Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
I Am Number Four a sci-fi action drama from D.J. Caruso (Disturbia Eagle Eye) about a teenage alien’s earthly travails has the look and feel of a CW series – i.e. lots of attractive young people some of whom possess supernatural abilities and superhuman amounts of angst and alienation. This is not a coincidence: Two of its screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar happen to be the creators and executive producers of Smallville a series chronicling Superman’s youthful pre-Metropolis years that’s now in its tenth and final season on the CW. (The script is adapted from a novel by Pittacus Lore.)
Unlike Smallville’s solitary Kryptonian I Am Number Four’s hero is not alone. Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is one of nine gifted residents (each branded with a number for reasons not sufficiently explained in the film) from the planet Lorien who fled to Earth after their civilization was annihilated by the Mogadorians a race of mumbly trenchcoat-clad goons with tattooed scalps hell-bent on ridding the universe of its water polo players. (Indeed Pettyfer’s hair in the film perpetually bears that fresh-out-of-the-water look common also to surfers and lifeguards.) Together with his anointed guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant) he travels from small town to small town adopting assumed names and trying to keep a low profile so as to avoid detection by the Mogadorians who have followed the Loriens to earth to finish the job.
I Am Number Four skillfully mines much of the same emotional territory of the Twilight saga and its variants albeit from a slightly geekier less melodramatic more male-oriented angle. (Michael Bay produced the film.) Four’s itinerant lifestyle and otherworldly heritage make the adolescent struggle to fit in all the more difficult; he’s anti-social broods a lot and acts out toward Henri telekinetically. (Kudos to Caruso for the unorthodox but effective choice of Olyphant a guy who always looks to me as if he’s about to stab someone as the father-figure). This is likely because Four is in the middle of that awkward alien superhero stage: special powers like hands that glow brightly and emit beams of energy spontaneously reveal themselves at inopportune times causing him to flee from physics class mortified. Pettyfer's really got the tormented bit down; if he can master a few more expressions he's really gonna go places.
Despite these difficult public moments and despite Henri’s repeated warnings to avoid earthly relationships Four manages to strike up an inter-species romance with fellow attractive outcast Sarah (Glee's Dianna Agron) Bella Swan’s blonde equivalent a former cheerleader who has since disavowed her popular-girl past. This in turn invites the fury of Sarah’s former boyfriend and current stalker a bullying jock named Mark (Jake Abel).
Soon however Four’s rites of adolescence must take a backseat to the more pressing matter of defending his species – and his adopted planet – from the Mogadorians who’ve tracked him to his Paradise Ohio location via that advanced alien technology known as YouTube. An apocalyptic battle set at Four’s high school ensues during which he is joined by a fellow Lorien Number Six (Teresa Palmer) a hot-blooded Aussie biker chick whose powers include the ability to communicate exclusively in double entendres. Four is also aided by Sarah a UFO-obsessed sidekick (Callan McAuliffe) and a shape-shifting puppy.
I Am Number Four’s climax largely abandons its appealing Smallville ethos for something more suitable of a film bearing the name of Michael Bay but made with a fraction of the effects budget. The orgy of destruction involving CGI beasts and laser guns and explosions and tons of acrobatic stuntwork comes off a tad cheap if not a little tacky. Hopefully the filmmakers will get a bit more cash to make the sequel which I Am Number Four's ending rather blatantly labors to set up.
