Thursday, December 30, 2010

'Blue Valentine' and 'Another Year' make their end-of-the-year debut

By Sarah Sluis

Plenty of audiences should turn out for the final box-office weekend of the year, but that will still leave numbers for 2010 down as a whole. Blockbusters like Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland and Iron Man 3 attracted audiences to the tune of $300-400 million, but the number one film of 2010 was a 2009 release: Avatar. James Cameron's blue-tinged alien film earned $476 million in the 2010 half of its release, putting it $50 million above Toy Story 3.

Another year karina fernandez Yesterday, two specialty films bowed in order to qualify for consideration at this year's awards season. The English director Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky) turns out the thoughtful Another Year (six theatres), which shows him in a "mellow, seasonal mood," according to critic David Noh. This is the kind of film that requires a bit of effort to get through, but Leigh creates incredibly true-to-life characters with spot-on dialogue with psychological complexity.

One of my top ten films of 2010, Blue Valentine released yesterday in four theatres with an R rating, the result of a successful appeal of the MPAA's original decision to brand the movie with an Blue valentine kiss NC-17. Critic Erica Abeel called the story of a couple falling out of love "remarkable for its honesty and power." Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling star opposite each other, and both were nominated for acting Golden Globes, a sign that they may also turn up in contention for Oscar statuettes.

With many out for winter holidays, the weekday box office has been strong. On Monday, many films dropped under 10%, compared to the 70-80% seen during non-holiday weeks. In fact, many kid-driven titles saw gains over Monday and Tuesday. The adult comedy Little Fockers is still in first place but has also dropped the most. There's a chance Tron: Legacy may take the lead over the weekend. True Grit has staked out third place, and specialty films like Black Swan, The Fighter, and The King's Speech have moved into the top ten.

Screener will be dark tomorrow, and resume for a box-office recap on Monday. See you in 2011!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Looking ahead to 2011: 'Water for Elephants,' 'Cedar Rapids'

By Sarah Sluis

The wave of end-of-the-year movies brings with it the release of a host of new trailers. I weigh in on the prospects of a couple of movies that actually look good (at least in their trailers).

Water for Elephants (April 22):

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz (in a love triangle!), this movie is based on a best-selling book (that I never managed to read past page twenty). But the trailer is another story, showing off a lush, period circus environment shot with shadowy and vibrant cinematography. Witherspoon wears her sparkly leotard with panache, and her graceful movements as a circus performer at the :51 mark made me a believer. Cons: The trailer music is a bit treacly--could this be a harbinger of the movie's tone as a whole?

Cedar Rapids (Feb. 11):

Could this be the rare comedy that's actually funny? The trailer's humor is part "The Office," part Office Space, and also could be called a more upbeat, blue collar version of Up in the Air (Though George Clooney's character would have sniffed disparagingly at Ed Helms' clueless navigation of business travel). I liked director's Miguel Arteta's overlooked teen comedy Youth in Revolt, and if Cedar Rapids avoids that brand of painfully over-the-top humor that makes the audience cringe (I'm looking at you, Due Date), I think it will be good for a quiet chuckle.

These two films are just a sampling of the many movies in the early part of 2011 that I'm excited about -- Hanna, Jane Eyre, and a smaterring of maybe-good comedies (Hall Pass, Paul, Just Go For It), and dramas (The Adjustment Bureau) should make the early part of 2011 an active one.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When what plays in Portugal doesn't play in Peoria

By Sarah Sluis

When the Hollywood Foreign Press Association awarded The Tourist multiple Golden Globe nominations, most American journalists cried foul. But the recognition of The Tourist reflects a larger trend in movies: what plays well overseas is different than what plays well at home.

Currently, The Tourist has earned $40 million at home and $37 million abroad--even with release in just a dozen foreign markets. The romantic thriller had stunning visuals, but received thumbs downs for its story--a more acceptable combination for a market watching the movie dubbed or with subtitles. Also popular abroad are big family-friendly blockbusters, but not necessarily the ones getting the best reviews. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is currently number one in six markets, and the Disney fairy tale Tangled in seven. While Tron: Legacy may have had just one weekend at number one in the U.S., it grabbed the first-place spot in seventeen markets last week. Among these films, Tangled is the only one with an overall positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though Legacy comes close with 49% positive).

While the international box office can often turn so-so big-budget productions into profitmakers, it can also give a truly good film an exponential boost. If a foreign films that plays "well" abroad usually earns at least half its total box office from overseas, megahits can go well beyond that number. Avatar earned $760,000,000 in the U.S. alone, but $2,000,000,0000 from markets outside the U.S. (count 'em, those are nine zeros). That means that the U.S. market contributed just 27% of the total earnings for the movie, an astonishingly tiny figure.

