Sunday, November 30, 2008

WEEKEND BOX OFFICE: Four American Christmases and an Australian Turkey

Ah, Thanksgiving. You can always count on this special holiday, even in times of crushing economic woe, to reinvigorate the marketplace and get people spending again. It just makes me feel so warm inside. After all, there are now less than 30 days until the mother of all holidays. You can avoid putting up the lights or block out the holiday tunes at the mall but Christmas has hit the theatres. In fact, four Christmases have hit.

FOUR CHRISTMASES opened behind last week’s champ, TWILIGHT, on Wednesday, when it and a number of other releases entered the marketplace to capitalize on the holiday. It quickly took over on Thursday and led through the weekend for a $31 million debut and a $46 million five-day take. The critically-panned feature is Witherspoon’s return to comedy and a blatant attempt to recapture America’s hearts and it is Vince Vaughan’s second holiday feature in a row in his apparent course to be America’s family man. As obvious the choice is, FOUR CHRISTMASES has opened better than anything either has put out in ages so I’m sure the eggnog is flowing freely by the fire for these two this weekend – that is if they didn’t hate each other. I’m just telling you what I heard.

The next three positions in the Top 5 went to holdovers, which meant that the week’s two other wide releases had to settle for much less prestigious debuts. Baz Luhrmann returned to theatres for the first time since his 2001 Best Picture nominee, MOULIN ROUGE! with AUSTRALIA, a $120 million epic love story. Expensive epic disaster sounds more appropriate right now. This was considered to be a major box-office and award season contender and now it looks like it could end up being neither. Earning a modest but respectable $5,600 per screen average would ordinarily be a solid start but this costly mess needed a grand slam debut to recoup its costs. The fact that critics are split on it certainly didn’t help matters much and without award season kudos, Luhrmann won’t be getting any second helpings. Meanwhile, the TRANSPORTER series starring Jason Statham went back for thirds. The third and likely last installment brought in about $8 million less than its predecessor did in its opening frame. Even TRANSPORTER 3’s five-day take didn’t match the $20 million debut of TRANSPORTER 3. Still, the franchise is relatively cheap to produce so Jason Statham is still sitting pretty at the head of the B-list celebrity action stars table.

There was much to be thankful for if you almost any other movie in the Top 10. As expected (and desperately wished for by the Disney people), BOLT improved upon last week’s take and inched up a notch to the number two spot. Bond’s QUANTUM OF SOLACE saw a slight decline of just 27% as good working folk who had not had a chance to catch their favorite international spy finally made their way out to catch him. The cuddly if not irritating animals of MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA caught another wave of kids out of school for the break and only slipped off a scant 7%. And ROLE MODELS continued to make good on its strong word of mouth, dropping off just 28%. The most troubling stumble was also somewhat expected as the front heavy TWILIGHT plummeted over 62% in its second week. Still, $120 million is 10 days is a bloody mouthful.

Sure it’s great that a little film like THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS can spend two consecutive weeks in the Top 10, even improving in its second week. But it’s hard to take too much notice when two other even smaller releases are producing mind boggling numbers. Danny Boyle’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is becoming a surprise Best Picture contender and is stuck just outside the Top 10 for a second week at number eleven. On just 49 screens, SLUMDOG pulled in an average of almost $28K for a grand total of $3.6 million. All this before it has even gone wide. One other film though shut it out from the Top 10 it is gunning for so badly and that film is MILK. The buzz on this one is almost deafening and considering the controversial vote on Proposition 8 earlier this month in California, MILK, a biography of the first openly gay American politician, Harvey Milk, could not be more topical. Gus Van Sant and Sean Penn will likely see many reasons to celebrate as the weeks ahead unravel but whether they can reach BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN numbers remains to be seen.

NEXT WEEK: One needs at least one week to recover from this much consumption. This would explain why next week is pretty quiet. The widest release is the new PUNISHER movie (huh?). Aside from that, there are a couple of mid-size releases, CADILLAC RECORDS and NOBEL SON. At least the art house crowd can get excited over FROST / NIXON but it seems pickings will be slim so eat up now.


Written by Stuart Beattie and Baz Luhrmann
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brandon Walters and David Wenham

The Drover: Oh, crikey!

