Friday, August 29, 2008

Box Office Outlook: No Big Releases for Labor Day Weekend

By Sarah Sluis

Memorial Day brought Indiana Jones, Fourth of July Hancock. This Labor Day, the only "franchise" coming to town is Hamlet 2. Unlike the other big three-day weekends of the summer, studios avoid releasing any real box-office draws on Labor Day weekend. This year is no exception. The five releases of note are Babylon A.D., Traitor, Disaster Movie, College, and Hamlet 2.

Passion for Action: Babylon A.D. (3,390 Screens) and Traitor (2,054 screens)

Babylon A.D. and Traitor are action pics, centered around Vin Diesel and Don Cheadle, respectively. Both seem forgettable. Positioning them into this time slot, no doubt the studios agree.  Babylon A.D.'s plot is of the post-apocalyptic boy-saves-girl-and-world variety. Vin Diesel is tasked with bringing a mysterious Eastern European woman, value unknown, back to a futuristic Manhattan. The woman's value? According to IMDB, she is "host to an organism that a cult wants to harvest in order to produce a genetically modified Messiah." Okay.

Moving on, Cheadle's pic is a "spot-the-rogue" spy thriller, complete with flip-flopping allegiances and "hopscotching" around the globe. Yemen and Sudan serve as the terrorist nations du jour. Film Journal critic Daniel Eagan notes that Cheadle, as a "thinking man's actor" seems "miscast, even redundant" in a role that requires physicality and violence.

Teenyboppers: Hamlet 2 (1,530 screens), College (2,123 screens) and Disaster Movie (2,642 screens)

Hamlet2star_3 Three teen films round out the mix opening this week. Hamlet 2, a creation of "SouthPark" alum Pam Brady, has some laugh out loud moments in the trailer, as do Disaster Movie and College. College, in particular, offers a different entry point into the college antics story by following "pre-frosh," the hapless individuals who try to pretend to be college students for a weekend. The notion of a starry-eyed "pre-frosh" is a running joke on college campuses, and this film aims to filter this knowledge down to the under-17s, as FJI critic Frank Lovece notes, will surely sneak into this film (perhaps by buying a ticket for PG-13 films Hamlet 2 or Disaster Movie?).

Of the three, Hamlet 2 seems to be the best bet. While a big hit at Sundance, where it was snapped up by Focus Features, its limited pre-release has not engendered the same amount of buzz or box-office returns that precede a surprise hit. I also feel the TV spots really missed the mark, failing to convey the "play within a film" concept and instead leaving viewers confused about what they could expect. Maybe word-of-mouth can help the film. After all, it is a long weekend.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Warner Bros., Erian, Ball refuse to throw in 'Towel'

By Sarah Sluis

One of the most surefire ways to encourage viewership is through censorship, and Towelhead is no exception.  Towelhead, scheduled for a September 12th NYC/LA release, received a ton of buzz after the Council on American-Islam relations (CAIR) asked Warner Bros. to remove the racial epithet and change the title back to its film festival moniker, Nothing is Private.  Refusing to budge, the original book's author, Alicia Erian, and director Alan Ball issued an eloquent statement defending their position.

Judging by the trailer and Film Journal and Variety's reviews, Towelhead appears to be a coming-of-age movie first and a movie about racism and identity second.  Alan Ball, artisan of the suburban dystopia (through his work on American Beauty and Six Feet Under), has been criticized for producing an uneven film, but the opportunity of hearing a story about an Arab-American in suburbia, far away from terrorist plots, piques my curiosity to the $12 New York City movie ticket level.

The film follows Jasira, who moves from New York City, where she lived with her white mother, to live with her strict Lebanese father in Texas. There, she must deal with her father's discomfort with her burgeoning sexuality, racism against her black boyfriend, and epithets from the community around her, which alternately calls her a "towelhead" or mistakes her for a Mexican immigrant.

Pare down the plot to a story of a mixed-race child raised by a white mother, and then thrown into another community where she must come to terms with how other people view her identity, and you have the story of Barack Obama.  The subject of race and identity is a compelling one, but superficially explored in Hollywood (didactic Crash and Tropic Thunder's "making fun of people who make fun of black/retarded people" come to mind).  With the upcoming and groundbreaking election, any story that engages with the subject of American race and identity, regardless of tone or flaws, will be on my to-see list.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Today's Film News: Chanel Biopic and Chicklit Acquisition

By Sarah Sluis

A couple of promising female-oriented titles have moved ahead in production, hopefully a sign that producers have responded to the box-office votes made by the droves of women who turned out for Sex and the City.

