Friday, February 28, 2014

‘Lego’ to abdicate in favor of Liam – or the ‘Son of God’

The Lego Movie’s successful reign at the top of the box office is poised to come to an end this weekend, as two new releases featuring high-profile men – ageless action star Liam Neeson and timeless figure of fascination Jesus Christ, played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado – open wide. While most pundits agree Lego will take third place to both Non-Stop and Son of God, they’re less sure which of the latter will earn the top spot.

On the one hand, Non-Stop is the latest suspense thriller to feature Liam Neeson with a gun, kicking butt but not so much bothering to take names, later or otherwise. This persona has resonated with movie-goers, who made a hit out of the film that featured Neeson’s breakout action role, 2008’s Taken, and showed up in solid numbers to Unknown (2011) and The Grey (2011), both of which opened to roughly $20 million. Given the strong marketing push behind Non-Stop, which included many commercials throughout the winter Olympics, not to mention its bid for female patronage in the form of actresses Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey’s” Lady Mary) and Best Supporting Actress nominee Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), the movie’s opening could well exceed Neeson’s last two films. Twenty-five million dollars or more seems likely.

But then we have wild card Son of God. Will viewers pay to see footage they could get, and most likely have already seen, for free on the History Channel? The film is a repurposing of TV’s “The Bible” mini-series produced by Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey, who also plays the Virgin Mary. It’s a good question, though given advance ticket sales (according to Fandango, as of yesterday morning Son of God accounted for 40 percent of pre-sales) the answer may very well be, yes, they will. Box Office Mojo used Pew Research Group data to do a series of nifty calculations regarding the country’s Christians, God’s target demographic (an unintentionally Meta phrase). According to the site, over 80 million Americans attend Christian services each week. If only five percent of that church-going population buys tickets to Son of God, the movie will open to upwards of $30 million. This also seems likely.

Three other releases opening wide or expanding today include Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, which performed well in limited release last weekend (it will screen in 496 theatres this weekend); Russia’s first movie shot in IMAX 3D, Stalingrad (opening in 308 IMAX locations); and Repentance, starring Forest Whitaker and Anthony Mackie (152 theatres). An extended cut of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues will also screen in 1,317 locations. Apparently, this lengthier version features 763 new jokes, a gimmick that will likely appeal to only the most diehard of Ron Burgundy devotees. Receipts should tally out to around or under $2 million.

Happy Oscar weekend!


Monday, February 24, 2014

An Academy voter speaks about Shorts, Foreign Language Film, and the voting process. Says (s)he prefers 5 Best Picture nominees.

Hero460_oscarsAwards season has finally come to its final stretch. Technically, Academy Awards campaigning has reached its final few hours since the voting officially closes today at 5pm PT before Sunday March 2nd’s telecast. I know it’s one of those things people say every year, but this year really seems unique in terms of how close of a race we’ve been witnessing in the still open Best Picture category. Many pundits are predicting a split, picture going to 12 Years A Slave and director going to Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity.  

While many talk about either clear frontrunners (such as Cate Blanchett for Best Actress), or close races (such as Lupita Nyong’o or Jennifer Lawrence for Best Supporting Actress) in major categories, I have been wondering about the relatively “smaller” races, in Short Films and Foreign Language categories, mainly because of the voting changes that have taken effect in the last couple of years. This is the second year all AMPAS members are invited to vote on Best Documentary, Best Animated and Live Action Short categories (members started getting screeners for these last year and are no longer required to attend official screenings). And this is also the very first year all members are invited to vote on Foreign Language and Best Documentary Short categories. I wondered how Academy members react to these changes, and whether their voting has been impacted in a way that might change the results, favoring the more popular titles among a pool of nominees that members didn’t necessarily watch in their entirety on screeners. Then I thought, what better person is there to ask than a voting Academy member. I am grateful that someone agreed to talk to me not only about these questions, but also more about this year and voting in general.

I am of course going to keep their identity a secret. When Daily Beast did an interview with a voting member, he/she was named “Pat”. I’ll call my source “Sam”. Because, why not?

Thank you, Sam, for agreeing to talk to me. My first question is regarding the Shorts, and Foreign categories. Until recently, members who’d like to vote on these had to attend Academy-hosted screenings. Now every member gets screeners. How did this change your voting? Do you see the films, or vote based on popular word?

I know what they [AMPAS] were trying to do: making sure that those categories were a little less exclusive. The problem is that, you don’t really know when you get a screener if people are really going to watch it. Foreign films and docs are not easy to watch like the more commercial movies. You have to really pay attention. And I think it will definitely have an effect on the winners. It’s good in the sense that you get thousands of votes. But when you had to attend a screening, at least you knew that people saw the film in its entirety. I was talking to a voter about Foreign Film, who said (s)he put the Italian movie down eventhough (s)he didn't see it entirely. So you don’t really know who’s going to watch.

The ballot is still valid if you skip a category, right?

Yes. Do I find that people skip categories? I think some people do. And I think some people will vote if they haven’t seen all the films, based on what they read, who they know. Sometimes you ask, “Should I vote for something that’s politically correct or vote for something that I really like even if it may not be the best movie?” It’s really a tough call. That said, I think New York voters are really different than California voters.

