Thursday, September 30, 2010

Disney jumps for a Night at the Magic Kingdom

By Sarah Sluis

I have to admit, I was a little skeptical of Disney's new plan to focus on franchise films that can be carried across multiple platforms. The studio sold off Miramax, shut down development of numerous films (Okay, we really didn't need a sequel to Wild Hogs).

Magic Kingdom Disney movie But looking at their slate now, everything makes sense. They had an enormously successful run of Alice in Wonderland, the upcoming re-launch of Tron looks promising, and the studio will add another princess to their stable in this December's Tangled. They are pursuing more theme park-related films, including Haunted Mansion, but are making some exceptions to their "franchise" rule--at least at first glance. Prom, for example, which will feature a high school-age cast of unknowns, could be a one-off, or it could be the first installment of a huge hit, like High School Musical.

Their latest project to hit at the "core" of their development plan is a Night at the Museum-style take on the Magic Kingdom: People trapped in the theme park overnight. I instantly sparked to the idea, and I don't think I'm alone. Disney's huge cult of followers has spawned numerous tell-all books that describe all the behind-the-scenes work at Disney World and Disneyland, and even average Joes are curious about what makes the theme park tick. Disneyland already has to sweep the park every night to kick out would-be overnight guests--there's no question people will be interested.

If the studio pursues a Night at the Museum-style approach, that direction would involve bringing various characters and attractions to life (for some reason, that also reminds me of Jumanji). I like the idea of bringing some magic into the equation, but I'd prefer for the movie to be mainly reality-based and live-action.

One of the biggest challenges for the movie will be brand consistency and character consistency. What happens when characters meet Mickey Mouse or Sleeping Beauty in real life? That conversation is incredibly interesting, but also a real test for a studio that wants to preserve a character's image and keep the brands consistent across platforms. Variety also points to another benefit to the idea: new audiences would have the chance to meet classic properties, which could in turn be prepped for a relaunch.

To properly pull this film off, Disney will have to think critically about which characters to include and how to maintain consistency. For that reason, it's not expected that we'll see this film anytime soon. But when it does happen, it could have a tremendous positive (or negative) impact on Disney's brand.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A friendly discussion of 'The Social Network'

By Sarah Sluis

In case you haven't heard, "that Facebook movie" is coming out in two days. It seems like every critic is raving about the movie, currently rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and every magazine has a Mark Zuckerberg story on its cover, but my advice is this: If you want to enjoy a good movie (not a great movie, mind you, a good movie), don't believe the hype.

The social network While The Social Network is a perfectly competent and enjoyable film, it didn't awe me as much as I expected. When I watch a movie, I expect to be taken on an emotional roller coaster, but this one had the highs and lows and emotional arc of a television show. I was entertained, but not stunned. When I start hearing "Best Picture at the Oscars," my expectations get raised. When I see an awesome trailer, I expect the film to deliver. While living up to those kinds of predictions can be hard, there are definitely films (like Avatar) that live up the buzz.

The Social Network goes by very fast, but doesn't really ever rest on anything. Citizen Kane (which people are unfortunately comparing this movie to) also covered a lot, but it didn't feel rushed the way this does. One technique I didn't think added much was cross-cutting between Zuckerberg's Facebook-related lawsuits and the rise of Facebook. There wasn't a significant difference between Zuckerberg the rising star and Zuckerberg the defendant. If they were going for that stark contrast that you get with a "before/after he was behind bars" kind of movie, they failed.

The writer (Aaron Sorkin), director (David Fincher), and producer (Scott Rudin) of this film are immensely talented, and all have works on my "best" list. I saw bits and pieces of their trademark strengths, but everything didn't add up. Fincher was at his best at showing off Harvard's in-groups, creepiness, excess and conspiracy, hearkening back to his work on Fight Club, Se7en and Zodiac. I loved Sorkin's use of technical dialogue (hello, he is an offspring of Howard Hawks, although I prefer him when he's channeling the geekiness of Ball of Fire, not that His Girl Friday opening sequence).

I'll gladly see the movie again to find out if the Emperor really is wearing clothes, but in the meantime I'll keep my lonely position and set my sights on another film for Best Picture--True Grit.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Would you pay $30 to watch a movie at home?

By Sarah Sluis

Watching a movie at home used to mean heading over to Blockbuster, paying four bucks to rent a DVD, and heating up some popcorn. Now Blockbuster's gone bankrupt, and renting a movie can be done from the couch via on-demand or an Internet rental. But it's going to cost consumers.

Home theater There's been talk about charging $20-50 to rent newer movies for some time now (I wrote about changing theatrical windows back in May), but it appears that Sony, Warner Bros. and Disney have now banded together and plan to use the $30 rental model to push movies during the post-theatrical pre-rental window. Earlier, Lionsgate said it would not be participating in the model because it doesn't do many family movies, so the idea is that a family of four would be able to see a movie for as little as five bucks a pop, compared to double that at the theatre. So will it work?

In favor: People are impatient. They want to see a hit film now. If all of a kid's friends at school have seen a movie, don't parents feel guilty for depriving them of something to talk about around the water fountain at recess? For more adult movies, seeing, say, an Inception at the same time everyone's talking about it has a value of its own, and it also cuts down on babysitter costs for busy families.

To make the service valuable, however, it has to be just close enough to the theatrical release and just far away enough from the video release. Studios have already started this process: Netflix now gets movie for rent a month after they've been released in stores and to other rental outlets such as Blockbuster. There's also the drawback that seeing a movie at home is not as immersive of an experience as seeing it in theatres. Interruptions happen, you're more likely to have a faulty Internet connection or some other technological hassle, and even with a home theatre system, everything is smaller and quieter.

With three big studios on board, growth of on-demand seems inevitable. If I look through my Verizon Fios on-demand section (in the New York City area) there's already a significant amount of content with tiered pricing, depending on how close the movie is to its theatrical release. However, I actually think the model is much more effective for specialty films, not blockbusters.

Before moving to New York City, I would frequently find out about films and then check listings for weeks until the movie finally came out in my town. Most specialty releases open in just a few geographic areas and then expand. For those in tertiary markets, the wait can be frustrating (and it's not infrequent to miss a movie altogether). On-demand, which IFC has pursued for many of its releases, can be a very effective way to hit the indie audiences across the country.

The most daring strategy yet may be that of Freakonomics. The movie will release in 16 theatres starting October 1st, but the movie was made available on iTunes on September 3rd for $9.99 ($10.99 for an HD version). In the comments section, some people seemed confused about why the movie was so expensive, but others were willing to pay to see a movie in advance (it helps that millions of people have read the books).

Forget focus groups--demand already exists for at-home movies shortly after theatrical. It's called piracy. Within days or weeks of a movie's release, unknown amounts of people download torrents of films. Wouldn't at least some of them be willing to pay a little for an HD, high-quality version of a movie they're too lazy to see in theatres? Time will tell.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Green weekend for 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'

By Sarah Sluis

Almost a quarter-century after the 1987 original, Oliver Stone and his creation Gordon Gekko returned for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Finishing up the weekend with $19 million, the financial drama saw a

Wall street 2 douglas labeouf nice appreciation from its $4 million debut way back in the 80's. Audiences over thirty came out in force, since they were most likely to be familiar with the initial film.

Debuting in second place, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole racked up $16.3 million, including $1.7 million from IMAX screens. Director Zack Snyder's switch from R-rated movies like Watchmen and 300 to a PG, animated movie was deemed too violent by many

Legend of the guardians overhead owls critics, but that didn't stop the owl adventure from finishing within expectations.

