Friday, January 31, 2014

New buddy comedy could make things ‘Awkward’ for ‘Ride Along’

Super Bowl weekend is a notoriously slow period at the box office, and expectations for each of the two films opening wide today – That Awkward Moment and Labor Day – are muted.  Both movies target a female audience, with the one following a trio of Manhattan pals as they individually succumb to the women they had sworn off, and the other being an unapologetic and seemingly old-fashioned weepie romance. Distributors are surely figuring women are more likely than their male counterparts to go to the movies this weekend, though it remains to be seen whether either of the aforementioned conceits will prove appealing enough to lure even the most disinterested of female sports fans away from her TV and, really, Sunday’s main attraction: the commercials.

That Awkward Moment
, opening in 2,809 theatres, is poised to do the better business of the two. As of this morning the comedy was tracking around $10-$15 million, which means it could finally displace Ride Along as king of the box office – or, just as plausibly, fall in line behind Ice Cube and Kevin Hart’s likable flick. It’ll be a tight race between the two bro-centric offerings.

With a slightly smaller release platform of 2,584 locations, Labor Day will likely land at the lower end of the fiscal spectrum. The film has failed to impress critics, whose accumulated pans have earned Jason Reitman’s latest offering a poor 32% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Pundits foresee a total weekend haul of around $6 million.

That leaves The Nut Job, Frozen and Lone Survivor to fall somewhere in between That Awkward Moment and Ride Along at the top, and Labor Day at the bottom of the list of the weekend’s highest-grossing films. The Nut Job managed to beat out b.o. darling Frozen last weekend, but Disney is going all-out diva – or rather, encouraging that mindset in its fan base – as of today: The studio is releasing a sing-along version of their animated hit. Considering Frozen’s soundtrack is the first since High School Musical 2 to spend at least three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, we’d call that a pretty savvy move. In which case, look for Lone Survivor to comfortably occupy the weekend box office’s No. 5 spot.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Deadline looms for 35mm

Two recent blog postings take impassioned stands on the film vs. digital debate. Kyle Westphal's excellent roundup 2013 in Review: Whose Film Is It, Anyway? considers the consequences to artists and viewers when film is no longer available. Don't Worry About the End of Film, argues Richard Brody in his New Yorker blog, The Front Row.

Both writers agree that the era of theatrical projection of 35mm features has passed. (It was hard to ignore recent news articles announcing that Paramount has stopped distributing film prints.) But they reach different conclusions about what this means for moviegoers.

Westphal points out that 35mm projection was supposed to continue in art houses, museums, and other niche theaters, but finds that digital has dominated those markets as well. The last New York Film Festival screened mostly digital, the Chicago International Film Festival exclusively digital. Even To Save and Project, the Museum of Modern Art's annual film preservation festival, had to resort to some digital for its 2013 series.

This despite the fact that the actual people who make movies still want to work with and watch film. Of this year's nine Best Picture nominees, four were shot on film: American Hustle, Captain Phillips (on 16mm!), 12 Years a Slave, and The Wolf of Wall Street (both Wolf and Phillips have some digital shots).

Westphal cites a Joel Coen comment that Inside Llewyn Davis might be the last project he and his brother Ethan make on film. (J.J Abrams said something similar about why he used film for Star Trek Into Darkness.) And as I pointed out in my piece on The Grandmaster, Wong Kar Wai would still shoot on film if he could. It took months for the director to see The Grandmaster projected on film.

Digital enthusiasts keep insisting that a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) delivers an as good as or better image than a 35mm print. There's no question that DCP's are cheaper in the long run than film, which degrades a little (or a lot) with each projection. And after years of viewing poor quality commercial prints projected poorly, most customers probably prefer the rock-solid, spliceless, scratchless digital experience.

For Brody, "ultimately, what matters is not film or video but the idea." He points out that artists have manipulated film since its origins, and brings up the dirty secret that's often missing from this debate: just about every feature* is digitized for post-production work, usually with 2K scans. (*I can't think of a recent feature that was edited by hand, but one could exist.) Basically all the movies we see in commercial theaters have already undergone a digital conversion.

I don't think anyone can argue for a return to 35mm distribution and projection. It doesn't make economic sense, and in almost all cases it doesn't make artistic sense. That doesn't mean digital is superior or even preferable to film. It only means that seeing 35mm in a theater will become more and more difficult.

Try this analogy. Few would insist that an e-book reads the same as a hardbound version published on a letterpress with rag paper. Is the digital version cheaper? Does it contain all the text? Is it endlessly clone-able? Sure. But reading a book on a Kindle is not the same experience as holding a book in your hand.

What looks better? A jpg of oil canvas, or the real thing? A digital file, or a platinum print? No matter how much you manipulate pixels to look like painting or still photography or motion picture film, the differences remain obvious. The whole goal of digital movie formats is still to look "just as good as" film.

Lost in the debate is the fate of our film heritage prior to the digital takeover. It turns out that film is an excellent archival medium—digital, not so great. Archivists are battling these issues out right now on the AMIA listserve, but I will point out that there are no industry-wide standards for digital preservation, no long-term case studies, no real idea what the costs will be.

And there is no market formula right now for the thousands of films from the pre-digital age. Who will pay to digitize them? And if they aren't digitized, how long will it be before the machinery required to see them becomes obsolete?

As one AMIA poster put it,

Caches of nitrate film are still being found—we were nitrate would only survive for 50 years, but there it is, 100 years old and older. Much of it can be saved digitally, but some deserves to survive as film as long as we are able to save it. Should Potemkin or Casablanca or The Red Shoes or Paisan or Caligari or [fill in a title] only survive in digital versions?

Tribeca poses interactive challenge

Tribeca Film Festival’s recently announced filmmaker competition, Tribeca Interactive Interlude: A Music Film Challenge, is a call for entries that are something of a cross between music videos, videogames, and cinematic choose-your-own-adventure stories. Seeking to not only simply keep up with evolving technology, but to place itself in the midst of a growing movement that emphasizes collaborative storytelling on a populous scale (a movement that can claim actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with his hitRECord series, and Zach Braff, with his Kickstarter-funded film Wish I Was Here, as famous proponents), Tribeca has partnered with digital platform for this, its latest contest.

Using  a program called Treehouse hosted on the website, participants are tasked with creating “an interactive music film” to one of three songs by either Ellie Goulding (“Dead in the Water”), Aloe Blacc (“Ticking Bomb”) or Damon Albarn (“Heavy Seas of Love”). What is an interactive film? A video that allows the viewer to choose which turn the story will take next. For example, one video on the Interlude website takes place at a crowded party. Our initial guide walks in wearing a pair of headphones, mingles a bit, and then encounters two partygoers. Whom will he pass the headphones to? You choose. The video then continues from the point of view of whichever character you have selected – until he or she encounters two more people, and you have to choose again. And so on.


There are a number of videos on the Interlude website from mega companies such as Disney and Madewell, and you can see the marketing appeal. The Madewell video’s narrative “choices” appear in the form of outfit options, and allow you to spend several minutes styling and dressing a pretty model in Madewell raiment while bouncy music plays in the background. Disney’s short film isn’t an interactive take on a commercial but rather a music video, in which viewers direct the goings on of a ‘50’s style beach party attended by a singing tween star.


Sponsored by the Lincoln Motor Company, Tribeca’s music film challenge begins today and closes on March 27, a little less than a month before the film festival opens. The finalists’ projects will be showcased throughout the event and the winners – three in total, one for each song – will individually receive $10,000.

