Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Originally Written: August 2005

So after two weeks of upswing in the box-office, it dropped again at the end of the summer. Are we shocked? Of the many “blockbusters,” only a handful were really “must sees” anyway (those were “War of the Worlds,” “Star Wars: Episode III,” “Cinderella Man,” “Batman Begins,” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” the only one’s I’d rate at least an A-). Plus, no “Passion” or “Fahrenheit 9/11” type shock phenomenon didn’t help either. Overall, it’s been a mediocre year at the movies, but this Fall has some great potential on the way to help end the year with a bang creatively and as entertainment. Despite two major fallbacks to ’06 due to the need to finish that dramatically alter my Top 10 (Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly” and the comic adaptation “V for Vendetta”) and three promising films with unknown release dates (Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland,” and the Sundance fave doc “Why We Fight”), here are the films I’m looking forward to seeing the most.
1. “Serenity” (9/30)- Label this one as “must-see…again,” ’cause this one’s already in the “Seen” column for this year, and folks, you want to see this too (if you haven’t already). Thanks to the whims of Universal Pictures and the film’s gifted writer-director- “Buffyverse” mastermind Joss Whedon- Whedon’s hugely entertaining- and profoundly surprising- big-screen sequel to his great and too-shortly-aired sci-fi Western series “Firefly” was given an unusual start to its’ marketing campaign when the studio held several sets of advanced screenings of the unfinished film for audiences (who put down money) to watch this eagerly awaited adventure with less-than-polished visual effects and a temp musical soundtrack. The result? Every show of every set (65 shows between 3 sets) selling out in HOURS! The film merits such excitment. Even in its’ incompleted form, “Serenity” is an exciting and wickedly funny epic that’s a masterclass in efficient and fluid storytelling, and proving that despite the usual action fireworks, big-screen effects epics (I can’t wait to see the final cut of Zoic’s FX work), character and story will always “wow ’em in the end.” As a full-blooded Browncoat (aka “Firefly” fan) and fan of film, trust me, you don’t want to miss this one, and you “can’t stop the signal.”
2. “King Kong” (12/14)- In all honesty, remakes are never really good ideas. Of course, the stage allows for different versions of plays with different actors, settings, and sensibilities, so I suppose filmmakers should be allowed the same privilege. But remaking great films is a tricky business- ask Gus Van Sant (“Psycho”) and Jonathan Demme (“The Manchurian Candidate”). Still, is there anyone who doesn’t have faith in Peter Jackson to faithfully capture the spirit of the classic 1933 big ape epic after his Oscar-winning “Lord of the Rings” undertaking? His love for the original is well-known to film geeks (he tried to get this film going pre-“Rings”; he’s producing a documentary for the November DVD release of the original), and the trailer that debuted this summer is more than enough to get this geek excited about this new-old Christmastime adventure from the deviously-minded Jackson.
3. “Munich” (12/23)- Boy, that mad-dash to the finish line to get “War of the Worlds” done on time clearly invigorated Steven Spielberg, ’cause the very day that film hit theatres, he began filming this film. Starring Eric Bana (“Hulk,” “Troy”), the film begins at the tragedy in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Germany, where 8 Palestinian terrorists held hostage Isreali atheletes before executing 11 of them, but like the invasion of Normandy at the start of Spielberg’s great “Saving Private Ryan,” that’s just the beginning. What Spielberg is really chronicling in this film is the response by Isreal- a secret Mossad hit squad ordered by the Prime Minister of Isreal to assassinate Palestinians identified as terrorists, whether they had anything to do with the attack in Munich or not. For Spielberg, the film- written by playwright Tony Kushner (who wrote Mike Nichols’ acclaimed “Angels in America”)- is a gamble beyond even “Schindler’s List,” one that will surely fuel the ongoing flames of hatred in the Middle East and could alienate him both in the Hollywood and Jewish community (to say nothing of the critical ramifications if the delicate story isn’t handled with care). Of course, the same was said about Mel Gibson before “The Passion of the Christ,” and though Mel’s become more of a right-wing talking-head celebrity since “Passion,” and seemingly put his career as a filmmaker on the backburner, that film’s tremendous success came by careful marketing and in spite of heated rhetoric. After a decade-plus of audacious artistic risks and successes, Spielberg has my complete faith with this one.
4. “A History of Violence” (9/23)- Slowly but surely, I’m becoming a fan of Canadian psychological provocateur David Cronenberg. My first experience with him- 1997’s disturbing and dreadful “Crash”- was not a pleasant one (that film still rates as one of the worst I’ve ever seen), but the two films after that- 1999’s underrated mind-bender “eXistenZ” and 2002’s haunting psychological drama “Spider”- have lead me towards conversion. The preview for “Violence” is pushing me a little further in that direction, as Cronenberg tells the story of a small-town family man (“Lord of the Rings'” Viggo Mortensen) who kills two hold-up men in self-defense, which leads to some questioning of his past when a mysterious former associate (Ed Harris) comes into town. Following Cronenberg down the dark places of the mind is becoming a favorite film-watching pasttime of mine- “Violence” looks to be another step down that rewarding direction.
5. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (11/18)- We’re going into year four of J.K. Rowling’s young wizard adventures, and now we are getting to the meat and bones of the story she wants to tell I believe. 2001’s “Sorcerer’s Stone” was the setup, and 2002’s “Chamber of Secrets” saw the story touch on darker currents while still telling a fundamentally basic coming-of-age story. However, it wasn’t until last year’s terrific “Prisoner of Azkaban”- the best “Potter” film yet- that the movie series at least has started to embrace more mature and provocative material like that which lies in the grey areas of life in distinguishing right and wrong. In “Goblet of Fire”- the longest book adapted yet (so long that it was contemplated to make two films of it)- expect the story to go even further as Harry, Ron and Hermione really start to come face-to-face with major issues of adolescence, as well as an old foe now seen in the flesh (Voldemort, played here by Ralph Fiennes). This is writer Steve Kloves’ last go with “Potter,” and he will be missed; new to the series are director Mike Newell, a Brit with a gift for character and story over style (see “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Donnie Brasco,” and “Pushing Tin”) that will be put to the test here, and composer Patrick Doyle (Newell’s “Brasco” composer), who has the unenviable task of having to follow master John Williams without being haunted by what he brought to the series, most particularly in the last film. Also new is a PG-13 for “Fire,” the first in the series. I can’t wait to see what this series has to offer its’ fans.
6. “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (10/7)- If you’re unsure as to who Wallace & Gromit are, don’t worry- that’s what I’m here for. Wallace & Gromit are the popular British Claymation characters created by Nick Park (who co-directed 2000’s wonderful “Chicken Run”) and stars of his Oscar-winning short films like “A Close Shave.” I’ve never seen any of their shorts myself, but the preview for this big-screen adventure tells me all I need to know. Wallace is an inventor, and Gromit is his dog; he doesn’t speak, but he does help his master when he can. He’ll need to when some nasty little rodents begin taking vegetables from gardens in what Park calls, “the world’s first vegetarian horror movie.” Mr. Park- that’s all I need to hear.
7. “Shopgirl” (10/21)- This is a film that sort of snuck up on me. I’d heard about it, but didn’t know I wanted to see it until I finally saw a preview for it. “Shopgirl” is the adaptation of a novella by Steve Martin, who wrote the script and stars as a middle-aged gentlemen who has a crush on the young woman at a glove counter in a high-end department store. There’s also a younger man (“Rushmore’s” Jason Schwartzman) who also has a crush for the shopgirl of the title. Since the young woman’s played by Claire Danes- in what might be her best role in years (if ever)- I can’t say I blame them. When given a chance to bring something more to a role, Danes- who made a splash on TV’s “My So-Called Life” before moving to films with Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” and “The Rainmaker”- is as radiant an actress as there is in modern movies. From what little I’ve seen of “Shopgirl,” Martin has given Danes a gift of a role to play.
8. “The Fountain” (December)- Putting this on my Top 10 is quite a gamble, since like other movies I want to see, its’ release date is unknown. Still, unlike those two, it showed up in at least one Fall Movie Preview I’ve read (that would be Premiere), and because of the not-so-palpable excitement of many films this fall, that’s enough for me to sneak it into the top 10 above two films I’m most interested in seeing. This epic is a long-in-development science-fiction thriller about a man who travels through time to resue his soulmate. The premise is intriguing enough to get me to the theatre, even if it does lack the two stars- Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett- who were originally attached and had its’ budget cut as a result. To be honest, it sounds even better now with Hugh Jackman (“X2: X-Men United”) and Rachel Weisz (“Constantine”) in the lead roles. The director behind the film has stayed the same throughout, and he merits attention- that would be Darren Aronofsky, the indie visionary behind the mesmerizing mind-benders “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.” As a fan of those film’s limitless vision and originality, I’ll be interested- whenever it comes out- in what Aronofsky has come up with in this film.
9. “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe” (12/9)- It’s been many a year since I familiarized myself with this, arguably the most popular book of C.S. Lewis’ beloved fantasy series. The trailer that debuted with “Star Wars” is a movie geek’s dream, as are the promotional materials the theatres’ get. So why isn’t it higher on this list? Because the eight films ahead of it have more to offer personally than this film, which I’m leery about because of the director (can Andrew Adamson handle live-action for the first time after the “Shrek” films) and the composer (“Shrek” co-composer Harry Gregson-Williams lacks the previous creds and strong chops- from what I’ve heard- to take on such a venture). Add to that the effects being done by WETA- Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” wizards- and the film being shot in New Zealand and “Narnia”- if done poorly- could take a rich story and turn it into “Rings”-lite. Adamson will get the fantasy right (“Shrek” proved that), but does he have the passion and imagination to give the story the dramatic heft befitting Tolkien’s friend Lewis? You can be sure I’m going to find out for myself.