Australia, the land down under. A land grand in size and rich in scenery. A land where kangaroos jump spryly alongside cars and aboriginal children go on walkabout without warning. Yes, this is Australia or at the very least, this is the clichéd representation of the country as per Baz Luhrmann’s AUSTRALIA, a film that is part epic romance and part homage to the country he calls home. Luhrmann shot to fame in the early 90’s with his first feature, STRICTLY BALLROOM, a film that took place down under and for a tiny fraction of what AUSTRALIA cost, was a more genuine insight into the people who reside there. Nearly twenty years later, his magic seems to have turned into madness as I can think of no other justification for Luhrmann reducing his home and its history into stereotypical schlock ready to serve to unintentionally naïve American audiences.

AUSTRALIA takes place in 1939, just before the Japanese attacked the country during the Second World War. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, whose performance is uneven but still engaging), is a British aristocrat who has traveled far from home to find her husband and bring him back. Her husband’s business in Australia got the best of him though and he has passed away. It is now up to this displaced diva to finish the job. She must put aside her dainty nature to rough it in the outback, herding cattle with a group of misfits, in order to take down corruption and monopolistic authorities running the cattle show. Throw in a steamy romance between Ashley and her main cattle handler (Hugh Jackman, easily earning his recent “Sexiest Man Alive” title), and you got yourself a movie. Well, you would have yourself a regular sized movie but this is Luhrmann’s opus, one which he seems conscious of the entire time. To fill the 2 hour and 45 minute run time, Luhrmann definitely throws in the romance but also adds racial issues, family drama, gender prejudice and a great war. It is boiling over with potential but missing the great deal of passion necessary to sustain itself.

After completing his Red Curtain Trilogy (including his first feature as well as WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO + JULIET and MOULIN ROUGE!), Luhrmann wanted to tackle historical accounts in his next films. The first was to be a biography of Alexander the Great but Oliver Stone beat him to that a few years back. Luhrmann then turned to his origins for inspiration instead and AUSTRALIA was born. The Red Curtain Trilogy was defined by style and theme. While Luhrmann hasn’t abandoned his dedication to love in AUSTRALIA, Luhrmann did set aside the signature schizophrenic style that made distinct lovers and haters of all who watched his works. Baz Luhrmann without everything that made him who he was is almost unrecognizable or unidentifiable even. You can almost feel him fighting with himself to tone down the extremities of the scenarios or slowing the speed of the story. The camera will move quickly all of a sudden but is reeled back in just as quickly. AUSTRALIA becomes a lesson in shame, one that I never expected from a man who so vehemently campaigned for truth and self in the past. By trying to be something he isn’t, Luhrmann only succeeded in losing his voice.

AUSTRALIA is a solid effort, sturdy on its feet but a slow and steady stride instead of the adventure it so clearly wants to be. It can be touching; it can be somewhat moving even; but it feels mostly as vague and meandering as the outback is vast. It is too theatrical and forced to be firmly historical and too unsure of itself to be genuinely effective. It is the most misguided mediocrity I’ve even seen go on for nearly three hours. I felt very little, learned even less; It was like being on an adventure where barely anything seemed to happen but you still appreciate the potential afforded by being there.. I just wish that the Baz I grew to know and love felt like he had come along for the ride because I feel like we didn’t spend any time together at all.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Director Series: BAZ LUHRMANN

Baz Luhrmann may not be a household name. Give it a second though to explain a little who the man is and anyone who has seen his films has an opinion on him and his intense sense of style. He incites more polarized reactions from film fanatics than most of his contemporaries and even his detractors will accord him the title of auteur. After all, what should incite that title other than a unique way of seeing things and a distinct way of getting those things across? In 1992, Luhrmann gave the world his first feature, STRICTLY BALLROOM. It cost barely anything to make and it grabbed the world by the waist and spun it around the dance floor so many times that it left the world in a dizzy haze. Sixteen years later, Luhrmann is one of the big boys, making movies that cost well over $100 million to produce. On the eve of his latest and first film in seven years, AUSTRALIA, Black Sheep Reviews takes a moment to catch its breath and take a look back at Luhrmann’s first three films that, when grouped together, are otherwise known as the Red Curtain Trilogy.

