Friday, August 30, 2013

40th Telluride Film Festival unveils big guns and sneak peeks into its 2nd day....

AlpenglowcenterHere we are, at the start of another thread of fall film
festivals that are officially kicking off the most exciting time of the year
for brand-new movies from renowned and new filmmakers. The opening night of the
70th Venice Film Festival was just a few days ago, with people
swooning over what looks to be a heart-throbbing Gravity. Toronto will start in just a few days, and the 51st
edition of the infinitely prestigious New York Film Festival is slated to kick
off on the last Friday of September, just like every year. But there is one fall festival, a very unique one that
stands between Venice and Toronto called Telluride, that has –in a way- stolen
the unofficial spot of Toronto as the kick-starter of the awards season that
stretches through the Oscars. And I am currently at that very festival,
reporting from its 40th Edition. Celebrating a landmark year with an
added day (5 days instead of their usual 4), the festival directors Julie
Huntsinger, Tom Luddy and Gary Meyer drew attention to not only the highly-anticipated
titles in this year’s line up, but also under-the-radar titles that are waiting
to be discovered such as The Galapagos
Affair: Satan Came to Eden
(Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine), Fifi Howls from Happiness (Mitra
Farahani), as well as their Guest Directors program, which aims to collaborate
with a variety of participants who help craft a dedicated slate to bring a number
of overlooked films to light. During yesterday’s press-orientation meeting, the
directors noted that their programming and scheduling structure sometimes means
having to make “tough choices” (e.g. today, two sneak previews were scheduled
at the same time; Steve McQueen’s 12
Years A Slave
and Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners),
and added that the program tends to reflect the current cinematic landscape as
well as their own tastes, as opposed to a conscious worry to give equal weight
to different trends or countries.

Labor-Day-film-still-010After proudly talking about their brand-new,
state-of-the-art venue named after Werner Herzog, the small number of us in the
press orientation were guided to the gondola to take us to the Chuck Jones
Theater up at Mountain Village, for a “surprise” screening for press and
patrons which ended up being Jason Reitman’s surprisingly untypical Labor Day. The Telluride veteran Reitman
dedicated the movie to his mother, and jokingly warned the audience about the
difficult transition ahead: “You will need to step out of a beautiful town on a
Labor Day weekend, and step into another beautiful town on a Labor Day weekend.
It’s like seeing Gravity. You’ll
somehow get there.” I wouldn’t be exaggerating in saying Labor Day took all of us in Chuck Jones by storm. By the end of it,
there were many tears being wiped, many sighs being exchanged in appreciation
of a somber study of love and family. Labor
is very much a departure for Reitman. In what can be labeled as a
“coming of age” story, he is incredibly lyrical, patient and observing. At
times, Labor Day –in a very loose
fashion- made me think of Malick in its lyricism around human nature. And it
has been -very fittingly so- compared to Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World and The
Bridges Of Madison County
by In Contention’s Kris Tapley. “It sits with its
characters, measured, patient with them.”, says Tapley in his accurate
comparison. Scheduled to release at the end of this year, Labor Day will surely head into the awards season with a strong
voice, and it will be interesting to witness how its –along with its cast’s- journey
will shape from there on out. Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin are two strong performers, but
the glory also belongs to the newcomer Gattlin Griffith. My only reservation
with the movie is its slightly overblown tease of danger (supported by a
suspenseful score by Rolfe Kent), yet the other side of the same coin would
mean giving Reitman the credit he deserves in keeping the audience on their
toes in this wonderful drama.

Gia-coppola-palo-alto-venice-film-festival-2013-1-3_horizontalDuring the rest of my first day, I decided to make a stop at
the “Opening Night Feed” briefly, to help myself to some wine and food, and head
out to the Werner Herzog Theatre, to discover Herzog’s 1972 classic Aguirre: Wrath Of God for the first
time. I mean, how often does one get to sit in front of Herzog in a theater
named after Herzog himself, right after he introduces his own film? After this
once-in-a-lifetime experience, I ran over to the other end of the town to check
out Gia Coppola’s (Francis Ford’s granddaughter) confident, soundly observed
debut Palo Alto, adapted from a
collection of short stories by the prolific James Franco.

Berenice-bejo-asghar-farhadi-the-past-4Today (day 2) started on a very high note, with Asghar
Farhadi’s masterfully crafted The Past,
starring Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim. In yet another complex human drama
where complicated individuals seek truth and justice through their competing
motives, Farhadi, following his masterpiece A
once again proves his mastery in intricate plotting and using
every inch of physical space to his plotlines’ advantage. During a fascinating
Q&A, he mentioned he actually wrote a sequence of The Past here in Telluride when he was here a couple of years ago
for A Separation (in response to a
question whether the Oscar win had any impact on his career or storytelling).
He also talked about his previous stage work and how handy that expertise is
coming to him in composing his scenes. The stakes don’t feel as high in The Past as they did in A Separation; yet this film is beautiful
in quieter ways and I very much look forward to seeing it one more time in New

G04S_TimsVermeerAfter The Past, I
made my way to the Herzog Theatre once again to see Teller’s Tim’s Vermeer (the second Sony Classics
film of the day). After a brief impromptu chitchat with Alejandro González Iñárritu on his
Telluride experience so far in front of the theater (thanks to First Showing’s
Alex Billington for the introduction), I caught this instantly winning film
among an enthusiastic audience. The documentary follows a passionate, obsessive
inventor who sets to prove that Vermeer was using photographic techniques in producing
his work; by building a replica of his studio completely out of scratch to
reproduce one of his classic paintings. Very much an appreciation of the
crossover between arts and sciences –as well as ambitions that make us human- Tim’s Vermeer is likely to play to equally-strong
reactions once it hits the theaters. The screening was off to a bumpy start
with some severe sound issues, but director Teller and the film’s producer Penn
Jillette took the opportunity to entertain the audience while the technical
issues were being resolved. And how great was that… Honestly (as I said to Sony
Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard in passing later) – they couldn’t have
bought that extra time and used it to the film’s advantage that brilliantly, if
they planned for it.