You Again opened in fifth place with $8.3 million. The addition of stars such as Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis and Betty White succeeded in drawing in an older audience. Though younger audiences in the Kristen Bell age range did turn out, they represented just 25% of

You again betty white jamie lee curtis kristen bell the total. A sub-$10 million opening isn't that great, but Disney should be able to rouse up some good post-theatrical returns. The chick flick's older audience also suggests it will play well in coming weeks.

The 700-screen release of The Virginity Hit did not go well for Sony, which hoped to use a limited release to launch a larger one in coming weeks. With just a $429 per-screen average, the teen sex comedy finished with $300,000.

Director Davis Guggenheim's documentary about America's failing public schools, Waiting for "Superman," had an A+ debut. It's $35,250 per-screen average was the highest of the year. The movie will expand into ten markets next week and Paramount plans to tie in the film's marketing to the midterm elections in November.

Woody Allen's latest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, did exceptionally well its opening weekend, with a $27,000 per-screen average on six screens. His last film, Whatever Works, however, opened slightly better and finished with $5 million, so the outsize opening will likely be followed up by a more modest, but successful, run.

Enter the void Enter the Void
had the third-highest per-screen average, $14,000, along with some good buzz, which should help the psychedelic, experimental movie out in coming weeks. Ryan Reynolds' turn in Buried piled up $9,500 per screen at eleven locations, and James Franco's performance in Howl accrued $9,000 per screen at six locations. Among returning specialty releases, Never Let Me Go went from 4 to 26 locations and increased 119% from last week. Catfish upped its take 82%, expanding from 12 to 57 theatres.

This Friday, the much-hyped The Social Network will enter theatres along with horror remake Let Me In and the thriller Case 39, starring Renee Zellweger.

Friday, September 24, 2010

'Money Never Sleeps,' 'You Again' and 'Owls' enter crowded weekend

By Sarah Sluis

Corporate raider Gordon Gekko is back in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (3,565 theatres). Oliver Stone's sequel to his 1987 film centers on young financial analyst Shia La Beouf and includes many

Wall street 2 michael douglas references to the current economic crisis. Critic Doris Toumarkine praised the movie's "snappy script," "fantastic performances all around," and "unblinking look at the high-stakes financial players�the greedy, sneaky bankers and traders and their enablers." Though the movie will have tough competition from its 3D-animated owls (see below), it's a contender for the top spot.

Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (3,575 theatres) sounds like it will appeal mainly to kids who have already seen their fair share of age-inappropriate movies to build their scare tolerance. If I put my kid shoes on, I see a movie that's very darkly lit (one of my childhood pet peeves, I hated it when characters were

Scared owl guardians of ga'hoole obscured by shadows), scary, and confusing--kind of like the spooky animated film The Secret of NIMH, only worse. Critic Frank Lovece points out that the movie includes such "nightmare-inducers" as "genocidal ambitions, medieval slashing tools, child slavery, [and] child soldiers," all of which lead him to question the movie's PG rating. Based on a series of young adult books, the adventure centers on a group of young owls caught up in a fight of good vs. evil. The comparatively more cheerful Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs opened last year to $30 million, and Owls should come close to that figure, landing somewhere in the mid-$20 million range.

Despite the snappy premise 'my brother is marrying my high school enemy,' You Again (2,548 theatres) plays like "one more promising idea ground into bland, tasteless Hollywood sausage," according to critic Maitland McDonagh. For the under-25 females expected to turn out for the movie, however, I can't think of a more appealing premise. Everyone has a little bit of an inner geek and would love to show up the mean girl, so the idea of watching a successful Kristen Bell spar with her former torturer (Odette Yustman) should be enough catnip to put the movie in the teen-million range.

Sneaking into 700 theatres, The Virginity Hit adds a twist to the typical teen sex comedy--webcams and YouTube. But wait! 1999's American Pie also included a webcam sequence in the plot, but the teens seeing The Virginity Hit were learning their A-B-C's when that movie came out. By releasing under the radar, this comedy is aiming for a viral success fueled by word-of-mouth.

Five prominent specialty releases enter the fray today, many of them buoyed up by positive receptions on the festival circuit.

Woody Allen makes his annual directing appearance in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (4 theatres, NY/LA). The movie, which explores aging, infidelity, and faith, stirred up this observation from critic Kevin Lally: "Perhaps someday Woody Allen will again appear onscreen in a truly satisfying movie. For now, it's comforting to know this prolific writer-director can still deliver good, insightful material for the many actors who keep lining up to work with him."

Howl james franco James Franco stars as Allen Ginsberg in Howl (6 theatres, NY/LA/SF), a movie that melds an animated reading of the titular poem, Ginsberg's obscenity court case, and his life--each element better on its own than as part of the whole, according to Toumarkine. A murdered drug junkie comes back to life in the graphic and psychedelic Enter the Void (4 theatres, NY/LA/Chicago), directed by Gaspar No. In Buried (11 theatres), Ryan Reynolds plays a man trapped in a coffin in Iraq with a cell phone as his only tool for escape.

A moving documentary about America's failing public schools, Waiting for "Superman" (4 theatres), makes its debut. Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) directed the polemic, which inspired Shirely Sealy to speculate "if it [will succeed] in reshaping the national debate about how to fix our broken educational system."

On Monday, stay tuned for a recap of which small releases distinguished themselves, and the winners in the battle of Wall Street vs. owls vs. revenge-seeking women.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

But can she direct? Angelina Jolie tackles Bosnian-Serb romance

By Sarah Sluis

Let's be honest. No good deed goes unpunished, and it's easy to question the motivation of every celebrity on an international goodwill trip taking a photo op with a local baby (Is this a good time to bring up the time Lindsay Lohan did some kind of documentary in India?). Angelina Jolie, however, has shown herself committed to her role as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and adopted several children from around

Angelina_jolie_in_pakistan_mixxaticles the world. Her latest project will see her in the director's seat helming a love story between a Bosnian and Serbian set during the war between the two factions.

Jolie reportedly visits the area regularly in her capacity as a goodwill ambassador. She will not only direct the film, it also seems that she wrote it! I'm a little skeptical of this, if only because she is a working actress, is constantly seen traveling the world with her gaggle of kids, and has a pretty packed film resume. Surely she had some help?

The cast is led by Zana Marjanovic, an actress known for her role in the Bosnian film Snow, Nikola Djuricko, and Rade Serbedzija. All of these actors come from the region, a casting choice made by Jolie. Filming will start late this year, which means maybe the movie will hit the festival circuit in 2011?

Whenever actors branch out into directing, they're subject to a different brand of criticism. Any A-lister who wanted to would have no trouble finding a movie to helm: their name alone would serve as proof of marketability. Skill, on the other hand, is more elusive, and Jolie will be up against some tough critics (including myself) who are interested in the story but need to be shown she's able to give a point-of-view from her spot in the director's chair.

If Jolie proves herself to be a competent director, she'll be following other women who started as actresses and turned into directors. Hollywood director Ida Lupino first worked as an actress, as did Jodie Foster and Penny Marshall. Though I doubt Jolie would envy this comparison, infamous German propagandist Leni Reifenstahl also segued from actress to director. Even last year's Best Director winner at the Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow, once appeared in a music video directed by her then-romantic interest, James Cameron. With women underrepresented as Hollywood directors, the actor-to-director transition may just be a welcome back door that will get more women into the director seat.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Audiences go to 'Town' with Ben Affleck

By Sarah Sluis

In just three days, Ben Affleck's The Town managed to outperform the entire run of his first directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone. Ringing up $23.8 million, the Boston-accented bank robbing tale tapped older

Rebecca hall ben affleck the town male audiences eager for thrills. The pairing of Boston townies and crime hearkened back to 2006's The Departed, but The Town was a few million shy of beating that film's opening weekend.

