Sunday, August 31, 2014

Telluride Dispatch 2: Birdman, Mommy, and other weekend screenings/events...

The 41st Telluride Film Festival has wrapped up the weekend screenings and festivities, and there seems to be one movie in everyone's collective consciousness; Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.) Following its Venice premiere earlier this week, Birdman screened for a lucky crowd in the packed Werner Herzog theater Saturday night. In addition to journalists and critics, festival goers and patrons, there were many recognizable industry names as well as stars in attendance. I spotted the Life Itself director Steve James, Rosewater star Gael Garcia Bernal, and Wild's Laura Dern among others. It is a strange privilege and responsibility to be among the first to view a movie. When all eyes are on Twitter for the word to drop after a premiere, anything one decides to say inevitably becomes part of an early narrative. And that narrative right now points that Birdman is a masterpiece (just search "Birdman" and "Masterpiece" on Twitter to see what I mean.) And I am fully with that consensus.

Iñárritu's work, like the jazz drums that accompany the film in almost its entirety, is rapturous, unruly and profoundly human. Remember Michael Keaton, who was once the star of a superhero franchise called Batman before he somewhat faded from the majors ranks? Here, he portrays a washed-up actor who was once a Hollywood star in a superhero franchise called Birdman, and leads a terrific ensemble of actors including Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis and Lindsay Duncan (none of whom were in attendance at the screening yesterday night). Keaton (along with the rest of the cast) delivers a wondrous performance, earning every bit of his highly anticipated and desired comeback. His character, Riggan Thomson, desperately struggles to find relevance in the art world once again, and produces/directs and stars in a Broadway play in his conquest of a comeback. The film is set during the show's preview period through its opening night and is shot in a seemingly single take, drawing comparisons to Hitchcock's The Rope at once. (In Contention's Kris Tapley noted on Twitter that he counted 12 or 13 shots, one of which was about 40 minutes long.) During the post-screening Q&A, Iñárritu said: "I sent my actors a photograph of Philippe Petit crossing the wire between the Twin Towers and told them 'This is the movie we're making.'"

One might wonder whether the "single take" ambition is more a gimmick than a necessity. Well, may I dare suggest the uninterrupted slice of life that Iñárritu puts on screen with Birdman is precisely why the film is packed with an almost explosive level of urgency. So much is at stake with Riggan's life. And so much is at stake with a long single take, which has to continue, uninterrupted, like life itself. Thus, Iñárritu's vision is not just a senseless ambition. It is a fully realized execution (with Emmanuel Lubezki's masterful cinematography) that enables Birdman to fly contemporary cinema to new heights. This is too great a movie to measure solely by its awards prospects, yet it's safe to say that Michael Keaton will be the actor to beat this year, and the film itself will score multiple nominations in several of the major categories.

Following the Birdman screening Saturday night, Fox Searchlight put on a big, invite-only party at The Sheridan and in attendance were several of Searchlight's talent including Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Wild director Jean-Marc Vallée and of course, Iñárritu. With some luck, I managed to briefly chat with Witherspoon and Vallée along with my friend, the inimitable Sasha Stone of Awards Daily. Witherspoon noted (as she's often asked) she would like to perhaps try a long hike one day, having gotten inspiration from her character Cheryl Strayed (who was also at the party.) Vallée said one of the aspects of the story that drew him to the project was the relationship between the mother and daughter. "At one point, Cheryl says 'My mother is the love of my life,'' he reminded us. "I mean, who says that? I thought that was really beautiful and I wanted to tell this story" he added. As the night went on, Fox's party became the social hub in town when crowds from the annual Sony Classics dinner migrated over to the Sheridan. Xavier Dolan, Channing Tatum, Annapurna's Megan Ellison, Gael Garcia Bernal mingled with invitees in a laid back environment that is the signature Telluride vibe.

Of course, Birdman is not the only movie I caught during a very busy weekend. The precocious French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan's Mommy, which tells the story of a single mother raising a problematic teen in agony until a new neighbor moves in, was a highlight with top-notch performances (especially from Laurence Anyways' Suzanne Clément) and, as expected, a superb soundtrack. It seems like Dolan is continuously experimenting with something new. With Mommy, he parallels his story's mood to the aspect ratio on screen (big portion of the film is set in a square 1:1 aspect ratio.) Once you see the film, it will be obvious why he chooses to switch back and forth (I don't want to give away spoilers). To be perfectly honest, it took some getting used to for me, but somehow, Dolan pulls it off and makes his stylistic choice work to the film's advantage.

Among the other films I caught over the weekend (which includes Jon Stewart's well-intended but problematic Rosewater and Nick Broomfield's eye-opening Tales of the Grim Sleeper), Sophie Barthes' Madame Bovary and Andrea Di Stefano's Escobar: Paradise Lost are especially noteworthy. Despite a widely negative reaction from critics, I found Barthes' adaptation of Flaubert's classic to be an immensely satisfying one (this is actually the first time a woman has adapted this story for screen), with a persuasive performance from Mia Wasikowska that bursts with a fiendish aura as well as lush cinematography with a painterly eye.

