Friday, July 30, 2010

'Schmucks,' 'Cats & Dogs,' and 'Charlie St. Cloud' compete for audiences

By Sarah Sluis

Three new wide releases join the fray this weekend, but Inception is expected to hold strong and rise above the pack of schmucks, mutts, and saints.

Dinner for schmucks carell rudd The first adult comedy in a month, Dinner for Schmucks, will unspool in 2,911 theatres. Starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, with noteworthy performances from Zach Galifianakis and Jemaine Clement, the movie should laugh up $20 million or so, and finish the highest among all new releases. Audiences won't be treated to laugh-out-loud comedy on the order of last year's The Hangover, though the movie is much less painful to watch than Grown Ups. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) is committed to letting his actors improv, which is both a positive and negative. "Because the actors fully commit to their outsized portrayals...they earn big laughs onscreen," critic Ethan Alter explains, but "when the actors aren't clicking or, worse, if they push themselves too far and cross the line from funny to irritating, the movie comes to a complete standstill."

Kind of like Spy Kids but with pets and more James Bond references, according to critic Maitland McDonagh, the "clever touches" in Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore will "keep adults from dozing off" and give kids some giggles in 3,705 theatres this weekend, including over 2,000 3D locations.

Cats and dogs fake looking The set design is "occasionally brilliant," imagining MEOW's underground command center as a "deluxe cat condo with a '60s molded-plastic and shag-carpeting vibe, accessorized with state-of-the-art computers and flat-screen TVs!" Unfortunately, the special effects are noticeable, and "every cut from a real animal to an animatronic or CG stand-in is joltingly obvious."

Zac Efron of High School Musical fame stars as a sensitive, brooding boy in Charlie St. Cloud (2,720 theatres). Holding himself responsible for

Charlie st cloud zac efron his younger brother's death, he abandons Stanford and sailing to play catch with his dead brother every day. Swoon? According to McDonagh, many "teenagers [are] so in thrall to Efron's dreaminess that they'd watch him sort M&Ms." The movie itself is "sincere but formulaic," though it does boast a twist ending.

Plenty of specialty releases will round out the mix of films. The Weinstein Co. releases The Concert (NYC/LA), a French/Russian language film and hit in France, though "the faux pas of Slavs grotesquely mauling the mother tongue will be lost on American viewers." Melanie Laurent, last seen in Inglourious Basterds, leads the cast.

Though it's unclear whether TMZ or Perez Hilton fans will appreciate a look at one of their antecedents, the documentary Smash His Camera (NYC) profiles the famous paparazzo Ron Galella, who had his teeth smashed by Marlon Brando and a restraining order filed against him by the considerably more calm and collected Jackie O. Rounding out this week's indie selection, the adaptation of a Jonathan Ames novel The Extra Man (NYC/LA) stars Kevin Kline and Paul Dano but is "too broadly played and unfocused to click." Finally, in a "carefully paced showcase," Robert Duvall stars as a man who decides to hold a living funeral in Get Low (4 theatres), which also features a performance from Bill Murray, as the undertaker.

On Monday, we'll see how loudly Cats & Dogs meowed and barked, how many people bought ringside tickets to the Dinner for Winners, and if female audiences fell for Charlie St. Cloud.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Meryl Streep and Tina Fey are 'Mommy & Me'

By Sarah Sluis

What? Is that another original project I'm hearing about? No doubt inspired by the success of Julie & Julia, Sony has put together another movie intent on replicating the success of the foodie, women-centered adaptation. Entitled Mommy & Me, the project will center on the ups and downs of the mother-daughter relationship. As a woman's film, specifically a female comedy, the movie, will have a narrower appeal than

Meryl-Streep-and-Amy-Adams Julie & Julia
, which captured the attention of food-loving audiences. However, the movie will most likely appeal to both old, middle-aged, and young audiences, and have a long-tail run. Both Julia & Julia and Tina Fey's Date Night had small opening weekends compared to their eventual cumulative grosses, so pairing these two actresses together will likely lead to another robust run at the box office.

Stanley Tucci may be better-known to mainstream audiences for his roles alongside Streep in Julie & Julia and The Devil Wears Prada (oh--and for playing a rapist and murderer in The Lovely Bones), but for this film he will be behind the director's chair. He last directed Blind Date, in which he also had a leading role. Since he usually acts in the films he directs, I wouldn't be surprised to see him cast in a supporting role.

Provided the movie is quality--and older audiences and female audiences are both known for the attention to quality (Twilight notwithstanding)--Sony has a leg up on this movie from the get-go. Female audiences are underserved at the box office, a situation that has improved in recent years. Most "female" films are romantic comedies that focus on dating and stylized, artificial gag situations. Movies that are based in reality, and comedies that don't have a romance front-and-center are rare. For that reason, Mommy & Me has a built-in audience ready to see this "unusual" film that doesn't involve, say, a woman going to extreme lengths to get married (like Leap Year, which involved a woman running around Ireland, trying to find her boyfriend to propose to him on the "only" day she can, February 29th). Now when does it come out?

