Friday, September 30, 2011

'50/50' has a chance at making the top spot

By Sarah Sluis

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a cancer patient in the dramedy 50/50 (2,458 theatres). The ads I've seen have gone for the stoner comedy angle, which has also been helped by the presence of dude actor Seth Rogen, who plays the man's friend. The casting and marketing should make the cancer-themed
5050 dudes movie an easier sell, and there's a chance a mid-teen millions opening will drive this picture to the top spot. 50/50 will have tough competition from The Lion King, which has reigned at the box office for the past two weeks, as well as Moneyball and feel-good family pic Dolphin Tale. These three titles should hold above $10 million.

Thanks to the "essential mystery of casting," the romantic comedy What's Your Number? (3,002 theatres) gets a thumbs-up from David Noh. Anna Faris, who's similarly enlivened stereotypical roles in movies like The House Bunny (a surprise hit), stars as a woman who decides she's slept with too many guys and tracks down her previous sexual partners in search of Mr. Right. Faris' "delectably quirky grace" should bring this movie above $10 million, but still Whats your number anna faris lower than The House Bunny's $14.6 million summer debut.

Stars Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz met on the set of Dream House (2,660 theatres), later getting married. Considering that Dream House didn't screen for critics, it appears that Weisz and Craig were too busy giving each other googly eyes to widen their eyes in faux-fear and possibly save what looks to be a bad horror movie.

The faith-based production company behind Fireproof returns with Courageous (1,161 theatres), the tale of four police officers struggling with their religion. With over $2 million in advance ticket sales, this movie could surprise by driving infrequent moviegoers to the theatres.

On the specialty circuit, the fabulous character actor Michael Shannon stars in Take Shelter (3 theatres) as a man haunted by visions of an epic storm that may or may not be signs that he's delusional. The ever-present Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Take shelter Debt, The Tree of Life) co-stars as his wife in the "eerie drama" critic Kevin Lally found "gripping." I reviewed Margaret (2 theatres), a drama I found imperfect in whole but composed of beautifully rendered scenes. The long-delayed movie is worth seeing for these moments of artistry, or as a cautionary tale of a film stuck for years due to lawsuits, indecision, and politics.

On Monday, we'll see where the half-dozen films in close competition land in the top ten.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Trailer for 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' goes for mainstream audiences

By Sarah Sluis

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has "prestige Oscar picture" written all over it. Most of the creative team has multiple Oscar nominations under their belt, with a couple wins. That includes director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, three nominations), producer Scott Rudin (four nominations with one win), and screenwriter Eric Roth (four nominations with one win for Forrest Gump). The source material, a novel by literary wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer, has received numerous accolades. Anyone who's into indie, arty films has probably also heard of the book.

Yet the trailer for the movie, which is set for release on Christmas, goes for mainstream audiences, not art-seeking ones. Given the touching subject matter, it's not too much of a surprise. This is a story about a boy mourning his father, who he lost on 9/11. He finds a key in his father's closet and goes on a search for the lock. The book was known for its innovative writing style, use of graphics, photographs, and textual play, but all that subtlety doesn't appear in the trailer. Instead, it goes for tears set to a U2 soundtrack. I wouldn't be surprised if people are heard sniffling after the trailer.

There could be an explanation for the mainstream feel of the trailer. The movie is targeting a wide release come January and certainly Paramount wants as many people as possible to see it. Perhaps they decided to go for the heartfelt bits that would most appeal to audiences unfamiliar with the text, and trust that fans of Foer's book would turn out anyway. Or the movie has been diluted from the book. As someone who isn't the biggest fan of Foer's writing style, I'd rather see the movie. If Daldry ends up with the same comedy-drama tone of his 2000 film Billy Elliot, I will be thrilled--and I won't call it schmaltzy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Will Katherine Heigl spawn a franchise with 'One for the Money'?

By Sarah Sluis

Back when I watched "Grey's Anatomy," Katherine Heigl was one of the series' most compelling performers. Her star personality oozed warmth and accessibility. But then everything in the press started turning against her. She trashed the film Knocked Up for being sexist, a move many found both unprofessional and ungrateful. She dropped out of Valentine's Day due to a salary dispute, and similar sparring led to her demise on "Grey's Anatomy." There were rumors going around that she needed a different leading man to star with her in each film because no one would work with her again. Then her latest film, One for the Money, had numerous release date changes. Pushed from the summer lineup, it's now going for a January 27, 2012, release date. Yes, the January doldrums. Last year, a couple films released to modest success, like No Strings Attached ($70 million) and The Green Hornet ($98 million), but it's certainly not the place one would imagine positioning a budding franchise.

The trailer for Heigl's One for the Money released this week, giving viewers a first glimpse of Heigl as the best-selling Stephanie Plum character. Heigl sports an on-and-off Jersey accent and the plot is unexpectedly blue-collar. Plum is a lingerie saleswoman who is laid off and finds work as a bail bondswoman. One of her first missions is tracking down an ex for whom she still has feelings. It's surprisingly trashy, from her abrasive, done-up co-worker to seeing Sherri Shepherd ("The View") play a hungry, hungry hooker.

Despite the delays and Heigl's tainted image, could this movie be the first in a franchise? Female-driven films have done surprisingly well at the box office lately. One for the Money is based on a series of books by Janet Evanovich that has sold millions of copies. While plenty of male-driven pulp series have been turned into action and crime franchises, the same hasn't happened for female-targeted series. One for the Money could surprise, as long as it's not a stinker. That's one scent that spoils the word-of-mouth that female-driven films rely on. The trailer, sadly, does not exclude that possibility.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Will Netflix be the new HBO?

By Sarah Sluis

Years after the technology for video streaming was first introduced, the technology's potential is finally being monetized in a big way. When Netflix first started video streaming (around 2005, if I remember correctly), I watched choppy videos on a computer that constantly seemed to be buffering. Now, my television has a "Netflix" button. I browse for and watch flawless, unpixelated videos without any Netflix problems 98% of the time. In recent months, Netflix has made three bold business decisions that promise to shake up the entertainment industry. One, they acquired the rights to the original series "House of Cards," putting Netflix in the company of premium cable channels like Showtime and HBO that combine movies with original content. Two, they raised prices and split their company in two, Netflix and Qwikster. DVD-by-mail and streaming will now be totally separate. Finally, they outbid HBO for exclusive rights to stream DreamWorks Animation's content. Netflix is looking a lot less like mail-order Blockbuster and more like HBO.

Neflix has always been a forward-thinking company. They named their company "Net"-flix when they were a DVD-by-mail service, and their company culture is something of a legend (check out this human resources-created Power Point, which includes an outline of their "unlimited vacation time" policy). It's interesting to see them make so many high-profile strategic changes in such a short period of time.

So far, it appears Netflix is primarily repositioning itself in the home entertainment market, meaning there won't be any threat for theatre owners. Blockbuster may be bankrupt, but Netflix can now count premium cable channels as well as Amazon Prime (which just signed a streaming deal with Fox's TV shows) as competition. There's also a chance that the cost of making these deals will raise the price of Netflix's services. The company reportedly paid DreamWorks $30 million a title, a steep sum when their customers currently pay just $7.99 a month for streaming. With over 20 million subscribers, Netflix does have hundreds of millions at play to acquire content, but it will be a struggle for the company to satisfy 100% of a customer's needs when they've separated DVD-by-mail into a separate business, Qwikster. The companies will now operate with separate queues and billing. Netflix may have willingly gotten rid of its most potent advantage in the business. It's no longer a one-stop shop for any title on a consumer's to-see list.

Monday, September 26, 2011

'Lion King' reigns supreme over 'Moneyball' and 'Dolphin Tale'

By Sarah Sluis

For the second week in a row, the re-release of The Lion King (which included 3D screens) grabbed the most box office, finishing with $22.1 million, a dip of 26%. The success of Disney's classic animated tale will surely inspire other studios to scramble to find movies in their libraries to re-release and add Moneyball brad pitt more to their bottom lines. However, The Lion King is part of a rarefied group. With the extra $60 million the movie has earned, it's now the twelfth-highest grossing movie of all time, domestically. In fact, The Lion King may make its way into the top ten if it stays in release for a couple more weeks.

