Friday, October 29, 2010

'Saw 3D' to carve piece of Halloween box office from 'Paranormal Activity 2'

By Sarah Sluis

Halloween falls on a Sunday this year, giving festive audiences two extra days to get in the mood with Saw 3D (2,808 theatres). Though holiday parties may cut into ticket sales, this year Halloween arrives Saw 3D hall after the profitable Friday and Saturday evenings, which should lift grosses beyond where they were the last two years. The total box office for Saw movies actually peaked with the second installment, but has remained profitable, and the added premium for 3D screens could push this film into the $20 million range. However, since Paranormal Activity 2 premiered to $40 million last week, a 50% decline could still put it ahead of Saw 3D.

For specialty audiences, the third installment of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, will unspool in 123 theatres. Critic Maitland McDonagh was glad the series was over. Hornets nest noomi rapace "It's great to see Lisbeth [the heroine] vindicated (and no, that's not a spoiler), but getting there is a long, tedious slog." The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has currently amassed $10 million stateside, and its sequel $7.5 million, so this suspense thriller should continue the successful streak for the Swedish-language trilogy.

Hilary Swank's turn as a determined woman trying to win her brother's freedom in Conviction will expand to 565 theatres in its third week. The true-life drama has been struggling to find a hold at the box office, so this expansion will either lift it slightly or confirm it as Swank's second miss in a row, after last year's Amelia.

Monsters mural Indie audiences can check out Monsters (2 theatres), which "accomplishes the not-insignificant task of creating a believable alternate reality for [director Gareth Edwards'] low-budget, low-key science-fiction story," according to critic Ethan Alter. While he felt the director succeeded in making a world that felt "lived-in," the two lead actors left him cold. "Had Edwards taken as much care crafting these characters as he did the world they exist in, Monsters may have been a cult classic in the making instead of a mildly interesting missed opportunity," he speculated.

The top-notch cast of James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo and Twilight-er Kristen Stewart assemble for Welcome to the Rileys (10 theatres). Gandolfini plays a grief-stricken man who befriends a young prostitute (Stewart) in New Orleans, a bold move that lifts his wife (Leo) out of agoraphobia.

On Monday, the 2010 Halloween box office will be weighed against the spooky nights of years past, and I'll see if any of the specialty releases were able to break out of the pack.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

At last, it's official: 'Avatar' will be a trilogy

By Sarah Sluis

Avatar could be the next Star Wars. The blockbuster success of Avatar led to widespread speculation that there would be a sequel (or two), especially since director James Cameron expressed interest in the idea. Now, after lengthy negotiations, it appears that Cameron will start scripting the next installment Avatar Na'vi image in the series early 2011, with production to start later that year and a release date aiming for December 2014. The third installment would be released in December 2015.

I did some Internet digging, and discovered a clue to the second film's plot: it will be set in Pandora's oceans . I had imagined the second film would involve humans trying yet again to mine the land of Pandora, using the same backdrop, but changing the locale makes the premise more intriguing. Perhaps humans do try to go back to Pandora, but choose a more secretive location: the ocean. This would involve the Na'vi and ocean creatures banding together to fight off humans once more. Whatever the conflict, the ocean location means that the second film will have lots more "wow" moments like the floating islands in the first film.

I imagine the sequels will play out something like Star Wars�you can keep adding ice planets (Hoth) and Ewoks to keep the audience entertained, but as the series progresses audiences get a lot more fulfillment from seeing the characters change and from personal revelations. (Darth Vader is my father!?) I think the Avatar sequels present an opportunity to build on such characters and become a satisfying trilogy.

Movie sequels today tend to be derivative, while television allows writers more leeway to create engaging characters that change and, ironically, provide film-level entertainment. Under James Cameron's directing eye and with Jon Landau as a producer, I predict Avatar will be a trilogy with enduring power, with the ability to produce many, many editions of home entertainment "special edition" box sets.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

DOC NYC Fest: Werner Herzog's 3D doc 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'

By Sarah Sluis

Werner Herzog returns to the documentary format in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3D look at the recently discovered caves in Chauvet, France, which is open only to researchers. The film will be one of the gala presentations at the DOC NYC Fest. The Nov. 3, 7pm screening has already sold out--not surprising since it will include a Q&A with Herzog--but persistent viewers can always try standby.

Cave-of-forgotten-dreams First off: The 3D. Herzog's crew filmed in 3D, and the results are mixed. For the scenes within the cave, the 3D works effectively, adding a sense of hyper-reality and contours to the drawings. In other spots, it looks terrible--3D and shaky camera movements do not mix.

In his narration, Herzog lets us know what his crew was up against: just four of his crew could enter at one time, and cold panel lights were all that could be used to illuminate the paintings. The crew was restricted to a metal walkway, so as not to disturb the cave bear prints, bones, and other artifacts lying on the ground. While the limited access can be frustrating, in one case it works in the movie's favor. On a stalactite, a drawing of a woman's legs and pubic area is married with that of a buffalo, revealing a primordial sense of mythology that lingers today: the half animal, half person. However, the crew can barely access the area, giving us just a glimpse. Later, they return to get a better view with a camera attached to a pole, although it captures just slightly more detail. The sequence recreates the same feeling of unlocking a puzzle that the researchers themselves must feel. As we look with Herzog about the rest of the vast and remote chamber, which cannot be extensively Chauvet cages explored because of the high levels of carbon dioxide, the audience senses the possibility of the unknown. It's not a "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," but of fleeting ones, with understanding and access just beyond our grasp.

Herzog seizes on these mystical aspects. At one point, he asks everyone in the cave to be quiet, leaving us with the sound of dripping water, echoes, and a heartbeat. This Herzog touch elevates the movie a step above documentaries of its type, but at times it can feel forced, as when he asks an interviewee rather contrived questions about his dreams concerning the cave.

