The Weekend Warrior 8/19/16: War Dogs, Ben Hur, Kubo and the Two Strings, Morris from America

– 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. 

Before we get to this week’s offerings, let’s look back at…

This Past Weekend:

It was a hot and humid weekend, especially on the East Coast, and while that generally helped the box office as far as returning homes, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (Warner Bros.) still took a massive plunge in its second weekend, down 67% to $43.5 million, about what was predicted. Seth Rogen’s animated movie Sausage Party (Sony) did slightly better than we projected with an opening weekend of $34.3 million, while Disney’s latest remake of Pete's Dragon failed to bring in much of a family audience, not helped by a mid-August release. It ended up with $21.5 million, below our prediction last week. Lastly, the Meryl Street comedy Florence Foster Jenkins (Paramount) did slightly better than we predicted with $6.6 million. 

This week we officially enter the “Dog Days of Summer,” when few movies are able to do very well, and because of that, what can be more perfect to open with than…

WAR DOGS (New Line/WB)

Cast: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Bradley Cooper, Ana des Armas
Director: Todd Phillips (The Hangover 1-3, Old School, Starsky and Hutch, Due Date, and more)
Genre:  Action, Comedy, Drama
Rated R
Plot:
David Packouz (Miles Teller) is trying to make a living selling blankets in Miami when his childhood friend Efram (Jonah Hill) returns home with a business plan to pick up open contracts to fulfill the Pentagon’s weapons needs. The two of them figure out a way to make a lot of money fast despite all the dangers involved with arms-dealing.
Theater Count (est.): 3,100

As we begin the last few weeks of summer, studios are going to have a harder time making money, which is why they’re going to take a lot more chances like this new comedy (of sorts) from The Hangover director Todd Phillips. Phillips changes gears a bit with a movie that’s more like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street or fellow comedy director Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated The Big Short from last year. Like both of them, it’s based on real events depicted in a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson called “Arms and the Dude” about two unlikely guys from Miami who got involved with arms-dealing.

This is another role in a major studio movie for 29-year-old Miles Teller, who has been coming into his own with roles from such films as the drama Rabbit Hole opposite Nicole Kidman and received acclaim for his starring role in Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-nominated Whiplash in 2014. Last year, Teller played Reed Richards in Fox’s failed Fantastic Four remake, which bombed with its own August release last year, but other than that, he’s appeared in a lot of smaller comedies like That Awkward Moment and this year's Get a Job, neither of which many people will have seen.

Just to add more comparisons to Scorsese’s movie, Phillips cast actor Jonah Hill, who started off by doing comedy in the movies of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, most notably in Superbad, which put Hill on the map. In recent years, Hill has been trying to be taken more seriously as a dramatic actor, helped by his two Oscar nominations for Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, which actually were quite funny.  War Dogs is trying continue that streak, only being sold more as a comedy than those other movies. (Hill’s sending mixed messages by providing his voice for Seth Rogen’s animated Sausage Party, which will offer the most competition for this movie.)

Despite the high pedigree for the film, it’s coming after a series of failed comedy vehicles set in the Middle East, including Bill Murray’s Rock the Kasbah last year, Tina Fey’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Tom Hanks' A Hologram for the King, none of which did very well. (Only Fey’s movie grossed more than $5 million.) There’s more to War Dogs than the time it spends in the Middle East, but that’s what’s being focused on in the commercials which could hurt its chances at finding an audience going by those other films.

Unfortunately, there’s not going to be much in War Dogs to interest women either, since it’s very much a bromedy which fashions itself after the Al Pacino gangster flick Scarface, even with the poster that’s modeled after that classic image. Even so, War Dogs should appeal to the same 20 to 30-something males that helped make The Wolf of Wall Street such a big hit with its mix of action and humor, which will offer something different from other films currently in theaters.


BEN-HUR (Paramount/MGM)

Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zorer, Sofia Black-D'Elia
Director: Timur Bekmambetov (WantedAbraham Lincoln Vampire HunterNight Watch)
Genre:  Action,
Rated PG-13
Plot:  A retelling of the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prince who is falsely accused by his brother Messala (Toby Kebbel), who then gets him forced into slavery at sea, away from his family and wife. Years later, Judah returns to his homeland for revenge.
Theater Count (est.): 3,000 

Of course, we weren’t going to get to the end of the summer without one more remake, and this is a weird one because it pairs producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who have had huge success with biblical epics like The Bible mini-series, with Russia’s top filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, who has directed and produced some of that country’s biggest hits.  Together, they’re tackling a movie that’s already been remade a couple times, with the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston being deemed a classic after it won 11 Oscars.  Obviously, that’s going to be a difficult hurdle to overcome.