Monday, July 26, 2010

'Inception' overpowers 'Salt'

By Sarah Sluis

Remaining in star form, Inception dropped a scant 30% in its second weekend to grab the first-place spot and another $43.5 million. Strong weekday grosses took the movie over $100 million just as the weekend started, bringing its cumulative total to $143.6 million. While the first weekend received the support of younger moviegoers, audiences over the age of 35 helped keep ticket sales brisk through its second weekend.

Angelina jolie movie Salt
was not far behind, debuting to $36.5 million. Because of the star power of Angelina Jolie, as well as its action premise, the movie is expected to perform strongly overseas. Producers are still throwing around the idea of a sequel, but the bigger news here is that yet another original story (Despicable Me, Inception, Salt) opened strongly. Pre-sold titles are not always the answer--here's hoping at least one of those board game adaptations Hollywood's been courting is dead in the water.

Kicking off in sixth place, Ramona and Beezus couldn't rise past the single-digit millions, and finished the weekend with $8 million coming from a largely female, family audience. Fox pegged the budget at just $15 million, however, so this movie

Ramona and beezus joey king selena gomez should turn a profit, especially once post-theatrical markets are factored in.

After expanding into over 200 theatres, The Kids Are All Right landed just outside of the top ten, bringing in a total of $2.6 million. The strong showing effectively doubled its cumulative gross, which is now just under $5 million. Next week, Focus plans to raise the number of theatres in its release to 500, which could bring the movie over $10 million if it can maintain its pace.

Returning films in the top ten were a mixed bunch, with about half posting drops in the 20% range, and the other half posting drops in the 40% range. CG animation titles posted minimal drops, with Despicable Me dipping 26% to $24.1 million and Toy Story 3 sliding 24% to $9 million. In a market light on adult comedies, Grown Ups maintained with just a 23% fall to $7.6 million. The remaining movies, all adaptations of some kind, fell more heavily: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse tumbled another 47% to $7 million, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice plunged 45% in its second weekend to $9.8 million. M. Night Shyamalan now has a confirmed miss, with The Last Airbender dropping 46% to $4.1 million. Predators fell the furthest, 59% to $2.8 million--just two weeks after it opened to a healthy $24.7 million.

This Friday, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore will introduce a new 3D animated title to the summer mix. Charlie St. Cloud will give High School Musical fans Zac Efron in a mature, heart-wrenching role, and Dinner for Schmucks will fill the gap in adult comedies.

Friday, July 23, 2010

'Salt' spices up the box office, but will it overtake 'Inception'?

By Sarah Sluis

This week pits second-weeker Inception against the debut weekend of Salt (3,612 theatres). Starring Angelina Jolie, Salt has received marks of "high popcorn" from critics like our executive editor Kevin Lally,

Angelina jolie salt blonde who dubbed the action-packed espionage romp "an entertaining but preposterous summer popcorn movie." Over at the The New York Times, A.O. Scott praised Jolie's performance, calling her "the prime special effect, and a reminder that even in an era of technological overkill, movie stars matter." That Jolie's casting is seen as so perfect is underscored by the fact that the role was written for a man--Tom Cruise. Though not many women are seen as capable of carrying movies without damsel-in-distress moments, she has consistently placed herself in roles with enviously powerful women. Here's to Jolie!

Because Salt will have the advantage of both good reviews and novelty, I think it has a strong chance of grabbing the top spot, with Inception close behind. However, Salt will have to open over $30 million, because there's little chance that Inception will drop more than 50%. If the Christopher Nolan movie falls 30-40%, earning between $43 million and $37 million, it will be more likely to edge out Salt.

New, non-animated kid fare in the form of Ramona and Beezus (2,719 theatres) will provide an alternative for young audiences. This is the kind of movie that is made for kids, with subject matter so innocuous a parent can sit back and nod

Family ramona and beezus approvingly. Though the mildly comedic movie will see the most action on home DVD players, I found the film to be coherent, well-paced, and "a chance [for parents and daughters] to bond over seeing bits of their life reflected onscreen." Even with out-of-school kids, many forecasters feel this movie will have a hard time breaking $10 million, though its true worth will probably be reflected in its performance during weekdays and in coming weekends.

For indie audiences, star director Todd Solondz offers a follow-up to his characters in Happiness with Life During Wartime (NYC). The revisiting failed to charm our critic David Noh, who summed up his feelings up by saying "what once seemed provocative and challenging now comes across as bratty, aimless and predictable." In a dramatic expansion, The Kids Are All Right will go from 38 to 201 theatres, building on its successful run that has already earned the movie $2.2 million.

On Monday, results will be in for the battle of Evelyn Salt vs. Dominic Cobb.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

From 'The Hobbit' to 'Haunted Mansion'?

By Sarah Sluis

When Guillermo del Toro left his directing duties on The Hobbit because of production delays, I expected him to move on to something equally grand. But it's hard to one-up the world of Middle Earth, so it looks as though del Toro will be taking things down a notch, and going either more commercial, or more epic and

Guillermodeltoro off the beaten path.