STRICTLY BALLROOM opens the Red Curtain Trilogy by literally opening with a red curtain. The curtain is pulled and we open on a near-full silhouette of two competitive dance couples. The men in black tuxedos stand tall and strong while the women in colorful ruffles bring fluidity to their opposing stiffness. The whole image is framed behind French doors and it is clear within the first few frames that Luhrmann is man with flare, style and both an eye and an appreciation for beauty. One of the men behind the door is Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), a young dancer who has worked his whole life to take home the Pan-Pacific trophy for Best Ballroom Dancer. Everything in his life and everyone that surrounds him has played a part in making this happen but Scott has come to an untimely realization. In order to wine the Pan-Pacific competition, he must dance the ballroom steps as strictly as they are meant to be but his feet can no longer adhere to such rigid expectations. They have a rhythm all their own and they can no longer stand still. And with this, Luhrmann lets us see the side of him that will guide us through the rest of this trilogy. Love, above all else, be that the love of another person or the love that lives inside of you that inspires the passion you must pursue, is the only thing in life that matters.

STRICTLY BALLROOM earned Luhrmann countless year-end accolades, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical/Comedy (which it lost to MRS. DOUBTFIRE). Of course, this opened many a backstage door for Luhrmann and before long, his next project was announced. What does a man who values love above all else tackle as the second part in his homage to one of life’s greatest mysteries? Simple; he decided to tell the greatest love story ever told, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO + JULIET. Only Luhrmann can’t do simple. His take on the bard would be decidedly modern, moving the classic from fair Verona to Verona Beach in Southern California. The tale would be told in present day; swords would be traded for guns and kinsmen would become posses. And just when it seemed that Luhrmann could not disparage this masterpiece any further, he cast the young teen idols, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the title roles. It could have been a huge disaster but it ends up being one of the most effective Shakespearean adaptations in recent history. Luhrmann’s insightful understanding of the brilliant source material pours out of his beautiful leads and allows for Shakespeare to be not only enjoyed but understood by the adolescent market. By successfully recontextualizing ROMEO + JULIET from the stage to the streets, Luhrmann reminded audiences why Shakespeare is timeless. It’s also innately and achingly romantic but that goes without saying when Luhrmann is involved.

The curtain returns for one last time with 2001’s Best Picture nominee, MOULIN ROUGE! This time, a musical conductor stands in front of it guides an orchestra through an overture that ushers in one of the most original musicals in history. It is Paris at the turn of the 20th century. The Moulin Rouge is more than just a name, it is a place where men and women find company in strangers’ arms and empty their pockets before they turn for home. It is home to extravagance, elegance and decadence. It is all so lavish and dramatic; it all so quintessentially Baz Luhrmann. While the film is certainly boisterous enough on its own, it comes alive all over again the moment Ewan McGregor opens his mouth to sing. Though he is singing the Elton John’s “Your Song” or the title track from “The Sound of Music”, it is as through the words that are coming out of his mouth have never been said before or never had this particular meaning and depth. Reappropriating modern lyrics we’ve all heard before grounds them tonally as though they are connected thoughts and not just catchy tunes. Ever the romantic, McGregor makes the error of falling in love with a courtesan (Nicole Kidman) and she in turn makes the mistake of falling for McGregor’s penniless writer. When love calls though, you cannot fight against its choices no matter how certain you are that it is wrong. MOULIN ROUGE! epitomizes the values that were introduced in the two previous installments of this trilogy – beauty, freedom, truth and love. These are the true bohemian ideals and Luhrmann is the modern day king of the true bohemians.

When we go for a show, we sit, we wait and we stare at the red curtain before it opens to show us all its secrets. Lurhmann grew up behind that curtain, having been raised by parents heavily involved in the arts and now he has also grown up as a director in the same place with these three films. It is as though his unique view were born by realizing that following your passion is the only path to happiness; that this passion went through a young and rebellious stage; and that it eventually settled in to its true nature and accepted all of its own transformative power. Lurhmann is an artist’s artist. He gave us dance, theatre and music and he did it all the way that only he could. And when the curtain closes, the audience is left with only one thing – love.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

WEEKEND BOX OFFICE: Twilight's Big Bite

Every now and then I am reminded that I am not a teenager anymore. I don’t have a favorite Jonas Brother; I couldn’t get through the first 20 minutes of the first HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL; and up until this past spring when I first saw posters appearing in the city, I had never heard of Stephanie Meyer or TWILIGHT. Little did I know, it was a phenomenon amongst the younger folks. Even going in to this weekend, I thought it was going to be that big. It was a crowded weekend and the trailers looked pretty flat. When I read that 2,000 advance screenings had already sold out though, I knew I was bloody wrong about the whole thing.

