The Cinephiles’s Corner looks at skullduggery on trains, hearts and flowers on the Seine, glam in the U.K, and heartbreak in L.A.

It’s time for another look at (relatively) recent Blu-Rays and DVDs aimed at the hardcore movie lover  — though more casual viewers looking for something beyond Hollywood’s latest mass-market offerings are certainly allowed to kibitz at the Corner as well. Today’s selections are from Hollywood, off-Hollywood, England, and France and were made mostly in the 1930s or the 1970s, though we will be looking at one from 1998 — only yesterday!

And so we begin…(after the flip, that is.)

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Box office preview: “Unstoppable”? Perhaps

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Apparently Tony Scott and Denzel Washington enjoyed making their underground run-away train thriller, “The Taking of Pelham 123” so much, they decided to turn around and make an above-ground run-away train thriller. Not everything would be the same. This time Chris Pine would be in tow instead of John Travolta. Another difference is that, this time, the critics are majorly onboard as well, which may or may not indicate that “Unstoppable” will do better over the long haul than its sister film.

Both of my usual b.o. gurus are suggesting a low-to-mid twenties opening for the thriller from Fox, but there is still some daylight between them. Ben Fritz of the L.A. Times is expecting a tough race for the #1 spot with last week’s big winner, “Megamind,” which grossed over $46 million.  The Hollywood Reporter’s Carl DiOrio, who remains jolly even while his intro music grows oddly sinister, seems more sanguine that the amped-up train ride will do better. However, Fritz may be on to something considering that family animated films have proven to be leggy in the past and that a decline of significantly less than 50% seems very possible. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Unstoppable” overperform.

Rachel McAdams, Diane Keaton, and Harrison Ford wonder: What's the story?There are two other major releases this weekend, but neither of them really seems to have much oomph behind them. True, jolly Carl is fairly high on “Morning Glory.” It’s a sort of update on “Broadcast News” minus the critical acclaim putting 32 year-old beauty Rachel McAdams alongside 60-something icons Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton. My money is on Ben Fritz’s take, which is that it’ll be fortunate to break $10 million. Exhibit A is that the comedy from Paramount actually opened yesterday and hasn’t shown much life.

Coincidentally, $10 million is the reported budget for the effects-heavy science-fiction tale being released by Rogue and Universal, “Skyline.” The few critics who’ve seen it mostly agree that all the film really has to boast of are the effects. Fritz thinks it’ll do about the same as “Morning Glory” — though obviously from a younger and more male demographic. Since that amount is also roughly its budget, however, this film may just be a success.

Debuting in a fairly aggressive 41 screen limited release is the latest documentary from Ondi Timoner, who made the excellent “DiG!” and “We Live in Public” both of which never really got much distribution. This time, however, her film is getting some critical flack, not too surprising considering it’s kind of an anti-“An Inconvenient Truth” and features a maverick scientist who isn’t exactly a climate denier and who isn’t coming from a politicized perspective, but who does insist that all the global warming fear is just plain overdone. That is no majority scientific opinion. Entitled “Cool It,” it’s so far been ignored by far-right film blog Big Hollywood, which can only be a good sign.

Another film we all might be hearing from later on is the award-winning festival-friendly first feature from Lena Dunham, “Tiny Furniture.” It’s a comedy, but I don’t find this trailer funny so much as aggressively quirky and mildly annoying, perhaps because of the deliberately flat performances of the nonprofessional cast. On the other hand, I sort of dig the look of the thing. See if you disagree.

  

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Break out the Bloody Marys, “The Hangover” Lingers at #1

As I was too chicken to more than implicitly predict last time, “The Hangover” held on to its #1 spot with a cool $33.4 million. Variety reminds us that this is only a 26% drop, very rare in today’s opening-weekend-centric turn-’em-and-burn-’em movie world. The star-free ensemble farce is clearly benefiting from excellent word of mouth so that folks who might ordinarily avoid an R-rated comedy about a Vegas bachelor party gone off the rails are being attracted. Good work.

Also Pixar/Disney did fabulously with its unbeatable, yet rare, principle that if you work really hard and imaginatively to provide quality family entertainment with a heart and soul as well as a bit of show-biz razzle-dazzle, people will actually show — you should pardon the express — “Up.” The CGI 3-D animation-fest with a cranky elderly protagonist that no sane executive would ever have greenlit were it not for Pixar’s unprecedented track record, earned $30.5 million and dropped a low 31%.

Denzel Washington, Meanwhile, in star-driven product land, “The Taking of Pelham 123” met the rather modest expectations for a lavish, all-star, action-remake and hit $25 million, while the Eddie Murphy family flick, “Imagine That,” netted a sad $5.7 million for the #6 spot on its opening weekend at over 3000 screens.

Now, I want to add that, while trashing movies I haven’t personally seen is against my religion (for all I know, I’ll end up sorta liking Tony Scott’s “Pelham” — stranger things have happened, I’m the guy who liked “Domino”), even more against my religion is trashing the concept of remakes, though on the whole they tend to be less good than earlier successful versions.  True, it doesn’t exactly scream “originality” to take on a property that’s been previously successful, but no one says, “Oh God, not another remake of ‘Romeo and Juliet.'” There is absolutely nothing wrong with restaging an old concept, as long as you have something of your own to say with that property and are not simply going with something that looks likes a safe bet in a business where safe bets don’t exist. Lack of “originality” is not the problem; abject creative cowardice is.

