Friday, April 29, 2011

'Fast Five' revving up for a blockbuster weekend

By Sarah Sluis

It's not even May yet, but this weekend should bring the first summer-size blockbuster hit, Fast Five, which will saturate the market with 3,643 theatres. Pundits are predicting the film could haul in up to $70 million, tens of millions more than anything that's hit the box office this year. What's more, despite Fast five muscle car being both the fourth sequel and a car chase action movie, critics are singing their praises, giving it an overall 78% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. FJI critic Daniel Eagan singled out the movie's "delirious action sequences" and concluded that it "condenses everything good about the series into a state-of-the-art thrill ride."

Many high schoolers are just weeks away from their own proms, so what better way to prepare than to catch Disney's Prom (2,730 theatres)? In fairness, the scrubbed-clean Disney version of Prom (no lose-your-virginity pacts la American Pie) will probably attract an audience more tween than Rom aimee teegarden teen. According to critic Kirk Honeycutt, the movie has "a cheerful good nature and a solid cast of youngsters," and will probably please the intended audience, but not adults. Disney estimates the movie will open just under $10 million.

Five years after Hoodwinked, the Red Riding Hood redux film Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil will hit 2,505 theatres, 72% of them 3D. Hayden Panettiere voices the lead role, taking over for Anne Hathaway. Critic Frank Lovece acknowledges that the first film was a hit according to independent animation standards, but he's not so kind to the sequel, faulting the "primordial" CG animation and "hackneyed pop-culture references," which date back to the last couple of decades. Like Prom, this animated sequel should debut under $10 million, a relic of when the Weinstein Co. lost its momentum.

Finally, the horror-comedy spoof Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (862 theatres) will target itself toward horror buffs. Based on a comic book, the movie centers on a detective that specializes in the undead (zombies, vampires, etc.). His business card reads "No pulse? No problem."

13_assassins Those that like a splash more blood can check out director Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins (3 theatres). Technically a samurai pic (jidaigeki), Miike's latest effort "bathe[s the genre] in a steady downpour of blood, mud and filth," according to critic Maitland McDonagh.

After receiving a warm reception on the festival circuit, Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams will start its release with 5 theatres. Shot in "terrific" 3D, critic Doris Toumarkine enjoyed his footage of the Chauvet Caves, and found Herzog's "enthusiasm and awe...contagious."

On Monday, we'll see if Fast Five can get up to that 70 MPH box-office figure, if tweens show an iota of their High School Musical devotion for Prom, and if Hoodwinked Too! is able to steal some thunder from Rio.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

'Trollhunter': A funny, not-so-scary horror mockumentary

By Sarah Sluis

For someone who loves the idea of horror movies, but finds many of them too scary in practice, I recommend Trollhunter. The Norwegian horror-comedy mockumentary is one of eight films in the Tribeca Film Festival's Cinemania section, which "represent a well-rounded spectrum of contemporary genre filmmaking�from science fiction to horror to exploitation to fantasy."

Trollhunter_2 The Cinemania films are some of the more offbeat and just plain weird movies in the festival, but they're often hidden gems. Last year I caught Dream House, a horror movie in which someone literally kills for an apartment--commentary on Hong Kong's insane housing market. Trollhunter's message is more subtle and focused on environmentalism and bureaucracy. It's more interesting not because of its light commentary, but because it provides a little window into Norwegian culture. Also, it's true: Norwegian fjords are stunning.

The film centers on three college students who decide to investigate a recluse who hunters suspect has been poaching bears. They follow the recalcitrant man until they catch him in action: He's a government-supported trollhunter, and he's sick of not getting overtime, hazard, or night pay. Sure, he says, follow me. I'm sick of this job.

The trio (a soundwoman, a cameraman, and the on-screen guy) get up close and personal with the trolls, Trollhunter_1 which are surprisingly well-done. The filmmakers must be using CG shots, but they look incredibly seamless for a low-budget movie. If they "cheated" at all, it was by using mainly low light, but all the troll scenes take place at night anyway. The trolls themselves (for there are many varieties) are scary but also slightly comedic. They're dumb and smelly, so it's not too hard to outwit them--but that doesn't mean they can't kill you.

Hard-core blood and guts fans may be disappointed. I don't think I've seen this little gore in a horror movie, ever, and the suspense was well within this horror novice's comfort levels. But Trollhunter is also a fun ride through annals of Norwegian folklore, breathtaking shots of the austere landscape included. The mockumentary form, too, is incredibly expressive, including mundane details such as sound checks and white balances along with intensity-building use of night vision and even a cracked camera lens. Director Andr vredal is a newcomer, with just a few credits under his belt, but he's definitely an emerging talent who can do a lot with very little.

Catch Trollhunter at the Tribeca Film Festival, or watch it on VOD starting on May 6th. Distributor Magnet will also release the film in select theatres beginning June 10th. Watch the trailer here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

'Off the Rez': 'Hoop Dreams' for Native Americans

By Sarah Sluis

Fictional sports movies have it tough. The narrative that repeats over and over again is that of the underdog team that comes from behind and wins the championships. Audiences are bored of this predictable plotline, but it's also the most satisfying story arc. Sports documentaries have a wonderful out: Everything they're covering actually happened. If they win the championships, great. If not, it doesn't matter, because the experience feels real and visceral. Every moment the players are behind or OFFTHEREZ_1.JPG_rgb ahead feels that more intense because it was an actual game.

Off the Rez is the latest sports documentary from Jonathan Hock (Through the Fire), whose sports-centered non-fiction films have been a Tribeca Film Festival fixture. At a "Tribeca Talks" screening last night, viewers saw the movie for the first time. A panel followed that included the director, executive producers Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos, and the stars of the documentary. Their candid, revealing responses provided insight into the filmmaking process that drove home the film's heartbreaking struggles and inspirational story.

The movie centers on Shoni Schimmel, a promising Native American basketball player who lives on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon with her family. During her junior and senior years of high school, her family moves to Portland, Oregon, in order to give her a better shot at making it big and getting recruited by a top college. It's also a family story--her mother is her basketball coach, and her younger sister Jodi is her teammate. Her mother Ceci has an astonishing eight children, which helped the film get picked up by TLC. At the "Tribeca Talks" panel afterwards, TLC group president Eileen O'Neill wryly noted, "We do big families pretty well," referring to the channel's numerous shows featuring supersize broods.

Racism, too, factors heavily into the film. Shoni is the daughter of a Native American mother and a white father, a marriage that the community did not take kindly to at the time. Ceci, Shoni's mom, described the attitude around the Oregon reservation as "cowboys & indians," and that kind of prejudice persists in the community. The pressure for Shoni to perform well is amplified by the expectations of both her family and the community. It turns out that many Native Americans have excelled at sports, only to wither at their moment of promise, quitting college to return home to family or not understanding the "ticket" that such a scholarship can provide. Shoni's own mother was up for a scholarship but her coach encouraged recruiters to focus on her white teammate. As the moments tick down to make a choice for a college team, Shoni hesitates, then hesitates again, sending viewers like me into a fretting frenzy. Will she bow out? Does she have the courage to leave her community? Will she succumb to their pressure?

