Posts Tagged ‘Machete’

MW on DVDs: Howl, Doctor Zhivago, Gone with the Wind, Blade Runner: The Final Cut, The Quintessential Guy Maddin

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011


Howl (Three Stars)

U. S.: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, 2010

is a film inspired by the great Beat poem by that great Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg — and if it‘s not a great Beat movie, then it‘s still a very good one, powerful and decent, and a passionate plea for the role of the artist in a sometimes destructive society.

The DVD Wrap: Machete, Dinner for Schmucks, Easy A, Howl … and more

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011


In this insanely hyperactive action flick, Robert Rodriguez delivers on the promise made in the faux “Mexsploitation” trailer that accompanied Grindhouse. It would be folly to attempt any synopsis of Machete, except to recall that Danny Trejo’s character is a former Mexican federal agent, seeking to exact revenge on the American druglord (Steven Seagal) who is responsible for the deaths of his wife and child. Since he’s in Texas, anyway, though, Machete accepts a contract to assassinate a rabidly anti-immigration senator (Robert De Niro). In fact, the assignment is a set-up.

Ostensibly, Machete has as large a target on his back as the senator. Unlike some movie anti-heroes, however, Machete isn’t invincible. If it weren’t for the assistance of some hard-core Chicanas (Jessica Alba, Michelle Rodriguez) and a small army of low-riding homeboys, the local rednecks might have chopped him up with his own machetes and served him for dinner at the next Minuteman banquet.

Some critics have suggested that the trailer was the movie, only shorter. That’s probably true for fair-weather fans of grindhouse nouveau, but, loyal followers of Rodriguez and Tarantino’s oeuvre will undoubtedly have a blast. The action is non-stop, thoroughly goofy and well over the top. Like most contemporary grindhouse epics, too, appearances by actors familiar from other genres add much diversionary fun.

Besides De Niro, Alba, Rodriguez and Segal, who hasn’t appeared in a theatrical picture in years, the cast includes Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan, Jeff Fahey and Rodriguez regulars Cheech Marin, Daryl Sabara, Tom Savini, Michael Parks and Rose McGowan. (Machete is co-directed by his fave editor, Ethan Maniquis.) It’s Trejo’s show, however, and his machetes of mass destruction are all one needs to recommend it. The only bonus feature of note is the deleted scenes.


Dinner for Schmucks: Blu-ray

My limited knowledge of Yiddish slang precludes me from parsing the difference between “schmuck” and the more mundane, “moron,” at least for the purposes of this review. For as long as I can remember, the use of the word “schmuck” in mixed company was discouraged, if only because it also meant “penis.” Dinner for Schmucks was adapted from Francis Veber’s more subtle pleasure, The Dinner Game. In contemporary Hollywood, subtlety is for suckers.

The basic concept works for both pictures, though. A group of self-satisfied friends meet on regular basis for dinner. Each is required to bring a guest so insufferably pompous, maddeningly boorish or terminally stupid that he’s crowned that week’s prince of fools. This premise wouldn’t amount to much if, at some point in the movie, the fools didn’t turn the tables on their mean-spirited hosts, begging the question as to who’s the real schmuck. And, of course, this is exactly what happens.

Steve Carell has made a career playing these kinds of self-absorbed doofuses, and his nebbish IRS agent, Barry, is custom made for exhibition in the dinner game. Among other irritating habits, Barry collects dead mice for future use in historical dioramas. Paul Rudd plays Tim, an ambitious executive whose boss (Bruce Greenwood) demands he prove his mettle by participating in the game. Tim knows the hapless diorama maker is his ticket to promotion after running into him with his car while Barry’s picking up a dead mouse in the street. Little does Tim know how stiff the competition for the dunce cap will be.

Director Jay Roach doesn’t trust the material enough to forgo a clunky romantic contretemps between Tim and his spectacularly beautiful girlfriend, Julie (Stephanie Szostak). It provides more evidence of Barry’s clumsiness, but, otherwise, prolongs the wait for the dinner party. That said, Dinner for Schmucks is far more entertaining than other recent boys-will-boys comedies, all of which are founded on a stupidity contest of one form or another. Carell gets ample support from Zach Galifianakis, Jemaine Clement and Kristen Schaal (Flight of the Conchords), Lucy Punch and Ron Livingston. And, yes, the entertainment provided by the so-called schmucks is hilarious. The hi-def edition arrives with the featurettes, “The Biggest Schmucks in the World,” “The Men Behind the Mouseterpieces,” “Meet the Winners” and “Schmuck Ups,” as well as deleted scenes.


Easy A: Blu-ray

In the absence of any better ideas, some screenwriters have found success by adapting classic works of literature for teenage audiences. Cruel Intentions was inspired by Les liaisons dangereuses; Emma begat Clueless; Shakespeare provided the fodder for Romeo+ Juliet, West Side Story, O, 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Will Gluck’s wonderful teen rom-com, Easy A, was informed, at least, by The Scarlet Letter.

Rising superstar Emma Stone plays Olive, a hip, if little-noticed high school girl, who sees her life paralleling Hester Prynne’s in the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. East Ojai High School may be the only public school in America where virginity is still something to which boys and girls aspire. In an effort to avoid one embarrassing revelation, Olive inadvertently sparks a rumor that leads her fellow students to believe she’s promiscuous.

After accepting more than her fair share of undeserved humiliation, Olive decides to profit from the misconception. In return for money, she allows closeted gay kids and other dweebs to use her as a beard. Despite the windfall, the ruse complicates matters with the only boy she wants to impress. Stone delivers writer Bert V. Royal’s waspish dialogue with great moxie and sympathy for Olive. The other characters are allowed to get in some licks of their own, as well.

I’m far from being a teenager, but I think Easy A was one of the best films of 2010, regardless of genre, and Stone’s performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination. True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld may already have nailed down the spot annually allotted an actress playing a teen role, though. Here, Stone gets plenty of help from Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, as her bemused parents, hunky Penn Badgley, snarky Amanda Bynes, Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow and Malcolm McDowell. The Blu-ray package adds a great deal of bonus material, including commentary with Gluck and Stone; a pop-up trivia quiz; BD-Live connectivity; a making-of documentary; gag reel; audition footage; and featurettes, “The School of Pop Culture: Movies of the ’80s” and “Vocabulary of Hilarity.”



Allen Ginsberg’s great primal scream of a poem, Howl, is at the center of Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman’s film of the same title. As epic poetry goes, Howl is a million times less cinematic than, say, Beowulf, The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales or, even, The Cat in the Hat. The filmmakers, though, use the debut reading of the poem as a stepping stone to other aspects of Ginsberg’s amazing life.

First, they dramatize publisher and book-seller Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1957 obscenity trial. We’re also introduced to fellow Beats muses, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, who played key roles in the development of the poem. James Franco portrays Ginsberg with an eerie specificity, as he alternately reads Howl before an audience and tells the story of his life and coming-out to an interviewer. Finally, for better or worse, the poem has been animated by art director Eric Drooker. (It could easily exist as a stand-alone short film.) That’s a lot of material to stuff into a 90-minute bag, but Epstein and Friedman manage to pull it off in nimble style.

