Friday, October 31, 2008

More scary movies arrive for Halloween

By Sarah Sluis

Happy Halloween!  For those seeking thrills at the box office (and who already saw Saw V last weekend), The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2,652 screens), and Splinter (4 screens, NY/LA) open today.  Our critic Hartley2
panned the zombie-porcupine creature feature, but A.O. Scott was nice enough to call the film "diverting."  The Haunting of Molly Hartley has teen heartthrob Chace Crawford ("Gossip Girl") as a draw, as well as its compelling take on teen angst.  Starring Haley Bennett as a girl whose parents may have sold her to the devil, payable on her eighteenth birthday, the film transforms teen-parent discord and fears of growing up into a horrific premise.  Anyone who has seen Gingersnaps or teen werewolf movies can attest that depicting puberty as a horrific transformation is familiar territory, but I like this film's emphasis on the parents as villains: the idea that Molly Hartley's destiny has been totally determined by her parents, forcing her to break free from their constraints, strongly speaks to teen audiences whose choices conflict with their parents' wishes.

The much-hyped Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2,735 screens) releases today, to unanimous agreement that the movie is not nearly as objectionable as the title.  Kevin Smith likes drape his romantic comediesZackandmirimakeaporno_sethrogen_eli
with gutter language and objectionable premises, but also takes care not to involve his female romantic leads in the antics.  A.O. Scott notes that  "Ms. Banks is forced to be funny on a pedestal. She has to be the nice girl with the naughty mouth, just uninhibited enough to play along with Zack's schemes but not so daring as to tarnish his idealized image of her."  Perhaps this is why Zack and Miri has been called "the cuddliest porno flick of all time" by our critic Ethan Alter, who also points out that Kevin Smith's movies are "deeply moral stories."

Clint Eastwood's Changeling (1,850 screens) and British import RocknRolla (826 sceens), both limited releases, make their first round of expansions this week.  With an impressive per-theatre gross last week, Changeling will definitely vault into the top ten, but I have a feeling RocknRolla will fall short of "10."  Even director Guy Ritchie's impending divorce from Madonna has failed to give the film a round of mentions in the tabloids.

Lest we forget, High School Musical 3: Senior Year will finish at #1 again this weekend, probably dropping less than 50% to rake in at least $20 million, a sweet finish to the Halloween weekend.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sam Mendes to direct graphic novel 'Preacher'

By Sarah Sluis

Sam Mendes, director of tentatively amazing Revolutionary Road and husband to mega-star Kate
Winslet, has just signed on to direct an adaptation of the graphic novel Preacher.  It's described as a Quentin Tarantino-like work by bookseller Amazon, so the choice of Mendes does not easily explain itself.  Mendes directed American Beauty, after all, and Revolutionary Road also takes on the suburban drama.  His release slate includes another family comedy-drama, This Must Be the Place, and IMDB shows an adaptation of historical romance-drama Middlemarch in the pipeline.

Mendes' films Road to Perdition and Jarhead, however, took on the subjects of crime and war, a closer fit to the subject matter of Preacher, described this way:

"The story follows an ex-preacher man, Jesse, who has become disgusted with God's abandoning of His responsibilities. So Jesse starts off into the wilds of Texas with his hitman girlfriend and new best friend (a vampire) to find God so that he can give Him a piece of his mind. Despite its superficial perversity, this book contains what may be the most moral character in mainstream comics."

The dark and supernatural elements of this plot ine do not portend an easy adaptation, mainly because I don't know how closely the world of Preacher will compare to the real world.  I am curious to see Mendes' take on the comic.  Any chance that Kate Winslet will play the "hitman girlfriend"?

Tween star Selena Gomez to produce two films

By Sarah Sluis

Hannah Montana, move over!  Selena Gomez, star of "Wizards of Waverly Place," a Disney show about Selenagomez
three wand-wielding siblings, has formed a production company and partnered with XYZ films to produce at least two films, drawing from XYZ's access to the Time, Inc. library.  Gomez is clearly the most charismatic star on her show, but I wonder why Disney wouldn't want to produce her films in-house.  With all of the effort Disney puts into creating and training their stable of stars, I would think they would try to attach her to an upcoming project.

There are signs that Disney is not as confident in her potential stardom--she may be the Hilary Duff to Lindsay Lohan.  After guest starring on "Hannah Montana" as a rival pop star, her spin-off show was rejected by Disney.  Her starring role in Another Cinderella Story (Hilary Duff starred in the first film) will release straight-to-DVD.  Nevertheless, Gomez, merely at her sweet sixteen, will have ample opportunity to refine her star image through this deal, which gives her all-important control over the production process.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Nichols to take on Kurosawa's 'High and Low'

By Sarah Sluis

Mike Nichols, director of classic The Graduate and, most recently, Charlie Wilson's War, has signed on Highandlowremake
to direct a remake of Akira Kurosawa's High and Low (in Japanese, the double meaning is Heaven and Hell).  Screenwriter David Mamet already wrote the adaptation for Martin Scorsese.  Originally on board to direct, Scorsese will remain on the film as an executive producer.  The premise reminds me of the tough questions asked in the "Would You Rather?" party game/coffee table book, in a good way:  a business executive's son is kidnapped, leading him to divert money from a business endeavor in order to pay the ransom.  Then he finds out the kidnappers took his chauffeur's son, not his own.  As a Kurosawa film--I'm thinking of the many permutations of a crime he explored in Rashomon--I imagine this dilemma is not the central question of the movie but a starting point for additional moral issues to be explored.  In fact, because I cheated and read a synopsis online, I know that the idea of corporate responsibility weighs heavily in the movie (clue to why the film is moving forward now?).  With the country in a recession, I think a film like High and Low, which peripherally explores the business world, drawing unlikely parallels between familial and corporate responsibility, will resonate with audiences.

Shyamalan signs genre picture deal with Media Rights Capital

By Sarah Sluis

M. Night Shyamalan, the director who has tried to assume the
mantle of high-minded suspense (a post M_night_shyamalan__1_
vacated by Hitchcock), has moved
in the opposite direction, making a deal with Media Rights Capital to
produce three genre films in three years.  The first film, Devil,
will be based on a story by Shyamalan, and include his creative and
casting input, but he will not write or direct.  Brian Nelson (30 Days of Night), will pen the screenplay and John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine)
will direct.  This deal makes sense to me, since Shyamalan's
twist-oriented sensibilities have become so ingrained in audience's
minds that their expectation of the twist interferes with how the film
itself sets up the twist.  With different writing and direction,
perhaps the films will seem new enough to surprise audiences.  While
they're calling the genre "supernatural thriller," I wonder how closely
the films will resonate with the extremely profitable and loyal
ticket-buying horror audience.  Supernatural thriller to me reads
"horror lite."  It's the kind of film that would appeal to me, a horror
coward, but not thrill- and gore-seeking horror fans.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Amy Adams adds to an impressive roster

By Sarah Sluis

Talented actor Amy Adams has wowed audiences with her poofy, comedic ebullience.  Enchanted and the Amy_adams_2
hard-to-pull-off screwball comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day both capitalized on her great comedic timing, and her role in Junebug garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  The actress recently announced another indie role, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, based on a memoir by NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden.  She will play a woman who adopts her bipolar mother's delusions as a coping mechanism (interesting application of her knack for fantasy), so I took a quick look at some of her other upcoming projects. 

