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A Chat with Joe Carnahan, director of “The A-Team”

Writer-director Joe Carnahan is proud of his latest film, a beyond tongue-in-cheek 2010 remounting of the 1980′s TV favorite, “The A-Team.” Available on a brand new, extras-laden DVD and Blu-Ray edition, the actioner stars Liam Neeson as A-Team leader Hannibal Smith, with backing by Bradley Cooper as the suave “Faceman” Peck, Sharlto Copley as the mildly insane H.M. Murdock and mixed martial artist Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as the Mohawk-wearing B.A. Baracus.

Jessica Biel is also along for the ride as DCIS Sosa, Faceman’s by-the-book military investigator ex-girlfriend. The story, such as it is, is fully eclipsed by a mix of preposterous stunts and CGI heavy effects and a jackhammer sensibility that is, like it or not, proudly over the top and unashamedly silly.

A former maker of promotional films and videos for a Sacramento TV station, Carnahan’s first feature was 1998′s “Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane,” a crime-suspense black comedy that co-starred Carnahan as a desperate used car dealer getting in way over his head with some extremely dangerous characters. The film, low on finesse but big on Mamet-esque macho verbal energy, was notable enough to break through the enormous Tarantino-Guy-Ritchie fatigue that made making almost any kind of independent crime film a questionable proposition throughout the 1990s.

Carnahan’s 2002 studio debut was the grimly serious “Narc,” starring Jason Patric and Ray Liotta. Big on style and terribly unsubtle, the dark procedural nevertheless earned lots of good reviews. That was followed in 2007 by the all-star action black comedy, “Smokin’ Aces.” The grosses were higher, but the Rotten Tomatoes rating was much lower.

Joe Carnahan’s bombastic ways as a filmmaker are matched at times by what reads as a rather pugilistic verbal style when it comes to critics who dislike his style and reporters who harp on less than enormous grosses. As someone who is yet to be won over by any of his films — though “Blood, Guts” has its share of low-fi charms — I was a little concerned about meeting him.

Watching Carnahan introduce a number of clips from the Blu-Ray special features for “The A-Team,” however, he came across as much more of more a teddy bear than a grizzly. In our interview, he won me over with news about some long incubating projects, a bit of sincere sounding film geekiness, his clear interest in branching out creatively and, most importantly, the fact that he’s my only interview subject so far to admit to visiting our sister site Bullz-Eye — which, I’m sure, he looks at only for our thoughtful prose.

“I’m on the Internet far too much,” he admitted, adding cheerfully, “just looking through academic articles!”

Never let it be said that Joe Carnahan is lacking in manly virtues and/or vices.

Premium Hollywood: Speaking of manliness, there’s a line in “The A-Team”: “Overkill is underrated.”

Joe Carnahan: Yes.

PH: This seems like a pretty good watchword for your career and your approach to making movies.

JC: Right. I think I’ve been perhaps unduly typecast as a guy who likes to hyper-edit and so on. I certainly have a style, but this kind of thing will always cancel out [other things]. There was a five minute tracking shot in “Narc” that was nothing but Ray Liotta talking, but nobody ever mentions that stuff. Listen, it was certainly the call to arms for this movie, “Overkill is underrated.” I did it as a thesis, as a joke. It’s the aside to the audience that says that we know it’s a lot, we know it’s overblown and overinflated, that’s the point of this little bon-mot here, this little movie.

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New gig, old gig: Liam Neeson

So, continuing the pattern of the post right below this one, the news that Mr. Neeson is stepping into the role left vacant in “The Hangover 2″ by this week’s big Mel Gibson casting clusterfrack, gives us an opportunity to take a look at some scenes from one of Neeson’s very few comedies, 2003′s “Love, Actually.” Ironically, the humor is leavened by the sadness underlying the story about a man raising the son of his beloved deceased wife, a storyline made all the more poignant by tragic real events.

Anyhow, the chemistry between Neeson and young Thomas Sangster here is really nice. I think this is the only movie I’ve ever seen to give me actual father envy. I mean, who could be a cooler dad than Liam Neeson?

I believe the first part might be a deleted scene, but since I haven’t seen “Love, Actually” since it came out, I’m actually not sure. If anyone out there wants to enlighten us, feel free.

