Friday, January 30, 2009

Horror & romcom go head to head on Superbowl weekend

By Sarah Sluis

It's Super Bowl Weekend, when studios shy from male-oriented fare at the box office and usually lob a Renee zellweger new in town

chick flick. Although the Sunday afternoon/evening event doesn't seem like the biggest deterrent against a Friday or Saturday night movie, for some, the pre-game anticipation makes other events verboten: it's also the least-booked weekend for weddings.

Still, Fox has decided to release male-oriented Taken (3,183 screens), hoping to generate enough business Friday and Saturday to make up for a weak Sunday. Our critic Jon Frosch called the Liam Neeson kidnapping thriller a "toxic combination of grim and

silly" that he "alternately yawned and scoffed" his way through before realizing "the real hostage in this mess is you." Viewer beware.

New in Town, the Renee Zellweger film that underwent a name change in hopes of giving a facelift to the soulless comedy, releases on a concentrated 1,941 screens. With more people in a theatre, maybe the laughter will seem louder and more contagious? According to our reviewer Harvey Karten, who saw the film in a fairly packed theatre of critics, the "shortage of laughs comes close to emulating our current budget deficits."

Joining the parade of Japanese horror remakes, The Uninvited (2,344 screens) seems a promising ifElizabeth banks uninvited

formulaic remake of Korea's A Tale of Two Sisters. The idea of an evil, infiltrating stepmother is compelling and delicious to teen audiences, and is my pick for number one at the box office this weekend. As an added bonus, the cast includes Elizabeth Banks. Making her fourth appearance in the past four months (following Role Models, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and W.), she just might be the new Kevin Bacon.

For those living in New York, a trio of somberly titled movies releases: Blessed is the Match: the Life and Death of Hannah Senesh, Medicine for Melancholy, and Shadows. Each qualify for my loose definition of "somber" in a different way. Shadows is a Holocaust documentary "bereft of...emotion and fire," Medicine for Melancholy could be loosely described as Before Sunrise, plus depressing racial commentary conducted with "self-indulgence and sluggishness," and Shadows is a creepy Macedonian-language thriller whose villain "Monster Mom," "dug up a few graves of refugees, suicides and unbaptized babies to

use for medical research." All in all, a charming array of options for those looking to complement their weekend of hot wings and seven-layer dip.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mira Nair's Maisha Film Labs teaches filmmaking to African students

By Sarah Sluis

"If we don't tell our stories, no one else will." This is the slogan for a non-profit film training program, Maisha Film Labs, founded by the director Mira Nair. Based in Uganda, the program selects 2007-09-19-Boghani1

screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, editors and sound mixers to participate in an intensive "boot camp" taught by experienced filmmakers. GOOD magazine profiled the program, and has a video detailing the process that includes interviews with students in the program.

I personally would love to see more films come out of Africa--I still remember the impact of seeing Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene's Black Girl (made in 1966), a film that gave voice to the colonized and has since become a film school staple. If Maisha Film Labs is a success, a generation of "film brats" may grow up crediting the program for introducing them to filmmaking.

Mira Nair's films have likewise risen to the challenge to tell stories that would otherwise lack voice. One thing I like about Nair's films (the ones I have seen) is that they "show" a different side of India to people who are only cursorily familiar with the country and culture. The Indian-born director's films (including Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala, and The Namesake) have been warmly received in America and all over the world, in part because they blend Bollywood sensibilities with Western-style filmmaking, giving voice to people and stories unfamiliar to Western audiences, but in a familiar, welcoming style. (Not that three-hour song/dance melodramas with strong use of wind machines don't have their special appeal.) Geographically, they often straddle the East and West, making the films more relevant to Western audiences. With someone like Nair heading the program, I hope to see more films released in the United States that show Kenya and Uganda to the rest of the world--and I'm not talking about that season of "Survivor."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

'Tintin' casting decisions revealed

By Sarah Sluis

I can see why Tintin was greenlighted: it's a comic book series already being planned as a trilogy, and Tintin

it's really, really big in France (just like Mickey Rourke!), ensuring a sizable foreign box office. As someone cursorily introduced to the series in French class, I never really understood the appeal, although I'm sure I'll be eating my words once the film releases in 2011. Still, I think Steven Spielberg has a real challenge in adapting this series: the characters are a beloved part of pop culture for one segment of your audience, but totally unknown to another. Thankfully, the problem isn't as bad as if Spielberg had chosen a similarly popular French comic series like Astrix (which culls its cast from French historical and mythological figures), but it's still there nevertheless. Instead of creating a memorable character, like Indiana Jones, he will have to both introduce the character to those unfamiliar with him, as well as provide satisfying details to fans. Films like these (I include Harry Potter) never end up as satisfying as the books, although I am sure non-Tintin fans like myself will enjoy them.

The fully-titled The Adventures of Tintin: Secrets of the Unicorn went into production yesterday, prompting the secretive production to finally reveal the titular performer. Jamie Bell, the lead in Billy Elliot and currently playing a supporting role in Jamie Bell

Defiance, will star as the crime-solving comic book adventurer. As some may note, Tintin has a distinctive, cowlick-y haircut. Unfortunately, details of Bell's hairstyle were not released, although it appears from press photos that he can work the unruly lock look. One can only hope they take the Tintin "flip" as seriously as the Chigurh bowl/blunt cut in No Country For Old Men, the best characterization-by-haircut ever seen on film.

Also cast in Tintin is another Defiance star, Daniel Craig (you may know him as James Bond), who will play Red Rackham. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who appeared together in Shaun of the Dead) will play the Thompson twins, and Andy Serkis (the voice of Gollum/Smeagel in Lord of the Rings) will play Captain Haddock. The Brit-heavy cast adds to the international appeal of the film, already complemented by the globetrotting plots in Tintin comic books. One aspect of the movie I'm not sold on is performance capture. Seeing the performance-captured face of Tom Hanks in Polar Express drained my excitement about the medium, but if anyone can make it work, it's Steven Spielberg. Or Peter Jackson, the producer of this film who has said he will direct the second installment.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Preview: I Love You Man

By Sarah Sluis

Genres like romantic comedies work because they offer a predictable experience and predictable returns I love you man movie

at the box office. They're a safe investment, but in order to keep making them over and over again, you have to constantly innovate and twist the material. Sometimes, in the process, you move so far in another direction you create a new genre. Romantic comedies have gone through all types of incarnations, and the "bromance" might be the latest, based on my screening of Paramount's I Love You Man.

I Love You Man takes the plot structure of a romantic comedy, but recasts both the roles as men, and their relationship as that peculiar neologism "bromance." Unlike the buddy comedy, which brings to mind bantering cops and Grumpy Old Men cautiously circling each other before grudgingly accepting each other's company, I Love You Man has "man dates," nervous phone calls, and all the other hallmarks of a romantic comedy. It's also really, really funny, using that Judd Apatow-honed mix of vulgarity and sweetness. While not Apatow-produced, the movie casts Paul Rudd and Jason Segal, Apatow veterans, in leading roles.

