MediaCircus' Winners & Sinners: March 2001
Special Feature by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2001
Movie-going in March came in like a lamb... and roared out like a lion. It was just before the Ides of March that the box office suffered its first setback in 21 winning weeks. Since the middle of October, the weekend box office grosses had been surpassing the comparables from the prior year, but in the case of March 9-11, the weekend gross dropped for the first time and dropped hard-- a startling 12%. Unfortunately, this trend continued through the rest of the month, with decreases in the range of 5-8% on subsequent weekends. Industry analysts were quick to blame the tepid ticket sales on a major snowstorm that battered the East coast in the early part of the month, as well as the traditional laggard attendance numbers over the Oscar weekend. It wasn't until the last weekend of the month that business finally picked up, buoyed by the huge $27 million opening of "Spy Kids", the fourth largest March opening in movie history (behind "Liar, Liar", "Erin Brockovich", and "The Matrix").
Despite the lackluster box office, there was a surprisingly decent selection of films that opened up during the month, particularly towards the latter half. While studios were still cleaning house, dumping their unwanted offerings for quick sale to undiscriminating audiences, there were a number of terrific films to see, some of which could easily be considered the best of the year, such as:
- Memento: Guy Pearce plays a man with no short-term memory who is obsessed with avenging the murder of his wife. But because of his condition, he must rely on Polaroids, scribbled notes, and tattoos on his body to 'remember' things he has done or needs to do. Using this fascinating high-concept premise, director Christopher Nolan has crafted an unconventional, mesmerizing, and thought-provoking combination of detective story, film noir, and revenge thriller, making this independent feature probably one of the coolest films you will ever see this year... and maybe even the best.
- Series 7 The Contenders: Probably the second coolest film you will see this year, this darling of Sundance 2001 takes you into an alternate universe where 'reality TV' shows have upped the ante to life-and-death stakes. It is the season finale of "The Contenders" (essentially "Survivor" with guns), where randomly-chosen citizens get their fifteen minutes of fame before being gunned down by the other contestants. Told with the elevated hype and faux-emotional narration of "The World's Scariest Police Chases", this is a disturbing yet hilarious satire of reality TV that hits its mark.
- 15 Minutes: Starring Robert De Niro, "15 Minutes" isn't perfect, but it comes pretty close. What could have been another generic buddy cop thriller ends up being a caustic, thought-provoking, and often satirical cautionary tale about the excesses of the 'information society'. While some viewers may find the violence and imagery used by director John Herzfeld somewhat disturbing, what ends up being most disturbing of all is that it's probably not too far from the truth.
- Spy Kids: Robert Rodriguez, normally associated with blood-and-guts actioners such as "From Dusk Till Dawn", successfully manages to both invigorate the ailing spy genre with some new ideas, as well as allow this critic to use the words 'kick-ass' and 'family film' in the same sentence and mean it.
- Enemy at the Gates: If you can forgive the occasional narrative stumble and missed opportunity, Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Enemy at the Gates" ends up being a good, but not great, film. Technically-accomplished, artfully-directed, and calling to mind the carnage of "Saving Private Ryan", "Enemy at the Gates" is somewhat successful in distilling the sprawling scope of the Battle of Stalingrad down to a very personal conflict between two men.
- Heartbreakers: Veteran actress Sigourney Weaver and teen demographic fave Jennifer Love-Hewitt are in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" mode in "Heartbreakers". Playing a conniving mother-daughter pair of swindlers while looking absolutely smashing in racy outfits, it is doubtful that "Heartbreakers" will advance either actress' career. Fortunately, director David Mirkin, who struck out in 1997 with "Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion", keeps this screwball comedy caper moving at a fairly snappy pace, with laughs frequent and funny enough to merit a giddy, and somewhat guilty, good time.