And so TWILIGHT flew out of the cave with midnight Thursday screenings tallying $7 million and rode that wave to a total of $35 million on Friday alone. That’s $8 million more than Bond brought in last Friday. TWILIGHT finished the weekend surpassing everyone’s expectations (and essentially annihilating mine) with a grand total of over $70 million, becoming the fourth biggest November opening of all time, behind three separate Harry Potter installments. I wonder if the Potter people regret the move out of this weekend now.

Meanwhile, Bond got banged by bad word of mouth and tumbled nearly 60% in its second week to just $27 million. This kind of fall means QUANTUM OF SOLACE will struggle to surpass CASINO ROYALE’s $165 million domestic total. Overseas, Bond has nothing to cry about as the film is seriously outpacing the last installment but this is definitely a different story on the home front. QUANTUM OF SOLACE barely came in second place, and may very likely end up in third after the final numbers come in tomorrow. Considering Sony over inflated last weekend’s gross to look as though QUANTUM OF SOLACE had done better numbers than THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, it would not shock me if they did to save face for losing to an animated dog.

The dog in question is BOLT, Disney’s 3D animated film featuring the voices of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus. I’m sure the Disney peeps were hoping for a bigger haul this weekend than $27 million but BOLT’s bite was no match for that of TWILIGHT. With very little strict family fare coming in the weeks to follow though, BOLT could surprise with strong legs. The Thanksgiving holiday is certainly going to give BOLT a big boost.

Two particular arthouse films have much to celebrate this weekend. The first is THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS. The WWII drama debuted last week to strong numbers and expanded this week into 368 screens to see its haul increase by 252%. The even bigger success is hiding just below the Top 10 at number 11. One of this year’s biggest crowd pleasers, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, added 22 screens this weekend and saw another week averaging over $31K per screen. The Danny Boyle Oscar hopeful shot up over 176% and looks poised for the Top 10 next week.

Speaking of … NEXT WEEK: It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without holiday film fare. Enter Vince Vaughan and Reese Witherspoon in FOUR CHRISTMASES. Baz Luhrmann returns to cinemas after a seven-year absence with AUSTRALIA, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. And for those who think holidays are for guns and explosions, Jason Statham returns with TRANSPORTER 3. Mmmm, pass the turkey, please.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Written by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal and Irfan Khan

They say that every moment in our lives has led up to the one that we are experiencing right now; that it is written, predetermined or fated. I suppose this is true for me. I certainly wouldn’t be writing this review of Danny Boyle’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE had I not seen the film to begin with. And, according to Boyle, he would not have made the film if he didn’t need to dive into a project that was thoroughly grounded and connected to the earth after making his last sci-fi flick, SUNSHINE. So with fate appropriately in place and gently leading the way, Boyle has made a film that honours the concept itself and has a great time getting caught up in it instead of fighting against it. The trouble though is that by acknowledging every move in fate’s game plan, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE kills the mystery and makes fate into a trap instead of the comfort it could be.

The title, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, refers to a particular person, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), as he grew up in the slums of Mumbai and is now in the unexpected position of being a finalist on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Doctors and lawyers, they haven’t made it this far in the game and yet here is this young kid who works in a call centre on the verge of taking the big prize. The kid doesn’t even answer the phones; he gets the coffee for the people who answer the phones. How could he know the answers to all these questions? He has no formal education; he doesn’t come from a well-respected background. The answer is simple. He must be cheating. And so when the show breaks for the day, Malik is secretly taken into custody and tortured by the police so that he can explain to them just how he’s done it. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t take too kindly to the torture and he also doesn’t believe that he has anything to hide. Malik simply sits down with the detective (an underused Irrfan Khan) and explains, question by question, how his life experiences taught him everything he needed to know.

Boyle likes to play with style in his movies and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is certainly no different than SUNSHINE or TRAINSPOTTING on this level. Thankfully, his style is never solely used to make up for a lack of substance but there is still something to be said about overdoing it. It is beautifully shot, full of life and colour, but it is often excessive and distracting. I mean, even the sub-titles are over-stylized, appearing anywhere on the screen and boxed by another bright colour to separate them from the image. I wish Boyle would learn to trust his natural instincts more and not feel he needs these embellishes to keep our attention. He just doesn’t do simple and all the while that he’s putting these flourishes on the image, he misses how the rigidity of Simon Beaufoy’s story is stifling the plausibility of Malik’s plight. Essentially, Malik must give us his entire life story as it relates to the game questions. The structure becomes deliberate and expected very quickly – question, explanation, question, explanation. There is no room for surprise and how boring is fate without that particular element?