The Great Beauty

How so?

I find that the people I’m talking to [in New York] liked a certain film in Foreign Language. They really REALLY like The Great Beauty. I was talking to somebody who does awards consulting based in LA and found that people out in California really seem to love The Hunt.


And to me, there’s no comparison. The Hunt is a really good movie. But it’s not breaking new ground. I think Great Beauty is a fantastic movie. Brings back the way people first saw Fellini back in the 60s. The Great Beauty to me is another category by itself but a lot people didn’t really respond to it in California.

Have you seen the shorts? Are you voting?

I’ve seen them all. And I didn’t see them on screener. I went to the screening. 

I was slightly underwhelmed by the animated crop. But thought live action was really strong this year.

Oh I thought the animation was also very strong this year. The doc shorts were OK. The live action shorts were very good.

Just Before Losing Everything was great.

That was actually my favorite one. And some people I spoke to really like Helium. It was a nice movie, but it didn’t have the same effect on me as the French film (Just Before Losing Everything). It was a little too much. But I was surprised, talking to people in the theater. By the way, among the New York Academy members, there is a core group that actually goes to screenings. And you see each other twice a week and become friends. It’s actually amazing how so few people in the NY branch come to screenings. Although I would say with the shorts, there were 50 members in the screening room. Considering they all got their screeners and made it out to see it in bad weather, it is a very good number.

Just Before Losing Everything

Do you think Academy should go back to the requirement that you have to attend a screening?

I think if they’re going to give screeners out to members, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to make you go to the official screening first and then send a screener to those people who have attended, so they can see it again if they choose to. But I don’t know if they’d ever do that. Once you cross that line, you can’t take it away.

It seems like there is a scandal every year that grows in size online. This year, the Woody Allen story resurfaced. People questioned Wolf of Wall Street’s ethics, Dallas Buyers Club’s accuracy... Do these “scandals” have an effect on the way you vote?

Personally, I don’t care. Look, if I don’t like someone, it doesn’t make a difference. If I really hate a person, but if he gives a really great performance, I am not going to not vote for him. It’s not what you’re voting for. For Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, people were saying, “You can’t vote for the movie by a child molester.” The word was out, the gloves came off and everybody got involved in it. I personally don’t care.

How do you feel about everyone voting for everything? I am mostly talking about the technical categories. Do you think everyone should instead vote on their own branch only (like nominations) and then Best Picture?

Not really. Well, the more you go to the movies and the more you vote, the more familiar you get with all the categories. And you watch movies more carefully. I am on the Academy screenings committee. And sometimes we select movies that can be really good in some of these technical categories. Like special effects, or production design.

So what you’re saying is that voters start to watch with different eyes.

Yeah. We sometimes talk about these. “Wasn’t that music horrible? It didn’t belong in the film” or “It wasn’t the music that was bad, it was just its place in the film.” SO we get into these discussions. I don’t know how many of the members read all the trades when they’re doing their awards editions, but I actually like reading below-the-line articles. I know enough people who are interested in all that. So when we have Q&As, we say, “Why do we always have the actor? We’ve seen him in a thousand talk shows. Can’t we get the costume designer, for instance?” But it’s very hard to get to those people. Because they are usually working on something else by that time.

I am starting to think this “anywhere’s between 5 to 10 best picture nominees” is proving to be a pointless exercise. This is the third year in a row that we end up with 9 nominees.

I didn’t vote for 9 (voted for 10). And I like the 5 still. I really do. I also think we should just pick ONE winner. I like the idea that, after the nominations come out, people just pick one movie as their favorite film. And that’s that.

So no preferential ranking.

I would just say put your favorite movie down and that’s it. Make a decision without thinking “if I vote for this, more people will vote for that.” You just need to vote with your heart, on what works for you. And that’s basically what happens when I vote. I vote on a movie that I really really really like.

Passion comes before anything else.

Absolutely. I worked on Academy movies at studios. And when I got my ballot, sometimes I personally didn’t think [what I was working on] was the best movie. So I didn’t vote for it.


What is the one upset you want to see on Oscar night?

Well, my favorite movie is Her. If that wins [Best Picture], it would make me so happy. But it doesn’t have a shot although I think it should win. Everybody I talk to is all over the map for this one. It could be 12 Years A Slave. It could be Gravity. It could be American Hustle. Although -- I don’t know about American Hustle.

Everybody is calling a split this year for Director/Picture.

Gravity is all about the direction. And I think Cuarón deserves it of all the directors. The movie is only a success because of him.

Only one more week to go.

I can’t wait for it to be over.

 I bet.

‘Lego’ leaves the competition far behind

Everything is indeed awesome for the makers of The Lego Movie, whose popular animated flick earned the top spot at the domestic box office for the third consecutive weekend. Easing just 37 percent, Lego grossed $31.5 million. Its overall cume now stands at $183.2 million. Unsurprisingly, Warner Bros. has already greenlit a sequel. The Lego Movie 2 is slated to hit theatres on Memorial Day 2017.