In our collective memory of him, Ginsberg sometimes resembles a harmless hippie Santa Claus, still worshiped by the counterculture as a founding father and accepted by the mainstream as a symbol of America’s “tolerance” of oddballs and rebels. As Howl points out, however, Ginsberg and his poem were the furthest things from mainstream in the mid-1950s. The Beats represented repudiation of post-war complacency and conformity, and, along with Kerouac, Ginsberg was its most visible diplomat. He openly celebrated his homosexuality at a time when it was illegal in most states and feared by a majority of Americans.

Beats and beatniks were ridiculed in the media for their shaggy appearance and despised by philistines for their taste in everything from shoes (sandals) to music (be-bop). Howl captures all that and more in documentary-like fashion. Franco is nothing short of terrific and he gets excellent support from John Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, David Straithairn, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, Jon Prescott and Aaron Tveit. The bonus material adds several making-of featurettes and backgrounders, including a reading of Howl by a much older Ginsberg.


Beautiful Kate

Apparently, Hollywood has a problem with incest. The negative reflex explains why it took nearly 30 years for Newton Thornburg’s perfectly adaptable novel, Beautiful Kate, to make the move from page to screen, and why it took an Aussie production company to make it. After Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown acquired the rights to the story, she moved it from Chicago to the “bush,” in Australia’s Flinder Ranges.

Its protagonist is a young writer, Ned, who’s been asked by his younger sister to return home to pay a final visit with his estranged father. Ned arrives in the company of a pretty bimbo, Toni, whose presence disturbs the uneasy calm enough to bring the family’s dysfunctional history back into focus. Through flashbacks, we learn of Ned’s illicit relationship with his sexually aggressive twin sister and how it resulted in a pair of tragic deaths. Even on his death bed, the old man is a brute. He minimizes everything in Ned’s life and blames him for the collapse of the family ranch. It opens wounds that never completely healed.

One of the most popular actors in Australia, Ward wrote and directed Beautiful Kate. By transferring the story to a remote outpost in the middle of nowhere, she was able to show how such isolation impacted on the lives of characters making the transition from childhood to sexual maturity surrounded by a herd of randy sheep. As twins, Ned and Kate already were closer than the average brother and sister, if only because their father’s ugly behavior forced them to take shelter in each other’s arms. To reveal any more would spoil too much of the movie’s surprises.

Ben Mendelsohn and Sophie Lowe are quite good as the star-crossed twins, as are Brown, Rachel Griffiths and Maeve Dermody in important roles. Ward shows great promise as a director of features. She succeeds in capturing the sense of desolation felt by the young characters, while also showcasing some of Australia’s great beauty. There are deleted scenes, interviews and background material.


Ticking Clock: Blu-ray
Bitter Feast
Gun: Blu-ray
Haunting of Amelia

The new year brings with it a flood of direct-to-DVD titles that share a lust for blood and bizarre plot twists.

In Ticking Clock, Cuba Gooding Jr. plays an investigative reporter who specializes in exposing police ineptitude in murder cases. This doesn’t endear the writer to police when people around him start dropping like flies and he’s the most likely suspect. We know, of course, that the reporter didn’t commit any of the grotesque crimes, but become as suspicious as the police when the Gooding’s character argues that time-travel is the only logical way the real killer could have gone undetected for so long a time. It also explains how the reporter is the only person who can prevent even more murders. A word to the wise: mixing time-travel and mystery-solving only works when it involves Sherlock Holmes.

If you’ve ever wondered why more critics aren’t attacked by the victims of their snarky wordplay and harmful condemnations, Bitter Feast is the movie for you. James Le Gros plays a chef whose cuisine has been attacked unmercifully by a bitter food blogger and stands to lose his TV gig and restaurant because of the put-downs. In response, the chef kidnaps the writer and forces him to meet food challenges that would be simple, if it weren’t for the handcuffs and knife wounds. The worse the dishes are prepared, the more torture is inflicted on the writer. Look for celebrity chef Mario Batali in a brief performance.

Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Val Kilmer make a formidable team in Gun, an extremely loud shoot-em-up set in Detroit. Jackson plays a thuggish gangsta’ out to control the illicit gun trade in the upper Midwest, while Kilmer is an ex-con looking for payback in the death of his wife. Director Jerry Terrero nicely captures the icy Rust Belt setting and the results of unharnessed fire power. Jackson’s story breaks little new territory, but moves along snappily. Less convincing is the thug’s boss, a sexy blond improbably portrayed by 23-year-old AnnaLynne McCord. To the directors go the spoils.

Haunting of Amelia (a.k.a., The Other Side of the Tracks) is a supernatural romance that can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be scary or sentimental. As such, it more closely resembles a Halloween special on the Lifetime network than a full-blown mystery or horror flick.

Ten years after a tragic train accident killed his girlfriend, restaurant employee Josh (Brendan Fehr) suddenly finds himself surrounded by people from his past. The anniversary of the accident coincides with a school reunion, so at least one of the appearances can be explained. The other visitor, an attractive brunette 10 years younger than Josh, takes a few more seconds to figure out. Haunting of Amelia benefits mostly from its woodsy Connecticut setting.


Case 39

The always-welcome Renée Zellweger plays a social worker, Emily, assigned to the case of a little girl who was brutalized by her psycho stepparents. Too traumatized by the experience for another placement, the kid, Lilith (Jodelle Ferland), begs Emily to assume the role of foster mom. Predictably, little Lilith then begins to exhibit the same sorts of traits that might have caused her former guardians to stick her into an oven and turn on the gas.

Case 39 looks good, but, apart from some hideous deaths, there’s nothing really new here. Zellweger is joined by such fine actors as Ian McShane, Bradley Cooper, Cynthia Stevenson and Callum Rennie. The package includes 18 deleted scenes and featurettes on the special visual effects.


Big Love: The Complete Fourth Season
Mannix: The Fourth Season

There’s thin pickin’s on the TV-to-DVD front this week. HBO sends out the fourth-season package of Big Love, during which Bill saved his son from bird-smuggling Mormon kidnappers, got deeper involved with casino intrigue and ran for political office. The polygamist’s decision to out himself in public causes much tension among the wives and prompts them to think and act for themselves, for once. The new season starts this month.

As played by Mike Connors (born, Krekor Ohanian), Armenian-American P.I. Joe Mannix was one of the most popular crimefighters in television history. This might have had something to do with the fact that he seemed like an average Joe, drove hot cars and got beat up a lot. His pretty African-American assistant, Peggy Fair (Gail Fisher), also is frequently put into harm’s way. The new set represents the fourth season in an eight-year run on CBS.