Escobar: Paradise Lost, which is one of this year's sneak previews (also in the Toronto line up, but in its second week, thus not breaking any "rules"), is a competently pulled off, intense crime drama set in Colombia in the early 90s. Telling the story of a fictional young Canadian who marries into Pablo Escobar's family, the film maintains an impressive pace throughout and dials the tension considerably in its final 20 minutes. The boyish Josh Hutcherson is an interesting, if not entirely convincing, casting choice here. But he gives it his all and holds his own alongside a stellar Benicio Del Toro in the role of the drug lord Escobar.

I will probably manage to fit in one more screening before I call it a weekend today (eyeing Xavier Beauvois' The Price of Fame), and spend the day tomorrow catching up with highlights I didn't get around to watching. And who knows, maybe I'll score one final #OnlyInTelluride moment, that could top my Werner Herzog encounter today, which involved watching him order a custom hot dog from the town's signature stand.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Telluride Dispatch 1: Wild, The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, and others...

The 41st edition of the exquisitely programmed and atmospherically laid-back Telluride Film Festival is in full swing, and has already wrapped up its first day. This year, the festival goes back to its usual four-day duration -- after an added day of screenings last year in celebration of its 40th anniversary. 

I arrived my second year in Telluride Thursday afternoon and spent most of my time enjoying the breathtaking scenery while marinating in anticipation of a great festival ahead, until an impromptu gathering at the New Sheridan Bar -put together by Film Society's Eugene Hernandez- brought together many of the attending press, publicists as well as film industry moguls. One can even say that was the unofficial kick-off to the festival, especially when Sony Pictures Classics' Tom Bernard, in what he described as his newly-instated tradition, bought everyone a round of shots. He raised his glass "To Telluride". We concurred. 

One striking fact is that excitement seems to get to everybody when it comes to this particular festival; from almost-newbies like me to attendees of many, many years. Several "what are you most excited to see?" questions were flying around at The Sheridan Thursday night. And the wonderful thing was that answers were wildly varied...from Venice-hailer Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu), to Ethan Hawke's Seymour: An Introduction, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, Bennet Miller's Foxcatcher and the DCP restoration of Apocalypse Now.

This year's program is challenging; both in its richness and contrastingly short span. (In fact, In Contention's Kris Tapley -who's a Telluride regular- says this might just be the best line up he's seen in years.) Tough decisions need to be made. One can't possibly see all the "biggies", revivals, sidebars and anniversary screenings (such as this morning's sold-out Apocalypse Now at the Werner Herzog.) But this isn't necessarily bad news, as the festival programmers Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger precisely want it this way, as they also voiced during Friday afternoon's press conference, pushing for the festival's perhaps "smaller" and quieter fare. "The program is why you're here, we hope," said Huntsinger, also stressing that they ignore the "Oscar Narrative" completely, and instead focus on putting together a program that brings the best to the attendees year after year. "We sincerely want to show you the best and whatever happens after is a consequence of that," noted Huntsinger. "We narrow it down to 25 new movies and a lot of times, that means having to say no." And in conjunction to this comment, the programmers mentioned some of the under-known fare of this year's must-sees: "Check out Dancing Arabs (Eran Riklis), 50 Year Argument (Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi), Madame Bovary (Sophie Barthes), The Decent One (Vanessa Lapa), for instance," advised the programmers. 

There is of course a pink elephant in the room this year: the Telluride vs. Toronto smack-down that has been amplified once Toronto, after an ongoing frustration with Telluride for "stealing their thunder", announced a few months back that if studios want a prime spot during the festival's first four days, they need to make their movies "true premieres" (unlike last year's 12 Years A Slave, for instance,which sneaked in Telluride ahead of its scheduled Toronto premiere only a week or so later.) "We wish them the best," simply said the programmers. "We hope they have a great festival. We here love filmmakers. We have The Weinstein Co, Fox Searchlight, Roadside, Wild Bunch, Sony Pictures Classics here. And we are glad you guys are here and we hope to see you next year."

Once the press conference wrapped up, I rushed to the gondola to Mountain Village, in order to get there on time for a special patron & press screening of Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. Based on the book by and true life story of Cheryl Strayed (who was in attendance at the screening, along with the director Vallée (of Dallas Buyers Club) and the film's stars Witherspoon and Dern), Wild chronicles a young woman's conquest of a 1000+ mile solo hike in the wilderness in order to recover from past mistakes and get in touch with her true self. The concept might sound a tad cheesy at first, but this film is not to be confused by Eat Pray Love- which was basically a glorified vacation/self-help book/flick. Wild is a surprisingly quiet film (more in the tradition of John Curran's meditative Tracks), featuring compelling work from both Dern and Witherspoon (there is already early buzz building for the duo's likely Oscar nominations.) Throughout Wild, Cheryl Strayed walks in a woman's shoes through life and wilderness, both literally and metaphorically. Thus, Wild first and foremost reads as a story of female resilience and unsurprisingly, the film works its best magic when staying close to this narrative. Yet, there is something that holds back Wild from being a truly transporting experience. The film's shaky structurally, and I found the editing -while poignantly done at times conveying Cheryl's inner thoughts and struggles through flashbacks- somewhat distracting. And I am not convinced if Laura Dern's character was a fully realized one, even through she delivers great work with the material handed to her.

