Friday, November 30, 2007

Box Office Outlook: Nothing To See Here, Keep Moving

By Katey Rich

Remember how last weekend was so frantic, with visits to multiple family members and old friends and the challenge to fill your stomach with as much pie as possible? And how this weekend you're ready to take a break, finally unpack your suitcases from Thanksgiving (OK, maybe that's just me) and maybe wrap some early Christmas presents? Yeah, the box office feels your pain. Unlike last weekend's free-for-all of four wide releases, only one film is going into more than 2,000 theatres this weekend. Clearly Hollywood is giving you a chance to breathe for a second and get to that Hitman movie you've been hearing about. Or, if you're like me, maybe finally see American Gangster, because my God, there's been a lot to see this fall. In any case, if you're hell-bent on seeing a new movie this weekend, you've got two great acting teams to choose from: Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Jessica Alba and Hayden Chris--sorry, I couldn't even bring myself to finish that joke.

Awakebig AWAKE. If the marketing mavens behind this one are right (and we all know they never lie or exaggerate), one in 700 people who go under anesthesia for surgery experience what is called "anesthetic awareness," in which they are completely paralyzed but also completely awake, and feeling everything. Hayden Christensen plays a young man who goes under the knife and experiences such a thing, but it's no accident: it's part of a conspiracy to kill him. Jessica Alba plays his new wife, who's scheming to get his inheritance, and Terrence Howard is part of a team of doctors that has joined Alba in her moneymaking plans.

When the one wide release of the weekend is also unscreened for critics and stars Jessica Alba and Hayden Christensen (sorry, I just can't leave them alone), you know you're in trouble. The only two reviews to have surfaced on the Internet are, predictably, negative. "This is the kind of movie that is actually a lot better if you don't try and think about it," writes Maxim. "Or better yet, wait until it hits basic cable, which is where this ludicrous drama probably belongs in the first place." is a little more amused, but still concludes, "With better actors in the two main roles, this movie would probably have been great, but with Christensen and Alba, it's just okay, something to see on a rainy day, but only if you don't have too far to drive." It's not like the potential audience for Awake was likely to see Enchanted to begin with, but it sounds like they'd be better off with a princess than with Darth Vader this time around.

Savages_2THE SAVAGES. The next widest release of the weekend, I kid you not, is bowing on four screens (this is where the moviegoers not in L.A. or New York shake their fists with fury.) The Savages, from writer-director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) is a dark, dry comedy about an adult pair of siblings (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) who have to take a break from their academic lives to pick up their ailing father (Philip Bosco) in California and bring him to a nursing home. Sounds hilarious, right? Jenkins received two Spirit Award nominations for writing and directing, and Hoffman got a nod as Lead Actor. Also someone should invent an award for the poster, which out-Wes Andersons Wes Anderson in clever style.

Critics are completely entranced with this one. "Jenkins walks this dramatic tightrope with breathtaking ease," writes The Hollywood Reporter. "The humor is never forced but always springs from the characters and situations naturally." Manohla Dargis at The New York Times raves, "There isn't a single moment of emotional guff or sentimentality in The Savages, a film that caused me to periodically wince, but also left me with a sense of acute pleasure, even joy.", like virtually every other critic, is wowed by all three main performances: "Of course the acting is tremendous, and you'd expect nothing less." And Newsweek sticks up for the movie's combination of a dark subject and humor: "It sounds grimmer than it plays, thanks to Jenkins's sardonic, deadpan humor and the superb cast, who invest these damaged characters with rich, flawed, hilarious humanity."

Thedivingbellandthebutterfly_gallerTHE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. Opening on three screens is Julian Schnabel's equally-praised film, which earned him the Best Director award at Cannes and a slot at the New York Film Festival. It's based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the editor of the French version of Elle who was felled by a stroke in his early 40s. It left him with a condition called "locked-in syndrome," in which he was completely paralyzed except for his left eye. Using that eye and a system developed by nurses, he blinked out, letter by letter, his memoir about being trapped within his own body.

"It's impossible to leave this movie without seeing more clearly, and appreciating the wonder of being alive," writes our Wendy R. Weinstein. Armond White at the New York Press is also impressed: "It takes Schnabel's unconventional imagination to restore intelligence to the biopic." Peter Travers at Rolling Stone puts it simply in his rave review: "The movie will wipe you out." And A.O. Scott at The New York Times finds the same uplift that Weinstein, and I, did, and most moviegoers should: "Curiously enough, a movie about deprivation becomes a celebration of the richness of experience, and a remarkably rich experience in its own right."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Great Debaters Does Emotional Manipulation Right

By Katey Rich

Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters tells a story that's so familiar in American movies by now, we could probably recite its key points alongside the Pledge of Allegiance. A group of young, gifted students are united by an eccentric and inspiring professor.  Under his guidance they tap into their talents, and even though the rest of the world doesn't believe in them, they prove themselves worthy competitors in their chosen field. Tragedies ensue that test character but eventually make them stronger, young romances develop, and in the end the students must face off against their toughest enemy in a final showdown.

Oh, and did I mention it's based on a true story, and set at a black college in the Jim Crow South? The Great Debaters pulls every punch in emotionally manipulating you, but damn if it doesn't succeed. If you scoffed at Dead Poets' Society and had no love for Washington's stern but inspiring coach in Remember the Titans, The Great Debaters is guaranteed to annoy. But if you're a sap like me, and still get a little misty when a character both wins the championship and proves himself worthy to his father, Washington's film contains much that's enjoyable and, yes, heartwarming.

Washington does double duty as director and star, playing Professor Melvin Tolson, a poet and a union labor activist who runs all-black Wiley College's debate team in Marshall, Texas. At the beginning of the school year he selects four members for the team: Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), a young man torn between the music scene of the 1930s South and his academic career; Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), a new transfer to the school who dreams of becoming a lawyer; James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker), the 14-year-old son of another professor, James Farmer (Forest Whitaker); and Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams).