Muchhullabaloohas been made about declining DVD/Blu-ray sales impacting studios' calculations of expected revenue. It used to be said that a successful movie would make back its production budget at the box office, then start earning money once all the ancillary revenue streams (cable rights, DVD, etc.) Dawn treader kicked in. But more and more, I see movies that aren't flops fall well short of their production budget at the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, Tangled's earned back just $140 million domestically on a $260 million production budget, Dawn Treader's earned $62 million on a reported $155 million production budget, and Tron: Legacy is only up to $87 million on a $170 million budget. The rule of thumb about domestic box office needing to equal production budget clearly no longer holds. That's where the international box office comes in. Increasing revenue from overseas may help fill in the gap created by declining home movie sales, but at what cost? Great blockbusters like Avatar will be able to reap their profits around the world, but will this formula also bring undue success to B-list big-budget films likeDawn Treader and the mildly disappointing Tron: Legacy? As studios tally up their successes and failure of 2011, the international box office is becoming an even bigger part of the box-office balance sheet.

Monday, December 27, 2010

'Little Fockers,' 'True Grit' lead in lackluster holiday box office

By Sarah Sluis

Moviegoers over the holiday weekend may have turned out for Little Fockers and True Grit, but missing under the Christmas tree was that one big-ticket item: a blockbuster. Without Avatar, box office receipts went down 44% from last year. The year-end box office also showed a lack of originality: seven of the top ten films were adaptations, remakes, or sequels.

Little fockers
Little Fockers
, the second sequel to Meet the Parents, grabbed first place with $30.8 million. Including its midweek receipts, the comedy gathered up $45 million in less than a week. Audiences also showed excitement for True Grit, which came in second with $24.8 million and $36 million for the five-day holiday total.

Gulliver's Travels fell short, earning just $6.3 million in two days. The Jack Black riff on the classic novel opened on Christmas Day but failed to draw big audiences. A trio of films rated PG pulled in more audiences, like Tron: Legacy, which finished third with $19.1 million in its second weekend, fourth-place finished The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which dipped just 11%, and Yogi Bear, which settled into fifth place its second week with $7.8 million.

The holiday weekend also gave specialty movies a chance to shine. The Fighter and Black Swan both finished in the top ten after weeks playing to limited audiences. The Fighter earned $7.6 million in sixth place and Black Swan finished ninth with$6.2 million. The King's Speech rose three spots from last week and landed just outside of the top ten with $4.5 million, though it's still in just 700 theatres.

Focus' Somewhere opened to a $17,000 per-screen average playing on seven screens. The animated Somewhere feature The Illusionist averaged $12,000 on three screens. Screen Gems' Country Strong had a soft $8,000 per-screen average on two screens. The studio will expand the drama in January but wanted to release it in 2010, perhaps for awards season reasons. According to a new metric on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has audience approval in the 80% range, compared to just 20% positive among critics, so this movie could bring in crowds with positive word-of-mouth.

This coming week should see higher-than-average weekday receipts as people take time off and students enjoy winter breaks.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Box office overflows with 'Tron: Legacy,' 'How Do You Know,' and 'Yogi Bear'

By Sarah Sluis

We're in the home stretch of the holiday box office season. Three films go into wide release today, and they'll have just five days in the sun before another trio of wide releases (Little Fockers, True Grit, and Gulliver's Travels) bombards holiday audiences.

Tron Legacy Disney's been promoting TRON: Legacy (3,451 theatres, including 2,424 in 3D) for years at Comic-Con, and the studio is counting on its long-term marketing efforts to result in a $40 million+ payday over opening weekend. The attempt to "mature" the material from 1982's TRON "[turns] out to be goofier than the original's overeager earnestness," critic Ethan Alter notes. "In trying to make TRON matter to a new generation, Legacy winds up squandering the best thing about the original: its sense of fun." While the story may not be the movie's strong suit, the visuals "lightcycle" races are stunning, and Daft Punk's score sets a dark, techno mood.

The eminently successful James L. Brooks falls short of achieving another masterpiece in How Do You How do you know reese witherspoon paul rudd Know (2,483 theatres), which stars Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, and Jack Nicholson. His "faltering" hand, according to critic David Noh, results in a "particularly uncertain yet pushy and often tone-deaf romantic comedy." The actors (who reportedly accounted for close to $50 million of the talent budget) earn their keep, but to what end? "It is almost a criminal waste that both Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd give two of their most heartfelt, charming performances," Noh sighs.