First up is an announcement that del Toro will tackle an adaptation of the theme park ride Haunted Mansion. While I've gone on that ride a number of times (its short wait times make it a good option for time-conscious theme park-goers) and enjoyed its friendly creepiness, I've never been "inspired" by it the way del Toro claims to be. He told THR that he has a room in his home devoted to memorabilia of the ride, and "When I'm depressed or when I have a problem, I ride the Haunted Mansion ride to clear my head." While I was momentarily buoyed by his clear passion for this idea, I was dismayed by the plan to make it a "four-quadrant" movie. I can't think of many scary movies that appeal to both kids and adults. More likely, there will be either bored adults or kids who remember the movie as a scarring experience. Del Toro will co-write and produce the movie, with a "possibility" of directing.

In an exclusive, Entertainment Weekly speculates that del Toro will next direct At the Mountain of Madness, based on his adaptation of a 1930s H.P. Lovecraft novel. The plot centers on a Shackleton-esque group of explorers traversing the Antarctic who encounter a group of tentacled monsters. I love the way open spaces can look creepy, from Christopher Nolan's Alaska-set Insomnia to the famous cornfield scene in North by Northwest, so I'm more on board with this project due to its setting alone. Since it's expected that del Toro will announce his next project when he previews another haunted house film he co-wrote and produced, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, to Comic-Con audiences this weekend, we'll be kept in blissfully short suspense.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Obsession: actor Dileep Rao from 'Inception,' 'Avatar'

By Sarah Sluis

How many actors can call Avatar their first film, Drag Me to Hell their second, and Inception their third? On Monday, I linked to an interview with the actor Dileep Rao from New York Magazine, and his name was again drawn to my mind when I saw that Inception grossed $1.6 million from Indian audiences. I Googled a

Dileep_rao_02 few more interviews, and was impressed by his intelligence and specificity. He doesn't gush in interviews; he offers specific examples and well-thought-out analyses of both artistic decisions and plot points. Who else uses the words "mental heuristic failure," "anti-narrative structuralism" in one response, while still managing to sound coherent and grounded? (That would be the New York Magazine interview). He also has a scientific background, coming from a family of scientists and himself pursuing a pre-med background before deciding to become an actor (one holding an MFA, of course). I once had a professor who claimed that a scientific background could lead to a successful career as a director, citing director Frank Capra's background as a chemical engineer. The same could be said about James Cameron, whose scientific endeavors span deep-sea exploration and digital film development. Perhaps that's why he cast an unknown, Rao, in the role of a scientist for Avatar. Before Avatar, his most prominent IMDB credit was as a contestant on "Jeopardy" in 2002 (itself a hallmark for intelligence).

While it's tempting to say that Indian moviegoers were drawn to Inception last weekend in part because of its casting of an emigrant, the movie's reputation as a whole probably drew more audiences. In an interview with The Telegraph

in Calcutta, Rao pointed out his lack of experience in the Bollywood genre. "I don't know how much use I would be in

a Bollywood movie. I have a lot of respect for that industry. It's a

bit removed from me now, but if it becomes a reality, you will see me

on screen singing and dancing somewhere."

It sounds like Rao may have many more roles in his future. I would describe him as a more low-key actor

Avatar-art that tends to blend in with his surroundings; a true supporter versus the type of character actor that steals every scene. Though he has no more projects listed as in the works, maybe Rao will turn out to be "that" supporting actor that looks oddly familiar to people--and able to provide some impressive explanations of mind-boggling movies like Inception. I'll leave with this quote from him talking about the ending of Christopher Nolan's movie [spoiler alert]:

"Close your eyes and listen to the sound at the end. I really do think the top wobbles and that it's real. Cobb does go on a journey, because that's what movies are, and I think that's what leads audiences to this kind of speculation. Because of the story he chose to tell, Nolan is also commenting on the nature of stories themselves, all stories, which is why Leo's change can't be evidence that it's all a dream.

"...There's also kind of a beautiful negative symmetry between that leap of faith [when Cobb agrees to take on the job from Saito in exchange for bringing him back home to his family], and Mal begging him to make a similar leap of faith. After he did that with her, and the guilt plagues him, he can't function anymore. He's exploring his memories in a dangerous, unhealthy way, and he's going to let that go by the time the movie's over."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How many Jerry Bruckheimer misfires before it's a trend?

By Sarah Sluis

Jerry Bruckheimer is having a rough time. The Sorcerer's Apprentice opened to just $17 million, and cost over $200 million, including marketing. The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time didn't do much better, opening to $30 million and finishing at $90 million, despite a much bigger budget. Last year's G-Force and

Nicolas cage sorcerer apprentice Confessions of a Shopaholic
are also cited as underperformers, but they don't fall exactly into the Bruckheimer action movie formula. THR just posted an article speculating that this might dampen Bruckheimer's power as a producer, though it's unlikely his production deal with Disney is in jeopardy.

The last Bruckheimer action movie I enjoyed was Pirates of the Caribbean. A fact almost universally acknowledged is that Johnny Depp made that movie. Everyone else was playing it straight in the pirate romp, but Depp was in his own league, acting more like the spooky CG dead pirates than an action lead. His eccentric behavior

Pirates caribbean seemed like a wink to the audience. So my problem with the most recent Bruckheimer movies is this: they don't seem like they're making fun of themselves at all. They're just typical overstuffed action movies with fantastical premises that seem interchangeable with each other.

