Theatrical Releases

February 29, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's a wasteland out there. The tundra of the local multiplex is as barren as the surface of the moon. When I say that, I'm not referring specifically to the quality of new theatrical releases (although that's nothing to get excited about), but the level of anticipation. There's nothing out there - good or bad - for audiences to get excited about. Unless you're a 12-year-old girl, February has been a wasted month. It's as if Hollywood has stopped caring and is just throwing garbage down the chute, hoping that gaudy marketing campaigns will make viewers forget that what they're watching isn't worth the price of a rental, not to mention a full-price ticket. There's better stuff on TV, and that's a damning contention. The year started out with bang and the fat box office receipts from the December holdovers and Cloverfield and Rambo had the studio execs dancing on their desks to the tune of "Happy Days Are Here Again." February, however, has given it all back, and March has the reek of failure hanging over it. It approaches slowly, like a toxic cloud. None of this fills me with joy. My website's traffic ebbs and flows with the level of audience anticipation. I'd like nothing better than for excitement to fill the land, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen for a while. Attending screenings night after night while watching this menu of mediocre fare is enough to give even the most optimistic critic indigestion. It's not fun right now, and that's a sad thing to admit.

So what's out there this weekend? Well, it's not all bad. Unfortunately, the Pick of the Week is only showing in about a dozen theaters across the nation. It's The Band's Visit, a comedy-drama from Israel about communicating and bridging cultural gaps. It's mostly in English, so that eliminates the need to read subtitles (it also made it ineligible for the Foreign Language Film Oscar). As an alternative, the Best Foreign Language Film winner, The Counterfeiters is also expanding its run this week - but not enough to make it generally available. Still, at least some people not living in New York or Los Angeles have a shot at it. Another limited run movie inching out of the starting gate is Romulus, My Father, a standard-order coming-of-age story which is reasonable DVD fare but hardly worth rushing out to an art house to see.

This is Eric Bana week. Not only does Bana star in Romulus, but he's also one of the featured three performers in The Other Boleyn Girl, a costume drama about Henry VIII and his second (of six) wife. Bana's co-stars are Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman. The movie is respectable and entertaining but it's not great drama or a substitute for a reliable history book. Nevertheless, in a week like this, it's not a bad choice for an evening out. It gets a recommendation, although not the most enthusiastic one I can muster. Those looking for a little more fanciful romance can find it in Penelope, which features Christina Ricci wearing a pig's snout. It's a cute movie with a nice message but, like Romulus, it feels like a better DVD choice than a reason to go to a theater.

This week's slam-dunk Box Office Champion will be the Will Ferrell '70s basketball comedy, Semi-Pro. I can't recommend it. It's like too many recent Will Ferrell comedies – sporadically funny at best. When I see a comedy, I want the laughter to bubble up from within, the spontaneous reaction to something fresh and creative on screen. I don't want to laugh because everyone else in the theater is laughing or because a voice in the back of my mind says: "That's a joke. It's supposed to be funny. Laugh." I used to be one of Ferrell's supporters but his last few movies have soured my opinion. He has become lazy. He has fallen into a rut where he applies the same formula to every movie, regardless of the topic. If nothing else, Semi-Pro will answer the question of how strong Ferrell's appeal is. At the height of their respective popularities, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler could dominate the box office for weeks on end. Can Ferrell get the $40M+ necessary to land in that category? It seems unlikely. A comfortable $20M-$30M is more likely, putting him closer to Ben Stiller territory. But, no matter how much money Semi-Pro pulls in, the question remains: Are viewers laughing because it's funny or because there's an obligation to laugh that accompanies the work of a popular comedian?