Thursday, May 28, 2009

Choose heavenly 'Up,' or 'Drag Me to Hell'

By Sarah Sluis

The must-see movie of this weekend is Pixar's Up (3,700 screens). The opening night selection at Cannes, the PG-rated film will appeal to all ages, and rack up box-office dollars from audiences of Up film pixar every demographic. Pixar usually keeps its plots mysterious--our Executive Editor Kevin Lally points out that "the subject matter...might seem a dubious bet until you see what's been rendered on-screen," so I'll be sparing with the exposition. Ellie and Carl meet each other play-acting adventurers in an old house, reminiscent of the one in It's A Wonderful Life. They fall in love, marry, fix up the house, and, in a touching montage, share life's joys and disappointments, namely their inability to have children or visit Paradise Falls, where they planned on following the footsteps of famous adventurer Charles F. Muntz. Ellie dies (a fact whispered in clarification to a younger sister during the screening I attended), and as you wipe your eyes from under your 3D glasses you realize that the beautiful house they've fixed up is now surrounded by high rises, in an image first drawn in The Little House (a Caldecott winner by famous children's book author Virginia Lee Burton).

While it's taken me a paragraph to explain the moments leading up to Carl's balloon-aided escape from urbanism, Up astounds with its economy: it trusts its (young) audience, and isn't afraid to give them quiet moments. The moments it returns to and repeats, like peeks in the scrapbook Ellie kept of her life, are raps, not hammering reminders. Its creatures (especially the talking dogs) are humorous, and the eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer stowaway, a non-acting child that director Pete Docter said they would tickle or ask to do jumping jacks before reciting his lines, to coax out the best reading, is a charming complement to Carl's stodgy shtick. Up will almost certainly win opening weekend, and make strong showings at the box office weeks after its release.

Sam Raimi, who launched his career with the Evil Dead series and revived it by helming three Spider-Man films, has returned to horror with Drag Me To Hell (2,400 screens), which has received Lohman drag me to hell overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, who tend to recoil from the genre. The "diabolically entertaining" film, according to critic Michael Rechtshaffen, contains an allusion to the mortgage crisis. Alison Lohman plays a bank officer who denies a loan extension to a woman, who in turn places a curse on her. As she tries to avoid being dragged off to hell, she enlists the help of her boyfriend, Justin Long. With "old-school puppetry and prosthetic makeup combined with some judiciously used CGI," Raimi appears to have created a horror film with broad appeal, that will provide counterprogramming to those who'd rather not go Up.

On the specialty side, the film to check out is Departures, the Japanese-language picture that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Our critic Maggie Lee called it a "popular Departures film oscar gem�thematically respectable, technically hard to fault, and artfully scripted to entertain and touch audiences." The movie follows an unemployed cellist who signs up to be a "journey assistant," preparing dead bodies for their funerals. Delving into the world of death reminds him of his opposite: "The scene of him wolfing down fried chicken suggests his appetite for life is eventually whetted by confronting mortality daily�a reconnection with nature's cycle."

On Monday, I'll check up on just how high-flying Up was at the box office, and how much money Drag Me to Hell could scare up, so circle back as summer movie season moves into full swing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Like Terminators and vampires, a good franchise never dies

By Sarah Sluis

Today, the blogosphere is alight with Joss Whedon fans, whose gut reaction over the relaunch of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchise, sans fan icon Whedon, is overwhelmingly negative. While it may Buffy joss whedon remake seem a bit early to remake a film from the 1990's, the popularity of vampire titles such as Twilight and "True Blood" prompted the rightsholding couple Fran Rubel Kuzui and Kaz Kuzui (the originally credited producer) to reboot the film. It's a bit of a paradox in Hollywood that the most valuable ideas aren't the original ones, but the proven ones.

The proposed relaunch of the franchise, so far without Whedon or original stars Kristy Swanson (film version) or Sarah Michelle Gellar (television version), is the rule, not the exception. Terminator Salvation, for example, just opened to $53 million without its lead star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, since he's no longer an action performer but the governor of California.

How the fourth Terminator, Terminator Salvation, came about was the subject an LA Times story on producers Derek Anderson and Victor Kubicek, who bought the rights to the franchise for $25 million, while brushing off lawsuits before, after, and during the entire process. The duo learned of the "for sale" during a business lunch, and did a gutsy blind, you-have-24-hours-to-take-$25 million-or-leave-it deal--the kind that evokes Hollywood action films. The story gives unusual access into that funny world of intellectual property, where the ideas in a movie become a legal abstraction.

How were they able to pull it off? A few choice quotes lend some insight into the process:

Credentials: "...their entire producing experience consisted of one low-budget comedy that never made it into theaters." (The Cook-Off, a mockumentary)

Connections: "The pair were tipped off by Graves at their fateful lunch because they believed they had access to millions of dollars of financing from Dubai." (which never materialized)

Deal-making: "..on Super Bowl Sunday in February 2007 [they] got a commitment from Santa Barbara hedge fund Pacificor...even though his firm had never before, and hasn't since, invested in entertainment." (It doesn't say whether the deal was done in some nice box seats at the game)

Collegiality: "Borman [a producer], in the suit, accused them of "egregious fraud"..." (He will be credited in future films but not allowed to do anything)

While the LA Times seems to imply that the wake of lawsuits couldn't have occurred without reason, Anderson and Kubicek view their legal problems as a byproduct of their business. They've also 2nd+Annual+amfAR+Cinema+Against+AIDS+Dubai+Qebgcuwuc5zl locked up the current talent: director McG for one sequel and Christian Bale for two. While Terminator Salvation hasn't performed quite as well as expected, so far, just wait for the T1-T4 boxed sets to come out. As for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I hope the project is either stalled or propelled forward by the script. The franchise was surprising because the television series changed significantly from the movie, but still succeeded. With a vision to make a "darker, event-sized movie that would, of course, have franchise potential," and the idea that the movie might feature an offspring or heir of Buffy's slayer duties, the relaunch just might be able to offer a compelling new take on the fantastically rich premise of Buffy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Audiences prefer a 'Night at the Museum' to 'Terminator Salvation'

