Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Can ‘Frozen’ cool ‘Fire’s’ streak?

This year’s Thanksgiving weekend is serving up a battle of the elements, as Frozen goes head-to-head with reigning champion, Catching Fire. (Which reminds us of these classic antagonists.) The Disney animated musical and latest princess movie opens wide in 3,742 theatres today. The film’s tracking strong on Rotten Tomatoes at 88% fresh, and boasts a megawatt cast of Broadway stars, including Wicked’s Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad, as well as Kristen Bell as spunky and motormouthed protagonist Anna. Already, Frozen is out-selling 2010’s Tangled in advance ticket sales. Expectations, as they generally are for Disney family fare, are high, with pundits seeing receipts in the $70 million range.

Odds are, however, Catching Fire will continue to light up the box office. The successful Hunger Games sequel and Lionsgate’s early Christmas present (to themselves) had earned $170 million domestically as of Monday. It’ll likely hold strong through the weekend. Where previous November blockbuster Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II fell 69% over the holiday weekend, Catching Fire’s inevitable sophomore dip shouldn’t be more than 50, 55%.

Also hoping to wrangle a large slice of the holiday b.o. pie – or what’s left of it, anyway – Black Nativity, starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, and Angela Bassett; Homefront, with Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, and Kate Bosworth; and Oldboy, Spike Lee’s Korean cult-movie remake starring Josh Brolin, are all bowing today. Nativity, targeted toward an African American audience and opening just as the Christmas season begins in earnest, should perform the best of the bunch with around $10 million. Neither Homefront nor Oldboy have garnered particularly favorable reviews, but they can both count on built-in audiences (Statham fans, original Oldboy fanboys) to show up, regardless of a grousing peanut gallery. With Homefront opening in 2,572 theatres, it’s expected to gross in the high single digits. At just 583 locations, Oldboy will likely reap around $3 million.

There aren’t any specialty releases opening today, but Philomena and The Book Thief will both expand. Judi Dench and Steve Coogan’s odd-couple drama will broaden its audience base as it goes from screening in four to 835 theatres. Thief will open in 1,234 locations across the country and, most likely, gross between $5 and $9 million.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

MoMA atrium immersed in Isaac Julien's 'Ten Thousand Waves'

Now through April 17, 2014, Ten Thousand Waves, an installation by filmmaker Isaac Julien, is on display in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Featuring nine double-sided screens and over 20 speakers, this is the most ambitious staging to date of Julien's piece, which had been seen previously in Sydney, Berlin and other cities.

Ten Thousand Waves combines footage of a 2004 incident in which 23 Chinese immigrants drowned while working in England; the making of Ruan Ling-yu's most famous film, The Goddess, in 1934 Shanghai; and a retelling of how the water goddess Mazu rescues 16th-century fishermen.

Julien worked from a wide range of sources: satellite imagery, HD video, Super 16, archival footage of Shanghai, and more. Similarly, his immersive soundtrack includes Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra; transcripts of emergency radio calls; and a score by Maria de Alvear.

There’s no single viewing point for Ten Thousand Waves. The narrative spreads across all nine screens, at times interweaving the three narrative strands, at times juxtaposing stories and images. Uniquely for this installation, the screens are arrayed at different heights and angles. Viewers must move through the installation to follow the story, which can also be seen from several floors overlooking the atrium.

This is the most complicated video installation ever attempted by MoMA. The audiovisual staff initially tested the placement of screens with a 3D model of the atrium. Still, staffers had fewer than 20 days to hang and align the screens. They range in size from 16 to 23 feet wide. Audio Visual Design Manager Aaron Harrow tested 15 different materials before settling on a screen from Gerriets.

"One thing Julien definitely wanted was an evenly lit image from both the front and rear of the screen," Harrow said at a press preview. "Gerriets provided the most in terms of viewing angle, transition to light, brightest image, things like that. You'll notice there are no hot spots."

"One small change in the size or placement of the screens would snowball," Aaron Louis, Director of Audio Visual, noted. "We'd have to change all nine screens, all nine projectors. You're shooting angles, you have to shoot under or next to a screen."

"Some of the tolerances for the projector beams to avoid the sides of screens are a couple of inches," Harrow added.

When it came to projectors, Christie was the first choice. "We have a relationship with Christie," Harrow pointed out. "We know we can pick up a phone and say, 'Hey, I need help on this,' and they will be there." We do a lot of special events, and Christie's always our go-to firm. They're reliable. It's kind of a no-brainer."

The installation uses eight Christie WU14K-M projectors and one Christie HD14K-M projector—"pretty much off the shelf," Harrow pointed out. "Each projector has a different lens for different screen sizes and angles, but they're pretty much the stock M series."

A visual tour de force thanks to cinematographer Zhao Xiaoshi, Ten Thousand Waves also features an arresting performance by Zhao Tao as Ruan Ling-yu, perhaps the most accomplished Chinese actress of the 1930s.

Ten Thousand Waves also marks the return of Asian superstar Maggie Cheung, last seen here as a recovering heroin addict in Olivier Assayas's Clean (2004). Cheung won Best Actress for that project at the Cannes Film Festival, but apart from a cameo in Hot Summer Days has avoided movies until Julien persuaded her to take the part of Mazu.

Cheung downplayed her work. Speaking at the opening night ceremonies, she said, "I couldn't imagine what this would be like, I just kind of trusted Isaac. I thought, okay, this is not a movie movie, it's an art installation. I don't need to know what's the last scene, what's the next scene. It was very easy, we did it in an afternoon."

The most radiant of Hong Kong stars over the past three decades, Cheung insisted she has moved on from acting to working behind the camera. "I'm learning editing," she said excitedly. "More than the actual filmmaking itself, editing is where the decisions are made."

