In this week’s roster of UK cinema releases we have the latest addition to the Coen canon in the CIA comedy caper, Burn After Reading. Shia LeBeouf stakes a further claim to the Hollywood A-list in the high concept cyber-thriller Eagle Eye, and a washed up ’80s rockstar wannabe gets another stab at fame with his nephew’s band in The Rocker. But what did the UK critics have to say?

Last year, the Coen brothers picked up the Academy Award for Best Picture for their neo-western thriller No Country For Old Men, and at 94% on the Tomatometer, this was long-deserved acclaim for Joel and Ethan Coen, and set their already high standards to an even higher benchmark. It’s an oft-quoted theory that the Coens make two types of films; Screwball caper comedies a la Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski or the ‘serious,’ tougher and more gritty efforts like Fargo and Miller’s Crossing. With No Country they made, arguably, their toughest and grittiest film yet, with great success, so it makes sense that with their follow up, instead of trying to outmuscle their modern masterpiece, they’ve stepped into screwball mode for Burn After Reading. To many this may have seemed a risk, with their last comedic outing, Ealing comedy remake, The Ladykillers taking a bit of a critical kicking at 55% on the Tomatometer, but the Coens’ gamble seems to have paid off with Burn After Reading, as it currently stands at a respectable 78% on the Tomatometer. Despite a few calls from the critics over the lightweight throwaway feel of the film due to its slender running time of 96 minutes, most have been raving about the daffy turns from all the actors involved, with many praising Brad Pitt’s brainless portrayal of fitness instructor Chad Feldheimer as comedy gold. With a killer one/two combo of their last two movies, fans all over will be waiting with baited breath for their next cinematic outing, A Serious Man, due for release next year.

Shia LeBeouf’s rise to the top of the pile in Hollywood surely hasn’t been hindered after being taken under the wing of Steven Spielberg. With a starring role in Spielberg’s Dreamworks Studio teen-thriller Disturbia, followed by a lead role in the Spielberg-produced, robots in disguise, action adventure hit Transformers and finally being cast as Indiana Jones Jr, Mutt Williams, in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, LeBeouf has become an instantly recognised presence on the big screen. In Eagle Eye,(produced by Spielberg unsurprisingly) he is back with Disturbia director DJ Caruso, and is out to carry on his winning streak in this cyber thriller, as Jerry Shaw, a slacker who gets embroiled in a terrorist plot, out to clear his name with help from the FBI. Unfortunately, the critics didn’t allow themselves to get carried away with the high octane, low brainer action, and many dismiss the film for its preposterous and implausible plotting, accusing it of borrowing too heavily from many other superior, and classic, films. The critics who liked it enjoyed the snappy and thrilling pace of the brainless entertainment on offer, but not enough to escape the ignominy of a measly 28% on the Tomatometer as it currently stands.

Rainn Wilson is probably not a name too well known to UK audiences, but he has a face that makes you think “Hmm, I recognise him from somewhere” thanks to small roles in Juno, and My Super Ex-Girlfriend, as well as a regular role in the American remake of The Office, and a recurring one in the critically-acclaimed Six-Feet Under. In The Rocker, Wilson takes centre stage as ex-rocker Robert ‘Fish’ Fishman, a drummer with fictitious ’80s rock band Vesuvius, who was given the boot moments before the band hit the big time, and who has been coming to terms with his near brush with superstardom ever since. He gets his second chance to reclaim his rock-god throne, when he joins his teenage nephews, high school rock band A.D.D., whilst showing his young band mates the merits of a rock and roll lifestyle in the process. The Rocker seems to have fared better with the UK critics than it did with the US critics, who, in the main had panned the film for its formulaic and unoriginal style, unfunny and forgettable script and shameless similarities to the vastly superior School Of Rock. UK critics weren’t so harsh, and many enjoyed the brisk humour, snappy one liners and good natured feeling to the whole proceedings, even if some of the slapstick doesn’t quite get the laughs it hopes for. Currently at 39% on the Tomatometer, The Rocker isn’t quite that rocking.

Also worth checking out this week…

Young@Heart – Full of endearing characters, this doc about a choir of “seniors behaving badly” is uplifting and delightful. 88% on the Tomatometer.

La Zona – A slick and smart Mexican thriller of middle-class panic and vigilantism, that is lean, mean and often shocking. 78% on the Tomatometer.