Borrowing from those date-before-a-big-event deadline romantic comedies, Paul Rudd stars as a recently engaged "girlfriend guy," the kind of person who's always in a relationship. He lacks a cohort of male friends to hang out with�and invite to his wedding. Feeling freshly insecure about his lack of male friends, he decides to go in search of a best man for his wedding. There's the obvious joke (a botched date with a guy who assumes he is gay), before Rudd makes a friend at an open house (Jason Segal). Segal (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) plays a Venice Beach loafer who wears Uggs on the boardwalk, eclectic vintage tees, and doesn't clean up after his dog. He's really cool, so cool that Rudd goes through all those nervous first date jitters before they settle down into a friendship. They bond and jam together to the point where their friendship comes between Rudd's relationship with his fiance (the fantastic "The Office" veteran Rashida Jones). True to romantic comedy convention, it all ends up okay in the end.

As a female, I half-expected to be alienated by the story of male bonding, but Rashida Jones provides a great entry point into the film. She's totally amused by Rudd's nervousness picking up the phone with Segal, his rambling voice mails, and his awkward vulnerability around his budding relationship with Segal. Paul Rudd himself has always played the sensitive, slightly neurotic type, a "girl's guy," and he's just as puzzled and out-of-place in the "man cave" as a female would be.

Paul Rudd most recently starred in fall's Role Models, itself a story of male bonding, albeit one of a big brother-little brother mentoring variety. I Love You Man is far bolder than that film or Apatow's male bonding tales, so I'm curious to see what other stories of bromance come to Hollywood. Wes Anderson, for example, recently signed on to write a screenplay for My Best Friend, a remake of French film Mon Meilleur Ami, about a friendless man who must go in search of a best friend in order to settle a bet.

This cluster of successful films exploring extremely close male friendship begs the question--why now, what is it about these films that have made them resonate with audiences? They open dialogue about about what it means to be gay or straight, but, as a whole, have also been critiqued for negative portrayals. Screenwriter Mike White, for example, famously spoke out against Judd Apatow films for their jokes lambasting women and gay men. I Love You Man takes audience expectations of gay behavior and does the opposite. For example, Rudd's gay brother, played by SNL's Andy Samberg (of "Lazy Sunday" fame) plays an Equinox personal trainer that likes to seduce straight, married guys "for the challenge," a counterpoint to Rudd's pursuit of male friendship. In a role reversal, it is Samberg who must counsel Rudd on how to not come off as gay, and to avoid overstating his love of films such as The Devil Wears Prada. Whether this breaks down, or reinforces gay stereotypes will depend, I think, on the open-mindedness of the audience.

While I can only speculate on how America as a whole will respond to this "I need a male friend, but I don't want to come of as gay" comedy, I Love Man should be applauded for its light-hearted re-definition of the romantic and buddy comedy, and original portrayal of male friendship. The honest performances and "bromance" chemistry between Segal and Rudd is just as unusual, and real, as two teen boys telling each other "I Love You" at the end of Superbad, and makes you realize how few films put a close friendship center stage. Maybe it's only a matter of time before we see a male counterpoint to, dare I say, Thelma & Louise driving off a cliff together.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Defiance vs. Doubt: A cinema manager's encounter

By Kevin Lally

Our reader Mike Getz, owner of the Sutton Cinemas in Grass Valley, Calif., reports ona dubious dispute overDoubt and Defiance at his theatre. Here's the account submitted by the cinema's assistant manager, Andrew Blandford:

"While I was cleaning the theatre for Defiance, a man came out and told Michael, the snack bar attendant, that he had fallen asleep during Defiance, and that he was therefore going to go see Doubt, and he promptly turned around and walked into the theatre where Doubt would soon be showing, leaving his ticket for Defiance on the snack bar counter. I said I would take care of it. I went in and asked the man if he was the one who fell asleep in Defiance, and he said he was. I told him that I could not allow him to see Doubt for free, but I would be willing to compromise and let him watch Defiance again.

He then followed me out of the theatre and explained that he had actually wanted to se Doubt all along, but he didn't notice that Defiance actually wasn't Doubt, and then he fell asleep before he could find out for sure. He seemed like he was obviously making it up as he went, but I was not in the mood to accuse him of lying.

So, after explaining the dilemma thathis dilemma was causing me--namely, that I would essentially be letting someone see two movies for the price of one--I decided that I would compromise and let him buy a senior ticket for Doubt. He agreed rather amiably, and paid six dollars.

Overall it was a rather pleasant exchange of concerns and possible solutions, which ended in what I feel was a reasonable and acceptable conclusion. I thought it was a nice story about a patron who probably lied but didn't get mad at me for not just accepting it and letting him do whatever the heck he wanted. The best summary I can think of is that he sought to overcome the rules of the theatre through an act of Defiance, and I, armed with a healthy measure of Doubt, denied him his request."

Mall Cop holds down #1 spot; Oscar nominees see lift

By Sarah Sluis

Paul Blart: Mall Cop earned $21.5 million this weekend, bringing its two-week total to $64.5 million. Any Paul blart mall copreservations I had about the film's appeal were halted when I visited a mall this weekend, and was treated to the sight of a mall cop, on a Segway, ordering a meal at Dunkin Donuts. There's just something incredibly pompous about being mounted on a Segway, even without the addition of a coffee/doughnuts stereotype. If I were a teen moviegoer eager to thumb authority, I would definitely go see this movie in my mall's multiplex. With just a 32% drop from last week, the movie most likely had good word-of-mouth among fans of Kevin James.

Right behind Paul Blart, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans debuted at $20.7 million, while the badly reviewed Inkheart earned just $7.7 million and the number seven spot. Guess they won't be making any of the two already-scripted sequels.

With the Oscar nominees announced on Thursday, many films angling for nominations planned on expanding their runs in hopes of picking up extra business. The snubbed Gran Torino, which widened itsGran torino eastwood

run last week, continued to make the biggest impact on the box office, dropping just one spot to number three. With so much momentum, it stands a chance at overtaking the gross of big-budget, most-nominated film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which staged its wide release over Christmas. Gran Torino's take, $97 million, is just slightly under Button's $111 million (to date) gross.

With so many Oscar contenders in the running amidst the January comedies and thrillers, over twenty

films grossed more than $1 million this weekend. All the nominated films saw boosts in business, especially when combined with expanded runs. Slumdog Millionaire, which moved into national release, saw an 80% increase in business, earning $10.5 million and the number five spot. Benjamin Button also made the top ten, but, already saturated in every market, saw only a 7% rise in business, earning $6 million and the number nine spot.

Despite receiving a mere three Oscar nominations, Revolutionary Road saw an almost 200% increase in business, and a per-screen average of $4,979, making the film more efficient than expansions of Best Picture nominees Frost/Nixon and The Reader. On the strength of Mickey Rourke's Oscar nomination, The Wrestler earned $6,537 per screen while showing on a modest 566 screens.

Next weekend thrillers The Uninvited and Taken will compete for attention, along with Renee Zellwegger starrer New in Town, mixing in with the awards contenders and, of course, the mall cop.

