Friday, November 19, 2010

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1' boasts high advance ticket sales

By Sarah Sluis

Even as the marathon Potter series reaches its penultimate installment, the movie is still a must-see ticket. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (4,125 theatres) boasts over 1,900 sellouts and Harry potter 7 dementors a fifth-place spot among all advance ticket sales, according to Fans will be greeted with a dark, adult film and oh-so-slightly incomplete feeling. Hogwarts is absent from this film, though the architectural wizardry of the Ministry of Magic makes up for the change in setting. "The film's centerpiece, Harry, Ron and Hermione's daring raid on the Ministry...recalls an episode of Mission: Impossible, complete with the trio temporarily donning false faces," notes critic Ethan Alter, praising director David Yates' maturation into a "more confident director of action." Thursday midnight screenings could give the film some $30 million, with a $100 million plus weekend in the crystal ball. Like the opening weekend behemoth Twilight: New Moon, Harry Potter will benefit from all-digital multiplexes that can program the film in every theatre at midnight and give the movie lots of screens to meet demand. 239 IMAX screens will help boost ticket sales.

For adults in search of some non-wizard focused entertainment, The Next Three Days (2,564 theatres) sets it target on those who "favor twisty plotting over slam-bang action," according to critic Daniel Next Three Days Elizabeth Banks Russell Crowe Eagan. The action thriller has similarities to last year's hit Taken, with its family-oriented kidnapping/rescue plot. Liam Neeson, who starred in Taken, has a supporting role here as a kind of advisor to Russell Crowe's character, almost creating a sense of continuity from film to film. An older, more male audience, the exact opposite of the Harry Potter demographic, will ensure this movie won't have to compete with Potter-philes. Still, The Next Three Days has been pegged as a $10 million or so opener, with a chance that it will disappoint and open in the single digit millions.

The U.S.' Payroll Fairness Act may be caught in a Republican filibuster, but on the screen, a group of U.K.-based female autoworkers receive just such a right in Made in Dagenham (3 theatres). "Catching Made in dagenham photo shoot the ripples of optimism of Britain's swinging '60s, the film is intelligent and feel-good and should pull in the usual suspects," critic Doris Toumarkine predicts, comparing the movie to Norma Rae.

Also opening today is Heartless (1 theatre), an "ambitious horror-art movie hybrid," according to critic Maitland McDonagh. The movie centers on a mildly disfigured photographer who is convinced crime is being caused by "feral thugs" that are less than human. Director Philip Ridley's style "walks the line between campfire creep-out and cautionary fable," and "should appeal to horror buffs who prefer lingering unease to the gut-bruising sucker punch."

"[I]ntriguing but inconsistent, drifting back and forth between sequences of razor-sharp insight and slack, ponderous stretches," according to critic Jon Frosch, White Material (3 theatres) centers on a white French woman who refuses to leave her plantation home even as the African country she resides in falls into civil war.

Screener will be taking a break. Look for new posts starting December 1.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The hot potato actress role in 'Welcome to the People' goes to Elizabeth Banks

By Sarah Sluis

During The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Watch actress round table, Amy Adams revealed that she had to turn down a role in Welcome to the People, because she felt she couldn't go there emotionally and be there for her new child. Turns out Hilary Swank had wanted the role, but didn't get it. So who's the role Elizabeth_banks going to now? Elizabeth Banks, who will take on the part when the DreamWorks production starts filming in early 2011.

Though Welcome to the People hasn't been hyped in the press, it clearly seems to be a coveted project among those that have read the script. Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, the dynamo producing team behind Star Trek (I'll ignore their work on the Transformers series), wrote the script along with newbie Jody Lambert, and Kurtzman is making his directing debut with the film.

Chris Pine stars as a man who returns home after his estranged father dies. He discovers he has an alcoholic sister (Banks) with an out-of-control 12-year-old son. According to his father's will, he must deliver her $150,000. He wants to keep the money for himself, but curiosity gets the best of him and he finds his sister and befriends her without letting her know he's her brother. The idea of sibling reconciliation after a parent's death is a familiar plot point (If it were a comedy, it would be another Rain Man--right?), but the quality of the writing and acting can make or break this kind of film. Though it's billed as a drama, certain leaked details--like the fact that the 12-year-old tries to blow up, of all things, his school's swimming pool--sound almost like dark comedy. I hear awards bells ringing for this one. Perhaps it will end up with a "For Your Consideration" in 2012?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Film Festival in a Box offers an alternative to traditional distribution

By Sarah Sluis

There's something special about seeing a movie in a theatre, but there's something really special about seeing brand-new works exhibited in a film festival. Now that experience has been packaged for the home viewing market. Film Festival in a Box, a modest initiative from Indieflix, aims to bring that Film festival in a box experience to small groups of viewers in their home. For about $15, people receive four short films on a DVD. The idea is to gather a group of friends, and discuss and vote on their favorite film. Like a real film festival's "Audience Award," the most well-received films can receive prizes of up to $1,000.

