Friday, December 30, 2011

'The Iron Lady' finishes 2011 with a punch

By Sarah Sluis

Now that Christmas is over, most of the big releases are coasting through the New Year. Just a few more movies will hit the screen this weekend, most of them indies.

The Iron Lady (4 theatres) will lead the pack. This portrait of controversial British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will surely attract fans of what critc Rex Roberts describes as the "peerless actress," Iron lady meryl streep
Meryl Streep. I found Streep to be the most enjoyable part of the whole film, which spends a little too much time with the dementia-ridden older Thatcher. Roberts seconds his approval of Streep, who he predicts will win an Oscar for her performance. He also came out in favor of the "imaginative, entertaining biopic" as a whole. One thing we both agree on: It's definitely better than J. Edgar.

The small-but-worthy Pariah opened on Wednesday in four theatres. The "funny, deep, and tender film," as described by David Noh, "delves into the largely unfamiliar world of black lesbians living their lives in New York City in the 21st century." The "unerring incisiveness" makes the drama feel like an "anthropological exploration," and Pariah wayans oduyedirector Dee Rees (profiled here) is a Hollywood up-and-comer.

Finally, A Separation (3 theatres) joins the fray of well-regarded indies. The "legal procedural" fascinated Ethan Alter not only because it was a "damn fine movie," but also because its insights into everyday life in Iran serve as a "cultural-exchange tool." The drama is Iran's selection for A separation`the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Language film, and it's definitely a contender.

The adult blockbusters Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol, and The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo should continue to make strong showings, and I have particular hope that the third popcorn pic will show holding power. All of these movies have the added bonus of playing just 30% off their peak during the weekdays, since so many people have vacation. For families, it appears that Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked will lead, followed by The Adventures of Tintin, We Bought a Zoo, and Hugo.

On Tuesday, Screener will be back from the holiday and reporting on which films brought in 2012 with a bang.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top Ten of 2011

By Sarah Sluis

Each year, I keep a spreadsheet of all the movies I saw in theatres and rate them one to four stars. Usually all the four star ones make it into my top ten, but this year I found myself looking down the list, skipping some movies I had rated highly originally and going for some three-star films that still generated an emotional response. A caveat: This list is based only on movies I've seen, and I've definitely let a few gems slip by unseen.

1. Take Shelter. Michael Shannon plays a man who's haunted by visions of a storm--but is he just crazy, like his mother, or is he on to something more? It's filled with thrills, but it also touches on themes that have always fascinated me. Reality is subjective. How do you tell if what you're seeing is the same as what everyone else is seeing? In a world with waning religious beliefs, would we have committed Joan of Arc to an insane asylum? In the press notes, director Jeff Nichols said he was inspired by the anxieties he had about becoming a father. I couldn't have had a more different interpretation, but there's something satisfying about how open-ended Nichols could make this story.

2. Drive. Moody and stylized, with a killer soundtrack (love Desire's "Under Your Spell"). This thriller had flaws, but it also had some unforgettable action sequences. Director Nicholas Winding Refn is someone who understands how to use paradoxical calm to build tension, who knows what to keep offscreen. Not only did this movie have an amazing ending, it had one of the best opening sequences I've seen in ages.

3. The Artist. A familiar story that feels fresh, and you'll be patting yourself on the back for finding a black-and-white silent so incredibly watchable. It's also one of the few movies this year that left me with the warm-fuzzies at the end (just like The King's Speech, which won Best Picture last year..)

4. Like Crazy. I saw this romance with a great audience that gasped at all the right spots. Immigration issues are definitely a believable obstacle of romance, and the film manages to capture all the small gestures and words that convey intimacy. I can't wait to see more from director Drake Doremus and actress Felicity Jones.

5. The Descendants. Like Drive, this movie prompted me to continue the experience musically (via the album "The Greatest Songs Ever: Hawaii" on Spotify). Well-done comedy-dramas transcend the flaws of both, and that's exactly what director Alexander Payne and George Clooney do here.

6. Young Adult. Charlize Theron killed it as a spoiled young-adult book author trying to relive her glorious high school past as a mean girl. The little bits of comedy--like her stealing dialogue from teen girls talking about texting boyfriends at Burger King, and finding solace in episodes of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," made the movie for me.

7. Higher Ground. A poetic, observant portrait of a woman and her faith over time. Vera Farmiga shows she knows how to direct, and it was refreshing to see a subject not often covered on the screen.

8. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fun, entertaining popcorn movie. Rooney Mara was fabulous, with a charismatic mix of power, intelligence, and--as she says herself--insanity. I'll definitely be tuning into the sequels.

9. Contagion. This well-done move rose in my estimation months after its release. It's so polished and well-executed, and I count epidemiology as another one of my pet interests, making this an extra scary and satisfying tale. The mixed-up chronology was brilliant.

