Friday, May 30, 2014

Week in review: 5/26 - 5/30

This week, writers across the Web discussed modern misogyny, gun control, and mental illness, among other topics related to the tragic events of last Friday in Isla Vista, CA. Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday argued Hollywood bears some responsibility for propagating the kind of misogyny many believe -- given his YouTube videos and vitriolic writings -- fueled Elliot Rodger's shooting spree. In singling out "out-sized frat boy fantasies like Neighbors," however, Hornaday angered the film's star, Seth Rogen, and frequent Rogen collaborator Judd Apatow, whom she also named in her piece. Both entertainers fired back over Twitter ("I find your article horribly insulting and misinformed," tweeted Rogen), eventually prompting Hornaday to clarify her statements on "The Tony Kornheiser Show": "I was using their work as an example, not to suggest blame or cause and effect," she said, before lauding Apatow's "Freaks and Geeks" and Funny People.

Her conciliatory remarks notwithstanding, Hornaday has suffered a backlash, as have many of the women participating in, as well as many of the men decrying, the Twitter movement #YesAllWomen. Women across the nation have taken to the social media platform to share their stories of quotidian and extreme misogyny. Interestingly, even eerily, The New York Times published an article just two days before the Isla Vista shooting, in which celebrities and other notables debated the state of modern feminism. The thought piece was prompted in part by the answer Shailene Woodley recently gave to TIME magazine when asked if she considers herself a feminist: "No. Because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance.” Talk about backlash -- Woodley has received a lot of heat for her remarks. She doesn't understand feminism, the kinder critics claim. But, as the NYT article makes clear, it isn't such an easy, homogenous, theory to understand.

Far clearer are those news items that deal in numbers, dollars and cents. Their ideology might be difficult to pin down, but it's safe to assume many feminists have embraced the world's newest fifth highest-grossing movie of all time: Frozen. The Disney cartoon about sisterly love surpassed Iron Man 3's worldwide total over the weekend.

Finally, for those searching for further positivity regarding the State of the Modern Female, we suggest taking a peak at Buzzfeed's thorough analysis of Angelina Jolie, the persona.

Happy Friday -- here's the trailer for the recently wrapped Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or winner, Winter Sleep!

‘Maleficent’ to weave a spell over weekend B.O.

Disney’s reimagining of the “Sleeping Beauty” fairytale, propelled by seemingly endless public fascination with lead Angelina Jolie, bows nationwide and in most international markets today. Pre-sales for Maleficent are currently stronger than were those for the similarly dark-themed Snow White and the Huntsman at this same point in 2012 – Huntsman would gross $56.2 million its opening weekend. Maleficent is also, of course, a product of The Mouse House, which is likely hoping for a success on par with its previous CGI fairytale offerings Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful (the latter opened to $79.1 million last year). While both interest in and critical praise of Jolie herself is strong, the film has received some pretty lackluster reviews. It dropped almost 20 percentage points on Rotten Tomatoes in less than a day, from 63 percent fresh yesterday afternoon to 46 percent rotten this morning. Still, it’s unclear to what extent reviews for a film like this, which has a dedicated fan base behind its lead actress, as well as behind the original story and/or 1959 Disney cartoon, hold sway. All told, Maleficent should earn the No. 1 spot at the box office this weekend, with an opening haul in the mid-to-high $50 millions.

Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West is the other major release opening today, but it’s unlikely the comedy will slip into the No. 2 spot behind Maleficent. Instead, last week’s successful X-Men: Days of Future Past is expected to hold well enough to earn the second-place title. Dropoffs for films that opened as strongly as did X-Men tend to be fairly steep their second weekends in theatres, so expect a dip around 60 percent. That should still be enough to beat out West, which has earned roundly terrible reviews (34 percent rotten). Though MacFarlane can boast a dedicated fan base of his own, proponents of “Family Guy” and Ted might be less than enthused at the prospect of watching their funnyman as a kind-of romantic lead, no matter how “kind-of” a romance it is.  Many pundits are speculating MacFarlane’s poorly reviewed performance as host of 2013’s Oscars lost him some audience goodwill as well (although most MacFarlane fans remained so after the telecast. He didn’t so much lose fans as fail to win himself some more.). The director-writer-actor’s Ted was a success when it opened to $54 million in 2012; West, on the other hand, is looking at a low $20-millions bow.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Turkey's Nuri Bilge Ceylan takes top honors at Cannes

FJI correspondent J. Sperling Reich wraps up his Cannes coverage with a report on the festival's award winners.

As the 67th edition of the Cannes Film Festival drew to a close, the competition entry with the longest running time was awarded the event's top prize. The Palme d'Or went to Winter Sleep from Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who gave a brief and emotional speech in accepting the award.
Though Turkish is his native tongue, and the awards ceremony was conducted primarily in French, Ceylan spoke in English, saying, “This is a great surprise for me. This year is the 100th year of Turkish cinema, and it’s a good coincidence, I think." He went on to reference the ongoing political and social unrest occurring in in his homeland. "I dedicate this award to the young people of Turkey who lost their lives during the last year.”

Like many of Ceylan's films, Winter Sleep is not a straightforward narrative. The movie focuses on a retired actor running a tourist hotel in Cappadocia, a naturally picturesque area in the Anatolia region of Turkey. The film runs three hours and 16 minutes, consisting mostly of scenes wherein the main character engages in endless arguments with his sister, young wife and anyone he comes into contact with. It is a layered story in which class differences and the definition of freedom are constant yet subtle themes.

Ceylan can place this year's Palme d'Or next to three other trophies his films have won in Cannes. In 2011, his last film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, was awarded the Grand Prix. “I have won a lot of awards at Cannes, but to take home the Palme d’or, that’s amazing," Ceylan told journalists after the ceremony. He also acknowledged the length of Winter Sleep. "When I wrote the film’s script, I did so as if I were writing a novel. I realized afterwards that it was too long. The first film was four-and-a-half hours long. I finally shortened it during the editing process."

Winter Sleep was one of the more eagerly anticipated films at this year's fest. There was nearly a riot at its premiere screening midway through the festival when hundreds of attendees and journalists were unable to get into the Grand Théâtre Lumière. Critics were mostly kind to Ceylan's film, and as the event wore on it clearly stood out as the frontrunner for the Palme d'Or.

That changed on Wednesday, just a few days before Cannes ended. In what had to be a conscious move, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremeaux and his team programmed Adieu Au Langage (Goodbye to Language), an experimental 3D entry from Jean-Luc Godard, up against the press screening of Mommy, directed by Canadian Xavier Dolan. At 83, Nouvelle Vague veteran Godard was the oldest director in Cannes this year, whereas Dolan, who is 25, is the youngest filmmaker to ever have a title in competition.

Dolan's Mommy is a powerful drama about a single mother struggling to deal with her bipolar, delinquent teenage son. Between its unique use of a square aspect ratio and brilliant performances, Mommy instantly became the talk of Cannes, with many predicting it would walk off with the Palme.

In typical Cannes fashion, that sentiment lasted roughly 24 hours, until the press screening of Leviathan, Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyaginstev's parable on the sociopolitical ills facing modern Russia.

If festival programmers weren't cognizant of juxtaposing Godard's work against that of Dolan, then the jury deciding awards most definitely was. Headed by New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, and comprised of artists such as actor Willem Dafoe and directors Sofia Coppola and Nicolas Winding Refn, the group awarded the Jury Prize to both Godard and Dolan. Campion reported that the jury was "aware" that awarding the prize to Godard and Dolan would look intentional and she admitted that it most certainly was.

Godard himself decided to skip this year's festival entirely and wasn't present in Cannes to accept the award. Alain Sarde, the producer of Adieu au Langage, stood in for his director, stating later, “Jean-Luc must certainly know that he’s won this prize. I haven’t called him since it’s late, but you obviously know that this prize is not going to revolutionize his world. It’s a regular prize intended for young directors like Xavier Dolan. He is 25, and Jean-Luc is 83. It’s wonderfully symbolic.”

