Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving entertainment: Pass the 'Milk,' and prepare for 'Four Christmases'

By Sarah Sluis

This Thanksgiving weekend is stuffed with choices--three new wide releases, last week's Twilight and Bolt, and second-week holdover Quantum of Solace should all post eight-digit returns this weekend.  Australia1
Which film will end up as the main course?  Currently, Four Christmases is tracking to be the number one release
this weekend.  With 3,310
screens, the comedy will boast the widest release, an omnipresence conducive to number-one openings.  However, Australia, while only releasing on 2,642 screens,
could do better than the mid-range, $20 million figure expected.  Based on an Oprah show I saw promoting Australia, filled with an unusually (even for Oprah) impassioned audience, I wouldn't be surprised if matriarchs push the family to see Australia over, say, Four Christmases.  The "pull" factor--the ability of one person to influence a movie choice--was a key reason Twilight overwhelmed Bolt last weekend, and Australia has more of a "must-see," epic feel to it than a by-the-book comedy, even if it does star Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon.

Lionsgate's Transporter 3 opens on 2,626 screens, and with the kids out of school, the PG-13 actioner should pass at least $10 million.  Last week's #1 and #3 releases, Twilight and Bolt, will also be films to watch, both for their movement within the top ten, and, well, for their entertainment value.  Disney expects Bolt to make just as much money this week as last week.  Certainly, filmgoers who had Twilight and Bolt on their to-see list (i.e., those Utah families supporting Twilight) will probably turn out for Bolt in its second weekend, but I am also curious to see how well Twilight will be able to maintain its audience.

Biopic Milk releases on 35 screens, expanding on the traditional NY/LA/Toronto release to include San Francisco, where Harvey Milk held office, as well as liberal, gay-friendly cities, including Miami,Seanpennharveymilkflm

Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Portland, and Seattle.  No showings in (liberal) Austin, Dallas, or Salt Lake City.  Despite the film's obvious appeal to those interested in the civil rights movement, and specifically gay rights, our critic Doris Toumarkine predicted Milk " should attract demanding filmgoers of all persuasions."  With the passage of California's Proposition 8 in the forefront, the film reads as particularly topical.  My question is: Will the targeted release of Milk be able to match the whopping $30k+ per screen of the Slumdog Millionaire release the past two weeks?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

'Arrested' in Development; Stewart goes to 'Adventureland'

By Sarah Sluis

"Arrested Development," the three-season television show a little too smart for its own good, might have a film version in the works.  Its high-concept humor, which star Jason Bateman once described as "The Arrested_development_cast_promo_pho
Royal Tenenbaums
shot like "Cops,"" makes the film a tougher sell, but producer Ron Howard and series creator Mitch Hurwitz have reportedly been in talks with Fox Searchlight to create a $17 million film (in co-production with Howard's Imagine Entertainment), sure to turn a profit, especially in the DVD market. 

Members of the cast have also mentioned the possibility of a movie during their promotional tours (perhaps purposefully, to create an upswell in interest among fans).  Validating viewers in awe of the talented ensemble, the cast has done well for itself since the show's cancellation, often appearing in one another's projects.  Michael Cera, for example, who played George-Michael Bluth, has become a teen superstar, appearing in films like Superbad, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and Juno. Jason Bateman played opposite Charlize Theron (who had a role in "Arrested Development") in this summer's Hancock, and supported along with Cera in Juno.

Taking advantage of Kristen Stewart's star turn in Twilight, Miramax released the trailer for Adventureland.  Stewart plays the love interest of Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale) in the romance set in 1987.  Both play jaded employees of a summer theme park who learn real-world lessons of slackerdom and avoidance while on the job.  Directed by Greg Mottola, who finessed the Apatow-produced success Superbad, the film could fall flat or replicate Superbad's success: your guess from the trailer.

Lionsgate picked up More than a Game, a documentary about LeBron James, the basketball player drafted into the NBA right out of college.  Featuring archival footage from the player's high school days,Lebronjamesdunk
as well as film-specific interviews, the movie has sparked interest due to its aggressive pursuit of in-kind marketing deals to support its release.  Nike, for example, launches a LeBron James-centered shoe each September.  Next year, the shoe's marketing campaign will feature a tie-in to the documentary, which is slated for a fall 2009 release.  The documentary, repped by Endeavor, has racked up tens of millions of dollars in marketing contacts to support the film, also bringing on State Farm, Coca-Cola, and the NBA in addition to the Nike deal.  A worthy effort in cross-promotion, the volume and value of the tie-ins would make Jerry Maguire proud.

Monday, November 24, 2008

'Twilight' draws teens, adults to a $70 million opening weekend

By Sarah Sluis

Surpassing both industry ($50-$60 million) and Summit Entertainment's ($40 million) expectations, Twilight earned $70.5 million this weekend.  The astounding figure makes my estimate of $100 million Twilightbacklot21
in three weeks virtually guaranteed, even with this Wednesday's release of PG-13 spectacle Australia and comedy Four ChristmasesTwilight, which made $35.8 million on Friday alone (including midnight screenings from the evening before), dropped minimally on Saturday.  A cult film without crossover appeal usually dies on Saturday, but, like its undead hero, Twilight stayed alive.  The flurry of media around Twilight created a zero-to-sixty in awareness level among those unfamiliar with the source material, drawing out scores of curious viewers, especially mothers.  The film's Mormon connection siphoned away viewers from Disney's Bolt, which finished third at $27 million.  Utah, with its Mormon-heavy, family-oriented population, normally does above-average business with Disney films, but it appears those audiences chose Twilight over Bolt.  Disney expects audiences will turn out for Bolt in weeks to come, but Twilight's passionate fan base undoubtedly swayed groups of filmgoers towards the vampire romance.  Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, the film also turns out to be the biggest opening ever for a female-directed film.  More depressing than inspiring, only 6% of directors are female.  Betcha more than 6% of wannabe directors are female.

Beating out Bolt, Quantum of Solace finished at #2 with $27.4 million.  The best option for moviegoers not entranced by teen vampires or superstar dogs, the Bond film swiftly crossed the $100 million mark and brought its two-week total to $109.4 million.