In second place, Easy A amassed $18.2 million, on the high end of openings within the teen comedy genre. It couldn't beat Mean Girls or Superbad, but the Emma Stone picture wowed a primarily young, female audience. Word-of-mouth could propel this movie further, so its

Emma stone A easy A week-to-week drops will be a number to watch. Stone herself is an up-and-coming actress: She has roles in upcoming comedies Friends with Benefits and Crazy, Stupid, Love (both in post-production), and will host "SNL" on Oct. 23. Her biggest coup is landing the lead in The Help, a popular book club selection that has a huge built-in audience.

M. Night Shyamalan's blockbuster cred weakened with the $12.5 million debut of Devil, his lowest yet. Horror movies usually drop 50-60% in their second weekend, so this movie will be unlikely to top $25 million during its run. However, how expensive could a movie that takes place almost entirely in an elevator be? With an unknown cast, it couldn't have cost that much--right?

The animated feature Alpha and Omega made a respectable showing with $9.2 million. It was no match for last year's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which opened to $30 million at this time last year. Given the movie's so-so animation and measly 15% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it fared well.

Never let me go restaurant
With the highest per-screen average of the week, Never Let Me Go earned a stellar $30,000 per screen playing in four theatres. Leading the pack of potential Oscar contenders, this movie may remain fresh in the minds of Academy voters--it seems likely to pick up a couple of nominations. Social networking documentary-thriller Catfish, which opened to a $21,000 per screen on twelve screens, debuted lower but arguably better. It's tough to carry that high of a per-screen average across so many screens. Though this movie was a Sundance Festival pickup, Rogue is marketing it as a mainstream, hyper-relevant mystery, a tactic that seems to have appealed to the YouTube generation.

This Friday will be another crowded one. Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps leads along with romcom You Again, 3D animated feature Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, and a limited release of teen sex comedy The Virginity Hit. Specialty releases (take a deep breath) making their debut will include Waiting for "Superman," Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Howl, starring James Franco, and Ryan Gosling in a coffin in Buried.

Documentaries lead the pack at Toronto Film Festival

By Sarah Sluis
FJI critic and correspondent Erica Abeel concludes her report from the Toronto International Film Festival, which wrapped this weekend.

Telling the truth can be hazardous to your professional health. But here goes anyway. Maybe I just made exceptionally poor choices, but this year�with a few notable exceptions�the Toronto International Film Festival included too many lame features. A shout-out, first, for the exceptions: French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve's magisterial Incendies and South African Life, Above All by Oliver Schmitz, both due to travel stateside, and on the higher-profile end, Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, with its wicked, twisty humor, and Black Swan, the thrilling, over-the-top ride by Darren Aronofsky, which should prove a hot ticket once it bows in theatres here.

Among the duds, count two features from directors with great track records. The reliably kinetic John Cameron Mitchell stumbles with Rabbit Hole, top-lined by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart playing a couple whose toddler has been killed in an accident. But to follow them through the stages of mourning is about as electrifying as queuing up at Toronto's Lester Pearson Airport, where the embalmed indifference of the officials is a movie in itself. Adapting from the play by David Lindsay-Abaire, helmer John Cameron Mitchell has failed to open it up, and the only fun on hand is ogling Aaron Eckhart's ripped pecs. Amazingly, this dreary ride comes from the director of such hell-raisers as Shortbus and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

At least Rabbit Hole offers the charisma of its principals. Little, though, can rescue It's Kind of a Funny Story from the wonderful team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. I loved their Half Nelson. But I wonder what prompted the pair to film the story of a depressive, suicidal teen checking himself into a mental ward. Nothing happens. The teen (Keir Gilchrist) learns the ropes of the ward, hangs with longtime resident Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and meets a girlfriend. Hey, if doesn't work� The attitude toward the mentally ill, who are a sad lot�One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest this ain't�comes across as condescending.

Then there's the hipper-than-thou Kaboom by Gregg Araki, who made the terrific Mysterious Skin. No point in trying to walk you through a plot. So far as I could tell, it concerns a sex-crazed, bisexual college boy plunging into a supernatural world of demons, cults and Armageddon. The film, I'm told, is about "existing in a borderline psychotic, psychosexually hyperactive imaginary universe that feels absolutely real and true." I want whatever that critic was smokin'. Sample oral-sex joke from hero's girlfriend: "It's a vagina, not a bowl of spaghetti." Most improbable line: "I have a huge paper due Friday." Uh, you do? I don't remember college being so much fun.

If there was any compensation for such bombs, it could be found in a trio of superb documentaries. Along with Charles Ferguson's Inside Job (a pick of the New York Film Festival), count the hugely entertaining doc Tabloid by Errol Morris. At the center of the story is Joyce McKinney, a former beauty pageant queen, who falls for a Mormon, pursues him�after his church forbids their union�to England, ends up kidnapping him�and it only gets weirder. In Joyce, Morris has nailed a true American original who may or may not be barking mad. He also grapples with the way tabloids massage the truth, so the real story lies forever buried. Innovative devices, such as amusing stills and weird cartoons of Mormon rituals, break up the talkiness. And Morris uses to great effect the Interrotron, a customized teleprompter that projects Morris' face in front of the camera so that his subjects must look simultaneously into his eyes and the lens.

A brilliant, essential documentary is Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer by Alex Gibney. Though he might have appended "and Rise." Hardly a broadside, the film is marked by a cool, objective tone, which should expand its demographic. A tough crusader against Wall Street, on course to become America's first Jewish president, Spitzer was famously derailed by the Justice Department's prosecution of the Emperors Club escort agency, which revealed that Client #9 was Spitzer. Though the New York Post and others had a ball, unanswered questions remain: Did politics play a role in the investigation?

Bringing fresh insight to Spitzer's story, Gibney and writer Peter Elkind reveal that the guv's main squeeze was not Ashley Dupre, but "Angelina," who (played by an actress) talked for the first time (and don't you love it that she's gone on to work on Wall Street?) Gibney also centers the film on statements from the charismatic, blue-eyed Spitzer, both politic and revealing. Though we never�and likely never will�get to the million-dollar question: Why the hell did he do it and what was he thinking? Politicians not being known for introspection, maybe Spitzer himself couldn't answer.

The film is plenty juicy. You can watch Spitzer admit that the escort agency caper was a form of hubris "which goes back to the Greeks," thanks for the attribution. You hear the agency's giggly madame reveal that Dupre has "a perfect cooch." You learn that these high-end hookers look like all-American coeds. Makes it less of a transgression? Or is it compensation for the horny freshmen with dandruff who couldn't get a date with a looker?

But after we get off on the prurience factor, let's face it: How does Spitzer's need to explore sex outside his marriage impact on my or anyone else's life? Hell, in France he would have been applauded for it! Testosterone, a real man, etc. Yeah, I know Spitzer did something illegal, but consider this: The Mann Act that he violated wasn't pursued in other cases.

Most crucially, Gibney's film reveals that the Wall Street titans he'd spent his career targeting were allied to choreograph Spitzer's downfall. And why wouldn't they be? He went after such a fellow as a certain Blodgett, who quipped that he once made what he called POS�i.e., piece of shit, or $12 million a year. He went after Goldman Sachs years before anyone else, and venture capitalist Ken Langone, the New York Stock Exchange board director who signed off on an outrageous pay package for its chairman and CEO, Richard Grasso. Gibney trots out convincing evidence that these men maneuvered behind the scenes to unseat Spitzer. With the notorious former guv about to assume a new role as talk-show host on CNN, and public interest in him high, Client 9 should find a substantial audience.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Trio of 'Easy A,' 'The Town,' and 'Devil' vie for the box-office crown

By Sarah Sluis

Following up a quiet week at the box office, four wide releases and two hyped small releases enter the fray.