In a feature about Film Festival in a Box, the New York Times calls the viewing experience "ostensibly a game," a compelling allusion. What better way to cap a dinner party or make a gathering of friends special than turning screen-watching into a social and interactive experience? The idea also has parallels to that of a book club, and some kind of serial subscription could work, though it's not being currently offered. Right now, the founder says she has not yet recouped her costs for producing such groupings as "Powered by Women, "Pottymouth Comedies," "Zombies," and "Love," but over 2,000 copies had been sold. The focus on lowbrow comedy and horror suggests a teenage audience, which may work to draw in the YouTube generation of aspiring filmmakers.

What's most exciting about this project, though, is that it takes short films, a segment of the market deemed "commercial Kryptonite" by the article, and sorts them into genres in order to package them into something marketable. Having just returned from a film festival, I can attest that short films can be the most exciting part of a festival experience, and also one that brought me back to my days as a film student. Often student films or a first filmmaking attempt, short films have a rawness and level of experimentalism that can be rewarding. You can see people working out film form on the screen, and the short story arcs and small stories can have a big impact--and quicker payoffs than features.

Certainly there's a counterpoint for this in the alternative content market for theatres. A short film festival with a live component could easily fit into the slate of Fathom, one of the largest alternative content providers. Short films have such limited audiences, and small distribution efforts like that of Film Festival in a Box have the potential to bring little-known but quality short films to eager cinephiles.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Carey Mulligan to play Daisy Buchanan in 'The Great Gatsby'

By Sarah Sluis

Director Baz Luhrmann has a knack for colorful epics that seem to move in a parallel universe to their original historical context--Moulin Rouge! or Romeo + Juliet, anyone? I'm still harboring disappointment that his version of Alexander the Great didn't get made (and Oliver Stone's so-so 500x_careymulligan Alexander did).

So I'm willing to see the Australian take on the great American jazz age novel The Great Gatsby, which, like Romeo + Juliet, is part of the high school assigned-reading canon. He just announced that he cast the British actress Carey Mulligan as the female lead, Daisy Buchanan. The role was apparently in hot demand, with much of young Hollywood auditioning for the role, according to Deadline Hollywood. In the end, he chose the spritely Mulligan, whose career has exploded since her Oscar-nominated performance in last year's An Education.

During a workshop of the screenplay, Leonardo DiCaprio (who was Luhrmann's Romeo) played Jay Gatsby and Tobey Maguire the narrator, Nick Carraway. Tom Buchanan, the third main male role, has not been cast.

Now that he's cast his female lead, there's the question of when the movie will start production. Mulligan just completed Drive with Ryan Reynolds, so it appears her schedule is fairly clear, and both DiCaprio and Maguire have mainly producer credits in their "in-production" sections on IMDB. My guess: soon.

Luhrmann's last film, Australia, was a bit of miss at the box office, in spite of its massive Oprah endorsement (I guess she has more sway with her book club). For Americans, at least, The Great Gatsby has more appeal, especially because it's so widely assigned in schools--I know that had an impact on all the teens who caught Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (or perhaps saw it instead of reading the play).

The character of Daisy has been called superficial and manipulative, as evidenced by a couple of choice lines she recites in The Great Gatsby, which may or may not appear in Luhrmann's script.

After the birth of her child: "All right...I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she'll be a fool -- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool."

"I KNOW. I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything�Sophisticated - God, I'm sophisticated."

If Mulligan can manage to give these lines the innocent yet willful spin she succeeded in conveying in An Education, maybe we'll end up with a Daisy that's a bit less of an enigma and more someone with whom the audience identifies.

(Photo of Carey Mulligan during a screen test from

Monday, November 15, 2010

First-place 'Megamind' halts 'Unstoppable'

By Sarah Sluis

The family-friendly Megamind continued its run at number one for the second week, earning $30 million. The superhero/villain comedy dipped just 34%, as audiences eager for entertainment with family appeal turned out for the well-received movie. That puts the movie in the "average" range among other animated films. This week will be Megamind's last in the spotlight, however, as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I will take away a large chunk of the movie's audience this Friday.

Unstoppable denzel washington Denzel Washington's Unstoppable debuted to $23.5 million, drawing in slightly older audiences and equal amounts of males and females. Washington knows how to pick his movies, and this marks his eighth film in a row to open above $20 million. With the addition of Star Trek star Chris Pine, this movie had broad appeal, leading THR critic Todd McCarthy to anoint it "the best blue collar action movie in who knows how long."

The effects-heavy, story-light Skyline opened to $11.6 million. The sci-fi film came with a cheap price tag, around $10 million, so its opening figure should ensure the movie's profitability. Despite some catchy moments in the trailer and an interesting premise, the alien tale did not Skyline second ship incorporate the complexity of last summer's much-buzzed-about District 9, which opened to an out-of-this-world $37 million.

