What To Watch For In 2009: The Question Marks

01.03.09 9 years ago

Warner Bros.

I hope you had a chance to read and enjoy the first part of this series, where I picked the must see titles for 2009.

So why are these films listed here as question marks instead of under the must-see section?  Does that mean these are films I’m not going to see?  Of course not.  I’m sure I’ll see every one of these.  I’m interested in them enough to write about them, after all.

They’re here because these are films with real potential, but films that I have hesitations about, films I hope will work, but which all have some strike against them.  I am a film optimist, and in a perfect world, all of these films will rock just as much as I think they can.

But we all know that’s not always the case.  So let’s cross our fingers and wade in for this next batch.

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”

By now, there are few surprises possible with this series, but the nicest one would be if they shook off the torpor of the last few movies and ended on a genuinely high note.  These last two stories, split now over three movies, have got to stick the landing, and on the page, I’m still convinced Rowling only halfway pulled it off.  The bones are all there, but the films are going to have to flesh them out, and in particular, this film is where they have to set it all up to make the last two films pay off.  The latest trailers, both domestic and international, certainly look bigger than anything we’ve seen yet in this series, and it’s fascinating to see how far the young cast has come over the course of the films so far, but at this point, it’s all about forward motion, and if this feels as much like marking time as “Order of the Phoenix” did, it may make money, but it’s going to strike me as a missed opportunity.

“The Lovely Bones”

I love Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” and if this film sounds like any of his previous work, it’s that film.  I’m glad he decided to take a radical left turn after the “Lord of the Rings” films and “King Kong,” and Alice Seibold’s novel is certainly a rich and worthy piece of source material.  The reason this film ended up on this list instead of my must-see list is because of the strange post-production black hole that the film appears to have dropped into.  At this point, we’re looking at somewhere around 18 months between the end of filming and the actual release, and this isn’t a movie like “Avatar” where you’ve got nonstop special effects or where you’re building a new world from the ground up.

I have faith that this will turn out to be an interesting film, but I’d be lying if I said that the focus on putting it out in awards season instead of when it’s done makes me nervous.  I hate that sort of jockeying a movie around simply for certain little gold statues, and in this case, I hope the film’s worth more than just a cursory campaign designed to assuage egos.  The material certainly deserves better.

“Friday The 13th”

I want to believe.

I am not a snob who thinks that all art has to be high-minded.  I love energetic, willing, enthusiastic trash, as long as it is done well, and when you’re talking about the “Friday the 13th” series, I tend to think of the first four films as the best of the bunch.  When I hear that this movie plays with the events of the first three films while also trying to set up a larger mythology that they can use to rebuild the series from the ground up, that seems exciting to me.  I’m always amazed how many people think that every single “Friday” film features Jason in a hockey mask.  The first film, of course, dealt with Jason’s mother as the killer, and in the second movie, he was a giant retarded hillbilly with a bag on his head.  It wasn’t until nearly the end of the 3D third film that he finally put that iconic hockey mask on, and if this film takes us from Mrs. Voorhees to Retard Hillbilly Baghead to Hockey Mask, and if they pack it with wicked kills and they play it all straight, this could easily be one of the best of the recent wave of horror remakes.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that I’m also rooting for Derek Mears to establish himself as “the” Jason with his performance here.  Derek starred as “The Father” in “Pro-Life,” my second episode of “Masters Of Horror.”  He’s a stuntman and an actor, and he’s had a lot of experience playing creatures and monsters, and I think he’s got a chance here to finally turn Jason into a character and not just an outfit.  We’ll see how it ends up, but I certainly hope it works.

“The Road”

I wasn’t as in love with “The Proposition” as some critics were a few years ago, but I thought it was a strong feature debut for John Hillcoat, and the thing I think it did the best was establishing a certain oppressive atmosphere.  And when you’re adapting Cormac McCarthy’s devastating novel “The Road,” oppressive atmosphere is certainly going to be one of the main things you need to bring to the table.