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It’s your end of week late movie news dump

No time to waste and, fortunately, it’s a bit slower than usual tonight.

* I admit it, a lot of the financial/stock market terminology used in Carl Icahn’s letter to Lionsgate stockholders, as carried by Nikki Finke and summarized by THR, eludes me. However, the gist seems to be that it’s all out war now.

* I was out covering the red carpet at the Mike Nichols AFI tribute last night — you’ll be seeing something about it here closer to when the show will actually air in a couple of weeks. Although I had the opportunity to speak very briefly with some genuinely great people, I was a bit disappointed there was no opportunity to watch the presentation on CCTV while I was there. Still, looks like the show that’ll air on TV Land should be something.

George Segal and Elizabeth Taylor in

* As an English major and someone who has actually read Cervantes, Joel Silver’s apparent approach to “Don Quixote” — which is not to be confused with Terry Gilliam’s ever-dicey “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” — makes me want to slash my wrists just a little.

* Some better news, also from the Playlist, which is that uninhobbited Guillermo del Toro is going back to his vampiric roots and doing a Van Helsing film that will, it safe to say, be much better than the last one, if it ever happens.

* Speaking of good directors who could use a gig, the Vulture claims that Sam Raimi has been offered the gig on the “Wizard of Oz” prequel, “Oz, the Great and Powerful.” I’ve no idea if it’s true, of course, but I’m reasonably sure he’d do a better and more imaginative job than either Sam Mendes or Adam Shankman, which is not really a knock on them.

* Re: talk of a “Taken” sequel. I know the movie did well, but I have a feeling that Liam Neeson just wants to keep working right now.

* Jim Emerson examines the notion of the movies that killed the movies, in the sense that sometimes the success of a particular film, or a type of film, you personally dislike a great deal can make a person actually loose interest in all films that come after, to some degree or another. For Francois Truffuat, it was 1962′s “Dr. No.” Yes, the first James Bond flick. Of course, his own career was really just still starting.

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Eighties redos to battle at the box office

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I’m severely limited for time — and more than a bit tired after a busy and reasonably productive day — so this may be one of my shortest box office preview posts.

This week’s two major new releases are reboots of properties remembered fondly by many children of the 1980s, “The A-Team” and “The Karate Kid.” Both movies have been supplied with some well known names, Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan for the former and Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, and Jessica Biel for the latter.

Jolly Carl DiOrio doesn’t go so far as to predict which film will emerge on top, with both having some fairly obvious broad appeal. I’ll say that my personal hunch is that Sony’s “Kid” will take the lead because, with a PG rating, it’s definitely more of a family film than the more violent and adult-oriented PG-13 “A-Team” from Fox. The martial arts flick also would seem to have more appeal for female audience members for similar reasons. It certainly seems extremely likely, in any case, that “Kid” will be the more profitable film by far, as we’re led to believe it cost $40 million, while the Joe Carnahan directed “Team” cost something more like $95 million. Both movies got mixed-to-meh reviews at “Rotten Tomatoes.”

Will these action flicks rescue Hollywood from the box office blahs? All I know is that I have no strong desire to see either of them and I’m not sure Hollywood deserves any better than its getting. In fact, without having seen these new movies, I feel safe in assuring anyone reading this that, if you’re at all open to them, you’ll be vastly more entertained by renting almost any of Jackie Chan’s amazing eighties and nineties Hong Kong films. I know I’d really like to see “Project A, Part II” — an ingenious slapstick comedy adventure — or any of the “Supercop” movies again soon. Like, right now.

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It’s box office preview time: Carrell and Fey to clash with “Titans”

Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, and Mark Wahlberg commisserate in

Commercially speaking, the premise of Fox’s PG-13 rated “‘Date Night” seems right on the money. NBC Thursday night comedy dream team Steve Carrell and Tina Fey are a married couple with children in a humdrum relationship rut who, through a case of mistaken identity, wind up fleeing from criminals and repeatedly running into a perpetually unshirted Mark Wahlberg and other dangerous obstacles to their peace of mind.