Full studio estimates viewable here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Oscar-nominated films expand alongside 'Inkheart' & 'Underworld' sequel

By Sarah Sluis

Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, giving the non-film-obsessed a month to head to their Oscar

local theatres and squeeze in a film or two to make the whole Oscar broadcast more entertaining. Studios, of course, try to predict what films will receive nominations, and expand or resurrect the films accordingly.

Since expansions must be planned weeks in advance, it's easy to tell what films met (and failed) a studio's expectations. Revolutionary Road, which expands to 1,058 screens, is the big loser here, earning only one major nomination: Supporting Actor for Michael Shannon as a mentally ill mathematician (hey, it worked for Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind), and two minor nods for art direction and costume design, a gimme for any period film. Turns out just like April and Frank Wheeler, Revolutionary Road thought it was more special than it really was.

Universal also planned a big post-Oscar expansion for Frost/Nixon, which will release on 1,097 screens, and up until now has done pretty light business. Fox Searchlight is expanding The Wrestler (566 screens) and Slumdog Millionaire (1,411 screens). Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei both received nominations for The Wrestler, making this film well-worth its expansion. Searchlight has done a controlled, slow rollout of Slumdog (and earlier actually had to scale up their planned expansion to meet demand), so this expansion caps an extremely well-executed release.

October's Rachel Getting Married, which Sony Pictures Classics hoped would receive a Best Actress nomination for Anne Hathaway (it did!), will show up on 345 screens, although without an accompanying nomination for screenwriter Jenny Lumet. The Dark Knight will also appear on 350 screens, giving audiences one more chance to see Supporting Actor nominee Heath Ledger in IMAX. The most nominated film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, will continue its wide release but will likely see a significant boost in business.

For those with an elementary school child in tow and a brain ready to mentally prepare grocery lists, take your child to see Inkheart (2,655 screens). It's muddled, confusing, poorly executed, but, at the very Inkheart8

least, will inspire you to imagine all the ways this film could have been so much better. Fans of horror film Underworld can rejoice in sequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2,942 screens). Just a guess, but those that don't know exactly what "Rise of the Lycans" means should probably stay away, and catch one of those films the Academy has deemed likely-to-be-the-best.

Other films playing on just a few screens this weekend include a worn Jack the Ripper/Hitchcock remake The Lodger, horror-movie-on-a-boat Donkey Punch, and Terence Davies' documentary Of Time and the City.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Indies rack up Oscar nominations; Preferential Voting Explained

By Sarah Sluis

So The Dark Knight's play for Best Picture may have failed, but the Academy's nominations included Oscar statuette 1

Heath Ledger's performance for Best Supporting Actor amidst all the recognition for independent and specialty films: Fox Searchlight's Slumdog Millionaire garnered 10 nominations, and showed up in the Best Picture category alongside Weinstein Co.'s The Reader and Focus Features' Milk. The Wrestler's Mickey Rourke and The Visitor's Richard Jenkins each received a Best Actor nod, and low-budget Frozen River (starring two women, a rarity) was nominated for Best Actress (Melissa Leo) and Best Original Screenplay. The strong showing of films from specialty divisions came as many studios shut them down. Slumdog Millionaire, for example, was originally supposed to be distributed by Warner Independent Pictures.

Kate Winslet, who won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in The Reader, was nominated for the role in the Best Actress category at the Oscars, not for her performance in Revolutionary Road (for which she won the Best Actress award at the Globes). Philip Seymour Hoffman repeated his nomination as Best Supporting Actor in Doubt--although compared to Amy Adams and Viola Davis, both nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for the film, he seemed to have much more screen time.

Since 1936, the Oscars have used a preferential voting system, complete with Academy-specific caveats, to determine the nominations. Intended to diversify nominations and create compromises among runner-ups, it may also be responsible for much of the Academy's eccentricities and cries that certain films and performances were "robbed" of recognition. The way it works is this: the accounting firm will tabulate up every voter's first choice. Selections receiving more than 1/6 of the vote (for five nominees) will automatically be nominated. Now here's where it can get tricky: any films that were not ranked number one by at least one voter will be eliminated. The counters then look at all the second-choice films, but only among those voters whose first choice was not picked.

Where does the Academy's preferential voting fall short?

It doesn't necessarily pick the "top five" films of the year. People must feel passionate enough about the film to vote it as number one. Surely, in its seventy-plus years, a film or person was well-represented at #2 and #3, without anyone picking it as #1.

If there are two similar films, both of high quality, only one will be nominated. Let's say there are two niche films that have exactly the same audience--two epics, two indie dramas, a Milk and a Brokeback, etc.. If voters almost unanimously think one is better than the other, but still think the second is one of the top five films, the second film will not receive a nomination. It fails what's called the "independence of clones criterion" (thanks Wikipedia!). This adds to the "diversity" of films nominated, and has probably helped balance studio and independent films, but, again, it can push a second-best film entirely out of the top five.

According to Variety, which explains preferential voting here, the method is used frequently in Australia. Apparently, voters there are often told to vote in specific blocs and rankings to ensure the best outcome for their party. It's a wonder studios haven't issued such instructions to optimize their own performance at the Oscars.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sundance '09: Dispatch Two

By Sarah Sluis

Reporting from Park City, Utah, FJI contributor Daniel Steinhart lets us in on the films and acquistions of the Sundance Film Festival.

Even though attendance seems down his year, the Sundance Festival was in full swing Saturday night and all day Sunday. Shuttle buses were packed and Main Street in Park City was teeming with locals, tourists, cineastes and the odd celebrity.

At the festival's midpoint, favorites have emerged with rumors of buyers circling a half dozen films. Since the last update, Sony picked up the Blaxploitation homage Black Dynamite, Fox Searchlight signed a deal for the romantic drama Adam, and Magnolia Pictures nabbed Humpday (see previous post for my review of that film.)

In the Dramatic Competition, this viewer has yet to find anything on par with last year's impressive award-winner Ballast, which injected new life into American independent cinema. This year, Cherien Dabis' Amreeka looked to stand out from the crop of American indies. The film, actually a U.S.-Canadian-Kuwaiti co-production, follows a Palestinian divorce and her teenage son who emigrate to Illinois to live with relatives. They have high hopes for a new life of opportunity but arrive just as the U.S. invades Iraq, encountering prejudice and bad luck in their new home. Aiming to shed light on the effects of American aggression on the Arab diaspora in the U.S., the film doesn't offer much penetrating insight. Ultimately, the depiction of cultural differences and ignorance seems more in the service of melodramatic effects.

A different kind of cross-cultural story is offered up in Sophie Barthes' Cold Souls. Paul Giamatti plays a version of himself, an actor who finds it increasingly difficult to separate himself from his lead role in the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya. His solution is to have his soul extracted by a soul storage company. When his new soulless self produces only bad acting, he rents the soul of a depressed Russian poet, which seems to deliver the goods. In the meantime, his original soul is stolen away to Russia, where Giamatti must track it down. All of this should be original material, but the questioning of identity, the self-reflexive performance, and the mix of fantasy and comedy recall Being John Malkovich.