10. So many documentaries. For me, a satisfying documentary is often easier to pull off than a great feature film, so I want to call out a few of my favorites.
was a mix of the terror and boredom of Danish troops in Afghanistan. We forget that we pulled so many other nations into America's conflicts, and this documentary has the added benefit of showing us the similarities and differences of protocol between countries.
Bill Cunningham: New York. Even if you don't like fashion, learning about New York and most importantly Cunningham, a modest and endearing figure, will make this doc worthwhile.
Buck. I was never one of those girls who wanted a horse growing up, but Buck's techniques for training horses are fascinating and show a different side to the human-animal relationship.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

American remake of 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' underperforms, but why?

By Sarah Sluis

One of the films I managed to catch over the holidays was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had heard warnings that the movie was violent and hard to follow. Only the first was true, but infrequent. "One of the best movies I've seen all year," my seatmate enthused after the show. If Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is such a great film, why has it earned just $27.8 million since it opened on Wednesday?

Girl with dragon tattoo maraMost people I talked to about the movie were familiar with the books. Some were confused about the remake. Hadn't they seen something like that on Netflix before? Was that the one in Swedish? Others wanted to hold out until they read the book. Still others read the book but were unimpressed, thinking they'd skip the movie. Dragon Tattoo also may have suffered because of its dark content. More buoyant action sequels, Mission: Impossible 4 and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, easily beat Dragon Tattoo this weekend.

I still think there's a chance for Dragon Tattoo to rebound. 86% of critics and 85% of audiences on Rotten Tomatoes rated the movie positively. From an awards perspective, it hasn't done so well so far. The thriller received just two Golden Globe nominations: Rooney Mara for Best Actress along with a Best Original Score nomination. I think the movie is much better than at least two of the contenders in the "Best Motion Picture - Drama" category, so perhaps it will sneak into the Best Picture Oscar race once this late December release is viewed more widely.

If this article praising director David Fincher for "[understanding] digital cinematography more than any working filmmaker" means anything, both Fincher and his DP Jeff Cronenweth will receive notice from their peers in the Academy. This scene analysis, courtesy of The New York Times, drives home the amount of thought that went into the look, feel, and flow of the movie. But I'm not holding my breath for Fincher. I feel like he has been rewarded for some of his worst work. Zodiac was about ten times better than Benjamin Button, but only one made a showing in awards season. The Social Network was good, but coasted on its zeitgeisty reputation all the way to the Oscar podium. Because Dragon Tattoo is a remake of a Swedish film many critics (though not ours) liked, and some have felt doesn't do enough to innovate on the earlier film, I doubt it will receive the attention from critics it deserves. But American audiences should see what amounts to one of the more entertaining, thrilling popcorn movies this year, with a strong female heroine to boot.

Monday, December 26, 2011

3D makes a strong showing in FJI top ten of 2011

By Kevin Lally

A year ago, I couldn't have imagined that 3D would nab five spots in my personal list of the ten best films of 2011. But this was truly a breakthrough year for the stereoscopic medium, as four major filmmmakers--Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and veteran German New Wave auteurs Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog--all made their 3D feature debuts and showed what kind of visual glories this still-evolving medium is capable of.

Apart from 3D, this year's listincludes (for this writer) an unusually large proportionof mass-entertainment films. But those movies were not just bountifully entertaining--they delivered the sort of visualspectacle that made you lean back in your seat and say "Wow!" And if you weren't watching them on a big screen at your favorite theatre, you were missing at least half the experience.

Looking back on 2011's offerings, it was actuallyan excellentyear for movies, and there are many, many films that didn't make the cut that I could enthusiastically recommend. I also still need to catch up with a number of highly acclaimed films like Iran's A Separation and Korea's Poetry, so there may be an asterisk in this column's future.

Here are my favorites from 2011:

1. The Artist. How amazing that a black-and-white silent feature is one of the year's top award The-Artist-Pic-1contenders. This French production filmed on Hollywood soundstages is far from just a novelty--it's also joyful, witty, poignant, and overflowing with style and invention. Jean Dujardin, playing a charismatic sllent-filmmatinee idolwho stubbornly resists the transition to sound, was already astar in France--now he's a very likely Oscar contender.

2. Hugo. Martin Scorsese not only embraces 3D, he shows therest of the film community how it should be done. Hisfirstpicture aimed at a young audience is an awesome three-dimensionalvisual feastfrom first frame to last, and it's also an enchanting tribute to the silent era and the artistry of its most magical pioneer, Georges Melies.

3. The Descendants. Director Alexander Payne nimbly straddles the line between comedy and drama in Descendants-2011this funny andaffecting tale of a Hawaiian heir who must reconnect with his neglected young daughters after his wife is gravely injured in a boating accident. The premise may sound mawkish, but George Clooney and his able supporting cast evoke genuine laughter and tears.