Audiences slept through Morning Glory's opening weekend. which followed up its Wednesday opening with a $9.6 million weekend for a total of $12.2 million. Given the movie's all-star cast, including Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Morning glory newsroom Harrison Ford, Patrick Wilson, and Jeff Goldblum, the workplace romantic comedy's lackluster performance is surprising. As the tagline states--"What's the story, Morning Glory?"

Among specialty releases, indie darling Tiny Furniture had the highest per-screen average of the week, netting $22,000 from the IFC Theatre in New York City. 127 Hours had an impressive second-week finish with a $20,000 per-screen average at 22 theatres. Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) appears to have a second hit-in-the-making. Fair Game, which expanded again in its second week, held on, averaging $6,000 per screen as it nearly quadrupled the amount of theatres in its release.

This Friday, the penultimate film in the Harry Potter series should deliver another one of its sold-out, hyped weekends. The adult-oriented action thriller The Next Three Days will offer complementary fare, going for an audience that's outgrown Hogwarts.

Friday, November 12, 2010

'Unstoppable' up against 'Morning Glory,' 'Skyline'

By Sarah Sluis

Director Tony Scott switches tracks with Unstoppable (3,207 theatres), a runaway train action film that follows up his train-hostage movie, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which also starred Denzel Unstoppable denzel washington chris pine Washington. According to critic Ethan Alter, it's more of the same--"solid but unexceptional." He pegs Scott as a genre director, who has achieved various degrees of success with his "slick, violent, male-dominated action movies." It may be a formula film, but it's one that's expected to compete for first place this weekend against the animated family film Megamind, which should earn at least $20 million in its second weekend.

Morning Glory (2,518 theatres) opened on Wednesday to $1 million, behind two already-playing films, Megamind and Due Date. That puts the workplace romantic comedy at a Morning glory newsroom disadvantage for the weekend. Critic Rex Roberts lamented the "poorly imagined or undeveloped" characters, "although watching them run through their set-pieces provokes enough chuckles to keep us in our seats until the final telegraphed plot twist sends us off into the sunrise." With its age-diverse cast and friendly subject matter, Morning Glory will live or die by word-of-mouth, so audiences will have to love this movie more than critics have (it's tracking at 55% on Rotten Tomatoes).

The trailer for Skyline (2,880 theatres) is reminiscent of Independence Day, with huge spaceships hovering above America's biggest cities. Though the special effects are impressive, which makes sense given the special effects background of the Skyline alien ships directors, the story itself appears to never rise above made-for-TV standards. "Don't waste your time trying to work out what's going on. It's clear by the end that the filmmakers had no idea either," THR critic Megan Lehmann advises.

Tiny Furniture, from promising indie filmmaker Lena Dunham, will open in one theatre in New York City. I praised the film back when it played at BAM Cinema Fest. Though not as enthusiastic about the slice-of-life, introspective movie, critic Maria Garcia pointed out the similarities between Dunham and Woody Allen, but also mused that the movie could be considered "a cinematic blog chronicling the nihilism of twenty-something-year-olds."

The anti-global warming documentary Cool It will hit 41 theatres. "Cool It is at its most effective when it stops dwelling on what that film�and the scientific community at large�gets wrong about global warming and instead focuses on what practical suggestions they have to offer," critic Ethan Alter concludes. The documentary's antagonist stance to blockbuster An Inconvenient Truth could either help or hurt the movie.

On Monday, we'll see if Unstoppable was able to unseat its superhero competitor, Megamind, if audiences were lured to Skyline and if Morning Glory was able to get itself back on track. Fair Game will also expand from 46 to 175 theatres, giving the movie a chance to try to repeat its $14,000 per-screen average in more theatres.

Local films, local audiences enhance the Amazonas Film Festival

By Sarah Sluis

A few days into the Amazonas Film Festival, the program added a taste of the jungle as a complement to the mix of films. A bevy of Brazilian stars boarded a riverboat bound for a jungle lodge on the Amazon. Veteran actress Zez Polessa, part of the short film jury, received plenty of attention from the cameras, which have followed her throughout the festival. Due to the severe drought, the floating hotel, the Amazon Jungle Palace, appeared like it was in a valley, at least twenty feet below the waterline. The next day, the group traveled to a native village and was treated to a performance of traditional dance. However, it appears that even this green, sparsely populated section of the river is not without media�the indigenous people were star-struck by some of the actresses in the group.

The Brazilian short films shown before the feature selection each night have been a highlight, giving international viewers a window into Brazilian culture. The short "Geral" documented the passionate football fans that sit in the "cheap seats," a standing room only section with a prime location right on the field. Some of the people interviewed told war stories of the most extreme thing they had done for their team, like a fan who whistled to distract the opposing team long enough for his team to make a goal (it ended up getting him in some trouble). The highlight of the film was its superb use of reaction shots. The camera would focus on an intense fan as he swore under his breath or cried, cursed the coach, made impolite hand signals or cheered in absolute joy. Though much of the football context wasn't clear to international viewers, the short was probably even more enjoyable for foreign viewers unfamiliar with the intense loyalty of football fans.

