The Weekend Warrior 10/7/16: The Girl on a Train, Birth of a Nation, Middle School, Newtown

– by Edward Douglas

Welcome back to the Weekend Warrior, your weekly look at the new movies hitting theaters this weekend, as well as other cool events and things to check out. 

THIS PAST WEEKEND:   

Another bad weekend where nothing really popped, which is bad news for a month at the box office where only Clint Eastwood’s Sully exceeded any expectations.  Tim Burton’s new film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children came out just below my predictions with $29 million, but the Mark Wahlberg-Peter Berg disaster flick Deepwater Horizon was right around where I predicted with $20.2 million. The comedy Masterminds tanked with just $6.5 million for the weekend to end up in sixth place while Disney’s The Queen of Katwe did slightly better than predicted with $2.5 million.  


The first full weekend in October has a good deal of competition from the release of the video game Mafia III to the start of the baseball post-season (Go Red Sox and Mets!), new records from Green Day and Phish, and oh yeah, if you’re in New York, there’s a little thing called New York Comic-Con! Even so, there’s a variety of movies, two based on novels and one that’s hoping to score some Oscar love. (Also note that next Monday is Columbus Day so no school and in some cases, no work, so Sunday should do better than the normal Sunday.) 

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (DreamWorks/Universal)

Cast: Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Allison Janney, Edgar Ramirez, Lisa Kudrow, Laura Prepon
Director: Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up)
Genre:  Drama, Thriller
Rated R
Plot:
Rachel (Emily Blunt) always rides the train past the same house every day, watching a loving couple (Luke Evans, Haley Bennett) as she passes their house, which happens to be next door to where Rachel lived with her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) who now has a new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) and baby daughter. When the woman next door goes missing, Rachel becomes more involved in trying to solve the case, thinking she has the inside track (ba dum bum) from seeing the couple from her train window.
Theater Count (est.): 3000+

For many years, Hollywood studios have had sizeable and profitable hits with movies based on bestselling books that have catered to women — just look at the success of many of the films based on Nicholas Sparks’ novels.  On top of that, thrillers have been a staple of a hungry moviegoing public all the way back to the ‘40s with so many memorable hits in every decade.

So along comes Paula Hawkins in 2015 with her first novel The Girl on the Train, a murder mystery told from three women’s perspectives, and wisely, DreamWorks scooped up the rights even before it was even released and became an enormous bestselling hit.  With the success of the David Fincher-directed 2014 adaptation of Gone Girl, a similar bestselling thriller novel, DreamWorks quickly greenlit the movie and hired Tate Taylor, the director of their earlier hit adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, to direct the movie version of Hawkins’ book. (The Help was also told from the perspective of different women, so hiring Taylor made sense.)

From there, it was important to cast the three women and the first one attached was Emily Blunt, the British actress who has just been doing great stuff in recent years from last year’s Sicario, and back-to-back 2014 hits Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise and the musical Into the Woods, with Meryl Streep, both which did $100 million. Her recent appearance in the prequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War didn’t fare very well -- par for the course with sequels this year -- but she generally has created a strong fanbase among both men and women that makes her perfect casting for this dramatic thriller. It may be too early to judge Blunt’s Oscar prospects for her performance but she’s yet to be nominated despite receiving five Golden Globe nominations to date.

She’s joined by Haley Bennett, who just appeared in The Magnificent Seven as one of the few women in the movie, and Rebecca Ferguson, another up ‘n’ comer who appeared with Tom Cruise in last year’s Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation and with Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins. (Pretty strange coincidence there, huh?) The cast is rounded out by the likes of Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Justin Theroux and Allison Janney, a fairly decent cast that Taylor brought together.

To determine how this movie might fare, we really do have to go back to Gone Girl, which opened this same weekend in 2014 in a similar number of theaters with an impressive $37.5 million opening on its way to an astounding $168 million. Granted, a lot of that can be attributed to Fincher’s draw with male moviegoers which helped the movie do better than if it was just something geared towards the novel’s female readership. That movie also had Ben Affleck, rave reviews after its New York Film Festival premiere, and a strong promotional campaign by 20th Century Fox.

