Flicking around

SN&R’s film critics preview this holiday season’s fare

Did Liza Minnelli ever look this good? Aspiring Victoria’s Secret model Penélope Cruz in Chicago director Rob Marshall’s Nine.

Did Liza Minnelli ever look this good? Aspiring Victoria’s Secret model Penélope Cruz in Chicago director Rob Marshall’s Nine.

Every fall and winter, Hollywood ups its output and unleashes its post-summer, adult and family-friendly fare, which usually features the biggest of big-name draws and the most inflamed of swollen director egos. Consequently, this also is that time of year when SN&R’s film critics Daniel Barnes, Jonathan Kiefer and Jim Lane batten down the hatches for a roller coaster of blown budgets, bad third acts and lowly junket hacks’ bothersome Oscar-vote incontinence, er, insistence. Thankfully, like Musketeers, these pages have a trio to fight the good celluloid—and digital 3-D—fight. Here’s their look at what’s coming down the pipe.

A disturbing bunch

I’ve never been a huge horror fan, but just as young starlets and cub directors are inexorably drawn to this popular but disreputable genre, my status as the “new guy” on SN&R film pages means that I’m the one usually assigned to review them.

So, although Halloween II did not screen for critics, I drew the straw on its opening weekend. And I was all prepared to catch the showing at the United Artists in Laguna. But when I got online to check the running time, I noticed the Motion Picture Association of America’s description:

“Rated R for strong brutal bloody violence throughout, terror, disturbing graphic images, language, and some crude sexual content and nudity.”

Typically, the MPAA warning label is a terse statement describing the film’s objectionable content: “profanity,” “adult situations,” “pervasive Ryan Reynolds.” But this description of Halloween 2, nearly three haikus’ worth of syllables, uses the word “terror” as though an afterthought to the really fucked-up shit on display and breathlessly strings together three adjectives without commas, as though utterly “terror”-ized.

So what did I do? I put away my keys and settled in to watch The Brothers Bloom on DVD, utterly content to be a complete wuss.

It’s not that I hate horror films (the originals of Dawn of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are among my all-time favorites in any genre). I’m just usually not in the mood for graphic mutilations, eviscerations, decapitations, surgical gore, torture, engorgements, necrophilia, face stabbings, throat stabbings, anus stabbings and so forth.

Unless, you know, it’s integral to the plot.

Here’s a fun fact: There’s a horror film released every other week! You’d think that with such market saturation, studios wouldn’t need to double-down on their release schedule during the traditional scary movie month of October.

But they did, just to screw me. The Woody Harrelson comedy Zombieland, Night of the Demons, a remake of The Stepfather (spoiler alert: The stepfather did it), Cirque du Freak, Saw VI, the 3-D rerelease of The Nightmare Before Christmas and The House of the Devil are among the films hoping to scare audiences shitless this October.

The most frightening moments, however, may end up being unintentional. Drew Barrymore directs Ellen Page in the roller-derby comedy Whip It; Clive Owen goes soft in The Boys Are Back; the Vince Vaughn comedy Couples Retreat reportedly had a troubled production; the sequel to the trenchcoatiest movie ever made, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, premieres; Gerard Butler serves up tea-party torture porn in Law Abiding Citizen; Nacho Libre director Jared Hess displays another “unique” vision in Gentlemen Broncos; and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell proves that, from now on, every gross-out comedy gets a theatrical release in the hopes it becomes the next The Hangover.

Finally, the bald grave robbery of Michael Jackson’s This Is It, whose trailer alternates shots of acrobatic back-up dancers with slow-mo footage of a wraithlike Jackson shuffling away from a press conference, could be the most disturbing of the bunch. (D.B.)

Sweep the leg, Bobby: Robert Downey Jr. goes mixed martial arts in Guy Ritchie’s first post-Madonna effort, <i>Sherlock Holmes</i>.

Thanksgiving consequences

The “serious” movie season may ratchet up a notch in November, but there will be plenty of less pretentious fare.

The first weekend brings us The Box, from cult director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), about a mysterious man (Frank Langella) who offers a young couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) a box that will give them $1 million if they open it—but somewhere, someone they don’t know will die.

The Fourth Kind goes Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters one better, taking us from meeting aliens to being abducted by them, with Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas and Will Patton.

And for conspiracy buffs and readers of Jon Ronson’s mordantly funny book The Men Who Stare at Goats, there’ll be a star-studded movie version, with Ewan McGregor as an Iraq war reporter whose meeting with a self-described “Jedi warrior” (George Clooney) leads him on a rollicking, hair-raising investigation of the U.S. military’s experiments in paranormal warfare.

On November 13, director Roland Emmerich, that master of CGI apocalypse, brings out 2012, a title taken from the pop-culture idea that the ancient Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world in said year. John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt and a cast of computer-generated billions suffer the consequences.

