Thursday, March 31, 2011

James Cameron makes his case for higher frame rates

By Kevin Lally

Avatar director James Cameron was one of the biggest and most accessible stars of the CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas, appearing yesterday on a panel with George Lucas and Jeffrey Katzenberg and James_cameron_and_sam_worthington this morning providing a groundbreaking demo of the advantages of shooting a movie with a higher frame rate than the 24 frames per second that has been standard since the silent era.

To make his point, Cameron shot test sequences with his Titanic cinematographer Russell Carpenter on an elaborately dressed medieval set with actors in period costumes laughing it up at a banquet and engaged in a fierce swordfight. Each 3D sequence was shot at 24, 48 and 60 frames per second, and Cameron used a laser pointer to illustrate how panning the camera invariably produces strobing of people and objects at the traditional 24-frame speed. Both the 48 and 60-frame clips were markedly superior, eliminating strobing and bringing greater clarity to objects captured by the moving camera.

Cameron said he's "agnostic" about whether 48 or 60 fps should be adopted, but he reiterated his plans to shoot Avatar 2 at a higher frame rate.Lensing on that much-anticipated project, which he is still writing, is at least 18 months away, he revealed.

The tech-savvy director assured the crowd that the new generation of digital projectors is already capable of accommodating higher frame-rate content with a minor software upgrade, ane he also argued that increases in production rendering budgets could be kept to a reasonable level with "smart coding."

Most ominously, Cameron warned the cinema community that live 3D TV sports programming is already produced at 60 fps, so increasing the frame rate for theatrical features would ensure that movies are keeping up with the state of the art that high-end consumers can already get at home.

Cameron noted that director Peter Jackson has already performed 48 fps tests for his upcoming Hobbit film, and that George Lucas is also "gung ho" on the upgrade.

The demo was held at the Caesars Palace Colosseum theatre, using double stacked Christie DLP Cinema projectors, Doremi servers and RealD 3D. Cameron also generously offered to make his test footage available to any tech company or industry group interested in researching and/or developing higher-frame-rate technology.

We'll know in a few years whether or not this eye-opening day at CinemaCon was truly historic.

Lionsgate greenlights a trio of low-budget films

By Sarah Sluis

Most better-known low-budget films have traveled a common path: independent financing followed by a festival debut, where the movie is picked up by a specialty distributor like Fox Searchlight, Focus or the Weinstein Co. Now Lionsgate is actively pursuing the low-budget market, but not by increasing the number of films it acquires at festivals. Instead, Lionsgate is commissioning its own low-budget films in the comedy and horror genres, which it describes as "historically driven more by concept and execution than budget."

True, the three films kicking off the initiative will have budgets under $2 million, but they will enjoy the infrastructure and support of the studio system. What sets these films apart? Instead of aiming for the lowest common denominator (another dumb teen comedy), they have embraced edgy subjects that give them niche, not universal, appeal. I'm intrigued. Here's an outline of the first three films.

Rapturepalooza has been described as The Big Lebowski meets Zombieland, a quirky horror-comedy that takes place in the aftermath of a religious apocalypse. The cast and crew won't be unknowns; Craig CraigRobinson rapturepalooza Robinson (Pineapple Express, "The Office") stars, a commercial director will make his feature debut, and one of the producers worked on The Other Guys.

Gay Dude is one of those high school lose-our-virginity-before-graduation movies, but with a twist: One of the two guys making the pact confesses he's gay, complicating their goal, testing their friendship and exposing the context of humorous situations, naturally. The script by Alan Yang ("Parks and Recreation") made the Black List of best unproduced screenplays.

6 Miranda Drive is a horror film, plain and simple. Writer/director, Greg McLean helmed the successful Australian horror film Wolf Creek, loosely inspired by a local serial killer who preyed on backpackers. Miranda centers on a family who brings back an object from vacation that preys on their fears.

Of these three projects, Gay Dude feels the most risky, followed by the comedy-out-of-rapture Rapturepalooza. 6 Miranda Drive sounds conventional, but that doesn't mean it won't be good or groundbreaking like Saw and Paranormal Activity. Lionsgate has pledged to cast more minorities, continuing the studio's trend of serving urban markets (Lionsgate distributes the Tyler Perry movies, for example, and partnered with Pantelion films to serve the Hispanic market.)

I still have many questions about Lionsgate's plans? Will the studio give these movies wide releases, or targeted ones? Will it platform release some of them? If one of the films flops, will studio cut its losses and send it straight to DVD? I applaud Lionsgate for not only going low budget, but being independent-minded in their subject matter. Let's bring indie movies to the masses.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cameron, Lucas and Katzenberg champion digital at CinemaCon

By Kevin Lally

The power trio of James Cameron, George Lucas and Jeffrey Katzenberg were a major draw at the Wednesday luncheon at CinemaCon in Las Vegas, and no wonder, considering how many billions of box-office dollars they've generated for the theatre owners at this annual gathering. The purpose of their visit was to talk about the future of digital filmmaking, and the session--moderated by RealD chairman Michael Lewis--was a stimulating look at their priorities and processes.

Lucas compared the arrival of digital tools to the invention of oil paint that freed artists from the confines of indoor frescoes. Cameron noted that thanks to digital technology, "if we can imagine it, we can create it." DreamWorks Animation chief Katzenberg declared that digital "transformed the art of animation and reinvented what it means."

Lucas made a distinction between digital and 3D as groundbreakers. For him, the arrival of digital was as game-changing as the introduction of sound. 3D , he feels, is akin to color--an innovation that just makes a movie better. He praised Cameron's Avatar as a real eye-opener that showed him how Avatar-movie-review_full_600 persuasive and realistic a 3D environment can be.

Cameron and Lucas are both working on 3D conversions of Titanic and Star Wars, respectively, and each took pains to point out that their conversion projects are not taking any short cuts. Lucas has been working on the conversion of Star Wars for some seven years, and revealed that it's been a painstaking creative process. There's "no magic wand, no killer app" for 2D to 3D conversion, he contended, just a lot of highly intricate, shot-by-shot effort. Quickie conversions, Katzenberg argued, "devalue an amazing opportunity for all of us."

