Friday, September 28, 2012

'Hotel Transylvania' expects more bookings than 'Looper'

This fall brings not only the standard Halloween-weekend horror movie, but two creepy animated features. The first to release, Hotel Transylvania (3,349 theatres), should top the box office this weekend. The Sony Pictures Animation release is projected to earn in the $25-30 million range.
Hotel transylvania cast 1Its spooky competitor, Frankenweenie, opens next week, so Hotel Transylvania will need to make a positive impact with viewers to make it the first choice for families in weeks to come. According to THR's Michael Rechtshaffen, that's unlikely to happen. The comedy "falls flat virtually from the get-go." The cute plot idea, which centers on Dracula and the resort he runs for fellow monsters, is "an anemic example
of pure concept over precious little content."

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play the same person, only at different times, in Looper (2,992 theatres), a sci-fi feature that's been receiving positive buzz on the festival circuit. "Sci-fi and action audiences have a new cult film," proclaims critic Kevin Lally. Willis' character is sent
Looper bruce willis gunsback in time to be killed by his younger self (Gordon-Levitt) in this decade-hopping feature, which also has a telekinesis plotline. Discerning viewers will appreciate the "gratifying, idiosyncratic touches" that make the alternate world feel that much more real. However, its R-rating means it will have a hard time matching the returns of a 3D family movie. Looper should end up in the $15 million range, though with a 93% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, the action/sci-fi combo is poised for a long run.

Won't Back Down (2,515 theatres) stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a parent and Viola Davis as a teacher and parent who vow to take back their underperforming school and create something that will help their children learn. The inspirational
Wont back down viola davis maggie gyllenhaal 2movie has drawn some fire from teacher unions, since the parents go around the union to accomplish their goal. Critic Doris Toumarkine took greater issue with the "literal" telling of the story, which "gives viewers what they want to see," but at the expense of originality. The result is a "well-done, well-meaning but predictable" drama that's unlikely to fire viewers up. With awareness low (perhaps it's hard to market to PTAs [parent-teacher associations] when the "T" is wary of your movie), the Fox feature should end up in the $5-10 million range.

Universal is releasing college a capella comedy Pitch Perfect in 335 theatres this weekend, in advance of a wide release next weekend. The
Pitch perfect rebel wilson 1hope is that packed theatres full of laughing viewers will result in positive word-of-mouth for the wide expansion. The "energy and execution," according to critic David Noh, elevate the so-so content. He speculates that the actors are "probably ad-libbing like mad" in order to breathe life into the dialogue and round out their characters. A debut in the $2 million range should give this comedy plenty of momentum through its second weekend.

On Monday, we'll see if this stronger slate of new releases helps bring the box office back into competition with the year-over-year figures. In recent weeks, the box office has been down 10-20% from the previous year.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hilary Swank to play ALS-stricken woman in 'You're Not You'

If Hilary Swank's characters have a common thread, it would be resilience in the face of adversity. That's what won her both her Oscars, for 1999's Boys Don't Cry and 2004's Million Dollar Baby. She favors true-to-life stories (Conviction, Amelia, Boys Don't Cry), and she's not so much into happy endings--her characters' fates include dying in a plane crash, becoming paraplegic and
Hilary swankrequesting assisted suicide, and being murdered. It appears that her next project will have a few of those elements. She will play an ALS-stricken woman in You're Not You, which is based on the well-received novel by Michelle Wildgen. Swank's character is a sophisticated former chef who now can barely move her fingers. An aimless college student becomes her caretaker, and in the process the young woman redirects her life and learns a few lessons from the woman. Then the husband of the disabled woman has an affair and she kicks him out, revving up the stakes of the tale.

I would say that it's a challenge to make a project where the main character can barely move, but John Hawkes' performance in The Sessions has already proved that belief wrong. French success The Intouchables, about the relationship between a paralyzed man and his caretaker, has also shown these stories can resonate with audiences. Finally, the focus on female relationships dovetails with Hollywood's heightened focus on this piece of the puzzle, thanks to a string of hits with female-centered plotlines. I imagine Swank's character is a lot nicer than the one in The Devil Wears Prada, but that movie, at least, proves that a workplace growth experience between an older woman and a younger woman is viable at the box office.

I admire Swank for being so choosy about the movies she appears in. There are plenty of movies about 20-somethings trying to figure out their lives and seek personal growth, but most of them are romances set in urban areas with the women already in swank jobs (and "Girls," its innovative and less glamorous counterpart, also deserves a mention). You're Not You delves into more serious territory with its depiction of a serious disease. That makes a lot of concerns look trivial in comparison.

Although the project has been in development for years (the book was published in 2006), production will finally begin this November. One big casting decision has yet to be made: the college student. Shana Feste (Country Strong) and Jordan Roberts (Dolphin Tale) worked on the script, and George C. Wolfe (Nights in Rodanthe) is directing. Most tellingly, Alcon Entertainment, which brought tearjerker and feel-good movie The Blind Side to the big screen, is producing. With shooting beginning this fall, You're Not You will likely hit screens sometime in 2014.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Laika may pick up Henry Selick's abandoned Disney project

One of the big news items from Disney's quarterly report this September was a $50 million writedown on an unnamed movie, which was shut down mid-production. It was quickly revealed that the movie was the stop-motion animation feature from director Henry Selick, who was poached away from Laika, where he directed Coraline.

Now there are signs that Laika might pick up Selick's unfinished project, which was reportedly too
Henry selickdark for Disney. Since Laika's film credits also include Corpse Bride and ParaNorman, it's safe to say "dark" won't be a problem for the production company. Of course, dark wasn't always a problem for Disney, since Selick's 1990s movies The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach were made under the mouse house. Since Disney recently underwent a change in leadership, with Alan Horn stepping into the role of chairman, it's possible that the writedown was related to new executives who didn't believe in the project.

$50 million does seem like a steep investment for Disney, especially if the project was unfinished. Dark, animated movies appeal to a niche audience. Coraline, a success, earned $75 million at the box office, with a reported budget of $60 million. Compare that to Brave's $233 million (and $185 million budget), just another one of Pixar's all-ages successes. Maybe Disney, so used to its big animated projects, couldn't adapt to making a smaller, cheaper project. Word is that Selick was also behind schedule, and would have been unable to make the planned October 2013 release date.

Selick's work may not be for everyone, but Coraline is up there in my favorite animated films list. Let's hope Laika takes Selick back into their fold and embraces the creepy, dark animated tale.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Weinstein Co. picks up 'The Butler'

Early footage from The Butler, which is currently shooting in New Orleans, must look promising. The Weinstein Co. picked up the historical biopic for distribution, shortly after production began. The premise of The Butler sounds part Forrest Gump, part "Downton Abbey," and part The King's Speech, the Weinstein-distributed hit that focused on the relationship between the King of England
Default-forest-whitakerand his speech teacher of humble origins. A recipe for success, right? The story borrows from the life of the real White House butler Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents over three decades. From the pre-Civil Rights era through Vietnam and beyond, the man's experience is a slice-of-life that will be sure to illustrate social change and perhaps stoke a flame of nostalgia.

The trend in biopics as of late has been to go the "one event" route, focusing on an installment in the person's life rather than its length. The Butler will buck that trend--but hopefully it will do it wisely. Forest Whitaker, who will star as the butler, is 51. Oprah Winfrey, who will play his wife, is 58. Whitaker will be a natural fit for the middle-aged to elderly portions of the movie, but the younger scenes may be more difficult to pull off. Hopefully director and co-writer Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) took a look at Leonardo DiCaprio's distracting makeup in J. Edgar and decided to go for a story that won't rely heavily on the actors' performances at an age unbelievably far from their natural age.