According to weekend estimates, Moneyball currently has a narrow claim on second place over Dolphin Tale, earning $20.6 million to the third place finisher's $20.2 million. While the positive reviews at the Toronto Film Festival all but guaranteed that Moneyball would debut strongly, Dolphin Tale's success is a bit more of a surprise. The movie earned an A+ CinemaScore from viewers, the same high mark given by Soul Surfer's Dolphin tale audience. Inspirational, PG-rated movies are something of a rarity in the market, and the addition of an injured dolphin to the formula (hearkening back to Free Willy) probably boosted returns even higher. Alcon Entertainment, which produced The Blind Side, was also behind Dolphin Tale. There's a certain group of movies about overcoming adversity that seem to hit a sweet spot with viewers. It can't be a depressing, Precious level of adversity, but just enough to warm the heart. These kinds of movies (I'm thinking of Marley & Me, The Pursuit of Happyness, Soul Surfer, The Blind Side) have resonated widely with audiences.

Taylor Lautner should redouble his efforts in romances like the Twilight series because Abduction earned $11.2 million by wrangling up audiences that were 68% female and mostly under 25--the opposite of a normal action movie's demographics. However, considering critics gave the movie a 3% Abduction taylor lautner positive rating, an eight-digit opening weekend is probably the best this poorly received movie can hope for. Unsurprisingly, females under 18 gave the movie an A-, while everyone else's scores averaged out to a B-.

Killer Elite, the first effort from newbie distributor Open Road, finished on the low side of expectations with $9.5 million. Jason Statham is something of an action movie workhorse, but many of his other actioners have doubled this opening weekend, including The Mechanic and Transporter 3. Still, with its solid cast, which includes Robert De Niro and Clive Owen, this movie should do well in home markets.

The gay romance Weekend, which our critic David Noh raved about, should have planned for a bigger run. It earned $25,000 over the weekend to sold-out screenings at one theatre. Its performance in coming weekends should be strong, especially if it expands to other locations. Other specialty releases had more middling results. Machine Gun Preacher averaged $11,000 per screen at four locations. Cameron Crowe-directed rockumentary Pearl Jam Twenty did slightly better, averaging $12,700 per screen at seven locations.

This Friday, cancer comedy 50/50 will hit theatres along with romantic comedy What's Your Number?, the thriller Dream House and the faith-based drama Courageous.

Friday, September 23, 2011

'Moneyball' aims for the bleachers

By Sarah Sluis

The fall is known for being a quiet time for movies, but this year we're already seeing a potential Oscar contender, Moneyball (2,993 theatres), coming out to entertain adult audiences. Sony appears to be Moneyball brad pitt office repeating the same strategy they used for last year's The Social Network, which opened October 1st and still managed to have a strong presence during awards season. Critic Rex Roberts praises the movie for turning the antics of number-crunching back-office executives into "scintillating cinema" that is "eminently enjoyable." Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, a one-time potential star prospect who failed in the major leagues and now manages the impoverished Oakland A's. With the help of a young Yalie (Jonah Hill), he builds a record-breaking team on a low budget by analyzing little-known stats like on-base percentages. Moneyball could top $20 million, especially as critics pile on their love for the movie, which is currently rating 92% positive on Rotten Tomatoes.

Moneyball's toughest competitor will be a feel-good movie with maimed pets and Morgan Freeman. Dolphin Tale (3,507 theatres) is the latest from Alcon Entertainment, which produced The Blind Side. THR's Todd McCarthy described the movie as "an appealing family film that doesn't know when to quit Dolphin tale pen with the uplift." The true-life story centers on a dolphin with an injured tail who receives a prosthetic appendage with the help of community members (including a benevolent billionaire). The aww factor should bring families to the theatre if they aren't catching up on last week's winner, the re-release of The Lion King.

Twilight fans are expected to turn out en masse for Abduction (3,118 theatres), which stars Taylor Lautner, the werewolf boy in the supernatural series. Those that don't fall into the teen girl demographic should only go if they're interested in seeing "the year's most entertaining bad film," a superlative given by critic David Noh. "Unintentional laughs" come from lines like "There's a bomb in the oven" and the threat "I will kill all your friends on Facebook."

Killer Elite (2,986 theatres), the first film from AMC/Regal-created distributor Open Road Films, is "a confusing, unsatisfying action thriller," according to critic Daniel Eagan. Starring Jason Statham, Robert Killer elite jason statham De Niro, and Clive Owen, the movie jumbles together former secret service agents, fights over Middle Eastern oil, and mercenaries in the "clumsy and preposterous" tale. An opening weekend around $10 million is expected, with Abduction and Killer Elite considered close competitiors.

On the specialty front, Noh praises Weekend (1 theatre) as "one of the best gay films ever made," with an "emotional payoff" at the end that's "beautifully observed and quite devastating." I really hate the title of Machine Gun Preacher (4 theatres), which sounds like an exploitation film but is actually the tale of an ex-con (Gerard Butler) who finds God and goes to Sudan and Uganda to help those in need. Critic Kirk Honeycutt acknowledged that it's "solid, worthy effort, but doesn't like to ask too many questions," or delve into a critique of the main character's choices or methods.

On Monday, we'll see in Moneyball hit it out of the park and if audiences responded to the feel-good premise of Dolphin Tale.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rethinking Hollywood do-overs, from 'Scarface' and 'Straw Dogs' to 'The Lion King'

By Sarah Sluis

New York Magazine recently hired producer Gavin Polone (who has pretty solid IMDB credits) as a columnist. His first article's point? Hollywood is making so many bad remakes they're driving everyone away from the theatres. He cites specific movies as examples, concluding that it can be "good" or "understandable" to make remakes, as long as "the filmmaker brings something new to it." (Example: Scarface 1983 True Grit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes for its special effects). Isn't that self-evident? Yet he brings up movies where scripts have been recycled verbatim (The Omen), and the disappointment of last week's Straw Dogs, which tried to remake a classic.

Indeed, there's a certain irony that in the sea of remakes, a re-release like The Lion King can make $30 million in a weekend. Disney didn't have to reshoot or recast the movie, or turn it into CG animation. They didn't even have to show it in 3D (Disney's one upgrade), since many of the viewers chose to see it in 2D. People want to see a good, memorable movie. They want to be entertained. Yet the only way Hollywood can think of to do that is to make bad remakes of good movies? What about seeing the originals?

After reading Polone's article, I came across a short announcement in Variety. Universal plans to remake Scarface, that epic 1983 gangster movie. Will it contribute anything new? According to the article, it "will take elements from the 1932 Howard Hughes pic and 1983 Al Pacino version, wherein a refugee or immigrant rises the ranks of the criminal underworld to eventually become a kingpin." How much does a change of scenery actually mean? From a cultural perspective, it will be interesting to frame the violence in the context of another immigrant group's struggle, but it's not like we have our doors wide open to immigrants anymore, thanks to 9/11-related policies. If the first 1932 film centered on Italian Scarface paul muni immigrants and the second Cubans, where do we go after that?

It's also worth noting that 51 years elapsed between the first and second Scarfaces. If this project goes into development/production quickly, it will be around 30 years between the second and third films. The speed at which projects are recycled has increased to an untenable point. I can understand non-cinephiles not wanting to see the black-and-white Scarface with production code-level violence. But 1983's Scarface is still incredibly watchable, if a little heavy on the cheesy excess of the era. I just saw it for the first time last year! Taking an iconic, much-loved, still-watched movie and remaking it is a recipe for disaster. It didn't work for Straw Dogs, and it won't work for Scarface unless it dramatically overhauls the entire movie--and then, at that point, why do a remake? Why not just start fresh using different plot points? Because that, my friends, is how Hollywood works.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The future of 'Avatar,' on and off the screen

By Sarah Sluis

The second Avatar movie isn't set to release for another three years, in Dec. 2014, but there is plenty of news about the blue-tinged Na'vi.