By Sarah Sluis

In the box office battle this weekend, family-friendly history won out over a bleak future with people-hunting machines. On Friday, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian barely edged out Amy adams museum Terminator Salvation, earning $15.3 million to T4's $14.9 million, but the matinee crowds on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday chose Night at the Museum, propelling the comedy to a $70 million gross. Despite the fact that the sequel is billed as a family comedy, only half the audience fit the description, with the film proving especially popular among under 25's who needed a break from all the big action films that have dominated the box office. Still, Terminator Salvation's performance, while not that of a break-out hit like Star Trek, was director McG's best opening to date, and has Terminator 7 11 strong prospects overseas. Because the film opened on Thursday, its cumulative is $67 million, only $3 million shy of Night at the Museum's four-day total.

Dance Flick also benefited from being a fresh and comedy-focused offering. The Wayans Brothers' film did best in urban markets, and racked up a pleasing $13.1 million gross over the four-day weekend. At the number five spot, it squeezed in above X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which brought in $10.1 million to bring its cumulative to $165 million, and below Star Trek and Angels & Demons. Star Trek's stats are the most impressive in the top ten: a cumulative of $191 million, a four-day gross of $29.4 million, and only a 31% drop in business. The Spock-Kirk adventure will likely cross the $200 million mark this week. Angels & Demons also held on, dropping 40% to earn an almost-comparable $27.7 million, and also looks likely to cross the $100 million mark this week.

On the specialty side, Summit's The Brothers Bloom continued to do well in limited release, averaging $10,000 on each of its 52 screens. Easy Virtue debuted even better, with a $14,600 average on each of its ten screens. The Girlfriend Experience, despite a blanket of publicity, did more so-so from a box-office perspective, with just a $6,667 average at 30 locations. IFC released the film on-demand a month ago, which some suspect dipped into the theatrical gross.

Next week, another two films will join the top ten. Pixar's Up and horror flick Drag Me to Hell will bump two more films off the top ten list. While I can't think of a more unlikely pair, both have strong advance reviews and are currently tracking at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Friday, May 22, 2009

This Memorial Day, it's Museums vs. Machines

By Sarah Sluis

Terminator Salvation and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian will go head to head this weekend, though they're targeting much different demographics. Terminator Salvation earned an T 800 estimated $3 million last night from midnight screenings, which bodes well for the action flick. The "highly efficient action showcase," according to our Executive Editor Kevin Lally, lacks "the fun quotient of the Schwarzenegger films," diminishing its crossover appeal. Still, it's virtually guaranteed at least $70 million over the weekend, and will likely go above that number.

Rising up against Terminator, Fox is opening Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian 500 screens wider than Salvation, in 4,096 theatres. The original Night at the Museum grossed a modest $30 million in its opening weekend, but by the following weekend has upped its cumulative gross to an astounding $115 million, thanks to high weekday grosses during schools' week off between Christmas and New Year's. Even that Night at smithsonian number proved to be less than half its final gross of $250 million, proof of the long legs of family films. With most children still in school, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian's success won't be measured as much by its opening weekend, but its performance over the next few weeks--and throughout the entire summer. However, because there hasn't been a live-action family film since Race to Witch Mountain, pent-up demand will likely drive up box-office grosses even higher. Plus, Night at the Museum has the above-average box office on its side, as well as a couple hundred IMAX screens, which will pad the weekend's grosses.

The Wayans Brothers' Dance Flick opens on 2,450 screens, offering an alternative to Terminator and Night at the Museum. If I were a teen boy, however, I'd choose Terminator over Dance Flick, hands down, despite our critic's tepid endorsement that the film's "not a perfect 10, but the Wayans crew hit their mark more than they miss."

The most high-profile of specialty releases is Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience. Sacha Grey, a 21-year-old porn star, plays a high-priced call girl turning tricks as the country slips into a recession. Our reviewer applauds how Soderbergh "convey[s] a view of American culture at once outrageous and non-judgmental," while NY Times' A.O. Scott pondered how the film will sit with audiences once "the turmoil of the last 12 months has receded...and this strange, numb cinematic Easy virtue jessica biel experience may seem fresh, shocking and poignant rather than merely and depressingly true."

Wes Anderson-style caper film The Brothers Bloom, directed by Rian Johnson, expands this week to 52 theatres after an impressive first week out. Jessica Biel, who stars as the scandalous new wife in an established British family in Easy Virtue, can be seen in New York and Los Angeles.