The festival's first true sensation was undoubtedly Morten Tyldum's Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley-starrer The Imitation Game. In attendance at the screening were Harvey Weinstein (looking particularly proud and pleased post-screening, following the rapturous response), Annapurna's Megan Ellison, and The Imitation Game team consisting of its producers, director Morten Tyldum and debuting screenwriter Graham Moore. Telling the true story of Alan Turing, the brilliant, gay mathematician who led a team of scientists in decoding the infamous Nazi Enigma machine during World War II, The Imitation Game plays as a true powerhouse, with a towering performance from Benedict Cumberbatch displaying a grand range of his acting skills in nailing his character. At once a significant period drama, The Imitation Game chronicles Turing's story with the combination of a polished, Hollywood-ized touch and a sincere focus on character. Turing's struggles and eventual suicide caused by the British government's criminal insistence to "cure his homosexuality" in the later chapters of the film, are told profoundly, sans melodramatic excess, with the accompaniment of Alexandre Desplat's beautiful score. One can get her hands slapped quickly for over-using the "O" word around here, but it won't come as a surprise to anyone if Academy falls for this title that basically includes some of Oscars' favorite topics and elements (World War II, biopic of a genius, true story...), as well as the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley (who probably delivers one of her career's best works as a genius young woman who's a part of the Enigma team that decodes the machine.) 

Friday also played host to Jon Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater and the Cannes-hailer Foxcatcher, directed by Capote's Bennett Miller. I caught the latter (saving the former for early Saturday am), which was introduced by director Miller and two of his leading actors Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. A remarkably slow burning crime drama (another true story) with a firmly-controlled undercurrent of tension throughout, Foxcatcher, more than anything, is a showcase of the work of its three leads (Carell, Tatum and Mark Ruffalo). All three actors nail characters new to their respective careers (especially Carell's physical and artistic transformation is unrecognizable) under the direction of Miller, who once again proves himself to be an actor's director. The film is intentionally cold, and the story (of the late 80s Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz who was sponsored by the heir of the Du Pont family) is increasingly nerve-racking and cumulatively on-edge. Foxcatcher is undoubtedly one of those films that will reveal itself further in a repeat viewing.

Going into its second day, Telluride Film Festival has now announced two solid sneaks: Andrea Di Stefano's Escobar: Paradise Lost and Errol Morris' The Clarity of Peace. But today's most-anticipated screening is Iñárritu's black comedy Birdman, hoping to take Telluride by as big a storm as it did Venice earlier this week.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Pundits predict quiet Labor Day

This weekend’s two new major releases, The November Man and As Above, So Below, will likely do modest business over the coming three days. Instead, look for summer’s largest success, Guardians of the Galaxy, to once again lay claim to the No. 1 spot at the box office. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shouldn’t be too far behind.

Galaxy should rake in another $13 or $14 million this weekend, while the Turtles will likely enjoy an $11 to $12 million haul. The November Man, in which Pierce Brosnan makes like Liam Neeson and Kevin Costner before him, playing an aging operative roped back into the game, already opened on Wednesday. The film’s debut was a bit soft, not that mid-week openings lend themselves to fireworks: It opened at No. 5 with $862,000. For a six-day total, The November Man is facing $9 to $12 million in returns.

That’s a bit better, or should be, than As Above, So Below. The horror flick stars “Mad Men’s” Ben Feldman and is set in the catacombs of Paris. (Given the film’s poor reviews, 33 percent rotten on Rotten Tomatoes, its location may be the coolest thing about it.) Where November Man opens in 2,750 theatres, As Above, So Below will screen in 2,637 locations. Its total for the holiday weekend should work out to roughly $10 million.

The specialty box office offers a few more films of note. Life of Crime, adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel and starring Jennifer Aniston, also opens today, as does the well-reviewed Brit prison film, Starred Up.

Given the overall weak showing of this summer’s box office (despite Herculean efforts by Transformers: Age of Extinction, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, B.O.  was down 15 percent from last summer), studio execs must be pleased to see this season come to a close.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Talking 'God Help the Girl' with Emily Browning and Olly Alexander

The two leads in the new musical from Stuart Murdoch, frontman for popular Scottish group Belle & Sebastian, could hardly have been more excited to headline Murdoch’s feature debut, God Help the Girl. “Obviously I was like, I want to be in it. Let me be in it, please,” remembers Olly Alexander, who plays James in the film. “I read it and was like yes, yes, obviously yes! I mean, of course,” Emily Browning, or the movie’s heroine, Eve, also recalled with enthusiasm.

As the story goes, Murdoch was out for a run in 2003 when inspiration struck. He quickly produced the pad and pencil he always carries about, and scribbled a tune. It wasn’t right for Belle & Sebastian, he decided, but it could serve a new, different project. More songs followed, as did a trio of characters: Eve, James and Cassie. Three years later, after touring with Belle & Sebastian, Murdoch set to work. He began to write the screenplay for God Help the Girl.

He also posted an open call in a UK music publication: “Girl singers needed for autumnal recording project. Must have a way with a tune. Celine Dion wannabes, save your breath. Ballpark, Ronettes, Friend and Lover, Twinkle. Phone Neil: 0141 227 2751.”