Herzog's ambitious look at the Chauvet caves does not entirely deliver, but it's a worthy diversion that offers a peek into a little-seen artifact of human history.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

DOC NYC Fest: Director Errol Morris' 'Tabloid'

By Sarah Sluis

Documentary director Errol Morris' Tabloid will be one of two gala presentations during the DOC NYC Fest, which runs from Nov. 3 through Nov. 9. Preceding its premiere at NYU's Skirball Center for the Tabloid errol morris Performing Arts on Nov. 7 at 7pm, several of Morris' other films will be shown on the big screen, including The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, and Gates of Heaven are also scheduled for screening. However, maybe the festival should have done it the other way around, because Tabloid is so good it will make you want to revisit all of Morris' previous films.

Tabloid combines a sensational story (the "too good to be true" kind) with the narrative sensibilities of a master. A taste of the plot: In the 1970s, an ex-beauty queen, Joyce McKinney, goes to England to win back her "boyfriend," who she thinks has been brainwashed by a cult (Or is he just a Mormon on his mission?). She kidnaps him and chains him to a bed (leading to London tabloids screaming "Bondage!" and other salacious headlines), and more. Despite plans to marry (according McKinney), the Mormon disappears after their return to London, and she's arrested soon after on a host of tabloid-worthy charges.

Though the "Manacled Mormon" refuses to aopear on camera, McKinney is a star interviewee. A Tabby charismatic speaker, she reportedly has a genius-level IQ (she claims it's 160) and convincingly tells stories that Morris casts doubt on in other segments of the film. Indeed, as the publicity around the case reaches its height, all kinds of weird information about McKinney comes out of the woodwork. To top it all off, McKinney's story has a bizarre third act, which picks up some twenty years after the original story.

Under Morris' hand, Tabloid has moments that are laugh-out-loud funny and jaw-dropping incredible. Entire minutes can be spent with a jaw hanging open in disbelief. He sometimes uses incongruous stock footage to illustrate a situation, an excellent technique, and flashes words on the screen for a moment during interviews (Someone says "What word am I looking for?" and he flashes it on the screen instead of supplying it off-camera). He likes to suddenly introduce an entirely different angle of the story, so that watching the documentary becomes a kind of roller-coaster experience.

Tabloid has been making the rounds at film festivals. Though no distributor has picked it up, I predict it will be hitting theatres sometime soon. The story's just so good it's true.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Audiences return in force for 'Paranormal Activity 2'

By Sarah Sluis

Bowing the week before Halloween, Paranormal Activity 2 debuted at $40.6 million, an exceptional open that proved it was not like Blair Witch 2, which flamed out in its second incarnation. With numbers like these, it's virtually assured there will be a third installment in the series. Who knows, Paranormal 154734-Paranormal_Md could be the next Saw. The majority of the movie's traction, however, came from midnight screenings late Thursday night and Friday, which comprised almost half of the weekend's total--a sign that this movie will fall quickly. The sequel to Paranormal Activity combined a heavy marketing campaign with a reported $3 million production budget, so Paramount will see a hefty return on its investment.

Jackass 3D, which exceeded the success of Paranormal 2 in its opening weekend, fell 57% in its second weekend. That still gives the movie $21.3 million, as well as a near-guarantee that it will top the $100 million mark within the next couple weeks.

Clint Eastwood's take on the supernatural, Hereafter, mixed adrenaline-filled action scenes (tsunami!) Hereafter tsunami with tear-jerking moments (a boy loses his twin!). The formula earned $12 million in its first week of wide expansion. While that number was under some of Eastwood's more successful films, 80% of the audience was over 30, indicating that that film will have some staying power, since teens, not thirty-pluses, tend to turn out opening weekend.

Conviction, which expanded to just 55 theatres, went up 196%, giving it a two-week total of $444,000. Higher up on the list of specialty releases, Waiting for "Superman" kept steady, earning three-quarters of a million dollars for the second week in a row, for a five-week total of $3.7 million.

Financial crisis documentary Inside Job went up 98% to $170,000 as it more than doubled the number of theatres in its release. The Robert De Niro and Edward Norton drama Stone pulled in $361,000, a 57% increase from the previous week.

This Friday, Saw 3D will draw in Halloween audiences, Monsters will lure indie scare-seekers, and the Swedish-language The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest will begin a limited rollout.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Midnight screenings foreshadow solid weekend for 'Paranormal Activity 2'

By Sarah Sluis

A year after Paranormal Activity had audiences "demanding" the horror sensation come to their theatre, Paranormal Activity 2 will shoot into everyone's town, 3,216 to be exact. The sequel will face the Paranomal 2 same set of heightened expectations that left audiences disappointed with Blair Witch 2. FJI critic Ethan Alter was among those underwhelmed. By using an "enlarged canvas," he notes, the filmmakers took away some of the creepiness. For example, he points out that "the multiple-camera approach cuts down on the anticipatory tension created by the single point-of-view in the original." Still, the tremendous buzz and cachet of the original should drive viewers to the cinema. Indeed, the midnight screenings last night, totaling $6.3 million, breaking a record for an R-rated midnight opening. Let's see if the movie can carry that through the rest of the weekend.

After a promising opening weekend on just a few screens, Hereafter, which centers on more benevolent afterlife spirits, will expand to 2,181 theatres. Clint Eastwood's film will be the most fresh adult-oriented film in theatres this weekend, giving it an edge. Conviction, the true-life story of a woman who helped free her brother from prison, had a modest debut last week, but will expand to 55 locations.

A few specialty releases dot the schedule this weekend. WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) Knucklehead 22 showcases one of its stars, Paul "Big Show" Wight, in Knucklehead (6 theatres), a "witless exercise" about a "big doofus who enters the fight game," according to Hollywood Reporter critic Frank Scheck. Critic David Noh, on the other hand, generally liked Inhale (NY/LA), "that rare thriller with a mind and purpose." The suspenseful tale centers on a father trying to buy his daughter a lung in Mexico for transplanting in the United States, a process that involves him in criminal activity with numerous unsavory people.