4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. The 3D finale of the phenomenally successful fantasy series is also the best film of the bunch. The boy wizard's ultimateconfrontation with the evil Lord Voldemort is gripping, suspenseful and wonderfully satisfying, and showcases Daniel Radcliffe's growth as an accomplished movie actor.

5. The Adventures of Tintin. Steven Spielberg's other, more serious holiday film, War Horse, is on my runner-up list, but it's great to welcome a new Spielberg movie that is pure fun. It's his first animated film (using motion-capture technology) and his first in 3D, but his treatment of the adventures of the beloved French comic-book hero harkens back to the thrills of the original Indiana Jones movies. An elaborate, breathless chase in Morocco, conceived in one very long take, is alone worth the price of admission.

6. Drive. Ryan Gosling upped his star credentials with this violent, moody existential thriller about an Ryan Gosling Driveenigmatic getaway driverwho comes to the aid of his neighbors and encounters some very bad criminals.Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's filmmay not be everyone's cup of alienation, but it's exquisitely photographed and features surprising performances from its marvelous cast, most especially Albert Brooks as a ruthless kingpin.

7. Pina. After watching Wim Wenders' tribute to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, I regret never having seenher spellbinding dance company live. But this 3D documentary is certainly the next best thing, with excerpts from four of her signature works and new solos (often in outdoor spaces, sometimes with city traffic zooming by in the background) making imaginative and immersive use of the 3D medium.

8. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Visionary director Werner Herzog received permission tofilm inside France's Chauvet Cave, an ancient space discovered in 1994 and home to the oldest pictorial artwork known to man. Herzog's 3D cameras caress the curved walls andoffer a privileged.intimate look at these surprisingly sophisticated cave paintings--the public's only chance to see this art-world miracle.

9. Le Havre. Finland's Aki Kaurismakicreates a droll, disarming tale of an elderly man in the titular French port city who shelters a young refugee boy from Africa. Kaurismaki's understated style and painterly eye result in a film of great charm that is completely without cynicism but never overly sentimental.

10. Rango. The year's second-best animated feature,a western parody about a domesticated chameleon stranded in a parched desert town,is a visual tour de force for director Gore Verbinski and a party for Johnny Depp and his supporting cast, who performed their parts live on a soundstage.

To name just a few runners-up: Weekend, Incendies, Crazy Stupid Love, Project Nim, Tomboy, Bridesmaids, The Guard, Pariah, Young Adult, Midnight in Paris. It was a very good year indeed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

'Tintin,' 'M:I 4,' 'Dragon Tattoo,' and 'We Bought a Zoo' compete for holiday audiences

By Sarah Sluis

This year, Christmas falls on Sunday and Monday is a national holiday. Though a half-dozen wide releases will join the holiday movie fray between Wednesday and Sunday, the box office is currently down 4% from last year. A defecit that large will be hard to make up, putting the industry on edge.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2,800 theatres) already jumped the gun and opened in theatres on Dragon tattoo7pm on Tuesday, earning an estimated $1.6 million. David Noh praised the David Fincher-directed adaptation of the Swedish book and film, calling it a "highly satisfying and smart thriller." As the tattoed and mowhawked Lisbeth, Rooney Mara turns in a "supremely iconic performance." Audiences are excited too, with 26% of people visiting saying they would see the movie over the holiday. The only film to post a higher percentage? Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol, which captured 26.8% of the vote.

M:I 4 will expand from 500 to over 3,400 theatres today. Audiences who saw the actioner last week are spreading the word. From Wednesday to Sunday, the Tom Cruise picture is projected to earn $35-40 million, slightly higher than Dragon Tattoo.

The Adventures of Tintin (3,000 theatres) has already earned $240 million overseas, where kids and Adventures of tintinadults alike are familiar with the Belgian comic book character. In the U.S, the character is not as well-known, but director Steven Spielberg's "splashy animated adventure," which critic Chris Barsanti compares to his Indiana Jones series, could win over American audiences, but it will take time. Its opening will be behind some of the big adult pictures, with many estimating a total in the high $20 millions through Sunday.

On Friday, We Bought a Zoo (3,000 theates) will join the menagerie. Cameron Crowe directs the feel-good tale about a widower father (Matt Damon) who buys a run-down zoo. The "facilely obvious" movie did not win over critic David Noh, who had this We bought a zooto say: "Strictly targeted family films always lay it on pretty thick; We Bought a Zoo uses a two-ton trowel." The PG-rated movie will probably see the most action the Monday after the holiday, since Christmas Eve is considered a low day at the box office.

On Sunday, Christmas Day, War Horse (2,300 theatres) will give audiences another Steven Spielberg-directed option. Kevin Lally was touched by the tale of a boy and his horse, separted by the events of World War I. He called War horse 1it a "lovingly crafted, impressive achievement from a movie master." Some have decried the play adaptation for its sentimentality, but the holidays are often a perfect time to release such films.