The “autumnal recording project” would become God Help the Girl the group, Murdoch’s musical side-project. Several more years passed, after which Murdoch decided to heighten the call, posting his ad online. This version included a brief mention of his directorial hopes, and, fortuitously, caught the eye of successful Hollywood producer Barry Mendel (Bridesmaids). Mendel sent Murdoch a fan letter that included an offer to help the musician realize his cinematic aspirations. Murdoch quickly responded, and the two began their collaboration just as Murdoch was selecting his female vocalists for God Help the Girl the group, and then recording an album. When it finally came time to cast God Help the Girl the film, the process would take over two years.

“The project was floating around the acting world for a couple of years, and I had already heard about it,” recalls Alexander. “And a friend I was living with was auditioning for it, and a couple of other people were auditioning for it, and everyone was talking about the Belle & Sebastian movie, about how cool it was. And I just remember thinking, ‘Ah, shit, I wish I had an audition for that movie.’ And my agent was like, ‘You’re too young, you’re not right for it.’”

Browning initially met with similar disappointment. “I wanted to be a part of the film automatically just because I’m a really big fan of Belle & Sebastian and of Stuart. I read kind of like a breakdown of the character, and obviously read the scenes for the audition, so I had an idea of Stuart’s style of writing and I had an idea of the character. And I just kind of loved it straightaway. And then, I put an audition on tape, and didn’t hear anything back for like a year. And I was like, ‘It’s gone, it’s not mine.’ I was really sad about it. Every time someone would bring that film up, I’d be like, ‘Ah, such a bummer, should have been me.’”

Happily if however frustrating in the moment, the drawn-out casting process eventually concluded in Alexander and Browning’s favor. More time passed, rendering the objection of Alexander’s agent, that the actor was too young for the role, increasingly moot. Alexander continues, “And then a couple of years passed, and my agent said, ‘Oh, do you remember that movie? They’re still looking for actors. Do you want to audition?’ And I said yes, of course. Obviously.”

After Alexander had been cast, the pieces fell into place in a manner that seemed to Browning quite “all of a sudden.” A year after her initial audition, Browning heard from the filmmakers. “It was like, ‘they’re starting filming in two weeks and Stuart wants to see you again. He’s just watched your tape again and he wants you to audition over Skype with Olly...’ And I met him over Skype and we had a discussion over the phone, and I was like, ‘God, I want to do this. These people seem awesome.’ And then I got a weird email from him that was like, ‘Here’s the script. Let us know if you’re interested.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean? Obviously I’m interested, you fool!’ And I kind of didn’t know if that meant I had the part.”

Despite the uncertainty of its beginnings, which included the trouble Murdoch and Mendel encountered in their quest to finance the project (to be overcome with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign), God Help the Girl was, by all accounts, as buoyant a set as the resulting film. Girl centers about not only Eve and James, but their friend Cassie, played by “Game of Thrones” and “Skins” star Hannah Murray. Our protagonist Eve is a troubled talent who seeks solace in songwriting. New roommate James falls for her, and Cassie, whom James privately tutors in music, is also drawn in. The three form a pop group, flitting about Glasgow and coming-of-age to an eminently singable score.

“We were a little gang. We were kind of inseparable the whole time,” says Browning. “We were living in the same apartment building, so we would hang out pretty much every night after work” in an atmosphere that was “like summer camp, kind of.” Though Murdoch asked his young cast to watch certain films for inspiration, including Dazed and Confused, Harold and Maude, and Blow Up, the girls supplemented with their own viewings. Says Browning, “Weirdly, I didn’t watch that many musicals. I remember watching Spice World with Hannah, but that wasn’t really for research. We just had a weekend where we felt like watching Spice World, I suppose.”

Alexander and Murray also bonded, and continued to have occasion to do so after filming on Girl wrapped. The two worked together on the BBC teen soap “Skins,” which, though it was shot after God Help the Girl, premiered first, in 2013. “I’ve known Hannah, she’s just been a friend for years,” explains Alexander. Filming “Skins” was “totally different” than filming God Help the Girl, he remembers, and not simply because the two were no longer playing best buds but rather stalker (Alexander) and victim (Murray). “It was rainy and cold. We shot in Manchester. Everyone was like a bit sad, and it was just such a different vibe, ‘cause God Help the Girl was like happy and joyful.”

And, largely to thanks to director Stuart, whose attitude Alexander describes as “filter[ing] down through the whole crew and the cast,” very calm. “Kind of amazingly calm,” offers Browning. “He came to us in the rehearsal period and was like, ‘You know, I’ve never done this before. You guys have made a bunch of films, and I’ve never made a film, so you might need to help me out a bit.’ But we didn’t need to help him out at all.”

On the contrary, both actors sought advice from their director. While this might seem to be the natural order of things on a film set, the experience was particularly heightened for fans Alexander and Browning. Like Murdoch, Alexander is a songwriter and the head of a band, Years & Years. “I definitely tried to pick his brain a bunch of times… We didn’t ever really sit down though and discuss it. I felt maybe too embarrassed to ask him, too star struck. But I think just by being around him, and seeing how he works had quite an impact on me.”

Though Browning is not a songwriter herself (“No, I’ve tried. I failed. It’s not really in me. I think I overthink things too much.”) she found herself also in awe of her musician director. “It’s such a weird combination of like, well, this is now my director and my co-worker, but I’m also a massive fan of this person for totally different reasons. It was very, very intimidating at first, but he was really, like I said, quite calm and easy about it, and happy to kind of roll with the quirks of my voice or little moments I couldn’t quite get. He was like, ‘I love it, I like when it sounds natural and real.’ So it was pretty comfortable pretty quickly, I think.”