While James Cameron is filming the sequels to Avatar, Disney plans to create Avatar-themed attractions Avatar james cameron in its Animal Kingdom park Orlando, Florida's, Disney World. It's worth noting that Avatar is a 20th Century Fox property, so Disney must have acquired theme park rights, something it's only ever done before for the non-Disney properties Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Animal Kingdom is one of the newer parks in Disney World, and many of its attractions are weaker than those in other parks. With a couple exceptions, most of the attractions don't tie in to existing film properties, making Avatar a welcome addition to the park's entertainment options. Perhaps that's why Disney was so eager to integrate Avatar into that park, and not, say, Future Land in the Magic Kingdom. Currently, Animal Kingdom has zoo-like attractions, including a safari and a petting zoo, a show about A Bug's Life, a river rapids ride, some train attractions, features on dinosaurs, and a Mt. Everest coaster. None of the attractions focus on the future, except in a vague environmentalist way.

To predict the success of the Avatar attraction, one need only look to Universal Studios' Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The attraction, which includes replicas of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, towns that feature heavily in the series, and a roller coaster ride, opened last year and has boosted attendance in the park astronomically. It seems odd and unfortunate that the attraction opened just a year before the final film--shouldn't they have been able to finish the attraction halfway through the movie series? By starting work before the second and thrid Avatar films have entered production, Disney should be able to open the park in tandem with the final movies' releases.

In related news, James Cameron announced that he plans to film Avatar 2 and 3 at a 60-frame rate, something he first mentioned at this year's CinemaCon. Peter Jackson's The Hobbit will use a 48-frame rate, so Cameron expressed hopes that the ability to project different frame rates will come as a software upgrade, and not by forcing exhibitors to buy new equipment. In fact, his company Lightstorm Entertainment has partnered with Christie to collaborate on research, development, and deployment of the new technology. Cinema owners do not sound as if they will be left in the dark. Between the Avatar theme park and the technological upgrades for which Cameron is advocating, the impact of his multi billion-dollar property continues to flex its strength.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

'J. Edgar': Is this the trailer of an Oscar contender?

By Sarah Sluis

I love early fall. As the weather changes, all the trailers for the hotly anticipated holiday releases drop, hinting at what's in store for audiences. I've already been disappointed by We Bought a Zoo's maudlin sell and shocked by The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn's racy content. Now comes the trailer for director Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime head of the FBI. This is the kind of movie that has "Oscar" written all over it, but execution is everything. The trailer raised expectations for me, with plenty of surprises and interesting facts to pique my interest and make me want to learn more about this man's political impact.

Here are some of the surprises and highlights from the trailer:

1. The biopic will cover his childhood. Judi Dench plays Hoover's mother, and their close relationship is definitely going to be used to explain his hunger for power. Say hello to Freudian mother issues.

2. Star spotting. Shirley Temple pops up in the trailer, as does another starlet with a platinum perm. When it comes to the D.C. elite, I'm pretty sure all the major leaders and power players will be represented.

3. Hoover goes to the front lines! I pictured the movie being more of an office drama, but Hoover appears to be present during certain raids. Explosions, machine guns, wiretapping and mob arrests will help amp up the drama of the picture.

4. Corruption! Hoover's known for abusing his power throughout his decades-long reign, so what to focus on? The trailer includes some illegal peeking at the file of Eleanor Roosevelt (suspected of having trysts with other women), and second, there's implications of blackmailing of the Kennedy clan. Newsreel footage of Martin Luther King Jr.'s and JFK's assassination also figured into the trailer, so Hoover's response to those events should also show up.

5. Homoeroticism? Hoover was suspected of being gay, and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) isn't the type of person to be shy about exploring that aspect of his life. In the trailer, there's a look and an emotional exchange between his "number two" Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer from The Social Network) and Hoover, but it appears to be more on Tolson's side than Hoover's. Based on the trailer alone, it appears that Hoover's too tightly wound to come out of the closet.

Before watching the preview, I was thinking to myself "Another biopic?" Didn't Leonardo DiCaprio already do the aging thing with The Aviator? And hasn't Clint Eastwood done enough serious historical dramas? Now that I've watched the trailer, I'm sold, and excited to learn more about Hoover beyond what's on his already juicy Wikipedia page.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Simba's back with surprising $29.3 million weekend for 'Lion King'

By Sarah Sluis

Seventeen years after the animated behemoth released, The Lion King in 3D easily assumed first place with $29.3 million. In comparison, 2009's 3D double feature of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, also a re-release, opened to just $12.4 million. Why such a difference? For one, The Lion King had a much Lion king longer waiting period between its release and re-release. There were no (theatrical) sequels to give audiences more time with Simba, Nala, Timon and Pumbaa, whereas the Toy Story re-release was more of a prelude to the next installment, Toy Story 3. Second, The Lion Kingplay is still running on Broadway--a sign of the series' continued appeal. Finally, the animated feature was returning in a wide-open market. The last family movie opened five weeks ago, Spy Kids 3, and the critically panned movie has barely earned $30 million since. The only other kid movie, period, still in release is the two-month-old The Smurfs. No wonder families were flocking to the G-rated title. There's nothing else out there.

Contagion moved down one rung to second place, keeping its second week fall to 35% and earning another $14.4 million. Good reviews and the interest of adult audiences should keep this film in the top ten for weeks to come.

Drive opened in third place with $11 million. The Ryan Gosling getaway car drive movie is extremely polarizing, which is a good thing in my book (I'm one of the movie's fans). Though critics gave the Drive ryan gosling hammer movie a 92% positive rating and 81% of Rotten Tomatoes audiences liked the movie, it received only a C- Cinemascore rating--extremely low for a film that has people gushing with praise. An un-Hollywood ending, violence, and the movie's '80s music score were among the things that confused audiences, and judging from these comments walkouts and surprised looks weren't unusual. It's pretty rare for a movie to generate this diversity of responses, so the box office totals of coming weeks will show if this will spell success or disaster for the unusual action thriller.

The remake of Straw Dogs failed to draw in new audiences. Only $5 million in tickets were sold, showing that not every remake of a revered film Straw dogs 1 will result in a home run the second time around.

I Don't Know How She Does It had a tepid debut of $4.5 million. The target audience (80% female, 50% over 35) isn't known for seeing movies opening weekend, so it could hold well in coming weeks, but this movie is the kind that will heat up once it hits Netflix. The working moms in the movie were probably too busy taking their tykes to a showing of The Lion King.

This Friday, the slick sports drama Moneyball will hit theatres along with Abduction, starring Twlight's Taylor Lautner. Rounding out the offerings will be the action thriller Killer Elite and the dolphin-with-prosthetic-fin tearjerker Dolphin Tale.

A Final Potpourri of films from Toronto's 36th

By Sarah Sluis

Film Journal International contributor Erica Abeel reports from the Toronto Film Festival.

Underlining Toronto's role as a launch pad for awards season, this year's fest featured a batch of high-profile films that look on track for the Oscars. Also on tap were plenty of quirkier, less mainstream works unlikely to nab prizes, but most of them richly deserving of attention. Several filmmakers were drawn to characters on the verge - or flat out crazy - who inhabit a world in which fact is braided with imagination and hallucination.

Among this group is Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin, a Sundance darling which offers a breakout performance by Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman who flees a faschistic commune in upstate New York, taking refuge in the upscale Connecticut home of her sister and husband (Sarah Paulson and Martha marcy the superb Hugh Dancy). Though she may have escaped the physical place, Martha's sinister experiences there have left her shattered and unable to adjust to "normal" living. More comatose than awake, she walks in on her hosts mid-coitus and generally behaves like a loony, yet can't articulate her awful secrets.