Sunday will also see the release of The Darkest Hour (2,200 theatres), an alien invasion film set in Russia that's the black sheep of the bunch. Summit probably hopes to target those looking for the sci-fi/horror fare that's not available this time of year, and capitalize on the high theatre attendance around the holiday.

In addition to the wide releases, a host of specialty films will debut or expand into new territories. A romance set during the Bosnian War, In the Land of Blood and Honey (6 theatres) will release on Friday. Angelina Jolie shows "real flair as a filmmaker" in her writing/directing debut, according to critic Marsha McCreadie. Black-and-white silent The Artist will expand into 170 theatres, and My Week with Marilyn into 400 theatres. On Sunday, the 9/11 literary adaptation Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close will open in just 6 theatres.

Next week will start to reveal which films will be the hits or disappointments of 2011. Many of these releaes will play strongly or expand through January. Then there's awards season, which is only just beginning.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sequels falter during disappointing holiday weekend

By Sarah Sluis

Although the December box office picked up this weekend, it wasn't nearly as good as last year, with totals 14% behind 2010. Competition has been blamed for hurting individual films, but that doesn't explain why the box office as a whole is down.

Sherlock holmes game shadowsEasily landing in first place with$40 million,Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadowsfell short of the $50 million figure many had predicted for the detective actioner. The first Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. earned $62 million. However, audiences gave high ratings in exit polls, and there's still plenty of time in December for the tentpole to approach its $200+ million domestic total.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, the third installment in the live-action/CG hybrid franchise, finished with a slightly underwhelming$23.5 million. The 2009 sequel opened to $48 million over Christmas weekend, but it appears audiences may have tired slightly of the antics of the chipmunks and chipettes. Hugo, The Muppets, and Arthur Christmas are all competing against Chipwrecked, and this Wednesday The Adventures of Tintin will Alvin chipwrecked join the competition for family audiences.

Mission: Impossibe--Ghost Protocol sneaked into just over 500 theatres this weekend, most of which were IMAX. Posting a stunning $30,500 per-screen average for a total of $13 million, Paramount hopes the early release unleashed a torrent of buzz from the franchise's committed fanboys.

Specialty release Carnage failed to generate the kind of opening per-screen average that will make the play adapation a mover-and-shaker. With a $17,000 per-screen average in five locations, the Roman Polanski-directed film is definitely one of the weaker specialty releases this season. The Artist posted a per-screen average Mi4nearly as high--$16,900 per screen--in seventeen locations its fourth week of release. Carnage can't compete with that.

Young Adult expanded into nearly 1,000 screens its second week, landing a spot in the top ten with a $3.6 million total. That's good news, but it also shows it's not as strong asThe Descendants, which was able to earn twice as much on one-third the screens when it made its first expansion (admittedly over the Thanksgiving weekend). The Hawaii-set dramedy starring George Clooney added another $3.3 million to its coffers this week while still playing in only 878 theatres.

Showing stamina in its second week,Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spywent up 48% as it expanded from 4 to 16 theatres. Its $28,000 per-screen average made for a total of $452,000, a good sign for the spy film, which is rated 84% positive on Rotten Tomatoes.

This Wednesday, The Adventures of Tintin and The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo will open, followed by a wide release of We Bought a Zooon Friday. War Horse, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and The Darkest Hour will follow on Sunday, Christmas Day.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Three sequels face off: 'Chipwrecked,' 'Game of Shadows,' and 'Ghost Protocol'

By Sarah Sluis

Alvin, Simon, Theodore, and the Chipettes return for Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (3,723 theatres), one of three sequels hitting theatres today. Though the CG-animated feature is expected to earn north of $25 million this weekend, it isn't because of quality. "C'mon, you can do better," Frank Alvin chipwreckedLovece admonishes in his review. He acknowledges there's "no incentive" for the filmmakers to try, as evidenced by their sloppy work "that shows no feeling for the material, no affection for the characters, and no concern for any long-term legacy." Just call Alvin and the Chipmunks the anti-Pixar movie.

The leader this weekend is expected to be Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (3,703 theatres), which should rack up $50 million. The "bigger, louder, more expensive sequel...stays true to the Holmes canon" and won over critic Sherlock holmes game shadows downey mcadams
Daniel Eagan. Since the first installment earned over $500 million, hopes are high for the "hyperkinetic sequel."

Withholding its wide 3,000-screen release until next Wednesday, Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol will open in a select 425 theatres, all of which will project in IMAX or another large-screen experience. Viewers won't be disappointed, according to Eagan. The actioner offers "cutting-edge escapism that's almost guilt-free." Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt goes traipsing around the globe, including a memorable sequence in Dubai. Even with so few screens, the sequel should earn around $15 million, and I'm sure the combination of packed theatres and a big-screen experience will ensure positive word-of-mouth.