On Monday, we'll see if Paranormal Activity 2 was able to keep up the pace it set with midnight screenings and unseat Jackass 3D, if Clint Eastwood will have another hit with Hereafter, and if any knuckleheads checked out their eponymous comedy.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"The Office" writers add their two cents to 'The Game'

By Sarah Sluis

I guess it's no surprise that the sensationally titled The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists has been picked up for adaptation as a movie. As the title suggests, the book centers on the author, who infiltrates himself into a posse of women-gaming men and moonlights as a PUA (pickup The_game appears that the tribe is keen on acronyms). In fact, besides its intriguing subject matter, the Fox Searchlight project taps into a number of development trends in Hollywood.

1) The self-help book turned feature movie. The romantic comedy He's Just Not That Into You is the perfect example, offering fictionalized relationships drawn from a nonfiction book. Little-known fact: Mean Girls was based on a Queen Bees and Wannabees, a guidebook for parents and kids dealing with the friend drama that occurs to girls from middle to high school. There is no way the dated self-help book Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus would be lifted from its grave had it not been for the success of self-help-inspired movies.

2) The male-centered romantic comedy. Romantic comedies about career women finding love are booooring. The best work has come from male-centered takes on romance, be it Judd Apatow movies or (500) Days of Summer. Even among non-quirky movies, the mainstream Hitch (domestic box-office: $179 million), starring Will Smith, also centered on someone receiving help in the dating department. These movies are successful because they are enjoyed by both men and women.

Which raises a curious inconsistency: The Game is a guy book, but one with a decidedly misogynist attitude. The studio will have to temper the author's jaw-dropping objectification of women (well, this IS a book on pickup artists), or else go the way of adaptation a la the very offensive book by Tucker Max, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (domestic box-office: $1.4 million).

Currently, The Game is getting a reworking from "The Office" writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. The duo also scripted the Universal misfire Year One, the upcoming comedy Bad Teacher, starring Cameron Diaz, and are working on Ghostbusters 3--not a bad slate of films. They seem the ideal partners to give the material the once-over that makes "The Office" appeal to the masses, offending without alienating.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sandra Bullock lines up another movie project

By Sarah Sluis

Sandra Bullock may just be one of the most likeable leading ladies in Hollywood. On the heels of her Best Actress win at the Oscars for The Blind Side, she's been circling a number of potential movies.

Sandra bullock academy awards The latest such project would re-team her with her director on The Proposal, Anne Fletcher, and be produced by Adam Shankman and Jennifer Gibgot. Variety described the project as "An Unmarried Woman meets Saturday Night Fever." So what does that mean? The 1978 movie An Unmarried Woman has been described as a woman's lib-inspired tale of an affluent Upper East Sider whose husband divorces her, leaving her unmoored. She learns to go out on her own and grow as a person. The allusion to Saturday Night Fever makes me think part of her self-discovery in this as-yet untitled film will involve DANCING!


1) On one level, this project seems like a straight pandering to the "Dancing with the Stars" crowd, the popular reality competition show that has an intense following among middle-aged women: You, too, can redefine yourself after your divorce...through dance! Related: Can Bullock dance?

2) The "women's lib" element in An Unmarried Woman will have to be tweaked. Bullock can't be just a lady-who-lunches. Three decades later, most families have two working parents, and I don't think audiences will have as much sympathy for an rich idle woman in a recession climate. If she were in a situation where she was convinced to give up her career because of her husband's demanding job, for example, that would engender a lot more sympathy for her character.

Bullock has two other projects in the work that are more in the "serious drama" category: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a Scott Rudin-led literary adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about 9/11, and Gravity, a sci-fi project being helmed by Alfonso Cuarn. I hope Bullock pursues one of these projects as well. Bullock has shown herself as an accomplished actress of comedy (Ms. Congeniality), action thrillers (Speed) and sentimental dramas (The Blind Side). Here's to seeing her in both familiar roles and new ones.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

'Winter's Bone' leads Gotham Independent Nominations

By Sarah Sluis

The Gotham Independent Film Awards released their nominations, and with three nods, Winter's Bone leads the pack. The film now occupies the place in the awards arena that The Hurt Locker held last year Of course, that's no guarantee that the movie will end up gleanding the most awards, as The Hurt Winters bone jennifer lawrence Locker did, but it has well-positioned Winter's Bone for the awards season.

While the Gotham Independent Awards stays close to its mission and really does reward movies with small budgets and under-the-radar followings, its picks occasionally appear in that holy grail of awards ceremonies, the Oscars (besides The Hurt Locker, Capote and Sideways have ended up with Oscar nods for Best Picture).

Winter's Bone has the best chance of securing the following Academy Award nominations: Best Actress for newcomer Jennifer Lawrence (though she doesn't have nearly the amount of momentum as last year's ingnue nominee, Carey Mulligan), and Best Film. With ten nominees for the top film, the drama has a definite chance of squeezing in.

Then there's the subject matter. Winter's Bone is the anti-Blind Side. It's a "flyover state" movie without the sentimentality. Its depressing realism makes the based-on-a-true-story The Blind Side seem like a fairy tale. Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman whose father has skipped bail after putting the family house on the line as collateral. She journeys through a meth-riddled criminal world in a quest to find her father and save her home in the Ozarks. This is the kind of movie that can make L.A. and New York-based Oscar voters feel like they "know" or "get" the in-between states. In the name of cross-geographical understanding, who wouldn't want to vote for this film?