Cameron made news by announcing that the next two Avatar filmswill be shot at higher frame rates than the traditional 24 frames persecond,instead produced at 48 to 60 frames per second.As he explained, "3D shows you a window into reality. The higherframerate takes the glass out of the window." The director will demonstrate the visual potency of higher frame rates at a Thursday morning session at CinemaCon.

Cameron kept referring to 35mm film as a relic of the past, noting that the era is over when he fretted over prints of Titanic falling apart because they played in theatres for so many weeks. He also assured exhibitors who've embraced digital that their biggest investment is behind them and that future improvements will be much less costly by comparison.

All three film bigwigs were applauded for declaring that they make their movies for the big screen. "What you bring to the table is a great venue," Lucas told the audience of cinema executives, noting that while Hollywood's output also ends up on TV screens and iPhones, the social environment of the cinema is something that "will never go away."

The Wednesday program at CinemaCon also featured the annual Pioneer of the Year dinner benefitting the Will Rogers Pioneers, which assists film industry veterans who've fallen on hard times. Tim Allen was the R-rated host of the proceedings honoring former Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook. The evening was most notable for the consecutive appearances of onetime Disney colleagues turned bitter foes Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, plus former Disney chairman Joe Roth. In accepting his award, the universally admired Cook joked that after seeing these three on the same stage, he checked the Weather Channel on his smart-phone to see if hell had frozen over.

'Twilight' writer forms production company, sets up 'Earthseed'

By Sarah Sluis

How apropos. Just yesterday I was talking about the shift away from female-centered romantic comedies to female-centered action projects. Now Twilight scribe Melissa Rosenberg has announced she has formed a production company based on this central premise. Tall Girl Productions aims to create "great, strong roles for women, but in four-quadrant, high-concept movies," THR quotes Rosenberg. "Not movies for women in the traditional sense but more interesting, intriguing, complex roles�and kickass women, as well."

Melissa_Rosenberg The announcement arrives in the wake of backlash to writer/director Zack Snyder's female-centered, male-oriented Sucker Punch. Variety even commented on the debate, explaining that the "lingerie-clad heroines in a fantasy setting" have led some to raise eyebrows, wondering "whether this amounts to schoolgirl fetishism masquerading as entertainment." Sucker Punch isn't the first time a female-led action movie has appealed primarily to men, but costumed heroines in particular have a pretty poor track record--need I mention Cat Woman, Elektra, and Tomb Raider?

Rosenberg's first project, Earthseed, will be an adaptation of a 1983 young adult novel. The sci-fi tale, which is set up at Paramount, centers on a group of kids who have been conceived artificially in an effort to eventually colonize a new planet. The teens are left to fend for themselves in order to "test" the method. Everything starts to go the way of Lord of the Flies, forcing the heroine to step in and lead the group. Rosenberg will write and produce. The author of the Earthseed has written two sequels, so the project has franchise potential.

Certainly the sci-fi genre/space film is overdue for a quality film. 2009's Moon achieved a rare feat, a low-budget sci-fi movie, and this year's Sundance pickup Another Year blends relationship drama with sci-fi. The biggest budget attempt, Gravity, which may come out in 2012, centers on the aftermath of a space accident and will be directed by none other than Alfonso Cuarn. The space film has been under-served recently, and these projects should fill that gap--with some exciting female roles included.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

DreamWorks and Disney dazzle at CinemaCon

By Kevin Lally

Box office may be down for the first three months of 2011, but the first two days of the CinemaCon convention in Las Vegasmade a strong case that better, more lucrative times are just ahead for the movie business.

On Monday, Paramount showcased footage from five potential blockbusters (not even counting the third Transformers), and on Tuesday it was DreamWorks and Disney's turn to promote their upcoming releases. DreamWorks, whose live-action films will be going out through Disney and Touchstone, may have two Oscar contenders this year: War Horse and The Help. Steven Spielberg prepared a video to promote War Horse, the World War I tale of a farm boy and his conscripted horse, based on the popular novel by Michael Morpurgowhich also inspiredthe current London stage hit. The material is surefire family drama, and the footage glimpsed has all the rich production value one expects from Spielberg. Epic scope, period trappings and a tearjerking story of the bond between boy and animal certainly sound like a recipe for end-of-year honors.

The Help also looks like awards bait, with its uplifting narrative delving into the lives of black domestics The Help (2) in Mississippi in the early 60s. Second-time director Tate Taylor just happens to be best friends with Kathryn Stockett, the author of the novel that has become a long-running bestseller. He was there in Vegas with producer Chris Columbus and the four delightful lead actresses, Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard and the lesser-known Octavia Spencer, who all seemed genuinely proud of the movie and happy to be reunited in Vegas.

A predictably mischievous Colin Farrell appeared with director Craig Gillespie to promote their 3D remake of the 80s vampire-next-door chiller Fright Night, and the action set-piece they screened immediately raised expectations for this summer scarefest: Farrell is effectively creepy, and the havoc he wreaks on Anton Yelchin and Toni Collette is truly terrifying.

Night of the Museum director Shawn Levy teamed with his star, Hugh Jackman, to tout Real Steel, his futuristic tale of an underdog robot boxing contender which Levy called a combination of Rocky, Hoosiers and The Champ--not to mention the "emerging edge of visual effects" used in his latest effort. Levy promised a movie for audiences "from eight to eighty"--and no doubt some of those eight-year-olds will be clamoring for the robot action figures inevitably hitting stores later this year.

Later in the day, Disney previewed its non-DreamWorks product, including 26 minutes of scenes from Pixar's Cars 2, whoseinternational espionageplotline and urban Japanese backdrops are a 180-degree wheelie from the more pastoral pleasures of the original Cars.

Disney executive VP of distribution Dave Hollis also offered details on the next Pixar film, Brave, a Scottish adventure with the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters and Craig Ferguson, and revealed that the sequel to Monsters, Inc. will actually be a prequel entitled Monsters University, showing how pals Mike and Sully first met in college.

Jason Segal and Amy Adams flew into Vegas to promote the new Muppets movie in which they co-star, hoping to bring the beloved TV and moviezanies to a new generation. The trailer looked refreshingly low-tech and innocent in these frenzied days of digital wonders. And for those still mourning the end of "Flight of the Conchords," the film is directed by "Conchords" vet James Bobin and features songs by "Conchords" star Bret McKenzie. And oh yes, Segal promised no frontal nudity in The Muppets--except for Kermit the Frog's.