Since the biopic spans a lifetime of presidencies, there has been a lot of casting of Presidents and First Ladies:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower: Robin Williams
Mamie Eisenhower: Melissa Leo (Frozen River)
JFK: James Marsden (X-Men: The Last Stand)
Jackie Kennedy: Minka Kelly (Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive)
Lyndon B. Johnson: Liev Schreiber
Richard Nixon: John Cusack
Ronald Reagan: Alan Rickman
 Nancy Reagan: Jane Fonda

Missing from the list are Presidents Ford and Carter, but there is a cast listing for Barack Obama--who presumably comes in at the end after the butler is retired.

There are also prominent black actors on board, including  Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who visited the White House a number of times, will be played by Nelsan Ellis, who had a small role in The Help.

Reviews for Daniels' The Paperboy have not been as favorable for those of Precious, but hopefully Daniels and his team know what they're doing, because this is the kind of movie that's large in scope and really drives people to the theatres.


Monday, September 24, 2012

'End of Watch' grabs first in close weekend

After a close race, End of Watch grabbed the first place spot with $13.2 million. Positive word-of-mouth fueled the cop drama, giving it an extra edge over its competitors. Hispanic audiences, who made up 32% of attendees, may have been drawn in part by co-star Michael Peña,
End of watch 1as well as the setting in Los Angeles, which has a large Hispanic community. Audiences also gave the movie an "A-" rating in CinemaScore exit polls, another reason for newbie distributor Open Road Films to celebrate.

In second place, The House at the End of the Street earned $12.2 million. Audiences gave the horror movie, which stars Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, a "B" rating.

Trouble with the Curve was right behind in third with $12.1 million. The South and Midwest regions posted the highest returns for the Clint Eastwood-led picture, which is about
Trouble with the curve clint eastwood amy adamsold-fashioned, non-Moneyball baseball scouting. Trouble's demographic should give the drama long playability, with plenty of people turning out in coming weeks as word spreads.

Earning half as much as the other three wide releases, Dredd 3D faltered with $6.3 million. The rub is that even a re-release, Finding Nemo 3D, did better, easily accruing a return of $9.4 million.

The Master made a bet by expanding from four to 788 locations in its second weekend. The bet didn't exactly pay off. Although the drama earned $5 million in seventh place, only 36% of locations earned more than $5,000, a sign
Perks of wallflowerthat a smaller release might have yielded higher per-screen averages. That being said, digital distribution is a lot cheaper than film prints, so perhaps that affected distribution plans.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower had an extremely strong opening of $244,000 on four screens, a per-screen average of $61,000. With a debut like that, there's no way this offbeat teen comedy will fade into the background.

This Friday, the well-received sci-fi picture Looper (read FJI's profile of the director here) leads the pack. Halloween starts early with the animated feature Hotel Transylvania, parents fight for better teaching in Won't Back Down, and college a capella gets its due in Pitch Perfect.

Friday, September 21, 2012

'Trouble with the Curve' goes to bat against 'Dredd 3D'

Four new movies open this weekend, but the box office is still expected to be 20% off of last year. With some modestly budgeted pictures in the mix, even $10-20 million openings may yield good results for studios. All four of the wide releases are expected to end up in the range, so the race for first will be close.

Clint Eastwood may be the main draw in Trouble with the Curve (3,212 theatres), but Amy
Trouble with the curveAdams has a surprisingly meaty role in this story of an aging baseball scout and the corporate lawyer who accompanies him on a scouting trip. Yes, director Robert Lorenz "telegraphs plot points" in a way that's a bit eye-rollingly obvious, as critic Daniel Eagan points out, "but he also tells the story clearly, without fuss. As a kind of anti-Moneyball, the picture will hold particular sway among those who, like Eastwood's character, feel a little crochety about the world's technological changes.

The sci-fi dystopia in Dredd 3D (2,506 theatres) is "not as awful" as the 1995 adaptation of the
Dredd 3d comic book, according to critic Maitland McDonagh. In the futuristic world, robotic judges mete out justice in giant skyscrapers. Cool idea, but apparently it's "straight and dull, despite the near-nonstop mayhem."

Pre-Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence made House at the End of the Street (3,083 theatres), a horror movie that screened only for critics the night before opening. Horror movies have been doing mixed business lately, with The Possession opening over $20 million
House at the end of the streetbut The Apparition falling short with $2.8 million. With the recognizable Lawrence front and center, the horror flick should be in store for an opening closer to Possession than Apparition.

The cop drama End of Watch (2,730 theatres), starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, comes from AMC and Regal joint venture Open Road Films, which aims to increase the amount of product for movie theatres that falls in the middle-budget range. With an estimated budget of $7 million, End of Watch falls on the low end of the budget spectrum, but the results impressed critic Maitland McDonagh, who calls the police drama "fiction designed to look like the most exciting supersized episode of 'Cops' ever." Using the amateur footage technique that's been popularized by horror films and extended to other genres, like the teen superhero pic Chronicle, isn't a gimmick, but "lifts it above cop-movie clichés."

Harry Potter's Emma Watson stars in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (4 theatres), an adaptation of a popular young adult book. The content may have been watered down in execution,
Perks of being a wallflower as critic Doris Toumarkine complains the "more mainstream than edgy" tweener pic will be a "box-office wallflower unless there's good word-of-mouth.

Last week's indie smash The Master expands from four locations to 788 this weekend. The critically acclaimed movie is tracking at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and 88 on Metacritic, which is often a bit tougher on releases. Director Paul Thomas Anderson's previous release, There Will Be Blood, didn't open that wide until its fifth week of release, so there is some concern that distributor Weinstein Co. may be opening too wide, too soon. But a quick expansion will help the Scientology-esque drama keep the momentum from its positive film festival reception and record-breaking opening.

On Monday, we'll see if the influx of new movies boosted the box office, and which picture came out on top.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

3D opera and Sony's closed-caption glasses previewed at Geneva Convention

Now in its sixth season, the Met Opera has been the single most successful alternative content program in theatres. On Tuesday night, RealD previewed part of Madam Butterfly 3D. No, it's not from the Met, but London's Royal Opera House. After a host of technical difficulties were resolved, we previewed part of the movie. The opening credit sequence had the extreme pop-outs people associate with 3D. It was mainly behind-the-scenes shots of hair and makeup and rainy London streets. The patient, slower pace lent a different mood to 3D than the one people are used to seeing with 3D-animated or tentpole movies. The actual opera had more restrained use of 3D. The most revelatory part was not the 3D, but the crispness of the shots. The high definition showed, and gave a front row view of the action.

On Wednesday evening, Sony previewed its closed-caption glasses. Not only will theatre owners likely be required by a federal mandate to provide options for deaf and blind patrons, but many theatre owners spoke of customers who had come in requesting such a product, since it was announced last year at ShowEast. Though Sony is currently mum about the price, the glasses are heavy and
Sony-closed-captioning-glassescomplicated--and that usually means expensive. This reporter could not figure out exactly how the hologram was being projected but that's for the engineers. On each side of the glasses there is a small pack that apparently projects the captions on the screen from each side--but I can't explain more than that. It's also attached to a small transmitter that allows people to set the language and other specifications. This creates a great opportunity for international film festivals--people can watch the same movie, all with subtitles set to their preferred language.

Wearing the glasses is slightly less smooth. They project in green, but depending on the color of the screen at the moment, words could be hard to read. The darker the screen, the more legible the captions. Because the glasses are adjustable, you can have the subtitles show up in the black space below the screen, which Sony confirms many testers have preferred to do. But if your theatre doesn't have a lot of dark dead space below their screen, you may have to read the subtitles on the screen, a more difficult option.