Shifting fluidly from present to past, Durkin skillfully pays out the story behind Martha's traumatized condition. After joining a close-knit, cultish collective on a farm in the Catskills, she was apparently subjected to some sort of drugged sexual initiation by the patriarch, who remained her partner for a time before moving on to the next recruit. There's worse, including a possible murder and implied infanticide. Durkin wittily contrasts the upscale, stressed-out lives of Martha's well-meaning sister and brother-in-law with the cult's hippy-dippy sharing and austere routines, implying that the socially sanctioned go-getter style has drawbacks of its own. Throughout, the director weaves a mood of menace, all the creepier for its vagueness, so that by the alarming final scene the viewer feels as disoriented as Martha. Durkin brilliantly taps into a current sentiment that even the most protected environments remain vulnerable to unknown predators.

On the face of it, The Woman in the 5th has much going for it: director Pawel Pawlikowski (of the sublime My Summer of Love), Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ethan Hawke, Parisian setting. But unlike Martha, which maintains a balance between fact and imagination, Woman seriously misfires by turning so incoherent it mainly inspires a big "Huh?" Hawke plays a writer who travels from the States to Paris to reunite with his daughter by a French wife. But he has apparently committed so heinous an act (never elucidated; we know only that he was "sick"), the wife has a restraining order forbidding him access to the kid. Meanwhile Hawke is seduced by an alluring Hungarian translator (Scott-Thomas), who may or may not be a creature of his imagination. Fatally, the story never comes into focus, sunk by its own obscurity.

In Toronto, scheduling usually presents impossible choices, as time slots for must-see films tend to overlap with equally enticing others. Alexander Sokurov's Faust ran up against Bruce Beresford's Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, but after Sokurov's big win in Venice, a crowd of journos opted for his 134 minute take on the iconic work. And to judge by all the walk-outs, some made it a quick round trip (a common practice in Toronto that leaves those who remain feeling like jerks). Perhaps it was that early graphic scene of a dissection to locate the seat of the soul that sent journos fleeing - especially those who managed to gobble lunch.

Sokurov's Faust has less to do with Goethe than the filmmaker's own asynchronous version of a story about a restless doctor (Johannes Zeiler) searching for knowledge, love, immortality, you name it. Teasingly leading him on is a sniveling devil figure (Anton Adasinskiy), complete with satyr's tail, who offers him ravishing blonde Margarete (Isolda Dychauk) in exchange for his soul. Mother and Son and Father and Son testified to Sokurov's gift for capturing on screen a strange limbo between dream and reality. Again in Faust, images are fascinatingly skewed and distorted through Sokurov's anamorphic lens, perfectly conveying the doctor's tortured soul. The influence of Flemish and Dutch painting is evident throughout; one light-struck shot of Dychauk comes straight from Vermeer. A shot of her and Faust falling in love - literally falling together into a lake - is to die for. There's even a touch of levity in Hanna Schygulla's cameo as the devil's wife. But generally the narrative remains too opaque for all but intrepid Sokurov fans.

Pivoting from the sublime to the delightfully ridiculous, Whit Stillman's LOL Damsels in Distress also creates a world all its own. In the much-anticipated film - following a long pause after 1998's The Last Days of Disco - a charming Greta Gerwig anchors a nutty parody of college life that could exist only in Damsels in distress Stillman-land. Vaguely set in perhaps the 70's - the women's prissy, button-down styles give little clue - Damsel unscrolls in a retro campus universe, where frat house doofuses never learned to distinguish colors in kindergarten and Gerwig and her merry band run a suicide prevention clinic (that prescribes tap dancing and doughnuts as cures), when they're not obsessing about offensive male odors. Plot such as it is kicks off when Gerwig and friends adopt new girl Analeigh Tipton, enlisting her in their efforts to reform the male population of Neanderthals and comfort any co-ed who's been dumped. With her upscale Brit diction, clique member Megalyn Echikunwoke is a hoot in her dimissals of hapless frat boys; equally so Gerwig, her stilted speech spoofing sophomore pretentiousness. "I'd like to thank you for this chastisement," she says, when Tipton calls her arrogant. There's also a hilarious French boyfriend who styles himself a medieval Cathar, insisting on certain sexual practices he claims are prescribed by his religion. A screwball comedy relocated to a parallel reality, Damsels shows that Stillman still has plenty of arrows in his quiver.

To judge by 360 from Fernando Meirelles (City of God), Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde continues to inspire spinoffs. In this version, toplined by Jude Law and Rachel Weisz, the lovers are linked not so much by a daisy chain but through a broad webbing of circumstance and locale that eventually circles 360 law weisz back to the character in the first story. She's a woman driven by economic need to internet prostitution, and her travails kick start a series of vignettes that largely examine global styles of infidelity, sometimes in humorous fashion. Meirelles applies the same headlong, hand-held manner from City of God to urban malcontents and adulterers, but the stories, some more captivating than others, fail to climax in a unified whole. Also falling short of expectations is Oren Moverman's Rampart, a Woody Harrelson starrer about a corrupt racist cop with no discernible redeeming values. It's a brave portrait of a macho figure who's outlived his time and alienated his daughters, but it's an ugly one. James Ellroy is credited with the story, while Moverman wrote the screenplay, and you sense something got lost in translation.

Far more successful is The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies's adaptation of the Terence Ratigan play. Set in post-war London, it's the story of elegant Hester Collyer (a luminous Rachel Weisz), who discards a cossetted, luxurious life with her staid older husband (Simon Russell Beale) for dashing Freddy Nash Deep blue sea weisz (Tom Hiddleston) a former RAF pilot and party boy. Freddy's inability - or reluctance - to match the intensity of Hester's love drives her to a suicide attempt in their dreary little bedsit. Toggling between present and past, it's revealed that in fact the pair is radically mismatched; "you know we're lethal to each other," he says. It's also implied that with Freddy Hester has experienced sensual satisfaction for the first time. Weisz's victimized Hester is of course a bit retro and pathetic for today's viewers, but even so the pleasures of Deep are manifold. Relying on a sepia-toned palette that seems the very color of remembrance, Davies recreates the look of post-war London with painterly detail, down to the flowered wallpapers and fringed lamp shades. He includes to rousing effect such period songs as "You Belong to Me" and "Molly Malone," drawing as well on the sonorous melancholy of a Samel Barber cello concerto. In Deep Davies recreates the same mesmerizing fever-dreamscape that he captured in Of Time and the City, his exquisite recreation of his native Liverpool.

Friday, September 16, 2011

'Lion King 3D' leading the pride

By Sarah Sluis

This weekend at the box office should be close, with four films settling around the $10 million mark: Lion King 3D, the second week of Contagion, Drive, and Straw Dogs.

Lion King 3D (2,330 theatres) will take advantage of the lack of fresh family titles. Currently, no G or Lion king 2 PG-rated movies are in the top ten, making this a prime time for an animated re-release. Some of the younger parents may have seen the movie as kids themselves in 1994, giving them the chance to reintroduce their little ones to a beloved childhood classic. Because of the high price point of 3D, Disney will actually release the movie in both 2D and 3D. The 2009 re-release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 grossed $12 million its opening weekend, so Lion King 3D hopes to achieve a similar number.

Drive and Straw Dogs will both be competing for the same audiences, mainly young males. Critically, though, Drive (2,886 theatres) is the clear winner. The "coolly beautiful action thriller," according to critic Maitland McDonagh, is "a glittering toy designed to delight a particular kind of movie lover," one Drive ryan gosling gun who will take pleasure in the "bleakly funny deconstruction of genre movie clichs." Ryan Gosling stars as a stunt car operator who moonlights as a getaway car driver. Carey Mulligan and "Mad Men's" Christina Hendricks add female star power. The movie's worth seeing just for its opening chase scene, which is so powerfully slick it will keep your adrenaline running through the rest of the film.

Straw Dogs (2,408 theatres), on the other hand, is a remake that pales in comparison to the 1971 Sam Peckinpah actioner. Its mediocrity is "a liability that increases exponentially with the quality of the original," according to McDonagh. The Straw dogs james marsden violent movie remains "faithful to its underlying notion that civilization is a thin veneer laid over animal instincts," but McDonagh feels this message doesn't have the same cultural resonance it did in the Vietnam era.

