By press time, sadly, I had yet to see Cloverfield, the J.J. Abrams-produced monster movie that opens Friday. But by the time you read this, I will have caught it. Maybe twice. I'm the perfect audience, after all—I like a good popcorn film (emphasis on “good”) and I'm vulnerable to smart Internet marketing. The timing of the release is smart, too—almost all the prestige films will have already had at least a week in theaters, and the mass market will be primed for a big action picture, especially one that has the new Star Trek trailer attached.
Cloverfield is only the first big movie of the year. Though the film industry has cried doomsday the last couple of years, I suspect the summer of 2008 will be one that shatters all sorts of records. Why? There's a massive tent-pole movie already scheduled to open every single weekend for months, kicking off with Iron Man on May 2, the official start of blockbuster season. Hell, May alone includes Speed Racer, a new Narnia installment, the big-screen version of Sex in the City, not to mention the further adventures of Indiana Jones. Yes, the smaller films—indies, documentaries, foreign pictures—will suffer at the hands of these gigantic films, but all the talk about DVDs and home theaters sounding the death knell of the multiplex will prove unfounded come fall. By then, the movie industry will have torn apart the summer, much like the monster in Cloverfield will do to New York on Friday.
27 Dresses: Katherine Heigl is the perpetual self-sacrificing bridesmaid, driven to the edge when her self-absorbed sister (Malin Akerman) hooks her all-around-great-guy boss (a puffy Ed Burns), for whom she's pined for years. At the same time, reporter Kevin (James Marsden) picks up on her story as his ticket off the wedding beat. Heigl and Marsden are charming enough to keep it fun, even if Burns phones it in. Prospective husbands beware: this is a simple, inoffensive chick-flick for chicks into weddings.
Cassandra's Dream: For the third film in a row, Woody Allen returns to London, shooting another awkward crime comedy about a pair of brothers (Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor), whose uncle (Tom Wilkinson) turns them to a life of crime in order to solve their mounting debts. But things go south, violence begets violence, brother turns on brother. Maybe they should have just gone for a consolidation loan.
Cloverfield: The Big Apple looks so tasty that a giant monster hauls itself out of the ocean to take a serious bite. One of the most anticipated films of '08, Cloverfield is produced by Lost/Alias honcho J.J. Abrams and is shot exclusively from the POV of hand-held video cameras of people on the scene. Could be the perfect storm of giant monster flicks.
Mad Money: After her husband loses his job, a woman (Diane Keaton) takes a janitorial job at the Federal Reserve, where she teams up with fellow employees (Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes) to steal a bunch of money. The perfect antidote for all those high-quality award-nominated films currently in theaters.
Persepolis: Yes, it's animated, but there are no cute animals or cars in Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical account of growing up in Iran before, during and after the 1979 revolution. It looks simple, taking its old-school, black-and-white look from the author's graphic novels, and it's so good, so beautiful and so tragic that you might forget you're watching a cartoon. There's a reason France offered it up as its entry in the Foreign Language Film category for this year's Oscars. See our review on Page 23.
Steep: High-octane documentary on extreme skiing and the adrenaline junkies who carve the kinds of mountains that occasionally get them killed. Pretty extraordinary to watch, Steep includes footage of legendary big-mountain skier Doug Coombs, who died in a skiing accident (natch) shortly after his shots were completed. One time only
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: There was a resurgence of westerns in '07, and though there were some good ones, none compare to BC and the SK, one of the truly great American films. With Paul Newman and Robert Redford at the absolute top of their games, a brilliant Oscar-winning screenplay from William Goldman (The Princess Bride), terrific direction from George Roy Hill and Burt Bacharach's “Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head,” the film defines the buddy movie, the anti-hero movie, the heist movie and the anti-western. Still fresh after more than 35 years. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
The Fat Man Walking: Weighing in at more than 400 pounds, Oceanside resident Steve Vaught decided to drop some ballast by walking from his front door all the way to New York, and filmmakers Pierre and PJ Bagley and David Mollering went along with him. Part travelogue, part internal journey, part mobile fat camp, the movie finally gets a San Diego screening, which will be followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers and the fat man himself, who dropped more than 100 pounds along the way. Screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, at the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
Stop Making Sense: Jonathan Demme's collaboration with Talking Heads ain't no party, it ain't no disco and, no, it ain't no foolin' around. But there's nothing really quite like it, as David Byrne and the rest of the Heads create an experience that is strikingly unique and totally frenetic, so full of giant suits and lo-fi effects that it's much more a film than a concert film. Part of the Ken's Midnight Rocks series, the picture is preceded by a set from Atoms. Screens at midnight Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Ken Cinema.
