September 2019 Forecast

Michael Lynderey

September 6, 2019

Buncha randos

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Two clowns, two months, two eternities in doom. An evil, vicious, poorly-mannered entity with paste white clown makeup will kick-off September and haunt it all the way to the end, then switching batons to the evil, hateful, mal-tempered being with a ghostly chalk jester face that will do the same for October. Bill SkarsgÄrd straps on the paint for It 2 and Joaquin Phoenix will soon be Joker. Then we can answer, who wore it better?

There's also other stuff.

1. It: Chapter Two (September 6th)
Even the most evilest of evil does some good once in a while: It 2 is quite likely to become the first movie of 2019 to pass $200m which does not come from the Disney factory (seriously. And I'm not counting Sony's clearly Disney-aligned Spider-Man 8).

It has journeyed from a well-known book (1986) into a popular and oft-seen mini-series (1990) and then through a long-awaited big screen film (2017) that opened to $123m and finished at $327m, one of the most outrageous box office performances ever for a film in this genre (you'll likely have to hear people tell you it's the biggest horror film of all time for a decade or two more, a claim you couldn't contest unless you cited a few of those films about dinosaurs chasing screaming humans as horror. I kinda do...).

The Stephen King book was set in 1962 and 27 years later, when the battle against evil resumed; the 2017 film moved everything up one cycle. In the summer of 1989, seven young children fought and defeated an evil demonic entity that most frequently took the shape of a clown, while A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 played at the old movie plex down the street. (Maybe it ''was'' a haunted summer - that was the lowest-grossing Freddy Krueger movie up to that point, too!)

The 2017 It, from New Line Cinema, was indeed played in the tradition of the studio's own late 1980s Freddy Krueger films. It's suburban haunted house looked much like Freddy's, in fact, as seen in Elm Street 4, and as with many of the Freddies, the climax had a big metaphysical battle against supernatural evil, with souls being freed from dungeon captivity upwards to the skies and into heaven. 2017's It also picked up some of the sadism of the studio's other big horror title, the Texas Chainsaw remake, which helped that 2003 film both gross $80m and earn a Zero Star rating from Roger Ebert.

And there was another addendum in the 2017 film It that I can only describe as a New Line Cinema horror mainstay, and one that is kind of fun once you start noticing it: ghastly, caricature, monster grotesque adults, who appear physically deformed, feel prone to bursts of hateful anger, and bask in unhygienic habits, their evil drool dripping forth. Nary a redeeming individual above the age of fifteen could be found in the It film: as with many of the Elm Street and Texas grown-ups before them, the older generations abused the young leads, hindered them, mocked them, put them in harm's way, and perhaps served as frightful vision warnings of what they may one day grow into. Some of them are so nasty you may assume they were just a bad dream projected by the villain, and sometimes they were.

But It confused me. In the Nightmare films, Freddy could only get you when you slept, and when he killed you in the dream, you died in real life, too. In It, on the other hand, the evil clown seemed to be able to hunt you down at any place, any time, any way he quite wanted to. So, why, then, didn't he? Could he not have finished off any of the movie's lead characters as was so opportune? It was a horror film with no rules.

In this sequel, understandably planned before the first film's release, the children reunite 27 years later in the particularly evil year of 2016 to battle the same monster, and seek a perhaps more conclusive air to their struggle than was allowed the first time.

The stars of the 2017 film have thus been replaced by their adult avatars, the inevitable fate that befalls us all, here in hasty time (though the originals have much flashback space).

Jessica Chastain was fancast to death, and indeed consented to be the 13 on Going 30 for Sophia Lillis, the only female in the group (elsewhere in the multiverse, it's probably Amy Adams). Chosen Jacobs Vol. 2 is Isaiah Mustafa, the Old Spice commercial guy, a buttoned-down "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like." Jeremy Ray Taylor, who in the meantime also fought the ghouls of Goosebumps 2, has grown into Jay Ryan, a... less rotund... Australian man in the Chris Hemsworth tradition (indeed, I have to ask, was Chris unavailable? Any Chris?). The remarkably verbose Jack Dylan Grazer (seriously, what a skilled motormouth) has advanced into James Ransone, the deputy from Sinister and Sinister 2 who beat back that film's demon quite well, all things considered (they never made a Sinister 3). Finn Wolfhard has transformed into Bill Hader (puberty must have killed the character's comedy genes, although I'm sure Wolfhard won't face the same fate), while James McAvoy is the mutated adult Jaeden Lieberher, who, by the way, is right now probably the best actor born in the 21st century, from St. Vincent on. And Wyatt Oleff's Stanley still kills his adult self the moment he hears of It's return, an annoying moment that should have been changed for this remake. Perhaps instead of being the weakest of the group, he's grown into the strongest, and sets out to immediately confront the creature - but still dying before meeting the others, again, if he so must?