Below the top three, kid-oriented pictures Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (#4, $16 million) and High School Musical 3 (#7, $2 million) experienced the biggest drops in business due to competition from Twilight and Bolt.  Each fell over 50% from last week, with HSM falling 64.5%.

Role Models ($7.2 million) and Changeling ($2.6 million) each dropped around 30% to finish at #5 and #6.  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which expanded in its third week, made $1.6 million and grabbed the #9 spot.  Finishing just outside of the top ten, despite being exhibited in only 32 theatres, Slumdog Millionaire made $994,000, $31,000 per theatre.  Since its release, the film has received an uptick in Oscar buzz.  Unlike Changeling, which lost  Oscar momentum after people went out and saw the film, Slumdog Millionaire has played the underdog card successfully, making those who have seen the film feel as though they have discovered a gem.  If only a fraction of the viewers are like me--I've encouraged a number of friends and family to see the film--Slumdog will be a millionaire many times over.

Full box office results available here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

'Bolt' and 'Twilight' to satisfy the young (at heart)

By Sarah Sluis

Twilight (3,419 screens) debuted with sold-out midnight screenings last night, and finished at #5 among all-time pre-sold tickets (per, right below The Dark Knight.  With the help of "Twilight Moms," the most obvious expansion of the teen girl demographic turning out for the film, the Kristen_stewart_kiss_twilight_rober
vampire romance will continue to sell out screenings throughout the weekend.  Among non-Twilight-reading and Twilight-reading critics, the film has inspired polarized opinions.  A decent portion have acknowledged the film's ability to pull heartstrings despite some corny moments, but for others, like our critic Ethan Alter, those moments, combined with some trite camera setups and technical sloppiness, make the film unbearable.  A friend who accompanied the press screening called Twilight "teen fantasy reduced to its most basic form.   There is something so pure about a film that doesn't try to trick you into thinking it's clever, or appealing to anyone outside its demographic.  It's exactly the film for exactly its audience.  That's rare."

Bolt (3,651 screens) opens after a non buzz-generating sneak preview last weekend.  With a large portion of the screens exhibiting in 3D, the film will receive a boost in revenue from higher ticket prices Bolt_film_hamster
at those venues.  A solid film, our executive editor Kevin Lally called Bolt "an unpretentious, consistently entertaining romp...with plenty of heart".  As Lally notes, the breakout press story is that of Disney animator Mark Walton.  A hyperactive fanboy who naturally possesses hamster-like qualities, his scratch recording of the hamster Rhino was so good, it made it into the final film.  Coupled with the celebrity voices of Miley Cyrus, John Travola, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm"'s Susie Essman, the film should please adults and kids alike.

On the specialty side, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas expands to 406 screens, Muslim-lesbian romantic drama I Can't Think Straight opens on 3 screens, drug-induced superhero hallucination picture Special debuts on 1 screen, and Laotian immigrant documentary The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) opens at New York City's IFC Theatre.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

'Twilight' a romance of meaningful glances

By Sarah Sluis

Like a teenage daydream ignited by the examination of each possible meaning of that look your lab Mct_enter_movietwilight_4
partner gave you in biology, Twilight imbues meaningful glances with more smoldering romance than one would think possible in this millennium.  Caught in a romance that transcends time, Edward and Bella just have to search each other's pale, slender-chinned, slow-motion, extreme close-up faces, and make eye contact.  The audience shrieks, sighs, and they know, we know, that it doesn't matter that Edward is a vampire and Bella is a human.  They will be together, forever.  Repeat this moment every couple scenes (in a tree, in a house, in a parking lot, in biology class!) like a fugue, and you have the thrill and electricity of Twilight.

Overwrought emotion is frequently dismissed as melodrama, but with Twilight the sustained palpablity of emotion is a compliment.  Some moments of dialogue may inspire a too-good-to-be-true laughter among more jaded audience members, but that doesn't mean they're not enjoying it.  What kind of person would throw away a love note just because it's too earnest in some points?  For fangirls in the throes of a relationship with Edward and Bella (Stephenie Meyer's series now numbers four) there are private jokes.  A scene in which Edward calls himself a lion and Bella a lamb inspired gasping shrieks among the fangirls seated below me, melting over the enunciation of the pet name they had only ever read.

Like arty vampire picture Let the Right One In, Twilight
takes time to show us the "rules" and theTwilight34medium_2

day-to-day life of vampires.  We get to visit Edward's house, the residence of several vampires.  The modern space has a large, framed, modern color block painting.  Upon closer examination, we see dozens of graduation caps acquired by the perpetually high school-age Cullen family.  "Yeah, it's kind of a family joke," notes Edward wryly.  Bella remarks on the lack of a bed in Edward's room (he doesn't sleep), in an exchange remarkably devoid of innuendo.  We learn the powerful vampires love to play baseball, but only in a
thunderstorm, when the cracks of their bats blend in with the thunder.  The rendering of the game is no Quidditch, and I bet producer Summit Entertainment wished they had spent a little more on special effects, which could have been more robust and drawn out.  But because we are so emotionally invested in Edward and Bella, the thrilling escape scene in a Jeep that follows surpasses, for a brief moment, the emotional impact of Quantum of Solace.  Ouch.

Twilight will undoubtedly do well at the box office, so the question everyone is asking now is HOW well.  Over 2,000 screenings are sold out, more than many of the previous Harry Potter movies.  The word-of mouth among the series' devotees is effusive:  as soon as the girls at the advance screening could rip their embargoed cell phones out of the manila envelopes (I screened the film on Tuesday, and Summit required we relinquish all cell phones during the film, even wanding audience members to check), their fingers started sending gushing texts.  Forget word-of-mouth, Twlight will succeed based on Facebook statuses and Twitters

As far as numbers, I'll enter my "superstar" prediction here: $100 million in four weeks.  This summer's Sex and the City, with its older, but still devoted, fan base, passed the $100 million mark in its third week (it made $99 million through its second week).  Most of this year's animated pictures have passed $100 million in two weeks.  The cautionary comparison is live-action HSM3: Senior Year, an aging franchise, but still one with a devoted legion of Zac Efron fans.  That film has earned $84 million through its fourth week--I see that as Twilight's worst-case scenario, which would still vastly exceed the film's sub-$40 million production budget.  Summit Entertainment still claims they  only expect $40 million in returns, but the numbers $50 and $60 million have also been floated around.  If Twilight can earn $50 million in its first week, and drop less than 50% each subsequent week (exponential decay, the subject of Twilight girls' math homework!), it will make $100 million in four weeks.  However, as much as I would like to see this film succeed, vaulting the stars, the series, and Summit into a big deal, I don't see girls successfully dragging their relatives to Twilight over next week's Thanksgiving weekend.  Time will tell.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Disney and IMAX sign deal; 3D popping up everywhere

By Sarah Sluis

Appending to yesterday's post about the 3D version of Monsters vs. Aliens, here's a recap of even more 3D news.