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is still a crowd pleaser. It’s just of the contrived and conventional variety but cleverly disguised as topical and concerned. Boyle does expose us to an original love story between Malik and his childhood love, Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), told in the unlikely setting of the dangerous Mumbai streets. Poverty and corruption frame what is a genuinely believable and moving love between these two young actors. They are not only both beautiful but they are both innocent and sincere. You will root for them and you will delight in their ultimate outcomes that culminate in a jubilant closing credit sequence (stay in your seat, trust me). But if whatever events in your life led you to seeing this movie and made you into the kind of person that can see past the flare to the formal, then you know that fate is not as specific nor as simple to spot as Boyle seems to believe.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Written by Frederic Benudis, Marouk El Mechri and Christophe Turpin
Directed by Marouk El Mechri
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Francois Damiens and Zinedine Soualem

Jean-Claude Van Damme: I’m 47 years old and it is very difficult for me to do everything in one shot.
Director (in Japanese): He still thinks we’re making “Citizen Kane”.

My personal experience with Jean-Claude Van Damme is fairly specific. I may have seen BLOODSPORT more than a dozen times when I was teenager. This is not because I particularly enjoyed the film (although I must admit that image of Van Damme doing the splits in his underwear across the kitchen counter tops has never quite left my head); no, the reason I’ve seen the Van Damme classic so many times has a lot more to do with laziness than anything else. My younger brother, he was the one with the obsession. He’s seen that movie countless times and I was just too lazy to get off the couch sometimes when he would throw it on yet again. While the splits may have left their impression, I never saw Van Damme as anything more than an action star joke. After watching JCVD though, it would appear that the joke has been on me all along.

JCVD is an entirely unexpected experience. Quite frankly, I don’t see how it could be anything else. I mean, what would you be expecting if you found yourself paying to see the latest Van Damme movie? Explosions? Fighting? Poor pronunciation? What would you say if I told you that you got all of that and so much more? JCVD is a clever and engaging piece from director, Marouk El Mechri, that casts Van Damme as himself in a fictional scenario that rings so loud at times, you might think it to be hard truth. Van Damme, having fallen into obscurity, or at least fallen from Hollywood’s good graces, if those actually exist, and is now making quick and easy action pics for even quicker money. He is in the midst of a bitter custody dispute over his daughter and he has simply had enough. He decides to slow his life down and focus on what matters. He just has a few bills to settle first. He walks into a post office in Brussels (where the muscles originates from) and suddenly finds himself in a hostage situation. The police believe he is one of the robbers though and instantly, the world is watching. Inside though, this famous action star is just another person with a gun to his head. The hero has become the victim.

El Mechri’s playful direction takes us back and forth between both sides of the hostage situation while also taking us back and forth in time and place. Van Damme is either taking hit on the set, in court or even from taxi cab driver fans who consider him to be less forthcoming than they expected. The man is broken but trying. This would ordinarily be considered noble but Van Damme is a celebrity and that is simply not allowed for their kind. I’m not about to hand Van Damme an Oscar nomination (as though I have those in my pockets just waiting or something) but his vulnerability, his honesty and his candor are all so surprisingly genuine and effective. He still kicks some hard ass but who ever expected to laugh (with and not at) or think at a Van Damme movie? Certainly not I. After seeing JVCD though, all I want to do is give the man a hug

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Written by Matt Crowley
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring Kenneth Nelson, Peter White, Frederick Combs and Leonard Frey

Michael: There is nothing quite as good as feeling sorry for yourself, is there?

They just don’t throw parties like this one anymore. And if they did, no one would necessarily even notice. THE BOYS IN THE BAND was born as a play in 1968, off-Broadway. It ran for 1001 performances and was optioned by Hollywood just two years later. Today, this would not be so uncommon. It would not have been so uncommon in 1968 either but this was no ordinary play. THE BOYS IN THE BAND was the first gay-themed play written with every intention by its author, Matt Crowley, to be seen and enjoyed by mainstream audiences. Though I wasn’t alive to feel the impact the play had, I can’t imagine how this play, where nine men, almost all gay, spend an evening celebrating a birthday by lashing out and breaking each other down in a drunken stupor, could have been appreciated by mainstream audiences. It embodies pain, struggle and desire but it keeps everything bottled up, making for quite an explosion.