Sarah Jessica Parker plays an overcommitted working mom in I Don't Know How She Does It (2,476 theatres), with barely enough time to do anything, much less see a movie. However, those moms will be the prime audience for the comedy this weekend, which is expected to do in the Don't know how she does it sjp $6-8 million range. Because of the overbooked target viewers, this movie should see more traction in weeks to come if it has positive word-of-mouth, and should be especially popular once it hits the home entertainment market.

On Monday, we'll see if Drive's 95% positive approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes allows it to race ahead of Contagion or Lion King 3D.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Italians shine in Toronto with 'The First Man' and 'Terraferma'

By Kevin Lally

My final day at the Toronto International Film Festival began and ended with films by Italian directors whose work I've admired in the past--Gianni Amelio and Emanuele Crialese--and they didn't disappoint.

Amelio (Lamerica) adapted The First Man from an incomplete manuscript by Albert Camus which was Firstman_04_small discovered in the wreckage of the car accident that killed the famed author. The autobiographical tale recounts Camus' impoverished childhood in French Algeria, raised by an illiterate mother and fearsomely strict grandmother. Amelio adds scenes of Camus' surrogate, Jacques Cormery (Jacques Gamblin), returning to his homeland as a celebrated writer in 1957, amidst the violent turmoil between French citizens and native Arabs. In flashbacks to the late 20s, we see the decency and resilience of the young Jacques, and how his outlook is shaped by his family and his future is saved by a teacher who sees his potential. Through his antagonistic relationship with a sullen Arab boy, we also discover why the adult Jacques is willing to speak out for the Arab community despite the raging controversy that erupts among his fellow Frenchmen. Throughout, Amelio's evocative depictions of two different eras and his sensitive direction of his actors add up to a moving portrait of an artist's formation.

With Terraferma, Crialese (Respiro, The Golden Door) creates a masterly drama of colliding cultures on Terraferma_05_jpg_small the tiny island of Linosa, near Sicily. The story centers on a fishing family whose younger generation is embracing the changing times and the opportunities for tourism on their picturesque island. The drama kicks into high gear when the family patriarch rescues a group of illegal African immigrants at sea, one of whom is about to give birth. The family provides the refugees shelter, choosing compassion over the Italian government'sedict that these unwanted visitors must be turned away, even if they're drowning.

The engaging director, who deservedly won the Special Jury Prize at the recent Venice Film Festival,was in Toronto for the Thursday night screening and told a simply incredible story about the casting of first-time actress Timnit T. as the pregnant African. He first saw her face in a news account: She was one of only four survivors out of 77 African refugees on a boat that drifted for three weeks, found barely alive under a pile of dead bodies. Crialese only wanted to meet her, but it became clear that she was perfect for this movie role. She refuses to talk about her past because it is "impossible to express," he said. Happily, he reported that she now lives in Holland, is married and expecting a child this month. It all coincides with Crialese's philosophy that "movies and life are the same"--and his new movie is bursting with life.

I saw 23 movies and one shorts program in six days at Toronto, and I still regret not being able to fit in more movies that sounded decidedly worthwhile. Personal highlights include Steve McQueen's Shame and Alexander Payne's The Descendants, which Erica Abeel has discussed here at Screener; Cedric Kahn's heartbreaking French drama A Better Life (not to be confused with the recent Chris Weitz film of the same name); the wild Norwegian black comedy-thriller Headhunters; the delightful Danish screwball comedy Superclasico; and Andrea Arnold's moody, sensual new version of Wuthering Heights.

As for that shorts program, it was one of six programs of Canadian shorts, and the collection was of generally high caliber. Two of the highlights were Andrew Cividino's inventive, apocalyptic satire We Ate the Children Last, in which pioneering transplants of porcine digestive systems turn human beings into ravenous cannibals; and ORA by Philippe Baylaucq, a dancemovie shown in 3D and filmed using infrared thermal imaging technology. Those who've already given up on 3D thanks to too many shoddy exploitation pictures need onlytake a look at this groundbreaking work of art.

Trailer for 'We Bought a Zoo' surprisingly sappy

By Sarah Sluis

Director Cameron Crowe hasn't made a feature film in six years. 2005's Elizabethtown fell flat on its face, a huge disappointment for those looking for another one of his memorable movies with heart, like Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, or Say Anything... The trailer for his next movie, We Bought a Zoo, just released, but the movie footage portends a filmi that's more tears-and-hugs than anything else he's done before. Think Marley & Me, but with zoo animals instead of a pet dog. For that reason, I actually think this movie may be a commercial success on par with Jerry Maguire, though for different reasons. 20th Century Fox certainly seems to think so, too, giving the movie a prime Dec. 23 release date, the more perfect to capture intergenerational audiences in search of warm-fuzzies around the holidays.

Matt Damon plays a widower with two children. He buys a house that comes with a backyard menagerie addition. Scarlett Johansson appears to be his love interest, who may have come on initially to help out with the zoo animals. Elle Fanning is a sympathetic next-door neighbor and Thomas Haden Church Damon's father.

The trailer serves us classic Crowe-esque elements. Damon quits his job in a public way, a la Jerry Maguire. His father, giving Damon advice--"Attempt to start over. Sunlight. Joy"--reflects the spare, affected dialogue that Crowe has always done so well. Where the movie gives me pause is during this voice-over from Damon: "You don't even need a lot of special knowledge to run a zoo. What you need is a lot of heart." Okay, Crowe is a sensitive filmmaker who specializes in poignancy, but that crosses the line into cheesy. In general, I wasn't totally happy with the pacing of the trailer, especially when it came to the beats between jokes. As a big fan of Crowe's films, I hope that the trailer was overplaying the sensitive and the actual movie will be hiding more nuanced emotional content.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

NATO's John Fithian vs. 2929's Todd Wagner at Toronto windows panel

By Kevin Lally

The Toronto Film Festival staged a panel discussion Wednesday morning of particular interest to our readers in exhibition. The topic was theatrical release windows and video-on-demand, and National Association of Theatre Owners president and CEO John Fithian stood his ground and passionately argued his case against the shortening of the window between theatrical debuts and VOD showings not just for major studio movies but for much smaller indie films too. At the other side of the spectrum was Todd Wagner, CEO of 2929 Entertainment,parent company of Landmark Theatres andMagnolia Pictures, whichpioneered themodel of a simultaneous theatrical and VOD release for independent pictures.

Fithianemphasized theimpact ofcompressed windows on the indie community. "If the majors shorten their windows," he argued, "and say that we in the theatres have less amount of time to run their movies and makeour profit, we're going to dedicate the vast majority of our screens to the big movies...and milk all we can possibly can out of the biggest titles as fast as we can. Which means that the screen space available for independent film will diminish."

Fithian asserted, "Independent film needs time to grow in the cinema to make it,"and surmised that somerecent Oscar nomineesmight not havegotten so muchawards attention without healthy runs in cinemas.

Cinedigm CEO Chris McGurk (also the co-founder of Overture Films), while agreeing with Fithian on the need to preserve windows for big event movies, argued that the Magnolia theatrical/VOD model has been "great for independent films," claiming that many of Magnolia's releases otherwise "would not see the light of day in theatres."

Wagner, whose businesses include Magnolia, warned that "you cannot stop technology," likening it to a freight train. "It tends to disrupt industries." He added, "Ultra VOD is where we are today...butthis isall transitional,this isnotanend game." For Wagner, the great value of VOD is that "for the first time, it gives customers impulse-buy opportunities," with the potential to reach a much larger base of tens of millions.

While asserting that he's "bullish on exhibition," Wagner still declared, "we are in the business of trying to make money" and sounded the death knell of the four-month window in the coming years. "The point is not where it lands but how it lands... We can make all the boats rise, and make sure that exhibition isn't hurt when that happens. There are ways to potentially look at this that don't have to be us versus them."

