Wednesday, September 30, 2009

'Whip It' breathes life into the coming-of-age genre

By Sarah Sluis

Yesterday's advance screening of Whip It! included some unusual invitees: members of New York's roller derby team, who came clad in outfits of sweatbands and striped stockings. The audience was

Whip it ellen page 2

raucous and frequently laughed out loud, which always makes a movie that much more fun.

What's surprising is that Whip It! uses a stock plot and situation to make a fast-paced, original-feeling movie. Here's the coming-of-age tale 101:

1. A girl in a small town dutifully, but grudgingly, follows her parents' idea of her life.
2. Until she's pulled into a new activity in which she discovers herself.
3. She must hide this new life from her parents, who would disapprove.
4. This leads to a crisis point where she can't lead both lives at once (and/or gets found out)
5. At which point she must reconcile her two worlds.

In Whip It!, this activity is roller derby (cue training montages). The movie does a great job initiating newbies into the ins and outs of the game, and by the end you'll be just as appreciative of the double-leg whip as I was. But how can a movie that follows so closely to a set genre seem so original and fresh? I've come up with a few answers.

The acting: Ellen Page does a superb job as Bliss Cavendar .a.k.a. Babe Ruthless. You're with her the whole time.
The soundtrack: Like all Fox Searchlight movies, the movie has a killer soundtrack, featuring catchy songs from indie bands. You'd want to listen to it at the gym or before going out with friends.
The feminism: The roller derby girls are sexy but tough. In one scene, they're showing off the bruises on their bottoms to each other, to the delight of some nearby boys. It's funny and revealing: the girls

Whip it ellen page

admiring their bodies for their power and toughness, and the boys because it's a female body. Takeaway: girls don't need to be dainty to be admired. Ellen Page also dumps a boy without a second thought because it appeared he was cheating on her, without a second chance.
The dialogue: The movie may use a stock plot, but the dialogue feels genuine.
The details: Good comedies get jokes from authentic, not gaggy, costuming and props. There's the pink furry phone in Legally Blonde and Jason Segel wearing Ugg boots in I Love You, Man. In Whip It!, it's the pig aprons the girls wear at the diner they work at. You really believe that they have to wear them, Ellen Page meets the boy she has a crush on while wearing this ridiculous, stuffed pig apron. They are laughably hideous, and just the kind of thing you'd be forced to wear in Bodeen, Texas.

Whip It! opens this Friday, and hopefully its originality will be rewarded at the box office.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Just how big will Michael Jackson's 'This Is It' be?

By Sarah Sluis

In a month, the King of Pop will give a last performance in This Is It. Sony paid a reported $60 million for worldwide rights to Michael Jackson's concert rehearsal footage, in a deal brokered just after the musician's death. Kenny Ortega, who was the director of the concert (and has also directed and

Michael jackson this is it

choreographed the High School Musical series), is also directing This Is It, which will also include interviews.

I've checked out the trailer for This Is It, and despite the fact that Michael Jackson was a little after my time, to be discovered in my teens along with the Stones and the Beatles, the trailer really communicates the excitement and energy of his music: it's timeless. The stages are huge, the dances are frenetic, and the few clips of Jackson speaking depict him as a reserved, grateful performer who was passionate about his music and a perfectionist. There's nothing negative, and there's certainly no hint of his drug use or the way I often thought of him: captioned in a newspaper article, his body and face shielded by his hand, a handkerchief, coat or umbrella. Will the movie continue in this vein, or will it give hint to the struggles that Jackson faced?

Yesterday, reported that over 160 shows had sold out, and advance ticket sales for the film were about 82% of the site's business. It's definitely on track to recoup its $60 million. While the movie is only set to be released for two weeks, I'm sure Sony has a third week in reserve if the movie dramatically exceeds expectations, just as the release of the Hannah Montana concert movie


was extended due to demand. Over 30 million people watched television footage of his memorial service, and a good percentage of that audience will be willing to pay to see the movie.

With more studios pursuing special event, limited releases, the success of this movie could provide another positive case study for this type of release, which is currently used much less frequently than more common wide or small-to-big releases. Moviegoing is a "special" event for many, and releasing a picture for just two weeks is one way to add value. For example, this Friday, Disney will re-release Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in 3D as a double feature. Originally, Disney had scheduled these two movies at different times leading up to the release of Toy Story 3, but apparently changed its tune. My guess is that in a recession, a double feature offers a greater value proposition and is more likely to draw in families. While This Is It will appeal to a largely different audience, including regular concertgoers, films using limited release strategies are ones we'll be watching in our Monday feature "Weekend Roundup."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Audiences return for second helpings of 'Meatballs'

By Sarah Sluis

With only a small decrease in demand, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs came in at #1 for the second week in a row. It dropped just 18.8%, an unheard-of amount, to bring in another $24.6 million. Because it's the only family film in the marketplace right now, and comes with the added boost of 3D

Cloudy with a chance of meatballs hamburger

and IMAX locations, this movie's release benefited from a perfectly clear forecast.

Bruce Willis futuristic film Surrogates opened at #2 with $15 million in ticket sales. It's half the amount of last year's fantasy-action movie Eagle Eye, which opened on the same weekend last year. Given Surrogates' $80 million budget, this opening is a disappointment.

Scrubbed for tweens, Fame brought in $10 million and the second-runner-up spot. The double digit opening is about half the movie's production costs, which should satisfy MGM's expectations.

Sci-fi/horror movie Pandorum, "endlessly derivative of films such as Alien, Event Horizon, Pitch Black and countless others," opened at $4.4 million. Apparently, space mutants don't sell themselves the way they used to.

Among the rest of the returning films, The Informant! fared best, dropping a light 33% to bring in $6.9 million. Strong second-week returns were expected given the film's older audience.

On the specialty circuit, Coco Before Chanel and Capitalism: A Love Story both made big waves at the box office.

Coco Before Chanel, which stars charming Audrey Tautou, has already earned $24.8 million at the foreign box office, and brought in $35,400 at each of its five locations, a per-location average that speaks well to the film's future.

Michael Moore's Capitalim: A Love Story brought in $60,000 per location at each of its four locations,

Capitalism a love story moore

giving it the highest per-screen average of the year--though it appears it was running on more than one screen at those theatres, at least in New York City. While the opening seems stellar, it's difficult to compare the debut to other Michael Moore films, all of which had different specialty-to-wide release patterns: Fahrenheit 9/11 opened wide on a Friday after a two-location debut on Wednesday. Though its per-screen averages were lower, Capitalism could still fall short of Fahrenheit's $119 million total gross. Moore's more recent film, Sicko, opened on one screen on a Friday its first weekend, giving it a $68,000 per-screen average by limiting supply--showing how easily per-screen averages can be deceiving.

Along with Capitalism: A Love Story, Ricky Gervais/Jennifer Garner comedy Invention of Lying will open wide this Friday, keeping company with teen roller derby movie Whip It!, and a double feature re-release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in 3D.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Box-office leaders: 'Surrogates,' 'Fame,' and 'Cloudy'

By Sarah Sluis

The trio of wide releases this weekend has one thing in common: so-so reviews. Surrogates (2,951 theatres), a dystopian future film starring Bruce Willis, is one pick for the top spot. Critic Kirk Honeycutt

Surrogates willis pike

quipped that Surrogates is "a movie about human robots that appears to have actually been made by human robots." The premise, as laid out in the trailer, is a twist on The Matrix: everyone willingly hooks up to a machine and lives their life through an avatar. The problem is, turns out killing your avatar kills your real-life self. The best thing about futuristic films is their detailed, well-laid-out worlds, but unfortunately it seems Surrogates lacks the logic that would make the movie a satisfying diversion.