A promotional "sizzle reel" for The Avengers did its job well, whetting the Vegas audience's appetite for the 2012 spectacle uniting Marvel comic heroes Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Nick Fury, Black Widow and Hawkeye. And a beguiling sequence from this summer's 2D animated Winnie the Pooh convinced this writer that this kids' film will definitely offer plenty of charm for any adults in the audience.

Disney's big preview concluded with three sequences in 3D from the eagerly awaited Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, whose previous three outings have earned a staggering $2.6 billion. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and new franchise director Rob Marshall introduced the clips, which were robust and entertaining enough to make a persuasive case that the series has gotten back to the basics that made the first film such an unexpected surprise.

Jennifer Garner to play a youthful 'Miss Marple'

By Sarah Sluis

Agatha Christie's most famous detective character, Miss Jane Marple, has come out of retirement. And in her next film, she'll be forty years younger. Jennifer Garner has signed on to play the amateur sleuth in a project being developed by Disney.

Miss-marple-jennifer-garner So far, reception hasn't been entirely positive. The comments by Deadline readers, for example, have been overwhelmingly negative, zeroing in on the fact that Miss Marple is supposed to be an old spinster, with pretty age-specific character traits. She was modeled, after all, on Christie's grandmother. Some commenters feel the younger audiences won't be familiar with Christie's books or her character, so attempting to appeal to their demographic will be a futile exercise. These are both valid critiques. I see a diamond in the rough, however. Christie's detective stories are compelling whodunits that hinge on seemingly insignificant details. They have a familiar tone and temperature. Perhaps that's what the acquisition is after.

While the idea of making Miss Marple younger is questionable, I'm 100% behind Jennifer Garner. She's incredibly likeable as a movie star and leading lady who made her name in "Alias" as a powerful spy (the show was produced by a then up-and-coming J.J. Abrams). She's at home in the mystery/suspense genre.

Garner, however, has company. Katherine Heigl will star as Stephanie Plum in Lionsgate's One for the Money, the first in a series of popular (and contemporary) detective novels by Janet Evanovich. Lionsgate recently moved the film from a prime release spot over Fourth of July weekend to an ominous "2011 TBD" release date, often a sign that the studio has lost confidence in the project. The revival of the Miss Marple series, then, fits into a larger development trend of studios recasting female stars away from "light" roles in romantic comedies in favor of "light" action comedies--like Heigl following up 27 Dresses with Killers and now One for the Money.

Aging down Miss Marple is a bit of a stretch, but Disney knows brands. I don't need to see Garner as Miss Marple, but I would like to see her in a detective role. Maybe that's all that matters.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Paramount promotes strong summer lineup at CinemaCon

By Kevin Lally

The National Association of Theatre Owners' new CinemaCon convention debuted on Monday atCaesars Palace in Las Vegas, a step up from the old ShoWest home base of the Bally's and Paris Hotels. Caesars is a more spacious and spread-out location, offering the decided advantage of a larger theatre that can accommodate the show's estimated 6,000 attendees rather than dividing them between the two smaller performance spaces at Bally's and Paris. Delegates were still getting a feel for the expanded headquarters on the first day, but they seemed comforted by the roominess of the immense Octavius Ballroom that was the site of the opening night party hosted by Christie, Deluxe and Imax Corp.

The international market was the focus of opening-day programming, reviving an old ShoWest tradition. And no wonder: As Warner Bros. International Cinemas president Millard Ochs pointed out, foreign box office is now double that of the domestic market. He also predicted that China alone will surpass North American box office within ten years, noting that three new theatre complexes are opening every week in China.

Paramount Pictures International president Andrew Crippscited the rise of China from the lower depths of movie territories to the top ten, and India's ascension from number six overseas territory to number three in the past decade. A seminar later in the day pinpointed four "looming box office giants": Brazil, Russia, India and China. Hollywood product may still dominate the international box office, but North America is now just another territory when the final numbers are tallied.

Cripps also mentioned the increasingly frequent casting of non-American actors in American studio productions as a reflection of this reality, and cited the surprising fact that 10 of the top 20 international box-office titles of 2010 were directed by non-Americans.

Opening night was given over to Paramount Pictures and a generous preview of their slate for summer and beyond. J.J. Abrams showed two key scenes fromhis upcoming nostalgic thriller Super 8,a repeat of the exclusive New York presentation Sarah Sluis reported onfor Screener last week. We'll second her opinion that thislooks like a very potent coming-of-age tale blended with sci-fi horror, expertly directed by thegifted Abrams, who is fastbecoming the heir apparent to his producer on thisproject, Steven Spielberg.

Marvel Comics' Kevin Feige was on hand topresent sequences from his two summer movies, Captain America and Thor, and both looked exceptionally promising with truly top-notch production values. The big surprise was Thor, which I had dismissed as a potential camp-fest. But the script appears to find real humor and pathos in Thor's plight as a supernatural god suddenly forced to cope with mere mortals here on Earth. How curious, though, that Natalie Portman's first post-Oscar screen appearances would be in this comic-book movie and the frivolous Your Highness.

It's also curious that Paramount's summer lineup would include not one but two startling examples of male pulchitrude at its most buff extreme in the form ofCaptain America Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Could this be the new secret to a studio green light?

Anything but buff, Jack Black made a surprise appearance to promote DreamWorks's Kung Fu Panda 2, singing "My Heart Will Go On" in tribute to Caesars' Colosseum theatre, which normally is the home to Vegas' Celine Dion show. Black also insisted on showing off his kung fu moves, complete with back rolls, and emerged comically winded--for the next four minutes.

The action sequences in Kung Fu Panda are virtuosic, but the heartiest audience response to Jeffrey Katzenberg's DreamWorks Animation preview was to the Shrek spinoff Puss in Boots. The conceit of the diminutive feline as ahaughty swashbuckler got big laughs at CinemaCon, and the cat-lover demographic alone assures success for Antonio Banderas' 3D adventure.