The actress' riskiest and most prestigious role will be in this winter's Doubt, in which she plays a supporting role as a nun to heavyweights Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Adams will also star alongside Emily Blunt in dark indie comedy Sunshine Cleaning, about a death cleanup service, which will release this March.  Also on her roster (next to a stint as Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum 2, and Julie in Julie and Julia, a literary adaptation directed by Nora Ephron) is Leap Year.  It's the weakest project of the bunch, with writers Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan's greatest screenwriting accomplishments to date Can't Hardly Wait and A Very Brady Sequel, so I feel compelled to pick at it a bit.  The romantic comedy is about a woman whose attempt to propose to her boyfriend in Ireland on
February 29th is derailed by the weather.  An innkeeper (and, I assume, the man she will actually propose to) tries to help her succeed despite the weather.  The premise is a riff on Powell and
Pressburger's classic 1945 film I Know Where I'm Going!--hopefully the homage will be noted as the project moves farther along.

One romantic comedy Amy Adams will not be starring in is Confessions of a Shopaholic, which stars Isla Fisher (picture in this paragraph), the look-alike redhead best known for her role in Wedding Crashers.  As someone notoriously badIslafisherpicture2
at telling people apart, I thought I was the only one who had trouble keeping the two actresses straight (I spent much of Charlie Wilson's War trying to figure out if I was watching the girl from Wedding Crashers or the girl from Enchanted), but IMDB's message boards are filled with people noting their confusion--often only resolved, or noticed, when the credit sequence rolled.  Exacerbating the problem, both actors have pursued similar career paths, starring in romantic comedies and kid- and teen-oriented pictures.  Isla Fisher has taken an unspecified break from acting after having a baby (with Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen), and her upcoming projects stick to the realm of comedy, while Amy Adams has added drama, indie, and blockbuster to her list, differentiating her work from Fisher's.

One thing I would like to see:  A romantic comedy starring Amy Adams and Isla Fisher as look-a-likes with some confusion/competition from a beau or two.

'A Look at Liv': Bergman icon Liv Ullmann at the Paley Center

By Kevin Lally

For anyone who was an art-house devotee in the 60s and 70s, Liv Ullmann is one of the icons of cinema. Ullmann1c Star of ten Ingmar Bergman films including Cries and Whispers, Persona and Scenes from a Marriage, the two-time Oscar nominee appeared last night at New York's Paley Center for Media for a rare screening of Richard Kaplan's 1977 documentary A Look at Liv: Norway's Liv Ullmann/Liv Ullmann's Norway. An intimate portrait of the actress at the peak of her fame, this marvelous film includes highlights from her career, interviews with Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, scenes of Ullmann at premieres, book signings and relaxing with her young daughter, and candid conversations with the beautiful star herself.

Kaplan, director of the Oscar-winning documentary The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, introduced the film, and then joined Ullmann, still radiant at the age of 69, on stage after the screening. Ullmann immediately disarmed the audience by telling them how embarrassing it was to watch all this footage of herself from 30 years ago, admitting that the woman on screen seemed like a different person. In the film, Bergman--the father of her daughter Lin, now an acclaimed novelist--talks about how their romantic relationship evolved into something even more valuable to him, an enduring friendship. Ullmann, in turn, agreed that as one ages, friends are essential--and paid emotional tribute to a longtime close friend sitting in the front row, her Persona co-star, Bibi Andersson.

This remarkable actress and dedicated humanitarian also proved to be a delightful raconteur. She told a hilarious story about the first meeting of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen: Ullmann had been spending time with Allen while starring on Broadway in A Doll's House, and Allen was thrilled when told Bergman was coming to New York to see her performance. But when she, Allen, Bergman and his wife sat down for dinner, it was up to the women to sustain the conversation; the two "geniuses" barely spoke. Nevertheless, each thanked her profusely for the summit meeting later that night.

Ullmann also recalled how Hollywood icon Ingrid Bergman (no relation), in her one film for the great director, Autumn Sonata, fought over a line which Ingrid felt was contrary to her interpretation of the role. Eventually, Ingrid agreed to say the line, but her cool intonation completely conveyed what her character was really feeling. Ullmann also recollected in wonder the veteran star's utter professionalism, despite her battle with cancer at the time.

Ullmann's last appearance on screen was in Ingmar Bergman's final film, Saraband, and she herself has directed four features, including powerful films of Bergman's scripts Private Confessions and Faithless. (This writer had the great fortune to interview Ullmann in her New York Upper West Side living room on the occasion of her feature directing debut, Sofie, in 1992. The Norwegian beauty apologized for having garlic at lunch, and insisted on sitting on the floor, literally at my feet.)

Recently, Ullmann was developing a new film of A Doll's House to star Cate Blanchett under her direction, but sadly, the Norwegian funding fell through. But now, Ullmann reveals that Blanchett has commissioned her to direct the great Cate in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire for the Sydney Theatre Company, where Blanchett is co-artistic director. Ullmann fully expects that production to come to Washington and New York.

Film's loss may be theatre's gain, but here's hoping the magnificent Liv Ullmann returns to movie screens soon. It was a privilege to share two hours in her company last night.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Teens turn out for 'HSM3' and 'Saw V'

By Sarah Sluis

High School Musical 3: Senior Year won over the box office with an impressive $42 million opening, well Hsm3
above expectations that put the film at $30 million plus.  That number was left to Saw V, which opened at $30.5 million.  Together, these films made almost twice as much as the remainder of the top ten, each of which earned between $2 and $7 million.  Even number three Max Payne didn't break the double digits, with a $7.6 million take that represented a 56% drop from last week.  Surely High School Musical 3 will be able to extend the success of its $40 million opening, at the very least matching the longevity of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, the surprise doggie hit that was number one two weeks in a row.  However, the film will face tougher competition from the Friday Halloween next week, which will have kids trick-or-treating instead of seeing movies.  G-rated Madagascar 2 and Disney's own Bolt (featuring the voice of fellow teen queen, Miley Cyrus) release in coming weeks, luring away younger audiences.

Pride and Glory debuted at an uneventful number five, earning a paltry $6.3 million.  On the specialty side, Changeling's limited release earned an impressive $33,467 per theatre, totaling $.5 million at 15 locations.  Critics have given so-so reviews to Eastwood's film, instead looking to Gran Torino, a film Eastwood directs and stars in, as the probable Oscar contender.  If Changeling excels at the box office when it expands into wide release this weekend, the voice of the ticket-buying audiences might put the film back in the running.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua, displaying remarkable longevity, held the number four spot, earning $6.9 million, bring its total to $78 million.  The Secret Life of Bees, in its limited release, placed at number six with a $5.9 million take.  Right below Bees, W. earned $5.3 million.

Eagle Eye fell a below-average 26%, coming in a million above Body of Lies' $4 million take.  Horror picture Quarantine dropped heavily due to competitor Saw V, and earned $2.5 million, barely squeaking above Fireproof (#11), the "Middle America" Christian-themed picture that has made most of its $23.6 million take outside of the top ten by posting minimal drops--only 17% this week--and successfully mobilizing churches to organize group viewings.

Full box office results available here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

'HSM3' voted 'Most Likely to Succeed' at weekend box office

By Sarah Sluis

In the all-time top twenty for advance ticket sales, High School Musical 3: Senior Year (3,623 screens) Hsm3
will rule the box office this weekend, with prognosticators estimating at least $30 million for the weekend. The series first made waves two years ago, when gift card-rich kids put the musical's singles in iTunes' top ten after Christmas.  The launch of the series into mainstream culture inspired the same mix of bafflement and resentment as when Harry Potter books hit the New York Times bestseller list. 