Carnage groupDespite having the actors "lustily go at it," Carnage (5 theatres) works from a script that sounds like "an ultra-slick TV-sitcom episode gone horribly wrong and combative," according to David Noh. In my opinion, the play adaptation still feels very stagey, one of my pet peeves. That kind of artifice doesn't fly on the silver screen. Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster both received acting nominations for the Golden Globes, but Noh's opinion must have been echoed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which failed to nominate the film for anything else.

On Monday, we'll see if these three sequels were able to spike the December box office as people move from shopping for the holidays to celebrating the holidays.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Interpreting the Golden Globe nominations

By Sarah Sluis

This year's Golden Globe nominations confirmed that The Artist will not be sidelined solely because it's a black-and-white silent. Indeed, I think the movie's antiquated format actually works in its favor. Audiences are delighted to find that they're not bored, but charmed. The Artist is very audience-accessible. It's also rife with the warm-fuzzies that Academy voters in particular love, making me think The artist berenice bejoit will do similarly well once the Oscar nominations come out.

Two movies that have barely screened for critics failed to grab many nominations. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo only got two nominations, one for Rooney Mara in the Best Actress category, and one for Best Musical Score. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close scored a shocking zero nominations. Most critics (perhaps including the foreign press?) haven't seen the Dec. 28 release yet. Is it a stinker?

I liked seeing 50/50 grab a couple nominations. I thought the cancer drama-comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen worked quite well. It doesn't have the lasting resonance I look for in an out-of-the-park movie, but it's rare that a low-budget comedy--marketed with lots of medical marijuana jokes--grabs the attention of critical movers-and-shakers.

The Help, too, has been long expected to make a strong showing in awards season, and its five The help womennominations attest that this was one of the best movies an adult could have seen this summer. The historical drama was nominated in the drama category, despite its many lighter moments--enough to have placed it in the comedy section if that field was more of a lock. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain all earned acting nominations, with the latter two in the supporting category.

I think Young Adult deserved more than its single nomination for Charlize Theron as Best Actress. Maybe it could have earned more votes if the movie's heroine followed a path to redemption, instead of ending up the same. The Descendants, which also features a hero in a time with crisis, fared better. It earned five nominations, tying with The Help with the second-highest number.

In general, this year has been a inconclusive one for awards-seeking films. There is no single movie ending up with double-digit nominations--and I doubt there will be. There's a flip side to this, at least in critical roundups. I've been more interested in which small independent movies made "top" lists (like NY Times' and Slate's) and less interested in which of the mostly B+/A- mainstream movies ended up in the running. There are many films to check out this awards season, but no one film will generate all the noise. And that might be a good thing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Could 'tweet seats' come to movie theatres?

By Sarah Sluis

For me, there's nothing worse than the glow of a cell phone screen out of the corner of my eye when I'm watching a movie. I don't think kindly of these people, either. Is it really that hard not to contact people Etiquette-cell-phone-movie-425ds0126210for two hours? However, for many young people, texting and being constantly available is a way of life. Perhaps movie theatres' unfriendly environment for cell phones is partially to blame for the recent complaints about young people not showing up at the box office. If so, then perhaps movie theatres will be in line to adopt the "tweet seats" talked about in a recent USA Today article.

The newspaper cites a number of entertainment venues (but not movie theatres) that designate the back row as one that is acceptable for tweeting. I actually support this idea for movie theatres, with a few caveats.

1. Getting unwillingly stuck in the tweet row might be worse than getting stuck in the front row for a packed screening.

2. If the "tweet seats" are full or undesirable, people may use the fact that cell phones are allowed at all to justify their cell phone-checking during the show in the rest of the theatre.

3. There may be a bit of a learning curve. People may not understand exactly the concept of "cell phone seats." But isn't that what the pre-movie advertisements are for?

In a best case scenario, "tweet seats" would effectively corral all the would-be cell phone checkers into one place. They can enjoy their show their way, and everyone else can take a break from checking their email for a couple hours.

If movie theatres want to attract a young demographic, "tweet seats" may be it. With digital projection, it would be easy to designate a few theatres with such seats and program more youth-oriented movies in those locations. Most adults want movie theatres to provide a quiet, immersive experience. But most teens who go to the movie theatre on Friday and Saturday nights simply want to hang out with their friends away from their parents. For them, being connected is more important than devoting their full attention to a show (and face it, a lot of movies targeting that demographic don't need a viewer's full attention). If teens are shunning movie theatres, "tweet seats" may bring them back.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The best of this year's Black List

By Sarah Sluis

For those interested in the kind of screenplays that are getting passed around Hollywood, The Black List offers a peek at the best unproduced scripts of the year, voted on by a select group of Hollywood executives. The list is influential, both because it has contained screenplays that went on to be nominated and win Oscars, and because it can help the careers of the screenwriters who make the list.

I looked through the 2011 list and picked out the projects that most intrigued me.