The biggest flaw of the glasses is the fact that a person's head is not the most stable projection device. If movies were projected via hats worn by the projectionist, the images would be wobbly. The same principle is at work here. It's possible over the length of a feature film the mind would adjust to the wobbles, but I found that the subtitles drew an annoying amount of attention to my body's minor fidgeting. I would then move my head more to try to move the subtitles back to where I had them before. This is the kind of problem that never seems to happen in Minority Report! Despite these issues, Sony's engineers have created an impressive technology. For a deaf patron, the service is a lot better than nothing. But audiences used to fixed, unmoving subtitles while watching a foreign-language film may not find the experience as smooth to their liking. For that reason, I think this product will be the biggest success in the hearing impaired market. If the next generation contains a stabilizer or something else to fix the wobbles, I think foreign film subtitling will be the next application of this cutting-edge technology.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

NATO's John Fithian leads off Geneva Convention with industry insights

Digital conversions are finally winding down. In the opening NATO "State of the Industry" speech at the Geneva Convention today, president John Fithian remarked that he's been in his position for over a decade, and he's never stopped talking about digital. Finally, he sees the end on the horizon. In his address, he said, "the train has left the station. Make your decision in the next ten days," which elicited nervous titters in the audience. Most integrators have a September 30th deadline to sign a contract, so it's now or never. Some single-screen theatres or smaller locations are still figuring out financing for digital--or hoping to wait around for the cheaper projectors that have not been officially announced or priced. With VPF deals often not a good fit for the smallest theatres, owners are coming up with alternative solutions, like looking for loans backed by the Small Businesss Admistration (

There are still growing pains for those who have converted to digital. Fithian fielded one question from a theatre owner who felt many theatres, especially smaller five- and six-plexes, were getting passed over for releases they would have received on film. Distributors just didn't want to pay the fee part of the VPF. Fithian acknowledged that there was a problem and he's been receiving a few complaints a week about the matter. In an upcoming meeting, he plans to address this issue with the studios in the presence of representatives from independent theatres. His view was that a lot of the problems stem from the complicated nature of the contracts and legalese. If VPF deals are followed correctly, this shouldn't happen.

Fithian and his co-presenters,  NATO's Patrick Corcoran and Belinda Judson, also talked about ideas coming out of NATO's strategic planning committee. One idea is a national campaign encouraging moviegoing, which they compared to the "Got Milk?" campaign. Exhibitors are at the mercy of studio marketing, which is movie-specific, so advertising emphasizing the experience of moviegoing may encourage current moviegoers to attend more frequently. Another idea is having a national discount movie day. Many chains currently have cheap tickets every Tuesday, for example, but it's not nationwide. Additionally, Canada and some countries in Latin America already have these discount days in place without negative effect on the overall market.Apparently some studio partners are enthusiastic about the idea, while others hate it. There was also talk about addressing some grievances exhibitors have with current studio marketing strategies, like trailers and standees for films that are 12-18 months away. Trailers that give away too much of the movie are another pet peeve, and with running times creeping up to two minutes and thirty seconds, the previews are just too long.

Studios have been just producers and distributors ever since the 1948 Paramount Decision. But now exhibitors want a hand in the distribution business too. NATO's position is that theatres are suffering because fewer movies are being made in the middle range--the ones that don't cost too much and don't earn too much. Open Road Films, the joint venture between AMC and Regal, is one such foray into distribution. During the Box Office panel "Programming Alternatives to Movies," this issue came up again. Although alternative content is primarily associated with programs like NCM Fathom's Met Opera programs, the tactics used to promote these one-off screenings could also help smaller independent movies find their audiences in theatres, not at home.

Yesterday, before the opening dinner and Geneva Idol competition, Warner Bros. unveiled a new Hobbit trailer, which enthused the crowd. As for the winner of the riff American Idol? Well, if one duo could have pulled off the Patrick Swayze lift while singing Dirty Dancing's "Time of My Life," maybe they would have won, but it was a smooth, memorized version of Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" that brought the house down. The day's entertainment also yielded benefits. The golf tournament earlier in the day brought in over $5,000 for Variety The Children's Charity. The organization was originally a men's club that rallied together to help an abandoned baby found at the doorsteps of a theatre, so the combination of entertainment and charity seemed fitting. The golfers, and anyone who looks outside in between promo reels from the studio, are treated to the majestic, tree-covered hills of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Check back tomorrow for more highlights from "Where Hollywood Meets the Heartland."

Monday, September 17, 2012

'Resident Evil: Retribution' underwhelms at number one, 'The Master' breaks per-theatre records

The number one spot this weekend went to Resident Evil: Retribution, which came up with $21.1 million over the weekend. Even with that top ranking, this Resident Evil is the least
Michelle rodriguez resident evil retributionsuccessful to date. Only the first movie opened lower than this installment, the fifth. Abroad, the sci-fi actioner is expected to do better, so perhaps Screen Gems can recover part of their $65 million budget there.

Finding Nemo 3D grabbed second place and $17.5 million. That's right on par with the re-release of Beauty and the Beast in 3D, but Disney had been hoping for something closer to The Lion King's 3D opening of over $30 million. Still, with minimal investment, and an upcoming sequel to start marketing for, this
Finding nemo 3d 1release was a strategic win. Abroad, many 3D re-releases have been overperforming. It's unlikely this movie is going to have the success of, say, Titanic 3D in China, but in many emerging markets, consumers may not have even had a theatre near them to show the movie on the big screen a decade ago.

On the heels of its buzzworthy showings at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals, The Master debuted to $730,000, a per-theatre average of $146,000. That beats indie competitor Moonrise Kingdom, which opened earlier this year to $130,000 per theatre. The Master also posted the highest average ever for a live-action movie. It's worth noting that the record is a per-theatre average, not the usual industry metric, per-screen average. A quick search reveals that at the ArcLight in Hollywood, CA, The Master is playing twenty-two times a day, while L.A.'s The Landmark is playing the Scientology-esque drama seventeen times a
Joaquin phoenix masterday. With a 2 hour, 30 minute running time, that means director P.T. Anderson's movie is playing on three or four screens in each location.

Opening in twelfth place, the hedge fund thriller Arbitrage did well for its 197 locations, pulling in $2 million and a per-screen average of $10,500. In other words, it made what I hear is roughly the average compensation for a single hedge funder. Cheers!

The red state-leaning The Last Ounce of Courage picked up $1.7 million on a 1,407-screen release. The distributor, Rocky Mountain Pictures, may have opened the drama a bit on the wide side, but the low-budget movie won't need much to get in the black. Rocky Mountain's other release, 2016: Obama's America, added $2 million to its total by dropping just 38%.

This Friday, the box office picks up with four new wide releases. Clint Eastwood stars in the anti-Moneyball baseball movie Trouble with the Curve, and horror fans can check out Jennifer Lawrence in what will likely be her last low-rent role in the horror flick The House at the End of the Street. Rounding out the offerings is Dredd, a remake that is indeed related to Judge Dredd, and the crime drama End of Watch.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Toronto wrap: The rest of the best

It was, in all, an exciting TIFF 2012. As always the near-300 features plus documentaries and press events made it impossible for any single journalist to deliver a definitive evaluation; in effect, every critic attends his/her own TIFF. Congrats to the organizers for keeping all the moving parts of this sprawling sprocket opera in play. One caveat: that overloaded first weekend of buzzy films skedded at the same hour makes the critics gaga; why not spread the must-sees into the week? And this year, especially if you were attending public screenings, the venues seemed especially far-flung, requiring either the stamina of an Iron Man or deep pockets for outrageous cab fares.