Don’t count on a follow-up to the McG-directed 3 Days to Kill, however. The actioner starring Kevin Costner took second place with an unremarkable $12.3 million. The film’s weekend gross is a little less than that which The Family, the last collaboration between writer-producer Luc Besson and Relativity Media, earned over its opening weekend this past September. Kill’s audience was an older crowd, 80 percent over the age of 25, who collectively awarded the film a B CinemaScore grade. Expectations for the movie’s total haul are pretty low: Pundits are predicting the film will earn around $30 million overall.

However, with a budget of only $28 million, at least 3 Days to Kill isn’t as large – or should we say as volcanic? – a bomb as Pompeii. It’s true, most pundits weren’t expecting much from the poorly reviewed disaster film, but Pompeii managed to underperform nonetheless.  The movie earned $10 million this weekend, a dismal debut considering its production costs topped $100 million. Pompeii’s opening weekend figure was less than half of fellow big-budget movie and box-office failure Poseidon’s debut haul, although it is slightly better than those openings enjoyed by The Legend of Hercules ($8.9 million) and I, Frankenstein ($8.6 million), both of which films were also heavily CGI-dependent. Maybe sensory overload fatigue has finally begun to set in?

Clocking in at No. 4, RoboCop earned $9.4 million, which represents a drop of 57 percent from last weekend. So far, the reboot has grossed $43.6 million.

It may not be the critics’ cup of tea, but George Clooney’s The Monuments Men continues to satisfy a sizable portion of the movie-going public. The WWII caper took in another $8.1 million this weekend, earning it the No. 5 spot and bumping its overall cume to $58 million.

The weekend after Valentine’s Day was a tough one for those releases that opened wide on the national chocolate-and-flowers holiday. About Last Night fared the best, though it still suffered a drop of 71 percent to gross $7.4 million – its total earnings currently stand at $38.2 million. Endless Love took a hit of 68 percent and has now grossed $20.1 million. Poor, misguided Winter’s Tale dipped 71 percent; its total clocks in at a little over $11 million.

Finally, the weekend’s specialty division saw a solid limited opening for Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. The nominee for Best Animated Feature took in $306,000 from 21 locations. It should continue to chart a successful course once it expands to 450 theatres this coming weekend.

Friday, February 21, 2014

‘Lego’ to bury ‘Pompeii’

Two major releases, disaster epic Pompeii and the latest spy thriller from writer-producer Luc Besson, 3 Days to Kill, may be opening wide today, but neither action flick is any match for a group of special toys. Once again, The Lego Movie is expected to win the weekend. Many pundits have placed their bets on Pompeii taking second place with $12 or $15 million. If those expectations bear out, it would make for an underwhelming debut, considering the CGI-laden movie had a production value of around $100 million. Studio execs are hoping Pompeii, which was financed by the German company Constantin Films, will earn most of its money overseas.

3 Days to Kill
is also tracking soft, but luckily, the film directed by McG and starring Kevin Costner as an aging operative struggling to balance family time with the demands of his job, only cost $28 million to make. The movie’s father angle is similar to Besson’s successful Taken films, though no one is expecting Kill to reach the same box-office highs of those unnervingly fun Liam Neeson vehicles. Instead, 3 Days to Kill should pull in around $12 million.

The specialty division welcomes two new releases of its own this weekend: In Secret, an adaptation of Emile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin starring Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac; and The Wind Rises, the latest and last animated film from Japan’s beloved Hayao Miyazaki. In Secret hasn’t been given much of a marketing push, and reviews have been mixed to poor (right now, the movie is tracking 49 percent rotten on Rotten Tomatoes). The Wind Rises, on the other hand, has the heft of the Miyazaki name behind it, not to mention the clout of an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film. Controversy surrounding the movie’s handling of Japanese involvement in WWII may also spur viewer interest. In Secret probably won’t earn more than $1 million from its 266 locations, but expect The Wind Rises, playing in 21 theatres, to make a solid showing.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cinematic TV and 'Carnivàle'

With shows like our dearly departed “Breaking Bad,” Netflix’s offering to the zeitgeist, “House of Cards,” and recent critical and, increasingly, fan darling, “True Detective,” the divide between television series and movies as we’ve traditionally understood it is in a state of erosion. Zachary Wigon over at Tribeca Film has written a brief thought piece on why this blending of form, narrative styles and technique is a development worthy of our enthusiasm.  Says Wigon:

“…filmmakers who are apprehensive of working in TV need to understand that the medium is continually reshaping itself to accommodate their needs. Anyone who has doubts about TV’s allowances for formalism should check out the virtuoso 6-minute shot that ends episode four of True Detective. But just as crucially, it’s necessary to remind TV fans that TV is not gaining a greater share of cultural influence because it’s ‘better’ than cinema; it’s gaining a greater influence because it is reappropriating the tenets of cinema.”

Wigon’s blog post led me to wonder which other shows demonstrate a flair for the cinematic and, specifically, which shows, if any, “reappropriated the tenets of cinema” long before it was cool to do so. Although I had a list in mind (classics “The Wire” and “Twin Peaks” foremost among my ideas), there is one series that stood out as a preeminent example of a cinema-TV hybrid – and which, for all its opacity, maintains its preeminence.

I first came across a clip from HBO’s “Carnivàle” last year, embedded in a blog post that asked if the below scene was the most beautiful ever filmed for TV. The author admitted he had no idea what was going on between the characters, but also that his ignorance didn’t bother him. The scene was that compelling.