Many pop-culture or at least music enthusiasts will likely already be well-aware of the interactive video phenomenon. The very first music video for Bob Dylan’s classic song “Like A Rolling Stone” was released this past fall in the form of, yes, an interactive film. Dylan’s very cool concept turns your browser into a TV screen, replete with channel buttons. The song is the only sound and constant, and as you flip through the different channels at will – a cooking network, a history channel, a fashion news segment, a (most ingeniously, if you time it just right) reality show, etc. – the actors all lip-sync Dylan’s words in character. It’s a lot of fun, and has us thinking the organizers over at Tribeca have picked a very cool, and not just trendy, concept to run with.

Here’s a link to the Bob Dylan video and, for all you would-be interactive filmmakers, here’s where you can learn more about Tribeca Interactive Interlude: A Music Film Challenge.

The 2014 Tribeca Film Festival will run Wednesday, April 16th through Sunday, April 27th.

Monday, January 27, 2014

NATO’s trailer guidelines & best previews of all time

It’s a feeling familiar to many moviegoers: You’re stalled in traffic; there are train delays on the subway; you thought you had arrived at the theatre right on time, only to find yourself stuck at the end of a line snaking its way out and away from the building’s entrance. You’re going to be late for your movie, there’s no doubt about it, but happily, your anxiety is checked by the recollection of common cinema practice. Movies never start on time. They always begin 10 minutes later than listed, at least. And why? Because it’s standard form for a host of pre-show previews to play before each feature.  And so you breathe easy, knowing there’s a nice, long buffer of movie trailers between you and the opening scene of your film.

It remains to be seen whether or not the new set of voluntary guidelines released by the National Association of Theatre Owners today will dramatically affect this common 10-minute lag-time, between when a film is listed to begin and when it does begin, but one thing is likely: The trailers themselves will be shorter. NATO has asked that all movie trailers run no longer than two minutes, a full 30 seconds shorter than today’s norm. They’re also asking distributors not to release a trailer more than five months ahead of a film’s premiere. These new guidelines, however, do allow for two exemptions per year, per distributor. They’re scheduled to go into effect next fall.

Does this mean theatre audiences will be treated to many more short trailers before their film begins, or will a movie scheduled for 8PM now in fact start closer to 8:05 instead of 8:10PM? Most importantly for trailer fans, what effect will the time restriction (should distributors choose to adhere to it) have on the caliber of preview itself?

Perhaps it will result in the creation of trailers that skew towards the kind of quality work that makes up today’s list, inspired by NATO’s announcement, of the best movie trailers of all time. It’s true, most of the below previews do not run much longer than two minutes. Other similarities include an ingenious use of music (Jefferson Airplane providing the aural relief at the end of the anxious A Serious Man trailer; the fervid interest The Social Network’s trailer stoked in a capella, and preferably foreign, covers of Radiohead; Arcade Fire reaching the masses via the Where the Wild Things Are preview; and of course, everything auditory about the Pulp Fiction trailer) and, in most instances, a tendency to tease and hint at rather than explain an entire premise. (Remember the Cloverfield phenomenon?)

Admittedly, our list trends towards more recent films, with a certain emphasis on horror and indies, so if you have any suggestions for older works or genres not included, feel free to sound off in the comments below!

The Social Network

Where the Wild Things Are

Pulp Fiction

The Exorcist

Citizen Kane

A Serious Man


The Shining

The Blair Witch Project

Little Children


‘I, Frankenstein,’ takes up the rear far behind ‘Ride Along’

Fantasy/action retread I, Frankenstein suffered through its own version of a horror story this past weekend. The movie failed to crack the weekend’s Top 5, let alone claim the No. 2 or 3 slot as befits a big-budget wide release. Instead, I, Frankenstein bombed with $8.3 million. Even worse than The Legend of Hercules’ opening figure ($8.9 million), and roughly half of last year’s comparable title Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’ debut, Frankenstein’s haul landed the film at No. 6. Expect the DOA would-be franchise to flame out very soon, most likely to less than $20 million.

On the other hand, expect Ride Along to cruise past an overall gross of $100 million by the end of its theatrical run – and potentially towards a sequel. For the second weekend in a row the cop comedy earned the No. 1 spot at the box office. Along raked in $21.2 million, bumping its 10-day cume to $75.4 million.

Another Universal film, Lone Survivor, took second place with $12.6 million. This is the second consecutive weekend the top two spots have been occupied by movies distributed by Universal  – the last time a distributor achieved this feat was back in 1994, when Warner Bros. titles On Deadly Ground and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective both ruled the box office. Having earned $93.6 million so far, Lone Survivor will likely out-gross Zero Dark Thirty, which earned $95.7 million, by the end of the week.

The Nut Job continues to hold well, having accumulated $12.3 million and thus securing the weekend’s No. 3 position.  That figure marks a drop of 37% from last week, and has boosted the film’s domestic earnings to $40.3 million in total.

Continuing to afford pundits and journalists ample opportunity to play off the title of its hit song, “Let It Go,” Frozen refuses to do just that when it comes to its hold on the box office. The animated success moved up a bit this weekend to the No. 4 position, enjoying $9.04 million in sales. It is now officially the highest-grossing original animated movie of all time. Yet another boost may be imminent, as Disney plans to release a sing-along version nationwide this coming weekend.

This same nation has more or less opted to take a pass on the new Jack Ryan reboot. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit rounds out the weekend’s Top 5 with its $8.8 million gross. The movie’s overall cume to date is less than that which the last Jack Ryan attempt, The Sum of All Fears, managed to earn at this same point in its theatrical run a decade ago. Shadow Recruit now stands at $30.2 million.

When it comes to specialty features and, as is the case with the following films, awards contenders, Dallas Buyers Club enjoyed the benefits of a wider release (earning $2.05 million from $1,110 locations) while Nebraska took in $1.44 million from 968 theatres. Right now Nebraska has earned the least of amount of money of the nine Best Picture Academy Awards nominees, while as of this morning Club's  total domestic gross clocked in at $20.4 million.

Friday, January 24, 2014

2014 Sundance Wrap Up: Land Ho!, Obvious Child and Other Favorites

1604784_10151931032056378_548146298_nIn Sundance, or pretty much in any film festival where movies are rapidly and uninterruptedly consumed without a moment to breathe, there is a constant feeling of guilt or worry that you are at the wrong place, seeing the wrong film or doing the wrong thing. Should you socialize a bit more and finally attend one of the parties you’ve RSVP’ed to? Or take an afternoon nap so you can last through that midnight flick? What about the movie you’ll miss during that afternoon nap? A piece I read on Indiewire (written by Sydney Levine) during last year’s Sundance explained this really well: “The problem with the top festivals is that no matter what you are doing, you feel you should be doing something else.” Indeed, this is exactly how one races through the first few days of Sundance, as no one really knows a great deal about most of the films until some kind of buzz starts to build on the ground. And that usually happens at the top of the week in Sundance, so you can reshuffle your schedule and make wiser decisions. From Monday through Thursday am (when I was scheduled to be picked up by an airport shuttle for my return trip), I managed to fit in 14 movies (bringing my total Sundance viewings to 29), and luckily, only a pair of them ended up being disappointments (which is something to celebrate). Among the 14, I need to especially mention the sleeper hit Land Ho! (co-directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz), that the buzz coming out of Sundance (which is now heading into its final weekend with a total tally of fourteen acquisitions) appears to be zeroing in on.