It helped that Browning respected the role Murdoch had written. “I think he understands the female brain in a way a lot of other dudes probably don’t,” she says after calling his Eve “a real female character that seemed like an actual human being.” She recites certain lyrics that resonated with her: “If he gave me a sign, I’d think about it for a week. I’d build it up, and then I’d turn him down,” and, “I sit for hours just waiting for his phone call. Please stop me there, I’m even boring myself.” Says the actress, “I get that.”

Browning, the most well-known player in the cast, has previously turned down projects that featured characters with which she was far less enamored. She understands the need to occasionally accept the big-budget role and cash its correspondingly big paycheck, saying, “There are moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve done 10 indies in a row, I should do a big-budget film so I can actually pay my rent. That would be good.’ ” But even at her most pragmatic, she is discerning.

“To be honest, at the time I was just feeling like I wanted a little break,” Browning recalls of her decision to turn down an audition for Twilight. “But also, the idea of doing a huge franchise… I don’t think anyone knew quite how big Twilight was going to be, at first, but I knew it was going to be a big thing. And it just didn’t appeal to me. I just found the character quite boring and a little bit offensive as well. I started reading it, and was like, I mean, I get this. And it’s something I would have loved as a teenager, probably, but looking at it as an adult, I was kind of like, ‘What’s she doing? What? She has nothing to say. She’s a little boring.’ It wasn’t my bag, really.”

Today, Browning says she no longer likes to take breaks from acting, but would rather “be working constantly.” Alexander has taken a similar sentiment to heart, having touched down in New York City for a few brief days only, before his international tour with Years & Years kicks off in earnest. The musician, actor and aspiring writer, who previously contributed to the script for the Greta Gerwig-starrer The Dish and The Spoon and the upcoming Funny Bunny, expresses a desire to hone his multi-hyphenate skills. “I would love to write a feature,” he says excitedly. “I’m really just aware of how difficult that will be, and I feel like it’s a lot of work, and I want to make sure I have the right story and the right thing.” It seems his experience with the long-gestating God Help the Girl may have affected his outlook. “I just want to make sure it’s, like, perfect. I better start now,” he laughs, “and then in 15 years’ time, it’ll get made.”

Monday, August 25, 2014

Holdovers rule the weekend

Guardians of the Galaxy reclaimed its No. 1 standing at the box office this weekend, out-performing newcomers If I Stay and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles also out-earned the weekend’s new releases, landing at No. 2 behind Galaxy, or the newly minted highest-grossing film of the summer.

Galaxy added $17.6 million to a total gross that now stands at $251 million. The film’s current cume is more than that which blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction, which had previously been the summer’s top earner, has managed to rake in. By week’s end, the Marvel tentpole should also surpass Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s $259.8 million to claim the distinction of 2014’s most successful film.  

It’s unlikely Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will reach the fiscal heights Galaxy has been scaling with ease, but the actioner is nonetheless another seasonal success story. This weekend, the film grossed an additional $16.8 million, a downturn of only 41 percent. Turtles has so far earned $145.6 million in all.

In third place, If I Stay earned a little less than expected. The YA novel adaptation grossed $16 million from 2,907 locations. Although the film didn’t manage to do the expected $20 million worth of business, its opening was yet markedly stronger than last weekend’s YA entrant, The Giver, which underwhelmed with a $12 million debut. Audiences were, of course, majority female (77 percent) and young (61 percent under the age of 25). They awarded the film a healthy CinemaScore grade of an “A-,“ although movies of its ilk (marketed at teens) tend to be front-loaded. Its hold should prove less than tenacious, and after a few more weeks, a total of around $40 million seems likely.

Let’s Be Cops clocked in at No. 4 with $11 million, bumping its total to a solid $45.2 million. When the Game Stands Tall came in just behind Cops with a fifth-place gross of $9 million, roughly as expected.

While pundits weren’t predicting a boffo opening for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it seems few were expecting the kind of poor turnout the film suffered. City didn’t manage to crack the Top 5, but rather landed at No. 8 (behind The Giver and The Expendables 3) with a dismal $6.48 million. That’s a 78 percent drop from the first Sin City’s debut haul in 2005. The film should fade quickly, and may struggle to top out at $15 million.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Week in review: 8/18 - 8/22

The team behind the unfortunately titled Jungle Book: Origins, the Rudyard Kipling adaptation to be directed by Andy Serkis and distributed by Warner Bros. (not to be confused with the Rudyard Kipling adaptation to be directed by Jon Favreau and distributed by Disney), this week announced the addition of several new cast members. The most high-profile among the group are Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale, who have agreed to voice python Kaa and panther Bagheera, respectively. Benedict Cumberbatch had earlier signed his name to the role of bad guy Shere Khan, officially making this Jungle Book the cooler of the two competing projects.

It must be said, however, Favreau's film does have Lupita Nyong'o, Bill Murray, and a title that does not make it sound as if robots, aliens or other tired mainstays of an action franchise are involved. The film's simplicity of moniker is to its credit, much as Rian Johnson's decision to use less CGI and more "practical" effects in Star Wars: Episode VII is to his.

