Brian Brooks is Managing Editor of MovieLine.

A sprinkling of familiar actors appear in this weekend’s new specialty releases. A fan of director Don Coscarelli’s work, Paul Giamatti joined the filmmaker’s latest, John Dies At The End. Rob Lowe stars as a political strategist who must confront his career path in Knife Fight. A star in the non-fiction world, Werner Herzog, returns to the big screen with a look at a Siberian community in Happy People: A Year In The Taiga. And one of Israel’s biggest directors, Eytan Fox, returns Stateside with a sequel to his 2002 feature Yossi & Jagger titled simply Yossi.

Knife Fight
Director, co-writer: Bill Guttentag
Co-writer: Chris Lehane
Cast: Rob Lowe, Jamie Chung, Julie Bowen, Jennifer Morrison, Carrie-Anne Moss
Distributor: IFC Films

IFC Films picked up rights to Knife Fight after it debuted last year at the Tribeca Film Festival. The distributor kept its festival run limited, following up Tribeca only with the Stockholm International Film Festival in November. “We are marketing the film as a smart political satire,” said IFC Films’ Ryan Werner. “Rob Lowe has been very supportive in doing press and also promoting the film for the VOD component of the release.” The feature centers on a political strategist who is juggling three clients and confronts whether or not to take the high road as the ugly side of his work begins to take its toll.

“We are releasing it day and date with cable VOD and digital platforms like Amazon, iTunes, Xbox, Sundancenow.com and Playstation,” said Werner. Knife Fight will open New York and Los Angeles this weekend with additional markets to follow. “Any fan of The West Wing will love seeing Rob Lowe back in action playing a real-life version of Chris Lehane,” added Werner. “This is a highly enjoyable and smart film that has a real insider feel.”

Happy People: A Year In The Taiga
Directors, co-writers: Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
Co-writer: Rudolph Herzog
Cast: Werner Herzog
Distributor: Music Box Films

Music Box Films this weekend releases Happy People: A Year In The Taiga, which was filmed in 2010. “One of my colleagues saw it in Berlin and were taken by the story and the perspective of the environment,” said Music Box Films’ head of marketing Brian Andreotti. Herzog “brings such a unique perspective to his documentaries with his philosophical musings. People who enjoy his films will like this.” Herzog’s 2011 release, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams grossed $139,101 in five theaters when it bowed in late April 2011 and went on to accumulate over $5.3 million, although his November 2011 release Into The Abyss grossed only $223,880 domestically. Herzog’s marquee name in the documentary world is central to Music Box’s marketing material. “We’re also aggressively using social networking to entice his fans and we’re reaching out to outdoor enthusiasts. We’re working with a consultant who can tap that market,” added Andreotti.

The feature, which captures the life of indigenous people living in the heart of the Siberian Taiga, will open Friday at New York’s IFC Center and will head to an additional six markets including Los Angeles on February 15th. Andreotti noted that Happy People: A Year In The Taiga is currently booked in 25 markets through March. “The theaters we’ve spoken to have been very enthusiastic about the film and we expect to pick up more,” he added.

John Dies At The End
Director: Don Coscarelli
Writer: Coscarelli, based on the story by David Wong
Cast: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti, Clancy Brown, Glynn Turman
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Andy Meyers’ producing partner met John Dies At The End writer-director Don Coscarelli two decades ago. Meyers and his partners own M3 Creative, which cuts trailers and produces other promotional material for movies. Coscarelli “did a film called Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) which is a cult pic that is still rented all the time,” said Meyers. “He came to us about doing a Bubba sequel and we were interested but the market fell through.” Coscarelli came back to the M3 folks with the script for John Dies At The End and it looked like a possible fit. Additionally, Paul Giamatti, who had expressed interest in a Bubba followup said he’d be interested in the new project as well since he’s “a huge fan of Don Coscarelli,” noted Meyers. “We are an existing marketing company so we were able to self-finance and we had gear and logistical support” in-house. “We shot over a long period with three days on and three days off in the high desert and the city of Paramount.” The comedy-horror centers on a new street drug that sends its users across time and dimensions. But its drawback is that users sometimes return as something other than human.

The film played at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and has since been cut from 2 hours to 1 hour and 40 minutes. “Magnolia was interested at Sundance, but that didn’t work out. Then they reached out to us at SXSW and by Toronto the deal was done,” said Meyers. John Dies At The End opens Friday at the NuArt in Los Angeles and continues to New York next week. It will roll out to the top 25 markets and further based on performance. It bowed via VOD December 27th. Meyers added, “It’s been an amazing experience to be a company that markets movies and to now be a part of a film from beginning to end”.

Yossi
Director: Eytan Fox
Writer: Itay Segal
Cast: Ohad Knoller, Shlomo Sadan, Oz Zehavi, Lior Ashkenazi
Distributor: Strand Releasing

Israeli director Eytan Fox’s Yossi is the sequel to his 2002 feature Yossi & Jagger, which Strand also released in the U.S. the following year. Strand co-president Marcus Hu met Yossi & Jagger producer Amir Harel at the Sundance Producers conference in 2002, and Harel slipped him a tape of the film. “I have to count Eytan as one of the filmmakers we’ve had a great collaboration with, one I would call a friend,” said Hu. “This being our fourth venture (Time Off, Yossi & Jagger, The Bubble) I hope this film is as successful as those and one that we hope to have a very broad release for.” Yossi centers on Dr. Yossi Hoffman, who lives in the shadow of his love affair with a fellow soldier 10 years prior. His lover, Jagger, died while serving in the Israeli army, but those feelings are re-kindled after encountering a young soldier while on a road trip.

“It’s hard to find good LGBT titles these days, ones that can hit outside the ballpark. I’m hopeful this one will,” said Hu. “I hope that the Jewish-Israeli communities also find this film as well. It’s such a satisfying sequel, one that on one many levels exceeded my expectations. The fact that the reaction at Tribeca and festivals following has been so overwhelmingly positive, I’m hopeful that translates to box office success.” Strand Releasing currently has Yossi booked in 40 theaters.