The alleged early days of the clown prince of crime take this month going away, while other items in the general Hallowe'en territory dominate: the Addams family, shrunk down and trapped in animation; another dig at Maleficent, also a villain origin story; more zombies at zombieland meeting their makers; Will Smith playing with himself; AC vs. DC; and a pair of films about computer apps that take stabs at homicidal behaviour. Many years from now, those are the two whose dire and plausible warnings we're going to regret having tuned out.
October 2019 Forecast
By Michael Lynderey
October 5, 2019
1. Joker (October 4th)
Batman mirror-image the Joker (b. 1940), of ear to ear grin and comedic-demonic disposition, approaches the 80th year of his hold on the American myth. He has spent much of that time up there on the silver screen, where he has been embodied by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto, and Zach Galifianakis, in that order. Nicholson's rendition's still my favorite, though Romero and his cackle of mad glee are quite memorable. Robin Williams was up for Christopher Nolan's film around 2006, and that is a Joker I would like to have seen. If the role must be recast again, then Steve Carell is another lively possibility.
In 2019, the man finds himself played by Joauqin Phoenix, and this broadly well-reviewed origin story of his birth pointedly avoids any single scene of an individual unwittingly dropped into a skin-whitening chemical vat. The Phoenix version of the Joker is a disaffected loner who's seen Taxi Driver one too many times, and who lasts but mere moments in gainful employment. He's an aspiring comedian who hungers for social skills or any discernible sense of humour (I know, right?), and who is administered regular beatings by both the local mobs of teenage hooligans, and stockbrokers in double-breasted suits (the need to physically demean this man is something everyone can agree on). After he is pushed beyond his agreed-upon point of acceptable abuse, he straps on the white paint and embarks on a spree of disturbing behavior.
Joker arrives in a hail of controversy and moral debate, with commentators (some who've neglected to yet see the film) attaching to the film various late 2010s-era pop-up cultural terms for 1, alienated young men and 2, racist young men. The Joker is alienated, though he seems to be more of a sexist than a racist (with just a touch of ableist), but this is a supervillain origin story, and haven't we had those before?
There was Christmas Evil (1980), which in fact is a remarkably similar film. Also, Maleficent. Split? Fahrenheit 9/11? Fahrenheit 11/9? ("impeached, bothered, and bewildered"). And of course there's another big supervillain origin story coming out next month, too, as Tom Hanks stars in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. That one scares me much more so than any and all of Phoenix's facial contortions ever could.
One important reason people ''should'' complain, if they must, is that the world was perhaps not exactly crying out to see yet another movie with the Joker in it, after Batman (1966), Batman (1989), Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), The Dark Knight (2008), Batman: The Killing Joke (2016), Suicide Squad (2016), and The Lego Batman Movie (2017). And I dunno about Birds of Prey (2020?), but I feel we'll glance upon the ashen-faced one once more right there.
But I know this is the post-Phantom Menace, post-Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003, post-Batman Begins world we live in, and that the new rule of thumb of our daily life is simple. If there's a wildly popular character that people just love, there's no particular reason we shouldn't have a movie out about them ''right now.''
It doesn't matter if they've starred in seven films over 15-20 years. Or if their latest movie came out just a few years ago and was a total flop, well, we'll just start over and make a new one. The epic failure of the previous film would have previously discouraged the film makers from continuing for some time. Now it is a sound of encouragement, imploring to try again until someone gets it right.
So if people love Batman, or the Joker, or the poor, doomed-to-infamy Fantastic Four, what reason would there be for not making another movie with them in it? (This is why people are now furiously debating over who should be cast as Magneto and Wolverine... weren't they just in a whole bunch of movies, repeatedly, persistently, over a period of roughly twenty years? I love comic books, but the movie theatre is not a comic book store.)
I know. I know. James Bond. I know. He did it first. But:
1. Making a new James Bond movie every 3 years for 50 years wasn't my idea.
2. Just because James Bond exists in perpetuity for whatever hitherto-undefined reason, doesn't mean every other character must join him there, in eternal purgatory.
But. They are all James Bond now. Bruce Wayne's parents will die forevermore over and over, like an even more evil groundhog day rising up from the sewers to claim its daily bread.
The first weekend of October has alternated as a launching pad for the fall's big Oscar movies (The Social Network, Gravity, The Martian) and high-end thrillers about women involved in some shady conspiracies between pretentious suburban residents (Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train). But perhaps after Blade Runner 2049 slowed down the pace in 2017, a new trend has emerged: last year had Tom Hardy's Venom outheave Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born (though the latter film finished with just a bit more, totally), and now Joker arrives as another comic book dark side spectacular with an anticipated performance by a quirky star character actor, just in time for the darker vibes of Hallowe'en.