12-years-a-slaveLater in the day brought out the festival’s REAL big gun:
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, one
of today’s sneak peeks. In attendance in the screening were Steve McQueen, Brad
Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and the magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor (it
looked like seeing “some” names in attendance here took everyone by surprise.)
And…what a movie this was. Adapted from Solomon Northup’s memoir with the same
title, 12 Years A Slave tells the
story of a free man, kidnapped and sold to slavery in 1840s Washington DC. It
is impossible to not feel shell-shocked after witnessing McQueen’s
unapologetically fixated camera in which he captures extreme brutality to even
further brutal effect. This is an account of history of racism that I don’t
believe to have witnessed in cinema lately. Not simplified, not sugarcoated
(far from it) and to its credit, extremely brave and fittingly raw. It is tough
to predict what an average moviegoer’s reaction will be to McQueen’s
uncompromisingly graphic images and the near-perfect script by John Ridley. Some
will find the movie extreme, I’m sure. It is going to be hard to watch for some.
But it is incredibly necessary, if not crucial, to watch and endure these
images. It is crucial to take them in with all the details delivered by an
excellent ensemble of actors in incredibly demanding, physical performances. As
early as it might be to call winners, I don’t really see a scenario (expect
perhaps for an upset by Robert Redford in All
Is Lost)
where the Best Actor title could be stolen from Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Equally stunning are Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o; definitely two
other names I’d love to see go far. Movies rarely get much better than this,
dare I say…

One couldn’t really see anything else to follow 12 Years up. Following the screening, I
got to catch up with First Showing’s Alex Billington as well as Awards Daily’s lovely
Sasha Stone and got to hear their takes on the titles they’ve seen thus far. We
even got to chat with Jason Reitman and All Is Lost director JC Chandor for a little while. That’s
the thing about Telluride. Everyone’s here to hang out and be accessible.
Unlike Sundance, it’s an extremely pressure-free environment where you just get
to enjoy the show along with some breathtaking views.

Many other titles and debuts ahead for tomorrow. The hottest
ticket in town will surely be Alfonso Cuarón’s
Gravity. I’m planning on lining up early.

"Girls" co-star Adam Driver enlivens 'Tracks'

Adam Driver, co-star of HBO's "Girls," is the main reason to see John Curran's Tracks, according to FJI critic Jon Frosch, who is reporting from the Venice Film Festival for France 24. Driver has a supporting role as a National Geographic photographer in this tale of a woman (Mia Wasikowska) who trekked 2,000 miles across the Australian desert. Read Jon's latest post here.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Films to look out for at the Venice Film Festival

Most of us can't make it to Italy for the Venice Film Festival, but the good news is that our critic Jon Frosch is reporting on the event for France 24. On the eve of the festival's opening, he highlights the selections on his radar. Those interested in this year's award season should watch for reviews of Parkland, the story of JFK's assassination that will play at the fest. Another upcoming 2013 release, Gravity, will play out of competition (it's also playing at Toronto).  The rest of the lineup includes films from a who's-who of indie directors, including David Gordon Green, Kelly Reichardt, Errol Morris, and Xavier Dolan. Check out his first post here, and circle back as he continues his coverage of the festival.


Monday, August 26, 2013

'Butler' and 'We're the Millers' stay on top of new releases

Despite three new releases hitting theatres, the top two films were returning releases. In week two, The Butler led with $17 million, a scant 30% drop from opening weekend. In second place, the comedy We're the Millers dipped 25% to $13.5 million in its third week, a sign that audiences are connecting with this drug smuggling caper.

Worlds end
The World's End had the best relative performance of the three new offerings. Generating $8.9 million on 1,549 screens, fans of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg clearly turned out. Devotees of the so-called "Cornetto Trilogy" (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are the first two genre-skewering comedies) gave the final installment its best opening yet, drawing an audience that skewed male, with the majority of attendees under 30.

Many in the industry expected that the horror feature You're Next would top the box office, but
Youre nextinstead this tale of a family under siege was the worst of the lot, opening to just $7 million. Just when you think horror is a sure thing, a movie like this falls flat. In fact, it was the worst horror movie opening yet in 2013. Still, its budget was likely fairly low, unlike this week's biggest loser: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.

Lily Collins stars in this adaptaion of a young adult novel, which was made for $60 million in hopes that it would launch a trilogy. No dice. Instead, the feature had a weekend total of $9.3 million,
Short term 12 brie larson john gallagher jrand a five-day opening of $16 million. The audience was 68% female, with 46% of those turning out under 21. Even this bulls'-eye demographic turnout didn't prevent them from giving it a CinemaScore rating of "B+," when the same audience likely would have given Twilight an "A++!++!"