Monday, November 25, 2013

‘Catching Fire’ does just that

As predicted, records were shattered this past weekend, thanks to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s fantastic bow. The sequel to 2012’s Hunger Games (and we thought that film was popular) earned $161.1 million domestically and $307.7 worldwide. Here’s how it stacks up against previous cinematic and pop culture phenoms:

  • Catching Fire had the highest-grossing November opening of all time. The old record-holder, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, debuted to a paltry (it’s all relative) $148.2 million.

  • Catching Fire had the fourth highest-grossing opening ever. Its cume ranks just behind The Avengers’ $207.4 million, Iron Man 3’s $174.1 million, and the last Harry Potter movie’s $169.2 million.

  • Katniss & Co. just barely dethroned The Dark Knight Rises, which got bumped down a peg to the No. 5 slot on the list of most successful domestic opening weekends. Knight opened to $160.9 million back in 2012.

Catching Fire is also Lionsgate’s most successful release to date. It had the 12th most lucrative international opening ever.

Some other movies made some money this weekend, too, although their stories are less uplifting. Thor: The Dark World earned $14.1 million, the most money of any film that was not Catching Fire. As its total suggests, The Dark World suffered a freefall of a drop in sales, down 61% from last week. The Best Man Holiday, last weekend’s surprise success story, also staggered, falling 58% to gross $12.5 million. While reverberations from the revolution brewing in The Hunger Games' Panem have clearly hurt the cinema’s other offerings, neither The Dark World nor Holiday has been fatally wounded. The Thor sequel will likely finish out with a little over $200 million, while The Best Man Holiday will probably top out at $75 million.

Similar reassurances cannot be made on behalf of Vince Vaughn’s latest vehicle, Delivery Man. The comedian begat a bomb with his tale of a boy-man sperm donor whose contributions result in 500+ children. Delivery Man grossed $8.2 million, less than half of each of Vaughn’s last two films, The Internship and The Dilemma. At least Vaughn can take comfort in knowing other name stars, at least those who were not christened Jennifer Lawrence, have also seen their stock fall this season. Both Runner Runner, starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, and The Counselor, whose credits read like the guest list for Vanity Fair’s Oscar party (Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt) opened to less than $10 million. Times, they are a changin’.

One thing, however, remains constant: the undeniable appeal of Judi Dench. The grand dame’s Philomena opened in four locations and earned a respectable (how could it could have been anything other than?) $133,716, or $33,429 per theatre.

Neither has Tom Hanks lost his enduring appeal. The actor’s Oscar contender Captain Phillips sailed past the $100 million domestic mark this weekend, its seventh, with no sign of slowing pace.

Friday, November 22, 2013

‘Games’ to make child’s play of weekend b.o.

It’s a foregone conclusion the second installment in the Hunger Games franchise, opening today in 4,163 theatres, will prove victorious at the box office this weekend  – and the next weekend, and the one after that, and so on and so forth, until Catching Fire has not merely broken but incinerated most sales records set before it.

If our expectations sound a tad hyperbolic, consider the context. The first Hunger Games film opened to an awe-some $152 million. It continued to hold strong through the duration of its theatrical run, resisting any significant downturn in sales thanks to strong word-of-mouth and favorable reviews. By the time it finally closed, The Hunger Games had amassed $408 million. That makes it the 14th highest-grossing movie of all time. Surprisingly, it out-earned any of the Harry Potter or Twilight films, which had previously set the bar for frenzied-fan fare.

Then there’s that small, shiny pated statue perched somewhere in Jennifer Lawrence’s house. The actress who plays Katniss Everdeen has seen her star rise and rise since 2012’s Games. She won an Oscar for her turn as a stubborn yet compassionate (we spy a theme) dancer in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook last year, and stood out within an ensemble cast of pretty mutants in Marble’s lucrative tentpole X Men: First Class. Add to the mix all those viral videos of her acting lovely, like the one in which she comforted a crying fan, and Jennifer Lawrence is capable of calling upon quite a large group of faithful for support.

However, there are those pundits who believe it would be difficult for any film, even this one, to surpass a $152 million weekend opening. There’s little doubt Catching Fire will match its predecessor – beyond that, it may eke out another $8 million or so for a staggering $160 haul. Odds are favorable.

Less so for the latest Vince Vaughn comedy, Delivery Man. Once a bankable draw, Vaughn has taken his lumps of late. Neither The Internship nor The Dilemma (no, can’t remember them either) was very successful, with the one opening to $17.3 million and the other $17.8 million. Man is tracking for an even poorer debut.

Specialty release Philomena also opens in four locations today. The film has seen a small boost in publicity in recent weeks, thanks to Harvey Weinstein’s successful campaign to change the movie’s R rating to PG-13. Weinstein’s hoping the softened label will reap dividends when Philomena opens wide and becomes accessible to family and church-going audiences, but for now, its largely positive reviews should appeal to the weekend’s arthouse viewers.

In all, between Catching Fire and the still popular Thor: The Dark World and The Best Man Holiday, this coming weekend could be one of the cinema’s best ever.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Preserving Ebert's legacy

“See you at the movies.”

It’s easy to understand the unprecedented popular success movie critic Roger Ebert enjoyed when you take a look at his signature signoff. Whether or not he liked the films whose merits he had just spent the past half-hour debating, at the end of each episode of “At the Movies” with fellow critics Gene Siskel or Richard Roeper, Ebert would leave his audience with an invitation. His was an inclusionary approach to viewership. “You” were sitting beside him in the theater and therefore it was “you” to whom he was speaking. The cinema was an “empathy machine” so far as Ebert was concerned, with the ability to transcend, engage and connect disparate sensibilities. It’s a nice way to look at any work of art, if one that sometimes trips along the fault lines of prequels, sequels and arty delusions of grandeur. More importantly, with its allusion to a future full of sights yet unseen, it’s an eminently hopeful phrase.