Reald2Disney signed a deal with IMAX to release five pictures in 3D on their screens on the same day of the film's general release.  Mimicking the five-picture deal that IMAX has with Warner Brothers, the deal will debut with next winter's A Christmas Carol, which features Jim Carrey in a number of roles.  2004's A Polar Express did extremely well in IMAX 3D, so Disney undoubtedly hopes that the format will make A Christmas Carol an event film, on par with a family's holiday trip to The Nutcracker, The Rockettes or the play version of A Christmas Carol.

Besides generating new 3D content, Disney/Pixar plans to reupholster its classics Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Toy Story (1995) with a 3D treatment.  Beauty and the Beast will release in 2009-2010.  Thanks to archived digital files, the process can be done with all the archived components, but will still take ten months to complete.  Toy Story, already in the midst of a 3D update, will release on October 2, New_3d_glasses2009, and will not be part of the
IMAX deal.  Conveniently, Toy Story 3 will release a year later.  Just as the restored Star Wars films reintroduced young audiences to the classic films, the 3D update of Toy Story will introduce new children to Buzz and Woody.

Currently, most 3D films have fallen into the family/children category, with animation and kiddie concert subgenres leading the way (performance capture Beowulf and concert film U2: 3D are two adult-oriented exceptions).  Now that digital projectors number in the thousands (3D projection requires just a simple attachment onto a digital projector), demographics and genres underserved by the 3D experience will soon get the 3D treatment.  Disney's 2010 slate includes Touchstone release Step Up 3, a live action, teen-oriented dance picture.  Lionsgate plans to release horror picture My Bloody Valentine in 3D.  Along with these more niche 3D offerings, all-ages directors James Cameron (Avatar, 12/18/09) and  Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland 3/5/2010) have films just a couple years away, giving 3D a turn in the spotlight.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

CGI 'Monsters vs. Aliens' first entry in DreamWorks' all-3D plan

By Sarah Sluis

Last week I saw a preview of scenes from Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D.  The film, which will release on March 27, 2009, also recently unveiled its trailer online.

Unlike home-runner Pixar, DreamWorks' animated pictures have been much more uneven, critically and commercially.  Monsters vs. Aliens comes eight years after Pixar's Monsters, Inc., and employs a similar monsters-are-our-friends take on the freakish creatures.  Although I wish the two studios could stop their critter competition (rats in Ratatouille and Flushed Away; fish in Finding Nemo and Shark's Tale; insects in A Bug's Life and Antz), the latest offering looks like a worthy match to Pixar's offering.

Conceptualized and animated entirely in 3D, the film forgoes using the popping effect to shock (a la my previous benchmark, Universal Studios' theme park ride Terminator in 3D) but often makes something as simple as an over-the-shoulder shot pop out, bringing the 3D effect to the most quotidian of film compositions.  The first set-piece, in which the United States president (Stephen Colbert) attempts to make contact with the alien spaceship, makes the most cinematic use of 3D--staircases jut out from the center of the screen, helicopters swoop in, and missiles (including one emblazoned with "E.T. Go Home") fire to impressive 3D effect.  The new wave of 3D glasses are clear and not meant to cause headaches, but it took me the greater part of one sequence for my eyes to adjust and the whisper of a headache to subside.  The polarized glasses also have some unintended effects: the red EXIT sign multiplied by seven and cast itself into my left eyeline.  Not the biggest deal, but if you're paying the premium price ($15.00 for an adult 3D ticket in Manhattan, a $3.00, 25% markup), you want the image to look perfect.

From a storytelling perspective, there is much to commend: little details, like a series of preemptive comedic shrieks, temper the scare factor for youngsters.  For adults, the voice casting plays on the star personas (roly-poly Seth Rogen plays a blob, "House, M.D."'s Hugh Laurie plays a mad scientist cockroach, Stephen Colbert as the President...).  Along with a smattering of Shrek-like allusions to classic monster and alien films, the snappy dialogue, visual gags, and mild gross-out humor will please adults and kids alike.  Watching the film, I knew exactly which moments would prompt eager kids to whisper to their parents with glee ("Daddy! That man just scanned his butt!").  The film also avoids one of my biggest pet peeves: when a marketing campaign gives away too many plot points, forcing the audience to spend half the film waiting to get to the moment you saw or predicted from a thirty-second commercial.  Based on the introduction of the clips, it appears the monsters' defeat of the aliens marks the turning point, not the climax, earning the film major points according to my rubric.  Perhaps DreamWorks is taking a lesson from Pixar and its tantalizing teaser trailers.  With most animation moving into 3D, and DreamWorks committed to making all of their films in 3D from this point onward, the relative success of Disney competitor Bolt 3D stands to foreshadow Monsters vs. Aliens' success this March.

Why 'Bride Wars' misjudges the female audience

By Sarah Sluis

The MTV Movie Blog, perhaps because of their preview/commercial show "Spoiler," frequently posts Bridewars
"EXCLUSIVE" clips from upcoming films.  They recently posted clips from Bride Wars and Bedtime Stories.  Despite my lifelong residence in the "young female" quadrant, the Bride Wars clip drove me nuts (trailer here), to the point that I found the pet hamster "young male" humor of Adam Sandler's Bedtime Stories vastly more entertaining and less offensive than Bride Wars, which seems to view the crazed female stereotype as one grounded in reality.