If the idea of hearing Yogi Bear (Dan Aykroyd) and Boo Boo (Justin Timberlake) singing odes to "pic-a-nic baskets" sounds like punishment, not entertainment, you're not one of the many families expected to turn out this weekend for the spectacle, which will unspool in 3,515 theatres, including 2,011 in 3D. Alter pegs this Yogi bear pic a nic basket film as about a 5 out of 10 "on the scale of live-action updates of old cartoons," which is to say it's a "relentlessly uninspired and proudly juvenile production," but "doesn't feature a trio of CGI-rodents singing bad pop songs at a pitch only dogs (and kids under the age of eight) can tolerate."

Rabbit Hole (5 theatres) stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as parents coping with the death of their child. Though the film has drawn raves for Kidman's performance, critic Frank Lovece wasn't one of those applauding. Except for one moment of "layered subtlety," Kidman's "performance [is] so controlled that even when [the couple] Becca and Howie have their inevitable shouting match, it feels forced and false."

Because we're in high season for movies, a number of released films are still gathering steam. The Fighter is making the biggest jump, expanding into 2,503 theatres after opening in just four last week. Black Swan, which already had a spot in the top ten with just 90 theatres, will expand to 959 theatres. The Tempest, which made a so-so debut last week, will stay specialty, spreading to just 21 theatres. For all of these films, success or failure will be determined in the final weeks of 2010.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Top Ten Movies of 2010

By Sarah Sluis

This year has been an odd one at the box office. Last year it was all about Avatar, the big, Hollywood crowd-pleaser that everyone could get behind. It was the kind of film all blockbusters should aspire to. In 2010, commercial fare has been much more disappointing. Even films angling for Oscars often didn't meet my expectations. Unlike others, I wasn't wowed by The Fighter and The Social Network didn't live up to my (perhaps unfairly high) expectations. What follows, in no particular order, are the films that got me excited this year. These are the films that didn't just do something well, they did it differently, and often with an uncommon eye for realism.

1. How to Train Your Dragon. Pixar may be the king of CG animation, but this DreamWorks Animation movie had the entire package: striking cinematography, a lovable male hero, and a unique world for audiences to explore. The dark, shadowy look of the film was very adult, but the movie's appeal was universal.

2. Tabloid. I saw this movie at the Doc NYC Fest, and it's yet to find a distributor. I may be jumping the gun, but I predict this documentary will be showing up on "Best Of" lists in 2011. Errol Morris' comedic turn tops even his early work on Gates of Heaven. The story of a beauty queen and her kidnapping of her Mormon ex-lover is so crazy, it could only be true. The third act twist that will leave your mouth agape.

3. The King's Speech. This feel-good awards movie is one I really can get behind. Directed by Tom Hooper ("John Adams"), this fact-based tale actually breathes, with quiet moments that delicately lead us through the lightly comedic story. At the end, I was rooting for King George's speech like it was a sports match (I hope I don't denigrate the film by comparing it to the stirring end of The Mighty Ducks). This may be a "traditional" Oscar film, but it's done so impeccably, it's hard not to like. Added bonus: It's gentle and inoffensive enough to bring the whole family to without embarrassment.

4. Tiny Furniture. Actress/director/writer Lena Dunham is one to watch. I may be biased: She's a just-out-of-college Oberlin grad, I'm a few-years-out-of-college Wesleyan grad, making us of the same ilk. In this semi-autobiographical film, the whole post-graduate experience becomes an opportunity to make fun of her character in an extremely naturalistic, painfully funny way. She has no fear, and not only makes herself look unflattering in front of the camera, she stages some truly cringe-worthy scenes--and did I mention she cast her mother and sister as her mother and sister?

5. Winter's Bone. In television, there's that "sitcom" living room and kitchen, which never seem to change no matter who the family is supposed to be. Film has the same problem, with the same glossed-over settings used again and again, and production designers that just can't help themselves from designing adorable spaces for supposedly average families. Winter's Bone changes all of that, filming in the Ozarks and using local actors to show outsiders what it's like to live in a rural, meth-infested world. I saw a part of America I'd never seen before.

6. Cyrus. Most romantic comedies are terrible, which is too bad, because I really like hearing funny stories about relationships. Cyrus was filled with moments that registered as funny because they were so close to real life, and didn't overplay its hand when it came to the battle between a woman's boyfriend and her son. Last year's (500) Days of Summer had the "rom-com" spot on my list, and this year it goes to Cyrus.

7. Somewhere. Sofia Coppola has the ability to slip you into this moody state of mind, and it's a pleasure to spend an hour and a half following a movie star with a mildly tragic case of ennui. His daughter (Elle Fanning) is charming, and even an "is-this-it?" ending didn't scratch this one off my top ten list.