Blue Jasmine expanded into over 1,200 theatres this weekend, and it held on to its audience. The per-screen average dropped two-thirds, which is actually a fairly strong hold for such an aggressive expansion. That meant the Woody Allen comedy finished ninth with $4.3 million. That's a bit off Midnight in Paris, but the strength of the figures suggests that this story of a rich housewife married to Madoff-like villian could approach the $30-40 million range, compared to Paris' $56 million total.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

'World's End' and 'You're Next' join 'Mortal Instruments'

Yes, summer is finally coming to an end. Labor Day is generally considered a dead weekend for movies, so this pre-holiday weekend sees the last of the summer crop--which tends to be some of the season's leftovers. On the small-to-indie side, however, there are plenty of gems in the mix of this week's releases.

Mortal instruments 1
Teens may--or may not--swoon for Lily Collins starring as the heroine in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (3,046 theatres). The young adult adaptation opened to $3 million on Wednesday, and it's on track for a $15 million five-day total. Although there have been a number of Twilight copycats made into movies, including Beautiful Creatures and The Host, none of them have even approached the success of the vampire-human romance. Our critic Harry Haun despised the overuse of CG and a derivative feel that "uses a little of this and a little of that
from all the lowbrow genres." It seems at least in this case, teen girls agree, since this $60 million feature is expecting such a soft opening.

"Exploitation aficionados who bemoan the Disneyfication of Times
Square and the loss of the amazing, decrepit grand dames of
grindhouse that lined West 42nd Street" are the target audience for the horror flick You're Next (2,400 theatres), according to FJI's Frank Lovece. He describes the story of a family fighting off mysterious, homicidal home invaders as a "no-holds-barred homage to ’70s and ’80s horror flicks." Amidst so many high-budget tentpoles, audiences have sought relief in horror movies like The Conjuring. You're Next could have similar luck, and I would expect an opening north of $20 million.

Worlds end 2Writer-director Edgar Wright and
writer-star Simon Pegg embark on their "third genre sendup after the zombie romp Shaun of the Dead and gonzo buddy-cop adventure Hot Fuzz" with The World's End (1,400 theatres), FJI's Kevin Lally sums up. What starts out as a bar crawl turns into an alien invasion movie. "Wright’s direction is wonderfully playful and
energetic, and the script he and Pegg have contrived is full of
surprises," he writes approvingly. Fans of Pegg and Wright should turn out for this comedic feature, which Focus is giving a smaller wide release to pack the theatres with laughs.
Woody Allen gets his widest release yet as Blue Jasmine expands into 1,200 theatres. The comedy about a riches-to-rags housewife has earned $9.4 million in four weeks, with its average take most recently holding at $10,000 per screen in over 200 locations. Even if its per-screen average dips to $2,000 with such a large expansion, the movie would best last week, with a $2.4 million total. If it can keep its per-screen drop to 50%, Blue Jasmine might earn $5 million, a real coup for the feature, and a performance that would put it on track not too far behind Allen's 2009 hit Midnight in Paris.

One of the best indies to come out this year (at least according to this author's review), Short Term 12 is one of those little movies that should. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton based the story of a supervisor in a group home for teens on his own experiences working in a similar facility. It doesn't shy away from the reality for these troubled kids: every two steps forward involves another step backward, and it would easy for the characters to lose hope. But they don't, and the movie doesn't either. It's highly worth a watch.

Short term 12 brie larson
Arthouse filmlovers may flock to martial arts film The Grandmaster (7 theatres),
but a smattering of early reviews suggests that interest may stop
there. The "moody outing from director
Wong Kar Wai," as described by critic Daniel Eagan, focuses on legendary
martial arts teacher Ip Man but is "never much fun, either as
action or romance." The brand-name auteur and martial arts premise may
draw viewers this weekend, but it sounds like this will not be a
crossover indie hit.

On Monday, we'll see how the three wide releases--and the expansion of Blue Jasmine--fared in this crowded end-of-summer weekend.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Holiday movie watch: A first peek at 'The Book Thief'

The Book Thief may technically be a young adult book, but every person who's recommended it to me so far (with great enthusiasm, it's worth noting) has been an adult. The story itself has all-ages appeal, following a foster girl whose adoptive parents take in a young Jewish man in Nazi Germany. The book drew raves for its innovative writing style, which includes having Death as its narrator. The trailer for the movie just released, and while there are no voice-overs from 'Death' heard, it appears the feature will be emotionally riveting. An opening title card boasts that the movie comes "From the studio that brought you Life of Pi," an unusual credit, but an apt one given that both films are adaptations of popular yet literary bestsellers. Pi, too, had a distinctive writing style that become more straightforward cinematically. I suspect that The Book Thief, if it gets good reviews, will follow a similar trajectory to Pi: a potential spot in the top ten among the Best Picture nominees, and a scattering of other nominations. However, World War II movies have always done extremely well at the Oscars, and that may give the picture more standing than Pi did.

In the trailer, Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush is a standout. With a glance, he's believable as a kind-hearted foster parent who's courageous enough to house an "enemy of state" in his basement. A two-time Oscar nominee, Emily Watson, plays his wife. The young French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse has the leading role as the book-loving girl, and she seems incredibly at home in the part, which is only her second notable role after a part in Monsieur Lazhar.

