Monday, November 30, 2009

'New Moon' and 'Blind Side' gobble up a second helping

By Sarah Sluis

For the second week in a row, The Twilight Saga: New Moon took the top spot at the box office. Through the five-day Thanksgiving weekend, it earned $65.9 million, bringing its total gross to $230 Twilight new moon looking million. The two-week total exceeds that of the entire run of the first Twilight movie, which never passed the $200 million mark. The blockbuster success of a franchise targeted almost exclusively to young teen girls should change the film landscape for years to come. Studios should be scurrying to replicate its success, especially given the comparative lack of female-driven blockbusters (Sex and the City and the slightly broader Mamma Mia! notwithstanding)

In second place, The Blind Side grabbed $40 million over the holiday weekend and even beat New Moon on Thanksgiving day because of its broader, family appeal. Many have compared the movie to Precious, but its heartwarming flavor is more reminiscent of last year's Christmas hit Marley & Me.

Old Dogs had a softer Thanksgiving open than a similar Disney comedy, Wild Hogs, opening at $24 million to Wild Hogs' $40 million. The first movie opened in a less competitive March timeslot, making Old dogs the movie a bit of a scheduling victim, lost among the more appealing side dishes. The other male-oriented film, Ninja Assassin, opened two spots lower at $13.1 million.

As the holiday season kicks into high gear, A Christmas Carol was there to reap the seasonal cheer. The performance-capture tale went up 30% from last week, and 80% including the five-day weekend.

On the horizon, The Princess and the Frog had a promising debut in limited release, bringing in $1.1 million from just two screens thanks to high ticket prices because of a tie-in to character meet-and-greets and behind-the-scenes looks at the movie. When it opens wide on December 11th, girls who have grown up on the Disney "Princesses" merchandising line will have a chance to add another heroine to their princess collection.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, a rather different sort of children's movie, brought in $9.4 million over the five-day weekend. A quarter of the audience was under 19, suggesting the movie has greater appeal among adults and Wes Anderson fans.

The bleak The Road opened in the last spot in the top ten, earning $2 million from 111 theatres. The road Delayed for over a year, the movie has finally seen the light...but not much green. Unlike the last Cormac McCarthy book to be made into a movie, No Country For Old Men, this one will do considerably lighter business.

The next few weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's will see a whole slate of quality, Academy-worthy films released and crowd-pleasing blockbusters (I can vouch for Up in the Air, but I'm still waiting to see Avatar like everyone else). Time to ring in the holiday season with some popcorn and egg nog.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

'New Moon' to bring fangirls to the box office

By Sarah Sluis

The Twilight Saga: New Moon will open in over 4,000 theatres at midnight, 600 more screens than the first Twilight. reported that over 2,150 screenings of the vampire romance have sold New moon angst out, and the film has surpassed franchise films like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to become their #1 advance seller of all time. The reviews are coming in, but it's doubtful the fan base will even care. This movie is all about reliving the book with the added visuals of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, and the swoons and shrieks of your friends and fellow audience members. Plus, the sequel combines Vampire-mania with Werewolf-mania, throwing heroine Bella into a love triangle between the two man-creatures.

The Blind Side, which many have called Precious with a white, Republican savior (and thus appealing to that demographic) will open in 3,100 theatres. Sandra Bullock is in top form, but critic Michael Rechtshaffen wished that "Oher [the black homeless teen Bullock's character and her The blind side storytime husband took in] had been presented as something other than essentially a large prop." Further separating itself from a movie like Precious, The Blind Side sticks to "proven inspirational sports-movie/fish-out-of-water

formulas while holding the inherent sociological issues to the

sidelines," despite the fact that "there also was room for more thought-provoking substance."

Planet 51 (2,600 theatres), a kind of E.T. in reverse, revolves around an astronaut who has landed in a suburban alien town. Grade-school joke: they think he's the one who's funny looking. The "Sci-Fi Lite" movie, according to critic Kirk Honeycutt, has "gentle jokes and cornball battles," and is geared more towards children than the adult-children mix more frequently seen in today's animated movies.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens in 27 theatres, and if you are near one--you need to Bad lieutenant nic cage see it. Genre-wise, it's a story of a corrupt cop (Nicolas Cage) in love with a prostitute (Eva Mendes), but director Werner Herzog takes this story places you have never even imagined. The screening I was in prompted several moments where everyone broke out in shocked laughter--whether it was because Cage was so outrageously bad, mad-scientist crazy, or because the movie did things you just aren't supposed to do on film, including alligator point-of-view shots.