In the Documentary Competition, Jeff Stilson's Good Hair examines African-American hair culture with Chris Rock as guide. Like too many documentaries these days, the film uses a competition as a structuring device�in this case, an annual Atlanta hair battle with stylists staging ludicrous coiffures. This is the stuff of reality TV, but the film is thankfully saved by amusing tangents on the process of hair straightening and production of the weave.

Also in the Doc Comp, Tom DiCillo's When You're Strange serves as a personal love letter to Jim Morrison and the music of The Doors. This too could have been fodder for television, wherein band members and witnesses recount the formulaic rise, fall and redemptive coda of a rock star. Instead, DiCillo fashions his film entirely out of historical footage, overlaid with matter-of-fact narration. For Doors fans, the material will be familiar, but the concert and studio footage still holds amazing power. And it all moves with the driving rhythm of a song like "Not to Touch the Earth."

The World Dramatic Competition offered very strong work. Lone Scherfig's An Education has been one of the more highly anticipated films of the festival. This well-made British film tells the story of Jenny (wonderfully played by Carey Mulligan), a beautiful and intelligent 16-year-old who attracts the attention of an older and charming admirer (Peter Sarsgaard). Jenny, whose tastes and curiosity transcend her drab surroundings, is swept up by the worldliness of her suitor, but their infatuation comes at a devastating cost. The movie has many elements in the right place: a fine script by Nick Hornby, assured direction, and strong performances from its leads and supporting roles (Alfred Molina is particularly good as Jenny's father). This film will undoubtedly make its way to theaters and please crowds.

Another British film, Unmade Beds, takes a looser approach to love and longing. Made by Argentine director Alexis Dos Santos, the film is a nice evolution from his debut, Glue. While Glue focused on a punk teenager stuck in a dead-end Patagonian town, Unmade Beds opens up, exploring the lives of two foreigners searching for fulfillment in vibrant London. Axl is a young Spaniard in search of the father who abandoned him. Vera is a young Belgian reeling from a break-up and exploring a new romance. Both live in the same squat, yet their paths rarely cross, with objects�a mattress, a jacket, a Polaroid�connecting the two. Unmade Beds is episodic and a little nebulous, but Dos Santos brings an exciting, impressionistic style to the film and a natural sense of visuals and music. As Glue's soundtrack had me listening to the Violent Femmes' "Kiss Off" endlessly, this new film inspired me to put Good Shoes' "We Are Not the Same" on repeat. Not a bad way to pass the time on the bus between screenings.

MLK Weekend boosts 'Paul Blart,' 'Hotel for Dogs'

By Sarah Sluis

Schools, governments, and lucky company workers received the day off yesterday, and many chose to catch a matinee. Kid-themed Hotel for Dogs captured the elementary school crowd, and was the only film to have a "higher occupancy" rate on Monday than Sunday, earning $5.4 million on the holiday to Paul blart mall cop

bring its four-day weekend gross to $22.5 million--a respectable fifth-place finish.

On Friday, I predicted teen audiences would go for comedy over horror, especially since horror flick The Unborn came out last week, and it turned out I was right. Paul Blart: Mall Cop Segwayed right to the top with $39 million, including healthy business on Monday, while My Bloody Valentine 3D came in third with $24.2 million, dampened by a lack of screens that forced some to view in 2D.

Sandwiched between the comedy and horror draws was Gran Torino, which dropped a mere 11% from last week (including Monday) to finish at $26.2 million. While Eastwood's film hasn't garnered as much awards season acclaim as, say, Million Dollar Baby, the movie has a solid 77% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (which draws in review-sensitive older women) and headliner Clint Eastwood, a star/director particularly popular with older males. Both have factored into the film's high attendance rates among older viewers.

Finishing just above Hotel for Dogs, B.I.G. biopic Notorious earned $24 million, along with the highest per-screen average of the top ten, a sign that distributors successfully targeted the release to draw in viewers. A quick search of New York City screenings, for example, revealed hourly showings at one Harlem theatre, as well as a multiplex far out in Brooklyn, not far from B.I.G.'s place of birth. The AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street, in the heart of New York City, had thirteen showings of Notorious, while only nine of Paul Blart: Mall Cop. For urban teens who do not count the mythical "Manhattan Mall" as one of their hangouts, it's no wonder Biggie played better than an overweight security guard.

The next five releases, holdovers from last week, posted below-average drops in box office once the Monday boost was factored in. Defiance, the Daniel Craig, Nazis-in-the-woods film, expanded this week to a respectable $5,000 per screen, earning a $10.7 million gross. Bride Wars, The Unborn, and Marley & Me posted in the $7 to $10 million range, and underdog Slumdog Millionaire continued its run as a hanger-on in the top ten. Its $7.1 million bested the take of the vastly more expensive The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which earned $6.6 million at the number eleven spot.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sundance days one and two: A quieter festival

By Kevin Lally

FJI contributor Daniel Steinhart reports on the first two days of indie launching pad, the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

As the first major film festival since the unraveling of the economy, the 2009 Sundance Film Festival should serve as a bellwether for measuring the current state of film festival culture and film acquisitions. This being my first time at Sundance, it's a little hard to compare this edition to previous years. Certainly, the news of commercial sponsors pulling out of the festival and the scaling back of festivities point to cost-cutting measures that affect the shape of the event. And eventually, the final tally of attendance figures will make plain how this year's edition rates, but according to a few festival veterans I've come across, attendance is noticeably down. For better or for worse, this may not be terrible news for the dedicated festival-goer. Warned that the frenzy of Sundance can be taxing, I've found the festival to be cordial and relaxed. The crowds have been manageable and the screenings easy to get into. Sidewalks are mostly free of pedestrians, making for pleasant walks between screening venues.

After day two, acquisition activity is too early to judge. So far, only Antoine Fuqua's cop drama Brooklyn's Finest has been picked up, with a deal going to Senator Distribution for North American rights. Many industry insiders are predicting moderate business as a result of fewer independent distributors and specialty divisions and the lackluster performance of many of last year's pricey purchases. But all this depends on the quality of films and that's what really matters at any festival.

A couple of films in the Dramatic Competition have generated a bit of hype, but they've been uneven. Lynn Shelton's Humpday is an amusing comedy that plays out like a jocular Old Joy, Kelly Reichardt's sensitive 2006 film about two estranged male friends. In Humpday, Ben and his wife Anna live a comfortable, married life. Then, late one night, Ben's college friend, Andrew, arrives at their house unannounced and subsequently tests the stability of the married couple. Over smoke and drinks at a hedonistic party, Ben and Andrew hatch a half-baked art project, in which they will have sex together on film. They never really figure out what drives them to carry out the project; they just know that they have to do it. The friends' project demands a major leap of faith on the part of the audience, but the film pulls it off with good performance and full, rich scenes. But try as it might, little insight is offered into the bonds and strains that underpin hetero male friendships.