Easy a movie emma stone sign A snappy teen sex comedy with a chance at the top spot, Easy A (2,856 theatres) stars Emma Stone as a high school student who gets mistakenly slapped with a reputation for being "easy." Despite such misses as the "age-blind casting" noted by critic David Noh (the leads are in their early twenties), this movie has drawn comparisons to Mean Girls and Clueless. Screen Gems ran hundreds of advance screenings for the movie, a sure sign this comedy is expected to generate "oohs" and "aahs" from its teen and college base.

Ben Affleck stars in and directs The Town (2,861 theatres), the story of working-class bank robbers who wear chilling Halloween masks while on a job. Rebecca Hall makes a departure from her plain-Jane appearance in Please Give as a "toonie" (yuppie) bank professional Affleck sparks to after holding her

The town ben affleck jeremy renner hostage during a robbery. While the movie doesn't break much new ground, "[t]he robbery and chase sequences are fast-paced, tense but not overly graphic, and crisply choreographed," according to critic Kevin Lally, and "the film is so well-cast, you happily go along with the genre ride."

What's worse than being stuck in an elevator? Being stuck in an elevator with the devil! M. Night Shyamalan's Devil (2,810 theatres) serves

up shaky elevators alongside some accidental shrieks.

Horror aficionados should turn out in force for its opening weekend,

putting it on similar footing with The Town and Easy A. But could an elevator really plummet to the ground? Have no fear: According to this unintentionally hilarious interview with a buttoned-up Otis executive and New York Magazine, elevators are very, very safe.

Alpha and omega movie A B-list 3D animated film, Alpha and Omega (2,625 theatres), is expected to be the box-office loser this weekend. The cute premise centers on star-crossed lovers, one an alpha female wolf and the other a bottom-of-the-pack omega male. However, "the flat picture-book quality of its backgrounds has an old-fashioned appeal but might disappoint viewers used to more pop and dazzle," according to critic Sheri Linden, and the first third of the movie is "devoid of charm." Woof.

What the New York Times cleverly called "the other Facebook movie," Catfish (23 theatres in NY, LA, San Francisco and Austin) may be the first of its kind to document how the Internet, specifically Facebook, facilitates deception. After Nev Schulman meets a young girl and her family on the Internet, he develops a romance with her older sister. Like a true thriller, your imagination runs away with all the possible outcomes, but the truth is weirder and more painful than anything you can dream up as a viewer.

The spare and sad Never Let Me Go (4 theatres) opened on Wednesday to a $6,000 per-screen average,

Never let me go keira knightley carey mulligan and is poised to ring up additional business over the weekend. Featuring a "unique comingling of genres," the movie centers on three students (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly and Andrew Garfield) who have been raised to serve as organ donors in an alternate history version of Britain circa the 1970s. According to critic Rex Robets, it may just be the rare movie that is better than the book. Showing impeccable restraint, "the moral question at the heart of the story is unspoken�but loudly heard."

On Monday, we'll see which film landed as the box-office topper and if Catfish and Never Let Me Go wowed general audiences as much as festival crowds.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Is a documentary about caves the next 'Avatar'?

By Sarah Sluis

Werner Herzog is a director like no other, switching between narrative films and documentaries and always

Werner herzog cave of forgotten dreams keeping the unexpected in focus. His latest work, the 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was picked up by IFC at the Toronto International Film Festival. I can only imagine how stunning it would be to conceptualize the depth and spacing of caves on the big screen. What's more, Herzog had access to the freshly discovered Chauvet cave in south France and its ancient paintings. Kudos to IFC for picking this one up.

Interestingly, reactions on the use of 3D in the film were totally mixed:

Cinematical had this to say about the 3D:

"Apparently the resurgent 3-D gimmick has now infected the realm of low-budget documentary filmmaking -- and the gimmick does this film no favors. Even using the finest cameras in the world, 3-D has proven itself to be an inconsistent film companion at best, but given the cameras that Herzog's crew are using ... it just doesn't work. When the camera holds still and simply focuses on one of the concave walls on which are emblazoned massive horses, the 3-D gives us a little extra depth and detail -- but when the camera starts moving the 3-D becomes a consistent annoyance."

Screen Daily was more kind:

"Herzog's decision to shoot in 3-D is the film's greatest asset. When

one expert decides to demonstrate the use of hunting spears they come

hurtling from the screen into the lap of the viewer.This is a rare

instance of the 3-D appearing gimmicky. Most of the time it enhances

the depth of perspective as we glimpse the art and travel through the

claustrophobic caves. Crystals sparkle and it feels like being back

among the fireflies on Pandora in Avatar as you truly feel you could

reach out and touch the stalactites or brush your hand across a


My verdict? I'll have to see the film to decide.

Elsewhere in the 3D world, Jeffrey Katzenberg bemoaned shoddy 2D to 3D conversions and prescription 3d glasses are in the works. Another indie director (at least to American audiences), Takashi Miike (known for his truly horrifying movie Audition) announced that he will film his next movie in 3D. The 1962 Japanese film Harakiri (Seppuku), which centers on a man who seeks revenge after his son-in-law is forced into performing harakiri, will get the remake treatment. The ritual suicide can be meted down as punishment for a crime or act of dishonor, with the offender executing himself by inserting a knife into his abdomen in a left-to-right motion (read more than you ever wanted to know about the ritual here).

With 3D films being produced in so many corners of the marketplace, and theatres equipped to show them, I don't think 3D will be leaving anytime soon.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Teens offered 'Submarine' or 'Matched'

By Sarah Sluis

What do teens want? Movies like Twilight roll out and break box-office records, but the formula isn't quite as replicable as, say a blue-chip teen sex/coming-of-age comedy. Today, there's two pickups at each end of the spectrum.

Submarine picture movie Up at the Toronto Film Festival, the Weinstein Co. picked up Submarine, a teen coming-of-age comedy that had me at "[avoids] the obvious moves of Wes Anderson-inspired preciousness that often sink young filmmakers," according to the LA Times Blog, Submarine sounds like it could have been just such a film, containing such pastiche touches as Super 8 footage and "typeface reminiscent of '60s-era Godard films," with a tone that "establishes an oddball mixture of sincerity, self-consciousness and teen-angst moodiness." But, although another blogger called director Richard Ayoade a "Wes Anderson," it appears the movie goes in a somewhat different direction. The protagonist's main goals involve the more standard concerns: losing his virginity and dealing with parental strife, but it seems like it's done in a classy way with an all-ages appeal. I'm putting this on my to-see list in 2011.

On the epic side of the teen movie game, Disney, which has been pursing franchise films and other "big" filmmaking opportunities, signed on to adapt an unreleased novel (planned as a series) called Matched.

Matched book The teen film follows a pretty standard dystopian plotline: a world where the government controls the media and teens are permanently "matched" with someone when they turn eighteen. From this broad description, I'm actually reminded of the wonderful children's book The Giver (stuck in development at Warner Bros.!), which similarly featured a controlled environment. In Matched, a young woman is matched with one man but sees another person's face on the computer screen doing the matching for a brief second. As she develops feelings for the man that is not her "match," she starts to doubt the society that put such a system in place. I won't get my hopes up for a film adaptation yet. Disney also acquired a sci-fi romance series Fallen recently, so it will probably develop a few projects and choose one of the best to move forward into production.

So which project wins? While Submarine sounds like a film I want to see, Matched has an original bent. I'm curious if studios will be able to spin off the success of Twilight into a whole new popular genre. These types of fantasies seem like a pit stop in between Disney princesses and romantic comedies, and they could be the answer to the similarly fantasy-fueled superhero movies that appeal to teen boys.