We see much of the movie through James' eyes, as he follows Tolson to a secret union-organizing meeting and witnesses, jealously, the growing attraction between Henry and Samantha. James also struggles for love from his father, who is as focused on books and literary merit as Tolson demands his debaters be. We see speech after speech at the debates, on segregation and the value of capitalism and the importance of welfare. The Great Debaters is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, and no debate passes by without an opportunity to expound on What These Topics Mean To Us Today.

The performances maintain interest among the long pulpit-pounding speeches, with Nate Parker exuding such charisma and natural talent that Kris Tapley, rightly so, compared him to a young Paul Newman. Henry is by far the most interesting of the three young leads, and though his story is resolved in an entirely unsatisfying way, it's Parker's role that sticks with you when the film is finished. The younger Whitaker, no relation to his on-screen father incidentally, is nicely empathetic as a child nearing adulthood, and Smollett does well with a vintage Southern accent and a preacher-like vigor when she's up at the microphone. Washington and Forest Whitaker are, as usual, excellent; is there anyone on this Earth who conveys authority better than Denzel Washington?

The Wiley College debate team's biggest claim to fame was being the first black team to challenge Harvard, at the time the reigning national champion. The climactic debate in Cambridge is moving, and nicely ties up the two major stories of the film. The outcome is never really in doubt-- when there's a whole barbershop full of men listening to you on the radio, you can't go down in shame-- but that doesn't make it any less sweet.

The film's didacticism-- every scene contains a Big Speech about a Big Idea--grows tiresome after a while, and results in a lot of uncinematic scenes of people standing at podiums. Much of the rest of the movie is shot beautifully, though, capturing the mangrove swamps and back roads of East Texas. In the end, like a debate argument itself, The Great Debaters is less about what it appears to be and more how it makes you feel and think. It's not a polemic about anything in particular, but an exploration of some issues and ideas that stick with us today, 50 years away from Jim Crow. Washington hasn't made an enduring movie, or even a great one, but his uplifting story and stellar performances are enough to make it worth watching.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

'Walk Hard' Brings Down The House

By Katey Rich


I can't tell you much about last night's screening of Walk Hard-- there's a review embargo for a few more weeks-- but I will tell you this: I haven't heard an audience laughing so hard since Superbad. Coming after a long fall of grim (but often great) movies, Walk Hard is the perfect holiday season antidote for grownups, riotously silly but well-made, a thumb to the nose at the pretension and preening that often takes the screen this time of year. Judd Apatow's nonstop hit factory-- the "Apatow uprising," as director and Apatow's co-screenwriter Jake Kasdan put it-- is almost guaranteed to have another success on its hands.

Walkhard4_2  If nothing else, they deserve to have a hit soundtrack. There are over 20 original songs in Walk Hard, all performed by star John C. Reilly. At a press conference after the screening, Reilly admitted to having no formal vocal training, but in the film he manages to effortlessly channel musicians like Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and even Bob Dylan. Reilly's character Dewey Cox went through every major phase of rock and roll history, from the teenybopper music of the 50s through the pscyhedelic 60s to bad David Bowie covers in the 70s.

Reilly called the songwriting and recording process "one of the most insanely fun parts of this whole project. To have the greatest musicians and the greatest songwriters there at your disposal, and you're trying to make each other laugh [...] Everyone is so full of joy." Kasdan, Reilly and composer Michael Andrews oversaw a writing team that eventually wrote and recorded over 40 songs, only half of which made it into the film. "We were excited about that possibility [of writing original songs] from the beginning."

Though the film spans so many decades and involved plenty of elaborate wigs and costumes, there was still room for the kind of improv the performers are accustomed to finding on Apatow sets. "There was a little less than what you're used to on Judd's set, but within that there was really a lot of it," Kasdan said. "We would get the scripted thing, but for example, when you have Kristen [Wiig] and John in a scene together, they can go, you let it roll."

"Is the candy house thing still in there?" Reilly asked about a scene in which he tells his long-suffering wife (Wiig) just what he can't provide her. The audience's laughter and applause was enough answer for him. "That was one time, I was just trying to make her laugh, trying to get her to break up in the middle of take. She went with it."

"I was watching a DVD the other day, and it was just all of you guys riffing at each other in that scene," Kasdan added. "It is so crazy. It's like psychedelic crazy."

Wiig mentioned an anecdote from the same scene, in which she and Reilly had to share the first on-screen kiss ever for the both of them (hard to believe given Reilly's 20-year movie career). "I was nervous and she was nervous, and we're both nerds," Reilly recalled.

"We basically just ran at each other really fast," Wiig said.

"Our faces hit like two cinderblocks," Reilly added.

Walkhard3 It's worth noting at this point that the laughter during the press conference was about as loud as that during the movie itself. Reilly earned roars when his cell phone rang and he admitted it was his wife calling (he didn't pick it up). "I should pull a Giuliani. 'Hello honey. I'm doing a Q&A but my marriage is the most important thing. Isn't it so funny that you would call right in the middle of a Q&A. I love you. I love you so much, and everyone sees that I love you." Later Kasdan admitted than one of the original ideas was to have Reilly play Cox as a six-year old, by digitally transferring his head to the child actor's body. "Look, when you're going for the Golden Globe you don't start at age 25," Reilly said to wide applause. "You either have to lose 60 pounds or start at age 14." (Reilly's been nominated for a Globe once, for his role in Chicago)

Kasdan said that the idea from the beginning was to make the movie a breakneck, laugh-a-minute comedy, the kind of film where a kid meets his demise in a ridiculous manner within the first two minutes. "I kept saying it should feel like we took an actual great American biography kind of story and hijacked it and put something in every shot that was insane. Otherwise it would seem exactly like a lot of other movies. [...] We could start to see that there's a very fine line between just doing all the movies that you're quoting and not."