Probably the most prominent member of the cast is Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman, not playing God, as he did in Bruce Almighty, but still being featured prominently in the trailers and commercials. It’s mainly a vehicle for Jack Huston, best known from his turn on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, as he pitted against Toby Kebbell, who has now made quite a career as a villain. He was Dr. Doom in last year’s failed Fantastic Four movie, and did motion capture as the antagonist Koba in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and this summer’s poorly-reviewed Warcraft (again, as the bad guy). Clearly, Kebbell is being typecast, but with all the make-up and CG, it’s not like that many people will even realize it’s him.

Clearly, there isn’t much of a draw among the cast—one presumes that Morgan Freeman is there to bring in older moviegoers, but many of them may already be cynical about an Oscar-winning epic being remade. While Toby Kebbell has been in a number of big sequels, one can’t imagine anyone could pick him out of a police line-up, and Jack Huston isn’t much better in terms of box office draw.

TImur Bekmambetov is more famous here for genre fare like the action hit Wanted, its unfortunate follow-up, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and the recent Hardcore Henry, all movies that have received mixed reactions at best, and it’s hard to picture him taking on a serious epic like Ben-Hur with those films in his cache.

Ben-Hur's biggest problem is that the older males familiar with the 1959 movie probably won’t have much interest in a movie that everyone involved is saying “isn’t a remake.” People just aren’t buying that anymore, especially after a summer full of remakes, and the 20-to-30 something guys who might be interested in this would just as likely go see War Dogs or even Sausage Party if they missed it last week. There’s a chance it might get marketed to the Christian audience due to its connections to the story of Jesus. Producers Downey and Burnett had a good deal of success with 2014’s Son of God, which grossed $59.7 million, but we’ve seen mixed reactions to similar epics released earlier in the year like Risen and The Young Messiah, the former doing better than the latter. 

There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of people who have much interest in seeing this, and though Paramount has tried their best to promote this with regular commercials during the Olympics and tie-ins into WWE, this is looking to be a very expensive bomb for the studio, because it will have to rely solely on international moviegoers to make a dent in its hefty production budget.


KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (Focus Features)

Voice Cast: Art Parkinson, Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro
Director: Travis Knight (Lead animator and Vice President of Animation at LAIKA Studios)
Genre:  Animation
Rated PG
Plot: A young boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) has been living in hiding with his invalid mother from her father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), but when her sisters (Rooney Mara) close in, they have to go on the run with the help of a amnesiac Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and talking monkey (Charlize Theron) to find three sacred items to stop the Moon King.
Theater Count (est.): 3,200

As summer comes to a close, we get one last family film with Kubo and the Two Strings, which is the fourth film by stop-motion animation studio LAIKA in collaboration with their regular partner Focus Features, following CoralineParanorman, and The Boxtrolls.  All three of those movies were nominated for an Oscar in the Animated category, and LAIKA’s latest is a personal project for the company’s CEO Travis Knight, who directed this one after running the animation for the previous movies.

This film is based on a classic tale from Japanese lore about a young boy who tries to find three objects that can help him fight off his evil grandfather, the Moon King, with the help of a monkey and a giant warrior beetle. As always, LAIKA has gotten an impressive voice cast that includes Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes and Matthew McConaughey, which won’t necessarily bring in their fans, but it won’t hurt to have such top-line actors voicing characters in the movie.

LAIKA has been one of the main purveyors of stop-motion animation along with Tim Burton and Aardman Studios, although to date, few of these stop motion animated movies have done as well as their computer-animated brethren.  Some of the biggest-opening stop-motion movies still haven’t cracked the $18 million mark, but a few of them, like Chicken Run and Coraline have ended up making a lot of money.

Chances are that the kids won’t know or care much about how an animated movie is made, but they’ll mainly want a movie they find funny, which is why the marketing has focused on the talking monkey and beetle for them. So far, the reviews have been great, because Knight’s story includes a lot of martial arts and imagery from classic Asian cinema, and the story is a notch above other kiddie fare. However, neither of these things necessarily mean that parents or the kids will want to see it, and the movie’s awkward non-descriptive title won’t do much to help generate more interest.

Somehow, Focus Features has managed to get more theaters than the other two movies this weekend, but it’s also releasing a family film late in the summer season with last week’s Pete's Dragon still hanging over it as an option for families. It probably should do well, somewhere between $10 and 15 million.


Box Office Predictions:

It’s looking like even with another major drop, Warner Bros’ Suicide Squad should win its third weekend at the box office with last week’s hit Sausage Party holding onto second place and then the three new movies vying for the next few slots. War Dogs should do the best of the new ones with Kubo and the Two Strings and Ben-Hur facing off against Disney’s Pete's Dragon, which hasn’t done nearly as well as expected.