These movies have also had problems targeting their audience. The Sorcerer's Apprentice drew half its audience from date-night couples, when it was planned to be more of a family movie. The only thing that made it seem like a kids' movie was its PG rating. All the fire and brimstone in the trailer, for example, seemed directed randomly, enough so that when the kid (Jay Baruchel) says of the sorcerer, Nicolas Cage, "Are you insane?" at the very end, we're inclined to say, "Yes, I still don't know what the plot is." Morphing cars and robotic gargoyles and shooting fire into a building just aren't entertaining if there isn't a story behind the actions.

It's possible that part of the problem for Bruckheimer's films is marketing. There are plenty of movies I want to see that are followed by bad reviews, but his movies I didn't want to see, a feeling confirmed by their poor reception at the box office. Disney has a new marketing chief, MT Carney, who has the potential to change how these movies are perceived pre-release.

Bruckheimer's next movie is a bit of a fail-safe. The fourth Pirates of the Caribbean coming next May should draw audiences, and if it doesn't, it's simply a matter of franchise fatigue. What would be worse for Bruckheimer, however, would be fatigue with his very idea of a spectacle--replaced by the geeky approach of J.J. Abrams, 3D animation and comic book movies.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Midsummer weekend's dream for 'Inception'

By Sarah Sluis

This week, original films, not franchises, won out at the box office.

Leading the pack, Inception finished up the weekend with $60.4 million, on the high side of expectations.

Inception marion cotillard leo dicaprio Midnight screenings drew in $3 million, and both Friday and Saturday brought in similarly-sized crowds before dropping slightly on Sunday. Now that the secret is out about the movie's dream-within-a-dream structure, the blogosphere is diving in and dissecting the movie. The most exhaustive analysis to date comes from a New York Magazine interview with actor Dileep Rao (he plays the chemist). For those that have seen the movie [spoiler alert], his take is this: you can hear the top wobble at the end.

Earning double the amount of newbie release The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the original animation title Despicable Me dipped just 42% to finish in second place with $32.7 million, while Apprentice debuted to just $17.3 million. Poor reviews, a muddled

Sorcerer apprentice cage baruchel marketing campaign (in my opinion), and just a general confusion of how this Sorcerer's Apprentice related to a Mickey Mouse Fantasia sequence may have contributed to this family-friendly movie's lackluster performance. Despicable Me has the advantage of being fresh and original, and in the land of so many remakes, it's nice to see an original movie open strongly and hold its ground.

That came-out-of-nowhere kid-driven musical Standing Ovation drew in minuscule audiences, ending up with just $361,000 and a pitiful per-screen average of $361. This movie will likely screen much better on DVD at preteen sleepovers.

Among returning movies in the top ten, Predators suffered the worst fate. The reboot of the action/horror franchise plummeted 72% to $6.8 million. Toy Story 3 continued its slow float downward, losing 44% of last week's gross but still finishing with $11.7 million. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse slid down a steep slope, dropping 57% to $13.5 million. Grown Ups held the strongest, with just a 36 % dip for a total of $10 million.

The kids are all right moore bening After four weeks of increases at the box office, Cyrus fell 16% in its fifth week to grab the eleventh-place spot and $1.07 million, bringing its total to $5 million. The new indie on the block, The Kids Are All Right, is moving in the opposite direction. The family-centered comedy-drama went from seven to 38 locations, doubled its gross, and finished with $1.02 million, and a standout $27,000 per-screen average.

This Friday, kids' literary adaptation Ramona & Beezus will draw in the young crowd, while the rogue spy movie Salt will lure in audiences with headliner Angelina Jolie.

Friday, July 16, 2010

'Inception' gears up for a dream weekend

By Sarah Sluis

One of the most anticipated movies of the summer, Inception, rolls into 3,792 theatres today. Many in the industry are pegging the movie's opening at $50-60 million, though I think Inception's long-term box

Inception joseph gordon levitt office potential is much higher. It's one of the few wholly original movies coming out this summer, but also has a level of built-in appeal due to the popularity of its director, The Dark Knight's Christopher Nolan. If it plays its cards right, I think it could be one of those pictures that brings in people who only go to the theatre for "big" movies. Reviews have been largely positive, with Film Journal's critic Maitland McDonagh declaring Inception "a superior summer movie, one with heart and brains and loads of razzle-dazzle." Some have faulted the movie for being overly complex in terms of plot, but not enough in terms of emotions. Dana Stevens at Slate summed it up by saying, "At the end of Inception, I hadn't lived through the grueling emotional journey Nolan seemed to think I had, but I'd seen a bunch of cool images and admired some technically ambitious feats of filmmaking." For a summer movie, that's pretty much all you can ask for.

After opening on Wednesday to $3.8 million, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (3,504 theatres) is expected to end up in the $30 million range for the weekend. Our critic Ethan Alter suspected that producer Jerry

Nicolas cage sorcerer_ Bruckheimer was trying to give Nicolas Cage a Jack Sparrow-worthy role as an "extended apology to [his] frequent collaborator." Cage isn't in the best financial situation, and a career reboot a la Depp would be welcome. Too bad Cage's performance wasn't up to snuff. "Handed the golden opportunity to create his own Jack Sparrow, Cage whiffs and gives us one of the least memorable personalities in his gallery of eccentrics," Alter laments.