We'll be back on Tuesday to recap the weekend and crown the winner of this holiday box office.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Project Roundup: 'MLK,' 'Swingles'

By Sarah Sluis

It seems like most of the troubles with a biopic aren't the creative aspects, like, say, figuring out how to condense a life into two hours, but the legal drama required to gain the "life rights" of a person. That's the case with the recent announcement that Steven Spielberg will helm a biopic of civil rights Spielberg1 visionary Martin Luther King, Jr. Earlier this week, DreamWorks said it was able to secure the life rights and intellectual property rights (i.e. the "I Have a Dream" speech) to MLK's life from his son, Dexter King, but now it seems that the other two siblings (Bernice and MLK III) are contesting the decision, stating they had no say in the matter when they deserved one. This kind of fighting could potentially put brakes on the project, as it did to an earlier book deal about Coretta Scott King. I'm not sure if this argument is about money or about control of the MLK legacy. Certainly, Spielberg has one of the most stellar track records in Hollywood, and has a history of directing projects that resonate strongly with social justice: Amistad, Schindler's List, and The Color Purple are the most obvious examples, but his characters often display strong senses of morality, which are often highlighted through a conflict with a person or group who is far less scrupulous. Since DreamWorks doesn't want the negative publicity generated by a sibling dispute, it's possible the movie will be shelved until the studio can reach a solid agreement. However, it would be nice to see Scorsese's biopic of Frank Sinatra (which also took years of legal wrangling to clear) go head to head with Spielberg's biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Zach Braff joins Diaz in SwinglesZach_braffCamerondiaz

While I've expressed my distaste for the romantic comedy project Swingles since it was announced, the attachment of Zach Braff to the project changed my tune. The project was pitched as a Cameron Diaz star vehicle. She would play a hired replacement for a wingman who abandoned his friend--a "wingwoman" if you will. Because Braff does well with "sad sap" characters, I'm guessing the leading man will look less like an uber-man who needs to learn to be more considerate (i.e. Gerard Butler in upcoming The Ugly Truth), but rather an unassertive moper who needs to develop some "game." If the male character is played as someone empathetic, the whole project becomes slightly more endearing. Braff will star, co-write, and direct the project, which I'm officially upgrading from "ick" to "maybe."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

'Terminator Salvation' keeps the action, loses its resonance

By Sarah Sluis

The new Terminator Salvation has all the action you would expect from a franchise that once starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. Filmmaker McG is incredibly comfortable directing car chases, planning for T 800 CGI-created monster machines, and making machine-to-human combat look fresh and engaging. Unlike in many action movies I've seen, you never get worn out by the fighting and chases. The characters' interactions with each other are believable, necessary, and real. You better believe that Christian Bale, as evidenced by his on-set outburst, was taking his job seriously.

It's also worth noting the performance of John Connor's opposite, Marcus Wright, who is played by newbie Australian actor Sam Worthington. His performance is a preview of what audiences can expect with Avatar, the action film directed by original Terminator director James Cameron, which releases later this year. Worthington plays a death-row criminal resurrected as something else, and he gives his character just the right attitude: redemptive without beating himself up over his never-explained crime. There's a moment where he realizes that he's not who he thinks he is, and watching him act through it is one of the most satisfying moments of the film. He's also forced into a Matrix-like scene where information is downloaded into his head. He makes the moment feel original and fresh, but the scene symbolized my main problem with Terminator Salvation: the sci-fi world of post-apocalypse Skynet seems tired, and little has been done to refresh it.

I prefer my action films to have some kind of soul, and for their battles to be proxy for some greater cultural anxiety (I loved The Matrix). The earlier Terminator films play on that Frankenstein fear, theTerminator 7 11 idea of our creations taking over us. There's also the popular trope of malignant, devious corporations (Skynet) that pursue profits against the common good. Added to mix is the allure of seeing what a world looks like post-apocalypse, and, of course, time travel. All of these struggles seem global, epic, and resonate with the times. But McG doesn't seem interested in syncing up Terminator with today's sci-fi fears.

In this Terminator, the characters display little interest in their predicament. Even Marcus Wright, who woke up in 2018 after being executed in 2003, doesn't show any surprise at the great change in humanity's fortune. And devious corporations going rogue? That certainly could have been stressed more, to great effect. The one thematic glimmer is the tension between members of the resistance and people who merely try to survive, Two helping terminator avoiding the Terminators where they can and not bothering to fight. Because it's an action film, we're on board with the fighting side, but the few scenes with the gaunt refugees who preferred avoidance to confrontation stayed with me. Odd, I know, but they piqued my interest in seeing the upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which follows a father and son on a path to survival--with only people, not machines, to fight.

The buzz after the Terminator Salvation screening, as everyone gathered their cell phones (which were checked into zip-loc baggies for security reasons) was "not as good as Star Trek." I'll add in myself that I found the film to be better than Angels & Demons. I expect the box office for Terminator Salvation will stack up somewhere between the two films, and wouldn't be surprised if we see a Terminator 5.

Monday, May 18, 2009

'Trek' in hot pursuit of 'Angels & Demons'

By Sarah Sluis

Angels & Demons made the usual sequel dip, earning $48 million this weekend, only 62% of The Da Vinci Code's opening weekend. Because the book Angels & Demons wasn't nearly as popular as Angels and demons 2 The Da Vinci Code, which had a Mona Lisa plotline that captivated readers' imaginations, the studio had expected a smaller opening. The popularity of Star Trek, however, likely prevented the opening weekend from crossing the $50 million mark, as did the film's older-skewing audience, which isn't as keen on turning out to see a film the first weekend.

In its second week, Star Trek earned nearly as much as Angels & Demons, pulling in $43 million, a mere 42% drop from last week. Wolverine, by comparison, dropped 69% in its second week, and another 44% this week. Because of Trek's below-average drop for a tentpole film, as well as its strong weekday earnings, it's now just $4 million shy of Wolverine's $151 million total. Its marketing efforts overseas have paid off too, as international audiences have finally taken notice of the franchise. Based on the success of Star Trek, expect Paramount to arc out the Chris pine trek story across multiple sequels.

The rest of the top ten, combined, earned only about $20 million, each dropping minimally from the week before. With Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian releasing this Friday, family films like PG-rated Monsters vs. Aliens, which dropped only 8% this week, and G-rated Earth will likely fall to the bottom of the top ten or out altogether.

By contrast, female-oriented films Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Obsessed, which came in at number four and five this week, earning $6.8 and $4.5 million, won't see any competition for quite some time. It's another month until romantic comedy The Proposal, which has seen strong advance word, will open widely.