Given that these films are adaptations of a mini-series that ran for three hours (four with commercials!), and that the first film was already about two hours, fifteen minutes long, one might be tempted to assume that It 2's running time is relatively enthusiastic on the brevity, like a pleasant B-film of old.

That is not the case.

It's one of the longest horror movies ever made, ever, at two hours and forty nine minutes (beating recent lengthy horror pics A Cure for Wellness, 146 minutes, and Suspiria, 153 minutes - both of which I'll take a second to recommend).

The first It was given an 86% stamp of yes, and this edition is 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, a Fresh rating that's really to be expected - almost every single horror film (and there've been many) since The Intruder on May 3rd has scored either a "Fresh" or at the very least a 50%-era okay on Rotten Tomatoes. When it comes to wide theatrical releases, it may be the best-reviewed, in that sense, year for horror ever. (Generally, I do not agree with these critical assessments.)

But all of the above is just cruft, my various interests and obsessions. You care about box office, right?

Then it's important to repeat my rule, which is almost always true: very few first-time horror sequels outgross their predecessors in total. In the 2010s, the rule has only been broken four times (including first-time sequels to films that had opened in previous decades).

These lucky four were:
-Insidious: Chapter Two (2013)

-The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

-Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)

-Annabelle: Creation (2017)

The Purge franchise is kind of horror-adjacent. Hotel Transylvania is also an animated comedy. And Annabelle was technically the fourth film in The Conjuring franchise (or fifth or sixth if anthropologists find others). That just leaves Insidious.

It 2 is one of three first-time horror sequels yet to truly tally up a total this decade, along Zombieland: Double Tap, and The Shining 2 (Doctor Sleep). Will they join the above list? History says, probably no. What shall say It: Chapter Two?

Opening weekend: $100 million / Total gross: $221 million

2. Abominable (September 27th)
In a far-off land deep within the Asias, several optimistic children encounter a lost abominable snowman (no dog tag) and trek through the barren, snow-strewn winter wonderland to bring him home. He is Abominable. They are Peter, Steven, and Mary Sue (I think).

This yetiesque movie is a CGI animation set to open on the last weekend of September, and if you think all of the above information could also plausibly describe last year's Smallfoot, that is because it does.

Okay, there are differences. Abominable is from Dreamworks. Smallfoot was granted life by the Warner Bros. The big furry snowmen were the dominant factors in that 2018 film, populating the cast with their ribald antics and numerous very expensive celebrity voices and treating the film's sole lead human as the exotic curiosity (even though he was voiced by James Corden, one of the least exotic people even by the standards of late night television).

This time, the snowman is a gentle mute giant with no credited voice actor (no pointed growls?) and the humans are the talkative ones (gee, I guess it gets that right), and most of the action is on the human turf. "The human gaze" active again. It's also less of a comedy and more of a heart-warmer. The brave little hu-man girl stares deeply into the eyes of the big hirsute animal with the sharp claws, and it stares gently back. (Chloe Bennet voices the lead human.)

What do I say about an animated film? Maybe a bit more than usual. When it comes to the genre, we have apparently descended into an era where CGI sequels rule the day, with the originals in slower demand - this year, Lego 4, Dragon 3, and Toy Story 4 are the CGI animations that have crossed $100m (the Dragon film exceeded expectations on Oscar weekend, not least because no one watches the Oscars anymore). Last year it was the exhaustive list of Incredibles 2, Hotel Transylvania 3, The Grinch 2 (well), Wreck-it-Ralph 2, and Spider-Man 7. Perhaps calling this film Abominable 2 would have helped. Would anyone have known the truth?

So the CGI genre, so vibrant and profitable since its unsolicited domination began in 2001, may just be waning down to its big names. Whether reviews, which as always are likely to be upbeat, will help distinguish Abominable is a possibility we can entertain. And Dreamworks Animation has had some success with original titles in this genre (Home, The Boss Baby). So, until we're certain on the critics score, let's engage in more plagiarism and copy down Smallfoot's exact box office run, below, adding a million for inflation and subtracting a mil for bigfoot film saturation. See if audiences bite.