When the Street Lights Go On. This screenplay gets my pick not only because of its haunting description, but because it received the second-highest number of votes: 84. The Black List's summary: "In the early 1980s, a town suffers through the aftermath of a brutal murder of a high school girl and a teacher." I love the slightly retro setting, small-town feel, and the obvious implication of the murder: an affair gone sour, or discovered.

Just today, there came news that Drew Barrymore picked up the movie to direct. More details about the plot were revealed, and it sounds intricate. It's told from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy and Screenplayamateur filmmaker who finds the bodies. Two of his classmates are suspects, and all three have a crush on the dead girl's younger sister.

How to Disappear Completely. From the Black List: "A child prodigy tries to take control of his life away from his demanding parents." The idea of overbearing parents is all the rage right now, with high-profile magazine articles examining the negative effects of pushing kids, and outrage over the "Tiger Mom." This kind of controversy, along with any potential audience members' lingering questions or resentment about how they were raised (and isn't everyone a genius in their own way?) make me think topicality could bring this project over the top.

The Outsider. Black List summary: "In post WWII Japan, an American former prisoner of war rises in the yakuza." A historical gangster story that's doesn't have the oft-used mise-en-scene of Prohibition-era America? Please! Those that have read current bestseller Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand know that Japanese POW camps could be brutal places. Violations of international law governing such camps were commonplace. If so, how could someone end up on the other side? That kind of question could give the protagonist a better arc than most such stories.

Of the dozens of screenplays with a spot on the Black List, only a small percentage will end up being produced--or in the running for awards season. I've made my bets, now I only have to wait a few years to see if any of the scripts end up in production--or any good in their finished form.

Monday, December 12, 2011

'New Year's Eve' leads a lackluster box office

By Sarah Sluis

The period from Thanksgiving to New Year's is usually filled with good movies, but early December tends to be sluggish at the box office as people focus on holiday gift shopping. This weekend, which totaled just $78 million, posted the lowest numbers since September 5-7, 2008. That's not good news. The New year's eve josh duhamelleader of the pack was New Year's Eve, a romantic comedy releasing well in advance of its holiday. With just $13.5 million, the star-filled ensemble picture performed short of expectations that had the film inching closer to $20 million.

In second place, the R-rated babysitting comedy The Sitter grabbed $10 million. So-so viewer feedback, as evidenced by the movie's C+ CinemaScore, could have this movie hurting in coming weeks. However, a small budget and healthy returns from younger moviegoers could The sitter groupmake the Jonah Hill starrer profitable for Fox.

With no new family films, existing fare posted strong holds. Arthur Christmas dropped just 10% to $6.6 million as the titular holiday approaches. One spot below, Hugo fell 19% to $6.1 million. The Martin Scorsese-directed picture reportedly cost over $100 million, so its U.S. total of $33 million to date is far behind where such movies usually are after three weeks. The Muppets continued its trend of bigger week-to-week drops with a 36% dive to $7 million. Happy Feet Two held on in the top ten, sliding to eighth place with $3.7 million and a 36% decrease in receipts.

New specialty pictures fared much better than wide ones. In eight locations, Young Adult nabbed $40,000 per theatre. The espionage thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy averaged $75,000 per screen in half the locations. Both movies' debuts put them in a good position for expansion and awards season. Young adult 2Finally, We Need to Talk about Kevin, which seemed to inspire a "love it or hate it" critical reaction, had a softer $24,000 debut playing on one screen. The indie The Descendants added 300 theatres to go up .9% from last week and add another $4.8 million to its $23 million total. The push for The Artist is still heating up. Its 38% improvement from last week, as well as its $18,000 per-screen average, show this black-and-white silent feature has a lot of momentum.

This Friday, another family picture, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, will add to the already-saturated kid market. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows will provide some action fun, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol will have a limited, IMAX-only release.

Friday, December 9, 2011

'New Year's Eve' and 'The Sitter' offer alternative to glut of family films

By Sarah Sluis

There's only three more weekends until Christmas, so it's fitting that New Year's Eve (3,505 theatres) is jumping the gun. The romantic comedy may not be getting the best reviews (only 6% of critics gave it a "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but it's the only offering in this genre to come out in the next New year's eve hilary swankmonth, so it will have a captive audience. Unlike the $56 million opening weekend of Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve is expected to come in around the teen millions, and then hit close to that number until we ring in 2012.

The Sitter (2,479 theatres) isn't faring much better in the critics department (only 20% positive) but the young males the movie is targeting tend not to pay much attention to reviews. Our critic Marsha McCreadie is one of the comedy's defenders, calling it "sincere and The sitter carheartwarming," with star Jonah Hill "[delivering] some complicated and tender moments." Plenty of bawdy and law-breaking episodes temper the emotional punch of the movie, which is essentially an R-rated Adventures in Babysitting.

