The week in film(s)
Timing your movie’s release is a strange combination of art, science, and simple luck. You obviously don’t want to go head to head with a blockbuster that appeals to the same audience, but counter-programming to a different demographic might work. You don’t want to find yourself opening in the week following some epic that generates stunning audience word of mouth and dominates as much in its second week as its first. And you’re also going to suffer if you open in the week before an equally dominant film sucks the air out of the room/box office as soon as it hits the screen.
This week’s crop of new films are caught between a rock and a soft place. On the one hand, next week’s “The Hunger Games” will probably outperform just about everything else in current release, combined. But on the other hand, they have several very easy acts to follow as last weekend was a collective exercise in film failure.
The big release was Disney’s “John Carter” – released exactly one hundred years after the eponymous hero first appeared in print. And that brings up one of its major problems – despite pre-dating most of the science fiction and fantasy novels and films you’ve ever heard of, it has taken longer to come to the big screen in this form and ends up feeling ironically derivative of just about everything else that probably borrowed heavily from Edgar Rice Burroughs, rather than the other way around.
That’s not the only problem – it also lacks a clear villain. John Carter is the obvious hero of the piece but he’s up against an odd assortment of characters, the worst of whom is (apparently) essentially a minion of an offscreen mastermind whose motives remain unclear. We know he/she/it has significant power and influence, we’re just not sure how or why he/she/it wields it as he/she/it does. And it’s equally unclear if we’ll ever find out as the film made only $30m in domestic release after costing $250m to make. There were 11 books but there might only be 1 movie, unless international sales and the video release can redeem it.
However, that’s not the low point of last week. Eddie Murphy’s “A Thousand Words” was finally released after four years on the shelf and managed the extraordinary accomplishment of receiving zero positive reviews out of 44 collected by online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, “Silent House” managed what might be an even harder outcome by earning an “F” rating on CinemaScore from opening weekend audiences – i.e., from people who actually chose the movie for themselves.
So it seems fair to say that this week’s new movies have a relatively uncluttered window of opportunity to make their mark before next week’s severe beat down.
The splashiest new release is “21 Jump Street,” starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. On the surface, it follows the basic premise of its TV predecessor in having youthful cops placed under cover in High School. But that’s about as far as the similarity goes. As with some other movies that have resurrected long dead TV franchises, like “Starsky & Hutch,” there’s little more than the brand equity and concept that survive. Indeed, “21 Jump Street” feels more like a junior sequel to a movie like “Police Academy” than a retread of the show that happens to bear the same title.
Some of those shows, including both mentioned, may seem cheesy in hindsight, but they were sincere in their own time and place. In contrast, this is a movie that is purely comedic in nature – even when it drags back actors from the original series (including an uncredited cameo from Johnny Depp that’s pleasantly ordinary compared to his recent filmography).
It’s not a terrible movie and there are certainly funny sequences, but it’s “21 Jump Street” in name only. Not that it will matter much given that most of the audience will be too young to have grown up on its namesake anyway.
A more intriguing and hard to classify film, this week, is “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” with Jason Segel (as Jeff), Ed Helms (as his brother Pat), Susan Sarandon (as their mother Sharon), and Judy Greer (as Pat’s wife Linda). Jeff, as the title suggests, still lives with his Mom: He’s 30 and lives in the basement, seemingly doing nothing productive. He’s also one of those people who reads too much into everything, focusing on what might be hidden messages and certain that there aren’t any coincidences in life.
He’s the protagonist of the story and it’s easy to watch it as though it’s a study or perhaps an indictment of that character and that outlook on life. Except that for all of Jeff’s scrutiny of improbable connections and details, Pat is even more of an extreme on the other end of the spectrum, unaware of even the most blatant truths that are staring him in the face. It’s as if the title is “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” because “Pat, Who Doesn’t Live at Home and Who Drives a Porsche that’s Ruining His Marriage” is a tad ungainly on a theater marquee.
Similarly, Sharon is stuck in a rut and misjudging signals and Linda is the long suffering wife who has seen and appreciated the problems around her without previously acting on them. All of which leaves Jeff as the relatively harmless and well-meaning misfit who might not be the family loser after all. And even if we know a Jeff, we probably know a lot more Pats, Sharons, and Lindas – and they are just as in need of help or change or a different outlook on life.
It’s an interesting film – not quite quirky enough to earn that label but ultimately quite thought-provoking in the midst of the laughter it also generates. It also has that slightly confused marketing tactic of opening in both art house and multiplex theaters, as if even the studio’s marketing team aren’t quite sure where it belongs. But I’d still recommend it for folks looking for more substance than “21 Jump Street.”
In complete contrast, “Addiction Incorporated” is neither funny nor attempting to be. Victor DeNoble was a poor student in High School who, after being diagnosed with dyslexia in college began to excel, earned his PhD., and ended up working for cigarette manufacturer Phillip Morris. There he was asked to find substances that were as appealing to the brain as nicotine without the harmful side effects, as the company already knew that their products were harmful. This research was highly secretive as it ran counter to the various claims that the company had made.
Along the way, DeNoble and his team discovered that the addictiveness of nicotine was increased enormously by the presence of another chemical present in cigarettes, acetaldehyde. At that point, the research focus shifted from reducing harm to increasing addiction. DeNoble wanted to publish their findings, which were groundbreaking, but the company blocked dissemination and stopped the research as it wasn’t in their best interest. However, it would become critical information years later when the FDA and Congress began investigating the tobacco industry and the various company bosses claimed to believe that cigarettes were not addictive.
Some of the imagery produced for the early parts of the film, to represent the rats used in animal testing, for example, is quite crude (or simply odd) but the message itself is so clear and blatant that it hardly matters. And the bulk of the movie details the investigation, blow by blow, followed by the subsequent lawsuits and legislation, without the need for any such elaboration.
It’s a powerful story that’s ultimately well told, especially given that much of it is already quite familiar and it would be easy to fall into the trap of seeming to be old news. It avoids this by peppering in multiple perspectives and recollections of the key players involved in every step of the development of the story, so we’re seeing it from the inside out rather than the outside in – which is different, even if you already watched it play out in real time.
In summary, this week brings us a fairly mixed crop of openings, all of which have relatively easy acts to follow given last week’s weak performances. But their collective time in the sun is likely to be short-lived as “The Hunger Games” is likely to overshadow virtually everything a week from now.
Ed's Note: One more film opening this week, Will Ferrell’s “Casa de mi Padre” wasn’t screened for critics in this market, but hasn’t been wowing them elsewhere.