THE BOYS IN THE BAND is not an easy movie experience. It is however, an enlightening one. It has been 40 years since audiences first heard Crowley’s telling words and just under that since William Friedkin brought it to the screen. The world has changed. Attitudes have changed. Neither Crowley nor Friedkin were the least bit concerned with the attitudes of the audiences that saw this landmark. It was the attitudes of the characters that mattered. THE BOYS IN THE BAND debuted to audiences before the gay rights liberation movement even officially began, but spoke in a voice that needed to be heard. The boys in this particular band come from all different walks. They are closeted, married. They are depressed, on drugs. They live above their means to portray a certain image. They drink and they drink until they no longer have the burden of having to think any longer about how miserable they are with life and with themselves. And that’s only the first act. The second act plummets into despair. There are no more laughs to be had but there is an unexpected emotion seeping beneath the surface and sitting in the back of this party like the guest no one saw arrive – love. It may come out as loathing but it is love they have each felt for another man that has manifested itself as this hate.

(Please note the film is in full colour.)

One can only hope that each character is able to tear away that hate and get back to the love that hides in their hearts. . Watching THE BOYS IN THE BAND now, having just been remastered and re-released for its 40th anniversary with three new featurettes looking back on the groundbreaking release and a brand new commentary with Friedkin, one can’t help but notice that though so much has changed for gay men and women, that so many of the issues these men faced are just as prominent today as they were then. And so again, one can only hope that the love that started it all will prevail and heal rather than destroy.




After performing to sold out crowds and record-breaking grosses in Europe for the last two weeks, it is no surprise to see Bond debut atop the charts with QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the 22nd film in the franchise. After the success of CASINO ROYALE and overwhelmingly positive response to Daniel Craig’s new Bond for the new age, it is also no surprise that QUANTUM OF SOLACE commanded the biggest opening weekend for any Bond film in history. But Bond’s $70 million haul still managed to surpass most industry expectations and actually beat out Jason Bourne’s last opening weekend haul. That, people definitely did not see coming.

THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM debuted last August to $69 million and while QUANTUM OF SOLACE only narrowly surpassed that number, no one expected it to come close. With its $20K per screen average, Bond collected more than the rest of the Top 5 combined. Reviews have been mixed but audiences were craving two things that Bond delivered fully, action and franchise. Each Bond film has done better than its predecessor with rare exception and QUANTUM OF SOLACE is certainly going to have no difficulties accomplishing this same feat. Craig and the entire Bond crew have proven beyond a doubt that you can reinvigorate a long running franchise without alienating the people who kept you going for so long. Martinis shaken and not stirred for everyone!

Dreamworks’ MADAGASCAR sequel easily crossed the $100 million mark in its second weekend. Last time Bond premiered, he had to settle for second place to a bunch of dancing penguins (HAPPY FEET) but no toon could keep him down this time. MADAGASCAR’s drop was somewhat steep but the sequel is outpacing the first hit by $18 million, ensuring that many more entirely implausible scenarios for these zoo animals will inevitably arrive and that David Schwimmer will continue to get work and not got hungry.

This week’s Top 10 saw no other major debut, as any studio head stupid enough to open a major release opposite James Bond would likely be fired shortly after his announcement. The most significant release past Bond is the audience favorite, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Danny Boyle picked up the people’s choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival this year and is riding a wave of amazing reviews toward what could be the most successful film of his career. The advance Oscar buzz certainly doesn’t hurt either. On just 10 screens, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE pulled in $350K for a per screen average that outpaced Bond’s by $15K. Who knows? Maybe Danny Boyle could end up directing the next Bond. Go ahead, get that rumour out there.

NEXT WEEK: Originally, next weekend belonged to the next Harry Potter chapter but with that safely moved to some time next summer, the doors have been left wide open for two drastically different wide releases. Disney has high hopes for BOLT, featuring the voices of John Travolta and Hannah Montana, I mean, Miley Cyrus. And Stephanie Meyer fans will finally be able to see how Hollywood has handled their precious TWILIGHT. Vampires, talking dogs and tons of people under the age of 17 … should be good times.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Written by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Jeffrey Wright and Judi Dench

M: Bond, if you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be deeply appreciated.”

When we last left James Bond (Daniel Craig), he had just found out that the first woman he ever gave his heart to had betrayed him. You do not get James Bond to feel something and then walk all over that newfound vulnerability. You just don’t do that and, if you knew how hard it was for this particular brand of man to get there to begin with, you couldn’t do it with any good conscious. When we last left James Bond, he also reinvigorated a franchise that wasn’t in any actual serious danger of disappearing. Impressive, yes, but that is what James Bond does after all; he impresses with every fiber of his perfectly sculpted being. The trouble is there is only so high you can get and Craig’s first outing as Bond, CASINO ROYALE, was not just impressive, it made me a believer in a character that has meant very little to me over the decades. So where does the first Bond sequel, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, go from there? Not very much further it seems. Apparently, the best hands were played in the last game.