8. Restrepo. This was a tough one, as Alex Gibney's Casino Jack and the United States of Money was also one of my favorites. But keeping to my theme, originality and reality won out. Like Winter's Bone, Restrepo presents a world that I never knew existed. The stakes of war feel so different here than on the evening news or in a war drama. I sensed that the filmmakers, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, really cared for the soldiers I sensed that the movie's creators, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, really cared for the soldiers they filmed in Afghanistan, but they aren't afraid to show moments that raise questions about their actions. The film offers a nuanced look at the impact of these Americans who are both making things worse and making things better. One thing's clear: it's time to bring our troops home.

9. Mother and Child. Weeks after leaving this movie, what I most wanted was to see more of Kerry Washington (she's currently in Night Catches Us), who plays a super-eager type-A wife who desperately wants to adopt a child. But she's just one part of the whole picture, with the cruelly cold Naomi Watts and sad Annette Bening offering three perspectives on mother-child relationships. A kind of modern melodrama, director Rodrigo Garca's sadly overlooked tale left a deep impression.

10. Blue Valentine. This Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams tale of an imploding romance made it to the list because of its intense realism. Screenwriters Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis and Kami Delavigne have this incredible ear for toxic conversations, and it's awe-inducing to hear this couple break each other down without even raising their voices (though there are plenty of screaming matches), through seemingly innocent requests and comments. The sad story has a scientific level of precision, able to capture in detail the seismic activity that precedes a volcanic eruption. For that, it's one of my favorite films this year, and one that I hope will be rewarded at the Oscars.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Kid 'Jeopardy' contestant lands lead role in 'Extremely Loud'

By Sarah Sluis

In a most creative casting decision, a thirteen-year-old winner of "Jeopardy" will star in Paramount and Warner Bros.' Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Thomas Horn will play a precocious, intelligent boy whose father died on 9/11. After finding a mysterious lock, he searches through New York City for the Thomas horn jeopardy key, making some memorable encounters along the way. Though the boy is twelve, he can pass for younger, and the role seems quite challenging for such a young actor.

As written in Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, the boy has a college-level vocabulary and the inquiring mind and silly questions of a child. He also is so scientific, so unemotional, he seems like he might have some kind of borderline autism like Asperger's Syndrome. The dialogue is really hard to pull off (check out an excerpt here), and the boy in general (in my opinion) comes off as less than charming, though I'm not part of the majority of people who actually finished the book.

Now that the boy's been cast alongside Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, it's time to jump the gun: will this movie be groomed for an Oscar pedigree? Given that producer and Oscar winner Scott Rudin will be overseeing, three-time Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry will direct, and the script was penned by Oscar-winning writer Eric Roth, it seems like Extremely Loud wouldn't shoot for anything less. In the project's favor, Daldry directed (but did not write) Billy Elliot, which had a fantastic child actor matched with great dialogue and direction.

Could 9/11 be the new Holocaust, that historical tragedy that has yielded such Oscar winners/nominees as The Reader, Schindler's List, Sophie's Choice, Life is Beautiful, The Pianist, and Defiance? (That's just the shortlist). So far the subject has been rather unexplored, with just fact-based United 93 hitting theatres. They're going to have to start filming soon before this boy hits puberty, so it's only a matter of time before this movie hits theatres and tests audiences' willingness to see a film about our national tragedy.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Golden Globe nominations: A whole lot of 'Whaaat?'

By Sarah Sluis

So maybe this hasn't been the strongest year for movies. But does that really justify the Hollywood Foreign Press nominating the flop The Tourist in three categories? When I outlined the film's dismal box-office prospects the Friday it opened, I wondered if Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp would be enough The tourist angelina jolie to save the film. Well, it earned just $17 million opening weekend, but the star wattage of Jolie and Depp was enough to blind the Foreign Press Association to its negative reception stateside. I imagine the dialogue going something like this--"We need Depp and Jolie on the red carpet--we can't disappoint the people running E!'s Red Carpet show!" How big of a joke were The Tourist's nominations? They "drew audible laughter from the crowd of press and publicists assembled at the Beverly Hilton for the pre-dawn announcement," according to THR.

The other big "What" came from the HFPA's total shut-out of The Coen Brothers' True Grit. I don't see the movie until tomorrow, but it's currently tracking at 93% positive on Rotten Tomatoes. The Tourist? 20%.

Another big shut-out, but one that will receive less attention, was Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, which received zero nominations. Perhaps they didn't like the movie's jabs at press conferences and foreign awards shows? Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning both turned in solid performances, but at the very least a writing or directing nomination was deserved. Never Let Me Go didn't receive any nominations (though it was better than many nominated films), but that's less of a surprise as its early, October release Blue valentine love shows that Fox Searchlight wasn't putting too much faith in it for awards season.

