With each outing in his evolving filmmaking career actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has amped up the scope. Gone Baby Gone was a character drama woven into a hard-boiled mystery. The Town saw Affleck dabble in action pulling off bank heists many compared to the expertise of Heat. In Argo the director pulls off his most daring effort melding one part caper comedy and two parts edge-of-your-seat political thriller into an exhilarating theatrical experience.
At the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 anti-Shah militants stormed the U.S. embassy and captured 52 American hostages. Six managed to escape the raid finding refuge in the Canadian ambassador's home. Within hours the militants began a search for the missing Americans sifting through shredded paperwork for even the smallest bit of evidence. Under pressure by the ticking clock the CIA worked quickly to formulate a plan to covertly rescue the six embassy workers. Despite a lengthy list of possibilities only Tony Mendez (Affleck) had a plan just enticing enough to unsuspecting Iranian officials to work: the CIA would fake a Hollywood movie shoot.
There's nothing in Argo or Affleck's portrayal of Mendez that would tell you the technical operations officer has the imagination to conjure his master plan — Affleck perhaps to differentiate himself from the past plays his character with so much restraint he looks dead in the eyes — but when the Hollywood hijinks swing into full motion so does Argo. Mendez hooks up with Planet of the Apes makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to convince all of Hollywood that their sci-fi blockbuster "Argo " is readying for production. With enough promotional material concept art and press coverage Mendez and his team can convince the Iranian government they're a legit operation. A location scout in Tehran will be their method of extracting the bunkered down escapees.
Without an interesting lead to draw us in Affleck lets his eclectic ensemble do the heavy lifting. For the most part it works. Argo is basically two movies — Goodman and Arkin lead the Ocean's 11-esque half and Affleck takes the reigns when its time to get the six — another who's who of character actors including Tate Donovan Clea Duvall Scoot McNairy and Rory Cochrane — through the terrifying security of the Iranian airport. Arkin steals the show as a fast talking Hollywood type complete with year-winning catchphrase ("ArGo f**k yourself!) while McNairy adds a little more humanity to the spy mission when his character butts heads with Mendez. The split lessens the impact of each section but the tension in the escape is so high so taut that there's never a moment to check out.
Reality is on Affleck's side his camera floating through crowds of protestors and the streets of Tehran — a warscape where anything can happen. Each angle he chooses heightens the terror which starts to close in on the covert escape as they drift further and further from their homebase. Argo is a complete package with the '70s production design knowing when to play goofy (the fake movie's wild sci-fi designs) and when to remind us that problems took eight more steps to fix then they do today. Alexandre Desplat's score finds balance in haunting melodies and energetic pulses.
Part of Argo's charm is just how unreal the entire operation really was. To see the men and women involved go through with a plan they know could result in death. It's a suspenseful adventure and while there's not much in the way of character to cling to the visceral experience tends to be enough.
It's of no surprise that Seven Psychopaths Oscar nominee Martin McDonagh's madcap crime comedy won the People's Choice Midnight Madness Award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. The film is a weird crowd-pleaser that's as much a blood-soaked macabre midnight movie as it is a self-aware satire on the very place that spawns all this madness: Hollywood.
The movie follows Marty (Colin Farrell playing the straight man this time around) a functioning alcoholic and Los Angeles screenwriter struggling to complete his screenplay Seven Psychopaths. Un/lucky for Marty his wildly off-balance best friend Billy (a scene and movie-stealing Sam Rockwell) is an out-of-work actor who dognaps for reward money and provides the writer with a wealth of material.
Billy works side-by-side in the dog thievery business with Hans (a particularly poignant and wonderfully weird Christopher Walken) a deeply religious man with a haunted violent past who uses the money to provide for his ailing wife (Linda Bright Clay). After the men kidnap the wrong person's Shih Tzu — owned by a bona fide lunatic and gangster by the name of Charlie (Woody Harrelson continuing his 2012 hot streak) — and Billy puts an ad in LA Weekly searching for the city's best psychopaths Marty finds inspiration for his screenplay. It quite literally arrives at his doorstep putting his life — and the lives of everyone around him — in danger.