This Memorial Day weekend will please adults and families alike. Adventure comedy Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian has already blitzed kids and parents with advertising, and the addition of Amy Adams adds female appeal to a film whose first outing was toplined by males. R-rated Terminator Salvation, which parents will hopefully avoid bringing their kids to, will also attempt to re-launch and re-center a franchise that lost some of its resonance through projects like television show "The Sarah Connor Chronicles." I'll be weighing in on Terminator Salvation's attempt to live up to its iconic catchphrase "I'll be back" later this week, so surf back later in a few days.

Friday, May 15, 2009

'Angels & Demons' to usurp top spot from celestial 'Star Trek'?

By Sarah Sluis

Joining the fray of big releases, Angels & Demons opens this weekend (3,527 theatres), its main competition holdovers Star Trek, in its second week of release, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I Angels demons saw the film this Wednesday and while I'll go along with the opinion that the follow-up is better than The Da Vinci Code, better is a relative term. I think The New York Times' A.O. Scott puts it best, saying director Ron Howard "combines the visual charm of mass-produced postcards with the mental stimulation of an easy Monday crossword puzzle." The intrigue seems paper-thin, and the ciphers are either incredibly easy to decode or require leaps of faith to pursue. Mr. Hanks, for example, simply looks at where statues are pointing and follows their direction, managing to find precision in casual hand gestures. The movie does have a nice twist towards the end, but for the first two-thirds you're actually watching a serial killer movie. Imagine Seven, but set in Rome, and you have the right idea. The Catholic Church, after objecting to the first film, seems to have deemed the second innocuous. Angels & Demons isn't expected to do the big business of Wolverine or Star Trek in its opening weekend, but say a prayer that it will cross $50 million in its opening weekend.

Most of the post-opening weekend Star Trek buzz has centered on one anecdote. Over the past week, I've heard from friends, family, and even eavesdropping, the same comment: "So-and-so [a female who would not be expected to like a sci-fi movie, especially one with such a strong geek following] really liked it." People seem to be interested in the fact that its appeal extends to the anti-fan, which is exactly the kind of word-of-mouth that will sustain a film beyond opening weekend. It's been killing it this week, earning five times as much as Wolverine each day and currently at $99 million.

The specialty market this weekend is packed, once again, though the less-crowded market at Cannes indicates that there will be fewer specialty films in the pipeline. With so many great indie films out there, and only a limited amount of time to see them, many are viewing the slowdown as a good Rachel adrien brothers bloom thing. Summit's sneaking its oft-delayed The Brothers Bloom, which stars Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz, into four theatres, with plans to expand the film over the next two weekends. Big Man Japan, a "goofy sci-fi satire aimed at a narrow audience," will release in NY and LA. Romantic comedy Management, which stars Jennifer Aniston as a corporate executive and Steve Zahn as the motel owner she trysts with, opens in 212 theatres. Jerichow, which our reviewer described as a "modern-day, Teutonic Postman Always Rings Twice," also opens in NY and LA, along with IFC's Summer Hours, a story about three children dividing up their mother's belongings after her death.

Angels & Demons should win the box office, though Star Trek 's spectacular weekday performance could make it a tight race. Wolverine should grab the third spot. From the specialty front, The Brothers Bloom will be looking for a strong per-screen average to set up the caper comedy for its expansion. All the wide releases will want to rack up grosses before next week, Memorial Day, which will see ticket sales siphon away towards R-Rated Terminator Salvation and PG-rated Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Scorsese to take on the life of Frank Sinatra

By Sarah Sluis

Marty, meet Ol' Blue Eyes. Today, Universal announced that Martin Scorsese will helm a biopic of Frank Sinatra. Phil Alden Robinson, best known for writing and directing Field of Dreams, will pen the script. It took Universal and Mandalay over two years just to get the life and music rights to Sinatra's Sinatra work, so one hopes the project will move quickly now that they're done with the legalities. Already, people are asking who will play Sinatra. Leonardo DiCaprio seems like the front runner, given his working relationship with Scorsese and slight build, but I've also seen Johnny Depp and Ewan McGregor being thrown around as possibilities.

The best part about this project is how naturally Frank Sinatra's life fits in with Scorsese's interests as a director. There's the mob and crime connections, which Scorsese's explored in Goodfellas, The Departed, and Casino. Sinatra spent a lot of time in New York (he was born in Hoboken, NJ), which Scorsese loves as a subject (Gangs of New York, The Age of Innocence, New York, New York, After Hours, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, to name a few, all make New York an unswappable part of the story), Then there's Las Vegas, which Scorsese profiled in Casino. Sinatra spent years singing there and the filming of the original Ocean's 11 in the city is cited as the time the perennially hung-over group of performers became the "Rat Pack."

Music features prominently in Scorsese's films. He's never done a biopic of a musician, but he's helmed documentaries of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and he's in post-production on a documentary on George Harrison. His soundtracks always have thoughtfully placed songs, which have inspired directors like Wes Anderson to make their musical choices even more prominent and front-and-center.

Of course, the capper to all this is the superb work he's done on his "one man" biopics. Raging Bull is one of the best films ever made, and The Aviator had the difficult task of portraying the enigmatic life of Howard Hughes, then showing him interact with starlets who were famous in another right, like Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. He's incredibly detail-oriented when it comes to historical Scorsese portrayals, even reflecting them stylistically: The Aviator matched its color processing with the Technicolor technology at the time, switching from two-strip to three-strip as the characters progressed through time.