Dolan, on the other hand, personally attended the awards ceremony in Cannes. He took time out of his acceptance speech to tell Campion that her film The Piano changed his life. "It made me want to write roles for women, beautiful roles with soul and will and strength. Not victims, not objects," he said. (Incidentally, The Piano won the Palme d'Or in 1993.)

Speaking with journalists after the ceremony Campion returned Dolan's kind words by complimenting Mommy. "It's such a great, brilliant and modern film," she said. "Dolan is kind of a genius, I think."

That he was paired with a cinematic legend was certainly not lost on Dolan. “With this decision, I recognize the deliberate gesture made by the jury to associate me and Jean-Luc Godard in cinema due to our search for freedom in two different eras," he stated. "He attempted to reinvent cinema in an era that he created. I would also like to be associated with such a change in direction. The jury perceived the sensitivity of both an old and young man, proof that cinema expresses itself through the generations.”

Like Mommy, the buzz for Zvyaginstev's Leviathan often contained whispers of a Palme d'Or. Though the Palme eluded Zvyaginstev, the filmmaker did not leave empty-handed, as he took home the screenwriting award with his co-writer Oleg Negin.

Campion and her fellow jurors spread the love around, as Cannes juries sometimes like to do, by presenting awards to eight of this year's 18 competition films. Bennett Miller won Best Director for Foxcatcher, which features Steve Carell in a dramatic role. Carell plays the heir to the du Pont family fortune in a true story that revolves around Olympic wrestlers.

For her performance as an increasingly desperate movie star in David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, Julianne Moore earned the Best Actress prize. The film is a searing take on Hollywood and its industry culture that often cuts a little too close to the bone. To be sure, Moore was one of the standouts during this year's festival, though the award just as easily could have gone to any number of actresses who turned in similarly strong performances, including Marion Cotillard for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Night or Anne Dorval who plays the mother in Mommy.

Timothy Spall gave one of the more moving, if not rambling, speeches of the evening upon winning Best Actor for Mr. Turner. Spall plays the main character in director Mike Leigh's biopic of the famous British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. More widely known as a character actor in supporting roles than as a leading man, Spall joked, “I’ve spent a lot of time being a bridesmaid. This is the first time I’ve ever been a bride, so I’m quite pleased about that."

The actor had to be called back to the festival in order to accept the award. He thanked Leigh, with whom he has made numerous films over three decades, including Secrets & Lies. which took the Palme d'Or at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. Spall was unable to attend the festival for that film since he was undergoing treatment for leukemia at the time. “I thank God that I’m still here and alive,” he said.

‘X-Men’ tops holiday charts

On par with expectations, X-Men: Days of Future Past earned the No. 1 spot at the box office this Memorial Day weekend. The superhero flick’s $111 million domestic tally makes it the second highest-grossing X-Men movie ever, falling just $12 million shy of X-Men: The Last Stand’s record-setting opening haul. Though it failed to meet the bar set by that particular success past, Days of Future Past nonetheless enjoyed the fifth-best Memorial Day weekend bow of all time.

And audiences weren’t disappointed. The predominantly male (56 percent) and older (59 percent over the age of 25) crowd awarded the film a solid “A” CinemaScore grade. X-Men movies are often front-loaded, however, so it remains to be seen whether, or to what extent, its current buzz carries over into the weeks ahead. At the very least, filmmakers and studio can claim success abroad: The film earned a stellar $171 million overseas, with China and its $37.7 million contribution leading the charge.

Last week’s surprise hit Godzilla fell to the No. 2 slot this weekend, taking a pretty steep, 67 percent hit to earn $39.4 million for the four days. Largely thanks to its boffo opening last Friday-Sunday, the movie has so far grossed $156.8 million. It’s on track to total out in the low $200 millions.

Blended, the holiday weekend’s other new major release, went belly-up at the box office. The Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore comedy earned just $18.2 million for the four days, continuing a downturn for Sandler that has seen his more recent films idling in the low to mid-teens. (Not counting Memorial Day, Blended took in $14.2 million for the weekend, or only slightly more than That’s My Boy’s $13.5 million opening, and significantly less than Jack and Jill’s $25 million bow.)

Neighbors earned the weekend’s fourth-place slot with $17.2 million for the four days, out-earning that other superhero offering currently in theatres, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which grossed $10 million over the same period. Like Godzilla, Spidey’s eventual total should land somewhere in the low $200 millions.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Week in Review: 5/19 - 5/23

The man behind the iconic imagery of '70's classics The Godfather, Manhattan and Annie Hall, cinematographer Gordon Willis, passed away from metastatic cancer on Sunday. He was 82.

Willis was professionally known for his sparing use of light. Personally, he was irascible, and though he got along well with his famous director collaborators, Hollywood was less amenable to his anti-establishment views. As John Anderson details in his NYT obit, between 1971 and 1977, 39 of the films on which Willis worked garnered Oscar noms. Willis himself, however, did not earn a single one, although he did later win an Academy Award for The Godfather Part III in 1990, and received an honorary Oscar in 2009. He influenced cinematographers from Raging Bull's Michael Chapman to Groundhog Day's John Bailey.

If Willis' personality could be called "prickly," the word would be among the kinder characterizations for current relations between Walt Disney's surviving heirs. On Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter published a fascinating piece on the legal woes of Brad and Michelle Disney Lund. Trustees of the fund Brad and Michelle's deceased mother and Disney's daughter Sharon left to her children, have decided to grant Michelle her portion of the millions but not her twin brother. The twins' father and Sharon's ex-husband Bill, along with his new wife Sherry, have added their voices to the fracas, with the resulting accusations of drug abuse, mental illness and incest flying fast and crass. The sad saga is ongoing, proving the Shakespearean tenet that the success of the father is invariably visited tenfold in the sins of his children.

Children and legal action were foremost in the minds of deceased Midnight Rider camera assistant Sarah Jones' parents this week as well. The couple has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a number of parties involved in the Gregg Allman biopic, including the film's production company, director, director of photography, and location manager. The family is seeking an unspecified amount "to be determined by the enlightened conscience of the jury."

Happily, not every news item this week dealt in family tragedy. Hollywood kept churning, as it does, and Wednesday saw the announcement of the Coen Brothers signing on to write a draft of Steven Spielberg's new Cold War thriller starring Tom Hanks. (We suggest you don't stare too long at the previous sentence; the combined star wattage may prove overwhelming.)

Finally, in a great read for the long weekend, Cabinet Magazine published this comprehensive piece on Golden Era make-up artist Max Factor and his industry -- later societal -- cosmetic innovations.

Happy Memorial Day weekend!

‘X-Men’ eyes opening north of $100 million

The casts of both X-Men series -- the early 2000s films and more recent First Class reboot -- unite in this weekend’s hyped release, X-Men: Days of Future Past. The film’s star wattage is impressive: Hugh Jackman plays fan-favorite Wolverine; Internet darling Jennifer Lawrence is Mystique; lauded thesps Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen portray wizened versions of frenemies Professor X and Magneto, respectively; and the thinking woman’s eye-candy, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, are on board as Professor X and Magneto such as they were circa 1973. People travel back through time, buildings explode, a baseball stadium levitates. Add the Marvel name and Peter Dinklage, and Fox, though predicting returns in the mid $90-million range, should see a bow north of $100 million.