Opening weekend: $23 million / Total gross: $83 million

3. Ad Astra (September 20th)
James Gray is a man who for twenty five years has directed deep meditational and oftentimes persistently lengthy films about family dynamics, working-class criminals (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night), and, most recently and atypically, obsessive explorers of the Amazonian jungle (The Lost City of Z). Here, he goes outside genre bounds again, and delivers after his 25 years on the beat a film that is perhaps his most truly commercial. He has worked with Gary Oldman, Robert Pattinson, Mark Wahlberg, and most particularly and robustly with Joaquin Phoenix, but in Ad Astra he has trapped in front of the camera his biggest yet movie star.

Brad Pitt stars as an astronaut who journeys deep into space in search of his mysterious father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has gone around committing acts of extra-terrestrial terrorism (no really). The galaxy is in ruins. Pitt is aided by Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, and Jamie Kennedy (we missed you both!), but most of the journey is a lonely, existential trek into space. As with many high-shelf science fiction films, themes of family pervade and then define an outer space excursion, which becomes a kind of metaphor. The vistas are projected on an IMAX screen, and it looks like quite much of the $80m+ budget will be visible up there on the pixels.

Clearly, I have no idea what this film is actually about, partly because plot details have been kept under wraps, partly because of google laziness right here. That's ok. These revelations should remain a surprise, and in the meantime we know it is worth seeing because it has received decidedly up-thumbed reviews (84% on the T. Meter). It will probably be in play the Oscar race, where Pitt is already near-near-guaranteed to win a Supporting Actor for his recent Quentin Tarantino film. And like a lot of space movies released this time of year (Gravity, The Martian), it should have some legs beyond its uptempto open. To infinity and beyond?

Opening weekend: $19 million / Total gross: $75 million




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4. Downton Abbey (September 20th)
Here there be the long-awaited (I'm certain) film version of the beloved PBS Mouseterpiece Theatre series from that kooky old decade, the 2010s. Incidentally, I have not seen a single episode from this five-season excursion, something which is also true for just about every single major TV show of the last 20 years, the "Golden Age of Television," an era which to me remains as myth. As a general and very useful rule of thumb, I only watch shows about teenagers fighting serial killers in a small town, which helpfully narrows down my options to, Riverdale, Scream, and Scream Queens. That's good enough.

Downton Abbey (I've been tempted to say Downtow oh so many times, and have given in oh so many more) is about pompous pedants ensconced in a country manner in that waygone decade of the 1910s (that's even further back than the 2010s), where servants cater to their every whim; and where the special effects budget was not even generous enough to provide for a single dinosaur or two stalking about the countryside, as would have been congruous for the place and time. A prehistoric movie with no dinos? What a ripoff. That's the only reason anyone is seeing it!

The Abbey family is so self-absorbed they don't even have the good sense to be haunted by a slow-paced, leering, mildly despicable poltergeist. No, the Downtons have human problems, dilemmas, and debates, about etiquette and proper marriages and the right daylight time and duration for numerous fox hunting expeditions.

Still, they seem to be pretty popular. Who among us hasn't spotted an excited young moppet tugging away at his mother's sleeve, soliciting purchase the latest Downton Abbey-themed school knapsack, pasted on with Huge Bonneville's grinning mug? After all, as stated, their show did run for five years, from Christmas 2010 to Christmas oh-15. And now they have indeed been reunited for a feature film, which will under no circumstance imaginable clock in at under two hours, and which reunites just about every entry in the cast list (Dan Stevens died, I think, and maybe on the show too) as they prepare for a visit by King Mondo and Queen Machina of the Royal House of Gadgetr the era's then-current royals (George V, who was Queen Elizabeth's granddad, I think, though he denies it).

It would be pretty funny if theatre owners accidentally played Rambo 5 on screens scheduled to show this film. It would be funnier if that audience stayed.

(note: I know this forecast was too mean for what is really harmless entertainment, junk food for the mind, and I'm sorry. Maybe there are really three evil clowns).

Opening weekend: $23 million / Total gross: $65 million

?. The Hunt (never)
The Hunt, once set for September 27, is evidently a satirical film about wealthy a--holes hunting down un-wealthy a--holes for a sliver of entertainment value. Unfortunately, its release was personally canceled by the Wicked Witch of the West, who crinkled her decaying, deteriorating, musty pores into a haughty, throaty, irrelevant growl, and demanded that the studio take the film off the release schedule. The studio said, "Oh? Ok then - consider it done, ma'am! Any other requests?"

Would this be a bad time to recommend The Last Supper, Stacy Title's 1995 film about grad students who decide to start poisoning ring-wing extremists in their quest to kill the next Hitler? It rather seems that both satire and messages about freedom of expression tend to be lost on the same people.

5. Rambo: Last Blood (September 20th)

This drawing of conclusive red blood, the fifth film in the heralded tales of one John James Rambo and his storied and insurmountable legacy of righteous violence, is said to be the last hurrah, and, lord, do I believe it.