But Fithian cautioned that the cinema business is "really marginal... If you collapse the windows, you damage that model." Catering to that minority of moviegoers who want to see a film whenever or wherever they can (via new technologies) is enough to bankrupt many theatres, he warned. "There won't be cinemas in small towns anymore."

Fithian also argued that eliminating windows for indie films "self-limits" their potential. "You're saying at the very beginning: I don't have a big movie, I'm releasing it on VOD because I don't have confidence in this movie... You're boxing it into one category where it can never grow." With digital cinema eliminating print distribution costs, he added, indie films have a better shot in cinemas.

"You're dreaming," retorted McGurk, whose digital-cinema company recently launched a distribution and marketing initiative for independent filmmakers. "Digital is not the answer alone... Following the traditional indie release pattern,with the decline in the ancillary markets and the increased escalation of marketing costs, is not going to work... You can't resuscitate the old indie film model."

Geoff Gilmore, chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises and former Sundance programming head, noted that 80% of indie releases don't even make $100,000 andthat a very large chunk of indie productionsare never able to findspace in theatres. The challenge, he says, is making these films visible and finding new ways of marketing them.

Neil Campbell, COO of Landmark Cinemas Canada (not to be confused with Wagner's Landmark Theatres), contributed a multi-million-dollar question: In today's rush-to-VOD climate, would a small, independent movie like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which very gradually built on great word of mouth to a $240 million gross, have the opportunity to generate that same sort of success? Is short-term thinking, as Fithian argues, hurting the long-range potential of movies? Oris embracingnew technologies creating new opportunities and exposure for independents? The answer, we suspect, lies somewhere in between, amidst more dialogue and compromise between exhibitors and new-style distributors.

Five things to know about 'Breaking Dawn' after watching the trailer

By Sarah Sluis

The first three Twilight movies have grossed roughly $1.8 billion worldwide. Not bad for a love triangle between a human, a vampire, and a werewolf. The fourth book has been split into two movies, and Summit recently released the second, more revealing trailer for Breaking Dawn Part I. The trailer does not disappoint. Here are five things to know about the latest installment to the Twilight franchise.

1. It's the most sexual Twilight movie yet. After Bella and Edward get married, the couple makes out underneath waterfalls, on their honeymoon bed, and pretty much everywhere else. Considering the first movie had no more than a chaste kiss, the contents of the trailer are pretty shocking. Author Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon, which has a strict no-sex-before-marriage policy. Now that Bella and Edward have tied the knot, it appears that the two will have no problem expressing their love on-screen.

2. Bella gets pregnant with a vampire fetus that breaks her bones and wants to eat her. While this is just alluded to in the first trailer, the second features lots of arguing about the bloodsucker growing inside her womb. Of course, Edward could always turn her into a vampire to make her live forever, something he just might be tempted to do if the vampire baby saps the life away from her... (plot hint). If you don't think the Twilight series is ridiculous enough already, just keep saying "vampire baby" to yourself over and over.

3. It will have a gory childbirth scene. People on the Internet are actually excited about this, and I'm at a loss to imagine how the filmmakers will translate the scene onto film. Spoiler alert: Bella has to give birth via emergency C-section and nearly dies, and word is the novel doesn't spare any details.

4. It uses the same child-adult romance technique that was so creepy in The Time Traveler's Wife. Poor werewolf Jacob never managed to land Bella. Why not go after her child? After seeing their daughter Renesmee (a portmanteau of Renee and Esme), he "imprints" on her. They will be friends until she reaches a mature age, when they will then become romantically involved. I guess Meyer was trying to wrap things up and needed to allude to what would happen to Renesmee and Jacob, so she created the imprinting thing to give the audience closure on the Jacob story. I still don't like it, and the choice alienated many of her fans, too.

5. Part I will probably be better than Part II. A lot of the big action points occur leading up to the birth of Edward and Bella's child. After that, the plot continues, but it's talkier and involves some weak, phantom threats. I wouldn't be surprised if the penultimate episode of the series becomes the most popular movie, the reverse of what happened with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, the highest grossing movie of that series.

Breaking Dawn Part I comes out November 18, 2011.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In Toronto Michael Fassbender's Sexoholic rises to the top

By Sarah Sluis

Film Journal contributor Erica Abeel reports from the Toronto Film Festival.

Well, gotta hand it to Fox Searchlight for acquiring Shame, the big sale and hot button film of this year's Toronto. Hot not only because it deals with sex addiction, but also immediately shows its stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan full frontal; and then offers enough boobs, masturbation, internet porn, and bobbing and throbbing to delight Larry Flynt. While the language - and director Steve McQueen uses precious little - is even racier. You could say Michael Fassbender's traveled a ways since Mr. Rochester.

But mostly congratulate Fox for landing a spectacularly fine film that showcases a major director in the making. Of all the high profile entries at this year's fest, Shame has arguably racked up the most plaudits.

Shame michael fassbender And Fassbender's searing portrayal of Brandon, a handsome but tortured corporate type and sexoholic, more than justifies his win as Best Actor in Venice.

As for story, there's not much, because story per se is not really the point. Video-artist-turned-filmmaker McQueen brilliantly works the intersection of art, narrative, tone poem, and social critique to explore the life of a man who can't get enough. (Charlie Sheen, David Duchovny anyone?) Sex appears to be the protagonist's sole raison d'etre. A companion piece to McQueen's first film, Hunger, about a man with no freedom, Shame examines a character who's blessed with all the western freedoms and privileges and who uses his body to create his own prison.

Brandon - handsome, successful, thirty-something; living in his sleek but sterile apartment high in New York - never met a babe he wouldn't try to seduce, even in the subway, not exactly known for ambience. Brandon in turn is catnip to women. As a distraction from the monotony of cubicle life, his real trade is juggling quickie romances and one night stands.

The tightly controlled rhythm of his life begins to collapse, though, when his troubled, unruly sister Sissy (Mulligan) crashes in an uninvited visit. The pair share some trauma from their past, which McQueen never spells out. Brandon becomes unhinged when Sissy sleeps with his married, horndog boss (James Badge Dale, superb). (If there were no such thing as infidelity, most films at TIFF would have no subject.)

Meanwhile, Brandon's got a heavy flirtation going with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), an attractive, intelligent divorcee - and emotionally engaged person, as opposed to his usual paid sex worker. But when Brandon whisks her off for a lunch break in some high-end hotel, the terrors of intimacy make him unable to perform. This fiasco, plus his panic at Sissy's desperate need for connection, propels Brandon into New York's hellish underbelly to escape whatever memories she evokes.

The opening shot - and opening sequence - are a knockout: Brandon sprawled semi-naked on blue sheets diagonally across the screen, staring into space, sorrowful and ominous music on the soundtrack. With his eyes alone, Fassbender captures the shame of the title. Shifting in an out of sequence, McQueen follows Brandon from his early morning ablutions in the apartment, to his commute to work on the subway, the occasion for an eye fuck with a girl he then follows in the station, back to the apartment, Bach on the record player - all of it an unsettling study of compulsion.

Meanwhile, the ringing phone and messages, ignored by Brandon, signal Sissy's desperate need to reach him. In this opening sequence, which flows seamlessly like a piece of music, McQueen brilliantly sets up his whole story. The architectural framing and blue, grey and silver color scheme form an elegant background for his sordid tale.

Sissy, a singer, is a mess, sporting scars on her arms from previous suicide attempts. In a set piece in Shame carey mulligan a club she dispatches a slowed-down "New York, New York" (presumably Mullligan's own voice) which causes Brandon to mysteriously tear up and sets the stage for the boss's seduction. Another layered and witty scene observes Brandon on a first dinner date with his co-worker. Fassbender nails this man's genuine cluelessness about human connection, as Brandon confesses his longest liaison has lasted four months. Meanwhile, a waiter is plying the clearly turned-on couple with long recitations of the evening's specials and the wine list, reappearing at awkward intervals. McQueen goes in for long takes, in one case keeping his camera on Brandon and Sissy from behind while they have a fierce argument in front of a near-mute cartoon on TV.