The deceptively simple story of a father and son wandering together through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, this is going to be tough for anyone to pull off as a movie.  So much of what makes Cormac McCarthy’s work special is the language of it, and he writes fairly internal books.  I’m still amazed at how well the Coen Bros handled “No Country For Old Men,” but that’s much more plot-driven than “The Road” is.  This could easily be little more than two hours of grim and dirty, even if Viggo Mortensen acts his ass off.  Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays the son, has got the hardest job in the whole film.  If we buy the kid, and we buy that he’s having this experience, then the film could work.  If he comes across as a movie kid at all, or if has no chemistry with Viggo, then the film’s dead.  It makes me nervous that they delayed this out of 2008, but I hope it turns out to be a case of them giving the filmmaker room to find his cut rather than sign of the Weinstein Company/Dimension having no faith in it.

“The Box”

I’ve had a complicated relationship so far with the work of writer/director Richard Kelly.  I was at Sundance in 2001 when “Donnie Darko” premiered, and I’ve watched the cult for that film grow ever since.  I think it’s visually striking and there are moments where he summons up some great mood, but the more he tinkers with it, the less handle I think he has on the story.  And “Southland Tales”… oh, boy.  A dumb person could not have made a movie as incoherent as “Southland Tales.”  That is the product of what happens when a very smart guy gets so intent on packing so many ideas and intentions into one film… you end up with a sort of tangled train crash that doesn’t work as narrative or as surrealism.

Here, though, Kelly seems to be determined to finally get down to the business of just telling a story.  And it’s a great story to tell, too.  Richard Matheson is a monster at the short story form, and “Button, Button” is a provocative jumping off point for a film.  The story’s actually been adapted once before, as part of the “Twilight Zone” revival on CBS back in the ’80s, and it’s a simple morality play.  A young couple (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) are presented with a box and a choice:  inside the box is a single button, and if they press that button, they’ll be given $1 million.  However, they’re told that pushing the button will cause someone, somewhere in the world, to drop dead.  They may never know who or how it happened, but they’ll know that it happened in theory.  So you could you press that button?  They only have 24 hours to decide, and what spins out of that situation is the substance of Kelly’s film.  He’s obviously fleshed out the original story a bit, and the addition of Frank Langella in a key supporting role and The Arcade Fire composing their first feature score means I’ve got my fingers crossed that this is the film where Kelly finally puts it all together and turns a corner in his still-young career.

“Monsters Vs. Aliens”

“A Christmas Carol”

On my “must sees” list, there were a cluster of films I wrote about together that are all ostensibly family films, most of them animated.  Those films all represent what I think represents the best of the almost nonstop wave of such films we are presented with each year now.

These two film, on the other hand, represent choices.  Big bold choices.  And how you react to those big bold choices is going to determine your tolerance level for the finished film.

“Monsters Vs Aliens” is going to be a spectacle, a huge shrieking rollercoaster ride, and based on the footage I’ve seen, I expect it should clean up.  It’s that same exact Dreamworks template of the wiseassy pop culture self-referential wink wink “Shrek 2” sort of sense of humor, but with the speed turned up to about double.  In 3D, this is going to be an assault, and there’s the rub.  It may be exhausting for some audiences.  I fully expect Toshi will think it is the greatest thing in the short history of his filmgoing life when I take him to see it in 3D IMAX.

And I’m not taking him anywhere near “A Christmas Carol.”  Nope.  I’m totally curious about what Robert Zemeckis is cooking up with his third time at bat making one of these motion capture 3D movies, and more than anyone right now, Zemeckis is the guy pushing this particular type of filmmaking forward.  He’s in it to win it.  He believes in this as a storytelling tool, and he seems to me to be out to prove just what you can do, how far you can push performance, how much it changes the game.  This time out, the experiment seems to be about actors playing roles they could never play in real life, like Gary Oldman as Tiny Tim, and about pushing the stylization even further than in previous efforts.

And give him this… it’s a stroke of thematic genius to have Jim Carrey play Ebenezer Scrooge as well as The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  After all, isn’t that the subtext of the piece anyway?  Here’s this guy who spends Christmas Eve torturing himself with thoughts of the past and his fears for the future, who suddenly realizes that he’s a total piece of shit and he’s going to die alone, and the entire thing is basically this slow motion acid trip self loathing time travel personality meltdown.

Merry Christmas!