The film's credentials are both curiously astute, with direction by the darkly comedic/mildly satanic Todd Phillips (Old School, War Dogs), and artistic: Frances Conroy plays Joker's mother, Zazie Beetz is the putative Mrs. J, Robert De Niro is an increasingly malevolent chat show host who mocks the Joker for the very last time, and Marc Maron was presumably cast as a riff on his gruff if sensible lady's wrestling manager from GLOW. The presence of De Niro is itself perhaps a nod to Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983), also about an aspiring comedian who turns to villainy on his favourite host. Another origin story.
The 2010s may be remembered for making period pieces in the horror and science fiction genres fashionable again. Why, this film is set in 1981 for no reason discernible to man, but I commend the fact that its makers clearly googled as to what came out in wide release on July 17-24, 1981: Blow Out, Zorro the Gay Blade, and Wolfen are to be seen playing in the theatre right before Bruce Wayne's parents face their scheduled cyclical execution.
And while it is tempting to penalize Joker for being yet another comic book supersomething movie, perhaps we can cut it a little slack, just a tiny little bit, since, 1. It's remarkably the only superhero movie coming out in the fall of 2019, and 2. it's from DC, and no one over at Marvel could possibly deny that they would have never, ever, under any circumstances or duress, made this movie or anything like it in any way, shape, or form.
This is some dark s--t, man. While I always imagined the Joker as a murderous, humorous older gentleman in the Nicholson tradition, he's evolved with the times, having been recast as a young terrorist in the Ledger and Leto versions, and now an anti-social weirdo with the Phoenix iteration. Indeed, as the film proceeds, Joker becomes an icon to struggling working-class people increasingly baffled at mi/bi-llionaire Thomas Wayne's run for mayor. This won't end well.
But instead of going down the road of the stereotypical loner broken by life, perhaps the film could have offered a subversive twist on this narrative: a Joker who is a wealthy, successful, good-looking guy from a rich family, but one who nevertheless feels he's been short-changed by life, on this little thing or that, there, and here, all the time. With entitlement, nothing is ever enough. And so he nevertheless becomes a mad villain and inspires the working poor as he does in the film. There's much basis for that in history.
That's the joke.
Opening weekend: $104 million / Total gross: $303 million
2. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (October 18th)
Speaking of supervillain origin stories... Angelina Jolie won her Oscar in 1999 and then bestrode the world of blockbusters with whip hand, mastering her way through Lara Craft: Tomb Raider (2001), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), Salt (2010), and even the distinctly entertaining Wanted (2008)
She took some time to direct (three films, so far) and returned after a four-year live action absence in Maleficent (2014), the rare Disney fairly tale adaptation that broke the mold of scene-by-scene remakes and offered a non-traditional take: instead of replaying the greatest hits of Sleeping Beauty's life, the focus on the plot would be on the fairy witch who cursed her, here a lovelorn naif whose heart was broken by Sleeping's (evil) father.
But Maleficent's heart grew ten sizes that day: as she spied on the little girl (Elle Fanning) whom she placed under a curse on a helpful timer-delay, she developed feelings that made her sleeping hex on the young girl an idea she increasingly wasn't fond of. The good guys won at the end, though not in the manner they always do. And a film that was perhaps not burnished with particularly high expectations was a more than reasonable hit - coming out on the often throwaway weekend of May 30, Maleficent commandeered a $69m open, $241m total, making it the biggest movie of the curiously low-ceiling May 2014, and the summer's third highest grosser. Reviews were mixed, but I think audiences picked up that the film had heart.
Now, we are back in action. Jolie returns in only her fifth live action role of the decade (Salt, The Tourist, and By the Sea are her 2010s non-Maleficents). Fanning's back, too, though the Prince Charming glimpsed in the first film seems to have undergone a radical physical transformation, from a rising young star of 2014, Brenton Thwaites, to an up-and-coming actor of 2019 (that's now), the increasingly prolific Harris Dickinson (who's also the lead in Kingsman 3). The prince has also acquired a mother who, fortunately for the continued existence of the plot, is herself some evil witchling from the black lagoon (Michelle Pfeiffer is in that role). Maleficent does not approve. Literally, sparks fly.