I always had a soft spot for Disney original movies, with their film school-inspired Busby Berkeley shots (look for them in the HSM series!) and buoyant, cheesy innocence that high schoolers and above recognize as a guilty pleasure.  The G-rated movie will have the most resonance with aspirational grade school and middle school students, who imagine their high school experience will be Just. Like. the. Movie., but certainly high schoolers will turn out to see the series they grew up with and have watched several times through its endless replays on the Disney Channel.

Horror sequel Saw V (3,060 screens) should compete for some of the older high school audience, but there are signs that the series has lost steam--unlike HSM3, which is the first big-screen version of the franchise.

Crime-and-intrigue Pride and Glory (2,585) releases this week to little fanfare.  Based on an actual corruption scandal, the film centers on a police officer, part of a family legacy of cops, who uncovers rampant corruption involving his family members.

Changeling (15 screens), Synecdoche, New York (excl. NY/LA), Let the Right One In (4 screens), and Passengers (125 screens) all open in limited release this week, with plans to expand.  Changeling has received so-so reviews, with FJI critic Daniel Eagan dismissing the film as "a period version of a movie on Lifetime," and both Eagan and the New York Times review dubious about a genre shift that occurs towards the film's climax.

Let the Right One In's Rotten Tomatoes listing boasts a lone dissenter to the sublimely fascinating Swedish horror character study, which I discussed earlier this week.

Intricate Synedoche, New York, another Charlie Kaufman world-within-a-world film, has inspired a whole new level of meta activity among critics attempting to mimic his layered realities--Wired did a "profile of a profile of Charlie Kaufman" you can check out here.

Anne Hathaway's Passengers might be a blink-and-you'll-miss-it airline crash thriller, depending on its performance and expansion from its limited release. I've Loved You So Long (NY/LA), Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains (1 screen, NY) and Fear(s) of the Dark (1 screen, NY) also open this week, for those in the city of skyscrapers or highways, respectively.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

'Gran Torino' revs up for December release

By Sarah Sluis

Clint Eastwood's Changeling releases this Friday, and Warner Bros. has confirmed that his second Gran_torino
2008 film, Gran Torino, will release December 17th.  While the week (and month) is crowded with A-list stars and action pictures, as well as the studios' Oscar contenders, mediocre reviews and last-minute juggling of release dates (i.e. The Reader) may thin the ranks and give Gran Torino a better chance at the gold statue.  However, studios are also cutting back on their Oscar promotional budgets this year, as mentioned by Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart in his blog.  He faults the economy, as well as a lack of enthusiasm for projects (doubtful), as the reason for his presumable poor Oscar-related ad sales to date.

In development news, Warner Bros. has enlisted McG to direct spy thriller Dead Spy Running.  The Charlie's Angels director is currently finishing up action sequel Terminator Salvation.  The material comes from an as-yet unpublished book by Jon Stock, a British author and journalist who spent time as a foreign correspondent.  I see two positive forces at work here:  Stock's experience reporting abroad will certainly enhance the book's authenticity, and with Terminator Salvation McG will accumulate another action credential, presumably one that will take the over-the-top, humorous action of the Charlie's Angels films in another direction.

On a bit of a roll, Warner Bros. also bought an action pitch for a film version of last year's rescue of fifteen hostages from the Colombian jungle.   The rescue was the culmination of five years of effort after three Americans were captured in 2003.  Their employer, defense and aerospace company Northrup Grumman, (who knows why they were in Colombia in the first place...) hired McLarty Associates to consult on the rescue.  Interestingly, this same consulting firm will actually produce the film through their spin-off company, McLarty Media.  I find this an odd mix.  While no more biased than an autobiography, what company would want to hire a consulting firm knowing that any juicy story might be considered for a movie pitch?  Moreover, will the company consider the film a chance to airbrush less attractive parts of the story?  New York Times foreign correspondent Peter Landesman, who recently wrote an adaptation of a Deep Throat biography, will script the project, so perhaps those questions will fall to him instead of the producers.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Anne Hathaway flees 'The Opposite of Love' for another 'Fiance'

By Sarah Sluis

Warner Bros. announced today that Anne Hathaway will star in the romantic comedy Fiance, about a Anne_hathaway
woman who suddenly calls off her engagement to the "perfect" fiance.  The project will be receiving a rewrite before going into production in March, squeezed in before the shoot for her fellow Warner Bros. picture, Get Smart 2.

Only a month ago, the trades reported  that Hathaway would star in The Opposite of Love at Fox, also about a woman who breaks her engagement to the "perfect" fiance.  The plots were so similar I had to check to see if the script had merely changed studios, but it looks as though Hathaway jumped ship for a look-alike plot.  Based on the similarities between the two, it seems likely that Warner Brothers was able to poach Hathaway from Fox based on an offer of better scheduling or salary.  Certainly, the fact that her upcoming shoot for Get Smart 2 is set up at the same studio minimizes any tension over scheduling conflicts.

The trailer for Hathaway's next romantic comedy, January's Bride Wars, released in theatres a couple weeks ago.  She and Kate Hudson co-star as best
friends turned bridezillas who go to war after a scheduling error
leaves them to fight over one remaining slot at the Plaza.  I imagine this film will be popular among bridesmaids who have "been there" with a demanding friend, but I think the stereotype of a bridezilla is just that, and the prospect of seeing two women fighting with each other for an hour and a half about something stupid and meaningless depresses me.  I am slightly more enthused about Fiance than Bride WarsRachel Getting Married, the first part of the Hathaway wedding trilogy, I heartily recommend.

The busy actress will also be seen in this weekend's limited release Passengers, a supernatural thriller about a post-trauma therapist whose patients, including one with whom she has a romantic entanglement, start disappearing after a plane crash.

Upcoming Release: 'Let the Right One In'

By Sarah Sluis

The Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, about two twelve-year-old neighbors, one of them a Let_the_right_one_in_oskar
vampire, recalls the 1970s wave of prestige horror movies.  Largely based on novels, films like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Silence of the Lambs focused on the shadings of good and evil, curiously examining their characters' motives and thoughts.  Yes, there were moments of violence and fear, but the films drew energy from the atmosphere of horror, the bleak sense of doom that never receded.

In a 1982 Sweden during winter, where the sun sets in mid-afternoon, blond, bowl-cut Oskar endures relentless tormenting from a group of boys, his somber introversion both caused by and the cause of his teasing.  He finds friendship in Eli, a dark-circled, mature companion he meets perched on a jungle gym.  As her pale complexion suggests, she is a vampire.

In the context of this friendship, an exploration of their characters unfolds.  I spent much of the film Lettherightoneinpic
tenuously moving Oskar and Eli's characters
back and forth from the "good" to "bad" categories.  Eli hates killing
people, but she also wants to live--she "needs" to kill people.  Oskar wants friendship, but as he grows closer to Eli he changes from a potential victim to an accomplice.  The film likes to throw little wrenches into the machinery we have constructed for the character.  We accept that Eli needs to kill to live, but later we see another vampire choose to die rather than live a life with her "infection." Suddenly, we must examine Eli's survival as a choice, and possibly a selfish

The film accomplishes much with the details.  The dried traces of
blood on Eli's lips manage to convey both innocence and alluring
dshabille, bringing to mind smeared lipstick or a young child who does
not yet know how to wipe her mouth properly.  There's also a pleasure in learning the "rules" the vampire must follow.  Eli has a special set of skills, taboos, and enemies (watch out for hissing cats), and these are presented to us more as artifacts or curiosities than foreshadowing.