An under-the-radar release (though perhaps not among preteen girls), Standing Ovation will open in 623 theatres, most of them outside of the biggest cities. Just one theatre will carry the

Standing ovation dancingjpg movie in New York City, for example, compared to over eight in Houston. The singing & dance sequences in the trailer are impressive, especially given the ages of the performers. What kid will care about the clunky dialogue when there's an advertised "20 original songs and 14 original dance numbers"?

Returning release Despicable Me has been playing strongly through the week, thanks to the summer holidays, and should continue to do well at the box office. Platform releases Cyrus and The Kids Are All Right should continue to increase their revenue, with Cyrus likely to keep its spot in the top ten, while The Kids Are All Right will be unlikely to do so until it expands further.

On Monday, we'll circle back to analyze the first weekend of Inception, gauging the word-of-mouth on the action/sci-fi hybrid. And we won't forget about The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which is a strong pick for the second-place spot.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Analysis of an awesome trailer: 'The Social Network'

By Sarah Sluis
So far there have only been posters and teaser trailers for The Social Network. While movie geeks like me are already sold by the combination of the screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) and director (David Fincher), it's hard not to get a little tingle on your spine when you hear the tagline, "You Don't Get to 500 Million Friends Without Making a Few Enemies." Who would have thought the story of Facebook would sound more like Wall Street meets The Skulls and less like an underdog winning gold at the Olympics?

Here's the trailer:

The #1 reason this trailer is awesome is that it doesn't introduce any characters until 48 seconds into a 2 minute, 30 second trailer. Instead, the trailer reels the audience in by forcing us to reflect on how we, the viewers, use Facebook. Screenshots of parties, profile pictures, weddings, and babies are edited to the lyrics of Radiohead's "Creep," sung by women with high voices and a melancholy tone (the Vega Choir). The lyrics pretty much say it all: "Don't care if it hurts/Wanna have control/Wanna perfect body/Wanna perfect soul/I want you to notice/When I'm not around/You're so very special..."

The latter, story part of the trailer emphasizes Ivy League intrigue, decadence, and excess among the rich. I counted nine scenes of drinking/partying, including liquor swilled straight from the bottle, champagne spraying, puking during fraternity hazing, and post-success imbibing of appletinis. Will these kind of storylines ever go out of style? I give the trailer one point for an unconventional but oh-so-Ivy scene with an indoor erg rowing machine that uses actual water (never seen one of those, but where else but Harvard?). However, Fincher loses points for a shot of Jesse Eisenberg as the Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg writing a formula on a window. We've already seen A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting, thankyouverymuch.

On a final note, Fincher's Citizen Kane-like epic is also worth seeing for its strong cast composed of rising stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, Rashida Jones, and Andrew Garfield, the next Spider-Man. And if you're wondering, like I did, why Zuckerberg hasn't sued, it's because he's a public figure and therefore open to portrayal. Also, it might potentially be more embarassing to sue than to keep things quiet. As for suppression, it doesn't look like The Social Network will be advertised on Facebook due to their advertising rules, but everywhere else is fair game. Zuckerberg doesn't have quite the influence of William Randolph Hearst.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Director Zack Snyder gives sneak peak of 'Legend of the Guardians'

By Sarah Sluis

As I watched director Zack Snyder preview clips of the September release, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, at a press event at the Time Warner Center in New York, I was amazed at how far CG/3D animation has come. In 2010, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me have enchanted audiences, including me, with their complex CG worlds. The original Toy Story 15 years ago could only render rounded, plasticized figures, and favored harsher shadows. Toy Story 3 not only had 3D, it was bathed in a soft, diffused light and introduced a furry character (fur is notoriously difficult to computer-generate).


Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole pays similar attention to the visual details. The owl's feathers look soft, textured, and ruffled, something Snyder revealed took a lot of work. The lighting is dark, shadowy, and moody, bringing to mind How to Train Your Dragon's focus on candlelit Viking settings. The owls are not anthromorphic caricatures. They have a level of photorealism that's unprecedented for an animated film. Therein lies the problem.

The owls of ga'hoole I had a very hard time seeing the characters' expressions, or even attaching a mouth to the dialogue. Perhaps it's the years of seeing artificially noticeable mouth movements in those live-action/CG hybrids with talking dogs, but the slight movements in the owls' beaks just weren't doing it for me, and they also seemed slightly out of sync at times. Several different breeds of owls share space on the screen. While the snow-white owl had contrasting features and easily readable expressions, the chameleon-like fur on other owls obfuscated their eyes and beaks, making it difficult to parse out meaning from their faces. Did I mention all the creatures speak in Australian accents? And are constantly referring to fantasy-fueled proper nouns, like Ga'Hoole, the Pure Ones, Soren, Kludd, Ezylryb, Noctus, and Grimble?

Zack Snyder favors a fast-paced cutting style, but leaves in confusing cuts. At times, I lost the spatial

Owls ga'hoole flying relationship of the owls when he cut from one perspective to another. I had to remind myself that I don't hate action sequences, I hate action sequences when they channel chaos over clearly articulated action. The only way that Snyder seems to be able to clarify his action is through slow motion, which he uses with some frequency--a neat addition to a kids' movie, but unfortunate in that the slow motion provides basic information that he can't seem to do at a regular pace. Watchmen was similarly confusing to view, and it doesn't seem that Snyder has improved. I have a message for Snyder: Watch Avatar. James Cameron managed to offer clear spatial relations in the flying fight scenes, and watching an action scene has never been better.