- The Mexican: "The Mexican" certainly isn't lacking in star power, though much of the voltage isn't courtesy of marquee names Brad Pitt or Oscar-winner Julia Roberts. Instead, the most engaging person on the screen is James Gandolfini, the former-generic-character-actor-turned heavy-hitter thanks to a little television show called "The Sopranos". Gandolfini easily outshines the two more prominent headliners, and almost single-handedly saves "The Mexican" from being just another star-studded production that puts the emphasis on big names instead of a good script ("3000 Miles to Graceland" anyone?).
- The Tailor of Panama: Pierce Brosnan appears in a different kind of spy thriller, based on the John Le Caré novel of the same name. However, instead of being suave and debonair, he is a scheming and disgraced former British secret agent who finds himself conned by a simple tailor (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis). And instead of the usual pyrotechnics and action sequences one would associate with the typical James Bond film, the audience is treated to a thrilling battle of wits between two men, who are each out to out-con the other.
Finally, looking at the raft of 'Sinners' of the month:
- Exit Wounds: Almost a year to the day of the release of "Romeo Must Die" comes yet another hip-hop-karate-chop-beat'em-up from producer Joel Silver and director Andrzej Bartkowiak, "Exit Wounds". However, instead of having to put up with the limited thesping abilities of martial arts maven Jet Li, audiences are treated to the limited thesping abilities of martial arts has-been Steven Seagal, whose career essentially sputtered to a halt in the late Nineties with lackluster offerings such as "Fire Down Below". Despite this comeback vehicle's opening weekend bonanza at the top of the box office, "Exit Wounds" is essentially cut from the same cloth as Seagal's early low-budget and low-brainpower actioners. The marketing for the film certainly doesn't lie when the poster states, "This is gonna hurt"-in fact, it's excruciatingly painful.
- Say It Isn't So: Like the "Scream"-induced teen-horror revival of the late Nineties, it seems that the 'gross out' comedy movement instigated by "There's Something About Mary" has run its course, with each successive entry inching the genre ever closer to creative bankruptcy. "Say It Isn't So" is a case in point, a so-called comedy which succeeds in not soliciting a single chuckle throughout its entire 93-minute running time. Unfortunately, like "American Pie" and "Whipped", it's clearly evident that some filmmakers have yet to learn the distinction between 'gross' and 'funny'.
- Someone Like You: "Someone Like You" is the cinematic adaptation of Laura Zigman's best-selling novel "Animal Husbandry". Though I've never read the novel, I have a sneaking suspicion that, like the about-face with the film's title, in which the intriguing title of the book was jettisoned in favor of a blander and ostensibly 'more marketable' one, the film itself has been drained of all its verve and witty commentary to suit the trappings of your stereotypical romantic comedy. Not even the comely Ashley Judd can save this one.
- Get Over It: Though Kirsten Dunst proves that she is one of Hollywood's more talented actresses in the lead role, the juvenile humor and uninspired supporting cast derail this risk-taking teen comedy about a hopelessly clueless guy who conspires to win back his girlfriend by starring in a high school play (Shakespeare no less).
- The Brothers: Morris Chestnut, Shemar Moore, Bill Bellamy, and comedian D.L. Hughley star as four African-American yuppies who have the same type of cliché-ridden relationship problems that were better represented and explored in "The Best Man" or "The Wood".
- See Spot Run: 'Smart dog + dumb human = stupid movie', or 'Who let this dog out? (Who? Who? Who? Who?)'... you pick.
- Tomcats: Just what the world needs... yet another tasteless sex comedy.
April certainly looks to be an exciting month of new releases, and perhaps in combination with the warmer weather, the box office will regain some of its lost virility. With some intriguing offerings such as the "Kiss the Girls" sequel "Along Came a Spider", "Blow", the filmed version of "Bridget Jones' Diary" starring Renée Zellweger (I'd like to see how she pulls that off!), the return of an 'Oz' Eighties icon in "Crocodile Dundee in L.A.", and "Pokemon 3" (maybe not), April should be a good dry-run for the official start of the summer movie-going season in May, which will kick off with the likes of "The Mummy Returns" and "Pearl Harbor". Stay tuned until next time...
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