Quote Of The Week

“A worse film might be dismissed as sobsploitation.”

Young@Heart. Nigel Andrews, Financial Times.

Studios dumped out their usual trash over Labor Day weekend and moviegoers responded by avoiding most of them. That allowed Robert Downey Jr. to rock both the opening and closing ceremonies of the summer movie season as Tropic Thunder retained the number one spot for the third consecutive weekend. Five films opened or expanded nationally and were scattered all across the Top 20, most with weak results. Meanwhile, The Dark Knight moved up a notch in its seventh session and broke through the $500M mark over the long holiday weekend putting an end to what turned out to be a better-than-expected summer box office.

Still ahead of the pack for a third time, Tropic Thunder grossed an estimated $14.3M over the four-day Friday-to-Monday holiday weekend and lifted its impressive total to $86.6M after 18 days of release. The Ben Stiller-directed war comedy saw its three-day take of $11.5M drop only 29% from last weekend and joined the Batman juggernaut as this year’s only films to rank number one for three or more weekends. The $90M DreamWorks production is on course to end its run in the vicinity of $110M for Paramount which coincidentally also kicked off the summer blockbuster season at the top in May with Iron Man.

Leading all new releases, but lacking muscle, was Vin Diesel’s return to the action genre with Babylon A.D. which bowed to an estimated $12M over the long holiday weekend. Fox’s latest clunker enjoyed the widest launch by far among debuting titles but generated a lackluster $3,540 average over four days from 3,390 theaters. During the Friday-to-Sunday portion, the R-rated thriller grossed $9.6M for a weak $2,822 average. Babylon A.D. capped off a summer that the studio would like to forget following such misfires as Meet Dave, The Rocker, and The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Some were not costly films and others Fox just distributed for a fee, but the studio still failed to score a $100M+ summer grosser for the first time in eleven years.

The comic book overachiever The Dark Knight smashed through the $500M mark and placed third in its seventh weekend with an estimated $11M. Warner Bros. bumped its stunning cume up to $504.7M and surpassed the quintuple century barrier on Sunday in its 45th day of release. The new Batman epic has now sold approximately 70 million tickets beating out Spider-Man which snapped up roughly 69 million stubs in 2002. Knight is on a trajectory to end its North American run with about $525M translating to around 74 million admissions. Overseas, The Joker’s antics attracted an estimated $19.2M boosting the international total to $417M and the global gross to an eye-popping $921.7M. That was enough for The Dark Knight to break into the all-time top ten list of worldwide blockbusters. Shattering the $1 billion mark is a virtual guarantee.

Sony’s sorority comedy The House Bunny ranked fourth for the weekend with an estimated $10.2M over four days in its second term. The Anna Faris starrer has grossed a solid $29.8M in 11 days and could finish in the neighborhood of $45M. The budget was only $25M.

Overture Films saw a respectable debut for its Don Cheadle political thriller Traitor which bowed to an estimated $10M over the long weekend and $11.5M in the six days since opening on Wednesday. The PG-13 pic landed in 2,054 theaters and averaged a good $4,869 over four days representing the second best average among films in wide release. Reviews were somewhat positive.

Jason Statham’s latest action offering Death Race fell to sixth grossing an estimated $8.2M over the long weekend pushing the 11-day total to $25M. The $45M Universal release should end up with $35-40M.

Moviegoers finally said no to spoof kings Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg as their newest comedy Disaster Movie flopped taking in an estimated $6.9M over four days. Opening in 2,642 locations, the PG-13 pic averaged a weak $2,604 for Lionsgate. Disaster‘s three-day bow of $5.8M was less than one-third of what the filmmakers saw on opening weekend for their most recent hits Meet the Spartans and Epic Movie which both debuted at number one with respective takes of $18.5M and $18.6M.

Two hit comedies followed. Universal’s musical sensation Mamma Mia! sang to the tune of $5.8M, according to estimates, and raised its cume to $132.9M. The studio released a new sing-along version in selected theaters on Friday which helped give sales a boost over the holiday weekend. A final domestic tally of $140-145M could result for the $65M songfest. Sony’s stoner hit Pineapple Express collected an estimated $4.5M and took its sum to $80.9M. The final gross for the $27M production should reach $85-90M.

Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona popped back into the top ten with an estimated $3.5M over four days. The MGM release has now taken in $13.3M which is an impressive number for the veteran filmmaker. The Javier Bardem tale also generated the best average among all movies in wide release. Look for a final take at or slightly north of $20M.

With seven other comedies ahead of them on the charts, two new R-rated laughers stumbled in wide release this weekend grossing less than $3M each over four days. MGM’s teen pic College failed miserably with an estimated $2.6M from 2,123 locations for a dismal $1,241 four-day average. Focus expanded its expensive Sundance acquisition Hamlet 2 from 103 to 1,597 theaters in the second weekend and walked away with just $2.1M, according to estimates, for a pitiful four-day average of just $1,330. Cume for the Steve Coogan pic is an embarrassing $3.1M which will not help the distributor recoup the $10M it paid for the indie comedy. Hamlet 2 is shaping up to be this year’s Happy, Texas which Miramax bought for around $10M at 1999’s Sundance but grossed a measly $1.9M from 146 theaters in commercial release that fall.

The top ten films grossed an estimated $86.4M over the Friday-to-Monday span which was down 24% from last year when Halloween opened in the top spot with $30.6M; and off 3% from 2006 when Invincible stayed at number one with $15.4M in its sophomore frame.

The ancient studio ritual of dumping weak product into the late August box office has begun. Four new releases, most about failures trying to redeem themselves, hit the multiplexes with only one having the strength to make a play for the number one spot. Universal launches the latest Jason Statham action pic Death Race while Fox and Sony counter with their competing teen-skewing comedies The Rocker and The House Bunny, respectively. Ice Cube also joins the mix with MGM’s family sports film The Longshots. Given the aging holdovers, lack of firepower from debuting titles, and the final weekend of the Olympics which has been keeping 30 million people at home every night, the overall marketplace is sure to slow down. Look for the top ten to slump below the $100M mark for the first time since April.

Action star Jason Statham hits the big screen once again, this time playing a driver out to win an insane reality competition where convicts race and kill each other in order to win their freedom in Death Race. The R-rated pic will play to the actor’s core audience of young men in search of mindless short-term thrills and spills. Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, and Joan Allen co-star while Paul W.S. Anderson directs. The helmer has had great luck entertaining this audience with past hits like Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon, Resident Evil, and Alien vs. Predator. Statham himself has a good track record with action movies opening on or around Labor Day weekend. 2005’s Transporter 2 bowed to $16.5M, the following year’s Crank debuted to $10.5M, while last year his War opened softer with $9.8M. Death Race is not a Transporter film (the next one attacks on Thanksgiving weekend) so grosses should be closer to those of the others.

Summer movie audiences have had their fill of action so non-Statham fans will not be coming out in big numbers. Both Tropic Thunder and The Dark Knight will be formidable opponents playing to most of the same folks. Universal’s quartet of summer actioners has grossed a spectacular $430M so there’s just only so much more it can squeeze out of the last weeks of the season. But the star and the director both have scored in this genre so a good number of young males, especially frequent multiplex-goers, will come out and spend a little cash. Statham is no Will Smith, but he does attract a respectable number of fans each and every time. Racing into 2,400 theaters, Death Race may open to about $13M.

Fox aims to grab some biz from bored teens not yet back in school with its Rainn Wilson comedy The Rocker. The PG-13 film features The Office star playing a failed former drummer who joins a new band run by his adolescent nephew. Overall excitement is not very high and Wilson will have to prove himself here as a leading man. Fellow NBC star Andy Samberg tried anchoring his own immature comedy last August with Hot Rod which flopped with a weak $5.3M debut and dismal $2,037 average. Rocker may do better, but not by much. Most of the target audience will probably wait for the DVD here. The studio already opened the pic on Wednesday to get two extra days of summer play. Younger kids who can’t get into all the R-rated antics of Ferrell, Rogen, and Stiller will make up a big part of the audience for this one and its family-friendly packaging could prompt some parents to give it a go. But overall, the film lacks the buzz to become a standout performer. Now playing in 2,627 sites, The Rocker could take in about $8M over three days and $11M over five days.
Anna Faris takes a break from spoofing horror flicks and headlines the college comedy The House Bunny. The PG-13 film finds the actress playing a former Playboy bunny who takes a job as the leader of a sorority of misfits. Sony is gunning for teens and young adults of both genders here with a central story about young women with some sex appeal that might bring in some guys. The premise isn’t half bad so a decent showing may result. But Faris is no guaranteed draw at the box office when outside of her safe zone in the Scary Movie franchise. There’s no evidence to prove that she can sell tickets and the film lacks any other star names. Plus The Rocker will be going after many of the same folks in search of laughs. Opening in about 2,600 locations, The House Bunny might gross about $8M this weekend.

