus four Oscar nominations.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

Adam Sandler
scored the ninth number one opening of his career with his latest comedy
I
Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
which edged out former champ

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
for the top spot at the North
American box office. The frame’s only other wide opener
Hairspray
enjoyed a
magical debut of its own with a strong third place bow. Overall, moviegoers
spread their dollars around as for first time in more than three years, four
films grossed over $20M each over the same weekend.

Universal won a slim box office victory with the launch of

Chuck and Larry
which grossed an estimated $34.8M to lead the frame.
Debuting in 3,495 theaters, the PG-13 pic about two straight firefighters who
pretend to be gay for the domestic partner benefits averaged an impressive
$9,950 per location. Though a solid first place performance, Chuck and Larry
also delivered the worst opening for one of
Sandler’s broad
live-action comedies since the 2000 flop
Little Nicky
.
His more dramatic turns in films like
Spanglish
and
Reign Over Me

have attracted modest openings, but his mainstream laughers typically debut near
the $40M mark. Sandler still stands a good chance of earning a $100M blockbuster
for the sixth consecutive year.

Falling down one spot to the runnerup position was

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
which grossed an estimated
$32.2M in its sophomore session. Down a steep 58%, the Warner Bros. release
lifted its 12-day cume to a stunning $207.5M. Second weekend declines are
typically large for high-profile tentpole films. Phoenix’s drop was a bit
smaller than the 62% for both
Spider-Man 3
and
Pirates
of the Caribbean: At World’s End
which each debuted on a Friday in May.
However, it was larger than the drops for fellow midweek openers
Live Free or
Die Hard
and
Transformers

which witnessed sophomore declines of 47% and 48%, respectively.





The new Potter film had to compete with the arrival of the seventh and
final wizard book on Saturday which appealed to the exact same audience and
probably kept many away from the multiplexes. Still the gross to date compares
favorably to the $201M that the last film

Goblet of Fire
generated by the end of its second weekend in November
2005. That tally however was over two fewer days but did have the benefit of the
Thanksgiving holiday. With the summer playing period, Phoenix stands a
good chance of matching the $290M of Goblet and could even crack the
$300M mark. Together with Transformers, that would give this summer a
record five megablockbusters crossing the $300M threshold.





Helped by monster openings in Japan and Russia, the fifth wizard tale grossed a
staggering $100.8M overseas this weekend to boost the international tally to
$351.3M. That puts the global box office for Order of the Phoenix at a
towering $559M after only 12 days. This weekend the Harry Potter movie
franchise also crossed a major milestone as the global box office for all five
films combined shattered the $4 billion mark.





New Line attracted a large audience to its musical comedy
Hairspray
which
opened better than expected at number three with an estimated $27.8M. Playing in
3,121 houses, the PG-rated film averaged a stellar $8,907 and gave the studio
its best opening in two years. Hairspray earned rave reviews from critics
and starred a diverse cast that allowed the marketing team to target different
audiences. Hollywood veterans
John Travolta and
Michelle Pfeiffer
helped bring in adult moviegoers,
Amanda Bynes and
Zac Efron caught the
attention of teens,
Queen Latifah
helped give the film appeal to African American moviegoers,
and newcomer
Nikki Blonsky
hit the talk show circuit making everyday Americans feel they
too can win their shot at movie stardom. Many audience segments found something
here to like.

Transformers banked another $20.5M, according to estimates, and saw its
total soar to $263M. Off 45% in its third weekend, the Paramount/DreamWorks
production climbed to number 34 on the list of all-time domestic blockbusters
passing the $262M of 2002’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The animated rodent film
Ratatouille

dropped 39% to fifth place with an estimated $11M in its fourth outing to boost
the cume to $165.6M. Although the acclaimed comedy is on its way past the $200M
mark, it will end up being Pixar’s lowest-grossing film since 1998’s
A Bug’s Life
. Fox’s
action sequel
Live Free or
Die Hard
followed in sixth with an estimated $7.3M, off 35%, lifting the
total to $116.5M. By Tuesday the new installment will become the top-grossing
Die Hard
film edging past the $117.3M of 1990’s Die Hard 2, however
ticket prices were much lower when all previous John McClane pics were released.

The Warner Bros. comedy
License to
Wed
fell 49% to an estimated $3.8M and gave the
Robin Williams
film $38.7M to date. The hit thriller
1408
scared up an
estimated $2.6M, down 47%, giving MGM a cume of $67.5M.





Universal rounded out the top ten with a pair of comedies from the men behind
The 40-Year-Old
Virgin
. Steve
Carell’s
Evan
Almighty
grossed an estimated $2.5M, down 50%, for a $93.5M sum. But
director Judd Apatow has been the bigger winner with
Knocked Up
which
slipped 37% to an estimated $2.3M raising the stellar total to $142.7M and
counting. Final domestic grosses should be roughly $100M and $150M,
respectively.




In limited release, Fox Searchlight’s sci-fi thriller
Sunshine
opened well
with an estimated $235,000 from only ten locations for a scorching $23,548
average. The Danny Boyle-directed
pic expands on Friday to over 400 theaters nationwide. Also posting a solid
average was Don Cheadle’s
Talk to Me with an
estimated $342,000 from 36 sites for a commendable $9,491 average. The total
sits at $895,000 with an expansion set for Friday as well.




A pair of films fell from the top ten over the weekend.
Michael Moore’s
health care documentary
Sicko
dipped 26% to an estimated $1.9M pushing the overall cume to
$19.2M. A final take of about $25M seems likely for the Lionsgate release. The
caper sequel
Ocean’s Thirteen
grossed an estimated $1.1M in its seventh heist, down
47%, for a $114.6M cume to date. A final North American tally of approximately
$118M seems likely which would be just 6% less than the $125.5M of 2004’s
Ocean’s Twelve.




The top ten films grossed an estimated $144.7M which was up 5% from last year
when

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
remained at number one for
the third time with $35.2M; and up 17% from 2005 when Johnny Depp also ruled
with

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
which took in $28.3M in its sophomore
session.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

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