Teen musical remake Fame (3,096 theatres) is another contender for the top spot, along with last week's release Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. According to critic Stephen Farber, it "apes High School Musical rather than Mean Streets. Rated PG, it's almost laughably bland and

Fame dance

watered-down in its desire to appeal to the widest possible audience." Sadly, the best song of the production, "Fame (I'm Going to Live Forever)," is ghettoized to the closing credits.

Pandorum (2,400 theatres) also borrows from a well-known sci-fi movie, this time Aliens. Dennis Quaid plays an astronaut who wakes up in a spaceship that looks creepily old--and missing many of its 60,000 passengers. With a group of survivors, he must try to evade the aliens that have the ability to both kill and infect. It's expected to open below Surrogates and Fame.

This week also brings some high-profile small releases. Sony Pictures Classics Coco Before Chanel (6 theatres, NY/LA) is a must-see for any fashion fans, though the movie concentrates more on

Coco before chanel

biography and ambition than the fashion icon's actual designs. Chanel's very masculine, unfrivolous garments are a shock to the eye, and the manor scenes play much differently than the usual costume film stereotypes.

Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story opened on Wednesday on 4 screens, and earned $9,000 per screen on its opening day (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen did $14,600 per screen in its Wednesday debut). It doesn't open wide until next Friday, so this week's returns will help portend its box-office fate. I can't wait until all the pundits start digging in, if Moore's promotional appearance on Good Morning America is any hint.

The much-reviled I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, from the book by Tucker Max, opens on 120 screens, hopefully all located, and contained to, epicenters of fratty bad behavior.

Slamdance horror movie Paranormal Activity will open in 13 campus locations, in an attempt to build word-of-mouth for the Blair Witch-type horror movie. Our critic Kevin Lally found the movie to be either stupefying or horrifying, with the wait for its "[e]ffective jolts" requiring "extraordinary patience."

Monday we'll see if audiences picked Fame, Surrogates, or the comfort choice, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. We'll also get a sneak peek of whether Michael Moore's film will be more Sicko or Fahrenheit 9/11.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hollywood makes another trip to the toy store

By Sarah Sluis

Toy-inspired movies have been the latest symbiotic relationship in Hollywood. Monopoly, Transformers, Clue, Candyland, and a plethora of action figures have all been picked up by various


studios, often with eye-raising by those covering them. Sure, there have been successes--who would have thought a movie based on a theme park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, could have been so compelling? Or that the truly awful Transformers 2 could make so much money? While Hasbro has been the main seller for these toy-based adaptations, Mattel has just joined the scene, and one of the most iconic--and culturally contested--American icons will have her own movie: Barbie. No stranger to direct-to-video movies, the blonde, 39-23-33 doll will be played by a real person, since Universal has decided to make the movie live-action. No word on whether Barbie will be a doctor, cowhand, superstar singer, or any of her other chosen occupations. Since Columbia is also pursuing a deal to make a movie out of He-Man with Mattel, I decided to pick my top ten toy adaptations that haven't been made yet. In some cases, it's scraping the bottom of the barrel, while others might just show up in a new deal--I was about to put Hot Wheels on the list, but turns out back in 2003 McG put his directing dibs on the project.

10 Toy Adaptations just waiting for a buyer

1. Nerf
2. Easy Bake Oven: a modern adaptation of Hansel and Gretel

Easy Bake Oven

3. Tonka trucks
4. Chutes and Ladders: an adventure game, with kids trapped in a maze and required to use their smarts to break free.
5. Mr. Potato Head (a Toy Story spinoff?)
6. My Little Pony (this property may be firmly entrenched in direct-to-video)
7. Trivial Pursuit: like Inception, a thriller that takes place "in the architecture of the mind."
8. Operation: If botched surgery works on network television, why not in movies?
9. Play-Doh. Like the upcoming Lego adaptation, but with Play-Doh instead of Legos.
10. Strawberry Shortcake: this one could actually get made

When it comes to toy adaptations, you never know...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

'Sweet Valley High' will get the Diablo Cody treatment

By Sarah Sluis

Today's film news brings a project that is almost too good to be true for nostalgic twenty and thirty-something women. Diablo Cody has announced that her next project will be an adaptation of the


"Sweet Valley High" novels. In response to a skeptical Twitter, Cody responded, "You have no idea how many bitches I took down to do this project. I went 'full Jessica.' Believe it."

Indeed, Diablo Cody and the "Sweet Valley High" books could be a match made in heaven--a female version of a comic book film. Read by late elementary and middle schoolers, an audience now in their twenties and thirties, these novels were The Babysitter's Club older, cooler cousin, with characters that were less sheltered and more independent, and focused on romance and getting out of trouble. The series, which spawned over a hundred titles, centers on two "size six, blonde, 5'6'', tan, dimpled" twins who live in a "split-level" home--attributes repeated, in detail, at the opening of every book. Elizabeth is the practical, brainy twin who works at the school newspaper, whereas Jessica is more concerned with makeup, boys, and emulating the lifestyle of her wealthy friend Enid, whose clothes and car she covets. The novels are genuine, but I think many of the people who read them acknowledged their cheesiness, yet liked them anyway. Cody's take, according to her Twitter, will be "Sharp comedy/satire, plenty of 'sincere' SVH moments too. No werewolves. Plenty of Todd." Todd is the basketball player Elizabeth pines for, who I assume will be the major love interest in the book.

I think adapting this book will be tonally tricky. Jennifer's Body took the horror film genre and made it original and a feminist statement, but in the process alienated horror fans as well as those who would have seen it had critics agreed that it was "something more." Could the Sweet Valley High movie alienate fans of teen comedies, while failing to be something more for twenty and thirty-something fans of the book, who have now outgrown them and need satire?

Jennifer's Body, however, might not be the best comparison. It could be considered more of a marketing failure, since the movie, arguably, should have been handled by Fox Searchlight after Fox

Diablo cody sweet valley

Atomic shuttered, but instead was passed to 20th Century Fox to fill a hole in their schedule. Also, the "Women in Hollywood" blog noted that female critics gave the movie higher ratings than male critics, which she suspects hurt its overall critical reception.