I'm putting Winter's Bone back in my list of contenders. So far, many of the awards-seeking movies have failed to top Winter's Bone, and I'm rooting for this quiet underdog. Here's hoping Roadside Attractions can mount a campaign for it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

'Jackass 3D' vaults to top with record-breaking $50 million debut

By Sarah Sluis

Audiences just couldn't get enough of Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O's self-injuring clowning in Jackass 3D. Their exploits, filmed in 3D, grossed $50 million, breaking the record for the highest opening for a
Jackass 3D flying fall (Sept.-Oct.) release, previously held by Scary Movie. The first and second Jackass movies earned $22 million and $29 million, respectively, so the third film's opening represents a 66% boost. Attendance was up from the second film, but the biggest reason the movie scaled such heights was because of 3D surcharges: 92% of the film's earnings came from 3D screens.

Summit's comic book action-comedy Red made a strong debut in second place with $22.5 million. Red john malkovich helen mirren A slight male majority turned out for the movie, with 58% of the audience over 35. Though many of the leading characters are older (Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren), their youthful, gun-toting ways still appealed to younger audiences.

Hereafter had the strongest specialty debut of the week, scoring a stunning $38,500 per location during its six-theatre rollout. Clint Eastwood fans are a force to be reckoned with, and Hereafter seems poised to approach (though Hereafter cecile defrance not meet) the success of his 2008 film Gran Torino, which opened with a $45,000 per-screen average and finished with $148 million.

Audiences were not as excited by Conviction, which sees Hilary Swank playing yet another real-life woman in adverse circumstances. Releasing in 11 theatres, it had a comparatively soft debut with a $10,000 per-screen average. Last year's Amelia, starring Swank, was also a Conviction hilary swank disappointment for Fox Searchlight (earning just $14 million in theatres), so Swank may have to come up with some new tricks in order to lure back audiences.

Finishing just outside of the top ten, N-Secure, a drama/romance centering on affluent black professionals, accrued $1.3 million. The million-plus opening is an impressive showing, especially from first-time distributor Bluff City Films.

A documentary espousing financially conservative views, I Want Your Money, opened to just $520 per screen in its rather large 537-screen release. The amount of screens in release likely exceeded interest, driving down its per-theatre earnings.

This Friday, Hereafter will move into wide release on over 2,000 screens, and Halloween horror movie fans can get a head start on their scares with Paranormal Activity 2.

Friday, October 15, 2010

'Jackass 3D' and 'Red' lead new releases

By Sarah Sluis

The antics of Steve-O and his masochistic bunch continue in Jackass 3D (3,081 theatres). 80% of the screens will be in 3D, which is expected to boost the film's opening weekend and make it a strong Jackass 3D johnny knoxville contender for first place. The first Jackass opened to $22 million and the sequel to $29 million, so the film should post a number in the $20 millions.

A "Retired, extremely dangerous" group of CIA agents take the sceen in Red (3,255 theatres). Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker head up the cast. The action comedy centers on a retired CIA agent (Willis) who escapes an assassination Red morgan freeman attempt and tries to track down his killers. Adult males should comprise the majority of the audience. The success of this summer's The Expendables, which also featured adult "classic" action stars, has raised hopes for the movie's box-office potential. Critic Dana Stevens at Slate, however, was not impressed, sighing that Red "keeps up a steady, frantic barrage of bullets, blood, and wisecracks, but never manages to convince us that anyone involved�characters, actors, filmmakers or audience�is having any fun."

Two big studio films begin their platform releases today. Fox Searchlight's Conviction (11 theatres) stars Hilary Swank as Betty Anne Waters, a Conviction window hilary swank woman who went to law school in a successful attempt to free her brother, imprisioned for murder. Critic Kevin Lally enjoyed the movie but found it flawed: Conviction is "less remarkable than the story behind it, but it benefits from Tony Goldwyn's low-key direction and a very solid supporting cast."

Matt Damon re-teams with director Clint Eastwood in Hereafter (6 theatres), which centers on three characters' interest and connection to the afterlife. Damon stars as a psychic uncomfortable with his powers, Cecile de France portrays a woman who had a near-death experience in the Thailand tsunami, and a set of twins Hereafter matt damon psychic (Frankie/George McLaren) play a young English boy who lost his twin brother. Like many ensemble pieces, all three characters eventually meet. Critic Daniel Eagan had some quibbles with the film's script and sketchy depiction of the afterlife, among other things, but predicted that "audience reaction will be muted, but fans will still appreciate Eastwood's talent." Both Hereafter and Conviction have been mentioned as Oscar contenders at some point, but each film is currently tracking at 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, and based on critical reactions it seems safe to say they will each pick up, at most, a couple of ancillary nominations.

The anti-Obamacare, conservative documentary I Want Your Money will debut in 537 theatres, with Freestyle Releasing focusing on smaller markets, the Midwest, and the South. Most wide-releasing documentaries in the past few years (Michael Moore's projects, An Inconvenient Truth, etc.) have espoused liberal viewpoints, so it will be interesting to see if conservative audiences turn out as well, especially given the heated activity going on in the conservative realm, such as the Tea Party movement.

Releasing under the radar, N-Secure will bow in 483 theatres, primarily those that do well with Tyler Perry and other black-centered films. The suspense-melodrama centers on the romance and business dealings of a group of affluent black professionals.

Samson & Delilah, the tale of two young Aboriginal outcasts who find solace in each other, opens in New York City. The British black comedy Down Terrace will hit two theatres.

On Monday, I'll circle back to analyze the performance of Jackass 3D, Red, and see how Conviction and Hereafter set the stage for their expanding releases.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Back-to-back Spielberg in December 2011

By Sarah Sluis

Steven Spielberg hasn't directed anything for over two years. His last film, in case you can't remember, was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a taut throwback to his earlier work but greeted rather tepidly by critics--and myself. He now has two films coming out: The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, which he's been working on for years, and War Horse, which only started production. Tintin-hi-res-jackson-Spieberg Both films, it turns out, will release within five days of each other during December 2011.

Why so close?

-DreamWorks, which only has a financial stake in War Horse, made the decision to move the Disney release. They don't care about Tintin as much. But Spielberg probably does, and they also don't want to upset Sony and Paramount, the distributors of Tintin. The fact that Tintin will release first, followed by War Horse, seems like a concession of sorts. Tintin will be first out of the gate, and that can make a difference at the box office.