As a final-cut director (according to Variety), Scorsese should be able to include the less savory parts of Sinatra's life, even with the presence of daughter Nancy Sinatra as an executive producer. Wikipedia, for example, turns up evidence that Sinatra might have had ties to the mob, struggled with mental issues and was possibly bipolar, and had a tumultuous, love-hate relationship with Ava Gardner, which apparently began while he was still married to his first wife. These biographical details, in my mind, aren't damaging, but signs of humanity. Scorsese has always been attracted to morally ambiguous characters, but he gives them souls, making us understand the struggles and thought processes of mobsters, worn-out boxers, and psychopathic taxi drivers. There's no question in my mind that he will be able to do similar justice to Frank Sinatra.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

With Al Pacino to star, 'Blink' winks at buyers in Cannes

By Sarah Sluis

At the Cannes Film Festival, buyers are being presented with the opportunity to grab soon-to-Blink be-produced Blink, to star Al Pacino and be directed by Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) from his own script. Based on New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell's nonfiction bestseller, which explores the benefits and drawbacks of split-second judgments, the unlikely adaptation was optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Whereas Malcolm Gladwell's book was divided into chapters, each presenting a case study about judging people in an instant, it appears the film will use Blink as a launch point. Pacino will play a father who discovers that his estranged son is good at sizing up people. He tries to place the boy on New York's financial district, where he thinks the skill will net him big bucks. The plot sounds vaguely familiar to Rain Man, if you replace autism with people smarts and Vegas with Wall Street. I imagine the story will be interwoven with moments straight from Gladwell's book, much like romantic comedy He's Just Not That Into You created fictional storylines around examples from the self-help book that inspired the film.

One of the themes of Gladwell's book is that not judging people often yields better results than going on first impressions, often skewed by our prejudices. In one chapter, Gladwell talks about a used-car salesman who offers the same price to everyone instead of guessing a buyer's financial situation and changing quotes person by person. That salesman sells more cars than his colleagues. I'll speculate that the screenplay will make this "realization" the turning point of the film: either Pacino's son uses this strategy from the get-go, and only convinces others late in the game of its worth, or else his attuned sense of what Gaghan people need and want goes askew, forcing him to change perspectives and adopt the "equal approach to everyone" gambit.

While I'm sure the marketability of Blink the movie will benefit from the popularity of Blink the book, there's a chance that viewers will feel cheated if they get something that deviates too far from Gladwell's scientific but friendly prose. That is to say, what's to prevent the film from becoming too didactic, or simply ignoring the themes in the book? The writer and director of the project, Stephen Gaghan, has proved himself adept at balancing multiple storylines --he wrote Traffic as well as Syriana (in addition to the playboy-comedy Alfie). His work has been critiqued for being too opaque compared to crystal-clear Hollywood plots, but in honor of Blink, I'll refrain from making a similar prejudgment about this story.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

'Face Value,' 'Valentine's Day,' offer women very different options

By Sarah Sluis

Amy Redford (daughter of Robert) will direct an independent film, Face Value, focusing on the scientific pursuits of Hedy Lamarr. Yes, the MGM glamour girl famous for her titular role in Samson & Hedy_lamar_hat Delilah was also a talented scientist who invented frequency hopping. Rachel Weisz has attached herself to the biopic.

Hopefully the filmmakers will contrast Lamarr's work as a scientist with her life as a starlet: she married (and divorced) six times. She was once quoted saying, "I must quit marrying men who feel inferior to me. Somewhere there must be a man who could be my husband and not feel inferior. I need a superior inferior man."

While Lamarr certainly isn't the only star to combine acting prowess and beauty with another unexpected quality (Katharine Hepburn, who surprised her suitors with her acerbic wit and superior athleticism, comes to mind), her story sounds inspirational and unusual enough to sell me a ticket. However, Amy Redford has yet to impress critics with her directing ability. Her directorial debut, The Guitar, earned only 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, and our critic called the film "an interesting premise...weakened by directorial callowness, tonal uncertainty and an unengaging central performance." I certainly hope the "interesting premise" of Hedy Lamarr isn't deadened by Redford's direction, and that she's learned from her first directorial outing.

In a counterpoint to the Lamarr project, New Line, purveyor of "it's-about-what-I-expected" romantic comedies, has filled in the plot for Valentine's Day. Garry Marshall, known for being a down-to-earth, likeable director, will direct a cast who confront a dizzying number of interwoven stories, in the vein of Garry_Marshall He's Just Not That Into You and Love Actually. Stars attached to the project include Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Garner, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, and Shirley McLaine (for some demographic diversity).

Some of the plotlines go like this: Bradley Cooper, a gay man dating a closeted football player, shares a flight with Julia Roberts, a soldier returning from Iraq. Her mother, Shirley MacLaine, decides to tell her husband about an affair she had when she was younger. There's also a love triangle (square?) in which Ashton Kutcher backs out of proposing to Jessica Biel when he realizes he really likes Jennifer Garner, who conveniently just found out her boyfriend was married. Lastly, Biel and Anne Hathaway play co-workers at a talent agency. Hathaway's an executive assistant who is dating someone in the mailroom, and Biel plays a publicist who just can't get a man.

While juggling all those storylines seems like a daunting task (why can't they just commit to one?), it does touch on a certain truth in romantic comedies: the supporting actors and actresses often have the liveliest romantic entanglements, since they're allowed to be funny, brief and inconsequential, rather than forced to commit to the "big kiss." Expect a version of the plot and cast to show up in theatres on V-Day in 2011.

Monday, May 11, 2009

'Star Trek' back with a $76.5 million opening

By Sarah Sluis

With J.J. Abrams at the helm, Star Trek has officially relaunched. The prequel gave the franchise its biggest open ever. Including Thursday evening screenings, which tacked on $4 million to the total, Kirk spock Star Trek earned $76.5 million. IMAX screenings of the film added 11% to the film's bottom line, consistently selling out and counting for $8.3 million in ticket sales. The film also did better Saturday than Friday, which usually indicates positive reviews and the likelihood that the film will have legs at the box office.