"Nai e a Lua" told an indigenous myth about a girl and the moon. Like the opening night short, "UaYNA: Tears of Poison," it used jungle locations and indigenous actors to tell an origin myth connected to the surrounding environment. The short "I Don't Want to Go Back Alone" had one of strongest narratives of all the shorts, with a completeness that felt like a feature. The story centered on a blind boy and his female best friend who secretly loves him. When a new classmate moves to town, the blind boy's unseen romantic leanings come to light. The boy's blindness was used as a device to split the characters' knowledge of who liked whom, and the film's ending reconciled the two with a light and clever touch.

Sunday night's feature selection, Habana Eva, also benefited from local context. The Venezuelan/Cuban film centered on a young garment factory worker torn between her boyfriend and a rich expatriate with whom she develops a romance. The movie made soap opera-like twists and turns and an unexpected move into fantasy territory in the third act, but the audience adored it. The lead actress, Prkriti Maduro, who attended the festival, had a sweet and likeable screen presence and was able to create an impact simply through her facial expressions. The genre-bending film could be loosely described as a romantic comedy, and should teach American films of that genre a lesson�its focus on the female lead's character development and friendships expanded the dramatic action beyond the "Are the man and woman going to end up together?" question.

The Amazonas Film Festival has the most impact when it brings local and international content together, highlighting Brazilian films to a world audience and bringing films to Manaus that take on unique meaning when viewed in such a distinct setting. Perhaps in years to come they can take this intermingling a step further, showing films featuring indigenous people, such as Nai e a Lua" and "UaYNA: Tears of Poison" to an international audience within a jungle setting, instead of bringing the actors to Teatro Amazonas.

The Amazonas Film Festival had its closing night event on November 11th, leaving attendees with an experience that connected the local to the international.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Checking out Manaus, Brazil, at the Amazonas Film Festival

By Sarah Sluis

Part of the attraction of the Amazonas Film Festival is the city of Manaus, Brazil, itself.

Secretary of culture Roberio Braga explains Manaus' appeal. Next to him is a glass of Guarana, a popular local variety of soft drink that outstrips Coca-Cola in sales. Braga prefers Guarana, even if the festival's main sponsor is Coca-Cola.


Public buildings in Manaus, Brazil, often feature inlaid wood in strikingly different color combinations. The wood is from the Amazon rainforest. Pictured: Palacio Rio Branco, where we met Secretary of Culture Roberio Braga.


A small port near the downtown of Manaus, right near the opera house. The dry bank in the front shows how low the river is, as the Amazon River is in the middle of one of the worst droughts on record. Unlike the water-to-steps depiction in Werner Herzog's movie Fitzcarraldo, going to the opera house from the river requires a bit of a walk.


Downtown Manaus has many European-style buildings such as these, but many have fallen into a very film-esque state of disrepair. Nothing is left of this building but the facade, making it look like a movie set.

The Opera House, too, once started to be taken over by the jungle, and the building was used for football games. The area has since been restored, though the original wood and wicker seats are no longer in use.

I'm heading out of Manaus today, so look for one more recap of the festival on Screener.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

PR panel looks at indie successes and challenges

By Kevin Lally

FJI contributor Doris Toumarkine reportson a recent New York City panel discussion on the marketing of independent films.

A Center for Communication (CFC) PR-themed panel in New York on Nov. 4, titled "From Sundance to Cult Classic," sure seemed promising and kind of delivered. After all, in this day and age of so much daze, how does a little indie that miraculously squeaks into Sundance evolve into a "cult classic" or at least something that reaches a respectable number of eyeballs and even (prayers needed here) make some money?

Yes, publicists are the ones who hold real answers, as the CFC blurb proclaimed (if you drink the Kool-Aid) that "the publicity campaign can make or break the success of an indie flick�" So the carrot that "publicity pros share the secrets of success" almost amounted to learning the secret of the Coca-Cola formula.

It wasn't CFC's fault that the panel discussion, held near Manhattan's Time Warner Center and co-presented with the New York Institute of Technology's Department of Communication, often left the rails. The frequent digressions had much to do with the panel having a lazy locomotive, in spite of a motor (mouth) engine.

Moderator Brian Rose, a Fordham University Media Studies professor, left the steering wheel and Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman made stops in reviewer-land, generously sharing his opinions of films he liked and didn't like (not particularly relevant here).

And, with occasional help from other panelists, he offered yet another capsule history of the last 20 years of independent film (the disappearance of specialty companies, the impact of technology, the fragmentation of audiences, the multiplicity of distribution outlets, new ways to "monetize," the sheer glut of so many films and festivals arising on every corner including yours, etc.).