“Carnivàle” is a bizarre show with a dense mythology many viewers found daunting and many others found pretentious when the series ran on HBO from 2003-2005. The show’s pilot set a record ratings high for an HBO original upon its premiere, but, although creator Daniel Knauf had crafted a storyline he intended to unwind over six seasons, the network cut “Carnivàle” short after only two.

The show concerns itself with a mythic battle between the forces of good and evil as played out against the backdrop of the Dust Bowl. These opposing forces seek human proxies with each new generation, “avatars” who must continue their fight. Of course, the humans don’t necessarily know they’re proxies, which is the case with “good” Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) and “bad” Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown).  “Carnivàle” follows both men, although Ben’s relationship with a traveling troupe of carnies, many of who possess their own magic abilities, seems to be the focus.

Biblical imagery and allusions, historical references, “avatars,” tarot readings, “prophets,” “ushers,” and many more abstract and esoteric elements left viewers scratching their heads, especially as the above explanation was never explicitly given within the series, but rather left for audiences to parse on their own and actively discuss in online forums, “Carnivàle” being one of the first shows to foster intense Internet fandom. Much of the cinematic beauty of “Carnivàle” is in fact a function of the series’ obsession with leaving clues. For instance, the positioning of Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe in relation to the two men sitting at the table behind them in the clip above is a clue, as is, possibly, their re-positioning when Brother Justin looks in the mirror. The song that plays in the background of the scene, as well as the waitress’ cryptic “Every prophet in his house” are both repeated several times throughout the series – more clues.

“Carnivàle” could be considered cinematic for the painstaking attention afforded its cinematography and the staging of its shots, as well as by virtue of the sheer scope of its narrative ambition – you don’t get much grander than biblical. Of course, neither an emphasis on style nor one on universal themes is exclusively the purview of film. However, given cinema’s larger budgets and scale, “big” has traditionally been left to the big screen.  Not so with “Carnivàle,” which HBO afforded $4 million for its every episode. Additionally, given HBO’s great no-commercials policy, the show’s creators were able to tailor the runtime of each episode to the story’s needs. The hour-long show in actuality often ran anywhere from 40, 45 to a little over 60 minutes.

That Carnivàle seems to share a cinematic sensibility may have something – or everything – to do with the fact that creator Knauf initially wrote his series as a film script. Since “Carnivàle’s” cancelation, Knauf has vocalized his desire to either have another network pick up the rest of his story, or possibly have a studio turn it into a feature film. Given the hybridized nature of TV today, the landscape is ripe  for a continuation of his cinematic show. Audiences may not have been ready for “Carnivàle” a decade ago, but by the looks of things, pop culture may have finally caught up.

'The Lego Movie' assembles boffo weekend figures

The Lego Movie enjoyed a stellar four days this President’s Day weekend. The animated film that’s a hit with both kids and adults earned a pretty darn awesome $63.5 million Friday-Monday. It grossed $50 million from the weekend alone, which tallies out to a slight 28 percent drop from last weekend. To compare, similar title The Lorax dipped 45 percent its second weekend in theatres.  The Lego Movie has earned $143.8 million to date.

The rest of the weekend’s titles more or less stacked up as expected.  About Last Night landed just behind Lego with $25.7 million. This second consecutive hit (after Ride Along) for comedian Kevin Hart had the best opening for a rom-com since another Hart title, Think Like a Man, debuted to $33.6 million in 2012. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the film’s viewers were female (63 percent) and skewed older (57 percent were over the age of 30).

RoboCop failed to meet Sony’s initial projection of $35 million for the four-day spread. Instead, the sci-fi remake earned a slightly disappointing if still solid $21.7 million. Audiences were 62 percent male and 64 percent over the age of 25, and awarded the movie a CinemaScore rating of a B+. Odds are RoboCop will eventually bow out to the tune of $60 or $70 million.

The Monuments Men made the Top 5 as predicted, though it took the No. 4 and not the No. 5 slot as many had expected. Men is now George Clooney’s most successful outing as a director, and it grossed $15.5 million over the past four days. The weekend’s earnings have bumped The Monuments Men’s cume to $44.2 million.

It was Endless Love that took the weekend’s No. 5 spot, earning $13.2 million. The vast majority of that four-day gross – over 56 percent of it – came from Valentine’s Day ticket sales, which means Love can now boast one of the most front-loaded openings over. Eighty percent of viewers who paid good money to watch pretty young things love, lust and, well, look pretty, were female, and 76 percent were under the age of 25. They generally liked what they saw, awarding the movie an A- CinemaScore grade. Endless Love’s heavily front-loaded debut, however, portends a steep drop in the weeks ahead.

But at least Love can say it enjoyed one good weekend, which is one more than fellow romance Winter’s Tale. The adaptation of Mark Helprin’s beloved and perhaps too sprawling novel was a categorical bomb with its $7.3 million debut. That figure landed Tale at No. 7, plunking it down behind enduring success Ride Along. Writer-producer-director Akiva Goldsman’s misfire will likely fade out within the next few weeks or so.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Day special: Top Period Romances

The domestic box office is packed with remakes this weekend, with updates on classic ‘80s films RoboCop, About Last Night and Endless Love all opening wide. Today, of course, is also Valentine’s Day, our nationally sanctioned date night. While many couples and groups of friends will likely celebrate the latter by viewing one of the former, given the persistence of bad weather throughout much of the country (just this morning I overheard one woman lamenting the lack of favorable conditions for appropriate V-Day shoes: How can she be expected to wear heels in so much slush?) we’re guessing there’ll be plenty of people who opt for dinner and a movie on the couch instead.