Tautou in Chanel
Chanel biopic Coco Avant Chanel, planned with French darling Audrey Tautou in the starring role, now has Warner Brothers on board to produce and distribute in the United States.
  Taking a cue from the prominent role of couture in SATC, the production's second move was to sign on famed Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld to consult on the costuming.  While I have always been drawn to Tautou's pixie-like face onscreen, not her clothing or figure, a Chanel suit can only add to her film presence.

Swank Buys, not Borrows
Emily Giffin's best-selling chick-lit novels Something Borrowed and Something Blue have been acquired by Hilary Swank's production company.  The books themselves were mashed potatoes�comforting and predictable pleasures.  With the right cast and scripting, I think this project could be become more than the instant Kate Hudson-Matthew McConaughey vehicle.

The first book has the best friend/maid-of-honor "borrowing" the groom, justified by the sympathetic portrayal of the best friend and the downright narcissistic behavior of the bridezilla.  The second book puts us in the shoes of the now knocked-up, cuckolded and humbled bridezilla as she learns to care for someone beside herself�barely.  Because the bridezilla character is so detestable in the first book, and only becomes endearing at the turning point of the second book, I hope they do not plan on combining the books together, as the same production company did when adapting the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series.  Even with the novels separated into two films, the plot will pose a challenge for casting, as they will have to find an actor able to play the bitch and then carry the second film as the heroine.  Plus, the heroine is pregnant and falls in love�but given the recent spate of films on that subject, I would no longer red-flag this element of the plot.  As for the male lead?  Well, they could always choose Colin Firth.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Today's Film News: MGM Seeks Cash

By Sarah Sluis

First things first: As you may have noted from the previous few posts, Katey Rich has moved on, so most of the day-to-day blogging on Screener will come from me (Sarah Sluis). I had the honor of knowing Katey pre-blog, back in college, in which she once led a fabulous presentation on Billy Wilder's Sabrina, so I know I have some big shoes to fill. That being said, here is today's film news.

MGM Looking for �Capital Enhancements'
MGM has brought in bank Goldman Sachs to evaluate "capital enhancements," leading some to believe the studio was for sale. MGM countered the speculation by issuing a statement saying they were in fact looking for additional financing--$500 million worth. With a co-production deal with New Line and Warner Brothers for The Hobbit and its sequel in the pipeline, MGM will certainly need funds to finance this and other projects, and I cannot think of a better carrot to dangle in front of investors than the promise of a moneymaker like Lord of the Rings.

Heath Ledger in Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor ParnassusTheimaginariumofdoctorparnassus

Heath Ledger's Last-Last Performance
With all the hype about The Dark Knight as Heath Ledger's last performance, some will be surprised to learn that Ledger had an unfinished Terry Gilliam movie in the works. Gilliam, a running joke for bad luck and unfinished projects (additional documentation here and here), hired stars Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law to finish the project by "adding a shapeshifting element" to the script (perhaps taking an idea from Todd Haynes' I'm Not There?). Ever since seeing Lost in La Mancha years ago, a documentary assembled by the "Making of" DVD feature people as they watched production of Gilliam's Don Quixote project disintegrate around them, I have been intrigued by the director's chaotic working process. He obviously has an extremely loyal set of actors, with Ledger and Depp appearing in more than one of his films. Even with a fantastic cast, having multiple actors play the same character is a difficult task that challenges plausibility, so I only hope that Gilliam will be able to work his magic once again.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Class Act

By Kevin Lally

On September 26, New York audiences will discover for themselves what the Cannes jury knew back in May--that Laurent Cantet's The Class is one of the year's outstanding films. The Palme d'Or winner will open the 46th annual New York Film Festival, and Manhattan moviegoers are advised to buy their tickets early, since Sony Pictures Classics won't be bringing their prized acquisition to theatres until December 12th.

Cantet's film is an uncanny cinematic experiment. Actual junior high school teacher Francois Begaudeau, the author of four novels, plays a junior high school teacher, and his pupils are played by actual students at the Francoise Dolto Junior High in Paris' 20th arrondisement. All the teachers seen in the film are real teachers at the school, and even the kids' parents (with one exception) play themselves. But even though The Class feels like a Frederick Wiseman documentary, it's not. What we see onscreen is the result of acting workshops, and the teen performers are playing characters often unlike their real personalities. What's remarkable is how un-self-conscious and believable all the performances are--leading one to conclude that most everyone is a natural actor given the right kind of nurturing. As Begaudeau himself says, "Actually, there are a few stars pretty much everywhere."

The Class is also revealing of the challenges of teaching in an inner-city environment (even more so in a politically sensitive culture like France's). Older audiences may be shocked by the impudence of the kids in this film--the classroom atmosphere is light years away from my memories of school decorum. Yet, even though their rudeness is often dismaying, you can't help getting caught up in the lives and personalities of these diverse and candid kids. As for Begaudeau himself, he's a natural, with a movie future outside academia and literature if he ever so chooses. The New York opening-night audience is in for a treat.