The studio has reason to be optimistic. Its marketing campaign has been strong, with an emphasis on premiere and promotional appearances from the cast. Jennifer Lawrence’s post-Oscars story of drunken embarrassment, for instance, related on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and much speculated about prior to the segment’s air date, has been the Web’s hot topic of conversation for weeks.  X-Men advertisements are everywhere; apparently, 3D images from the film will be projected onto the busy streets of the Oxford Circus juncture in London later today.  And none of this even touches upon the existence of all those millions of X-Men, or just plain superhero, fans, who would show up to an X-Men film regardless of publicity, anyway.

Last weekend’s surprise monster hit Godzilla should continue to hold well, but not so well that it poses a threat to X-Men. The performance of the weekend’s other new major release, Blended, is trickier to predict. Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore are a popular and appealing couple, but Sandler’s box-office clout has diminished of late, and Barrymore has worked only intermittently within the past few years. Still, there’s reason to believe their latest pairing should do fine, that is, a solid $30 million opening. In other words, the Memorial Day Weekend box-office chart should break down as follows:

1. X-Men: Days of Future Past
2. Godzilla
3. Blended

Poor Spidey.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

'The Wedding Singer' and in defense of Adam Sandler

As expected, the latest film to pair Adam Sandler with Drew Barrymore has received terrible, horrible, no good, very bad reviews. Blended is currently tracking 12 percent rotten on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s classic bad Sandler, so says the consensus, another low for an actor whose comedic efforts traffic in a humor so base it’s practically subterranean. One upbeat reviewer did, however, have this to say: “The movie belongs to Sandler and Barrymore, who connect with electricity and sparks.”

Well, they certainly did once. There are those who believe Sandler has never been very funny, even at his most popular. They claim they’re immune to the charms of his Hurlihy Boy or Canteen Boy SNL skits; they resist the urge to hum along with the Hanukkah Song; they hold  elation at bay when Billy Madison triumphs over his father’s evil assistant (Bradley Whitford) in an academic decathlon that would surely have made many an Athenian, if not their ribald gods, blush. Ok. They’re likely not fans of Chris Farley either, or even John Belushi and his projectile interpretation of a zit. Sophomoric humor isn’t for everyone when it’s done well, let alone when it’s written 50-First-Dates poorly. But, once, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore did it very well. The Wedding Singer is the first and finest of their collaborations. It is also one of the best romantic comedies of the past 20 years.

What makes a good rom-com? Years ago, those preceding and just after 1998’s The Wedding Singer in fact, it seems studios knew: Cast a Julia Roberts-Sandra Bullock-Meg Ryan-Renee Zellweger pretty but nonthreatening type (Angelina Jolie as she is today, weighted with sexuality, would never have flown) alongside a Hugh Grant-John Cusack-Tom Hanks handsome but non-intimidating actor (which may explain why Gerard Butler’s forays into the genre have not been very successful). Have them banter with witticisms laypeople would never use, but which are easily accessible. Do not be afraid of earnestness. And then – and this is among the most important factors for ensuring repeat-viewings and therefore healthy home video sales – add a great soundtrack.

 The Wedding Singer is no Nora Ephron production, but it hits its notes roundly. The year is 1980-something-or-other and Robbie Hart (Sandler) is the titular crooner preparing for his nuptials. He hits it off with a sweet, friendly waitress (Barrymore) at one of his gigs, but, as Julia is also engaged, their meet-cute remains an innocent if knowing kind of just cute. While preparations for her Big Day hum along nicely, Robbie is devastated when his punk-rock fiancée leaves him at the altar. Her excuse? He’s not the aspiring rockstar she fell in love with, having turned into something far worse than a White Snake wannabe: He’s a wedding singer. Luckily, Julia reappears to cheer Robbie up, and in a bid to distract him from his heartache, solicits his expert wedding advice on everything from cake to the all-important performer for her own ceremony (Jon Lovitz’s cameo as a greasy, fellow wedding singer here is a high point). It doesn’t take long for Robbie to fall in love with Julia, and even sooner for him to realize her hubby to-be is, politely, a turd. Robbie determines to win Julia himself.

Screenwriter Tim Herlihy is responsible for some of the best (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore) and worst (Little Nicky) of Sandler vehicles. In The Wedding Singer, his blend of romantic earnestness and broad comedy achieves an appeal intermittently evident in previous Sandler collaborations, notably in the “Endless Love” scene from Happy Gilmore, and not since sustained. Take, for instance, the scene in which Robbie, after having vowed never again to sing, reluctantly performs for Julia. He chooses a song of which he wrote half while still engaged, and half after he got dumped. It’s a schizophrenic mash-up that is part The Cure ballad and part cri de coeur of a raw, National Geographic timbre. The abrupt tonal shift halfway through the tune, those Dr. Seuss rhymes for which Sandler is known, the actor’s commitment to wailing, and Barrymore’s stunned take on a straight-faced “I like it” response, all get the laughs. But the embarrassment, frustration, anger, hurt, self-indulgence and self-pity attendant on romantic betrayal are all present and – and this is something missing from more recent Sandler comedies – present in veracious form. The scene is funny ‘cause it’s true.

Barrymore is just the right blend of rom-com pretty and nonthreatening, while the never intimidating Sandler is an appealing hangdog. Really, he just wants to get married and have a family. There’s a sentimental streak in almost all of Sandler’s comedies, no matter how crass the highs and lows achieved within the individual jokes. The Wedding Singer is unafraid of earnestness, but its jokes manage to offset the treacly story without discordantly ranging too far in another, offensive, direction. Robbie calls the ugly guests at one wedding, all relegated to a single singles table, mutants, early on in the film. His fiancée has just dumped him, he’s drunk and smelly, singing “Love Stinks” to a newly married pair. “The mutants at table nine” initially eye him with as much wariness as the wedding’s other guests, but they soon embrace him as heartily as he embrace-mocks (not mockingly embraces) them. Love’s castoffs are his people, those who are romantically unwanted for shallow and therefore no good reason. Love stinks, in other words. It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.

And then there are those songs. “Love Stinks,” the schizo “Somebody Kill Me” and the crowning reason The Wedding Singer is a satisfying comedic romance, “I Wanna Grow Old With You.” The latter provides the film’s climax and the culmination of a ridiculous and awesome scene featuring Billy Idol on an airplane. In our review of Blended here at Film Journal, our writer concludes her piece with an assessment of Sandler’s genre chops: “And one more thing: No matter how many times he tries, Adam Sandler can’t do romance, and he will never, ever, be an appealing leading man.” I would argue, however, “an appealing leading man,” and a romantic one at that, is precisely what Sandler is in this moment of The Wedding Singer:

"I Wanna to Grow Old With You" is a bid for affection grounded in pragmatism. Romance is not a passionate kiss shared by two young and gym-toned beauties backlit by a beach sunset. It’s someone who will let you hold the remote control. Someone with whom to share the quotidian. It’s romantic ‘cause it’s true.

Yet for all that, The Wedding Singer is ultimately a great rom-com because of the chemistry shared by its two leads. It is a film that proves, when given the right material, Sandler and Barrymore are capable of something great. Maybe they should have quit while they were ahead, but it would be a shame if present (and, let’s hope not, future) missteps obscured the reason they’ve made several films together to begin with.

Steve Carell generates buzz in Cannes with 'Foxcatcher'

FJI's Cannes correspondent J. Sperling Reich reports on Steve Carell's surprising dramatic role in the new film from the director of Moneyball.

Please note: Foxcatcher is based on a true story. If you are unfamiliar with the incidents the film depicts, be aware that this article reveals key plot points.

Last September, Sony Pictures Classics surprised everyone by pushing back the release date of Foxcatcher by nearly a year. With the success of director Bennett Miller's previous film, Moneyball, the Oscar buzz swirling around Foxcatcher had just begun to build. The move would mean that Foxcatcher would miss out on last year's awards season, though after it was roundly praised by critics following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this week, that may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
One of the more eagerly anticipated selections in Cannes this year (alongside entries from David Cronenberg and Belgium's Dardenne Brothers), Foxcatcher was given a prime programming slot in the middle of the festival. The film tells the true and ultimately tragic story of freestyle wrestler and Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz, who is plucked out of a grim existence by John du Pont, heir to the international chemical company which bears his families name.