Off the Rez also includes a timely subplot: the subprime mortgage crisis. The family buys a house in Portland because it's cheaper to buy then rent, but their payments soon escalate. After hard times hit the family, the house moves into foreclosure. If Shoni was paralyzed by the decision-making process before, this added stress further delays her college choice.

Director Hock has ample experience with sports scenes, and it shows. Shoni is a miraculous player, with plenty of style and an ability to swoosh shots despite being heavily defended. The players are also incredibly expressive. As the moderator, Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger noted, "Girls are more fun than boys to watch because they cry constantly." He meant it as a half joke, but it's true. In the locker room after a loss, tears stream down the cheeks of athletes with aggressive on-court game faces. And why wouldn't you cry because you just broke a foot, had a knee jammed in your face, or can't breathe because you have undiagnosed mono?

Off the Rez is an edge-of-your-seat sports movie with heart. It also offers eye-opening accounts of racism and reservation life, along with a side of the mortgage crisis--you can't get any more topical than that! Catch it at the Tribeca Film Festival or when it airs on TLC as a two-hour special on May 14th at 9pm.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tribeca Film Festival: Mouthwatering doc �Jiro Dreams of Sushi' delights audience

By Sarah Sluis

Most people will never pay $300 for a sushi dinner, but the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi gives an hour and a half look into a restaurant whose sushi meals cost that much and often take just fifteen to thirty minutes to Jiro_dreams_of_sushi-1-web consume.

The Tokyo restaurant is led by chef Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old whose right-hand man is his fifty-something son. His younger son, who will not inherit the business, has already branched out and opened another restaurant, but the older son is holding out until he can carry on his father's business�though fifty seems a little old to be still working under your father. The restaurant, which has just a dozen seats, is run meticulously, and the documentary follows the rhythmic life, day in and day out, of the sushi chefs.

Director David Gelb said in a Q&A afterwards that his shots of Jiro's sushi-making were inspired by "Planet Earth." The crisp, HD shots are sometimes slowed down slightly, and the camera will arc around a completed hand roll, allowing audiences to appreciate the simplicity and beauty of his creations.

After watching the documentary, $300 for dinner actually seems like a deal. The secret to good sushi is an incredible amount of painstaking labor. Want tender, not rubbery, octopus? Massage it for 45 minutes. Want the best fish? Develop relationships with vendors who each specialize exclusively in tuna or eels. Cut it the right way. Add just enough vinegar to the marinade. Don't prepare anything beforehand. Above all, taste, taste, taste.

Jiro's son tells an anecdote. He made tamagoyaki (egg sushi, pictured right) over two hundred times Jiro_dreams_of_sushi-2-web before his father liked it enough not to throw it out. Jiro has many apprentices, and they spend a decade making sushi before they're considered good enough to move on from an apprenticeship.

At the Tribeca screening, the audience was incredibly giving and delighted in hearing the lengths Jiro goes to achieve often humorous levels of perfection. They were also concerned about Jiro and his business in the wake of the earthquakes and nuclear disaster in Japan. The director assured us that his family is safe and sound, but noted that many reservations have been canceled due to the instability in the aftermath of the tragedy. Procuring fish, too, has become more difficult. Many coastal fisheries have been wiped out. There just isn't that much to buy at the fish market.

For a stomach-growling look at the sushi world, see the film at the Tribeca Film Festival or await its release through Magnolia, which has plans to release the doc later this year. Watch the trailer here.

Tribeca doc leads the battle against school bullying

By Kevin Lally

One of the first pickups from the Tribeca Film Festival is The Weinstein Company's acquisition of The THEBULLYPROJECT_[LEEHIRSCH]_1 Bully Project, Lee Hirsch's documentary focusing on five families impacted by the age-old problem of bullying in our nation's schools. The issue has gained a higher profile this past year from the rash of suicides of gay youth targeted by their peers, but Hirsch's subjects represent a wider cross-section of victims.

The film's opening moments are among its most painful, as we watch home movies of Tyler Long, a happy little boy who becomes increasingly withdrawn as he ages before our eyes. With his father's first mention of the boy in past tense, you cringe: After years of bullying, the 17-year-old Tyler hung himself in his bedroom closet.

Equally shocking is the story of 16-year-old Kelby, who came out as a lesbian in her Bible Belt home town of Tuttle, Oklahoma. Kelby describes a classroom atmosphere in which even her teachers single her out with hostile referencesto the burning of "faggots," and laughs off an incident in which she was struck by a minivan. Shunned by much of her community, Kelby emerges as the toughest kid in the film, confident enough to attract a core group of devoted friends, including a few defiant straight girls.

Fourteen-year-old Alex of Sioux City, Iowa, is far less capable of taking on the world outside his loving family. Lean, gawky, bespectacled and with thick lips that prompt kids to call him "Fishface," Alex can't ride the school bus without being punched, choked or ridiculed--assaults that we see for ourselves and which prompt the filmmakers to intervene on Alex's behalf. Watching the management style of oblivious school administrator Kim Lockwood, we understand why director Hirsch felt the need to get directly involved. She's ridden that bus, she tells Alex's parents, and never seen a hint of behavioral problems.

Another bus provides the most disturbing moment in the film, as video footage shows 14-year-old Ja'Meya of Yazoo County, Mississippi brandishing a gun and threatening her classmates after one too many bullying incidents. Arrested and charged with 45 felony counts, Ja'Meya faces years in prison as a consequence of her impulsive, desperate act.

Late in the film, we meet the Smalleys of Perkins, Oklahoma, whoseson Ty committed suicide at age 11. Ty's father Kirk founds the website "Stand for the Silent," a support system for families dealing with the relentless bullying of their children. The group also stages rallies in which young people are encouraged to befriend kids who are struggling alone and to speak out against bullying incidents.

Many adults watching The Bully Project will recall their own personal confrontations with bullies or memories of beleaguered classmates. Some will agree with theview of certain school authorities in the film that "kids will be kids" or "boys will be boys." But Hirsch's film reveals the condescension behind that attitude, the undervaluing of children's experiences, sometimes hellish, as if they were not as vital and serious as an adult's. The consequences of bullying can be grave indeed, and with The Weinstein Company now behind it, The Bully Project will open even more minds to that harsh reality.

Monday, April 25, 2011

'Rio' narrowly swoops over 'Madea's Big Happy Family'

By Sarah Sluis

The round-the-world hit Rio enjoyed its second week at the top stateside. The 3D, CG-animated tale of a bird going back to his homeland dipped 32% to $26.8 million, landing just above Madea's Big Happy Madeas big happy family Family.