But what about the topic at hand? What about the little indie miracles, like the attention that tiny films like Tiny Furniture can get, or the longevity in theatres Winter's Bone achieved? Or, those grosses flirting with one million dollars or more that other small indies manage, to say nothing (and no one did) of the many millions that those three Stieg Larsson Swedish-language winners managed? Sure, the Girl trilogy had those hugely popular books and great production values behind them, but what could possibly be the alchemy for today's more modest indie breakthroughs and how do PR honchos play a part? After all, the program boasted that in this discussion "publicity pros share the secrets of success."

Three such pros�busy New York indie publicists�rounded out the panel and tried to grapple with these questions: Scott Feinstein, senior associate at 42West; Arianne Ayers, publicity and marketing director at Magnolia Pictures; and Marian Koltai-Levine, executive VP at the film department of PMK*BNC.

When Gleiberman was not holding forth under worshipful gazes from certain panelists who fight daily for his blessings, the CFC event delivered some interesting nuggets, if not exactly eye-popping takeaways.

Koltai-Levine introduced the importance of exhibitor relations and how vital it is to try to get trailers on screens, posters into the theatres and the collections process running smoothly. She also cautioned that budgets must be kept low, as even a film as well-reviewed as Inside Job wasn't exactly a box-office star. Take that, blurbmeisters.

But marketing�actually paying for attention�can help small films, as did the considerable marketing budget for Waiting for Superman, which grossed around $4 million. Even awards season, noted Feinstein, is a marketing opportunity because it creates "conversation." Thus, said Koltai-Levine, as early as a film's money-raising stage, her company includes P&A in budgets.

Panelists concurred that in these challenging times a loaded soundtrack, unless it has music with a fan base, no longer helps sell a film. In the case of Anvil! The Story of Anvil�a rare success for a small doc�42West's Feinstein said that the fact that the band showed up at theatres and performed help "eventize" these shows and boosted them down the line in the ancillary market.

Another case of theatrical "absolutely moving" ancillaries was Valentino: The Last Emperor, which did over $2 million theatrically and gave DVD its "tremendous numbers."

Magnolia's Ayers characterized the current climate for indies as "exciting" because it is "experimental," a word obviously not scary for a distribution company like Magnolia that has both a chain of movie theatres and cable networks in the family.

Others noted that indie films too often have trouble getting reviews and just finding good movies that these days need to be "better than fine" is hard.

Embracing the evening's promised topic on several occasions, Koltai-Levine discussed how indie filmmakers in today's world can work with sponsors. While companies and brands rarely provide upfront cash or do much product placement anymore, they can be valuable down the line at the distribution end, where producers can tap into a brand's customers, assuming they're a good fit for the film and that the film is a good fit for the brand.

As for the film festival conundrum (panelists concurred there could be about 4,000 worldwide), it's same old, same old regarding the value of getting into the top six fests. Like several of the others, Sundance remains important for providing either a buying or marketing situation, depending on whether a film has already been acquired. Many festivals, in addition to the top six, provide excellent opportunities for press attention. And, hats off, New York's own Tribeca Fest was cited as "one of the world's largest local film festivals" among the 4,000 or so.

Koltai-Levine spoke about how the small film Bass Ackwards more than broke even. As one of the film's executive producers, she used Sundance as a launching platform, dedicated a budget of about $20,000 for marketing and paid attention to the marketing target (consumers rather than other marketers). Also key was to make sure Bass Ackwards was perceived from the get-go as a "theatrical film."

She also called for patience when going theatrical with films like Boynton Beach Club and the U.K.'s Is Anyone There? that target older filmgoers. As both films proved, slow rollouts to older demographics can pay off.

Another strategy for smaller indie releases applies when two medium-length films, each under 60 minutes, are programmed together for a theatrical show. A paper like The New York Times won't pay attention to a film under 60 minutes, but audiences will if they are bundled into what is perceived as an appealing package.

Regarding the theatrical release, panelists also noted that experiments on less frequent showtimes, meaning only 10 to 15 shows per week for a film, are promising as ways to achieve longer runs.

Koltai-Levine hailed major chains like AMC and Regal (with AMC Independent and Regal Cinematheque) that are paying special attention to indie films. All three publicists gave thumbs-up to theatre-going, agreeing it will be alive and well even ten years hence because people want the "experience." But, they added, the theatres have to keep improving.

Some bons mots came from both Koltai-Levine and Feinstein. Per the former, "The difference between a big and small indie film isn't size but talent." And Feinstein, capturing the times we're in, suggested that "everything is available but harder to find."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Amazonas Film Festival spotlights local and international culture

By Sarah Sluis

The Amazonas Film Festival suggests a jungle location, but the festival's center couldn't be anything different: The Teatro Amazonas, a European-style opera house in the midst of Manaus, Brazil. In the late 1800s, the city had a monopoly on the rubber trade, creating a sophisticated populace with rubber barons wealthy enough to import European stone for their buildings. The building could have been indistinguishable from an Old World opera house, if not for the fact that instead of rolling out the red carpet, they would place rubber on top of the paving stones in order to dampen the noise of the horses and carriages pulling up to the porte-cochere.