Texas Bleeds Out Machete

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Texas Bleeds Out Machete Incentives

Robert Rodriguez: For A Few Dollars Less

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Robert Rodriguez: For A Few Dollars Less

Friday Estimates – September 17

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

The Town|8.2|2861||8.2
Easy A|6.7|2856||6.7
Resident Evil: Afterlife|3|3209|-72%|36.9
Alpha and Omega|2.3|2625||2.3
The American|0.8|2457|-53%|30.9
The Other Guys|0.6|1827|-42%|114
Also Debuting
Never Let Me Go|33,500|4||33,500
Jack Goes Boating|8,300|4||8,300
Leaves of Grass|6,900|2||6,900
Picture Me|2,900|1||2,900
The Freebie|1,900|1||1,900

The Weekend Box Office Report

Monday, September 13th, 2010


Weekend Estimates – September 10-12, 2010

Title Distributor Gross (average) change Theaters Cume
Resident Evil: Afterlife Sony 26.9 (8,390) New 3203 26.9
Takers Sony 5.9 (2,710) -45% 2191 47.9
The American Focus 5.7 (2,020) -57% 2833 28.2
Machete Fox 4.1 (1,520) -64% 2678 20.7
Going the Distance WB 3.8 (1,260) -45% 3030 14
The Other Guys Sony 3.4 (1,530) -35% 2246 112.5
The Last Exorcism Lions Gate 3.4 (1,230) -54% 2731 38.1
The Expendables Lions Gate 3.2 (1,050) -51% 3058 98.5
Inception WB 3.0 (1,870) -35% 1583 282.4
Eat Pray Love Sony 2.9 (1,230) -40% 2339 74.6
Nanny McPhee Returns Uni 2.0 (850) -43% 2364 26.2
The Switch BV 1.9 (1,210) -38% 1595 24.9
Despicable Me Uni 1.5 (1,120) -48% 1375 243.4
Vampires Suck Fox 1.4 (830) -57% 1670 24
Lottery Ticket WB 1.3 (1,390) -41% 905 22.7
Get Low Sony Classics .85 (1,690) -29% 504 6.9
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Uni .79 (1,280) -49% 619 30.4
Twilight: Eclipse Summit .73 (610) 68% 1187 299.6
Avatar (reissue) Fox .69 (1,580) -69% 436 759.5
Toy Story 3 BV .67 (940) -66% 712 409.9
Piranha 3D Weinstein Co. .63 (760) -74% 825 24.3
Salt Sony .62 (1,370) -51% 451 116.4
Debangg Eros .61 (9,100) New 67 0.61
Dinner for Schmucks Par .51 (950) -51% 536 71.9
Weekend Total ($500,000+ Films)   $76.50      
% Change (Last Year) -12%
% Change (Last Week) -23%
Also debuting/expanding
L’Arnacouer/Heartbreaker Alliance/IFC .17 (3,690)   47 0.17
Legendary IDP .12 (690)   178 0.12
I’m Still Here Magnolia 93,600 (4,930)   19 0.09
The Romantics Par 43,700 (21,850)   2 0.04
De Mai Tinh (Fool for Love) Wave 40,400 (5,050)   8 0.04
Expecting Mary Rocky Mtn 32,500 (580)   56 0.03
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop Sony Classics 28,300 (2,360) 3% 12 0.06
Bran Nue Dae FreeStyle 23,600 (1,470)   16 0.02
Ahead of Time  Vitagrapaph 11,100 (11,100)   1 0.01
Le Refuge Strand 10,700 (2,680)   4 0.01
Who is Harry Nilsson Lorber 6,200 (6,200)   1 0.01

Frenzy on the Wall: Robert Rodriguez – Exactly What We Thought He Was

Monday, September 13th, 2010

It seems that with every new Robert Rodriguez film folks talk about how he wasted all the promise that was evident in El Mariachi.  To which I say, “huh?”  The film shows a lot of ingenuity – in the sense that he made it for so little money – but not a whole lot of originality.  The fact that he basically re-made that film two times says a lot about the kind of filmmaker that he is, too.

It’s not like we were expecting Rodriguez to become the next Orson Welles, so I’m not shocked that he’s become a filmmaker more interested in churning out familiar product than shepherding something groundbreaking.  His filmography is littered with re-makes, sequels and re-imaginings of grindhouse films (not just Grindhouse).  He goes back to the same well and his films follow a rhythm that both he and his audience are comfortable with.  This doesn’t make him a bad filmmaker (or bad person) it just makes him profoundly uninteresting.  It’s great that he really likes actions films that he saw in a cheap movie theater when he was twelve, but I’d rather see him express that affection in an essay or a book rather than merely re-purposing it.  But hey, it’s not like I find his films boring or trying to sit through.

Robert Rodriguez has always been the filmmaker that he is now.  If someone were to have asked me years ago where I thought Rodriguez would be at this stage of his career, I’d probably have guessed that he’d be exactly where he is, making exactly the kinds of films he’s making.  I might not have guessed that he’d make Machete, but I would have guessed something in that same vein (and, basically, it is another remake of El Mariachi) and that Danny Trejo would still be involved.

The reason folks tend to think that Rodriguez is some kind of innovator is based on two films: From Dusk Til Dawn and Sin City.  The former was blessed by an interesting narrative formulated by Quentin Tarantino, while the latter brought to life the world of Frank Miller.  The success of those two films has a lot more to do with the writing than anything Rodriguez brought to the table.  Hell, From Dusk Til Dawn is not even a well-directed film, it gets by on the charm of its cast, kooky dialogue, and the narrative split that occurs halfway through.  And, considering the second half of the film is supposed to be a horror film, it’s not only not scary but it often goes campy (a Rodriguez specialty).  Can you imagine Tarantino behind the reins of that flick?  Look what he did in the barroom scene in Inglourious Basterds, how he milked every last bit of tension out of it and then picture what he could have done with a strip club in Mexico full of vampires. 

As for Sin City, Rodriguez “co-directed” the film with Frank Miller so I don’t know how much Miller or Rodriguez actually did in terms of bringing the books to life.  If I give Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably did most of the direction of the film, then yes, he certainly deserves credit because it’s a doozy of a film.  It’s fun and strange and wild and it looks gorgeous.  How Rodriguez was able to bring a comic book to life was unlike anything we had ever seen in film before.  But considering Miller used the same exact style when he directed (solo) The Spirit…I don’t know.  Either way, Sin City is the lone film on Rodigruez’ resume as director  that I would dare to call “very good” to “great.” 

And it appears to have been a blip.  I’m especially angered by this idea of making films that are supposed to be bad, which is where Rodriguez has been buttering his bread for the last half-decade.  Films like Grindhouse and Machete are intentionally kitschy and kitsch isn’t all that exciting if it’s intentional.  There is no sincerity or subtlety in a Rodriguez film – it’s all cynical recycling of very obvious references with easy jokes that are laid on super thick.  There is no way he’s going to pace anything deliberately. And  I’m stunned that they seem to be impervious to criticism.  If you say that Planet Terror is a “bad” film, I imagine the filmmaker would chuckle and think, “that’s what it’s supposed to be, so I’ve done my job!”  That is extremely aggravating.  I don’t want filmmakers to go out of their way to make a film that is unoriginal and uninspired, with frames missing or with characters and situations that are more than ridiculous.  There are enough bad film out there without people actively trying to make them. 