“Ninja Assassin”

Ninjas.  Cool.  Assassin.  Cool.  Joel Silver and the Wachowskis.  Cool.  McTeigue.  Cool.  Sounds pretty easy to get right based on that.

Rain as a star?  I have no idea.  For now, the inclusion of Sho Kosugi in the film gives them an automatic pass, but we’ll see once there’s a trailer and we see what tone they’re going for.


Oh, god, I hope this works.  Sacha Baron Cohen is a very smart man, and I’m sure he knows that he set the bar pretty high with the international reaction to “Borat” a few years ago.  I think Bruno is a great character, and in the wake of Proposition 8, it’s certainly a great moment to be exploring America’s ongoing relationship with the gay community, but we still don’t even know what the framework for the film is, and despite having heard about a few incidents (love the MMA prank) and seen a few stills, we have no idea what sort of footage he’s got in the can and how it’ll all cut together.  Comedy’s a highwire act anyway, and Cohen’s been working without a net for most of his career so far… it’s just that he’s never had this sort of attention on him while doing it before, and I hope it hasn’t affected the end result.

“The Three Stooges”

Pete and Bobby Farrelly are on a cold streak the size of Antarctica, and they’re counting on this long-time dream project to be the thing that turns that around for them.  And, hey, any movie where Benicio Del Toro plays Moe has my money up front, no questions asked.  But this one’s got huge question marks all over it in terms of how do you sell it, who is it for, what rating do you want?  Is “The Three Stooges” funny in today’s marketplace?  Can you make that movie now?

Exhibit A:  “Home Alone”

That’s all it is, of course.  Slapstick works.  Always has.  Always will.  But slapstick is an art, and in some ways, your editor owns you if you’re a director making a slapstick movie.  Raja Gosnell wasn’t just some random choice when they hired him to direct “Home Alone 3″… he’s the guy who cut the first one, so that timing… that’s him as much as it’s Hughes.  If the Farrelly Bros and their editor can really nail the timing on the slapstick and the energy of it, then it can work.

You know how I’d love to see them sell it?

The trailer starts like a Stooges short film starts, with that music and the Columbia logo, and then you go into a three minute Stooges set-up and pay-off.  No context.  Just one great run of jokes and a big punch-line, and then a date.

I think you’d have your opening weekend.

Just find the right Larry.  Larry is the key.  Trust me.  I’m a Stooge freak.  You find Larry to go with Benicio, your work is halfway done.

“Crank 2”


I’m not as crazy about “Crank” as some people are.  I think it’s got a great sense of energy, but it’s really silly, and it’s gross for the sake of gross, and in the end, it’s not something I really want to watch more than once.  Seeing the NSFW preview reel that was online a few days ago, it’s obvious that Neveldine and Taylor are determined to take everything in-your-face about the first one and turn it up for the second one.  And I guess for the fans of the original, that’s exactly what they want.

I’m surprised we haven’t seen anything from “Game” yet.  Gerard Butler stars, it’s a big SF film about a future version of America where there’s an enormously popular MMORPG that’s played using real people.  And Butler is a Champion in the Game, who has decided he wants out.  Action ensues, evidently.

I’m willing to bet “Game” looks like a “real movie”, which is not something you could accuse “Crank 2” of.  I’m impressed at the balls it takes to shoot a theatrically released motion picture on consumer grade HD cameras.  That preview reel looked like the punchline to a story where a bunch of kids stole a video camera from a store, went apeshit and recorded it, then got picked up.  And when the camera was returned to the store, the tape was still inside… and that’s “Crank 2.”  And I’m willing to bet that’s exactly what Neveldine and Taylor intended… that sort of rude, nearly obscene aesthetic.  We’ll see how big a home video hit this really was when the film opens.  I think it’s an important one for Lionsgate, too.



Jonathan Mostow and the Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter) are both examples of filmmakers who I like, who I recognize have talent, but who haven’t really made anything yet that I can point at as a great example of them getting it all right.  Now, the Spierigs just have the one earlier film, “Undead,” and it’s a film that has a lot of the right elements… but it leaves me cold.  I don’t like it.  I don’t enjoy watching it.  I can see all the skiil these guys have, and how good they are with no budget, and I can see how they might really be able to step up to the plate with some money behind them and a real cast.

