Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Noteworthy cinematography and the rise of 3D

By Sarah Sluis

You may think you know something about how movies are shot until you start surfing through the website for the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers). All of a sudden they're blogging about parallax problems in 3D and edge violation and cute videos Disney made to teach projectionists how to adjust for the floating window in their 3D films properly (this helps fix the 'edge violation,' a.k.a. the problem of the 3D effect going away or looking weird along the edge of the screen. It also means that during production, cinematographers have to shoot a specific way, like avoiding over-the-shoulder shots, in order to make the 3D look good). When you're caught up watching a movie, it's easy to forget how difficult it is to even accurately represent reality in a movie. Most amateur picture-takers have experienced the familiar problem of over or underexposure. The sun or window turns up abnormally bright in a picture, while the poor person standing in front of it has a dark, unrecognizable face. Or focus problems, like a crisp image of your friend against the blurry landmark in the background. But for professional cinematographers, correcting for these kind of problems is just the beginning of their job.

Amelie2_fond That's why it's interesting to see the results of an online poll ranking the best cinematography in films from 1998-2008. The experts belonging to the ASC picked the finalists, then the Internet at large picked its favorite. The winner? Amelie, which I remember most for its manipulation of color, infusing certain scenes with saturated colors, as well as its use of a Super 8 camera for its nostalgic opening sequence. Movies with dark, shadowy cinematography also turned up, like The Dark Knight or noir-ish Road to Perdition. Children of Men is known for its moving-camera sequences, Saving Private Ryan for the challenges of its shoot ( the camerawork in the D-Day sequence were pretty incredible). Way down on the list is The New World, one of my favorites, for its stunning depiction of the

The dark knight cinematography natural world. Watching that movie was like going on a hike.

The list says more about what people recognize as good cinematography rather than what actually went into making the movie. Stylized cinematography wins over naturalistic cinematography, simply because it's more noticeable. Coloring and shadowing are among the most readily accessible parts of cinematography: they're meant to be noticed. Seamless moving camera shots that focus on multiple characters (like that famous Citizen Kane shot that moves from outside with the young Kane sledding to indoors) are more invisible than a shot that follows one person through a dynamic space--like Martin Scorsese's use of the shot in Raging Bull (YouTube clip) and Goodfellas. But is one better than the other?

While this list only goes until 2008, last year the 3D, CGI Avatar won for Best Cinematography. Even if cinematographers have already accepted and rewarded 3D as an art form, it can't "do" all the same things that cinematographers do with 2D films. As the ASC blogger states, "It has been suggested that in the 3-D world, a much reduced selection

of lenses (and wider ones at that) is advisable � that the longer focal

length lenses I often prefer, and the shallow depth of field I choose

for dramatic purposes, are elements that do not strongly support the

guidelines for effective 3-D cinema." That doesn't mean people won't come up with creative solutions to 3D's various challenges--everyone praised Avatar--but that also means some will be more interested in mounting the learning curve than others. Christoper Nolan isn't swayed by the hassle of shooting in 3D, saying he would prefer to add it in post-production, and also gripes about the darker images projected by 3D, which is particularly problematic for the dark, shadowy films he makes. I will happily go to see his 2D Inception this July. As far as I can tell, there are no James Cameron-level 3D movies in the works now. How many 3D movies will show up among the ASC's list ten years from now remains to be seen.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Audiences haven't forgotten 'Toy Story 3'

By Sarah Sluis

Woody, Buzz, and the gang must be relieved that audiences still haven't returned them to the toy box. In its

Toy story 3 toy box second weekend, Toy Story 3 continued to draw in fresh audiences to the tune of $59 million, a 46% drop from the first week. Given its enormously high opening, the Pixar movie's dip should level out by next week. Added box office traffic due to the Fourth of July weekend could even boost the total.

Grown Ups opened to a healthy $41 million, despite its poor reviews. With the combined star power of Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider, the comedy

Grown ups quintet
hedged itself against backlash towards any one star (if only Knight and Day, saddled with Tom Cruise, had that luxury). The movie even earned 2% more on Saturday than Friday. The summer-themed film has some flag-raising and holiday-weekend scenes, so if Universal can rotate those images into the promos it might win audiences this coming weekend due to its topicality.

After earning a combined $7.2 million on Wednesday and Thursday, Knight and Day racked up an additional $20.5 million over the weekend. Because the movie comes on the heels of another one of Tom Cruise's underwhelming movies, Valkyrie, he's receiving a lot of the blame for the soft opening. Maybe he has lost his star power.

Knight and day west diaz cruise On the other hand, another madcap action comedy involving a male assassin whose unwitting romantic interest gets dragged into the mess just opened a month ago, and it didn't do that well either. That would be Killers ($15 million debut, $44 million cumulative gross), and no one blamed Katherine Heigl or Ashton Kutcher for the movie's failure. I'm chalking this one up to genre fatigue, because I know I wasn't particularly excited about seeing a startled female star shriek as she's being shot at AGAIN. The whole concept feels tired to me, even if it was done well enough to earn a 53% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

On the specialty front, Oliver Stone's documentary South of the Border opened north of $20,000, an excellent opening figure but reflecting just one screen of business. War documentary Restrepo earned $15,000 per screen on two screens. Cyrus ramped up its release from four to seventeen theatres, adding 65% to its gross. The per-screen average dropped almost two-thirds, from $45,000 to $17,000, but the latter number still puts it in a strong position for further expansion.

Twihards will rejoice when The Twilight Saga: Eclipse opens this Wednesday in advance of the Fourth of July weekend. Going up against returning favorite Toy Story 3, kid-friendly The Last Airbender, a M. Night Shyamalan-directed movie in the vein of Captain Planet, opens on Friday.

Friday, June 25, 2010

'Knight and Day' and 'Grown Ups' aim for teen and adult crowds

By Sarah Sluis

Adults and teens will be greeted with two summer movie staples this weekend: a big-name comedy, Grown Ups, and a slick action comedy, Knight and Day. But don't expect either of them to beat the second weekend of Toy Story 3, which should earn well over $50 million.

Knight and day diaz cruise Pairing up Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, Knight and Day (3,098 theatres) jump-started the weekend by opening on Wednesday, bringing in $3.8 million on opening day. However, Toy Story 3 brought in $13.4 million the same day, a sign that the movie will be trounced at the box office. Critic Kevin Lally summed up the movie "as disposable and inconsequential as summer entertainments get," but for audiences dividing their attention between the film and their giant buckets of popcorn, they might get exactly what they wished for.

Grown Ups (3,534 theatres) is a movie cast with extremely funny people that isn't really funny at all--unless you're the kind of person who thinks that

Grown ups chris rock adam sandler bodily fluids are so hilarious you squirt milk out your nose in laughter. I'm talking to you, fourth-grade lunchroom table. The movie is an exercise in mediocrity, and at best numbs you for a couple of hours. Apparently, the cast had fun making the movie, but as this slideshow from New York Magazine suggests, the more fun you have during shooting, the less fun the audience usually has watching the final product.

A moving war documentary that's also a selection at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Restrepo follows a group of soldiers stationed in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan. Without drawing

Restrepo image 2 conclusions about its participants, it offers a reminder of "one of the irreducible, grim absurdities of this war, which is the disjunction between its lofty strategic and ideological imperatives and the dusty, frustrating reality on the ground," as New York Times critic A.O. Scott points out. I wrote about the movie on this blog earlier this week, and give it my thumbs up.