Diablo Cody's choice to make an adaptation, as opposed to an original screenplay, reminds me of director Wes Anderson's choice to make an adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Many felt Anderson needed to break away from his overly familiar style, and applying it to stop-motion animation did just the trick. In fact, his next project, a screenplay (which he could direct), is also an adaptation of the French movie My Best Friend. Sure, Cody's only two films in, but her screenplays are so distinctive that their best use as this point may be punching up an existing, tired but beloved, series.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Mad Men" goes to the movies; Watch out for 'Sherlock Holmes 2' and 'Lebanon'

By Sarah Sluis

Over at Film Journal, we're big fans of the AMC show "Mad Men." So it was a pleasure to discover that the Film Experience Blog has been keeping track of all of the movie allusions in "Mad Men," and taking


the time to explain them. Today, the blogger points out "Mad Men" references to The Apartment and Psycho. Office manager Joan mentions the film to ad agency partner Sterling, with whom she's having an affair, in a pointed reference to the pain that a workplace affair can cause to the woman. He doesn't seem to get the hint, and says the movie is extreme like Psycho. Also of interest is how pop culture references are used to make in-jokes about art director Salvartore being in the closet, as when series leading man Don Draper tells his wife, "All men like Joan Crawford. Salvatore couldn't stop talking about her." Show creator Matthew Weiner's knowledge of movies is encyclopedic. The show, which picked up several Emmys last Sunday, is one to watch for its insights into to how people related to the movies of the day.

In Today's Film News, Warner Bros. is already moving forward with plans for a Sherlock Holmes sequel. The film isn't set to release until Christmas. The last time the studio started working on a sequel before the film came out, it was The Hangover. If we're to trust their judgment, Sherlock


Holmes could be a holiday success on par with that major summer hit.

Another film to watch is Lebanon, which was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics in a market filled with many potential buyers. The Israeli war film could be this year's Waltz with Bashir, the animated film about the Israeli-Lebanon war that SPC rolled out last year, which earned $2.2 million in the U.S. and $8.8 million abroad. With an Israeli film about the Lebanon war already under its marketing and distribution belt, SPC seems like the perfect distributor for this movie. Taking place during the first Lebanon war in 1982, it follows a tank and a group of paratroopers who are trapped in a hostile town (read the THR review here). Its characters are anti-heroes and their mission is not one of glory but terror. The movie is expected to appeal especially to those with ties or interests in Israel and the Middle East.

Monday, September 21, 2009

'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' enchants family audiences

By Sarah Sluis

Earning three times as much as the second-place movie, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs whipped up $30.1 million over the weekend. It also earned $2.5 million from its 127 IMAX locations, a

Sam sparks cloudy with a chance of meatballs

per-location average that was double the non-IMAX total. It doesn't face any competition until two weekends from now, when Disney releases Toy Story and Toy Story 2 as a 3D double feature, so it should perform strongly through its second weekend. People at Sony Pictures Animation also have reason to be happy: it's the highest-grossing opening weekend of any of their movies, including Surf's Up or Open Season.

The other three wide releases earned in the $6-10 million range, though their low production costs should mitigate their lower opening weekend grosses. The Informant! earned $10.5 million, with Matt Damon considered the biggest draw to moviegoers. Its adult-heavy audience could stem its losses in following weeks, since many adults aren't set on seeing a film opening weekend.

The audience for teen draw Jennifer's Body should have turned out in force for opening weekend, but didn't . It scared up $6.8 million, dropping 50% from Friday to Sunday. The reviews didn't match the hype, diminishing the chances of expanding its audience beyond 18-25's, as screenwriter Diablo Cody's Juno was able to do. Many also suspect that younger teens were shut out of the movie since it was rated R.

Jennifer's Body was beat by the soundly unoriginal Love Happens, which sold $8.4 million worth of tickets to an audience of primarily older females.

Bright Star, which is specialty distributor Apparition's first release, did an auspicious $10,000 per

Bright star abbie cornish ben whishaw

location for a weekend cumulative of $190,000, making good on critic Ray Bennett's prediction that "art-house audiences will swoon." Its rave reviews should help grow that number in coming weeks. Since PG romances are all too rare, Bright Star could also draw in older and more conservative audiences when it expands next week to 120 theatres.

This Friday, Fame will open widest, followed by sci-fi thriller Surrogates and sci-fi horror Pandorum. Other films opening small that we'll be watching include Capitalism: A Love Story (which opens Wednesday), Coco Before Chanel, and I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Box office forecast is 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs'

By Sarah Sluis

Releasing in 3D and IMAX, to a welcoming audience that's settled into school and ready for some entertainment, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is considered the likely winner of the weekend box Jello sunset cloudy with a chance of meatballs office. It's clever and fast-paced, with "breakneck humor and sparkling wordplay," according to our critic Frank Lovece. While the plot is much more embellished than Ron and Judi Barrett's illustrated classic, it stays true to its wish-fulfillment premise. It rains ice cream, cheeseburgers, spaghetti and more--every kid's dream. Its 3,119 screen release includes 1,828 3D screens and 127 IMAX screens, a new high that should significantly pad the returns of the animated movie.

A "campy pastiche of horror and high-school movie clichs" appealing to the 18-25 crowd, Jennifer's Body (2,701 screens) should woo male and female audiences alike. The critical consensus appears to be that Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody's hipster-quip dialogue isn't quite as charming the second time around, but moviegoers may be much more forgiving of the slick horror film. Plus, there's MeganJennifer's body Fox, whose candid interviews and sultry on-screen personality will sell more than a few tickets.

Love Happens, which is billed as a Jennifer Aniston-Aaron Eckhart romantic comedy but is actually more about Eckhart coming to term's with his wife's death in a car accident, opens on 1,898 screens. It's a genre picture straight down to its green-screen shots of Seattle, but executed just well enough to make your hour and forty minutes more diverting than plodding.

Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! (2,505 screens) also debuts. Soderbergh is another one of those prolific directors who cranks out film after film--I got a hint of why in the comedy/thriller, The informant matt damon phone which has a few shots with sloppy cinematography (Soderbergh does it himself under the pseudonym Peter Andrews). Our Executive Editor Kevin Lally hated the "relentlessly jaunty music score." While that film device fails, there's also a clever voice-over narration that illustrates the "cognitive dissonance" of Matt Damon's character. The "manic stream filled with non-sequiturs" about corn and polar bears was one of my favorite parts of the film.

This week is a crowded one at the box office. We'll recap Monday to see how the weekend played out.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

3D movies fighting for scarce space on 3D screens

By Sarah Sluis

During the 3D Entertainment Summit, Henry Selick, director of Coraline, was frank about how the lack of 3D screens hurt his film. The picture made 85% of its revenue on 3D screens, managing to book 600 of Coraline_shot 900 available screens, even though the movie released shortly after My Bloody Valentine 3D. It was then pulled out of many theatres three weeks later when Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience released. If there were a steady supply of 3D screens, the film could have done even better.

This year, the 3D screens, limited as they are, accounted for the overall increase in box-office revenue (fewer people went to the movies, but people paid more to see them in 3D). But there still aren't enough.

The big, ominous statistic is "average time of release on 3D screens." In 2008, the average time was 8.7 weeks. This year, it's down to 3.1. That's still feasible for many studios, since they do seven-eighths of their business in the first three weeks. But next year, it could sneak down to 1.8 weeks, severely cutting into the golden period.

Help, though delayed, in on its way. With Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke proclaiming that the recession is over, and more big banks able to open up their pocketbooks to lend money, theatres may finally receive the financing they need to install digital and 3D systems. Last Friday, JP Morgan announced that it was planning to lend $525 million over the next five years to the three largest circuits, which will help fund the transition. Thousands of screens should be converted.