With its complicated mythology and dark setting, Legend of the Guardian bears some comparison to Lord of the Rings. Among those that have read the book, as well as fans of fantasy, Guardians will surely offer appeal. But if the finished product is as incoherent as the collection of clips I viewed, I predict a more dire future, especially among casual viewers.

Owls gahoole cave What's interesting about the footage I saw was the disconnect between the style and the narrative: What made the owls so striking visually detracted from readability as characters. I'd like to see a CG film that has photorealistic characters but still manages to make the animals readable and understandable to audiences. It's also possible that I'm wrong--that audiences simply need to get used to non-cartoon like animals. A carrot: As the clips wore on, I found it easier to read the characters' expressions, and one sequence with a particularly furry character managed to come across clearly thanks to movements not only in the eyes and beak, but also the eyebrows and body stance.

Snyder's "crazy owl movie," as he calls it, has promising visuals but a confusing narrative. Watch the (less impressive) 2D trailer and decide for yourself here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Audiences fall for 'Despicable Me'

By Sarah Sluis

Coming in much higher than expected, Despicable Me racked up $60.1 million over the weekend. That puts the Illumination Entertainment production right behind the opening weekend figure for Kung Fu Panda, which holds the title for the highest opening for an original, non-Pixar animated movie. Family audiences turned out

Minions despicable me in force for the picture, which only recently gained high awareness among the general public. New York Magazine attributedits enviable debut weekend to a trailer placed before Toy Story 3, as well as a marketing campaign that decided to re-focus on the cute minions at the last minute.

In second place, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse fell 48% to $33.4 million, putting it roughly in line with the performance of New Moon. Since the fan-driven movie had already started to drop by Friday of last weekend (it opened on Wednesday), its decline weekend-to-weekend wasn't as significant. The movie will likely earn more than $250 million over the course of its run but fall short of the $300 million mark.

After picking up some good reviews (and a 64% average on Rotten Tomatoes), Predators opened to $25.3

Predators topher grace million, a robust debut for the reboot of the humans-as-hunting-bait franchise.

Toy Story 3 dipped just 27%, despite the competition from animated Despicable Me, and added another $22 million to its toy box. With its $340 million total, it also became the highest-grossing Pixar movie ever. A caveat: Higher ticket prices, not higher attendance, brought the movie to the record-breaking position.

Featuring an unconventional love triangle, Cyrus rose 77% from last week and remained in the top ten with a $1.3 million weekend. Fox Searchlight has successfully ramped up this movie from week to week. However, its indie success story is poised to be eclipsed by another unconventional movie family in The Kids Are All Right.

The kids are all right The Kids Are All Right
debuted to the highest per-screen

average of the year, $72,000 per screen at seven locations, for a

half-million haul. Shining reviews, as well as its strong appeal to

niche audiences, gave this movie an edge. Pronouncements like that of Dana Stevens

from Slate, who called it "the movie we've been waiting for all year,"

should help this comedy-drama attract a wide range of indie-seeking audiences.

Even as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first movie in the series, continues to play in 81 theatres, The Girl Who Played with Fire earned $965,000 its opening weekend, with 110 theatres averaging a solid $8,700 per screen. Music Box is releasing the trilogy in quick succession, and the strategy appears to be working. Though the per-screen average of the sequel, $8,700, was slightly lower than that of the original ($9,800), the sequel played in three times as many theatres, which tends to bring down per-screen averages.

The sing-a-long version of Grease opened to $6,500 per screen at twelve locations, for a total of $113,000. Lyrics were cleaned up (I wonder the Pink Ladies still call Sandra "lousy with virginity?") and audience participation was encouraged. Though the opening weekend performance wasn't stellar, if the theatrical release is used to sell new sing-a-long versions of the DVD, it could turn another generation of people into Grease lovers.

This Wednesday, The Sorcerer's Apprentice will enter theatres, followed by the hotly anticipated and well-reviewed Inception.

Friday, July 9, 2010

'Despicable Me' and 'Predators' seek opposite audiences

By Sarah Sluis

Despicable Me, the first animated movie released by the new kid on the

animation block, Illumination Entertainment, will open in 3,474

theatres, including 1,551 3D theatres. Releasing a tight three weeks

DespicableafterToy Story 3, Despicable Me will have the advantage of being the

fresh offering. Among infrequent moviegoers, however, the

highly-lauded Pixar sequel may hold more sway than an unknown offering

(though those minion characters are pretty big draw). Despicable Me is expected to bow similarly to How to Train Your Dragon, a similarly unknown property that opened at $43 million but eventually accrued an outsize $216 million over its run. Critic Rex Roberts praised the minions, calling the movie a "cleverly formulaic cartoon that is, by turns, caustic and charming, gross and poignant, silly and sophisticated."