After conquering the inept-man-takes-care-of-children genre with Are We There Yet?, Ice Cube swaggers over to the equally popular inspirational-sports-coach category with The Longshots. The PG-rated pic features the star of music and film as a former football player who turns his 11-year-old niece into a local pigskin heroine. Fred Durst, rap-rock pioneer of yesteryear, directs. It would be too easy to compare the film’s title to its box office prospects. Starpower is low, marketing buzz is minimal, and the name of the film could not be more bland. Studios have failed at providing worthwhile content to families since the release of WALL•E and this entry will be forgotten just like the others. The MGM release could take in about $6M this weekend from 2,000 sites.

Rocking Sundance earlier this year and now making a stab at commercial success is Hamlet 2, the story of a high school drama teacher and his students who try to stage a raunchy sequel to Shakespeare’s classic play. Focus paid a near-record $10M to acquire worldwide rights and hopes that it has a Little Miss Sunshine on its hands. That late summer indie comedy opened to scorching numbers in limited release and went on to earn four major Oscar nominations including Best Picture and $59.9M at the box office. Hamlet 2 stars Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Elisabeth Shue, and Amy Poehler and is using its rating as a marketing tool with ads that feature an extra large bright red R telling arthouse filmgoers that they are in for some envelope-pushing humor here not meant for little kids. Opening in only 90 playdates in major markets, Hamlet 2 is set to post a muscular average before heading into national release over the Labor Day holiday frame when word-of-mouth is expected to sell it further. The abundance of R-rated studio comedies will certainly have an effect, but the void for smarthouse laughs will give Focus a big opportunity to cash in on territory usually monopolized by Fox Searchlight. For this weekend, a bow of about $1.5M could result.

Hoping for back-to-back gold medals, Tropic Thunder will try to fend off competition from all the new releases and defend its box office title. Direct competition will come primarily from Death Race as it also is targeting adult men. The remaining newcomers will not steal away too much of Ben Stiller’s crowd. Look for the Paramount war comedy to drop by 45% to around $14M giving the R-rated pic $63M in 12 days and a solid chance at joining the century club.Warner Bros. will see another terrific hold for its runaway smash The Dark Knight which could slip by just 35%. That would give the superhero film around $10.5M which would lift the overall domestic tally to $489M. The $500M barrier should be broken by Labor Day. The studio’s animated title Star Wars: The Clone Wars will suffer a steep tumble since there is no real buzz to keep it going and hardcore fans have already made it out. Look for a 55% decline to about $6.5M pushing the ten-day tally to $26M.

LAST YEAR: With the summer movie season coming to a close and the Top 20 barely breaking $100M, none of the five new releases managed to break into the top three slots. The high school comedy Superbad remained at number one with $18M in its second weekend and was followed by threequel holdovers The Bourne Ultimatum and Rush Hour 3 with $12.5M and $11.7M, respectively. Debuting ahead of all the other new offerings was the family sequel Mr. Bean’s Holiday with $9.9M for Universal followed closely by Lionsgate’s Jet LiJason Statham actioner War with $9.8M. Final grosses reached $33.3M and $22.5M, respectively. The Nanny Diaries bowed in sixth with $7.5M finishing with $25.9M for MGM. Opening poorly outside of the top ten were Resurrecting the Champ and Illegal Tender with respective takes of $1.7M and $1.4M. The pair reached $3.2M and $3.1M.

This week at the movies, we’ve got rock ‘n’ roll dreams (The Rocker, starring Rainn Wilson and Christina Applegate), a Playboy Mansion exile (The House Bunny, starring Anna Faris), deadly motorsports (Death Race, starring Jason Statham and Tyrese Gibson), and a female Pop Warner star (The Longshots, starring Ice Cube and Keke Palmer). What do the critics have to say?