All of which is a fancy way of saying Roger Ebert was a likable guy, the People’s Critic. Hoop Dreams director Steve James, along with executive producer Martin Scorsese, has taken it upon himself to film the first documentary on Ebert, who died last spring. James began shooting before Ebert passed away and is now well into post-production on the film that shares a title with the reviewer’s memoir, Life Itself. Now, James is calling upon Ebert's fans to help finish his paean to the industry luminary.

The director has set up an Indiegogo campaign to help raise funds for costly movie polishes: the documentary’s soundtrack, animation work, and archival footage licensing, among others. Crowd-funding sites like Indiegogo are inherently inclusionary and communal, but James is taking these ideas so important to Ebert’s legacy several steps further. If you donate $25 to the campaign, you’ll be sent a private link that will enable you to live stream the movie ahead of its premiere. After he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2006, Ebert was eventually forced to relinquish hosting duties of his TV show. Instead of retiring, however, he continued to review and build out his fan base via social media. James’ chosen tech angle is apt for a man who used the Internet as stage for his third act.


Depending on how much they donate ($25 is at the lower end of the price points), contributors can receive a variety of prizes. You can attend a screening in New York or LA, chat with the filmmakers, even receive a private editing tutorial from director James. My favorite reward, however, is that which is sent to every participant regardless of how much she donates. Throughout his career Ebert wrote 7,202 reviews. The first 7,202 people who contribute will be sent a review corresponding to their member number (if you’re the 57th person to give, you’ll receive the 57th review Ebert wrote). Pretty cool.

Click here for the link to the Indiegogo campaign.  You have until December 20th to help James, on behalf of Ebert, be able to say with confidence: See you at this movie.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Casting 'Brave New World'

With her spirited refusal to conform to her society’s dictates, espousing a rebelliousness born of an intuitive and empathetic rather than a philosophical or intellectual hatred of totalitarianism, Katniss Everdeen is the latest, and one of the most broadly appealing, heroes in a long line of Hunger_Blog2dystopian dissenters. That she’s an athletic, stubborn and outspoken girl helps her stand out from the pack of men and one very troubled little boy who’ve dared question the repressive societies that came before hers, societies of which The Hunger Games’ Panem is a clear inheritor. One could picture President Snow enforcing an INGSOC-like (the dominant “thoughtcontrol” political ideology of George Orwell’s novel 1984) set of rules in order to safeguard against further challenges to his authority, to ensure a Katniss can never again inspire mass discontent. Maybe he should have read a little more before relying on dubious masters of games.

Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and another young adult novel, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, are three major dystopian precursors to the Hunger Games franchise. There have been two film adaptions of 1984, most recently a 1984 (tricky of them) movie starring John Hurt and Richard Burton. There’s also a star-studded The Giver feature currently in development: Alexander Skarsgard, as protagonist Jonas’ father; Meryl Streep, as The Chief Elder; and Jeff Bridges, as the titular Giver, are all attached. (Taylor Swift is also on board as the pitiable Rosemary. We’ve  decided to tactfully withhold judgment on that point.)

But the grandfather of them all, Huxley’s Brave New World, has only ever been adapted in the less prestigious format of a TV movie. A 1998 version saw Peter Gallagher playing Bernard Marx, the naysayer with a Napoleon complex, and Leonard Nimoy, in a piece of spot-on casting, as the powerful and intelligent Mustapha Mond. According to IMDB, another Brave New World adaptation  is in development. However, no credits have been added yet. We take this omission as license to cast our own dream Brave New World feature. Petty Bernard and tragic John are unlikely to draw the kind of fervent following that’s lined up behind the compassionate and hotheaded  Katniss Everdeen, but their story, if only as a kind of historical tract to show how we’ve arrived at telling the stories we recount today, is nonetheless worth the cinematic retelling.

Here’s how we would populate a modern film version of Brave New World:

Bernard Marx: Casey Affleck
The story begins with Bernard Marx, a shorter-than-average “Alpha Plus,” or member of one of London’s upper castes. Bernard is a vocal critic of his government, a powerful body with a contingency plan for every emotion or circumstance that could make a human feel, well, human. But Bernard’s dissatisfaction with his surroundings is less a function of any moral qualms he may harbor, than of the physical insecurities he most certainly nurtures. Bernard is short, like those in the lesser Delta, Gamma or Epsilon castes who have been born and bred to be ignorant, obedient workers. He’s often petty because he feels inferior, and easily loses his head when public approbation comes his way. But the actor who plays Bernard has to be likable enough for an audience to follow him in the film’s early scenes, to be a kind of hapless Virgil through whom we come to understand his world. It’s handy that, at 5’9”, Affleck is on the shorter side, but, more importantly, he has the ability to endear himself while also inflecting that voice of his with the necessary whining tones (the bickering scenes in the Ocean's movies come to mind. Inevitable byproduct of growing up a younger brother?).

John: Tom Hiddleston
When Bernard travels outside the city to holiday at one of several surrounding “savage” outposts, modeled after Native American reservations, he meets a woman who used to live in London, but who chose to go native rather than return to her home society when she realized she was pregnant. (In this world, all babies are test-tube babies, and sex is only ever a recreational, never procreative, act.) John is her son, the literal and literate noble savage whose desire to see Bernard’s “brave new world” leads to his tragic demise. Though Hiddleston is best known for playing trickster Loki in the Thor movies, his recent turn as the morose vampire outsider in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive saw him convincingly flash tortured variations on intelligence, pain, lust, and bewilderment, often in the same look. He’s a good decade older than the book’s 18-year-old character, but when has maintaining generational verisimilitude ever stopped Hollywood? Plus, hearing him spout Shakespeare, John’s favorite author, would be a treat.

Helmholtz Watson: Michael Fassbender
Watson is Bernard’s best friend, another self-imposed societal outsider. The two bond over their mutual dislike of their government, but Watson’s motivations are very different from his friend’s: Watson is the physical embodiment of an alpha male, the macho paradigm, who also happens to be a sensitive soul. He longs to be a poet in a world where there is no such thing as self-expression. Like Affleck, Fassbender’s got the bearing for the part, here equal parts manly heft and feeling grace – that is, when he’s not playing a sadist.