Film's third act focuses on Brandon's degradation as he goes from threesomes, to seedy joints where he's roughed up by a rival, to sitting on the street, bloodied and head bowed. Throughout this section the soundtrack turns almost operatic, as if to convey a mini twilight of the gods. A Brit, McQueen gives a dark twist to New York; subway platforms are anterooms to purgatory; trains are purveyors of stupefied souls.

McQueen appears to be indicting the corruption of society by the wall-to-wall sex made available by the internet. Yet the character of Brandon also channels a type of hyper-detached urban male, who by perpetually using others to serve his own needs, has become a monster, even to himself. Though he's dressed better and has a good job, Brandon is as lost as those riders in the train. Without Fassbender, though, it's hard to imagine Shame. "Michael is a genius, really," says McQueen. "I want to work with the best actor there is, and I think he is, basically."

Lionsgate sets its sights on Toronto selection 'Friends with Kids'

By Sarah Sluis

After the success of Bridesmaids, it's no surprise that Lionsgate is considering buying Toronto selection Friends with Kids. The parent-centered romantic comedy includes four cast members of Bridesmaids and channels its eye-raising humor. The story centers on two best friends (director/writer Jennifer Westfeldt and Adam Scott) who decide to raise a child with each other while pursuing their own romantic Friends with kids interests. Both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter have come out generally in favor of the film, but their praise is slightly muted--and not always in agreement.

"Although the comic riffs about parenting and alternative families easily rep the pic's sharpest dialogue and strike a chord with more mature audiences, they co-exist uneasily with Westfeldt's inclusion of a more crude brand of humor," Variety reports. In contrast, THR notes that "the film also borrows from the Bridesmaids playbook with its mild smattering of raunch, which won't hurt its commercial chances."

The movie's also drawn numerous comparisons to sitcoms, though no one can agree exactly what kind.

"Unfolding in a glib, familiar sitcom universe" the movie is a combination of "Friends," "Seinfeld" and "Judd Apatow crass patter" according to Variety. After calling the movie a "successful sitcom," IndieWIRE situates the movie among the "progressive families" featured in the sitcoms "Will & Grace" and "Modern Family." Apparently the humor is original enough to elicit more than one comparison.

The criticism that most makes me want to see the movie is THR's mention that Westfeldt finds "fresh insights" about parenthood and "nuanced consideration of the many ways in which having children Friends with kids 2 changes adults' lives, going beyond the standard comedy terrain of sleep deprivation, frazzled nerves and diaper disasters." Variety hints at this as well, mentioning one instance that's "beautifully evocative of what it means to be a parent." I hate seeing comedies that are stuffed full of tired clichs and sterotypes. The funniest things in life are true, so the best comedy in my book draws from everyday life.

In addition to Westfeldt and Scott as the lead characters, Jon Hamm (Westfeldt's longtime romantic partner), Kristen Wiig, Chris Dowd, and Maya Rudolph (all from Bridesmaids), along with Megan Fox and Edward Burns, round out the cast. Because of its rising-star actors and friendly, easy-to-digest plotting, Friends with Kids could be one of the festival's top-dollar acquisitions.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Young Hollywood has a reunion in Toronto

By Kevin Lally

Hollywood has a long tradition of youth ensemble films, from American Graffiti to St. Elmo's Fire to Dazed and Confused and American Pie. The latest effort, skewing just slightly older than most, is Tenyear_02_small TenYear, which debuted last night at the Toronto Film Festival. The premise is oh-so-simple: therevelations, letdowns and rekindled relationships at a ten-year high-school reunion. And it's also an opportunity to showcase a group of actors in their late 20s and early 30s with various degrees of clout in today's Hollywood.

The marquee name in the bunch is heartthrob Channing Tatum (also a producer), playing a guy on the verge of proposing to his longtime girlfriend but faced with the prospect of reuniting with his high-school paramour (Rosario Dawson), whom he hasn't seen in eightyears. Justin Long (He's Just Not That Into You) and Max Minghella (The Social Network) play successful young businessmen who might not exactly have the dream lives they boast about. Oscar Isaac, who has three films in Toronto including Drive and Madonna's W.E., is a musician with one big hit song inspired by a secret high-school crush. Hurt Locker co-stars Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty reunite as best friends,with Geraghty's wife (Aubrey Plaza of "Parks and Recreation") shocked to discover just how into hip-hop and black culture her hubby once was. (On a scale of white to black, he finally admits to being "dark gray.") And another "Parks" regular, Chris Pratt, offers a variation on his TV character of a sloppy man-child, here compelled tomake amends for all the bullying he did in high school. The cast also includes up-and-comers Kate Mara (127 Hours), Scott Porter ("Friday Night Lights"), Lynn Collins (John Carter) and Aaron Yoo (Disturbia).

Writer and debuting director Jamie Linden wrote We Are Marshall and the Tatum starrer Dear John. To call his visual style perfunctory would be overpraise, but he does get his actors to loosen up and develops some poignant turning points for his initially bland-seeming characters. Isaac is especially good--lo and behold, the song he wrote and performed for the film actually sounds like a hit record.

The young, sold-outaudience at the Ryerson Theatre at Toronto's Ryerson University (which seemed to includea LOT of people connected with the film) responded warmly to the movie and the significant cast turnout. (Of the main cast, Mackie, Dawson, Pratt and Plaza were absent due to work commitments.) The film does not yet have U.S. distribution, but that talented ensemble is sure to be a selling point.

Outlook for 'The Descendants' is sunny at Toronto

By Sarah Sluis

Film Journal International contributor Erica Abeel continues her reports from the Toronto Film Festival.

The Descendants is a crowd pleaser and family entertainment for the multiplex. The wonder is that it arrives from the normally edgier Alexander Payne (About Schmidt and Sideways). In Descendants from Go all the elements of mainstream filmmaking are lined up like sparrows on a telephone wire: after a nasty boating accident, the wife of lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) lies in a coma: Matt must repair his tattered relationship with his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Kaleigh Kennedy); meanwhile - and The descendants 2 Matt happens to be filthy rich, as if that were a mere incidental - he needs to make decisions regarding the sale of billions of dollars worth of Hawaiian land owned for generations by his family.

Matt, it turns out, is the prototypical over-achieving male, sequestered by work from the emotional demands of women, in this case wife and daughters.

It's a juicy role for a mid-career actor, and Clooney handles it with flair, projecting a fundamental decency when everyone around him is behaving badly. At film's opening he resolves to reform: "I'm ready to be a real husband and real father," he promises himself and his mute, intubated wife. Trouble is, she ain't ever wakin' up and the daughters are in rebellion mode against their absentee dad. Worse, you can see from the outset that this story is heading inexorably straight for warm-and-fuzzyville. The only thing is to sit back and go with it.

Descendants, I should mention, has received largely positive press, with lavish praise for Clooney in a career-capping turn. Dissenters appear to be in the minority.

The film's requisite plot complication is injected when the older teen daughter drops a bomb, informing her "clueless" dad that mom has been having an affair. Dad, daughters and the teen's doofus friend then go island hopping to locate the lover - a married realtor -- at a beach resort. And accomplish what, exactly? Well, request that the guy pay his respects at the dying woman's bedside. In a neat bit of plot housekeeping, it's eventually revealed that the realtor stands to get rich from Matt's land deal � The reason the lizard was shagging Matt's wife?

Unless Matt refuses, for reasons of ecology and family tradition, to sell ...

Descendants moves along at a nice clip and its offbeat humor - usually involving outrageous teen cutups - keeps your interest. But the film often feels disingenuous and fake. Take Matt's voiceover about supposedly idyllic Hawaii: "paradise can go fuck itself, " he says. Cut to a parade of the island's lame and impoverished, like something out of "The Threepenny Opera." Yes, we know there's trouble in paradise, but unlike those poor slobs Matt has the financial means to manage it. His daughters mainly come off as spoiled and bratty.