'Wimpy Kid' makes a mighty showing at the box office

By Sarah Sluis

In a bit of an upset, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules hurdled into first place this weekend after strong showings on Saturday and Sunday. Male-skewing Sucker Punch started out earning $8 million on Rodrick rules diary wimpy kid Friday to Wimpy Kid's $7.3 million. The matinee family crowds on Saturday and Sunday, however, put Wimpy Kid firmly in first. On Saturday, the kid-oriented sequel earned $10.1 million to the visually packed action film's $6.7 million. Wimpy Kid ended up grossing $24.4 million to Sucker Punch's $19 million.

Adult-oriented fare did particularly well this weekend, essentially without new competition. Limitless dipped just 19.5% in its second week to $15.2 million. The Lincoln Lawyer fell 16.7% to $11 million. Lower down in the top ten, The Adjustment Bureau posted the third-lowest drop, slipping 26.5% to $4.2 million.

The big loser in the top ten was Mars Needs Moms, which plummeted 58% to $2.1 million due to Sucker punch 2 competition from Wimpy Kid.

The Palestinian drama Miral premiered with a $17,000 per-screen average, followed by the more modest $12,000 average of French comedy Potiche. Jumping from 5 to 23 theatres, Win Win soared 213% and posted a $20,000 per-screen average, a strong achievement. Jane Eyre, expanding into 90 theatres from 26, averaged $10,900 per screen.

This Friday will be busy. Four weeks in advance of Easter, the holiday's mascot bunny gets its own live-action/animated venue with Hop. Horror fans can rejoice with Insidious, Source Code will satisfy action fans, and an F-word free version of The King's Speech (rated PG-13) hits theatres.

Friday, March 25, 2011

'Sucker Punch' dukes it out with 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' sequel

By Sarah Sluis

Leading the pack this weekend is writer/director Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch (3,033 theatres), which could top $20 million. The "visually stylized" film centers on a girl (Emily Browning) thrown into a mental Sucker punch girls hospital and scheduled for a lobotomy. Accompanied by a bevy of beautiful young women, she enters alternate realities in order to plan her escape. The setup allows for a lot of action sequences, but critic Ethan Alter found them tiring. For such a credibility-straining plotline, the movie "commits the fatal error of taking itself much too seriously." In a critique that brings to mind Snyder's other films (Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians), Alter complains that instead of drama, Snyder "settles for lots of sound and fury masquerading as drama." The eye candy look of the female stars has attracted the greatest interest among males under 25, followed by older males. Last in tracking projections are women, who seem to have honed in on the fact that this isn't really a "girl power" picture.

For pre-teen boys from 7-12 years old, a safe bet will be Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (3,167 theatres), the sequel to last year's surprise success. Critic David Noh, however, was unimpressed. He Rodrick rules toast complains that the filmmakers try "too hard" to make the film "family entertainment," with moments that make sitcoms seem subtle. Director David Bowers, who did not direct the first film, gets too "fancy" by "littering the film with elaborate fantasy scenes." Still, this PG-rated outing could earn in the teen millions, especially since its release coincides with some school breaks. There's also not much else at the box office for families--only the critical flop Mars Needs Moms, which will likely exit the top ten this weekend.

Also entering the mix is Miral (4 theatres), a "plodding, earnest historical epic" about the Palestinian plight, as described by critic Jon Frosch. In an unusual casting decision, Indian actress Freida Pinto stars Miral freida pinto as a Palestinian woman. The lovely Catherine Deneuve plays a trophy wife who escapes her boring existence in the French comedy Potiche (7 theatres). Finally, a dysfunctional family gathers in Peep World (3 theatres). As the movie "degenerate[d] into flailing, repetitive obviousness and mean-spirited pointlessness," Noh pined for "Arrested Development," a superior comedic rendition of the messed-up family.

On Monday, we'll see if Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules outperforms expectations and beats Sucker Punch.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

'Super 8' may actually live up to the hype

By Sarah Sluis

Since its teaser trailer first hit in May of last year, Super 8 has been high on the anticipation list for movie bloggers like myself. Last night, Paramount hosted a preview of twenty-odd minutes of Super 8 footage at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City. Paramount CEO Brad Grey gave an enthusiastic introduction for J.J. Abrams, the writer/director, identifying him as an important member of the talent Super 8 poster stable the studio has assembled.

Set in 1979, Super 8 has a pleasant, nostalgic feel. Hallmarks of Steven Spielberg (who teamed with Abrams as a producer and collaborator) abound, but when I spoke to Abrams afterwards he said he wasn't trying to create a homage or imitation, but a "recreation" of how he felt as a kid and the movies that were important to him. In fact, Abrams was thirteen in 1979, right around the age of the group of kids in his film. What I liked most about the preview footage was how Abrams creates a world that feels very familiar, from a cinematic perspective, without being derivative. His characters feel real and sweet, and Elle Fanning (who I took a liking to in Somewhere) is a standout.

The footage fills in some of the gaps created by the trailer. (Spoiler alert). The first scene we saw, about twelve minutes into the movie, sets up the night of the film's momentous train crash. Fanning steals her Dad's car and agrees to star in the kids' amateur monster movie. First-time actor Joel Courtney is the son of the sheriff whose mother just died in a mill accident. He's the group's makeup artist and harbors a huge crush on Fanning. As they're filming a scene at the train station, Joel witnesses a pickup truck drive into an oncoming freight train, derailing it and unleashing the unseen monster. The kids escape with nothing more than sooty faces and scratches. White Rubik's cube-like things spill out from the wreckage, and Joel leaves with one. The crashing part of the scene went on a little too long, and Abrams confirmed that the scene will be cut shorter.

The second scene, later on in the movie, confirms Abrams as a master movie-maker. When it comes to monster encounters, this man knows what he's doing. The concealment and suspense come not from cutting away (though there's some of that), but some really satisfying auditory wizardry. A sheriff drives into a gas station to fill up, but has trouble getting the attention of the zit-faced gas station attendant, who has the volume up on his new-fangled Walkman. When he goes back outside, his lights and radio turn on and start flashing. The gas meter, which has been steadily clicking out the dollars and cents, goes progressively faster and faster, turning into one long tone by the climax. The Walkman boy can't hear any of it, so his eventual realization has a satisfying punch to it. Without the use of the Walkman and the gas station meter, this scene would be completely run-of-the-mill. This kind of sleight-of-hand suspense replaces the usual: gory play-by-plays or exhausting flagellation of a character by a monster. We even get a peek at the monster in a reflection from pooling gas, but I won't say what I see.

