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Category: December 2011

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2011: Seven film stories we never saw coming

December 31, 2011 |  1:00 pm

Vontrier

This post has been corrected. See note below for details.

The film world had its share of predictable turns this last year. "Harry Potter" went out with a bang. "Twilight" and "Transformers" earned a gazillion dollars (more). And 3-D continued to have us seeing double, the novelty now officially worn off.

But the last 12 months were also full of unexpected twists -- from a movie that had women saying things we hadn’t heard on-screen before, to a filmmaker who again was saying things he shouldn’t have been saying (but sort of had before). Here are seven of the year’s most notable surprises. (Click on the related links below for a full spin down memory lane.)

Always a Bridesmaid. Sure,  there was a sense before the year started that, when it came to potty-mouthed humor, it just might be the girls' turn. But few could have predicted that  an R-rated film featuring a lack of A-listers and a heavy marital theme would become a cultural phenomenon. Yet with “Bridesmaids,” Kristen Wiig, an actress known mainly for character parts, and Paul Feig, an actor and director known mainly for television, teamed up and, with an assist from Judd Apatow, created a monster smash. The film was the highest grossing original comedy of the year ($169 million) and launched the career of the previously little-known Melissa McCarthy. Maybe more important, It touched off a Hollywood gold rush and stirred a feminist debate. It even...put Wilson Phillips back on the map.

Ratner revival. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences made some unusual choices in 2011 -- a lifetime achievement award for Oprah, a rule-change allowing a variable number of best-picture nominees. But even the most adventurous pundit couldn’t have predicted this summer surprise: Brett Ratner, known for popcorn movies like "Rush Hour," would be producing this year's Oscars telecast. And he'd be bringing along Eddie Murphy, who rarely made public appearances -- let alone at one of the most watched television broadcasts of the year -- to host.

Ratner retreats. Oops. After all the hype about the kind of sensibility Ratner would bring to the Oscars, it turns out we wouldn't have to worry about it much. This fall, Ratner made lewd and offensive comments on Howard Stern’s radio show, causing embarrassment for the Academy and a quick resignation from the foot-in-mouth producer. Murphy, who had been persuaded by Ratner to take the gig,  quickly followed suit. But the host’s replacement was even more of a stunner: Billy Crystal, who had hosted his first Oscars more than two decades before, would be returning, making the 63-year-old the oldest solo host since the mid-'70's.

Daybreak for Woody. For a number of years past, Woody Allen was like baseball, or Ron Paul. Every season, through thick and thin, he was there, doing his thing, with few believing he could be much of a factor. Yet that all changed this spring when Allen released his (depending on how you count) 46th directorial feature, a whimsical piece called "Midnight in Paris.” First the movie found an art-house audience. Then it became a crossover hit. Then it became a phenomenon. The story of a curmudgeonly writer transported to period Paris became the prolific director's most successful film ever. It even got people to see Owen Wilson as a star again.

Craig cratering. When he was cast in the summer of 2010 as the hero of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Daniel Craig could do no wrong. He had come off several films in which he enchanted audiences as James Bond and had even thrown in a well-reviewed Broadway turn. And 2011 was looking even brighter: Craig had a role not only in "Dragon" but would be bringing out the eagerly awaited Jon Favreau-directed action-adventure "Cowboys and Aliens." But Mr. 007 soon found that the villains were getting the better of him. First, James Bond was caught in movie limbo. It eventually got out, but the disappointments were only starting. "Cowboys and Aliens" was a summer wet blanket. ”Dragon Tattoo" has struggled in its first weeks of release. And Craig launched a bomb with the horror title "Dream House," which was such a mess that  its director tried to have his name taken off it. It was all enough to make an actor feel like someone had thrown a martini in his face.

Kings crowned. Studios have pulled out old movies and dressed them up in new clothes before. But few could have predicted what would happen with a new 3-D edition of “The Lion King." When Disney decided to re-release the animated classic, it seemed like a nice but quaint idea. After the movie came out atop the box office one September weekend, though, it seemed like the company might have something more on its hands. Soon it won another weekend, beating new movies from Brad Pitt and Taylor Lautner. As the weeks piled up, the audiences kept coming.  The film wound up grossing nearly $100 million -- not bad for any movie, let alone one that was 17 years old.