Movie remakes go back to Hollywood’s youth. Probably my single favorite little-known Hollywood factoid is that the 1941 “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston was actually the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s great detective novel made over a period of about ten years. I also happen to think that Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is arguably even better than the rather great original version directed by Don Siegel in 1956. And, moving to TV land for just a second, is there any human being on the planet who thinks the recently concluded “Battlestar Gallactica” (don’t tell me how it ends!) isn’t a million times better than the unbelievably awful original? As Roger Ebert likes to say, movies are not what they are about but how they are about it. If you have something fresh to say by revisiting an old story, by all means say it, just make sure you’re not kidding yourself.

Anyhow, returning to this weekend’s b.o., what I think harmed both “Pelham” and “Imagine That” was that, as far as was visible from either the marketing or the response to it, these were movies that offered not one thing fresh or exciting or in any way of a great deal of interest other than the services of its stars. That’s good for something — big stars are the closest thing on the planet to a certain level of guarantee of public interest and sometimes that’s all you really need. But if you really want to hit it big, you’ve got to gamble a little bit that the audience is more interested in being genuinely entertained than lulled by the presence of name entertainment brands.

On the other hand, “Terminator Salvation,” which nobody seems to like too much, is actually doing very well abroad and the very honestly entertaining “Drag Me to Hell” isn’t exactly burning up the U.S. box office. So, who knows?

  

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This Weekend’s Box Office: A Test of Star Power (Updated)

I’m trying to get out of the house this evening for a change, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I jump the gun slightly on this week’s b.o. preview. That means we won’t be hearing from Bullz-Eye critics this week or some of my other usual suspects, though updates are not impossible if something earth shattering grabs my attention.

Anyhow, we’ve got an interesting weekend shaping up as two superstar vehicles, starring a total of three veteran megastars, do battle with yet another ultra-powerful Pixar/Disney feature, “Up,” and a genuine sleeper, “The Hangover.” In fact, the modest, no-star, R-rated comedy surprised almost everyone last week by narrowly defeating the wildly popular PG Pixar film.

The HangoverAs the Hollywood Reporter‘s Carl DiOrio reminds us, the well-received comedy did about twice as well as it was expected to do (and it was already expected to do quite well), grabbing $45 million on its opening weekend and additionally doing strong business during the week, when some of us adults decide to hit the movies. Variety says largely the same thing.

Still, there is one potential powerhouse this week in what, again per DiOrio, turns out to be the third version of the NYC subway thriller, “The Taking of Pelham 123,” first seen in 1974 with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, and then again in a 1998 TV movie with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio. This a fifty-something superstar two-for-one package in which Denzel Washington’s transit nerd will face off against badass hijacker John Travolta, backed up by a very strong supporting cast led by James Gandolfini, who seems to be getting the best reviews of anyone connected with the film.

Indeed, the critical consensus on this one is not especially kind, perhaps hurt by the recent resurgence of interest/respect for the original film by those of us in the Filmgeek-American community. Critics can’t help comparing it to the compelling and blackly humorous original. The Onion‘s always interesting Nathan Rabin has hard words for “L.A. Confidential” screenwriter Brian Helgeland (stepping into the shoes of Peter Stone, one of the wittiest screen-scribes of his day), hyper-maximalist director Tony Scott, and especially the former Vinnie Barbarino:

John Travolta’s wildly successful post-comeback crusade to become synonymous with crap continues with…Tony Scott’s bracingly awful remake/desecration of the classic ‘70s thriller. The miscalculations begin with Travolta’s distractingly Tetris-shaped facial hair—long rectangular sideburns paired with a geometric Fu Manchu—and extend to every facet of the production. Cursed with following in the outsized footsteps of world-class heavy Robert Shaw, Travolta devours the scenery; his performance is 0% inspiration, 100% perspiration.

Nevertheless, a picture like this is not made or broken by reviews, though word of mouth (or word of Blackberry and text message or cell phone) is another story. It’s expected to do well, and possibly hit the #2 spot, but I wouldn’t bet on it doing any better.  On the other hand, it’s got Denzel Washington, who should never be discounted. (And, for pity’s sake, read my new Bullz-Eye feature on the actor’s back catalog: “Washington Insiders.” Plug, plug, plug.)

Expectations are more modest for a new family vehicle for Eddie Murphy from Nickelodeon, “Imagine That.” The film pairs Murphy in a comedic father-daughter situation with young Yara Shahidi. Between a rather soft premise and that Nickelodeon imprimatur, especially with a sub-meh 36% on RT, it’s hard to imagine this one having much appeal outside of pre-tween girls, die-hard Eddie fans, and families who’ve already seen “Up” five times. Still, the family mojo is always good for something. Let’s see if our nation’s dutiful parents push this one into the top five or six… [Update: I also note, via our own now-linked to review by David Medsker, that the premise is somewhat simliar to both “Up” (which I haven’t seen yet) and the Adam Sandler vehicle “Bedtime Stories” (which I will likely never see, not matter how accurate Dave is when he says that Keri Russell “oozes cuteness”…if she oozes anything, that would be it). Though Dave has some mild kind words for the Murphy film, I don’t think that it helps with its’ appeal much, either.]

That’s pretty much it except for three interesting films in limited release. For starters, we have a well-reviewed (though not ecstatically so), moody science fiction film called “Moon” from Duncan Jones — who can’t escape being David Bowie‘s son — with Sam Rockwell as a cloned astronaut and Kevin Spacey as the voice of a HAL-9000/Marvin-the-Paranoid-Android-esque ship’s computer. Film geeks will also be curious about a new film from filmic godfather Francis Ford Coppola, “Tetro” which has been getting a mixed response. (Currently 50% at RT — that’s pretty precisely mixed.) It’s opening just on the coasts.

It’s also only opening in L.A. and New York, but look to be hearing more about the new RT 95 percenter documentary “Food, Inc.“, on the hot topic of the politics of what we’re all eating, as the year wears on. It’s also got a great trailer — the notional tomatoes are on me.

  

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