For viewers, there's also a future in which films release exclusively in 3D, creating differences in pricing: Avatar_poster imagine choosing between seeing a big animation or action blockbuster in 3D for $15, or a quieter 2D drama for $12. Will those three dollars be enough to sway people's choice of film? Or will they both be considered equally valuable for what they're offering? I think it's too soon to say exactly how viewers will respond, but it will be interesting when it gets to the point that almost everyone has seen a 3D movie. A few weeks ago, I overheard a conversation between a male and female moviegoer, roughly college age. The male was all about 3D, but the female was opposed to it, saying she would never see a 3D film because they were" gimmicky." Once a viewer like her is persuaded, I think 3D will have truly arrived.

Be sure to check Film Journal's Digital Cinema section for further updates on the transition to digital and 3D screens.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Zach Galifianakis adds another film to his slate

By Sarah Sluis

Since The Hangover became a runaway success, its stars have been busily lining up projects. Zach Galifianakis, the misfit in the movie, has become the rising star of the group. He has queued up an Zach impressive array of projects, including Dinner for Schmucks and Due Date, and is currently considering a role in It's Kind of a Funny Story.

Based on a teen novel, the story centers on a depressed 15-year-old who is sent to a mental institution for five days, where he turns around thanks to his interactions with the other patients. Galifianakis will play a patient, which sounds like a perfect role for his unhinged style of humor. Focus Features is producing the picture, and it's rumored to offer Galifianakis a meatier performance than straight comedy. So far, his only co-star is Emma Roberts, who will play a patient and love interest. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, who directed/wrote Half Nelson and Sugar, are re-teaming for the movie. There's a long history of great mental institution/hospital films in Hollywood--One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Girl, Interrupted among them--so It's Kind of a Funny Story will have good company. The announcement also comes as Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, an action film taking place in a mental institution, has started filming in Vancouver.

Galifianakis is on the cusp, as he transitions from smaller roles to bigger ones, so you can catch a glimpseZach Galifianakis 1 of him as a homeless man in Gigantic (recently released on video, and you can read my interview with the director), a man in a suit in G-Force, and a trailer-trash boyfriend in upcoming Youth in Revolt. He's also appearing in HBO Brooklyn-set crime show "Bored to Death." Whew.

In the meantime, he's wrapped Due Date, a road trip film he stars in with Robert Downey, Jr., who must endure the man in order to make it to the hospital in time for his wife's birth. He's set to play another pitiable/annoying appendage in Dinner for Schmucks, where he will play an assistant manager in a mattress store who is dating Steve Carell's ex-wfe. Then there's The Hangover 2, which will start shooting this year. Galifianakis' career is going straight up--let's hope he can hang on and enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

'Pray the Devil Back to Hell' reaches new audiences with Global Peace Tour

By Sarah Sluis

Screener had the opportunity to interview director Gini Reticker, whose documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell has returned to the big screen, and is now being shown by groups across America this September as part of a Global Peace Tour.

Pray_the_devil_back_to_hell Since Pray the Devil Back to Hell's debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008, which was followed by a fall theatrical release, the film has been seen across the globe. Reticker describes her filmmaking style as "looking for things that are universal...what people have in common rather than what separates us," but she too has been astonished by the far-reaching, diverse audience that has embraced the film. Security guards during the Tribeca festival spotted each other so they could sneak in and watch the film, a social worker wanted to show it to her patients who were drug addicts, and it's scheduled to be broadcast over television in Burma.

In Liberia itself, where the documentary takes place, the film has inspired new recognition for the women who fought for peace in their country. Their story, which was on the verge of being lost by time, has been preserved, ensuring the women a place in the country's history books. For those unfamiliar with the documentary, (read the FJI review here and our profile here) Pray the Devil Back to Hell reconstructs the plight of a group of women who became activists to stop the civil war in Liberia. Both sides looted and raped villagers, and enlisted boys to serve as Gini Reticker soldiers. The women, who came from all religious backgrounds, banded together, not taking sides, but simply asking for peace. And it worked.

With its inspiring story, Pray the Devil Back to Hell sounds like the ultimate grassroots film, but a traditional specialty rollout release did not adequately meet demand for the feature. "The thing about documentaries," Reticker explains, is that "you never play long enough in any city. By the time you build an audience, you're closing." The answer to that was a "semi-theatrical tour, so that people who heard about the film and wanted to bring it to their organizations could use it." Over 200 cities are screening Pray the Devil as part of the Global Peace Tour, which is centered around the United Nations' International Day of Peace on September 21st. Churches, schools, universities, film societies, and even the United Nations and World Bank will screen the film. For Reticker, the "phenomenal" response is incredibly rewarding to her as a filmmaker, "because it's extending the life of the movie in a really different way." The non-traditional venues still contribute to the film's revenue, as each organization will pay for the rental of the film.

The success of the documentary has spawned a series on WNET. The public broadcasting station picked up the film and has commissioned four more hours of television about activist women. Reitcker hopes to explore different geographical areas in the series. She also credits producer Abigail Disney for the "tremendous amount of energy and effort she made to make sure the film is seen...she's the one who spearheaded the distribution movement completely," trying to show the film in as many places as possible. Indeed, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton mentioned the film recently, and several of September's screenings have been scheduled by Washington D.C.-based human rights and policy organizations. Even those on the "other side" have seen the movie. While at a screening at the Hague, a man came up to Reticker after the panel discussion, telling her how much he enjoyed the film, but that he thought the root cause of the problem was poverty. Reticker, who believes that these wars are because of corruption and greed, explained her opinion. The man turned out to be the lawyer defending Charles Taylor, the ex-leader of Liberia, from his war crimes charges.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell's popularity among groups and organizations comes from its sense of Pray the devil poster universality. While these women's lives and experiences differ dramatically from most of those in the audience, the women seem like people you could know. Their methods of protest seem attainable. They conduct sit-ins, wear the same clothing, and use the media to communicate their message, simple protests that had a big impact. "I start the film with a woman saying that her child was hungry and wanted a donut and she couldn't feed it," Reticker points out, a universal story that helps people identify with the women. She also tried to "make it a war movie, give it the rhythm of a war movie, and make the viewer involved in a fight between good and evil...It's kind of a war story told from the point of view of women who are fighting for peace."

For those who see Pray the Devil Back to Hell on the Global Peace Tour, the communal experience will offer an opportunity to engage with like-minded people and think of how you, too, could enact change. If the women of Liberia did it, the documentary seems to say, you can too. Find a screening near you here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

'I Can Do Bad' makes good with $24 million opening

By Sarah Sluis

"Part musical, part love story, part family melodrama, part inspirational treacle," Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself won over the box office with a $24 million weekend take. With a targeted release of 2,255 screens, each auditorium brought in $10,656. While the opening weekend comes in below Perry's I can do bad all by myself henson February release Madea Goes to Jail, it was 37% higher than The Family that Preys, which opened the same weekend last year. The pace at which Perry releases his films, as well as their popularity, continues to astound me. He's currently filming Why Did I Get Married Too, and will take on a non-Madea project in the fall when he starts filming poetry-play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Not Enuf, which is rumored to have an all-star cast.

Focus Features' 9 brought in $10.8 million, and because it opened on Wednesday, it already boasts a cumulative gross of $15.2 million. The early opening date likely appealed to the primarily male, 12-34 audience, which is known for turning out 9 movie green orb opening day for event films.