At edition 2012 the drumbeat surrounding “The Master” all but drowned out the competition. Still, I discovered two superb, if relatively un-buzzed dramas. Also featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, “A Late Quartet” is a first feature from American-Israeli Yaron Zilberman that explores the upheaval in a world-class string quartet when one of its members falls victim to a degenerative
Latequartet_02_mediumdisease. Though the screenplay initially feels over-determined, the story-power is cumulative in this moving, immersive work about the passion to carry forward a musical heritage. It's rare to see a film about the dedication of artists explored with such insight. And after his lunatic turn in “Seven Psychopaths” by Martin McDonagh, it was fun to see Christopher Walken morphed into a cellist and the moral keystone of the quartet. Mark Ivanovir shines as a high-strung (sorry) first violinist in love with Hoffman's musician daughter (Imogene Poots) -- which undercuts the quartet's survival -- and the cast has been expertly coached in how to make like they're making music.


“At Any Price,” toplined by Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, marks a striking departure for Rahmin Bahrani (“Man Push Cart”). The filmmaker sets his riveting drama of a father and son in the Iowa agri world, where in the interest of profits farmers do un-kosher things to the genetically engineered seeds that are probably already poisoning us all. Quaid is heartbreaking as an earnest seed salesman pushed to dubious choices by the need to expand his business in order to survive; while Efron – credible and charismatic in his new indie roles – unleashes a brooding intensity as
Atanyprice_03_largeQuaid's hothead son. With its shocking ending – all the more disturbing for being muted -- “Price” belongs to a category of films that uses drama to reference issues in the larger culture.


Another film infused with matters of conscience and politics is “The Company You Keep” directed by and starring Robert Redford, Susan Sarandon, and Shia LaBeouf. (And what's with this guy's name? For the record, the correct French spelling is boeuf, and the noun is masculine.) It's worth noting that both “Price” and “Company” are distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, also presenting “No,” a politically-themed film about the Pinochet era; and “The Gatekeepers,” the Israeli docu that unlocks the inner workings of the Shin Bet. I never cease to admire how the guys at SPC adroitly combine the entertainment imperative with films that extend their reach beyond navel-gazing or Kate Middleton going topless on the beach (not that that isn't a prime piece of gossip).


In “Company” Redford plays a small town lawyer whose life is up-ended when a long-ago member of the Weather Underground who has lived incognito (Susan Sarandon) is arrested and charged with murder during a long-ago anti-war protest in the 60's. To clear his own name, Redford must hunt down a radical friend from the past (Julie Christie, lookin' good) to confirm publicly that he himself was not involved in the shooting of a guard. The median age of these actors is roughly seventy and it's initially shocking to see how time has worked its dirty tricks on Redford (why do the female actors fare better)? But eclipsing such concerns is Redford's seasoned rendering of a man of conscience who has moved on in his life, while refusing to renounce his anti-war sentiments of the past.


Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the quietly lacerating “What Maisie Knew” credibly transplants the novel by Henry James to modern-day New York. It's the story of a six-year-old girl (a remarkable Onata Aprile) whip-sawed between two supremely unfit parents (Julianne Moore
Whatmaisieknew_02_mediumand Steve Coogan) as they play musical chairs with new mates. After Coogan weds the babysittter, Moore marries on the quick an amiable bartender (Alexander Skarsgard) to give the impression of stability and ensure custody. But when it comes to school pick-ups and overnights, the child is shockingly shuttled about in a way that will make any parent cringe. Through it all, Maisie, preternaturally wise, keeps an even keel and gravitates toward what love she finds.


Set in 18th century Denmark, “A Royal Affair” by Nikolaj Arcel recreates the real-life story of a German doctor (Mads Mikkelsen) who cuts a swathe through the Danish court when he becomes the caretaker of mad King Christian (a brilliant Mikel Boe Folsgaard), lover to the queen (Alicia Vikander), and de facto head of state intent on implementing the ideas of the Enlightenment. The film combines epic sweep, history, and fascinating court intrigue – and the revelation of Folsgaard, a rising star to watch.


And now for my list of Best, Worst, and Most Notable from TIFF 2012.


Best headline of the fest: from critic Alonso Duralde, “'The Master' … Is Just Running on Cruise Control.”


Most reprehensible comment of the fest: Nick Cassavetes on Incest: “Who Gives a Damn? Love Who You Want”


Most memorable sight on King Street: pregnant woman in a tight sheath looking like a python that had swallowed a warthog


Worst moment of the fest: Saturday A.M., a hike from my hotel in torrential downpour, and the six flight escalator at the Scotia Bank theater is broken


Most pissed-off moment: getting shut out of Harmony Korine's “Spring Breakers” and told we should have lined up an hour and l/2 before


Most outrageous moment: dude loudly talking on his cell during a press and industry screening


Oscar-bait turns: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master,” Dennis Quaid in “At Any Price” – though I'd vote for Danish Mikkel Boe Folsgaard in “A Royal Affair.”


Most delicious, against-type turn: Nicole Kidman, hilarious as a 70's trash queen in “The Paperboy”


Hottest actors: the trifecta of Ryan Gosling, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Mads Mikkelsen


Swankiest parties that were deprived of my presence because I wasn't invited: anything at Soho House


Priciest cab fare: rush-hour ride to the Hazelton Hotel in Yorkville -- and thank you, kind cabbie, for putting me on to trolleys!


Worst tech glitches: the roaming on my Android that didn't work – thanks for the memories, Verizon! The laptop that froze mid-post


Biggest regret: all the doggone films I didn't get to see 

Friday, September 14, 2012

'Resident Evil: Retribution' and 'Finding Nemo 3D' should boost theatre traffic

After a dismal weekend, the box office is ready for a rebound with wide releases Resident Evil: Retribution and Finding Nemo 3D hitting screens.

Finding Nemo 3D (2,904 theatres) has a lot in its favor. The original was the most attended Pixar movie ever, and it's considered a modern animated classic. However, the animated feature released just nine years ago. Many families likely already own a DVD copy, making it difficult for
Finding nemo 3d 2parents to justify the price of tickets, popcorn, and soda to see a movie all over again. The Lion King 3D did exceptionally well last September, opening to $30.2 million, but that film originally released in 1994, not 2003. Those two decades make a big difference. The 3D re-release should end up somewhere between The Lion King 3D and February's Beauty and the Beast 3D, which opened to $17.8 million.

The fifth installment in the sci-fi action franchise, Resident Evil: Retribution (3,012 theatres)
should easily top $20 million. The last installment in the franchise
was a global hit, largely because it released in 3D,
Resident evil retribution milla jovovichwhich has had more
success abroad than at home.

Targeting heartland audiences, Last Ounce of Courage (1,407 theatres) mixes patriotism and Christianity in a dose designed for social conservatives. I can't quite figure out what the plot is about, but from the trailer there appears to be something about a small-town man who tries to un-separate church and state and bring God back into his town? It also includes some great shots of a dude with a giant American flag on the back of his motorcycle, but that's about as high-budget as this movie gets. Rocky Mountain Pictures, the distributor, has skillfully released such pictures in years past, so a $1-2 million weekend wouldn't be unusual.

Leading the specialty releases is director Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (5 theatres). FJI critic Chris Barsanti praises Anderson's "psychologically astute scripting" and "ability to coax nakedly revelatory performances from actors." Joaquin Phoenix plays a drifter who ends up a
The master philip seymour hoffman joaquin phoenixsidekick of an L. Ron Hubbard-like character, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. At film festivals, this highly anticipated movie left some people feeling like it didn't quite live up to the hype, but Barsanti is not among them, though he notes the movie "lacks some of the director’s characteristically thunderous panache."