The 20th Century Fox production has been unusually quick. It moved up from a winter 2014 to a November 15, 2013, release date, which is also something of a vote of confidence. The director of a number of "Downton Abbey" episodes, Brian Percival, helms, and those that hail from television are often known for being able to work quickly. With a release date in prime Oscar territory, it looks like The Book Thief will be one to watch, both in theatres and during awards season.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Disney-set 'Escape from Tomorrow' will make it into theatres

Back in January, attendees of the Sundance Film Festival were abuzz talking about Escape from Tomorrow. Sure, the movie was good, but what really impressed viewers was that the production managed to shoot in Disney theme parks without permits--or permission. Many predicted the feature would never hit theatres. Turns out they were wrong.

Escape from tomorrow disney
A black-and-white thriller, Escape from Tomorrow follows a father who discovers he lost his job on a family vacation to Disney World. His day at the park becomes more and more surreal, with many comparing the movie to The Shining. Rides and Disney characters feature heavily in the story. If Disney wanted to, they could probably file a lawsuit that would bury the production and give it no hope of ever turning a profit. Instead, likely after weighing their options, they decided not to pursue a case that probably would have made the company look like the big bad wolf and would ignite the sympathies of indie film lovers and anti-corporate activists. They probably saved the filmmakers money, but also prevented millions more people from finding out about the movie. In that way, it's a bit of a win-win for both Disney and the filmmakers. Plus, there's the fact that Mattel lost a suit related to a Barbie artwork, Thomas Forsythe’s “Food Chain Barbie." After a five-year battle, judges cited the First Amendment and fair use when siding with the artist, and made Mattel pay $2 million in his attorney's fees. The same thing could likely happen here, and there's at least one law professor betting that Disney wouldn't win.

The Producers Distribution Agency has set a theatrical release date of October 11th, which will coincide with a VOD release on FilmBuff ,which appears to specializes in the kind of movies likely to find niche audiences among millions of at-home viewers. The undercover filming of the Disney-set movie will likely fuel interest. It's worth noting that PDA also released Exit Through the Gift Shop, about another undercover figure, graffiti artist Banksy, and perhaps the distributor will design a similar marketing campaign around the feature. Critics haven't given out-and-out raves to the feature, which has mixed grades on IndieWire, but there are enough As and Bs out there to suggest that Escape from Tomorrow is, at the very least, an interesting watch for adults who want to give their memories of their spinning teacups a twirl in the opposite direction.



Monday, August 19, 2013

‘The Butler’ overachieves this weekend, while ‘Kick-Ass 2’ lacks punch

Butler pic 2

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2,933 screens) easily outshone all
other films at the box office this weekend, earning $25 million, a figure above what most predictors expected it to
bring in. The film cost $30 million to produce. Based on the true story of an
African-American butler (Forest Whitaker) who worked in the White House under
six presidents, The Butler was
particularly popular with women (60% of viewers) and people over 35 (76% of viewers).
It played most strongly in the Northeast and especially Washington, D.C., where
the film is set. 

It is fairly typical that distribution companies release
dramatic features aimed at women and older audiences in mid to late August. After a summer of tentpoles and 3D sci-fi
blockbusters, these demographics are starved for films that don’t feature men
in capes or multiple explosions. The
was originally slated for an October opening, but TWC wisely decided
to take advantage of this late-summer demand, a choice that the studio is no
doubt very happy with.

The Weinstein Company can also attribute much of The Butler’s success this weekend to its
popularity among African-American audiences, many of whom went to see the film
with their church groups. TWC reached out to many religious leaders in the
black community
to promote The Butler,
a popular practice among studios when releasing black- and civil rights-themed
movies. A special trailer, altered from the one shown in theatres, was created to appeal to church parishioners, and the company
even produced a “scripture guide” meant to promote faith-based discussion in
relation to the film. Black audiences made up 39% of total Butler tickets purchased this weekend, a very high percentage.

Kick-ass 2 two

Unfortunately for Universal, Kick-Ass 2 (2,940 screens) did even more poorly
this weekend than expected. The studio had predicted earnings of nearly $20
million, identical to Kick-Ass’s take
its opening weekend three years ago. However, the sequel—which was made for $28
million—only grossed about $13.5 million,
or less than 70% of its expected profits. This put it in a near tie with Elysium, now in its second week in
theatres. However, Elysium earned
about $40,000 more than Kick-Ass 2,
placing the sci-fi thriller in third place above the superhero sequel, which
came in at fourth. Surprisingly, We’re
the Millers
, also in its second week, continued to perform well, grossing
$17.8 million and landing in second place behind The Butler. We’re the Millers
now has the smallest drop in earnings (just 33%) between its opening and
second weekend of any film of the summer.

Like Kick-Ass 2, the two other features opening this
weekend, Jobs and Paranoia, both underperformed. Though they were both smaller releases, Open Road
Films and Relativity Media, respectively, had expected better showings. Jobs (2,381
(a biopic of Apple founder Steve Jobs, played by Ashton Kutcher)
made $6.7 million and achieved a
seventh place finish. Paranoia (2,459 screens), by far the
worst-reviewed film currently in theatres, managed to dredge up a paltry $3.5 million—a disaster for a film
which cost ten times that amount to make, and which stars up-and-coming leading
man Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games)
as well as film royalty Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ may nab first place out from under ‘Kick-Ass 2’ this weekend

Butler pic

Summer may be almost over, but
distributors are still hoping to score blockbuster-sized ticket sales before
kids and teenagers head back to school. The Weinstein Company’s Butler and Kick-Ass 2 (from Universal) are expected to earn the top two spots at the box office
this weekend.