The adaptation of John le Carr's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (4 theatres) also makes its debut. Viewers unfamiliar with the book "should pay attention," critic Rex Roberts warns. Even James Bond spy movies have viewers scratching their heads at times, but Tinker, Tailor takes confusion to a whole other level. I found individual parts of the movie more fulfilling than the whole. Roberts points out that director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) "has a knack for finding the telling detail�a drop of sweat from a waiter's brow�that evokes the essence of a scene." Indeed, it's moments like these that make the thriller most satisfying.

Young adult charlize theronCharlize Theron stars as Mavis, a more seasoned variation on the evil prom queen, in Young Adult (8 theatres). She goes back to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, to steal back her high school boyfriend, now married and father to a newborn. The comedy-drama "walks a tricky line between cynicism and compassion, laughter and tragedy," critic Kevin Lally notes, "letting us both revel in and gasp at Mavis' wildly inappropriate behavior but ultimately generating a modicum of sympathy." I particularly enjoyed the characterization of Mavis as a junk-food eating, Kardashian-obsessed, toy dog owner, Juicy sweats-wearing adult. Screenwriter Diablo Cody makes sure that Mavis' brand of pathetic is both dark and laugh-out-loud funny.

Ever wonder how a truly evil person comes to be? We Need to Talk About Kevin (2 theatres) stars Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly as the parents of a demonic child who later carries out a school shooting. Although many critics have praised the drama, David Noh resented director Lynne Ramsay's "promiscuous auteur-ism." Many have already mentioned Swinton's name as a possible nominee for Best Actress during the Academy Awards.

On Monday, we'll see if New Year's Eve and The Sitter were able to lift the mid-December box office blues. With half of the top ten films targeting family audiences, these movies should help bring in younger and unattached audiences.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Is the romantic comedy transformation complete?

By Sarah Sluis

Just last year, I thought the problem of terrible romantic comedies would never be fixed. Jennifer Lopez's The Back-Up Plan sent me into this depression. Even with a modern "obstacle to romance" like the fact that she was incubating another man's baby, the movie was awful. It seemed like the formula that worked so well in the screwball era would never be updated for the modern audiences.

Now, it seems that every romantic comedy in the works has a different take on the genre (Celese and Jesse Forever, Seeking a Friend at the End of the World, etc). Instead of starting with the "meet cute," building the plot around mistaken identity or a misinterpreted gesture, and sealing everything with a kiss, screenwriters have been going for the messy and undefined. Breakups and existing relationships are frequently the starting points, not the "meet cute." And in an age where the average age of marriage is rising, divorce is common, and premarital sex is no longer frowned upon, these stories reflect the modern era.

The Five Year Engagement, whose trailer released today, follows this trend. Jason Segel and Emily Blunt star as a couple whose engagement is dragging on, and on, and on. Director Nicholas Stoller co-wrote the script with Segel, and if their Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which started with a breakup) is any indication, this romance-comedy hybrid will innovate on the genre norms.

The trailer has some funny spots but doesn't altogether hint at how the plot will play out--probably a good thing. It appears that Blunt's job makes the relationship long-distance and delays them setting a wedding date. Blunt's heartfelt speech at 1:55 kind of feels like a reconciliation after a breakup. This hints at a more familiar narrative. For a big studio rom-com, this movie still speaks to a big shift in conventions. The traditional romantic comedy may be dead--for now.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

'The Three Stooges' trailer: More questions than answers or laughs

By Sarah Sluis

The Farrelly Brothers have been working on a Three Stooges adaptation for years. Several big-name cast members, like Sean Penn, were attached to the movie at one time, but it filmed with three lesser-known stars: Sean Hayes, Will Sasso, and Chris Diamantopoulos. Now the trailer's out, but it offers more questions than answers about what the picture will actually be like. Originally, the movie was supposed to be filmed as a by-the-numbers adaptation that would remain as true as possible to the original. That may be true in some regards, but Snooki of the "Jersey Shore" appears in the trailer, as well as a joke about an iPhone being an "eye-phone." Groan.

I think this movie will be a much harder sell for a younger generation that didn't grow up watching The Three Stooges. I don't even recall seeing their shorts playing in reruns on television in my childhood.

For me, the biggest thing that falls flat is the slapstick humor. What is it with all the eye-poking? I don't need to see giant bells and hammers being planted on the heads of Larry, Curly, and Moe. Today, slapstick humor is alive and well, but it's more often grounded in realism. The Jackass series features real stunts, and "Tosh.0" updates "America's Funniest Home Videos" with an emphasis on YouTube movies that make me wonder if the person in question is still in the hospital being treated for a traumatic brain injury (I prefer the softer falls).