It’s been some time since a true wide appeal mainstream comedy aimed at adults and also possibly younger comedy fans of both genders has hit the theaters. “Hot Tub Time Machine” obviously skews more than a little male and more recent films, like “She’s Out of My League,” are clearly aimed at a somewhat younger demographic. On paper, the thing seems destined to do extremely well with a potential to elicit the three words sweetest to a studio suit’s ear “four quadrant picture.”

Still, not everyone is thriller. Our own Jamey Codding found the movie a lot more entertaining in principle than in reality. Director Shawn Levy of the “Night at the Museum” franchise is getting by far the best reviews of his career over in  Rotten Tomato land, but that is not as impressive as it could be given his rather rotten critical track record and many of the critics seem to be simply praising the considerable comic skills more than the movie as a whole. As for the box office gurus, a solid but not super-dramatic opening somewhere significantly south of $30 million but probably north of $20 million is predicted by the mysterious voices in Jolly Carl DiOrio‘s ear.

Sam Worthing girds his loins for battle in Of course, the comedy faces some fierce battles ahead with more grim-faced previously released films, most especially last weekend’s top picture, Warner’s “Clash of the Titans.” Like many poorly reviewed genre pictures, it’s expected to drop off by as much as 60%. Moreover, the catcalls from a geek-heavy audience made newly picky about 3-D thanks to James Cameron‘s innovations appear to be depressing turn-out at the pricey 3-D screens. Still, even with a really big sophomore drop off, it still has a very good shot a winning a second weekend in a row, though the win could well be as ugly as Medusa herself.

Also debuting this week is a Christian-themed heart-tugger, Vivendi’s  “Letters to God.” It’s somewhere between a large limited release and a very small major release as it will be in just under 900 theaters this weekend, according to the mighty Box Office Mojo theater count. No reviews are out yet to speak of, but I noticed even the Christian user reviews on IMDb are a bit muted, noting that the acting is in a bit better than on prior films from the same team and the movie is “professional.” High praise.

Not to be glib — which is a way of me preparing you for the glibness ahead — but with the usual church-based marketing push, this one should do okay preaching to the converted. I guess, as a secular Jew, I sort of feel like I see an awful lot of essentially Christian movies, they’re just not marketed that way or noticed because about 95% of Americans are actually Christian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Despite an atmospheric and a mega-creepy trailer that I love and strong trio of lead actors — Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, and Justin Long — the death-obsessed, R-rated horror thriller from Anchor Bay, “After.Life,” is leaving the large majority of critics as cold as the grave. With only 41 screens for a film which should have a wide appeal for horror fans, an early demise seems likely for this morbid but apparently non-gory tale. I personally hope Ricci, a terrific actress who I haven’t seen in a while in anything, has better luck soon.

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“How to Train Your Dragon” wins the box office race; “Hot Tub Time Machine” is all wet compared to “Alice”

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Yes, no gigantic surprises as the combination of family appeal, outstanding reviews, good word of mouth, the 3-D inflationary spiral, and a sufficient number of theaters in which to milk it, made for a solid opening for the weekend’s most high profile new release. To be specific, as per Box Office Mojo‘s handy dandy weekend chart, the 3-D animated “How to Train Your Dragon,” netted an estimate of $43.3 million for Dreamworks/Paramount and enjoyed the highest per-screen average of any film released this week on more than one screen, and it was on 4,055 of them. It’s a result not far from what was expected earlier.

Some may find this a slightly below-par opening. True to form in the ever-spinning world of Hollywood PR, some executive for a rival studio complimented the film but told Nikki Finke it tracked badly — and some day I’m going to learn exactly what that means — because it “lacked comedy,” which confuses me deeply. I mean, the trailer made me laugh. I guess he means it lacked a poop-eating joke or something. Anyhow, Ms. Finke is quite correct that, given the good word of mouth and the coming school holidays it should enjoy “good multiples.”

Meanwhile, Anthony D’Alessandro, Anne Thompson’s resident box office guru, has this to add:

While some box office analysts are crying foul that this figure reps a paltry opening weekend, particularly for a 3D film saddled with an estimated $165-million budget, these claims overlook the fact that animation films are a different breed at the box office than run-of-the-mill features.  Toons have longer legs, making anywhere from 30-35% of their total domestic haul in their opening weekend, whereas the average bow reps 50%.