A self-proclaimed wrestling aficionado, du Pont brings Mark, played by Channing Tatum, to his estate outside Philadelphia to train for the 1988 Olympics. The enormous estate, named Foxcatcher, is dominated by du Pont's mansion and his aging mother's prized thoroughbred horses. It also houses an athletic facility specifically built by du Pont to train an Olympic wrestling team.

As the story progresses, Mark forms a paternal relationship with du Pont, played by Steve Carell in his most serious role to date. Carell's du Pont is a complicated and insecure man with a patriotic love for America and all its history. Yet, du Pont always seems a little distant and mentally unstable. When Mark begins to struggle with his training, du Pont brings in the wrestler's older brother, Dave, portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, who is also an Olympic gold medalist in the sport.

The preparations for production of Foxcatcher mirrored the training wrestlers would undertake to compete in the Olympics. Tatum and Ruffalo immersed themselves in wrestling, spending upwards of six months practicing with some of the sport's top athletes. "Mark and I both have cauliflower ears as take-home presents from it and bad knees," recounted Tatum. "It was definitely something that gets into your body in a good way."

Ruffalo's character initially resists the temptation, and large paycheck, of joining his younger brother at Foxcatcher to coach a U.S. wrestling team alongside du Pont, who knows little about wrestling and even less about coaching. This theme, that eventually anyone can be bought, is an undercurrent that runs throughout the film.

"What happens to talent when its for sale or it an be acquired by a price?" Ruffalo asked rhetorically. "There's those moments that these people have, really, really talented people who can't really do what they do best in the world unless they can figure out a way to monetize it. But it costs them and it costs their talent a great deal." It is hard not to wonder if Ruffalo, who made a name for himself starring in small independent movies, might be referring to himself, given his recent appearance in blockbusters such as The Avengers.

The story of John du Pont and his relationship with the Schultz brothers does not have a happy ending. In 1996, in the throes of mental illness, du Pont shot Dave Schultz three times, killing him. The film presents the killing exactly as it occurred in real life: in Schultz's driveway in front of his wife and the du Pont estate's head of security. Du Pont was ultimately convicted of murder the following year and spent the last 13 years of his life in prison.

If this kind of ripped-from-the-headlines tale doesn't help Foxcatcher build audience awareness, there is no doubt Carell's performance as du Pont is likely to do so. The final credits were still rolling during the film's first screening in Cannes when whisperings of an Oscar nomination for the actor could be heard.

Though Carell may be best, perhaps only, known for his comedic roles, Miller didn't hesitate in casting him as du Pont. "It obviously doesn't resemble anything he had done before and I will tell you it was so far outside of his comfort zone," Miller admitted. "We met and we just talked about the character, and truthfully I had never seen Steve do anything that would give any material evidence that he could do this, but we just chatted and I heard how he thought and was thinking about the character. I just thought he could do it and he will commit himself to doing it. It might hurt, but it will get there."

Carell doesn't understand what all the fuss is about in regards to his playing a role in a film which has absolutely no humorous moments. According to the actor, he did nothing different for Foxcatcher than he would for any of the other films in which he's appeared. "It's really the same approach you take to a comedy," he said. "Because I don't think characters in films know that they are in a comedy or a drama. I think that they are just characters in films. The same applied to this. I didn't approach it as a drama necessarily, it was just a story and a character within that story."

If the initial response Foxcatcher and Carell's performance received here in Cannes is any indication, that character may keep him quite busy come Oscar time.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Hollywood toasted on the Croisette, roasted onscreen

While the stars of The Expendables 3 caused a Cannes commotion arriving in tanks at the Palais, David Cronenberg's latest skewed the excesses of Hollywood. FJI critic Jon Frosch reports for France 24.

Tommy Lee Jones plays nice in Cannes to promote 'The Homesman'

A pleasant Tommy Lee Jones? J. Sperling Reich reports on a surprising press conference at Cannes.

Any journalist covering Hollywood over the past 20 years is aware of, or has experienced first-hand, how difficult it can be to interview actor Tommy Lee Jones. It's not that he's reserved and introverted the way say, Harrison Ford, is during interviews. He's just downright ornery. The tales of his grumpy interactions with members of the press are so notorious that if there were a definition of "bad interview" in the dictionary, then Jones' picture would likely accompany it.

So, when Jones arrived at this year's Cannes with his second directorial effort to appear in competition at the festival, nobody knew what to expect, though you can be sure expectations were tempered. Not for the movie itself, as his previous film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada premiered in 2005 at Cannes and was well-received. Rather, the 400 journalists gathered at the official press conference for The Homesman were fully expecting a contentious affair.

But when Jones arrived at the microphones surrounded by a cast that includes Hilary Swank and Miranda Otto and producers Luc Besson and Michael Fitzgerald, he was uncharacteristically pleasant. In fact, upon realizing some of the international press corps was struggling to ask questions in a foreign tongue, Jones interjected, "I would like to say something before we go any further. I would like to thank you all for asking these questions in English and for being patient enough to listen to us answer in English. We know we are in France and we appreciate your use of English in this conference."
That is not the type of humble behavior one would ever witness from the character Jones plays in his movie. In The Homesman, Jones portrays an unsympathetic claim jumper in the Old West named George Briggs alongside the movie's other main character, Marry Bee Cuddy played by Hilary Swank. Cuddy is an independent, brash homesteader whose unmarried status is one of her greatest concerns. She agrees to transport three insane women eastward across the plains of Nebraska toward a civilization that might be able to accommodate their mental illness and, after saving his life, forces Briggs to accompany her.

Based on Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 book of the same name, The Homesman focuses its attention on an aspect often overlooked in cinematic westerns: pioneer women. Anchored by noteworthy performances from Swank and Jones, it manages to convey the hardships of pioneer life, especially for women. The story keeps viewers engaged by never taking the obvious or expected narrative turn and is delivered through the fine camerawork of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.

Premiering to positive reviews from the critics here in Cannes, Jones realizes The Homesman is anything but a typical western. "The journey in this movie is the inverse of what you usually see in a movie that has wagons and horses in it and the subject matter is insane women instead of heroic men," he said when asked about the movies unusual approach and themes. "I won't try to hide the fact that a consideration of American imperialism on the west side of the Mississippi River is an underlying theme. But I'll let the movie speak for itself."

"It's a vision of America that we don't know, so for me it looks like a [Akira] Kurosawa film," added Besson. "It's very exotic. I didn't know the West was so hard and so difficult. We know about the American dream and we love it, but it's good to have the truth also, before the dream."

Besson, a renowned French director in his own right, also produced Jones’ first feature film Three Burials, and pointed out that his company's financing of both movies is a bit ironic. "The funny thing is the first movie was the relationship between U.S. and Mexico and this one is about how the United States starts and both times they call the French," he laughed.

Inasmuch as The Homesman is a non-traditional western, so too is Swank's Cuddy, at least for a woman, alone on a farm in the mid-1800s. Having entered her 30s without a husband, she reverses gender roles on more than one occasion by asking men to marry her. In propositioning these men, Cuddy pitches her finances, land and other attributes, explaining how despite her plain looks such an arrangement would be wise.

Swank has won two Academy Awards for inhabiting strong women onscreen before, ones whose character and morale were meant to outweigh any physical beauty. Swank, however, waves off any concern that she will be typecast for playing unattractive women. "I like real people. I like real women," she said. "It's obviously subjective what people find pretty or not. I've had a lot of people say Maggie Fitzgerald from Million Dollar Baby or Marie Bee Cuddy from this film are beautiful because they are natural and they are real. So it really is a subjective thing to say what is pretty and what is gorgeous."