I'll make a reckless, premature guess: Super 8 will be the Inception of summer 2011. The June 10th release will probably have a PG-13 rating, making it a teen and family-friendly outing. There are also (gasp) characters. This monster feels like a means for a small town to band together and a group of friends to grow closer and grow up. There's also a strong undercurrent of innocence. The trailer shows more cars flashing their headlights, and one of the first signs that something is amiss are the town's missing pets. Missing pets! You can't get more small town than that. The tinkling, chiming score brings to mind vintage John Williams scores for Spielberg. There's also an interesting theme running through the movie that will feel familiar to fans of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: That of a small town and its authority being overrun by outsiders (be they media or military) after something terrible is unleashed there. Super 8 may be the nostalgic, just-scary-enough monster movie that takes place in the small town we all wish we lived in and could protect.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Doug Liman's 'Moon': 'Ocean's Eleven' in outer space?

By Sarah Sluis

Doug Liman's latest project, Moon, may be set out of this world, but its plot reminds me of those jetsetting heist/spy movies. After all, it would just be plain old boring if Jason Bourne or James Bond or the Ocean's Eleven crew did all their fighting stateside. The script for Moon centers on a group of ex-space agency employees, led by a woman (Another switch-up from routine, but maybe it's easier to Supermoon620 go the Sigourney Weaver route in space). Their "mission" involves stealing space equipment and eventually capturing a NASA employee in their quest to go to the Moon, where they can mine the celestial body's energy source.

Liman's most famous for directing the first Bourne movie, which had the action sequences, intrigue, and travelogue feel of the Bond movies with a little less swagger. He also directed the stylish Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but misfired in his first foray into the sci-fi genre, Jumper. That film, which centers on a young man with the ability to teleport across time and place, garnered a mixed review from our critic Frank Lovece, who praised aspects of Liman's work. With these kinds of credentials, Liman seems exceptionally qualified to direct. He also has a historical drama in the works, Attica, but perhaps he's shelved it after the tepid box-office reception to Fair Game, another based-on-a-true-story script.

Moon (which will likely be renamed to avoid confusion with the 2009 movie with the same title) managed to keep the same star, Jake Gyllenhaal, even as it cycled from DreamWorks to Paramount. But no more. Up for the male roles are Andrew Garfield, Emile Hirsch, and Chris Pine. The list of possible leading ladies is more extensive. THR reports that Rosario Dawson, Megan Fox, Rachel McAdams, Eva Mendes, Zoe Saldana and Olivia Wilde are being considered for the part.

If Liman can assemble a cast with the proper chemistry, Paramount will greenlight the project for a shoot later this summer. I love space movies, but the genre has been in need of some punching up. Moon seems to be it. With NASA funding being cut and cut, the future of space travel is commercial. What better way to comment on that than by creating a film about anti-heroes pilfering space equipment so they can steal the Moon's energy source? Sign me up.

Friday, March 18, 2011

'Limitless' goes up against 'Lincoln Lawyer,' 'Paul'

By Sarah Sluis

A severe case of writer's block leads a desperate man (Bradley Cooper) to start taking a wonder drug in Limitless (2,756 theatres). The "rollicking contemporary action yarn on steroids with a sci-fi edge," as Limitless bradley cooper papers described by critic Doris Toumarkine, should lead the pack this weekend, though it could be beaten by the second weekend of Battle: Los Angeles. While it offers a cool what-if experience, it ends up becoming an "addled yarn about how awesome drugs can be if only you're badass enough to quit anytime you want," Slate critic Dana Stevens wryly notes. "In other words, it's the perfect movie for our Charlie Sheen moment: Do the drugs, get the girls, keep the money. Bitchin'."

The legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer (2,707 theatres) may inspire a bit of "dj vu," but it accomplishes its job in a smooth, cool manner with showy performances." Critic Kirk Honeycutt pegged the film as "the kind of bad-guys-vs.-even-worse-guys film [viewers] can check out anytime," which is perhaps why Lionsgate rolled out a Groupon promotion that offered discount tickets. According to an article in THR, "Lionsgate is subsidizing the discounted sales, so box office revenue will reflect full price." So even if they're earning half the money (or less), it will count as a full-price ticket? Well, Hollywood accounting has never been known for accurately representing profits, so I guess this accounting wizardry makes sense.

Rounding out the group of new releases, sci-fi comedy Paul (2,801 theatres) is the third "genre riff" Paul nick frost simon pegg featuring writers/actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, but fans of their films Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead may find the movie less "cohesive," according to critic Ethan Alter, perhaps due to the absence of directer/co-writer Edgar Wright. Still, Alter found "the film's general good humor and obvious affection for its geeky heritage make it an altogether pleasant ride." Paul may be the least strong of this week's bunch, but all three should finish closely together, in the teen millions.

Win Win (5 theatres) is the kind of film made for the Sundance crowd. Fox Searchlight wisely premiered the movie at the festival in January, and critic Kevin Lally speculates that it may be director Tom McCarthy's "most commercially potent slice- Win win paul giamatti of-life to date." Adopting his "beleaguered Everyman" persona, Paul Giamatti plays a struggling lawyer and wrestling coach who finds himself taking in a boy who proves to be a star wrestler. The "well-written, deftly performed movie is truly a win-win for audiences," Lally concludes. Focus' specialty pic Jane Eyre posted the highest per-screen average of the year last week, so the market is hot for quality specialty fare.

Also in the mix this week is the nomad-turned-top model biopic Desert Flower (3 theatres), as well as the girls' boarding school movie Cracks (6 theatres), with sexual tension manifested as "passion thwarted." Winter in Wartime (3 theatres) is another entry in that time-worn setup, the WWII child confronting the Nazis, but this time it's set in the Netherlands, with a more "Hardy Boys-like adventure quality to it."