That melancholy feeling. Lars von Trier had made plenty of ill-advised comments before. But no one in or outside a Cannes news conference room could have foreseen what would happen on the morning of May 18. After answering some innocuous questions about his new movie, "Melancholia," Von Trier took out a shovel and began digging. "I understand Hitler. I sympathize with him a bit. ... I'm a Nazi," he said as his star Kirsten Dunst looked on in horror. Things were  compounded when Von Trier showed only occasional remorse after the fact. A round of interviews with Dunst co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg were canceled as she hurried out of town, and the festival took the unusual step of declaring Von Trier persona non grata. In perhaps an even bigger surprise, the famously gabby Von Trier announced several months later that he was swearing off news conferences.

[For the record, 1:15 p.m., Jan. 3: An earlier version of this post identified the star of "Melancholia" as Reese Witherspoon. Kirsten Dunst stars in the film.]

RELATED:

24 Frames: Full Brett Ratner coverage

24 Frames: Full Daniel Craig coverage

24 Frames: Full 'Bridesmaids' coverage

24 Frames: Full Lars von Trier coverage

24 Frames: Full 'Midnight in Paris' coverage

-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Lars von Trier at the Cannes Film Festival. Credit: Getty Images


'The Debt' is most under-appreciated film of 2011 (Part 2)

December 31, 2011 | 10:00 am

Debtchas
It features two young stars (Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington) and one perennial favorite (Helen Mirren). It tackled big themes of revenge and truth in the context of a globetrotting thriller.

For these reasons and others, a majority of you voted for "The Debt" as the most under-appreciated film of 2011.

 Among more than 2,000 readers surveyed, nearly 30% believed the film didn't get the props it deserved, topping a wide range of movies that includes “Warrior,” “Fright Night” and “Margin Call.”

"The Debt" concerns a retired intelligence operative (Mirren) looking back on a Nazi-hunting  mission her younger self (Chastain) and partner (Worthington) undertook decades before. The movie garnered strong reviews (The Times' Besty Sharkey called it a "superbly crafted espionage thriller") and was not neglected at the box office -- the Focus Features release grossed $31 million, making it one of the more successful specialty films of the year. Still, many readers felt it was not given the wider recognition it deserved.

Certainly the movie, which John Madden remade from an Israeli thriller, had a rough road to the box office. After being greenlighted and produced by Miramax Films, it was orphaned as that company was shut down.

A period of limbo followed. Former Miramax parent company Disney first agreed to release it,  then decided against the move. Eventually Focus stepped in to acquire the rights. "The Debt" opened in August, nearly a year after it first played for the public at the Toronto International Fl Festival.

Other movies also failed to gain sufficient recognition, according to the survey. "Margin Call," J.C. Chandor's financial-collapse drama that follows the crisis as it moves up the chain of an investment bank over one night in 2008, earned nearly 20% of your vote.

And "Win WIn," Tom McCarthy's story of a family that takes in a high-school wrestling athlete, came in at a strong 19%; despite stellar reviews and convincing performances, that movie barely took in $10 million.  "Warrior," the Nick Nolte-starring mixed-martial arts drama, finished with 14% of the vote, and earned additional support on Twitter and Facebook.

In winning the "under-appreciated" title, "The Debt" follows in the footsteps of another genre-inflected movie about big themes, the vampire movie "Let Me In." Matt Reeves' Cold War coming-of-age story earned broad support from readers when we posed the question last year.

The honor, though, can be a mixed blessing. As Reeves said after winning the vote: "Here's to having the most over-appreciated movie of next year."

RELATED:

What's the most under-appreciated movie of 2011 (Part 1)

Movie Review: 'The Debt'

--Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain in "The Debt." Credit: Focus Features


What's the most overrated movie of 2011? (Updated)

December 30, 2011 |  9:49 am

Breakingda

[Updated, Monday, Jan. 2, 8:35 a.m.: Anti-Twihards formed the largest, or at least the most vocal, group of film contrarians in 2011. In a survey of more than 1,000 readers, "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I" was ranked the most overrated movie of the year. More than 41% of people responding chose that film for the dubious distinction.

Some, however, pointed out on Twitter that since the movie was polarizing and tepidly reviewed at the time of release, "Breaking Dawn" should not be considered so much overrated as "bad but popular," like other Hollywood blockbusters.