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

1. Suicide Squad (Warner Bros.)  $19 million -56%

2. Sausage Party (Sony)  $16.1 million -53%

3. War Dogs (Warner Bros.) $15.5 million N/A

4. Kubo and the Two Strings (Focus)  $14.5 million N/A

5. Pete's Dragon (Disney)  $12.3 million -42%

6. Ben-Hur (Paramount/MGM)  $12.1 million N/A

7. Jason Bourne (Universal)  $7.9 million -31%

8. Bad Moms (STX)  $7.6 million -45%

9 The Secret Life of Pets (Universal)   $6.5 million -28%

10. Florence Foster Jenkins(Paramount)  $4.6 million -30%

This Weekend Last Year:

Universal’s NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton won its second weekend at the box office with $26.4 million, down 56% from its opening weekend, while Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation took second place with $11.4 million. That left the three new movies to end up below that with the horror sequel Sinister 2 (Focus) topping them with $10.5 million in third place and the action sequel Hitman: Agent 47 (20th Century Fox) in fourth with $8.3 million. American Ultra (Lionsgate), starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart bombed with $5.4 million to take sixth place. We say it every year and last year was proof that we’re in the official “Dog Days of Summer.”


This Week’s Picks:

Somehow I ended up going with two very different movies set in Germany — one being the most creative and imaginative coming-of-age movies I’ve seen in a long time, and the other being a historic drama.


MORRIS FROM AMERICA (A24)

Cast: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, Lina Keller
Writer/Director: Chad Hartigan  (This Is Martin Bonner)
Genre:  Comedy
Rated R
Plot:
Morris Gentry (Markees Christmas) is a teenager living in Heidelburg, Germany with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson), but feeling out of place since he doesn’t know the language and is having trouble making friends. When he starts hanging with the lovely and rebellious Katrin (Lina Keller), Morris feels like he has a chance at being cool.

One of my favorite movies from this year’s Sundance Film Festival is this coming-of-age film from Chad Hartigan -- whose previous film This Is Martin Bonner -- which I had heard a lot of good things about.

Morris is a chubby 13-year-old black kid from Richmond, Virginia, living in a small town in Germany and having trouble adjusting since his widower father Curtis is always busy at work, leaving him alone at home. While that set-up might not seem that interesting on paper, Hartigan has written a movie that’s full of humor and heart and feels very authentic and personal.

Newcomer Markees Christmas is absolutely terrific as the title character. He’s in almost every scene of the movie and literally carries the film. He has some great scenes with his German teacher Inge (Carla Juri from Wetlands), who urges Morris to hang out at a youth center and try to make friends with his mostly-white German-speaking classmates, who only know black people through racial stereotypes.

Craig Robinson is also quite good as a father trying to understand what his son is going through and feeling more disconnected from him then ever. Robinson’s scenes with Christmas are so good it’s easy to believe them as father and son. Even though this is Morris’ story, Hartigan shows you just enough of Katrin and Inge so that you can totally understand where they’re coming from as well.

Hartigan does a fantastic job capturing the Heidelburg environment and the loneliness Morris feels as an outcast around the kids. Morris is a great calling card for Hartigan to do bigger movies since he clearly is able to work with actors to create relatable characters and situations.  I feel like most guys at least will be able relate to what Morris is going through, especially with his crush on Katrin, a relationship that seems doomed from the start.

Add to that a great upbeat soundtrack and you have one of the most enjoyable films of the year, definitely one of my favorites, up there with Sing Street and Hunt for the Wilderpeople — I’ve even seen all three of those films three times each!

Morris From America will open in select cities on Friday. Hopefully it will do well enough to expand further.

Rating: A


THE PEOPLE VS. FRITZ BAUER (Cohen Media)

Cast: Burghart Klaußner, Rüdiger Klink, Andrej Kaminsky
Director: Lars Krause (The Coming DaysMeine Schwestern)
Genre: Drama, Thriller 
Rated R
Plot:
In 1957, Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klaussner), Frankfurt’s attorney general, is determined to find and prosecute the S.S. Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who is still on the loose somewhere after committing atrocities at the Nazi concentration camps. Bauer soon learns that not everyone in Frankfurt supports his efforts, and he’s forced to go to Israel’s Massad to find Eichmann, which just gets him into more trouble. 

This was a pleasant surprise that I missed at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. While I was reading the plot in the press notes, I was surprised by how much it had in common with Labyrinth of Lies, the German Oscar selection from a few years back, a movie that I wasn’t particularly crazy about it.

This is a much better version of the search for Nazis years after the end of World War II, something that’s always interested me as the son of two German sons.  I’ve been back in Germany quite a few times myself and I always wondered how the country got out from under the tyranny of the Third Reich and the abominations committed by Hitler and his followers like Eichmann. Apparently it’s due to the efforts of the likes of Bauer, who has been forgotten over the years.

