By Katey Rich
There are so many bad Christmas-related mixed metaphors to be made about this weekend's releases. The studios have left a bounty of presents under our tree! Santa's sleigh is filled to the brim with quality releases! The studios have set out a big plate of milk and cookies for us as we come down the chimney of the weekend! Well, now that I've made moviegoing seem completely unappealing, let's take a look at what's out there. There will be five new films jockeying in wide release this weekend-- even the musical about a barber is hitting over 1,000 theatres-- not to mention the twin threats of holdovers I Am Legend and Alvin and the Chipmunks sticking in at over 3,000 theatres. If anyone can topple Will Smith at the box office it's Nicolas Cage mucking around in U.S. history, but the Fresh Prince probably won't give up without a fight. With national treasures, demon barbers, hard walkers, p.s. lovers and Charlie WIlson all competiting for our attention this weekend, there really is something for everyone out there.
NATIONAL TREASURE 2: BOOK OF SECRETS. Opening in 3,832 theatres. Nicolas Cage is back as Benjamin Gates, the intrepid code-breaker on a mission to unlock the secrets of American history with the help of our most treasured artifacts. This time he's using a page from John Wilkes Booth's diary to discover a City of Gold buried beneath Mount Rushmore. Jon Voight is back as his father, while Helen Mirren has joined the cast as his mother. (Mirren, who is fresh off an Oscar win, is on the record as saying a day spent doing stunts on the set was "the best day of my professional life.") Ed Harris, Bruce Greenwood, Justin Bartha, Harvey Keitel and Diane Kruger round out the cast.
Roger Ebert makes me feel better about being unable to understand the plot of this movie no matter how many times I read it: "This movie's plot doesn't play tennis without a net, but also without a ball and a racket. It spins in its own blowback. And, no, I don't know what that means, but this is the kind of movie that makes you think of writing it." You probably don't need me to tell you that most critics agree with Ebert that the movie is completely ludicrous, though some enjoyed the ride as much as Helen Mirren did. "Let's not kid anyone here. This franchise is all about dumb fun," writes the Arizona Republic. Matt Zoller Seitz at the New York Times has another funny riff on the meaningless plot: "To acquire the cleverly named Book of Secrets, Ben plots to kidnap the current president and blah, blah, blah purple monkey dishwasher." But in the end he's not amused: "The National Treasure films substitute trivia for poetry and busyness for thrills." And the Hollywood Reporter was ready to be entertained but didn't get it, writing, "The thrill is gone as everyone is slavishly following an action memo dictated by marketing concerns and boxoffice demographics rather than cinematic invention."
WALK HARD. Opening in 2,650 theatres. Dewey Cox is a rock legend not too unlike Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison or Brian Wilson, except that he's fictional. Played by John C. Reilly, Dewey goes through all the trials and tribulations of fame in this rock biopic parody, from an early failed marriage to multiple drug addictions. The laugh-a-minute, Airplane! style of humor is a bit different from what we've come to expect from co-screenwriter and producer Judd Apatow, but it features many of the players who have made his films a hit: Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, Jane Lynch and Martin Starr all stop in. Jenna Fischer, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell and dozens of others round out the cast.
Unlike National Treasure, Walk Hard largely provided the critics with the silly fun they were looking for. Reelviews.net had measured praise: "For those who enjoy the saturation style of humor and appreciate the way in which parody is not pushed too far into the absurd, Walk Hard is not without merit." Our Frank Lovece spoke of "laughing your great balls of fire off" and called the movie "a pitch-perfect parody of pop-music biopics." And The Hollywood Reporter calls its "just plain, undemanding fun," and credits Walk Hard for
"at long last mov[ing] the talented John C. Reilly up the billing ladder from second banana to top banana." The Village Voice, on the other hand, clearly found coal in their stocking: "This burlesque of biopic clichs flounders from one setup to the next." Ouch. And, in my humble opinion, wrong. If you can't enjoy Walk Hard, even a little bit, then you really don't deserve Christmas.
CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR. Opening in 2,574 theatres. Charlie Wilson was a lower-level U.S. Representative from Texas in the early 80s when he learned about the situation in Afghanistan, in which Afghan rebels were fighting against the Soviet invasion. Wanting to help them in hopes of bringing about an end to the Cold War, Wilson arranged to send millions of dollars worth of weapons to the Afghans, with the help of a Texas billionaire (Julia Roberts) and a loose cannon CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Of course, those are the weapons that were eventually used against American soldiers when we invaded Afghanistan in 2001, but that comes in the epilogue that was apparently left out. Aaron Sorkin wrote the script, and Mike Nichols directed.
Originally expected to be the Biggest Movie Ever given its pedigreed cast and creators, Charlie Wilson seems to be more enjoyable than groundbreaking. "This may sound wonkish, but it's played with the rat-a-tat rhythms of a screwball comedy," writes David Ansen of Newsweek. Our Rex Roberts also enjoyed the "entertaining and well-crafted romp through the Reagan era." The Village Voice, which I still haven't forgiven over that Walk Hard business, actually laughed during this one: "Dark and funny and mean and sexy, damned near pitch-black-perfect." Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, was less amused: "The film undercuts its aims with a play-acting artificiality that is more wearisome than entertaining."
P.S. I LOVE YOU. Opening in 2,454 theatres. Ah, women. If they're not spending the weekend before Christmas shopping like fiends, they're crying. At least, that's what the people behind P.S. I Love You are hoping, releasing the ultimate weepie about the death of a spouse, the search for true love, and female friendship. Hilary Swank stars as a woman who loses her husband at a young age, and is propelled by 10 notes he left her before he died to get out and start her life anew. Gerard Butler, Lisa Kudrow, Gina Gershon, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Harry Connick, Jr. also star.
Hilary Swank has once again disappointed critics by wasting her talents in a mediocre movie. "Swank does her best but is unable to transcend the paltry material, while Kudrow and Gershon are wasted as basic handmaidens to this two-time Oscar winner," writes our David Noh. The always-succinct New York Daily News asks, "P.S. Why should we care?" Manohla Dargis at The New York Times, on the other hand, takes a very sensible female approach to this weepie and admits that it works exactly the way it intends: "The film is not a beautiful object or a memorable cultural one, and yet it charms, however awkwardly [...] Together the director and his star create a swell of feeling that helps blunt your reservations about being played as an easy mark, a sap or, worse, a girl, even if that's exactly what you are." I haven't seen P.S. I Love You, but I'm tempted to agree with her, if just for the sake of the only movie this fall about a woman, not a teenage girl or the hordes of men on screen right now.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. Opening on 1,249 screens. The adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's masterful musical finds Johnny Depp as the titular barber, back from an unjust stint in prison and set on revenge against he man who sent him there, Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Opening up shop above Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter) pie shop, Sweeney starts off offering shaves but eventually slits throats as well, all in the name of vengeance against humanity. Oh, and there's lots of singing. Timothy Spall, Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener and Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, Borat) also star.
Director Tim Burton's effort hasn't won over everyone, but those who loved it are passionate with their praise."It is cruel in its effects and radical in its misanthropy, expressing a breathtakingly, rigorously pessimistic view of human nature. It is also something close to a masterpiece, a work of extreme � I am tempted to say evil � genius," writes The New York Times' A.O. Scott in a beautifully written rave. Our own Burton fan Ethan Alter is won over as well, writing, "Sweeney Todd certainly succeeds as spectacle, but for the first time in a long time, Burton is completely keyed into the human drama unfolding in front of him." Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum finds something in it for everyone: "This opulent, attentive production is splashed with signature style and hell-bent on entertaining Sondheimites, Deppsters, ladies who heart Alan Rickman in the role of the judge, and even Borat/"Ali G"-loving strays who wander in to see an uncontainably antic Sacha Baron Cohen in the role of a blackmailing faux-Italian con man. It's an impossible assignment, really, carried off with more-than-respectable panache." Carrie Rickey at the Philadelphia Inquirer admits that the movie "seeps into your bones like fog," but concludes, "Burton delivers a movie that might well be too arty for the blood crowd and too bloody for the art crowd." Peter Travers at Rolling Stone, on the other hand, is over-the-moon: "Sweeney Todd is a thriller-diller from start to finish: scary, monstrously funny and melodically thrilling."