Also moving into theatres on Friday is Red Cliff. Directed by John Woo, the American version compresses the two-film arc into one historical epic critic Daniel Eagan called "teeming with characters and plot twists," but "told in such a direct and vigorous style that it is never confusing."

New Moon is the hands-down winner for this weekend, but its narrower fan base is always a liability. Everyone will be watching to see how much the film drops Saturday and Sunday after its Friday open. Precious and Fantastic Mr. Fox will be expanding this runs, and Planet 51 needs to bring in audiences before The Princess and the Frog opens over Thanksgiving (though, thankfully, in a limited run).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

'Winnie' and 'Selma' to highlight black history

By Sarah Sluis

With Precious and Invictus, come Selma and Winnie.

Now that Lee Daniels' Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire is steaming ahead and Martin_Luther_King_22391g showing all signs of being a breakout hit, the director has lined up his next project. He is in final negotiations to direct Selma, which is based on three civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. After three attempts (the first dubbed "Bloody Sunday" for its violent police action), demonstrators finally marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The five-day march, in support of black voting rights, is considered the apex of the civil rights movement.

The project has a lot going for it. Paul Webb, who wrote the script for Steven Spielberg's long-gestating Lincoln, penned Selma. While it Selma has no cast, the movie already has a production start date set for this spring. Finally, Christian Colson, who produced big winner Slumdog Millionaire, will be heading up production. With a producer, director, and solid screenplay, this movie only needs a cast (which certainly will flock to the promising project) to get off the ground.

American audiences will see Invictus this December, which stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Now, Mandela's wife will get a turn. Jennifer Hudson announced she will star in Winnie, a biopic about Nelson Mandela's wife. While Mandela is almost universally Jennifer_hudson beloved, Winnie doesn't have the same reputation. The couple separated after she was unfaithful, and her methods to abolish apartheid were considerably more violent. She almost served six years in jail after her bodyguard said she ordered him to kill a 14-year-old informer, but the sentence was later reduced to a fine. The contrast between Winnie and her husband is striking, and the filmmakers plan on showing her good and bad side. The project has a production start date of May 30th. Director Darrell J. Roodt has a South African pedigree, having helmed films such as Cry, the Beloved Country and Sarafina!

While Hollywood has been criticitzed for its portrayal (or lack of portrayal) of black characters over the years, these two projects, which come on the heels of two more high-profile films starring black actors, belie this notion. Three of the four are historical adaptations: Selma, Winnie and Invictus. Could this be the new trend? Because they're based in fact, they can be safer projects. By comparison, literary-based Precious is universal but controversial, difficult to watch, and has led many to cries of racism, stereotyping, and negative portrayals of black people, even as they commend the movie in other ways. But if Precious were a real person, I doubt these complaints of racism would be levied. Spike Lee's WWII box-office flop Miracle of St. Anna notwithstanding, historically based films may be the safest way to create a universal movie featuring black characters without having to deal with controversy that can swing the wrong way.

Monday, November 16, 2009

'2012' destroys the box-office competition

By Sarah Sluis

Disasters, it seems, are always in style. 2012 earned an astonishing $65 million over the weekend, exceeding expectations. All the CG carnage came at a steep price, $200 million in production costs, Plane buildings 2012 but the first-week international gross of $225 million, plus a cable deal with FX, has already steered the movie toward the black.

Coming in second place, A Christmas Carol dropped a merry 25% to $22.3 million. It also has $200 million in production costs to make back, so the movie is counting on steady audiences through the Christmas season to recoup its investment. IMAX screens alone brought in $3.1 million, continuing the trend of 3D/IMAX films being buoyed up beyond opening weekend due to the strength of the higher-priced screens.

Pirate Radio debuted right out of the top ten at $2.8 million. Because it released on just 882 screens, its per-screen average of $3,200 bested seven of the films in the top ten. The movie didn't flop, but it would have needed to at least double its per-screen average to be considered a success.

The real second-week winner was Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire. The drama made the top ten while in release on under 200 screens. The only other film to do that in the past decade, according to Box Office Guru, was Paranormal Activity, which did so just weeks ago. Sometimes lightning does strike twice, but I suspect another explanation. The definition of "per-screen" may have changed--Precious was being played ten times a day, which requires more than one screen to achieve. Still, its $6 million gross and $35,000 per-screen average show the movie has a ways to go at the box office, giving it a promising forecast when it expands again this Friday.