Various sidekicks and assistants, both human (Lesley Manville) and elflike (Sam Riley), return to speed along the proceedngs and provide humorous double-takes for the more somber leaders. Disney moved Maleficent: Mistress of Evil up from somewhen in the next decade, and so now instead of being a 2020s movie (so futuristic) Maleficent arrives on the pre-pre-Halloween weekend, a time with some history of darker children's hits (Goosebumps in 2015 and its $80m total immediately come to mind).
Jolie still commands her respect, and Disney films tend to acquire positive reviews almost despite themselves. Still, for a sequel to a big summer movie, this is a more muted release date, bereft of the natural launching pad for a blockbuster weekend (November 1st or 8th feel more right). With the dates as they are, Maleficent and The Addams Family will presumably compete to become the biggest children's film since The Lion King in late July (sorry, Dora and the Lost City of Gold). And in this fight, I'm not going to bet against Jolie.
Opening weekend: $38 million / Total gross: $113 million
3. The Addams Family (October 11th)
Previously in glorious, ghoulish live action, The Addams Family have been enmeshed down into CGI animation, trapped behind the screen by thousands of tiny little hands (they'd like that description). The brood was created in 1938 and popularized in cartoons by Charles Addams (no relation), and in their third big-screen film eighty one years later continue their understandable pre-occupation with death and the macabre, emburdened with a deeply piercing sense of black humour (in other words, theirs is a lifestyle we should all aspire to).
As with much of our pop culture, since their inception all those years ago the Family has not ever quite gone out of sight, having inspired not just the two previous theatrical films but also video games, a musical stage show, TV and video sequels, and at least four television series (evenly divided, two series in live action and two series animated, about one for every decade between the 1960s and '90s). An Addams Family pinball machine exists as well (you were about to ask; it's still out there making a killing).
The 1960s live action series was so wildly popular that its presence helped set-up its future glories on the movie screen. The first film The Addams Family was one of the big winners of winter 1991, grossing $113m as a PG-13 alternative for families tired of alternatively weeping and singing-along to Beauty & The Beast. The sequel, set by Thanksgiving and released on it in 1993, divided the spoils about in half ($48m). These films along with the likes of Batman Returns (1992) and Casper (1995) and the show Eerie, Indiana established the early 1990s as a haven of a certain dark, hyperstylish, and wittily macabre aesthetic for then-children such as myself. It was an inspirational time to grow up in.
As household heads Morticia and Gomez Addams, the films starred Angelica Juston in what is perhaps still her signature role, and Raúl Juliá, a witty and charismatic star of the 1980s and early 1990s who died in 1994, less than twelve months after the release of Addams Family Values. Christopher Lloyd delivered another remarkable character performance as Uncle Fester, festooned under creaky, nasty bulbous whitemask makeup (as he was also, in fact, for much of of the screen time of his most famous character, Doc Brown. What does the man really look like?).
In 2019 in Addamsworld, Oscar Isaac branches into comedy in the Juliá role, and Huston is replaced by Charlize Theron (!), who doesn't look like anyone, ever, named "Morticia." In the 1990s, Christina Ricci had perhaps "her" signature role as their daughter Wednesday (damn, this was an iconic film). Now, she is Chloë Grace Moretz. Son Pugsley is voiced by Finn Wolfhard, in his third and what I can only assume second biggest film of the fall (doomed to fall in between It 2 and, oh boy, the sadly unlucky The Goldfinch). Nick Kroll is in the Lloyd role. And Bette Midler follows in the footsteps of Judith Malina and Carol Kane as the family's grandmother, an ancient crone they dug up somewhere cold and brought back home.
The family must remain frozen in time forever, as do all iconic pop culture broods, with the parents trading loving, detached verbal daggers and the children never aging from their pre-occupations - Wednesday with death and poor Pugsley the subject of her experiments, which are never all the way past lethal. The Addams have not had too much impact on pop culture since roughly 1998, when their television show ended (they died). Do they still have a hold on the imagination of children, and of their relatives? Do the names Gomez and Morticia Adams command that same sense of ghoulish recognition and admiration?
The film has the visual look of Coraline among other Laika films, or of some of the animation Tim Burton has helped spearhead (The Corpse Bride is the family's special spiritual cousin). The live action Addamses were sprawled over with make-up, special effects, and set design, with a bleak, black and white world of comedic horror pulp. In animation, the clan have now been made to look even more curvy and angular, with eyes black and sockets protruding further into your soul. The air is funereal. If there's sufficient critical accreditation, The Addams Family may wallow in atmosphere for three good weekends and plus before their favourite holiday. Perhaps they find death so fascinating because, after eighty one years up there in their mansion, waking up every evening looking just the same, they know they'll never die.