13929-3Screened under the festival’s NEXT section, Land Ho! stars Paul Eenhoorn (who was in last year’s NEXT Audience Award winner, Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner), and the newcomer Earl Lynn Nelson in a road trip/bromance story in the tradition of Sideways (Alexander Payne), and even The Trip (Michael Winterbottom). Based on the good word I’ve heard, and following its acquisition by Sony Pictures Classics, I decided to check out Land Ho! on Wednesday night at the Egyptian, with the attendance of the cast (you’ll love them, I promise), directors and the producing team. The film played incredibly well, and I can already see this little flick becoming an instant mainstream hit once in distribution later this year. It is especially noteworthy that Land Ho! is not only accessible by a wide range of audience with its light-hearted humor, but it also caters well to an audience over a certain age, that continues to be underserved in theaters year after year. The humor of Land Ho! is slightly on the ‘crass’ side, but charmingly and delightfully so. As a matter of fact, the only worry I have regarding the future of Land Ho! is its potential to be misunderstood by some and its style of humor generating undeserved backlash. With this minor note in mind, I found Land Ho! to be remarkably warm, insightful regarding the psychology of aging, and inside and out loveable.

000037.2771.ObviousChild_still3_JennySlate__byChrisTeague_2013-11-26_03-01-51PM-1280x960Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child (already scooped up by A24) ended up being another festival hit and a personal favorite. It is a witty, clever and a loudly feminist romantic comedy (I know, ‘feminist’ and ‘romantic comedy’ are two phrases that usually don’t belong together, but this is an exception), and a refreshing antidote to movies like Knocked Up in its approach to abortion as a desirable choice made by an independent woman. Obvious Child is Robespierre’s feature debut, and she has certainly launched herself as a female voice to watch during this year’s festival. I don’t want to use the ‘O’ word this early on, however this is the kind of film I would love to see scoring a screenplay nomination at the Oscars next year. Unlikely (given the agenda and subject matter), but a girl can dream.

13891-1Apart from these two personal favorites, here are a few highs and lows of my final few days of Sundance. A movie that most loved but I was mixed on was David Zellner’s Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, starring Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi as the titular character who is obsessed with Coen Brothers’ Fargo, and believes that the suitcase full of money buried under snow is real and waiting to be discovered. The film is loosely based on the heartbreaking true story of a depressed and lonely Japanese office worker who traveled to Minnesota in 2001 to find the buried money (as she believed Fargo to be a true story), and froze to death near Detroit Lakes. I say it’s ‘loosely’ based on a true story, as there seem to be conflicting accounts of her real motivations to come to Minnesota. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a harrowing film; yet, not one that is entirely made with the kind of care the story and its clearly vulnerable character deserves. Knowing that Kumiko’s journey is one ridiculous pursuit, the audience often responded to her poor and delusional decisions with uncomfortable laughs at the expense of the character. In a way, the kind of dark humor that works wonders for Fargo works against Zellner’s film here. What we were supposed to find humorous simply upset me, knowing how it all really ended.

1390323029_anne-hathaway-song-one-lgKate Barker-Froyland’s Song One was apparently a disappointment for most, but it was a pure delight for me. The film stars (and is pretty much made for) Anne Hathaway, playing a young anthropologist (Franny), whose research in Morocco gets interrupted with the news of her brother Henry’s (Ben Rosenfield) accident that puts him in a coma. Having been on unspeaking terms with her aspiring musician brother for the last few months, Franny tries to get to know him through his music, desperately tries to wake him up through sounds she records and plays, and starts a relationship with Henry’s favorite musician James Forester (Johnny Flynn) in the meantime. With a stellar soundtrack by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice, Song One is a delicate film that romances a certain Brooklyn music scene through an incredible chemistry between the leads. A coincidence during a party I attended (for The One I Love) late Tuesday night (after I walked out of Gareth Evans’ pointless sequel Raid 2 when someone in the audience had a mild medical emergency, temporarily bringing the lights on at the Eccles) introduced me to Anne Hathaway, who then kindly introduced me to the film’s director Kate Barker-Froyland. “I had the idea of these three characters several years ago,” Froyland said to me, when I asked how she conceived the project. “I pictured them living in three completely different worlds, and imagined music as the arc of the story that brought them together. I worked with our composers for over a year, and we talked about Henry’s back story and how the music would fit in the big picture a lot. It was a great process,” she added.

-1Joe Swanberg’s outlined-yet-unscripted family comedy Happy Christmas is one of those rare movies that everyone seems to agree on. Starring Melanie Lynskey (rocking her beautiful New Zealand accent), Anna Kendrick (who’s in two Sundance films this year, Life After Beth being the second one), Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham and Joe Swanberg's incredible baby boy Jude (who pretty much steals the whole film and became the hottest celebrity of Sundance overnight), Happy Christmas understands complex dynamics between family members, fairly assesses the tough life-balance choices new mothers have to make, is sympathetic toward struggling 20-somethings and never lets improvisation come at the expense of creative control.

White-bird-in-a-blizzard08Other impressive films I was able to check out in my final couple of days were Charlie McDowell’s eerie comedy The One I Love starring an excellent Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss (also in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip this year), Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip To Italy, Jim Mickle’s thriller Cold In July as a confident follow-up to his horror flick We Are What We Are (one of last year’s ‘Park City At Midnight’ movies), Jeff Baena’s Life After Beth and Gregg Araki’s suspenseful White Bird In A Blizzard, starring a memorable Shailene Woodley as a teenager who copes with the mysterious disappearance of her mother (Eva Green) and owns up to her impulses and desires in the meantime. It’s safe to say that all these titles played to mixed reactions in multiple screenings, however there is an undeniable amount to admire in each.

On my last day of Sundance, I attended the Press & Filmmaker reception on Main Street, and had the good fortune of briefly talking to director Steve James, who was very touched by and grateful for Life Itself’s warm reception at Sundance. Then I caught up with Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez about his festival favorites as well as his thoughts on Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Part 1 (which ended up being this year’s secret screening title that I had briefly speculated about in my previous dispatch). I was unfortunately shut out of the secret screening due to some poor strategy on my end, however what I heard from Eugene - that many felt unfulfilled after the screening as it was Part 1 only (technically half of a movie you wanted to see the rest of immediately)-made me feel a bit better. That, and also, knowing one can’t possibly see it all.

While I don’t think this year’s Sundance had a breakout hit on par with Little Miss Sunshine or Beasts of the Southern Wild; I found it to be a very strong year overall, with titles that moved and challenged audiences. On a personal note, I was especially pleased with the diversity and breadth of strong female characters I have seen on screen (despite the earlier complaints by many that there weren’t as many female directors this year, as compared to the last). That alone makes me look forward to the rest of 2014.

Before I end my Sundance coverage, here’s an updated list of Sundance titles that have been acquired to date. I wonder if these acquisitions satisfy Manohla Dargis' 'call for restraint', which she asked of the distributors at the start of Sundance in her New York Times piece.

CNN Films and Lionsgate

Dinosaur 13

Pivot and Univision (TV Rights)

Cesar’s Last Fast

Magnolia and Paramount

Happy Christmas

Solution Entertainment (International)

Infinitely Polar Bear

Sony Pictures Classics


Land Ho!



Obvious Child

Focus Features

Wish I Was Here

Fox Searchlight

I Origins


IFC Films

God’s Pocket


The One I Love

Well Go USA

Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead

Sundance domestic acquisitions so far

Along with the strong current of film reviews, filmmaker interviews and trend stories, dispatches from the Sundance Film Festival these past eight days have included a steady stream of business news: Acquisitions. Which distributors have nabbed which films is a matter of interest to both industry players and fans hoping the movies they’ve read about and, in the case of Kickstarter projects, contributed to, enjoy an accessible theatrical life outside the festival circuit. Which of the event’s titles will make their way to an indie or art-house theatre near you?

