ReelThoughts: March 14, 2008

"Theatrical Releases"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


When it comes to the box office this weekend, there's only one movie to keep an eye on, and it's not either of the two genre derivatives: the mixed martial arts story, Never Back Down, or the apocalyptic action vehicle, Doomsday. (The latter was not screened for critics; the former was but probably shouldn't have been.) Instead, it's the animated Horton Hears a Who!. A considerably lengthened version of the Dr. Seuss book (the original TV adaptation, which stuck strictly to the text, was about 40 minutes long), the movie boasts top vocal talent, including Jim Carrey, who must have an affinity for the good Doctor. He had the starring role in the live-action motion picture version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Horton is big-time family entertainment and it will do very well this weekend. In fact, this is one of the rare weeks when the same title collects both the Box Office Champion prediction and the Pick of the Week citation. That's not to say that Horton is a tremendous movie, but it's a great choice for young viewers and a reasonably entertaining one for their older counterparts. When the release field is weak, one has to select the best available option and this is it. Parents on a quest for a family movie outing can throw College Road Trip out the window and hang out with the lovable elephant and his tiny Who friends.

Opening in limited release are Paranoid Park, the latest from Gus Van Sant, and Married Life, with Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson, and Rachel McAdams. Those will be reviewed next week when they widen their net from the current small number of theaters they're playing in. I have seen both but I don't want to "scoop" myself here by discussing them before I post the reviews.

Astute readers may wonder why I cited Horton, a *** movie, as the Pick of the Week when there's a ***1/2 movie in play. That leads to a discussion about what star ratings mean and why Funny Games is probably not the best choice for a majority of those heading out to theaters this weekend. I try to make the Pick of the Week a good mainstream movie, so it's not always the best movie because sometimes the best thing out there has a narrowly focused audience. One of the most powerful movies I have ever seen is The War Zone, but it's not something I would recommend to more than a handful of people. If my parents, who are conservative movie-goers, were to watch it based on my recommendation, they might try to have me committed. They would find it vile and unwatchable, and they're in the majority.

Three stars on my scale represents a "recommendation" while three and one-half stars is a "strong recommendation," but there's a qualifier that must be attached: for those whose cinematic tastes are similar to mine. And there's the rub. I can recognize when a movie I applaud is out of the mainstream and this is one of those cases. In fact, I don't "like" Funny Games in a traditional sense. It's not a fun movie. In fact, it's pretty tough to sit through, but I think it's saying something that needs to be said. Is it over-the-top? Yes. Does it intentionally push buttons? Yes. Does it make a viewer feel like (s)he needs a shower afterward? Perhaps, but that's the point. This is a message movie. It's about what we as movie goers consume and why we consume it. Is it okay to say we don't care about the evisceration of human beings "because it's just a movie?" Funny Games isn't exactly subtle, but the genre it's commenting upon isn't known for subtlety, either. My expectation is that this will polarize both critics and viewers, and the early returns support that view.


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