Tyler Perry's latest Madea comedy opened to $25.7 million. The Madea movies have opened anywhere from $20.1 million (Meet the Browns) to an out-of-the-park $41 million (Madea Goes to Jail), so this number falls near the average. Like most Perry movies, the audience was primarily black, female, and over 25�perhaps these viewers see shades of their own grandmothers in the comically exaggerated Madea?

Water for Elephants opened above expectations, debuting to $17.5 million. Despite the presence of Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson, the audience skewed more toward Reese Witherspoon fans: 70% of the audience was over 25, and the Water elephants robert pattinson same percentage was female.

The Earth Day release African Cats opened to $6.4 million, slightly better than the $6 million open of last year's Disneynature release Oceans. These nature documentaries have played very well over the long haul, so Cats should total at least $20 million before it leaves theatres.

Another seasonal release, Hop, added 16% from last week thanks to its proximity to Easter Sunday, ending with $12.6 million. The CG/live-action hybrid earned its highest numbers the Friday and Saturday before Easter, dropping on the holiday itself, when kids were presumably occupied with Easter egg hunts and bunny visits of their own.

Despite all the product placements and tie-ins, Director Morgan Spurlock's documentary POM Wonderful Morgan spurlock sheetz Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold had a solid, not stellar, $7,500 per-screen open. However, the 18-location release was a bit wide compared to most specialty releases, so perhaps it will hold well in coming weeks. In comparison, another Sony Pictures Classics release, Incendies, opened to $18,200 per screen, but only had three screens to fill with ticket-buyers.

The biggest mover-and-shaker among specialty releases was the ten-week-old doc I Am, which went up 572% as it added ten locations. I'm sure director Tom Shadyac's April 20th appearance on "Oprah" had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Meek's Cutoff is also performing well, going up 180% as it tripled the number of theatres in its three-week-old release. The Oregon Trail drama earned a $6,500 per-screen average.

This Friday, car actioner Fast Five will lead the pack, followed by Disney's bid for teens, Prom, horror comedy Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, and animated sequel Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil.

Friday, April 22, 2011

'Madea's Big Happy Family' may trample 'Water for Elephants'

By Sarah Sluis

Tyler Perry is the king of high opening weekends, and his latest entry in the Madea franchise, Madea's Big Happy Family (2,288 theatres), will be a strong contender for first place if it can beat Rio's sophomore session. The holidays will help out both films. The Madea films have played particularly well during Easter Sunday matinees, while Rio can take advantage of students on spring break, including many that will be off this Friday.

Water elephants group Water for Elephants (2,817 theatres) should grab third place by a wide berth, with many estimating a $15 million take for the movie, which had a $40 million budget. The glitter of big-name stars Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz can't help this movie, which I called out for its "one-dimensional characters" and "worn, familiar" narrative. The circus and 1930s costumes are quite breathtaking, but the movie itself just doesn't deliver. I think even fans of the novel will leave wishing for more.

Disneynature's annual Earth Day documentary tradition continues with African Cats (1,220 theatres). The nature film centers on "two mothers�one an aging lioness with a cub, the other a cheetah with five African cats babyjpgnewborns�and their struggles against predators raise these youngsters into adulthood," according to Kirk Honeycutt. The animals are given names and their actions narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, anthropomorphizing them to the point that Honeycutt was reminded of The Lion King. "Nothing's wrong with this approach, of course," he concludes, reasoning that it's a surefire way to appeal to young audiences. 2009's Earth earned $8.8 million its first weekend, but 2010's Oceans opened with $6 million, and finished with 40% less at the box office. Can African Cats reverse this downward trend?

Director Morgan Spurlock offers an entertaining, brisk account on product placement in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (18 theatres). The documentary, which was entirely funded by product placement, is apparently already in the green, though lead sponsor POM is withholding some money until it earns over $10 million at the box office. Good luck Morgan!

Incendies flames Finally, the Oscar-nominated foreign film Incendies (3 theatres) makes its debut. Critic Doris Toumarkine gives the drama her proud endorsement, saying it gives "that all-too-rare film experience that commands attention at every twisty story turn and delivers an extraordinary ending that rewards that attention as the loose ends explode into a collective 'Wow!'"

On Monday, I'll see if Madea or Rio drew the most audiences, if Water for Elephants succeeds despite its bad reviews, and if Morgan Spurlock is on track to receive that box-office bonus from POM.

'The Loving Story': Tribeca celebrates a landmark Supreme Court victory

By Kevin Lally

The Tribeca Film Festival, founded by Robert De Niro and his producing partner Jane Rosenthal to revitalize Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks, is now ten years old, and it's evolved into a welcome and vibrant New York spring institution. With former Sundance honcho Geoffrey Gilmore now serving as chief creative officer for Tribeca Enterprises and Nancy Schafer as the event's executive director, the festival has become more selective but also a showcase for new talent: Of the104 directors represented withfeatures in this year's program, a remarkable 60 are first-timers.

Veteran FJI critic and correspondent Doris Toumarkine will be filing an overview of the festival on this website later on. But we can share that she's pretty enthusiastic about this year's lineup, and here are some of the films she's seen and recommends: Michael Cuesta's Roadie, with Ron Eldard and Bobby Cannavale; the Italian crime drama A Quiet Life, starring the great Toni Servillo; the foodie documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi; the French comedy Romantics Anonymous; the rock 'n' roll drama Janie Jones with Alessandro Nivola and Abigail Breslin; the Yugoslavian documentary Cinema Komunisto, about Tito'smovie obsessions; Renee, about transgendered tennis star Renee Richards; and the searing documentary Gone, about a retired New York police officer's search for her missing son.

Yesterday was a good documentary day for this correspondent too. It started with a screening of the THE_UNION_1 opening-night film, The Union, Cameron Crowe's intimate look at themaking of the album of the same name--Elton John's collaboration with his longtime idol, veteran session keyboardist and singer-songwriter Leon Russell. The affection John has for the white-bearded rock legend is immense, and there's an especially wonderful moment when Russell plays him a new song called "In the Hands of Angels"--inspired by John's nurturing of Russell's comeback--and the younger superstar retreats to a private space to shed some tears. During the recording, Russell underwent brain surgery, and it's heartwarming to see how participating in this musical project re-energizes the frail veteran and speeds his recovery.

Inspirational on an entirely different level, the documentary The Loving Story tells the saga of Mildred THE_LOVING_STORY_1 and Richard Loving, the Virginia couple at the center of the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling that finally struck down this nation's grotesque anti-miscegenation laws, then in effect in 21 states. Richard was white, Mildred was black and Native American, and they lived in a community where the races freely intermingled, but risked arrest if they dared to marry.

Director Nancy Buirski had the huge luck to discover a trove of black-and-white footage of the Loving family filmed by Hope Ryden (who attended the screening), footage that remained unseen in storage for more than 40 years. The scenes of the Lovings and their children at home are intimate and disarming. Richard is a man of few words and Mildred is charmingly soft-spoken, but the looks they exchange are clearly those of a couple in love and determined to remain together no mattter what.