McDonagh's unpredictable utterly deranged multi-layered noir homage is a testament to the Oscar-nominated McDonagh's scope sensibilities and talents as a writer and director (it has been earning comparisons to the work of Quentin Tarantino and understandably so). The film is not only reminiscent of Tarantino in style execution and use of an eclectic ensemble but in storytelling techniques too.
The film features a series of darkly hilarious vignettes including a pair of bumbling hitmen (played by Boardwalk Empire costars Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) and a series of revenge fantasies featuring distraught mourning parents like a Viet Cong soldier (Long Nguyen) and a Quaker (Harry Dean Stanton); and serial killer killers (Amanda Warren and a bunny-toting Tom Waits) that all hearken back to Pulp Fiction both Kill Bills and Inglorious Basterds respectively.
But don't call Seven Psychopaths a Tarantino ripoff. McDonagh somehow manages to conjure up all the best things about the fellow auteur's aesthetics (he like Tarantino also relies his muse again with Farrell) and remain in a league all his own. It's rare to find a writer who is able to effortlessly inject his own running internal monologue into their characters without it seeming self-indulgent but McDonagh pulls it off.
McDonagh/Billy grapples with making a movie that sports over-the-top violent gun-toting guys and expendable female characters (something it gives a wink and a nod to throughout but doesn't quite solve that costars Abbie Cornish Olga Kurylenko and Gabourey Sidibe play up in their ultimately disposable roles) or one that is ultimately about love and friendship. He somehow manages to make it both.
While Seven Psychopaths doesn't pull off that delicate balance quite the same way the far superior In Bruges did running a bit too long with a fantasy
sequence that's far more satisfying than the film's actual conclusion but it arguably packs heartier laughs than its predecessor (thanks largely in part to Rockwell's Billy's buffoonery and a deliriously funny rant about Gandhi). McDonagh's latest is the craziest thing to come out of Hollywood this year — in the best way possible.
Based on James Bradley’s bestselling book of the same name Flags of Our Fathers is Saving Private Ryan meets Stand By Me. Buried in the collective national conscious the Associated Press photo of six American soldiers raising a flag of victory over Iwo Jima is the basis of the film. Bradley’s father Doc Bradley (played by Ryan Phillippe in the film) who was one of the flag-raising soldiers never fully shared the details of the experience with his son but Flags meditates on some of those unanswered questions. The Iwo Jima conflict fortified by crags of Japanese snipers lays siege to thousands of messy casualties and the tattered flag--immediately seized by U.S. government officials to rallying and recruit soldiers--emerges as a symbol for American pride while the five Marines and one corpsman who raised it are basically forgotten. Heavy dramatics are saved for Adam Beach (Windtalkers) as Ira Hayes the Native American Marine who degenerates into madness. He represents the bittersweet languor of lost ambition and broken spirits. Director Clint Eastwood is actually the film’s best actor even though he isn’t in the movie. We can see his simmering restraint in the Flags’ acting ensemble as he guides his actors into finely tuned performances. From Beach to Phillippe to Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious) Eastwood gets the most out of his young cast by playing them down. Similar to real-life soldiers allegiance to the team is the actors’ goal creating authenticity. Intense stress requires the actors to have genuine instincts. But by intentionally constructing a more lived-in feel there is consequently no flashy or Oscar-worthy stand-outs. To his credit Walker who usually goes for the brain-dead million dollar paychecks tries something different here while in his pivotal role Beach plays the juicy role as best as he can. Still Beach’s breakdown scene is quite honestly one-dimensional and doesn’t have the same dramatic impact as say Born on the Fourth of July’s Tom Cruise. Of Flags’ likely award recognitions the acting seems to have the least chance of reaching the winner’s circle. Vintage Eastwood is a lion in winter directing as though there’s no tomorrow. With Flags he interweaves numerous themes to create a war movie which despite its cliché-filled genre is constantly real in tone. The film is historically credible from the American perspective only but Eastwood has also directed a companion piece Letters from Iwo Jima about the Japanese side which hits theaters next year. Complex themes of celebrity worship also give the film a post-modern jaded Iraq War-era vision. Then there are the visuals. Eastwood incorporates breathtaking CGI shots of the fleet of warships reminiscent of Troy on top of an old-style photographic framing black and white and green all washed-out. It’s like looking at a scrapbook of old photos on a high-definition CD-ROM. Naturalistic scenes--sprawling in their panoramic framing with cactuses and hills of black sand--remind us we’re watching one of America’s cinematic icons at work. Flags could be Eastwood’s third Best Director Oscar--and will likely net him $100 million-plus at the box office.