Lenina Crowne: Romola Garai
Above and beyond the fact that Garai (“The Hour”) simply needs more starring roles, with her approachable wide-eyed beauty, it’s easy to believe her as the kind of good society girl who attracts the various men (Bernard, John) around her. Although she’s a dedicated adherent to the regime’s status-quo way of life, Lenina needs a lot of the dulling drug soma to get through her days. If she were to go off the stuff, it’s likely there’d be a lot more stuff to her.

Mustapha Mond: Gary Oldman
Mond is the “Resident World Controller of Western Europe,” or the story’s head honcho. He’s cultured, smart, and not as one-note evil as President Snow. A former dissenter himself, as a young man he chose to give up his pursuit of science in favor of working toward the greater good, which, in his mind, meant minimizing the amount of pain and maximizing the amount of happiness experienced by the masses. If he has to suppress art and literature as well as his formerly beloved science, so be it. There’s something very warm about Gary Oldman, for all the villains he’s played, but not saccharine – you can see him nodding his head along in sympatico understanding while watching some poor subversive being hauled off to exile on his orders.

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
The director’s Children of Men may rank among the top modern-day dystopian tales, but it was Cuaron’s pitch-perfect helming of another literary adaptation, 1995’s A Little Princess, which has us believe he’d be perfect for the part. It’s all too easy to turn the source material for Brave New World into a depressing slog through didactic set-pieces that amount to little more than a gnarled finger-wagging, “Beware!” But Cuaron has demonstrated his ability to remain faithful to the content of a work while adding levity or an inventive touch that does precisely what he’s been hired to do: adapt the story to the visual and above all entertaining medium of the movies - as he does in this scene here:


Screenplay: Vince Gilligan
Because who better than our resident tragedian to tell the story of John’s fall from grace? Forget the other names on our list. “Vince Gilligan Pens Brave New World” is all the marketing this film would need.

Monday, November 18, 2013

‘Thor’ hangs tough amid a happy ‘Holiday’

Far exceeding expectations, The Best Man Holiday enjoyed a very merry debut. In 1999, The Best Man netted $9 million its opening weekend, or $14 million when adjusted for inflation. Its holiday reunion sequel, featuring several cast members who have grown in popularity over the last decade-and-a-half, took in $30 million this past weekend – double the original’s haul. Audiences were overwhelmingly African American (87 percent) and female (75 percent), prompting many pundits to reiterate their claim that African Americans are a largely underserved demographic.

Be that as it may, audiences of all stripes continued to pack the theatre for Thor. The Dark World held on to its no. 1 slot with $38.5 million. Although the Marvel  blockbuster can now boast a $147 million domestic cume, it did slip 55 percent from last weekend. The original Thor only slid 47 percent its sophomore weekend, although, to be fair, Iron Man 3, featuring arguably the most likable superhero of the crowded bunch, suffered a 58 percent dropoff its second weekend out of the gate. As it stands now, Thor: The Dark World will likely reap $250 million by the end of its run, so there’s really no need to lament the inevitability of a slipping grip.

Last Vegas and Free Birds also continued to fulfill their roles, as box-office filler, to the best of their abilities. Once again, the two comedies targeted toward audience members at opposite ends of the life cycle clocked in at nos. 3 and 4, respectively. Last Vegas dipped just 20 percent to earn $8.85 million, while Birds pecked out a respectable $8.3 million profit. Rounding out the weekend's top 5, Bad Grandpa took in over $7 million, bringing its total domestic earnings to $90.2 million. The film will likely stick around until it’s crossed the impressive $100 million mark.

Having earned $140,000 from four locations, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska has divided pundits as to whether or not it enjoyed a successful debut. For a specialty feature, $140,000 is a respectable and certainly solid figure. However, as this is also a Payne movie and the followup to the director’s Oscar-winning The Descendants, there are those who felt disappointed by Nebraska’s $35,000 per-theatre average. The black-and-white film will also likely prove a marketing challenge beyond the arthouse contingent. Awards buzz might help, but the movie’s popular success is far from certain.

The same couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to the season’s largest success story, Gravity. Just because the 3D feature has been missing from the headlines these past few weeks doesn’t mean viewers have forgotten about it. On the contrary: Gravity passed the $500 million international benchmark this weekend.

Can The Hunger Games: Catching Fire hope to match that? T minus four days!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Even ‘The Best’ can’t beat ‘Thor’

As the only new movie opening in wide release this weekend, The Best Man Holiday is expected to make a strong debut. But one’s “strength” is, of course, relative when compared to that of a towheaded Norse god. If the Taye Diggs romantic dramedy is in fact the cinema’s best man, then Thor: The Dark World is the bridegroom, the main attraction. The two sequels (The Best Man opened back in 1999) will go head-to-head over the next several days, though it won’t be much of a bout. The Dark World is poised to reap $35 million or so, while Holiday is tracking in the mid $20-million range. Still, the latter is expected to out-perform the brand’s first installment. The Best Man opened to a modest $9 million 14 years ago, accumulating $34 million by the end of its run. (Adjusted for inflation, that number is roughly $54 million.) Holiday is also trending strong among African American women, the same demographic that helped last spring’s Think Like A Man debut to over $33 million. Perhaps they’ll ensure Thor wins the weekend by a smaller margin than predicted.

The Best Man Holiday wasn’t always the lone wide release scheduled to open over the weekend of November 15th, however. As of early October, The Book Thief and Scorsese’s eagerly anticipated The Wolf of Wall Street were also slated to bow tonight. But Fox soon changed its mind about the best Book Thief release strategy, and opted for a platform approach beginning last weekend instead. And Wolf of Wall Street was running a little long for its studio’s comfort. Rumors had been circulating for some time that Scorsese wouldn’t have a suitable cut finished in time for tonight. By the end of the month it was clear that he wouldn’t, and now Wolf has been pushed back to Christmas Day. If others had been pondering an 11/15 rollout, they (wisely) thought better of sandwiching themselves between blockbuster Thor and international phenom The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which opens next Friday. Hence, The Best Man’s single status.