 Predictors may expect Kick-Ass
(2,940 theatres)
to attract more viewers. It has all the trappings of a
summer smash, after all: a sequel about superheroes with a big-name star (Jim
Carrey) and fanboy cred. But don’t expect this film to do Man of Steel-style
The original grossed
under $20 million its opening weekend in 2010. It did move a lot of DVDs and
Blu-rays, however, which Universal is citing as justification for a sequel. Kick-Ass
is also down a major actor: Nic Cage, whose performance
as a deranged Batman wannabe was a main draw for audience members, does not
appear in this installment. Carrey’s character is meant to fill Cage’s shoes,
but the comedian declined to promote the film, and even bashed it on social
media for its excessive violence in the wake of tragedies like the Newtown
shooting. The other factor that gave Kick-Ass so much buzz was
then-11-year-old lead Chloe Grace Moretz’s, um, colorful dialogue, which fully
justified the feature’s R rating. But Moretz is 15 now, and hearing her curse
like a sailor and ridicule her co-stars just doesn’t have the same double
take-inducing shock value. Universal is predicting that Kick-Ass 2 will
gross $19.8 million this weekend, an identical figure to the original. This
number would fall just short of The Butler’s expected haul, however.

Kick-ass 2 pic

A historical drama depicting
crucial moments in African-American history from the 1920s through the Reagan
era, The Butler (2,933 theatres) reads more Oscar-bait
than box office smash. But the Weinstein Company has been promoting the film
like mad. The presence of costar Oprah Winfrey (who hasn’t played a role other
than herself onscreen since 1998’s Beloved) alone should ensure a sizable female audience. Forest Whitaker is bankable as
protagonist Cecil Gaines, and audiences will be looking forward to catching
Robin Williams, John Cusack, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, and Alan Rickman as
assorted Commanders in Chief. The film also appeals to minority viewers and TWC
has been promoting it heavily to church groups as well. In addition to all
these demographics, The Butler is likely to gain a significant
viewership from the overlooked 40+ set, who are drained from a summer’s worth
of comic book adaptations. Finally, the film is rated PG-13, which gives it a
greater built-in audience share than Kick-Ass 2, which
is rated R. The Butler could easily earn $20 million this
weekend, putting it just ahead of its rival’s predicted take.

Jobs pic

Smaller releases Jobs (2,381 theaters) and Paranoia (2,459 theatres) also bow today. Neither has scored well with critics—Paranoia
in particular is currently boasting a horrendous 2% rating on Rotten
Tomatoes. Jobs stars Ashton Kutcher as the celebrated Apple
founder, and the actor brings enough appeal to likely land the biopic in third
place. Both films should bring in under $10 million. With no other PG-13
comedies currently in theaters, expect We’re the Millers to continue to pull in its portion of younger moviegoers. As the sole
recent animated kids movie, Planes is
in a similar position, which should boost its sales as well—though Despicable
Me 2
, which came out over a month and a half ago, is still playing in over 2,000 theatres. 

An animation giant grows in Greenwich

A major animation studio in Greenwich, Connecticut? Who knew? Well, at least some aficionados are well aware that Blue Sky Studios, creators of the Ice Age franchise, is the East Coast's phenomenally successful answer to those California stalwarts Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.  On Tuesday, this writer enjoyed the opportunity to see firsthand what goes on at the lively headquarters of the Fox-affiliated company that has also brought us Robots, Horton Hears a Who!, Rio and this summer's Epic, which debuts on Blu-ray August 20.

Chris Wedge, co-founder of Blue Sky and the director of Epic and the first Ice Age, was there to

Epic production designer Greg Couch, director Chris Wedge and art director Mike Knapp

greet the visiting press and conduct one of the tours of the studio's various creative departments. Housed in the former headquarters of Alcoa, a huge complex accommodating 500 employees and surrounding a rectangular courtyard, Blue Sky gives its workers free rein to decorate their spaces however whimsically they want: from a mini-Japanese tea house to a Dr. Seuss library to the "Drunken Clam" bar from "Family Guy."

Our tour was conducted by the genial producer of Horton Hears a Who! and Rio, Bruce Anderson. Warren Leonhardt explained what the story department does: Even more than other filmmaking disciplines, animation is truly a collaborative process in which many people finesse the story and scripts and contribute ideas for gags, gestures and individual moments. "Our job is to be wrong as fast as possible," Leonhardt said of the trial-and-error system. Ultimately, his department presents a "rough pass" of the entire film, and he demonstrated how by acting out (quite well!) an action sequence from Epic which came magically to life from a series of black-and-white drawings sped up on his monitor.  Some 6,800 panels were created for that sequence, "most of which you'll never see," since the finished sequence clocked in with around 1,200.

Interestingly, Leonhardt believes 2D animation offered more opportunities for surrealism, thanks to the unfettered nature of drawing; he cited the "Pink Elephants on Parade" hallucination sequence in the 1941 Disney classic Dumbo as a tour de force it would be difficult to pull off with computer animation.

Next stop was sculpting with lead sculptor Vicki Saulls. The University of California at Santa Cruz Epic_03

Vicki Saulls with Chris Wedge (photos by Diane Bondareff/Invision for 20th Century Fox)

graduate joined Blue Sky in 2005 after a successful career as an artist with permanent installations in places like San Francisco's Union Square and Golden Gate Park. Saulls fabricates gorgeously detailed clay maquettes of Blue Sky characters which are then translated to the computer realm.