So is “Daybreakers” that film?  I’ve heard the film has a wild visual palette, and I hope so, because the story is sort of familiar ground.  It’s the year 2017, and a plague has transormed most of the world into vampires.  There are some still-human holdouts, of course, and they’re working to find a cure, and there’s a lot of political turmoil in the vampire world.  Keep in mind, this time out, they’ve got Ethan Hawke and Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe in the cast, and they’ve got a lot more money, so expectations are high.

Mostow’s working from a pretty clever and interesting graphic novel that I read a while ago… in which we’ve all pretty much stopped interacting with the outside world.  We have Surrogates to do that, remote controlled robot body versions of ourselves controlled with our minds.  They can look like anything we want them to, so it’s become a world of aesthetic beautfy even as it’s gone sterile and cold.  When someone starts killing off Surrogates, a cop is forced to do his own police work for the first time in years, and it brings him face to face with a radical conspiracy to reshape the world completely.  Ferris and Brancato, who wrote TERMINATOR 3 for Mostow, are the screenwriters here, and I’m not sure what I think of that.  The source material’s good.  Bruce Willis is a cool choice for the detective caught up in the mystery.  It sounds fun to me.  I just hope they make a movie that really pays off that premise as fully as possible.

“Green Zone”

Oh, man, the stories I’ve heard about this one.

Paul Greengrass is a very good director.  No doubt about it.  World class, in my opinion.  And I hear chaos is part of his process.  I hear he thrives on that sort of energy, especially when trying to put together a film about life inside U.S.-occupied Iraq, starring Matt Damon and a whole lot of real military guys.  It sounds like the first round of shooting wsa just a warm-up, a way to learn what they really needed to make it a movie, and there’s another round that’s either about to happen or that just happened.  Because there’s so much uncertainty about that first round of shooting, this one has to end up on a list of big gambles for the year.  When you trust your film to chance, as Greengrass does in some ways, you’re sort of playing dice by definition.


“Drag Me To Hell”

Two of our biggest horror filmmakers, each returning to the genre for the first time in a while.  Does Sam Raimi have it in him to scare the shit out of an audience these days?  Does Wes Craven?

I’ve read Raimi’s script, and I’m not convinced.  I think it comes down to how he shoots it, and what he brings to it, personality-wise.  It’s not really there on the page.  It’s about a girl (Alison Lohman) who forecloses on a gypsy woman’s mortgage, and she’s cursed as a result.  Maybe that’s exactly the story people are going to want as therapeutic release right now, and they’ll cheer as Raimi kicks the crap out of her.

With “25/8,” Wes Craven’s writing and directing for the first time since “New Nightmare.”  That came out the same weekend as “Pulp Fiction,” so that gives you some sense of how long it’s been since Craven’s done his own thing.  All I know about it so far, I learned from Capone at Comic-Con last year.

I’ve always thought Craven was hit and miss, but when he hits, he earns his reputation as one of the most original voices of his peer group, and I’ve always got my fingers crossed for a guy like this.

“District 9”

I can tell you what it’s not.  It’s not a “Halo” movie being made under a fake name.  So knock it off, you conspiracy theorists.

Instead, this is an expansion of the ideas from Neill Blomkamp’s “Alive In Joburg,” an amazing short film from a few years ago.  Blomkamp was indeed the guy picked by Peter Jackson to make the “Halo” movie, but that’s not happening, and here’s where Blomkamp funnelled all that energy instead.

It’s a story about alien immigration, and if you want a taste of the world, check out this official website.

It’s meant to pull you into the world instead of selling it as a film, and I like that approach a lot.  Check out this list of rules for life in and around District 9.

I’ve heard from people who have seen a lot of what went into the film that the design work is iconic and strange and very orginal.  And all of that makes me really want to see the movie.  But we still have no idea how Blomkamp is with story or character, and that is, of course, the difference between a great effects reel and a film that holds together as a whole.  We’ll see which one this is when Sony releases this in August.

“Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen”

“Terminator: Salvation”

There might be moments when you get these two films confused, and no one could blame you.  They’re the two biggest-scaled sequels of the year, and they both feature giant robots at one point or another, and they’re both aiming to show you things you’ve never seen before.