 Instead of a standard list of the best Valentine’s Day films streaming online, however, we’ve decided to take our cue from Hollywood and its current obsession with the past. Today’s batch of films is made up of the Best Period Romances. Yes, that means femme-targeted fare Gone With the Wind and the underrated A Knight’s Tale have made the cut, but so has an Adam Sandler movie, as well as a beloved animated classic neither gender should ever admit to disliking.

Grab yourself a bowl of pasta, a glass of red wine and an it’s-a-cliché-for-a-reason box of chocolates, and take a look through our list of the Top Period Romances:

The Deep Blue Sea – Available for rent on Amazon
Set in 1950, this adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play centers on depressed well-to-do British housewife Hester (Rachel Weisz) whose affair with a younger officer (Tom Hiddleston, PL, or pre-Loki) has begun to lose its luster so far as he, if not she, is concerned. We see their relationship build and then unravel through a series of flashbacks on this day Hester has chosen to take a dramatic step. It’s not the cheeriest of romances, but it’s a fabulous showcase for the two leads, and deeply romantic in the way it emphasizes the sister-half of passion: tragedy.


The Wedding Singer – Available for rent on Amazon
On the opposite end of the spectrum from artsy-serious The Deep Blue Sea, we have what is still Adam Sandler’s best film, The Wedding Singer. The period element comes in the form of the movie’s over-the-top 1980s setting, in which blue suits, Members Only jackets, and a preoccupation with rock stars wearing eyeliner, Boy George and Billy Idol, are as commonplace as perms. This first pairing of Sandler with Drew Barrymore is also, in the old-fashioned sense of the term, movie magic. Funny, romantic, and featuring a song rife with potential for real-life proposals, The Wedding Singer is a shoo-in for our list:


A Knight’s Tale – Available to buy on Amazon
Thirteen years on and this rocking riff on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale continues to bear up. Heath Ledger plays Will, the titular knight who is, in fact, not a knight at all but a poor squire. When the real knight he serves dies, Will dons his armor in order to compete in a tournament and win some money to buy food for himself and fellow hungry squire Roland (Mark Addy). Turns out peasant Will is a natural fighter, and his success in subsequent competitions – as well as the sight of noblewoman Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) – moves him to continue with his ruse. A supporting cast of characters, including Paul Bettany in what endures as one of his best supporting roles, the gambling and oft-nude Chaucer, and a gleefully anachronistic rock soundtrack help lift A Knight’s Tale above the common make of knights and damsels yarns. Fun fact: The Artist’s Berenice Bejo got her big break playing Jocelyn’s kindly abetting lady in waiting, Christiana.


Gone With the Wind – Available to rent on Amazon
Well, obviously. They don’t come much more romantic than Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, the blackguarded black sheep of the South. It takes a while for Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara to come to the same conclusion Gable’s Rhett Butler drew the moment he saw her descending the stairs of that dippy Ashley Wilkes’ grand estate: They were made for each other. It’s too bad her revelation comes when it does, but watching her work her way there, amid the real-life drama of the Civil War and the melodrama of author Margaret Mitchell’s plot, is a whole lot of fun:


Lust, Caution – Netflix
The sexiest film on our list is, unsurprisingly, a tale of espionage and betrayal. The period in question is late 1930’s and early 1940’s Hong Kong. A group of earnest university students form a covert spy cell in order to assassinate powerful government official Mr. Yee. The naïve Chia Chi is given the role of elegant society woman and tasked with seducing Mr. Yee, the better to lure him into the cell’s trap. It’s a simple enough plan, until feelings among the cell’s members and those between Chi and Mr. Yee muddy the course. Lust, Caution remains one of the best collaborations between director Ang Lee and co-writer and former Focus Features head James Schamus to date:


The Secret in Their Eyes – Available to buy on Amazon
This one stretches the definition of “period film,” but a great deal of the movie does take place in an earlier period, 1970s Argentina, so it qualifies. When the movie opens, retired judiciary worker Benjamin Esposito is having some trouble beginning a novel he would like to write about a rape and murder case he covered 25 years ago. He visits the offices of a former love interest and colleague who also worked on the case, now a high-powered judge, to ask for advice. She tells him, a la Maria von Trapp, to start at the beginning – a very good place to start. And so begins a series of flashbacks that reveal both the troubled nature of the criminal case and Benjamin and Irene’s relationship. The Secret in Their Eyes won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film back in 2012, and with good reason:


The Dead – Netflix
John Huston’s final film is an adaptation of the final tale in James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. The year is 1904 and Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta are attending a dinner party.  One of the guest’s rendition of the song “The Lass of Aughrim” prompts Gretta to recall certain romantic and painful memories she describes to Gabriel later that night. The Dead, as the title may suggest, is not an uplifting tale of love and passion, but a deeply affecting story imbued with director Huston’s own sense of impending mortality. We dare you not to feel something when Huston’s daughter Angelica reveals depths previously unknown to her husband:


Who Framed Roger Rabbit – Available for rent on Amazon
Like Scarlett and Rhett, Roger and Jessica Rabbit form a film couple for the ages. The 1947-set genre-bending live-action/animated hybrid is many things – adventure tale, crime caper, murder mystery, slapstick comedy, witty comedy, ensemble comedy – but it is, at its core, a love story. The plot’s resolution in fact hinges upon a declaration of love. Doesn’t get more romantic than that:


The Princess Bride – Available for rent on Amazon
Peter Falk says it best when describing The Princess Bride to his skeptic of a grandson: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Revenge. Giants. Monsters. Chases. Escapes. True Love. Miracles.” The film delivers on all of the above and is one of cinema’s finest examples of comedy happily wed to earnest romance. It is typical Princess Bride style to toss off lines that are equal parts facetious and worthy of a dreamy sigh: “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”


Weekend box office to host battle of the remakes

As VH1 would say: I love the ‘80s. Or rather, Hollywood does, rolling out three remakes of films that were popular 30-odd years ago. Even with RoboCop, About Last Night, and Endless Love stacking the bill, however, general consensus has last weekend’s champion, The Lego Movie, once again taking first place.

About Last Night
will likely land just behind Lego, with Sony predicting returns somewhere in the mid-20 millions. It’s a romance flick opening on Valentine’s Day, and one that boasts a marquee actor who has already proven his box-office worth with films like Think Like a Man and the recent hit Ride Along, Kevin Hart. Both of which factors have led some pundits to believe Sony’s expectations are a little low. Think Like A Man, for example, opened to $33.6 million in 2012. Chances are good About Last Night will meet, if not exceed, that bar.

opened a few days ahead of the weekend this past Wednesday night. Sony had predicted a debut of roughly $35 million for the Wednesday-Monday spread, but RoboCop got off to a rough start on Wednesday night, raking in just $2.8 million. Granted, much of the country was battling poor weather conditions, but underwhelming reviews and diehard RoboCop fan skepticism (the new color of the hero’s suit and the soft PG-13 rating are two points of contention) do not bode well for a considerable uptick through the weekend. It’s more likely RoboCop will earn between $20 and $25 million.

The final 1980s remake, Endless Love, will surely benefit from opening on Hallmark’s National Date Night, or Valentine’s Day, today. Similar titles The Vow and Safe Haven fared pretty well over this same weekend the past two years, and their demographic, teenage girls, will likely help Love earn solid figures. Even given the film’s lack of headlining stars (The Vow had Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum going for it) or recognizable name brand (Safe Haven was a Nicholas Sparks adaptation), eye-candy Alex Pettyfer and a tried-and-true star-crossed lovers storyline should nonetheless help Endless Love gross around $10 million.

Given Winter’s Tale cast – Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly – period setting, and heavily romantic plot, one would think the novel adaptation would be primed to easily beat Endless Love, if not the weekend’s other two new releases. Unfortunately, those stars about which Jessica Brown Findlay spoke so dreamily within the film have not aligned for its likely success. Director-writer-producer Akiva Goldsman’s labor of love has been almost universally panned, and there are many who believe the movie’s marketing has done a poor job explaining just what exactly the time-traveling tale is about. Returns should tally out to less than $10 million, which means Winter’s Tale will probably not crack the long weekend’s Top 5. Monuments Men should earn the No. 5 spot, dropping some 40 percent or so from last weekend to rake in $12 or $13 million.

Happy Valentine's Day!


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

LGBT films & WWII footage among final Berlinale highlights

Our correspondent at the Berlin Film Festival and France 24 writer, Jon Frosch, recently spoke with the director of standout LGBT film Test, Chris Mason Johnson. Test is set in 1987 and follows a young gay dancer as he agonizes over whether or not to take the new HIV test. Johnson shared his views on the state of queer cinema today: “I think after an initial phase of amazing queer cinema in the ‘90s, we entered a phase that was less adventurous. And now I think we’re coming out of that into a more artful, realistic representation.”

Frosch’s final dispatch from the international film showcase includes his thoughts on the harrowing 1945 documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. The work was filmed by British, American and Russian cameramen with the intent of eventually screening their finished product before a German audience, forcing the German people to face the horrors begot by their support or indifference. The filmmakers soon determined, however, that the film (overseen by a prominent Hollywood director) would work to counteract the Allies’ goal of German reconciliation. The Berlin premiere marked the first time the documentary screened in full feature-length form. Factual Survey stands in stark contrast to the “Hollywood cheese” of George Clooney’s WWII yarn, The Monuments Men.

Monday, February 10, 2014

‘The Lego Movie’ enjoys awesome debut

The Lego Movie successfully built upon the popularity of the Lego toy brand to earn $69 million over the weekend, a stellar debut, and notable for this time of year. The film’s haul is the second highest for the month of February, just behind The Passion of the Christ, which raked in $83.8 million in 2004. The comedy from the team behind the acclaimed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs stacks up favorably against other animated original movies – those that are neither prequels nor sequels – as well. Fellow fiscal over-achievers include Up ($68.1 million), The Incredibles ($70.5 million) and reigning champion The Simpsons Movie ($74 million). In terms of a demographic breakdown, the kids flick found broad appeal among older viewers: 59% of attendees were over the age of 18 and were, unsurprisingly, majority male (55%). With strong reviews fueling positive word-of-mouth, The Lego Movie will likely enjoy a healthy theatrical life, one which may boast a cume of around $200 million by the time it has run its course.