Here is the list of Sundance films that have nabbed domestic distributors so far:

A24: A Most Violent Year
J.C. Chandor’s follow-up to his lauded (if Academy-snubbed) All is Lost, which stars Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford, A Most Violent Year continues the director’s streak of working with A-List actors, this time with Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain. The film is set in 1981, statistically the most violent year on record for New York City, and follows an immigrant and his family as they try to turn the American dream into their material reality. Judging by the movie’s title, we’re guessing most, if not all, of their illusions will be lost by film’s end.

Obvious Child
Rom-com with an edge: Girl meets boy. Girl hooks up with boy. Girl becomes pregnant. Girl gets an abortion. Then Girl falls in love with boy. Not your traditional romantic arc – nor your traditional outcome for the “Oh, no, I’m pregnant!” scenario – but one which resonated with Sundance audiences nonetheless. Star and real-life comedian Jenny Slate’s performance as the funny, warm Girl in question is reportedly one of the festival’s breakout turns.

Keira Knightley as 28-year-old Megan is becoming increasingly bored with her job, the same friends she’s had since high school, and her boyfriend. When the latter proposes, Megan bolts, meeting and befriending 16-year-old Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) at whose home she impulsively decides to hide out for a while. Will the two help each other grow up? A great script by first-time screenwriter Andrea Siegel and performances by the two leading women helped Laggies score a relatively early acquisition deal.

Focus Features: Wish I Was Here
One of the festival’s most anticipated films, for a few reasons: Wish I Was Here marks Zach Braff’s return to auteur form, as writer, director and star, following the great Sundance success of his Garden State back in 2004. Here’s fundraising efforts have also earned a good deal  of press, as Braff, who’s been vocal about wanting to make movies that speak to and about his generation, chose to crowd-fund and secure backing through trendy Kickstarter. Reviews have been mixed, but Wish I Was Here does already have a loyal fan base in the Garden State contingent – not to mention in the many supporters who have a vested financial interest in the movie.

Sony Pictures Classics: Land Ho!
Two retirees embark on a road trip to Iceland, where they try to recapture their youth amid the party atmosphere of Reykjavik bars and nightclubs.

Adapted from Damien Chazelle’s short film of the same name, which won the Jury Award for Fiction at last year’s festival, and picking up roughly where that work left off, Whiplash has garnered some of the best reviews of the 2014 showcase. A young drummer must contend with a particularly demanding (to put it mildly) music teacher in this film whose intense drumming sequences aren’t to be missed.

IFC Films: God’s Pocket
Though John Slattery has helmed several episodes of “Mad Men,” God’s Pocket marks the actor’s first time directing a feature film. Fellow “Men” player Christina Hendricks stars, as does Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, and John Turturro. A suspicious accident at a construction site in a blue-collar town has fatal consequences.

Lionsgate/Roadside: The Skeleton Twins
Funny people Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader take a turn for the dramatic in this dramedy about estranged twins whose independent near-death experiences on the same day bring them together.

Fox Searchlight: Calvary
Any film that puts Brendan Gleeson front-and-center is all right with us – and, apparently, with the folks at Fox Searchlight. Gleeson is a kindhearted priest who, while attending to his fragile adult daughter and administering to the moral needs of his parish, senses the interference of sinister forces.

I Origins
A molecular biologist’s (Michael Pitt) study of the human eye has unforeseen and resounding implications. Such a vague tagline points to a humdinger of a cerebral experience.

ICM Partners: Infinitely Polar Bear
Infinitely Polar Bear is that rare breed of buzzy film that manages to secure distribution before the festival even opens. ICM Partners scooped up Bear the day before Sundance began, as did The Solution Entertainment Group, which will handle the film’s international rights. Mark Ruffalo stars as a bipolar father of two who is forced to look after his children on his own after his wife leaves to pursue her MBA.

Magnolia & Paramount: Happy Christmas
The Lena Dunham Movie does not in fact revolve around Lena Dunham, but rather about Anna Kendrick, who plays Dunham’s friend.  The confusion is understandable, however, as Kendrick also happens to play the latest cinematic variation on the arrested-adolescent character Dunham has made so popular on her HBO series “Girls.” Kendrick is an “irresponsible twentysomething” who moves in with her older brother (Joe Swanberg, who also wrote and directed), his novelist wife (Melanie Lynskey) and their toddler son. Kendrick’s wild ways both jeopardize her relationship with her brother and help enliven the increasingly domestic world of her sister-in-law.

CNN Films & Lionsgate: Dinosaur 13
Paleontologist Peter Larson may have helped uncover the nearly intact fossilized skeleton of a 65-million-year-old TRex he and his partners subsequently christened “Sue,” but that’s only the beginning of the excitement in Dinosaur 13. The documentary follows Larson as he fights for the rights to Sue’s remains, with fellow paleontologists, museums, and Native American tribes all attempting to claim the fossil for themselves.

Pivot and Univision: Cesar’s Last Fast
As the title suggests, Fast chronicles Cesar Chavez’s last act of peaceful protest, a 36-day hunger strike Chavez hoped would draw attention to the plight of farm workers harmfully effected by the use of pesticides. The doc features contemporary footage of the iconic leader enduring his water-only diet.

Well Go USA: Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead
The sequel to 2009’s Nazi zombie horror flick, Dead Snow. What more can we say – or rather, do you need?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

‘Ride Along’ to run over ‘I, Frankenstein’

Last weekend’s top earner, Ride Along, is once again expected to finish first in this coming weekend’s box-office race. I, Frankenstein is the only new major release bowing today, accompanied by expectations that are very, very low. As of this morning the film had a 0% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with most critics panning the incredibly loose adaptation of the Mary Shelley story for its bland premise and script. Frankenstein’s marketing has been trying to draw connections between the Aaron Eckhart vehicle and the popular Kate Beckinsale series Underworld, a franchise whose four films have all opened to over $20 million. But the comparison does not work in Frankenstein’s favor – savvy fans will likely call the movie’s blend of action and fantasy “rehashed” as opposed to “re-enlivened.” I, Frankenstein is currently tracking in the $10 million range (though some pundits are predicting returns as high as $15 million), whereas Ride Along is in a position to rake in another $20 million.

With a much smaller release (384 theatres to I, Frankenstein’s 2,753), the Vanessa Hudgens movie Gimme Shelter also opens today, via Roadside Attractions. Another film that has failed to find favor with critics (at least with those who diligently post their reviews to Rotten Tomatoes), Shelter, like Frankenstein, has been roundly panned. Although Hudgens does have her fan base, her younger supporters will not, in all likelihood, be turning out in droves for a teenage-pregnancy feature. Gimme Shelter is poised to rake in less than $1 million.

Beginning today, Oscar enthusiasts in more remote regions of the country will have their chance to view two more awards contenders: Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club are both expanding. The former will screen in 986 locations, while Club, whose lead actor, Matthew McConaughey, is nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award, will play in 1,110 theatres.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

‘Ride Along’ finishes first

Exceeding what were already high expectations, Ride Along not only earned the No. 1 spot at the box office this past weekend, but managed to set a new January record. The comedy grossed $41.6 million over the three-day holiday, or $48.1 million for Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday in total. The film’s weekend opening bests that of previous January record-holder Cloverfield, which bowed to $40.1 million in 2008. With a strong “A” CinemaScore rating, Ride Along will likely hold well over the coming weeks. An ultimate return of over $100 million isn’t out of the question.