I’ve seen nothing more from “Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen” than the few photos released on Empire and USA Today last week.  I’m not sure I really care about story details or new characters or whatever.  I just want more giant robot mayhem.  And when I say more, I mean more.  There are allegedly 40 giant robots this time, and that should translate to a lot more screen time for them.  I hope so.  That’s why I go see something called “Transformers”… it’s not for the human interplay or a coming of age story.  All of that is an excuse.  An excuse for giant robots.

And frankly, so is “Terminator: Salvation.”  I’ve been getting the hard sell on this one for months and months now, and I definitely think it looks giant scale.  But this, more than almost any other movie this year, seems to me to be a huge gamble, story-wise.  I think the producers have dliuted the value of the “Terminator” name a lot over the last few years, with the TV show and that third film, and I don’t think there’s a huge question mark hanging over the franchise for most people.  They don’t feel like they need another “Terminator” film.  It doesn’t star Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is really the one thing that would make it interesting to most audiences.  I’ve heard the entire explanation, that this is the Future War that the first two films always promised, but now, finally, we’re going to see it… and I still don’t know if I really wanted to see it.  I’m not sure it’s something that adds to the basic human story.

I also think Warner Bros. is in an interesting position selling this one, since Sam Worthington, the star of their giant action movie, is an unknown here.  So is Moon Bloodgood, the female star.  Yes, they have Christian Bale, but I’m not convinced that he’s a box-office draw on his own away from the “Batman” franchise.  Bryce Dallas Howard.  Common.  Both will no doubt be good in the film, but neither one of them sells tickets.  Helena Bonham Carter might have the juciest role in the film, but even so… when has Helena Bonham Carter ever been the thing a film’s been sold on?

I think McG is giving this movie everything he’s got, and I think the film will absolutely work as action spectacle, but whether or not it ends up convincing me that we need these new “Terminator” films… well, I guess we’ll find out this summer.

“Public Enemies”

“A Serious Man”

Michael Mann and the Coen Bros are about the best we’ve got working in commercial cinema right now.  The fact that they keep working is one of the things that gives me faith in the way the system works.  Yes, there are a lot of people who turn out impersonal junk every year, but there are also guys like Michael Mann and Joel and Ethan Coen who continue to slip their movies through the system.  And even if neither one of them has a perfect track run, who does?

I’m concerned about some of the early buzz I’ve heard on “Public Enemies,” but at least it looks like it’s a priority for Universal.  Johnny Depp and Christian Bale together is an exciting possibility, but there are two words that I’m going to say that explain my hesitation towards this retelling of the story of John Dillinger and Clyde Purvis:  “Young Guns.”

“A Serious Man” is a strange, subtle little Jewish fairy tale set in the ’60s, and it’s got a very low-wattage cast compared to the last Coen Bros. film.  Adam Arkin and Richard Kind are very funny actors, but not quite movie stars, and the film’s got such a low-key script that I’m not really sure what you sell.  Still, I think it looks gorgeous, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that it’s going to be another knock-out from these eccentric wits.

“Land Of The Lost”

People forget that Brad Silberling’s “Casper” was one of the first huge CGI shows, and that he was one of the first to direct a totally CGI character.  I think it’s about time he make a giant-scale FX film, and this script is three tons of total absurdity.  Sid and Marty Krofft are involved in updating their ’70s TV show about a family who plunged down a waterfall into a different world, where dinosaurs and humanoid lizards called Sleestaks rule the day.  In this film, it’s not a family that stumbles into this alternate reality, but a group of near-strangers.  Will Ferrell, Anna Friel (fresh off of “Pushing Daisies”), and this year’s funniest man, Danny McBride, and the efffects aren’t going to be played as a joke.

Best case scenario?  “Ghostbusters”

Worst case scenario?  “Super Mario Brothers”


I have been accused of being too hard on this film, and although I’ve seen several different edits of it, in the end, all that matters is what comes out theatrically, and I sincerely hope the wait is worth it for most “Star Wars” fans.

And on that note, I’ll wrap this up.  We’ll have one more installment in this series tomorrow, in which we look at the movies that make me most nervous for the year ahead.  Then Monday we’re off and running with our regular coverage, full force for 2009.

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