The Hollywood Foreign Press did make a couple of good decisions. It nominated Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine, one of the best movies I've seen all year. Jennifer Lawrence also got a nod for Winter's Bone, an Ozarks drama that's quietly powerful. But really, a lot of these nominations are a joke. The silver lining? The star power will make for an entertaining broadcast, and smart people betting on winners in awards pools may just get lucky.

Monday, December 13, 2010

'The Fighter' has a knockout performance in a big week for little films

By Sarah Sluis

The holiday season usually brings a mix of delightful popcorn fare and heavy-hitting awards films. This week, at least, was a good week for tiny releases and a thoroughly mediocre one for wide releases.

Paramount's The Fighter debuted to $80,000 per screen in four theatres, the highest per-screen Fighter mark wahlberg average of the week. With a starry cast list that includes Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo, this movie could do extremely well as it moves into wide release next week--the blue-collar subject could expand the audience beyond the rarefied world of Oscar films, and Adams should appeal to female audiences less excited about the boxing subject.

Black Swan has also proved itself to be a film with significant commercial potential. With only 90 theatres showing the ballet drama, the movie managed a sixth-place finish thanks to its $37,000 per-screen average. The Natalie Portman starrer has been called a horror film and drawn comparisons to Showgirls, and its arty melodrama has been a winning formula so far.

The King's Speech, which released a week before Black Swan, has been expanding more deliberately. Its per-screen average of $31,000 was close to Swan's, but only 19 theatres (up from 6) screened the historical, lightly comedic tale of King George's attempt to cure his stutter.

The Tempest had a stormy debut, earning $9,000 per screen on five screens. With Disney selling Miramax, this film appears to have been just as disconnected from marketing and publicity efforts as Prospera's island.

Both the wide releases this week underperformed. The bombastic Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of Dawn treader boat the Dawn Treader came in below expectations, with $24.5 million when a $30 million+ figure was expected. The family action film's broad strokes make it more comprehensible to foreign audiences, however, and the film earned three times more abroad than it did at home.

Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp's beautiful, empty romantic thriller The Tourist racked up $17 million its opening weekend, a number that Dancing angelina jolie depp was also on the low side. International prospects for this film, set in Venice, are also considered to be rosier than its domestic outlook.

This Friday, Disney revives a cult sci-fi film with Tron: Legacy, CG/live-action mix Yogi Bear will entice family audiences, and James L. Brooks' rom-com How Do You Know will make its debut. Oscar-seeking Rabbit Hole will join the list of specialty releases, and The Fighter plans to fast expand its rollout, moving into a 2,000+ theatre release.

Friday, December 10, 2010

'The Tourist' sets out against 'Dawn Treader'

By Sarah Sluis

Just two weeks after Disney's Tangled hit theatres, another family-friendly film joins the slate of end-of-the-year films. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will open in 3,555 theatres. 56% of them (1,989 theatres) will screen the picture in 3D, a fairly low percentage that Narnia_dawn treader reflects the crowded 3D marketplace right now (Tangled and Megamind are still commanding a sizeable percentage of 3D screens). Given the price of 3D tickets, however, it's expected that many families will be happy saving money and catching the 2D version. The third film in the Narnia series is the first to be produced by Fox. Disney abandoned the series after the second film underperformed, but not flopped, at the box office. But don't get your hopes up. "The magic is over, folks," critic Ethan Alter proclaims. The unimaginative sequel "feels like the last gasp of a franchise rather than a creative rebirth" and the movie's reduced budget gives the generic feeling of a "Renaissance fair" rather than Narnia.

Can a movie succeed solely based on the charged pairing of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp? Signs point to no. Just 16% of Rotten Tomato critics gave The Tourist (2,756 theatres) their stamp of approval. "Angelina Jolie glides serenely through her scenes, confident in her ability to ignore obstacles like Angelina jolie johnny depp lipstick dialogue and plotting," critic Daniel Eagan snipes. The talented director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others) devotes his attention in the film to such "material details" as clothing and makeup, as he revealed in a New York Times article. "We spent a few days just doing camera tests on different types of lipstick and white silk to be sure we could find the right combination and see how it would translate onto film," he said. "Even filmgoers expecting a bit more plot and action can't help but be seduced by so polished an entertainment," Eagan concedes.

Boston accents and dated, teased hairstyles are just comedic accessories in The Fighter (4 theatres), which stars Mark Wahlberg as an up-and-coming boxers and Christian Bale as his older brother and trainer, a former boxer and crack addict. Both Amy Adams (Wahlberg's girlfriend) and Melissa Leo (the Fighter teh sisters mother) turn in dynamo performances, but "it's not a total knockout," according to Alter. Still, it's a "loud, rowdy and often very funny movie," and one that has critics talking about Oscar nominations.