I love romantic comedies, but I now have very, very low expectations for Bride Wars.  For a female-oriented film, they are entirely off base: by making the psycho brides (bridezillas) initially plausible types, they insult their female audience.  Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson play seemingly normal best friends who come undone when a scheduling error leaves only one open spot for their weddings.  The women are petty and conniving without any good reason other than those "bridal hormones" floating around.  Ever the optimist, I'm willing to say that perhaps my impression comes from a discrepancy between the marketing and the film itself.  Maybe the movie will present Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson as over-the-top, unrealistic stock characters (see Elle Woods reference below), who have no other option than to use the appalling backstabbing techniques played for laughs, but I'm not getting my hopes up.  Both actresses generally play genuine, fresh-faced characters (not stock villains or mean girls), and I just can't imagine why these sensible, normal women couldn't just resolve matters through a double wedding or another corny compromise in the first place.

Compare this treatment of women-gone-wrong to some other comedies that poke fun at female stereotypes without condescending to them: Legally Blonde (2001) for example, trots out everyLegallyblonde
poofy-blonde stereotype imaginable, but because Reese Witherspoon's performance is such a clear caricature, her behavior is entertaining, not offensive.  Entirely oblivious to how her pink wardrobe (a.k.a. her heightened femininity) precludes her from full participation in the professional world, WItherspoon's Elle Woods ends up trouncing all those who underestimate her
for the way she looks.  A few waves of feminism later, Elle's Barbie-inspired wardrobe seems a modern permutation of Katharine Hepburn's androgynous, for the time, clothing: both present women who dress and act in counterpoint to convention, but end up succeeding anyway.

As for Bride Wars, if I want to watch two women fight with each other, I'll watch some reality television instead--at least that genre knows to present its characters as exaggerated, unbelievable stereotypes, Shopaholicfashion2_2
self-contradicting and petty, and (despite the misleading name) totally unreal.  The fresh-faced, good girl personas of Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson just don't work in this situation.

With Bride Wars off my must-see list (except out of fascination to see if the film can redeem itself from
the marketing campaign), I have a couple other options.  Ridiculous shopping addict Isla Fisher takes a cue from Reese Witherspoon in her caricature performance in Confessions of a Shopaholic (the novel an engaging few hours) and, of course, I might pay to see the hamster jokes (side benefit: better comedic timing and editing) in Bedtime Stories.

Monday, November 17, 2008

'Quantum of Solace' finds plenty of viewers

By Sarah Sluis

Exceeding all previous Bond openings, Quantum of Solace vaulted to $70.4 million at the weekend box office.  Overseas, it earned over $50 million in its third weekend, bringing the worldwide cumulative to Quantumofsolace723689
$322 million. 

At least in the United States, Quantum's success has much to do with its spy-like maneuvering to secure near-perfect, competition-free placement.  Rescheduling drama early this fall led to some aligned stars for Sony and MGM: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince moved to next summer, and Twilight rushed into the vacated spot, prompting kid picture Bolt to shift its release date. Quantum of Solace then moved up its release date to that of Australia , which jumped ship and moved its release date two weeks later (although now, with talks of production delays and changed endings, they were probably only too happy to give up their spot).  While the British audience usually sees their native-born spy before American audiences, the United States switches gave the European market an unusually long two-week lead in the release, and briefly left the Australian market to release duo blockbusters Quantum of Solace and Australia on the same weekend, before the Bond film conceded and moved forward its Australian release to this weekend.  Quite the chess game.

While critical reception was not as strong for the film, this had little influence on the box office.  I also think audiences have warmed up to Daniel Craig as James Bond.  Seeing another actor taking on the Pierce Brosnan role (the one I grew up with, although I've seen my share of Connery) was a bit of a transition, and I remember viewing Casino Royale with a skeptical eye, uncertain how Craig would inhabit the Bond character.  With two films under his belt, Craig has proven himself as a Bond with a remarkable and believable physicality, a man who, according to FJI critic Daniel Eagan, "looks like he could break the nearest neck without a second thought."

Below Bond, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa ($36.1 million) and Role Models ($11.7 million) held up the number two and three spots respectably, each dropping less than 50%.  Second-weeker Soul Men ($2.4 million) did not fare as well, dropping 55%, the soul train chugging into the seventh spot.  HSM3: Senior Year finished between Role Models and Soul Men, its $5.8 million bringing the film's cumulative total to $84.3 million.  Zack and Miri has held on, its $3.2 million pushing the film's total above boxofficemojo's reported production cost of $24 million (a figure that does not include marketing costs).  Hopefully, the Weinstein Company can sleep a little easier.

At number eight, The Secret Life of Bees ($2.4 million) n its fifth week of release, is the oldest film in the top ten.  Specialty picture Changeling ($4.2 million), which finished fifth in its fourth week of release, will likely follow a similar trajectory.

Horror pictures Saw V ($1.7 million) and The Haunting of Molly Hartley ($1.6 million) continue to hang on in the bottom five spots, each shifting down two spots to finish at number nine and ten.

Full weekend results available here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

'Quantum of Solace' will shake, not stir, the weekend box office

By Sarah Sluis

Quantum of Solace (3,451 screens) releases today to a wide-open market.  Without any competition, the film will likely exceed all previous Bond openings (2002's Die Another Day opened to $47 million).  Daniel_craig_james_bond
Forecasters have the film tracking in the $50-$60 million range, slightly below Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa's performance last week. 

Released two weeks ago in Europe, Quantum of Solace has already earned $160 million overseas, but critical reception has been mixed.  The film adjusts the proportions of action, glamour, sex, gadgets, and wit.  While the Bond package remains intact, those who look to the movie for the latter four elements might come out disappointed, as the lean film focuses primarily on the action.  Without the twists and ribald humor and narcissistic concern for the cleanliness of his evening wear, Bond looks more like Bourne, an opinion shared by numerous critics and the FJI staff.

Of note, two American CIA agents aid and do business with the story's main villain.  Bond films usually choose generic but safe villains--they used Russia as the Cold War villain even after the idea of Russia as an enemy was a bit stale (explained, in part, because they kept drawing on Ian Fleming's dated source material).  As far as I can tell, this marks the first time that a Bond film portrays a United States government official as a villain.  A product of the political leanings of screenwriter Paul Haggis, as well as the negative impression overseas of a Bush-led United States, the rather mild depiction of Americans-as-villains did not offend me, but serves as a warning of the world's casual distrust of America.