I don’t mean to make it sound horrible; it’s just disappointing. QUANTUM OF SOLACE lacks the boundless, unexpected energy of CASINO ROYALE. This isn’t for lack of trying. The action starts to move before you even have a chance to get comfortable with a high-speed car chase through the scenic Italian seaside. Then the action continues through underground tunnels, massive crowds, across rooftops, down scaffolding and through panes of glass while fighting in mid air and hanging from ropes. I didn’t say it lacked in actual action. It’s just that this particular action isn’t as exciting or original as what we’ve already seen. Sure a boat chase that plays out like bumper cars in the water – with guns! – is exhilarating but it isn’t as bracing as a two-man chase through a construction site, leading up to a fist fight 200 feet in the air on a narrow crane. Instead, every scenario Bond finds himself in seems facile and there is never any real question as to how it will play out. The caliber of stunt is much more Jason Bourne than James Bond. At one point, I half expected Matt Damon to show up running alongside him on the rooftops of Port au Prince.

While the action is still gripping, if somewhat less original, it is the story that is most thin in QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Oscar winner, Paul Haggis, had to turn his script in before the writer’s strike began last year to make sure that production would not be delayed. The result is rushed, expectedly. Themes like trust, truth and vengeance are tossed around as concepts but never solidified as concrete dilemmas in the characters’ lives. And while one doesn’t necessarily go to a James Bond film for depth, one does expect a certain complexity to the plot. In what is the shortest Bond film ever made, Bond’s motivation is restricted to tracking down a mysterious terrorist group called Quantum. He must find out who and where they are and their eco-terrorist plot seems secondary to that. Bond must also contend with another vengeful force, Camille (a gorgeous and commanding, Olga Kurylenko), who is out to avenge her family. Could it be that she has come in to Bond’s life to show him the reality of holding on to a need for revenge for so many years? Probably but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on him at the end of the day.

I have a love/hate relationship with director, Marc Forster (love FINDING NEVERLAND and STRANGER THAN FICTION, hate STAY and THE KITE RUNNER) and was certainly skeptical when I heard he was coming on to direct this 22nd Bond film. He had never done any film this size and this explosive in his career but there are teams of people around on big budget pics like this to make sure that all the action comes off as it should. Forster was brought on for his storytelling abilities. This is fine logic but there is barely any story to tell here and he can’t be faulted for having little to work with any more than the screenwriters can be faulted for having to get something in before going on strike. QUANTUM OF SOLACE certainly falls closer to the love side of my relationship with Forster than the hate side but more time needs to be taken with the next Bond – give Craig the time to do what he did first time out and show us the man behind the wheel of the Aston Martin. You can’t just grab whatever you have behind the bar and slap a martini together in no time, expecting Bond to drink it. He would simply send it back and demand you make it again.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis
Directed by Martin Campbell
Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelson, Jeffrey Wright and Judi Dench

M: I knew it was too early to promote you.
James Bond: Well, I understand double 0’s have a very short life expectancy so your mistake will be short-lived.

Nothing I am about to say will be news to the legions of existing Bond fans around the world. For the rest of you Bond neophytes, of which I also consider myself a member, it may interest you to know that CASINO ROYALE, the 2006 official relaunch of the decades-old franchise, had been made already twice before. The first incarnation, made before the franchise was unleashed, was a live CBS television production. It was later made in 1967 as a spy spoof starring Peter Sellers. This meant that Bond creator, Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel had truly never been made the way it was intended for a theatrical audience. For years, the rights to the script were buried beneath so much paperwork that it was a miracle the lawyers were able to free it up to be made in 2006. At this point, the Bond series was at a financial high point but there was concern the icon had staled some. Clearly, Bond wasn’t going away but something needed to be done. The decision was a risky one. The decision was to start at the beginning and introduce the world to a new Bond for a new day. The risk paid off.