Germany native Sabine Heller is senior character technical director and oversees a process called "rigging," or as she explained it, " putting the anatomy into the character." Heller provides the ultimately invisible "strings" that allow the animators to manipulate their characters on the computer screen like puppets. Heller showed how that process was applied to Steven Tyler's caterpillar in Epic, a multi-limbed character that took eight months to refine compared to the usual five.

The final station stop was with senior animator David Sloss, who showed us the sophisticated computer tools that allow today's animators to make meticulous adjustments to movements and facial expressions.

Later, in the Blue Sky theatre, Epic production designer Greg Couch and art director Mike Knapp provided an illustrated look at the voluminous research that went into creating the forest settings and character designs for the tiny people, insects and animals populating the fantasy world of Epic. Much of that research, Wedge admitted, happened "right outside our windows" in Connecticut. "We don't get out much," he joked.

Blue Sky's roots are in the 1982 Disney film Tron, one of the first movies to utilize computer animation. In 1986, six people who met on that project, including Wedge, decided to form a new computer animation company called Blue Sky. Their initial coup was the development of a proprietary, highly advanced rendering software called CGI Studio. Over the next ten years, Blue Sky did computer animation for commercial clients like Gillette and Bell Atlantic, and created the CG cockroaches for the 1996 cult comedy Joe's Apartment. 

In 1998, Wedge debuted his first short film, Bunny, and won the Oscar. The studio's gamble on its first computer-animated feature, 2002's Ice Age, paid off handsomely with a worldwide gross of $383 million. The three Ice Age sequels did massively better, with worldwide box office of $655 million, $886 million and $877 million.

Looking back on the early days of computer animation, Wedge contended, "If Walt Disney had been alive, there would be no such thing as Pixar... Nobody was talking about computers." The breakthrough for everyone, he noted, was that "Pixar made a great first movie," referring to 1995's Toy Story. Then, "it was a matter of the audience and the business community getting behind what we all knew we could do."

Next up for Blue Sky is Rio 2 in April 2014, and a most auspicious project, Peanuts, in November 2015. Yes, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Snoopy are getting their first computer-animated feature, and Blue Sky's in-house gallery is proudly exhibiting examples of the classic comic strip on its walls. Though the company is generally mum about details, Blue Sky producer Bruce Anderson admitted the craftspeople there are still brainstorming about how to translate Charles Schulz's iconic characters to a 3D environment and reach out to a modern audience while remaining true to the cartoonist's spirit. After touring the cheerful offices of Blue Sky, we're confident its team of artists is up to the challenge.

Friday, August 9, 2013

'Elysium' should lead, with 'Planes' at its tail

This weekend brings four new releases, two today and two that jumped the gun with an early release on Wednesday. The frontrunner is Elysium (3,284 theatres), which has two things going for it: District 9 writer/director Neill Blomkamp, and star Matt Damon. Critics have been
Elysium matt damon
more tepid towards Elysium: It's tracking just 66% positive, compared to District 9's 90% "Fresh" rating (it also scored an Oscar nod for Best Picture). Our critic Michael Sauter was one of those who came out in favor of the futuristic dystopia. He calls out its "hurtling momentum,
with enough boom-crash-splatter explosiveness to wow even the most
hardened action junkie," which pairs well with a "topical, deeply
resonant theme and premise." Others (including myself) thought the plot had some gaping Swiss cheese-holes, with commentary not nearly as biting as District 9, and I suspect audiences will come away with a similar spectrum of reactions. Curiosity and name-brand recognition should bring Elysium over a $30 million opening.

Joining Elysium is Planes (3,702 theatres), the final animated release of the summer. Both Turbo and live-action/animation hybrid The Smurfs 2 fell victim to animation fatigue, and the huge amount of animated product in release should definitely take a slice out of Planes' pie. An opening over $20 million would be good news for this "simplistic knockoff" of Cars, which Disney moved from direct-to-video to theatrical release. "Why didn’t someone bring the pixie dust that makes
Planes Pixar’s animated flicks a cut above in wit, style and detail?" our critic Harry Haun bemoans. Still, plenty of young kids are obsessed with planes, cars, and all things mechanical, and this movie will be catnip to those youngsters--if not the parents who bring them to theatres.

A low-level pot dealer (Jason Sudeikis) becomes a drug runner to get himself out of a pinch in We're the Millers (3,260 theatres), assembling a fake family (including Jennifer Aniston as a stripper) in the process. Our critic David Noh loved the cast and the premise, but regrets that the "direction and writing are so scattershot, they engender only
fitful amusement." A real highlight is Nick Offerman as a goody two-shoes RV owner--he's
Were the millersprobably one of my favorite comedy players right now. We're the Millers earned $6.7 million on Wednesday, and its totals should rise to the upper-$20 millions by Monday.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (3,031 theatres) also opened on Wednesday, earning $5.4 million, which also should put it on track for a weekend somewhere north of $20 million. This is an action-fantasy for the tween set, with "Harry Potter-esque assets" that become less appealing the older and more discerning the audience gets, according to FJI's Doris Toumarkine.

This weekend's specialty offerings include In a World (3 theatres), a comedy starring Lake Bell as a wannabe voiceover artist that "has its moments," according to Toumarkine. Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine will expand from 50 to 116 locations in its third week.