The specialty market will offer up its own version of a major release in the form of Alexander Payne’s (The Descendants) Nebraska, opening in four locations tonight. Bruce Dern won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his turn as an aging alcoholic convinced he’s won a million dollars. Between the director’s clout, the Cannes buzz, and the film’s generally favorable reviews (89% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), Nebraska is expected to average $40,000 per theatre.

Dallas Buyers Club expands again, this time to 184 locations. Most likely, it’ll earn over $1 million.

And then next weekend, nothing else going on anywhere or doing anything will matter, because The Hunger Games will have arrived. Simply put, the odds are in no one else’s favor.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A look at letters through the camera's lens

When the NYT published an OpEd about the death of letter-writing the other day, many commentators engaged in a collective eye-roll. It isn’t the medium that matters, they countered, so long as we’re still writing (“obviously” was the implied addendum). Others waxed nostalgic about their cache of love letters and cited the personal immediacy, as opposed to the temporal immediacy of email, of holding a letter that had once been touched by the person who wrote it.
Unsurprisingly, Hollywood has long made use of the romantic and psychological aspects of letters. They can provide a glimpse into a character’s thought process without the use of a narrator, they can serve as a convenient plot point, they can even help illuminate character through a quick shot of his or her handwriting. The latter was of great importance to the 1940 crime film The Letter, in which Bette Davis’ acquittal or condemnation hinged upon a letter written in her hand. Not to hop aboard the Luddites’ horse-drawn bandwagon, but being caught via an email trace doesn’t quite match the ironic richness of a baddy who has literally sealed her own fate.

Even with their growing archaism, letters continue to play a cinematic role beyond mere props or plot devices in Victorian novel adaptations. Whether it’s Wes Anderson building the foundation of his runaways' love story through an epistolary correspondence in Moonrise Kingdom, or David Lowery using letters as a link between Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck in a film that otherwise sees the lovers in just three scenes together in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, or Briony (Saoirse Ronan) abusing her role as a letter-carrying messenger in Atonement, letters have yet to be narratively discarded.

Our latest list is a look at some epistolary highlights in both classic and recent films. It’s a brief one, so let us know what we’ve missed in the comments below:

The Letter (1940)
Available on Netflix
A wealthy, married woman (Bette Davis) murders a well-to-do man in the middle of the night in Malaya. She claims the man was the aggressor and she shot him to save her honor. But when a damning letter addressed to the victim, written in the woman’s hand, surfaces, the woman and her lawyer must do everything they can to keep the evidence from coming to light.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Available on Netflix
Co-workers at a gift shop in Budapest, Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) simply cannot get along. Each finds the other insufferable, and certainly not nearly as cultured and amiable and generally wonderful as their respective pen pals – right? Based on the play Parfumerie, the same source material for 1998’s You’ve Got Mail.

Vertigo (1958)
Available on Netflix and streaming on Hulu
Detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) has been having a rough time of it ever since he watched a criminal fall to his death. Now Scottie’s got a bad case of vertigo, though that doesn’t stop him from taking what should be an easy if odd case: trail a friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because the friend (Tom Helmore) fears she’s suicidal. His concern proves tragically justified when Scottie, too afraid to pursue Madeleine to the top of a tower, watches her throw herself to her death. When he finds a woman who looks just like Madeleine, whom he had begun to love, months later, he forces her to dress up and adhere to his ideal. But this new woman has secrets of her own – which she explains in a letter that helps out the audience a great deal, even if she rips it up before poor Scottie can catch a glimpse.

Atonement (1997)
Available on Netflix
The worst little sister of all time, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is charged with delivering a love letter from Robbie (James McAvoy), the son of a family servant, to her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Briony has a crush on Robbie, and is both confused and angered when she witnesses a moment of sexual tension between the two. She soon finds an outlet for her jealousy when an assault is committed later that night. Briony accuses Robbie, using the explicit letter he’s given her as proof of his deviant mind. Her lie has resounding repercussions.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Available on Netflix
Two kids in love exchange a series of letters as they plot to run away together. A serious crowd-pleaser.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)
Available on Netflix
Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) breaks free from prison four years after being found guilty for a crime he perpetrated with his lover, Ruth (Rooney Mara). He swears he’ll come back for her and their daughter, expressing his love first as an inmate, then as a fugitive on the run, through letter after letter.

Monday, November 11, 2013

‘Thor’ proves its mighty earning mettle

As predicted, Thor: The Dark World ruled the multiplexes this weekend. The latest Marvel action (with a hefty dose of comedy) flick earned $86 million at the domestic box office and $180 million worldwide. It looks as if the lauded sequel will soon out-gross its predecessor: By the end of  summer 2011, Thor had earned a successful $450 million worldwide, while The Dark World has already amassed a stellar $327 million after only two weeks. Many are crediting Thor’s appearance in 2012’s The Avengers with increasing interest in his character. The “Avengers Effect” was certainly in play for Iron Man 3, which saw a significant boost in sales over Iron Man 2 (36%) after it opened post-Avengers. Not everyone is thrilled with what is undoubtedly a blockbuster debut, however. 3D attendance was down from the first Thor, and 3D sales made up just 39% of The Dark World’s overall gross, falling short of Gravity-influenced expectations. But that’s splitting hairs on a well-coiffed head. Lacking as it does any significant competition, Thor is expected to hold onto its title for some time.

Unfortunately for everyone else, standing next to a Norse god is bound to dwarf you.  This weekend’s No. 2, Bad Grandpa, earned just $11.3 million, down 44% from last weekend. The good news? Even with the inevitable dropoff, Grandpa is the second highest-grossing Jackass film of all time, on track to earn well over $100 million.