Less convincing is Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire, Lee Daniels' film about Precious, a 15-year old obese African-American girl who suffers a string of abuses and humiliations. She's pregnant with her father's second child, she's taunted at school, and she endures unrelenting verbal and physical assaults from her mother at home. Instead of grim realism, the film opts for an odd mixture of whimsical fantasy and the grotesque. While Push has its moments, notably the lively banter amongst Precious' alternative-school classmates, the overall results feel tonally muddled and overstuffed.

In the World Documentary Competition, John Maringouin's Big River Man follows Martin Strel, a Slovenian long-distance swimmer who specializes in tackling the world's longest rivers. After swimming the lengths of the Mississippi and Yangtze rivers, Strel takes on the Amazon as his next challenge. Strel is an unlikely athlete. Overweight and a lover of booze, he's less Michael Phelps, more porpoise. But Strel is blessed with impressive drive and inhuman endurance, which the film chronicles during his arduous journey as he suffers one obstacle after another: fast-moving currents, the flotsam and jetsam of the Amazon, sunburn, bacterial infestation, and eventual mental instability. The further he goes down the river, the more unhinged he becomes, bringing with him an unstable river navigator from Wisconsin and his dutiful son, who narrates the film. We soon come to feel that the 3,375-mile swim is less a feat of endurance than an act of self-destruction.

Another fascinating athlete is explored in James Toback's Tyson, an intimate portrait of Iron Mike, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was recently picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. Fashioned out of a lengthy interview with Tyson and fight footage, the film gives the boxer a 90-minute forum to defend, explain and, at times, dismiss his uncontrollable violence in and out of the ring and his mistreatment of women. This one-sidedness and the film's lack of critical analysis make the whole project seem dubious. Still, the stories and attendant footage of Tyson's troubled youth, his initiation into the world of boxing, and the ferocity of his fighting skills all make for evocative viewing. But 90 minutes of Tyson's confessional was enough to drive this viewer to sneak out of the theatre before the post-screening Q&A with the director and boxer. That, and I wanted to get to the screening of the documentary Art & Copy.

A contender in the Documentary Competition, Doug Pray's Art & Copy explores the creative side of the American advertising industry. Interviewing some of the most powerful and influential ad men and women, the film traces the evolution of the business since the early '60s while delving into some of the most memorable ad campaigns. The greatest hits are detailed here: the self-deprecating VW Beetle ads, Braniff Airlines' chic make-over, Wendy's "Where's the Beef?," Apple's 1984 Super Bowl commercial, Reagan's re-election TV spots, and Nike's "Just Do It," a slogan which was inspired by a death-row inmate's final words. Perhaps the greatest feat of Pray's enjoyable documentary is that it persuasively sells the ad industry as a meld of genuine artistry and capitalism when it's really the demands of commerce that drive and define the business.

Friday, January 16, 2009

No Vacancy at the box office with 'Hotel for Dogs,' 'Bloody Valentine 3D'

By Sarah Sluis

The Martin Luther King box-office weekend frequently sees the release of horror, kid, and black-2009_hotel_for_dogs_035

oriented titles. This year, we have all three. The nepotism niece, Emma Roberts, stars in Hotel for Dogs (3,271 screens), the latest in a long string of canine titles that have swept the box office. In a recession, who better to turn to for comfort than man's best friend? The film riffs on a Lois Duncan children's novel of the same name, adding a foster children premise (what is it with children's books featuring orphans?) and "a pint-sized

engineer a la Kevin McCallister from Home Alone" (to quote our Ethan Alter). With no school on Monday, the film will be able to capitalize on the elementary-school set.

Mobilizing the males under 25 quadrant, My Bloody Valentine 3D (2,534 screens) and Paul Blart: Mall Cop (3,144 screens) will offer up the horror and comedy genres. Certainly, the novelty of seeing axes and fireballs being thrown at you in 3D (a thrill promised in the trailer) will make for good locker room water fountain chatter, but will teen boys pass up the chance to laugh at authority in Paul Blart: Mall Cop? A power-tripping mall cop on a Segway is certainly the bane of a food court loafer's existence. I can imagine a teen boy saying to his friend, 'Didn't we see The Unborn last weekend? Let's go for a comedy.' Unless, of course, the boys are already aware of that other mall cop flick hitting theatres soon, Seth Rogen's Observe and Report.

The Notorious B.I.G., of drug dealer to rapper fame, lived a crack-to-riches American Dream until he was gunned down in Las Vegas. Notorious (1,637 screens), releasing on the weekend honoring Martin Notorious movie

Luther King, and on the eve of Obama's inauguration, harkens back to the 1990s. As Teresa Wiltz from The Root noted, seeing the film is 'like time traveling back to the day when gangsta rap ruled, all bluster and bling, beef was settled with bullets and an XXL-sized brother from Brooklyn dazzled, if only for a moment." With Obama, King, and B.I.G. sharing the limelight this weekend, B.I.G.'s gangster success seems much less relevant than the achievement of our first black president.

For the foreign and Oscar loving audience, we have two Oscar expansions and three foreign/specialty releases. Defiance (expansion to 1,789 screens) and Last Chance Harvey (expansion to 1,054 screens) will both open in a multiplex (nearish) you. While neither of these well-reviewed films will sweep the Oscars, they have earned some awards attention (receiving one and two Golden Globe nominations, respectively) and good word-of-mouth. Chandni Chowk to China (130 screens) , which tackles the martial arts AND Bollywood genres, "should please fans of both genres ready to be happily assaulted for two-and-a-half hours," according to our critic, David Noh. If, of course, a "mulligatawny stew of a film that feels like it's been laced with liberal doses of acid" is right up your alley.

For NYC audiences, Cherry Blossoms, "a portrait of an aging couple" FJI critic David Noh found deeply imbued with "a strict humanist's compassionate observation," opens, along with Ballerina, a documentary of three professional dancers in the Russian Kirov Ballet. Both come recommended by Film Journal.

Stay tuned this weekend for posts from Sundance, courtesy of Daniel Steinhart.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Focus Features goes International

By Sarah Sluis

Yesterday Focus Features announced it's merging its Universal international production arm with its Focus Features specialty division to form Focus Features International. It seems they made this move after receiving a wave of counter intuitive box-office results: films they made for the domestic marketplace played shined, or were saved, by their performance overseas, and international foreign pics played best in the area they came from.

Take In Bruges, the Martin McDonagh black comedy that made a mere $7.7 million in the U.S., but $23 In_bruges_ver2

million worldwide. The internationally attuned Hollywood Foreign Press rewarded Colin Farrell with a Golden Globe for his performance, which in turn raises the profile of the film domestically, bolstering interest on DVD. Combining the divisions ensures that Focus Features International will be able to produce/distribute films internationally, and have more oversight of the performance of their films. Ang Lee, whose Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon astounded stateside audiences, did only $15 million in the U.S. with Lust, Caution. Billed as an espionage thriller, it's not wonder the film did $65 million overseas. On a side note, I think the subtitling made this summer's thriller from Music Box Films, Tell No One, for example, more opaque and intriguing than it would be for a Francophone.