Now, Sylvester Stallone's Rambo films really were delightful, almost the main attractions in an era where big muscled he-men blew away and slashed down dozens of minions who had all the ammunition in the world, too, but never stood a glimmer of a chance of dislocating one single hair fiber. Audience satisfaction reached its max: it was heartening to see John Rambo landing back in the United States with forgotten POWs, or John Matrix (Arnold Schwarzenegger) walking on the beach with his newly-rescued daughter, the remnants of the army of a Caribbean island dictator in flames behind him. "You fight for love" was playing in the background. Does life get any better?

But there's more to it. While the Rambo name does conjure images of a mythical avenger armed with heavy bicep, some may be unaware of the character's more realistic origins: created by Canadian author David Morrell, upon both inception and initial execution, the man was not a glamorous action hero or star of B-movie entertainments, but a homeless veteran of the Vietnam War, 'versing America's byways and having the misfortune to end up traveling through a small town run by a particularly unfriendly sheriff (Brian Dennehy, on a mean streak and sporting classic chiseled frown). Nasty words turned to regrettable action, and Rambo was chased around by an increasing number of enthusiastic police officers and agents, with only his beloved Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) in pro-Rambo corner. Yes, quite much of the town blew up, but the film had only one fatality, an officer killed in a somewhat Rambo-unrelated accident.

Reviews were mixed (Maltin *1/2, Ebert *, myself closer to the latter if open to persuasion), but the film, which opened up against Halloween III on October 22, 1982 was a great big hit ($47m was grossed), a nice bonus prize for the man who had already starred in one certified 1982 mega-hit (Rocky III in May, which was the year's fourth biggest film with $124m).

As the 1980s progressed, Stallone embraced himself as an all-American icon and turned John Rambo from a wounded warrior parsing out a living to an admittedly still-hurting action figure, now prone to blowing away dozens if not many more Russians and Vietnamese soldiers while rescuing Americans and Afghans from evil (it's complicated). His origins were not forgotten: Rambo: First Blood Part II begins with the man being recruited for his secret mission from the prison he'd been in since the previous title. He was dropped in to Vietnam to rescue left-behind POWs a decade after the war, and did just that, taking down numerous enemy underlings, who could not have done any worse by firing while blindfolded. Yes, these days all the 1985-tribute shows and movies show Back to the Future ($210m total) posters in the background, but the second and third biggest movies of the year were Rambo II ($150m) and Rocky IV ($127m), and you know who played both (hint: it wasn't Michael J. Fox). "You not expendable, Rambo!" exclaimed his putative love interest moments before being slain by his enemies. Indeed.

Sylvester Stallone returned again in Rambo III, the big May event film of 1988, with the soldier drawn out of retirement yet again to help some struggling Afghan underground fighters (ahem!) against the then-Soviet military adventure in the country. The film only grossed $53m, relatively a pittance at that point in Stallone's life; but John Rambo was evidently so triumphant that, having entered the country in 1979, the Soviets as instructed pulled out of Afghanistan in January 1989. If you've seen Hot Shots! Part Deux, this is the film it parodies.

As the 1980s ended, Stallone moved on to other, somewhat less "militaristic" pursuits (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot wasn't going to make itself, I think). But as pop culture got both more fanboy-friendly on the one hand, and much more receptive to sadistic violence on the other, in the mid 2000s Rambo seemed a natural for a comeback - even if his beloved Col. Trautman was dead. The fourth film was named just Rambo and featured the man, now about 60, out in Burma on a mission to rescue the surviving missionaries of a mostly massacred group thereof, in a feature that was almost grotesquely and non-amusingly ultra-violet and brutal. It was, at $42m, no adjustments or number tinkergerings necessary, the lowest-grossing film in the franchise. But I expect it justified its expenditures, and its success, on that scale, perhaps encouraged Stallone to build on his Rocky comeback with The Expendables (2010). (say, is he ever going to bring back that guy who liked to arm wrestle in Over the Top?)

This time out, Stallone continues his tradition of sending Rambo down to tackle some topical threat that everyone really hates. With enough members of the Vietnamese, Russian, and Burmese peoples having apparently been sufficiently slain, Rambo elects to voyage across the unruly Southern border into Mexico, to rescue some poor souls who have been abducted, terrorized, and thoroughly disenfranchised by a group of Mexican cartellists. Much carnage ensues. I hope I'm as ready and able to blow away screaming drug dealers when I'm 70. I'll be there.

I "accidentally" (accidentally) viewed some tracking numbers that suggest Rambo: Last Blood's opening is likely to hit the 20s, numbers I don't quite believe, but in which case may again give Stallone a #1 opener. You're never to old to do what you do best.