At Toronto, the star is the ensemble of films

By Sarah Sluis
FJI correspondent and critic Erica Abeel continues her reports from the Toronto International Film Festival.

So I was just beginning to appreciate the virtues of the Scotiabank megaplex, where the screens are bigger than in the fondly remembered Manulife on Bloor Street, and the seating mightily raked so no Mohawk can impede your view.

But then I got my first look at the newly opened TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Yikes! The place is cinephile heaven, Opening day, press and public flowed freely in and out minus any security drill. The Lightbox features clean, sweeping lines; walls of orange and purple offset by shades of grey; saturated blue-lit panels flanking the elevators; washrooms like those in trendy hotels; a bar, bistro and rooftop terrace; and a dramatic square monitoring room cantilevered out over the lobby, its window framed in orange. And, of course, a brace of five state of the art theatres of varying sizes. During my flyby, a video installation by Canadian director Atom Egoyan using clips from Fellini's 8 1/2 filled one gallery space, while viewers filed into a theatre for a TIFF screening. The place reads like a futuristic vision that will surely cement Toronto's preeminence as a film center.

This year's Toronto Fest offers fewer must-see, high-profile films or auteurist masterworks than in the past. I'd say that in this 35th edition it's the ensemble of films�their variety, range, and out-and-out cojones�that's impressive. So how among upwards of 350 films, you might ask, do I choose which to see over roughly a week? Well, on arriving here I pore over the 448-page, doorstopper TIFF encyclopedia, which gives glowing rundowns�sometimes misleadingly�of what's on tap. I gravitate towards auteurs�French, American, German, Chinese; exotic venues; sex and nudity; favorite actors (Mads Mikkelsen, Helen Mirren); dramatic or provocative stories; films that treat social injustice; those that carry buzz from Venice and Cannes. Oy, that still leaves over 100 films...

Among the best-received here�and touted in Telluride�is Incendies (pronounced "An-sahn-dee") by Quebecois Denis Villeneuve, a hot-off-the-griddle pick by Sony Pictures Classics. It's based on Wajdi Mouawad's play about Canadian twins who discover, after their mother dies, that they have a father they thought was dead and a brother they didn't know existed. The film takes the form of a quest, following the twins on a journey to the Middle East as they attempt to piece together the story of their mother.

Some will find it a slow starter. I was in its corner from Go, partly since it arrived here with lavish praise. But it also demonstrates Villeneuve's confidence in a story that requires a stately pace, fluidly shifting from present to the mysteries of the past. And mystery is the operative word. Incendies is a politically charged detective story that solves a riddle and uncorks a shocking denouement you won't soon forget.

Though it delves into the background stories of immigrants, often invisible or mere fixtures to the West's well-off, the film never hectors or falls into political correctness. The canvas of Incendies is wider, drawing on ancient myth to explore the crimes of the past and break the chain of suffering and violence.

A second film focusing on social justice: Life, Above All by Oliver Schmitz, also distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. It's hard to remain dry-eyed as a young girl in a South African village at the start of the AIDS epidemic defies her local community, consumed with fear and superstition, in order to care for her dying mother. Twelve-year-old newcomer Khomotso Manyaka as the girl who must maintain the faade of a normal life amidst utter instability imbues the role with emotional gravitas.

The theme of big boys behaving badly marks Little White Lies by Guillaume Canet (Tell No One), a frivolous, meandering exercise. The setup: A passel of friends descend on their rich buddy's home in some idyllic part of France for their annual vacation. This year, though, the trip is abbreviated because one of their crowd has been battered by a motorcycle accident and lies in hospital, his life hanging by a thread.

In no way can this group's shenanigans justify the more than two-and-a-half-hour running time. Mainly the film is a display of male boorishness, in which the friends seem to forget about their ailing buddy, and one guy has the gall to feel aggrieved when the woman he's screwed over walks. Only Franois Cluzet as the obsessive-compulsive host injects humor, while Marion Cotillard, whose real-life boyfriend directed the film, radiates sensual fulfillment.

Barney's Version by Richard J. Lewis, a sweeping saga about a charismatic scapegrace, is far meatier. And why does Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) act out? Well, see, it's just his irrepressible, ebullient nature�though he ends by driving away the love of his life. I haven't read the novel by homegrown Canadian author Mordecai Richler, but I find the film stands on its own as a vital, entertaining adaptation, following its hero from his success as a TV producer, to his marriage to the vulgar, nouveau riche Minnie Driver, to his years with the divine Rosamund Pike as his final wife, Miriam�whom he meets at his own wedding to Driver, no less. The jokes about unpolished Jews yukking it up in Montreal feel a bit dj vu, and it's clear Miriam's goyische poise is part of her appeal for Barney�but what's the appeal of this schlubby guy for Miriam?

Overall, director Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves have done a bang-up job of compressing Barney's unruly life into a picaresque romp that seldom lags. But�about those naughty boys. Our hero pretty much brings his love troubles on himself and suffers big-time. Male viewers will sympathize, women less so.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Al Capone shooting up the big screen with 'Cicero'

By Sarah Sluis

Can there ever be too many gangster movies? I've been dying over the bus ads for HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," which follows glamorous low-lifes in Atlantic City, New Jersey, during the prohibition era. While I'll only have to wait a week to see "Boardwalk Empire," I'll also have a gangster movie to look forward to sometime in the future: Cicero.

Capone-mug-shot Based on a screenplay by Walon Green, Cicero will follow Al Capone from his early days in Brooklyn through his move to Chicago. Variety described it as an old-fashioned story in the vein of 1930s gangster movies like Public Enemy, and I suspect that the script itself is also ancient. Green, who wrote The Wild Bunch back in 1965, has been working in television for the past decade, so it's likely that this script has been around for awhile--but that doesn't mean it won't be good.

There's some concern, however, that the gangster genre may be getting old. After all, 2009's Public Enemies made just under $100 million with a budget just that high. And Al Capone was covered in 1987's The Untouchables, and still sees frequent play on cable channels--could there be topic fatigue? On the flip side, the idea of American gangsters has traditionally been popular abroad, even more so than domestically, so unlike many movies about American history, this one won't have any problem appealing to international audiences.

Over at Cinematical, they put together a list of potential actors to play Al Capone. None of them seem quite right to me, but one had me intrigued. Could James Gandolfini pull off playing another gangster character believably, or is he so tied to his Tony Soprano character he could never don the gunstrap of Al Capone?

Monday, September 13, 2010

What a Trip! Coogan and Brydon delight in Toronto

By Kevin Lally

As always,theToronto International Film Festival marks the official start of the fall awards buzz. The King's Speech, the drama about King George VI's struggle with a severe speech impediment, lives up to its advanceword and looks like a sure bet to be named one of the 2010 Oscar nominees for Best Picture, with Colin Firth a leading candidate for the Best Actor race. Clint Eastwood's Hereafter, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, and Mike Leigh's Another Year are some of the other Toronto entries being touted for end-of-the-year awards glory.

Toronto also offers the opportunity to get a first look at movies that will be delighting audiences in the months to come. On the verge of a domestic pickup is Mike Mills'Beginners, a comedy-drama starring Ewan McGregor as a commercial artist whose septuagenerian father, played by the great Christopher Plummer, comes out as a gay man after losing his wife of 44 years. What sounds on the surface like a potentially zany comedy is actually a poignant and artful movie about the nature of love and the courage that goes into sustaining a relationship.