On Monday, we'll see if Elysium indeed grabbed the top spot, and how the other three new releases finished in this close August weekend.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

George Clooney fights Nazis in 'Monuments Men'

If you look at the lineup of Oscar nominees in any given year, it becomes clear that movies taking place during World War II are heavily represented. There are serious movies, like Schindler's List, The Reader, The Pianist, The Thin Red Line, and Saving Private Ryan, to name just a few, and then there's Quentin Tarantino's recent injection of humor into the genre via Inglourious Basterds. The Monuments Men, which stars George Clooney as a Nazi-fighting commander of a small, scrappy group of fighters, appears to nod to both.

The trailer for the Columbia action thriller, which comes out in prime holiday movie season, December 18, establishes that the stakes are high, but the group is mostly in control. An illustrative scene features Matt Damon frozen in place, explaining that he has stepped on a land mine, while his buddies come in, repeating, "Whadja do that for?" In that sense, it appears the George Clooney-directed feature may also be cribbing from the tone from another actor-directed work, Ben Affleck's Argo, which had real stakes but also a front-and-center sense of humor about the CIA's attempt to get Americans out of Iran during the hostage crisis. Hey, it won the movie a Best Picture Oscar, after all.

I wonder if there's something to the fact that both of these movies have an actor's stamp on them--perhaps it's much harder for a screenwriter to mix humor and drama together on the page, whereas a project with an actor attached has a great first reader to help sell the idea. Just a thought. In the case of The Monuments Men, Clooney co-wrote the screenplay with his frequent production partner Grant Heslov (The Men Who Stare at Goats, and producer of Affleck's Argo), based on a nonfiction book. Argo took a similar path, adapting a magazine article that outlined true events. Affleck's only additional credit was for producing, not writing, though it's worth noting he did win an Oscar for the screenplay he wrote with Damon for Good Will Hunting. With summer movie season winding down, 'tis the season for great-looking trailers for fall and winter movies. For the time being, we're riding high, ignoring the inevitable letdown some of these movies will bring.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

See the trailer for 'Enough Said,' with James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus

When James Gandolfini died suddenly earlier this year, the "Sopranos" actor still had unreleased movies. Enough Said is one of them, and from the trailer, it looks like a work worthy to remember the great actor. The astute observer of the upper middle class Nicole Holofcener (Please Give, Friends with Money) wrote the script and directs, and it looks on par with her best work.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a masseuse struggling with being an empty nester as her daughter prepares to enroll in college. Then she meets Gandolfini, and they quickly fall for each other. Then, it turns out one of her clients (Catherine Keener) is his ex-wife. They become friends, and Keener unloads all the things that used to annoy her about her husband, from his eating habits to his clumsiness. And it turns out that dissatisfaction is catchy. "She's like a human TripAdvisor!" Louis-Dreyfus says to another friend in a trailer, one of my favorite lines. As one of those people who immediately knows what she's talking about (TripAdvisor has an odd ability to make you choose a well-reviewed place, then become hypersensitive to all the things you have been warned about, like late-night noise or the perceived rudeness of the staff), I know Enough Said will definitely be a movie with some razor-sharp laughs. See for yourself, below, or wait until the movie comes out on October 10.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wikileaks founder in 'The Fifth Estate'

Many know Benedict Cumberbatch from his role in BBC's "Sherlock Holmes" (watch it on Netflix!) and his villainous roles in Stark Trek Into Darkness and as the necromancer in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Now he's playing Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, the trailer for which just hit the Internet. Is Julian Assange a hero, or a villain? That appears to be just one question on which those affected by Assange's site Wikileaks differ.

The DreamWorks/Touchstone release, which joins a host of prestige movies coming out this fall, tries hard to make it seem like Wikileaks changed the world, but I can't say I'm 100% sure it succeeds. As of today, an upbeat ending is far from assured. Assange is holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London, while one of the leakers on his site, Bradley Manning, is facing 90 years in prison for what he did. This story is extremely close to the current events it covers, and until I see the finished product, it's hard to know if this will work for or against the movie. Check out the trailer for the movie, which comes out October 18, below. Cast also includes Stanley Tucci, and Bill Condon (Kinsey, Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 & 2, Dreamgirls) directs.

Monday, August 5, 2013

'2 Guns' on top as animation fatigue continues with 'Smurfs 2'

Too much competition in the animated market has been hurting the kid-friendly selections unlucky enough to choose a late summer release. The Smurfs 2 opened to just $18.2 million over the weekend, which is half of the original's three-day total. Even with its Wednesday start, the five-day total of $27 million is $8 million less than the original's three-day total. Not good news for the blue creatures, or Sony either. And just two weeks ago, DreamWorks Animation's Turbo opened to a scant $21 million. What's going on?

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Last year, just two animated movies opened during the summer: Brave and Madagascar 3. This year, there are six movies coming out in the May-August period. It's fair to say there were going to be some casualties. May's Epic did okay, topping out just over the $100 million mark, while Despicable Me 2 ($326 million) and Monsters University ($258 million) are in the top four movies this year, period, losing out only to Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel, respectively. The success of these two features is the reason so many studios want to get in the animation game, but it appears family audiences may have seen one or both of these better-regarded features, then taken a pass on Turbo and The Smurfs 2. Disney is likely nervous, because animated Cars spin-off Planes is coming out this Friday. Originally planned as a direct-to-video release, the upside is that the studio doesn't have too much riding on this feature financially compared to expensive Pixar originals. A theatrical release was likely designed to boost the ancillary revenue Disney wrings from its animated properties, especially for an action figure and ride-friendly concept like Planes, but an extremely low opening may defeat the point of releasing it theatrically in the first place.