Also in the mix is Liberal Arts (4 theatres) a romance between a 30-something man (writer/director/producer Josh Radnor) and a student (Elizabeth Olsen) he meets while back on campus for an event. Critic Shirley Sealy enjoyed the "wonderful and gently entertaining" movie, whose theme, "acting like a grown-up," she really got behind.

Finally, the "juicy, smart, engrossing financial thriller" Arbitrage (197 theatres), starring Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon, will release in theatres and on cable VOD. With the economy still big in the news, this hedge fund-centered movie will be more than topical.

On Monday, we'll see if Resident Evil and Nemo revived the box office, if Last Ounce of Courage was embraced by the Heartland, and if The Master has the record-level per-screen average many are predicting.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Malick and Anderson, masters both

As in last year's Toronto Fest, which showcased the talent of Michael Fassbender, edition 2012 also features standout performances by male actors. Playing a beleaguered Iowan farmer, Dennis Quaid delivers what many are calling the performance of a lifetime in
Rahmin Bahrani's At Any Price.  As Quaid's son, Zac Efron,
distancing himself from his teen idol image, makes his own mark in a meaty indie role. Mads Mikkelsen and his cheekbones lay on the charisma in the Danish A Royal Affair by Nikolaj Arcel. 

Standing in a league all their own, though, at this year's TIFF are Philip Seymour Hoffman
Master1and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson. Many critics at the fest are divided on the merits of this film, inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the swathe cut through American culture by Scientology. But few would not applaud the barn-burning turns from the two male leads. At moments,  watching these hugely interesting thesps play off each other is pure joy.

The film opens with a blast of jagged dissonance (familiar from the score of Anderson's previous There Will be Blood) composed by musical wizard Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame. Meet Freddie Quell (Phoenix), newly liberated from the U.S. Navy post WWII, a mass of dissonance in and of himself, a man with sexual issues, an explosive temper, and a talent for concocting moonshine from paint stripper. This walking time bomb loosed on America is adopted almost as a mascot by Hoffman's character Lancaster Dodd, founder of a movement that uses time-travel hypnosis to enable people to take control of their lives; his system can even, so he claims, cure cancer and bring world peace.

The Master traces the trajectory of the bond between master and acolyte, from analytic sessions that Dodd calls "processing" to Quell's rise as Dodd's right-hand man as his empire expands with the publication of his new opus The Split Saber. Also on hand --and perhaps secretly pulling the strings --is Dodd's wife (Amy Adams, putting new perk in perkiness). Into the dance between the two men, Anderson fluidly weaves the backstory of Quell's thwarted love for a 16-year-old girl from his hometown.

The filmmaking, buttressed by Greenwood's score, is stunning from the start, when seaman Quell makes love on the beach to a lady he's built from sand. As Lancaster, Hoffman rocks the screen with the bravado and self-assurance of a power-mad man who--so his his son claims--is "making it up as he goes along." And Phoenix, his whole body twisted and warped as his mind, is almost painfully mesmerizing.

More problematic is the film itself, which doesn't resolve the story so much as cut it loose at the end. Worse, you get the suspicion midpoint that you're witnessing a lot of sound and fury over, well, very little. There's no there there. No back-vision on the part of Anderson regarding what his story is really about. Some deep intelligence from the filmmaker has gone missing.

Also dividing the critics at this year's festival is Terrence Malick's To the Wonder. While few would
To the Wonderdeny its surpassing visual beauty, some are put
off by the film's vaunting religiosity, paucity of story, virtual
absence of dialogue. Over dinner last night, one critic friend called it

Me, I find Wonder a thing of wonder. The ravishing images
married to a glorious score- think Wagner's Parsifal--keep you in a
suspended swoon. And the film manages the paradoxical feat of naked
intimacy, as if you were lolling about in Malick's pysche, while
revealing scant details about the notoriously private filmmaker.

Such story as there is basically involves a memory/meditation about a
man (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with a Parisian (Olga Kurylenko)
and brings her back to the States to his home somewhere in Malick-land--i.e. windswept plains always viewed at dusk or early dawn, dotted
with sterile suburban houses and peopled with folks wandering about in a
trance. The man reconnects with a childhood friend (gorgeous Rachel
McAdams), his transplanted wife starts an affair, the marriage unravels.
Throughout, a priest (Javier Bardem) who has lost his calling weaves
his own prayerful musings among Kurylenko's voiceovers. The closing
images offer little closure, only fodder for speculation.

The film opens with Kurylenko's murmured French for "I'd never hoped to
love like this again," set against the couple wandering the vast flats
of a literal world wonder, the monastery Mont St. Michel in Brittany.
Shot in midwinter and of course at some mystical violet hour, the place
resembles Malick's depiction of heaven at the end of The Tree of Life.
It's as if this astonishing filmmaker had a direct pipeline to divinity
and feels as comfy in apocalyptic milieu as in someone's living room
(a trait that maddens some viewers). "I want only to go a little of our
way together," Kurylenko says. And, "If you love me, I need nothing

In Wonder, Malick unabashedly sets the limits of time-bound
human love against God's eternal love, a theme underscored by Bardem's
longing to reconnect with his faith. Not unlike Malick, the priest is
also dialoguing with God: "How long will you hide Yourself?"

Granted, maybe Affleck and especially Kurylenko go overboard with the
frolicking and gamboling in Malick's idiosyncratic take on lovers. But
you don't need religion to savor this hymn about profane and sacred love--and about light, maybe the film's central subject. The wind-bending
grasses, a woman's hair, sun through trees, bison--even a humble
insect on a windowpane--are all conveyed by Malick's genius
cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki as spirit made manifest. (Intriguing
factoid: Lubezki is Jewish.) Malick offers a unique way of seeing the
world, a world filtered through the lens of a cinematic visionary.

Cloud-based media service M-Go signs on most Hollywood majors

Problem: DVD/Blu-ray sales are dropping. People aren't making up for the lost sales via Apple or Amazon rentals. Solution: M-Go. The joint venture between Technicolor and DreamWorks Animation will let people buy movies (and eventually other content) that will be stored in the "cloud." So just like you can access your Gmail from any computer, people would be able to watch
MGO-logomovies on any of their devices. For families and individuals with multiple TVs, computers, tablets, and cell phones, this sounds like a perfect solution. However, there are still a few hills for M-Go to climb.

One is that all the studios need to make their content available via M-Go. The service just announced a big win in that department. Almost all the major studios have signed on: NBCUniversal, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros. Digital Distribution. I don't see any indies in there, but M-Go probably wants to roll out the service with majors first. One noticeable absence is Disney, but that's not a huge surprise. The studio is notoriously protective of its content and rarely follows suit when it comes to new formats or modes of distribution. In fact, it pursued its own service, Keychest, though the status of that project is uncertain. However, if customers really like the M-Go service, I expect Disney to sign on or actively pursue Keychest.

The other big problem is device compatibility. M-Go will also be compatible with UltraViolet, another cloud-based service. However, Apple's iPads and iPhones will not be able to play movies purchased with M-Go. Only Samsung (which has a bit of a beef with Apple right now), Intel, and Vizio devices will be able to play movies with M-Go. That's the disappointing part. People don't like to buy content that can only be played on specific devices or in certain ways. They want freedom. That being said, this is an improvement over earlier DRM (digital rights management) that controlled how much people shared their content. Apple songs used to be only playable on a certain amount of devices. My Windows Media Player used to go berserk whenever I tried to play a DVD on my computer. One time it broke my whole computer. "Yeah, that DRM stuff, it messes everything up," said the techie assigned to fix my laptop. I switched to another media player on his advice.