Using that logic, the "most-overated" title would then go to "Bridesmaids," the R-rated cultural phenomenon about female friendship, with nearly 23% of readers choosing the Kristen Wiig comedy for the dishonor.  Smaller groups chose "The Help" (15%) as well as "Midnight in Paris (10%) and "The Descendants" (10%) as the most overrated move of 2011.]

Last year, a group of readers weighed in that "Inception" was the most overrated movie of 2010 -- the Christopher Nolan dream thriller, they said, didn't come close to earning the praise bestowed on it. What film deserves the ignoble title this year?

There's no shortage of choices, as our informal poll of colleagues and contacts suggests.

For some, "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn" should jump to the top of the list, with the Bill Condon-directed vampire story continuing the franchise's pattern of buzz that outpaces quality.

For others, Kristen Wiig's "Bridesmaids" should take the crown -- it's a film that, whatever its comic charms, didn't merit the accolades and cultural significance heaped on it.

The summer's biggest dramatic phenomenon, "The Help," has its own group of skeptics amid the hype. And It's hard to avoid two awards hopefuls when posing the overrated question: "Midnight in Paris" and "The Descendants" elicit their share of naysayers.

Weigh in on your choice in the poll below, or suggest your own film on Facebook and Twitter. We'll reveal the results before the calendar turns to '12 -- when a new batch of movies is sure to inspire its own round-robin of hype and backlash.

 

RELATED:

Inception wins informal poll as most overrated movie of 2010 (Part 2)

What's the most underappreciated movie of 2011? (Part 1)

-- Steven Zeitchik

http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn." Credit: Summit Entertainment



Meryl Streep wins over critics as 'Iron Lady' Margaret Thatcher

December 30, 2011 |  8:36 am

Mery Streep in 'The Iron Lady'
Much like "J. Edgar," the new biopic "The Iron Lady," starring Meryl Streep as onetime British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, features an A-list actor portraying a controversial figure of the 20th century over the course of many years, in an attempt to shed light on a complex subject (and presumably to snag some awards gold). Film critics are praising Streep's performance in "The Iron Lady," which opened Friday in Los Angeles and in New York, though some other aspects of the movie are not faring as well.

The Times' Betsy Sharkey calls the film "a memory poem" and "a movie that is highly personal in every sense of the word." Rather than exploring Thatcher's politics, the movie "instead offers up an affecting if not always satisfying portrait of the strong-willed leader humbled by age." The production design and makeup are well done, and the most striking aspect of the film is "Streep's uncanny ability to disappear inside her characters," Sharkey says. "But if you come expecting keen insight into the intrigues of her very long political life, or even something as simple as why the Soviets dubbed her the Iron Lady, consider a trip to the library instead."

Continue reading »

Around Town: 'Mad, Mad World' and other comedy classics

December 29, 2011 |  6:00 pm

"Animal Crackers" at the Aero Theatre



The American Cinematheque is ringing in the New Year with some wild and crazy comedy classics.

The Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre is serving up a 70-millimeter print of Stanley Kramer’s lengthy, wacky all-star 1963 comedy, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” starring such comedy legends as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Edie Adams, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Dick Shawn,  Phil Silvers, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Terry-Thomas and even Spencer Tracy. They're all embroiled in a cross-country chase to find $350,000 in stolen money. Kramer’s widow, Karen Sharpe Kramer, and his daughter, Kat Kramer, will introduce the film.

The Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre continues its annual “Screwball Comedy Classics" with two Preston Sturges gems he made in 1941: “Sullivan’s Travels,” with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, and “The Lady Eve,” starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda and Charles Coburn. The genius of Carole Lombard is on display Friday evening at the Aero with the 1936 screwball classic “My Man Godfrey,” for which she received her only Oscar nomination. The film also stars her ex-husband, Willilam Powell, who also earned a lead actor nod. She’s even funnier in the second feature, the 1934 Howard Hawks’ comedy, “20th Century,” in which she matches wits and quips with John Barrymore