All of this is a prelude to the real point of this column: I saw Machete and I’m not going to review it in any depth.  What’s the point?  You’ve seen this movie before.  Whatever idea of Machete that you have in your head, that’s what it is. Congratulations.  There is no element of surprise, no moment of awe or wonder, not even a chuckle at the ridiculousness of the vision.  Even the over-the-top moments are so pre-ordained by the constraints of the genre that Rodriguez likes to work in.

And don’t even talk to me about the supposed “political” message of this film – there is no message because the messenger is not credible.  I don’t understand how anyone could watch this movie and be moved in any particular way.  That isn’t to say there weren’t moments that I found enjoyable – it wasn’t a slog to sit through – but, as with most of Rodriguez’s films, I have zero desire to re-watch it and I forgot almost every element of it by the time I got home. 

Look, Robert Rodriguez is not the worst filmmaker out there right now, but I do know that he is an unsurprising one.  His name doesn’t inspire confidence that I’ll be seeing something worthwhile.  His forays into kids’ movies – whether it’s the Spy Kids films or the awful Shorts – don’t appeal to me now and I can’t imagine they would have been when I was the target age either.  And  the “adult” films that Rodriguez makes are made with the same effusive energy …  and lack of wit or originality. 

When anyone asks me whether I’m disappointed in the filmmaker Rodriguez has become, I shrug and say no.  I never had high hopes for him to begin with.

Weekend Estimates – September 6

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Four Day Estimates| | |
The American| 16.5| New| 19.6
Machete| 14.1| New| 14.1
Takers| 13.6| -47%| 40.1
The Last Exorcism| 8.7| -64%| 33.5
Going the Distance| 8.6| New| 8.6
The Expendables| 8.3| -46%| 93.9
The Other Guys| 6.6| -16%| 108
Eat Pray Love| 6.1| -29%| 70.2
Inception| 5.8| -6%| 278.4
Nanny McPhee Returns| 4.6| -24%| 23.4

The Weekend Box Office Report — Four Day and Summer Charts

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Summer of Our Discontent

Domestic box office for the summer season dropped 3% from 2009 on an estimated gross of $4.05 billion. On an even graver note admissions sank at least 10% and possibly as high as 12%.  Following a fast start in early May, movie going appeared to lose steam mid-stream and though the final Labor Day holiday frame contributed a slight 5% weekend boost it was insufficient to close the gap.

Heading into the weekend, Paramount led in market share but were out-gunned at the final shoot out by Sony with the latter closing the season with a 16.5% slice of the big pie to the former’s 15.9%. The summer’s top grossing film was Toy Story 3 with a $408.8 million tally. Five of the top 10 top seasonal grossers were in the 3D format and two others — Inception and Iron Man 2 — had a significant number of large format engagements. The surge of premium price movies proved to be a ferocious audience magnet. Collectively the seven films contributed $1.82 billion to the box office, or 45% of all summer ticket sales.

Despite the potency of such conventionally formatted films as The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and unexpected results for the likes of Grown Ups and The Expendables, box office events are increasingly tilted toward pictures with higher entry fees.  And whereas the historic trend of successful films increasing attendance, the present situation appears to have limited the general publics frequency at the multiplex in what may be a factor of the slowly recovering American economy.  Gloom and doom aside, major gains were made in the independent sector.

The likes of Summit and Lions Gate chose to compete against the majors for a change and the former was a hair’s breath away from nudging Fox out of the top six. Niche titles ranging from the first two portions of the Millennium trilogy, festival favorites such as Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right and critical favorite I Am Love were a significant factor in summer sales.  In all 13 films of this type grossed in excess of $4 million each — a seasonal record that indicates a growing audience for alternative fare.

Though the industry has long contended that there is an insufficient market for mid-range pictures, the absence of a breakout title on the order of The Hangover may have finally sealed that verdict. Summer 2010 certainly underlines that the multiplex comes in just two sizes — big and small.

Weekend (estimates) September 3 – 6, 2010

Title Distributor Gross (average) % change * Theaters Cume
The American Focus 16.5 (6,060) New 2721 19.6
Machete Fox 14.1 (5,290) New 2670 14.1
Takers Sony 13.6 (6,170) -47% 2206 40.1
The Last Exorcism Lions Gate 8.7 (3,030) -64% 2874 33.5
Going the Distance WB 8.6 (2,840) New 3030 8.6
The Expendables Lions Gate 8.3 (2.440) -46% 3398 93.9
The Other Guys Sony 6.6 (2,520) -16% 2607 108
Eat Drink Pray Sony 6.1 (2,300) -29% 2663 70.2
Inception WB 5.8 (3,410) -6% 1704 278.4
Nanny McPhee Returns Uni 4.6 (1,690) -24% 2708 23.4
Despicable Me Uni 3.8 (2,400) -2% 1600 241.3
The Switch BV 3.8 (2.030) -32% 1885 22.2
Vampires Suck Fox 3.7 (1,520) -43% 2434 33
Toy Story 3 BV 2.6 (1,730) 89% 1520 408.8
Piranha 3D Weinstein Co. 2.9 (1,640) -46% 1789 23
Avatar (reissue) Fox 2.8 (3,480) -43% 811 758.1
Lottery Ticket WB 2.6 (1,990) -41% 1310 21
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Uni 1.9 (2,390) -38% 807 29.2
Salt Sony 1.6 (2,230) -34% 705 115.5
Get Low Sony Classics 1.5 (2,910) -26% 526 5.7
Dinner for Schmucks Par 1.2 (1,540) -45% 804 71.1
Step Up 3D BV .89 (2,050) -44% 434 41.2
Grown Ups Sony .65 (1,950) 88% 333 160.1
Cats & Dogs: Revenge of Kitty Galore WB .64 (1,410) -30% 455 42.2
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice BV .57 (1,600) 63% 357 61.7
Twilight: Eclipse Summit .54 (1,360) -18% 396 298.8
The Kids Are All Right Focus .51 (2,130) -22% 239 19.9

* percentage changes are 3-day to 3-day

Weekend Total ($500,000+ Films) $125.10
% Change (Last Year) 5%
% Change (Last Week) -11%

Also debuting/expanding

We Are Family UTV .32 (4,730) 67 0.32
Cairo Time IFC .22 (3,960) -11% 55 0.9
Mesrine: Killer Instinct Alliance/Music Box .16 (3,110) -38% 52 0.88
Mesrine: Public Enemy no. 1 Alliance/Music Box .15 (3,020) 143% 51 0.23
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop Sony Classics 33,800 (6,760) 5 0.03
My Dog Tulip New Yorker 14,100 (14,100) 1 0.01
Prince of Broadway Elephant 12,300 (12,300) 1 0.01
White Wedding Mitropoulos 6,700 (1,670) 4 0.01
The Winning Season Roadside At. 6,100 (2,030) 3 0.01
16 to Life Water Dog 3,500 (1,750) 2 0.01