The story too is just as out-there as only a good Die Hard installment can be. Seems the enemy this time is a slick computer hacker Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) who holds the U.S. hostage by systematically breaking down its digital infrastructure. First he takes down the transportation grids then creates panic on the financial market and finally he shuts off all utilities—gas electricity et al. The hackers call it a “firesale" (as in everything must go) but it isn’t as far-fetched as one might think. Of course what Gabriel doesn’t figure on is one NYPD cop named John McClane (Willis) who inadvertently gets involved when he’s called to pick up Matt Farrell (Justin Long) a young hacker being targeted by Gabriel. Ah yes the old wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time adage which follows McClane wherever he goes. Now with Farrell in tow explaining to the fossilized cop exactly what the hell is going on McClane has to become “that guy” once again to save the country—and his daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who Gabriel tries to use to bring McClane down. Big mistake. Come on did we really doubt Bruce Willis could pull off one more Die Hard adventure? Look how long Harrison Ford did the action hero thing—and Willis looks to be in way better shape. The other thing Willis does to bring us in again and again is give his alter-ego humility. His McClane is one of the best Everyman heroes to grace the big screen and Willis makes sure we know that no matter what dire situation McClane finds himself in he's never going to stop doing his job—even if he gets the crap beat out of him along the way. Nobody—save for maybe Harrison Ford—plays hurt better than Willis. Of course he gets hurt plenty in Live Free or Die Hard but the quieter moments between McClane and Farrell—played by the scruffy sweet-natured Long (the guy in the Apple/IBM commercials)—are quite humorous and enlightening as well. McClane knows he’s almost too old-school but is willing to learn a few new tricks—just so long as he can still do it his way. Olyphant (HBO's Deadwood) also does a fine job as the hacker villain whose uber-geekiness has given him the upper hand. He doesn’t just think he’s smarter than everyone else he IS smarter than everyone else—except he isn’t very handy with a gun or a car or a helicopter or a semi-truck. That’s McClane’s department. Wow where to begin. Be it a car flying up a tollbooth and slamming into a hovering helicopter or a semi-truck outrunning a jet armed with close-range missiles or McClane hanging precariously from a boxcar in an elevator shaft while kung-fu fighting a key henchwoman director Len Wiseman (of the Underworlds fame) knows exactly where the Live Free or Die Hard bread is buttered: the action. It’s all we really want from our Die Hard movies. That and maybe Bruce Willis’ sexy bald head. And it doesn’t really matter to us if the stunts were accomplished the old-fashioned way or with special effects. No we just want to laugh at McClane muttering to himself just as he’s about to engage in a car chase “Sure just go pick up the kid and bring him to Washington D.C. No problem piece of cake!” Then we want to sit through one implausible way the grizzled cop escapes death after another grab our seats and thoroughly enjoy ourselves. Now the wincing might start again if they decide to do a fifth one...
Santa delivered the goods at the box office this weekend as Santa Clause 2 arrived to a gift-wrapped $29 million.
The Ring remained in the winners circle with $18.5 million, with no percentage drop at all from last weekend.
I Spy kicked off in third place to a disappointing $14 million.
Jackass: The Movie was still laughing in fourth place with $13.1 million.
Ghost Ship sailed into fifth place, down 43 percent with $6.6 million.
Also helping to boost this weekend's totals was Twentieth Century Fox's IMAX release of Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones with an out of this world $1.5 million. (For details, see OTHER OPENINGS below).
Key films were down about 18 percent from last year -- $114.6 million versus $139.9 million.
There also was record setting news on the home entertainment front as Sony Pictures Entertainment announced its DVD and videocassette release of Spider-Man had sold a projected 11 million combined units this weekend. Sony ESTIMATED Spider-Man will do a record setting $190 million in retail revenue in North America its first three days in the marketplace. (For details, see the related news story here.)
THE TOP TEN
Buena Vista/Disney's G rated comedy sequel Santa Clause 2 opened to a chart topping ESTIMATED $29.0 million at 3,350 theaters ($8,662 per theater).
Santa's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by Michael Lembeck, it stars Tim Allen.
The original Santa Clause opened the weekend of Nov. 11-13, 1994 in second place to $19.3 million at 2,183 theaters ($8,851 per theater). It went on to gross $144.6 million in domestic theaters.
"It was one of those films that the theater manager grapevine had told us weeks and weeks ago that this was going to be a big hit," Buena Vista Distribution president Chuck Viane said Sunday morning about the sequel. "Inside the operations of all the theater chains, they knew it and they were prepared. We had great showtimes, multiple screens, more seats than you could imagine and it was a nice ride."
Asked about starting the holiday season as early as Nov. 1, Viane explained, "I think it's much like the summer season -- November being such a prolific grossing month that you can use any part of it to launch a movie. And for something like ours we had a movie that had great anticipation behind it. (The film) lived up to what the audience was looking for. The CinemaScores were all A (grades)and in our own college tracking we scored a 90. The original scored an 89.