Well-regarded Lone Survivor was the weekend’s No. 2 earner, easing just 42% to rake in $22.1 million. As of this morning, the war drama’s domestic cume stands at a great $77.2 million.

“Great” could also describe The Nut Job’s opening weekend performance. The animated comedy feature grossed a stronger-than-expected $19.4 million for the three days. While that figure is roughly on track with those predictions made on Friday (pundits did say the film would open to less than $20 million) the real surprise lay in The Nut Job’s ability to beat its direct family-friendly competition. Frozen is still doing banner business – especially when you consider the film has been screening for eight weeks now – but the musical failed to out-earn upstart Job. Still, with its $11.9 million haul, a drop-off of only 20% from the previous week, Frozen yet enjoyed a fiscally friendly weekend.

take places it at No. 5, with the weekend’s No. 4 slot going to the rather disappointing Jack Ryan reboot, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. The fourth attempt at adapting the Tom Clancy-penned series, Recruit earned $15.4 million. Along with its soft opening, the film’s troubles were compounded by its older-skewing audience. Eighty-five percent of Jack Ryan viewers were over the age of 25, meaning the filmmakers’ decision to cast young, 33-year-old Chris Pine in the lead role, an attempt to lure a young fan base – one that would hopefully grow with the series – failed to pay off. The franchise’s future remains murky, though one can assume executives aren’t chomping at the bit to finance a sequel.

However, those behind the Jack Ryan production can rest easy knowing they were not involved in Devil’s Due, the weekend’s bomb. The horror flick earned $8.4 million, making it the seventh film from distributor 20th Century Fox to open below $15 million, an unenviable streak that extends back to Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.

American Hustle
, on the other hand, continues its hot streak. The film saw an uptick of 19% from last weekend with its $9.9. million gross, which places it at the top of the pack, at least in terms of earning potential, of this year’s Oscar nominees. Other awards contenders August: Osage County and The Wolf of Wall Street earned $7.4 and $7.1 million, respectively, with the latter crossing the $90 million mark on Monday.

Gravity earned $1.87 from its first weekend in re-release. 12 Years a Slave benefitted as well from a second run: The harrowing Steve McQueen drama has now grossed over $40 million.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sundance Weekend Recap: Life Itself, Boyhood and the Current Buzz

Mark_ruffalo_infinitely_polar_bear_a_lIt has been a weekend marked by cheers, tears and standing ovations here in Park City. For those of us on the ground, it is quite challenging to predict what will be the it film that will not only be celebrated here, but also spark interesting conversations in the coming year and embed itself into the film culture with hopes of longevity. While we can’t predict it, we can certainly take cues from the word on the street and on Twitter. Based on my observations and things I hear from friends and fellow press in ticket lines and long shuttle rides (getting stuck in traffic has its advantages sometimes), here’s a recap of what’s leading the pack in Sundance after its first weekend. Among the US Dramatic competition titles, three films seem to have either won the audiences over so far (and critics for the most part with some exceptions as usual) or stirred up enough conversation to remain top of mind. The first one is the opening night film -Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash- which I talked about in my previous dispatch (with mixed personal reactions). The second one is Maya Forbes’ Infinitely Polar Bear, that I had a chance to catch during a press screening after the positive word following its first public screening. Starring Mark Ruffalo (as Cameron) who portrays a bipolar father of two in the late 70s and Zoe Saldana as his ex-wife Maggie, who tries to get the family back on its feet while Cameron takes care of their precocious and spirited kids, Infinitely Polar Bear was received exceptionally well, earning a long standing ovation and loud cheers from the audience. Across the festival’s various segments, there seems to be an abundance of titles this year that touch upon stories of resilient children and struggling parents (Kat Candler’s Hellion, Lynn Shelton’s Laggies, Jeff Preiss’ Low Down, and Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, to name a few), and Infinitely Polar Bear surely fits into this thematic pack. I can’t say the film has completely won me over, yet I have to admit that it has the kind of undeniable charm that ‘Audience Award’ winners at Sundance are made of.

Dear-white-peopleThe last title from the US Dramatic competition that is attracting love from critics as well as loud reactions from the audiences (I hear many were challenged by the film), is Justin Simien’s Dear White People, which is said to explore “racial identity in post-racial America” with a tongue-in-cheek manner. I haven’t seen the film, and based on my schedule and departure date, I don’t think I will be able to fit it in, but it’s worth noting that Dear White People has been a divisive and often talked about title here in Sundance, hinting that it would have a life of its own outside the festival dates.

13922-1In the US Documentary Competition segment, Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s The Case Against 8 has generated a positive consensus. My Twitter feed on Saturday (when the film had its first screening) confirms that there was a spontaneous applause from the audience towards the end of the film, who later on awarded it with a standing ovation mixed with tears and cheers. There are still a number of competition titles within the documentary segment which remain to be seen, however I won’t be surprised if The Case Against 8 –which spans over 5 years, providing a detailed look at the case to overturn California’s ban on same sex marriage- ends up being the winning film here.

LithgowSo, what have I been up to during the weekend? On Saturday, I split my time between four films. Eskil Vogt’s Blind, which is competing in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, is so far one of my favorite films of Sundance 2014. Vogt might be a first time director, yet he comes with impressive screenplay credits, being in the writing team of two stellar Joachim Trier films, Reprise and Oslo August 31. Blind tells a maze-like story, traveling inside a blind writer’s mind, making the viewer often question what’s real vs. what’s a product of her imagination. Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger was my next stop, and despite the juicy material, I found it a bit overlong and often overtly bombastic (in the style of Salinger, in a way). Then, I was lucky to see another festival favorite for me – Ira Sachs’ elegant celebration of intimacy Love Is Strange, starring Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as a couple entering a challenging chapter in their lives, after one loses his job. Set mostly inside New York City apartments, the film brings to mind Ozu’s Tokyo Story in a way, with themes around sacrifice, privacy, love and family. My last stop on Saturday was Infinitely Polar Bear, before I headed to Main Street to catch up with friends.

13883-1Sunday was perhaps the most memorable day of the festival for me although the first two titles I caught ended up being disappointments. After Mike Cahill’s fairly entertaining but overtly self-indulgent sci-fi I Origins (starring Michael Pitt and Brit Marling), and Jeff Preiss’ dreadful competition title Low Down (which unfortunately didn’t work on any level, despite a stellar cast with John Hawkes, Elle Fanning and Glenn Close), I caught the premiere of Life Itself, Steve James’ moving documentary on the late, legendary Roger Ebert. As expected, it was a beautiful and emotional screening (rightfully earning its standing ovation), with the attendance of not only director James, but Roger Ebert’s wife Chaz Ebert, and Gene Siskel’s wife Marlene Iglitzen. Director Steve James is mostly known for his documentary Hoop Dreams, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Editing (also being screened in Sundance this year), and which Siskel & Ebert famously championed by giving it a two thumbs up exactly 20 years ago. Furthermore, Ebert named it the best film of the decade, putting both James and his film on a mainstream map. After a very heartfelt introduction during which director James couldn’t hide his tears, Life Itself profiled the life of an American treasure on screen with exceptional honesty and poignancy, covering Ebert’s early career, his alcoholism & recovery, the Siskel & Ebert rivalry, his marriage/family life and his late years where he made his blog and social media presence his voice. You could sense the feeling that most lives in the theater were touched by Ebert’s love for film and his ability to connect with everyone through the empathy he often credited the power of cinema for. The Q&A also housed a colorful moment that briefly brought the Sikel & Ebert rivalry into play in the most humorous sense. Referencing a moment in the film, Chaz Ebert said to Marlene Iglitzen: "Gene wasn't more elegant than Roger", to which she quickly responded "It's your night, Chaz." It’s pretty safe to say that Life Itself is so far my favorite film in the festival.