Reilly was the man they had in mind from the beginning of the writing process, and it's not hard to see why: Much of the broad parody wouldn't work if you didn't accept that Dewey believes in all the insanity going on around him. Reilly's fierce dramatic chops really do get exercised, even when he's scaling a flagpole in his underwear. "From the first few conversations we knew that we were trying to build this for John to play this part," Kasdan said. "Hardly anyone can do all of the things that he can do."

"I looked at this and said there is only one man who can possibly attempt this, and it's me," Reilly deadpanned. He earnestly added, "Jake is a great director, that's obvious. Judd I'd already worked with on Talladega Nights. This was clearly the fun ride to be on."

Apatow was missing from the press conference, but his influence on everything from the huge array of cameos ("Freaks & Geeks" fans, keep your eyes peeled!) to the film's very existence was evident. Explaining the process of pitching the project, Kasdan said he walked into the room and explained the idea, to which Reilly added, "It should be noted that Judd Apatow walked into the room as well." Kasdan, no stranger to Hollywood influence himself (he's the son of director Lawrence Kasdan), agreed. '"At this point [Judd] can walk in without telling them the idea and it works."

Then Reilly went into an impression of Apatow: "Can I put these bags of gold somewhere while we have this meeting?" And what do you know? For about the 50th time that night, he brought down the house.


Elvis (Jack White) and Dewey Cox face off backstage.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Indy and the Joker Fully Revealed!

By Katey Rich

Maybe I've thought too much about how to write "I love you" on my eyelids, or maybe I've seen the Indiana Jones show at the MGM theme park in Orlando one too many times, but the new images from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull give me a thrill that I can't quite place. The pics showed up on Ain't It Cool News, and unlike the teasing previews of the Joker from next summer's Dark Knight, they give us a full view of both Harrison Ford in his Indy getup as well as new kid Shia LaBeouf, playing an intrepid young fellow explorer who may or may not be Indiana Jr.

Here are the photos, which get bigger if you click 'em:

Indyskull1large Indyskull2large


Sure, it's a little strange to see Indy with more wrinkles and gray hair, but you can't deny that Harrison Ford still fits that costume better than any other actor possibly could. Just look at that powerful stance in the second photo! I'm wary about Shia LaBeouf's trace of a weird mustache, but I'm willing to accept the word of those who saw Transformers that he's a worthy player in the series.

But speaking of that pesky Joker, Ain't It Cool also seems to have the full image of the Joker that this promotional website has been revealing bit by bit over the last few days. It's clearly the same image, so it looks like the cover of Empire magazine just showed up a bit earlier than the promotional mavens behind Dark Knight intended. Still, what an impact: the previous sneak peeks at the Joker (like this one or this or this) didn't indicate the same level of, well, fun in the character. For the first time you can now see Heath Ledger digging into this role with the same kind of maniacal glee that Jack Nicholson did back in 1989. It's been a while since we saw Ledger so much as crack a smile on-screen, so getting a glimpse of that cracked smile is like a breath of cold Gotham air.

It's hard to believe it's already time to get pumped up about next summer's testosterone-heavy releases, but the marketers behind both of these films are doing a great job of drumming up the interest. Let's just hope Shia's facial hair and Joker overload don't sink both enterprises before May comes along.

Spirit Awards Announced: 'Juno', 'Diving Bell,' 'I'm Not There' Clean Up

By Katey Rich

Independent_spirit_award_trophy_1_f The Film Independent Spirit Awards, the funky younger cousin to the Oscars, has announced its nominees for this year. As usual there's a little overlap between these and the presumed Oscar contenders, but there are also enough offbeat, low-budget, true indies to keep things interesting. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I'm Not There, Juno and The Savages, Oscar contenders all, led the nominees with four each, including Best Feature for the first three. A Mighty Heart and Paranoid Park rounded out the Best Feature nominees.

Kendrick played a high-strung debater in Rocket Science.

Perhaps one of the biggest black sheep nominees was Rocket Science, a quirky teen comedy about a high school debate team from first-time writer-director Jeffrey Blitz. It bowed to largely positive critical reviews in August and made pretty much no money, but it played for over two months, which is practically a hit given how fast some titles get whisked in and out of theatres. Blitz earned two nominations, for "Best First Screenplay" and "Best First DIrector," and 22-year old Anna Kendrick scored a Best Supporting Female nomination, alongside likely Oscar nominees Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Margot at the Wedding) and Marisa Tomei (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead).

A few films made a surprisingly small impact. Much-beloved Waitress nabbed only a screenwriting nom for its late writer-director Adrienne Shelly, while Margot at the Wedding was noticed only for Leigh's performance (this after The Squid and the Whale earned six nominations in 2006). On the other hand, Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor both got noticed for the largely forgotten summer release Talk To Me, and two-time Spirit Awards winner Mike White scored a nod for his screenplay for the small comedy Year of the Dog. 

A few no-brainers: I'm Not There won the Robert Altman award for ensemble cast and direction, and Great World of Sound, which led the Gotham Awards, picked up nominations for "Best First Feature" and "Best Supporting Male" for Kene Holliday. Also, if Diablo Cody doesn't clean up "Best FIrst Screenplay" for Juno, there really may be no justice in this world.

The 2008 Film Independent Spirit Awards will be handed out on Saturday, February 23, in a beachfront ceremony held the day before the Academy Awards. There's talk of a "Spirit Award curse," by which the winner of Best Feature will go on to lose the Oscar the next day-- it happened to Little Miss Sunshine, Brokeback Mountain, Sideways, and Lost in Translation. So if you're really rooting for Diving Bell and Juno, or somewhat delusionally rooting for I'm Not There, hope that Gus Van Sant's digitally-shot murder mystery about skateboarders Paranoid Park can eke its way to a win.