10. “Elizabethtown” (10/14)- To be perfectly fair, I’m not a huge fan of either star- Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst. I enjoy their work in a great many films, but I’m not necessarily going out of my way to watch a movie just because they’re in it. But I will go out of my way to see “Elizabethtown,” though more for the writer-director behind it than the actors onscreen. The guy behind the film is one Cameron Crowe, who after taking a detour into pretention with 2001’s misguided “Vanilla Sky” gets back to what he does best- character-driven dramedy- with this story of a young man (Bloom) who just blew his job and now has to go home for his father’s funeral. Dunst plays a stewardess he meets on the plane back to Elizabethtown. This is the type of story- a young man at a crossroads- that Crowe excels at, as he proved in “Jerry Maguire” and the Oscar-winning “Almost Famous,” both of which are personal faves if you didn’t know.
Other Fall Films to Be on the Lookout For:
Beyond these top 10, many other films hold promise for me this coming Fall/Winter. They are: “Proof” (9/16), a long-delayed drama directed by “Shakespeare in Love’s” John Madden and starring that film’s Oscar winner star- Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, and Jake Gyllenhaal; “Walk the Line” (11/18), director James (“Girl, Interrupted”) Mangold’s biopic about Johnny Cash and his wife starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon; “The Ice Harvest” (11/23), a holiday-themed heist comedy starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton and directed by Harold Ramis (“Groundhog Day”); “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” (9/23), the latest stop-motion fantasy from the quirky visionary with all-star voices like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Christopher Lee; “Syriana” (11/23), a potentially potent political drama from “Traffic” screenwriter Stephen Gaghan about an American murder in the Middle East starring George Clooney and Matt Damon; “Oliver Twist” (9/23), a new take on the Dickens’ classic from Oscar-winning expatriate Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”) starring Ben Kingsley; “Flightplan” (9/23), a promising psychological plane thriller starring the always-watchable Jodie Foster; “The Weather Man” (10/28), a quirky comedy-drama starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Caine directed by “The Ring” and “Pirates of the Caribbean’s” Gore Verbinski; “Lord of War” (9/16), a provocative-sounding thriller- also starring Cage- about blackmarket gun-running directed by “Gattaca’s” Andrew Niccol; “The New World” (11/9), a new, less-musical version of the story of Pocahontas and John Smith starring Colin Ferrell and Christian Bale directed by Terrence Malick (who has the best visual eye for nature in movies- see “The Thin Red Line,” “Days of Heaven,” and “Badlands”); “Memoirs of a Geisha” (12/9), a long-in-production adaptation of the novel by Arthur Golden’s best-seller starring the lovely Chinese actresses Zhang Ziyi (“House of Flying Daggers”) and Gong Li (“Raise the Red Lantern”) and directed by “Chicago’s” Rob Marshall; “Jarhead” (11/4), another possibly-provocative film- this one about the first Gulf War- starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, and Peter Sarsgaard and directed by “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition’s” Sam Mendes; and “Good Night, and Good Luck” (10/7), one more potential political landmine, this one directed and starring George Clooney about the on-air battle between Edward R. Murrow (played by the great David Strathairn) and Senator Joe McCarthy during the latter’s Communist witch hunt in the 1950s. A pretty good-sounding list, with a lot of Oscar bait. On top of those, add the following six- Tony Scott’s “Domino” (with Kiera Knightley; 10/14), Marc Forster’s “Stay” (with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor; 10/21), Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer; 9/16), Chris Columbus’ “Rent” (11/11), “Just Like Heaven” (with Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo; 9/16), and Curtis Hanson’s “In Her Shoes” (with Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette, and Shirley McClane; 10/7)- not to mention the possible gems still to be discovered and we may just have a Fall that redeems all of the first eight month’s cinematic sins.
Here’s What I’ve Seen From These Lists (as of 12/11/05), and How They’ve Fared:
-“Serenity” (A+)
-“King Kong” (A-)
-“A History of Violence” (B)
-“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (A-)
-“Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (A)
-“Shopgirl” (B+)
-“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe” (B)
-“Elizabethtown” (B+)
-“Proof” (A)
-“Walk the Line” (A-)
-“The Ice Harvest” (B)
-“Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” (A)
-“Syriana” (A)
-“Oliver Twist” (B)
-“Flightplan” (B)
-“The Weather Man” (A)
-“Lord of War” (C+)
-“Jarhead” (A-)
-“Good Night, and Good Luck” (A)
-“Domino” (B-)
-“Stay” (B)
-“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (A-)
-“Rent” (A-)
-“Just Like Heaven” (B-)

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