Thirst: Originally made for PBS' POV series, Thirst examines how corporations around the globe are trying to buy up water supplies to turn a profit. There's no narration in this character-driven doc, which looks at situations in different parts of the world, including California. Screens at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, at the Central Library, Downtown. Free.
Harold & Maude: Harold (Bud Cort) is young, rich and seriously into death. His main hobbies: funerals and attempted suicide. That is, until he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), an almost-octogenarian who is all about life and living. Yes, they teach each other important lessons, but Harold and Maude gets really weird when they actually fall for each other. Still, director Hal Ashby manages to turn a film that's all about death into something wonderfully life-affirming, complete with a classic soundtrack from Cat Stevens. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale: You almost feel bad for Uwe Boll, the prolific German filmmaker whose films are lambasted by fans and critics even before they hit theaters. Still, his movies seem to make money—how else would he have gotten $60 million for his latest video-game adaptation, which stars studmuffin Jason Statham as a simple feudal farmer who's driven to rescue his kidnapped wife from some freaky animal-warriors. Ray Liotta is the heavy, Leelee Sobieski is the hottie, and Burt Reynolds is the king, natch.
There Will Be Blood: Paul Thomas Anderson's first project since Punch-Drunk Love is easily one of the year's best, anchored by an epic, astonishing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. He plays Daniel Plainview, a turn-of-the-20th-century oilman driven by greed and competition and utterly loathing of the world around him.
First Sunday: Desperate for money, bumbling petty crooks Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan knock off a church with a full collection plate. But after they break in and take hostages, including preacher Chi McBride and current hot comic Katt Williams, they discover someone, possibly a higher power, has beaten them to the loot. Lessons, undoubtedly, are learned.
The Bucket List: Smart blue-collar Morgan Freeman and rich jerk Jack Nicholson meet in a hospital room where they're both battling cancer and become best buddies, determined to live the rest of their lives to the fullest. Interesting first act that quickly turns into an irritatingly goofy travelogue as they hit the road to check off items on their “Kick the bucket list”—like Wild Hogs for the senior set. Did those years on the political sidelines made Rob Reiner soft? He directs, but with no particular flair.
The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie: Talking animated fruits and vegetables that wear eye-patches and say “Arrrrgh” might sound like a great way to spend the afternoon with your kids. But be forewarned—these veggies spread the word of Jesus.
The Orphanage: Produced by Guillermo del Toro of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy fame, this first-time feature from director J.A. Bayona falls back on some horror-movie standards but is so well-made and so darn creepy that you won't care. Laura (Belén Rueda) returns with her husband and son to the orphanage where she was raised, only to discover that some spooky stuff went down since her adoption, and some of her childhood friends might still be hanging around.
One Missed Call: Ah, that not-so-fresh feeling one gets from the first remake of Japanese horror film of the new year. Friends of Beth Raymond (Shannyn Sossaman) keep getting voice mails from their future selves describing the date and time of their own deaths--which turn out to be accurate. ‘Course, no one believes her except maverick cop Jack Andrews (Edward Burns, who likely has a balloon payment on a subprime mortgage coming due).