Neither of the genre offerings of the weekend brought in hefty audiences. Sorority Row narrowly beat Whiteout, coming in at number six with $5.2 million to Whiteout's $5.1 million.

On the specialty circuit, two environmentally themed pictures made the biggest impact. No Impact Man, a documentary of a man's attempt to

minimize his environmental impact, brought in a serviceable $7,600 per

theatre at its two locations. The bigger winner was Crude, a documentary about the environmental catastrophe caused by Chevron, which has spawned an ongoing court case and the nickname "Amazon Chernobyl." Its one-screen release brought in $16,595, and $21,823 since its Wednesday open.

This Friday, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs opens in 3D, including an IMAX release, along with Jennifer Aniston-Aaron Eckhart romantic comedy Love Happens, feminist-horror movie Jennifer's Body, and Steven Soderbergh-directed The Informant!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Venice Film Festival: War, a chubby Matt Damon, and a Tom Ford original

By Sarah Sluis
FJI critic Jon Frosch offers his final post from the 66th annual Venice Film Festival.

Things are winding down here in sun-soaked Venice, with official prizes scheduled to be announced tomorrow evening. In what is considered a fairly strong competition, one of the frontrunners for the top The-informant-1 Golden Lion award is thought to be a first film from Israel: Samuel Maoz's gripping combat drama Lebanon. Maoz himself was a soldier in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon portrayed in the film, and what unfolds on screen has the charge and intensity of feeling of personal experience. The story is told almost entirely from the point of view of four rookie soldiers inside a tank who, on the war's first day, are handed the grim task of wiping an already-bombed village clean of remaining enemies.

Of course, things don't go as planned, and the film traces their mission's descent into chaos with visceral, terrifying realism. Maoz brings a powerful physicality and a precise sense of place to the tank setting: It may be safe compared to the violence outside, but it's its own hell�a dank, bloody, disorienting and claustrophobic trap, where the four soldiers suffocate under the pressure of clanking metal, confusing radio orders, and their own growing doubts about the purpose of their assignment.

The soldiers' dilemmas are standard�they essentially struggle to accept the fact of taking human lives�and some of the characterizations edge toward sentimentality (one of the four is the mama's boy, another the loudmouth, a third the bleeding heart, and last but not least is the brash commander). But Maoz portrays their utter navet in the face of the violence that surrounds them�and in the face of their own role in it�with an urgency and empathy that get under your skin. At a focused, compact 90 minutes, Lebanon is not a sweepingly ambitious or overtly political film with any big or new statements about the Middle East, and it's all the stronger for it; Maoz lets the horrors of war speak for themselves.

A considerably more cheerful, though less riveting, viewing experience was Steven Soderbergh's out-of-competition crowd-pleaser The Informant!. Based on a true story, the film stars Matt Damon (packing a few dozen extra pounds) as Mark Whitacre, a Midwestern food-industry whistleblower who was also a multi-million-dollar embezzler. It's briskly paced and directed with Soderbergh's usual verve, and Damon is one of the great onscreen liars, able to make even the slipperiest and most disingenuous of characters affable and engaging. Here, Whitacre's cheating is grounded in a kind of sweaty, desperate class insecurity; Whitacre came from a modest background and was always trying to prove himself, even if that required pathologically justifying some very outlandish behavior.

Soderbergh brings what feels like an effortlessly light touch to some dark stuff here, and it's all good fun, but the film's pull is limited from the get-go. It's a familiar story, and the jaunty approach�appealing and well-controlled as it is�doesn't find anything particularly new. Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can was both more substantial and a better time�though the shape-shifting, globetrotting nature of that film's con artist offered entertainment value that the tacky corporate world of The Informant! can't muster.

A pleasant late-game surprise was American fashion designer Tom Ford's first outing behind the camera: A Single Man, a flawed but mostly nimble and touching comic melodrama about a day in the life of George, an elegant British professor (very well-played by Colin Firth) mourning the loss of his younger, longtime lover in 1960s L.A. The set-up of the movie seems ripe for mishandling: George's goal for the day is to commit suicide, but every time he sticks the gun in his mouth he's interrupted�by his pesky white-bread neighbors, a James Dean-like Spanish hustler, a needy friend and fellow British expat (a wonderful Julianne Moore), and a pretty-boy student who seems to be nursing a serious crush.

But the competition film, gracefully adapted from Christopher Isherwood's novel, is lushly shot, quiet and unassumingly witty, pulling you gradually into a vivid, lived-in portrait of loneliness and grief. Ford's designer's eye is evident in his attention to the theme of deceptive physical appearances; makeup, perfectly coiffed hair, and crisp, form-fitting suits are seen as characters' attempts to make the best of unhappy existences. He also stages moments of vibrant beauty in which George connects with the world around him: a midnight ocean swim with the infatuated student, a boozy slow dance with Moore's character, a flashback showing George first flirtation�in a rowdy bar filled with marines�with the man who would become the love of his life.

The director also makes some typically rookie errors, relying too frequently on a somewhat pushy score, clumsily flaunting a stylistic technique in which he adjusts color to reflect George's shifting mood, and indulging in some flowery flourishes�particularly near the end�that threaten to drag the movie into gloppy Stephen Daldry territory. But A Single Man ultimately works. Imperfections and all, Ford invests an essentially sentimental story with an authentic-feeling sadness that lingers with you after the closing credits.

Tyler Perry and '9' bring promising fare to late-summer box office

By Sarah Sluis

Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2,255 screens) is a strong contender for number one this weekend, with an expected gross in the high teens to early twenties. His films never screen for critics, but I can_do bad all by myself consistently draw in his loyal fans, who are predominantly African-American. In this movie, which is based on one of his plays, his alter ego Madea is a jumping-off point to tell a story centered on Taraji P. Henson (who was nominated for an Oscar last year for Benjamin Button). Madea (the old woman played by Perry) catches three siblings robbing her home. She drops them off at the house of their aunt, a nightclub singer who is unfit to take care of the children. Their presence, along with that of a boarder, helps change Henson for the better. With a targeted wide release, this heartwarming comedy should bring in a high per-screen average.

Animated caper film 9 opened on Wednesday in 1,661 theatres and brought in $3.1 million. The Focus Features release is rated PG-13, so it's targeted towards an older crowd intrigued by director Shane 9 doll movie Acker's sophisticated blend of "Eastern European animation, Japanese anime and such live-action visions of the apocalypse as James Cameron's Terminator films," which create a "distinct futurescape." Our critic Ethan Alter also praised the film for its "wonderful tactility. Instead of wielding advanced technology, the characters have to fashion tools and weapons out of whatever is at hand in the giant landfill that is this future Earth."

Rounding out the week's offerings are two genre pictures, Whiteout (2,745 screens) and Sorority Row (2,665 screens). Whiteout stars Kate Beckinsale as a researcher solving a murder mystery in Antarctica. Critic Stephen Farber find her "earnestness...ludicrous in a potboiler like this one," and panned the thriller's predictable ending. Those in Bubble bath hammer sorority row search of college girls screaming for their lives can check out Sorority Row. A remake of House on Sorority Row, and a lesson in karma, the horror movie centers on five attractive sisters who accidentally kill one of their own, only to be stalked to the death by a serial killer. On IMDB, one of its actors is credited as "Bra-clad sister," which just about sums up what viewers are in for.

