DANCES WITH THE ARTHOUSE: Just 'Roll' with Guy Ritchie, Baby, but Don't Expect to Get 'Lucky' with Mike Leigh
by Indie Jones
The fall film season is in full swing these days, with the successful limited launches of The Duchess and Appaloosa, both of which collected strong PTA numbers (unfortunately reducing Towelhead to scraps after only one week). With the number of serious pretenders to PTA crowns among the weeks of autumn, we shall not be surprised by such turnovers, as there will only be a few chosen ones at the end of the season that were true arthouse goldmines at the box office, in the shadow of the bigger prestigious films produced by Hollywood. Among last year's champs were Into the Wild, The Darjeeling Limited, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Persepolis.
The real winners will be the films capable of delivering for more than one weekend. The competition is teeming, and the potential of a film too often evaluated on its opening three days. This week, I'm taking a look at films opening Oct. 10, each one driven by a marquee name: small potatoes British crime specialist Guy Ritchie, visual Chinese poet Wong Kar Wai and London social commentator Mike Leigh.
First we have RocknRolla, the so-called return of Guy Ritchie to what made him a so-called breakthrough for British genre cinema a decade ago. The hype around Ritchie has cooled down for a long time now, as the man himself has failed to build on his success ever since Snatch, the follow-up to his widely praised debut film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. I'm not the biggest fan of Ritchie, though I do have to admit that his messy, visually overwrought approach didn't mask Brad Pitt's funny and enjoyable performance in Snatch. Choosing to remake Swept Away as his next film, however, almost killed Ritchie's career. Well, in fact, it did kill his career for a while, as the man was then only perceived as Madonna's husband, a once-promising director turning out to be his wife's instrument. He did try to prove otherwise with Revolver, but the British-crime-all-over-again feel made most people question whether Ritchie could do anything else.
Now, three years later, his comeback with RocknRolla, a story of tough guys, mobs, gamblers, crooks and sexy ladies in London, would seem to be a strong indication that, no, in fact he can't. Then again, fans are craving a film that gets back to the nuts-and-bolts basics of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and many are persuaded this is the one. That impression has been helped by reviews that are mostly positive, conceding that Ritchie has taken a step in the right direction after a few years of misfires. After opening on top of the U.K. box-office charts, Ritchie is hoping America will fall for his film, and to achieve that goal he invited many interesting actors in front of the camera: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Thandie Newton, Jeremy Piven, Mark Strong and a few other familiar faces.
Warner Bros., distributor of the film, is going the platform route with RocknRolla. Conceding that this one does not have the profile for a straight wide release, the studio is pushing for a step-by-step release, beginning Oct. 8 (a Wednesday) in only three cities, New York, Los Angeles and Toronto (the same way Appaloosa was launched a few days ago). If the mostly positive attitude towards the film by critics (mostly positive) is confirmed in the United States, then the small, three-city launch could bring Ritchie strong PTA numbers on opening weekend.
The competition will be tough, though, from Wong Kar Wai and Mike Leigh, two filmmakers greatly appreciated by cinephiles films who will be opening films with perhaps even better chances of PTA success. RocknRolla is not overly expensive: $10 in Ultimate Movie Moguls leagues, and $9 in Box Office Moguls leagues. With its platform release (which should culminate in a wide release on Oct. 31) and already solid User Rating on IMDb (7.5 with more than 1,800 votes!), Ritchie's comeback is not a bad pick per se, but it is definitely more of a wild card than a sure thing. For gamblers only.
You'll also need to be a gambler to bet on Ashes of Time Redux. Wong Kar Wai lovers are legion among cinephiles, including your humble host, but this one is not exactly a novelty. Wong Kar Wai shot it back in 1994. A dream project of his, a wu xia pan movie (that is to say, a Chinese swordfighting film) set in the middle of the Chinese desert, with a bunch of characters watching time go by, talking philosophically and battling with swords. This is no Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; this is a Wong Kar Wai movie. Slow, reflective, with action distilled here and there once in a while.