Domestic Summer Market Share (May 7 – September 6, 2010)

Rank Distributor Gross Mkt Share % Change Rank
(in millions) 2009 2009
1 Sony 669.2 16.50% 27% 5
2 Paramount 643.6 15.90% -18% 2
3 BV 611.6 15.10% -12% 3
4 Warner Bros. 514 12.70% -49% 1
5 Universal 499.9 12.40% 54% 6
6 Fox 362.3 8.90% -24% 4
7 Summit 360.6 8.90% 1148% 9
8 Lions Gate 178.5 4.40% 1273% 12
9 Focus 47.3 1.20% 172% 11
10 Weinstein Co. 23.9 0.60% -80% 7
Miramax 22.2 0.50% 158% 13
Sony Classics 18.8 0.50% 6% 10
Other 96.3 2.40% N/A
4048.2 100.00% -3%
% Change 2010 (Other Distributors)
Fox Searchlight -83%

The Weekend Box Office Report

Sunday, September 5th, 2010


The final weekend of the 2010 crawled to roughly $105 million excluding the Monday portion that could add an additional $30 million.

A trio of new national releases did little to bolster the overall picture with The American topping the charts with an estimated $13.1 million (all figures are for the 3-day portion of the holiday). It entered the weekend with an additional $3.1 million from a Wednesday pre-weekend launch. Additionally the actioner Machete hacked away to $11.2 million and the rom-com Going the Distance lacked cheek with $6.8 million.

New niche entries were largely tepid including Bollywood entry We Are Family that garnered $228,000 from 67 venues. There was a small surprise with the exclusive debut of the animated entry My Dog Tulip that grossed $11,500.

Overall the current weekend box office appears to be about 5% improved from last year’s tally.

But the nettlesome issue is the performance of summer 2010 top to bottom. The answer is complicated because what we’ve come to identify as the summer season _ oh, that ever shifting calendar _ works out to be one week less than normal. By that yardstick box office is down from 2009 and the lowest of the past decade.

Even when an additional week’s box office is added to the mix, initial calculations put the current season down about 2% from the prior year’s tally. And it goes without saying that admissions are lagging; likely off by 8% to 10% from one year ago.

Some pundits have pointed to the fact that this year’s schedule has two fewer films that grossed in excess of $100 million and that certainly reflects the tip of the iceberg. That aside, it’s fair to say there were a comparable number of surprises and disappointments. In the former area, one can point to a record number of alternative titles that grossed in excess of $4 million (at least 10 on a quick scan).

The more telling factor in the decline is the medium-range performers that had box office of less than $40 million. The decade-long trend is one of haves and have nots. The chasm between films that work to those that are rejected continues to expand and despite claims that the future will foster fewer films in the marketplace, to date the difference is both infinitesimal and unlikely to shift (based on production starts and announcements) in the upcoming 18 months.

There is no definitive answer, rather a series of developments that include alternative ways of viewing movies and a continuing stasis in the economy that’s made the public both more selective and less avid in their movie going habits. The downturn might best be summed up as a slow, painful death by a million small cuts.


Weekend Estimates:  September 3 – 5, 2010

Title Distributor Gross (average) % change Theas Cume
The American Focus 13.1 (4,810) New 2721 16.2
Takers Sony 11.3 (5,130) -45% 2206 37.8
Machete Fox 11.2 (4,210) New 2670 11.2
The Last Exorcism Lions Gate 7.6 (2,650) -63% 2874 32.4
Going the Distance WB 6.8 (2,250) New 3030 6.8
The Expendables Lions Gate 6.6 (1,950) -31% 3398 92.2
The Other Guys Sony 5.3 (2,020) -16% 2607 106.7
Eat Drink Pray Sony 4.8 (1,700) -29% 2663 68.9
Inception WB 4.6 (2,690) -6% 1704 277.2
Nanny McPhee Returns Uni 3.6 (1,310) -24% 2708 22.4
The Switch BV 3.1 (1,650) -32% 1885 21.5
Despicable Me Uni 2.8 (1,740) -2% 1600 240.2
Vampires Suck Fox 3.0 (1,,220) -43% 2434 32.3
Avatar (reissue) Fox 2.3 (2,800) -43% 811 757.6
Piranha 3D Weinstein Co. 2.3 (1,300) -46% 1789 22.4
Lottery Ticket WB 2.3 (1,740) -41% 1310 20.6
Toy Story 3 BV 1.9 (1,260) 89% 1520 408.1
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Uni 1.6 (1,930) -38% 807 28.8
Get Low Sony Classics 1.2 (2,300) -26% 526 5.4
Salt Sony 1.2 (1,760) -34% 705 115.2
Dinner for Schmucks Par 1.0 (1,220) -45% 804 70.9
Step Up 3D BV .70 (1,600) -44% 434 40.9
Grown Ups Sony .44 (1,321) 65% 333 159.9
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice BV .43 (1,200) 63% 357 61.6
Twilight: Eclipse Summit .42 (1,060) -18% 396 298.7
The Kids Are All Right Focus .41 (1,720) -22% 239 19.8
Weekend Total ($500,000+ Films) $98.30
% Change (Last Year) 5%
% Change (Last Week) -10%
Also debuting/expanding
We Are Family UTV .23 (3,400) 67 0.23
Cairo Time IFC .16 (2,940) -11% 55 0.84
Mesrine: Killer Instinct Alliance/Music Box .13 (2,480) -38% 52 0.75
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 Alliance/Music Box .11 (2,080) 112% 51 0.19
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop Sony Classics 25,200 (5,040) 5 0.03
My Dog Tulip New Yorker 11,500 (11,500) 1 0.01
Prince of Broadway Elephant 8,600 (8,600) 1 0.01
White Wedding Mitropoulos 5,900 (1,480) 4 0.01
The Winning Season Roadside At. 4,900 (1,630) 3 0.01
16 to Life Water Dog 1,900 (950) 2 0.01

Domestic Market Share:  January 1 – September 2, 2010

Distributor (releases) Gross Market Share
Paramount (11) 1224.2 16.10%
Fox (14) 1198.3 15.70%
Warner Bros. (20) 1196.1 15.70%
Buena Vista (13) 1079.9 14.20%
Sony (19) 886.4 11.60%
Universal (14) 700.4 9.20%
Summit (9) 422.9 5.50%
Lions Gate (10) 354.1 4.70%
Fox Searchlight (4) 70.6 0.90%
Overture (4) 67.4 0.90%
Weinstein Co. (6) 55.4 0.70%
MGM (1) 50.4 0.70%
CBS (2) 50 0.70%
Sony Classics (17) 46.2 0.60%
Other * (228) 215.7 2.80%
* none greater than 0.4% 7618 100.00%

Friday Estimates by Klady, The American vs The Mexican

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

It seems to me that the fair box office comparisons for the two Labor Day openers are The Constant Gardener and Crank The American and Machete are running a few hundred thousand ahead for the Friday, which even without 3D, is about right for two films being released 4 and 5 years later. This should lead to each film doing somewhere between $11 million – $14 million by end of business Monday.