-War Horse "felt like a holiday movie," according to DreamWorks executive Stacey Snider. The movie centers on a young WWI soldier trying to find his horse, which is a rather Spielberg-y project; wars, young boys all alone, etc. The material is rather dark, especially if you look at the pictures of the stage production, so it makes sense that the movie will release during the holiday movie season, and not the more popcorn-y summer season. In fact, it makes me wonder if that was the plan all along.

In other news, literary adaptation The Help was moved to the spot vacated by War Horse, August 25th. Plans are to market this as an event film along the lines of Eat Pray Love or Julie & Julia. I enjoyed this novel, which was popular among book clubs. The premise has some similarities to the Fox Searchlight movie The Secret Life of Bees--a movie that opened to $10 million but made $37 million on an $11 million production budget. Both books center on white characters in black worlds in the South. Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Bryce Dallas Howard lead the cast, and I have high hopes for the film.

DreamWorks has an impressive slate planned, which includes other films like Real Steel (from Night of the Museum's Shawn Levy). I look forward to seeing the studio step up and turn out more of the "elevated genre" pictures (their wording) they plan on producing.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thinking about what makes a good performance

By Sarah Sluis

When an actor is doing a good job, or even a so-so job, their work can be invisible. It can be hard to figure out just what they're doing that makes them so believable, funny, or completely embody the character. Add that to the fact that the Oscars tend to reward the more salient difficulties of the profession, such as gaining weight, looking ugly, or crying/dying/singing/being abused, and acting can seem like even more of a mystery.

That's why it was so interesting to watch THR's video of Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly. Five weeks into production, he was replaced by Michael J. Fox because director Robert Zemeckis felt that, according to executive producer Steven Spielberg, the actor's performance "wasn't getting as many laughs as I hoped."

Watching the footage, you can see that the facial expressiveness just isn't there. The scene at (:28) is the perfect example--McFly leans over the diner counter and sees his (young) father next to him. This is a slapstick-type moment, where you expect an exaggerated, panicked, wide-eyed expression on the lead actor's face. Stoltz totally underacts it. He adds some eye movements toward the end, which struck me as him trying to incorporate some notes from the director unsuccessfully. In general, he has a pretty blank expression on his face, a little too Buster Keaton for the movie's sensibilities, which require McFly to react and be flustered.

I'm sure that the inadequacies of Stoltz were even more apparent on set. I've only been on set in a student film capacity, but even then you can sort the people with acting ability from the people who don't have it. If you say, "Act angry," some people just can't do it. Sure, they can do it in a superficial way but they won't be able to calibrate the tone or intensity correctly--because acting's hard! If there's a shot that requires a simple eye movement or expression, they can't create that feeling with their body. I can see that in Back to the Future--it seems like it's actually quite difficult for Stoltz to be that expressive. His failure is that much more apparent because Fox nailed the scenes so well. Of course, it's important to point out that Stoltz isn't a bad actor, and in fact was nominated for a Golden Globe, among other awards, but he was miscast in the Back to the Future role--that type of comedy simply wasn't within his range.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Disney's tie-in extravaganza with 'Tron: Legacy'

By Sarah Sluis

Guests at Disneyland and Disney World will now be treated not only to attractions featuring their favorite cartoon and movie characters, but also to creations based on a film yet to be released--Tron: Legacy.

Variety reports that Disney has revamped its theme parks to advertise the upcoming sci-fi tentpole. The Tronorail monorails have been wrapped with artwork to make "tronorails" resembling Tron lightcycles. A neon-themed Glow Fest has been repurposed and transformed into an elecTRONica attraction/promotion. While the advertising's reach is limited by the number of people that will go to the park, the message that reaches guests will probably have more impact, since it will be promoted along with the "best of the best" stories and characters that make it into the theme park.

Disney also plans to copy Fox's twenty-minute preview idea that helped promote Avatar. Like the James Cameron film, Tron: Legacy is (pretty much) brand new, with only a core of followers that remember the 28-year-old film. Though the graphics of the first film are impressive when viewed within the context of the time (about ten years after Pong but still before the original Mario Bros.), seeing the blocky graphics of the original can be a bit distracting. Tron: Legacy has cutting-edge special effects that will benefit from word-of-mouth, especially in 3D.

The multi-channel marketing is an interesting addition to Disney's plan to create high-profile, high-quality projects that can be re-used across all their channels, from spin-off television shows to theme park rides to straight-to-DVD movies. Disney is now showing that they want to use the combined strength of their business not only to give a movie multiple lives after its release, but to build up a movie before its release.

Disney has been "off-brand" in the past. Growing up, when I saw the Disney castle logo play before a film, singing along as the star made an arc across the castle, my response was pure Pavlovian, generating anticipation and emotion before I saw a frame of the film. No other opening credits generated that kind of involvement on my part. They say that ninety-something percent of kids recognize Mickey Mouse. Disney is trying to make more Mickey Mouses, and if they can, especially with Tron, they'll be the studio to bet on.

Monday, October 11, 2010

'Life as We Know It' outraces 'Secretariat'

By Sarah Sluis

Over 100 million people in the U.S. use Facebook, so it's no wonder that The Social Network landed in first place for the second week, adding another $15.5 million to its two-week total of $46 million. The David Fincher-directed drama dipped just 30%, showing impressive holding power due in part to interested older audiences.

Life as we know it heighl duhamel unhappy The Katherine Heigl-led romantic comedy Life as We Know It landed in second place with $14.6 million, beating the Disney feel-good horse film, Secretariat, which finished a place below with $12.6 million. Secretariat played well among heartland audiences, but Disney was hoping for a success along the lines of Warner Bros.' The Blind Side, which opened to $34 million and finished its run with seven times that amount, $255 million. Disney's new marketing chief M.T. Carney spoke out on the soft opening, hinting that strong Internet buzz may not have reached the non-urban audiences.