American Pie 2 enjoyed the weekend's sweetest slice of box office pie.
Universal launched its R rated youth appeal comedy sequel Pie 2 in first place to a record setting ESTIMATED $45.1 million at 3,063 theaters ($14,724 per theater).
Pie 2's average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Directed by J.B. Rogers, it stars Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Natasha Lyonne, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Tara Reid, Seann William Scott, Mena Suvari, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Eugene Levy.
"The first one opened to $18.7 million," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning, referring to the original American Pie, which after its July 9, 1999 launch went on to gross $102.7 million in domestic theaters.
Now with the sequel's blockbuster opening, Rocco said, "With Friday's business, Universal became the number one (distributor in terms of domestic) market share for the year. We've been number one for the summer. We became number one for the year. We're well over $600 million in domestic box office grosses as of now."
Rocco also pointed to a number of records set by Pie 2: "This picture is the biggest R rated comedy. It's the second highest opening for an R rated film ever, just behind our own Hannibal (in which Universal was partnered with MGM). It's the third biggest comedy ever (of any type), not just R rated. It's the fourth movie that Universal has opened consecutively to over $40 million. Our records show that no other studio has done that twice in a row. And it's the fourth number one movie in a row for Universal."
Universal's outstanding success this year includes its first place openings of The Mummy Returns the weekend of May 4-6 to $68.1 million, The Fast and the Furious the weekend of June 22-24 to $40.1 million, Jurassic Park III the weekend of July 20-22 to $50.8 million (and a five day cume of $81.4 million) and now Pie 2 with an ESTIMATED $45.1 million.
Focusing on the sequel's profitability, Rocco observed, "It made back more than its production cost, which was $30 million."
All told, she added, "I'm delighted with the results of this picture. This is our own home grown franchise and it's so exciting that audiences were anxious to revisit characters that they fell in love with for the first time."
Rocco said that the studio's exit polls for Pie 2 were outstanding, showing that its audience was 53 percent female and 47 percent male. "67 percent of the audience was under the age of 25, as expected," she said. "For that core audience, the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good) scored 94 percent. Overall, it scored 90 percent in the Top Two Boxes. For the core audience, the definite recommend was 73 percent against a norm of 50 percent. Overall, the definite recommend was 69 percent, which is fabulous."
New Line Cinema's PG-13 rated action comedy blockbuster sequel Rush Hour 2 dropped one rung to second place in its second week with a still impressive ESTIMATED $31.48 million (-53%) at 3,118 theaters ($10,095 per theater). Its cume is approximately $131.9 million, heading for $175-200 million.
Directed by Brett Ratner, it stars Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
Buena Vista/Disney's G rated family comedy The Princess Diaries held on to third place in its second week with a still royal ESTIMATED $14.1 million (-38%) at 2,706 theaters (+169 theaters; $5,211 per theater). Its cume is approximately $51.9 million, heading for $85-100 million.
Directed by Garry Marshall, it stars Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway.
Dimension Films' opened its PG-13 thriller The Others in fourth place to a promising ESTIMATED $13.67 million at 1,678 theaters ($8,147 per theater).
Directed by Alejandro Amenabar, it stars Nicole Kidman.
"We'll be in profit by the end of the week on this one. It was made for $17 million all-in," Miramax L.A. president Mark Gill said Sunday morning. "Cruise/Wagner did a brilliant job creatively and economically. I think Nicole Kidman becomes a serious Oscar contender after the great reviews she got. So we're excited about that."
Asked about Kidman's prospects as an awards contender, Gill added, "She's just gotten astonishingly great reviews, so I think there's almost no doubt she'll be a serious Oscar contender."
Given the film's strong opening, Gill said, "We're on about a thousand screens less than everybody else, so we'll about 500 more this coming week. At $8,147 a screen, (exhibitors) will be ringing our phones (asking for prints of The Others)."