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem: The first Aliens vs. Predator movie was the suckiest suck that ever sucked. But the sequel, which brings the intergalactic battle to determine the deadliest species to a small town in Colorado, ups the violence all the way to 11. Which is exactly what you're hoping for, if you're the sort to go see the sequel to Aliens vs. Predator.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: So, acclaimed American painter Julian Schnabel makes a movie in French about Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of the French edition of Elle who, following a stroke, can only communicate by blinking his left eyelid. And it's really, really good. Gorgeous to look at and heartbreaking to experience, The Diving Bell gets deep into the psyche of Bauby, who ended up writing his memoirs one letter at a time. The film features an extraordinary performance from Mathieu Amalric as Bauby and earned Schnabel Best Director honors at Cannes.
The Great Debaters: Denzel Washington sits back in the director's chair for a movie that looks like an Oprah episode—and for good reason: the Queen of All Media is on board as a producer. Loosely based on true events, Washington also stars in the picture, playing Melvin Tolson, a Depression-era professor at Texas' black Wiley College who created a debate team that challenged the country's reigning champions. Also starring Forrest Whitaker, The Great Debaters is formulaic and predictable, sure, but also more inspiring than you might expect.
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep: Young Angus (Alex Etel) finds a mysterious egg that hatches into a mysterious creature he names Crusoe. Unable to care for the growing reptile, Angus deposits him in the nearest body of water—Loch Ness. You get the rest.
Charlie Wilson's War: What lazy filmmaking. There's no sign of the Mike Nichols we know and love, Aaron Sorkin's usually crisp dialogue is inane, Julia Roberts sucks and everyone's trying to skate on Tom Hanks' trademark charm. Sure, he's fun as the party-go-lucky congressman who spearheaded funding the Afghani resistance back in the '80s, but Charlie's only saving grace is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who runs the entire picture from behind the scenes as a veteran covert operator.
The Kite Runner: This is the picture that forced the studio to relocate its two child stars and their families. It's a terrific story, dealing with the childhood friendship of two Afghani boys, Amir and Hassan, and the terrible traumas that tear them apart. Based on the best-selling novel by UCSD grad Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner follows Amir's return to his homeland after the Russians have left and the Taliban have taken over. Serious weeper, sure, but director Marc Forster makes it far more sentimental than it needs to be.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets: Nicolas Cage and his band of merry men and hot chicks sort out who's buried in Grant's tomb.
P.S. I Love You: Gerard “This is Sparta!” Butler sheds his abs to leave his widow, Holly (Hillary Swank), a series of posthumous messages that just might help her get on with her life. With Kathy Bates and Lisa Kudrow. Bring a hankie.
The Savages: A terrific movie about being forced to finally grow up. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney are Jon and Wendy Savage, siblings forced to put their nasty, aging father (Phillip Bosco) in a nursing home and come to terms with each other. Superb acting, a fine script and direction from Tamara Jenkins, and an ending that will leave some cool and others inspired.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Tim Burton teams up once again with Johnny Depp and longtime girlfriend Helena Bonham-Carter to goth up Sondheim's classic musical. Depp is the barber himself, slashing throats left and right and working with his landlady to grind the remains into meat pies, all in the hopes of eventually getting revenge against Alan Rickman. Woe be to anyone who stands in his way, including Sacha Baron Cohen. None of the principals have great singing voices, but the movie looks so good that you might not care.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story: John C. Reilly is dumb-ass country musician Dewey Cox in this parody of music biopics that hits nearly all the right notes. Kristen Wiig and Jenna Fischer are solid choices for his love interests, and the rest of the cast provides decent laughs throughout. From comedy king Judd Apatow and director Jake Kasdan, Dewey Cox contains inspired writing, more than a dozen memorable cameos and, best of all, seriously good music.
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Jason Lee is Dave Seville, the man attempting to keep computer-animated Alvin, Simon and Theodore from engaging in their typical wacky chipmunk antics. The bad news: If you have kids, chances are they'll whine until you take 'em to see it. The good news: It's only 90 minutes long.
I Am Legend: The latest take on Richard Matheson's novel turns Will Smith into Robert Neville, a brilliant military scientist who is also the last man in New York City, not counting the untold hordes of vampire-like people who were infected by an errant cure for cancer. Some of the scenes of an empty Big Apple are amazing, but the movie chops out Matheson's dark, nihilistic vision and turns Neville, always an Everyman dealing with extraordinary circumstances, into a superdude with serious pecs. Still, if you've got to spend an hour watching one guy on screen, it might as well be Smith, who's terrific until he finally has company.