While Wolverine dropped 68% from last week, down to $27 million, the film was number one overseas. Star Trek wasn't franchised internationally and thus tends to underperform globally, which dampens its profitability in an age where most films rely on international box office in order to make a film go into the black. Still, that doesn't seem to be changing any plans to go ahead with the next Trek film.

Next Day Air, a mix-up comedy that deals with the fallout when drugs are delivered to the wrong house, brought in a modest $4 million and grabbed the #6 spot.

Despite the presence of two tentpoles, the rest of the top ten dropped just 30-45%. Tellingly, most of the titles remaining in the top ten skewed towards females, kids, and families, apt films for those not in the mood, or old enough, for sci-fi or action. At #3, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past dropped just 32% to earn $10.4 million, and teen-themed titles 17 Again and Hannah Montana: The Movie both held on in the top ten, bringing in $4.4 million and $2.4 million. Monsters vs. Aliens, in its seventh week of release, brought in $3.3 million, and Earth, a documentary that focuses on the lives of animal families, reeled in $3.3 million.

Among specialty debuts, Rudo Y Cursi, which released in 70 theatres, brought in $3,000 per Rudo cursi_ location. The per-screen average is light for a specialty title, and may indicate that the Spanish-language film could have benefited from more specific Hispanic marketing, most famously used in last year's Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Little Ashes, only at 11 locations, did better from a per-screen perspective with $6,400 per theatre, and Atom Egoyan's Adoration earned $4,000 across ten locations.

This Friday Angels & Demons releases, marking the third week in a row dominated by a tentpole. Because it's based on a mass-market paperback, there's a chance it will bring in a different, possibly older and more female audience than the previous two big-budget films. With both Star Trek and Wolverine out of the gate, everyone will be watching to see how they hold up in their second and third week of release.

Friday, May 8, 2009

'Star Trek' to boldly go to 3,849 theatres

By Sarah Sluis

The big films of the weekend are Star Trek (3,849 theatres) and holdover Wolverine. While Star Trek will clearly grab the top spot, there's a sense that there's only so much pie out there, and either Chris pine trek Wolverine will drop harder than expected and Trek will do phenomenally, or Wolverine will dip modestly and dampen Trek's first-weekend gross. It appears that Trek studio Paramount is expecting the latter, as it's laid out relatively modest expectations for the picture, starting at $50 million. However, even with a smaller debut, Paramount won't lose face, since they're positioning the film as a type of Batman Begins, with the idea that there is a Dark Knight down the line.

Manohla Dargis at the NY Times pinpointed the greatest achievement of the re-launch: "Mr. Abrams doesn't treat Star Trek as a sacred text, which would be deadly for everyone save the fanatics." Indeed, the tale is appropriate for nearly everyone, as our reviewer Ethan Alter noted: "If this version of Trek doesn't become a four-quadrant hit, than Paramount might as well stop trying."

For those not interested in sci-fi, many specialty films are opening this week to provide counter-programming. Rudo Y Cursi opens in NYC. Coming from Carlos Cuarn, it's a tale heavy on fate: Rudo y cursi two brothers (one plays goalie, the other offense) are recruited from rural Mexico to the major leagues, where they struggle with their sudden good fortune, and, to the consternation of the viewer, keep on making decisions that threaten to push them back into their unknown, rural world. I found the film fanciful and fun, though those going to look at the hunk-like visages of Gael Garcia Bernl and Diego Luna will find them marred by terrible, terrible haircuts (think Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading).

Twilight fans may be in for a surprise when they check out Little Ashes (NY/LA: 12 theatres), which stars Robert Pattinson, Matthew McNulty, and Javier Beltrn, who play 1920s trio Salvador Dali, Luis Buuel, and Federico Garcia Lorca. The three have a flirtatious sort of friendship, but, according to our reviewer Stephen Farber, nothing really develops. The "diffuse script...disappoints," giving the film a "handsome but meandering" feel.

The documentary Objectified, Gary Hutsit's follow-up to Helvetica, offers intriguing explanations of everyday objects like chairs, techno gadgets, and vegetable peelers. The designers' perspective is contagious, and after the film you'll find yourself examining everyday objects with the same thoughtfulness as the designers.

Tilda Swinton stars in the thriller Julia (NY/LA: 3 theatres), playing an alcoholic with a poorly conceived kidnapping plan. The documentary Outrage, which just debuted at Tribeca, outs closeted gay politicians, calling them out for their hypocritical voting. It's been generating controversy among audience members, which will probably only drive more curious people into theatres.

I'll see you back on Monday to discuss just how out-of-this-world Star Trek performed.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

'Wolverine,' meet 'Star Trek'

By Sarah Sluis

Everyone seems to like Star Trek. Many people will see it this weekend. But how will it all add up at the box office? Currently running a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, the time-traveling origin story Treacherousjpg juxtaposes car chases in vintage roadsters in Iowa with galactic attempts to wrench ships out of black holes ("More warp!" There is no more warp! More warp!!!"). It's great fun, and includes J.J. Abrams' signature time-bending, a space vocabulary that heavily references Star Wars (When will they put up safety rails next to deep abysses in spaceships?), and a plotline accessible to those who have never even heard of the Enterprise fan club. In other words, Trek has all the makings of a summer popcorn movie.

Currently, the film's tracking way up, as the marketing blitz continues to raise awareness of the film. There are conflicting reports about whether Star Trek or Wolverine has better female support, which surprised me, given that for me it was pretty clear-cut. My interest in Wolverine hovered around zero, while I was enticed from day one by the Star Trek trailer that included the aforementioned Iowa car chase scene and promised me there wouldn't be hard-to-decipher techno-conversations on the flight deck.