Going The Distance feels like a dump from WB. Funny thing is, it is apparently quite a New Line affair, much raunchier and less (15) Days of Summer than advertised. But most of the world will never know, as even a $20m domestic gross seems a long ways away.

And what is odder than Sony Classics dumping a Zhang Yimou movie? A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, as someone once said, is escaping, not being released.

Weekend numbers will land here on Monday, not Sunday, this week.

Danny Trejo, Illustrated Man

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Danny Trejo, Illustrated Man

Ebiri Asks If Machete Can Make Us Like Steven Seagal

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Ebiri Asks If Machete Can Make Us Like Steven Seagal

Michelle Rodriguez Sez Machete Reminds Her Of Obama

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Michelle Rodriguez Sez Machete Reminds Her Of Obama

MW on Movies: The American, Machete, Going the Distance, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 and Lebanon

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

The American (Three Stars)
U.S.; Anton Corbijn, 2010

I like George Clooney. No off-color psychological speculations, please.

What I like about him is the easy-going “good guy” way he plays the Hollywood game. I like his politics, his philanthropy, his unpretentious smarts, his good-natured jock style, his taste in movie scripts, his daring as a director, his wry grin, his sense of fun and his sense of seriousness.

And I like the fact that he‘s a stunning-looking guy who can effortlessly get all the things available to stunning-looking guys — the ladies, the jobs, the laughs and whatever else — but that he doesn’t rub our noses in it, or act like he‘s always on the make, or pump himself up with vanity and vacuous self-regard. I like that he makes fun of himself, and even makes fun of the American obsession with stunning-looking guys and gorgeous women and using your looks to get ahead.

As Clint Eastwood likes to say about himself and his philosophy, Clooney takes the work seriously, but not himself seriously. (Once, talking about Hollywood acting careers, Clooney said frankly that it was usually the better-looking guys who got the parts, and he made clear he thought that was a mistake — and also that he was one of the beneficiaries.)

Clooney’s special spot in American movies is the one Paul Newman used to have, and Newman was a special favorite of mine too. Both of them are (or were) likable superstars, golden boys and unpretentious liberals, smart jocks who like a good time, but work damned hard, and, in some ways, are over-achievers. (Newman was a spectacular over-achiever, in more than just acting.)

The American, Clooney’s latest movie, is a good example of that striving, of that reach that almost exceeds the grasp. It’s an eye-popping, laconic, dramatically perverse mix of art film and classy romantic thriller that deliberately tramples on the current norms and box-office formulas. Instead, it summons up memories of esoteric European suspense dramas like Melville’s Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, and Antonioni‘s The Passenger, rather than the more obvious models you’d expect, like Bourne and Bond.

It’s a good film, beautifully visualized, a little self-indulgent maybe, and a little spare of script. Clooney‘s star role is as an assassin/gunsmith variously known as Jack, Edward and Butterfly, dodging bullets on a working idyll in the lush Abruzza mountain country of Italy, and involved with several knockout ladies, a philosophical priest, and an impatient employer (some or all of whom may mean him harm). It’s an uncharacteristic minimalist job, fraught with tension and less heavy on the usual Clooney trumps of charm and personality.

Like Le Samourai, that classic neo-noir of the ‘60s with Alain Delon as a somber Parisian hit man, The American is about a perfectionist in murder whose world is coming apart and who (unwisely, perhaps) seems to fall in love. So the film begins with a botched attack and a startling rub-out and it stays tense and opaque, keeps mixing sex and menace the rest of the way.

During most of The American, a movie in which Clooney’s character fends off attacks, constructs a super-gun for another (female) assassin, engages in some very authentic-looking lovemaking and strolls around the hilly streets and chic shops of that Abruzzi village, Jack simply looks scared shitless or about to be. Or lost in some confused, apprehensive reverie. He looks as if something is sneaking up behind him — and it is.

The movie’s source is the novel A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth, which is apparently less opaque, and less spare of story. And screenwriter Rowan Joffe (who is now at work adapting that classic British thriller Brighton Rock by Graham Greene), gives it the Harold Pinter strip-the-dialogue-to the-bone treatment. People say little and conceal their meanings and feelings, if not their private parts. But then how much is there to say when you’re in Abruzzi, ducking your boss (Johan Leysen as the sinister, corpse-like Pavel) pretending to be a photographer, walking around by yourself, or making a gun, or frenziedly copulating? I’d be mum too.

A lot happens in The American, and it happens very stylishly, thanks to cinematographer Martin Ruhe, designer Mark Digby, and director Anton Corbijn. Corbijn is the Dutch filmmaker and music video maker who made Control, that very stylish black-and-white bio-drama on front man/suicide Ian Curtis and Joy Division, and here he fills the screen with beauty and dread, the way Polanski and Hitchcock do or did, but somewhat less bitingly and with far less lacerating suspense.

We first see Jack in Sweden, my grandparents’ beloved homeland, where we kibitz on a foiled hit that might be described as Bergmanesque. Then comes that Antonionian trip to Abruzzi and encounter with the lady killer, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a sub-Fellini interlude in the local bordello with a knockout local whore, Clara (played by the spectacularly beautiful Violante Placido, the daughter of The Godfather’s Simonetta Stefanelli, Michael Corleone’s bride), a somewhat De Sica-ish or Ermanno Olmiesque conversation on American existentialism in a graveyard with an elderly priest, Father Benedetti (Paolo Bonacelli), stark scenes of Melvillean samurai loneliness where the hatless Clooney channels Alain Delon, architectural beauties out of early Alain Resnais documentaries, and a final enigmatic shootout that suggests Sergio Leone hired as a gunsmith by hit man Bernardo Bertolucci. (Both were involved in Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West, which Jack sees here on TV. A grand allusion?)

The American sometimes seems like a film festival disguised as a picturesque neo-noir thriller. But it’s a neo-noir that also plays as if it would rather be a psychological drama about alienation and personal collapse, and that keeps avoiding the violent paydays we seem to expect of our supposed “thrillers.” Despite those inviting Abruzzi mountain roads, for example, there’s no car-chase scene, not even one reminiscent of Dino Risi and Il Sorpasso, or of Fellini and La Dolce Vita — though, at one point near the end, Jack does drive very fast.

Who but Clooney could get away with something like this? Corbijn’s Control was bleak and sad, and this movie is so sparse, so melancholy, that Jack’s fiddling with the gun becomes a sort of action scene by default. The movie’s sex almost totally supplants the usual gunfights, which was fine by me. I saw three other movie shootouts the same day anyway.

In a way, Clooney’s previous persona works for this role the way Jack Nicholson’s past history worked for The Passenger. Like Nicholson‘s tamped-down, oddly unaccented and very quiet performance as the runaway British war correspondent David Locke in The Passenger — in which the movies’ master of the temper tantrum was mostly confined to cryptic conversations and enigmatic stares, but where we still always sensed something like “chicken salad on toast, hold the chicken” underneath, ready to erupt — the memory of Clooney’s infallible charm gives this movie a special charge and an undercurrent. Anyway, the visual beauty of The American’s individual scenes and shots, is its own best defense.