And the Aero goes Marxist on New Year’s Day with a Marx Brothers double bill: 1932’s “Horse Feathers” and 1930’s “Animal Crackers,” in which Groucho sings “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” Wednesday’s screwball offerings are William Wyler’s enchanting and rarely screened 1935 comedy, “The Good Fairy,” starring Margaret Sullavan and penned by Preston Sturges, and 1936’s “Theodora Goes Wild,” with Irene Dunne in her Oscar-nominated turn as a young woman from a small town who writes sexy bestsellers. www.americancinematheque.com

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Tuesday matinee also features a Howard Hawks masterwork, 1940’s “His Girl Friday,” with a perfectly cast Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy. www.lacma.org

For those looking for a bit more dramatic fare, the Egyptian is presenting a 70mm print of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most acclaimed thrillers, 1958’s “Vertigo,” with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. Bernard Herrmann supplied the evocative score, parts of which pop up in the current hit “The Artist.” On Sunday, the Egyptian is offering a triple bill of Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future” trilogy, starring Michael J. Fox as the irrepressible time traveler Marty McFly. www.americancinematheque.com

Francois Truffaut’s homages to Alfred Hitchcock, 1968’s “The Bride Wore Black” and 1969’s “Mississippi Mermaid,” screen Thursday and Friday at the New Beverly. The acclaimed “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and the documentary “Project Nim” are scheduled for Sunday through Tuesday. Werner Herzog’s documentary “Into the Abyss” and Errol Morris’ 1999 “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter” are on tap for Wednesday. www.newbevcinema.com

The controversial 2000 Japanese film “Battle Royale,” directed by Kinji Fukasaku, continues through Tuesday at Cinefamily’s Silent Movie Theatre. Scheduled for Wednesday is the 1927 silent “The Loves of Casanova,” directed by Alexandre Volkoff. www.cinefamily.org

 

Related:

"Reliving the Madness"

— Susan King

Photo: Harp Marx, center, gets his point across in "Animal Crackers." Credit: Universal.


What’s the most underappreciated movie of 2011? (Part 1)

December 29, 2011 |  9:36 am

 

Jessica Chastain in "The Debt"


Last year it was “Never Let Me Go” and “Let Me In.” This year we’re asking the question again — what movie just didn’t get the proper respect, from audiences or critics, over the past 12 months?

We took an informal poll around the office and among some contacts to get a fix on what people felt were some of the least recognized gems of the past year. The list they returned was an eclectic one:

Among the titles that came up: “The Debt,” the long-delayed Nazi-hunting thriller starring Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington that finally came out this summer; “Rio,”  the Brazil-set animated film that didn’t get the same buzz as some of its CG counterparts; “Fright Night,” Craig Gillespie’s remake of the 1985 horror-comedy that might have gotten buried a little upon its late-summer release; "Win Win," Tom McCarthy's dramedy about a high-school wrestler; and “Warrior,” the Nick Nolte drama about the world of mixed-martial arts.

A pair of Sundance acquisitions also made the list: “Margin Call,” the drama about the financial crisis that unfolds over one nerve-racking night; and “Like Crazy,” the emo love story that was mostly improvised by Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin.

Please vote in our poll below, and use Twitter, Facebook and otherwise comment on any movie we didn’t suggest ("A Better Life"?). We’ll let you know the results in the next few days.

 

 

RELATED:

What's the most under-appreciated movie of 2010 (Part 1)

What's the most under-appreciated movie of 2010? (Part 2)

— Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Jessica Chastain in "The Debt." Credit: Focus Features


As Oscar ballots go out, where does best picture race stand?

December 28, 2011 |  4:07 pm

Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard in Midnight in Paris
What screener goes best with eggnog and leftover Christmas cookies? That’s the question academy members have been asking their families -- and each other -- while scanning the stacks of DVDs the studios have been sending them over the last several weeks.

Since (nearly) everyone’s home for the holidays and nomination ballots went out Tuesday, let’s run down the leading best picture candidates and see how they're faring as we ring out the old and ring in the new.

“The Artist”: Nomination locked. Now up to Harvey Weinstein and his awards minions to convince voters that it has enough substance to deserve a win.

“The Descendants”: It’s in, but Fox Searchlight needs to find a way to jump start interest in the film after the nominations are announced. The huge push now is to somehow land the movie a below-the-line nomination or two, particularly in the editing category. It might be a losing battle.