In other words, do not cry for the filmmakers or Dreamworks. They’re going to do fine.

And, though their film is out of the top spot, neither should you shed a tear for Disney or Tim Burton even if “Alice in Wonderland” is out of the #1 spot. They had a terrific three week run at the top spot and this week’s second place estimate of $17.3 million is not too shabby either.

John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Lizzy Caplan, and Clarke Duke suffer past shock in On the other hand, the melancholy clowns of “Hot Tub Time Machine” led by John Cusack, Rob Cordry, the always hilarious Craig Robinson, and Clarke Duke, could perhaps benefit from a bit of sympathy. The comedy from MGM, currently on the auctioneer’s block, earned an estimated $13.65 million.

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Now, if we could only get the dragon into the hot tub…

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We’re getting off to a late start on this week’s box office preview, but it’s not like there’s a huge amount of suspense over what movie will rule the box office this early Spring weekend. Still, it’s not all skittles and beer out there.

America’s theater owners have decided to do a solid for the home entertainment business by trying to take advantage of the current 3-D mania by raising already inflated ticket prices during a still very rough economy/”jobless recovery.” I’m betting that whatever gains the owners see from this will be short term — especially as 3-D films become common as dirt with 3-D retrofits lowering the perception of quality — but that’s a rant for another day. However, one more thing, can someone explain to me how all the major chains increasing their prices over the same weekend doesn’t sound suspiciously like collusion, and if I’m right, how that can be legal?

In any case, the movie which will be generating a rude surprise at the box office for families nationwide is Paramount/Dreamworks digitally animated family fantasy-comedy, “How to Train Your Dragon.” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Greg Kilday is reporting that interest is increasing and as much as $40 million seems possible. Especially considering those extra inflated ticket prices and we know that once the family is at the box office, it’s far too late to turn back, I wouldn’t it expect it to go higher. Moreover, it sounds like people will be getting a dandy movie for their (too much) money. The reviews for this one are darn near Pixar-esque — in other words hugely positive — at least in terms of the Rotten Tomatoes numbers and when that many critics like a mass audience film, believe it not, most people will like it too.

With all due huge respect to Roger Ebert, who is predicting the film will come in at #2 based on his site traffic  (he gave it only the mildest possible positive review and unlike others was not wowed by its 3-D either, it appears), this seems like the closest thing there is to surefire hit. Moreover, my spies in the family world tell me child interest has been high for weeks.

Hot Tub Time Machine
Still, I wouldn’t bet against a healthy showing for the film Mr. Ebert expects to be top new release this week, “Hot Tub Time Machine.” My spies in the middle-aged-overgrown-child-world (primarily: me, myself, I) tell me that interest in this raunchy but (I’m hoping) clever farce with a strong comedy cast and a instantly get-able premise has also been high for some time.

On the other hand, while some may be whispering of a coup along the lines of “The Hangover, my gut tells me it’s simply not the same kind of film and I don’t see this having the same kind of wide appeal. For all its guy-humor, “The Hangover” was a surprisingly sweet-tempered and almost low-key film by modern comedy standards, “Hot Tub Time Machine” seems to be more in the “Harold & Kumar” range of low-comedy that works for (relatively) high IQs. Anyhow, the film benefits from probably better than average reviews for this kind of comedy (62% “Fresh”).  Kilday is talking in the high teens. I suspect it’ll do well and perhaps more than that, but not shockingly so.

In any case, it generated the best RT pull quote I’ve seen in awhile, courtesy of A.O. Scott, who finds an undercurrent of melancholy amidst the low comedy:

It’s fun, it’s sad, and it’s kind of sad that it’s so much fun.

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Amanda Seyfried, Erin Cressida Wilson, and Atom Egoyan on “Chloe”

Movies involve looking at people. Sometimes those people are doing some pretty intimate things, too. No wonder then that voyeurism remains about the single most pervasive and discussed theme in the movies and, no matter how often the particularly cinematic obsession of voyeurism has been recycled, there’s always room for a new angle.