Third and fourth place just missed out-grossing Grandpa. Free Birds and Last Vegas earned $11.2 and $11.1 million, respectively. Their overall cumes are equally waddle-neck-in-neck:  Audiences have more or less ignored the critics and helped Free Birds earn $30.2 million and Last Vegas $33.5 million to date.

Dropping faster than an intergalactic deity to Earth, Ender’s Game suffered a sales dip of 62% to earn $10.3 million. That brings the film’s total up to $44 million, which, considering its advance hype, production costs and this weekend’s steep sophomore dropoff, qualifies it as a bomb. Expect the film to hang around for another week or two, but once Katniss and co. stage their multiplex takeover come November 22 for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Ender’s Game will be all but over.

Not so with Steve McQueen’s everyone-loves-it 12 Years A Slave. After expanding wide to 1,144 locations, Slave earned $6.6 million to bump its total earnings up to $17.3 million. The rollout, and profits, will continue this coming weekend when the film screens at roughly 1,300 theatres.

Finally, with the weekend’s smallest opening, The Book Thief earned a solid $108,000 from four locations. The film, though, isn’t tracking too hot on Rotten Tomatoes – 59% rotten – and Fox has yet to announce further expansion plans.

Friday, November 8, 2013

More than window dressing

It’s been more than 60 years since Hollywood last adapted Gustave Flaubert’s classic, some would consider the ur, novel, Madame Bovary. Now, Mia Wasikowska has signed on to play the tragically imaginative heroine, a woman whose dissatisfaction with her comfortable provincial life (“she has read too many books and it has addled her brain,” as the popular Louisa May Alcott saying, emblazoned on many a modern tote bag, goes) leads to her downfall.

The production helmed by director Sophie Barthes will likely feature another acclaimed turn by Wasikowska, and Paul Giamatti and Rhys Ifans can always be counted on to lend their films a bit or bushel of their personal magnetism. But for many fans of classic novel adaptations, the scenery and especially the costumes are a large part of the appeal. Imagining the contemporary milieu, from Dickens’ dirty cobblestone streets to the Bronte sisters’ foggy ad-infinitum moors to Flaubert’s French farmland, is often half the fun of reading a golden oldie. Their exterior descriptions, so often lacking in comparable expansiveness among modern novels, do more than their bit to help the reader “lose herself” in the story.

When it comes to a cinematic reimagining, an emphasis on production value is necessary and tricky: It can go a long way towards capturing the tone and distracting from the original material both. On those occasions where the director, cinematographer, set and costume designer are all in accord, you get nothing less than the industry ideal: movie magic.

Here, then, are those novel adaptations where content and costume walked hand-in-hand towards film (or at least fan) canonization. Below these, we’ve included a few stinkers, the bad apples that give the whole bunch of “costume dramas” or “period pieces” their pejorative ring. Where will Wasikowska’s Bovary fall?

Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Apocalypse Now (1979; based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – army fatigues are costumes, too)
Emma (1996)

Gone With The Wind (1939)

A Little Princess (1995)

Valmont (1989; not as classy as the 1988 Dangerous Liasons, but its campiness gives it an added cult boost)
The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Godfather: Part II (DeNiro flashbacks)


Vanity Fair (2004)

Wuthering Heights (2011)

Anna Karenina (2012)

The Three Musketeers (2011)

Troy (2004)

The Scarlet Letter (1995)

The Great Gatsby (2013)


'Thor' poised to overtake weekend box-office

As Freddie Mercury might say, this weekend’s box-office contenders are waiting for the hammer to fall. Thor: The Dark World will likely assert its dominance over the domestic market when it bows in 3,841 locations tonight. Many are predicting the sequel to 2011’s Thor will gross approximately $95 million, earning slightly less than fellow superhero flicks Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man and Superman, which all debuted to upwards of $100 million. Last weekend, The Dark World made headlines when it opened to a tuneful $111 million overseas. Basically, everyone knows who the winner of this weekend’s sales race will be, the question is, by just how much will Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman and team outstrip the competition?

The Avengers effect, the box-office theory that posits solo vehicles for those characters that appeared in 2012’s The Avengers will experience a boost in sales thanks to that film's popularity, proved true for Iron Man 3 and will probably factor into The Dark World’s success.  That Thor’s mighty earning potential is already being treated as a foregone conclusion is great news for the ever-expanding cinematic Marvel universe, though less so for everyone else, like last weekend’s No. 1, Ender’s Game. It’s looking as if the young adult adaptation will slip a couple of spots this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Bad Grandpa is holding strong, and so is the critically denigrated if fan darling Last Vegas – they’ll likely land at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. That leaves Ender’s Game to keep warm the oft-overlooked No. 4 slot. The film may have been groomed to spawn a franchise, but such a large dip in popular interest its second weekend out of the gate doesn’t bode well for executive interest in Ender’s Game 2.

Another movie about the forces of good matching against the embodiment of evil, The Book Thief, will also open, in four locations in New York and LA, tonight. The Nazi-era adaptation of Markus Zusak’s young adult novel of the same name recounts the childhood of Liesel Meminger, the titular literary robber whose love for books sees her through trying social, political and personal conditions. The film is tracking a solid 67% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and with its light though not particularly inventive treatment of the source material will also likely do solid business.

Continuing with their rollout strategies, About Time, 12 Years A Slave and Dallas Buyers Club will all expand to more theatres this weekend. The Richard Curtis rom-com About Time had a disappointing opening last week, earning less than $1.1 million from 175 locations. Universal isn’t expecting much from its sophomore outing: the film is tracking at about $5 million.

On the other hand, 12 Years and Club have proven themselves fierce competitors in both the awards-season race and arthouse market. Steve McQueen’s incredibly well-received slavery drama will open wide in 1,144 theatres, while Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar hopeful will expand to 35 locations.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

'Just when you thought I was dead...'