P1000906 If the Manaus citizens of a century ago wanted to import everything European, this year's festival is about developing and celebrating local culture. After six years of being run by the French PR company Le Public Systeme, the festival has been reclaimed by the local government. The reimagined festival has dialed down the celebrity while emphasizing the films and stars important to the region. There's also an emphasis on including Manaus citizens in the festival. There are filmmaking workshops, community screenings in remote areas, prisons, and hospitals, and even one and four-minute films playing at bus terminals.

The premiere on Friday night reflected the festival's emphasis on "local." Government officials like the Secretary of Culture, Roberio Braga, received the most attention, as did many of Brazil's soap stars. The nationally-run programs make their stars instant celebrities, and actors often work back and forth between television and film for their careers. The first short film, "UaYNA: Tears of Poison," featured indigenous actors and had a folklore touch, leading to an enthusiastic round of applause, Waste Land, the opening night feature selection, also inspired intense discussion and received a positive reception from the crowd. The documentary centers on the Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, who decides to create portraits of trash pickers at a giant landfill, Jardim Gramacho. The pickers earn their living by searching through the refuse for recyclable materials, and Muniz uses these materials in order to create his works of art. Given the film's sometimes critical look at Brazilian society, it was interesting to see it with a local audience, who had their own observations about poverty in the cities.

The selection of culturally specific films continued through the second night. The short film "Recife Frio" (Cold Tropics) brought peals of laughter from the opera boxes. The documentary-style short investigated how a sudden and permanent cold front, caused on by a meteorite, affected citizens in the coastal town of Recife. Interviews with a Santa Claus, a rich Brazilian family living in a beachfront condo, and a hotel owner helped shape the story. In one scene, a boy switches rooms with the family's maid because the tiny room was warmer, mixing humor with social bite. Silly details, like the boy using his hair dryer to keep warm and the maid using an iron to heat up her bed, added even more laughs. The feature selection, the Chinese film Aftershock, was also rooted in place. The historical drama was like a Chinese version of the Michael Bay movie Pearl Harbor, with a jingoistic tone and many overwrought moments involving the love and obligations between family members.

Speakers during opening night singled out the festival for bringing film to areas outside of Brazil's two main cultural centers, Sao Paolo and Rio de Janerio. During the reception the second night, a party attendee reflected on the attitude. Brazilians prize film as "culture with a capital C," British expat Adrian Barnett put it, "like France, it's about �big C' culture." When I met with Braca, the Secretary of Culture, he also referred to Manaus' Francophile past, adding that during the rubber days everyone "lived like the French and spent like the British." During the economic contraction that followed after Malaysia established cheaper rubber plantations, most of the intellectuals left the region. Now that Manaus' economy has recovered, it's time to bring culture back.

The festival also has a focus on environmentalism. The conservation of the jungle in Amazonas is a point of national pride, and there's also the hope that culture plus a pristine jungle environment will elevate the city internationally. The Amazonas region is in fact remarkably well-preserved compared to other Brazilian states (98% remains jungle). Barnett, a biologist, mused that some of that can be attributed to the vagaries of local politics, like not having a soybean farmer elected as a politician. The environmental enthusiasm of those at the festival is real, but also reflects the viewpoints of a group of people who are "like Greenwich Village," he said, more liberal and artistic than the general population. Secretary of Culture Braca expressed hope that Amazon's natural environment could turn it into a popular location for film production, as well as cultivate interest and knowledge in the region abroad. For those new to Manaus, there's also an important lesson to learn. "There's no crocodiles running around in the streets," he joked.

The Amazonas Film Festival runs through November 11, so stay tuned for more updates.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Amazonas Film Festival: Opening Night

By Sarah Sluis

The 7th annual Amazonas Film Festival kicked off on Friday night with a red carpet event. Located on the Amazon River, Manaus, Brazil, is a sprawling city of 1.7 million inhabitants, but surrounded by jungle and accessible primarily by boat or plane.

The Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil, on opening night.


The Red Carpet in between star arrivals.


An interior shot of the opera house.

The 82-year-old Carlos Manga, the president of the jury and a renowned Brazilian director and producer, entertains the audience (He later tells photographers to turn around and take pictures of the audience, so he will have a memory of this appreciative crowd).

Stay tuned for more updates from the Amazonas Film Festival.

Friday, November 5, 2010

'Megamind' goes up against 'Due Date,' 'For Colored Girls'

By Sarah Sluis

Following two weeks of horror movies tailored to fright-seeking audiences, three diverse films enter the pack, setting the stage for the busy end-of-year season at the box office.