Last week, headlines for Wolverine gave the film a range of $60-$100 million, and it came in at $75 million. This week, estimates for Trek seem to be in the $65-$100 million range, but the studio's low-balling, saying they would be happy with $50 million. In Trek's favor are 7pm screenings tonight which should jump-start its grosses, as well as data from that shows that sellouts Pine rebel without a cause have already exceeded those of Wolverine. The space actioner will also be showing up on bigger IMAX screens, which carry a ticket premium and could push grosses higher.

Internationally, the film will open everywhere but Japan and Mexico, where the swine flu has made public gatherings impossible. Based on previous performances in the franchises, X-Men's Wolverine claws are supposed to read better than the Spock/Kirk interactions of Star Trek, but since the reboot is all about drawing in new, younger viewers, there's a chance the film can create new audiences. The fact that Trek avoids using its plot as a Cold War parable will undoubtedly make the film more universally appealing.

Among, say, your typical young male fan who missed Wolverine last week because of a soccer game, there will definitely be competition for the box-office dollar, and last week's $75 million open still leaves many viewers choosing between the two films, or opting to take a week off from moviegoing. From my standpoint, that hard-to-quantify buzz has always been higher for Star Trek, but, then again, I'm not hanging out in middle and high school hallways.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

National Arts Club pays a warm tribute to Norman Jewison

By Kevin Lally

Last night, New York City's 101-year-old National Arts Clubpresented veteran Canadian producer-director Harry Belafonte and Norman Jewison (credit Ben Gabbe) Norman Jewison with its Medal of Honor for Film at a warm and sometime raucous dinner ceremony at its ornate headquarters, the Tilden Mansion at Gramercy Park. Among those paying tribute to the 82-year-old Oscar winner (looking hardyand healthy) were producer David Picker, famed screenwriter William Goldman, Whoopi Goldberg, Olympia Dukakis (an Oscar winner in Jewison's comedy classic Moonstruck), and Jewison's close friend Harry Belafonte. Professor Richard Brown of the long-running New York film class/interview session "Movies 101" guided the audience through the highlights of the director's career (The Cincinnati Kid, The Russians Are Coming, In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, ...And Justice for All, A Soldier's Story, etc.) and composers Alan and Marilyn Bergman serenaded the crowdwith "The Windmills of Your Mind," their Oscar-winning song from Jewison's hit The ThomasCrown Affair.

Goldberg, who starred in Jewison's perhaps most unrememberedmovie, Bogus (1996), joked, "I did not make a deep, heavy film with Norman. Most black people in the room did." Race relations and Jewison's role in bridging the races were themes of the night. Belafonte, whose affection for Jewison was palpable, told a very long anecdote about how the two met during the Canadian's early years as a TV director. Jewison helmed Belafonte's two critically acclaimed TV specials of 1959 and 1960, sponsored by Revlon in a move to regain some prestige after the cosmetic company's involvement in the "$64,000 Question" quiz show scandal. But then Revlon CEO Charles Revson made one request of Belafonte--to stop mixing the races of his supporting singers, dancers and musicians. Belafonte and Jewison jointly rebuffed Revson, and that was the end of Belafonte's award-winning series. The legendary singer-actor-activist concluded his remarks by telling Jewison, "There's hardly a black artist you haven't given a shot to... It's my turn again."

Jewison himself recalled his first exposure to racism in America as a young Canadian sailor on leave in Memphis, sitting at the back of the bus and gruffly being ordered to move up front, away from the "colored" section. "It wasn't logical," Jewison said of a country in which black men died on the battlefront defending America but couldn't sit in the same diner or drink from the same fountain as whites.

Several speakers commented on the moment in Jewison's 1967 Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night when Sidney Poiter's Philadelphia cop returns the slap of a white racist. It was a slap African-American moviegoers would never forget, and a bracing corrective to years of demeaning stereotypes. Norman Jewison laughed heartily throughout the ceremony, with the joy of a man who's put his social consciousness into his art and helped America see a better image of itself.

Pictured: Harry Belafonte and Norman Jewison. Photo by Ben Gabbe.

MTV Movie Awards: The teen audience speaks

By Sarah Sluis

Just when you thought awards season was over, MTV has announced the nominees for its Movie Awards. Viewers can watch clips and vote on the nominees (with the exception of Best Movie) until Mtv movie awards May 27th. Awards favorites like Slumdog Millionaire show up in several categories, including a nomination for "Best WTF Moment," "Jumping in the Poop Shed."

Besides the gross-out moments nominated for "Best WTF Moment"--I think Slumdog will have tough competition alongside Tropic Thunder's "Tasting Decapitated Head," or the "Curved Bullet Kill" from Wanted, there's also the perennially popular "Best Kiss" category.

I personally enjoyed watching all the nominated kisses from Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Wanted, Twilight, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, and I Love You, Man. It's definitely a sign of the times that there's a gay kiss played for love and one for laughs running against each other.

While evaluating clips, instead of movies as a whole, seems derivative, looking at just one scene can be a surprisingly accurate indicator of quality. Does the clip remind you of another scene in the movie, or does it seem dead, not really something that was built up to or referenced after? Can it stand on its own? The kiss in Slumdog Millionaire, for example, cuts to a flashback during the slow-motion liplock, giving it a checkmark in the standalone category. Wanted's kiss uses slow motion and subjective use of sound, as well as a perfectly timed cut to the jealous ex-girlfriend watching James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie. Milk's makes you think of the relationship between Sean Penn and James Franco that occurs after the kiss, and Twilight--well, Twilight uses special effects to propel Robert Pattinson against a wall as he tries to contain his advances, but the sequence has little emotion in itself, reminding me why it didn't really appeal beyond fans of the book.