The film also features footage both old and new of the Lovings' attorneys, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, who were then young and relatively inexperienced but smart and savvy enough to bring the couple's case all the way to the Supreme Court and win a unanimous verdict. (Hirschkop was also at the screening and received a standing ovation.) The patently racist statements of the state judge in Virginia certainly helped their case against the law, which they argued was a century-old vestige of slavery.

Tragically, Richard Loving died eight years afterhis Supreme Court victory when a drunk driver crashed into the couple's car. Mildred died in 2008; seeing her obituary, filmmaker Buirski was amazed to discover there had never been an in-depth documentary about this historic couple and their legal fight. Produced by HBO Documentary Films,The Loving Storywill air on HBO in February 2012 and it surely deserves some theatrical exposure too--particularly for its parallels to the current battles over same-sex marriage (which Mildred publicly endorsed in 2007).After all, in the annals of civil-rights milestones, Loving vs. Virginia deserves to be as well-known as Brown vs. Board of Education.

(Loving Story photo by Grey Villet)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Morgan Spurlock strikes again with 'POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold'

By Sarah Sluis

I was a little confused by the concept of Morgan Spurlock's latest film, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. But perhaps because of the "brand" Spurlock has created with his fun yet socially relevant documentary Super Size Me, I enthusiastically signed up for a screening. I wasn't The-greatest-movie-ever-sold-poster disappointed.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a documentary about product placement in movies that's funded entirely by product placement. The very pitch he gives to companies asking them to participate ends up in the movie as its "product placement," which led Jimmy Kimmel to compare the doc to Inception in one segment. So why would a company pay to be in a documentary that reveals they paid to be there? Transparency. Revealing a marketing plan shows respect for consumers, who don't want to feel duped by misleading ads. Then there's the opportunity to be associated with the "Morgan Spurlock brand." As he learns in a market research session conducted using psychoanalysis, Spurlock embraces fear and uncomfortable situations, and his brand is "mindful and playful." He ends up signing up Ban, POM, Merrell shoes, Mini Cooper, and, my personal favorite, Mane 'n Tail shampoo (an equine shampoo that crossed over to the human market), in a long and sometimes fruitless search. Spurlock takes particular delight in showing off his rejections, which are some of the movie's more amusing moments.

I've seen a lot of comedies at film screenings, but I've never seen an audience laugh as frequently and loudly as they did for this movie. It was often out of pure ridiculousness. After signing on POM as a sponsor, everyone ends up nonchalantly drinking the juice during interviews, and seeing the brand perched at a corner of the screen was so obvious it was hilarious. There's also a funny moment where Ralph Nader gets a little too excited about the Merrell shoes he's been gifted, which unwittingly turns him into a commercial pitchman.

Though the intent was to show the ins and outs of product placement, Spurlock covers so much that he often only skims the surface. There are also brands that signed on (like Seventh Generation, which sells eco-friendly cleaning products) that we don't see in the movie at all, except in advertisments. What happened there? The interviews with media heavyweights like Noam Chomsky, too, are often reduced only to soundbites. A comprehensive dissection of product placement and its implications may not have been possible, but Spurlock also strays off target, flying to Sao Paolo (perhaps taking advantage of a free JetBlue flight and stay at the Hyatt Regency?) to interview people about the city's ban on outdoor advertising. But these are quibbles. It's as much of a job of a documentary to raise questions as it is to answer them.

At the screening I saw last night in New York, we exited the theatre, only to be greeted by neat stacks of the products featured in the movie. As I helped myself to some POM juice and Mane 'n Tail shampoo, I couldn't help but feel that the sponsorship worked. I might have felt ridiculous using an equine shampoo before, but now I think I'll have a little chuckle as I lather up in the shower, marveling that I use a product that has instructions both for human and animal use. The in-movie commercial where Spurlock is washing up in a giant bathtub next to his son and a Shetland pony didn't hurt either.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

May-December casting in 'Seeking a Friend at the End of the World'

By Sarah Sluis

I remember the furor that surrounded the romantic comedy Six Days, Seven Nights, which paired up Harrison Ford with a star 27 years younger, Anne Heche. Now it appears another May-December romance is in the process of being cast. Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, 22 years his junior, appear to be starring opposite each other in Seeking a Friend at the End of the World, a dark romantic comedy that unfolds four weeks before an asteroid is set to destroy Earth. Writer Lorene Scafaria (Nick and CARELL_Knightley Norah's Infinite Playlist), a member of the Hollywood "fempire" that includes Diablo Cody, will make her directorial debut with the movie.

There's a chance, however, that the romance could have some kind of quirk that will make it work, or that it won't really be a romance in the sense we expect. The title IS Seeking a Friend at the End of the World, after all. Then there's the plot description. To paraphrase IMDB, the plot centers on Carell's mission to track down his high school sweetheart after his wife abandons him in the wake of the asteroid frenzy. Knightley plays a neighbor who just comes along for the ride, throwing a wrench in the proceedings. But that "wrench" could be l-o-v-e. I don't really see a romance between the two as believable. Carell is the everyman, and his love interests have overwhelmingly been age-appropriate, attractive choices (Catherine Keener in 40-Year-Old Virgin, Tina Fey in Date Night, Julianne Moore and Marisa Tomei in the upcoming Crazy, Stupid, Love). Knightley, too, was attached to Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean and even after that odd scene involving a beach fire and Johnny Depp consuming copious amounts of rum, a romance between her and Depp was ruled out.

But I will give the movie this. After reading this rather apocalyptic excerpt from the script, I certainly don't see how even a genius screenwriter could turn this into a romantic comedy...unless you count gallows humor. The May-December romance may end up being the easier thing to pull off.

Despite these oddities, the script has a green light and the Mandate Pictures production (the people that believed in a teen pregnancy comedy called Juno) will begin filming in May.

Monday, April 18, 2011

'Rio' soars to $40 million

By Sarah Sluis

For the first time in 2011, the box office was up from 2010 year-over-year. Back in January and even in February, the holdover success of 2009 release Avatar was to blame for the lower 2011 numbers, but then the excuses ran out. However, 2011's lower grosses may also be related to last year's initial crush of 3D films such as Alice in Wonderland, which drew many audiences interested in experiencing the extra dimension.

Rio birds The CG-animated Rio easily grabbed the first-place perch, earning $40 million. Although the number is lower than other Blue Sky Animation movies, including 2002's Ice Age, the growing receipts from foreign markets make up for any softness in the U.S. In just two weeks, Rio's already earned $128 million abroad. Many U.S. students are on spring break this week, which should make the upcoming weekdays especially profitable.

The chorus of shrieks just wasn't that loud for Scream 4, which finished with $19.2 million, on the low side of expectations. In comparison, Scream 3 earned $34.7 million its opening weekend, the equivalent of more than $50 million today. Viewers over 25, familiar with the franchise, turned out in force, but Scream 4 cop_ the sequel had trouble attracting audiences in the 17-25 age range. Females, too, voted against the movie, comprising just 52% of the audience compared to the 60-70% that normally turns out. Scream 4 is part of a planned second trilogy, but these low numbers could grind the franchise to a halt.