On Monday, the results of The Lincoln Lawyer's Groupon experiment will be in full view, and we'll see if Limitless achieved the heights that those under the influence of its wonder drug attain so easily.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

'The Lincoln Lawyer' joins the Groupon bandwagon

By Sarah Sluis

The Lincoln Lawyer seems like a fun genre movie, a nice throwback to the John Grisham adaptations starring Tom Cruise and Matt Damon. But it also registers as a movie that a lot of people will wait to watch at home. Enter: Groupon, which Lionsgate is using to incentivize people to see it at the theatre. Today in NYC, for example, one can get a voucher to see the movie for just $6, redeemable on Fandango. Considering Groupon Lincoln Lawyer movie tickets in NYC go for twice that, it's a pretty good deal.

Before I go any further, let me say this: I love Groupon, Living Social, BuyWithMe, BloomSpot, and all those other "daily deal" sites, so much so that I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of all of my purchases and their expiration dates. They usually offer 50% discounts and have somehow managed to remove that feeling of indignity you can get when redeeming a coupon. So I'm naturally in favor of movie theatres jumping on the bandwagon. In fact, they already have. I've seen deals for cheap Fandango tickets on competitor Living Social. I'm also pretty sure I've seen some independent cinemas offer discounted tickets (though I can't confirm this because expired deals have a tricky way of disappearing).

But will it pay off for Lionsgate? According to most insiders, Groupon tends to charge a 50% commission, meaning that Lionsgate would get just $3 for each ticket, which would be split further with Fandango. But there are always the people who forget to redeem, or forget to buy but then decide they want to go anyway. As of this posting, 11,000 people in the NYC area bought tickets to The Lincoln Lawyer, totaling $66,000 in sales. It's unclear how this will be reflected in the weekend box office, but I'll be keeping my eye on this movie's performance. After all, Groupon's subscribers total 60 million, an awful lot of people to be messaged about one movie.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Animated pic 'Rio' loads up on promotional tie-ins

By Sarah Sluis

Lately, the animated box office has reminded me of a nursery rhyme (by Longfellow!) I used to hear as a girl:

And when she was good
She was very very good
But when she was bad she was horrid

The horrid? Mars Needs Moms, the motion-capture film that resulted in Disney shutting down its production company, ImageMovers, not just after the movie flopped, but a few months before it even released. Disney must have known it had a stinker on its hands, and its $150+ million investment was rewarded with just $7 million its opening weekend.

Ab-rio-sm The very very good? By all indicators, Rio is going to do very well. First there were the SuperBowl ads featuring a tie-in to the smartphone game of the moment, Angry Birds. Then there were plans for a videogame. Today, at the top of Variety, is an article detailing the 82 brands Fox signed on as promotional partners for Rio, the most that have ever been attached to a single film. With all this side revenue, the box office for Rio just becomes another part of the picture. The tie-ins include not only the typical McDonald's Happy Meal toys, but custom paint colors (Benjamin Moore), blue-filled Oreos, Chiquita ads, car manufacturers, Gap, and more.

I'm not knocking tie-ins, but it's worth noting that the amount of money they can bring in has affected movie studios' production strategies. Disney, for example, has explicitly stated it's focusing on fewer, Happy meal rio promotion better films that can be leveraged across all its areas of business--from tie-ins to direct-to-video sequels to videogames to stuffed animals. It's caused some unusual side effects, too. AMC and Regal, frustrated with the declining amount of movies made by the biggies (as well as studios putting films on DVD closer and closer to their theatrical release dates), have gotten into the movie distribution business themselves. That's a new one. Good companies will create great product and then find a way to promote it, not the other way around. From what I've seen of Rio, the movie is sure to entertain both kids and adults, and is comparable in quality to the best animated films.

There's another golden egg of optimism hidden within the Variety piece, which opens with an expression of disbelief: Rio "isn't an obvious magnet for marketers" because it "isn't based on a popular property." If original ideas can generate this kind of advance excitement, maybe Hollywood can feel more confident developing new ideas, especially since the summer of 2011 looks like it's shaping up to be the summer of sequels and comic book heroes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Box-office victory for 'Battle: Los Angeles'

By Sarah Sluis

Sometimes, you just can't go wrong with a mix of soldiers, explosions, and aliens. Though Battle: Los Angeles treads familiar ground, the sci-fi flick earned $36 million this weekend. The movie's television Battle la spots were particularly impressive, catching my usually impervious attention.

The animated lizard Western Rango held its ground, dipping 40% to $23 million, undoubtedly thanks to its positive reviews. Mars Needs Moms was not so lucky. The younger-skewing tale had a scathing reception. It finished with just $6.8 million. Considering the motion-capture film's $150 million budget, this is a huge loss, and I'm sure the big players involved want Red riding hood seyfried group to hide under a rock on Mars just about now.

In a blow to supernatural romance projects everywhere, Red Riding Hood opened to a soft $14.1 million. Thought is performed better than last week's Beastly, which opened to $9.8 million, its haul was below expectations. I'm not too surprised. When Harry Potter hit, there were tons of fantasy books and movies that tried to capitalize on the series' success, but none of them measured up to the original. Supernatural romances do not seem to be the next blue-chip genre.

Jane eyre 2jpg What is something of a blue-chip genre is the Bronte adaptation. Jane Eyre made a stunning debut with a $45,000 per-screen average in four theatres, helped along by Bronte fans and those looking for polished, awards-quality films. In anticipation of St. Patrick's Day, Kill the Irishman opened to a $31,000 per-screen average. The true-life mobster tale had positive reviews and a recognizable cast, including performances by Ray Stevenson, Val Kilmer, and Christopher Walken.

This Friday, three wide releases enter the mix: Sci-fi comedy Paul, action flick Limitless, and the law & order drama The Lincoln Lawyer.

Friday, March 11, 2011

'Mars Needs Moms,' 'Battle: Los Angeles' and 'Red Riding Hood' compete for moviegoers

By Sarah Sluis

This weekend's box-office leader will most likely be Battle: Los Angeles (3,417 theatres), which has the best chance of unseating last week's animated hit Rango. For some reason, this aliens-in-L.A. movie Battle la reminds me of Volcano, that late '90s film about a volcano in L.A. I take issue with these scary-thing-in-L.A. films, I feel like screenwriters write these movies for studio executives, not the 90% of America that doesn't live in Southern California. Maybe if aliens mow Los Angeles to the ground, they can rebuild with public transportation. Just saying. Critic Daniel Eagan gave the movie a shrug of approval. It's "not original," but it has "decent special effects and a satisfying story." That may help the sci-fi actioner earn $20 million plus.