Wes Craven's high school serial killer movie, My Soul to Take, accrued just $6.9 million over the My soul to take 2 weekend, even with the majority of the screens showing the horror film in 3D.

It's Kind of a Funny Story finished in twelfth place with $2 million. Though outside of the top ten, the slightly edgy romance/comedy had a better per-screen average ($2,700) than many of the films in the top ten because of its low screen count (742 screens).

A number of specialty releases posted per-screen averages above $10,000. Sony Pictures Classics limited The Inside Job's release to just two screens, boosting the per-screen average of the financial crisis documentary to $21,000 per screen, Stone the highest of the week. The star power of Robert De Niro and Edward Norton undoubtedly helped push Stone to a $12,000 per-screen average on six screens. The John Lennon coming-of-age tale Nowhere Boy posted a $14,000 per-screen average on four screens.

Buried posted the biggest gain among specialty releases, rising 105% as it more than doubled the amount of screens in release. Never Let Me Go, which had languished last week, rose 87% as it quadrupled the number of theatres showing the picture. Waiting for "Superman" went up 55% in its third week, crossing the $1 million mark, and Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger added 31% for a three-week total of $873,000.

On Friday, Helen Mirren stars as a spy/assassin in Red, which centers on aging CIA agents, and connoisseurs of physical comedy can rejoice in the exploits featured in Jackass 3D.

Friday, October 8, 2010

'Secretariat' races against 'Life as We Know It,' 'My Soul to Take'

By Sarah Sluis

As The Social Network heads into its second week, it will receive tough competition from Life As We Know It, Secretariat, and My Soul to Take.

Life as we know it heigl duhamel Life as We Know It (3,150 theatres) is a pretty typical romantic comedy, with such tepid reactions as "formulaic but intermittently charming" (Maitland McDonagh, FJI) and "well made for its corporate type" (Stephen Holden, New York Times). Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel star as antagonists forced to live with each other after they are named parents to a deceased couple's child. I'll bet a hundred bucks they fall in love! Despite the so-called image problem of Katherine Heigl, this comedy is the frontrunner of the weekend, if it can best the high teen millions number expected for second-weeker The Social Network.

Secretariat (3,072 theatres) may just be the dark horse this weekend. Though it's not tracking as well as Life as We Know It, its expected Secretariat winning audience of Christians, older viewers, and families are not the kind of people that check out movies every weekend. Diane Lane stars as a housewife who leads a racehorse to the Triple Crown. Both Secretariat and Life as We Know It held sneak previews last Saturday, which could help boost the word-of-mouth buzz for opening weekend.

Wes Craven returns with My Soul to Take (2,572 theatres), a 3D serial killer film centering on a group of teenagers. Though the story rarely deviates from horror-movie expectations, it's well-made, suspenseful, and will offer particular appeal to younger viewers--if they can get past the R rating. Though two horror movies opened last weekend (Case 39 and Let Me In), each grossed just $5 million and shouldn't threaten the debut of My Soul to Take, which is projected to clear the $10 million mark.

Kind of a funny story team_ The kid-in-a-mental-hospital comedy It's Kind of a Funny Story will open in 742 theatres, a number Focus chose due to positive responses among test audiences. I've been fearing this movie would flop like Charlie Bartlett, which opened to just $1.8 million after audiences failed to spark to its tale of a prescription drug-selling prepster trying to fit in. However, the popularity of stars Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts could make this move a more mainstream pick.

Tomorrow is John Lennon's birthday, and today audiences can catch Nowhere Boy (4 theatres), the story of Lennon as a teen. Critic Maitland McDonagh praised the coming-of-age story, but noted that "fans stand to be disappointed by the absence of band lore," with a few notable exceptions (e.g. a gate marked "Strawberry Fields")

Also in the mix is Stone (6 theatres), a cerebral thriller centering on a parole officer (Robert De Niro), a prisoner (Edward Norton), and the two's mutual relationship with the prisoner's wife (Milla Jovovich). The drama will be Overture's last release. Finally, the financial documentary The Inside Job (2 theatres) uncovers dirt on traders and their risky, thrill-seeking behavior inside and outside the office.

On Monday, the weekend race is over and the results will be in for the movie debuts featuring the following subjects: a prizewinning horse, teenagers in psych wards, couples bonding over baby poop and teenagers at the mercy of a serial killer.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

First look at 'Hanna,' which re-teams Saoirse Ronan and director Joe Wright

By Sarah Sluis

Today I had the opportunity to see two clips from Hanna, an upcoming Focus Features release that sadly won't hit theatres for another six months. The child assassin picture (you heard me right) re-teams Saoirse Ronan and director Joe Wright, who worked together on Atonement. According to Wright, Ronan specifically asked for him to be brought on as a director. Ronan plays Hanna, a girl who grew up isolated

Hanna in the woods with her father (Eric Bana). She wants to make her way in the world, but her father requires she kill a CIA agent (Cate Blanchett) first. The spy-thriller like plot undergoes many twists and turns that Wright half-explained; at one point Hanna is captured and thinks she kills the CIA agent--only to meet again with the real agent later.

The move to the action genre is a departure for Wright, who's done buttoned-up English literature adaptations and the classical music-centered The Soloist. In a pleasant surprise, he carries his aesthetic through to Hanna, to pretty impressive preliminary results.

Wright possesses that rare gift that blesses directors like James Cameron and eludes Michael Bay. He can lay out a space immaculately. Each scene had a clear geography, which was a particular challenge in the second scene--set in a prison and including many shots from surveillance cameras. Wright says he has a great editor (Paul Tothill, who has done each of his films), but the fluidity of each scene was very impressive, especially without any musical score or completed sound mixing to help carry the audience through some trickier cuts.