Not for the more right wing TV pundits and critics, of course, who would hate Clooney no matter what he does (though they’d love him if he made exactly the same movies, and supported the same causes, but said something nasty about Obama). Those clowns probably equate The American’s European cinema style and mood (and the craftsmanlike brilliance of Clooney’s European colleagues) with European socialism and the European health care system, and maybe everything European, including whatever bizarre alleged new international conspiracy has lately transfixed God’s Own Man Glenn Beck, rapt and bug-eyed at his blackboard.

Yet, lugubrious though it may seem to some, The American is not anti-American, no matter what Father Benedetti existentially mumbles in the graveyard. The presence of Clooney alone tips the balance in our favor. There is a specific pro-European bias that has always been part of American culture, and they (especially the French) have often returned the compliment — as indeed, Jean-Pierre Melville did in Le Samourai, The American‘s cinematic godfather. The compliment is mutually exchanged here.

Want to see a beautifully-shot thriller, with beautiful people in beautiful surroundings? Here it is — despite a script that could be better, and too much fancy bleakness, and dialogue that could be sharper and wittier, and no car-chases in sight. It’s no Syriana. It’s no Michael Clayton. And it’s certainly no Samourai. But it looks like a nice working holiday for our pal George. He deserves one.

Machete (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Robert Rodriguez, 2010

For me, this was a big disappointment. Robert Rodriguez can be a great pulpy filmmaker, as he is in Desperado and Sin City, and here he seems to have a platform ripe for good cheap thrills and schlocky shocks, crazy comedy and acid social commentary: the no-holds-barred ultra-violent Grindhouse tale of a Mexican EveryHitman named Machete, who‘s mistakenly hired by a mysterious politico (Jeff Fahey, of White Hunter, Black Heart) to take part in a phony assassination scheme rigged to boost the candidacy of a right-wing, anti-immigration U.S. Senator (Robert De Niro), who’s secretly in league with a vicious Mexican drug lord (Steven Seagal, off-type) and a psychopathic border vigilante chief (Don Johnson).

Best of all, the hero/antihero part of Machete is played by Rodriguez’s favorite Danny Trejo, who has great tattoos, a great weathered face, a good working knowledge of dangerous criminals, and happens to be one of the most prolific (and reliable) actors in movie history. Trejo has actually done 70 movie roles since the joke trailer for Machete appeared in Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature in 2007. He‘s done (or is slated for) 195 movie roles throughout his career, ever since Andrei Konchalovsky jump-started Trejo’s acting career in 1985, by casting this deadly-looking acting amateur and obvious natural as the main boxing match heavy in Runaway Train. And I haven’t checked IMdB yet this morning.

Trejo also has two terrific leading ladies: Jessica Alba as knockout border cop Sartana and Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, a drop dead activist and immigrant-smuggler who operates a Mexican underground railroad out of a burrito stand. And I haven’t even mentioned Cheech Marin as the local Padre (who gets crucified), and Lindsay Lohan as April, Fahey’s drug-addict daughter, who runs wild in a nun’s habit.

Unfortunately, I had more fun writing out that cast list than I did watching the movie. Not that the show isn’t entertaining. (How could it not be?) But after dreaming up that franchise peg (Machete, to be followed in Bond-like procession, by Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again) and after hiring that cast, and especially after getting Danny Trejo locked in, Rodriguez seems to have thought the script would write itself. It didn’t.

I hate to say it, but this picture — designed to look like a bad, sleazy but fun and exciting ’70s movie actioner, something like Truck Turner or Billy Jack — actually is (often) genuinely bad and sleazy.

Rodriguez is famous for doing everything on his movies (I think, on one of his movies, I even saw Rodriquez credits for boom man, hairdresser, key grip and personal assistant to Danny Trejo.) He‘s delegated authority here, and he even has a co-director, Ethanas Miniquis. But sometimes it’s best to get a little more help from your friends. Rodriguez’ best movie, the modern classic neo-noir Sin City, has a terrific script, as well as a terrific cast and terrific direction, and happily there’s a Sin City 2 on Rodriguez’s current dance card. Now, couldn’t he get Sin scribe Frank Miller, or somebody like him, to help sharpen the next Machete?

Then maybe he wouldn’t have to crucify Cheech Marin again, or have another joke credit like “Introducing Don Johnson,” or give Lindsay Lohan another nun’s habit. Talking about joke credits, how about “Introducing John McCain?”

Going the Distance (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Nanette Bernstein, 2010

Rom-com anyone? This thinking person’s romantic comedy about a long-distance relationship between San Francisco journalism student Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Manhattan music industry guy Garrett (Justin Long), has a snappier more verbal script (by Geoff La Tulippe) than usual.

It’s certainly not drivel like those would-be comedies The Switch and The Back Up Plan. And thank God there‘s not a sperm donor in sight. (There are two screwing-on-the-dining-room table gags and I’m sorry, I don’t get them. The dining room table? Couldn’t these hot-pants lovers wait at least until they staggered to a couch?) But it continues my disaffection from most modern rom-coms: an awful abbreviation for a once great but now sadly damaged genre.

The biggest problem here: Barrymore’s Erin and Long‘s Garrett, partly due to the smart-alecky script, never struck me as being wildly enough in love to sustain any kind of long distance relationship for any length of time or space, even between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Erin seems like she kinda sorta likes the guy, he’s cute, okay, as long as she didn’t have a better offer, or maybe some roller derby tickets, by Tuesday. And Garrett seemed to be running some kind of con game involving frequent smiling and incessantly widened eyes. Sometimes, there s more affection between Garrett’s two goofy buddies, Charlie Day as toilet-conscious Dan and Jason Sudeikis as “cougar”-hunting stud Box. Or between Erin’s tart sister Corinne (Christina Applegate) and her boob hubby. But maybe that’s the point.

The two kids of Flipped, Madeleine Carroll’s Juli and Callan McAuliffe’s Bryce, struck me as a far more romantic (platonic) couple, and I’d suggest La Tulippe and director Nanette Burstein try to catch that movie for tips. Burstein, by the way, does make a good, smooth transition from documentary (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen) to fiction features.

Strong point in the movie‘s favor: These Going the Distance characters, unlike all too many modern movie rom-com couples, do have topical conversations and they do make topical jokes about politics and culture. Good going. And the movie, if nothing else, may start a new craze for dining room tables with retractable foam mats in drawers.

By the way, I was very unsatisfied by the ending here, though I’m too tired to stick in a SPOILER ALERT.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Three Stars)
France; Jean-Francois Richet, 2008

Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One (Three Stars)
France; Jean-Francois Richet, 2008

These two movies, a triumphantly prize-winning return to French filmmaking by Jean-Francois Richet, who had a Hollywood interlude with the outlandish 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, are entertaining all star crime dramas based on fact: on the incredible and bloody ‘60s-‘70s career of the amazingly self-promoting real-life French bank robber and jail break expert Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassell), who wanted to turn his life into “Bonnie and Clyde” — and did.