Ashes of Time was such a big project for Wong Kar Wai back in the day that he had time to shoot one of his small, pure films, Chungking Express, just while the editing process on Ashes went forward. Express was even released before the wu xia pan movie. Back in 1994/1995, the Chinese director wasn't totally satisfied with his film. That is why, 14 years later, he went back to the editing room, this time to finalize Ashes of Time the way he had envisioned it on the paper.
In its slimmer, trimmer form (almost 10 minutes shorter) and with a new score, Ashes of Time Redux is being given a royal treatment with an international, prestigious release. Those who have never seen Wong Kar Wai's film will have a chance to discover it, while others will take pleasure in seeing it done a bit differently, but still magnified by its glorious cast made of Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Carina Lau, Jackie Cheung and the late and deeply missed Leslie Cheung.
I do believe that this new version of Wong Kar Wai's classic, although not his best film, will display solid PTA numbers in the few theaters programming it. Sony Pictures Classics is at the helm of the release, and I'm sure the specialty label of Sony will orchestrate a smooth launch in a discreet combination of New York and Los Angeles locations, probably fewer than 10. The $14 price tag in September Ultimate leagues is a bit discouraging. Despite Wong's reputation, I can't see Ashes of Time Redux pulling off more than 6 or 7 PTA points in all, which is clearly not high enough for such a price. The User Rating should stay above 7, and the box-office receipts will wind up below $1 million.
If you want to talk about a really, really overpriced Fantasy Moguls movie, however, look no further than Happy-Go-Lucky. Of course the new Mike Leigh film will be successful. Of course it will garner PTA points, strong IMDb results, and a few million dollars at the box office. But $23 in Ultimate Movie Moguls leagues?! Really? $23?!! History (Fantasy Moguls history, of course) has proven that no arthouse film with almost no chance of getting a wide release is worth more than $20. The only example to the contrary that I can think of is Juno, which was in the end worth every fantasy penny that anyone paid to grab it. But the Jason Reitman film was an American comedy with a killer cast and the potential to touch all the strata of American society by its subject.
What is Happy-Go-Lucky? It's the new film by Mike Leigh, the frequently awarded director of Naked, Topsy-Turvy, Secrets and Lies (Golden Palm winner at Cannes) and Vera Drake (Golden Lion Winner at Venice), a director known for his depictions of British social troubles and family relationships. Happy-Go-Lucky marks a breath of fresh air in Leigh's filmography (although his pictures are not all dark, I admit) as it is a real comedy, his first since making Topsy-Turvy almost 10 years ago. Its heroine is Poppy, a 30-year-old schoolteacher who manages to see life only on the bright side. She is naturally optimistic, having fun with her friends and looking for Mister Right.
Of course Leigh has not ditched his social observations, as Happy-Go-Lucky is as much a critique of London and its 30-year-old inhabitants, especially single women, as it is a small enjoyable fable. Although a bit long, Mike Leigh's film will be fondly remembered by its viewers if only for Sally Hawkins's riveting performance as the aforementioned Poppy. The actress, already noticed as Colin Farrell's wife in Cassandra's Dream last year, is a luminous revelation, deservedly awarded the Best Actress Prize at last January's Berlin Film Festival.
On Oct. 10, Happy-Go-Lucky will open limited, probably in only a handful of theaters, and will, along the way, be helped by excellent reviews, its festival pedigree, and Mike Leigh's name. It should be well positioned to grab 4 or 5 PTA points on opening weekend. Expansions are already locked on for Oct. 17 and Oct. 24; hence, a few million dollars in ticket sales should result. But even if it won PTA points three weeks in a row, and collected 10 or 11 of them in all, with $5 million-$6 million dollars, and a 7.2 User Rating, would the R-rated Miramax release really be worth $23? Simply put, no. As for rating this film R (for language), it is another stupid decision by the MPAA, as stupid as rating Amelie R for sexual content. (I still can't believe that.)
Note: Indie Jones will be vacationing next week, but has already written up his next report from the front lines of independent cinema. Hence, there will be no interruption in your service.
Indie Jones wouldn't pay $23 in real life to have lunch with Mike Leigh and the Queen of England. And he's supposed to pay $23 of fake Fantasy Moguls money for Happy-Go-Lucky?! It's an outrage. Voice your own indignation to firstname.lastname@example.org.