The third problem is that these projects aren't necessarily great innovations for consumers, but another way for studios to monitor their content and extract fees. If M-Go is anything like UltraViolet, there will be some fine print attached. This editorial is quite scathing, but it points out at least two red flags for consumers. One, under certain circumstances an UltraViolet $15 movie purchase will be subject to upcharges if you play it on, say, more than three devices. The other huge red flag is that digital downloads are only valid for one year. I can't even believe that would be true.  The other part of UltraViolet is WalMart's Vudu service, which allows people to bring in old DVDs and get a digital copy for $2-$5. Which apparently has a built-in self-destruct device. Why would people go through the trouble of converting to a digital copy only to discover they don't really own their movie after all? It's worth pointing out, as author Molly Wood does, that tech-savvy people can easily rip a DVD themselves and enjoy it without restrictions on devices, expiration dates, or fees. But that's illegal, mainly because those ripped DVDs can easily turn up on torrent sites. If people feel like they don't really own their content, they could pay one-fifteenth as much and rent it on Redbox.

It's nice that Hollywood is acknowledging the reality that people want to watch content on more than just their TV, but studios should be aware that heavy-handed DRM will turn off tech-savvy people who can circumvent regulations while burdening people who simply want convenience and the ability to easily share content in a household.

Monday, September 10, 2012

At the Toronto Fest: 'Seven Psychopaths' one

September 10 was Psychopath Day at the Toronto International Film Festival—or at least that’s the way this fest-goer’s viewing selections coalesced. The day began at 8:30 a.m. with a screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s eagerly anticipated The Master, in which Joaquin Phoenix’s ex-World War II sailor character has major anger issues, to say the least. Erica Abeel will be writing in more detail about this film which just won the Best Director prize in Venice, but I can safely predict that the volatile Phoenix and especially the masterful Philip Seymour Hoffman as a messianic L. Ron Hubbard type will be strong contenders for end-of-the-year acting prizes. I haven’t fully embraced an Anderson film since Boogie Nights (and found Magnolia especially bloated), but The Master’s portrait of a religious cult with uncanny echoes of Scientology is pretty mesmerizing, despite its many self-indulgent passages.

The undisputed psychopaths appeared in Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, the true story of a notorious
IcemanNew Jersey contract killer, and (naturally) Martin McDonagh’s new black comedy, Seven Psychopaths. In the former, Michael Shannon of “Boardwalk Empire” and Take Shelter is dynamic and dangerous as Richard Kuklinski, a Polish hit man for the mob who tallied at least 100 killings during his three-decade crime career. What sets this story apart from similar tales is the cold-blooded assassin’s devotion to his wife (played by Winona Ryder) and two young daughters, who know nothing of his lethal lifestyle. Kuklinski is a terrible, terrible man, yet the audience is compelled to root against his exposure because his family is so innocent and vulnerable. A jarring personal aside: This infamous psycho lived for years in suburban Dumont, New Jersey—the very town where yours truly grew up.

On a perversely lighter note, Seven Psychopaths is an alternately hilarious and horrifying comedy
Seven-Psychopaths_510x316from the poison pen of Martin McDonagh, his second feature after the irresistible In Bruges. (McDonagh is also the prize-winning author of darkly funny stage hits like The Lieutenant of Inishmore and A Behanding in Spokane.) His new film is set in Los Angeles and centers on a struggling screenwriter named Marty played by Colin Farrell, which gives McDonagh free rein to go all meta and comment on the tropes of violent movies and our expectations about the very movie we’re watching. The graphic content, witty dialogue digressions and playful structure are reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, with the added bonus that McDonagh is not just movie-literate.

Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, who co-starred on Broadway in Behanding in Spokane, have juicy roles here as conspirators in a dognapping scheme: Marty’s impulsive, out-of-control pal Billy and his elderly partner Hans. Big trouble erupts when Billy abducts the beloved Shi Tzu of a ruthless gangster played by Woody Harrelson.

Those unaccustomed to McDonagh’s shock tactics may be deeply offended by the politically incorrect language, the over-the-top violence, and the movie’s treatment of women (which is noted numerous times in debates between pacifist-leaning Farrell and pure-id Billy). But go with the satiric intent, and you’ll be laughing out loud at the movie’s notions of a vengeful Quaker, an interracial couple that gets medieval on serial killers, deconstructions of pop-movie clichés, and a hapless screenwriter who sets out to make a meaningful social statement out of a project titled Seven Psychopaths. This CBS Films release won’t be for everyone, but a certain kind of avid moviegoer will eat it up.

Moviegoers stay away from multiplexes in worst weekend in more than a decade

The top twelve movies totaled just over $50 million this weekend, a sum so glum it necessitates a sad comparison. The last time this box office sank this low was in the two weeks after the attacks of September 11, eleven years go. What happened? The start of the football season and families busy with back-to-school hubbub help explain part of the slump. There were also no new good films. Gangster Squad was supposed to open this weekend, but was bumped for reshoots because of movie theatre shootout was judged too close for comfort to the Aurora shooting.

Of the two new releases, only The Words made it into the top ten with a paltry $5 million.
The words bradley cooper zoe saldana 2Lackluster reviews may sink this movie further, as word spreads this isn't a picture worth the ticket price. Above The Words, horror movie The Possession continued on top with $9.5 million, its 47% fall better than average for the horror genre. In second, Weinstein Co. showed its ability to do well even with a movie with mixed reviews. Lawless earned $6 million in second place, not so bad for the Prohibition-set tale of rural bootleggers.

Opening in 13th place was The Cold Light of Day with $1.8 million. Even with only a couple dozen critics weighing in on the movie, which didn't screen in advance, it only has 8% positive reviews. Audience members were a bit kinder, with
Cold light of day henry cavill 2 28% of Rotten Tomatoes voters giving it a "fresh" rating.

The Raiders of the Lost Ark re-release in IMAX grabbed $1.7 million. That's paltry compared to Titanic 3D, but in this case the re-release was more about promoting an Indiana Jones box set that will go on sale next week.

Specialty releases fared a bit better. Buoyed by "This American Life" fans, Sleepwalk with Me went up 6% as the comedy expanded from 29 to 73 locations, averaging $4,700 per screen.

Bachelorette was the big test for pre-theatrical VOD release, which after a month supposedly
Bachelorette kirsten dunst lizzy caplan isla fisher 2earned over $4 million. But the comedy came up with just $191,000 at 47 theatres this weekend, a per-screen average of $4,000. People understand the higher rental price for VOD releases, since they "haven't hit theatres" yet, but that same mindset makes people think they are paying too much for a movie ticket when it's available at home.

Also featuring 20 to 30-something female friendships, For a Good Time, Call... gathered steam in its second week, going up 50% as it added 33 locations. Its total of $215,000 beat the debut of Bachelorette, though its per-screen average was slightly lower.

This Friday, the beloved Pixar film Finding Nemo will re-release in 3D. Resident Evil: Retribution will go for the adult portion of the audience with the next installment of the sci-fi action franchise.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Whedon-mania comes to Toronto

Film Journal's spring interview with Avengers director Joss Whedon discussed his rabid fan base, stemming largely from the cult adoration of his TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Firefly” and “Dollhouse.” This writer got to witness Whedon-mania up close at the Toronto International Film
1159151_much_ado_about_nothing_3Festival premiere of his low-budget, black-and-white modern updating of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. To say the audience at this screening was predisposed to like the film is a vast understatement.