The emotional arc of Hanna was also on display, especially in the second scene we saw, set in a prison. Brought in for questioning, Hanna first acts in the way you expect her to: She's slightly odd due to her years living away from society, and scared and crying. She then turns the tables and swiftly does away with a CIA agent and a few guards, and escapes. The girl is sixteen. The transformation was stunning, just a wee bit humorous, and breathless--just like Hanna's captors, you barely realize what just happened.

Wright says he was drawn to the creative and philosophical possibilities of depicting a "Tarzan" or "Being There" character--someone with an outsider view of society. Hanna's character is an enigma, and one that will reveal herself through her actions, not through words. For example, Hanna starts crying and then "hugs" the CIA agent, straddling her in a slightly off, creepy way. The reason for this is soon revealed--it's the perfect position to snap her neck.

Action movies are too often stupid, boring, and lazily executed--as if all an audience needs is a chase scene and explosion. They also tend to create only superficial characters. As far as I can tell, Hanna will have neither of those problems.

Focus plans to show the footage at New York Comic Con, where I'm sure it will be warmly received.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

'Black Swan' director moves to 'Wolverine 2'

By Sarah Sluis

Director Darren Aronofsky has a thing for characters who physically self-destruct. The drug addicts in Requiem for a Dream, the aging competitive fighter in The Wrestler, the self-mutilating perfectionist ballerina in Black Swan. So where does a comic book action hero fit in that picture?

Wolverine-black-swan The director is in negotiations to helm his first big franchise film, the sequel to Wolverine. This is a property that's been around the block a few times, and word is Aronofsky actually was more interested in Spider-Man until Zack Snyder was selected for the re-boot. Sure, Wolverine was a blockbuster that earned over $300 million worldwide, enough to greenlight a sequel, but its buzz was nowhere near that of a Spider-Man or Dark Knight. Will Aronofsky be able to turn the franchise around, or will this just be a paycheck project before he jumps back into the indie world again?

Thinking more about Wolverine as a hero, however, Aronofsky could bring a dark sensibility to the franchise. As a refresher, the Wolverine character is a human who is given a metallic skeleton and Edward Scissorhands-like talons. Is that so different than the ballerina in Black Swan sprouting black feathers, or Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler prepping his body to bleed so his performance onstage becomes more captivating? On the other hand, Wolverine is blessed with a "healing factor" that protects him from germs and quick-cures his wounds--not the kind of extended suffering that Aronofsky is into.

The Vulture blog that reported the story also points out that Aronofsky may direct a Los Angeles-set 1940s organized crime film, Tales from the Gangster Squad. Ben Affleck has been named a frontrunner for that film as well. The movie centers on a group of mercenary police officers tasked with chasing mobster Micky Cohen out of town. This project seems like a better match with Aronofsky's knack at showing brutality, violence, and flawed characters.

Here's hoping that Aronofsky can move from tiny budgets to big budgets like Chris Nolan moved from Memento to Dark Knight and Inception.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Disney teases 'Tangled,' 'Tron: Legacy'

By Sarah Sluis

After Disney releases Secretariat this Friday, it has two big releases left on its 2010 slate: Tangled, the studio's fiftieth animated feature and a return to fairy tale princesses, and Tron: Legacy, a supersized sequel to the 1982 cult hit. I had the chance to watch 20 minutes of Tron: Legacy in 2D and a feature-length version of Tangled in unfinished form, also in 2D.

Tron legacy motorcycles First up, Tron: Legacy. I came into the preview with pretty low expectations. The first Tron teaser trailer, which you can watch on YouTube, starts and ends with a motorcycle chase scene. It looks "cool," but not enough to make me care. I need plot. Based on the preview I saw, the actual film should have appeal that extends beyond fanboys. Sean Bailey, Disney's head of production, dropped the term "character-driven," and I really hope that's true. The scenes we saw set up a compelling relationship between the father Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund). Sam feels abandoned by his father, who mysteriously disappeared when he was a child, and their reunion scene is ice-cold. Clearly something will have to happen to bring father and son closer together.

We also saw a short portion in 3D, which revealed that the movie will use a strategy that Alice in Wonderland should have: all the real-life sequences will be in 2D, and the sequences inside the video-game world will be in 3D (note: this could change, but was consistent with the footage I saw).

My takeaway: The footage changed my outlook from "don't care" to "I will need to see this."

Next up, Tangled. Those that grew up with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast will experience a

Tangled rapunzel flynn little bit of deja vu within the entirely new and oh-so-gently parodic Tangled. Though the directors firmly claim the animated feature is not a parody, the male love interest (and him alone) is given some Shrek-inspired goofiness. When a character says at the end of a fairy tale, "You're probably wondering if we get married?" how can you not say you're poking a little bit of fun at the genre?

Tangled will score the most points for turning the passive Rapunzel character, burdened by her long locks, into a strong, determined young woman whose hair is part weapon, part magical tool. She's also a blonde-haired, beautiful girl who favors pink and purple dresses, but let's stop while we're ahead. In one of the funniest and most realistic sequences, she's struck by a mixture of guilt and giddy freedom after leaving her tower/prison. How true! What kid doesn't feel a little wistful when striking out on their own, and the move also underscores the psychologically manipulative relationship the princess has with her "mother."

While many of the most sweeping scenes were presented in unfinished form, one was completed. A scene in which thousands of magic lanterns rise into the sky displayed the most startlingly beautiful luminescence I have ever seen in CG animation. Animated movies have begun to really raise the bar in their visual look--How to Train Your Dragon and Wall-E, for example, had a high-end, live-action look to them. Tangled is a bit of a mix, with some details seeming more cartoony (like too-smooth faces and rather generic interiors), while other rise above. The forest seems enchanted, conveying a diverse topography. While falling in the "cartoon" category, the expressive horse Maximus and chameleon Pascal are two of the most charming characters in the movie (though the horse wins by several body lengths, so to speak).