Fantastic Mr. Fox debuted to a $65,000 per screen (though, again, playing ten times a day at each of Fantastic mr fox straight on its four "screen" locations). The stop-motion animated film will open wide over Thanksgiving. With its appeal to both kids and adults, it might be the crowd-pleasing choice, though it will have both Planet 51 and The Princess and the Frog to contend with.

This Friday, the next movie in the Twilight Saga, New Moon, will storm into over 4,000 theatres. Animated Planet 51 will provide some counter-programming for kids, and parents that don't qualify as "Twilight Moms" may want to catch feel-good The Blind Side after they drop off their rabid teenage girls at the theatre.

Friday, November 13, 2009

'2012' to blow up at the box office

By Sarah Sluis

Today, 2012 will bring disaster to 3,404 theatres nationwide. Filled with unbelievable near-death escapes, and a survival mechanism called the "atomic-age equivalent of Noah's ark," the movie's 2012 escape strong suit is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. With this framework, the implausibilities go down much easier. While crowds will turn out for the special effects, the disaster theme is getting old. Add in the recession, and the movie could play either way: "My world is already collapsing, so why bother to see civilization collapse?" or "Well, I should see it. It will remind me things could be worse." The doom-and-gloom spectacle is expected to open at $40 million.

A movie rescued and repackaged from its unsuccessful British release, Pirate Radio, will open in 882 theatres. Previously titled The Boat That Rocked, it bowed to a disappointing run in Britain at a considerably bloated running time. It was given to Focus Features, edited, and re-marketed, so its performance will be a reflection of the success of Focus' efforts.

Joining Where the Wild Things Are as a kiddie movie with a hipster, adult feel, Fantastic Mr. Fox opens in four theatres (NY/LA) before expanding in coming weeks. The stop-motion animated film Fantastic mr fox 2 employs a style less like Coraline and more like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: deliberately stilted. Our critic Ethan Alter called it "not necessarily...a great children's movie, but...a pretty fantastic Wes Anderson film." Having seen it myself, I can say it's fun to see Wes Anderson's signature style--his straight-on framing and penchant for stylized dialogue, to name two--melded with writer Roald Dahl's material and presented in stop-motion animation. By drawing in (perhaps confused) children, families, and adult Wes Anderson fans, the movie stands to make a buck without having to rob the three biggest chicken producers in town.

Opening in four theatres in New York and Washington D.C., The Messenger has already drawn warm Messenger reviews from critics, a promising sign given critic Justin Lowe's warning that the "delicate subject matter could be a tough sell in a marketplace still averse to accounts of the conflict; careful handling is required." By "gingerly [probing] wounds that are still healing with admirable empathy and insight," this war-themed film appeals both to soldiers and military families as well as those isolated from the impact of the U.S.'s wars.

Also opening today is William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (New York/Boston), a documentary about the civil rights lawyer who alienated almost everyone--including his two young daughters--when he started defending those guilty in the eyes of the American public, including an accused terrorist.

The kind of movie I would have enjoyed in high school, Dare, debuts today in New York and L.A. Though critic James Greenberg predicted most people won't see the movie until it hits cable, the high school-set movie is "a smart and well-observed entry in the genre [and] a cut above the usual hijinks."

On Monday, we'll see what kind of damage 2012 did on the box office, if Pirate Radio's re-marketing paid off, and if last week's big winner, Precious: Based on the Story 'Push' by Sapphire, can sustain its performance as it expands to 174 theatres.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Studios stacking the deck to create 5 nominees for Best Animated Feature

By Sarah Sluis

This year will be the ninth year of the Motion Picture Academy's "Best Animated Feature" category. Between computer animation, 3D premiums, and the incredible quality of films produced by studios like Pixar, the field will be as competitive as ever this year. Because of the volume of submissions this year, the Academy will likely boost the number of nominees from three to five. The bump in nominees happened once before, in 2002, and occurs when the number of eligible films is greater than 16. To be eligible, the movie must have a qualifying release and an Academy-produced average score of 7.5 (but on the odd scale of 6-10).

The 20 submitted features, along with my predictions, are below. The locks for nominations are Coraline oscar nomination bolded and underlined. Films with strong chances of being nominated are bolded.

  • Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel: The first one made a surprising amount of money, though it did not secure a nomination. Don't count on the squeakquel receiving one either.

  • Astro Boy: Without making a splash at the box office, a critical assent would come as a surprise.

  • Battle for Terra: A clunker several years in the making. My guess to be excluded from the running.

  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: The crowd-pleaser could surprise with a nomination

  • Coraline: A lock for a nomination. Incredible story, visuals, and stop-motion technique. Read the review here.