The full list of nominees is available after the jump, as well as at the Spirit Awards website.

BEST FEATURE (Award given to the Producer)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Kilik

I'm Not There
Producers: Christine Vachon, John Sloss, John Goldwyn, James D. Stern

Producers: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Mason Novick, Russell Smith

A Mighty Heart
Producers: Dede Gardner, Andrew Eaton, Brad Pitt

Paranoid Park
Producers: Neil Kopp, David Cress


Todd Haynes
I'm Not There

Tamara Jenkins
The Savages

Jason Reitman

Julian Schnabel
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Gus Van Sant
Paranoid Park

BEST FIRST FEATURE (Award given to the director and producer)

2 Days in Paris
Director: Julie Delpy
Producers: Julie Delpy, Christophe Mazodier, Thierry Potok

Great World of Sound
Director: Craig Zobel
Producers: Melissa Palmer, David Gordon Green, Richard Wright, Craig Zobel

The Lookout
Director: Scott Frank
Producers: Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Laurence Mark, Walter Parkes

Rocket Science
Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Producers: Effie T. Brown, Sean Welch

Director: Rajnesh Domalpalli
Producer: Latha R. Domalapalli

JOHN CASSAVETES AWARD (Given to the best feature made for under $500,000;

award given to the writer, director, and producer)

* Executive Producers are not listed.

August Evening
Writer/Directpr: Chris Eska
Producers: Connie Hill, Jason Wehling

Owl and the Sparrow
Writer/Director: Stephane Gauger
Producers: Nguyen Van Quan, Doan Nhat Nam, Stephane Gauger

The Pool
Director: Chris Smith
Producer: Kate Noble
Writer: Chris Smith & Randy Russell

Quiet City
Director: Aaron Katz
Producers: Brendan McFadden, Ben Stambler
Writers: Aaron Katz, Erin Fisher, Cris Lankenau

Shotgun Stories
Writer/Director: Jeff Nichols
Producers: David Gordon Green, Lisa Muskat, Jeff Nichols


Ronald Harwood
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Tamara Jenkins
The Savages

Fred Parnes & Andrew Wagner
Starting Out in the Evening

Adrienne Shelly

Mike White
Year of the Dog


Jeffrey Blitz
Rocket Science

Zoe Cassavetes
Broken English

Diablo Cody

Kelly Masterson
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

John Orloff
A Mighty Heart


Angelina Jolie
A Mighty Heart

Sienna Miller

Ellen Page

Parker Posey
Broken English

Tang Wei
Lust, Caution


Pedro Castaneda
August Evening

Don Cheadle
Talk To Me

Philip Seymour Hoffman
The Savages

Frank Langella
Starting Out in the Evening

Tony Leung
Lust, Caution


Cate Blanchett
I'm Not There

Anna Kendrick
Rocket Science

Jennifer Jason Leigh
Margot at the Wedding

Tamara Podemski
Four Sheets to the Wind

Marisa Tomei
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead


Chiwetel Ejiofor
Talk To Me

Marcus Carl Franklin
I'm Not There

Kene Holliday
Great World of Sound

Irrfan Khan
The Namesake

Steve Zahn
Rescue Dawn


Mott Hupfel
The Savages

Janusz Kaminski
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Milton Kam

Mihai Malaimare, Jr.
Youth Without Youth

Rodrigo Prieto
Lust, Caution

BEST DOCUMENTARY (Award given to the director)

Crazy Love
Director: Dan Klores

Lake of Fire
Director: Tony Kaye

Manufactured Landscapes
Director: Jennifer Baichwal

The Monastery
Director: Pernille Rose Gr�nkjr

The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair
Directors: Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker

BEST FOREIGN FILM (Award given to the director)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Director: Cristian Mungiu

The Band's Visit
Director: Eran Kolirin

Lady Chatterley
Director: Pascale Ferran

Director: John Carney

Directors: Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi


(Given to one film's director, casting director and its ensemble cast)

I'm Not There
Director: Todd Haynes
Casting Director: Laura Rosenthal
Ensemble Cast: Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw, Marcus Carl Franklin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Bruce Greenwood

Monday, November 26, 2007

Release Date Changes: Miss Pettigrew Lives In March

By Katey Rich

Normally on Fridays I go through the list of release date changes, but hey, last Friday I was picking at leftovers, like most of America. So here we are today looking at a big list of movies and when they will finally be coming at us. Unlike in the last few weeks, there's actually a few notable changes and announcements to discuss.

Adams' star is on the rise.

DreamWorks has picked an awards season-savvy release date for Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, putting it out on March 7, 2008, only a few weeks after the Oscars, where its star Amy Adams may be getting some attention. Adams stars as an American actress and singer who hires a dowdy former governess (Frances McDormand) as her assistant during her world travels. The tale, described as a "Cinderella story", is based on a book written in 1938 by Winifred Watson. After Adams' exceptional performance in the box-office smash Enchanted, audiences will likely again be thrilled by her role as a glamorous, presumably kind-hearted woman. Pettigrew doesn't sound like the same kind of wide audience catnip that Enchanted is, but given that critics were just as charmed by Adams as the target audience of eight-year-olds was, there will likely be plenty of art-house types ready to fall in love with Adams all over again.

It's already been widely reported in the trades that Angels and Demons, the Ron Howard-directed followup to The Da Vinci Code, has been delayed thanks to the writers' strike. Initial reports said that Akiva Goldsman had turned in his screenplay ahead of the deadline, but according to The Hollywood Reporter the script isn't ready for filming, and can't be worked on until the strike is finished. Sony is showing great restraint in postponing their likely cash cow, since you can imagine the amount of money and talent that could be wasted with a shoddy script. Still, this is yet more evidence that many of those rushed-to-completion projects may be riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies.If a screenwriter like Goldsman, with a huge number of hits and even an Oscar to his name, can turn in a rush job, just imagine what we might actually see from less-experienced writers with less money riding on their work.