On Monday, we'll weigh in on the second-week drop of Toy Story 3, wonder if it's the end for Tom Cruise with Knight and Day, and see how many audiences fell for stupid-funny Grown Ups.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

One of those little movies that could: 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid'

By Sarah Sluis

It's hard for adults to review movies targeted towards a kids-only audience. After reviewing Grown Ups, an adult movie with some kid flashback scenes, I was reminded of all the films about childhood friendship I watched again and again. These were movies that described the childhood experience for me, or even made

Diary of a wimpy kid it better. The kids had loyal and close friendships, and, to jealous suburbanites, the ability to ride bikes to the candy shop instead of having their parents drive them everywhere. They solved mysteries (The Goonies and countless others), and the creepy boogeymen in their town turned out to help them in times of need.

However, those pictures don't always get the best reviews. One tiny gem I saw in theatres was Golddiggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain. As an eleven-year-old girl, I fell squarely into the narrow target for the movie, and loved it. I remember being disappointed when I saw it quickly disappear from the box office marquee (it only earned just $5 million).

Suspecting that my enjoyment of the movie was somewhat biased by my age, I took a look at a couple of reviews from the time. Variety totally panned it, but the always-thoughtful Roger Ebert said it reminded him of the "Hardy Boys" novels he used to love, and acknowledged that eleven-year-old girls such as myself may prove a rapt audience:

"I have a rule that I never, or rarely, write things like "not my cup of tea, but sure to be enjoyed by young girls." I am going to break that rule, because foolish consistency, as we know, is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Gold Diggers is not my cup of tea, but it is sure to be enjoyed by younger audiences, and although I don't think it will hold the attention of adults, I do not require adults and children to be alike in all things."

One such movie that may fall into this category is Diary of a Wimpy Kid. After opening to $15 million, it made four times its opening weekend gross, $60 million. By comparison, solid releases make two-and-a-half times opening weekend, so this movie displayed signs of being a word-of-mouth success--despite a 54%, mixed, Rotten Tomatoes rating. The film's performance was enough to warrant a sequel, Roderick Rules, which is being set for a March release next year.

While this movie certainly received an extra bump from being based on a book, its ability to depict what it's like to be thirteen must have really resonated among young boys. If you take into account the adage that girls are willing to see movies about boys but not vice versa, you end up with the whole under-thirteen crowd clamoring to get their parents to take them to Wimpy Kid. However, it's quite remarkable that a movie targeted to such a narrow audience could earn $60 million. Though I didn't see the film, the trailer is filled with both goofy scenes and ones that must seem revelatory to a pre-teen audience: discussions about delayed puberty, embarrassing parents, and figuring out girls. As we've seen with the failure of such genre-bending movies as Jonah Hex, which tried to combine several types of pictures (Western, action, comic book, sci-fi) into one, sometimes sticking to one thing and nailing it can work much better. Diary of a Wimpy Kid may not have the rabid fan base of Twilight, for example, but both films immensely pleased their narrow audience, and were rewarded for it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The duty of a war documentary: 'Restrepo'

By Sarah Sluis

Last week I saw the Sundance Award-winning documentary Restrepo (read FJI's review here). Directors and journalists Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm) followed a group of soldiers in the Korengal Valley for a year. In an area known as "The Valley of Death," these soldiers engage in firefights every day, and up to multiple times a day--the kind of combat not seen since Vietnam. The documentary's stated purpose is to document the life of the soldiers, without including the overarching politics

Restrepo image 2 or outside viewpoints. I enjoyed the documentary, with some hesitations. After hearing it lambasted by another blogger, who felt the movie "misleads and distorts in a way that any fair-minded person would and should find infuriating," I feel the need to weigh in.

The documentary opens with the kind of scene that scares you half to death and gives you a huge adrenaline rush. While in an armored Hum-V, the soldiers take fire. They abandon their vehicle, take cover, and return fire. The camera moves Blair Witch-style, looking down at the ground as the camera operator runs for cover. Sonically, it goes from recording huge booms and gunfire so loud it's distorted, to eventually losing all sound, broadcasting a barely perceptible static. It's freaky, and one of those scenes you can't believe is real, because it feels like a movie.

Of course, most of the time the soldiers are hanging out, horsing around, or shooting at targets hundreds of yards away. They also have weekly meetings with local elders, and occasionally wake up residents in the middle of the night to gain information or detain them for questioning. Here, my sentiments toward the soldiers were not as positive. These soldiers are not culturally sensitive. You can understand their

Restrepo soldiers frustration, but at the same time they act incredibly rude. The leader speaks to the elders with exasperation, annoyed that they are still focusing on the errors of his predecessor. The soldiers laugh about "the cow incident," in which they killed (and ate) a villager's cow that had become tangled in their fence, but they also don't seem understand how the cumulative impact of these incidents can engender ill will among the residents. No wonder the townspeople are hiding the Taliban, and the situation seems like it can only get worse.

Even if the documentary itself doesn't address how this behavior can affect what's going on in the bigger picture, its scenes are indelible. This week, General Stanley McChrystal is in the news for his comments in a Rolling Stone article, which just led to his dismissal as top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. When I read the article, I paid attention to the new military strategy referred to as COIN (counterinsurgency theory). "Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps," the article explains, you "[send] huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation's government." I seriously doubt that the soldiers' presence in the Korengal Valley fostered good will among the locals. At its most benign, their actions were a nuisance and prone to misunderstandings. Once the soldiers start taking residents out of their homes in the middle of the night, killing cows and speaking to them in rude and frustrated voices, the relationship between the locals and the soldiers becomes one of toleration. Trust? How can they trust each other? The residents are hiding Taliban and soldiers accidentally kill innocent people trying to find them. By presenting footage without extensive commentary or contextualization, the filmmakers are doing audiences the favor of letting them draw their own conclusion.

Restrepo shows, it does not tell. Will everyone that watches the documentary be worried about how the soldiers treat the locals? No. But with many sources of information about the war in Afghanistan, there is a place for a documentary like Restrepo, and its portrait of Afghanistan is one I will remember for a long time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Barrymore, Bell and Krasinski swim with 'Whales'

By Sarah Sluis

Call it Ace in the Hole meets The Cove. Kristen Bell has signed on to Whales, starring alongside Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski. The screenplay is based on a book about a 1988 global effort to save three whales trapped in Arctic ice. While normally, these whales would die, over $5 million in journalism coverage

Whale arctic eventually prompted the Soviet Union to send two icebreakers to free the whales--all during the Cold War. Because in Alaska, as Sarah Palin says, you can see Russia from your backyard.

Entitled Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World's Greatest Non-Event, the source material sounds cynical--thus my Ace in the Hole reference--but reviews say the book, at least, is more sincere. The Hollywood version will undoubtedly go the sincere route as well.

Barrymore will play a Greenpeace activist (of course) and Krasinski a small-town news reporter. Bell will round out the cast, playing an up-and-coming television reporter who thinks her looks are her only asset. The setting for the movie is a little offbeat, and the historical event fairly remote, but this could end up working in the movie's favor. I predict that Barrymore and Krasinski will be each other's love interest, with Bell as the "other woman" that Barrymore mistakenly thinks has gone too far with Krasinski--but it will all be a misunderstanding. Also, they'll save some whales!