With $3.9 million, the historical drama The Conspirator performed in line with expectations. By releasing in just 707 locations, its theatres were just as packed as Scream 4's. With its U.S.-specific subject, however, foreign prospects Conspirator surratt_ will be slim, which won't help offset the movie's reported $25 million budget.

Soul Surfer pulled ahead of Hanna during the films' second week. The inspirational sports tale dipped 30% to $7.4 million, while Hanna dove 40% to $7.3 million. Distributor FilmDistrict, which handles Soul Surfer, had another win with Insidious. The horror movie fell just 26% to $6.8 million, continuing its trend of low drops, which is atypical for scary movies.

Literary adaptation Atlas Shrugged: Part I finished in 14th place with $1.6 million and a per-screen average on par with The Conspirator and Scream 4. Critics generally despised the movie but it remains to be seen if viewers felt the same. The tea party-leaning movie will be one to watch in coming weeks.

Specialty picture The Double Hour, running on goodwill from positive reviews (like this one from The New York Times), opened to a $15,000 per-screen average, a solid debut.

This Friday, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattison run the circus in Water for Elephants. Tyler Perry strikes again with Madea's Big Happy Family, and the Disneynature wildlife documentary African Cats will stalk family audiences.

Friday, April 15, 2011

'Rio' should fly to the top, with 'Scream 4' close behind

By Sarah Sluis

On the heels of its record-breaking weekend overseas, Rio (3,826 theatres) will open stateside and ruffle the feathers of competing family flick Hop. The CG talking animal flick shows off Rio de Janeiro's Rio trio beaches and favelas, leading critic Daniel Eagan to predict that "the action, slapstick, and irresistible images of Rio itself will delight children." The film's 3D should boost the box office, but it also adds to the story winningly, by "saving the big effects for special occasions like a fly-around of the Christ the Redeemer statue" and an "encounter with a table saw." Fox should expect at least $30 million this weekend, along with sizeable weekday returns from Spring-breaking kids.

The legendary Scream franchise returns with Scream 4 (3,305 theatres), the first of a planned trilogy of sequels. Veterans of the franchise (Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette) are paired with Scream costume 4 younger stars (Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere), a combination that will be sure to appeal to those who saw the first franchise in theatres as well as younger audiences that discovered the series on video. The movie's self-referential tone has gained some fans among critics, but the New York Times' Mike Hale is not one of them. "Scream 4 replaces the values of storytelling and suspense with the value of being in on the joke," he concludes. This revival of a decade-old franchise should grab at least $20 million at the box office, reflecting a smart move by parent distributor Weinstein Co.

Focusing on the trial of Mary Surratt for her role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, The Conspirator (707 theatres) has a "relevancy to recent happenings [which] gives an added frisson of Conspirator house
interest to the story," notes critic Shirley Sealy. With a cast led by Robin Wright, James McAvoy, Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Kline, director Robert Redford "puts together some fine actors giving exceptionally fine performances." This "emotionally powerful story" should crack the top ten with a number in the low single-digit millions.

Targeting those subscribing to tea party politics, Atlas Shrugged: Part I (300 theatres) could be a surprise hit, or, as THR predicts, a flop. Variety notes that the movie is accounting for 15% of advance sales on Fandango. Never underestimate a group's ability to mobilize.

For those living in New York City, the Danish war documentary Armadillo (1 theatre) offers a gripping look into life as a soldier in Afghanistan. I spoke highly of the movie yesterday, and it's a must for fans of Restrepo.

On Monday, we'll see if Rio was able to soar above the $30 million mark and if Scream 4 scared both veteran and newbie audiences.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Controversial war doc 'Armadillo' follows Danish soldiers in Afghanistan

By Sarah Sluis

As an American, it's impossible to watch war documentaries like Restrepo and Gunner Palace without evaluating where you stand politically. These are our troops, and the question "Should we bring our troops home?" constantly comes up. While watching the Danish war documentary Armadillo, I felt more politically agnostic. In Denmark, the film ignited huge controversy, but American viewers will benefit Armadillo from a slight remove that allows them to reflect on the nature of soldiers in war. Yesterday, I saw the documentary at a screening in New York City that included a panel with director Janus Metz, Danish journalist Louise Stigsgaard Nissen and American journalist/filmmaker Brian Palmer.

Along with a cinematographer, Metz embedded himself with the troops for a six-month deployment in Afghanistan. The government gave him more access than the U.S. government, on the condition that they "security screen" the film. During debriefing sessions, soldiers have an informal rapport with their commanding officers, clearly voicing where they "sucked" and what they did great. To a U.S. audience, that registers as disrespect (or enlightened, by allowing enlisted men to point out things that might go unnoticed), but American journalist/filmmaker Palmer pointed out that U.S. embeds don't have access to such sessions--"The U.S. learned their lesson from Vietnam."

Metz includes very humanizing and sometimes unflattering portraits of the soldiers. They hire a topless stripper for their going-away party. They watch porn on their laptops. He also shows their playful side--wrestling with each other and hot-rodding around on motorbikes within the base walls. Most of these soldiers are intent on seeing action, becoming heroes, but they don't have much of a chance to do so. They mainly go on patrols, trampling through fields in an effort to show force and hold the area. Sometimes they get hit by IEDs, a fate that wounds the greatest amount of men. The lucky ones end up with amputated limbs.

When the soldiers finally see action, they go overboard. In a firefight with the Taliban, they're told that the fighters are directly in front of them, in a ditch. One man throws a grenade, wounding four soldiers, and then the men finish them off with 20 to 30 bullets. This is a grey area: Do you go into a ditch to rescue armed Taliban members, or do you kill the soldiers, who are most likely about to die? None of the soldiers ended up being tried by the military police, but it's interesting how the investigation was opened--a soldier blabbed about the incident to his mother, who contacted the authorities.

Metz's project was originally intended for a television program, but he had higher aspirations. "I didn't Armadillo._Explosion see the point of going into these situations for a half hour of television." Technically, the movie is top-notch, with bright, colorful cinematography that puts you straight in the action. Some of the coverage during battles was provided by soldiers wearing cameras on their helmets, giving viewers a "first person camera" experience not unlike a video game. Metz plays with this fact even further, in one case match cutting from an explosion on the soldiers' video-game screen to an explosion in the real world. These men want to play heroes and be part of the mythology of warfare.

Though perhaps this is not the documentary's intent, Armadillo makes clear that this war is unwinnable. The men are prisoners of their own fort. The Taliban will shoot at them during patrols from civilians' houses, and disappear. Make a bomb, and disappear. Their war is one of attrition. The Taliban would never have enough resources to attack the base, but the men cannot go more than 800 to 1000 meters outside before encountering fire.