With a no-name cast and stunts that could just as easily have been done in the 1930s, the budget for The Three Stooges will surely be low--and should be. I think this comedy will have an uphill battle when it releases this April through 20th Century Fox. The humor of The Three Stooges is better parsed and reworked for the modern age, rather than being remade without thought to today's audience. If people want to watch the originals, they're easily found on YouTube--for free. At least now I know where the Farrelly Brothers got the haircut ideas for their duo in Dumb and Dumber--Larry and Moe.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Promising indie films in Sundance 2012 lineup

By Sarah Sluis

Let's skip past awards season for a minute. The lineup for the 2012 Sundance Film Festival has been released. Surprisingly, none of the fifteen movies in the premiere section have distribution yet. Included in the lineup are plenty of romances, comedies, and offbeat premises that will be sure to connect with Sundance's youthful core demographic. Let's take a look at some of the projects that have me the most excited.

Bachelorette. This year's Bridesmaids showed just how much fun female-centered wedding comedies can be. Bachelorette is a bit more Mean Girls, centering on a group of friends who are miffed when Bachelorette_filmstill1_IslaFisher_KirstenDunst_LizzyCaplan_byJacobHutchingstheir least popular member becomes engaged to an extremely eligible bachelor and then recruits them to be bridesmaids. Kirsten Dunst, Lizzie Caplan, and Isla Fisher star as the friends, in what looks like a cross of Bridesmaids and the upcoming Young Adult.

Celeste and Jesse Forever. Another entry in the unconventional, weird-timelined love story (think: (500) Days of Summer), this centers on a couple that's been together since high school. As they approach thirty, they decide to divorce while remaining best friends. Rashida Jones, who's been a rising star, plays one member of the couple in a screenplay she co-wrote.

Red Hook Summer. Spike Lee directs and co-writes this story of a boy who goes to live with his grandfather who he's never met. I love this premise, and I think it's a chance for Lee to return to the kind of astutely observed social drama he showed the world in Do the Right Thing.

Liberal Arts. This romance centers on a 30-something guy (Josh Radnor, who also writes and directs) who returns to his college only to hook up with a 19-year-old student (Elizabeth Olsen). Olsen's portrayal as a cult member in the 2011 Sundance entry Martha Marcy May Marlene was powerful but also largely mute. It will be interesting to see the "third Olsen" in what has to be a more dialogue-driven performance. With the focus on Radnor, could this movie be a kind of reverse The Graduate?

The Sundance Film Festival will take place from Jan. 19-29, 2012.

Monday, December 5, 2011

'Twilight' lingers, with a third week in the top spot

By Sarah Sluis

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I kept its spot in first place for the third week in a row. The vampire romance earned another $16.9 million for a total of $247 million. That puts the blockbuster slightly behind the previous two installments, but a second sequel tracking just 5-10% less is actually Breaking dawncause for celebration.

The Muppets grabbed second place by sinking 61% to $11.2 million. The modestly budgeted movie has already earned $56 million in total, more than the reported production costs. However, this weekend consisted solely of holdovers from Thanksgiving, so the family film should have held much better.

Hugo had a quiet start in just 1,277 theatres. This week it added 563 locations while dipping just 32% to $7.6 million. With a 94% positive rating, good word-of-mouth should be forthcoming. This weekend, I ran into someone who went to see Hugo last weekend, only to decide against buying a ticket because it was only showing in 3D, and she'd never seen a 3D film. Another friend quickly jumped in to explain that the 3D is a big reason why the Hugo boymovie is so great--word-of-mouth. Still, this shows that a certain segment of adults who like quality films by auteurs like Martin Scorsese haven't warmed to the idea of 3D.

Besides The Muppets and Hugo, four other family-targeted movies crowded the box office. Arthur Christmas fell 39% to $7.3 million. Happy Feet Two earned $6 million with a 55% drop. Jack and Jill defied its 4% positive Rotten Tomatoes rating and stayed in sixth place with a 45% dive to $5.5 million. Finally, Puss in Boots is hanging on in ninth place with $3 million and a 60% decline.

Awards season films are in full swing. The NC-17 drama Shame debuted with $36,000 per screen in ten locations. The strong debut indicates that maybe the NC-17 rating isn't the death knell it used to be. Sleeping Beauty, which also focuses on the seedy aspects of sex, earned $5,000 per location in two places, a much softer opening.

The Weinstein Company is working its magic on The Artist, which earned .2% more than last week as it moved from four to six locations. Its $34,000 per-screen average indicates that its The artistsilent, black & white throwback isn't as hard of a sell as everyone thought. The distributor's other release, My Week with Marilyn, topped $1.1 million by pulling in a $4,800 per-screen average in 244 locations.

The most successful of the specialty releases right now is The Descendants. The George Clooney-starring dramedy earned $5.2 million and the seventh-place spot, while still playing in just 574 theatres.

This week will add just two more wide releases, New Year's Eve and The Sitter. The specialty field will be more crowded, with Young Adult, W.E., We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy joining the fray.