As expected, The Monuments Men clocked in at No. 2 this weekend, with returns that were a little higher than predicted. George Clooney in fact enjoyed his most successful opening yet as a director: The Monuments Men earned $22.7 million. That’s even better than Oscar-winner Argo’s debut ($19.5 million) and places the film in good company alongside contemporary Captain Phillips ($25.7 million). However, the movie’s viewers – most of who were over the age of 35 (75%) – only gave Men a B+ Cinemascore grade, and reviews continue to be unfavorable, with the movie tracking 33% rotten on Rotten Tomatoes. Both these factors portend a steep dropoff this coming weekend, though it’s just as likely the movie’s megawatt cast will continue to draw a steady stream of curious viewers for a little while longer.

Ride Along’s
comedic chops have and continue to lure audiences week after week. The film dropped just 22 percent to land the No. 3 spot at the box office, grossing $9.4 million. This weekend’s earnings have bumped Ride Along’s cume to $105.2 million, making it the first 2014 release to pass the $100 million mark.

Experiencing a similar slight downturn of only 23%, Frozen added another $6.9 million to its ridiculous total that now stands at $368.7 million. There’s really not much else to say about the animated hit, other than to reiterate widespread delight that the power of the Disney princess has been reinvigorated.

Female audiences were less enthused by the latest vampire offering, Vampire Academy, a disappointing showing from the once dependable director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday). As predicted, amid poor reviews, a weak marketing campaign and general blood-sucker fatigue, Academy bombed with $4.1 million. Although a new release, the film did not manage to crack the weekend’s top 5. Instead, the No. 5 slot went to That Awkward Moment, which surprised some pundits with its steady hold. The Zac Efron vehicle eased 37% to gross $5.5 million. Both films target young women, though only one, it seems, is appealing enough for the demographic to really sink its teeth into.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Candid American tales of sex take Berlin by surprise

FJI correspondent Jon Frosch is at the Berlin Film Festival, reporting on the annual event for France 24.  Here's his latest dispatch on a pair of dark, sexy American indies and the disappointing new film from Rachid Bouchareb.

Friday, February 7, 2014

‘The Lego Movie’ to tower over ‘Monuments Men’

Remember when people thought The Lego Movie was a bad idea? All the sniping and Internet eye-rolling that accompanied Warner Bros.’ decision to release a film based on the popular kids toy brand has been all but forgotten today, as positive reviews for the animated flick continue to pour in. Opening wide in 3,775 locations, The Lego Movie is poised to enjoy a boffo opening.  According to Fandango, Lego is on track to rake in the highest pre-sales figures since Toy Story 3, a feat that would place it ahead of blockbusters Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, and box-office darling Frozen.  Each of the aforementioned films debuted to $67 million or more, which certainly bodes well for Emmet, Wyldstyle, and the rest of Lego’s funny, earnest and “special” cast.

The Monuments Men
box-office performance, on the other hand, is more uncertain. Writer-director-producer George Clooney’s WWII dramedy could also be called funny and earnest, but critics are seeing something much less special in the combination. An old-fashioned war movie, which our critic Kevin Lally called “A film set in the 1940s that feels like it was made in the 1960s,” and to which NY Mag critic David Edelstein suggested the alternate title The Tasteful Dozen, The Monuments Men has received underwhelming reviews.  The draw of such a stellar, A-list cast (Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman) will still likely help Men land at No. 2 this weekend, but expectations are tempered. Some pundits predict returns around $25 million. Others, like Sony, have less faith in the pedigreed caper: The film’s distributor believes receipts will tally out in the high teens.

The third and final new film opening today, Vampire Academy, is expected to fall behind Ride Along and possibly even Frozen to clock in at No. 4 or 5.  There hasn’t been much of a marketing push behind this new(ish) spin on the tired blood-sucker trope, although it does have Mean Girls and Freaky Friday director Mark Waters to recommend it. The teen romp will probably be funny enough – which, in all likelihood, will still not be enough to make an impact at the box office. Expect Academy to earn $6 or $7 million.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Paley Center celebrates the legacy of Roger Ebert

Film Journal International had the privilege of attending a very special Rooftop Films/Piper-Heidsieck-sponsored screening last night at NYC’s Paley Center of Life Itself, the absorbing, poignant documentary about the life of Roger Ebert that premiered to acclaim at Sundance. Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) arrived just in time from a snowstorm-delayed flight to introduce this wide-ranging, Life Itselfunflinching account of the beloved Chicago film critic whose battle with thyroid cancer spurred a brave and remarkably productive new chapter in his life.