Besides these internationally produced films, difficult Oscar fare has played well overseas for Focus--like Atonement and Burn after Reading. Milk, too, which is rooted in American-specific milestones, is currently in release internationally. According to Box Office Mojo, the film released last weekend in Singapore and Spain, and debuted in the top ten in each country. For a film with a $20 million production budget, a nearly $500,000 opening in Spain certainly can't hurt.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

McG gives a sneak peek of 'Terminator: Salvation'

By Sarah Sluis

Substituting a Levi's jean jacket for a blazer, and spattering profanities alongside phrases like "we were going for the patina of Children of Men and Road Warrior," McG presented two scenes from the new Terminator: Salvation movie yesterday, which Warner Bros. will release this Memorial Day weekend.

Bale Terminator Salvation

Not all the special effects were complete, meaning that animated sketches often subbed for the giant, Transformers-like robots. One, a "harvester," plucks humans from the ground in order to conduct experiments. For those of us that were tots when the first Terminator released, the "harvester" robot bears a strong resemblance to the "tripod" in the children's trilogy frequently assigned in grade school classrooms.

As someone who usually squirms in her seat after the third and fourth chorus of a car chase (give me an Adaptation car crash anytime), I was riveted by the first sequence. Tightly paced, the set-piece not only provided thrills, but also expository information about the robots' astonishing capabilities. It starts out at a gas station (for those plausibly motivated explosions!) and ends up on a desert highway. Bleakly colored, the showdown/chase has a post-apocalyptic look achieved by a Terminator-specific film stock, and the arid location adds to the wasted feel, giving it that wide-open vulnerability of a North by Northwest plane chase. Repeat: I was impressed.

To soothe fans who pictured a comic-action take on Terminator la Charlie's Angels, McG repeatedly mentioned his desire to "honor the mythology" of Terminator. The writing team focused on the plot of the first two films, brushing over Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and altogether abandoning "The Sarah Connor Chronicles." Like a suitor courting James Cameron's daughter, he flew out to visit him and announce his honorable intentions once he signed on to the flick. On Cameron's set, he met Sam Worthington and cast him in the film. The choice sounds suspiciously like a poach, but could end up working in Cameron's favor if Worthington gains star power before Avatar's release.

So Terminator: Salvation has at least one good action sequence, power stars Christian Bale and Sam Terminator salvation C Bale Worthington

Worthington--but, with six-ish writers floating around on IMDB alone, will it have a compelling plot? Time travel, which will figure into the already arced-out Terminator 5 and 6, is an easy way to lose your audience and a film's believability. Sure, the time travel spin is what made the original not-just-another action film, but all those layers of time travel could cross that fine line between satisfying complexity and a hopeless muddle. While McG feels confident they've ironed out all the contradictions, audiences will have to wait until Memorial Day to find out.

Cinedigm scores with live football in 3D

By Sarah Sluis

Veteran FJI writer Doris Toumarkine ventured to Brooklyn, New York, to watch the BCS National Championship football game live in 3D at the Pavilion Theater. Here's her report on this sporting innovation:

Cinedigm (formerly AccessIT) scored a big first on Jan. 8 with the first-ever nationwide feed to cinemas of a live 3D sports event. This reporter, rooting from a seat at Brooklyn's Pavilion Theater, felt like she was almost on the 50-yard line for the FedEx BCS National Championship Game between the University of Florida and the University of Oklahoma.

I had a remarkably immersive experience watching the usually high-scoring Florida and Oklahoma teams showing defensive muscle and plenty of fighting spirit. The auditorium, one of two in the Pavilion where the game played, was packed. Cinedigm owns the theatre, which it calls its Digital Showcase Theatre.

Cinedigm, using its proprietary CineLiveTM Satellite Distribution Network, delivered the championship event to 80 theatres in 31 states, with 19 of those locations sold out. The company reported that the engagements grossed more than four times higher than the best per-screen gross that evening. Such a large turnout was all the more remarkable since the game was broadcast simultaneously on Fox TV and was the Nielsen ratings winner that evening against the broadcast competition.

The 3D visuals were spectacular (there was even great definition and color for fans in the distant grandstands) and the in-theatre event was also greatly enhanced by the Dolby 5.1 surround sound that assured that "we are there" feeling.

Cinedigm worked hard to keep the interstitial programming engaging. A 3D surfing short was such a hit, it got the Pavilion audience clapping.

And that audience was certainly loud and demonstrative during the game itself: The cheers, the groans, the shouting�anathema for movie screenings but a blessing here, as such audience participation actually contributed to the excitement and "reality" of the championship. Even the catcalls that greeted the vividly 3D cheerleaders evoked the real stadium setting, while reminding that we were an in-theatre minority among hot-blooded Brooklyn male sports fans. For once, talking back to the screen was not just appropriate, it was welcome.

The feed provided all the replays we love to see but didn't show the two superimposed clean lines on the field that designate where the ball is being played and where first down beckons, a perk beloved by TV viewers.

Cinedigm won't say what kind of fee was paid to Fox Sports, but the theatre event did have Sony as a sponsor. Whatever their deal, the Fox/Cinedigm partnership clearly demonstrated that the right kind of football event isn't just for a TV audience but is popular enough to attract fans of both the big and small screen without cannibalizing one medium.

What Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp. might consider from this first go at live sports in 3D is that, beyond the 3D, there may be other ways to enhance the in-theatre experience by mimicking the live stadium experience. After all, stadium fans and movie fans alike get out of the house to a large venue for a big communal experience with like-minded souls. So why not designate theatre sections dedicated to the specific teams so that patrons, on a voluntary basis, can feel more team spirit? Or why not think about deals that allow for the sale in theatres of appropriate souvenirs? Or stadium-like concessions? Or why not have some kind of benign (legal!) in-theatre betting competition? Or why not provide more interstitial 3D programming of the caliber of that surfing short, a real audience-pleaser?

Cinedigm's live 3D football event worked big-time, but there's plenty to be learned from this first kickoff. Meanwhile, basketball fans will get a taste of live 3D sports from Cinedigm's Feb 14 NBA All-Star Saturday Night event. I'll sit that one out, as football and tennis are this movie fan's games. Tennis 3D, anyone?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Golden Globes Recap: Brit takeover

By Sarah Sluis

The Hollywood Foreign Press gave out its Globes last night, and the winners were decidedly global. Brits in particular seemed to rule the night, with Kate Winslet winning both Lead Actress (Drama) and Supporting Actress categories, Sally Hawkins and Colin Farrell topping the Female and Male Lead Actor Kate-Winslet-Golde_1237544c

(Comedy) categories, and late Australian actor Heath Ledger winning the Best Supporting Actor. Mickey Rourke was the only American of the bunch to win a motion picture award, taking home a statue in the Best Actor (Drama) category. Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Brit Danny Boyle and shot in India, won four awards: Best Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Original Score.

Winslet's double win in the acting category, the first of its kind, came as the result of a bit of finagling by production company/distributor Weinstein Company. Kevin Lally wrote earlier about lead roles being recast as supporting ones twice this year (how, exactly, did The Priest in Doubt count as a supporting role?). Certainly if Winslet were nominated in both categories as "Lead," voters might have split their vote between her two performances, giving her a majority of the votes without winning enough to carry either of her performances, which also seems unfair. If the Globes miraculously magnified her presence by giving her two awards, could the Oscars move in the opposite direction, viewing her as "overexposed" and looking closely at the other top performances of the year?