On Monday, we'll circle back to count the spoils of Tyler Perry's next moneymaker, 9, and the battle between the ice-cold Whiteout and the scary-sexy Sorority Row.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Disney Princess Watch

By Sarah Sluis

Continuing my Disney theme from yesterday, the studio made several announcements about its upcoming movies, including three princess-themed projects, each planned for a December release over the next three years: The Princess and the Frog, Rapunzel, and The Bear and the Bow.

Disney had the stroke of genius several years ago to group all their princesses together into one marketing line of "Disney Princesses," and with the December release of The Princess and the Frog, they've added one more to the group and put its protagonist, Tiana, front and center.

The Princess and the Frog will be a return to Disney's hand-drawn animation (which makes me nostalgic for my youth), and feature its first black princess. Because there's never been a black princess before, Disney is under

much more pressure to come up with an unequivocally positive role model. The full trailer for the movie, as well as the teaser that released awhile ago, has made many uncomfortable. I think part of this has to do with the characters' New Orleans accents, which seem to differ by race, as the black and white princesses in the trailer talk differently. Knowing Disney, this has been extensively researched and is historically accurate, but it can be uncomfortable to hear because these accents have been so frequently lampooned in other contexts. There's also some voodoo/black magic references that could generate mild controversy. The credits say the movie comes from the directing team that did Aladdin, which also faced criticism from Arab-American groups for the lyric "Oh, I come from a land.../Where they cut off your ear/ If they don't like your face/ It's

barbaric, but hey, it's home." After protests from the group, they changed the rhyme to "Where it's flat and immense / And the heat is intense" in the home-video version.

Rapunzel, which is scheduled for a Christmas 2010 release, has cast its main roles. Mandy Moore will voice the lead and sing Rapunzel's songs, and Zachary Levi of "Chuck" will play the male lead. Moore is definitely more talented than her debut as a 15-year-old pop singer revealed, so I am thrilled to see her take on this role. The plot, too, has been expanded and changed from the original fairy tale. When Disney announced an adaptation of Rapunzel, many were disappointed, since the female is especially passive in the fairy tale. According to the presentation, Rapunzel will be much more of a female hero. Her hair still "comes to the rescue," but this time she uses it as a weapon to defeat their enemies.

Finally, artwork for Pixar's The Bear and the Bow, planned for a December 2011 release, was unveiled. The character sketches look much different than the bubbly CGI animation that has characterized Pixar's Bearbow work, so I am curious to see how this visual look develops. It appears that Pixar is trying to emulate the style of Medieval artwork that was popular during the time period of the film, which takes place in 10th century Scotland (French animated film Azur et Asmar did similar work incorporating Middle Eastern-inspired artwork into its animation). They also revealed that the plot will be less about the princess (Reese Witherspoon) finding love, and more about her relationship with her mother (Emma Thompson). There's also a witch, par for the course, who will be voiced by Julie Walters.

Each of these films has tried to "twist" typical Disney plotlines towards the empowerment of young girls, a move that I applaud. In the end, Disney will have three more princesses to add to its line, and three more stories to enchant young and old audiences. Sounds like a win-win.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Disney opens up their archives at D23 Expo

By Sarah Sluis

This weekend, Disney will exhibit 92 items from their archives, including Walt Disney's old traveling trunks, the storybook used in the opening scene of Sleeping Beauty, and Miley Cyrus' Hannah Montana wig. The 031009_FEAT_WelcomeToD23_Welcome move marks a departure from the company's usual secrecy. The context in which it occurs, the D23 expo, the inaugural Disney-themed trade show in the style of Comic-Con, is just as revealing of Disney's changing strategy.

Those that have visited any of Disney's theme parks may recall the many "behind-the-scenes" books that are penned by and sold to Disney fanatics, with jam-packed titles like Mouse Tales: A Behind-The-Ears Look at Disneyland, and The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World: Over 600 Secrets of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. These types of books are testament to Disney's deep mythology, and the incredibly detail-oriented way their ideas are executed. They also show how people's curiosity can be piqued when a magician withholds his secret--apparently Disney's mantra was "We do not talk about how we make the magic." Today, that same fervor has been extended to over 1,000 blogs, a medium known for its tempestuous moods. To corral these fans, Disney's PR team created D23, a community for Disney's core followers, which includes a $75 yearly membership fee, a magazine, and discounted entry to Disney's debut convention, the D23 Expo. With the recent news of Disney's acquisition of Marvel, it will be interesting to see if the expo, which takes place this weekend, will Spidey_mermaid eventually grow to incorporate this group of comic book characters, or if the world of Disney characters will be kept hermetically separate from that of Marvel. Will the majority of these fans defend the acquisition, or will they feel it's encroaching on the core Disney heritage? Disney is always coming up with new characters, and I doubt anyone's complaining about Pixar, which was also a Disney acquisition, so I think that offers a clue to the hard-core fans' response. It also appears that Disney will offer previews and special events extending to all its properties, such as ABC's "Lost," (convention-goers can check out a preview of an auction of series items) at the expo. Next year, it's possible D23 may grow to include Marvel brands, and become a rival to Comic-con itself.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

'The Final Destination' wins another week

By Sarah Sluis

Labor Day weekend proved to be another quiet one at the American box office, as kids headed back to school and lucky people motored out for one last weekend getaway. Since no studio wanted to release a The final destination winner on this dead weekend, the number one and two films were holdovers from last week. The grosses from 3D venues pushed The Final Destination to the top with $12.3 million from Friday to Sunday, despite a new offering for males, Gamer. The Gerard Butler sci-fi action movie opened at number four, with a $9.1 million weekend gross.

With no appealing new films at the box office, the second spot went to Inglorious Basterds, now in its third week. The Quentin Tarantino-directed movie added 193 locations and another $11.6 million to its gross, which should cross the $100 million mark next week.

All About Steve, the Sandra Bullock movie that received a unilateral pan, still drummed up $11.2 million in business. Those that saw the film, which I confirmed through a Twitter check, had nothing to say to their friends except "Don't see this!"All about steve

Lower down on the list, Extract grabbed the number nine spot with $4.3 million. Better than Idiocracy, and worse than Office Space, the comedy will probably make a bigger impact on DVD than in theatres, where people are more forgiving of a middling quality.

With few new offerings, the rest of the top ten held on to their audiences. District 9 crossed the $100 million mark and brought in $7.1 million. Julie & Julia, which didn't open strong, has turned into a long-tail success story. This week it dropped a slight 24%, the smallest drop in the top ten. If movies drop 50% each week, they will do 85% of their business in the first three weeks, which is considered the industry standard. Going below that number usually indicates a quality film and positive word-of-mouth: The Hangover, for example, only did 55% of its business in the first three weeks. Julie & Julia will likely approach (but not meet) that number. The first three weeks now count for only 73% of the movie's total five-week gross, a number that can only go down, since there are several weeks left in the film's run. With so much attention given to first week grosses, it's worth remembering that movies that appeal to certain demographics, such as older or female audiences, can only be judged a few weeks into their run. (500) Days of Summer, for example, has been hanging out just below the top ten for most of the summer, where it's earned $28.4 million to date.

This Wednesday, dark animated film 9 will open. On Friday, it will be joined by Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself, along with sexy-horror flick Sorority Row and Antarctica-set chiller Whiteout.