Director Julie Taymor has been in the news in recent weeks mostly for the accidents and other travails of her Spider-Man Broadway musical, but she has a film coming out too--her adaptation of the Shakespeare play The Tempest (5 theatres). Critic David Noh called it a "singular disappointment," and given her colorful work on other projects, "surprisingly uninteresting visually." This movie is a bit of an orphan, a Miramax project now being released by "Disney-Touchstone-Miramax," and I doubt it will receive a concerted marketing effort or awards campaign.

On Monday, we'll see if Chronicles of the Dawn Treader earned its expected $30 million, and if The Tourist was able to open above $20 million. Last week's per-screen average winner, Black Swan, expands to 80 theatres, and many eyes will be watching the opening weekend of The Fighter.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

'Blue Valentine' successfully fights NC-17 rating

By Sarah Sluis

A month ago, I lamented that Blue Valentine received an NC-17 rating. The portrait of a dying relationship has the emotional impact of a freight train. The sex scenes that supposedly warranted the NC-17 rating are not unusually explicit, just unusually real. It seems artifice and exaggeration provide Blue valentine ukulele enough emotional distance to ensure an R rating, while something so shockingly real is so powerful, it feels more naked than the actors themselves.

After hiring some dynamo lawyers, The Weinstein Co. successfully reversed the ratings of Blue Valentine (now an R) and The King's Speech (now a PG-13 despite a profusion of F-words). The King's Speech is actually already in release, and doing quite well, but the lower rating could help as the movie expands its release beyond the arty crowds presumably turning out for the film now.

All the hullaballoo and press (overwhelmingly in defense of the film) over the rating of Blue Valentine seems like a good way to get attention, but a press release sent out by the Weinstein Co. tries to pretend the opposite. Blue Valentine producer Jamie Patricof said, "While this has been a frustrating distraction from the film, the outpouring of support from the industry, journalists and film fans has been truly moving. We are ecstatic, that the MPAA was able to see the honesty that Derek [Cianfrance] was able to achieve in this film and overturned the original rating, so the film can now be seen all across the world." (my emphasis)

Blue Valentine and The King's Speech already hold spots in my top ten for 2010. After all the layoffs and talk of bankruptcy, The Weinstein Co. has made an impressive rally with two stunningly good films. Harvey Weinstein is known for being a master at receiving Oscar nominations, even without a truly stellar film, but this year I can really get behind these movies. I only hope that Blue Valentine will receive as much of a push as the more awards-friendly King's Speech.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

'Tron: Legacy,' 'Inception' frontrunners for 'Best Original Score' Oscar

By Sarah Sluis

Last night I saw Tron: Legacy, which I can't really talk about yet, because it's embargoed. What I can talk about, however, is the score, which released yesterday and is my top pick to receive an Oscar nomination for "Best Score."

Tron: Legacy may be a big-budget Disney picture, but they chose the hip electronic duo of Daft Punk to record the score for the sci-fi film. The electronica DJs, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, are best known for their catchy songs like "One More Time," "Around the World" and "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." In their score for Tron, they mix their electronic sensibility with a 90-piece orchestra, blending the typical (even generic) swelling string moments with electronic music. The score has pump in it, with enough emotional punch to set the tone for each scene. I was impressed by the studio's choice to pick near-outsiders to do the music, and even more impressed that the score clearly sounds like Daft Punk. The duo even has a cameo in the movie during a party scene.

One of their tracks, "Recognizer", exemplifies the digital/traditional mix. Within the first fifteen seconds of the song, the melody moves from all string to all electronic, so seamlessly it almost requires a second listen to appreciate what's going on (within the movie, transitions like this go unnoticed, they're so smooth). As other commentators have pointed out, the brass horns in this specific track sound an awful lot like Inception's, but that's a bit of a chicken and egg question (Tron's score has been in the works for over two years, even if it was released after Inception 's.

Hans Zimmer's score for Inception, of course, is the competition. The Jaws-like catchiness of its brass horn moments have sealed its nomination and could ensure his win. Zimmer himself has been nominated eight times and won once, and probably has more connections within the Academy. However, the music lovers that will be voting on score should appreciate Daft Punk's sophisticated sound and unique scoring of the film. The duo has scored before, for a small French film, so they're not entirely newbies. Whatever the result, I salute Daft Punk and Hans Zimmer for making action films that much more moody and exciting this year.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Buzz on Eventful leads to distribution deal for 'Mooz-lum'

By Sarah Sluis

Eventful may be best known as the conduit for Paranormal Activity's "Demand It" campaign, which led to the movie's viral-like success. Now the site, which also allows users to set up "Demand It" campaigns themselves, has rewarded one of its most successful campaigns. The movie Mooz-lum will be shown in Mooz-lum the movie twenty AMC theatres in February. The areas with the most users requesting the movie will be rewarded with a screening in their city.