  • Disney's A Christmas Carol: Potential nominee, which would be a first for a film using director Robert Zemeckis' performance-capture technique.

  • The Dolphin - Story of a Dreamer: A straight-to-DVD film given a qualifying run to boost the amount of eligible films.

  • Fantastic Mr. Fox: Potential nominee. Wes Anderson received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his screenplay of The Royal Tenenbaums.

  • Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs: The first Ice Age was nominated, but the sequel was not. The third probably won't either, despite its status as the third highest-grossing film in international box-office history..

  • Mary and Max: This adult indie film has Philip Seymour Hoffman and the winners of an Oscar-winning short behind it, but it might be too low-profile.

  • The Missing Lynx: a small, Spanish film unlikely to receive a nod.

  • Monsters vs. Aliens: If Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is nomination-worthy, then so is this film.

  • 9: An adult-oriented movie that could receive a nomination

  • Planet 51: More likely to be a box-office winner than nominee.

  • Ponyo: Disney-released Spirited Away, an anime film, won in 2002, and Howl's Moving Castle was nominated in 2005. Both were directed by Hayao Miyazaki. But some felt Ponyo fell flat.

  • The Princess and the Frog: If this movie resonates with viewers and Oscar voters, I predict it will be nominated.

  • The Secret of Kells: The trailer animation looks uneven and not up to snuff.

  • Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure: Disney's straight-to-DVD release given a qualifying run to boost the chance on the nominees going to five.

  • A Town Called Panic: The trailer looks cute, but only Sony Pictures Classics (The Triplets of Belleville and Persepolis) and the aforementioned Miyazaki films have has ever successfully secured a nomination for a foreign animated film.

  • Up: a lock for nomination, and in all likelihood the winner. Read the rave review here.Up planes old man oscar nomination

Having an Academy-nominated film can certainly help boost DVD sales and rentals from inquisitive Oscar ceremony viewers (although with the DVD market tanking, maybe not so much). But this year, Up seems like a lock on the Animated Feature category. Press attention could be drawn away from the category as a whole, making nominee status not as valuable. Coraline, to me, is the only likely upset. Plus, with the Academy skewing older, the hero of Up, the old man, is one of their own. What's not to love? Even with five nominees, Pixar shows all signs of continuing their winning streak.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Len Wiseman goes from �Underworld' to �Nocturne'

By Sarah Sluis

Len Wiseman, who has been floating around different projects for the past year or so, is in talks to direct a pitch for 20th Century Fox "based on an original idea about a group of people who survive the end of the world and the mystery surrounding how they got to that position," tentatively called Nocturne.

Dr S kongdrop The idea doesn't sound original at all. In fairness, they may be withholding the secret sauce. Considering the project is looking for writers, it's also possible they haven't figured out exactly what will be in the secret sauce either. Because Wiseman's been attached to a number of projects that haven't come to fruition (out of proportion, I think, to the amount of films he's actually directed), I'm skeptical of this project. Last year, for example, he was attached to direct Motorcade with Tom Cruise starring, but now that project will star Ryan Reynolds with Jon Cassar directing. He was also supposed to direct a video game adaptation Gears of War and Atlantis Rising, in which the famed city of Atlantis declares war on the world. However, this announcement does provide a good opportunity to rehash all the movies/television shows/books that have used the same plot point as Nocturne.

"Flash Forward": This brand new ABC show centers on an event where almost every person in the world has a vision of themselves six months in the future. Everyone abandons all activity and tries to figure out what their clue meant. It borrows a little bit from "Lost" and sounds strongly apocalyptic. It also is a little too similar to the "mystery surrounding how they got to that position" part of Nocturne's plot description.

2012: It's coming out this Friday, and has a soft spot for those that enjoy the architectural demolition derbies that come along with the apocalypse.

"Left Behind" series: There's a reason The Passion of the Christ earned so much money. A religion angle is not only plausible, but profitable. This popular Christian series, which was made into a movie starring Kirk Cameron, follows a group of sinners who are left behind after the Rapture for being unbelievers. It takes them some time to figure out what happened, and then to identify and usurp the Antichrist.

The Road: Coming out this fall. The apocalypse, but with two people against man-hungry cannibals with a side of post-apocalyptic depression.

The most interesting part of this spare plot description is that the characters themselves seem to be flummoxed about their position. Were they knocked out and woke up in a nuclear bunker? Did they get unplugged like in The Matrix? If it weren't for the fact that the "mystery" part was just used in "Flash Forward," I would be more forgiving of this pickup, but it will be up to the assigned writers to prove me wrong.