America's next action star?

A few other big releases finally had dates set, including Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones set for March 13, 2009 and G.I. Joe, based on the action figures, dropping on August 7 of that year. The Taking of the Pelham One, Two, Three, an action remake starring Denzel Washington, perhaps shifted its date in response to G.I. Joe, and switched from August 7, 2009 to July 31, giving it a week to play before the "Real American Hero" tries to replicate Transformers' success. Coming much earlier will be Marley & Me, a comedy starrring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, based on the best-selling book about a man and a misbehaving dog. The fast-approaching release date presumably means they've set shooting dates for the project, which was on hold while Wilson recuperated from his much-publicized suicide attempt. The late-December release indicates the studio thinks they might have something special on their hands, though a movie with bankable stars based on a best-seller isn't exactly a gamble.

And finally, two releases intended for this weekend have been pushed to next spring: Flawless, a caper comedy starring Demi Moore and Michael Caine, and Teeth, a Sundance favorite about a teenage girl with teeth in her you-know-what. Though this weekend itself is looking pretty calm compared to the last few-- only one wide release!-- delaying anything that isn't a heavy awards-season contender or a holiday movie seems like a smart move right now. Flawless seems like a perfectly fine film that could play well in the springtime lull, and Teeth seems destined for a cult audience that might be too busy at the moment to give it the time it deserves.

Weekend Roundup: Fairy Tales Come True (For Disney At Least)

By Katey Rich


Because nothing does a better job than alleviating the familial tensions at Thanksgiving than a Disney movie, Enchanted, um, enchanted the box office this weekend, notching a $50 million take over the five-day holiday. This gives Disney the bragging rights to the top 5 Thanksgiving weekend releases of all time, as reported by Variety: Toy Story 2 ($80.1 million), Enchanted ($50 million), A Bug's Life ($47.7 million), Unbreakable ($46 million) and 101 Dalmatians ($45 million).

On significantly fewer screens than any of the other wide releases of the weekend, Screen Gems' family drama This Christmas scored a surprise #2 spot, bringing in $27 million. It barely edged out Beowulf, which dropped only 40% from its opening weekend and added another $23 million to its total gross. Even Hitman, which bowed to dismal reviews, managed to wrestle some young male viewers away from Beowulf, coming in at #4 with $21 million for the five-day period.

The weekend's other wide releases didn't fare quite as well: Family-friendly August Rush came in at #7 with $13 million, and the Stephen King adaptation The Mist squeaked into the top 10 at #9, also with $13 million for the five-day period. Both films featured the lowest per-screen averages of the new releases, averaging just under $4,000 per screen. Trumping August were two family holdovers, Bee Movie-- which crossed the $100 million mark over the weekend-- and Fred Claus. Bee Movie grossed $16 million over the five days to come in at #5, with Fred Claus right behind it at #6 with a $15 million five-day gross.

Rounding out the top ten, American Gangster continued its successful run with a #9 berth and a $13 million five-day take, while No Country for Old Men was a hit in its first wide expansion, breaking into the top 10 in the last spot and taking in $11 million over the long weekend. It maintained its run of spectacular per-screen averages, coming in at $9,432.

Below is the full list of the top 20, courtesy of Box Office Mojo. Note that Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium and Love in the Time of Cholera both dropped out of the top ten in their second weeks, with Cholera losing over 50% of its audience from the previous week. On the other hand, I'm Not There performed pretty well in limited release, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead continues adding screens and dollar amounts. Bella continues its remarkable hold on the box office (you can read my story about its success for more information), and in the best news of all, Saw IV dropped over 1,500 screens and finally seems to be going away-- until next Halloween, at least.

TWLWTitle (click to view)StudioWeekend Gross% ChangeTheater Count / ChangeAverageTotal GrossBudget*Week #
2NThis ChristmasSGem$18,600,000-1,858-$10,010$27,100,000$131
52Bee MovieP/DW$12,010,000-14.3%3,507-477$3,424$112,069,000$1504
64Fred ClausWB$10,735,000-9.9%3,603-$2,979$53,070,000-3
7NAugust RushWB$9,430,000-2,310+1,792$4,082$13,330,000-1
83American GangsterUni.$9,207,000-28.5%2,799-311$3,289$115,774,000$1004
9NThe MistMGM/W$9,062,000-2,423-$3,739$13,012,000-1
107No Country for Old MenMira.$8,112,000+163.7%860+712$9,432$16,640,000-3
115Mr. Magorium's Wonder EmporiumFox$8,000,000-16.9%3,168+4$2,525$22,287,000-2
126Dan in Real LifeBV$3,261,000-24.9%1,502-399$2,171$42,448,000-5
138Lions for LambsUA$1,157,000-60.1%1,527-689$757$13,792,000-3
1420Before the Devil Knows You're DeadThink$981,000+40.9%260+84$3,773$3,533,000-5
1510Love in the Time of CholeraNL$910,000-52.7%852-$1,068$3,457,000-2
17NI'm Not ThereWein.$757,000-130-$5,823$1,001,000-1
1815Into the WildParV$721,000-16.4%354-157$2,036$15,025,000-10
1912Michael ClaytonWB$600,000-42.1%301-394$1,993$38,111,000-8
209Saw IVLGF$460,000-79.5%531-1,566$866$62,885,000-5

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tryptophan Beckons!

By Katey Rich

Why yes, that is a clay turkey dressed as Borat, courtesy of Flickr.

This is the part of the afternoon where the Screener tells you "Goodbye! Eat lots of turkey!" Because the Nielsen Company is setting us free at 3 p.m. today so that we can prepare for battle in the wilderness that is the Newark International Airport's security screening line. And, you know, I've never been a girl to turn down a chance to put all of my toiletries in a clear plastic bag.