The director, Ken Kwapis, last directed Barrymore in He's Just Not That Into You, and has directed Krasinski in "The Office." His directing credits (License to Wed, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) don't really reveal a personal style. But if there are whale scenes, he'll be ready: after all, he had to direct an orangutan in Dunston Checks In.

If this is a romantic comedy, I give it points for setting the action against an event that will actually be interesting and have real stakes involved. Bonus points if Barrymore goes a little hippie in her role as a Greenpeace activist.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Victory for 'Toy Story 3' with a nine-digit weekend

By Sarah Sluis

Drawing in a remarkably diverse audience, Pixar's eleventh feature, Toy Story 3, brought in $109 million over the weekend, the highest opening weekend ever for a Pixar movie. What's more interesting, though, is

Toy story 3 group surprisejpg that attendance was comparable to Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and The Incredibles. What accounted for the millions more earned by Toy Story 3? Besides the usual culprit, rising ticket prices, the surcharge for 3D stands out. It's estimated that the extra dimension added $20 million to the movie's gross, although that bump falls on the low end for 3D movies. Also in the mix were a large number of adults paying full ticket prices. 46% of the audience was over 25, and not all of them were parents. Toy Story 3 drew in 33% of its audience from non-families, 40% of which came from young adults aged 17-24. With its strong debut and positive word-of-mouth, Toy Story 3 should dominate for the rest of the summer--expect it to be in the top ten for the next two months.

Earning 1/20th of the gross of Toy Story 3, Jonah Hex is the first unqualified flop of the summer box office.

Jonah hex dynamite michael fassbender The comic book/western/futuristic movie managed to draw in none of those audiences, and finished with just $5 million, though that was enough to earn it an eighth-place finish. Ouch.

In second place, The Karate Kid earned $29 million in its second weekend. Though the movie dropped 47%, Toy Story 3 proved tough competition. Given its positive reviews and strong opening weekend, the movie should bounce back in coming weeks. By comparison, two other kid-oriented movies in the top ten dropped more than 50%. Marmaduke slumped 55% to $2.6 million, and Shrek Forever After declined 65%, to $5.5 million.

Cyrus wrestling marisa tomei john c reilly jonah hill Fox Searchlight's marketing campaign paid off with Cyrus, which earned a breathtaking $45,000 per screen on four screens. The movie will expand into more markets in coming weeks, and should earn at least $10 million if its performance holds up--my conservative estimate. Since the movie debuted on such a small number of screens, it's hard to tell how well it will scale up.

I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton, made its debut with $15,000 per screen on eight screens. The stylish Italian art film drew in equally suave audiences, and its opening should give it a solid, if not blockbuster, run at the box office.

This Friday, action comedy Knight and Day, starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, will open alongside Grown Ups, a comedy about basketball teammates reuniting in middle age. The cast is led by Adam Sandler.

Friday, June 18, 2010

'Toy Story 3' aims for a record-breaking weekend

By Sarah Sluis

Woody and Buzz are back in Toy

Story 3
, which will open in 4,028 theatres, including more than 2,000 3D screens 2,463

3D theatres and 180 IMAX locations. Strikingly adult, from its

tear-jerking sequences to a

Toy Story 3 day care scary, fiery landfill scene, the movie will

strongly appeal to those who first saw Toy Story as kids, as well as

parents and other adults that turn out to see the film. Critic Kevin

Lally called the movie "bountifully inventive," and it's filled with

intricate gags and laugh-out-loud characters, like Barbie's sidekick Ken

(voiced by Michael Keaton) and a hedgehog toy that takes the pose of a snobby

British actor, asking everyone how they can "remain in character"

while they are playing with their owner. Lally praised "the Pixar

artists [who] never shy from genuine emotion and deeper resonance."

The animated movie is on track to earn over $100 million this weekend, and

could be the highest-grossing Pixar film ever if it beats Finding Nemo's

$339 million total--and Finding Nemo opened to just $70 million.

On the other end of the spectrum, "would-be summer blockbuster" Jonah

(2,825 theatres)
will be

Jonah hex horses josh brolin quietly making its debut, and some

feel it could open to just $10 million. As an PG-13 rated feature, Jonah

won't benefit from grabbing audiences from sold-out screenings of

the G-rated Toy Story 3. This "half-baked" comic book

adaptation that combines "old-fashioned western, supernatural action film,

El Topo-like acid trip and steampunk-style science fiction," according to

critic Ethan Alter, is unlikely to attract large audiences. It'll probably

die out quickly, unlike its death-defying protagonists (played by Josh Brolin and John


Cyrus jonah hill john c reilly Fox Searchight may be known for cute and quirky, but Cyrus

(4 theatres)
is more creepy and quirky. The tale of a man who

falls in love with a woman, only to discover that her son is unwilling to let

someone impinge on his close relationship with his mother, it balances its

intimations of Freudian complexes and incest with a comedic tone and emphasis

on awkward situations. The Duplass brothers (of the "mumblecore"

movement) are making their first mainstream effort with the movie, which has a marketing campaign with plenty of odd

animated GIFs
behind it, courtesy of Searchlight.

The general consensus on Italian director Luca

Tilda swinton i am love movie Guadagnino 's I

Am Love
(7 theatres)
is that it favors style over substance.

But oh, that style! The "oh-so-posh proceedings," as described

by David Noh, are "sumptuously designed and handsomely photographed by

Yorick Le Saux, with timelessly classic costumes." Tilda Swinton

plays a Russian-born wife in the primarily Italian-language film, and the

English speaker learned Italian for the role.

On Monday, we'll see how high Toy Story 3 was able to go at the box

office, if Jonah Hex attracted fans despite its dismal ratings, and if

Fox Searchlight played its cards right marketing Cyrus.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Miley Cyrus eyes a 'Twilight'-like role in 'Wake'

By Sarah Sluis

Miley Cyrus has already gone from being a tween superstar to a household name among all ages. Now she's doing something harder: aging up and into more mature roles. Cyrus may star in Wake, the first in a series of young adult novels about a girl who gets caught up in other people's dreams. It sounds like her character

Miley cyrus slouching has a similar talent to Leonardo DiCaprio in this summer's Inception, but her gift is more supernatural and less sci-fi. Because the book has horror and suspense elements, the tone will be edgier without being sexier. She's gotten a lot of heat lately for provocative performances at recent concerts, but the seventeen-year-old's first non-Hannah Montana feature was comparatively tame. She played the lead in The Last Song, a Nicholas Sparks adaptation that was written especially for her and thus certified to be Cyrus family-friendly.

Wake is the first in a series that now encompasses three books, the latter two entitled Fade and Gone. The girl, Janie, has the ability to go inside other people's dreams if they are physically near her. She also discovers that she can direct their dreams, turning the fears expressed in nightmares into something more manageable. She can give people closure. She drops in on the dream of a burnout named Cabel, and discovers that there's a lot more there than meets the eye--he becomes her boyfriend and later her sidekick as she tries to figure out who dreamed one horrible dream she cannot forget. The movie will be distributed by Paramount and MTV Films (which passed on Twilight) is developing the project. Christopher Landon (Disturbia) will write the script, and whether or not Cyrus gets on board will depend on the quality of the script.