Reviews probably won’t be as good for this one, which could theoretically hurt the movie since one expects the women that read the book might also read reviews before going to see a movie, but it still should perform strongly with not much else fully connecting with moviegoers and 30+ year old women generally being an underserved market.

Because of those things, The Girl on a Train should end up opening at the top of the box office but still well below the opening of Gone Girl, and it probably won’t gross more than $100 million total in such a soft market.

LRM Interview with Director Tate Taylor

LRM Interview with Luke Evans (Coming Soon)


THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Fox Searchlight)

Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith
Writer/Director: Nate Parker (directorial debut)
Genre:  Drama
Rated R
Plot:
Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was the child of slaves taken into the big house by a kindly mistress (Penelope Ann Miller) who teaches him to read. When the plantation runs into financial difficulties after the end of the Civil War, her son Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) takes Nat around to other slave owners’ properties to subdue the slaves with his preaching. As Nat sees the conditions and atrocities other slaves need to endure, he leads a violent slave uprising to help change things.
Theater Count (est.): 2,000

Possibly one of the most important and controversial films of the year is finally being released to moviegoers nationwide, and it will be very interesting to see how it fares with all the talk and think pieces it’s stirred up since Nate Parker’s directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to a standing ovation even before it began. The movie couldn’t be better timed premiering at the same time when various factions were crying foul of the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations leading to the hashtag #OscarSoWhite.

The movie left Sundance having won both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award, which has happened a few times before, but most notably with Lee Daniels’ Precious. That film’s distributor Lionsgate went with a slower rollout in early November where it grossed $1.9 million in 18 theaters, a jaw-dropping $100,000 per theater. When it opened wide in 629 theaters, it grossed $10.9 million, a respectable $17,000 per theater, and that kind of shows you how well movies like this can do

This is an important film in these times, since African-Americans are being persecuted and killed left and right, and the community has been rightfully angry. (This past Friday, Ava Duvernay’s doc 13th about the U.S. prison system kicked off the New York Film Festival to a standing ovation.) It’s hard to forget that we live in a country that was built on the backs of slaves brought to this country from Africa, and though that was a long time ago, it feels like there’s still quite a bit of race relation issues in our country as well as in a movie industry that still doesn’t offer the diversity of sports. The Birth of a Nation co-ops the title from D.W. Grittiths’ controversial 1915 movie that shines the spotlight on a black man who rose up and led a revolt against oppressive masters.

It’s impossible to completely ignore the rape charges leveled against Parker and his co-writer Jean Celestin 17 years ago when they were students at Penn State. Parker was let off while his friend did jail time, but that background of the first-time director has become such a big part of the conversation that Fox Searchlight haven’t been able to promote it as much as they’d probably like because it’s hard to keep journalists on the movie. One has to wonder how many African-American women that may have seen the movie might flinch due to all the rape talk, especially when they have The Girl on the Train as an option. Otherwise, this should be a far larger draw with more appeal to African-American audiences than the very white bread Girl on the Train, which should make this effective counter-programming, since males especially won’t be as swayed by the rape allegations that have arisen.  

Oddly, Fox Searchlight, who paid a record $17.5 million for the movie at Sundance (apparently not knowing Parker’s background), are going for a much-wider release right off the bat, releasing Birth of a Nation into 2,000 theaters. It’s odd only because Fox Searchlight is one of the studios who has established the optimum way of releasing movies in select cities before expanding wider, something they did with this movie’s most immediate and obvious comparison, the Oscar Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen. That received similar acclaim out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the coveted People’s Choice Award, and Searchlight gave it a slow roll-out in late October 2013, and it grossed about $17.4 million by the first weekend when it was in just 1,144 theaters. That movie would end up grossing $57 million by the time it left theaters the following May, clearly boosted by its accumulating awards.

Birth of a Nation has a much bigger uphill battle, firstly since it’s facing reviews from critics who probably heard way too much hype out of Sundance, and then from the rape charges being bandied about in the press—a good conspiracy theorist could safely assume one of the competing studios not wanting Birth to do well among awards voters has stirred up much of the controversy. On top of that, it has to deal with being another movie about slavery so soon after 12 Years a Slave and Matthew McConaughey’s The Free States of Jones, which only opened with $7.5 million over the summer. Could even the African-Americans that want to support a movie like this be ready for another hard-to-watch experience? Will this seem too much like going to school or getting a history lesson for moviegoers that want to be entertained? These are all questions that we’ll only know the answer to come the weekend, but chances are that the curiosity factor will prevail to help the movie do decent if not spectacular business.


MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE (CBS Films)

Cast: Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Rob Riggle, Thomas Barbusca, Andrew Daly, Adam Pally
Director: Steve Carr
Genre:  Comedy
Rated PG
Plot: Rafe (Griffin Gluck) is transferred to a new oppressive middle school, where his problems with authority and active imagination cause him to hatch plans with his friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca) to break every rule set in the school’s handbook, putting him at odds with the school’s Principal Dwight (Andrew Daly).
Theater Count (est.): 2,600 

As is the case many weeks, this is the film I probably know the least about, firstly because I haven’t seen it but also because I know absolutely nothing about the books written by James Patterson…. Wait, what? James Patterson? That guy behind the Alex Cross books and other thrillers who is always doing those creepy TV commercials?  Okay, then… Apparently, Patterson did a series of young adult books and it got made into a movie… and here it is!

The movie is directed by Steve Carr, director of hjgh-brow comedies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Eddie Murphy comedy vehicles Dr. Doolittle 2 and Daddy Day Care, and there are a few known actors like Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) and Rob Riggle, but that kind of stuff won’t matter to the film’s primary audience -- young ‘tween readers familiar with the books.

In many ways, Middle School is trying to recreate the success found by the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies at Fox, the three movies having grossed $225 million worldwide with most of that in North America. Those movies have grossed between $49 million (for the most recent one) and $64 million (for the first one) but they cost so little they end up being profitable enough for Fox to have decided to move forward with a fourth one.

Obviously, that kind of success would be greatly enjoyed by the smaller CBS Films, who really haven’t released a PG movie like this, the closest thig to it possibly being The Kings of Summer, which wasn’t based on a popular book series. Thanks to awareness of the books, they’ve been able to get Middle School into a respectable 2,600 theaters, which should make it a solid choice for the 8 to 13 crowd who will already have seen Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s last week if there was any interest, although this movie probably doesn’t have quite as big a marketing campaign behind it without having that movie’s star power to do the talk show rounds either.


Middle School (CBS Films) - $8.2 million N/A

BOX OFFICE PREDICTIONS: 

(NOTE: Check back on Thursday night for any updates to these predictions due to changing theater counts, etc.)

It’s looking very likely that The Girl on the Train will win this weekend with ease, followed by some of the returning movies, although the big unknown is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which could do well enough to take third place but might end up in fourth if it doesn’t fare as well. Middle School is shooting for the bottom half of the Top 10.

 1. The Girl on the Train (Universal) - $27.6 million N/A

2. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Fox) - $15.6 million -46 %

3. Deepwater Horizon (Lionsgate) - $11.5 million -43%

4. The Birth of a Nation (Fox Searchlight)  - $11 million N/A

5. Storks (Warner Bros.) - $9 million -35%

6. The Magnificent Seven (Sony) - $8.4 million -46%

7. Middle School (CBS Films) - $8.2 million N/A

8. Sully (Warner Bros.) - $5.7 million -31%

9. Masterminds (Relativity) - $3 million -58%

10. Queen of Katwe (Disney) - $1.6 million -35%

LAST YEAR:

Just to give you some idea how bad October can be at the box office, this weekend only saw one wide release (a rarity in October) and yet, Joe Wright’s Pan (Warner Bros.) didn’t do great, opening in third place with $15.3 million in 3,515 theaters. Although that might have been better than some expected, the movie cost $150 million, and it didn’t even come close to that with international box office. The only other significant releases were the Mexican film comedy Ladrones (Lionsgate/Pantelion), which scored $1.4 million in 375 theaters and Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (Universal), starring Michael Fassbender, which got a platform release into 4 theaters with an astonishing $130,381 per theater… but then didn’t fare particularly well when it opened wide a week late


This Week's Pick(s):

NEWTOWN (Abramorama)

Cast: Mark Barden, David Wheeler, Melissa Malin, Nicole Hockley, Gene Rosen, Sgt. Bill Carrio, Rick Thorne
Director: Kim A. Snyder
Genre:  Documentary
Plot: This film that examines the murders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 4, 2012, through interviews with those that survived and had to carry on.