As the conference wore on, Mr. Jones desire to promote his film began to give way to his impatience for the obligations required to do so. When asked if he was concerned whether there might be some controversy over a brief scene in which Native Americans appear to threaten The Homesman's main characters, Jones responded, "I don't have any concern about it whatsoever. Those people were all Native Americans. They were of Pueblan descent. They all claimed to be expert [horse] riders. Not one of them could ride one side of a horse, but they did look like Pawnees."

And when the subject of post-production was raised via a journalist's request for Jones to elaborate on his work with editor Roberto Silvi, you could see from his response that Jones may have surpassed his ability to play nice with the press. "It's not really hard work, I don't think," he replied. "It's time-consuming, but if you look at the footage of any day that we shot, the editing choices are obvious. If you think freely and openly about it, you can really see how to do it. It's not a big puzzle. I have a friend named Ron Shelton [Bull Durham, Tin Cup] who's a pretty good movie director and when I first started 20 years ago directing movies I asked what is the best point of view to take with an editor and he said 'over the shoulder.’”

Ah…now there's the Tommy Lee Jones we've all come to know, love and admire. 

‘Godzilla’ squashes B.O. competition

Monster-movie remake Godzilla enjoyed the second-best opening of 2014 this past weekend. The flick, starring Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen, opened to a boffo $93 million. That’s just a few million dollars short of Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s $95 million debut (and just ahead of The Amazing Spider Man 2’s more recent $91.6 million bow). A large portion of the audience opted to view the rampaging lizard in 3D, which accounted for 51 percent of the film’s total earnings, $14.1 million of which came from IMAX specifically. It was a predominantly male (58 percent) and older (60 percent over the age of 25) crowd that awarded Godzilla an OK CinemaScore grade of a B+. In other words, viewers liked but didn’t love the creature feature, which faces stiff competition this weekend when the blockbuster X Men: Days of Futures Past opens to, most likely, a box-office monopoly.

In second place, comedy Neighbors raked in $26 million, a downturn of 47 percent. After two weeks in theatres, the film’s total earnings stand at $91.5 million. Neighbors should end its theatrical run with $150 million or so.

The mixed-reviewed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 clocked in at No. 3 with a $16.8 million haul. The film suffered a dropoff of 63 percent this weekend, though its total to date is a nonetheless solid $172 million. Once again, with X Men: Days of Future Past looming on, to the extent of practically overtaking, the horizon, Spidey is in for an even poorer showing this coming weekend.

Though a majority of critics seemed to enjoy Million Dollar Arm (60 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), audiences showed little enthusiasm for the based-on-a-true-story baseball feature. Arm disappointed with a fourth-place, $10.5 million opening, which translates to roughly half of Moneyball’s debut ($19.5 million), even if it is a bit higher than Draft Day’s $9.8 million bow. Pundits predict total returns should end up tallying out to $30 million.

Finally, femme comedy The Other Woman rounded out the weekend’s top five. The Cameron Diaz film added an additional $6.3 million to a total that now stands at over $70 million and counting.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

After 'Winter Sleep,' perking up with 'Wild Tales'

FJI correspondent J. Sperling Reich's Friday in Cannes was highlighted by a long but rewarding drama from festival regular Nuri Bilge Ceylan and an outrageous comedy from Argentina.

If selecting entries for an international film festival weren't challenging enough, knowing how to schedule their premieres throughout the event is akin to an art form. This year the programmers at the Cannes Film Festival, headed by artistic director Thierry Fremeaux, proved just how skilled they are at both.

Always the first to be criticized when a title doesn't live up to heightened expectations, Fremeaux and his programmers are rarely credited with their ability to juxtapose films against each other during the festival's hectic schedule. It's a task akin to how a museum curator might hang a painting by Georges Braque next to one from Pablo Picasso in an art exhibition on the development of cubism. On Friday, Fremeaux's team pulled off a master stroke by screening Winter Sleep by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan against Wild Tales a film from Argentina made by Damián Szifrón.

Regular Cannes attendees know Ceylan and his work. His films have appeared here for more than a decade, including Climates in 2006, Three Monkeys in 2008 (for which he won the Best Director prize) and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, which won the Grand Prix in 2011. Thus, audiences were well aware what they had signed up for when the lights dimmed in the Grand Théâtre Lumière for its premiere.

Ceylan's movies are long, beautifully shot, slow pieces, often with only the subtle hint of a narrative throughline. It is not uncommon for festival audiences to flee midway through his films. Winter Sleep is no different, and in fact manages to perfectly underscore all of these characteristics.
Clocking in at three hours and 16 minutes, the movie takes its time to unwind what might be construed as a plot, though not in the traditional sense of the word. Set amidst the steppes of Cappadocia in the Anatolia region of Turkey, the film revolves around Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a retired actor who now runs a small hotel with Necla (Demet Akbag), his sister, and Nihal (Melisa Sözen), his much younger wife with whom he has a fractious relationship. As the film progresses, the characters grow ever more isolated in their remote hotel and their interactions begin to simmer with tension.

It is easy to see why film critics in Cannes have compared Winter Sleep to the work of Chekhov. The film features long stretches of rapid dialogue and anyone who doesn't speak Turkish needs to have Olympic training in subtitle reading to keep up with the conversation. One scene between the patriarchal Aydin and his sister Necla goes on for what must be 20 minutes and devolves into a bitter, abusive argument, as the camera cuts between two head shots for what seems like an eternity.

What we don't see a lot of in Winter Sleep is Cappadocia itself, considered to be one of most beautiful places on Earth. Though Ceylan spends the first few minutes presenting panoramic shots of breathtaking scenery, much of the film occurs indoors. This was exactly the filmmaker’s intent. "I actually didn't want to use it, but I had to," he said of the region’s picturesque qualities. "I originally wanted a very simple, plain place, but the film had to be set in a tourist area, and I needed a hotel that is a little isolated, outside of town. Cappadocia was the only place I could find that in the winter time still had tourists."

In talking about a location that provides a backdrop most filmmakers would be jealous of, Ceylan's sensibility, and possibly his personality, slip through. "I was afraid of shooting in Cappadocia because it might have been too beautiful, too interesting," he said. "But I didn't show it too much, I hope."

While Winter Sleep can be a bit of a slog, maintaining the interest of only the most diehard cineastes, like most of Ceylan's films, seeing it through to the end is strangely rewarding. You're not sure entirely what you've witnessed but know it perfectly captured the difficulty of fragile human relationships and the struggle between class differences, all delivered in a unique signature manner.

Less than an hour after audiences completed Ceylan's marathon of seriousness, the festival invited members of the press to see the first screening of Szifròn's Wild Tales. It could not have been more perfect programming.

Tired and a bit exhausted after "the Ceylan," few knew anything about "the Szifròn.” Only that the film was from Argentina and that renowned Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar is one of its producers. What we got was two hours of sheer enjoyment and laughter.

Szifròn has cooked up a dark comedy comprised of a series of standalone short stories or vignettes, featuring characters that suffer through some extraordinary occurrences. To say anything more about this Wild Tales would be to spoil it. But, for example, one story features an explosives demolition engineer who grows ever more frustrated with having his car improperly towed from legal parking spaces. Unlike many of the sketches found within, this one actually ends on what could be considered a positive note.

All of the stories Szifròn includes in Wild Tales are just that, wild tales that spiral out of control in all directions—from the improbable to the violent, from the tragic to vengeful. The very first segment comes before the film's title sequence. It takes place aboard a plane and when the titles raced onto the screen at its conclusion, the audience of 1,200 odd journalists erupted in applause. Needless to say, at a festival known for booing selections when the credits roll, cheering one on after the first five minutes is a rarity.