FJI wrote a review of the film here that prompted my own viewing.  The film opens in limited, NY/LA release this Friday, October 24th.  In true Hollywood style, Cloverfield director Matt Reeves has already announced plans to remake the film, but I can't imagine native dialogue improving my viewing experience.  The English language is not needed to experience the dazed, creeped-out sensation I felt after the screening, nor the attitude of smug satisfaction I will feel having seen "the real deal" once the remake releases.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Horror Never Ends

By Sarah Sluis

With Halloween a week away, I've compiled a round-up of all the horror-related production news (literal, not metaphorical) in Hollywood.

The Saw franchise, now up to Saw V, will release this Halloween for the fifth straight year, prompting Sawv
The Hollywood Reporter to write a piece about the unusual longevity of the franchise.  In a rags-to-riches story, the original Saw was planned as a straight-to-DVD release, but early buzz at Sundance and highly favorable test screenings among the non-festival crowd pushed the film into wide release, making the $1.2 million film $18.3 million the opening weekend alone.  I confess that I have never seen a Saw film, as I (apparently mistakenly) pigeonholed the film in the "torture porn" category along with Hostel--a film surprisingly good but a little too squirm-inducing for me to sit through without being dragged to the theatre.  While most horror films skew male, the Saw films have an almost equal amount of male and female viewers, a sign of their broader appeal and the importance of the female audience in a film's success.  Expectations for Saw V are lower than that for Saw IV.  The first film to make less than its previous incarnation at the box office, it has signaled that the franchise may be waning in popularity and profitability.  Ever prepared, a Saw VI script waits in the wings, pending the performance of the upcoming fifth film.

Relativity Media is in talks to buy past and futures titles from Rogue Pictures, Universal's horror label.  One of the primary motivations for the deal is distribution: Relativity has moved from co-producing to independently producing films, and needs an economical way to distribute their films.  Under the terms of this deal, they could distribute their own films, as well as Rogue films, through Universal, securing a comparatively low percentage in the process.  Some of the horror titles they would pick up include Wes Craven's 25/8 and a remake of The Last House on the Left, which are both in post-production, as well as development titles Hack/Slash, a comic book adaptation, Castlevania, from a video game, 1980s teen horror remake Three O'Clock High, and Strangers 2.

While not as close to the horror genre as the title suggests, Chuck Palahnuik's Haunted has been picked up by New School Media.  The book follows a bizarrely irrational group of writers.  Enticed by a patron's invitation to go on a writers' retreat for three months, where the isolation will encourage them to produce work along the lines of other famously isolated authors, like Mary Shelley or Lord Byron, they find themselves not only isolated, but trapped.  Koen Mortier, a Belgian director whose most recent work was Ex-Drummer, has been attached to direct the project.

Overture films has enlisted David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) to direct Freaks of the Heartland, a script based on material from the graphic novel by Steve Niles .  The story follows Trevor Owen as he tries to protect his "freak" sister and other children of the community born as mutants from their parents, who seek to destroy their deformed offspring.  It's a chilling premise, and the emphasis on the heartland seems like a refreshing spin on Children of the Corn.

Monday, October 20, 2008

'Max Payne' shoots down the competition, but 'Bees' has sting

By Sarah Sluis

Surprising those who predicted yet another videogame adaptation flop, Max Payne topped the box office with a respectable take of $18 million.  I still maintain that the number will drop precipitously next week, when the videogame fans dying the see the adaptation dry up, but the low-budget action film is well on its way to profitability.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua continued its dominance in the family-friendly market, pulling in $11.2 million.  Secretlifeofbees2
The big surprise, though, was The Secret Life of Bees, which came in at #3 with an $11.05 million while playing on less than 2,000 screens.  The film made more per screen (and thus played to more packed houses) than #1 release Max Payne.  The semi-limited release strategy will positively impact their returns in weeks to come.  I predict lower-than-average drops in their box-office take.

Below Bees, W. took in $10.5 million, an assertive amount that gives the film's naysayers little ammunition against the film.  The film attracted young, pro-Obama voters.  By debuting while our President is still in office, the biopic has broken from the norm.  Its success at the box office may encourage more biographies to be made while a figure still holds a position of influence and prominence.

Sex Drive debuted at #9 with $3.5 million, coming slightly under the $3.56 million take of competing (and sweeter) teen film Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist.  The film's take was disappointing, making me believe the marketing department's release of the first ten minutes of the film may have been an act of desperation--or led teens already online to search for a torrent to illegally download the film.

Returning films Eagle Eye ($7.3 million), Body of Lies ($6.8 million), and Nights in Rodanthe ($2.6 million) all managed to post box-office drops below 50%, with Eagle Eye over $80 million and looking hopefully at $100 million.  Horror picture Quarantine, which debuted at #2 last week, dropped 55% to $6.3 million.

Next week will bring some big changes in the box office lineup.  Six wide releases, including teen draw High School Musical 3 and adult picture Changeling, will pack the box office, opting for the crowded October 24th weekend over October 31st, when the Friday Halloween holiday will undoubtedly draw audiences away from the box office as they seek their trick-or-treats elsewhere.

Full box office results here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

'Max' is painful, 'Bees' has too much honey

By Sarah Sluis

Safely clear of the September dumping ground, this week has four wide releases--with only one, Max Payne, a phone-it-in stinker.  Our critic Ethan Alter wrote this of Max Payne: "a profound feeling of
laziness hovers over the entire picture, suggesting that it was as
joyless to make as it is to watch."

Poor Mark Wahlberg.  While 3,376 theatres will be out of commission screening this video game Max_payne
adaptation, hopefully teen and twentysomething guys who bought the video game will instead choose to see Sex Drive, a Summit Entertainment release opening on 2,421 screens.  In a vote of confidence on its quality, the marketing campaign released the first ten minutes of Sex Drive (warning: this is R-rated material), and the film carries a brisk momentum out of the gate.  Director/writer Sean Anders does an understated, cinematic representation of an IM conversation that's worth checking out, projecting the conversation to the side in a way that feels natural and real.  The L.A. Times review also spoke to the integration of social technology in the movie, noting that "teen comedies that are remembered tap into something fundamental
about their time, and here Anders smartly finds a way for many of the
characters' most embarrassing moments to be somehow caught on tape" and end up on YouTube.

"Honey-glazed," "too much honey," "not the bees knees," The Secret Life of Bees also opens today on Secretlifeofbees
1,591 screens--a strategic move that will pack or sell out theatres and encourage word-of-mouth reviews.  Critics haven't been able to resist using "honey" to describe this film, though some find the film exceeding their tolerance for glucose.  As a book club pick for groups across the country, the movie adaptation will undoubtedly attract women who've read the novel.  If they hold true to marketers' perceptions of female audiences, they won't make it a priority to see the film opening weekend, but will likely see it once the reviews from the friends start trickling in.  What is too sweet for reviewers is often just right for the Milk Duds crowd, so I predict this film will look better in its third week than its first.

Fewer Americans may have tuned in for the third presidential debate, but W., opening on 2,030 screens, plans to capture their attention at the box office.  In a surprising consensus, reviewers of W. have noted that the film goes out of its way to come off as--let me borrow a catchphrase from Fox News--fair and balanced.  Wisely limiting the scope of the film to origins, Stone portrays Bush's ascent to the White House as a bumbling and at times tragic accident.