Megamind DreamWorks Animation releases its third animated film of the year, Megamind, to 3,954 theatres, including almost two hundred IMAX locations. "There's something for everyone in this redemption tale, romantic comedy and affectionate tribute to pop-cultural tropes," critic Frank Lovece enthused. The family comedy's broad appeal should lead to an opening weekend of around $50 million, more than the studio's How to Train Your Dragon but less than Shrek Forever After.

Audiences looking to repeat the laughs of The Hangover may end up with just a headache when they Due date_handcuffs catch Due Date (3,355 theatres), the Zach Galifianakis/Robert Downey Jr. road trip comedy directed by The Hangover's Todd Phillips. "Due Date, with its bickering, abrasive cross-country travelers, runs out of gas well before the blessed event finally arrives," critic Kevin Lally complains, noting that the "so-called comic situations are more vicious and unpleasant than funny." Despite the tepid reviews, the comedy's connections to The Hangover should entice viewers, giving it an opening in the neighborhood of $30 million.

Tyler Perry fans will see the director take on a more serious tone in For Colored Girls (2,127 theatres), an adaptation of a 1970s black feminist play. According to critic David Noh, Perry "turned the play into the weepiest, Oprah-ready soap-fest imaginable," and his "tin ear for dialogue" only makes the "overwrought" moments worse. An ensemble cast of black women, including Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg and Thandie Newton, should draw audiences, as will Perry's name, but any Oscar hopes for this film appear to be slim.

The true-life story of Valerie Plame Wilson, whose identity as a spy was revealed in a game of political hardball, is revealed in Fair Game (46 theatres). Naomi Watts pays Plame, and Sean Penn her husband. According to critic Daniel Eagan, the drama "faces an uphill battle at the box office," and once it gets into the fallout of the incident, "the filmmakers don't give viewers much of a chance to make up their own minds about what happened."

The prolific documentarian Alex Gibney strikes again with Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2 theatres), which Eagan dubbed "a must for political junkies." Releasing only in New York, the profile of the state's former governor should drum up heavy business.

The Australian Western Red Hill stars Ryan Kwanten ("True Blood") and will make its debut in 5 theatres. "Strong performances and taut direction," according to critic Maitland McDonagh, make the 127 hours james franco movie "never less than watchable," and offers audiences "the appeal of familiar genre conventions with a twist.

Word on the street is that Academy voters seeing screenings of 127 Hours have fainted�a claim that brings to mind the horror movies of yesteryear. Opening in 4 theatres, James Franco stars in a "virtual one-man show," according to Lally, playing real-life hiker Aron Ralston, an adventurous outdoorsman who survived being trapped under a rock by cutting off his own arm. Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) turns "a most unpleasant predicament into a brisk, visually exciting and�dare we say it?�entertaining movie experience."

This week's films represent the next couple of months to come�plenty of crowd-pleasing material along with awards-seeking films.

Next week, look for coverage of the Amazon Film Festival, as I report from Manaus, Brazil.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The thriller '11.11.11' borrows RKO's famous naming strategy

By Sarah Sluis

I groaned when I heard that Epic Pictures group has a film in the works called 11.11.11, set to release the same day. It seems like an idea pulled out of a hat. After all the buzz this year about 10.10.10, a fortuitous date that many people picked for their wedding celebrations, going through all this number I walked with a zombie stuff again seems like a drag.

But this isn't the first time a horror movie was pitched on title alone. One of the great RKO horror producers of the 1940s, Val Lewton, who would create his movies to match titles assigned by the studio based on moviegoer surveys, yielding such sensationalistic titles as I Walked with a Zombie, Cat People, and The Seventh Victim. Who wouldn't want to see one of those movies? Martin Scorsese in particular has been influenced by his work, and his documentary on Val Lewton showed up amidst last week's onslaught of horror movies on Turner Classic movies.

Of course, Val Lewton's films had a charm to them--psychological, filled with tension, and with a 1940s style and costuming that brings to mind snappy films like His Girl Friday. I can't say I feel the same way about the prospects for 11.11.11. The movie will be directed by Saw veteran Darren Lynn Bousman. As for the "scariness" of the number 11, apparently in this film universe the digits' appearance signifies the presence of angels or spirits. Spooky....

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Will the NC-17 rating of 'Blue Valentine' scare away audiences?

By Sarah Sluis

Blue Valentine is one of the rawest, real movies I've ever seen. It's certainly one of the best films coming out in 2010. It's also been rated NC-17 by the MPAA.

Blue valentien ryan gosling michelle williams Last week, I went into a screening knowing that the movie had been assigned an NC-17 rating, which the distributor,Weinstein Co., is appealing. I heard the movie included sex, violence, and scenes from an abortion. I was expecting something to be so bad that it would really stand out and deserve such an extreme rating. I was wrong.