Harvey Weinstein was back in the media and the MPAA’s bad graces this morning after appearing on "CBS This Morning" to announce the launch of yet another attack on the ratings system. This time, the MPAA managed to incite the very, very public irritation of Weinstein by giving one of his awards-season contenders, Philomena, an audience-restricting R instead of a PG-13 rating. Like that time they tried to give Blue Valentine an NC-17 instead of an R rating (Harvey won that one), or that time they gave The King’s Speech an R instead of a PG-13 rating (Harvey did not win that one), the MPAA has apparently once again acted in a manner that could hurt the success, of the fiscal or Academy Awards variety, of a Weinstein film. A thing not to be borne.

But this particular campaign has gotten off to a remarkably likable start. The hullabaloo managed to transcend a typical Weinstein publicity blitz the moment Judi Dench, in character as James Bond’s late boss M, swiveled to face the camera in a 20-second video spot and pronounced herself resurrected. “Just when you thought I was dead,” M (or PhiloMena) wink-winks, before telling the audience she has an important mission for them. “Are you familiar with M-P-A-A?” she asks at video’s end. Presumably, when the next spot airs tomorrow, we’re to be charged with virtually accosting the MPAA as Weinstein brow-beating stand-ins until the bad guys relent and stop picking on poor old PhiloMena. It’s silly, but also fun, as Weinstein himself acknowledges (“I’m having fun with them”). One would think after 20-odd years – Weinstein launched his first attack on the MPAA back in 1994 when they tried to give Clerks an NC-17 rating (Harvey won that one) – the organization would be a little tired of the Weinsteins’ kind of fun. But the rest of us can enjoy the video clips.

A special M.essage:

Weinstein on "CBS This Morning:"

I do think Weinstein has a point. The difference between one F-word and two F-words in a film that doesn’t otherwise feature unduly adult or mature material seems negligible. I’m less sure how all those Southern church-going families will react to the negative portrayal of the movie’s nuns, but perhaps Philomena’s embodiment of Christian ideals will salve the wound. The ratings appeal is scheduled for next Wednesday, but count on at least another video or two before then.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bidding farewell to Schamus' Focus

For many still reeling from the news of James Schamus’ recent departure from Focus Features, the company’s latest bulletin has the tenor of a protracted funeral knell. Focus Features International will shut its London offices at the end of the year.  Though cause for hand-wringing and sad-blogging among arthouse aficionados and Hollywood holdouts, this most recent development is by no means unexpected, as the company announced only weeks ago it would close its New York headquarters and relocate all operations to LA. The writing was on a wall that, if slowly crumbling, will soon be rebuilt to the specifications of the new CEO, Peter Schlessel, formerly of FilmDistrict. Under Schlessel, Focus will increase the number of films it releases each year and broaden beyond its characteristic emphasis on specialty fare.

If nothing else, time away from the office is only that much more Schamus can spend with frequent collaborator, Ang Lee. The two have produced some of the best indie films of the past 20 years, including the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain.  The rest of Focus’ output wasn’t too shabby, either. Below, we’ve listed some of the best films released by the production/distribution company. Did we miss anything…?

Top  Films Focus Features Produced:
Far From Heaven (2002)
Lost In Translation (2003)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Lust, Caution (2007)
Eastern Promises (2007)
In Bruges (2008)
Milk (2008)
Coraline (2009)
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Somewhere (2010)
Jane Eyre (2011)

Top Films Focus Features Distributed:
The Pianist (2002)
Swimming Pool (2003)
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Brick (2005)
Atonement (2007)
A Serious Man (2009)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

To watch or read? That's the question

I recently happened upon an article written by The Guardian’s new film critic Mark Kermode, whose book Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics discusses bloody bloody critical takedowns of movies. Though it’s only a minor point within the piece, I thought this quote deserved further commentary:

“For me, seeing Forrest Gump as some kind of neocon tract was a perfect example of what happens when film theory gets in the way of film-viewing; when people start reading movies rather than watching them.”

Kermode is critical of those who read too much into the film he enjoyed, who saw Forrest Gump as a “Reaganite wet dream,” who turned it into “some kind of neocon tract.” The question implicit in his response is a good one: How should film critics approach a film? Should they view it like the rest of us do, looking to be entertained or moved and so evaluate it on those terms alone, or should they be unsparingly analytical in their responses? What do we want them to do?

 I had only ever watched, never read, movies for most of my life, if only because “reading” them had never crossed my mind. And then at 19 I decided I didn’t want to spend my summer at home and most certainly did not want to return to the job I had held in high school, working at a boutique toy store that attracted a particular breed of out-of-touch and entitled clientele (nostalgic toys bought for children too young to understand the feeling is an odd and oddly enduring phenomenon.) I enrolled in a summer course on dramatic screenwriting instead. Expecting another creative writing class – readings, workshops, fear and the wary pursuit of that fear – that I assumed would be easy because it was a summer course, I was surprised by my level of engagement. The class was easy: assignments were few and far between, there were only three of us, and the professor preferred to do his job only during designated class hours, rather than grade our work outside of them. But it was also one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Watching Chinatown and Full Metal Jacket with the aid of someone who had “read” them was like studying Wuthering Heights in school – I had always liked them, but now I really liked them because I could see how cleverly they were made. In his article, Kermode references the public’s taste for witty one-liners and pithy takedowns. Such criticisms are appealing because they’re funny, but that’s just another way of saying they’re clever. Cleverness, funny or otherwise, is attractive, and by the end of my movie summer, I felt drawn to films precisely because their cleverness was a kind of revelation.

