A full slate of films provides the first truly interesting weekend of the fall. Among this week's releases are a holdover from summer that might be the most visually interesting film of the year along with two sports themed films. The all-season philosophy is starting to take hold in the movie world, as this is a lineup that could easily have been at home in late July.
Weekend Forecast for September 17-19, 2004
By Reagen Sulewski
September 17, 2004
With an unwieldy title and unworldly visuals, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is sure to get noticed. A refugee from summer, it's now a big fish in a little pond, but what makes it so distinct is also what makes it a tough sell. The washed out yet extremely colorful images invite comparisons to films of the '30s and '40s as well as comic books and Japanese anime. It's an eclectic group of influences that has piqued a lot of interest, not just for its visuals but for its innovative production fashion. The actors performed in front of blue screens for every scene, and all the backgrounds were added in afterwards through CGI. Of course, so often in these cases of visual splendor, the story isn't there to back it up and the whole enterprise falls flat on its face (though occasionally, it doesn't matter; e.g. Twister).
In quasi-experimental films like this one, it's imperative for there to be a cast that the audience recognizes. It's one of the reasons that the similar-looking The Rocketeer failed to connect with movie-goers. There's no Tom Cruise level of star here, but together, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and an about to be ridiculously over-exposed Jude Law are almost as good. Submerged in this retro-styled sci-fi film involving robots and zeppelins and rayguns (oh my!) along with some missing scientists and a madman with an evil plot, these three have the right chops to sell this. It's obviously kitschy and campy, but if it's going to break through with audiences, it's got to do more than just be that and entertain on the basic level.
These are probably bigger concerns for the extended life of the film as opposed to the opening weekend, as the promotion in the lead up to the film has been fantastic. The striking imagery and action should be more than enough to get this film the start it needs. With a huge launch of 3,170 theaters, we should be looking at an opening weekend of around $35 million. For there on, it's all up to the word-of-mouth, which, as long as it's not a total mess, should be decent.
As outlandish as the premise of Sky Captain is, it can't hold a candle to the idea of "Bernie Mac: Hall of Fame Caliber Athlete" that Mr. 3000 wants us to swallow. Playing a hated but talented self-promoting baseball player (read: Ricky Henderson) who sees his Hall of Fame aspirations go up in smoke after three of his hits are revoked retroactively, this is Mac's first chance to test out his shtick as the leading man in a movie. As such, it's going to be watched very closely. As sort of a 'one-man Major League', it's a pretty good choice for him to try and bring the style of comedy that's worked well for him on his TV show to the big screen.
It's too bad that they gave him such a clichéd and trite "feel good" film to work it in. The man needs edgier material, and putting him as the lead of a PG-13 comedy is like tying Smarty Jones's front legs together before the Kentucky Derby. But then again, what would you expect from the makers of Eddie? Yes, that's right, the Whoopi Goldberg basketball film. I'm betting that if jokes were the hits Mac's character needed to hit 3000, he'd still be short of his goal by the end of the film. The Roseanne crack at the end is supposed to be their center piece joke? Seriously lame. Besides, scoring points off Tom Arnold is like dunking on a five-year-old. Where's the challenge? It's symptomatic of the problem with the whole film.
Recently, baseball films haven't done that well; both Summer Catch and Hardball opened to under $10 million in 2001 and there haven't been any significant ones since then. However, this is much more of a Bernie Mac film than a baseball film, and less reliant on the sporting angle to sell tickets. Mac's popularity might be comparable to Chris Rock at this point, which would put Mr. 3000 in the low-teens for expectations. That sounds about right, with $15 million being my prediction.
The second sports film of the week is Wimbledon, from producers of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. The sole romantic comedy out there right now, it has a real chance to run the table for the next few weeks. It's essentially the same formula that's been working for them for about a decade; the affable, self-effacing Brit, the lively energetic American and their wacky misadventures towards love. The tennis setting is relatively fresh and while it's not the most popular of sports, it has been in the midst of a resurgence from the nadir of the late '90s. However, as with Mr. 3000, the attraction is not the sport so much as the framework that's applied on it. Bettany's character, once ranked 11th in the world but approaching the end of his career, meets up with ingénue Dunst, who is favored on the women's side of the Wimbledon tournament. As they meet and sparks fly, Bettany starts playing the best tennis of his life. I don't think I have to connect the dots for savvy movie viewers as far as the resolution goes.
The only thing that's stopping this movie from starting out closer to number one is the smallish release it’s getting at first, which is in turn a function of the relative lack of star power from the male lead, Paul Bettany (aka Mr. Jennifer Connelly). The female lead is one of the better-known actresses in the world right now. Kirsten Dunst has some recognition courtesy of her role in the Spider-Man films, but it's reaching to say that makes her a Julia Roberts just yet.
While it's undoubtedly very formulaic, combining the underdog sports story with the romantic comedy, there appears to be a real chemistry between Bettany and Dunst that may make this movie, if not special, at least above average. Bettany is overdue for a breakout after roles in A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander (or due to get out of Russell Crowe's shadow, at least). I think Wimbledon could be that film for him, though it'll probably take a couple of weeks for everyone to realize it. I expect Wimbledon to start with $11 million or so, which is enough to get it into the zeitgeist.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse made a surprising $23 million last weekend in its debut, but that would seem to be a function of front-loading, as it's already suffering midweek. Even so, this figure near guarantees that it will perform better overall than its predecessor, which tapped out at just shy of $40 million. Only the worst bombs in history belly flop to the point that they only earn twice their opening weekend figures, and 2.3 times is a more realistic floor, or a little over $50 million total.
Cellular was considered a little bit remarkable last weekend for not sucking entirely, but lowered expectations only get you so far. With attractive options out there right now, it's unlikely to grab any extra attention. It may squeeze out one more quality weekend, but that's about as far as the signal for this one will reach.
A significant number of films are popping out in limited release this weekend, with a couple taking stabs at Academy Award nominations. Head in the Clouds is set during the Spanish Civil War and stars last year's Best Actress Charlize Theron, Penelope Cruz and Stuart Townsend in a love triangle. Buzz on this one has been limited, but in a year that has had literally zero Oscar buzz to date so far, it's worth giving some attention.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, the follow-up to a legendary Japanese anime, is sure to be in consideration for Best Animated Feature at the end of the year, and has a good chance of catching the "third" nomination that goes to a less commercial film, like Spirited Away and Triplets of Bellville before it.
The best film to check out in limited release, if you can find it, is the sneak preview of Shaun of the Dead. Starring Simon Pegg of the BBC series Spaced, it's the first self-described "romzomcom", a zombie film crossed with a Nick Hornby novel. Anyone with a keen eye on pop culture and who has worn out their copy of Army of Darkness is advised not to miss this one.