By the time the lights rose on Wild Tales, our sides hurt from continuous laughter. As the audience filed out of the screening, you could hear giggling every so often from journalists excitedly discussing what they had just seen.

Cannes is not known for including comedies in its official selection, let alone placing them in competition as Wild Tales is. A French journalist standing outside the Salle Debussy, where the film screened, put it best: Wild Tales was a little gift from Fremeaux after the depressive, yet rewarding, strain of Winter Sleep.

That Cannes was able to pull of this kind of high-wire curatorial feet is what makes festival programming an art, not simply a chore of logistical scheduling.

Cannes takes a trip to Sissako's 'Timbuktu'

J. Sperling Reich reports from Cannes on a timely and powerful film set in Mali.

Whether it's Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda's 1981 Palme d'Or-winning movie set during Poland's Solidarity labor movement led by Lech Wałęsa, or last year's Touch of Sin, a commentary on the social ills of modern-day China from director Zhangke Jia, the Cannes Film Festival has never shied away from films that subtly or directly address political discourse in the world. In fact, Cannes programmers seem to have a preference for entries with political overtones.

Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which took home the Palme d'Or in 2004, is a perfect example. So are Paolo Sorrentino's 2008 entry Il Divo, Samira Makhmalbaf's 2003 At Five in the Afternoon which takes place in Afghanistan, or just about any of Jean-Luc Godard's movies that have been shown in Cannes.

This year, however, Cannes programmers, led by artistic director Thierry Fremaux, were particularly timely in selecting Timbuktu as the first film to screen in competition. Specifically, the world currently watches on in horror as the fundamentalist Islamic militant organization Boko Haram holds more than 200 schoolgirls captive in Nigeria. Meanwhile, Timbuktu interweaves the stories of several characters whose lives have become endangered after religious fundamentalists take over the city, imposing strict Sharia law.
While Timbuktu may be a fictional tale, it unfortunately depicts the ongoing fragile reality of Mali, a West African country with a long history of bloody clashes between its citizens. In April of 2012, an Islamist rebel group named Ansar Dine took over Timbuktu and instituted Sharia law. All music, dancing and sports were banned. Women were forced to wear veils, adulterers were stoned to death, and thieves had body parts chopped off. This went on until January of 2013, when French and Malian military forces seized back control of the city.

Having grown up in Mali, filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako knows the country's difficulties quite well. He has previously made films that take place in his homeland (the 52-year-old director now lives in France). This time Sissako was motivated after footage of an unwed couple being stoned to death in Aguelhok, Mali, made its way onto the Internet. Because the couple had children out of wedlock, they were buried in the sand up to their necks and in front of 200 onlookers were hit with stones until they died. A similar scene is included in Timbuktu.

What upset Sissako as much as the fact this event could actually take place in Mali was that the incident generated little international press coverage or outrage. "It was more the fact that nobody talked about it," the filmmaker explained while answering questions about his film shortly after its premiere in Cannes. "The world is such today that when a new mobile phone comes onto the market, the whole of the press talks about it, yet we remain totally and increasingly indifferent in the face of horror. This event therefore was the triggering fact behind the film. I started out to make a documentary, then I gave up on this idea and made the film you saw."

The cast of Timbuktu is comprised mostly of amateurs. One character who plays a pivotal role in the film's storyline is a fisherman named Amadou, who is played by a real fisherman named Amadou who fled Mali due to its ongoing violence. Sissako could not maintain such authenticity when it came to choosing production locations as he, understandably, had to look outside of Mali.

"The idea was to shoot in Timbuktu, and on the 28th of September there was a suicide attack in front of some barracks in Timbuktu," Sissako explained. "So there was a real risk. It would have been far too dangerous to take a crew to Timbuktu. All this happened in October 2013 and we had to quickly find an appropriate location. It was possible to shoot in Mauritania thanks to the government and that's something that people don't often say. When the government enables someone to make a film, gives them the possibility to shoot a film providing for proper safety, it can provide quite a lot of work. There were many difficulties because the various places where we did the shooting are quite far apart and there are only small tracks to get there. It might take half a day to get from A to B."

Thus, Sissako took his cast and crew to Walatah in Mauritania, which fills in for the real Timbuktu. It's a small, ruinous village of crumbling brick structures set amidst an endless expanse of rolling sand dunes. This gave cinematographer Sofian El Fani a sweeping canvas to work with and he did not let it go to waste. It's worth noting El Fani also shot Blue Is the Warmest Color which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year.

There is no shortage of stunning imagery throughout Timbuktu that captures the natural beauty and harsh landscapes of Mauritania and Mali. One important scene takes place at a distance, in a single panoramic shot along a wide river. Another lyrically haunting moment occurs when children from the village play a soccer game without a ball, miming all the action, including goals, for fear of being caught.

It is against this backdrop that the story unfolds, centering mostly on a herdsman named Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) and his family, Satima (Toulou Kiki) and 12-year-old daughter Issan. When Kidane's favorite cow is killed, he takes matters into his own hands and you can only imagine what this must lead to. Over the course of Timbuktu we are presented with various narrative bits from different characters perspectives.

More often than not, these perspectives are viewed through the slits of flowing turbans and face coverings that provide protection front the ever-present sand and grit. This allows only a character’s eyes to be seen, yet Sissako still manages to convey a complicated depth for each of his characters, even those whose actions are less than admirable.

At the same time, the director also overcame the constant translation that had to occur between characters and used it to his advantage. A persistent obstacle to peace in Mali is a population that speaks three languages: Arabic, Touareg and French. Sissako could convey a character's emotions and motives based on how they went about translating or responding to translations.

"Human beings aren't comprised of one dimension. It's not all or nothing," said Sissako about how he tried to show empathy for each of the characters in his film. "Everybody is complex. You have both good and evil. I think it's important to realize that a jihadist is a human being who at a certain point in his life has opted for a certain choice. What you need to do is to make these people at least appear human. They are fragile. At the same time, a person who treats people badly may be wracked by doubt."

It is at this point in discussing his film with a room filled with hundreds of journalists that Sissako pauses uncomfortably, removes his eyeglasses and covers his face to hide the tears that have begun flowing down his cheeks. And like many scenes in Timbuktu, what would normally be an awkward and uncomfortable moment turns into one in which the strength of the human spirit shines through as all the journalists present break out in spontaneous applause.

"Maybe I'm crying in the place of all these people who have experienced these sorts of things," Sissako continued as he regained his composure. "Those who have truly suffered because we tend to identify with these people. I, the actors, all those who were courageous enough to make the film are one thing, but the real courage is to be found among those who have lived this way on a daily basis, not just for one day or two days but for a long time. And they waged a silent combat which is the real combat waged by humankind. And that's where the optimism lies in the film. Timbuktu was indeed freed, but the true liberation was for those people who lived there everyday. Those who play soccer without a ball because it was forbidden, it was banned. That's the real combat. That's the true fight. But as usual everything boils down to a group of people who try to rule the world. That's the way the world is."

At the end of this year's Cannes Film Festival, there will be another group of people who have no intention of trying to rule the world, but instead award this year's selected films for artistic merit. Despite uneven execution with sometimes awkward pacing, its subject matter and powerful story just may cause the festival jury to recognize Timbuktu.

Friday, May 16, 2014

'The Captive' is Cannes' latest punching bag

FJI critic Jon Frosch, reporting from Cannes for France 24, has reservations about Atom Egoyan's kidnapping tale The Captive, but feels it got an unfair critical drubbing. See his latest post here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Jihad, art and incest at Cannes 2014

Reporting for France 24, FJI critic Jon Frosch calls Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu a “visually stunning” highlight of the fest. See his day two article here.