Let's hope by the time Johnson's film hits theatres next year, the current domestic box office trend will have reversed itself. Despite a record-setting August, thanks to the strong debuts of Guardians of the Galaxy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this summer's revenue is still down. In fact, its 15 percent year-over-year deficit is the steepest year-over-year downturn in 30 years, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Perhaps one of the films screening at this year's Toronto Film Festival, which has announced its full slate, will help rejuvenate the flagging industry?

Featuring protagonists who neither wield nunchucks nor engage in intergalactic bantering, The Metropolitan Opera's theatre transmissions may not be the blockbusters our box office needs, but their dedicated base of fans must nonetheless be pleased their favorite shows will, in fact, go on. The Met reached a deal with another of its labor unions earlier this week, veritably ensuring the upcoming season, transmissions included, will proceed as normal.

Very little that is "normal" is occurring in Ferguson, MO, at the moment. On Monday, SAG-AFTRA issued a statement condemning the treatment of journalists covering the region's riots, themselves a response to the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by a police officer. “SAG-AFTRA joins the rest of the journalism community in condemning the arrest and detention of reporters covering the events happening in Ferguson, Missouri,” said the union in its statement. The Screen Actors Guild had also been in the news earlier on Monday, though for reasons of a distinctly lighter nature: The organization will honor Debbie Reynolds with its 51st Lifetime Achievement Award at this winter's Screen Actors Guild Awards.

The 82-year-old actress is a beloved star from an earlier era, though as we learned this week, not everything once beloved endures so well. Leonard Maltin's famed Movie Guide, for instance, will soon see its final printing. The upcoming 2015 edition will be its last, as the rise in Internet resources such as IMDB has rendered the helpful read obsolete.

In need of a nostalgia boost after hearing such news? Try downloading Tom Hanks' free Hanx Writer app, the new No. 1 app on the Apple Store: It "simulates the experience of a modern typewriter," says Variety, "but with modern conveniences like a 'delete' key."

Finally, we leave you with two recommend longreads: A profile of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, who is trying, and it seems, well on his way toward succeeding, to establish a new political party in New Zealand; and a wonderful, thoughtful piece on Let's Be Cops and Ferguson, MO, from Grantland's wonderful and thoughtful Wesley Morris.

‘If I Stay’ should top ‘Sin City’

Two adaptations of two popular genres will go head-to-head at the box office this weekend, though the ultimate winner isn’t much in doubt.

 If I Stay, based on the Gayle Forman young adult novel, will likely pull out ahead of Sin City sequel and graphic-novel adaptation Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. If the latter had opened several years ago, before similar Frank Miller titles 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire, not to mention their many copycat productions, had debuted, it’s likely the film would be in a much better position. The first Sin City was well-reviewed, well-liked and featured innovative graphics. But that was nine years ago, and what was once singular is now simply much of the same. Critics aren’t too hot on a Dame to Kill For (the film is currently 39 percent rotten on Rotten Tomatoes) and that decade-long wait between films has likely dampened fan enthusiasm. Pundits are predicting an opening weekend gross in the mid-teens.

 If I Stay shouldn’t open significantly higher, but certainly enough to land the film at No. 1. It targets the same crowd of teen girls that made a hit of The Fault in Our Stars earlier this summer, although it’s unlikely Stay will approach Stars’ $48 million opening. Forman’s book isn’t nearly as popular as John Green’s bestseller, and Chloe Grace Moretz isn’t (yet) as large a star as Shailene Woodley. The weeper also lacks The Fault in Our Stars’ positive reviews (Stay is tracking 40 percent rotten to Stars’ 80 percent fresh). But as there's little competition, If I Stay’s predicted $20 million haul should nonetheless be the largest of the weekend.

When the Game Stands Tall is the third and final new major release bowing today. Pundits believe the film will land at No. 5, behind If I Stay, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and holdovers Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Guardians of the Galaxy. Marketing for the inspirational sports flick, based on the true story of a high-school football team with a record-setting winning streak, has done little to make the film stand out. Tall does have a faith-based angle (the high school in question is a Catholic one, and the coach is seemingly a religious man), but unlike recent hits God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real, the characters’ faith is not front-and-center. More comparable titles would be Million Dollar Arm and Draft Day, which both opened around $10 million. Look for When the Game Stands Tall to do similarly muted business.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Cinema & 'the centre cannot hold'

For those of a literary or particularly alarmist turn of mind, or who remember the lessons of their high-school English classes, recent political and cultural events may bring to mind a famous poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming.” The work describes the unrestful and unravelling state of modern affairs, the only outcome of which must “surely” be a kind of blasphemous “second coming,” in which humanity isn’t saved by Christ, but rather by the mythical embodiment of an enigma, the sphinx:
     Turning and turning in the widening gyre
     The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
     Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
     Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
     The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
     The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
     The best lack all conviction, while the worst
     Are full of passionate intensity.
     Surely some revelation is at hand;
     Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
     The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
     When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
     Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
     A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
     A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
     Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
     Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
     The darkness drops again but now I know
     That twenty centuries of stony sleep
     Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
     And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
     Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

First published in 1919 in response to the horrors of the First World War, Yeats’ poem has served many an allusion-ary purpose over the past century. Joan Didion borrowed the phrase “Slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem” for the title of her 1968 essay describing the counter-cultural, hippy, druggie, lost-children scene of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco; Chinua Achebe appropriated “Things fall apart” for the name of his 1960 classic novel, which addresses the effects of white European colonialism on the African people.