The diversity of this week's lineup makes predictions a tough call.  I predict a pleasantly surprising take from Sex Drive, a top three finish for W. (this is pushing it), and for Max Payne to burn brightly this week before falling sharply.  As an action picture opening on over 3,000 screens, a number one finish seems probable, but I would like nothing better than for another one of these three pictures to make a statement by coming in at number one.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Three more sign up for 'Couples Retreat'

By Sarah Sluis

Ensemble comedy Couples Retreat found three additional mates in  Kristin Bell ("Veronica Mars"), Kristin Davis (Sex and the City), and Malin Akerman (upcoming Watchmen).  The character-packed premise has four couples (one with real relationship problems) roped into a tropical vacation with a side helping of couples therapy.  Jason Bateman ("Arrested Development") plays Bell's love interest, Jon Favreau will pair with Davis, and Vince Vaughn will couple with Akerman.  Faizon Love is currently mateless.

Jon Favreau has existed below my radar until now, but he has an impressive bio on IMDb, including directorial credits for Iron Man and Elf, and an diverse array of acting, writing, and production credits.  He wrote Couples Retreat based on an idea of Vaughn's.  The two are currently starring in another quad-coupled pic, this winter's Four Christmases, so I wonder if they drew any inspiration from that project.

Steve Carrell, another one of comedy's it-boys, has attached himself to yet another project, Brigadier Gerard, about a French soldier convinced of his swashbuckling status despite an utter lack of skill or bravery.  With the ability to shoot just one film on his spring hiatus from "The Office," he now must choose between Brigadier Gerard, Get Smart 2, or Date Night, which has Tina Fey attached.  Personally, I am rooting Carrell to choose Date Night--in-demand Tina Fey has no other live action deals on the table, and has never done a romantic comedy before, and the two of them together would be dynamic.  Sure, Brigadier Gerard will be set in France, a long time ago, which is somewhat of a twist of Carrell's star image, but with "King of the Hill" writers adapting a work by Arthur Conan Doyle, I see the well-trod territory of horse-riding and Monty Python jokes.

Already being floated as an Oscar contender, Weinstein Company's The Road, set to release this November, may be pushed back to December--or later.  The executives and producers plan to meet tomorrow to discuss the fate of the film.  The switcheroo comes in light of Weinstein Company's decision to push The Reader this winter.  Also, for what seems like the hundredth story in a row, Weinstein Company takes on questions about the company's financial situation--and yes, they say they are doing fine.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

ShowEast Day Three: Is Elizabeth Banks the new Cameron Diaz?

By Kevin Lally

Last night ShowEast offered what it termed a 'Hard R' double bill of MGM and The Weinstein Company's Soul Men, followed by The Weinstein Company's Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Since ShowEast is not open to the general public, the press is embargoed from reviewing films previewed at this exhibitor gathering. But I think I can risk a few brief side observations:

Soul Men, of course, is the last film starring the late comedian Bernie Mac, and it's hard to believe from his vibrant performance as a onetime major R&B backup singer that he died so soon after its filming. The end credits include a touching tribute to the actor, along with fellow performer Isaac Hayes (who died within the same week). The movie may also land in the Guinness Book of Records for most frequent use of the m-f word.

I've never been a fan of either Kevin Smith or his brand of frat-boy raunchiness, but Zack and Miri captures the same blend of sweetness and filth that has made Judd Apatow comedy's current top dog. And a big part of that sweetness is due to Elizabeth Banks (also starring as Laura Bush in W.) Not since Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary has an actress combined beauty, warmth, approachability, comic chops, and a willingness to get down and dirty like one of the boys. Part of the Apatow/David Wain orbit, the charming Banks is the key reason this very dirty but surprisingly romantic film may cross over to a large female audience. (And how did they ever secure that R rating from the MPAA?)

As for yesterday's screening of Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, I have four words: Frank Langella. Best Actor. You heard it here first.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

ShowEast Day Two: Digital deadline

By Kevin Lally

"Unless you've only been watching the Disney Channel, it's clear the world is coming to an end," AccessIT chairman and CEO Bud Mayo wryly joked during the panel discussion on "Key Challenges for Digital Deployment" this morning at ShowEast.

The still-turbulent financial markets are on everyone's mind as the movie industry convenes here in Orlando, Florida, at a time when the business is facing a momentous and expensive transition to digital projection systems. "We're at the one-yard line," Mayo declared, admitting that not much is about to get accomplished while credit remains tight. Still, the head of the nation's foremost integrator of new digital systems urged theatre owners who haven't yet committed to "sign on now, get in the queue."

The recent announcement of a deal between Digital Cinema Implementation Partners, the alliance of giant circuits Regal, AMC and Cinemark, and five movie studios to finance d-cinema installations was hailed by the panelists as a major breakthrough, with Fox digital exhibition executive VP Julian Levin calling it "a tipping point" and Mayo deeming it "a catalyst...that will touch every [U.S.] market."

DCIP chief executive Travis Reid reminded the crowd that their main backer, JPMorgan, is "one of the strongest banks" out there, and expressed confidence that money "should loosen up very soon."

Tom Stephenson, whose circuit Rave Motion Pictures is 100% digital, warned the audience that 2D is not a growth business, deeming the coming wave of digital 3D films "the motherlode." Paramount Pictures executive VP Mark Christiansen seconded that notion, praising the depth and visual brilliance of the new 3D attractions. He predicted that North America would have 2,000 digital 3D screens by the time his animated Monsters vs. Aliens opens next March, but lamented that the rest of the world lags with only some 200 screens.

"Within five years this will be more a digital business than film," Christiansen opined, while noting that "figuring out a model for small exhibitors is a huge challenge."

Fox's Levin warned exhibitors, "I would not wait for deals to come to you," but also encouraged manufacturers to reduce costs. "The systems still cost too much," he said outright.

As the industry moves closer to full digital deployment, the pain for latecomers will be more acute. Christiansen noted that as fewer 35mm prints are needed, those fewer prints will become more expensive to produce. "When do the studios turn off the [35mm] tap?" he wondered aloud.

Despite today's economic crunch, the writing on the wall is as clear as a digital picture.

'Wall Street' sequel in the works; Steve Martin third man in Meyers'-directed love triangle

By Sarah Sluis

 It was only a matter of time.  Fox plans to fast-track a sequel to Wall Street, that glorious Michael Gordongekko_2

Douglas and Charlie Sheen epic that made "Greed is Good" a catchphrase for years to come--with some using the phrase more facetiously than others.

As long as this film fulfills these three requirements, I would be sold:

  1. Provide a delicious villain for the audience to burn in effigy.  The film plans to start with the Michael Douglas character back from jail.  I certainly don't want him to be "reformed" and just end up in cahoots with another bad guy.  Right now Americans are in no mood for redemption; I think most would prefer him to remain evil.

  2. Explain the financial crisis.  Credit default swaps are tricky things.  The first Wall Street did a good job of explaining (what seemed to me) a complicated inside trading deal.  If nothing else, it provided technical "bomb defusing" dialogue that conveyed the degree of complexity of their deals.

  3. Showcase Wall Street excess.  Everyone's heard about the AIG "top earners" spending $440,000 at the St. Regis after the bailout; I want to see that scene in the movie.

Steve Martin added to cast of Nancy Meyers comedy
The untitled Nancy Meyers romantic comedy has added Steve Martin to complete the love triangle between him, Alec Baldwin, and Meryl Streep.  Each of these three actors has a signature style and humor, but will all three be able to build off each other and not cancel each other out? 