Holdovers Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Role Models, HSM3: Senior Year and Changeling will continue to rack up numbers at the box office, and, with so few debuting films, will probably drop less than 50% from last week.

The indie market is crowded this week, but the standout is Slumdog Millionaire (10 screens), which released Wednesday (related blog post here) and has already earned $3,000 per screen, a hefty figure for a mid-week release.

FJI publishes reviews of even the smallest indie releases, so, if the thought of Bond makes you run from the multiplex, click here for a round-up of all recent specialty releases.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Monopoly, Meta-mockery, Michael Moore, Iowa library kittens, and Paris Hilton: Coming soon!

By Sarah Sluis

A movie based on a theme park ride seemed like a terrible idea, but Pirates of the Caribbean IV is already in development.  So it should come as no surprise that the board game Monopoly will serve as the Monopoly
narrative anchor for a screenplay to be written by Pamela Pettler.  Those expecting a top hat and monocle, do not pass go:  Ridley Scott will direct the project, and plans to add some Blade Runner touches to the idea to update the Depression-era board game.  Maybe they live in a futuristic society where everyone gets one "Get out of Jail Free" card, and drawing from the "Chance" deck is mandatory?  "Monopoly" joins Battleship, Ouija Board,"and G.I. Joe as other games receiving the feature treatment under a Universal-Hasbro development deal.

The series of Not Another Teen/Disaster/Scary Movies inspires groans among critics; review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes frequently tallies a 0% rating for these movies, a sort of accomplishment in itself given that the movies keep on getting green-lighted.  Finally, an answer to the success of "Not Another Movies": Not Another Not Another Movie.  The tertiary critique stars Chevy Chase and chronicles a struggling production studio that attempts to make a spoof of spoof movies--which actually makes the film fourth-removed from what it is actually mocking.  The "indie comedy," in all probability a synonym for "low-budget, direct-to-video," sounds so terrible that it might just inspire a rental among those burned out of films with a high production value.

Michael Moore plans to make his sequel to Farenheit 9/11 less
about foreign policy and more about the current American outrage over
the economy.  Sensing that a change in regime could weaken demand for a government critique, The Weinstein Company passed on the project months ago, but Paramount Vantage and Overture have high hopes for the film, which is currently shooting.  Certainly, with the volatility of the markets, there's a strong chance that Moore can draw an obsolete conclusion.  After all, didn't McCain get into huge trouble for stating "The fundamentals of the economy are strong" on the eve of the collapse of major financial institutions?

Perhaps receiving an extra push due to the recent success of doggie picture Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Meryl Streep signed on to the project Dewey the Library Cat, an adaptation of a pet memoir about anDeweyfinal_cover
orphaned cat who takes refuge in a library, influencing the lives of the residents of a small Iowa town.  The project follows an unusual wave of pet pictures--yesterday at the movie theatre I saw two side by side posters for December's Marley and Me, also based on a pet memoir, and kid picture Hotel for Dogs ("No stray gets turned away").  Woof.

Paris Hilton will appear in Todd Solondz's sequel to Happiness.  The pairing of the two seems unusual, but just might work.  If anything, the casting reminds me of Tara Reid's brief cameo as Bunny in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski.  The widely lauded role gave a glimpse to how Reid could have worked her clueless party girl image to her advantage, but, unreplicated, it's the one bright spot in a career otherwise noted for Reid's botched plastic surgery and a decade-old role in American Pie.  Hilton recently starred in horror camp film Repo! The Genetic Opera, which, though I've yet to see it, seems to play Paris as kitsch, instead of straight--anticipating the mockery and eye-rolling that frequently accompany her presence.  Whoever is in charge of her career is doing an excellent job.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Who wants to see a 'Slumdog Millionaire'?

By Sarah Sluis

Slumdog Millionaire releases today in NYC/LA, and Fox Searchlight has done an incredible job activating the Slumdogposter
blogosphere with the well-deserved buzz over this film.  "Breathless" seems to be Slumdog's collective adjective, used variably to describe the editing, the story and pacing, and the cinematography.

The premise has a cheesy feel to it that requires reassurance of its quality: a boy on the Indian version of the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," suspected of cheating, must tell police investigators stories of his life experiences.  Each story, which cues a flashback, explains why he knew the answer to a particular question.  In the hands of Boyle, each story poses as many questions as it answers, surprising the viewer with the frenetic and poignant turns in the boy's life, as well as the stunning and grotesque images of a developing India.

As a director, Danny Boyle has assembled an impressive oeuvre of "genre" films that mix in conventions from other genres.  He made 28 Days Later, his "horror" film, entirely in digital, while still managing to make the film look better than the average horror film.  Nor was he afraid to give his characters dynamic relationships.  He even changed the film's enemy halfway through the story, making the story not so much about escaping the zombies as escaping the militaristic "refuge" established in the wake of the world's zombie infestation.

Slumdog Millionaire, generically a "coming-of-age drama," adds crime, romance, Bollywood, and comedy to the mix to make it sparkle.  Like many of his other films (Millions, The Beach, Trainspotting), Boyle plays with the idea of money, including a character's disavowal of money even as he constantly highlights its importance.  India, with its extreme poverty, juxtapositions of wealth, and dynamic growth, could not be a better backdrop to explore this subject.  In Slumdog Millionaire, Jamal (Dev Patel) cares little for money, going on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" only to find his lost love.  His older brother, however, understands the importance of money and propels the duo through an impressive array of hustling professions, each set in a hypnotizing intersection of rich and poor: the economy of foreign tourists visiting the Taj Mahal; an adult-led farm of child beggars; teens squatting in an abandoned luxury high-rise; a helicopter touching down in a cardboard slum.