BN-BD974_boyhoo_ER_20140120100459Following Life Itself, I made a quick stop at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s party, and later on attended the premiere of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood at the Eccles. A late entry into the Sundance program, Boyhood is Linklater’s 12 years worth of labor of love and has been produced by IFC Films in its entirety, starting all the way back in 2002. Starring Ethan Hawke (Mason Sr.) and Patricia Arquette (Olivia) as divorced parents of two; and Ellar Coltrane (Mason) and the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater (Samantha) as their children, Boyhood follows the family members’ everyday life starting from the childhood years of the children through the early college days of Mason, who is the film’s primary focus as the title suggests. With its nearly 3-hr running time, Boyhood is epic in its scope and instantly captivating as it envelops a little of all of us while the ordinary struggles and triumphs of Mason (and his family) patiently unfold, alongside a decade full of cultural references around art, music, and technology. It is not a perfect film, but it is a modern day American masterpiece which has never been made before. This is a film that requires revisits in order for one to fully appreciate all its details and craftsmanship.

It will be interesting to watch what the next few days will bring, other than the surprise screenings scheduled at the Egyptian tomorrow (which some predict to be Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel or Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, even though both titles are slated for Berlin).  While we wait to find out, here is a recap of what has been acquired to date, so you can start looking forward to seeing them.

CNN Films and Lionsgate

Dinosaur 13

Pivot and Univision (TV Rights)

Cesar’s Last Fast

Magnolia and Paramount

Happy Christmas

Solution Entertainment (International)

Infinitely Polar Bear

Sony Classics (US), Sony Pictures Worldwide (International)




Obvious Child

Focus Features

Wish I Was Here


Friday, January 17, 2014

2014 Sundance Film Festival: Opening Night, and looking ahead to the week...

Sundance_press_conference_a_lCelebrating its 30th year anniversary, the 2014 edition of the Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday afternoon in Park City for a 10-day celebration of independent film. It was a rather unique start to the festival this year, as the opening day press conference (which I wasn’t able to attend due to conflicting travel arrangements) took place shortly after the Oscar Nominations announcement. Now in any year, this wouldn’t normally be a big deal (except for journalists covering both grounds, of course), however this year Robert Redford was a major contender in the Best Actor category with J.C Chandor’s All Is Lost, and from what I hear, his snub (and a consequent question from a journalist regarding his snub) temporarily stole the thunder away from the real reason everyone was gathered in the Egyptian Theater that afternoon. As reported by various outlets (and as it can be watched here in the press conference video), Redford mentioned that he wasn’t upset, and said he is very proud of the truly independent film he’s made with JC Chandor, as it allowed him to go back to his roots as an actor. “I don’t want that to get in the way of why we’re here,” he said. “Let me just speak frankly about how I feel about it. Hollywood is what it is, it’s a business and so when these films go to be voted on, usually they’re heavily dependent on campaigns. In our case, I think we suffered from little to no distribution. And so as a result, our distributors – I don’t know why -- they didn’t want to spend the money, they were afraid, they were just incapable, I don’t know. I’m not disturbed by it, I’m not upset by it because, like I said, it’s a business.”

WhiplashIt looked like all was water under bridge when Redford showed up to the screening of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash later that evening to officially kick off the festival and received a thunderous response from the audience. He jokingly said he wanted to come on the stage in a giant cake and jump out of it to celebrate the festival’s 30th landmark year but that the idea wasn’t very well received by his colleagues. After the screening, the audience granted an even grander response to the film itself. Whiplash was some way to kick off the festival. I was rather impressed by the craftsmanship of the film, and I think Damien Chazelle (who was nominated for ‘Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You’ with Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench at 2009 Gotham Awards) is a remarkable new talent to watch, but I didn’t necessarily share the collective enthusiasm for the film as some of its themes and lessons were confusing and questionable on my end. The film also shifted gears often tonally, and while I welcomed the twists and turns for a while, I got to a point where I started to doubt whether the film exactly knew what it wanted to be. Telling a rather traditional-looking story of a tough master/ambitious apprentice in a musical setting, Whiplash follows a young jazz drummer who attends one of the most prestigious music schools in New York and crosses paths with a teacher who’s known for his abrasive methods. The film is incredibly intense –at times, plays like a thriller- and features some amazing jazz drumming by the multi-talented Miles Teller of The Spectacular Now (he apparently did all drumming himself). J. K. Simmons’ performance as the teacher is also pitch perfect, yet the film suffers a bit from frequent tonal shifts and ultimately, taking itself a bit too seriously, as the grand closing number shows. The film’s international distribution rights have been grabbed by Sony already.

13892-1The second opening night film I was able to fit in was Todd Miller’s meticulous documentary Dinosaur 13. It tells a rather fascinating story of a group of paleontologists discovering the fossils of a T-Rex in late 90s, in Dakota’s fossil-rich Badlands (the most complete T-Rex skeleton discovery in history), and later on facing a series of logistical and legal obstacles that turns a historic event into a nightmare for all involved (which even costs them their freedom). The documentary is passionately put together by the filmmaker and primarily features a number of talking heads interviews. Although it reads like an Indiana Jones-type story on paper, the running time puts a dent into the film, making a remarkable story the subject of a semi-engaging film. Dinosaur 13 is also already sold, with distribution rights going to Lionsgate and CNN. It is an important film that needs to be seen; I just wish the theatrical cut gets tightened up and potentially shortened.

Locke_still_72dpiFriday was quite a busy day for my schedule, with five films spread around town. One note to make here is that the first weekend of Sundance –as fun and high energy as it is- can be a little nightmarish if your planned screenings are spread across various different venues and rely on shuttles running on time. As it is the festival’s busiest time, you need to give yourself plenty of time, plan for getting stuck in traffic and you don’t want to learn your lesson the hard way (e.g. I almost didn’t get into a screening earlier today even though I was holding a ticket, because I was a few minutes late). In any case, I started my day with Steven Knight’s superbly executed and visually stunning one-man drama Locke, which played at Venice and London Film Festivals in late 2013. Locke basically forms a storyline through a series of phone calls Ivan Locke (a metaphorically named character, played with exceptional precision and control by Tom Hardy) has to take from his car, while he is driving from Birmingham to London for a reason we later on find out (the story reveals itself little by little). During the drive, he needs to deal with business (he is a successful businessman), with family drama, personal issues and a lot more. Ivan Locke is the kind of role actors dream of I suspect, and Tom Hardy’s performance is noteworthy. Locke will be distributed in the US by A24 films this coming April. I continued my day with Michael Rossato-Bennett’s compassionate documentary Alive Inside, which explores how music connects Alzheimer patients with their former selves and asks vital questions around the broken healthcare system along the way.

628x471The rest of Friday revealed some of the festival’s big guns, three of which I was able to see. Kat Candler’s Hellion –starring Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and an impressive ensemble of child actors- is a heartbreaking drama of a struggling single father and his unruly yet misunderstood young son (played by the first-timer Josh Wiggins in a potentially career launching performance) who is a motocross enthusiast. Hellion is the kind of movie that screams tragedy from its early moments; yes, it’s not a story you haven’t been told before, but in Candler’s caring hands, the film works and feels refreshing. Plus, the post-screening Q&A was quite a colorful one (you can only imagine the number of Aaron Paul fans in attendance).