So kudos to Miley. The project's supernatural overtones put it in the trendy Twilight territory without being directly vampire-related.Also, although the heroine has a boyfriend, it's not a romance, so Cyrus isn't going the rom-com route--thank goodness. She's still stuck in a hard game, and there's plenty of popular young actresses popular in the tabloids but unable to make the switch to adult roles. Lindsay Lohan crashed and burned her way out of Disney movies, and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have more success now with fashion than they do on movie sets. Cyrus has never appealed to me--she has a kind of awkward demeanor that's inconsistent with being a movie star without being charming in its own way. While she has hordes of young fans, it's possible that her grown-up fans may want to cast her off instead of growing up with her. Just one more note to Miley about her image: stop slouching!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The view from Marfa, Texas, where James Dean once struck oil in �Giant'

By Sarah Sluis
FJI writer Maria Garcia reports while on holiday in Marfa, Texas, onetime home to the Oscar-winning 1950s drama Giant.

I'm at Hotel Paisano in Marfa, Texas, in a suite that overlooks the courtyard's fountain, an oddity in the dry high desert of West Texas. The hotel's claim to fame, which may be apocryphal, is that Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean were guests here in 1954, during the filming of Giant, the sprawling (and glacial) drama of class warfare on a Texas cattle ranch. Director George Stevens had his office at the hotel, and some members of the cast and crew ate their morning meal here before driving to locations outside Marfa for the day's shoot. Dailies, which were sent to Warner Bros. in Burbank, were screened at the now-shuttered movie theatre next-door. A nearby cattle ranch was the setting for Reata, the homestead of Hudson's Bick Benedict. His outsized Victorian mansion, actually a faade built at Warner Bros., arrived by rail from California.

Giant, which is based on Edna Ferber's 1952 novel of the same name, was not popular with Texans who were

Giant-James Dean put off by its racist and class-conscious characters, as well as its broad generalizations of Texas life. After the release of the film, Texas lore went into high gear, and Bick and Jett were compared to legendary Texans. Giant did introduce Americans to the chauvinism that continues to characterize the denizens of the Lone Star State, whether they're rich cattle ranchers like Bick, oil barons (and baronesses) like Jett (James Dean), or naturalized Texans like Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), Bick's Virginia-born wife. All Texans share a genuine love of the land�the brash beauty of Big Bend National Park, the arid plains of the Panhandle, and the verdant slopes of the Hill Country. One-third of Texans are Latino, although Texas' divisions of class are similar to the rest of the United States. There's new money, like Jett Rink's�he hits oil on land inherited from Bick's sister�and old money, like the Benedict family's, steeped in land and cattle.

The town of Marfa is another matter entirely, its recent, Texas-style gentrification having its roots in artist and naturalized Texan Donald Judd's 1971 purchase of the abandoned Army base near town. If Judd were alive today, he might leave his sculptures behind and move to a Wilder West than Marfa has become. At five in the afternoon, the tiled courtyard that adjoins Hotel Paisano's restaurant, obviously a local watering hole, comes alive despite the triple-digit June temperature. The scene reflects the hotel's snooty ambiance�more Santa Fe, New Mexico than Anywhere, West Texas. With its neatly restored windowed storefronts, and the railroad tracks at the edge of town�it was a "water stop" for 19th-century steam engine trains�Marfa looks like the work of a Hollywood production designer.

Jett's oil find on Reata notwithstanding, there are no oil rigs for 40 miles in any direction, but there's undoubtedly plenty of new money in Marfa. While cattle ranches dot the landscape outside of town, Marfa is the epicenter for well-heeled travelers on the Tourist Trail that begins or ends for most at the McDonald Observatory, one of the few places where ordinary folks can look through a large telescope. Visitors can choose accommodations in sleepy Fort Davis, or the more populous Alpine, but Hotel Paisano offers the relative cachet of a $280 suite with chipped paint and a lumpy couch. For that price, you can carry your own luggage, too, since no bellboy is on duty to greet you when you park outside that fountained courtyard around which the hotel is built. One can't imagine Liz or a famous Hollywood director putting up with this apparent lack of Texas hospitality.

Giant, which won director George Stevens an Oscar for best direction, is now best remembered for James Dean's remarkable performance as the parvenu in a class struggle in which the Benedicts prevail. Old money and genes�Leslie's and Bick's�trump the black gold of Jett's nouveau riche fortune. Giant is undoubtedly an archetypal story, but it is not the tale of Texas�then or now. For that, watch John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Set in an unnamed state, and shot entirely on a soundstage, the black-and-white film eloquently depicts the forces that shaped Texas and that are still shaping her. One is the desire for economic development that Marfa represents, and the other is the wish to preserve ranching and agriculture in towns like Shafter and Valentine�the latter the set for Jett's "Little Reata" in the film�and all the "wide spots in the road" where we stopped along Route 90 and Texas 17. The two-lane roads wind through Presidio and Jeff Davis Counties like notches in the timeline of Texas history.

Arriving from the wilderness of Big Bend National Park, Marfa may at first appear to be an oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert. Here, a Native New Yorker can get a real cup of coffee, rather than the swill that passes for coffee in Big Bend Country, but I found the town pretentious. It wants to leave Texas behind, to become that generic tourist attraction, fitting for the sort of people who seek not the nuances of a place but the sweeping vision of it offered by a Hollywood epic. Among the trim shrubbery of Marfa, it was hard to spot the "cactus rose" that, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is the bloom of a prickly pear. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) gives the squat, flowering cactus to Hallie (Vera Miles), the woman he loves. This June, the yellow and pink blossoms are popping out all over Big Bend Country. The cactus is Ford's leitmotif, its flowering an illustration of many themes in Liberty Valance, but mostly how the history of the land itself tells the story of the West.

While there is no doubt that cattle and oil shaped Texas, the cattlemen and sodbusters first seized the land from Mexico (and earlier from Native Americans) to form the Republic of Texas in 1836. Oil followed half a century later. The struggle between old money and new that is portrayed in Giant was actually rooted in the land and how it would be used. Ford, rather than Stevens, gets this right. In Liberty Valance, Tom's love of the land, and Hallie's, propels the story. The progress represented by Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), Hallie's husband, and a U.S. senator, is based on a lie, that "Rance" is the man who shot the outlaw Liberty Valance. It was Tom, the horse trader of Shinbone, who did that, and who, like Hallie, acted only to preserve some part of the West he treasured.

My husband Pete, a native of the Lone Star State, smiles when I tell him that I want to get out of Hotel Paisano and Marfa, and go back to Texas, the land of contrasts that for me defines the Old West and the new one. Here in West Texas, the struggle continues over how to preserve the land, both the spare beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert and the ranching life that Giant exaggerates, but which all Texans are either born to or yearn for. As I write this from the rambling Hotel Limpia in Fort Davis, 22 miles up the road from Marfa, I think of the women in Giant and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Today, Leslie Benedict would be protesting the treatment of Mexicans at our Rio Grande border. As for Hallie, Liberty Valance may be named for the outlaw, but it's about the woman who understood that some of the desert in Shinbone had to be made into a garden, and some of it had to remain a wilderness. While men broke laws and made laws, and were the law, in the real West and the West of the movies, women remained connected to the needs of ordinary people, and the fundamental forces of nature. It's their spirit that I hope is alive in the heart of every Texan, because the so-called "Marfa Lights" pale in comparison to the spectacular view of the Milky Way at Big Bend National Park.