Tangled has songs--but they fall to the background. Mandy Moore, a singer, voices Rapunzel, and Broadway veteran Donna Murphy (the witchy mother) performs her songs with impeccable elocution. The brief, haunting tune that Rapunzel sings to activate her hair has the most impact, but Rapunzel's opening "I Wish" song (learn more about the trope here) fails to ignite. To be fair, I heard the songs before they were mixed with surround sound and mastered, which could bump up their impact, but the soundtrack didn't seem the focus here.

Each of these films should do incredibly well for Disney. I hope Tron: Legacy has even more special-effects tricks up its sleeve than I saw, and that Tangled's unfinished scenes end up just as awe-inspiring as the magic lantern scenes. Mark your calendars: Disney's set list is one of the best in town. And check out my pictures from Disney's post-screening reception below, completed with one blue Tron-inspired side of the room, and another decked out in Medieval ivy and giant lanterns.


Tangled_Preview Tron: Legacy:


Monday, October 4, 2010

'Most Popular' award goes to 'Social Network'

By Sarah Sluis

Combining a near-perfect review record with a $23 million opening weekend, The Social Network is well on its way to becoming a front-runner at the Oscars this year--though it's still a little early in the race. The

The social network jesse eisenberg lead-up to the opening included intense speculation on the story's realism. In what was considered a PR counter-strategy to the more negative portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder appeared on "Oprah" and donated $100 million to New Jersey schools. This movie truly has four-quadrant appeal. Males and females provided equal support, and under-25 and over-25 audiences turned out almost equally. The latter group should prop up returns in coming weekends, as older viewers make their way to theatres.

Case 39 and Let Me In both disappointed, coming in seventh ($5.35 million) and eighth ($5 million) place, respectively. The first, starring Renee

Let me in vampire chloe moretz
Zellweger, had been shelved since 2006, a datedness that did no favors to the already well-trod child-demon genre. Let Me In, a remake of the Swedish film Let the Right One In, may have been too original for its own good. Horror audiences may have been turned off by its lack of big scares and focus on characterization, while drama-seeking audiences may have been alienated by the vampire/horror link.

The rest of the top ten dropped in just the 30-40% range. Including weekday grosses, many of the films have been adding an amount equivalent to their opening weekend every week of their release. In second place, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole earned $10.8 million for a total of $30 million, nearly double its $16 million opening weekend. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Town each added around $10 million to their totals. Easy A, which had a $17 million opening weekend three weeks ago, has since risen to a cumulative gross of $42 million. While the fall movie season has brought lower opening weekends, these films have been able to sustain their earnings longer, since the competition isn't as tough as in the summer.

Renee zellweger knife case 39 Moving to specialty releases, Catfish amassed the most dough, accruing $607,000 and improving 34% over last week as it more than doubled the amount of theatres in its release. In its second week, Waiting for "Superman" shot up 192%, moving from 4 to 34 theatres while still keeping its per-theatre average above $10,000. Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger went up 44% as it expanded from 6 to 29 theatres, averaging $8,000 per screen. Never Let Me Go shows signs that it isn't catching on. In its third week, it dipped 23% even as it added 17 theatres for a total of 43 screens. Freakonomics' debut failed to ignite. The documentary, which is based on a bestselling book, earned just $1,900 per screen at 17 theatres. The movie had been in release on iTunes and on-demand for a month, so perhaps the most interested audiences already sought out and watched the film.

On Friday, Disney's feel-good horse racing film, Secretariat, will leave the gate along with romantic comedy Life as We Know It and teen horror flick My Soul to Take.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friendly competition between 'The Social Network,' 'Let Me In'

By Sarah Sluis

Led by a press barrage and endless speculation on the film's awards prospects and accuracy, The Social Network will hit 2,771 theatres and, some say, earn in the high $20 million range. The semi-biographical movie follows the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), from his Harvard days to his

The social network jesse eisenberg justin timberlake company's growth in Silicon Valley. Critic Dana Stevens at Slate exclaimed, "What a joy to sit in a theater and be engaged, surprised, challenged, amused." Under the direction of David Fincher and with the verbal stylings of Aaron Sorkin, the movie is a "social satire, a miniaturist comedy of manners, and a Greek tragedy; it bites off a lot, at times more than it can chew. But even the unmasticated morsels are pretty tasty."

A remake of the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, Let Me In will bow in 2,020 theatres. While many Hollywood remakes of foreign films aren't treated very kindly by critics,

Let me in blood chloe moretz this vampire horror film has gotten props from reviewers who applauded its consistency, if not its originality. "Not only does it refrain from softening or dumbing down the story of a persecuted youngster who finds his soul mate in a vampire," critic Maitland McDonagh praises, "it incorporates additional material taken from John Ajvide Lindqvist's deeply disturbing source novel." It seems director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) borrowed something good and, harder, kept it good.

The much-delayed Case 39 (2,211 theatres) starring Renee Zellweger will go head-to-head with Let Me In. Both films have been tracking in the $10 million range, and with slightly different

Case 39 renee zellweger audiences--Case 39 has been attracting Hispanic audiences while arthouse lovers want to catch the foreign vampire film remake. Interestingly, the two films center on innocent/violent girls. In Let Me In, a boy befriends a vampire girl, while in Case 39 Zellweger adopts a girl who turns out to be evil.

After being available on iTunes for almost a month, Freakonomics will hit 20 theatres. If the documentary performs well, it will quell fears that opening multiple windows diminishes, not intensifies, box-office returns. Critic Ethan Alter found the film uneven, with some segments stronger than others.

Two of next week's films, romantic comedy Life as We Know It and feel-good horse racing film Secretariat, will offer sneak peeks on Saturday in roughly 800 theatres, hoping to get a leg up on positive word-of-mouth. Studios don't always release the earnings from these sneaks, but they could tip the scales during their openings next Friday.

On Monday, I'll circle back to see The Social Network's impact on returning films such as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Town, and see which horror-thriller, Case 39 or Let Me In, lured more audiences.