Laggies-screencap-1024x576My second to last film was Lynn Shelton’s warm and insightful Laggies, starring Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell and Kaitlyn Dever (of Short Term 12). This film was a no brainer for me to see, as I have deeply connected with all of Lynn Shelton’s previous work. Funny enough, Laggies took some time for me to take shape –I wasn’t even sure if my response was going to be positive during the first 20 minutes. But then the film –competently written by Andrea Seigel- took some surprising turns (which I came to expect from Lynn Shelton’s movies) and turned into a late coming-of-age tale of a 20-something misfit. Don’t be fooled by its conventional premise – Laggies was a complete delight to experience.

13884-1Lenny Abrahamson’s truly original and a bit hard-to-explain Frank was the perfect note to end the day on. I am not sure how to put some proper words to package this uncontainable little movie. The story is of a musician who one day finds himself as the member of an avant-garde band, and records his experience of living and practicing with them (in total isolation) through social media. Have I mentioned the lead of the band –the title character played by Michael Fassbender- wears a mask that he never takes off? Frank is weird, goofy, unique and very funny. It’s an artifact that will mean different things to different people. It will surely have its haters; but the ones who love it will do so with great passion. One aspect of the film that I can see getting lost in the chatter of disagreements is its tenderness. Let it be known that Frank is a film with beautiful humanity and Michael Fassbender is unforgettable during the film’s final moments. I hope this beautiful work lands on a major distribution deal very soon.

I will be here at Sundance until Thursday, and the next few days won’t be any less busy. A couple of the hot tickets will be Life Itself (the Roger Ebert documentary directed by Steven James), and Richard Linklater’s long-awaited Boyhood. Happy to report I was able to secure both.

‘Ride Along’ to pull up ahead of ‘Jack Ryan’

Buddy cop comedy Ride Along, starring Ice Cube and comedian Kevin Hart, whose documentary Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain was one of the most successful docs of 2013, is poised to cut in front of the other guys and finish first this weekend. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit will likely be Ride’s fiercest competitor, although the spy reboot isn’t expected to put up much of a fight.

Ride Along follows a seasoned cop who tries to scare away his sister’s boyfriend by taking the wannabe policeman on a faux ride-along – which soon turns very and hilariously real. Pundits believe the film’s dual plots involving a romantic relationship and a budding bromance should appeal to audiences of both genders and help the film score big at the box-office. Expectations are hovering about $30 million for the long weekend. Interestingly, if Ride Along does earn the most money, this will be the third consecutive year a Universal film has come out on top over the MLK holiday.

Chris Pine is now the fourth actor to tackle the popular Tom Clancy character Jack Ryan. Alec Baldwin played him once and Harrison Ford played him twice in the ‘90s, while Ben Affleck made the most recent attempt to establish a Jack Ryan franchise with 2002’s The Sum of All Fears. Is Chris Pine finally the guy to make a Bourne-like success of Ryan? Unclear. The film has gotten mixed though not terrible reviews, with many critics adopting an ambivalent attitude: Competent enough, but we’ve seen it before. Shadow Recruit opens in 3,387 theatres to Ride Along’s 2,662, but even with a potentially larger audience base, the movie is only expected to gross somewhere in the high-teens.

2013 saw a number of high returns for horror films, and Devil’s Due may be looking to continue that momentum. Unfortunately, the movie’s found-footage conceit, once a popular device, seems to be wearing thin with viewers. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones also featured spooky video and yet it failed to match the figures of past Paranormal Activity movies, opening to just $18 million, a new franchise low. Devil’s Due doesn’t have a similarly recognizable name, or cast (although fans of TV show “Friday Night Lights” will be excited to see Matt Saracen up on the big screen), in which case, the film will likely clock in between $10 and $15 million.

Animated kids’ comedy The Nut Job is the last new release opening wide this weekend. Comparisons to Disney’s winter behemoth Frozen are inevitable, although the latter continues to hold remarkably strong. The nutty squirrel caper may have novelty on its side, but Frozen has the enduring appeal of Idina Menzel. The princess musical will likely out-earn Job, which isn’t expected to gross more than $20 million or so.

Lastly, several Academy Award nominees are getting their pre-Oscars re-release this weekend, to the delight of those intent on seeing each of the nine Best Picture contenders before the March 2 telecast. Technically, Captain Phillips is already two days into its theatrical return, having opened in 903 theatres on Wednesday. Favorites Gravity and 12 Years a Slave will screen in 944 and 761 locations, respectively.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Our critics’ takes on the 9 Best Picture nominees

The writers here at Film Journal seem to agree with The Academy and its selection of the top films of 2013. Each of the nine Best Picture nominees found favor with our critics when it first premiered last year.  Spike Jonze’s dystopian love story, Her, came the closest to receiving what could be considered a negative review, with critic David Noh singling out “eternal sufferer” protagonist, Theodore Twombly, for being too passive a hero. Yet, even with Twombly’s persistent moroseness, the character's world was nonetheless full of “droll moments and real surprise,” Noh acknowledged. As is the case with several directors whose films received nominations, Spike Jonze turned in one of his finest works in years.

Here’s what the FJI critics had to say about the best films of 2013:

12 Years A Slave:
12 Years a Slave is a landmark film, complete with a terrific ensemble (Paul Dano, Sara Paulson and Brad Pitt need to be mentioned in certain key roles), and the vision and skill required to do justice to such historically complex material. It is one of those rare pieces of art that all its successors taking a shot at the same topic will be measured against.

Click here for the full review.

American Hustle:
With a crackling script and masterful direction, Russell has made a fiction that is stranger—and way more fun—than the truth. He has the help of a dream cast of actors, all at the top of their games.

Click here for the full review.

Dallas Buyers Club:
Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack don’t fall back on any heroic or clichéd turns but keep Woodroof on an outlaw course where no pro-gay marches or quilts sweeten the way or soften the character’s macho, prejudicial core. Yet it’s McConaughey’s savvy incarnation of this Lone Star brute that makes this gritty tale worth the ride.

Click here for the full review.

Captain Phillips:
But Captain Phillips functions most as a handsomely, elaborately produced “hardware” movie that satisfies in both its details and the sustained suspense of its action elements.  And by having Hanks in the starring role.

Click here for the full review.

The Wolf of Wall Street:
Unlike its mostly slimy characters, The Wolf of Wall Street favorably impresses on every level. Perversely enjoyable and entertaining, this wild ride of a film offers a motor-mouth chorus of really bad boys whose rousing cantata celebrates the recent era of easy money and financial funny business. Audiences—their values be damned—will sing along.

Click here for the full review.

Like a Hitchcock MacGuffin, the non-existent prize is the peg on which screenwriter Bob Nelson hangs an alternately charming and caustic road movie about the often exasperating bonds between parents and children and how we could all benefit from taking the time to get to know those sometime-strangers we call Mom and Dad.

Click here for the full review.

Philomena is as much a sharp exploration of class, sexuality, faith and relationships as it is a wittily written, devastating account of the barbaric treatment of unwed mothers in Ireland as recently as the 1950s, with a plum role for the remarkable Judi Dench.

Click here for the full review.

Cuarón and his team have created screen spectacle with a searing human dimension, and bring a true sense of wonder to a groundbreaking movie experience.

Click here for the full review.

It's a fiendishly clever concept, his most satisfying outing since the brilliant Being John Malkovich, rife with droll moments and real surprise.

Click here for the full review.