The middle-aged outcast with a burning desire to rock has practically become a genre onto itself, but critics say The Rocker plays more like a B-side than a stadium anthem. Rainn Wilson stars as Robert “Fish” Fishman, a drummer who was booted from a hair metal band just before the group’s big break. Twenty years later, his nephew needs a drummer for his garage band, and Fish eagerly joins — much to the consternation of his teenage band mates. Now, Wilson is a very funny actor, but the scribes say that despite his best efforts, The Rocker feels secondhand — it’s predictable and slight, and doesn’t sing like School of Rock, the film to which it’s been inevitably compared. At 37 percent on the Tomatometer, this Rocker doesn’t go to 11. (Check out this week’s Total Recall, a compendium of cinema’s finest fake bands.)

“This bores me. Is anyone up for a game of… basketball?”

Anna Faris may be one of the freshest comic actors in Hollywood, but critics say her natural charisma isn’t enough to salvage The House Bunny. Faris stars as a Bunny who gets evicted from the Playboy Mansion and takes refuge in a sorority house, where she teaches the sisters lessons imparted to her from Hef. The pundits say The House Bunny is way too formulaic to hold together — and some have objected to the film’s celebration of bimbos — but Faris does her best, injecting a winning personality into a picture that could use some more laughs. At 41 percent on the Tomatometer, this House isn’t all that sturdy. However, it’s the best-reviewed of director Fred Wolf‘s films, which include this year’s zero-Tomatometer Strange Wilderness.

“Big money! Big money! No whammies…”

If you like your movies big and noisy, with a minimum of character development, Paul W.S. Anderson is your man. Critics say his latest, Death Race, doesn’t deviate from Anderson’s established themes, nor does it provide enough of the cheap B-movie thrills it promises. Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Death Race stars Jason Statham as a convict, who, along with a group of inmates, is enlisted to participate in a brutal auto race that’s being staged by the prison’s brass. According to critics, the film — a remake of the 1975 Roger Corman B-classic Death Race 2000 — is loaded with histrionic action scenes, so-so performances, and unintentional laughs, and lacks the white-knuckle thrills that a genre piece like this requires to be more than just a guilty pleasure. At 28 percent on the Tomatometer, Death Race could use a tune-up.

The car wash of the future.

You’re never gonna believe this: Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst has directed a family film about a girl trying to join a boys’ football team! The sheer incongruity of that fact may be the most distinguishing thing about The Longshots, which critics say is a sweet but mostly forgettable inspirational sports flick. Durst’s fellow “Family Values” tour mate Ice Cube stars as a former football star who teaches his niece (Keke Palmer) how to play quarterback; she becomes the first girl in Pop Warner history, and leads her squad to victory. The scribes say The Longshots means well, and Palmer gives a standout performance, but the film sticks way too close to the sports movie playbook, robbing it of tension and spark. At 32 percent on the Tomatometer, The Longshots is something of a busted play.

“This halftime show is strangely riveting.”

Also opening this week in limited release:

  • Dare Not Walk Alone, a documentary about the Civil Rights movement in St. Augustine, FL, is at 100 percent.
  • The Czech import I Served the King of England, a darkly comic tale about the ups and downs in the life a likeably naive man, is at 94 percent.
  • Trouble the Water, a doc about the resilient survivors of Hurricane Katrina, is at 93 percent.
  • Momma’s Man, a dramedy about a middle aged man taking a trip down memory lane in his parents’ apartment, is at 88 percent.
  • I.O.U.S.A., a doc about the U.S. government’s fiscal irresponsibility, is at 82 percent.
  • Hamlet 2, starring Steve Coogan as a high school drama teacher who mounts an ambitious musical sequel to the Bard’s classic, is at 67 percent (check out The Play’s the Thing, our countdown of great movies about life in the theater).

    It’s good to see that Billy Sheehan is getting work these days.

    Finally, crazy props to Superzone and Rachelle13 for coming the closest to guessing Mirrors‘ 17 percent Tomatometer.

    Recent Ice Cube Movies:

  • 14% — First Sunday (2008)
  • 8% — Are We Done Yet? (2007)
  • 16% — XXX: State of the Union (2005)
  • 12% — Are We There Yet? (2005)
  • 69% — Barbershop 2: Back in Business (2004)

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