Movies to look forward to: 'Never Let Me Go' & 'Somewhere'

By Sarah Sluis

Focus and Fox Searchlight, those dependable distributors of specialty fare, recently released trailers for Somewhere (trailer) and Never Let Me Go (trailer). Both of the trailers are moody and exciting and fabulous, and I can only hope the movies match up to the previews.

Never Let Me Go (Fox Searchlight) stars Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield (The

Kazuo-ishiguro-never-let-me-go Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
) as '70s boarding school students with an unusual purpose. In a kind of parallel Britain, they are clones that are educated and then donate four organs before "completing." The movie is based on an acclaimed book (that I couldn't get through) by Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki a decade after the A-bomb went off (read a great review of the book here).

What sets this world apart from other dystopias is the characters' belief in the system. They don't question what they've been instructed to do, even though they want to live longer than they've been told they will. In the trailer, they seem to be under the impression that if they find true love, they will be given a few more years to live. It's been said that the British love to form a queue, and this adherence to the rules even when the audience clearly sees evidence to the contrary is maddening, creepy, and sad. The director, Mark Romanek, last directed the dark movie One Hour Photo. The trailer offers a first look at the cinematography and costuming in the film. It's odd to see a futuristic movie set in '70s Britian, and the hairstyles sported by Knightley and Mulligan are priceless--who knows, maybe they'll even inspire a trend. The movie will be out October 1st.

The trailer for director Sofia Coppola's Somewhere (Focus) follows the formula of her trailer for Marie

Somewhere elle fanning stephen dorff Antoinette--great indie music, decadent locales, and people walking down halls while crazy things are happening. Coppola's movies make really good trailers, but they don't always match

up to the preview highlights. I still remember the excited feeling I got watching

the trailer for her Marie Antoinette (with the great New Order

song "Blue Monday"), but the movie didn't have the same effect on me.

This trailer starts out with music by Phoenix before shifting to the lower-key song "I'll Try Anything Once" by The Strokes. Elle Fanning looks great in the role of a movie star's abandoned daughter, enough to quiet my thoughts of sibling nepotism (she's the younger sister of Dakota). The movie star is played by Stephen Dorff, who has two decades of movie credits without a role that I remember him in. It's great casting--a suitable blank face with movie star looks, and not someone that the audience would have any recollection of from the tabloids. Coppola has been criticized for her lonely-people-in-glamorous-locales theme, but who cares? Audiences like seeing what it's like from a higher perch. The trailer also reveals her fantastic eye for details and looks. She can tell so much by showing father and daughter getting into a car together wearing matching sunglasses, or playing the swimming pool game tea party. Likely pursuing an awards campaign, Fox Searchlight has the movie aimed for a December 22nd release.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Directors play musical chairs with 'Oz,' 'Another Love Story'

By Sarah Sluis

Today there's only a couple of updates on productions, which makes it that much odder that the two stories are connected.

The-wizard-of-oz-1939 Sam Raimi is in talks to direct Disney's Oz, The Great and Powerful, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. A few months ago, he exited his directing responsibilities for Spider-Man 4 due to creative differences. Marc Webb of (500) Days of Summer took his seat in the director's chair, apparently abandoning his directing role for the remake of the Danish thriller Just Another Love Story. With that spot vacated, Oren Uziel, a screenwriter, picked up the directing spot. That's Hollywood musical chairs for you.

The reboot of Oz via Oz, The Great and Powerful fits into Disney's stated mission to pursue big movies that can stand up to extensive merchandising, theme park placement, spin-offs, and all the other brand extensions at which Disney excels. However, the project is unique because it's both pre-sold, since most people have seen The Wizard of Oz, and totally original. Even though the author of The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, wrote multiple books set in the Oz world, the script appears to use the film version as a reference point, and not the books. The story follows a circus wrangler who is transported via tornado to Oz, where everyone mistakes him for a wizard. The circus wrangler character sounds a little too much like a Dorothy replacement (the tornado, everyone mistaking Dorothy for a witch), but at least they didn't try to recast Judy Garland.

As for Just Another Love Story, the Danish original version landed a 74% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film noir plot follows a man who brings an injured woman to a hospital, where her family mistakes him for her boyfriend. The real boyfriend turns out to be abusive, and hunts down the imposter. Our review mentioned problems with the casting of the girlfriend, but otherwise found the movie strong. When Marc Webb was attached to the project, I imagined he would be able to do interesting things with the time frame, due to his experience working on (500) Days of Summer, but director Oren Uziel, without any directing credits, will be more of an open book.

And just think, it all might have turned out differently if Raimi hadn't left Spider-Man 4. How's that for a movie plot?

Monday, June 14, 2010

'The Karate Kid' revives franchise with high-kicking weekend

By Sarah Sluis

This weekend, one '80's spin-off flopped and another soared. The Karate Kid, a feel-good remake of a popular franchise first launched in 1984, opened above expectations at $56 million. Our critic Ethan Alter was right on the mark when he called the movie a "formulaic but savvy remake." Well-made genre movies

Jaden smith the karate kid always have an extra edge at the box office, in my opinion. The kid action movie's success will most likely spawn a remake. The original franchise spanned four films and included different stars (Hilary Swank starred in the final one, The Next Karate Kid, in 1994), so a similar future could be in store for The Karate Kid. I also have my money on an uptick in kids signing up for martial arts classes.

Iraq-set action comedy The A-Team opened with $26 million, a more modest debut. The movie was met with a 53% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to The Karate Kid's 70% rating, so

The a-team group
perception of quality could have made a difference. Still, the opening number was high enough that Variety felt the "Iraq box office curse" had lifted.

Among returning releases in the top ten, Shrek Forever After fared the best. The animated movie finished in third place with $26 million and boasted the lowest week-to-week drop in the top ten, 38%. The remaining movies in the top ten fell 40-60%. Get Him to the Greek stayed in the seven-digits with a $10.1 million take, and Killers finished its second week with $8.1 million. Kid-directed pet movie Marmaduke fell 48% even with competition from The Karate Kid, wrapping up with $6 million.

Sundance Grand Jury Award prizewinner Winter's Bone debuted with a strong $21,000 per-screen average on four screens. Last year's prizewinner in that category, Precious, made a splash at the box office and the Oscars, but this movie will be taking a quieter route.

Coco chanel igor stravinsky Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,
Sony Pictures Classics' second Chanel-themed release in less than a year (after Coco Before Chanel), posted a $16,000 per-screen average on three screens. The Lottery, a Tribeca documentary about charter schools (featured in Screener during the festival) opened on a single screen and finished up with $17,200.

This Friday, Toy Story 3 will lead the pack of releases, opening opposite action-driven Jonah Hex.

Friday, June 11, 2010

'Karate Kid' and 'A-Team' offer action-driven entertainment

By Sarah Sluis

A new Hollywood legacy could be in the works with The Karate Kid (3,663 theatres). Jaden Smith, who starred with his father Will in The Pursuit of Happyness in 2006, has his first lead role in the kiddie action

The karate kid jackie chan jaden smith movie, which also stars Jackie Chan. The remake of the 1984 movie takes the Detroit-bred kid (Smith) to China, where he is beaten up by bullies and must turn to his building's janitor (Chan) to learn a way to fight back. Reviews have been fairly positive, and parents who feel sentimental toward the original movie could augment its performance. Our critic Frank Lovece called the movie "formulaic but not in a bad way" and praised the "naturalness" of Smith's performance, who seems "like a genuinely irritating 12-year-old and not a ham-fisted, obnoxious movie 12-year-old."