If, today, we were to title a work that purports to depict the contemporary atmosphere, we might also borrow a line from Yeats: “The centre cannot hold.” The riots in Ferguson, MI; the reengagement of military manoeuvers in Iraq; the violent conflict in Gaza; the outbreak of the Ebola virus; the increase in illegal immigration to the United States, and the political bickering surrounding the issue; even the tragic suicide of Robin Williams, a whirligig of a comedian, a mainstay of so many children’s films, all seem to stand behind the phrase, “the centre cannot hold.”

Yet, if anything can be said for upheaval, it is often the art rendered in response. When filmmakers start to feel the give at the center of things, the results can be powerful, shocking, wonderful, for all that they, like Yeats’ sphinx, resist a facile answer to the questions they provoke.

Here is our compilation of those films that best embody the timely and timeless feeling that “the centre cannot hold:”

Do the Right Thing
The hottest day of the year brings to a boil ethnic tension in the multiracial Bed-Stuy Brooklyn neighborhood in which the film is set. Spike Lee’s masterpiece.

TV network executives exploit the declining health of a former news anchor to garner high ratings. Paddy Chayefsky’s Academy Award-winning script is considered one of the best ever written, and includes the populist cri de coeur, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Like Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Kids takes place over a single summer day in New York City. Chloe Sevigny makes her feature debut (along with Rosario Dawson) as Jenny, a teen trying to track down her ex-lover, a classmate who only sleeps with virgins, in order to tell him he has given her AIDS. The film’s final sequence is more disturbing than anything you’ll see in writer Harmony Korine’s more recent and similarly themed effort, Spring Breakers.

The Wages of Fear
This 1953 French classic follows four men charged with driving barrels of poorly packaged nitroglycerin across windingly treacherous roads. Pauline Kael summed up the Cold War-era thriller nicely: “When you can be blown up at any moment, only a fool believes that character determines fate… If this isn’t a parable of man’s position in the modern world, it’s at least an illustration of it.”

Ivan’s Childhood
Another black-and-white classic, this one a Soviet production released in 1962, the WWII film centers on 12-year-old orphan Ivan, whose zeal to exact revenge against his family’s German killers leads him to enlist, of sorts, with the Russian military. Much like Kids, acclaimed director Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut feature is a cinematic corollary to Yeats’ phrase, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

A Clockwork Orange
A violent delinquent undergoes behavior therapy to curb his dangerous tendencies, though the treatment doesn’t so much reform as mentally cripple him. Societal morals are skewered to memorable effect in Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic.

Donnie Darko
A cult classic for the children of A Clockwork Orange fans, Donnie Darko centers on a teen with apocalyptic visions that feature “Frank,” a man in a rabbit suit. A famous, eerie cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” included in the film says it all, tonally as much as lyrically.

Monday, August 18, 2014

‘Expendables’ falls to both ‘Turtles’ and ‘Guardians’

It was a weekend for the holdovers, as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Guardians of the Galaxy claimed the No. 1 and 2 spots at the box office, respectively. A combination of franchise fatigue and the online availability of The Expendables 3 in pirated, albeit high-quality, form, led to the downfall of the action flick, which opened much weaker than expected. Let’s Be Cops was there to reap the benefits, bowing ahead of The Expendables and scoring one of the strongest comedy openings of the summer. The Giver performed to expectation, which is, not great, while Boyhood’s largest expansion thus far landed the well-reviewed indie in the Top 10, far ahead of fellow specialty releases Magic in the Moonlight and What If.

Turtles dropped 57 percent this weekend to earn $28.4 million. To date, the film has grossed $117.6 million domestically, or $185.1 million worldwide.

Impressive numbers by any count, though they pale in comparison with those associated with Guardians of the Galaxy. Having already surpassed Thor: The Dark World’s total, this most recent Marvel tentpole is on track to out-gross the mega successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which tallied out to $260 million. Guardians raked in an additional $24.7 million this weekend for a current cume of $222.3 million. Odds are, Guardians of the Galaxy will top out to $280 million or so.

The weekend’s third-place slot was filled by a surprisingly strong Let’s Be Cops. The film grossed $17.7 million, a much better debut than those enjoyed by this summer’s Blended, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and Sex Tape, all  of which had larger name stars attached. Audiences skewed male (56 percent) and a little younger (54 percent under 25). It remains to be seen how well the film will hold, but it should ride its momentum to a total in the low to mid-$50 million range.

The disappointing Expendables 3 landed at No. 4 with $16.2 million. That’s 43 percent less than the opening-weekend gross of The Expendables 2, and marks yet another dud for distributor Lionsgate, whose Step Up All In debuted to 45 percent less than its predecessor, Step Up Revolution. Unsurprisingly, audiences were older (66 percent over 25) and mostly male (61 percent). They enjoyed what they saw, awarding the film an “A-” CinemaScore grade, but given such a weak start, The Expendables 3 will likely tally out to less than $50 million.

In fifth place, The Giver grossed $12.8 million. Its debut fell within last week’s projections, however, considering the star-studded cast and reputation of the novel on which the film is based, The Giver’s opening yet feels lackluster. Total revenue will likely fall somewhere in the $30 millions.