Opening weekend: $28 million / Total gross: $90 million
4. Zombieland: Double Tap (October 18th)
After a 2009-era zombie invasion nightmare, four brave valiant survivors - Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin - banded together and laughed and cried as they shot zombies in the head and elsewhere and exchanged astute comic dialogue. Much good time was head by all. Bill Murray died, accidentally. And even if was not quite The Return of the Living Dead (1985), it was good fortune that the world's last remaining humans had such awesome chemistry with each other.
Zombieland opened with $24 million and grossed $75m, and was the breakout hit of Hallowe'en 2009 (well, other than Paranormal Activity, but we don't say that name anymore). As such, it would appear, while not certain, that, writing ten years ago, I underestimated the film's box office potential: "it's going to be overshadowed by the month's trashier horror movies." $17 million was my prediction (after a $6m opening weekend)... "it would appear that it's a subgenre that at this point has been done just about to death (yes, even as comedy)." [sadly, neither the quality nor predicting accuracy of my writing have improved since].
For October 2009 box office predictions, I ranked Zombieland as #13 (out of 13). It came in third, just after Couples Retreat and Where the Wild Things Are. Does that mean I was wrong?
Since that time, the stars of Zombieland have experienced quite some bouts of career and life triumphs. Harrelson has spent year after year cementing himself as one of the great American character actors (Wilson, Planet of the Apes, and the Three Billboards, all in the same year). Emma Stone starred in, but not as, The Help, helped carry two underrated Spider-Man films, and won a La La Land, Oscar that we can be absolutely sure of... Eisenberg led The Social Network to Oscar glory attention and hammed it up as a semi-Jokerish Lex Luthor; and Breslin has stayed the course. Those are streaks.
Now the zombielanders arrive in 2019 not as upstarts but as victors. Here is a sequel set ten years later which addresses that fact, and in which nothing that's happened in our last decade has happened there (hey... swell!).
The gang must now deal with some deadly new and improved strain of zombie (build a better mouse, etc.) and also with the nagging antics of a much expanded supporting cast that includes Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, and Luke Wilson, who we can surmise must have been the only Wilson sibling to survive zombie domination.
So, what do we say about the box office? First-time horror sequels almost never outgross the original's total (I know, I always say that), and the original was perhaps a sort of cultish film that caught and hanged on to the right place and time, unforeseen by at least one foolish box office predictor. If the reviews are good, Zombieland: Double Tap has got two weeks until Hallowe'en and little direct horror competition to get in its way. Let's see how wrong I can be the second time.
Opening weekend: $29 million / Total gross: $73 million
5. Gemini Man (October 11th)
Will Smith does the dance-myself-around in the tradition of Jet Li in The One (2001), as a wise and weathered old (I mean like pushing 50!) assassin who discovers that he was cloned just long enough ago that his double is now of sufficient age to be played by Smith himself with a youthful CGI mask (this computer age down trend is here to stay, yes?). The Jet Li clone traveled across dimensions killing off himself over and over, in the ultimate act of hating thyself, while Smith's clone seems to have more modest goals of taking out the one. They disagree on this point, and so, they fight.
Smith is joined in his evil twin-killing endeavour by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as the government's second best assassin), Clive Owen (as the cloner), and Benedict Wong, as perhaps a kinder, gentler mad scientist. Linda Emond and Douglas Hodge are lower-ranked on the government's need-to-know tier. Perhaps most to the point, they are directed here by, of all the people in the world, Ang Lee, previously known for slow-paced cerebral awards-nabbing hailed-as-masterpiece dramas (meh) such as The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, and Lust, Caution, as well as the three $100m earners on his rap sheet that perhaps best qualify him for directing Will Smith in action: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk, and Life of Pi. And while Smith seemed to be throwing over one toe into Netflix with his shiny trolls and robbers film Bright, he has kept hold of all other feet as a live-wire anchor for Suicide Squad and Aladdin, blockbuster entertainments that would have probably grossed a good $100m less without him, at minimum.
Gemini Man (gemini is the twin sign in ast-a-rology) has received reviews that are... not charitable, and is slated to open sandwiched between films that perhaps better reflect the sort of pop culturally obsessed cult film zeitgeist we seem to be trying to live through. But Gemini is ''just'' an action movie, based on nothing in particular but an original story, with a targeted audience of everyone, exactly the kind of title Smith made his name on, back before he didn't have to meet the fruits of his evil twin.