Nicole Kidman returns to Cannes, playing another Festival icon

J. Sperling Reich reports from Cannes on Nicole Kidman's press conference for her festival opener, Grace of Monaco.

The list of personalities inextricably linked to the Cannes Film Festival during the course of its 67-year history is filled with many of the movie industry's most legendary figures. Filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and François Truffaut are or were favorites of the festival, regularly premiering their films here. The same is true of actors and actresses like Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Robert De Niro, Sophia Loren, Jack Nicholson and Elizabeth Taylor.

Nicole Kidman is without a doubt the most current example of Cannes royalty. She has visited the festival at least eight times over the last 20 years, including participating in last year's jury presided over by director Steven Spielberg. In 2001, several months after her divorce from actor Tom Cruise was announced, Kidman was forced to speak with the press for the first time during an eagerly anticipated press conference to promote the opening night film, Moulin Rouge. It is a moment still discussed by Cannes veterans to this day.

"Obviously, this would not be my choice," Kidman replied at the time when asked how she felt about having to finally confront the media. "If it was under different circumstances, I would not want to sit in front of everybody and have questions about my personal life. So thank you for not asking one."
So it is rather fitting that Kidman is back in Cannes this year to promote the opening-night movie Grace of Monaco, a drama directed by French filmmaker Olivier Dahan about another beloved Cannes actress, Grace Kelly, depicting her transition from Hollywood actress to an actual European princess.

Kelly herself had many ties to Cannes. In 1955, she made her first appearance at the festival in The Country Girl, for which she would go on to win an Oscar. That was also the year she shot Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant, a film set partly in Cannes and along the Côte d’Azur. While at the festival, Kelly would meet Prince Rainier III of Monaco, who she would marry the following year in a wedding watched by 30 million people around the world.

The many similarities between Kelly and Kidman are not lost on the actress herself, as she explained during a press conference for Grace of Monaco. "She was a major American movie star. At a very early age she won an Academy Award and she then said I'm actually going to leave it all because I want a marriage, I want a family," Kidman recalled. "There are so many layers to this when an actress is playing an actress and I have similarities in my life to some of the things that happen to Grace. I obviously did not marry a prince."

Upon hearing the laughter and gasps from the 400-odd journalists in attendance, all responding to what she had just said, Kidman laughed and added, "Well, I am married to a prince. A country prince." A reference to her husband, country singer Keith Urban.

And much like the princess she portrays on screen did in real life, Kidman says she would absolutely give up acting for love and family. "I wouldn't even think twice about it," she proclaimed. "I think love is the core emotion and I've certainly existed without that in my life. It's a very empty life. When I won the Oscar, I went home and I didn't have that [love] in my life. That was the most intensely lonely period of my life. Strangely for me, the greatest highs have coincided with the greatest lows. During my professional highs a lot of times I've had personal lows and they've kind of collided and that's always aggravated me that it's gone that way. I'm hoping one day I can have professional high and a personal high. I don't know whether that's ever possible."

For Kidman and Dahan, the first day of the festival provided the exact kind of contrary emotions the actress alludes to. Before headlining the opening-night gala in Cannes, Grace of Monaco went through eight months of turmoil behind the scenes, starting last September when one of the film's distributors, The Weinstein Company, pushed back the release date into 2014. There were rumors that the head of the company, Harvey Weinstein, was not pleased with Dahan's cut of the film and wanted to make changes. This was all but confirmed this past January when Weinstein delayed the release indefinitely. However, the very next day he was blindsided when Cannes selected Grace of Monaco to open the fest.

Distribution plans for the film, at least in the United States, remained up in the air until just before Grace of Monaco debuted at the Palais des Festival on Wednesday evening. Yash Raj Films, the India-based company that financed the production, came to an agreement with The Weinstein Company which reportedly lowered the price of the film for the U.S. from its original $5 million.

Dahan, who had previously bashed Weinstein publicly, tried to dispel any such discord, though he wound up contradicting himself. "There's only one version of the film," said the filmmaker. "Harvey will use that version. If some changes need to be made, we'll do them together. There's no longer any dispute. Everything has been totally resolved. We work well together and I'm very pleased with the current situation."

While Dahan may have been pleased to secure a U.S. release for Grace of Monaco, he could not be happy about some (read: all) of the poor reviews that appeared shortly after the film screened earlier in the day. As if that weren't bad enough, Monaco's royal family, specifically Prince Albert II, has criticized the film for being "historically inaccurate" and complete "fiction.” Needless to say, like Weinstein, they were absent from Wednesday evening's red carpet festivities.

Kidman said she was saddened to hear the royal family was boycotting Grace of Monaco. "The film has no malice towards the family or particularly towards Grace or Rainier," she explained. "It's fictionalized, obviously, it's not a biopic. There's the essence of truth, but as with a lot of these things you take dramatic license at times. I understand the protection of the privacy of their mother and father. I still have respect and I want them to know the performance was done with love and that ultimately if they ever did see it, they would see that there was an enormous amount of affection for both their parents and the love story of their parents."

Dull 'Grace of Monaco' booed at Cannes

FJI critic Jon Frosch is in Cannes, reporting for France 24. The fabled film festival got off to a rocky start with its opening-night attraction, Grace of Monaco, starring Nicole Kidman. According to Frosch, the scene at the Grand Hotel bar the night before was much more entertaining. Check out his first report here.

Friday, May 9, 2014

‘Neighbors’ may swing past ‘Spider-Man’

Between positive word-of-mouth and largely favorable reviews (76 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), the Universal release Neighbors is poised to earn the top spot at the box office this weekend. Holdover The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the only film that could pose a significant threat to the Seth Rogen and Zac Efron comedy, but, given tepid responses from audiences and critics alike, Spidey seems fated to suffer a steep dropoff from the $92 million it earned last weekend. It should gross between $35 and $40 million.

Interestingly, pundits and Universal differ greatly in their expectations for Neighbors. The latter believes its film is tracking in the mid $20-million range, while industry insiders spy an opening weekend gross of $40 million or more. These pundits base their claim on data from Fandango, according to which advance ticket sales for the film are at their highest for an R-rated comedy since 2012’s Ted, which opened to $54 million. So far, 2014 has been good to distributor Universal, which has already seen three of its movies open at No. 1: Ride Along, Lone Survivor and Non-Stop.

Another major release, the animated kids film Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, also opens today. The movie may boast some big-name talent, including the vocal stylings of Martin Short, Bernadette Peters, and “Glee’s” Leah Michelle in the titular role, but reviews have been terrible and previews for the flick have been greeted with dismissals of “cheap-looking.” Still, it’s been a few weeks since the last family film, Rio 2, opened, so there’s certainly a niche to be filled. Oz could gross around $5 or $6 million.

Mom’s Night Out
is one of two new specialty releases bowing this weekend, along with Jon Favreau’s Chef. Out targets the same Christian or faith-based crowd that made successes of recent films Son of God, God’s Not Dead and Heaven is For Real. Also, timing is everything: Mother’s Day is this coming Sunday. The bar for the film is set between $6 and $7 million.

Chef is opening in limited release, screening in just six locations in NYC and LA. Critics like the film (it’s 80 percent fresh on RT) that is on track to earn a solid per-theatre average of roughly $30,000.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Marco Bellocchio Retrospective: Two Approaches to Screening Specialty Movies

The recent Museum of Modern Art series Marco Bellocchio: A Retrospective was a case study in divergent approaches to screening movies.

A collaboration between MoMA and Instituto Luce-Cinecittà, the retrospective covered Bellocchio's remarkable 50-year career through eighteen of his features, from his directorial debut Fists in the Pocket to his latest release, Dormant Beauty.

Toni Servillo and Alba Rohrwacher in Dormant Beauty. Courtesy Studio PUNTOeVIRGOLA
Almost all of the films were shown in new, 35mm prints, assembled and restored from the best available elements, a two-year process under Bellocchio's direct supervision.