If Rango skews old for animated movies, Mars Needs Moms (3,117 theatres) skews young. The Mars needs moms fortune ball "ill-conceived" adaptation of a cute children's book has such grave inconsistencies that it led critic Ethan Alter to wonder if the director was "making the movie up as he goes along." The company behind the film is being shut down after Mars Needs Moms releases, so this motion-capture movie is more of an example in "don'ts" than "dos."

Red Riding Hood (3,030 theatres) is being billed as the next best thing for those eagerly anticipating the next Twilight. Catherine Hardwicke, who helmed the original Twilight, directs the movie, which replaces the big bad wolf with a werewolf. Critic Maitland McDonagh praised the perfectly-cast Amanda Seyfried, but wished the movie explored "the discomfiting psychosexual subtexts that lurk beneath Red riding hood seyfried cape_ familiar childhood stories." The similar Beastly earned just shy of $10 million last week, but Red Riding Hood should pass that $10 million mark easily.

"Those hungry for a Bronte fix" will be sated by Jane Eyre (4 theatres), which includes many shots of the "undulating moors that make romantics of us all." Critic Erica Abeel was less keen on the casting of Mia Wasikowska, who just didn't have the "acting chops" needed for the role. I thought Wasikowska was fine, but I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one who found the "shuffled timeline" rather "confusing," even among those familiar with the novel.

On Monday, we'll see if Rango was able to top the trio of new releases and if audiences turned out for Jane Eyre, one of the most-filmed novels.

Monday, March 7, 2011

'Rango' lassoes a first-place finish

By Sarah Sluis

This weekend's big winner was Rango, which finished the weekend with $38 million, nearly twice the gross of the competition. Attendance was actually higher than last year's How to Train Your Dragon, Rango hatjpg which earned $43.7 million thanks to 3D surcharges. For an animated movie, a surprising amount of the audience was above 25: 54%, which is more than one would expect for a film that has the greatest appeal among kids.

In second place, The Adjustment Bureau garnered $20.9 million, carried along by reviews that praised the movie as an adult action-romance that didn't go for the lowest common denominator. It paid off: 73% of the audience was aged 30 or above. Those kinds of numbers spell another payoff for Adjustment bureau duo staircase Bureau--a long shelf life, typical for movies skewing older.

The teen fantasy-romance Beastly had a respectable debut, finishing third with $10.1 million. Star power may have had something to do with it. The movie was delayed a year, and just so happened to release just weeks after star Alex Pettyfer made his action-hero debut in I Am Number Four. Enough time for him to get a small following among the teen beat? I think so.

The same cannot be said for Take Me Home Tonight, which wrapped production way, way, back in 2007. Though critic Ethan Alter concluded "there's no glaring reason why [the movie] was benched for so long," in terms of quality, the marketing team may have run into trouble finding a way to generate excitement about this 80s throwback comedy. The Take me home tonight party comedy finished in a sober eleventh place with $3.5 million. All the Aqua Net in the world couldn't give this movie a lift.

After its Best Picture win and major-category sweep at the Oscars, The King's Speech actually dipped a bit, 11%, to $6.5 million. However, Monday through Thursday the movie overperformed compared to the week before, so perhaps audiences were out catching newer adult fare, like The Adjustment Bureau, instead. The historical drama stands at $123 million, and weeks more of 10% drops could bring it closer to the $150 million mark. The only Oscar nominee/winner to improve from last week was Inside Job, the recipient of the Best Documentary Oscar. The indictment of the financial industry went up 94% to $65,200, adding to its theatrical total of $4.1 million.

In its fourth week, Cedar Rapids added 99 theatres for a total of 235, adding another $815,000 to its $3 million plus total. Happythankyoumoreplease premiered slightly soft, with a per-screen average a light but respectable $15,000.

This Friday, Rango will face competition from the animated Mars Needs Moms. Likewise, Beastly will have to contend with another teen-oriented fantasy romance, Red Riding Hood. Finally, Battle: Los Angeles will offer up some fresh sci-fi action.

Friday, March 4, 2011

'Rango' leads quartet of new releases

By Sarah Sluis

Two weeks ago, the so-so reviewed Gnomeo & Juliet opened high, thanks to a dearth of animated films. Rango chameleon Now Rango (3,917 theatres) enters the mix, hoping to capture an even larger portion of the family audience. Our critic Frank Lovece praised the Western throwback, which centers on a "chameleon hero [who] uses bravado, exaggeration and improv to survive in a miniature desert frontier town populated by horned toads and hornswogglers, rattlesnakes and rustlers, and some figurative skunks and polecats." Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) directs the tale, resplendent with Western movie homages. Last year, How to Train Your Dragon opened in this timeslot at $43 million, and a similar showing is expected this weekend.

The "kinder, gentler Matrix," according to critic Maitland McDonagh, a.k.a. The Adjustment Bureau Adjustment bureau duo (2,840 theatres) should open behind Rango. Matt Damon stars as a politician who meets a woman (Emily Blunt) he wasn't supposed to encounter, throwing mysterious "adjusters" on his tail. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times praised George Nolfi's competent directing, ending with the pronouncement that "romance for grown-ups isn't dead in Hollywood � it's just been on extended leave."

Teens may turn out for an "adequate updating" of Beauty and the Beast, according to critic Doris Toumarkine. Starring Hollywood bad-boy-in-training Alex Pettyfer opposite "High School Musical's" Vanessa Hudgens, Beastly (1,952 theatres) offers a time-honored lesson: beauty is skin-deep. Mary-Kate Olsen also appears as the witch who curses Pettyfer.

'80s throwback comedy Take Me Home Tonight (2,003 theatres) is hit or miss, according to our critic Ethan Alter, who pegged it as a "modest diversion made significantly more appealing by Take me home tonight outfit the presence of skilled comic actors like [Topher] Grace, Anna Faris and Chris Pratt." Common sources of comedy? "The era's questionable fashion and hairstyling choices."