The film should be noted for its use of music.  One long "hustling" montage (on a train) is accompanied by M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes."  Not only is M.I.A., born in former British colony Sri Lanka, a poster child for the political and economic implications of colonialism, the lyrics of the song include references to hustling, trains, and Third World democracy.  Rarely does a song fit so snugly into the narrative, mood, and thematic concern of a film.  If only American audiences hadn't heard the song first in the Pineapple Express trailer.  Besides "Paper Planes," M.I.A. collaborated with the film's composer, A.R. Rahman, on another one of the film's songs, and NYMag reports Fox Searchlight will push the soundtrack for an Oscar.

FJI profiled director Danny Boyle, and you can read Executive Editor Kevin Lally's review of the film here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Weinstein preps film of 'August: Osage County'

By Sarah Sluis

August: Osage Country, the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Broadway play, will be a 2011 film produced and August_osage_county_broadway_455
distributed by The Weinstein Company. The prestigious drama already has actors' agents calling, smelling
Oscar material.  A sort of "family reunion" story, Letts' play centers on an
Oklahoma family that finds itself under one roof after the
family patriarch goes missing.  Featuring a pill-popping mother and her
three secretive daughters (you can rest assured these secrets are revealed), the play uses liberal doses of acid humor to
make its commentary on life in the Midwest. Harvey Weinstein, already an investor in the play, acquired the worldwide film rights and will oversee the project in a producer role.  Of the four current theatrical producers, Jean Doumanian and Steve Traxler will produce, and Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel will executive produce.  Author Letts, forewarned of a possible deal, has already been working on the screenplay and plans to finish in a few months.  Weinstein's currently filming another stage adaptation, Nine, a musical based on Fellini's 8 1/2 about a film director's struggles with his (nine?) relationships, including his wife, mistress, muse, agent, mother... 

Jaden Smith next 'Karate Kid'

By Sarah Sluis

The Karate Kid, the film that spawned a thousand martial arts studios in strip malls across America, is up for a remake.  Will Smith's son, Jaden Smith, who made his feature film debut in last December's The Karate_kid2
Pursuit of Happyness
, is attached to the film.  The film will not be a strict remake, but borrow elements from the original plot.  For those not raised on The Karate Kid, the film centered on a bullied youth who learns karate from a mentor.  In between training montages, the mentor teaches him the winning moves that will help him stave off bullies, land the Girl, and win gold at a karate competition.  Jaden Smith, 10, already practices martial arts, giving the production a head start--maybe he will have time to change the color of his belt before filming begins next year?  While the original film had the character moving from New Jersey to California, this film plans to shoot in Beijing, China, making me think that the rewrite will make the kid's move transcontinental.  Original producer Jerry Weintraub will reprise his role as a producer, along with China Film Group, which is co-producing the film.Karate_kid
  The original franchise consisted of four films--The Karate Kid, two sequels, and The Next Karate Kid, which started over and switched genders, launching the career of Hilary Swank and preparing her for her Oscar-winning role as a fighter in Million Dollar Baby.

Monday, November 10, 2008

'Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa' earns a roaring $63 million

By Sarah Sluis

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa opened to $63.5 million this weekend, slightly exceeding the first-week revenue of this year's animated competitor Wall-E,
which earned $63.08 million.  Because these numbers are box-office
estimates, it's possible that the figures have been rounded up to give Madagascar the reigning position among this year's CGI films.  Even matching Wall-E's take is impressive, given that fall's animated features have generally opened to $30 to $40 million.  2007's Bee Movie, for example, debuted with $38 million.  Overall, this fall has been strong for family-oriented films: Beverly Hills Chihuahua took Story
advantage of a lull in family fare and drove to a multiple-week #1 finish, and HSM3,
which opened two weeks ago, dropped less than 40% this week to earn
$9.2 million and the highest finish for an existing release (#3).  Of
course, the box office is only a starting point for HSM3's DVD, soundtrack, and merchandise sales.

In second place, Role Models earned $19.2 million, exceeding
expectations and flabbergasting those that expect all R-rated, heavily
marketed comedies to fare the same.  Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which finished at number five this week, earning $6.5 million, only opened to $10 million.

Changeling earned $6.2 million this weekend, dropping only
22%.  While the film has garnered mediocre reviews, with critics
perhaps holding their praise for Eastwood's winter release, Gran Torino,
the word-of-mouth spin on the movie is "it's nothing like the commercials
make it seem," commentary that could raise interest in the film among
those who wrote it off based on the reviews.  A serial child abductor
can do that to a movie.

In a disappointing debut, Soul Men earned $5.6 million.  Perhaps those looking for a career retrospective of Bernie Mac chose Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa instead?

Among the bottom five, Saw V and The Haunting of Molly Hartley both tapered off, earning $4.2 and $3.4 million each.  Despite similar performances this week, Saw V's stellar opening week accounts for a total box-office gross quintuple that of Molly Hartley.

At number nine, The Secret Life of Bees continues to buzz along, also dropping only 22% from last weekend.  Finally, Eagle Eye,
at number ten, is now less than $4 million from crossing the $100
million mark.  While it's already in its seventh week of release, a few
more weeks of crossing the $1 million mark would bring it to the
coveted seven-figure box-office total.

This week has one major release, the twenty-second installment of
the James Bond franchise, so most of these titles will stay in the top
ten for another week.

Complete studio estimates here.

Friday, November 7, 2008

'Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa' to rule box-office kingdom?

By Sarah Sluis

Filled with the familiar voices of adult A-list stars, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (4,056 screens) opensMadagascar2
to a saturation release this Friday, exceeding Wall-E's 3,992-screen release slightly with the hopes of earning $50-$60 million at the box office this weekend.  The film has inspired qualified, see-sawing reviews, with FJI critic Frank Lovece calling the film "no Lion King but a perfectly funny diversion that improves on the original," and the New York Times musing that the film's good moments in turn "make]its distracting star turns, storybook clichs and stereotypes harder to take."

Young men will surely turn out for Role Models (2,791 screens), the comedy that excels within the confines of the R-rated humor category without transcending it: there is no Apatow here, no extra spark to make the film stand out and generate acclaim beyond the normal fans of the genre.  Seattle Times critic Moira MacDonald summed up the film by saying "[t]here's something to be said for low expectations...," and what "looked exactly like the latest faded entry in the constant parade of men-behaving-like-boys comedies at the multiplexes lately...kind of works."