More crucially, the wife is a complete cipher - no flashbacks, no nuthin' to delineate a real person; we know only that she had lousy taste in lovers and liked extreme sports. This hole in the plot impedes our sympathy for Matt, since we don't know whom he's mourning. In his final farewell scene at his wife's bedside, the angst feel unearned. That said, you can enjoy the film as a travelogue for its luscious views of Oahu and Waikiki. And the casting is aces; for once characters are overweight or pimply, not just Hollywood fictions. And throughout, the gracefully aging George Clooney, with his middle-aged lope, shapely calves, and sorrowing dark eyes, is a joy to watch.

Of course attending a film festival is not ALL work and sleep deprivation. As always the Sony Pictures Classics party at posh Crme Brasserie was a fest social highlight and more than lived up to A_Dangerous_Method_keira_knightley expectations. I chatted at length with Keira Knightley (starring in SPC's A Dangerous Method), wearing a dress that appeared to be missing its back. She was surrounded by smiling but rather fearsome muscle men. Biting into a large langoustine, Knightley cracked "this should lay to rest any rumors I'm anorexic."

I asked how she prepared for her scenes as Sabina Spielrein, Jung's patient who first appears as a screaming lunatic. She replied she sent director David Cronenberg some mad scenes on Skype and he weighed in on them. She admitted to balking initially at playing the film's spanky scenes, but decided they were "incredibly important to the story." She's been quoted as saying, "You go into a David Cronenberg film - and part of the reason that I love his work - is its explicit, shocking nature. As an actor you have to be very clear with yourself. You either do it or you don't." What struck me most about Knightley: she doesn't come on actress-y and egomaniacal. She was joined by Viggo Mortensen and Cronenberg and the trio posed and horsed around for photogs, passing around a wacko-looking Russian hat.

Next I pinholed Dangerous screenwriter Christopher Hampton a master of scripts based on complex literary works (Liaisons Dangereuses, Atonement). He said he was awed by the enormous amount of preparation undertaken by Viggo to play Sigmund Freud. Mortensen went so far as to hunt down and read the exact same books Freud kept in his library -- and in the role he's one of the film's principal delights. Next up for Cronenberg is an adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel Cosmopolis.

By now we'd all had far too much vino. As I wove toward my table with Israeli director Joseph Cedar (Footnotes), I bumped into Michael Shannon. He was taller than I'd imagined, and even scarier in person than on screen.

'Contagion' spreads among audiences, lands #1 spot

By Sarah Sluis

The infectious Contagion finished in first place at the box office with $23.1 million. The drama-thriller features an all-star ensemble cast, with each character offering a different perspective on a global epidemic. The Steven Soderbergh-directed tale performed evenly throughout the weekend, and with Contagion jude law little competition on the horizon, it should perform well in coming weeks, though Rotten Tomatoes reports that audiences were cooler to the movie than critics, with just 69% liking the movie, compared to 82% of reviewers.

The Help experienced the biggest drop of its run, diving 40% from its outsized Labor Day weekend gross to a mere seven-figure sum, $8.6 million. With $137 million earned in just five weeks, the Civil Rights-era drama is one of this summer's biggest adult-centered successes.

Despite positive reviews, Warrior suffered a one-round knockout. The mixed martial arts film finished with just $5.6 million. 86% of critics and 94% of audiences liked the movie, according to Rotten Warrior nick nolte tom hardy Tomatoes, so it appears this movie didn't get a fair fight at the box office. Perhaps the movie will stage a comeback in coming weeks, but it may have been the victim of a grave marketing miscalculation by Lionsgate.

Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star finished outside the top ten with an embarrassing $1.4 million and fifteenth place finish. The story of an awkward teen boy who becomes a porn star didn't receive much marketing support and the concept is cringe-worthy. This movie will probably see a lot more action on the rental market.

This Friday will be fueled by Drive, a riveting noir-action starring Ryan Gosling. Working mothers can vent by watching I Don't Know How She Does It, and Straw Dogs promises to be a harrowing Southern thriller. Also, Disney will be re-releasing The Lion King in 3D during a time where there's little family fare at the box office.

This year's Toronto: Autuers turn mainstream and male actors shine

By Sarah Sluis

Reporting from the Toronto International Film Fetival, Film Journal contributor Erica Abeel weighs in on two of the festival's most highly anticipated films.

To judge by notable films in the early days of this year's edition of the Toronto Film Festival, renegade auteurs such as David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method) and Alexander Payne (The Descendants), have gone conspicuously more mainstream. Also striking in the 36th edition of the sprawling sprocket opera is the outsize talent displayed by male actors, among them George Clooney (The Descendants), Ryan Gosling (Ides of March), Ben Foster (360), and both Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method.

Dangerous is a compelling, and for Cronenberg, oddly straightforward account of the turbulent triangle formed by fledgling psychiatrist Carl Jung (Fassbender), his mentor Sigmund Freud (Mortensen), and the gifted but troubled patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who came between them. The A dangerous method film succeeds best at capturing the excitement and daring of the two brilliant doctors as they pioneer the new field of psychoanalysis during a repressive era, and their respectful though competitive relationship. Sabina's affair with the married Jung illumines his allegiance to conventional family and Victorian values, even when it's clear that she's his true intellectual and romantic partner.

Dangerous hits the ground running as Sabina, shrieking like a banshee, is carted off to Jung's elegant Swiss clinic. In a fascinating series of sessions, Jung tries out his new "talking cure," dragging from his patient the revelation that she found childhood beatings by her father unbearably exciting. After Sabina seduces Jung, spankings figure heavily in their erotic repertoire, linking the film to Cronenberg's previous explorations of the marginal and perverse. In her early scenes Keira Knightley makes a convincing patient in the grips of psychosis, and becomes increasingly assured as a woman whose intellect and determination enabled her to escape the reigning patriarchy. In contrast--and perhaps Cronenberg intended an extreme contrast--Jung and Freud are steely, restrained, and impassive.

Fassbender is magnificent as the ambitious scientist torn by passion for his beautiful patient. And as the cigar-smoking Freud, Mortensen (sporting a nose prosthesis?) all but steals the picture with the wicked humor of his wry responses. Shot in locales around Switzerland and Vienna, the film is gorgeous, contrasting the light-filled lake country with Freud's faithfully reproduced Victorian study. Despite the film's talky approach, its intellectual sweep and kinky romance should cross over to general audiences. Cronenberg's mischief is slyly evidenced by his breezy assumption that spanking and other S/M games are an acceptable variation on adult human behavior.

Ides of March - which stars both George Clooney and Ryan Gosling and is directed by Clooney -- bowed for the press at the TIFF Bell Lighbtbox, Toronto's movie complex that anchors the annual fest.
Ironically, despite the state of the art venue, TIFF has become more, not less wearing on journos than past iterations, partly because we're forced to stand far too long in "holding areas" like cattle pens, with no perceptible circulating air.

And despite the overloaded title, Ides is entertaining political drama--two terms which don't usually The ides of march inhabit the same sentence--with whip-smart dialog and a liberal (both senses) dollop of topicality and gravitas. Focusing on an idealistic young press secretary (Gosling), it follows the backroom machinations and shifts in allegiance during a political campaign to position a Democratic governor resembling Howard Dean (Clooney) as his party's nomination for president.

Essentially, Ides tackles that venerable theme of the corruption of an innocent, posing the question, is it possible to be a principled politician - at least one who gets elected? As a counterpoint to Gosling's idealist, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seyour Hoffman deliver wicked turns as more seasoned and cynical political operatives. In an effort to spice things up, the scripters have thrown in a melodramatic subplot involving a hot young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who gets involved with the press secretary and whose past indiscretions throw the game. It's cheesy, yet makes for a twisty climax. Strangely, though Ides appears to embrace a liberal agenda, it trashes the Democrats, implying they play as dirty as Republicans. You have to wonder what Clooney, known for espousing progressive causes, hoped to achieve. But one thing is clear: Ides marks the emergence of charismatic Ryan Gosling as a certifiable star.