Another remake, this time of an 80's television show, The A-Team hits 3,534 theatres and will be duking it out at the box office with The Karate Kid. This remake, however, is "almost comically nonsensical"

The a team bradley cooper according to critic Ethan Alter. The filmmakers "spend two hours covering the exact same ground that the show handily summarized in the voiceover narration that played over the opening credits." Iraq serves as the backdrop to much of the action, in contrast to the more serious, reality-driven movies that have set the action in the country.

The two new releases will have to go up against Shrek Forever After, which has been in first place for four weeks, as well as Get Him to the Greek, which has held strong in second place during the weekdays. Last week's release Killers, in contrast, has fallen down rather sharply, despite opening in the same range as Greek.

A number of specialty releases round out the weekend mix. Winter's Bone, the winner of the

Winter's bone jennifer lawrence Sundance Grand Jury Prize, will open in four theatres in N.Y. and L.A. Reviewing this "grim story of persistence," critic John DeFore predicted that the "grit and the tenacity of its young heroine will resonate with some viewers," and I count myself as one of them. I also agree with his warning that the movie is "slow to get going and uningratiating," but it's worth it for the look at Appalachia culture.

Documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will entertain audiences in seven theatres. It's an overwhelmingly positive portrait of the comedian, but critic Doris Toumarkine enjoyed the insights into "what fuels her ineffable drive and what keeps her up at night."

On Monday, results of The A-Team vs. The Karate Kid will be in, and we'll see which specialty film opened high enough to dominate in weeks ahead.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A preview of BAM CinemaFest: 'Tiny Furniture'

By Sarah Sluis

With a program perfectly attuned to its neighborhood, BAM CinemaFest should attract Brooklyners and Manhattanites alike. Running from June 9th-June 20th, the festival at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn, New York, will feature twenty films that have played in SXSW, Sundance, and other festivals, but before they hit

Tinyfurniture_officialstil_lena dunham theatres (if at all). I'm a big fan of BAM Rose Cinemas, which has a wonderful vibe and an amazing space. They play a mix of mainstream (Sex and the City 2) and arthouse (Please Give) movies, as well as special events like BAM CinemaFest, so it can be a go-to place whatever your mood. I had the chance to preview one of the movies that will play in the festival, Tiny Furniture. A SWSW premiere, the movie has been picked up by IFC Films.

The movie stars Lena Dunhan, who also wrote the script (in one week) and directed. Her real sister and mother play her sister and mother in the movie, something I didn't realize until after seeing the movie, and it takes place in her actual apartment. Perhaps because the script is so close to Dunham's actual life, the movie is able to capture the type of real-life insights that feel forced in more polished, Hollywood movies. This is the kind of movie that makes you think, 'Aha! That is exactly how that is!' It's also the kind of indie movie that's so good, it makes you wish you watched more indie movies.

Dunham plays a girl who just graduated from college. She lounges around her mother's fabulous Tribeca apartment/art studio, a bit of an outsider to her mother (Laurie Simmons) and sister's (Grace Dunham) established routine. She reconnects with an old friend and bad influence (Jemima Kirke), acquires and loses a dead-end job, and flirts with both a co-worker (David Call) with a girlfriend and a struggling artist she lets stay at her apartment (Alex Karpovsky). It's more of a slice-of-life, mood-driven film than something plot-driven. Quick lines like "I think you sound like you're in the epilogue to 'Felicity'" are mixed with tangential conversations with friends and a spot-on representation of post-college wallowing and anxiety. Anyone five years out of a liberal arts college (Dunham herself graduated from Oberlin) will appreciate the movie's accuracy and subtle skewering of the resultant lifestyle. Given how many such people live within a five-mile radius of BAM Rose Cinemas, it's an excellent choice for the festival.

One of the most interesting, unique parts of the movie is how Dunham's looks mediate the audience's

Lena dunham tiny furniture movie understanding of the narrative, particularly her romances (if you watch the trailer, you can get a sense on how she brings her looks and weight into the narrative). Dunham looks beautiful in some shots, but more often she appears with unwashed hair, casual clothing and little makeup. When she's trying to figure out if a guy likes her, the audience doesn't think it's a given, the way they would if they saw Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher together in Killers. They're actually wondering if the guy will find her attractive enough to pursue her, and what about their personalities is driving their connection. She's also treated poorly by the men she's involved with, and one wonders if they are treating her badly because she just looks like she is someone that they can get away with treating badly. I personally haven't felt this way about an actress since I saw Muriel's Wedding (starring Toni Collette). In the movie, Collette plays a Plain Jane that also vacillates between looking pretty and looking plain. She so desperately wants to get married, she ties the knot with someone who marries her for immigration purposes. As an audience member, you're also wondering whether he will eventually fall in love with her--a way you wouldn't feel if the man had married Marilyn Monroe for immigration purposes. I admire that Dunham didn't try to look done-up and polished but gave the audience an ambiguous view of her looks that made the movie more interesting and firmly indie.

Tiny Furniture is Dunham's second movie (Creative Nonfiction was the first) and will probably open within the next year through IFC. The movie is playing at BAM CinemaFest this Friday, June 11th, at 6:50pm.

Monday, June 7, 2010

'Shrek Forever After' outperforms 'Greek,' Splice,' 'Killers' and 'Marmaduke'

By Sarah Sluis

As predicted, Shrek Forever After dropped 41% to come out on top for the third week in a row. The family animated comedy brought in $25.3 million for a three-week total of $183 million. Not so bad for a third sequel.

Among new releases, Get Him to the Greek soared the highest, opening to $17.4 million. Judd Apatow produced the comedy, which stars Jonah Hill and Russell Brand. Both of these rising comic actors already have a few starring roles lined up after the film, as does director Nicholas Stoller. Stoller's last movie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, also opened to $17 million, so his performance, at the very least, is consistent.

Ashton kutcher killers
may not have been screened for critics, but it still finished third with $16.1 million, slightly behind Greek. According to the budgets posted by Box Office Mojo, however, Greek is two times the winner: its $40 million budget was just over half of Killers' $70 million budget.

Bowing in sixth place, Marmaduke barked up $11.3 million. Movies about pets and especially talking pets are something of a kiddie movie mainstay, and it's never too much of a surprise when they succeed. I think I must have seen Homeward

Marmaduke peanut butter Bound
half a dozen times as a kid, and I'm not even an animal person.

Sci-fi/horror movie Splice debuted to $7.4 million, lower than expected. The movie was cast with a prestige film lead (Adrien Brody) and reviews revealed that the movie covers "chewy issues like bioethics, abortion, corporate-sponsored science,

commitment problems between lovers and even Freudian-worthy family

dynamics." However, any arthouse audiences might have been scared away by the intensely frightful trailer. Which was it supposed to be, Warner Bros? A horror movie or a creepy Gattaca? Because I'll see the second but avoid the first.

With so many different genres of movies opening this weekend, the returning films fell heavily, in the 50-60% range. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time fell 53% to $14 million, and Sex and the City 2 plummetted 60% to $12.3 million.

Finishing just outside of the top ten, Raajneeti opened to $917,000 in 124 theatres, giving it a higher per-screen average than any film in the top ten. Bollywood-produced movies without all the musical numbers have been making a quiet splash at the box office, occasionally opening in the $1 million range. My Name is Khan opened in February to $1.9 million, for example.