While the Kate Winslet double coup seems unlikely to be repeated at the Oscars, Slumdog Millionaire's quad-win bodes well for its Oscar reception. The win most likely to be repeated is that of A.R. Rahman for Best Original Score. With over 109 credits to his name, calling him the Bollywood John Williams doesn't really do him justice. His prominent, easily applauded score in Slumdog (and collaboration with hip artist M.I.A.) made me wonder why I haven't heard him in more Hollywood films.

Director Danny Boyle's cross-genre filmmaking sets him apart from most other filmmakers. Whether he'sBoyle golden globes

working in horror, romantic comedy, crime, fantasy, or drama, his films are packed with motion--"lots of running," a friend noted, one eyebrow raised. Like all great genre filmmakers, he makes a point to subvert our expectations. His characters achieve a goal (like getting on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", the compound in 28 Days Later, the Beach in The Beach, the bag of money in Millions) but find their needs still unfulfilled, their goals still out of reach.

I applaud Danny Boyle, and hope the Academy will second the Globes and give Boyle Oscar recognition. A true crowd-pleaser, Slumdog Millionaire, which I saw months ago, gave me a warm feeling that actually held up, without descending to maudlin sentimentality (the one critique I see levied against the film). Compare that to my initial shock-sadness of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which turned sour a few weeks out--EW calls it "Honey, I Gassed the Kid"

Academy members turn in their ballots today, if they haven't already (making a Globes influence, at least during this round, less probable)--to be tallied and announced January 22, 2009 at 5:30 a.m. PST--which, like every year, will lead to stories of nominees peeking out from under their sleeping mask to answer a phone call from an agent or publicist.

Friday, January 9, 2009

'Bride Wars' battles 'The Unborn'

By Sarah Sluis

It's Friday premiere time at the box office, and the biggest release is Bride Wars (3,226 theatres), a film


sure to water down the flames surrounding Anne Hathaway's Rachel Getting Married "Best Actress" nomination, and extinguish the embers of Kate Hudson's rom-com career run. Four out of five Kate Hudson movies are rom-coms, and the only distinguishing one of the pack was Almost Famous, more a comedy-drama (and a supporting role!) than the unlucky-in-love pieces she, or her agent, insist on making. All this makes me wonder--can Kate Hudson actually act? Besides Almost Famous, I did enjoy her in twist-ending The Skeleton Key, but How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? Or this weekend's Bride Wars? Save me. Thankfully, it appears Hudson has received the message: her next projects include two dramatic, historical romances (departure!), and a supporting role in prestige picture Nine (stage adaptation; Weinstein project).

Next on the list is The Unborn (2,356 theatres), another addition to the wave of Holocaust/Nazi movies that have been raining on audiences. This time, though, a woman is possessed by a deceased demonic twin, which has its root in Nazi spirits and can only be ousted by a Holocaust survivor. It sounds a bit exploitative and disrespectful to me, but I'm sure the film manages to handle this deftly. Especially because one of their frights involves a dream of a dog wearing a human mask. Go see it if this idea creeps you out in a good way.

Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino expands to 2,808 theatres this week, ensuring audiences will see this well-reviewed film that has especially resonated with older viewers. The Reader will also expand to 507 theatres, surpassing the release of Kate Winslet's other picture, Revolutionary Road, which is still at 135 theatres.

Not Easily Broken, about a couple struggling to maintain their marriage, sounds like the black version of Fireproof, the Christian-themed film that quietly made over $30 million this fall by marketing towards church groups and highly targeting its distribution. Since Not Easily Broken is releasing on just 724 screens, demographic targeting will be extremely important to the film's success.

My advice? Stick to seeing the event/awards films, but, if you must, know that the fluffy releases smell a bit like a dog left in the rain.

Who's supporting whom?

By Kevin Lally

At last night's Broadcast Critics Association Awards ceremony, Kate Winslet was honored as Best Winslet2 Supporting Actress for her role as a former SS prison guard in The Reader, beating out Viola Davis in Doubt, Taraji P. Henson in Benjamin Button, Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Vera Farmiga in Nothing But the Truth--all superb performances. Winslet, too, is compelling in The Reader, but who exactly is she supporting? Does this mean newcomer David Kross should be the name above the title?

When the awardsscrambling began weeks ago, I was startled to see Winslet being positioned as a supporting player in a film that centers on her character, and Philip Seymour Hoffman touted as Best Supporting Actor in Doubt, a film where he's clearly the co-lead. The actors' reps have their logical reasons for this: Winsletgives another strong year-end performance in Revolutionary Road, and this year's Best Actor's race is extraordinarily competitive with dynamic turns by Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, Frank Langella and sentimental favorite Clint Eastwood.

The phenomenon is nothing new: Timothy Hutton, Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for Ordinary People in 1980, was the LEAD in that Robert Redford drama, and was it really fair to give George Burns the Supporting Actor trophy in 1976 (no matter how popular the gesture) when he was one of the two titular Sunshine Boys?

In the Oscar race in particular, only four performing awardsaredecided each year and they're always linked to the power or pizazz of a particular role, not the actor's range or longevity. So it's understandable thatperformers and their handlers are so keen to stretch the definition ofa supporting part. But in a profession that extolsthe ideal of ensemble effort,can Winslet or Hoffman--two of our most esteemed contemporary actors--really justify their crashing of the Supporting Player celebration?

Whether of not Winslet succeeds in landingAcademy Awardnominations in the lead and supporting categories this year, I'll be rooting for Viola Davis for her single scene in Doubt come Oscar night.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

DGA nominations foreshadowing Oscar nods?

By Sarah Sluis

Oscar detectives have a new lead: the Directors Guild and the Producers Guild announced their Oscar statuette 1

nominations for Best Picture. They matched, five for five. Both guilds nominated The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for their top films. My editor Kevin Lally, for one, thinks they're right on, and that these films represent the likely Academy selections this year. But will Oscar voters agree?

Those in the Academy still have four days to cast their ballot for the nominees--January 12th. Will they be influenced by the recognition these five films have already received, and add a dark horse (Slumdog Millionaire) to their nominations? Will those reluctant to cast a ballot for a comic book film change their mind?

The DGA is known for correctly predicting the Best Director award, and the Risky Business Blog points out that the demographics, and tastes, of the DGA closely align with that of the Academy, making the rest of their nominations (including Best Picture) harbingers of the Academy's top five. From a budget/release pattern perspective, the five films are preternaturally balanced: two are big-budgeted, wide releases, one (Slumdog) has followed a specialty-to-moderate release pattern, with Milk coming up just behind. Frost/Nixon, with the smallest theatrical release, is holding up last place. Not having seen it myself, its small scope (what better place to watch a film about a TV interview than a TV, right?) makes it seem like the kind of film that will receive heavy DVD rentals after generating some awards publicity.