Michael Winterbottom's The Trip doesn't have a U.S. distributor, but after its rousing reception in Toronto, that shouldn't be the case for long. Actor-comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who co-starred in Winterbottom's Tristam Shandy, play themselves, embarking on a gastronomic road trip in the north of England. The entire film was improvised during the titular trip, and Coogan and Brydon prove themselves without a doubt two of the funniest men alive today. Each is a gifted impressionist, and the Toronto audience roared at their dueling Michael Caines, Sean Connerys and Woody Allens, as well as their riffs on James Bond, musical talent, agingand mortality. At the post-screening Q&A, Winterbottom admitted to editing "100 hours of rubbish" to arrive at the finished gem of a movie. Along with nonstop laughs, The Trip is also an enticing travelogue and a foodie festival. Here's one comedy with great potential to move beyond the art house.

Debut of 'Resident Evil: Afterlife' marks new high for franchise

By Sarah Sluis

The franchise responsible for Resident Evil: Afterlife is alive and well. The fourth installment of the video game adaptation debuted higher than all three previous movies, finishing the weekend with a robust $27.7 million. Consistent with many action/horror/sci-fi genre films, the movie had its biggest night on Friday, to

Resident evel afterlife milla jovovich the tune of $10.8 million, before slowly declining over Saturday and Sunday. Afterlife inched out the last Resident Evil film by $4 million. The reason for Afterlife's stunning performance, however, may not be the health of the franchise but the profitability of 3D. The 141 IMAX screens (compared to 3,000 regular screens) contributed $2.6 million to the box office, and over two-thirds of the screens were shown in 3D theatres charging premiums for seats.

The race for second place between holdovers Takers and The American ended with Takers on top with $6.1 million. Though the slick heist movie finished below The American last week, it declined just 43% to The American's 55% fall. The latter film, starring George Clooney, was expected to have a more leggy run due to its appeal among older audiences, so its second-week slump to $5.8 million could be telling.

Joaquin Phoenix's sorta-documentary I'm Still Here just surpassed $100,000 over the weekend, playing at 19 locations with a $5,500 per-screen average. Phoenix is expected on "Letterman" Sept. 22, a

year after his bizarre interview with the late-night host that circulated virally, so that added publicity could be a boon to its box-office take two weeks from now.

The all-star cast of The Romantics helped earned the film a stellar $22,200 per-screen average during its opening weekend at two screens in New York and Los Angeles. Leading lady Katie Holmes hasn't been seen much on screen lately, but if that wasn't a draw, "True Blood" star Anna Paquin, Elijah Wood, Josh Duhamel and Malin Akerman gave this movie an above-average roster.

The re-release of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse failed to do much--including to push the movie over the $300 million vanity mark. Its $745,000 was far below the low single-digit millions predicted, but represented a 71% boost from the previous week. That's right, this "re-release" is actually still playing in select theatres.

Specialty releases showing big increases included director Rob Reiner's Flipped, which went from 28 to 442 screens and boosted its gross 863% to $490,000. Its $1,000 per-screen average is a less promising figure, but positive reviews from critics like Roger Ebert and its family-friendly reputation could propel this film further.

In its fourteenth week, Winter's Bone rose 21% to $143,000, adding to its over $5 million gross. When I saw the movie, I was surprised by the representation of Ozark life, sensing the authenticity of its realism; apparently the movie has played quite well in the Ozark region, where audiences have responded to its mirror-like realism and thriller feeling.

Another mover-and-shaker in the specialty market is Animal Kingdom, which has amassed almost $750,000 in five weeks. The Australian crime drama rose 9% this week, and the 61-screen release accumulated another $122,000.

This Friday, four wide releases enter the mix: Warner Bros.' Boston crime drama The Town, the 3D animated Alpha and Omega, teen sex comedy Easy A, and horror picture Devil. The much-buzzed documentary Catfish and the spare but heart-wrenching Never Let Me Go will also make their debut on specialty screens.

'Black Swan' meets 'A Tall Dark Stranger' at the Toronto Film Festival

By Sarah Sluis

FJI contributor Eriba Abeel reports from the Toronto Film Festival.

Well, it's kind of a brand new Toronto Film Festival this year. The whole show, in this chilly, windy 35th edition, has shifted from the tony Yorkville/Bloor Street area to downtown Toronto in the freshly minted Entertainment section. At its axis looms the almost-completed TIFF Bell Lightbox, an impressive glass complex ten ye.ars in the making. This one-stop cinephile's paradise will house screenings, gallery shows, exhibitions, workshops, multi-media events and more. Best of all for the harried journalist, everything, from screenings, to panels, to pressers, will be centralized. You need only to step out of your hotel in the morning and full into the lap of cinema.

Those of us resistant to change approached the relocated fest with trepidation, some of it justified. The temporary venue for screenings is a behemoth called the Scotiabank Theater, a giant concoction of Rubiks cubes on acid. Riding the four-story elevator to the theaters induces nausea and vertigo, not helped by walls with disco balls and wavy lines that appear to undulate. The place is free of anything resembling healthy food and offers only a few bathrooms for upwards of two thousand souls. The 'hood around my hotel is a work in progress, too, featuring Jerk and Swarama joints, a Hooters, mind reader and tattoo parlor.

As for the lineup this year, it contains fewer Must-Sees than in past editions and a dearth of offerings from undisputed masters. Still, by Day 3 I've seen a couple of entertaining and original, if not great films. After

Natalie portman black swan queuing up on on a dizzying ramp, I made it into Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. Since opening Venice the film has generally divided critics. While it's at times preposterous, even laughable - and a few audience members found it risible - Black Swan seduces you with its dark glamor. After The Wrestler, the specialized world evoked here is that of a New York City ballet company, with its driven, competitive ballerinas and exacting ballet master suggestive of George Balanchine. Aronofsky has created resonant parallels between that old warhorse of a ballet, Swan Lake, with its two swan queens - one white and pure, the other dark and wicked - and the ambitions of aspiring prima ballerina Nina (Nathalie Portman) to dance both roles. He's come up with an audacious concept and with only a few missteps Aronofsky thrillingly carries it off.

Virginal, mentally fragile Nina lives with a ferocious "ballet mama" (Barbara Hershey) who projects her own failed dreams of stardom onto her daughter. But Nina's lack of sensuality and mania for perfection shackle her performance of the black swan role, which should sizzle. In an effort to access her inner black swan, Nina dutifully responds to the caresses of ballet master Vincent Cassel, and more ardently to the real or imagined advances of her uninhibited, high-living rival (Mila Kunis). But Nina's ambitions bring her to the brink of madness in a darker, more erotic reprise of The Red Shoes.

To prepare for the role of Nina Nathalie Portman (already tagged as Oscar bait) reportedly studied ballet for ten months. But as a former dancer myself, I can tell you that no actress can create in ten months the body and movement style that dancers shape over ten years. DP Matthew Libatique's camera work cleverly cuts away whenever Nina has to actually dance, rather than just undulate her arms and make like a swan. But even there Portman's merely impersonating a dancer, and not all that convincingly. The great Bolshoi ballerinas had famously superb upper body carriage and hyper-extended arms that few non dancers could reproduce. However, I'm told by my colleagues that only balletomanes will notice. More critically, Portman's limited range as an actress confine her to an expression of pained anxiety.

Vincent Cassel, himself a former dancer, is far more commanding as a creature of the rehearsal hall. He steals every scene in which he appears. As Nina's mom, Barbara Hershey not only goes over the top -- her surgicalized face contributes to the film's ambience of horror. Why do American actresses do this to themselves? Overall, though, Aronofsky has nailed the ballet world, with its paranoia, isolation from the larger community, and near-masochistic physical demands. (Peter Martins of the New York City Ballet once told me that when he was a dancer he was continually in pain.) And Tchaikovsky's familiar, soaring score is of a piece with the film's otherworldly allure of a fairy tale set in New York's Lincoln Center.