The latest from Venice: Sex, politics, and Tilda Swinton speaking Italian

By Sarah Sluis
FJI critic Jon Frosch continues his exclusive coverage of the 66th annual Venice Film Festival.

One day past the midpoint at this year's Mostra, the consensus is that the selection is pretty good�few great films, perhaps, but few disasters, and plenty of interesting work from all corners of the globe both in and out of competition.

Capitalism One constant, of course, is that critics can't seem to agree on much. A case in point is French director Patrice Chreau's intense in-competition relationship drama Perscution, which got a chilly reception from nearly everyone except�you guessed it�the French. I'm siding with France on this one: The film is an unflinching, sharply observed look at a couple plagued by what one might call severe intimacy issues. Romain Duris plays Daniel, a scowling young Parisian apartment renovator stalked by a man (Jean-Hughes Anglade) who claims to be madly and unconditionally in love with him. It looks like we're in for a psycho thriller about homosexual obsession, but Chreau gradually pulls back to reveal his true focus: how this vexing situation becomes a turning point in Daniel's relationship with his independent, cool-headed girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg), bringing to light their failure to fulfill one another's needs.

The movie is tough, bleak stuff, but I found it to be brave and deeply insightful in its dissection of two people who love each other but are slowly undone by crippling insecurity, neediness and lack of communication. Duris and Gainsbourg, in richly written roles, do devastating work.

More of the tortured romance, but less of the substance, was on display in one of the highest-profile out-of-competition screenings: Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love (Io Sono L'Amore), a handsomely made Italian saga starring Tilda Swinton as a Russian woman whose affair with a young chef threatens to crumble the wealthy Milanese family she has married into. The film is a throwback to the melodramas of the '40s and '50s, but despite the confident camerawork and editing, pounding score, a few knockout sequences (including a Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse bit in Sanremo) and an excellent performance from Swinton in a gentler register, it's surprisingly lacking in real tension. With the exception of Swinton, the characters are thinly drawn and pretty much do exactly as we expect, and for all the passionate embraces and painful revelations, the story unfolds rather remotely and with few surprises. What we end up with is as dramatically bland as it is visually accomplished�a movie puffed up with tragic emotions that the filmmakers never make us feel.

One of the most rapturous rounds of applause thus far was for Michael Moore, who's at it again with Capitalism: A Love Story, an in-competition documentary that uses the financial crisis as a pivoting point for a blazing critique of the American economic machine. As is the case with all of Moore's films, this one is snappily edited (the director makes mischievous use of archive footage and old movie and cartoon clips) and consistently engaging, as the director turns his wisecracking Midwestern wit on a handful of highly deserving targets. No matter how questionably documented and hastily fact-checked his films might be, Moore remains an uncommonly entertaining�albeit subjective�synthesizer/simplifier of complex political problems.

If the film isn't as rousing as Fahrenheit 9/11, for example, it's perhaps because that doc was essentially an anti-Bush tract, while this one tackles an entire system and philosophy. Not to mention the reality that Moore's tactics have grown even more transparent, and, inevitably, more grating: Just when you think he's conquered his most annoying tics (fawning over other countries, hammily staged stunts), he slips in some good old-fashioned grandstanding near the end. After attempting to make a citizen's arrest of AIG execs, Moore saunters up to the New York Stock Exchange and proceeds to put crime-scene tape around the building. Funny enough, I guess, but I'm still looking forward to a Michael Moore documentary with less Michael Moore in it.

Some of the movies that made the strongest impressions the last few days were screened out of competition: Good Morning Aman, a strikingly assured first feature from Italian Claudio Noce that focuses on a young Somalian who struggles to find his footing in an unwelcoming Rome; Chuyen Bui Thac's Choi Voi (Adrift), a Vietnamese film that portrays romantic angst among a handful of young Hanoi dwellers with startling emotional immediacy; and from Sweden, A Rational Solution, in which Jorgen Bergmark blends Bergmanesque gravitas with bedroom farce in a remarkably mature feature-length debut about two middle-aged couples who move in together for reasons I won't disclose here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

'Gamer' makes a play for the top spot

By Sarah Sluis

Labor Day weekend is typically a slow one for the movie business: people are enjoying the last bit of summer, and the kids are heading back to school, making the first few weeks of September less profitable, since there's no one to go to weekday matinees. Studios make the weekend even more anemic by All about steve sandra bullock mullet releasing movies over the holiday that barely had a chance anyway. 2009 is no exception.

Releasing in 2,251 theatres, All About Steve is a romantic comedy that should have everyone running at the sight of Sandra Bullock's mullet-like haircut. She plays "a writer of crossword puzzles whose motor-mouth drives everyone other than her forgiving parents to near suicide." Apparently, that also includes the audience. Kirk Honeycutt also called the film "seriously wrong," the kind of movie that makes you "guess what the filmmakers thought they were doing."

Gamer (2,502 theatres) is a futuristic, video-game action movie that appears to borrow most of its "futuristic" plot points from other movies. Like Death Race, the car-race-for-freedom movie, it features death row inmates who are allowed to go free if they can win in a game. In this case, gamers control the bodies of the criminals and play war games with them. Gerard Butler plays one such criminal--a prodigy who is close to completing the thirty missions required to be freed from prison. With its appeal to young males, Gamer is most likely to go number one at the box Gamer gerard butler office.

Extract (1,611 theatres) is the best reviewed film of the bunch, according to Rotten Tomatoes, but that still puts the comedy at a measly 57% approval rating. Honeycutt found the film "depressing" and its characters "wildly dysfunctional" to the point of contrivance. Mike Judge had directed a cult hit, Office Space, which he followed up with Idiocracy, a miss, and it seems Extract may fall somewhere in the middle.

Releasing on the sidelines is Carriers (100 screens), a horror movie about a virus that comes just in time for H1N1 season. Star Trek is re-releasing on 93 IMAX screens and 175 select theatres, hoping to draw back Trekkies for a last chance to see the movie on the big screen. The Final Destination, with its 3D screens, could hold its appeal beyond the first weekend that tends to bring in the bulk of a horror movie's audience. On Tuesday, we'll be back from the long weekend to dissect the weekend's winners and losers.

Venice Film Festival offers mixed bag of American films

By Sarah Sluis
FJI critic Jon Frosch is at the Venice Film Festival, where he reports on The Road and new films from Todd Solondz and Werner Herzog.

While most U.S. film industry eyes are turned toward Toronto, the Venice Film Festival has opened with typical Old World flair on the sun-baked, red-carpeted Lido. Among the buzziest and most highly attended ROAD1 in-competition screenings of the first few days were three American titles: The Road, an eagerly awaited adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's much-lauded novel; Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime, a sort-of sequel to his 1998 film Happiness; and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog's sort-of remake of the Abel Ferrara cult film.

As is often the case, it's a mixed bag: one major letdown, one knockout (and early potential contender for the big Lion d'Or prize), and one mildly diverting "What were they thinking?" oddity. Any guesses?