This haunting and emotional doc was one of the first movies I saw this year, right before the Sundance Film Festival where it premiered… what a way to start the year.  

Snyder’s film opens with bird’s eye footage of the area narrated with some of the 9/11 calls from those trapped in the school during the shootings, and it proceeds with interviews with the teachers who were there on that day, as well as the parents of some of the kids that were killed, which is very hard to watch, as you may imagine.

It also deals with how these people are getting through the experience and using it to try to make the world a better place, mainly by lobbying against gun laws that allow people like the killer to get their hands on automatic weapons. Some of the people who talk about the incident include a neighbor of the shooter, who couldn’t even watch as they tore down his house as to not remind the victims' relatives of what happened. (Sandy Hook itself has been torn down.)

Probably the most moving stories come from Mark Barden and David Wheeler, two of the fathers who lost 6-year-old sons in the shootings, as they put a group together to go to Washington to fight gun violence. Watching Barden go through pictures of his murdered son and watching home videos of the two young boys, some just days before their deaths, is just really tough to watch without getting emotional, but it’s so effective at getting you to realize how innocents die when someone unhinged gets their hands on automatic weapons.

As I’ve said, this isn’t an easy movie, but Kim Snyder has done just a fantastic commemorating the deceased and helping us understand what their relatives have been going through since the shooting as they try to recover. This is easily one of the best documentaries made this year. 

Rating: A

Newtown will open in New York Friday at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and then will open in Los Angeles on October 14.

I’ve also heard great things about Ava Duvernay’s doc 13th that looks at the U.S. prison system and the thousdands of African-Americans that end up caught up in the system. It will air on Netflix starting Friday, October 7, but I didn’t have a chance to see it before “going to press.”


OTHER LIMITED RELEASES:

There are just way too many limited releases coming out this month and I was barely able to see a fraction of them opening this week.

Set in Tehran, Iran during the ‘80s when the country was at war with Iraq, Under the Shadow (Vertical) follows a mother and her daughter stuck alone in their apartment, which seems to be haunted by spirits. This more subdued and subtler horror film than what we normally get from Hollywood will open in select theaters on Friday.

Narrated by Brad Pitt, Terrence Malick’s new doc Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (IMAX)--released only in IMAX theaters obviously--is the legendary filmmaker’s “celebration of life and the grand history of the cosmos” that takes viewers from the Big Bang to present human life and beyond. If it’s anything like Malick’s other recent films, it will be a lot of beautiful images with no actual story. At least it’s only 40 minutes, but there will be a 90-minute version narrated by Cate Blanchett released sometime later.

Based on Katherine (Bridge to Terabitha) Paterson*’s 1979 novel The Great Gilly Hopkins (Lionsgate Premiere), this stars Sophie Nélisse as a snarky foster kid sent to live with the loving Maime Trotter (Kathy Bates) but whom still keeps actively looking for her real mother. What she finds is a grandmother (Glenn Close) who comes to take Gilly away with her just as the girl is starting to enjoy living with her new family. Also starring Octavia Spencer and Bill Cobbs, it will open in select cities and on VOD Friday. (*No relation to James Patterson who also has a young adult adaptation out this week.)

Where do I even begin with British filmmaker Jim Hoskins’ The Greasy Strangler (FilmRise), director of “G for Grandpa” from ABCs of Death 2? It stars Michael St. Michael and Sky Elobar as father and son tour guides Big Ronnie and Big Brayden who give disco tours of their suburban neighborhood where they meet the lovely Janet (Elizabeth De Rasso) and proceed to fight for her affections. Oh, yeah, there’s also a killer on the loose called “The Greasy Strangler” (because he’s covered in grease and strangles his victims) who Ronnie claims isn’t him… but it’s pretty obvious that it is him. If you like to watch a lot of old, fat naked people, then this is the movie for you. I get enough of that here at home by looking in the mirror. It will probably play at a lot of Alamo Drafthouses around the country.