Good Luck, Katey!

By Kevin Lally

After nearly 11 months of daily reports and commentary for Screener, FJI's blogger extraordinaire Katey Rich has moved on. Starting next month, you'll find her full-time at the TV and movie website Cinema Blend. Katey launched Screener for us, and we'll miss her bright take on each day's movie news and her lively weekend box-office previews. We'll also miss her warm and friendly presence here on the 7th floor at 770 Broadway in NYC. Thanks, Katey, for a terrific job, and we wish you much success at your new home.

Starting next week, Sarah Sluis will take over the Screener beat, so watch this space for more lively reports on the latest movie news.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Today's Film News: Jack Be Simple

By Katey Rich

JackNext week's action comedy Tropic Thunder has somehow managed to avoid offending anyone despite that fact that it features Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface, but now it's in trouble with an entirely different group. The Special Olympics and other organizations contacted DreamWorks to ask them about the movie Simple Jack, an Oscar-bait movie featured in Tropic Thunder in which Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) plays a mentally challenged man. DreamWorks has removed the fake promotional site for Simple Jack, recognizing that "taken out of context, the site appeared to be insensitive to people with disabilities," Variety reported.

Apparently there's just not enough Michael Bay to go around these days, so the director is hiring a protege. Sam Bayer, who also made his name in music videos and commercials, will direct the action thriller Fiasco Heights, with Bay signed on as one of the producers. Just read this description from The Hollywood Reporter to know we've got a Bay 2.0 on our hands: "A gunman returns to the crime-ridden city of Fiasco Heights and teams with a degenerate gambler/private eye on the run from a syndicate to look for a beautiful femme fatale and a mysterious briefcase." Well, that, or a cheap knockoff of Grand Theft Auto.

Playing_for_pizza I'm still a little baffled by the existence of Playing for Pizza, a novel about an NFL player moving to Italy that's written by John Grisham, the king of the courtroom drama. And an even weirder wrinkle has been added, now that Adam Shankman (Hairspray, Bringing Down the House) has signed on to direct the movie adaptation. Variety notes that Shankman, a former gymnast, might be interested in the story of an aging athlete. Still, with both author and director stretching their usual boundaries here, what will the result be?

And finally, Pulitzer and Tony-award winner August Osage County will get a big screen adaptation, Variety reports. Jean Doumanian Productions has acquired the rights to Tracy Letts' play.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Weekend Roundup: The Long Knight

By Katey Rich


The first real challenger to Batman's box-office throne has come and gone, and The Dark Knight reigns as the #1 movie in America for the third weekend in a row-- the first movie of 2008 to accomplish that feat. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor came pretty close to unseating the champion, though, bringing in $42.5 million to Dark Knight's $43.8 million.

The other new release of the weekend, Swing Vote, didn't manage nearly such an auspicious debut; it landed in sixth place, with a $6.3 million take.

Among the holdovers, Step Brothers declined a mere 47% in its second weekend to take third place, with $16 million. Mamma Mia! is faring even better, declining just 26% in its third frame to bring in $13 million. And even with another Brendan Fraser action-adventure movie in the market, Journey to the Center of the Earth continues doing well, coming in at #5 for the weekend with $6.8 million.

Hancock and Wall-E, both well over the $200 million mark at this point, are dropping theatres as they make their way out of the top 10. The Will Smith superhero adventure made $5.2 million in 7th place, and the universe's most adorable robot brought in $4.7 million at #8.

Finally, two would-be hits that never quite made it wrap up the top 10. The X-Files: I Want to Believe dropped to #9 in its second weekend, making just $3.4 million, and Space Chimps closed things out at #10, with $2.8 million.

In the top 20, limited-release standout Brideshead Revisited expanded to nearly 200 screens, and was rewarded with a nearly $6,000 per-theatre average. And Tell No One continues tearing it up in limited release, even though it hasn't even reached 100 screens. Weirdly, Iron Man expanded to an extra 166 screens over the weekend, and boosted its box office 80% in the process. And finally, believe it or not, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull wraps up the top 10, poised to end its stellar run with $315 million. Check out the full top 20 after the jump, courtesy of Box Office Mojo.