Juno: Fizzy and enjoyable, the year's best feel-good film centers, surprisingly, on an unwed pregnant teen. That'd be Juno (Ellen Page), who decides to give her baby to a yuppie couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) and toy with her good friend and the father of her child, Paulie Bleeker (an excellent Michael Cera). With sharp dialogue from stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody and solid direction from Jason Reitman, Juno is a solid, if inoffensive, triumph.
Atonement: Though they've gone out of their way to make Atonement look like a generic period romance, Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's shatteringly good novel is crisply directed, gorgeous to look at and terribly well-acted by James McAvoy and Keira Knightley as a star-crossed couple whose future is taken from them when Knightley's younger sister misinterprets something she sees and later turns McAvoy's Robbie in for a crime he did not commit. The buzz has been about the six-minute tracking shot on the war-strewn beaches of Dunkirk, but the real heat is between the two leads.
The Golden Compass: Chris Weitz, one of the dudes behind the American Pie franchise, takes on the first installment of Phillip Pullman's celebrated His Dark Materials trilogy, which has bible-thumpers the world over thumping madly and hoping to prevent Pullman's anti-church leanings from getting out to the public. The source material is terrific, but Weitz's take on this alt.world, in which everyone has their own personal daemon animal, is fairly tepid, even with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig as the adult leads. The movie looks gorgeous, but it's poorly structured and will seem awkward to those unfamiliar with the complex storyline. Still, those armored polar bears are awesome.
Enchanted: A deconstructed Disney cartoon, Enchanted, which stars Amy Adams as an animated princess turned to real life on the streets of New York, is far more enchanting than its premise. Grey's Anatomy's McDreamy co-stars, along with Prince Charming James Marsden of X-Men fame.
No Country for Old Men: Their first decent film since Fargo, No Country is a Coen Brothers masterpiece and perhaps the best picture of '07. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the story centers on a good ol' boy (Josh Brolin), an aging county sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), a unstoppable psychopathic killer (Javier Bardem) and a valise thick with drug money. Tight, taut, challenging and brutal, it just gets better with repeated viewings.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: The latest crime film from octogenarian Sidney Lumet stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers trying to pull an ill-advised small-time score. Intricately plotted and full of secrets and unlikable characters, Devil also stars Marisa Tomei as Hoffman's unhappy wife who gets naked all over the place and Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris as the boys' parents.
American Gangster: Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas, the real-life drug kingpin who beat the mafia at its own game, running the New York drug trade back in the 1970s. Russell Crowe is the cop trying to take him down, and Ridley Scott directs them both. The movie looks terrific, but even with all that talent on display, it's hard not to feel like we haven't seen this before.
Into the Wild: Sean Penn takes on John Krakauer's book with Emile Hirsch as Alexander Supertramp, the young man formerly known as Chris McCandless, who left his suburban family behind in the early '90s and took to the road, eventually making his way to an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. Penn makes Hirsch a little too much of a Christ figure, but the supporting cast is great, especially Hal Holbrook in the best role of his career.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: No, it's not a time warp—the love-it-or-hate-it camp classic continues its midnight run in its 37th year of release. When the lead character of the film is a transvestite scientist named Dr. Frank-N-Furter, you know you're in for some seriously trashy viewing. And, of course, this is the one movie where you want the audience shouting at the screen. Screens Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theater in Encinitas.
Fridays at the Fleet: Sea Monsters, The Living Sea and Mysteries of Egypt are some of the rotating films shown each day at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center's IMAX theater. Sure, it's more Discovery Channel than Transformers, but the Fleet's enormous old-school dome screen is way cool, and some of the talent—narrators like Meryl Streep or Johnny Depp—is impressive. You might find yourself as mesmerized as the little kiddies sitting around you. Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. Check www.rhfleet.org for the screening list.