Opening weekend: $15 million / Total gross: $43 million
6. Jexi (October 11th)
Jexi is a comedy version of Joaquin Phoenix's Her (which was not funny... at all), about a Joker-like unsuccessful loner who is saved from becoming the star of a supervillain origin story by Jexi, a virtual reality assistant who lifts his spirits and ups his game. Then, she becomes controlling and jealous, as machinery is wont to degenerate into.
Since it's a light film, murderous terror shall be kept at a minimum and humorous badgering will rule the day instead. It's the counterpoint to Countdown (below). Another comparison point is Electric Dreams (1984), where a female computer (oh, yes, how do you think iMacs reproduced?) served much of the same purpose the AI app does here.
Scarlett Johansson voiced Her, and Rose Byrne does the same for Jexi (these disembodied voices look exactly like what they sound like). The lead is Adam DeVine, who starred as one of the title two, Zac Efron's brother, in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016), which was quite funny, and has since then clamored on board the Netlix train (When We First Met and Game Over, Man! are two of his recent streamers). Elsewhere in the cast, there lies Alexandra Shipp, who's getting typed in roles like these, as the putative love interest, Michael Peña is the boss, and Charlyne Yi and Wanda Sykes provide their unique brands of support work. Once you've cast right, the roles basically write themselves.
It's nice to see a generally unassuming comedy title in the September-October slate that consists of little else than name-recognition-based blockbusters and aspirants. If it gets some nice, decent, reviews, there's probably a market for it.
Opening weekend: $10 million / Total gross: $24 million
7. Countdown (October 25th)
In the tradition of Ghost in the Machine and The Ring before it, here is another story about a poor nice young blonde woman who discovers that some kind of technological device has acquired autonomous life and thereafter targeted her for death, even if like in The Ring it's kind enough to issue a warning and time-delay.
"There's an app for that!" is one of the slogans newly created by this sorry sad decade, and while we have not yet to apologize to our descendants for its existence, Countdown may be the first round of penance, a horror film about an application that's more evil than the rest. The app tells this nice young woman (she's blonde) about the date of her demise, which times in at roughly 55 years earlier than she had expected, and then she must enter into a life-and-death bargaining match with this tiny little computer thing until it recants and lets her live a little longer.
It's a horror film, yes.
In that genre, the film shares crucial October space with viewers of Zombieland, The Addams Family, and whatever horror fans have just been too busy to check out It 2 and see if the clown finally bites it (spoiler: doubtful). Horror movies don't open that great right, right, before Hallowe'en, but give Countdown a few points for not letting the release slate go to waste anyway.
Opening weekend: $12 million / Total gross: $24 million
8. The Current War (October 25th)
The pun-based title covers the plot, a historical film about drama over which electricity distribution system wore it best - AC or DC? - circa 1892 and the upcoming Chicago World's Fair. The winner has mostly been lighting our huts and homes ever since.
Helming is done by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), with Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, two inventors fighting over the right plug for the job (who won? hint - it's not the name you know best). The two rival magicians in The Prestige sought the assistance of Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), and indeed the antagonistic pair in this film get entangled with the man as well (Tesla's de-aged into Nicholas Hoult). Tom Holland's a bit on the young side to play 32 year-old business magnate Samuel Insull, but he's here if you've ever wanted proof of his existence outside of Spider-Man in the evil Marvel Cinematic Universe, the EMCU.
Originally slated for the 2017 Oscar season, the film was entangled in a complex distribution scheme through not much fault of its own (...something to do with the increasingly inopportune nature of The Weinstein Company's existence). Now it arrives on the eve of Hallowe'en, on a quiet weekend that studios are increasingly choosing to ignore, leaving it up to the ghosts and ghouls to entertain themselves.
Now. The Current War did premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, and remarkably we have a sort of it's-not-too-late precedent for its release: The Upside, with Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston cooking up some solid chemistry, first played at the very same festival, just one day earlier, was not released in theatres until 2019 (for many of the same reasons), and then shocked the world (or at least anyone reading the box office charts) with a $108 million total. It was the only unpredictable $100m movie in 2019 until Hustlers last month.
Will The Current War also gross one hundred and eight million dollars? Those aren't the numbers I have lined up for it exactly, but it gets cold and dark as the winter days roll by, and who among us hasn't dreamed of a lovely Hallowe'en miracle?
Opening weekend: $4 million / Total gross: $10 million