The script is by Richet and Abdel Raouf Dafri (A Prophet), based on Mesrine‘s memoirs, and it’s a little too episodic and non-gritty, and maybe a bit too tolerant of Mesrine, but nevertheless full of action and personality.

So is the acting, especially by the relentlessly genial Cassell — an outlaw so charismatic and charming he looks as if he could sell lottery tickets to the tellers even as he robs them — but also by Gerard Depardieu as a tough crook and the Dardenne Brothers regular Olivier Gourmet as a wily cop. Michel Duchaussoy and Myriam Boyer are quite touching as Pere and Mere Lesrine, and the rest of the crackerjack ensemble includes Cecile de Franc and Ludovine Sagnier as Jacques’ ladies, Anne Consigny as his avocat, and Gerard Lanvin and Mathieu Almaric (who never smiles, balancing out Cassell) among his cohorts.

This movie‘s Part 2, by the way, also features probably the worst interview scene in any movie anywhere, ever. Miffed by the reporter’s jibes, Mesrine grants pompous reactionary scandalmonger Jacques Dallier (of Minute) a face-to-face talk. Then he takes him to a cave, forces him to strip naked, handcuffs him and then shoots him — and, to top it all off, he fails to turn on the tape recorder.

Crime movies, especially the new ones in France and Italy, have lately become regular high prestige film projects, somewhat like the prestige literary movie adaptations of old, and I suspect the big influences on Mesrine and the others are The Godfather and Goodfellas. Richet’s and Dafri’s two films don’t approach either of their models, and they don’t really have an epic quality, but they hold your interest. And Cassell, who won the Cesar (French Oscar) for playing Mesrine, is obviously having the time of his life. He plays this superstar bank robber with such gusto and zest, we can even forgive him when he tells one victim that he‘s serving him with a “Warrant Beatty.”

Lebanon (Four Stars)
Israel; Samuel Maoz, 2010

Lebanon. Spring, 1982. The war.

We are inside an armored tank with four Israeli soldiers, in Beirut, in the throes of the Lebanon War. The battle is a raging hellfield punctuated with death, only barely comprehensible to the men or to us. Israelis battle Arabs battle Phalangists (Christian Arabs). The streets pop with gunfire. You can’t tell civilians from killers. The tank is hot and stinking and so small, the four can barely move around — tempers flaring, nerves frayed — as they roll though the streets, and peer through a periscope or gun sight seeking traps to avoid, enemies to kill.

This death-battered tank crew consist of a commander, Assi (Itay Taran), a driver, Yigal (Michael Moshonov), a gun-loader, Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and a gunner, Shmuel (Yoav Donat). The gunner is young and scared, and when he gets his first targets in his sights, some gunmen in a car, he’s so struck by their humanity, their all-too-vulnerable flesh, that he can’t pull the trigger — and his hesitation gets some Israeli soldiers killed. To be a good soldier of a kind, he learns fast, you have to be a killer. Automatic. Don’t think. Don’t feel. Press the trigger.

Occasionally an officer named Jamil (Zohar Strauss) shows up and enters their crowded confines. He tells them everything is going okay, to hang in there, says they are headed for a rendezvous at a place called San Tropez — same name almost as the famed French resort. Jamil seems to be some kind of bullshitter. They come to realize they can only trust their eyes, trust and live the moments — and their eyes only show them what’s happening though the rectangular viewer of the periscope, through the electronic gunsight on the tank. They see people outside, ravaged streets, gunfire, empty streets, the flurry and the wait. “Safe” within the tank, they keep rolling forward, stopping, waiting, firing, waiting, firing again.

Where is San Tropez? Who is Jamil? What’s going on outside? They are trapped in hell, in the sweltering “No Exit” belly of the tank. But they’re not dreaming; it’s no nightmare. It’s their reality (and ours) then and now. They have to stay clear. They have to play soldier. They have to push their fears way way down, down to the darkest pit of their guts and brains, and twist them up and lock them in and throw away the key. They have to do their job. Don’t think. Don’t feel. Press the trigger.

Shmuel was about 20 when he served in the Lebanese War. 27 years later, that scared young gunner’s real-life model had grown older and become an Israeli filmmaker named Samuel Maoz, the man who wrote and directed Lebanon and saw it win the Golden Lion (Grand Prize) of the Venice Film Festival. So what we are seeing here is mostly what moviemaker Samuel, or what the good soldier Shmuel, remembers of his experiences as a 20 year old gunner in a tank — frightened, inexperienced, screwing up, squabbling with his tank mates, trying to do the right thing, trying to stay alive, trying to figure out what in hell is going on all around them. Trying to keep himself primed so he won’t make another mistake.

As a gunner, he probably did. As a filmmaker he doesn’t.

Great war films, and Lebanon is certainly one of them, are often made by men who actually saw the fighting or participated in it — like the combat soldiers Sam Fuller, Oliver Stone or Maoz. There have been some extraordinary Israeli war films in recent decades, some from participants like Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir), and what’s remarkable about many of them is their objectivity, the determination of these filmmakers to stay clear-eyed and hue to the truth.

Few of those movies strike you as so relentlessly objective, so fiercely devoted to the naked fact, as Lebanon. Maoz goes outside the tank only three times, at the opening and closing. Everything we see is in those iron confines, though periscope or gun sight. Everything we see may well have happened and been told to Maoz, or, more likely, happened right before his eyes. If War is Hell, this is the window to it.

“Every truthful movie about war is anti-war.” So said WW2 “Big Red One” veteran turned Hollywood filmmaker Fuller. That’s true. So I don’t agree with some admirers of Lebanon, who insist it has no agenda and no political viewpoint. Telling the truth is an agenda. Getting the facts right is a political viewpoint. It’s just that these viewpoints and agendas are not tied irrevocably to any national motive, political cliché or ideological imperative. They’re reasoned, principled, not automatic.

Maoz’ agenda here is very clear: to put us inside that tank, to let us know what it felt like to be 20, to be scared, to be confused, to be riding though a world of terror and slaughter, to feel the embrace of chaos, to hear the crackle of gunfire, to see the bodies drop, to have a human being in your gun sights. Don’t think. Don’t feel…

(In Israeli, with English subtitles.) Music Box, Chicago.

Box Office Hell – September 2

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Our Players|Coming Soon|Box Office Prophets|Box Office Guru|EW|Box Office . com
Going the Distance|15.6|12.6|12|14.5|11
The American|13.6|9.5|12|10.5|11.5
The Last Exorcism|10|9.4|11|8|9.2

Danny Trejo, Lethal Weapon

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Danny Trejo, Lethal Weapon

Appreciating The Appreciative Danny Trejo

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Appreciating The Appreciative Danny Trejo

Will Machete See Its Texas Tax Incentives Slashed?

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Will Machete See Its Texas Tax Incentives Slashed?

Inflaming Machete’s Border Wars

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Inflaming Machete’s Border Wars