Meyers' latest work The Holiday also juggled stars (four A-listers), but its young, half-Brit cast proved much more bankable abroad than at home.  Diane Keaton-Jack Nicholson picture Something's Gotta Give, was a huge hit, so it looks like Meyers is dialing up the age of her stars to replicate the success of the romantic comedy unique for NOT targeting twenty and thirtysomethings.

Monday, October 13, 2008

ShowEast Day One: Latin accent

By Kevin Lally

If you've ever wondered what the cast of High School Musical sounds like in Spanish, ShowEast in Orlando, Florida, was the place to be on Monday. The opening International Day programming put the spotlight on Latin America, and executives for the Southern Hemisphere from five major studios showcased trailers and clips from their upcoming movie lineups, with local productions in the mix and select previews dubbed or subtitled in Spanish.

With its foreign-language versions of HSM3 at the ready, Disney could easily tap into the same audience that's made the movie of Mamma Mia! a worldwide hit. The studio also touted its 3D animated Bolt, Adam Sandler in the kids' fantasy Bedtime Stories, the Robert Zemeckis motion-capture version of A Christmas Carol ("It will scare the Dickens out of you"), Dwayne ("The Rock") Johnson continuing to court the family audience in Race to Witch Mountain, and the latest Pixar adventure, Up. And the trailer for The Proposal looks like a high-concept comedy comeback for Sandra Bullock (driven Canadian female exec jumps into marriage plans with a resentful Yank subordinate to get a green card and save her company).

Sony International's Steven O'Dell predicted at least five blockbusters in the studio's near future: Quantum of Solace, Angels & Demons, Terminator Salvation, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Roland Emmerich's apocalyptic 2012. The studio also clearly believes in the potential of Kevin James as Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which they're screening in Orlando on Wednesday.

Fox International showed a lengthy clip from The Day the Earth Stood Still putting Keanu Reeves's spacey aura to good use, and a cute sequence from Ice Age 3 proving this highly successful animated franchise (now joining the 3D onslaught) hasn't lost its comic touch. No visuals from James Cameron's highly anticipated Avatar were offered, but the studio's Eduardo Echeverria promised "it will surely change the theatrical experience forever" and encouraged the crowd to hurry up with their 3D installations.

Paramount International's preview included the highly anticipated Watchmen (which they are handling outside the U.S.), an effective-looking revival of the hoary Friday the 13th franchise, a Spanish-dubbed Monsters vs. Aliens trailer, and a glimpse of Bruno Barreto's Brazilian Last Stop 174, a dramatization of the true hostage incident recounted in the acclaimed documentary Bus 174.

Universal International's Mauricio Duran noted that this was the studio's first $100 million summer in Latin America, and touted a slate including Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards, Pedro Almodovar's Los Abrazos Rotos, Benicio Del Toro as The Wolf Man, and a film I'm eager to see, Henry Selick's stop-motion-animated Coraline. A breakneck sequence from the new Fast and the Furious film, with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker both back behind the wheel, hints that franchise hasn't run out of gas: The tagline is "New Model, Original Parts."

Earlier in the day, FJI's own Bill Mead moderated a seminar on the future of digital cinema in Latin America, and the overall feeling was it isn't particularly bright. Cinemark International president Valmir Fernandes predicted a mere 3-4% market penetration without some kind of virtual print fee arrangement, which is nowhere near reality. Cine Colombia CEO Munir Falah opined that 3D "is not the answer" to driving digital, since he believes the initial novelty of 3D will ebb. Some Latin American theatres are getting 100% funding of their digital installations from sponsors like telcom companies or mall landlords, but overall, there's no central driving force helping d-cinema gain momentum in this part of the world.

Also on the bleak side, a panel of distributors in Latin America lamented that piracy seems to be increasing there, with Fox's Echeverria noting that many countries simply don't have a budget for anti-piracy initiatives. On the bright side, all distribution panelists agreed that business across the region is stable, and even up dramatically in countries like Argentina.

I'll be back tomorrow night with more news from ShowEast...

'Beverly Hills Chihuahua' engulfs 'Body of Lies'

By Sarah Sluis

As predicted, all four of the new releases made it into the top ten. Weakest link City of Ember ($3.2
million) just barely squeaked into the top ten, no doubt due
to the competition from competing family release and the number one film for the second week in a row,
Beverly Hills Chihuahua ($17.5 million).

Seemingly coming out of nowhere, this family film has benefited from two additional demographics: the Latino market, which sees movies at higher rates than Caucasians and African-Americans, and dog owners.  Not falling into any one of those categories myself, I only heard of this film weeks before its release--and then only through its utterly
befuddling trailer featuring no plot whatsoever, just a dog dance
revue.  However, in the grand tradition of Homeward Bound and
upcoming release Bolt, lost dog films are a surefire plot winner.

In a big hit to the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, and Ridley Scott, Body of Lies ($13.1 million) came in below Chihuahua and Quarantine ($14.2 million).  Both Quarantine and Body of Lies address government conspiracy.  Funny, the LAPD's cover-up of a secret
zombie infestation was a bigger draw than the lies, deceit, and
bluffing of the CIA.

Appaloosa ($3.34 million) and The Duchess ($3.32 million) have also successfully expanded from limited to wide release.  Both
premiered four weeks ago, but Appaloosa went into wide release a week earlier, making its cumulative gross of $10.8 million double The Duchess' $5.6 million total.

The Express opened to a modest $4.7 million, in line with expectations.  Returning release Eagle Eye came it at #4 with $11 million, bringing its cumulative total up to $70.5 million, a boon for an action film release outside of summer--will it be able to hit the $100 million mark before it's pulled from the theatres? 

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist ($6.5 million) finished at #5, below Eagle Eye, and included a $12.50 contribution from the ticket I bought to see this short and sweet film.  It's a must-see for anyone young and living in New York, filming in all the go-to places, which were even more recognizable to me than that other big New York-centric movie, Sex and the City.  One late night scene took place in the deli up the street from our office (which makes great sandwiches), and others took place in Arlene's Grocery, Mercury Lounge, the Hudson River Park, Papaya King, and Veselka.  One of the film's big "stars" is a yellow Yugo, which made me realize I had even walked by the set of the film months ago and marveled at the weird, beat-up car.

The last mention on the top ten is Nights of Rodanthe ($4.6 million), which has quietly racked up a substantial $32.3 million in three weeks by below-average drops in its audience, down 37% this week.  While falling out of the top ten, Fireproof only dropped 20% this week to $3.1 million, and has made $16.9 million on a $.5 million budget.

Next week brings another four wide releases, so look for the box office preview on Friday.

Full box office results available here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Four wide releases set sail for Columbus Day bounty

By Sarah Sluis

After weeks of overstuffed, competitive lineups that left many new films stranded outside of the top ten, this week has a mere four wide releases.  All of them stand a chance to debut in the top ten.

Star-studded Body of Lies (2,710 theatres), a Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio spy thriller, opens to Body_of_lies_md
high marks for its highly plausible terrorism premise that almost seems like a dramatization of actual events.  Critics, however, have taken shots at the affectations of Crowe and DiCaprio, noting that despite its physical authenticity, Crowe's girth seem strapped on, and both Crowe and DiCaprio's accents seem misplaced and create ill-fitting characterizations.

With most schools closed for the Columbus Day holiday on Monday, two PG-rated releases hope to capture the kid and teen audience, City of Ember and The Express.