Did all the media attention Kidman's been getting as the result of her divorce from Tom Cruise hurt or help the film's opening? "There's no doubt that publicity gets attention," Gill replied. "But the key to this, of course, is you can all the attention in the world, but if people don't like what they're seeing they don't go. So the movie had to deliver and the advertising had to look like it was presenting a good movie. Mercifully, all that was true.
"The movie is fantastic. It reminds me a lot of Hitchcock movies. But, you know, pick your favorite influence. It's more psychological than it is anything else. As a consequence, it's, I think, better and scarier not to rely on blood and gore. It gets you there in other ways. The Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar brought a ton of style to it. It's a really great movie."
20th Century Fox's PG-13 sci-fi action adventure Planet of the Apes fell three pegs to fifth place in its third week with a quieter ESTIMATED $13.32 million (-52%) at 3,405 theaters (-125 theaters; $3,910 per theater). Its cume is approximately $148.7 million, heading for $175-180 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Tim Burton and produced by Richard D. Zanuck, it stars Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Clarke Duncan.
Universal and Amblin Entertainment's PG-13 rated action adventure fantasy sequel Jurassic Park III slipped two notches to sixth place in its fourth week with a still impressive ESTIMATED $7.3 million (-41%) at 3,175 theaters (-287 theaters; $2,299 per theater). Its cume is approximately $160.2 million, heading for $175 million or more in domestic theaters.
Directed by Joe Johnston, JP III stars Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, John Diehl and Bruce A. Young.
Warner Bros.' PG rated comedy Osmosis Jones kicked off in seventh place to a calm ESTIMATED $5.58 million at 2,305 theaters ($2,419 per theater).
Directed by Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly, it stars Chris Rock, Laurence Fishburne, David Hyde Pierce, Brandy Norwood, William Shatner, Molly Shannon, Chris Elliott and Bill Murray.
Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures' PG-13 rated romantic comedy America's Sweethearts slid three slots to eighth place in its fourth week with a less romantic ESTIMATED $4.6 million (-43%) at 2,686 theaters (-325 theaters; $1,713 per theater). Its cume is approximately $83.4 million, heading for $100 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Joe Roth, it stars Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack.
MGM's PG-13 rated comedy hit Legally Blonde fell two rungs to ninth place in its fifth week with a still attractive ESTIMATED $3.82 million (-35%) at 2,031 theaters (+505 theaters; $1,881 per theater).
Blonde, which cost only $18 million to produce, has a cume of approximately $78.7 million and is on its way to a very profitable $85 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Robert Luketic, the Marc Platt production stars Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Victor Garber and Jennifer Coolidge with a special appearance by Raquel Welch.
Rounding out the Top Ten was MGM's R rated thriller Original Sin, down four pegs in its second week with a slow ESTIMATED $3.05 million (-52%) at 2,194 theaters ($1,391 per theater). Its cume is approximately $12.49 million.
Written and directed by Michael Christofer, it stars Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie.
This weekend also saw the arrival of Dimension Films' new expanded version of its PG rated youth appeal action comedy Spy Kids Special Edition with an unfunny ESTIMATED $1.43 million at 1,676 theaters ($851 per theater). Its cume (including its original run, which began with its $26.5 million opening the weekend of Mar. 30 - Apr. 1) is approximately $109.0 million.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, it stars Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino.
"Video and DVD are coming up in September so this was sort of the pre-amble to that," Miramax L.A. president Mark Gill said Sunday morning. (Dimension is a unit of Miramax Films, which is owned by Disney.)
Fox Searchlight Pictures R rated thriller The Deep End kicked off to a very encouraging ESTIMATED $0.14 million at 6 theaters ($23,415 per theater) in Los Angeles and New York. Its cume after five days is approximately $0.2 million.
Written produced and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, it stars Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic and Jonathan Tucker.
"That's significantly higher than our excellent opening on Sexy Beast (earlier this summer), which was $18,009 per theater," Fox Searchlight distribution president Stephen Gilula said Sunday morning. "We'll be adding theaters this week, both expanding in New York and L.A. and another nine markets, so we'll go up to over 50 theaters by this Friday. And we have an expansion the following week, which will take us up to around 200 theaters."