2 guns washington wahlberg 2
While adult audiences have also suffered from tentpole fatigue, 2 Guns, billed more as a buddy cop comedy than a movie with fantastic explosions, didn't crash and burn. The $27 million opening, while enough to earn first place, is particularly low for a movie with Denzel Washington on the top bill. After all, he brought Safe House to a $40 million opening. That movie, however, had a more defined, marketable plot, while 2 Guns has confusing double-crossing going on that isn't as easy to explain in quick TV spots.

Coming-of-age tale The Spectacular Now had a spectacular debut, averaging $50,000 per screen in four locations, a promising sign for the well-reviewed feature. Meanwhile, fellow Sundance darlings The Way, Way Back and Fruitvale Station were neck and neck this weekend, earning $2.8 and $2.7 million, respectively. Both had comparable per-screen averages, so it will be interesting to watch which one plays longer with audiences.

On Wednesday, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and drug-running comedy We're the Millers will jump-start the weekend, followed by original sci-fi movie Elysium, which is written and directed by District 9's Neill Blomkamp.


Friday, August 2, 2013

'2 Guns' joins 'Smurfs 2,' but both want to be number one

This year has been exceptionally crowded when it comes to animated features, which doesn't bode well for the U.S. release of The Smurfs 2 (3,866 theatres). The original Smurf outing opened over $30 million in 2011, and a similar result for the sequel would be good, especially because the
Smurfs 2biggest grosses are expected abroad. But what's to prevent families from choosing Turbo, Despicable Me 2, Epic, or Monsters University instead? There's only so many times parents can take their kids to the movies. THR's Justin Lowe thinks that parents will just give in, predicting that the animated feature "should have little trouble scaling stratospheric heights
similar to its predecessor with undiscriminating young audiences
and their chaperones, weary from near-unrelenting summertime
caregiving." Perhaps for some, The Smurfs 2 will provide that respite, as the blueberry-tinged creatures use their "curious blend of wide-eyed optimism and
goofy enthusiasm" to solve problems.

Denzel Washington is a sure thing at the box office, and that's what Universal will be counting on
2 guns washington wahlberg for 2 Guns (3,025 theatres), which teams up the action star with Mark Wahlberg. The buddy cop feature with bits of comedy thrown in is "fun to watch but almost instantly forgettable," according to FJI critic Daniel Eagan, who compares it to "the B-movies of an earlier generation," meaning "it's
fast, tough and smarter than it has to be." Like The Smurfs 2, 2 Guns is aiming for an opening north of $30 million. The Smurfs 2 released starting Wednesday, when it earned $5.2 million, so it's unclear whether that early opening will help it gain steam or if it may slow down more quickly over the weekend.

There's also plenty going on at the indie box office. The writers of (500) Days of Summer adapted the script for The Spectacular Now (4 theatres), which earned raves at the Sundance Film Festival and is another excellent showcase for rising star Shailene Woodley, who appeared as George Clooney's daughter in The Descendants. The high-school set coming-of-age story "deserves to
reach a wide demographic," says critic Kevin Lally, "Its most appreciative audience may very
well be an older art-house crowd; the crossover to watch is the
teen segment." A24, which released teen pics The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers, will try to repeat its formula of attracting cinephiles and young viewers with the picture.

Spectacular now shailene woodley
The found-footage genre goes into deep space in Europa Report (3 theatres), which critic Nick Schager praises for being a "well-executed, thematically intriguing tale of outer space
exploration and the responsibilities and risks such an enterprise
entails." Then there's Lindsay Lohan and James Deen pairing up for The Canyons (1 theatre), which our critic Doris Toumarkine predicts will be "catnip for Gawker/TMZ-loving loyalists but also won’t disappoint more demanding viewers."

On Monday, we'll see if audiences chose The Smurfs 2 or 2 Guns, and which of the specialty releases is on track to have a strong expansion through the rest of August.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

'Lone Survivor': Another gritty war movie like 'Zero Dark Thirty'?

After so many summer tentpoles flopped, there's already worry in Hollywood that a crowded fall of adult-leaning prestige releases, which includes Captain Philips, Rush, and The Fifth Estate, will mean at least one movie will end up completely being overrun by the competition. Additionally, all three of the above releases are biographical (Commercial ship captain, racecar driver, and Wikileaks creator, respectively), which is yet another story trend that appears to be picking up speed. Lone Survivor will release after the fall rush but in the midst of the holiday one, on December 27. The trailer for the movie released today, which makes the military procedural appear like Zero Dark Thirty, although with flourishes that render the movie more Heartland and military base-friendly, like a SEAL reciting his military credo, and an inspirational song that plays against the trailer's images of the firefight.

Like Best Picture Oscar nominee ZDT, Lone Survivor is based on a true story. It takes place in 2005, when a group of SEALs engages Al Qaeda in an epic firefight that, as the title suggests, does not have a good outcome for the group. Mark Wahlberg and Eric Bana star, and Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg, hopefully recovering from the poor showing of another Universal picture last year, Battleship, is at the helm. Check out the trailer below.