Aside from The Dark Knight, all five of these films have a historical and/or lifespan focus--perhaps appealing to older voters? While I appreciate grand and historical films as much as the next person, the 70's era settings of Milk and Frost/Nixon relive events many Academy voters were there to experience. This is also why Doubt, set the year after JFK's assassination (1964), might still have a chance.

The Academy will release its nominations in two weeks--until then, we'll continue to speculate.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Film Journal's Top Ten Films of 2008

By Sarah Sluis

2008 has come to a close, prompting critics to sort and rank the films they've seen over the year, both as a form of mental cleansing during those slow news days post-New Year's, as well as in preparation for awards season. The Village Voice offered its annual survey of dozens of reviewers, and NY Mag took it upon themselves to poll critics on their ten worst films. Stop Smiling, a Chicago-based arts and culture magazine, also posted a list of their favorite films. Now it's our turn.

Our Executive Editor, Kevin Lally, shared his list of top ten films of 2008 in January's magazine, so I've re-posted them online, along with (often prescient) excerpts from our critics' original review:


"a tale that's equally satisfying as science fiction, cautionary satire, gentle love story and purely visual comedy," "its first half hour of beeps and blips "[evoking] classic silent comedy, setting up innumerable clever sight gags and achieving surprising expressiveness within the physical limitations of their adorable mechanical lead." - Kevin Lally

The Class: "a work of jaw-dropping intelligence, humanity and the most subtle cinematic bravura." - David Noh (who also stated it was "probably the year's best film")

Slumdog Millionaire:"a bracingly energetic and original story of struggle,

survival, upward mobility and romantic yearning that should be [and turned out to be] a

major art-house crossover hit." - Kevin Lally

Man on Wire: "a stunning adventure and a study in the ultra-weird, as embodied by the driven hero" - Doris Toumarkine

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: "a ragtag tour de force, a low-budget, high-drama independent marvel that reinvigorates cinma-vrit." - Rex Roberts

The Edge of Heaven: "takes several German and Turkish families and turns their stories into a mesmerizing philosophical meditation on cultural displacement, how history repeats itself, and the ways in which parents want the best for their children." - Lewis Beale

My Winnipeg: "Maddin delivers another unique, phantasmagorical, handcrafted spectacle that again confirms his place as one of independent film's wittiest, wildest and most singular talents." - Kevin Lally

Frost/Nixon: "one of the most breathtaking bits of acting you are likely to see this year" - Daniel Eagan

Jack black be kind rewind

Be Kind Rewind
an"unusual, heartfelt valentine to community and creativity, a true movie for the YouTube era" - Kevin Lally

The Visitor: stars Richard Jenkins as a "depressed hero,...hardly the most upbeat of traveling companions. The bumpy road means that this cinematic trip may not generate the kind of word of mouth a film like this needs." (redeemed by its inclusion on this, and other,Top Ten lists) - Doris Toumarkine

The list includes three well-represented Golden Globes nominees (Frost/Nixon, Slumdog Millionaire, Wall-E), as well as probable nominee Man on Wire (the Globes no longer award documentaries). Be Kind Rewind hasn't been showing up on many lists, but the "Sweded" films were some of the most enjoyable comedic send-ups this year. Director Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg) remains a critical/cult favorite, not a crossover one. The Visitor has landed a spot on many Oscar projection lists, but 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and The Edge of Heaven were voted out of the foreign-language bracket last year. The Class, France's Oscar submission, will likely receive an Oscar nod.

Risky Business blogger Steven Zeitchik commented yesterday on the need for a critic to balance mainstream/niche films on their Top Ten list in order to maintain street cred (my words, not his). "Too many blockbusters," he said, "make you look preening." If that's the case, let's notice the film appearing in many Top Tens that's left off this list--a little Batman movie, anyone?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

'Bye Bye Birdie' remake, care of Adam Shankman

By Sarah Sluis

Adam Shankman director of the Hairspray movie musical, has announced he will take on Columbia's long-circulating remake of Bye Bye Birdie. I haven't seen the original, so I headed over to YouTube to check out one of the musical numbers. The song "Telephone Hour," which borrows the split screen and bubble bath conferencing of Pillow Talk, also has extremely improbable sequences of people talking on rotary phones in soda fountains, libraries, showers, and cars. Kind of goofy and fake, I'm thinking, when it suddenly occurs to me that the remake won't have this problem: people talking in cars? in the (quiet section of the) library? restaurants? Why, that happens every day! I imagine the only problem is that nowadays teens will view some of the dialogue as unrealistic, because they totally would have texted the information.

For those who haven't seen the movie, the plot doesn't condense easily. A pop star, about to be drafted, somehow gets convinced to appear on a television show and kiss a high school girl who is one of his biggest fans, much to the chagrin of the girl's boyfriend.. I had a hard time picturing this plot (if they're setting up for a pop star-high schooler romance, isn't that a little May-December?) until I learned that the pop star was based on Elvis Presley, a music icon who could reliably create mass hysteria among teen girls. Originally, the girl was played by Ann-Margret (even I know about her), and the pop star a mid-twenties looking fellow, softening my age-related concerns. Still, I'm curious to see who they tap for casting choices. For now, I'll just keep humming along the "Telephone Hour."

Monday, January 5, 2009

'Marley' & 'Bedtime' top two at family-oriented box office

By Sarah Sluis

Compared to the top ten films this weekend in 2008, the January 2-4, 2009 weekend earned $10 million more, $122 million. The extra $10 million came from the performance of top three films, Marley & Me, Bedtime Stories, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. While most films fall 50% in their second week, the holiday season softened the drop to the 20%-30% range for all top ten films, as moviegoers extended their cheer by catching a family crowd pleaser or Oscar contender.

Marley & Me continued to dominate at the box office. With the midweek boost of New Year's, the film crossed the $100 million mark, making its cumulative gross $106 million in just two weeks. Slightly behind the lovable Labrador, Adam Sandler's fantasy picture Bedtime Stories earned $20.3 million, with a cumulative of $85 million; the film should cross $100 million within the next two weeks. Benjamin Button, Doubt_still

the highest ranked film of the Awards crowd, made off with $18.4 million while showing on fewer screens, and in more packed theatres.

Below Valkyrie, Yes Man, Seven Pounds, and The Tale of Despereaux, all of which earned in the $7 - $14 million range, Doubt came in at number 10 with $5 million. The Meryl Streep/Philip Seymour Hoffman/Amy Adams picture, now showing on over 1,000 screens, has earned $18.7 million in its four weeks of release.

Of the "for your consideration" films, all of which were shown in just a handful of theatres, Defiance had the highest per-screen average, earning $60k per theatre during its two-screen premiere weekend. Gran Torino (84 screens) earned $33k per screen, followed by Revolutionary Road (38 screens, $25k per screen) and The Wrestler (18 screens, $24k per screen).

With the winter holidays over, the first few weeks of January 2009 will see a deluge of films that, to put it lightly, will benefit from lack of competition (warring brides! mall cops! horror fill in the blanks! dog hotels!). Use this time wisely to brush up on the awards contenders, and you may end up on the winning side of an Oscar pool.

Full studio estimates available here.