Monday, November 9, 2009

'Precious' gold at the box office

By Sarah Sluis

The weekend was one for the record books. Opening in 18 locations, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire earned an unheard of $100,000 per location. Most strong specialty releases open Precious_monique between $10,000 and $25,000 per location. Last year's indie standout Slumdog Millionaire opened at $36,000 per location at ten engagements, which was considered an unusually high number. How did Precious bring in so much money? Every theatre played the movie between nine and fourteen times each day, devoting more than one screen to the movie. The movie opened in New York, Los Angeles (the two specialty release standards) as well as the Atlanta and Chicago metro areas. Executive producers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey hail from these two cities, which also have robust African-American populations, so they were able to work off their strong local fan bases. Lionsgate has a huge hit on their hands, but scaling this release will still be tricky and require some deft handling to ride this incredibly strong wave of interest.

The number one film of the weekend was A Christmas Carol, which rang in the holiday season with a $31 million gross. With seven more weekends until Christmas, the movie will have plenty of time to share its Christmas cheer. The movie is also the largest 3D release to date, a welcome sign of Christmas carol hang on jim carrey exhibitors' progress in digital conversion.

The Men Who Stare at Goats opened at number three with $13.3 million, kicking off the fall and winter of George Clooney, who has two other films opening within the next month and a half (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up in the Air)

The Fourth Kind ($12.5 million) drew in almost twice as many viewers as The Box ($7.8 million). It seems that The Fourth Kind registered as scarier than The Box, which is more of a convoluted thriller. The Fourth Kind also used vrit-type techniques, like hit Paranormal Activity, to tell its story.

Men who stare at goats In its second weekend, Michael Jackson's This Is It dropped 40% to $14 million. Its domestic and foreign total will easily clear the $60 million paid by Sony, which also has a stake in other Jackson-related material. Plus, the movie will stay in theatres beyond its planned two-week release, which will add to its profits.

After its spectacular wide release two weeks ago, Paranormal Activity settled down and dropped 47% to $8.6 million amidst the horror/sci-fi competition. Through the weekend, the movie's cumulative gross reached $97.4 million, a sure sign it will cross the $100 million mark within the week.

The films in the seventh to tenth spot of the top ten dropped a below-average amount. Couples Retreat dipped just .5%, Law Abiding Citizen fell 16%, and Where the Wild Things Are a slightly larger 28%, and Astro Boy 25%. Each of the films had something different to offer their audience than the new releases, so the lack of competition helps explain their above-average staying power.

This Friday, disaster romp 2012 will blanket the marketplace, while comedy Pirate Radio opens smaller, along with a four-location rollout of Wes Anderson's stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tis the (early) season for 'A Christmas Carol'

By Sarah Sluis

Despite opening nearly two months before the holiday, A Christmas Carol will roll out in 3,683 theatres, including 2,050 3D screens, 141 of which are IMAX. The movie is expected to earn in the A christmas carol turkey $25-$35 million range. As the holiday season approaches, it should pick up even more business, though it will lose 3D screens once Avatar releases on December 18th. Our critic and executive editor Kevin Lally called the movie "Dickens for the ADD

generation," noting "[director Robert] Zemeckis' penchant

for rollercoaster-like 3D action" seems tailored for a "videogame-nurtured audience." To each generation, their own. (I count myself among the Mickey's Christmas Carol generation)

Two horror-thriller-sci-fi movies will battle at the box office this weekend: The Box (2,635 theatres) and The Fourth Kind (2,529 theatres). Neither has accumulated much acclaim. In an effort to punch up The Box, which was originally a short story about a simple choice ("If you open this box, you will receive $1 million and someone will die"), director Richard Kelly created a convoluted plot that "winds its way through suspense, psychological thriller, science fiction, conspiracy theory and horror genres with an overlay of Christian religious motifs and a dab of existentialism." Wow. The Fourth Kind follows Paranormal Activity by purporting to show real events--case studies of people who were abducted by aliens. The trailer is pretty frightening, but critic Michael Rechtshaffen found "the gimmick proves more distracting than disturbing."

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2,443 theatres) is a light war romp about a reporter who discovers theMen who stare at goats new earth army U.S. Government sponsored a unit to try to investigate the use of psychic powers for combat. Unfortunately, the movie includes one scene where a soldier is given LSD and starts firing shots into a crowded military courtyard, only to put the gun in his mouth to kill himself. Because of yesterday's military shooting, audiences may not be able to flip back to comedy so soon after seeing such an eerily similar event. However, the older-skewing satire is expected to play well for several weeks in an open field for comedies, so this should not be the death knell for the movie, especially given George Clooney's spot-on performance.