This Friday, The A-Team will battle against The Karate Kid.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Four movies vying to unseat 'Shrek Forever After'

By Sarah Sluis

Even with four new wide releases hitting theatres this weekend, the biggest piece of the pie and number one spot is expected to go to Shrek Forever After. If it drops 40% again, as it did last week, it will still rack up $25 million, which could be a difficult number to beat.

Get him to the greek jonah hill russell brand Get Him to the Greek
(2,696 theatres)
is one of two comedies opening this weekend. Jonah Hill plays a record company intern tasked with bringing a boozing, fallen rocker (Russell Brand) from the U.K. to the Greek Theatre in L.A. Critic Ethan Alter praised the "marriage of performance styles," which "pits Brand's manic energy against the deadpan humor of Jonah Hill." I saw it earlier this week, and while it has some laugh-out-loud moments, it's very uneven. The director, Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), manages to shock and brings something new to the mass-comedy table, and I particularly enjoy his male characters, who are more sensitive "girl's guys" without being the butt of the jokes (Hill is very excited to watch "Gossip Girl" with his girlfriend to unwind). Here's hoping he can make a comedy that's strong the whole way through.

It didn't screen for critics, which is usually a bad sign. Killers (2,859 theatres) is an action comedy in the

Killers katherine heigl ashton kutcher style of Mr. & Mrs. Smith starring Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl. The king of Twitter (Kutcher) paired with a star known for being the difficult one on the set of "Grey's Anatomy?" I'm giving the star power of these A-listers a B+. Killers is PG-13, while Get Him to the Greek is R, so underage audiences looking for a comedy may choose Killers, even with its older stars.

Family audiences who have already caught Shrek Forever After may choose Marmaduke (3,213 theatres). Critic Alter lamented that the movie

Marmaduke 1 "follows the predictable beats of most disposable kiddie comedies," and includes "not just one but two references to the immortal Baha Men track 'Who Let the Dogs Out?'" Arf. Owen Wilson voices Marmaduke, his second dog-themed role after Marley & Me, but his voice adds little to the movie, according to Alter.

A quiet little sci-fi/horror movie that's been getting better reviews than would be expected (69% positive on Rotten Tomatoes), Splice (2,450 theatres) stars Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as

Splice creature two geneticists that create something rather sinister. Over at the New York Times, Manohla Dargis called it a "pleasurably shivery, sometimes delightfully icky horror movie. Our critic, Maitland McDonagh, highlighted the pacing problems, and lamented that there's "an awful lot of wheel-spinning between the set-up and the admirably restrained climax."

On Monday, I'll be back to check in on the top ten, which should receive quite a shakeup this weekend.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What's cooking at the 4th Annual NYC Food Film Festival

By Sarah Sluis

Forget popcorn and a movie. Try oysters, grits, pig ear sandwiches, burgers and craft brews. From June 23rd-27th, the NYC Food Film Festival will be giving festivalgoers the chance to "Taste What You See on the Screen." As someone who used to watch TBS' "Dinner & A Movie" while wishing someone would cook me the meal on the screen, this idea is pretty exciting. After attending the press preview of the event, I can say this: the Widow's Hole Oysters are not to be missed. They will be featured in one of four oyster-themed short films playing at the June 23rd event. The organizers have ordered six thousand oysters--apparently, larger quantities than any supplier has ever seen for one event.

Returning for its fourth year, the festival will show 39 films in five days, including thirteen world premieres, a record for the festival. I spoke with the director of Florent: Queen of the Meat Market (trailer here), which will make its world premiere on June 24th. Describing himself as more of an "8 a.m. breakfast" kind of patron of the Meatpacking District restaurant, which was famous for its after-hours crowd, director David Sigal had a chance to see the other side while making the documentary. Filmed during the restaurant's last six months before it closed, the doc also includes interviews with patrons such as Julianne Moore, Diane von Furstenberg and Isaac Mizrahi. Sigal cited Warhol's Factory as well as a documentary about Harvey Milk (which he mentioned you can watch for free on Hulu) as his inspirations. Why Milk? The restaurant owner, Florent Morellet, was a well-known community and gay activist. Sigal also revealed one of the crazier moments he filmed: people disrobing in the restaurant. At the Food Film Festival event, the movie will be paired with menu items from the restaurant, such as Evelyne's Goat Cheese Salad, which includes potatoes, goat cheese and pecans over a bed of greens.

Other highlights of the festival include the thirty-year-old film It's Grits paired with a grits throwdown for the best take on the Southern classic. "The World's First Food Truck Drive-In Movie" will feature food trucks and outdoor films, and on the final day, the festival will screen Beer Wars along with burgers and craft brews (the movie documents the David and Goliath struggle between small breweries and large beer companies). It's long been known that New York City is a cinephile city and a place to get great food, but it's pretty amazing that the creator of the film festival, George Motz (also the director of Hamburger Wars), found a way to combine the two.

For more information, go to the festival's website, nycfoodfilmfestival.com.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Would you share your movie ticket purchases on Facebook?

By Sarah Sluis

It's easy to get all excited about something like a Facebook app that lets you buy tickets to Toy Story 3 and invite your friends to join you. But while this type of technology will be embraced by some consumers, privacy concerns will probably prevent it from catching on among a larger group of consumers.

Toy Story 3 Facebook Ticket App Case in point? Fandango and Facebook tried to do this already. Three years ago.

Facebook has had no end of trouble with its ability to convince consumers to share their personal shopping information. An Internet search of "Fandango Facebook app" turns up a negative blog post as its third hit. When Facebook Connect first launched in 2007 (with brands such as Fandango), one friend of mine was particularly upset to find her Blockbuster rentals suddenly showing up in her Facebook feed, and had the usual problems trying to figure out how to block the information from appearing. People were so irate, they pretty much discontinued the program.

What must be maddening about this to marketers is that people are more than willing to say "Just saw Iron Man 2, it was awesome" in their status updates, or list it among their Favorite Movies, but aren't willing to have their ticket purchases posted. One of the problems of listing purchases, however, is that consumers can't modulate their responses. They can't say 'sorta good' or 'can't believe my significant other made me buy tickets to this flick,' but must simply accept the information being posted. It turns the feedback experience into one-note messaging, and that involves a level of evangelizing that just isn't cool to some people. For Toy Story 3, the message is 'No Friend Left Behind,' a play on 'No Toy Left Behind,' which appears in the movie. But for some reason, this makes me think of exactly the opposite--middle school cliques inviting all but one friend to see the movie, making for a painfully public exclusion.

If brands/movies keep trying, I think they'll eventually wear down the public's resolve and people will start talking more to their five hundred friends about what movie they saw last weekend. For now, the Toy Story 3 site will engage a select group of people who are willing to evangelize for the brand, as well as those Foursquare people that don't mind broadcasting their GPS coordinates everywhere (I'm in awe of them, really I am, and maybe I will join their ranks one day). It's exciting to see this kind of experimentation with brand tie-ins on Facebook...but for now, most people are waiting on the sidelines to see what happens.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Indie film execs ponder the future at BAFTA East Coast panel

By Sarah Sluis
FJI writer Doris Toumarkine reports exclusively for Screener on a May 27 gathering of leading New York-based film executives.