Believe it or not, Predators, the latest movie in the long-running Predator franchise, offers the "creatures

Predators adrien brody their best showcase since the original Predator," enthuses critic Ethan Alter. Not only that, the "meat-and-potatoes action movie" is "solidly entertaining" and the action set-pieces "are crisply shot and genuinely fun." That is, if you get your kicks out of "a Predator ripping out the spine of his unfortunate victim Mortal Kombat-style." Opening in 2,669 theatres, its man-creature combat is expected to offer particular allure to males under twenty-five.

On the specialty front, Sundance favorite The Kids Are All Right opens in seven theatres. The comedy centers on a lesbian couple (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore) whose children decide to seek out their sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo). His presence ends up ruffling up the family feathers,

The kids are all right dinner table resulting in a "smart, humane, hilarious and poignant tale," according to critic Kevin Lally. While the movie has a thoroughly modern American plotline, "the laughs arise from recognizable, truthful human behavior."

The second installment in author Stieg Larson's trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, opens in 85 theatres. According to critic Doris Toumarkine, the Swedish-language movie is "every bit as entertaining as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," which earned $11 million this March. However, could the movies be released too close together? Even the second and thirdTwilight movies were eight months apart, and some have called Eclipse's first-week performance disappointing. Conversely, the books' popularity, as well as holdover awareness from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, could boost the second movie even higher. The final movie, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, will open in late November, so hopefully distributor Music Box's tight release strategy works...or they figure it out before the third movie hits.

On Monday, we'll reconvene for the outcome of Despicable Me vs. Predators, and weigh in on the second week of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, which could drop heavily. We'll also take a look at the holding power of The Last Airbender and Toy Story 3, both of which will be threatened by the competing family release,Despicable Me.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Hollywood turns to musicals and fairy tales for remakes

By Sarah Sluis

Today, not a word of comic book or board game adaptations. Instead, Hollywood has turned to classic and female-friendly works for their latest adaptations.

South pacific First up, a feature film adaptation of South Pacific, which is being spearheaded by Amber Entertainment, a fairly new production company, and Imagem, the rightsholders to the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. The project comes on the heels of the success of the Broadway revival. Debuting in early 2008, the revival won seven Tony awards and has played to crowded houses. Clearly, something about the post-WWII musical is meshing well with the current zeitgeist. The stated idea is to make the movie harder-edged, but keep the singing and dancing intact. I think this musical has a good chance of attracting both older audiences that remember the musical or 1958 movie, as well as younger ones seeing it for the first time. Mamma Mia! was a huge success not only because of its ABBA roots but also because it drew in intergenerational audiences. As long as it's not too harder-edged, I think those audiences will see the movie as a welcome nostalgia trip.

Next, Joe Wright is in line to direct an adaptation of The Little Mermaid, which Working Title is developing.

Little-Mermaid-movie-01 The project has a family connection: the screenplay is based on a puppet production by The Little Angel Theatre Company, which Wright's father John founded. Wright has such a strong visual sensibility and is a master with the camera, so I'm sure his version of Mermaid will look beautiful. I can only hope they don't go with the Disney version of the tale, though the Hans Christian Andersen version is a little morose for modern tastes. In the original, for example, not only does the mermaid not get the guy, her real goal is to achieve an immortal soul, not true love. She refuses to kill the prince as a way to save herself after he marries someone else, and ends up turning into a Daughter of the Air, a creature that has the chance to achieve an immortal soul after three hundred years. These details are quite contrary to how people remember the tale now. However, little details from the original fairy tale, like how the mermaid's new feet hurt and bleed, might give the story a more grown-up sensibility. In the meantime, Wright fans only have to wait until April to see Hanna, the tale of a girl who discovers she is from a family of assassins.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Crowdsourcing & corporate underwriting: the future of indie film

By Sarah Sluis

Whatever the title of this post, I'm not trying to be snarky. I think it's kind of cool what Ridley Scott, Kevin Macdonald and LG are doing: requesting videos ( that users film on July 24th, which they will edit into a movie that will premiere at Sundance. It's clever, fun, and even makes me want to compose an entry. But. The very theme of the movie is LG's new slogan: "Life's good when..." This

Life in a day project has a pre-determined tone. It's not really a documentary: it's more of a persuasion piece, where only segments supporting the message will make their way into the movie.

What's good about this venture is that it feels authentic. It's about a putting together a company with a lot of resources and filmmakers with a lot of talent in order to channel the voices of many people. It may support a specific theme, but it's not doing so in a way that feels icky or disingenuous. It's not as if BP tried to make a film about its efforts to protect endangered species and wildlife.

But the scope of this project is pretty unprecedented. In another world, LG would be the brand of television set characters turn on in a sitcom. Now, LG has a whole movie in which to brand itself, however gently. The choice of Sundance as the venue for its premiere not only situates the movie among the hip and cool, it also speaks to the financial realities of filmmaking. The budget of an indie movie is often similar to the budget of a commercial. Is it possible that good movies can come out of projects that have corporate underwriting? Or are art and commerce mutually exclusive? Will this movie be a ramped-up version of the "gift suites" that pop up in Sundance, or a movie that's not afraid to embrace whatever depressing or unwelcome realities contrast with the pleasure of when "life's good?" Also--is this film going to screen out of competition? The Sundance selection process is tough; is corporate underwriting just another way to jump the line?