The Internet is of course full of Oscar lists and countdowns today, posing much more of a distraction than usual for film-lovers. In-keeping with this spirit of enjoyable diversions, here’s another (brief!) list outlining What the Internet Has to Say About Oscar: The 12 Best Acceptance Speeches in Oscar History
Replete with video and fully subjective commentary.

Entertainment Weekly: The 10 Most High-Powered Oscar Races of the Past 25 Years
A fun trip down commemorative lane. Who knew Kate Winslet had already received three nominations by age 26? More importantly: Can Jennifer Lawrence best her record?

Vulture: Where to Stream This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Documentaries
A fantastic resource.

Indiewire: Interview: Lupita Nyong’o
Months before she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for 12 Years a Slave.

Vanity Fair: Celebrating The Oldest-Ever Class of Best Actress Nominees
Take that, Sexist Agism.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

2014 Academy Awards nominees revealed

And they’re here! After months of speculation, campaigning and enduring those obnoxious for-your-consideration pop-up ads (all of which will now, unfortunately, only intensify) the nominations for the 2014 Academy Awards have been announced.

If you haven’t read through them already, odds are, you’ll be able to guess the major categories.

Nine features earned nods for Best Picture: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Not a dark horse among the aforementioned. This year, who and what got snubbed is a much more interesting topic of conversation than who and what made the cut. The award for Most Glaring Omission goes to the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which not only failed to receive a nomination for Best Picture, but which was also shut out of the Best Actor (Oscar Isaac) and Best Director categories. A friend of mine may have inadvertently expressed the general sentiment when he explained his reasons for disliking the feature: The Coen Brothers made a very beautiful film about a very unlikable guy. He felt it lacked personal resonance. It was a movie he could appreciate for its technical and aesthetic mastery, but which ultimately left him cold. The Academy may have felt similarly.

Others may be surprised favorites Tom Hanks and especially Emma Thompson were left out of the Best Actor and Actress groups. Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass failed to impress members of The Academy as well, and, although we’ve known for some weeks that, having been left off the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Feature, Iran’s The Past wouldn’t receive a nomination, the snub of Asghar Farhadi’s complex drama is still a shame.

Having acknowledged the fallen, however, the focus must now land on those left standing. It’s a mighty strong group of contenders that features American Hustle and Gravity at the front of the pack with their 10 nominations each, and 12 Years a Slave following close behind with nine nods.

Without further vamping, then, here is the complete list of nominees for the 2014 Academy Awards (slated to air March 2, on ABC):

Best Picture
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Christian Bale, American Hustle (Sony Pictures Releasing)
Bruce Dern, Nebraska (Paramount)
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount)
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight)
Matthew McConaughey,  Dallas Buyers Club (Focus Features)

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Amy Adams, American Hustle (Sony Pictures Releasing)
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine (Sony Pictures Classics)
Sandra Bullock, Gravity (Warner Bros.)
Judi Dench, Philomena (The Weinstein Company)
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County (The Weinstein Company)

Best performance by an actor in a supporting role
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best performance by an actress in a supporting role
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
June Squibb, Nebraska
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Best Animated Feature
The Croods
The Wind Rises
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine

Achievement in cinematography
The Grandmaster, Philippe Le Sourd
Gravity, Emmanuel Lubezki
Inside Llewyn Davis, Bruno Delbonnel
Nebraska, Phedon Papamichael
Prisoners, Roger A. Deakins
Achievement in costume design
American Hustle, Michael Wilkinson
The Grandmaster, William Chang Suk Ping
The Great Gatsby, Catherine Martin
The Invisible Woman, Michael O’Connor
12 Years a Slave, Patricia Norris
Achievement in directing
American Hustle, David O. Russell
Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón
Nebraska, Alexander Payne
12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen
The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese
Best documentary feature
The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen
Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling and Lydia Dean Pilcher
Dirty Wars, Richard Rowley and Jeremy Scahill
The Square, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer
20 Feet from Stardom, Nominees to be determined
Best documentary short subject
CaveDigger, Jeffrey Karoff
Facing Fear, Jason Cohen
Karama Has No Walls, Sara Ishaq
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, Edgar Barens
Achievement in film editing

American Hustle, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten
Captain Phillips, Christopher Rouse
Dallas Buyers Club, John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa
Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger
12 Years a Slave, Joe Walker
Best foreign language film of the year
The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium
The Great Beauty, Italy
The Hunt, Denmark
The Missing Picture, Cambodia
Omar, Palestine
Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
Dallas Buyers Club, Adruitha Lee and Robin Mathews
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, Stephen Prouty
The Lone Ranger, Joel Harlow and Gloria Pasqua-Casny
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
The Book Thief, John Williams
Gravity, Steven Price
Her, William Butler and Owen Pallett
Philomena, Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks, Thomas Newman
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)

“Alone Yet Not Alone” from “Alone Yet Not Alone”
Music by Bruce Broughton; Lyric by Dennis Spiegel
“Happy” from “Despicable Me 2”
Music and Lyric by Pharrell Williams
“Let It Go” from “Frozen”
Music and Lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
“The Moon Song” from “Her”
Music by Karen O; Lyric by Karen O and Spike Jonze
“Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”
Music by Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen; Lyric by Paul Hewson

Best motion picture of the year
“American Hustle” Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison and Jonathan Gordon, Producers
“Captain Phillips” Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, Producers
“Dallas Buyers Club” Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, Producers
“Gravity” Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman, Producers
“Her” Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze and Vincent Landay, Producers
“Nebraska” Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Producers
“Philomena” Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan and Tracey Seaward, Producers
“12 Years a Slave” Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas, Producers
“The Wolf of Wall Street” Nominees to be determined
Achievement in production design
“American Hustle” Production Design: Judy Becker; Set Decoration: Heather Loeffler
“Gravity” Production Design: Andy Nicholson; Set Decoration: Rosie Goodwin and Joanne Woollard
“The Great Gatsby” Production Design: Catherine Martin; Set Decoration: Beverley Dunn
“Her” Production Design: K.K. Barrett; Set Decoration: Gene Serdena
“12 Years a Slave” Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Alice Baker
Best animated short film

“Feral” Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden
“Get a Horse!” Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim
“Mr. Hublot” Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
“Possessions” Shuhei Morita
“Room on the Broom” Max Lang and Jan Lachauer
Best live action short film
“Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)” Esteban Crespo
“Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)” Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras
“Helium” Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson
“Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)” Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari
“The Voorman Problem” Mark Gill and Baldwin Li
Achievement in sound editing
“All Is Lost” Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns
“Captain Phillips” Oliver Tarney
“Gravity” Glenn Freemantle
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Brent Burge
“Lone Survivor” Wylie Stateman
Achievement in sound mixing
“Captain Phillips” Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith and Chris Munro
“Gravity” Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead and Chris Munro
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick and Tony Johnson
“Inside Llewyn Davis” Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland
“Lone Survivor” Andy Koyama, Beau Borders and David Brownlow
Achievement in visual effects
“Gravity” Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and Eric Reynolds
“Iron Man 3” Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash and Dan Sudick
“The Lone Ranger” Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams and John Frazier
“Star Trek Into Darkness” Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann and Burt Dalton
Adapted screenplay
“Before Midnight” Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
“Captain Phillips” Screenplay by Billy Ray
“Philomena” Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
“12 Years a Slave” Screenplay by John Ridley
“The Wolf of Wall Street” Screenplay by Terence Winter
Original screenplay

“American Hustle” Written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
“Blue Jasmine” Written by Woody Allen
“Dallas Buyers Club” Written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
“Her” Written by Spike Jonze
“Nebraska” Written by Bob Nelson