Indie veteran Mark Gill famously suggested at the height of gloom that "the sky is falling" on the specialized movie business. That prognosis got an encouraging if hardly conclusive update from a panel of high-level New York-based executives in the thick of the action at a May 27 BAFTA East Coast event at Scandinavia House in Manhattan.

The good news they reported is: The sky is still up there, although the forecast remains uncertain and evolving. The nominal topic�"Has Distribution Been Democratized at the Expense of Capitalism?"�was not resolved except for the politically inclined Focus Features CEO James Schamus drolly noting that "the Chinese have proven that capitalism can happen without democracy."

But the focus of the event was on indie film in our democracy and how that business might heal itself and make capitalism proud. Observations abounded, if not answers.

Concurring with the notion that the pipelines for movie consumption have indeed opened up, speakers pondered which new business models might also have profits running through those pipelines for content creators and deployers.

Journalist Anthony Kaufman, who has followed the independent scene for years and served as moderator, got the discussion going with the proclamation that "the [specialized] industry is in transition, not in decline." So far, so good.

Reminding that ticket, DVD and foreign sales are down and online distribution and video-on-demand activity haven't made up for the loss in revenues, he challenged the panel�Sony Pictures Classics co-chair Michael Barker, National Geographic Films president Daniel Battsek, Focus Features' Schamus, Cinetic Media founder and lawyer/sales agent/distributor John Sloss, and CAA agent Daniel Steinman�to come up with ideas for what can be done to get things on track.

Battsek, referring to his native U.K. where the emergence of multiplexes helped turn things around for independents, suggested "good movies in good theatres" might be a solution, that building more quality theatres stateside might get more people in seats. And Barker cited exhibitors like Cinemark and Regal that have screens dedicated to specialized product, making it easier for art-house fans to find them.

Regarding the so-so profitability, if any, of films on VOD, at least as seen by filmmakers and their sellers, Steinman, who sells films to distributors, suggested that the on-demand films need better marketing to viewers. The problem, as he sees it, is that there are just so many titles available and it's hard and confusing for consumers to find what they want.

Panelists referred to a number of other pressures, including piracy. In fact, Sloss proclaimed piracy "the real problem, as all we're going through a reorientation." Schamus pointed to Spain and Korea as the worst piracy offenders and Sloss backed this up with his observation that in Spain pirating movies is almost a badge of honor, that it's a "cultural" inclination that people "enjoy" and has become a "frightening habit."

Barker too called for a secure digital platform to guard against piracy, but also said there needs to be "a meeting of the minds on DVD price points."

Panelists pointed to the economic inefficiencies of the pricing of content, which does not reflect the true supply-to-demand ratio.

The conundrum of windows reared its head, with Sloss opining, "It's ridiculous having to wait so long after theatrical" for other outlets to be available, a delay viewed, right or wrongly, as fueling piracy. Others noted that there's no guarantee that getting ancillaries out earlier will counter piracy.

The strategy of day-and-date releasing got mixed notices. Some panelists agreed that simultaneous releases would be appropriate for certain, narrowly targeted films like the upcoming Restrepo or Alex Gibney's new documentary about Elliot Spitzer. With regard to the latter, Sloss said it might work first going into VOD, then theatrical, as "it has built-in awareness." And Battsek even suggested that to better understand day-and-date, "maybe we should take some risks and sacrifice a few movies to find the way to do this."

Barker agreed that perhaps the strategy could work for some films but explained that "the goal is for [Sony Pictures Classics] films to become evergreens, and day-and-date cuts off that opportunity." In other words, good films need a lot of exclusive time in theatres to generate the needed word of mouth and the revenues this produces.

CAA's Steinman agreed. "We don't put movies together thinking of the IFC or Magnolia [VOD] model. The way that money gets made for filmmakers is with theatrical happening first." Barker concurred, saying that "for a fair shake, filmmakers need theatrical," but he admitted that "if it seemed right, we would even experiment with a day-and-date situation."

And there's still the murky business of where and how much revenue there is in the VOD business, critical information that trickles back to filmmakers as rarely as the money does. And because VOD and DVD titles are so numerous, panelists joked that there is a clear advantage to films beginning with the letter "a" or a number to put them at the head of the long availability lists consumers must pore through.

Of course, the lower the budget for a film, the better, at least in terms of seeing a return. Kaufman suggested that the "bright budget" these days for indies is about $450,000. And while the trend is that directors and actors are cutting their fees, Steinman said that agents advise their clients not to work on spec.

The importance of P&A money these days was also addressed, as financiers also need to raise that cash, especially when no domestic distribution deal is in place for their projects. "We're more in the P&A business than ever before," declared Steinman.

As for the importance of marketing films to young audiences via Facebook or Twitter and other online sites, Barker observed that the studios, as opposed to the smaller distributors, are dealing with the Net the way they deal with TV. But Battsek pointed to the fact that using the Net is difficult because "everyone is pushing their products there, so it's more difficult than taking out a New York Times ad."

Overall, guarded optimism in spite of so many unanswered questions permeated the discussion, as did an acknowledgement that change will be inevitable if not yet identifiable. The somewhat upbeat vibe was also assuring, as these big guns of the indie sector seem less prone to the cheerleading done by their counterparts atop the studios and corporate conglomerates�a reflection of the indie films themselves, which tend to be more in touch with reality than mainstream fare.

But then, certain big-gun producers in the BAFTA audience like John Heyman and David Picker, known for their big-budget tentpoles and studio affiliations, might beg to differ.

'Sex and the City 2' and 'Prince of Persia' defeated by green ogre

By Sarah Sluis

All style and no substance. Everyone was talking about Sex and the City 2 in the weeks before its release,

Sex and the city 2 group of women
but in the end it was less-hyped family fare that won out over Memorial Day weekend. With box-office revenue down 19% from last year, the holiday weekend was one of the weakest in years.

The weekend lost some of its punch from the Thursday debut of Sex and the City 2, which earned $14 million its opening day. Over the four-day weekend, it brought in a lackluster $37.1 million, but its five-day total shined a little brighter with a $51.3 million total, much closer to the $60 million forecast. Still, its underwhelming four-day performance put it in third place.

The other new release of the week, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, debuted to $37.8 million over the long weekend. Its family-friendly plot and characters meshed well with the family-

Prince of persia jake 2
focused weekend. Kudos to Jake Gyllenhaal. Let's just hope his career doesn't turn into that of Brendan Fraser of The Mummy, whose latest turns have been family flops Furry Vengeance and Inkheart.

In its second week, Shrek Forever After held on to first place with just a 21% drop and another $55.7 million to add to its $145 million two-week total. Last week's $70 million debut was considered below expectations, but the strong second weekend puts it on track for a longer-tail profitability. By comparison, Shrek the Third dropped 45% in its second weekend--though that still gave the movie a two-week total of $217 million.

Specialty movies did particularly well this week. The playful French movie Micmacs averaged $14,100 per

Micmacs dany boon screen
on four screens, a healthy debut. Historical epic Agora filled theatres with an average of $21,600 per screen on two screens. The second week of Michael Douglas-starring Solitary Man was very promising, with a $17,000 per-screen average while adding two locations, for a total 12% bump from last week.

This Friday will offer a crowded but diverse bunch: comedy Get Him to the Greek vs. sci-fi horror Splice vs. action romance/comedy Killers vs. family pet comedy Marmaduke. Here's to a heated-up summer box office.