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In the case of “Chloe,” which is hitting about three hundred theaters nationwide today, voyeurism in the form of morbid curiosity threatens not only the desiccated relationship of an affluent middle-aged couple played by Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson, but also the woman’s familial ties with her son (Max Theiriot) and possibly her entire life. The vehicle for all of this is a young woman Dr. Catherine Stewart bumps into who turns out to be a high-end sex worker named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried). The sex work in question here is that Dr. Stewart has some pretty good reasons to worry that her professor husband may be cheating, and so she asks Chloe to test her husband’s fidelity in the most direct way possible.

As for the results, all you really need to know right now is that this is an erotic thriller, that it’s directed by the elliptical art-house master Atom Egoyan at his most Hitchcockian, and adapted with some definite cunning by writer Erin Cressida Wilson from a relatively banal French import (2003′s “Nathalie”). Interestingly, “Chloe” is also produced by Ivan Reitman. Reitman is, of course, the famed director and producer far better known for broad comedies like “Meatballs” and “Ghostbusters” than for stylish melodramas. These days, he’s perhaps even better known as the father of “Up in the Air” co-writer and director Jason Reitman.

Sadly, “Chloe” will likely also be remembered as the movie that was interrupted when leading man Liam Neeson got the horrific news that his wife, Natasha Richardson, had died as the result of what appeared to be a minor skiing accident. Even a year later, it’s obviously a sensitive topic that was not broached at the first of two press days I attended at the L.A. Four Seasons to promote the film with Amanda Seyfried, a burgeoning film star after the success of such films as “Dear John” and “Momma Mia!,” and Erin Cressida Wilson, who is probably best known for her screenplay for the kinky romantic comedy-drama, “Secretary” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader.

Things got off to what I suppose is an appropriate start given the kind of movie “Chloe” is. Asked about a word tattooed on her ankle, Seyfried volunteered it was crude British slang word for “vagina” — it’s apparently a kind of joking term of endearment used by her and friends. And then there was the European journalist who was clearly tasked with getting material as gossip-rich as he could manage. As the inevitably top-of-mind topic of the film’s somewhat explicit nude sex scenes came up, as well as the inherent difficulty of doing those scenes, his felt the need to ask which of the cast members was the best kisser. Seyfried, somewhat outspoken and girlish, but also clearly a pro at 24 years of age, sidestepped the icky question. Fortunately, someone came up a query that was more germane if no less sensational: Did she meet with any real-life prostitutes to research the role?

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“No. Atom actually met with some working ladies in New York and I believe in Toronto as well…It was interesting what he had to say and how he approached it. He was very open about the information that he needed and they were very willing to share. And that’s the same with Chloe; she’s very willing to share that part of her life because she feels like it and in a way it’s being justified by [the fact that] someone’s asking you about your job.”

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Trumbo

Trumbo

23 years after his death, Dalton Trumbo (“Johnny Got His Gun”) remains among the best-known screenwriters of all time. Ironically, that’s largely because much of his best work was done in secret. Jailed in 1950 and then blacklisted for his refusal to discuss his constitutionally protected membership in the Communist Party, Trumbo survived by writing prodigiously, using pseudonyms and “fronts” until 1960, when director Otto Preminger and actor-producer Kirk Douglas openly placed his name in the credits for “Exodus” and “Spartacus” and sounded the first death knell of the Hollywood blacklist.

Drawn partly from a play by the writer’s son, Christopher Trumbo, and featured on PBS’s “American Masters,” this documentary combines interviews with Trumbo’s family and friends, including stars Kirk Douglas and Dustin Hoffman, and dramatic interpretations of his writing by a long list of acting heavyweights such as Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, and Donald Sutherland. On the down side, director Peter Askin plays up Trumbo’s heroism while playing down his political extremism and indulges in some pretentious and annoying cinematic tics, including shooting the actors looking on pensively while their occasionally overdone readings play on the soundtrack. Still, when Askin captures the writer’s unsentimental and often humorous essence — as in Nathan Lane’s wry reading of an ingenious letter to the teenage Christopher Trumbo on the joys of masturbation and Paul Giamatti’s testy renditions of Trumbo’s broadsides at his local phone company — this is a highly engaging summary of the life and work of a singular figure in mid-century movie history.

Click to buy “Trumbo”

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