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, who moderated a post-screening Q&A with James, Ebert’s widow Chaz and Ebert’s filmmaking friend Ramin Bahrani, accurately noted that Life Itself is many things: a biography, a portrait of Ebert’s hometown of Chicago and the world of film critics, a love story, and a tale of courage. James admitted that he initially “thought I’d rip off” Ebert’s memoir of the same name for this CNN Films adaptation, but the doc morphed into something quite different when Ebert fractured his hip shortly before filming began. The director had wanted to show how active and vibrant Ebert was despite the illness that forced the removal of his lower jaw and robbed him of the power of speech and the ability to eat or drink. Instead, the film became a chronicle of the last five months of his life, largely confined to a hospital bed but still able to watch films and make copious contributions to his blog at The scenes of Ebert being attended to with suction tubes and clearly in pain are uncomfortable to witness, but the man himself insisted that these intimate moments be included in the film.

Ebert’s dignified widow Chaz confided that the film is difficult for her to watch, but noted that she’s “glad it exists as a maintenance of Roger’s legacy.” Of the “unfettered access” she and her husband gave to James, she commented, “We’re not reality-TV people, but we trusted Steve” based on his past work as a documentarian, which Ebert often championed.

In a very touching moment, Chaz revealed that the previous day had been especially sad for her with the shocking news of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Roger had told her if he were ever to be played in a movie, his ideal casting would have been the gifted Hoffman.

Life Itself is by no means just a mournful affair. It’s a richly entertaining look at a remarkable life, spanning from Ebert’s childhood and first taste of journalism as the prodigious editor of his college newspaper, to his hard-drinking days as part of the legendarily colorful Chicago newspaper fraternity (with priceless comments from some of those drinking buddies), to his startling collaboration with nudie director Russ Meyer on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, to the public-TV pairing with rival Chicago film critic Gene Siskel that eventually made him a household name. James expands on the book’s relatively brief section on Siskel, charting the complexities of a relationship that could be genuinely antagonistic but in time found its way to mutual respect and even love. The footage of outtakes of their hilarious bickering while doing TV promos for their show is alone worth the price of admission.

The movie also includes lively commentary from a host of friends and colleagues including directors Martin Scorsese (singularly diverting as ever), Werner Herzog and Errol Morris (who says he owes his career to Ebert’s eager support) and fellow critics Scott, Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum. The devoted Chaz, with whom Ebert shared a life-changing bond, is not only a warm presence throughout, but an equally admirable example of courage and determination.

James revealed that Ebert only viewed a few short clips of interviews with his Chicago friends; Chaz said, “He knew he would never see the movie.” The fact that Roger Ebert did some of his most thoughtful and influential writing through a horrendous health crisis that would have defeated most of us is an inspiration, and that inspiration is bound to live on as this marvelous film finds a wider audience in 2014.

Monday, February 3, 2014

‘Ride Along’ eases ahead of ‘Awkward’

As expected, the domestic box office turned in a series of soft numbers over this past, Super Bowl weekend. The top 12 films earned a combined $72.4 million – which, however, is still a small improvement over this same weekend last year. Clocking in at No. 1 yet again, Ride Along experienced a slight downturn of 42% to earn $12.3 million. The cop comedy has now raked in a little under $93 million in total, and has officially pulled up ahead of Kevin Hart’s last hit film, Think Like a Man, which grossed $91.5 million in 2012. This is the third weekend in a row Ride Along finished the weekend ahead of its competitors. Such a distinction has earned it a place among lucrative company: Gravity and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug also reigned as kings of the box office for three or more consecutive weekends.

Speaking of royalty, the princess protagonists of Disney’s Frozen have yet to lose their appeal. The Mouse House released a sing-along version of its tenacious hit film, and the gambit paid off. Frozen climbed right back up the box-office charts to land at No. 2 this weekend, adding another $9.3 million to its staggering cume of $360+ million. It’s on track to out-gross Despicable Me 2 ($368.1 million) by mid-month.

That Awkward Moment will likely be on its way out by the time Frozen reaches the aforementioned benchmark. Moment marks the worst opening yet for a Zac Efron vehicle: The film debuted to $9 million. With an underwhelming Cinemascore rating of a “B” and less than laudatory reviews from the critics, That Awkward Moment will probably flame out to $20 million or so by the time it finishes up its theatrical run.

At No. 4, The Nut Job earned $7.6 million and crossed the $50 million mark on Sunday (we should have opted for a lively kids’ film over yesterday’s ho-hum football game, too). Lone Survivor just missed besting the animated caper, grossing $7.2 million and enjoying a box-office milestone of its own: The film has now earned $100 million. In fact, Survivor is the last 2013 release to do so, making it the 35th movie in the past year to earn $100 million or more – a new box-office record.  The last year to have seen so many $100 million successes was 2009, when 32 movies earned the distinction.

Unfortunately, Labor Day’s distinction is not nearly so positive. The Jason Reitman romance had the worst opening of the weekend. Day bombed with $5.4 million. Technically speaking, the film’s debut is better than previous Reitman efforts Young Adult ($3.4 million) and Thank You for Smoking ($4.5 million), however, those films both had much smaller releases, opening in roughly half the number of theaters than Labor Day. Reitman’s contemporary David O. Russell, on the other hand, is in the midst of a career upswing. American Hustle is now the director’s most successful movie, beating Silver Linings Playbook with its current standing of $133.6 million.

Finally, Gravity added $2 million to its domestic cume of $264 million. Over half its earnings stemmed from IMAX screenings.