Budding awards favorite, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, is opening in 18 theatres. While most specialty films will open in a mix of multiplexes and arthouses, Precious is debuting in multiplexes and theatres in primarily African-Precious movie clareece American neighborhoods. In New York, it's playing in Harlem. In Los Angeles, it's playing in Crenshaw. The movie has already drawn a wave of controversy, with many critical of reviews and cries of racism being thrown around. Not only is the movie powerful and violent, but it opens up a dialogue about race that incites incredible emotion. With its disenfranchised child in the lead and the resulting social critique (including that of exploitation), this movie is the Slumdog Millionaire of '09. Just don't presume it ends up with Precious winning a million dollars.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Zhang Ziyi to star in book club hit 'Snow Flower and the Secret Fan'

By Sarah Sluis

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a novel about a secret language, nu shu, used by women in China. Often written on fans, the language provided a rare opportunity for women to interact with each other in SnowFlowerpb 19th-century China, since the women's feet were bound, they remained cloistered in their homes, and were subject to their husband and sons. Written by Chinese-American writer Lisa See, the novel follows two such women who were chosen as laotong (old sames) by a matchmaker, a rare form of friendship that requires being born on the same day, in the same birth order, and having other complementary characteristics.

The novel's historic setting and theme of friendship made it a big hit on the book club circuit. So perhaps it's no surprise that two middle-aged wives, the book club stereotype, are producing a film based on the book, though they bring some unusually high-powered connections to the table. The producers behind it? Wendi Murdoch, wife of Rupert Murdoch (the president and CEO of Newscorp.), and Florence Sloan, wife of Harry Sloan (the chairman of MGM). They just added actress Zhang Ziyi to their list of producers. The star of Memoirs of a Geisha, another book club hit, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a rare appeal that extends across cultural boundaries. Her role in production could also help the film get past China's film quota, which limits the amount of foreign films that are exhibited each year. Wendi Murdoch is Chinese-born, and Florence Sloan is Malaysian and Chinese. For a cross-cultural, Chinese-based production like this, their cultural fluency will be a prized asset.

The project is in search of a distributors and backers at the American Film Market, though the Instyle-dec2005-zhang-ziyi-1 production has already set a start date for next year. While the project is commercial and has a global audience, it's worth noting that so far it is being produced outside the studio system. Certainly those currently on the project are uniquely suited to the task, but was Memoirs of a Geisha's $162 million gross on an $85 million budget just not good enough for the big studios? Or did the producers of the project snag the rights before anyone else?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin to host the Oscars

By Sarah Sluis

This year's Oscars will have ten nominees for Best Picture and two hosts sharing the limelight. Steve Martin had hosted the Oscars twice before, but Alec Baldwin will be hosting for his first time.

Over at The Envelope, The LA Times' award blog, Elizabeth Snead suggested that Baldwin was either discovered or taken for a test run at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards. After watching the YouTube videos of Baldwin's performance, it's clear that he's an ace at hosting. While most hosts seem to put so much energy and song-and-dance into their duties, Baldwin's persona is detached and deadpan. It seems like he's doing the act for himself, not the audience.

Baldwin passed the test of making fun of celebrities without coming off as mean-spirited. His wry delivery lets flat jokes pass and good ones receive a roar of appreciative laughter and applause. As a fan of his pompous, self-interested character on "30 Rock," I look forward to seeing Baldwin take a little bit of Jack Donaghy to the Oscar stage.

Perhaps the Academy is hedging their bets by having Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin co-host. Martin's style involves more interaction with the audience. His opening monologue in the 2001 Oscars seemed like he was talking to his friends. He picked out and picked at celebrities in the audience without them seeming to mind. If the Oscars maintain anything from last year's ceremony, they'll need someone comfortable sitting down in seats with people. If that role could go to Martin, Baldwin could complement Martin by continuing to be his aloof self.

Baldwin and Martin. Let the Oscar shake-up continue.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

George Clooney and Alexander Payne could pair up for 'The Descendants'

By Sarah Sluis

George Clooney under the direction of Alexander Payne? Sounds like a winning combination to me. Clooney is known for choosing atypical comedies, and Payne's movies are darkly comedic, yet George_clooney_8 embraced by a wide range of viewers. He now plans to direct The Descendants, an adaptation of the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. This will be the first project he's directed in five years, and the first film he has directed without also receiving a writing credit. He previously wrote and directed four films within the span of eight years: Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways.