City of Ember (2,022 theatres) follows two kids trying to solve a puzzle to free them from their underground city, whose generator has expired after 200 years. Atonement's Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway star as the city-saving duo, and Bill Murray and Tim Robbins support in roles as the mayor and father.  The film boasts gorgeous production design, and the NY Times remarked on its "whiz-bang...neat gadgets and sound effects."  According to our critic, who also remarked on the production design, "if the first thing you compliment is the set (or the music or costumes), the movie is in trouble."   Still, this film looks like the kind I would love if I were a kid: two independent children saving the day in a world with just the right amount of creepiness and darkness.

A.O. Scott sums up The Express' (2,808 theatres) appeal rather wryly.  "Aimed at a presumably large Express_md
cross-section of the moviegoing public: people who love football and hate racism," The Express tells the affirming story of Ernie Davis, the first black football player to win the Heisman trophy.  The game sequences give the audience plenty of opportunities to boo racism and root for the champ, but those expecting a spot-on historical account should be warned: FJI critic Frank Lovece noted that the film "plays fast and loose with the historical record," inflating racist incidents and changing the location of a key game to Southern West Virginia.

For high schoolers enjoying the three-day weekend, horror picture Quarantine (2,461 theatres) releases.  Shot from a first-person point of view, Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield-style, the film claims to be footage shot by a television crew trapped in a building ravaged by zombies.

On the specialty side, Happy-Go-Lucky (4 theatres) has drawn much acclaim (and Oscar buzz) for Sally Hawkins' performance as an unflappably happy person.  Apparently, her happy demeanor is contagious, leaving a number of critics smiling well after the credits.

Indie's beloved director, Wong Kar-Wai, re-releases his film Ashes in Time Redux (5 theatres).  Slightly shorter than the original, the film has drawn the most note for its its impressionistic fight sequences, as well as  Wong's signature attention to time and use of a circular plot structure.

Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla opens in limited release (7 theatres) this week.  The fast-talking comedic Rocknrolla_smcrime caper (if you can decipher the British accents in time to get the jokes) promises to reprise some of the fun of Lock, Stock & two Smoking Barrels.  Film Journal found RocknRolla "a middle-class fantasy of thug life," but "so relentlessly kinetic, rudely funny and visually flamboyantly that it doesn't matter."

Expect these films to join Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Eagle Eye as the major players this holiday weekend, and I'll see you on Monday for the Weekend Roundup.  Next week is ShowEast in Orlando, Florida, so Executive Editor Kevin Lally will also be posting news from the convention.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

DreamWorks delays financing talks with Wall Street

By Sarah Sluis

While Hollywood likes to tout its immunity to recession via The Great Depression, during which the Gold_diggers_of_nineteen_thirty_thr
industry not only made money, but also lifted the spirits of America with its leggy musicals, it looks as though the credit crunch has already affected Hollywood financing.

DreamWorks chose to delay its Wall Street pitch for additional financing, planning to wait a month for the crisis to settle down before proceeding.  Right now this makes sense--DreamWorks says it has enough money from its Reliance deal, and Wall Street has more important things on its hands right now than to lend more money.  More news stories like this might indicate trouble.  However, with the Dow dropping 40% from last year, the question is not if we will see more stories like these, but "when?" and "how many?

As I wrote yesterday, major studios have already secured financing for most of their projects going into production now, giving them some safety and lead time.  In fact, many of them had delayed their projects for another one of capitalism's favorite concerns--unions, and the expiration of the Screen Actors Guild contracts.  Hollywood has stated its confidence that people will still go to movies in an economic crisis, since they are a relatively cheap source of entertainment, but what if it lacks the money to make its films?

Reprising my "Money, Politics, Hollywood" post from last month, I thought I would throw in a Hollywood political update.  Today, THR's Risky Business blog ruminated about the timing of the release of Oliver Stone's W.  Releasing a film about our president before his term has finished surprises me as well, although from what I understand it's more of an "origin" film than an analysis of the Bush presidency.  Unlike other politically minded films like Farenheit 9/11, which looked for someone to blame, W's trailer surprised viewers, including myself, with its frat boy lampoon of Bush.  The trailer shows Bush's partying antics and his sheepish reception of a lecture from his father--no one nefarious, just criminally clueless.  With the popularity of Tina Fey's Sarah Palin imitation fresh on the minds of viewers, I think W's greatest angle for success will come from viewers trying to chase laughs similar to SNL's political caricatures.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Kids rule at the major studios

By Sarah Sluis

Alice in Wonderland adds Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway has played a princess before, but for her next project she's graduated to queen, signing Alice_in_wonderland_2
on to play the White Queen in Tim Burton's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.  Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, two of his recurring casting choices, are already in place as the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen, respectively.  Eighteen-year-old Mia Wasikowska, who has a role in this winter's Defiance, will play the part of Alice--no doubt her girlish look combined with her over-eighteen status informed the decision, since she won't be restricted by the laws limiting the hours of child actors.  Using a combination of live action and performance capture, Burton's film will likely work off the dark but family-friendly style of his film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but I am curious about how Burton will integrate the performance capture.  Will he use it for animal characters like the Cheshire Cat, or will the film have a Roger Rabbit look?

Tom Thumb film in works
Continuing in the vein of children's folk stories, Warner Brothers plans to adapt Tom Thumb, and has attached Enchanted and Tarzan director Kevin Lima to the project.  Under development through the Red Wagon label, the producers hope to spin the story by focusing on the beginnings of Tom Thumb.  They're enlisting Robert Rodat to write the screenplay.  While best known for his screenplay Saving Private Ryan and war follow-up The Patriot, he got his start writing family pictures Fly Away Home and Tall Tale, and will serve as a good choice if the producers want to emphasize the battles and adventures of the thimble-sized hero.  The producers are also undecided about representation of the little man, with live action and CGI both being thrown around as options.

Studios' production slate rich in kid and teen pictures
While Tom Thumb is still in the development phase, Alice in Wonderland will join other a large number of projects going into production now that some of the uncertainty surrounding the renewal of the SAG contracts has blown over.  Variety compiled a list of over forty projects going into production.  A substantial amount target child and teen audiences:

  • Ramona, the classic children's book by Beverly Cleary

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

  • Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, a Harry Potter knockoff based on a book series about a boy who realizes he is the descendant of a Greek god (directed by Harry Potter alum Chris Columbus)

  • Tooth Fairy, which looks to be an Elf-like comedic riff on the coins-for-teeth fairy (if you replace Will Ferrell with stone-faced Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson)

  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid, an adaptation of a series of cartoon books

  • Mars Needs Moms, another illustrated storybook adaptation

  • Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a live action adaptation of the anime-styled comic book

  • Footloose remake, starring Zac Efron and sure to draw in tweens and teens

  • Fame remake, another song-and-dance high school film

One trend in this slate of films is the popularity of graphic or comic novels as a literary source.  With adaptations of action and superhero comics doing so well in the box office, there has been an increased demand to develop books that mine the comic book format, using panels or incorporating illustrations and letters into their stories.  Spielberg, for example, is directing animated Tin Tin, based on the French comic.  The richness and depth of plot in these stories, however, can be as much help as hindrance, as writers must sift through and delete material over the course of the adaptation.  Of all these projects, however, I am most enthusiastic about Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which will be much more about the actors' interpretations of the characters rather than the plot of the original (and rarely read by children anymore) Alice Adventure's in Wonderland.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Notes from the 'Watchmen' Sneak Preview

By Sarah Sluis

The upcoming release Watchmen is a superhero movie, but it's not an action movie.  Instead, director Watchmen
Zack Snyder and illustrator David Gibbons describe Watchmen as "punctuated by action," with the real juice of the film coming from the complicated and rich backstories of the characters. 