If this movie is guilty of anything, it's making such a compelling, real story that everything hits you three times as hard. The screenplay originated from a child of divorce, Cami Delavigne, and it shows. The dialogue captures the nature of a dysfunctional relationship perfectly. Even when one member of the couple tries to make nice, the other one shuts down their efforts. Dean (Ryan Gosling) tries to plan a romantic getaway, and Cindy's (Michelle Williams) weariness with every extra effort he attempts is excruciating. I have never before been able to intuit a couple's dysfunction from dialogue like this on screen. Their phrases are like psychological onions, with so much hidden meaning and rage and discontentment to unpeel.

According to The Wrap, the MPAA took issue with "a single sex scene in which there is minimal nudity and the sex act is not even entirely shown." Based on that clue, I suspect they're referring to a scene that could be considered the husband raping his wife. Though disturbing, and certainly not appropriate for children under 17, I don't feel it warrants a NC-17 rating. In reality, such a rating is a kiss of death, locking a film out from being advertised in mainstream outlets and branding it as exploitative, gratuitous, and near-pornographic, something that Blue Valentine most assuredly is not. Moreover, Blue Valentine received no comments at all on the festival circuit about "graphic" content--compare that to the outcry last year over Lars Von Trier's Antichrist (which didn't even bother to get a rating).

In the old days of the rating system, filmmakers could only show "bad things" if there was a moral message (e.g. gangsters dying at the end of the movies to show that bad acts are punished). I don't advocate requiring such messages, but context does matter. Blue Valentine does not glorify such acts but takes us to the breaking point in a couple's marriage. This is not "throwaway violence" but an emotionally draining experience that leaves you feeling a bit shell-shocked as you leave the theatre. If realism makes such graphic content acceptable in my eyes, the MPAA often takes a different point-of-view. "Comic book" violence often is considered more acceptable than realistic, bloody encounters. But this viewpoint can also lead to distorted judgments. There's a huge difference between truly innocuous, non-violent "fights," like the enemies just kind of disappearing in G-rated Up (it's unclear if anyone dies) and comic book heroes blasting or hi-yaing enemies to death again and again in PG-13 movies. When it comes to graphic portrayals of violence in R-rated films, there's also a split between spurting, gratuitous horror movies and similarly graphic but drama-driven deaths in war films.

Blue Valentine has a strong case for appeal. The film is stunning and could perhaps find a kindred spirit with Boys Don't Cry, which successfully appealed its NC-17 rating and went on to win an Oscar. The producers of Boys Don't Cry, however, re-cut the film to win an R rating, something the makers of Blue Valentine won't do.

Monday, November 1, 2010

'Saw 3D' a cut above 'Paranormal Activity 2'

By Sarah Sluis

Despite projections that competing horror flicks Saw 3D and Paranormal Activity 2 would be neck and neck, the newer content won out this weekend. Saw 3D opened to $22.5 million, with 92% of the figure Saw 3d scary coming from 3D screens. Billed as the "final chapter" of Saw, it remains unseen whether the seventh film will be the last, especially since the movie outperformed Saw VI's opening weekend by $8 million.

Paranormal Activity 2 dived 59% to $16.5 million in its second weekend, though the sequel's high opening weekend and weekday activity has already pushed the film to a healthy cumulative total of $65 million. It's just a matter of time before Paramount announces the next sequel.

Jackass 3D, with its similarly young, opening weekend-driven crowd, fell another 60% in its third weekend to $8.4 million, despite the fact that its gags could be called "frightening" by many of those squeamish around physical injury, along with gross-out moments that put reality show "eating challenges" to shame.

Adult fare held better. Geriatric action comedy Red descended 28% for a $10.8 million weekend. Secretariat slid 27% to $5 million, making both films look better than their opening weekends predicted.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, the final installment of the Swedish thriller trilogy, opened Hornet nest slightly higher than its predecessor, earning $915,000 on a 153-screen release. That puts the movie on track to earn at least as much as The Girl Who Played with Fire, which is still playing in 33 theatres and has accrued $7.5 million in four months.

Conviction rose into the top ten in its third week, running up $1.8 million as it expanded from 55 to 565 screens. The per-screen average dipped from $5,500 to $3,200, a strong hold that helps make up for its lackluster first two weeks.

Documentary Waste Land eked out the highest per-screen average of the week with $11,600 on one screen. Just below, the French film Inspector Bellamy averaged $11,200 per screen on two screens. Monsters empty road The indie film Monsters, despite its topical content, had a more mellow $7,000 per-screen average on three screens, though the sci-fi film's microbudget should help make up for a middling debut.

This Friday, the Zach Galifianakis-Robert Downey Jr. road trip comedy Due Date will go against Tyler Perry's artsy play adaptation For Colored Girls and DreamWorks Animation's tentpole release of animated 3D feature Megamind. Platform releases of 127 Hours and Fair Game will round out the crowded weekend. The end-of-the-year movie season has begun!