“The Help”: A sleeping giant. Figures to clean up at the SAG Awards with wins in drama ensemble and perhaps for actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.

“War Horse”: DreamWorks has been smartly targeting older academy voters, trotting out a huge pull-quote from roughly 186-year-old film critic Rex Reed in advertisements and playing up the film’s nods to the great John Ford. Its solid crafts work should deliver five below-the-line nominations, provided voters can relieve the ringing in their ears from John Williams’ score. And if the box-office receipts are huge, watch out.

“Midnight in Paris”: “The screener,” as one academy member puts it, “that everyone can agree on this holiday season.”

“Hugo”: Ben Kingsley’s Georges Méliès character arc moistens academy members’ eyes with as much precision as anything in “War Horse” or “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and, arguably, in a much more honest fashion. As with “The Descendants,” its handlers need to keep it in the conversation. A Kingsley nomination would help.

“The Tree of Life”: A screener that, for many, goes the eject route right about the time the dinosaurs trample through the forest. The question remains the same: Do enough academy members love the film to put it at the top of their ballots?

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”: Not that Oscar voters necessarily care, but the reviews have been brutal. Again: Not just bad. Brutal. A bigger issue, though, lies with the child actor. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy writes that “Thomas Horn gives an exceptional, natural performance.” But one academy member compared that “natural” performance to “having a child kick your airline seat nonstop on a five-hour flight from New York to L.A.” Natural, yes, but also deeply annoying. Or as Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern put it: “The boy is so precocious, you want to strangle him.” That, folks, is a problem, one of many for this late-arriving contender.

“Moneyball” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”: Fine movies both. But neither has much traction in the best picture category, though as other contenders stumble, perhaps they can take some small comfort in this wisdom from Brad Pitt’s “Moneyball” general manager: “When your enemy’s making mistakes, don’t interrupt him.”

RELATED:

 Golden Globes: What do they mean for the Oscars?

-- Glenn Whipp

Photo: Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." Credit: Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics


Meryl Streep's next project: A national women's history museum

December 28, 2011 |  2:49 pm

Merylstreepasmargaretthatcher

Meryl Streep arrives in movie theaters Friday with “The Iron Lady,” playing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — the first female head of state in the Western world.

Women's place in history is a subject on Streep's mind of late. Her next off-screen project is the National Women's History Museum, an entity that exists so far only in cyberspace and that the actress is trying to get erected in brick and mortar on a site adjacent to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“History until the 20th century was written by one member of the human family and it wasn’t the mother,” Streep said in a mid-December interview in New York City with her “Iron Lady” director, Phyllida Lloyd. “It was dad. That’s who wrote history and ... what was important? Movements of armies, sovereignty of nations, all sorts of things. But women were there all along and they have incredible stories that we don’t know anything about.”

Financing for the $400-million museum is being raised privately — Streep donated $1 million to the endeavor — but congressional approval is required for the location, which would place the building near institutions such as the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of the American Indian and the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial. A bill to allow the museum has passed committees in the House and the Senate and is awaiting action by the full legislative bodies.

“It’s a political football, I gather,” Streep said. “It’s a thing that everybody in Congress agrees with but then they attach it to something that no one agrees with .... It would be a beacon to women all over the world, because there really is no such museum. There are cottage museums — there’s a quilt museum, there’s a cowgirl museum.”

The normally private Streep has made herself the public face of the museum effort, hosting events and sending fundraising letters. Her participation in inspired, Streep said, by her grandmother, who lived before the passage of the 19th Amendment.

“My grandmother had three children in school and she would have to go to the golf course and get my grandfather off the ninth tee to make him go to the school board election, 'cause she was not allowed to vote,” Streep said. “She’s so vivid in my life. I think that that memory of when we were disenfranchised is important to learn.”

“There are so many great stories,” Streep said. “Every child knows the name of our first traitor, Benedict Arnold, but nobody knows the name of the first female soldier to take a bullet for the U.S., who enlisted under her dead brother’s name. Nobody knows Deborah Sampson’s name. That’s a great story. Or Elizabeth Freeman, who was the first slave to sue for her own freedom and won in Great Barrington, Mass. Every boy and girl should know these stories .... I hope we get it done.”