The MTV nominations also reveal the most popular teen movies of the year: Twilight, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, Hannah Montana: The Movie, and Pineapple Express. Star Anne Hathaway appears popular, showing up for Bride Wars and Get Smart, as did Anna Faris for House Bunny. While I'm sure few people will be biting their fingernails during the May 31st broadcast, MTV's always-entertaining choice of nominees, and a presentation that I'm sure will include the teen equivalent of sliming onstage (the hallmark of the Nickelodeon awards) should keep its audience happy.

Monday, May 4, 2009

$87 million for 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine'

By Sarah Sluis

Coming in right in the middle of the $70-$100 million estimates that were floating around in Hollywood, X-Men Origins: Wolverine earned $87 million this weekend, six times the amount of the Jackman wolverine second-runner-up, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past ($15.3 million). The latter film earned the same amount as last year's Made of Honor, which seems fitting since both received similar thumbs-down reviews.

The success of X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a pleasant kick-off to the summer movie season. Despite the recession, movie grosses are up, and the turnout for Wolverine suggests that other big titles this summer--including next week's origin re-do, Star Trek, and the time-traveling Terminator Salvation two weeks from now, can bring in at least the same audiences.

Among the rest of the top ten, titles competing for the Wolverine audience, like Fighting ($4.1 Ghosts of girlfriends pastmillion), dropped heavily, while kid-oriented titles 17 Again ($6.3 million), Hannah Montana: The Movie ($4 million), and Monsters vs. Aliens continued to hold strong. However, proving counterprogramming doesn't always work, kid-oriented, animated opener Battle for Terra debuted outside of the top ten at number twelve, earning $1 million, and only $916 per (3D) theatre. Compare that take with the six-week-old Monsters vs. Aliens, which dropped only 31% even as it shed 732 theatres, some of them 3D screens that made the mistake of screening Battle for Terra. The Paramount/DreamWorks film still earned twice as much per theatre, $2,200, totaling $5.8 million. While surely the marketing budget wasn't there for Terra, I think the quality of the animation, as well as the fact that it wasn't from an "animation-focused" studio like Disney or even DreamWorks, impacted its tiny gross.

This Friday Star Trek, helmed by "Lost's" J.J. Abrams, opens. I had the chance to see the film last week, and despite my unfamiliarity with the Star Trek mythology, I found the film compelling, humorous, and appealing to demographics beyond just the "Trekkies." It's truly a mild PG-13 film, so I imagine it doing extremely well with younger crowds. With Wolverine exceeding expectations this weekend, will some of the moviegoers who saw the film take a break and not see Trek on opening weekend? May is a tight month, with Star Trek being followed by Angels & Demons, then Terminator Salvation, then Pixar's Up the last week of May, so viewers will have to prioritize, even with tentpoles.

Friday, May 1, 2009

'Wolverine' packs theatres

By Sarah Sluis

I was a little worried about X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which releases today in 4,099 theatres, when most of the reviews involved plot descriptions that spanned multiple paragraphs, and involved Wolverine references to the Civil War, mercenaries, globe-trotting to Africa and Canada, and that dreaded third act device, amnesia. The biggest impediment to Wolverine's success may not be the fact that untold numbers of people watched an illegally downloaded copy of the movie, but whether people can buy the convoluted plot. For our reviewer Frank Lovece, Wolverine has "that indefinable something that keeps what's magical from looking silly or self-conscious," but apparently that feeling has not extended to all those who have seen the film--on RottenTomatoes, it's currently tracking at a middling 37%. Over at the New York Times, A.O. Scott called Wolverine "shorter and less pretentious than Watchmen, but almost

programmatically unmemorable, a hodge-podge of loose ends, wild

inconsistencies and stale genre conventions." Ouch. Some expect Wolverine to match Iron Man's $98 million open from last year, but Fox is countering that with a lowball $70 million estimate that they will likely exceed.

For those not interested in a mutant's trek across time and continents, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (3,175 theatres) will take you back through the history of a cad with a winning smile, Matthew McConaughey. What sounds great on paper--"A Christmas Carol, but with love!" fails in execution, as critic Kirk Honeycutt called it "the lamest and easily the worst revisionist take on this classic story. Last year, another re-tread romantic comedy, Made of Honor, made $15 million in this spot against Iron Man, so Ghosts of Girlfriends Past should be able to count on as much.

On the animated 3D front, Battle for Terra opens in 1,159 theatres, and will likely experience slightly boosted grosses due to the higher ticket prices of the format. However, the animation isn't pretty, and its overly rounded CGI faces brings to mind low budgets and another animated flop that released Battle for terra earlier this year, Delgo. However, if you can get past the animation, the environmentally aware message earns the film major points, as does its willingness to break with tradition and make humans look bad. In the film, humans who have ravaged their planet try to take over Terra, which is inhabited by a peaceful, faultless species. As Honeycutt put it, "the story...generates a shock of chagrined recognition along with divided loyalties. Do we root against the warlike humans and for the peace-loving Terrians?"

From Seattle, documentary and festival favorite A Wink and a Smile releases. While our reviewer Daniel Eagan called it "skin-deep," its regular-women-do-burlesque premise has one thing going for it: sex sells. Moving from hot to cold, The Limits of Control, directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Tilda Swinton, is an "anti-thriller" that's so cold "the soul shivers." Finally, mild haunted house thriller The Skeptic releases at IFC, which might be a good choice if you prefer your scares in small doses.

Monday I'll circle back with the box-office grosses, and answer that looming question: how much money will X-Men Origins: Wolverine take in?