ReelThoughts: April 04, 2008

"Theatrical Releases"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


It's like a broken record, and one that has been broken since the end of January: another weekend, another lackluster crop of movies. Interest in multiplex fare is at a low ebb. I drove past a theater at 7:45 pm this evening - prime movie-going time - and the parking lot was half-empty. The traffic logs of my website, which are highly sensitive to the anticipation of new releases, have been in a slow decline for weeks now. It's a clear sign that, while people haven't stopped going to the movies, they're not pumped about what's out there. And I can't blame them. I saw eight movies this week and none of them had me weeping for joy that I'm a film critic. (One of them almost had me weeping for other reasons.) Few things make me happier than for movie-goers to be enthusiastic about what they're seeing. In all the years that I have been doing this, I can't recall as long a period of dead time as this. My guess is we'll see some recovery in two weeks with the release of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but the lethargy will persist to one degree or another until the big May movies start arriving. And one has to wonder what the summer will look like if they disappoint.

One of the higher profile movies opening this week that I'm not reviewing is Shine the Light. Yes, it's Martin Scorsese, but it's also a concert film. Over the years, I have reviewed two or three concert films but I made a decision a few years ago not to stop reviewing them. The reason: they're all about the music, and I'm not a music critic. In fact, I'm one of the least musically-oriented people you're likely to meet. For me, music is a distraction and/or something to add background color. If I attend one concert every other year, it's a lot. In the car, I'd rather listen to talk radio. Having said that, the equation for Shine the Light is pretty simple. If you enjoy the Rolling Stones, you'll like the movie. This is one film where it really is just a matter of thumbs up/thumbs down. The finer points of movie-making don't make a whole lot of difference.

Whichever film wins the box office competition this week, it's not going to be with healthy numbers. My guess is that Leatherheads will prevail as this week's Box Office Champion, but I could be wrong (as I was last week). It's not a slam-dunk. George Clooney isn't popular with the teenage male crowd, but there's a legitimate question about whether they'll be seeing anything this weekend. Nim's Island will draw from the family film audience (and its strongest appeal will be to the under-10 female crowd), but it's an "unknown" so it won't have the pull of Horton Hears a Who!. The Ruins is a horror movie, but it's got two things going against it as far as the 12-16 year old age group is concerned: it's (thankfully) rated R and it has not been aggressively marketed. (It does, however, have good online word-of-mouth. And it is the first movie not screened for critics that I have ever given three stars to.) Leatherheads, it should be noted, is also my Pick of the Week. It's not a great movie, but I enjoyed it more than anything else I saw that's opening this weekend.

I reviewed a couple of limited releases this week. They're already playing in some markets and will open in others soon. The first, Chaos Theory is a waste of time. It's poorly written, badly directed, and miscast. It's one of those movies where I left the theater irritated. The other limited release film, Under the Same Moon, is in Spanish but it's getting some play in multiplexes. (For example, it's opening locally at an AMC 24-plex.) To me, this is an indication that the Latino population of the United States is reaching a point where it's no longer "death" to show a Spanish-language subtitled movie in a mainstream theater. If this was in French or Chinese, it would still be stuck in art houses only. It's an emotionally affecting story but its pro-illegal immigrant political shadings will make it highly unpopular in some quarters. While I don't necessarily share the politics of the filmmakers, I will argue that it works on a personal, human level even if its global view is one-sided.

So that's where we are this week. Does anything above sound all that exciting? Are those the kinds of titles that will get people out of their living rooms and into multiplex lobbies? Probably not. Looks like a good weekend to clean up the yard and fertilize the lawn. Most of these movies will look just as good when they arrive on video in a few months.


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