"So people came in with some pretty high expectation and (Michael Lembeck) made a film that people loved. I think this is one of those roles Tim could do forever if he wanted to because the audience has a love affair with Tim in this love. He delivers. He makes you believe he's Santa Claus. But the nice part is, you can expand the (holiday) season much like early May is now the launch of summer. We believe that this (early November date) is just a logical launching pad for films for the holiday."
Asked about the eight year period between the original and the sequel, Viane replied, "The movie is a perennial bring-back every Christmas. People fall in love and watch it on TV or on their DVDs or whatever. All we did was bring what they were looking for (into theaters) and with a very smart and warm story, wonderfully delivered. These are the kind of weekends you look forward to."
Where is Santa 2 heading? "With all of the exit (poll data), I'm thinking this is another one of those $100 million-plus movies," Viane said. "Obviously, we're off to such a terrific start. In my wildest dreams I never thought we'd be number one by over $10 million. And who would have ever 'thunk' that we could have got to the point of doubling the gross of the film we went head and head with? These things all suggest we're going to be around. We have two weeks clear in the marketplace and I think we'll be in very, very good shape before we take on the head-on competition with Harry Potter (and the Chamber of Secrets). I think we will weather that (when it opens Nov. 15).
"We will play very well through the Thanksgiving holiday. As people get closer and closer to the holiday, I think we're going to get some return visits. I'm pretty comfortable that all that will happen. It's always (interesting) when you listen to people walking out of a theater. So many of them said, 'Gee, I can't wait to see this again before the holidays.' It's a true testament to how well the movie's playing."
DreamWorks' PG-13 rated horror thriller The Ring held on to second place in its third week with a solid ESTIMATED $18.5 million (-0%) at 2,808 theaters (+174 theaters; $6,585 per theater). Its cume is approximately $64.9 million.
Directed by Gore Verbinski, it stars Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson and Brian Cox.
"Last weekend was up 23 percent from the first weekend, so it's pretty amazing right now the way it's playing (with no drop in the second weekend)," DreamWorks distribution head Jim Tharp said Sunday morning.
What accounts for the great legs? "It has to be word of mouth," Tharp replied. "The sneaks -- we had 400 of them (the weekend before opening) -- were 60-70 percent capacity. So it didn't sell out for those. Even the opening Friday night, we didn't sell out. But since then the movie's been playing fantastically. It's all word of mouth."
Columbia's opening of its PG-13 rated comedy I Spy finished third with a quiet ESTIMATED $14.0 million at 3,182 theaters ($4,400 per theater).
Directed by Betty Thomas, it stars Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson.
Paramount and MTV Films' R rated comedy Jackass: The Movie tumbled three slots to fourth place in its second week, holding better than expected with an ESTIMATED $13.1 million (-42%) at 2,530 theaters (+21 theaters; $5,178 per theater). Its cume is approximately $42.5 million.
Directed by Jeff Tremaine, it stars Johnny Knoxville.
Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's R rated horror film Ghost Ship dropped anchor in fifth place, down two rungs in its second week with a slow ESTIMATED $6.57 million (-43%) at 2,787 theaters ($2,357 per theater). Its cume is approximately $21.3 million.
Directed by Steve Beck, it stars Julianna Margulies.
IFC Films' release of Gold Circle Films and HBO's PG rated romantic comedy blockbuster My Big Fat Greek Wedding slid one slot to sixth place in its 29th week, still showing great legs with an ESTIMATED $5.62 million (-9%) at 1,977 theaters (+10 theaters; $2,843 per theater). Its cume is approximately $185.2 million, heading for more than $200 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Joel Zwick, it stars Nia Vardalos and John Corbett.
Buena Vista/Touchstone's PG-13 rated romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama dropped three notches to seventh place in its sixth week with a still sweet ESTIMATED $4.6 million (-29%) at 2,441 theaters (-741 theaters; $1,905 per theater). Its cume is approximately $113.5 million, heading for $125 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Andy Tennant, it stars Reese Witherspoon.