Focusing on the promising kick off for Deep, Gilula noted, "We're very, very excited. It just shows, again, that there's a really avid moviegoing audience in the summertime for alternative, thoughtful movies in addition to the mega-movies. When the critics embrace a film, as they did with this--particularly with Tilda Swinton's performance--the crowds have come. It's a crowded marketplace (this summer) with the sheer number of films opening, so (our marketing department, under Nancy Utley) did a great job of getting the word out.
"It's actually been, I think, a fairly good summer (for specialized films), going back to Anniversary Party and Sexy Beast and then The Closet and Made and now The Deep End. There really is an alternative audience in the summertime that is looking for this type of product."
Gilula added that Beast in its ninth weekend did about $198,000 at 29 theaters, "which takes it to $5,964,500, which means we'll cross $6 million by Wednesday or Thursday. That's a tremendous result for us. It's also the number one limited release film for the summer."
USA Films' R rated sci-fi thriller Session 9 arrived to a quiet ESTIMATED $0.083 million at 30 theaters ($2,750 per theater).
Directed by Brad Anderson, it stars David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Brendan Sexton III, Steven Gevedon and Josh Lucas.
Paramount Classics' PG-13 rated drama An American Rhapsody opened to a drab ESTIMATED $0.042 million at 7 theaters ($6,000 per theater).
Written and Directed by Eva Gardos, it stars Nastassja Kinski, Scarlett Johansson and Tony Goldwyn.
Paramount held sneak previews Saturday night of its PG-13 comedy Rat Race.
Directed by Jerry Zucker, it stars Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Seth Green, Jon Lovitz, Breckin Meyer and Amy Smart.
"The sneaks were about 60 percent capacity," Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen said Sunday morning. "There were 1,012 sneaks. We had 700 locations that had two sneaks, so you can say we effectively had 1,700 sneaks. The capacities at the later sneaks (at 10:30 p.m.) were only around 35 percent (given the later hour). The index score from the exit polls was 78, which is very good. I (don't yet have) the full exit polls, but I know it was 50-50 male-female."
Asked about the index score, Lewellen explained, "That is the result of the combination of checking the boxes (on the exit poll forms). It's an average. Anything over 70 or 71 is a very good response. Like, Forrest Gump got an 81, as an example. It's a very good score."
Lewellen said he anticipates that the film will play to a family audience.
Race opens this Friday (Aug. 17), Lewellen said, at "about 2,500 locations and probably 2,800 screens or so."
On the expansion front, this weekend saw Miramax's R rated French comedy The Closet go wider in its seventh week with an okay ESTIMATED $0.43 million (+5%) at 145 theaters (+17 theaters; $2,975 per theater). Its cume is approximately $4.0 million.
Directed by Francis Veber, it stars Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, Thierry Lhermitte and Michele Laroque.
Artisan's R rated comedy Made widened in its fifth week with a dull ESTIMATED $0.4 million at 128 theaters (+11 theaters; $3,125 per theater). Its cume is approximately $3.0 million.
Written and directed by Jon Favreau, it stars Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Sean Combs, Famke Janssen, Faizon Love and Peter Falk.
Miramax's R rated Apocalypse Now Redux widened in its second week with a still promising ESTIMATED $0.35 million at 19 theaters (+17 theaters; $19,323 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.53 million.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, it stars Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford.
MGM's release of United Artists' R rated youth appeal comedy Ghost World widened in its fourth week with a still lively ESTIMATED $0.35 million (+1%) at 34 theaters (+11 theaters; $10,294 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.3 million.
Directed by Terry Swigoff, it stars Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas and Steve Buscemi.
Fine Line Features' R rated rock musical drama Hedwig and the Angry Inch added a few theaters in its fourth week with a still hopeful ESTIMATED $0.26 million (-9%) at 50 theaters (+4 theaters; $5,180 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.2 million.
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also wrote adapted his hit Off-Broadway play to the screen, Hedwig stars Mitchell in its title role.
Key films--those grossing more than $500,000--took in approximately $150.17 million, up about 47.89 per cent from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $101.54 million.
This weekend's key film gross was down about 9.51 per cent from last weekend this year when key films took in $165.94 million.
Last year, Sony's second week of Hollow Man was first with $13.05 million at 2,956 theaters ($4,414 per theater); and Warner Bros.' second week of Space Cowboys was second with $13.02 million at 2,835 theaters ($4,591 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $26.0 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $76.6 million.