Mooz-lum seems like the perfect movie to have targeted distribution. The coming-of-age drama follows a black Muslim college student struggling with his identity. It's a typical second-generation immigrant struggle, with a man stuck with one foot in his family's culture and another in the mainstreaming force of American culture. 9/11, and the heightened tensions toward Muslims that occurred during that time period, also comes into play. The writer/director Qasim Basir, a black Muslim himself, likely drew from his own life when making the movie--for example, both he and his male character go by their first initial instead of their full Muslim name.

After watching the trailer, it's clear that this movie is not a festival-type, arty film--it has more of a commercial feel to it, with some moments approaching broad melodrama. But it's clear that this story interests a group of people that will feel compelled enough to see this story on the big screen. If Eventful and AMC Entertainment team together for more films, it will be interesting to see how this type of model evolves, and what kind of films end up succeeding in this space. When people "Demand" a film, they feel more psychologically invested in the movie and more apt to see it when it actually does visit their town. It's the total opposite of how most movie marketing works--blanketing viewers with ads trying to convince us this is a movie we'd like to see. "Independent" film is often equated with arty films that appeal to cinephiles, but this movie has a commercial style but a niche subject. Perhaps these are the kind of independent films that would succeed in this independent-to-exhibition model. With so many films in the marketplace that go unseen or straight to DVD, this type of model could bring niche movies exactly to the audiences motivated to see them.

Monday, December 6, 2010

'Tangled' climbs to the top

By Sarah Sluis

As predicted, Disney's Tangled rose from second place to first in its second week. The Rapunzel retelling dipped 55% to $21.5 million, a strong hold given that last weekend had higher-than-average Tangled sweeping traffic because of post-Thanksgiving crowds. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I took a steeper dive, falling 65% to $16.7 million. Many Harry Potter fans presumably saw the film shortly after its release, while Tangled should play well to families throughout the holiday season.

The Warrior's Way, a hybrid of the Asian action and Western genres, with some supernatural enemies as a bonus, eked out $3 million its opening weekend, below an estimated $5 million opening. The genre amalgamation follows this summer's sci-fi/comic book/Western flop Jonah Hex, and the Warriors way aerial fighting (critical, sort of commercial) failure a decade before of another Western hybrid, Wild Wild West. Let it be known: The Western does not take kindly to genre mixing.

Just outside of the top ten, 127 Hours dipped 6% to $1.6 million as it increased the number of theatres showing the film by a third. Love and Other Drugs ($5.7 million) and Burlesque ($6.1 million), which both opened over the Thanksgiving holiday, fell in the 40% range. Thanks to the added holiday receipts, each of these films has each crossed the $20 million mark.

As prestige, awards-seeking movies make their end-of-the-year debuts, per-screen averages of specialty films have skyrocketed. Multiple films posted averages in the tens of thousands. Leading the Black swan natalie portman vincent cassel pack with the highest average of the week, Black Swan opened in 18 locations to a stunning $77,000 per-screen average. Another Oscar frontrunner, The King's Speech, in its second week, made a comfortable slide into a $55,000 per-screen average as it went from four to six theatres. All Good Things, the true-crime drama, tallied up $20,000 per screen at two locations, just ahead of I Love You, Phillip Morris, which averaged $18,000 per screen at six locations.

This Friday, Tangled will have some competition from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a former Disney franchise that has been passed to Fox. The Angelina Jolie-Johnny Depp smoldering thriller The Tourist will offer adults some fresh intrigue set in an exotic location, and another Oscar contender, The Fighter, will hit select theatres.

Friday, December 3, 2010

'Warrior's Way,' 'Black Swan' open in field of strong returnees

By Sarah Sluis

During the week after Thanksgiving, the box office usually takes a dip. This week sees just one new wide release and a tempting heap of leftovers.

Warriors way 1 The kung-fu western Warrior's Way (1,622 theatres) has all the makings of a flop: a $42 million production budget against a projected $5 million gross, and no advance reviews--a bad sign. The film centers on an Asian warrior who uproots himself and moves to the American badlands. The Korean star Jang Dong Dun toplines alongside Kate Bosworth and Geoffrey Rush, but this East-West hybrid shows little sign of catching on.

The returning films Tangled and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I shouldgrab the two top spots for a second week. Harry Potter has been slightly ahead of Tangled during this week's box office race, but Tangled's family-friendly appeal may put it in first place, especially since many Potter fans insisted on seeing the film opening weekend.