Fritz Bauer is an interesting character, being a Jew himself and having to deal with a lot of backlash from those around him, including some who work in the government, worried they may be outed for their own activities during WWII.  It’s a film that explores the secrets we keep and what happens when someone whose job it is to prosecute wrongdoers finds himself under heavy scrutiny (I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, because a lot of these secrets are quite surprising when they’re finally revealed).

Klaussner gives an amazing performance as a man who is driven to take down a war criminal who managed to escape prosecution for his atrocities, and Lars Kraume shows himself to be quite a brilliant filmmaker in terms of using classic cinematic techniques to make the most out of his dialogue-heavy drama. In some ways, it reminds me of last year’s Phoenix in terms of being a period piece that feels very much of that time.  

Granted, this movie won’t be for everyone, but this quality of filmmaking is the type of thing that usually finds its way to Oscar night — it already won four German film awards including for “Outstanding Feature Film” -- and it’s one of the more intriguing German films that sadly won’t get nearly as much attention here as it deserves.

The People vs. Fritz Bauer will open in New York and L.A. on Friday.

Rating: A-


OTHER LIMITED RELEASES:

Daniel Radcliffe stars in Daniel Ragussis’ feature debut Imperium (Lionsgate Premiere), playing CIA agent Nate Foster, who goes undercover to infiltrate a white supremacist ring that may be planning a terrorist action. It will open in select cities and On Demand Friday.

The latest doc from director Werner Herzog (GRIZZLY MAN) is Lo and Behold, The Reveries of the Connected World (Magnolia), his look into the birth and the evolution of the internet. If you’re into Herzog’s previous docs, this one includes his usual insights and sense of humor at exploring a subject, although there’s also a lot of technobabble. It will open in many cities on Friday (you can find out where HERE) as well as be available On Demand.

From Guatemala comes that country’s selection for the Oscars (Guatemala’s first!), Jays Bustamante’s Ixnacul (Kino Lorber) about a 17-year-old who lives on an active volcano in Guatemala, and is set-up for an arranged marriage by her parents. It opens at the IFC Center in New York Friday and then expands to four Landmarks and a Laemmle theater in California on August 26.

In select theaters and VOD on Friday, Josh Duhamel stars in Brett Rapkin’s Spaceman (Orion Pictures/FilmBuff), the story of Montreal Expos pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee and what he got into after being released from the team. It opens in select cities and On Demand.

Natalie Portman makes her directorial debut with A Tale of Love and Darkness (Focus World), an adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir about growing up in Israel.  Besides adapting and directing, Portman also plays the wife of Amos’ author father, who is disappointed about life in Palestine during the years while the Jews were trying to set up the country of Israel.

With the next entry of the game delayed until November, Takeshi Nozue’s Kingslaive: Final Fantasy XV (Stage 6/Square Enix) is the latest chapter in the ongoing video game saga from Square Enix, this one being a photorealistic motion capture animation epic with voice work from the likes of Aaron Paul, Lena Headey and Sean Bean. It deals with the battle between the lands of Lucis, ruled by King Regis (voiced by Bean), and Niflheim, and how an attempted peace treaty forces one of the King’s bravest soldiers Nix Ulrich (Paul) to have to save Tenebrae’s Princess Luna (Headey) after she’s captured.

Opening Friday at the Metrograph in New York City is Andrew Ahn’s coming-of-age tale Spa Night (Strand Releasing), set in the world of Los Angeles’ Koreatown and its spas and karaoke bars where an 18-year-old named David Cho (Jon Seo), who lives with his immigrant parents, finds a spot for cruising when he gets a job at an all-male spa.

On Wednesday, New York’s Film Forum gets Heidi Brandenburg and Matthew Orzel’s doc When Two Worlds Collide (First Run Features), a look at the conflict between Alberto Pizango, the leader of Peru’s indigenous people of the Amazon, and the country’s President, Alan Garcia.

If you’re into EDM (Electronic Dance Music), Netflix will debut the Steven Aoki doc I'll Sleep When I'm Dead to the streaming service on Friday, which gets you much closer to one of the world’s most popular DJs. Also, AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead will premiere the second half of the second season on Sunday as the story moves into Tijuana, Mexico! 

That’s it for this week, but join us again next Wednesday right here on LRM Online for a look at new movies including Fede Alvarez’s thriller Don't Breathe (Screen Gems), Jason Statham’s return as Mechanic: Resurrection (Lionsgate), while Robert De Niro returns to the boxing ring (sort of) with the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone  (The Weinstein Co.), starring Edgar Ramirez and Usher Raymond.

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

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