Reading movies spurred my serious interest in them, although I never let go of my capacity for passive enjoyment: crying when the score swelled, laughing at the pratfall, etc. Before I realized the name Noah Cross was a play on words, recognized the Biblical references, and knew enough about noir to recognize when its tropes were being subverted, I still enjoyed Chinatown for its twisty plot and Jack Nicholson. But then, was my first emotive reaction of a lesser make than my later cerebral appreciation? Or is an intuitive response better for being purer? Does film theory, like the strain of literary criticism that projects ideas nowhere to be found within a text onto that text, obscure or even harm the work at hand? Or does it enrich the viewing experience by revealing layers your limited understanding would have otherwise kept furled?

The head- vs.-heart dilemma is an old point of artistic contention. But I am curious as to what people expect from film critics. I came to take movies seriously by reading them; however, I now seek out reviews that take an intuitive approach. I want to know if I’m going to enjoy a movie, because why else would I shell out $13.50 to see one? Others, clearly, want to be entertained by an unequivocal and funny hatchet job. In such reviews, discussing the entertainment takes a backseat to providing the entertainment. I prefer a reviewer who isn’t so pleased with himself, but feel free to sound off – would you rather your reviewer watch or read a movie?

Monday, November 4, 2013

‘Ender’s’ does decent domestic business, ‘Thor’ nails the competition overseas

Thanks to Gravity, October’s box-office highlights were flush with excitement and the hyperbolic language of success: The film was record-breaking, Oscar-worthy, earth-shattering (more or less). Now that the fervor surrounding Alfonso Cuaron’s hit has cooled - Gravity dipped 35% this weekend, its largest drop in sales to date - box-office numbers have stabilized accordingly. The first weekend in November wasn’t a dud, simply one in which expectations were met without being exceeded. It’s back to business as usual.

At least until Thor: The Dark World opens domestically, that is. The Marvel comic-book flick and sequel to 2011’s Thor earned $109 million in 36 overseas markets.  It had the fourth best international debut this year, and will likely experience little trouble overtaking Ender’s Game when it opens in theatres across the country this weekend. Game proved a stable player, grossing $28 million domestically. That’s certainly a respectable bow, though many pundits are questioning the film’s tenacity. For how long can the sci-fi feature remain No. 1 in the face of the tough, hammer-wielding competition?  Is the scrappy Ender any match for big, blonde and beautiful Thor? The odds don’t seem to be in his favor.

Last Vegas performed as predicted, earning approximately $16.5 million. That’s a nice haul for CBS Films, whose highest grossing film, The Woman in Black, earned only a few million more ($20.9 million) when it debuted last year. Of course, Last Vegas’ opening doesn’t compare with many of its actors’ successes past (on more than one level) but it’s likely the enjoyable comedy will enjoy a nice run before ending up a footnote in its cast’s long list of credits.

Likewise, it doesn’t look as if Free Birds is in danger of becoming a children’s classic. Critics don’t like it, and, according to the film’s opening numbers, audiences are a bit lukewarm. Clocking in at No. 4, the animated feature about a group of turkeys who travel back in time to prevent their ritualistic slaughter from becoming a Thanksgiving tradition, earned $16.2 million. For weeks, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 has been the only kid-friendly feature available. There was certainly an opening for a new smart, fun and inventive cartoon. Unfortunately, Birds doesn’t fit the bill.


This weekend’s domestic box wasn’t all ho-hum, however. Bad Grandpa continued to do great business, earning a little over $20 million. To date, the Jackass film has earned $62 million and is on track to surpass the franchise’s most successful movie, Jackass: Number 2, sometime this week.

The specialty division  also chugged along at a good clip. One Oscar hopeful, 12 Years A Slave,  grossed $4.6 million from 410 locations, while another, Dallas Buyers Club, made $264,000 from nine theatres. Both are set to expand this coming weekend, and will most likely keep spinning their critical praise and positive word-of-mouth into more profits.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Big names to dominate weekend box office

With a host of major releases bowing this weekend, moviegoers of every age, demographic and level of taste should have little trouble finding something to satisfy them. Sci-fi flick Ender’s Game has been generating the greatest amount of buzz as the first installment in a would-be franchise for Summit Entertainment (a company in need of another tentpole, now their Twilight series has faded). The adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s young adult novel has been tracking strong in pre-sales, with reviews just this-side of positive (63% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).  Odds are, Ender’s Game, which is opening in 3,407 theatres tonight, will likely score somewhere in the high $20 million range.

If Game is looking to draw a crowd of teenagers, Free Birds is after their younger brothers and sisters. It’s been all Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 all the time for the past few weeks, so far as kid features are concerned. Lacking any family friendly challengers the animated sequel has been doing solid business, consistently ranking among each weekend’s top five highest-grossing films. Although our critic Michael Sauter thought Birds was one mess of a turkey, parents who’ve already seen Cloudy 2 will most likely welcome the change of pace. Free Birds will debut very widely, in 3,736 locations. Look for earnings as low as $15 million and as high as $20+ million.

With brother in one theatre, and baby sister in another, you’ll most likely find grandpa down the hall in cinema 3 yucking it up at Last Vegas. You couldn’t ask for a better cast – Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, and Robert De Niro – though no one would fault you for wishing writer Dan Fogelman had invested his script with a little more wit or originality. Critics haven’t been falling for the comedy’s tried tropes and gags, but if you don’t mind a little derivativeness, watching the four leads throw self-seriousness to the wind is a hoot. In all likelihood Last Vegas won’t do banner business, but a respectable $14 million would be just that.

About Time will likely rank among the weaker of Friday’s major debuts, even with its director’s legions of faithful – young women capable of reciting every line of his beloved film Love, Actually – in attendance. Richard Curtis’ latest, about a young man with a nifty family gene that allows him to travel back in time, also boasts romance queen Rachel McAdams as the love interest. Between director and leading lady, About Time (175 theatres) is expected to draw a small, devoted crowd that may translate to roughly $2 million in sales.

Last but by no means least (quite the opposite, in fact) specialty release Dallas Buyers Club will open in nine theatres, and 12 Years A Slave will expand to 410 theatres. Each early Oscar contender has received strong reviews and is expected to do very strong art-house business.