(Note: The trailer below is NOT SAFE FOR WORK!)

Set in 1979, Derrick Borte’s London Town (IFC Films) (not to be confused with the recent London Road) isn’t so much as a Joe Strummer biopic as it is a film about the influence Strummer’s band The Clash has on one British lad named Shay (Daniel Huttlestone from Into the Woods), who gets into their music through his mother (Natascha McElholne) and a punk girl named Vivian (Nell Williams). One night, while driving his injured father’s cab, Shay gets to met Joe Strummer, as played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It will open at the IFC Center Friday and be available On Demand as well.

Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulsen star in the relationship dramedy Blue Jay (The Orchard), written by Duplass and directed by Alexandre Lehmann, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. They play former high school sweethearts who have a chance meeting at a supermarket and spend some time catching up. Select cities and presumably VOD.

Fans of Don Coscarelli’s 1979 cult classic sci-fi horror film Phantasm will have a chance to see a newly renovated HD version of the classic (restored by JJ Abrams' Bad Robot, no less) AND a brand-new chapter in the series when Phantasm: Remastered and Phantom: Ravager (Well Go USA) hit theaters and digital HD on Friday.

David Schisgall’s doc Theo Who Lived (Zeitgeist Films) tells the story of American journalist Theo Padnos who in 2012 went to Syria to report on the country’s civil war before being kidnapped and tortured by al-Quaeda, who presumed he was CIA due to his fluent Arabic. That fact also helped him survive and in the film, Schisgall’s cameras follow Padnos as he returns to the Middle East to retrace his steps. It opens at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

André Téchiné’s latest film Being 17 (Strand Releasing) is a movie about sexual awakening between two French teenagers, Damien and Thomas, that go to high school together but don’t get along until Damien’s mother has Thomas live with them and they’re forced to deal with their attraction towards each other. It also opens at the IFC Center.

Directed by actor Kevin Pollak, The Late Bloomer (Momentum Pictures) tells E! News personality Ken Baker’s story about how he didn’t hit puberty until he was 30 years old due to a tumor that was against his pituitary gland. Once removed by surgery, he experiences his entire puberty in a matter of weeks. Johnny Simmons plays Peter Newmans (the Baker character) while JK Simmons and Maria Bello plays his parents, and basically, it’s a comedy based on Baker’s experiences.

The latest New York indie comedy about dating is Better Off Single (Gravitas Ventures), starring Aaron Tveit as Charlie Carroll, who quits his job and dumps his girlfriend (Abby Elliott) to give single life a try. When that doesn’t work, he agrees to get some questionable advice from his friends (one of them being Kal Penn). It opens in select cities and on VOD.

Very loosely based on the story of Kitty Genovese, a woman raped and murdered in Queens in 1964 while 37 neighbors stood by, which led to the creation of 911, Puk Grasten’s film 37 is an ensemble drama that takes a look at some of the families and neighbors that were around on that tragic night. It will open in select theaters and On Demand.

The latest from Bollywood is Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mirzya (Mehra Pictures), based on Punjabi folklore and the legend of Mirza-Sahiban, set in Ladakh and Rajsasthan in telling the eternal love story, which opens in select cities.

In noted indie filmmaker Henry Jaglom’s Ovation! (Rainbow Releasing), his frequent collaborator and muse Tanna Fredrick (making her sixth appearance in a Jaglom film) plays a community theater actress who falls for a charming TV star and has to decide whether to give up what she loves… for love. It opens Friday in New York, following its run in L.A.

Lastly, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1865 classic The Battle of Algiers (Rialto) will have a 4K restoration released in theaters, starting at New York’s Film Forum on Friday and also playing in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. with producer Saadi Yacef attending select screenings, following its screening at the 54th New York Film Festival this past weekend.

That’s it for this week, but join us again next Wednesday right here on LRM Online for a look at new movies, including Ben Affleck in the thriller The Accountant (Warner Bros.), Kevin Hart in the concert doc Kevin Hart: What Now? and … Max Steel.

(Text copyright Edward Douglas 2016. The Weekend Warrior logo designed by and copyright Tim Nardelli 2016.)

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