Bucking a worldwide trend, Luce-Cinecittà did not digitize Bellocchio's films. Instead, the retrospective, which will be traveling to other cities, is primarily 35mm prints. (Dormant Beauty, the newest title, is being screened digitally.)

Speaking in Manhattan during the retrospective, Camilla Cormanni of Luce-Cinecittà admits that working with 35mm prints can be difficult, especially since the simple act of projecting can damage them.

"We had an earlier retrospective of Pier Paolo Pasolini movies, also 35mm prints. They've been touring for two years now, after opening at MoMA in 2012 and going to the BFI in London and several other cities," she said. "Now we will take them back to the lab and see the damages and try to repair, it's what happens with film prints. But the experience you have watching his movies in his black-and-white, without pixels, is incredible."

Finding technicians who understand film prints, especially black-and-white, has become so difficult that Luce-Cinecittà is forming its own school. "We want to have a sort of artisinal lab, so young people can learn from the experts who are still working on our restorations."

Money is a constant problem—a 4K restoration of worn elements can cost 160,000 euros—but Luce-Cinecittà receives some government support, and has been able to attract sponsors like Gucci.

Cormanni's next project is a restoration of Cinema Paradiso under the supervision of director Giuseppe Tornatore. "It's wonderful to see how memory and reality collide," Cormanni says. "Even for the filmmakers themselves, sometimes they remember a scene as darker than you see in the print. Sometimes it's not as dark, it's not as red as you remember, so restoration becomes a more artistic, creative process."

Cormanni admits that for mainstream moviegoers, digital is quickly becoming the only option. "We can screen 35mm prints in museums in Turin, Rome, Bologna, places like that," she says. "But for movies in general, I think they are becoming a niche medium. Even if younger people watch movies on TV—well, really you have to worry if they're watching on their computer or iPad or iPhone, and then they watch for ten minutes and switch to something else.

"And  I'm reading that the younger generation won't go to movies anyway. Going to a theater where you have to pay attention for two hours—it's too much like going to a class in school."

Luce-Cinecittà is partnering with Emerging Pictures to distribute Dormant Beauty in the United States. The Bellocchio movie is part of a five-film series, "Cinema Made in Italy." Dormant Beauty will open on June 6 in theaters equipped with Emerging Pictures servers.

The "Cinema Made in Italy" series started with The Great Beauty, the Paolo Sorrentino film that won last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar. Honey by Valeria Golino was released to strong reviews in March. Following Dormant Beauty, the series will offer Me and You, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, and L'intrepido, directed by Gianni Amelio.

As co-founder Ira Deutchman explains by telephone from his office in New York, Emerging Pictures was designed for independent films, not studio releases.

"We actually make it easier and less expensive to get films into theaters," Deutchman says. "We send out encrypted digital files by broadband to our servers in theaters, which then show them through digital projectors.

"By last count we have about 130 theaters, in major and minor markets. In some cases we're dealing with an art house that might be in a small town, in some cases we're dealing with a single screen in a large multiplex, sometimes we're in a stand-alone art house that might have our system and a DCP system side-by-side."

Deutchman estimates that Dormant Beauty will play in 40 locations. The series is supported in part by Italy's Ministry of Economic Development, which offered producers incentives provided their films played in at least five US cities. The Great Beauty spread to 25 cities after its Oscar win.

Distributing movies through the Internet, with no physical prints, was a pipe dream just a few years ago. Emerging Pictures offers theaters a secure way of exhibiting specialty movies that otherwise might not be seen at all.

On the other hand, Luce-Cinecittà brings classic movies to viewers the way their filmmakers originally intended. As Cormanni put it, "The best way to see these movies is on film, on a big screen, surrounded by people you don't know."

Monday, May 5, 2014

‘Spidey 2’ makes solid, if not quite stellar, debut

For almost any other film, an opening weekend gross of $92 million would be considered just cause for celebration. And while execs at Sony surely aren’t wringing their hands over The Amazing Spider Man 2s debut, it's nonetheless the weakest of the five Spider-Man films (including the Sam Raimi trilogy) to date. That being said, Spidey 2 has already grossed $277 million overseas. In China, which, as the world’s second-largest film market, Hollywood insiders are watching closely, the film opened on Sunday and earned $10.4 million, the top gross ever for a workday in the region. The movie could well match its predecessor’s $460 million worldwide total.

Back here in the States, audience demographics broke down as expected: 61 percent of attendees were male and 51 percent were under the age of 25. These viewers awarded the movie a B+ CinemaScore grade, which is all right but not great; anything less than an A generally portends a quick dropoff. Some pundits are predicting a total domestic gross of $230 million or so.

With a gross far below that of Spidey 2, The Other Woman took second place at the weekend box office. The femme-targeted comedy earned $14.2 million and has raked in $47.3 million thus far. It may not be the best example of the comedic heights of which female comedians are capable, but Woman’s success does prove (once again) ladies will turn out for films that are, even vaguely, about them. (Here’s to more female offerings that do not need to be qualified by the phrase “even vaguely.”)

Third and fourth place went to Heaven is for Real ($8.7 million) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($7.7 million), respectively. With $7.6 million in earnings, Rio 2 earned the weekend’s fifth-place slot and officially crossed the $100 million mark. The animated sequel’s total now stands at $106.5 million.

The specialty division saw a solid debut for the well-reviewed Belle. Screening in four locations, the period romance opened to a $105,000 per-theatre average. Elizabeth Banks comedy Walk of Shame performed as expected, that is, not too hot: The movie earned just $38,000 from 51 theatres. It did, however, reportedly earn the top spot on iTunes for a time.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Week in review: 4/28 - 5/2

The world mourned the death of another talent this week with the passing of Bob Hoskins. The 79-year-old British actor and father of four children, whose most beloved roles include an Oscar-nominated turn in the noir film Mona Lisa as well as children's' films Hook and the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit, had been ill with pneumonia. He was 71.

Classics were much discussed throughout the week. Cult favorite Mean Girls celebrated its 10th anniversary on Wednesday, to the tune of many retrospective pieces and memes touting the line, "On Wednesdays we wear pink!" The NYT spoke with screenwriter Tina Fey, director Mark Waters, stars Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Lizzy Caplan, and Daniel Franzese (but not heroine Lindsay Lohan), as well as author Rosalind Wiseman, whose book Queen Bees and Wannabes inspired the film, about their memories of the project.

Development on the latest addition to the canonically classic Star Wars franchise is well underway, per the announcement, made on Tuesday, of seven new cast members. Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Adam Driver ("Girls"), John Boyega (Attack the Block), Daisy Ridley (the short Blue Season), Domnhall Gleeson (About Time), Max von Sydow (The Exorcist) and Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings) are the lucky stars joining original cast members Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and the awesome Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: Episode VII.

Like that film's director J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg is no stranger to playing the blockbuster game. But will he be able to match his own past box-office successes? As reported by The Hollywood Reporter, the director will helm an adaptation of Roald Dahl's The BFG, as well as a Cold War thriller starring Tom Hanks. The two projects announced simultaneously are Spielberg's first since 2012's Lincoln. The latter testifies to the director's competent handling of classic (or at least historical) material, but as concerns the success of his latest endeavors, only time will tell.

As it will concerning the box-office prospects of arthouse darling, Ida. The Twitterverse is awash in praise for the Polish film directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Interview magazine got the scoop on Ida's beautifully rendered, if emotionally fraught, world, straight from the creator himself.

Ever wonder why it's so difficult for Hollywood to successfully dramatize the life of the writer and her process onscreen? Author and GW prof Thomas Mallon and Slate film critic Dana Stevens weigh in.

Ever wonder why "A113" seems to crop up in almost every one of Pixar's films? "Today" satisfies the curiosity of those most observant of Pixar fans.