Even the striking writers are on vacation for the next few days, so I'm operating under the assumption that I won't miss much whilst eating leftovers, watching whatever my parents have recorded on their DVR and making my family go see Enchanted with me. I'll be back, well-fed and well-rested, on Monday.

Gobble gobble!

'Bella' Is Surprise Small Scale Hit

By Katey Rich


Here's a heartwarming Hollywood parable for you as you head into the holiday weekend. A little movie made for little money charms audiences at a big film festival, but still no major studios are interested in picking it up. Believing in the movie, and in the dedicated people behind it, a small distributor takes the movie on, and spends the next year reaching out to all the audiences they believe will love it. The filmmakers and actors promote it relentlessly, and when this little movie made for little money finally makes it to theatres, it blows everyone away. For a solid month it does nothing but increase its business, and word starts to spread that the little movie has already made five million dollars on less than 400 screens, and only has plans to go bigger.

Bella's story is the kind of that every independent filmmaker dreams of happening with their little-indie-that-could. Even Eric D'Arbeloff, co-president of Bella's distributor Roadside Attractions, admits they've been surprised by Bella's success. "This film has defied everybody's expectations. I think if the industry ever expected it would be at $5 million halfway through its release, a studio would have picked it up."

Bellaposter Bella is the first feature from writer-director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, about Jose (Eduardo Verstegui), a waiter who walks out of his job in solidarity with Nina, a waitress (Tammy Blanchard) who has been fired by his hot-tempered brother (Manny Perez) for being late while she took a pregnancy test. Jose and Nina spend the day wandering the city together, visiting Jose's family by the beach and discussing Nina's accidental pregnancy.

With its gentle pro-life message and Latino main character, Bella has appealed greatly both to religious and Hispanic communities, groups that are often targeted with specialty films but rarely at the same time. "I think what has really clicked with those audiences is that it's not the clichs of what you would expect movies for them would be. It is a real film and dealing with complex characters and not simple solutions."

D'Arbeloff described an experience creating the trailer, when Monteverde stepped in to ask they not include such stereotypical "Latino" music. "You can't talk down to [Hispanic communities]. They're interested in independent film and new voices in the same way that other filmgoers are."

Bella opened on 165 screens on Oct. 26, and notched a phenomenal $8,000 per-screen average, according to Box Office Mojo. Since then the movie has expanded to 457 screens and maintained a healthy $2,200 per-screen average. Bella's top markets remain coastal stalwarts Los Angeles and New York, but within the top 10 are also Dallas, Houston and Minneapolis. According to D'Arbeloff, Roadside Attractions plans to continue expanding into new markets and screens.

D'Arbeloff said it's hard to quantify the word-of-mouth effect on the film's success but notes, "I do think there's a lot of informal stuff going on"-- like e-mails sent to friends or conversations with family. A Google blog search indicates significant support for the movie on pro-life and Catholic websites; the activist organization Operation Rescue posted a message on its website with the title "Send Hollywood a message! Go See Bella Wednesday, Thursday." In it the group's president, shown in a photo with the movie's star Verstegui, tells readers, "While abortion is not directly mentioned, the pro-life theme of this heartwarming movie is unmistakable. We believe the life message in Bella is so powerfully and artfully presented, that it will save lives and change hearts."

On sites like Fandango and Yahoo! Movies, where readers are encouraged to submit their own ratings for films, Bella ranks well above critical favorite No Country for Old Men or even box-office behemoths like American Gangster. "It wasn't as Hollywood as the rest," wrote Fandango user m.perez. "I liked that they didn't dirty it up with sex and swearing. It was just a movie that stood on its own."

D'Arbeloff credits Monteverde, Verstegui, executive producer Shawn Wolfington and producer Leo Severino for coming into the distribution process with a distinct idea of where they wanted their film to go. "[Bella's success] goes to show this whole idea about the filmmakers really pulling through and finding different constituencies for a movie that obviously the industry didn't really respond to. I think it's really a great story�the industry doesn't always have the last word on things."

Box Office Outlook: Some Enchanted Four-Day Weekend

By Katey Rich

Not too often does Friday come around mid-week, but thanks to our Plymouth Rock forebears, it's already time for another Box Office Outlook! While many of us will spend the weekend struggling our way out of a turkey coma, many more of us will make our way to the multiplex, where there's an onslaught of new releases in addition to the huge variety of offerings from last weekend. There's something for the horror fans, the action fans, the sentimental goop fans, and even the Dylan-philes. And for the rest of us there's Enchanted, with the widest imaginable appeal of any movie this year, and enough good buzz to turn a frog into a prince. Make the forest animals help with the housework? Get the clocks and candlesticks singing and dancing? Maybe once I actually see it my Disney references will be a little more polished.

Enchantedposter433ENCHANTED. A gleeful sendup of the conventions the Walt Disney Studio has spent the last 70 years inventing, Enchanted mixes live-action and hand-drawn animation to tell the story of a fairy tale princess sent on a wild adventure. Giselle (Amy Adams) wants nothing more than to marry her handsome prince (James Marsden), but is cast away by his wicked mother (Susan Sarandon) to the harsh world of live-action Manhattan. Taken in by a lawyer (Patrick Dempsey) and his daughter (Rachel Covey), Giselle navigates this strange new world, soon followed by the prince and his mother. Songs by Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) abound.