Soul Men (2,044 screens) also opens this week, the second-to-last film of late comedian Bernie Mac.  Teaming him with Samuel L. Jackson, the script (or willingness to deviate from it and just follow the43233533_2

characters with the camera) plays to Mac's strengths, "[allowing] him room to explore the nuances and inflections of profanity."  The opening weekend carries above-average importance, as the presumptive majority audience, African-Americans, tends to show up the first week the film opens--a marketing fact explored in this LA Times article about The Secret Life of Bees and its multi-demographic success.

On the specialty side, maudlin but fulfilling The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (17 screens) opens.  The film has been doing incredibly well at the European box office, but was the subject of a scathing (and spoiler) review by the NY Times.  Potential cult/camp hit  Repo! The Genetic Opera (8 screens) also opens.  The rock-horror picture has an incredible trailer but reviews suggest that the film does not live up to expectations, even the eclectic ones of a cult hit: FJI's review states that "Midnight-movie fans going into this horror musical hoping to see the next Rocky Horror Picture Show will emerge sorely disappointed."

Thursday, November 6, 2008

'Gulliver's Travels' update, 'Odyssey' in outer space

By Sarah Sluis

Jack Black has signed on to star in Gulliver's Travels, a modern-day update of the 1726 Jonathan Swift Gulliverstravels
tale.  Because the material is part of the public domain, the studio has kept much of the storyline secret.  Black will play a travel writer stranded on the island of Lilliput--home to the tiny people who capture him and tie him up.  Gulliver went on four voyages, so it is unknown whether the adaptation will focus on his first voyage or incorporate some of the latter, less frequently adapted episodes.  Can they do an accompanying short of A Modest Proposal, with Black starring as a baby roaster?

While the original Gulliver's Travels satirized England's political and religious situation, I doubt the Black version will include much political or social commentary--but I would love it if they could take a few softball swipes.  Far from being uncharted waters, Black's project marks the second adaptation of a famous adventure tale announced in recent weeks. 

Last week, Brad Pitt announced that he plans to star and produce a futuristic version of The Odyssey, to be helmed by George Miller (Mad Max).  While the Black-Gulliver's Travels project will have to perfectly pitch the comedy in order to convince viewers of the plausibility of an undiscovered island populated by Lilliputians, outer space is a perfect backdrop for an update of The Odyssey.  I see the mysterious extraterrestrial territory--with strange planets replacing remote islands, and a black hole standing in for a trip to the underworld-- as a logical place for the Cyclops, Lotus Eaters, and Calypso to reside.  Two thousand years later, the minimally explored outer reaches of space are our version of uncharted Greek Islands.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Amateur filmmaker arrested for murder he wrote in screenplay

By Sarah Sluis

For all the borrowing that goes on between real life and fiction, occasionally people step over the line.  Severely.  After writing a screenplay called House of Cards about a man who posed as a woman online and then lured his dates to their death by arranging to meet them in person, the man, Mark Andrew Twitchell, allegedly went out and committed the crime.  Police seized the screenplay, which had already been the subject of a dubious "work now, maybe get paid later" Facebook casting call, and possibly was in the midst of shooting:

"I'm casting all of these roles personally so just contact me through facebook to start the process. We're short on time so the sooner the better.

Roles are non paid for House of Cards but we are working on a $3M feature right after this with major A-list talent and I remember things like work ethic and true acting chops when considering roles for that too."

As he wrote in the screenplay, Twitchell reportedly hacked into the e-mail account of the victim and sent a message saying he had left town to go on a tropical vacation.  More details involving the method of the killing and disposal of the body also match up to the screenplay.

The screenplay itself was inspired by the television show "Dexter," about a vigilante serial killer.  Adding another twist to the sordid tale, the man who was killed was apparently his second target.  A first man, attacked while wearing a mask, escaped and did not report the incident--perhaps out of embarrassment for his involvement in online dating?  The "Dexter"-inspired screenplay was not the first of Twitchell's rip-offs: he helmed an unauthorized, 60k "fan film" featuring Star Wars characters a few years ago.

The odd things is, I could imagine the Twitchell story itself being turned into a movie: a film about a Peepingtom
man who makes a film about murder, then commits it.  With this idea in mind, I was reminded of the 1960 Michael Powell film Peeping Tom, a creepy and self-implicating movie about a man (a member of a film crew) who films the murders of his victims.  He gets a voyeuristic thrill out of watching and re-watching his victims' deaths.  The problem is, you're watching his secret films too, and enjoying (or tolerating) them, putting you in the same camp as the twisted serial killer.  If you hate the killer, you must address your own love for the suspense and thrill of his actions.  Twitchell has already been brought into custody, but the bizarre events put a shivering reverse on the oft-heard "based on a true story."

Original Story

How will Barack rock Hollywood?

By Sarah Sluis

So America has voted, electing Barack Obama as its next president.  What kind of changes can Hollywood expect?

The Risky Business blog looked at the past seven elections and noted that two out of two times a Democrat Barackobamaissuperman
was elected, the box office rose, whereas the box office rose three out of five times a Republican was elected, and to a lesser degree.  The evidence looks a little shaky, but the optimism is real: "Dem administrations historically tend to be more favorable to creative expression, which creates a more robust filmmaking and moviegoing climate."  However, let's not forget that a Republican administration let W. be released without a peep, and was a good sport about the Tina Fey/Sarah Palin impressions.

Along with the election, the recession also bodes well for Hollywood.  Martin Grove uses his column to address those who see a single bad weekend as part of a trend.  He notes that fluctuations from week to week and year over year do not signal a downwardly spiralling box office but changes in the quality of films.  A bad week at the box office could simply indicate a lack of films worth seeing.  It makes sense that the weekend with High School Musical 3 would outperform the same weekend from the year before , whose top draw was Saw IV.  Grove feels that audiences will go out and see a movie as long as there is one to see--preferably with an escapist plot (Hello, Beverly Hills Chihuahua). 