Just as in the movie Restrepo, the base code-named Armadillo was abandoned some time after filming ended. It was just too hard to hold down.

The Lorber Films release will open on April 15 at the IFC Center in New York City. It won the Grand Prix at the Semaine de la Critique at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A talented crowd gathers for 'Cloud Atlas'

By Sarah Sluis

If Cloud Atlas can be pulled off, it will be a big hit. That much I'll acknowledge. Tom Hanks will star. And an unusual trio of writers/directors will tackle the job together: Andy and Lana Wachowski of the Matrix series, as well as Tom Tykwer, whose memorable breakthrough film, Run Lola Run, has a spot among Mitchell cloud atlas my all-time favorites. All three are set to co-write and co-direct.

Cloud Atlas is based on a book by David Mitchell that features six interlocking stories with different main characters. Variety calls it "the fantastical story of humankind, told through the past, present and future as one soul is shaped from a murderer into a savior and a single act of kindness ripples out for centuries" [emphasis mine]. Did this description just give away the ending--is the "one soul" what ties all these six stories together? offers the following excerpt from Publishers Weekly:

"Each of the narratives is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book. Among the volume's most engaging story lines is a witty 1930s-era chronicle, via letters, of a young musician's effort to become an amanuensis for a renowned, blind composer and a hilarious account of a modern-day vanity publisher who is institutionalized by a stroke and plans a madcap escape in order to return to his literary empire."

Wow. The scope of this movie is astonishing--I really can't imagine six interlocking stories that are fully fleshed out. I can't imagine the script not omitting or condensing some of the storylines. But the subject matter hits the sweet spot of both the Wachowskis and Tykwer. Tykwer's Run Lola Run repeated the action three times, varying the characters' fate to immensely satisfying results. And, of course, who can forget The Matrix, with its labyrinthine worlds created by a few swipes of computer code. There's also been a trend in both drama and romantic comedies to go for multiple storylines that support one overarching theme--Crash, Valentine's Day, Mother and Child, and Amores Perros all fit the bill.

In the project's favor, the movie already has a production start date: September. This is one movie that won't be languishing in development. Warner Bros. (the studio that gambled successfully on Inception) will distribute stateside. Focus will handle international sales. IMDB lists Halle Berry and James McAvoy as other rumored cast members. Who knows--this movie could be the next Inception, and it might actually make more sense.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Start your clocks: A '24' movie is planned for 2012

By Sarah Sluis

I remember when "24" premiered way back in 2001, just a couple months after 9/11. Not exactly the best time for a show about terrorism to hit the airwaves. "24" surmounted that hurdle and went on to run for nine years and eight seasons, each delivering on its initial gimmick: An episode would cover one hour of action, in real time. Over 24 episodes, each season would cover 24 hours. In fact, "24"'s counter-terrorism mission ended up being very much an emblem of the zeitgeist, as critiques of the 24_wallpaper_1024x768 show's use of torture, for example, dovetailed into debates about the U.S. government's use of waterboarding.

Now, it's official: A "24" movie is in the works for 2012. The "24" feature will most certainly stick to the show's real-time premise, covering perhaps two hours of a crisis being handled by the fictional government agency "CTU" (Counter Terrorism Unit). Star Kiefer Sutherland is said to be excited about the storytelling opportunities of a film version. Imagine Entertainment, the label headed by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, will produce the feature adaptation of "24." Not many production companies work as much in both film and television as Imagine, so "24" is lucky to have the same company behind both the series and the movie. It will make for a seamless transition within a well-oiled company.

That's not to say the movie hasn't had a number of false starts. Back when "24" was wrapping up, there was some speculation that the series would end in a cliffhanger that would finish at the movie theatres. That didn't happen. Then, a few months ago, Fox passed on the initial "24" script. Now it appears a rewrite was enough for Fox to give the movie a green light. Tony Scott, who has a long history with ticking-clock films, will direct. Scott's last two films were set on trains with bombs/explosive chemicals (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable), so I hope 24 doesn't continue on with the train premise, especially when there are so many other places to store bombs and plots to kill heads of state.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Second week at the top for 'Hop'

By Sarah Sluis

The animated Easter bunny picture Hop enjoyed its second week in first place, dropping 42% to $21.7 million. Its performance is on par with March's Rango, but Hop will probably do better financially due to the live-action/CG hybrid's lower budget. With two more weekends until Easter, Hop should continue to play well but will have tough competition next week when Rio, which opened #1 in a number of international markets this weekend, debuts in the U.S. this Friday.

Arthur helen mirren russell brand_ Russell Brand provides the voice of the bunny in Hop, but his other new release, Arthur, opened to a disappointing $12.6 million. In comparison, Get Him to the Greek, which featured Brand as a co-star, opened to $17 million last year. Critics were not kind to the tale of a lovable billionaire alcoholic, giving it just 25% positive Rotten Tomatoes rating. Brand, a beloved U.K. star, has been trying to break out in America for several years. If the movie plays well in the U.K., Arthur's flat performance stateside will confirm that Brand just can't cross over in a live-action vehicle--although I don't understand why, because I find him extremely funny.

Hanna opened third with $12.3 million, an impressive opening for an assassin film intended for a more arty, indie crowd. Focus Features went for the same auteur action formula with last fall's The American, Hanna saoirse ronan which opened to $13.1 million with a considerably bigger star on the marquee, George Clooney. Teen star Saoirse Ronan will be seen next in The Hobbit, if you believe what you see on IMDB (she hasn't been confirmed in the role yet).

Following closely in fourth place, Soul Surfer rode in with $11.1 million. The largely young, female audience raved about the film, giving the religious-themed sports picture an A+ CinemaScore rating. The areas in the U.S. farthest from the coasts did the best, including Nashville and Oklahoma City.

The loser of this week's quartet of new releases was Your Highness, which finished with $9.5 million. The stoner adventure film underperformed, earning just a fraction of the $23 million opening weekend Your highness table portman mcbride attained by director David Gordon Green's last comedy, Pineapple Express.

One spot above Your Highness, haunted house movie Insidious did what horror movies almost never do. Instead of dropping 50-70%, the movie's audience went down just 27% to $9.7 million, another win for distributor FilmDistrict, which picked up the movie for a song and spent heavily on marketing.

Among specialty releases, IMAX film Born to be Wild made the biggest splash, earning $850,000 from 206 locations. The well-reviewed Meek's Cutoff proved to be more of a critic's gem than an audience favorite, settling with just $11,000 per screen on two theatres, a modest debut for a film with a 86% positive Rotten Tomatoes rating among critics.

This Friday, American audiences will be able to catch Rio, which had the highest international debut of the year. Horror fans can white-knuckle it for Scream 4, and historical drama The Conspirator will open in select theatres.

Friday, April 8, 2011

'Hop' provides tough competition for 'Arthur,' 'Soul Surfer,' 'Hanna'

By Sarah Sluis

Four new movies will be hitting theatres this weekend, but last week's Hop is a near-lock for grabbing first place again. The Easter-themed CG/live-action film earned $37 million last weekend, and will likely drop less than 50% this weekend, standard for animated, family-driven movies.