I'm curious to see what comes out of the "Life in a Day" project. Will the producers be able to get enough submissions and talent to edit into a 90-minute film? In a way, LG has a lot of chutzpah for doing such a project, though the talents of Scott and Macdonald (State of Play, Last King of Scotland) will surely help.

In January 2011, we'll find out.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse' shines brightly and briefly

By Sarah Sluis

This week's wide releases, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and The Last Airbender, were full of the box-office vagaries that result from pre-weekend opening and four-day holiday weekends.

Twilight eclpse kristen stewart taylor lautner The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
burned through its audience quickly. Attracted by the fun of going to midnight and opening day screenings, audiences turned out to the tune of $68 million on Wednesday. The number quickly fell to $24 million the next day. On Friday, the movie's take rose to $28 million, before dipping down again to $23 million on Saturday. It dropped 40% on Sunday, the Fourth of July, to $16 million, and fell another 18% on Monday to $13.5 million. All told, the vampire romance has grossed $175 million in six days. The Twilight Saga: New Moon actually earned a similar amount, $178 million, in the first six days of its release (Friday through Wednesday). The movie's precipitous fall through the long weekend shows the intense anticipation among its fanbase, but also the tentpole's limited appeal. Whether Eclipse will exceed New Moon's $296 million cumulative gross remains to be seen.

The Last Airbender had dismal reviews and minimal audience turnout for midnight screenings on the eve of

The last airbender noah ringer its Thursday release, but it played consistently throughout the weekend to end up with $70 million over five days, an impressive total for a movie with such negative responses. Its placement in the "family movie" category proved to be a boon. Both Airbender and Toy Story 3, both movies boasted revenues 34% higher on Monday than Sunday, which may have been "family movie time."

Another anomaly of the weekend was the 70% rise (104% over the four-day weekend) in Letters to Juliet, which has been out for eight weeks. The PG-rated flick, along with a cast that spans generations, filled a gap in family fare. After opening to just $13 million, the movie has grossed $50 million, including $830,000 over the holiday weekend.

Fox Searchlight's Cyrus broke into the top ten three weeks into its release, bringing in $1 million over the long weekend. Going from 17 to 77 theatres, revenue rose 156%, while per-screen averages remained above $10,000.

Among returning releases, Toy Story 3 played strongest, earning $42.2 million, enough to cross the movie over the $300 million mark in a Buzz Lightyear-paced three weeks. Including just Friday to Sunday grosses, however, the movie dropped 49%, consistent with most other movies in the top ten.

This Friday, another animated movie enters the mix. Illumination Entertainment will debut their first release, Despicable Me. To please the horror/sci-fi crowds, Predators will offer up some summer movie scares.

Friday, July 2, 2010

'Twilight' wows fans, 'Last Airbender' disappoints

By Sarah Sluis

Going into the Fourth of July weekend, the two wide releases have already made their debut. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse earned $68.5 million on Wednesday, including $30 million from midnight screenings. In its

Twilight eclipse kristen stewart robert pattinson second day, it earned $24.2 million, playing on a an astonishing 4,468 screens. With legions of dedicated fans packing in to see the movie in its first few days, this movie may start to fall during the weekend, and will probably drop even more heavily next weekend. But the Wednesday release was smart: it caught its dedicated fans before they were dragged to family obligations or other get-togethers. Though the Twilight series counts not just young women, but also many moms among its fans, its fanbase is just that: a subset of women, with a few stray male fans. As critic Maitland McDonagh put it, "You either surrender to Stephenie Meyer's swoony tale of forbidden love, squeaky-clean teen style, or you just don't get it." Those that don't get it are unlikely to change their mind--but hey, the movie's already earned over $100 million worldwide.

The Last Airbender rolled out Thursday in 3,169 locations, earning $3 million in midnight screenings for a total of $16.9 million its opening day. But fans are not happy. The Twitter-sphere includes many slams

Last airbender nicola peltz regarding the changes that were made from the popular Nickelodeon series, and there was even a protest because the Asian roles were cast with white actors. Critics gave the movie a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and for once critics and fans agree. Daniel Eagan speculated that "fans of the cartoon series may overlook The Last Airbender's flaw," but in fact they couldn't. His statement that the "slow and ponderous" movie is just a "watered-down Narnia with Lord of the Rings pretensions." hit the mark. It's frustrating for fans of director M. Night Shyamalan, too. Will he ever be able to give us another Sixth Sense? The movie could earn in the $50 million range over the long weekend, or it could drop even farther through the weekend due to negative word-of-mouth.

Film-buff audiences will delight in Great Directors (NYC), which "makes for a satisfying cinematic buffet," according to critic Doris Toumarkine. The documentary features interviews with some of cinema's greats, with everyone from David Lynch to Bernardo Bertolucci.

On the other end of the spectrum, the much-delayed Love Ranch (11 theatres), which dealt with Capitol Films' bankruptcy and other legal issues, turns out to have not been rescued for a reason. Starring Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci, "It's all a confused mess, flopping from faux-hard-boiled attitude to botched sentimentality in the blink of an eye," lamented critic Chris Barsanti. The movie also got a head start, opening on Wednesday, though figures have not yet been released.

After the long weekend, Screener will be back on Tuesday, ready to dissect the results of one of the bigger box office weekends of the year.