Thursday, October 25, 2007

It doesn’t matter how many Oscar winners are in front of or behind the camera — audiences are proving to be conscientious objectors when it comes to this fall’s surge of antiwar and anti-Bush films.

Both “In the Valley of Elah” and, more recently, “Rendition” drew minuscule crowds upon their release, which doesn’t bode well for the ongoing stream of films critical of the Iraq war and the Bush administration’s wider war on terror.

“Rendition,” which features three Oscar winners in key roles, grossed $4.1 million over the weekend in 2,250 screens for a ninth-place finish. A re-release of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” beat it, and it’s 14 years old.

“Rendition” follows an Egyptian-American who gets kidnapped by U.S. authorities who think he’s a terrorist. Reese Witherspoon plays the man’s wife, Meryl Streep dials up her dark side as the official who keeps his disappearance a secret and Alan Arkin is a senior senator with the power to influence the case. Meanwhile, the man is shipped off to an unnamed North African country, where he is tortured for information.

“Elah” boasts Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon, another Oscar-winning triumvirate, under professionally red-hot director Paul Haggis, who won his own Oscar for “Crash.” Mr. Haggis’ drama focuses on the disappearance of an Iraq war veteran upon his return home.

Beyond the fiction features, the anti-Iraq war documentary “No End in Sight” (box office: $1.4 million) couldn’t capture the indie crowd, beating a swift retreat to DVD next Tuesday despite glowing reviews.

Brandon Gray, president and publisher of, says audiences seek out movies for inspiration, for laughter and to be moved.

“Many of these recent dramas fail on all those fronts,” Mr. Gray says. “They’re too heavy handed in their presentation.”

“Rendition” director Gavin Hood — who wrote and directed “Tsotsi,” winner of the 2006 best foreign language film Oscar — has been quoted as saying he doesn’t want his new film to preach. But audiences who can’t figure out where he stands on the rendition policy must have dozed off after the opening credits.

The current crop of antiwar films simply don’t offer new insights into the Iraq conflict, Mr. Gray says.

“You might hear this stuff from the commentators or on the Internet,” he says. “It’s not that interesting to see it fictionalized.”

“The Kingdom,” a more ambivalent film, which shows U.S. forces smiting a terrorist cell, has pulled in a more respectable $43 million (so far).

” ‘The Kingdom’ looked like ‘CSI: Riyadh.’ It danced around the issues,” Mr. Gray says.

Hollywood shouldn’t soft-pedal its beliefs, he argues.

“You really can’t try to take on subject matter like this and appeal to all views at the same time,” he says. “They act like they’re saying something when they’re actually not saying anything.”

A film that took a principled stand, particularly against terrorism, might fare better with audiences, Mr. Gray says.

Films with bold perspectives also spark op-ed flurries which can lead to more ticket buyers, says Dan Vancini, movies editor with

“Then, you’ll get your audience in who already resonates with the message,” Mr. Vancini says, though he adds such free publicity isn’t always a good thing.

Such may be the strategy of splattermeister Brian De Palma, director of “Redacted.” Scheduled for a December release, the low budget/no stars movie is based on real events involving American soldiers who raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, then killed her family. Mr. De Palma has been complaining publicly that disturbing photos, which run at the end of the film showing dead and dying Iraqis have, ironically, been redacted by the distributor, Magnolia Pictures. (The faces are blacked out for legal reasons, the studio says.) The Drudge Report picked up on the controversy — generally not bad for business.

Hollywood’s antiwar drive continues Nov. 9 with “Lions for Lambs,” in which Tom Cruise, Miss Streep and Robert Redford spar over matters of patriotism and war. And “Grace is Gone” follows a father (John Cusack, no shrinking violet when it comes to his anti-administration rhetoric off-screen) who can’t bear to tell his children their soldier-mother died in Iraq.

Mr. Vancini predicts “Lambs” could fare well thanks to its starry cast.

“They have a word-of-mouth following,” he says, particularly Mr. Cruise.

Mr. Gray remains skeptical, citing a lack of clarity from early peeks at the film.

” ‘Lions’ will be an interesting test,” Mr. Gray says. “Is it simply them sitting in rooms giving speeches? That’s what it looks like,” he says.

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