With You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger Woody Allen is in terrific form -- in fact, the best in years. With the usual white titles on black, oldie "When You Wish Upon a Star" tinkling on the soundtrack, you relax back in your seat and happily surrender to Woody-land. A voice-over instantly takes charge to relate a story of two London-based couples with adulterous itches. Josh Brolin is bashing away at a new novel

You will meet a tall dark stranger woody allen without much success, while wife Naomi Watts works for elegant art gallerist Antonio Banderas. Brolin has the hots for neighboring guitarist Freida Pinto, while Watts covets her boss. The kinks and twists in the characters' destiny amuse without flagging. You will love the scene in which Watts does her damndest to convey her attraction to Banderas, who maddeningly refuses even to acknowledge that she's coming on to him. It's a brilliant new addition to Woody's gallery of miscommunicating couples.

Yet another story concerns a senior, Anthony Hopkins, who has dumped his wife to pursue fitness and who eventually marries a hooker. Easy laughs and Viagra jokes here, but Hopkins lends them gravitas. Of course, this being Woody-land, Hopkins has been prompted to alter his life by a vision of eternity yawning before him, impelling him to live it up NOW. (Cue Larry David in Whatever It Takes who wakes up at night exclaiming "the horror, the horror.") Who but Woody can make fear of death so consistently entertaining? Meanwhile, Hopkins's abandoned wife has fallen prey to a fortune teller who believes in reincarnation. By film's end the lives of the characters are pretty much in a shambles. With one exception: a character who has bought peace and fulfillment by abandoning reason and living entirely in illusion. A sardonic denouement, but delivered with the lightest of touches.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Will 'Resident Evil 3D' scare away the competition?

By Sarah Sluis

The sole wide release this weekend is Resident Evil: Afterlife (3,203 theatres), the fourth in the series and the first to take advantage of the 3D trend. Since The Hollywood Reporter has pronounced zombies the new vampires, maybe the creatures will attract new audiences. Though most critics have yet to see the movie, the first dozen reviews have been mostly negative, prematurely burying the video game

Resident evil gun milla jovovich adaptation with an 11% positive rating. Shot in bona-fide 3D using technology pioneered by James Cameron himself--the film appears to have no plot to back up the stunning visuals. According to Bloody-Disgusting (a website that specializes in movies that are just that), director Paul W.S. Anderson "fails to build a story; there's absolutely nothing at stake, and even less for any of the characters to lose." Worse, the site goes on to note, Anderson creates a movie that takes itself too seriously. Despite its dismal reviews, the movie could top $20 million this weekend, especially once you factor in the 3D revenue and 141 IMAX screens.

Twi-hards can see Bella and Jacob on the big screen once more in a re-release of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (1,187 theatres) intended to promote sales of the upcoming DVD. The next Twilight (Breaking Dawn Part I) comes out over a year from now, so this will be the last chance to see the vampire romance on the big screen for some time. The re-release should average out in the single-digit millions.

Among holdovers, The American is expected to play strongest, given the appeal of the thriller genre and star George Clooney to older audiences.

Joaquin Phoenix's kind-of documentary I'm Still Here (20 theatres) may benefit from a bit of a rubber-

I'm still here joaquin phoenix
necking, according to FJI critic David Noh, who called it a "cinematic car accident you can't take your eyes from." Filled with drugs, prostitution, a misguided attempt at a rapping career, and nudity, the movie is a bit sad when viewed in context. "Much of the film plays like an extended, wholly misguided cry for help," Noh says, pointing out that Phoenix's real-life experience: His brother died of a drug overdose in front of him, and the 911 tape was replayed constantly, a sick reminder of the tragedy.

Lush Ivy Leaguers contemplate love in The Romantics (NY/LA), which Noh also disliked, dubbing it a "'mumblecore'-style movie gotten up in preppy drag." Those who have been intrigued by Aboriginal culture since seeing Rabbit-Proof Fence can check out a more upbeat, musical celebration in Bran Nue Dae (16 theatres), which "has so much feel-good fizz that you can almost overlook its rickety construction," according to critic Megan Lehmann.

On Monday, it's time for Resident Evil: Afterlife to count its chips from opening weekend, and the specialty films to set their sights on expanding crowds in advance of the numerous year-end awards contenders that will roll in quicker than the fall weather.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Early Oscar Buzz: Natalie Portman for Best Actress in 'Black Swan'

By Sarah Sluis

Since Black Swan debuted at the Venice Film Festival, the movie has been getting pretty consistent raves. It's no Toy Story 3, with a 99% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating, but the divisiveness engendered by the film seems to mostly fall in the "quibble" category, or evidence of serious engagement with the movie. And five out of six reviewers gave it a positive review at the festival.

RBlack-Swan-1c Natalie Portman's acting in the movie has received the most buzz. Her "bravura performance," according to Kirk Honeycutt at The Hollywood Reporter, serves the kind of intensely psychological role that the Oscars love to reward. She has delusions, scratches nervously until she bleeds, and deals with a creepy, domineering mother (Barbara Hershey, who I'll always remember for her role in Boxcar Bertha). She also studied ballet for months for the part, which is almost enough to put her in that "physical alteration for-the-win" category. It worked for the fattened, uglied Charlize Theron in Monster and Nicole Kidman with a fake nose piece in The Hours!

It's also worth noting that the director, Darren Aronofsky, helped both Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei land acting nominations for his last film, The Wrestler. At this point, no one is screaming "Oscar" for the film itself, although it could be a contender depending on the competition.

As an actress, Portman has received one nomination before, for Closer--a so-so movie, in my opinion. She's shied away from light,

Black-swan-portman-2 poufy roles (the closest she's come to a romantic comedy is Garden State and Where the Heart Is, both of which are more romance-comedy-dramas). Besides Closer, she starred in last year's Brothers, a would-be awards film that never took off. She may be getting to the point where an Oscar is due to her if she keeps making such serious, well-acted films.

If Portman doesn't win an Oscar for Black Swan, it looks as if her performance may line up other Oscar-worthy roles for her. Alfonso Cuaron reportedly wants her to replace Angelina Jolie in Gravity, a 3D space movie that would involve her spending long periods of time on screen alone, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away.

Black Swan opens December 1st through Fox Searchlight.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Labor Day audiences turn out for 'The American'

By Sarah Sluis

Machete and The American were neck-and-neck throughout the four-day Labor Day weekend. Machete led during its debut Friday, earning $3.9 million to The American's $3.84 million. After Friday, the George

The american george clooney steps Clooney thinking man/spy film pulled ahead, rising Saturday and Sunday and finishing the four-day weekend with $16.3 million. Machete, the Mexploitation picture from Robert Rodriguez, never matched its Friday night debut and finished with $14 million. Labor Day weekend is notoriously slow, however, so both of these films performed well in terms of their time slots and genres.

Debuting in fourth place, Going the Distance brought in a lackluster $8.9 million over the weekend. This makes the movie a loser even among romantic comedy bedfellows like Love Happens and The Switch (both of which were probably worse than this one, starring Drew

Going the distance tuxedo drew barrymore justin long Barrymore and Justin Long). The movie's release date was changed from August 27th to September 3rd at the last minute, which could have affected grosses. The American and Going the Distance also drew large portions of their audience from the 25+ and 35+ crowd. For a movie like The American, that's fine, but a romantic comedy needs support from younger audiences, who didn't seem to show up in enough force.

As the summer movie season wraps up, several movies actually increased from their previous week. Family movies and word-of-mouth hits were the biggest beneficiaries. Despicable Me, Toy Story 3 and The Sorcerer's Apprentice increased from last week, even without taking the holiday into account. With the extra day added in, the special effects movie of the summer, Inception, boosted its take 20% along with cop comedy The Other Guys, which went up 5.8%.