The plot, as provided by Variety, "centers on a wealthy landowner who takes his two daughters on a search for his wife's lover in the hopes of keeping his family together." A look at a summary of the source novel, however, reveals more nuance as well as the trademark dark comedy tone Payne is so adept at handling.

Clooney will play the landowner who is descended from a Hawaiian princess and a haole (white person/foreigner). He's had a life of leisure and is married to a beautiful, adventurous woman, now in a terminal coma after a catamaran accident. His 10 and 17-year-old Alexander paynedaughters are strangers to him, and his relationship with them is awkward at best. He's also mulling over a business deal that would involve him selling his family land to a real estate developer. As he's contemplating pulling the plug on his wife, he finds out that she has been having an affair for some time with a real estate broker. He gathers his children (the eldest sent from her boarding school) in search of his wife's lover.

Among his other talents, Payne is a director of actors. He exacted an amazing performance from Reese Witherspoon (pre-Legally Blonde) when she was an up-and-comer in Election. In his past two high-profile films, he directed his actors to Oscar-nominated roles (with the exception of Paul Giamatti, who still deserved one). Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates were nominated in About Schmidt, and Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen were nominated in Sideways. Is Clooney angling for an Oscar follow-up to Syriana?

The movie will start shooting in February in Hawaii. Clooney is currently in Spain shooting The American while three of his films debut this fall: The Men Who Stare at Goats, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Up in the Air.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Michael Jackson's 'This Is It' beats the competition to the top

By Sarah Sluis

The documentary of a concert that never was, This Is It, easily found its place at #1 this weekend, Michael jackson this is it bringing in $21.3 million. Michael Jackson's songs have spent plenty of time at #1 on the Billboard charts, but now the late music icon can add #1at the box office to his list of accomplishments. Globally, the movie was even more of a success, passing the $100 million mark in its first weekend. Sony paid $60 million for the movie (not including marketing), so the doc will turn a healthy profit. The fact that Sony holds rights to Jackson's music will also help the parent company's bottom line.

In second place, Paranormal Activity dropped just 21% to gross another $16.5 million. The movie is on track to pass $100 million in the next couple of weeks. Despite many viewers who have faulted the movie for being too slow or boring 90% of the time (see the semi-literate comments below the Paranormal Activity review), it appears the horror flick has become one of those films you need to see just to weigh in on, especially if you're a teenager.

Three spots lower, Saw VI dropped 61% to $5.6 million. While the original Saw possessed the robust word-of-mouth that has helped Paranormal Activity, the jig may be up. Currently, Saw VII (in 3D) is slated to begin production in January 2010 for a release next Halloween, but the lackluster box office may change plans. Whether or not this series is declared dead, with horror franchises it's only a matter of time before they're resurrected.

Amelia rose two spots to #9 this weekend, adding 250 theatres and only dropping 23%. While these are strong second-week results, the cumulative gross for the film is just $8 million, a disappointing sum.

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day had a per-screen average of $6,700 for a $462,000 total. Gentlemen Broncos, a Fox Searchlight release that seems to have been recalibrated for a small Gentlemen broncos theatrical release, probably to platform for the DVD, made $5,000 per screen. While these are the kind of averages that work better on 3,000-screen releases, these movies will likely see more traction in their DVD windows.

This week will see a return to wide releases. A Christmas Carol will open in theatres just as stores are taking their Halloween decorations down, and The Men Who Stare at Goats will provide some indie-tinged comedy. The Box and The Fourth Kind will compete for thriller audiences. Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire will also debut in a limited amount of theatres, giving us a taste of its box-office prospects, so check back on Friday for the full roundup.

Tales of infidelity at the London Film Festival

By Kevin Lally

FJI Executive Editor Kevin Lally reports on some highlights from the recently concluded Times BFI London Film Festival.

I'm back from aweek's vacationin London, England, but I couldn't avoid making it a bit of a busman's holiday, since the 53rd annual Times BFI London Film Festival happened to coincide with my visit. I left before the closing-night screening of a film this Beatle fan can't wait to see, the John Lennon drama Nowhere Boy, and I was too late to secure one of the remaining press seats for the Q&A sessions with Clive Owen and Julianne Moore, but I still managed to sample a number of intriguing films amidst my theatregoing and museum-gazing.