Russell brand greta gerwig arthur The remake of the 1981 comedy Arthur (3,276 theatres) should approach $20 million but fall short of beating Hop. Russell Brand, who also lends his voice for the bunny tale, stars as a rich alcoholic who finds love just as he's being pushed into a marriage to a cold high-achiever. While the first Arthur was a word-of-mouth hit, the remake fails "to recapture the magic," according to critic Kevin Lally. One highlight is Greta Gerwig as Arthur's love interest. She goes from "Mumblecore darling" to "very endearing and natural as the down-to-earth Naomi," the role originally played by Liza Minnelli.

Soul Surfer (2,214 theatres) is my pick for an overperformer. Based on the true story of teen surfing Soul surfer star Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack, the drama also incorporates Hamilton's faith strongly, a surefire way to attract the religious crowd that helped make The Blind Side a hit. One problem the movie will have to overcome is the 127 Hours curse--people that don't want to see a movie with a gruesome amputation. However, I saw one of those "test screening" television commercials this week that featured enthusiastic pre-teens raving about the movie. I was a convert, and critic Doris Toumarkine confirms that the movie is "paradoxically, remarkably uplifting."

Your Highness (2,769 theatres) is an "earnest, messy and often quite funny" spoof of "'80s-era medieval romps," according to critic Ethan Alter. That's a nice way of saying "stoner Princess Bride comedy." Oddly populated with both an Oscar nominee (James Franco) and a winner (Natalie Portman) from this year, Your Highness also stars Danny McBride and Zooey Deschanel in "one of the oddest comedies to emerge from a major Hollywood studio in recent years." The only R-rated film of the week, this fantasy-comedy-adventure should at least top $10 million.

Hanna gun saoirse ronan Rounding out the bunch is Hanna (2,535 theatres), which stars Saoirse Ronan as a teen assassin. Director Joe Wright fills the film with stylistic and musical flourishes, but critic Rex Roberts bemoaned that the actioner "starts out edgy and fresh, but runs out of steam and imagination." I predict that young film buffs will be entranced with the movie's showy use of sound, long takes, and other cinephile big-ticket items. Unlike Sucker Punch, this girl-driven action movie is far from being a purely male fantasy, which should broaden appeal.

The most notable specialty release is Meek's Cutoff (2 theatres), which comes from director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy). Set on the Oregon Trail, the story centers on three families lost on a difficult route. Alter praised Reichardt for "telling an epic story in an astonishingly intimate fashion." She "immerses you in a way of life long since vanished without feeling like a dry history lesson."

On Monday, I'll see where the quartet of new releases landed in the top ten, and which films drew moviegoers.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Trailer review: 'Crazy, Stupid, Love'

By Sarah Sluis

Steve Carell nailed the sexually innocent, romantically awkward character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and it appears that he's returning to the same territory in Crazy, Stupid, Love. The romantic comedy has a well-known cast: Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, Emma Stone, and Kevin Bacon play supporting roles. The trailer for Crazy, Stupid, Love just came out, and it exceeded my expectations.

First, Crazy, Stupid, Love appears to put story first, comedy second, which for me is more likely to result in appreciative laughter. Unfortunately, I know the movie puts story first because the trailer all but gives away the ending. Oh well. Carell plays a husband who just found out his high school sweetheart wife (Moore) cheated on him. He ends up meeting a player (Gosling), who helps him up his game enough to snag a cute woman (Tomei). But Carell still loves his wife! And Gosling just fell in love, not lust, with another woman (Stone)! It seems like the story will end with Carell back in the arms of his wife and Gosling learning from Carell how to commit. It's really too bad that the trailer had to give that story arc away--I think the idea of the player learning from the longtime husband is really sweet, and unexpected. In a lot of these movies, only the main character undergoes a transformation.

Of all the performances, I was most surprised by Gosling's take on a ladies' man. I know him mainly for his dramatic role in Blue Valentine, so seeing him as a slick, fast-talking guy was something of a surprise. The rest of the cast plays versions of their already established star personas. For the second year in a row, Moore is playing a likeable cheater (The Kids Are All Right). Stone again plays a smart girl skeptical of male intentions (Easy A), and Tomei is doing her sexually assertive thing.

The trailer cuts out some of the more suggestive punchlines, so I'm going to bet this movie is going for a PG-13 vibe, especially because the movie also includes teen romance, Carell and Moore's son's lusting after his babysitter. Back in December, Warner Bros. moved the comedy from April 22 to July 29, the surest sign that this romantic comedy can stand up to the heat of summer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Release spotlight: 'Meek's Cutoff' brings indie sensibility to the Western

By Sarah Sluis

I was more than a little surprised to find out that director Kelly Reichardt's next film would be set in 1845. On the Oregon Trail. Like her previous film, Wendy and Lucy, the movie takes place in Oregon and centers on a journey, but all those bonnets and wagons in Meek's Cutoff threw me for a loop. The MeeksStill1 film centers on three families traversing the Oregon Trail in the route's early days. They have enlisted a wilderness man as a guide, but he has them lost in the middle of the desert without water. One of the settlers (Michelle Williams) spots an Indian, and fights against having him killed. She wants him as a guide. But will he be able to get them to water in time?

Meek's Cutoff touches on certain aspects of the Western genre, but lightly. Reichardt isn't trying to make an anti-Western, but rather provide a window into the day-to-day life of settlers. The days on the trail unfold with the precision, detail, and quiet of an Italian neorealist film. You feel the significance and tedium of the daily chores as if you were a settler yourself. Meek's Cutoff is also unique for its portrayal of women. Williams displays some of the spunk and initiative of the young Mattie Ross in True Grit, but Reichardt takes care to point out how customs exclude the women from decision-making. In more than one scene, the men discuss what to do next, while the women stand back a distance, unconsulted. Instead they listen, but with the concentration of someone calculating their next chess move.

MeeksStill2 As with Wendy and Lucy, watching Meek's Cutoff can feel a little tedious, since the movie focuses so much on minute details. While the tension builds, the ending is abrupt, which I kind of expected. There were no signs that the narrative would end up tied in a bow. Meek's Cutoff is best viewed as an experience, a museum exhibit with a point-of-view. While I was unclear on the historical background at the time, the title refers to a "shortcut" that guide Stephen Meek took 200 wagons and one thousand people through. Though they eventually navigated through the treacherous terrain, over twenty people died. I assume that the movie limited itself to three wagons for budgetary reasons, but it ends up providing added dramatic impact. With just nine people on the screen, it's easier to see how alone and lost these settlers are. In the desert, I'm sure the settlers felt alone even with a thousand people, which registers as a giant crowd on screen.