TWLWTitle (click to view)StudioWeekend Gross% ChangeTheater Count / ChangeAverageTotal GrossBudget*Week #
11The Dark KnightWB$43,800,000-41.7%4,266-100$10,267$394,887,000$1853
2NThe Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon EmperorUni.$42,450,000-3,760-$11,289$42,450,000$1451
32Step BrothersSony$16,300,000-47.3%3,094-$5,268$62,966,000$652
43Mamma Mia!Uni.$13,121,000-26.1%3,062+72$4,285$87,975,000$523
55Journey to the Center of the EarthWB$6,875,000-29.2%2,285-403$3,008$73,140,000$604
6NSwing VoteBV$6,300,000-2,213-$2,846$6,300,000$211
94The X-Files: I Want to BelieveFox$3,425,000-65.8%3,185-$1,075$17,060,000$302
109Space ChimpsFox$2,840,000-37.4%2,134-404$1,330$22,091,000$373
118Hellboy II: The Golden ArmyUni.$2,527,000-50.5%1,956-1,062$1,291$71,273,000$854
Click here to find out more!
1321Brideshead RevisitedMira.$1,183,000+248.3%189+156$6,259$1,718,000-2
1411Get SmartWB$1,000,000-56.0%728-692$1,373$126,507,000$807
1512Kung Fu PandaP/DW$642,000-39.2%520-397$1,234$210,495,000$1309
1622Iron ManPar.$561,000+80.6%407+133$1,378$315,668,000$14014
1717Tell No OneMBox$497,000+17.8%94+17$5,287$2,342,000-5
1816The Incredible HulkUni.$484,000+14.4%364-39$1,329$133,289,000$1508
1913Kit Kittredge: An American GirlPicH$421,000-30.1%450-85$935$16,245,000-7
2014Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullPar.$359,000-37.1%332-145$1,081$314,331,000$18511

Friday, August 1, 2008

Box Office Outlook: Mummy, Did You Vote?

By Katey Rich

Well, summer was fun for a while there, but it looks like the dog days of August are finally setting in. After a series of record-breaking weekends and the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight, now we have a sequel in a trilogy no one really asked for and a family drama about, of all things, voting. August doesn't seem likely to be a complete wasteland-- there are two high-profile comedies coming out in the next few weeks-- but today the outlook is grim, grim, grim. And this is coming from someone who gave one of the few positive reviews of the latest Mummy movie. Check out what everyone else had to say, and don't make fun of me for my low standards in August entertainment. It's been a long summer.

MummytombofthedragonemperorteasermoTHE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. Opening in 3,759 theatres. Brendan Fraser returns for the third installment of the Mummy franchise that began nine years ago, but he passes off much of the heavy lifting to Luke Ford, who plays Fraser's character Rick's son, who gets into nearly as much trouble with the undead as his dad does. Rick and Evelyn (Maria Bello) join Alex in China, where the trio accidentally awake the mummy of an ancient Emperor (Jet Li), who vows to raise his army, achieve immortality, and rule the world forever. Michelle Yeoh also stars as an immortal witch who helps the intrepid adventurers on their journey to stop the Emperor. The movie is directed by Rob Cohen (Fast and the Furious), replacing Stephen Sommers.

I suppose I should be ashamed that I'm among so few critics who actually liked this movie, but hey, fun is fun. "A movie this affable, entertaining and harmless is ruined by questioning its logic or scoffing at the mystic hogwash that sets its events into motion," I wrote in defense of my blind enjoyment. Luckily I have Roger Ebert on my side too: "It was just plain dumb fun, is why. It is absurd and preposterous, and proud of it." Unfortunately the rest of the critical mass wasn't in such a generous mood. The Chicago Tribune calls it simply "bleh," and the Washington Post cries, "Oh, no, not again." And the San Francisco Chronicle has some career advice for Fraser: "Even doing dinner theater would be more rewarding than this."

SwingSWING VOTE. Opening in 2,213 theatres. Kevin Costner stars in and produced this movie about Bud, a blue-collar man who doesn't care about anything, not even his young daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll), until she votes for him in the Presidential election and suddenly his is the only vote that matters. The Presidential candidates (Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper) descend upon Bud's small town to try to convince him to cast his single vote in their favor. In the meantime the media is on Bud's tail too, and one scrupulous local reporter (Paula Patton) is the only one Bud and Molly trust. The movie delves into political satire and family drama, and remarkably enough, is entirely bipartisan the entire way through. More than we can say for our so-called moderate Presidential candidates in real life! OK, I promise that's the last political remark you'll ever read here.

Many critics are charmed by a movie I myself found fairly lacking. The New York Times calls it "one of the most surprising, politically suggestive movies to come out of Hollywood this year," and Newsday deems it "a clever summer comedy that offers more than easy laughs." Carrie Rickey at The Philadelphia Inquirer falls for the leading man, writing, "Using both his comic and dramatic chops, Costner guzzles the material with a looped sincerity. It's his best performance in years." At Entertainment Weekly, on the other hand, Lisa Schwarzbaum writes, "The movie's queasy garble of soft-core satire and rote idealism, as well as its uninspired reworking of old ruts in political comedy, becomes wearing." And The Hollywood Reporter complains that it "paints a surprisingly sour portrait of nearly all its characters, so much so that even the final-reel redemption rings hollow and forced."