I generally dislike superhero movies.  I found the Spider-Mans dull but enjoyed fringe genre films like Unbreakable or Harry Potter that explore the condition of being "super" rather than bothering me with the constant rescuing and saving. Judging from the New York sneak preview of scenes from Watchmen presented by Snyder last night, the film promises to defy the conventions of a "typical" superhero movie while still providing action sequences to satisfy viewers in search of explosions (violence-hungry audiences are apparently the target audience of the trailer, which can be viewed here).

The film has a "cold open" action sequence: a disheveled man in a bathrobe watches the news, revealing that we are in an alternative 1985 where Nixon is still president and a nuclear clash with Russia is imminent.  A black-clad person breaks in, leading to a spectacular, slo-mo-laden sequence.

After a matter-of-fact death, the film segues into a long credit sequence set to Bob Dylan's "The Times, They are A-Changin" that expands on the alternative world inhabited by the Watchmen.  Employing a green-screen or chroma-key effect to give the montage a slightly askew, "pop-up" feel, we are presented with a series of visual "dioramas."  Two-beat, slow-motion snippets show American history with Watchmen's superheroes inserted into the fold.  Like Forrest Gump shaking the hands of the presidents, we see a superhero immortalized by Andy Warhol, part of the moon landing, and at the scene of JFK's assassination.  There are also clues to other parts of the superheroes' history: two criminals tied up with a mysterious ink blot note, and a murdered lesbian superhero.  The linkage of the Watchmen superheroes within the history of pop culture makes for an intriguing departure from the anonymity of Gotham City.  While both fictional worlds are dark and corrupted, the specificity of the references in Watchmen makes the apocalyptic climate more biting.

At the preview, we also saw the transformation of Dr. Manhattan, a contemplation/flashback sequence in which the scientist Dr. Manhattan escapes to Mars, and a prison-break sequence in which two superheroes rescue a Dr. Rorschach from a flaming compound.  Incredibly ornate and detailed, even Dr. Manhattan's flashbacks were not presented in a linear order.  Similarly, a murder in the prison break sequence is seen/concealed by a swinging butler door, leaving the audience to fill in the gory details.

Director Snyder mentioned at the screening that '"I've said before, that if I succeeded in making a two hour and forty minute advertisement for the book, I would be happy."  In that respect, he's already succeeded.  I went out and ordered the graphic novel after watching the
preview, eager to consume this superhero world so unlike that of the
gawky teen who saves the world.

Related link:
MTV News has a shot-by-shot breakdown

Monday, October 6, 2008

'Beverly Hills Chihuahua' captures $29 million from family audiences

By Sarah Sluis

As predicted, family-friendly Beverly Hills Chihuahua snagged the top spot this weekend, coming in just below the $30 million mark with a $29 million box-office take.  Families comprised 70% of the audience. In a week where most releases dropped 50% or less, competing family film Igor dropped 68.4% as families flocked to the new entry.

Other newcomer Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist finished at number three with $12 million, and execs expect strong word-of-mouth will carry the film through several more weeks with below-average box-office drops.  The field is favorable: no teen movies will release next week, and the three consecutive weeks will see Sex Drive (Oct 17), High School Musical 3 (Oct 24), and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Oct. 31) release, none of which have a perfectly overlapping audience with Nick & Norah.  Both Michael Cera and Kat Dennings are reaching new levels of awareness among audiences, which makes me suspect that regardless of box office take, this film will be revisited in years to come as a launch pad for their stardom.

Dueling satires An American Carol ($3.8 million) and Religulous ($3.5 million) both finished in the top Religulous1
ten. While below An American Carol, Religulous' highly targeted distribution strategy that emphasized running in theatres where political films like Farenheit 9/11 played well gave it an $6,972 per-theatre average, three times that of American Carol.

Eagle Eye, now the only substantial action film in the market, dropped a minimal 39% and finished at number two with $17.7 million.

Fireproof also dropped a minimal amount (40%) and took in another $4 million

With the crowded week, a few new releases premiered out of the top ten.  Flash of Genius finished at number 11 with a $2.3 million take, and Miramax's Blindness took in $2 million.  How to Lose Friends and Alienate People fared the worst, taking in only $1.4 million with an $801 per-theatre average.

Specialty release Rachel Getting Married earned $33,667 per screen opening up in nine locations, an
auspicious start for the film.  Appaloosa made a strong showing in its first week in wide release, finishing at number five and taking in $5 million.  When the film opened in eleven theatres two weeks ago, it made $17,775, half of what Rachel Getting Married pulled in.   While no wide release for Rachel has been set, if it follows in the footsteps of Appaloosa it could have a top ten finish in its future.

Full box office charts available here.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Will 'Beverly Hills Chihuahua' bark its way to the top?

By Sarah Sluis

It's another crowded week at the box office, and early yapping from moviegoers places the decidedly silly 41103beverly_hills_chihuahua_500_2

Beverly Hills Chihuahua
(3,215 screens) as the one to beat, with tracking reports estimating a $30 million estimated take, which I predict will be on the high side.

This week brings us two ideological lampoons (Religulous and An American Carol) and two young urban comedies (Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People).  Religulous (502 screens) has agnostic Bill Maher taking on religious dogma, while American Carol (1,639 screens) has conservative David Zucker lampooning Michael Moore while taking on politics and patriotism--leaving agnostic conservatives in for a tough viewing decision.  Nick & Norah's Infinite Nick_and_norahs_infinite_playlist
(2,421 screens), a "one crazy night" teen film, might see some overlap with How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (1,750 screens), as those in the twenty-something range debate whether they want to relive a bit of high school or look ahead to a loosely defined workplace/ambition comedy (I think Nick & Norah will win).  A.O. Scott called Nick & Norah "like Martin Scorsese's After Hours filtered through the high school sensibility of John Hughes, or Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise remade for Nickelodeon."  Conversely, How to Lose Friends is expected to have paltry returns and make it up on the DVD market.  Say no more.

Ambitious literary adaptation Blindness (1,690 screens), the rare film that combines the thrill of depicting a worldwide apocalypse with arthouse allegory (except, of course, that this description fits upcoming release The Road) has been slowed by disappointed critics that wish director Fernando Meirelles could have awed them as much as he did in City of God.  The film will have to count on forgiving audiences giving the thumbs up to their friends in order to do well at the box office.

Flash of Genius also looks to be a feel-good family picture in a little man vs. the auto industry fight over his invention of the intermittent windshield wiper--except it isn't, and will likely be a victim of the crowded weekend.  With a PG-13 rating, and reviews calling out the film for its slow pace, families will likely opt for Chihuahua, or one of the sneak previews of next week's PG-rated sports drama The Express.

Arthouse western Appaloosa expands to 1,045 screens this weekend, and another little film, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, opens on nine screens.  Anne Hathaway gives the film a high profile, and it's a brilliant career move on her part to break out from her Disney-manicured image.  The film itself has a meandering view of the wedding, with an unusual amount of musical interludes coloring the white suburban house with a bit of bohemia.  The eccentricity is played out without question, but in one final dancing scene (featuring an approximation of belly and can-can dancers and West African beats) I couldn't help but think of how this scene would fit into another film altogether--say the horrified looks of the Wedding Crashers.

Along with these new releases, holdover Eagle Eye, only in its second week, will certainly stay in the top five, while Burn After Reading, four weeks into its run, will probably be bumped down a few places.