Among limited releases, a Chinese remake of the Coen Brothers movie Blood Simple, A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop, opened to a $7,000 per-screen average playing on five screens. Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 yielded a $3,000 per-screen average playing on over thirty screens. The prior film, Mesrine: Death Instinct, opened in late August to a $5,000 per-screen average, so the second film may be a tougher sell.

This Friday will be slow at the box office, with Resident Evil: Afterlife (3D) leading releases and teen sex comedy The Virginity Hit opening under the radar in a limited release.

Friday, September 3, 2010

'Machete,' 'Going the Distance,' and 'The American' vie for Labor Day audiences

By Sarah Sluis

The final week of the summer movie season is usually a slow one at the box office. The sun-seeking beachgoers on the East Coast may have to trade in their beach blankets for theatre seats because of Hurricane Earl, potentially boosting the grosses in that area of the nation.

Going the distance drew barrymore justin long Opening in the widest amount of theatres, Going the Distance (3,030 theatres) should appeal most to female audiences drawn in by the friendly, lovable star Drew Barrymore. Guys may be surprised by the more vulgar humor and male bonding that takes place between leading man Justin Long and friends Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis. The romantic comedy is expected to earn somewhere above $10 million.

A full-length version of a trailer in Grindhouse, Machete (2,670 theatres) stars Danny Trejo as a Mexican Federale who becomes a vigilante after being double-crossed. The female co-stars are

Machete poster jessica alba tough in real life, known for being tabloid fodder and/or for their run-ins in the law: recently released inmate Lindsay Lohan plays a frequently naked nun, former inmate Michelle Rodriguez plays an organizer who works out of a taco truck. Jessica Alba, with the comparatively tame moniker "style icon," suits up as an immigration officer. The movie's stance on immigration comes across as political in the wake of Arizona's controversial immigration policy. According to critic Ethan Alter, the filmmakers "[use] the film as a vehicle to pointedly tweak the anti-immigration rhetoric expressed by a certain segment of the American public," but "subtle" these references are not. This homage to exploitation movies should earn in the high teen millions, and because of its appeal to male and Latino audiences, who are known for being first-weekend audiences, it's my pick for number one.

A quiet (some say slow) tale of a hit man (George Clooney) taking a break in Italy, The American (2,823 theatres) opened on Wednesday to $1.6 million, a head start that indicates the movie will hit the low teen

The american george clooney millions. Critic Ethan Alter astutely observes that the role doesn't play to Clooney's strengths as an actor. He "thrives when playing a determined man of action with a quick wit and/or a clearly stated goal," but here "he barely registers a pulse onscreen. Some actors can say volumes with a single expression�Clooney usually requires at least a line or two of dialogue as well." Director Anton Corbjin (Control), who started out as a photographer, "tells the story through a series of carefully composed still frames with minimal camera movement." This movie may not be getting the positive buzz that screams "awards season," but should appeal to indie-loving, mature audiences eager to escape popcorn pics.

Another crime-focused offering, the French movie Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, will unspool in 28 theatres. A follow-up to Mesrine: Death Instinct, the biopic follows a real-life French criminal played by Vincent Cassel. "[A] towering achievement of the crime genre," according to critic Doris Toumarkine, and "the action scenes...induce total immersion in what transpires."

On Tuesday, we'll circle back to crown the winner of the four-day holiday weekend and see which of the trio of wide releases distinguished itself the most. Goodbye, 2010 summer movie season!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

3D version of kids' film gets more restrictive rating

By Sarah Sluis

A rather curious thing happened in Sweden. The 2D and 3D versions of a film (Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore) received different ratings. The 3D version earned a PG rating, while the 2D film received a G rating.

3d_family Earlier, the Swedish authorities made known that they would review 2D and 3D films separately, which makes some sense: bawdiness can seem more excessive if certain things are blown out into the audience's space, and horror movies can come across as scarier. But if the content is essentially the same, it seems rather odd to give a movie two different ratings.

In one sense, it's a bit of an embarrassment. It shows just how subjective the ratings process is (as highlighted in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Two different groups reviewed the two films, but the 3D apparently made everything more "intense," an interesting statement in itself. By giving the 3D version a stronger rating, the Swedish raters suggest that the 3D did, in fact, provide a more immersive experience.

While I'm a big fan of 3D, after the first few minutes of wearing the glasses you "get used to it" and don't really notice that you're wearing them unless some crazy 3D effect pops out and reminds you (something many filmmakers try to avoid, but I secretly love). However, the reaction of the Swedish rating team proves that the effect of seeing something in 3D persists even after your eyes adjust.

The dual ratings may confuse audiences and pose a challenge for the marketing campaign in Sweden. Because so many movies are released in both 2D and 3D, advertisements have been hesitant to play up the "awesomeness" of the 3D at the expense of the 2D screens. Instead, the advantage to seeing a movie in 3D often comes across more like paying for front-row seats and getting a better view rather than a transformative experience. Sure, movies like Avatar accrued a higher percentage of their revenue from 3D screens because of word-of-mouth and positive buzz on the 3D version, but the 2D equivalent was never denigrated. As the world of 3D releases expands, I'm sure there will be more moments like this to come.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Are men taking over romantic comedies?

By Sarah Sluis

Yesterday, I caught Going the Distance, a well-executed, not-so-painful romantic comedy (at least according to me, not my viewing companion). That's pretty much the best the genre can hope for nowadays. Afterwards, this lackluster film inspired some discussion about romantic comedies we have enjoyed over the past few years. It was hard to name ANY.

Last year's twee (500) Days of Summer got a mention, as did Cyrus, I Love You, Man and the Judd Apatow movies. "But those don't really count," my companion said. "They're kind of the death of romantic comedies."

What all these movies have in common is that fact that they're guy romantic comedies. They're also about male friendships, in the case of the Apatow movies and I Love You, Man. Which makes them, technically, bromances and not romantic comedies.

Looking at back at some of my favorite romantic comedies from the past 20-30 years, however, I realized that a lot of them had memorable male characters. They also told the story from the male point-of-view or a combined male/female point-of-view. (Some of these favorites include Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, The American President, Jerry Maguire, The Wedding Singer, There's Something About Mary...)


Why are these types of romantic comedies so rewarding?

1) Speaking as a woman, there's always a level of curiosity about what the other half is thinking. When you're given a male point-of-view, women can see what's going on on the other side.

2) Also, when we see a male character in a romantic comedy, it's usually showing him pursuing or pining over a girl. Given a choice between seeing an empathetic man waiting by the phone for his love interest to call and a woman waiting for a man to call, I'll take the first one, hands down.

3) It's a sign that characters are well-developed. In many of the forgettable romantic comedies that I've seen over the past few years, I can barely remember the leading man. But a well-written, well-acted character can come across even with very little screen time.

Going the Distance tried to incorporate some of these techniques. Justin Long had plenty of screen time. We see him pick up the phone and call Drew Barrymore after his first date, not her waiting around for him to call (she also doesn't store his number in her phone, making her seem like the less interested one). The cast of male characters bolstered up our understanding of Long, and made him an equal character to Barrymore. Unfortunately, the whole movie lacked a certain naturalness and felt artificial, despite the best of intentions.

I've been eyeing the "bromance" trend for some time, and I wonder if this reflects a shift in American culture. Lots of older screwball romantic comedies, for example, involve prim women who are finally forced to acknowledge their love for someone else, which seems like a reflection of what was expected at the time. Now, it seems that romantic comedies often show male characters becoming more vulnerable and less "masculine." It's still a little transgressive and unusual, but also shows how American culture is changing over time.