On the specialty release front, the "irritatingly self-satisfied film with lonely romantics," happythankyoumoreplease will bow in 2 theatres. The Palme d'Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (3 theatres) is a "very personal, if quirky, journey" with a Thai man who is approaching the end of his life. Finally, I Saw the Devil, an entry in "torture porn," will "polarize" audiences in 2 theatres.

On Monday, we'll see if the West was won with Rango, and if adult audiences turned out for the mind-bending Adjustment Bureau.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Casting 'The Hunger Games': Please pick Jennifer Lawrence!

By Sarah Sluis

Jennifer Lawrence knocked it out of the park in Winter's Bone, my favorite kind of film: the little indie that could. The unknown actress landed an Academy Award nomination for her breakout performance. Like her fellow nominee Hailee Steinfeld, who was nominated for True Grit in the Supporting Actress category, she looks almost unrecognizable on the red carpet, given that they both appeared onscreen in fairly plain-Jane getups.

Jennifer-lawrence-before-after At the Oscars Lawrence showed up in a bombshell red dress, and her hair color has gone from dirty blonde to really blonde, almost as if she wants to create a physical separation from her character in Winter's Bone. Her next marquee role will be Mystique in X-Men: First Class, a big, action, summer popcorn movie. But there's also a chance for her to combine action with sci-fi in the adaptation of the bestselling young adult book The Hunger Games.

Though I haven't yet read The Hunger Games, the books have an amazing premise, combining the omniscience of a futuristic state with gladiator sports. The story centers on a girl selected to participate in fight-to-the-death games broadcast on national television in a post-U.S. country. It's like a reality-television inspired 1984, with action scenes to boot. Steinfeld is also up for the role, and according to THR, casting will depend on whether they want to skew the role older or younger. Since the star would most likely be locked into a trilogy, provided the movie performs well, I can see the logic for going younger. But I really see Lawrence, not Steinfeld, in this role. I may be biased based on the kind of heroines they played in last year's films, but the feeling sticks. Lawrence played a character that had a loose, natural feel, and was quiet and determined. In Coen Brothers' style, Steinfeld was stiff, fast-talking, and slightly unlikable. Lionsgate plans to release the movie in March 2012, so a casting decision will have to be made fast during a time when both of these Oscar nominees are weighing a flood of offers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Today in zombie movies: 'Warm Bodies,' 'Kitchen Sink'

By Sarah Sluis

Since the success of Twilight, supernatural romances have been all the rage. Into this mix comes Warm Bodies, which replaces Edward Cullen the Vampire with R the Zombie. Nicholas Hoult, who I adored as Warm bodies the kid in About a Boy and who put in a memorable performance in A Single Man, will star. The concept, however, is not for the squeamish. After perusing Amazon reviews of the book, I came across this gem of a meet-cute. "R meets Julie when he eats the brain of her longtime boyfriend Perry, and appropriates his memories of this wonderful girl," Amazon reviewer xBE states."In the middle of the feed, R sees her in the room, and manages to keep himself and the other zombies from attacking her and then brings her back to the airport where they live." The reviewer compares the zombie to Edward Scissorhands, a notable comparison given that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp really made that concept work. On a story level, though, Scissorhands is closer to Beauty and the Beast than the I-want-to-eat-you-but-I-love-you Twilight. The Summit project has also found a director, Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), who also led the screenplay adaptation. One test for Twilight-inspired projects will come up in just a couple weeks. Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) directed Red Riding Hood, which pairs a feral, bloodthirsty werewolf with Amanda Seyfried in a red caplet.

While supernatural romances have seen a huge spike in popularity, horror comedies have been coming at a pretty regular pace the past several years. The latest may mark the directorial debut of multi-hyphenate star Jonah Hill, who also has writing and producing credits to his name. Kitchen Sink will center on teen zombies and vampires who must band together and avoid eating each other in order to fight off an alien invasion. I guess the title is the reference to that saying, "Everything but the kitchen sink..?" Sony will finance, but given Hill's busy schedule (he's also starring in The Sitter, appears in Moneyball and is writing/starring/exec producing 21 Jump Street), it may be a while before this project hits theatres.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

50+ filmgoers fill the multiplex

By Sarah Sluis

This week, The New York Times pointed out that older moviegoers, who have long underrepresented themselves at the box office, are returning. During the last fifteen years, there's been a 67% increase in the number of 50+ moviegoers who report attending a movie in the past six months. Of all the reasons cited for this shift, the most important is content. Summer is seen as the season for "kid" movies, and many older viewers have more conservative standards and resent the "filth" they see on screen. The production code may not be coming back to keep sex, drugs, and violence in check, but this year's Oscar nominees and winners, in particular, highlight the kind of content that has strong appeal to older viewers.

Kings-speech-2 The King's Speech, recently crowned Best Picture, was a film I knew immediately would appeal to those turned off by racy content in the theatres (in fact, it's being recut to a PG-13 by bleeping out its uses of the F-word). The movie has already crossed the $100 million mark, in large part thanks to those "once a year" moviegoers who will turn out doubly in light of the movie's Oscar win. The other nine movies nominated for an Academy Award all have appeal in the over-fifty range, even among the outliers: Inception was remarkably cerebral (unless that's code for confusing?) for a blockbuster, and Toy Story 3 drew plenty of adult audiences who know about Pixar's reputation for quality. Movies like True Grit and The Fighter, however, were the core, commercially successful and well-reviewed movies that drew in 50+ filmgoers.

The Times also draws attention to the atmosphere of a theatre--dirty cinemas with hordes of unruly teens can turn away older customers in a heartbeat. For an upcoming feature, I spoke with Skip Huston, owner of the Avon Theatre in Decatur, Illinois. His small theatre showed many of this year's Oscar films, including True Grit and Black Swan, to an older-skewing, more discerning audience. He has a staff that keeps the theatre spotless, popcorn that draws raves, and a historic "destination" cinema. Places like these show that older people will come to the theatre, if it has the right environment and a well-curated selection of films. If older filmgoers mean more adult movies and fewer dumb action films and comedies, please, fire away, but I suspect this means we're also going to be in for many more iterations of The Bucket List.