The sports-inspiration genre will be represented on November 20 by The Blind Side, based on the story of Baltimore Raven Michael Oher’s early life. Newcomer Quinton Aaron plays the teenage Oher, with Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw as a Tennessee couple who take Oher under their wing.

Along with that exercise in uplift, there’ll be more sci-fi—comic this time, and animated—with Planet 51. Dwayne Johnson stars as the voice of a space-exploring astronaut, with Jessica Biel, Gary Oldman, John Cleese and Seann William Scott as the little green people among whom he lands. It’s a bit of an unknown quantity: The writer, Joe Stillman, is a veteran of the Shreks, but the directors are all newbies (and one wonders about the wisdom of filmmakers who give us nothing of Jessica Biel but her voice).

If award voters go trolling back as far as November for movies to favor, they may look no further than Thanksgiving weekend. Then comes The Road, from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of a father and son (Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee) struggling to survive in a bleak post-nuclear winter. Critics love depressing themes like this, but whether Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall can help it find an audience outside big cities (the kinds of places with the most to lose if McCarthy’s bleak vision comes to pass) remains to be seen.

That same weekend will bring Nine (not to be confused with the animated 9), director Rob Marshall’s (Chicago) adaptation of the Tony-spangled Broadway musical, which in turn was adapted from Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, about a famous Italian director who doesn’t know what to do for his next movie. Daniel Day-Lewis (is there anything this guy can’t do?) takes the role played onstage by Raul Julia and Antonio Banderas, with a tantalizing supporting cast: Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson and Sophia Loren, who’ll end the month on a more festive note. (J.L.)

How to Make Cameron Diaz Look Creepy 101: Director Richard “<i>Donnie Darko</i>” Kelly hopes to kill all recollection of <i>Southland Tales</i> with <i>The Box</i>, a supernatural mystery about greed and murder.

Honest winter moviegoing

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. How can it not be with Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel finally in theaters? You’re tempted to stop reading right here, as I am tempted to stop writing, but let us persist, together.

Space and pride prohibit a Chipmunks synopsis; I’ll just charge ahead with the assurance that December will be a good moviegoing month, honest. For starters, maybe all that interesting stuff that was supposed to open at the Tower or Crest theaters back in October finally will have arrived. And if not, at least we’ll have the big-ticket items.

Avatar might be just another film about a reluctant hero leading a battle to save civilization while on a journey of redemption, discovery and love, except that it’s the new one from writer-director James Cameron—the one that’s supposed to make us forget everything we know about 3-D technology and special effects and how movies work. True, that result might also be achieved with a blunt force head trauma or an over-the-top eggnog binge, but most of us will agree that the experience of a highly anticipated science-fiction epic is preferable. Sam Worthington stars as a paraplegic ex-Marine on a distant world, slipping inside big blue human-alien hybrid bodies, while Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana co-star.

In Brothers, a remake of a 2004 Danish drama, Tobey Maguire plays an upright Marine gone missing and presumed dead in Afghanistan, leaving his wife to be looked after by his delinquent kid brother. But the wife is Natalie Portman. And the brother is Jake Gyllenhaal. Well, that’s some easy looking, both before and after. Then Tobey comes home, alive. Ruh roh! The director is Jim Sheridan, whose other credits include In the Name of the Father and Some Mother’s Son, so we can at least expect this one to have a handle on family dynamics.

But because one Euro movie do-over per month is not enough, we also have Everybody’s Fine, a remake of its 1990 Italian namesake. When his grown-up kids (Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell) all cancel their plans to visit him for the holidays, an aging widower (Robert De Niro) springs himself on the lot of them. Not in a Taxi Driver way, presumably, but in more of a tear-jerking, heartwarming, Christmas-appropriate way.

Yeah, leave the heavy stuff to The Lovely Bones, director Peter Jackson’s take on the critically adored 2002 Alice Sebold novel about a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) who watches over her family from the afterlife after being raped and murdered. Rachel Weisz and Mark Wahlberg play the girl’s parents, Susan Sarandon her grandma and Stanley Tucci her killer.

Moving right along, It’s Complicated is the title of writer-director Nancy Meyers’ new romantic comedy, in which Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin compete for the affections of Meryl Streep. Sounds simple enough.

Meanwhile Morgan Freeman finally just goes ahead and becomes Nelson Mandela in Invictus, a tale of post-apartheid South Africa based on John Carlin’s book, The Human Factor: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed the World. That should be enough of a draw, but Matt Damon as a rugby player and Clint Eastwood directing might sweeten the deal, too.

Finally, with Robert Downey Jr. as the master sleuth and Jude Law as his sidekick, Madonna-divorcee director Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes goes balls out. Well, not literally, but if the trailer’s any indication, he does go shirtless quite a bit. (J.K.)