This year's festival, which hosted 193 feature films, sought to raise the event's profile with more star-driven U.K. premieres and a new awards ceremony. Among the stars turning up to represent films like The Road, Chloe, A Serious Man, and the George Clooney trifecta of Up in the Air, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Fantastic Mr. Fox were Bill Murray, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Emma Thompson, Colin Firth and, of course, Mr. Clooney himself. Jacques Audiard's acclaimed A Prophet took the award for Best Film and Defamation scored the Grierson Award for Best Documentary.

For my own screening choices, I opted for films that haven't yet screened in New York or may never appear stateside. By sheer chance, a recurring theme of my selections was the price of marital infidelity.

Chloe, the new film from Canada's Atom Egoyan, is a remake of the 2003 French drama Nathalie, about a gynecologist(Moore) who hires a young call girl (Amanda Seyfried) to test the faithfulness of her college professor husband (Liam Neeson). But Seyfried's Chloe is more of a wild card than Moore ever anticipated, and the experiment wreaks havoc on the elegant wife and mother's pristine home life. Moore brings depth and subtlety to her performance, but ultimatelyChloe is anunconvincing melodrama that goes way over the top.

A much more persuasive infidelity tale is Leaving, a French-language drama with a sensational LEAVING01.jpg_rgb performance by Kristin Scott Thomas. The bilingual actress plays a married mother of two teenagers who falls madly in love with the Spaniard (Sergi Lopez) who's been hired to fix up a home office for her return to work as a physiotherapist. But husband Yvan Attal refuses to accept this attack on his marriage and does everything he can to thwart his wife until she agrees to return to him. Briskly directed by Catherine Corsini, this feminist look at a woman's right to choose passion could be a smart pickup for an American distributor.

Infidelity also propels the narrative in Adrift, a 1980s-era Brazilian drama from writer-director Heitor Dhalia. The story centers on 14-year-old Filipa (poised and pretty newcomer Laura Neiva) during a summer holiday with her family at the beach. The girl adores her novelist father, but soon discovers he's having a fling with an attractive American who lives nearby. As Filipa deals with the sexual games of her teenage friends, she also learns that her parents' marriage is far more complex and troubled than she ever knew. The film is well-acted all around (including by French star Vincent Cassel showing off his fluent Portuguese) and the locations are handsome, but this coming-of-age tale is far too familiar to travel much beyond its native Brazil.

A more original family drama came from Spain: Ander, the story of a single, forty-something Basque farmer whose life changes when he breaks his leg and his family hires a Peruvian ranch-hand to take over his chores. The awkward rapport between Ander and his temporary replacement suddenly turns sexual, and the lonely farmer struggles to come to terms with what he has made of his life. With distinct echoes of Brokeback Mountain (and a similar leisurely pace), this debut feature from Roberto Castn, director of the Bilbao Gay Film Festival, should intrigue audiences at various gay festivals, but its understated style limits its theatrical potential.

Groundbreaking music-video and feature director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has also been in a family frame of mind lately. His documentary The Thorn in the Heart pays tribute to his feisty Aunt Suzette, a teacher who worked at various schools in rural France from the 1950s to mid-'80s. This is a film of very modest pleasures, with far more resonance for the admiring director than for a general audience. Still, it wouldn't be a Gondry film without quirky touches like the makeshift cinema he builds in one village, or the experimental short he creates with a group of schoolchildren wearing "invisible" bluescreen costumes. The one dark element in the portrait is Suzette's relationship with her struggling gay son, a model-train aficionado who built the miniature villages which charmingly introduce each stop in Gondry's nostalgic journey.

Finally, family is the enemy in Glorious 39, the new melodrama from well-regarded British writer-director Stephen Poliakoff (Gideon's Daughter, Close My Eyes). Romala Garai (Atonement) stars as a young actress in 1939 Britain who discovers that the aristocratic clan that adopted her as a child is full of dark secrets, mainly driven by their desire to appease the growing Nazi threat at any cost, including murder. The movie is like a Merchant Ivory version of a paranoid thriller�lushly appointed and completely daft. Top Brit actors like Bill Nighy, Julie Christie, Jeremy Northam, David Tennant, Hugh Bonneville and Christopher Lee try but fail to lend this overwrought tale some credibility.

The London Film Festival also showcased the British premieres of many of the year's most acclaimed festival films, such as The White Ribbon, Lebanon, Mother, Precious, Vincere and Sweet Rush, plus "Treasures from the Archives" like Abel Gance's J'Accuse, Anthony Asquith's silent Underground, Capra's Dirigible, Bergman's The Touch, and John Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven. It's a world-class festival and a treat for Londoners, who probably don't care that the earlier Toronto and Venice events get a lot more press.