Opening weekend: $14 million / Total gross: $45 million

6. The Goldfinch (September 13th)
The Goldfinch adopts the 2013 book, about a boy in New York City who survives a terrorist attack (not that one - some weird fictional attack) and is launched into a dramatic life full of quirky characters and ultimately useful unfortunate events. There's a cute good-looking bird on the book and film cover that ties it all together in some literary way (oh, it's a painting of a bird! Still cute).

The book is one of three, and latest of, by Donna Tartt, and this is the first film of her work. Mr. Goldfinch himself, Theo Decker, is played as an adult by Ansel Elgort, who is quietly becoming the biggest male movie star born in the first half of the 1990s. Ansel debuted as lead in The Fault in Our Stars (2014), headlined Baby Driver (2017), and next year will be belting out gangland tunes as the head singer in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story. This year, he is here. We have related aging conundrums to address in the other casting: Finn Wolfhard, so memorable in the It films, ages into the much more serious and morose Aneurin Barnard (last seen falling at Dunkirk), and the younger Elgort, who has much screen time, is played by the memorable young actor Oakes Fegley, the Pete who made friends with Pete's Dragon.

Nicole Kidman, who in recent months has played the mom of everyone from Aquaman to Lucas Hedges, continues to practice ubiquity as Theo's foster mother. Sarah Paulson nets a big role as a shrink, almost typecasting. Luke Wilson and Jeffrey Wright are other, memorable adults in Mr. Theo's life, and the female lead is Emma Fitzgerald, who was the star of the Scream television series, which was left off at the end of season 2 with the usual cache of unresolved season-final plot teases (never to be addressed again).

The book is unread by me, loved by others. The cast clearly has been assembled with care, and the direction is by John Crowley, of Boy A and most recently Brooklyn, and therefore someone with checkmarks under the column items "mature, lush looking, drama." The runtime is as deliberate as one musters - two hours and twenty nine minutes. On a positive note, the film is taking much of the festival circuit route - premiere at Toronto this week, where it could potentially still have a screening even after the film's September 13th general release. That timing is interesting in other ways: not many recent films released in September have gone to significant Oscar success. (indeed, many of this year's big Oscar movies seem to be going to Netflix shortly after their theatrical runs, and a few to Amazon). Its fans will have to turn out to lift it up.

Opening weekend: $14 million / Total gross: $44 million

7. Hustlers (September 13th)
This film is about former strippers on a heist to get their fair share of the pie (that means they rob someone), and is said to be based on a true story, with perhaps the very occasional (tasteful?) alternation. It stars among its leads Lili Reinhart, a fact that reminded me of a memorable scene on her show, Riverdale, where her character Betty performed a somewhat impromptu striptease in an after-hours biker nightclub, set to Mad World, while (spoilers) her evil father prowled the streets as the Black Hood, looking for fresh sinner blood to purge. Bam, bam. Well, maybe he had a point.

Alas, this film is not, primarily, about Ms. Reinhart, or her misadventures with biker gangs nor tussles with serial murderers. The leader of this gang is actually Jennifer Lopez, no slouch herself, and an individual who like Mr. Stallone above is marked in the history books as having carried reign on top of the world (in 2001, when she claimed the nation's #1 album and film in one weekend). And like Sly, she angles for a comeback, and indeed every few years she makes another movie and delivers numbers that are at minimum respectable (Second Act, most recently, finished with $39m; and that's from the same studio, STX, that then greenlit her Hustlers).

Lopez surrounds herself with and leads a crew of business-minded strip club veterans to con wealthy men who they don't look too kindly on, at least not right after the 2008 financial crisis. Among the talent joining Lopez and Reinhart are Constance Wu (who starred in, but not truly as, Crazy Rich Asians), Cardi B (who I'm reliably informed has a successful and thriving music career), Keke Turner (the aforementioned Scream Queens), and Julia Stiles, the MVP of serious teen films circa 2001, and whose appearance therefore shares some genre continuity with the star of Riverdale. There's also a role by Lizzo, a singer who broke through with "Juice" and "Tempo" just months ago, making the casting directors for this film astute in both timing and breadth.

The film is premiering a quick drive over at the Toronto International Film Festival, which must mean something for its impending critical reception, maybe. And even with the clown prince of crime (the other one) taking a lot of breathing room, there should be space for counterprogramming.

The poster takes the clearest marketing angle, "Walk all over Wall Street," an economic and erotic message that still resonates.

Opening weekend: $15 million / Total gross: $35 million


     


 
 

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