One item I haven't seem much journalism or speculation about is substitution: in the face of a lingering recession, will families that normally frequent the cinema opt to rent, and will renters cancel their Netflix subscriptions, or take a recent guest on Oprah's advice and rent DVDs from the library?  People still want to be entertained, so I am curious to see if a drop in the box office will lead to a growth in less expensive forms of movie-watching.  So far, the box office is down .3% from last year, although the Holiday season will change that number.  Conversely, aren't movies inexpensive forms of entertainment themselves, compared to seeing a play or taking the family on other types of excursions?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

'Monsters vs. Aliens' trailer parades pop-culture references

By Sarah Sluis

Via NYMag's Vulture blog, here's the trailer for DreamWorks' Monsters vs. Aliens.  The kitschy title, which brings to mind 1950s and 1980s action/creature films, is just one of the movie's many borrowings from popular films and culture.  Like DreamWorks' fractured fairy tale Shrek, a lot of the pleasure should come from identifying the cultural references and enjoying the new spin given to them.

Just a few film/cultural references I noted from the trailer:
-A war room, clearly inspired by Dr. Strangelove
-A bipartisan alien that (my opinion) looks like a cross between President Bush and Senator Obama
-Missile inscribed with an E.T. tagline (Dr. Strangelove AND E.T. reference)
-Blob (1958's The Blob)
-Fighter jets attacking a mysteriously shielded mothership (Independence Day)
-Legs of moving warship look like the vehicle from Empire Strikes Back
-The other four monsters are a mad scientist cockroach, an ancient fish, an insectosaurus, and a fifty-foot woman: all clever spins on monsters we have seen before.  I especially like the insectosaurus, a combination that actually seems to cancel out the "threat level" instead of making the creature more intimidating.

The film will release in  InTru3D, as well as RealD and IMAX, which will add to the box-office gross and make the movie an "event" film not to be saved for its DVD release.

Readers - any references you'd like to add?


Farrelly Brothers to helm 'Three Stooges,' 'Farting Dog'

By Sarah Sluis

I haven't heard exciting news from the Farrelly brothers for some time.  Each project after Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary was less inspired, and their one-line premises discouraged meThreestooges
from going: multiple personalities! dating your sister! dating a fat person! conjoined twins!  rigging the Special Olympics!  Their last project, The Heartbreak Kid, did fairly well at the box office, but that was in 2007.  Recently, the brothers have announced two projects.

Today, they revealed a timeline for their long-planned adaptation of The Three Stooges for MGM.  They plan to do four twenty-minute vignettes, true to the original style of the Stooges shorts.  Their screenplay focuses on the "origins" of Larry, Curly, and Moe, with the first vignette featuring seven-year-old versions of the stooges.  The studio has already set a release date of November 20, 2009, which falls right before the Thanksgiving holiday.  Casting could prove difficult; previous talks point to "stunt" casting non-comedians such as Russell Crowe or Mel Gibson--not the typical funny men pictured in the role.

Last week, the Farrelly brothers also announced plans to helm Walter the Farting Dog, an adaptation of aAll_the_jonas_brothers
children's book series.  The rather vulgar title (which many parents of the target audience would forbid their children to repeat) refers to an adopted dog with a gas problem who is brought into a home with four children, played by the Jonas brothers (three currently star in the hit Disney show, the youngest is the "bonus" Jonas).  The film will focus on the bonus Jonas, Frankie, whose sinus problem has impaired his sense of smell and made him the only one in his family able to tolerate the stink bomb dog.  The boy's adventures with his dog will be interspersed with songs by the three older brothers.  I appreciate that this project will give the youngest brother an opportunity to shine.  With three older brothers in the spotlight, this film will not only be an ideal launching point for the "bonus Jonas's" own career, but a chance to join in on his brothers' stardom.  For the Farrelly brothers, this will mark their second foray into children's films after live action/animation mix Osmosis Jones in 2001.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Friday Halloween scares off moviegoers

By Sarah Sluis

Halloween decimated the box office this weekend.  Returning films showed huge drops on Friday, and Wek_zackmiri103008_43862c
new releases opened to disappointing numbers that they were unable to recoup on Saturday and Sunday.  #1 release High School Musical 3, for example, dropped 90% on Friday, earning around $1 million, but then dropped only around 40% from last week for both Saturday and Sunday, earning $14 million for those two days to bring its weekend total to $15 million.  With a Halloween-free weekend, the film would have been on track to make over $20 million.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno opened at #2 with a less-than-stellar take of $10.6 million.  As with other teen-oriented flicks that receive advance buzz for their lewdness (i.e. American Pie), web comments suggest that exhibitors took extra steps to prevent underage patrons from viewing the film, including checking IDs at point of entry, that might have affected the film's gross.  Zack and Miri will have competition next week with R-rated, less objectionably titled Role Models, which might cut into the film's ability to rebound next week.

Horror picture The Haunting of Molly Hartley earned $6 million at #5 (coming in below Saw V's $10 million take at #3).  Both films did comparatively well on Halloween, earning more than #1 release HSM3, but even the scare pictures earned less on Halloween than they did on Saturday and Sunday.

Changeling pulled in $9.4 million, earning $5k per theatre; however, in terms of a Clint Eastwood or Angelina Jolie vehicle, the results are underwhelming.  The film still has room to grow, both fromAngelinajoliechangeling1
increasing the scale of its release and by rebounding from the Halloween weekend.  THR's Risky Business blog, however, attributes the film's relatively weak opening to the tepid critical response of the film, noting a correlation between the RottenTomatoes scores of Eastwood's films and their box-office revenues.

Other films in the top ten included Beverly Hills Chihuahua (#6, $4.7 million), now only $8 million under Eagle Eye's total of $94 million and inching towards $100 million.  The Secret Life of Bees dropped only 33% to finish at #7 with $4 million.  Action/crime pictures Max Payne (#8, $3.7 million),  Eagle Eye (#9, $3.4 million), and Pride & Glory (#10, $3.2 million) rounded out the bottom five.  Unlike the films in the top five, these films had below-average box-office drops, averaging 30-40% less than the previous week.

This week Madagascar 2 will release, competing for the G-rated audience, along with R-rated Role Models, specialty picture and European sensation The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Soul Men, and Repo: The Genetic Opera.  Check back on Friday for a further rundown of the week's releases.

Full box office results viewable here.