Revolution Studios and Columbia's R rated romantic comedy drama Punch-Drunk Love went wide in its fourth week, placing eighth with an okay ESTIMATED $4.2 million at 1,252 theaters (+771 theaters; $3,355 per theater). Its cume is approximately $11.1 million.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, it stars Adam Sandler and Emily Watson.
Universal and Dino De Laurentiis's R rated thriller Red Dragon, presented in association with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, fell three limbs to ninth place in its fifth week with an uneventful ESTIMATED $2.66 million (-43%) at 1,956 theaters (-930 theaters; $1,360 per theater). Its cume is approximately $89.0 million, heading for $100 million.
Directed by Brett Ratner, it stars Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Rounding out the Top Ten was Fox Searchlight Pictures' PG-13 rated urban appeal romantic comedy Brown Sugar, which was ninth last week, with a less tasty ESTIMATED $1.7 million (-39%) at 855 theaters (-291 theaters; $1,988 per theater). Its cume is approximately $24.6 million.
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa, it stars Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Twentieth Century Fox and Lucasfilm's blockbuster Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones in a special IMAX release to a sensational ESTIMATED $1.45 million at 58 theaters ($25,000 per theater). Its cume is approximately $303.6 million.
"We're playing at 32 institutions and in 26 commercial theaters," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning. "They did better than I thought. There were lots of $20,000 Saturdays out there on this. It's fantastic!"
Lions Gate Films' R rated thriller The Weight of Water arrived to a soggy ESTIMATED $50,000 at 27 theaters ($1,865 per theater).
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it stars Elizabeth Hurley, Catherine McCormack, Sean Penn and Sarah Polley.
There were no national sneak previews this weekend.
On the expansion front this weekend saw United Artists' R rated satiric documentary Bowling for Columbine released via MGM widen in its third week with a still impressive ESTIMATED $1.65 million at 162 theaters (+51 theaters; $10,185 per theater). Its cume is approximately $4.6 million.
Written, produced and directed by Michael Moore, it won the Special Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Miramax's R rated drama Frida went wider in its second week with a promising ESTIMATED $1.02 million at 47 theaters (+42 theaters; $21,595 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.3 million.
Directed by Julie Taymor, it stars Salma Hayek.
Miramax's Comedian expanded in its fourth week with a chilly ESTIMATED $0.72 million at 225 theaters (+195 theaters; $3,317 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
Directed by Christian Charles, it stars Jerry Seinfeld.
Miramax's Dimension Films label went wider with its R rated urban appeal action drama Paid in Full with a dull ESTIMATED $0.63 million at 273 theaters (+5 theaters; $2,289 per theater). Its cume is approximately $2.3 million.
Directed by Charles Stone III, it stars Mekhi Phifer, Wood Harris and Cam'ron.
HBO Films and Newmarket Films' PG-13 rated comedy drama Real Women Have Curves added theaters in its third week with a quiet ESTIMATED $0.48 million at 124 theaters (+16 theaters; $3,802 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
Directed by Patricia Cardoso, it stars America Ferrera, Lupe Ontiveros and George Lopez.
Artisan Entertainment's R rated comedy Roger Dodger widened in its second week with a hopeful ESTIMATED $0.16 million at 25 theaters (+21 theaters; $6,311 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.2 million.
United Artists R rated drama All or Nothing expanded via MGM in its second week with an uneventful ESTIMATED $43,000 at 16 theaters (+9 theaters; $2,714 per theater). Its cume is approximately $80,000.
Written and directed by Mike Leigh, it stars Timothy Spall.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $114.62 million for the weekend, down about 18.05 percent from last year when they totaled $139.86 million.
Key films were up about 15.54 percent from the previous weekend this year when they totaled $99.2 million.
Last year, Buena Vista/Disney's opening week of Monsters, Inc. was first with $62.58 million at 3,237 theaters ($19,332 per theater); and Sony's opening week of The One was second with $19.11 million at 2,894 theaters ($6,604 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $81.7 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $47.5 million.