Reviews are comparing Amy Adams to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins, praising the lavish musical numbers, and generally going gaga over this holiday treat. "One of [Disney's] most clever and entertaining films in years," says our Daniel Eagan, who also praises the musical number "That's How You Know" as "choreographed with all the vitality and ingenuity of classic Hollywood musicals." "Enchanted has the makings of a supersize sugarcoated hit, and Adams is just the spicy princess you want to take home and PG-love," writes Rolling Stone's Peter Travers. The Chicago Tribune recognizes that the film has its problems, but predicts, "Don't be surprised if the film's minor flaws fade away with time and repeated viewings. This is the kind of movie that will be around for awhile." And Manohla Dargis at the New York Times, like virtually every other critic, totally fell for Amy Adams: "Ms. Adams proves to be an irresistibly watchable screen presence and a felicitous physical comedian, with a gestural performance and an emotional register that alternately bring to mind the madcap genius of Carole Lombard and Lucille Ball." Gene Seymour at Newsday wasn't even that impressed with the film, but even he admits, "If I were an 8-year-old girl, I would think Enchanted was better than a week of snow days or 10 Justin Timberlake concerts."

Hitman_ver3 HITMAN. Based on a successful video game that spawned several sequels, Hitman stars Timothy Olyphant as genetically engineered Agent 47, an assassin hired out for contract killings who finds himself on the run from both the Russian military and Interpol. He's accompanied in his journey by Nika (Olga Kurylenko), the Russian president's mistress. On their tail are two Interpol agents (Dougray Scott, Michael Offei), and NIka and Agent 47 must make like, well, hitmen and kill, kill, kill to uncover the truth.

Hitman seems to be one of those movies that's so bad the reviews are actually funny. "Theatrical playoff will be so quick that the DVD could serve as a stocking stuffer," cackles Variety. Manohla Dargis at the New York Times adds, "It's bang, boom, blah � action movies for bored dummies." Our Daniel Eagan is also less than amused: "Fails to deliver the kind of pounding, visceral action that genre fans expect, despite the high body count and R rating." The Boston Globe joins a number of other critics in questioning Olyphant's casting: "Olyphant seems like a boy sent to do a man's work. If this actually were a video game, he'd be toast before Level Two, and you'd be throwing your joystick across the room in disgust."

MistTHE MIST. Writer-director Frank Darabont has made some of the most critically praised Stephen King adaptations ever-- 1994's The Shawshank Redemption and 1999's The Green Mile-- and he's at it again with The Mist, an adaptation of King's 1980 novella about a Maine besieged by a mysterious, malevolent mist. Thomas Jane plays David Drayton, a man who takes refuge with his son inside the local supermarket, where a religious zealot (Marcia Gay Harden) is riling up the crowd, convincing them the mist is a harbinger of the apocalypse. When strange creatures begin appearing out of the mist, though, the numbers inside the supermarket begin to dwindle until an escape becomes necessary. Toby Jones and Andre Braugher also star.

Most people wouldn't think of a horror movie as the perfect post-Thanksgiving outing, and neither do some critics. "It makes the fatal mistake of taking itself seriously," says our Rex Roberts, who also calls the movie "thick and smarmy." Anthony Lane at the New Yorker gives an overall hilarious review, concluding by comparing The Mist to John Carpenter's The Fog:"These movies are not meditations on the tragedy of human overreach. They're weather reports. Isn't that scary enough?" Lisa Schwarzbaum, on the other hand, was pretty pleased over at Entertainment Weekly, writing, "Nifty, unusually spry, and almost shockingly pessimistic." Indeed, The Mist is shaping up to be one of those weird anomalies, where the hoity-toitys at Rotten Tomatoes' "Cream of the Crop" shout "Boo!" (a 50% rating) but the critical community at large shouts "Yay!" (a 71% overall rating). E! Online gives it an "A," saying, "Unlike other horror films that only have torture porn to offer, this one will stay with you for a long time." Maybe, but their comparison of the movie's victims to "a few dozen pounds of raw chuck" sure does make me lose my appetite for a turkey dinner.

Augustrushmovieposter AUGUST RUSH. Two young musicians come together for a romantic night together near New York City's Greenwich Village, but the next morning are separated forever. Twelve years later their son, whose mother mistakenly believed she had miscarried, is intent on using his extraordinary musical gifts to reunite with the parents he never knew. Freddie Highmore stars as the titular musical whiz kid August Rush, with Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Myers as the unknowing parents, and Robin Williams as "The Wizard," a street performer who takes young August under his wing. Terrence Howard also stars.

Our Shirley Sealy made me laugh out loud with her capsule review of this one: "Stop, stop! I love movies�I even love sappy romantic movies�but I can't take this anymore!" Newsday is also unamused, calling August Rush "the kind of fairy tale that makes Cinderella look like kitchen-sink realism" and also pausing to note that poor, pubescent Freddie Highmore is "a little long in the tooth to be playing the 11-year-old title character." Many other critics, though, were charmed. The Village Voice calls it "an urban fairy tale whose rapturous finale stakes a wishful claim on the redemptive power of love and art." The Hollywood Reporter admits, "Clearly, the film does not work on any realistic level," but adds that it's "an often charming urban fantasy." And Edge Boston takes to task the "less-introspective" critics who booed the film, saying, "For those who are wont to find music and poetry in the world around them, August Rush will deliver a heartwarming holiday treat that will lift your spirits."

Thischristmasposter1THIS CHRISTMAS. Holidays are hectic for everyone, but for the Whitfield family, where everyone has a secret they're trying to keep hidden, this Christmas will be crazier than usual. Family matriarch Ma'Dere (Loretta Devine) has invited all six of her children home for the holidays, but must keep her relationship with her boyfriend (Delroy Lindo). In the meantime each of the siblings come with their own baggage, including two secret musical careers, a philandering husband, a secret wife, and a whole lot of resenment. Regina King, Laz Alonso, Columbus Short, Lauren London, Sharon Leal and pop star Chris Brown star as the squabbling siblings.