RELATED:

Meryl Streep walks in Margaret Thatcher's shoes

'Iron Lady': Meryl Streep as Thatcher draws ire in Britain

Meryl Streep: Thatcher would be appalled by 'hijacking of conservatism'

-- Rebecca Keegan

twitter.com/@thatrebecca

Photo: Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Anthony Head as Geoffrey Howe in "The Iron Lady." Credit: Alex Bailey / Pathe Productions/Weinstein Co.


Why so many Hollywood relationship movies are box-office duds

December 28, 2011 |  2:32 pm

Johnny depp

In Hollywood, everyone is in the relationship business. Studios woo auteurs. Directors schmooze stars. Writers cozy up to producers. Agents and managers zealously court the bankable filmmakers and actors who can get movies off the ground.

The relationships pay off in a million different ways. Will Smith, who just finished shooting “Men in Black 3,” has now made eight of his last 10 live-action movies at Sony, thanks largely to a close relationship with studio co-chairman Amy Pascal. Warner Bros. is skin-tight with director Christopher Nolan. 20th Century Fox is James Cameron’s home court. Ditto for Paramount with J.J. Abrams and Universal with Judd Apatow.

Patrickgoldsteinbigpicture2


But if you look at the recent crop of movies that have crashed and burned at the multiplex, something striking stands out: Many of the duds would never have passed the studios’ standard box-office smell test. They were made because they were Relationship Movies.

Studios these days are notoriously averse to risk. So why would Sony make a $30-million film based on the preposterous idea that the Earl of Oxford was the secret author of Shakespeare’s most popular plays? Why would 20th Century Fox spend $40 million bankrolling “The Big Year,” a comedy about bird enthusiasts? Why would Warner Bros. spend $35 million making “J. Edgar,” a biopic about the long-dead head of the FBI?

And speaking of puzzlements, why would indie producer Graham King shell out a reported $50 million to make “The Rum Diary,” a story about an alcohol-imbibing journalist based on an obscure novel by Hunter S. Thompson?

None of the films had much luck with moviegoers. Despite the presence of Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, “The Big Year” made a paltry $7.1 million in the United States. The Shakespeare story “Anonymous” did even worse, barely eking out $4.3 million. Even though “Rum Diary” had Johnny Depp in the lead role, it has only made $13.1 million. Even with mega-watt star Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, “J. Edgar” has so far only made about $36 million. Its Oscar best picture prospects are now rated as somewhere between slim and none.

Continue reading »

Are Tom Cruise and Matt Damon starting to switch places?

December 28, 2011 |  7:00 am

Matt Damon in "We Bought a Zoo."
Four years ago, you would had to have been as crazy as, well, Tom Cruise on Oprah's couch to bet against Matt Damon. The Massachusetts-born actor was coming off one of the biggest movies of the year in "The Bourne Ultimatum" and was part of the reason for the blockbuster success of "Ocean's 13."

Damon pretty much had his pick of directors, and in the years that followed, he made good on that capital. He reunited with Steven Soderbergh and Paul Greengrass, this time in less commercial films, and also did turns with Clint Eastwood, the Coen Bros. and Cameron Crowe.

After all those prestige bids, it's not a stretch to say that Damon has solidified his place as one of the best actors in his peer group. But even his most ardent supporters would have trouble saying he's a commercial draw. A-listers take nondescript movies and elevate them into hits. Damon seems to forever be stuck in a middling midrange. If that.

Many of his movies over the past four years have been disappointments — "Invictus," "Hereafter," "The Informant!" and "Green Zone." And now "We Bought a Zoo" has struggled in its early days of release. We won't even get into "Margaret."

Of this recent burst, Damon had only three movies that could be reasonably called successes — and two of those ( ("The Adjustment Bureau" and "Contagion") only modest ones. A third film, "True Grit," was a mega-hit, but for all the appeal of his dandyish LaBoeuf character, Damon seemed to be riding the coattails of Jeff Bridges and the Coens.

Contrast that with Cruise. Four years ago, he couldn't have been colder. He had acrimoniously split with Paramount, then got himself involved in some Nazi-eyepatch mockery while shooting "Valkyrie." He tried going his own way when he starred as a snaky politician in  "Lions for Lambs" (a domestic debacle), and was generally seen as taking himself way too seriously, even for a messiah-esque action star. 

Continue reading »

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