Let's start with the bad news. The Road, from Australian John Hillcoat (The Proposition), squanders cherished source material with a lackluster telling of McCarthy's story about a father and son (Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) on the run in a charred, barren America of unspecified date. Apart from a few powerfully staged moments, the movie suffers from a serious rhythm problem: a tiresome and predictable stop-and-start pattern sets in from the get-go and never lets up, giving us a burst of violence followed by a lull full of somber post-apocalyptic handwringing, then another burst of violence followed by another lull, etc. Hillcoat hurls us right into the story with no build-up or context, so the drama of survival and tough choices, as conveyed through some rather ham-fisted dialogue, feels overwrought, silly, even banal�never transporting or terrifying as it should be.

The story begs for a director with a strong and sweeping vision, and I found myself missing Alfonso Cuarn's vastly superior Children of Men and even wondering what someone like Spielberg might have done with this material�even if his overly sentimental instincts might have gotten the better of him, the result surely would have been more awake than this halfhearted movie.

On a happier note, Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime is a splendid return to form after the uneven Storytelling and forgettable Palindromes. Revisiting the unhappy family members of Happiness, but played by different actors this time, the movie is much more than a sequel�it's an ingenious re-imagining of what these characters would be like ten years later. Focusing on the three dysfunctional sisters and their struggles to move on from the traumas of the earlier film, Life During Wartime is often as cruelly funny as Happiness; Solondz hasn't lost his uncanny ear for passive-aggressive family combat. But the wonder of the movie�and the major step forward for Solondz�is that he doesn't stop at mocking these characters or shocking us with the unimaginably dysfunctional things they say (though he does do that, brilliantly). He also takes their troubles seriously. The hilariously insufferable people of the first movie are still mostly insufferable, but they are also complex, sad and frequently endearing human beings.

The result is an incisive, moving, visually rich comedy about the ravages of the past on the present and the clumsy ways people lurch forward. Solondz scores his vicious satirical laughs, but he also stages confrontations revolving around the topic of pedophilia that are some of the most emotionally searing scenes I've ever seen in a comedy. The political subtext (see title) of a scared, distrustful post-9/11 America transitioning into a more hopeful, reconciliation-seeking Obama-era America is a gamble, but Solondz handles it with a surprisingly light touch, hinting at the ways the country's national mood and preoccupations shape how we approach personal choices. He also draws some standout performances out of his uniformly superb ensemble: Allison Janney, Ciarn Hinds, Michael Lerner, Charlotte Rampling, Chris Marquette and Dylan Riley Snyder all do astonishing work.

Totally unnecessary but at least sporadically entertaining was Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a tame take on Ferrara's much more hard-hitting original. This time the crooked cop is played by Nicolas Cage (sporting an unfortunate sideburn-free 'do), who, when he's not snorting coke, popping Vicodin, threatening people or collapsing into fits of raspy giggles, is investigating the drug-related murder of a Senagalese family in New Orleans. Cage gives a hammy, high-energy performance, though the character has little of the magnetic menace and revulsion of Harvey Keitel in the original�I found myself wondering what the movie would have been like with Cage's underused co-star Val Kilmer in the title role.

The film itself is high on pulpy atmosphere�booze, hookers and crocodiles�and very low on action, which would be fine if Herzog had found some hook or angle to make this stuff pulsate the way it should. His camera circles restlessly, but doesn't find much of interest or generate anything close to the dread or rawness of Ferrara's version. Every now and then there's a humorous moment, and a few scenes have real heat�one toward the beginning in which Cage toys with a couple of college-age clubbers, giving in to his basest power-abusing instincts. Otherwise the movie ambles along loopily, neither bad enough to be camp nor good enough to fully hold our attention. Word has it that Ferrara was upset about Herzog's fiddling with his legacy (to which Herzog reportedly sniffed, "Who's Abel Ferrara?"). He needn't have worried.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Guy Ritchie turns to the comic books with 'Lobo'

By Sarah Sluis

Now that Watchmen is done and gone, Warner Bros. is on the lookout for its next blue superhero. They've set Guy Ritchie to direct Lobo, a DC Comics property. While the Lobo character isn't as well-known as, Lobo say, Spider-Man, I think that's all the better, since it will allow Ritchie to experiment with the characters more. Ritchie has proven himself to be a master of quippy, dialect-driven action films, and his particular style seems a natural complement to the equally stylized action and characters of comic books. In the comic book, which was first created in 1983, Lobo is an alien bounty hunter, tall, muscular, and virtually indestructible. He arrives on Earth to capture four aliens with the help of a teenage Midwestern girl (clearly put in to attract female audiences). Filming will start next year, which will probably give the movie a Summer 2011 (or 2012, depending on the visual effects) release date. Like many of its comic book cousins, the film will aim for the broad PG-13 rating.

While Lobo is a ways off, audiences can look forward to Sherlock Holmes, which will open on Christmas. Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law and Rachel McAdams, the appeal of this Arthur Conan Doyle Lobo12adaptation will be seeing Ritchie let Holmes break free of his stuffy, "Masterpiece Theatre" depiction. The Holmes mythology includes cocaine and morphine use, a bohemian flat, weapons, and a least a few romantic liaisons, which Ritchie's adaptation (watch the trailer here) restores with relish.

While Ritchie doesn't seem to recycle his cast too much, it should be noted that I could see Robert Downey, Jr., CGI'ed and wigged, playing the role of Lobo--if he's not too busy reprising his role as another superhero, Iron Man.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Voting for 'Best Picture' just got more complicated

By Sarah Sluis

Oscar pools are already going to be completely upended this year, since ten films will be competing for Best Picture. Now Academy voters are going to have to think even more strategically about their own Oscar statuette choices. The Academy has adopted a preferential voting system, which is often used when there are a large number of candidates in an election. It requires one film to receive a majority of votes to win.

If a film doesn't receive a majority in the first round, the #2 choices of the losing (#10-ranked) film are counted as a #1 choice. This continues, with a new loser designated each round, until there is a film with over 50% of the ballots. This process was used to choose Best Picture until 1945, a nod to the Academy's old method of nominating 10, not 5, films for Best Picture. What could make this process interesting is if there were a distinct "minority group" that made the same 1-2 choice. While they wouldn't win, all of their redistributed votes could sway the Best Picture race one way. The political equivalent is if a minority ethnic group wants to elect one of their own. They vote for their leader, but as their #2 choice they pick a competing politician who is sympathetic to their interests. If Academy voters are grouped by age, affinity for independent/WWII and the Holocaust/costume drama/epic/musical, it's possible that distinctive ranking patterns will emerge. Too bad the exact voting breakdowns won't be revealed.

The easy scenario:

  • Over 50% of members declare a film their #1. It receives Best Picture. Phew.

A more complicated scenario:

  • Let's say there are three front runners. Altogether, 92% of Academy voters pick one of these films as

    their #1, but none of them will have a majority vote. Only 8% of the

    votes will be redistributed, which would only be enough to push a film

    that's already in the mid-40's to over 50%. That means that the #3 film, which almost a third of Academy voters picked as their #1, will instead get redistributed according to its #2s. People will definitely be speculating about genres and types of films, and what kind of person would pick, say, a sci-fi film like Avatar as their #1 choice and the musical Nine as their second choice.

Until we know what films have been nominated, these kinds of speculations are endless. But I think it's reasonable to speculate that there will be two to four front runners, and having one of those front runners eliminated and redistributed according to the voters' #2 choices could dramatically change the outcome of Best Picture.