Most critics recognize there's a whole lot of artifice and sentimentality going on here, but fall for the holiday film regardless. Our David Noh appreciates a black family film not made by Tyler Perry, and adds, "Whitmore has assembled a highly attractive, talented cast who do all they can with this less-than-golden material." "A family reunion comedy with appealing, if familiar, characters and a soundtrack upbeat as its story," writes Carrie Rickey at the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Hollywood Reporter sees too much soap opera in the plot but admits This Christmas holds up against a similar classic: "Not a single moment feels even slightly real, but then, Kaufman and Hart's chaotic family comedy 'You Can't Take It With You' never felt real, either." And the Arizona Republic is definitely feeling the Christmas spirit: "It's a relief to come across a movie that celebrates the family with a clear-eyed appreciation of and genuine affection for its characters."

Imnotthereposter_2I'M NOT THERE. In just one theatre this weekend is Todd Haynes' anti-biopic about Bob Dylan, which has sparked fierce discussion ever since its debut at the New York Film Festival in October. Six actors take on the role of the Dylan figure, among them a woman (Cate Blanchett), two Brits (Ben Whishaw and Christian Bale), and an adolescent African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin). Heath Ledger and Richard Gere round out the cast, with each actor taking on an entirely different character who connects, somewhere, to Dylan's legend: a rail-riding troubadour who dubs himself Woody Guthrie (Franklin), a Greenwich Village protest singer (Bale), a strung-out rock star on a world tour (Blanchett), a restless Hollywood icon (Ledger), a sassy juvenile delinquent (Whishaw) and a rustic mountain man (Gere).

Critics admit that Haynes' film is a challenge, and not for everyone, but many of them were swept away by the inventiveness. "A fascinating experiment that, if the viewer is willing to surrender to Haynes's sometimes hermetic meditations on Dylan's life, heartily rewards the investment," writes the Washington Post. Our Ethan Alter works a "Visions of Johanna" reference into the first line of his review and compares the film to a complex Dylan song: "After all, who could explain what 'Desolation Row' is about after a single listen?" Even those bewildered by the film give Blanchett credit for her performance as the Don't Look Back-era Dylan: Anthony Lane at The New Yorker says the film has a problem of "what authority a movie retains when its component parts fly off in different directions," but adds, "If the new film does cohere, for a while, that is thanks to Cate Blanchett." Rex Reed can often be counted on for a scathing review; I heard him in person say recently that I'm Not There was the worst movie he had ever seen, and he added in his review, "It's a 135-minute Cobb salad, what I call jerk-off filmmaking." Talk about a mixed metaphor. I'm Not There seems to be a very different kind of critic-proof movie: so inscrutable and ready to be interpreted in 100 different ways, that each person can take the film they want away from it-- genius masterpiece or, uh, Cobb salad.

Oldmen1 In addition, No Country for Old Men is expanding to 800 theatres this weekend. You can read the critical roundup from its limited bow two weeks ago here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

'Into The Wild' Is Modern America's Western

By Katey Rich


The American West has been getting a lot of attention on the big screen this fall, and rarely has it looked so good. Cinematographer Roger Deakins alone has redefined the frontier, with his gorgeous work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country For Old Men showcasing two equally striking but vastly different versions of the West. Add to that the success of 3:10 to Yuma, an old-school Western in a way neither of the above films were, and it's a wonder we're not all packing up the wagons and heading for the Oregon Trail.

It might be the most modern of this fall's films set in the West, though, that best captures the attitude and mythology of the place. Sean Penn's Into the Wild, while featuring nary a 10-gallon hat or horse, gets to the heart of America's fascination with the West, the idealized nature and the rugged individualist spirit. Penn's anti-hero may be more Jack Kerouac than Wyatt Earp, but Chris McCandless picks right up where those heroes left off, seeking his fortune in the great unknown�only this time, with disastrous consequences.

Penn's film is based on Jon Krakauer's bestseller Into the Wild, which painstakingly retraced McCandless' rambling path across the American West, which he undertook after graduating from college, abandoning all his worldly belongings and rechristening himself "Alexander Supertramp." The list of location shoots features heavily in the credits, and with good reason-- Penn and his crew seem to have traveled everywhere that McCandless did, from the freewheeling former hippie campsite Slab City, California to the rushing waters of the Rio Grande. Penn reportedly shot much of the movie himself, and while he's no visionary like Deakins, he does an extraordinary job of capturing the still beauty but also the excitement of the locations. Seeing the Denali Mountain Range in Alaska, we admire its timeless elegance while channeling the excitement felt by our young hero, eager to strike out and conquer it.

McCandless (Hirsch) sees a flock of caribou his first day in Alaska.

In the lead role, 22-year old Emile Hirsch is extraordinary, playing a character both admirable and infuriating for his steadfast dedication to his ideals. Penn's jubilant cinematography would not work without him, as Hirsch effortlessly conveys the sheer wonder of what he's seeing-- a scene in which he first arrives in Alaska and spies a flock of caribou is tiny compared to the larger landscapes, but devastatingly tender. Penn is bold enough to have his actor play to the camera; Hirsch looks directly into the lens at several points, both in moments of joy and disaster. It's a terribly risky move, especially in a film that's otherwise naturalistic, but somehow the charisma and power both behind the camera and before it combine in a way that simply invites the audience into Christopher's adventure.

Chris McCandless might be the kind of city slicker who would have been laughed out of Dodge City, but he's who we are now, a nation with itchy feet but no frontier to explore with them. Penn has it both ways with McCandless' story, never quite canonizing him for striking out the way most of us never will, but unwilling to condemn him for his foolish unpreparedness. Somehow, it works. McCandless, like the great heroes of the West, can be whoever you want him to be, a tragically flawed hero for some and a role model for others. He embodies one of the most powerful ideals we Americans have ever held: that somewhere out where the sun goes down, there's a better future. Though he meets a tragic end in his search, what he comes across in the meantime is gorgeous and awe-inspiring: the stuff American dreams are made of.