Shooting in a mere 12 days at his own Santa Monica home (nice house!), Whedon cast primarily actors with whom he had previously worked on his TV series. Of the cast, the only ones familiar to me were Clark Gregg (who had a featured role in The Avengers), Reed Diamond (better known to me from “24”), Nathan Fillion (star of both “Firefly” and the non-Whedon “Castle”) and Fran Kranz from Whedon’s recent horror sendup The Cabin in the Woods. But aficionados in the audience could tell you that Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, in the lead roles of bickering lovers-to-be Beatrice and Benedick, are veterans of “Angel,” “Dollhouse” and “Buffy.” For them, this Much Ado was like seeing the Whedon stock company do summer theatre.

Though the Shakespearean language and L.A. contemporary milieu of the movie can make an odd mix, the actors are all adept, and Whedon adds plenty of slapstick and small sight gags (not at all inappropriate in a classic farce) to make the medicine go down easy for the uninitiated. And Fillion, one of the most adored of the Whedon players, got explosive laughs as the malaprop-prone cop Dogberry. How well this homemade art-house project will go down with an audience who can’t tell Joss Whedon from J.J. Abrams is another question altogether, but Whedon deserves a few bouquets for taking such a left turn from Blockbuster World and preserving his private Shakespeare party on film.

The entire main cast paraded onto the stage to delirious cheers and applause after the screening, and each got to share one reflection on the making of the movie. (The most terrifying aspect for some was having to nail that Shakespeare dialogue in one or two takes.)

As for the black-and-white, Whedon said he always saw more darkness in the material than Kenneth Branagh did in his early ’90s version; for him, Much Ado is more like “romantic noir.” Budget limitations of costume and production design were also abetted by the lack of color. As Whedon noted, “Everything is elegant in black-and-white.”

'Silver Linings Playbook' and 'Frances Ha' charm in Toronto

Due to a looming Film Journal deadline, this editor’s time at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is limited to three and a half days. Which is especially regrettable, since this year’s lineup of films appears especially strong. By the time I leave Tuesday morning, I’ll have seen 19 selections, but there are at least two or three times that number on the schedule that are oh-so-tantalizing.

Of course, no one can catch all that TIFF has to offer, with its program of 289 features and its status as the launching pad for so many of the fall’s prestigious new movies. Two of my personal highlights so far are highly satisfying new comedies from proven indie auteurs: David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook and Noam Baumbach’s Frances Ha.

Following his Oscar-nominated dramatic success with The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook finds
Silverlinings_02_smallRussell returning to the screwball ensemble territory of his early gem Flirting with Disaster. (I’ll refrain from mentioning the one Russell film I actively dislike, I Heart Huckabees.) Bradley Cooper, in surely his best role to date, plays Pat Solatano, a former high-school teacher just released from a psychiatric facility where he was committed after violently beating a colleague he discovered naked in the shower with his wife. Pat is struggling with bipolar disorder—not the usual source of comedy, but there is something undeniably droll about a grown man waking up his parents at four a.m. to vent when he discovers Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms has an unhappy ending. It runs in the family, as they say: Pat’s dad (Robert De Niro gifted with his best part in years) has OCD and a panoply of superstitions tied to his illegal football betting operation.

At a dinner party, Pat meets someone who seems almost equally troubled: Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an outspoken, mercurial young woman who went into a messy tailspin after the death of her cop husband. The chemistry between Cooper and the comically agile Lawrence is sensational, but their emotional wounds make a very persuasive obstacle to the inevitable, especially in light of Pat’s obsession with winning his wife back despite a restraining order.
The humor here is as quirky as anything in Flirting with Disaster, but the diverse characters (from a well-reviewed novel by Matthew Quick) are never less than engaging, the entire cast is on their game, and the sleek comedic structure (culminating in a dance competition and major football game happening simultaneously) is worthy of Billy Wilder. The unwieldy title may be a marketing challenge, but Silver Linings Playbook is a rare delight.

Also utterly disarming is Frances Ha, co-written by new indie couple Noah Baumbach and his star, Greta Gerwig. Traversing much the same territory as Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series “Girls,” this comedy is nonetheless a winning look at a 27-year-old New York woman whose penchant for faux pas and bad decisions makes her, in her own self-deprecating words, “undatable.” The movie begins with a montage of scenes depicting Frances’ warm relationship with her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), a bond that is severed when Sophie moves in with her boyfriend. A struggling apprentice in a dance company, Frances can’t get through a dinner party without putting her foot in her mouth and even turns an impulsive weekend in Paris into a mournful occasion. But Gerwig is so adorable, and her observations so on-target and amusing, we root for this neurotic, vulnerable heroine to succeed. Shot in black-and-white and punctuated by music from the French New Wave, Frances Ha is a breakthrough for indie darling Gerwig and Baumbach’s best movie since The Squid and the Whale.

A Hot Moto-Man and A Rebooted Classic at Toronto 2012

In earlier decades the blonde bombshells in movies were women.  In this year's edition of the Toronto Film Festival at least two of the more visible ones are men.   Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a golden-maned blue-eyed vision as Count Vronsky in Joe Wright's adaptation of "Anna Karenina."  While Ryan Gosling's peroxoide job adds allure to his turn as a badboy stunt motorcyclist in Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyind the Pines."

Following on the heels of Cianfrance's glowingly received "Blue Valentine" -- also starring Gosling -- "Pines" has been one of the fest's most anticipated titles (and was just picked up by Focus
Place beyond the pinesFeatures after reported interest from TWC).   Clocking in at well over two hours and pursuing at least three separate plot strands, the film initially struck me as overlong and uncentered.  Could have been that the morning of the screening it was pouring rain and the escalator at the Scotia Bank Theater (rising to daunting heights) was out of order.   On reflection, I've found the film more to my liking.

Gosling reprises his portrayal of a cash-poor, marginalized dude who not only can't find, but wouldn't know how to look for the path up.   In our current under-employed land Cianfrance has hit on a kind of loser/loner emblematic of the times.  And since he's played by ultra-charismatic Gosling we root for him even as he makes disastrous choices.   

The film's riveting first scene ogles Gosling's naked, tattooed midriff -- openly fetishizing the star's famously ripped body -- as he's about to perform a death-defying motorcycle stunt at a fair.   Some past baggage surfaces in the form of Eva Mendes as a girlfriend he more or less abandoned in his wanderings.    "Who's that guy?" he says of the baby in her arms.

Gosling wants back as a father and husband -- even though Mendes has made a home with a different man.   Convinced he can win her over with money, he takes to robbing local upstate banks with an accomplice, using his motorcycle skills to pull off the heists.  Gosling ends up on the wrong end of the gun of a rookie cop (Bradley Cooper) and -- whammo, the story then sprints off on another track to tell the story of the  cop -- who also has a baby son -- and who crusades against the police corruption in his own backyward.  Finally, the story jumps 15 years forward to wrap up the fate of the two now teenage boys.

Cianfrance is juggling many themes here, chief among them retribution for past acts that ripple outward and poison future generations.  There's a sort of mythic feel to how Gosling's son feels impelled to honor his father.    Like few other American filmmakers, Cianfrance conveys empathy for folks on the lower economic rung who are struggling, even if misguidedly, to find their footing.

The beauty of Toronto's sprawling sprocket opera is that you can turn on a dime and find yourself in a totally different universe -- that of "Anna Karenina" and the toniest circles of Imperial Russia in 1874.   Tolstoy's novel famously portrays the epic love story of Anna, an elegant beauty married to a government official, and
dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky.  It's a work of
penetrating psychological insight with characters so true-feeling you could reach out
and touch them.

Yet Wright has daringly  given Tolstoy's masterpiece of realism a heavily
stylized re-do by camping it in a vast decaying theater. Periodically
the action jumps the artificial theater space to embrace the natural
world beyond.