Director Darren Aronofsky's follow-up to The Wrestler, Black Swan (18 theatres), features Natalie Black swan natalie portman Portman as a dancer undergoing a similar brutalization of the body as she's pushed to her psychological limit during a production of Swan Lake. Critic David Noh called the drama "more horror than ballet film." For a self-proclaimed lover of dance films, the "cheap" choreography and star Natalie Portman's hard-to-watch transformation results in "an over-the-top mess whose mounting absurdity and violence become a thorough audience punishment." This very brutalization has Oscar prognosticators betting that Portman will receive a nomination for the tough role.

The much-delayed I Love You, Phillip Morris (6 theatres) finally opens in theatres. Jim Carrey stars as a gay con man in love, "his bravest performance yet," according to Noh. All Good Things (2 theatres) based on the true story of a real estate tycoon who probably murdered his wife, stars Ryan Night catches us Gosling and Kirsten Dunst and received critic Doris Toumarkine's approval: she called it a "terrific fact-based drama." Rounding out the bunch of specialty releases, the period drama Night Catches Us (4 theatres) stars Anthony Mackie as a former Black Panther suspected of talking to the cops. When he returns to Philadelphia, he sparks a romance with an old friend (Kerry Washington).

On Monday, we'll circle back to see if audiences found room for more films in the post-Thanksgiving pile of leftovers and tantalizing new indies.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

James Franco may join Ben Stiller and Noah Baumbach for 'While We're Young'

By Sarah Sluis

So Greenberg wasn't a home run hit, but its unconventional point-of-view puts it ahead of many of the films released this year, and leaves viewers like me wanting more of writer/director Noah Baumbach's James Franco distinctive sensibility. For Baumbach's next project, he plans to reteam with Ben Stiller and possibly Stiller's Greenberg co-star Greta Gerwig for While We're Young, which has a second male lead: James Franco, one of the more interesting stars out there.

Franco is a bit of a Hollywood enigma, but the success of his most recent film, 127 Hours, may force him to clarify who he is: An actor? A soap opera star ("General Hospital")? A university student (Columbia, Yale)? A documentarian (Saturday Night)? A poet and performance artist (review here)? An Oscar host--or perhaps a Best Actor nominee for 127 Hours? In his role in While We're Young, Franco would play one-half of a free-spirited couple (with Gerwig perhaps being his mate) that forces a documentary filmmaker (Stiller) and his wife (Cate Blanchett) to open up and live a little. Apparently the Blanchett part was in the works as a role for Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, but maybe it wasn't juicy enough--she just filed for divorce from him.

Along with the recent addition of four Independent Spirit nominations, Greenberg eked up a respectable but not breakout figure of $4.2 million this year (more than Margot at the Wedding but less than The Squid and the Whale). The prolific producer Scott Rudin will return to produce Baumbach's next project, presumably keeping costs low and expectations high.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Are ticket pre-sales turning 'opening weekend' into 'opening day?'

By Sarah Sluis

It used to be that opening weekend would predict a movie's success. But increasingly, fan-driven movies are defined by their opening day--from Harry Potter to Twilight, many films now see ticket sales drop significantly the second day of their release. Last weekend's release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Justin-bieber Hallows: Part I sold $61 million worth of tickets on Friday, then dropped 38% to $38 million by Saturday. In the most extreme example, this summer's The Twilight Saga: Eclipse fell a staggering 68% in its second day, from $68 million on Wednesday to $24 million on Thursday. (A caveat: the first two Twilight films released on Fridays in November, and dropped in the 40% range on their second day. Eclipse's fall was accelerated because it released on a Wednesday during summer break, when kids presumably were free to attend both midnight and weekday screenings.)

The latest movie to follow such a trend is Justin Bieber's concert film, Never Say Never, (trailer) which sold 26,000 out of 100,000 available tickets for a February 9th sneak preview in twelve hours. The ticket promotion (which included tchotchkes like a glow-in-the-dark lightstick and special 3D glasses) dovetails nicely into the marketing money being poured into the release of Bieber's new album, which partially explains why tickets are being sold four months ahead of time. Though 26,000 tickets actually isn't a lot (at the more average price of $12 a ticket, it's just $312,000), these tickets are being sold for the astronomical price of $30, which means a sellout of the preview alone could yield $3 million.

This kind of promotion--with its "one day" emphasis and the inclusion of special gifts--doesn't feel like a typical film release. It falls a little more toward the side of alternative programming, which makes films "events." While movie theatres have tried (successfully, I believe) to capture viewers with technological bells and whistles like 3D and IMAX, event-based promotions use a more old-fashioned method, creating a "must-see" event the way live performance theatres and concerts do--by making them seem like time-sensitive, unique experiences, not something that will feel exactly the same if you catch it on a Tuesday night, because that's what's playing at 7pm. As promotions like these catch on, they have the potential to transform what it means to go to the movies.