The Oscilloscope Laboratories release premiered at Sundance, where the wild landscape of the surrounding area must have provided a pause--how the West has changed in the past 150 years. The movie will release this Friday in New York City, with additional cities to follow.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Will Smith and son Jaden to star in M. Night Shyamalan's latest

By Sarah Sluis

M. Night Shyamalan seems to be forever chasing the success of his first film, The Sixth Sense. Sometimes I wonder if all his twists are really getting worse, or if audiences have simply come to expect the unexpected, ruining the surprise. After striking out last year with The Last Airbender, which he Jaden smith directed but did not write, he's again chosen to direct a project that he did not write--wisely, I might add. Once titled One Thousand A.E., the futuristic sci-fi movie has been extensively reworked. What's more, the project originally had Bruce Willis, Bradley Cooper, and Gwyneth Paltrow attached. Now it has Will Smith and his son Jaden signed on for the starring roles. It must have taken a few rewrites to incorporate these casting changes, unless Bradley Cooper was playing Bruce Willis' son, which is only plausible if Willis were a teen father.

Jaden will star as a kid who must traverse an abandoned (post-apocalyptic?) Earth after a spaceship crash, in search of his father (Will Smith). Will Smith's role would be considerably smaller. In this project's favor is Will Smith's successful run of sci-fi movies, including his turn as a post-apocalyptic hero in I Am Legend. Father and son have also starred together in The Pursuit of Happyness, and Jaden held his own in the remake of The Karate Kid last year, a surprise hit. The negatives? From a publicity standpoint, the idea of family working together is endearing, but there have also been rants in the blogosphere that Will Smith is pushing both of his children (daughter Willow is a budding pop star) into the limelight. Then there's M. Night. He's gone from being a budding auteur to someone who's been pigeonholed as a "suspense & twist" director, and just hasn't been able to deliver that effectively in his subsequent films. The Last Airbender was an attempt to branch out, and that didn't work so well. In fact, The Karate Kid outperformed Airbender, with just a third of the budget. Columbia Pictures, which produced Karate Kid and is taking over this sci-fi project from sister label Sony, must be betting that Jaden's rising star power and M. Night's talent will result in a home run.

Monday, April 4, 2011

'Hop' skips and jumps to first place

By Sarah Sluis

Families turned out en masse for Hop, earning the Easter Bunny flick $38.1 million, the highest opening weekend of the year. A number in the high $20 millions was expected, so this opening was leaps Chicks easter egg and bounds ahead of projections. Critics may have sniffed and grimaced, but the CG/live-action hybrid appears to be a winning genre at the box office, not to mention more economical and quicker to produce than an animation-only movie. Hop opened above CG/live-action mixes G-Force and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, but failed to outperform the holy grail of the medium, Alvin and the Chipmunks. Easter is the last Sunday of April, giving Hop three more weekends to take advantage of its holiday tie-in.

Sci-fi actioner Source Code debuted in second place with $15 million. Similarly sci-fi infused titles The Adjustment Bureau and Limitless both opened at $18 million, so Summit probably had higher hopes for the "Groundhog Day on an exploding train" flick.

Haunted house movie Insidious finished with $13.4 million. With 500 fewer theatres than Source Code, Insidious the horror pic actually had a higher per-screen average than the action movie. According to Variety, Insidious cost less than $1 million to produce but had $20 million of marketing behind it. The release is the first for distributor FilmDistrict, which is starting out strong with an unusual budget/marketing ratio.

The PG-13 version of The King's Speech didn't seem to revive the box office. The picture dropped 23% to $1.1 million, the same drop as the previous week. Given the millions The Weinstein Co. spend on new prints and publicity, the re-rated version doesn't seem to be an (instant) success, although the distributor noted that more conservative markets like Salt Lake City, Utah, showed the greatest improvements.

The movers and shakers in the specialty market were Win Win and Jane Eyre. Both films have increased week-over-week since they opened three and four weeks ago, respectively. Jane Eyre went up 27% to $1.2 million, doubling the amount of theatres in its release. Win Win skyrocketed 153% to $1.1 million, increasing the theatres in its release by a factor of six. The Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Film In a Better World opened to an $8,800 per-screen average. The Danish movie debuted lower than last year's winner, The Secret in Their Eyes.

This Friday 80s comedy remake Arthur will open widest, followed by stoner comedy Your Highness, girl assassin pic Hanna, and Soul Surfer, the tale of a teen surfer who survived a shark attack.

Friday, April 1, 2011

'Hop' poised to jump straight to the top

By Sarah Sluis

Releasing well in advance of the Easter holiday, Hop will spring into 3,577 theatres and shows all signs of landing in first place. Critic Frank Lovece rated it a "Santa Clause 2.6," which is pretty close to the Easter bunny chicks hop terrible Santa Clause 3. He also bristled at the movie's message of nepotism, since a lazy heir triumphs over the underdog hard worker. The film's mix of live action and CG historically results in a very kid-specific following, with poor reviews having no effect on the great box office (See director Tim Hill's Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties and Alvin and the Chipmunks 1&2). Hop should accrue at least $25 million in its opening weekend.

In retrospect, it's surprising someone didn't turn Groundhog's Day into an action film sooner. In Source Code (2,961 theatres), Jake Gyllenhaal plays an army operative who must relive over and over the final minutes before a terrorist attack explodes a train. The exercise is supposed to give him time to figure out what went wrong, but he also finds time to fall in love with a girl, too. Could love save the day? Critic Maitland McDonagh pronounces the sci-fi Source code train gyllenhall monaghan actioner a "good ride" that's "slick, shiny, sweetly gratifying and clever enough that you don't have to feel dumb for enjoying it." Adult fare has been lacking in recent weeks, so Source Code should do well, perhaps in the high teen millions.

An F-word free The King's Speech will make its PG-13 debut in 1,011 theatres. Will the change in rating make much of a difference? I haven't seen any ads proclaiming the movie's toned-down rating, but maybe I'm just the wrong audience. Currently, the Oscar-winning drama is hovering just outside of the top ten, so the rating change and added marketing could be enough to launch it back onto the box-office radar screen.

A back-to-basics haunted-house movie, Insidious (2,408 theatres) comes from Saw creators James Insidious seance Wan and Leigh Whannell. Their "trust in human emotion" and focus on "two ordinary parents [taking] their stand against God only knows to save their child" pays off, according to McDonagh. Though it's not a perfect example of the haunted-house film, she gives the duo credit for "keeping the atmosphere thick with menace as long as they do."

The Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World, will open in 4 theatres. The drama juxtaposes violence among Danish schoolboys with violence in Kenya, which critic Erica Abeel sums up as "a deeply involving film unafraid of raw, visceral emotion, a film that for once thinks almost too big."

On Monday, we'll measure Hop's leaps and see how close Source Code followed. Insidious may surprise, given horror films' strong opening weekends, and it will also be the first test for newbie distributor FilmDistrict. Perhaps the biggest surprise will be The King's Speech, which has already grossed $138 million with its R rating. Are there any more viewers out there?