CASINO ROYALE is an introduction to a new Bond and to a new man behind the tux, Daniel Craig. Fanatics were skeptical; after all, the man is blond and has clear, blue eyes. Craig brings a ruggedness and real grit to Bond like we have not seen before. Craig’s Bond is still smooth and confident but he is also vulnerable and capable of feeling something. Craig is also hyper sexualized as Bond. The way he wears his pants, the way he walks out of the ocean, water dripping down his perfect chest – these kinds of images have always been reserved for the infamous Bond girls. While the ladies are still lovely, Bond now has something for everyone. The men will still want to be him – order the same martini, drive the same Aston Martin – and the women will still swoon over him, only now, Bond earns it. This franchise dates back to the 60’s but it only now seems to have figured out how to broaden its appeal to universal levels.

On the eve of the first Bond sequel in history, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, CASINO ROYALE has been re-released as a special edition on DVD and Blu-Ray. This edition is a much more complete package, containing over a dozen special features, when the original edition only contained four. For such an intensely action packed film though, the features rarely reach the same heights of excitement. First off, and I can’t solely hold the people behind this release responsible for this, but marketing people need to stop naming features randomly without detailing what it actually is. To find the behind the scenes on this film, I had to randomly select features and wait to see what they would hold. What they did hold was quite a bit of understated explanation about legal rights and Bond throughout history and unfortunately, not enough about how director, Martin Campbell, managed some of the most energetic action sequences in recent history. It may make for fascinating material for hardcore Bond followers but it gets tedious for those of us specifically interested in this particular film.

I may have expected the unbridled vigor of the film to translate more to the features and commentary but CASINO ROYALE has enough wallop on its own to make up for any disappointment. It is no small feat to invigorate a decades old franchise and to make an excellent film that just happens to be a Bond film is equally impressive, if not more so. Bond may have never left but it feels like he just arrived.



Monday, November 10, 2008


Written and Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Hope Davis and Catherine Keener

Caden Cotard: We’re all hurdling towards death and yet, here we are, each of us knowing that we’ll die and each of us hoping that we won’t.

It doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge Charlie Kaufman as a genius or something awful close to it. Genius can move the world forward and illuminate the darkest of spaces. Genius can also go right over the heads of all those who are not as fortunate to be counted among the world’s smartest. I don’t mean to imply that Kaufman intentionally speaks over the heads of his audience in his directorial debut, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, but rather that he simply didn’t communicate his insight as succinctly as he could have. Kaufman was smart to surround himself with a cast of actors talented enough to pull off the enormously ambitious scope of his project, but despite raising many an intriguing question, he provides very few answers.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a Schenectady, New York, resident and theatre director. We meet Caden on what could be pretty much be any morning, it would seem. He is reading random headlines from the paper; his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener) is staring blankly out the window, and their daughter, Olive (Sadie Goldstein) is contentedly eating her cereal, watching cartoons and asking if she should be concerned about the colour of her poop. It is on this morning, the morning like all the others, that Caden’s life takes that last step over the edge and begins falling to its inevitable demise. His body betrays him with inexplicable afflictions; his wife betrays him shortly after and runs off to Europe with their daughter; and it isn’t long before he is crying in the middle of sex. Anyone in Caden’s position would probably question their reason for living but once Caden gets started on this slippery slope, he realizes just how hard it is to get back up and out.

Caden and Kaufman are not so far from each other. They are both men stuck in their own heads who cannot fully function in society with all its rules and expectations. Caden proceeds to begin mounting his masterpiece when his life falls apart in order to climb out of his own hole. The concept, if you can call it that, is essentially a recreation of everything that is happening in Caden’s life. Seeing it in front of him is supposed to make it all make sense. All it does though is encourage is obsessive self-thinking, to say nothing of the self-loathing. Meanwhile, Kaufman, the man who concocted this complex web, gets tangled up in how intricate it all is. Caden hires an actor to play himself, an assistant and an actress to play that assistant. Before you know it, there is another actor who has stepped in to play Caden and he is bumped to the role of a cleaning lady. It’s art imitating life trying desperately to make sense of what the art really means. Kaufman throws so many concepts up on the screen and alone, some of them are calming while others are chaotic, but never do all of them come together to say anything clearly.

Watching SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK is like being trapped in Kaufman’s mind for a couple of hours. There is beauty everywhere around you; there is insight to be imparted at every turn. There is also too much to process in just one sitting. That being said, sitting with it too long only leads to many more unanswered questions and Kaufman has been sitting with it non-stop for years now. He fell deep into the dark caves of his mind and gave us what he could to make sense of it but it wasn’t enough. And if Kaufman can’t make sense of his own genius mind, I’m not sure how he expected us to do it.