The film opens with the babble of an orchestra tuning up, as various
players of the story enact
disjointed scenes from their daily routines -- often in balletic fashion -- on a stage fronted by
footlights. The synchronized movements of a herd of government
bureaucrats (the world of Anna's husband Karenin, played by Jude Law)
are as stylized as the performance art of Pina Bausch.

We're given fair warning: this is no conventional costumer/period
piece. You either buy into it right away. Or say, What the... ? Or get
seduced into Wright's daring vision, a bit the way virtuous Anna (Keira
Knightley) gets worn down by Count Vronsky.

True to the novel, the fevered theatricalized world of Anna and Vronsky
is interwoven with the narrative of Kitty and Levin, an idealistic
landowner attached to the soil, whose belief in lifelong marital
commitment acts as a foil to Vronsky and his roistering cavalry officer
comrades; and as a counter-view to the
ill-fated Anna and Vronsky, who are ostracized by a hypocritical
society for flouting the rules.

What overrides the formal challenges Wright throws at the viewer is the visual splendor of the film's many set pieces -- like the
ball where Vronsky (in white) and Anna (in black lace) unite as lovers
in a rapturous waltz that makes entirely explicit the erotic content of
the male/female pas de deux in ballet.  Knightley has said that a later
sex scene shot in closeup was quite literally a choreographed dance, which would be
evident in a wide shot.  With its ravishing visuals, "Anna" is seldom less than enthralling.

Wright, with his background in the visual arts, has clearly looked at a
lot of theater, dance, and art to create this adaptation. Count among
his influences "The Red Shoes," Lars Von Trier, Robert Wilson, Brecht, along with ballet
and avant garde dance.  His stagey take on Tolstoy's epic novel is hardly a gratuitous choice; rather, it brilliantly captures  Russian society of the period, which
sought to imitate and act out French styles.

A couple of cavils concerning casting. Jude Law is pitch-perfect as
poor cuckolded Karenin. In some ways Knightley -- who's become Wright's
muse -- seems born to play Anna. Yet her 21st century girlish slimness
runs counter to the more Rubenesque ideal of feminine beauty in
Tolstoy's day. Domhnall Gleeson's Levin comes off too buffoonish, while
Alicia Vikander's Kitty invites wonder at what he sees in her -- the
pair don't do justice to one of literature's great love affairs.

As Vronsky, Aaron Taylor-Johnson moves with virile assurance; this is a star-making turn. Also, for the gawkers among us,
the actor (22) has added the name Taylor to reflect his union with
director/artist Sam Taylor-Wood (45) with whom he has two daughters.
Now there's a movie in itself.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Slow weekend ahead with 'The Words,' 'Cold Light of Day'

This weekend should be one of the slowest of the year. Both new wide releases, The Words and The Cold Light of Day, should finish under $10 million.

The Words (2,801 theatres) is the story of an aspiring writer (Bradley Cooper) who passes off a
The words bradley cooperfound manuscript as his own. "Hardly as deep as it pretends to be," critic Kevin Lally notes, the movie is the "middlebrow" result of an "ambitious tri-level narrative of stories within stories."

The Cold Light of Day (1,511 theatres) hasn't yet screened for critics, and the Summit-distributed picture should end up with a blip-on-the-radar $2 million, despite a
Cold light of day henry cavill 1recognizable cast list that includes Sigourney Weaver, Bruce Willis, and Henry Cavill. The thriller centers on a regular guy who becomes a wanted man all over a missing briefcase. Pretty familiar plotline, if you ask me. Early Rotten Tomatoes reviews for this movie don't look good.

"As toxic as a Drano cocktail," Bachelorette (47 theatres) released on-demand a month ago, so its theatrical performance will serve as a test for the pre-theatrical VOD release plan. Reviews have generally been giving the
Bachelorette kirsten dunst lizzy caplan isla fisher 1comedy unfavorable comparisons to Bridesmaids, another wedding-themed movie revolving around female friendships. Our critic David Noh is one of the comedy's detractors, complaining that the "bitchiness" of the characters "becomes exhausting and airless," and just seems like an "increasingly
forced attempt to shock." Still, this movie has plenty of buzz behind it, which could help its opening weekend.

On Monday, we'll see how the wide releases fared, and if Bachelorette does well in spite of its mixed reviews and on-demand pre-release.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Screaming fans make a Bollywood movie look more like a soccer match


Can you tell from this video that India has the highest movie theatre attendance in the world? Taken during a screening of Billa 2 in Tamilnadu, a particularly movie-crazy region, this YouTube video of the audience looks more like a soccer match.

With the U.S. suffering from declining movie attendance, maybe there's something to say for these fans, who make Twilight devotees look tame in comparison. Of course, not all Indian moviegoers are this passionate. There's a subset of fans who turn out the opening day of a release and make it a noisy, enthusiastic, communal experience. But still, for every screaming Twilight or Billa 2 fan there are many more people who display their fandom in a less noticeable way. The screaming people simply convey one extreme of fandom--they're the part of the iceberg that's visible, above the water.

One of the best parts about seeing a movie with an audience is hearing the audible responses to the work--laughs, sniffles, and maybe even shouts at the screen. Of course, when you're not in sync with the rest of the audience (Think: People laughing at a horror movie, guffawing at a cheesy romcom), those reactions can be distracting. But for a movie like Billa 2, in which "an ordinary man from the slums enters an underworld gang and becomes the most feared underworld don," the screaming kicks up what appears to be a ho-hum fight scene to a whole new level of awesome.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Telluride Film Festival brings early reviews of 'Argo,' 'Hyde Park on Hudson'

Known as the festival for film lovers, the small Telluride Film
Festival, which took place over Labor Day weekend, included screenings
of Argo and Hyde Park of Hudson, two high-profile movies set to release later this year. Hyde Park is clearly Oscar bait, while Argo has been flying under the radar. Expectations appear to have helped Argo (they were low to begin with) and hurt Hyde Park on Hudson. Here are some of the critical responses coming out of the festival.

Argo: On its way up. Sure, Ben Affleck won a screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting, but he's done mostly mainstream commercial work as an
actor since then. But he also won
praise as a director with 2010's The Town and has an acting role in
Terrence Malick's To the Wonder. His
Argo Ben Affleckthird directing effort, Argo,
a fact-based thriller about the Iran hostage crisis, should do well at
the box office when it opens wide on October 12. However, it's now also
being talked about as a serious Oscar contender.  A surprise pick at
Telluride, Anne Thompson of Indiewire declares that "multiple Oscar nominations are in order as this movie surges to the top of the current Oscar contenders list." THR lauds the "crackerjack political thriller," and praises the "confidence and finesse" of Affleck's directing.

Holding position: Hyde Park on Hudson. A personal story of a historical figure, FDR, Hyde Park on Hudson appears to be taking a note from The King's Speech,
2010's success story. However, early notices indicate it doesn't rise
Hyde Park on Hudson Bill Murray the heights of the Oscar winner. Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere
was rather dismissive of the "well-finessed historical parlor piece." Eric Kohn of Indiewire manages expectations,
deciding that the historical pic has "enough momentum to keep its lead
actors (including Laura Linney as the president's temporary love
interest) in the awards race." From a commerical perspective, THR pegs it
as a "refined treat that nonetheless will appeal to a wide audience." 
Maybe the Focus release, which opens on December 7, will be more like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a box-office hit that will likely be recognized at the Oscars, but not overwhelmingly. Surely Hyde Park on Hudson
will gather more nominations than that movie, but the FDR-centered love
story may be too reminiscent of its more successful predecessor, The King's Speech, to come close to the 2010 film's success.