In more uplifting news, specialty hit Boyhood cracked the weekend’s Top 10 with its $2.15 million gross from 771 theatres. It has so far earned a little under $14 million, and should make it to $20 million.

Neither Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight nor the Daniel Radcliff-starrer What If, both of which also expanded this weekend, will likely hit that benchmark. Moonlight earned a weak $1.9 million from 964 theatres, while What If grossed just $829,000 from 787 locations, earning it the unenviable distinction of third-lowest nationwide opening (behind The Rover and The Railway Man) of 2014.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Thai Actress Jintara Sukaphatana Remembers Robin Williams

Today a household name in Thai cinema and television, Jintara Sukaphatana was only 22 years old and rather inexperienced as an actress when she was cast as Robin Williams’ Viet Cong-connected love interest Trinh in the iconic 1987 movie, Good Morning, Vietnam. FJI’s Far East Correspondent Thomas Schmid talks to Jintara about her experiences with the recently deceased actor.

What was your reaction upon learning of Robin Williams’ death?
I was deeply shocked to learn of Robin Williams’ death, to say the least. I had known him as a fun-loving person with a zest for life and it was unimaginable for me that he reportedly should’ve taken his own life.

Did you enjoy working with him on Good Morning, Vietnam?
Absolutely. He was funny both on set and off set, constantly joking with everybody on the cast and crew. And everybody loved him for it. He certainly never displayed episodes of being overly serious, sad or depressed as far as I can tell. Robin was very friendly with everyone, always mingling with the crew and cast during shooting breaks.

                               (Jintara and Williams during a shooting break)

So he was not a grumpy recluse keeping to himself as much as possible?
Not at all. He got along great with everybody and it was very comfortable to be around him. He was not the type of arrogant Hollywood star who didn’t want to have anything to do with lesser cast members. He obviously enjoyed social interaction and often asked the Vietnamese or Thai cast or crew how to say certain words or phrases in their respective languages. When he tried to repeat them, it caused a great deal of laughter, because of his laborious mispronunciations and the funny grimaces he made.

How about his professionalism as an actor?
He was an incredibly professional, versatile and creative actor. [Director] Barry Levinson in fact trusted him so much that he gave him a free hand to ad-lib his lines whenever he wanted. He didn’t insist that Robin followed the script to the point, so Robin’s character [Adrian Cronauer] pretty much turned out to be a true reflection of real-life Robin himself.

But I also recall that during filming the actors and crew often spontaneously broke out in uncontrollable laughter over Robin’s ad-hoc antics, of course with the result that many scenes had to go through multiple takes.

And sometimes Robin would fire off his lines so rapidly that Levinson asked him to calm down and advised him to repeat them slower, otherwise the audience would not be able to follow.

How did you feel when you had been cast?
When I learned that I had landed a supporting role alongside Robin Williams, I was extremely excited, because I had been a huge fan of Robin since [his late 1970s U.S. sitcom] Mork and Mindy. Mork’s greeting “nanoo, nanoo” is simply unforgettable [Jintara laughs]. It was hard to believe and almost seemed like a dream that I really should have the good fortune to act alongside world-famous Robin Williams in such a large Hollywood production.

What’s your favorite scene in the movie?
I think the one almost at the end of the movie, where Robin’s character has to return to the United States and must say good-bye to my character [Trinh], in whom he had a love interest, though unrequited. It becomes clear that she [Trinh] also had developed feelings [for Cronauer], but that she couldn’t give in to them because of the prevailing cultural and also political differences. She and him, they were worlds apart despite their attraction to one another.

                                  (The good-bye scene, Jintara's favorite)

Why is this scene in particular so important to you?
It was a very emotional scene and I started crying for real, which startled Robin at first. But when I explained why, he fully understood - and then joined me in shedding real tears during the re-takes.

Did you stay in touch with Robin Williams after Good Morning, Vietnam?
Unfortunately, we lost contact after shooting and I never touched base with him again. You have to understand that Robin already was a big star back then. On the other hand, I was just 22, a very young, quite inexperienced and practically unknown actress even in my own country with only two domestic movies to my name prior to Good Morning, Vietnam. To be frank, I didn’t dare to get in touch with Robin afterwards, as I feared I might bother him, although we had fostered a truly wonderful relationship during filming - and despite my practically non-existent command of English at the time.

This was your first role in a Hollywood film. Any other offers afterwards?
Yes, Good Morning, Vietnam was my first Hollywood movie, but also my last [Jintara laughs]. I was subsequently invited to audition for another foreign production [to be shot in Thailand], but eventually was not cast. I’ve never told that to anyone, because I didn’t want anybody to know unless I had actually been awarded the role. My professional mainstay today is in Thai movies and television series. I am currently shooting a period drama for [local] Channel 3.

                     (Jintara on a Thai magazine cover after the movie's release)

What is your favorite Robin Williams movie?
My personal favorite is Mrs. Doubtfire. I think Robin accomplished a terrific job and was absolutely credible as the cross-dressing title character, who resorts to very unusual means to keep in touch with his kids. But I also love him in “Dead Poets Society”, “What Dreams May Come”, and “Good Will Hunting”. There are so many great movies with Robin Williams. His body of work is so diverse, which goes to show again what a versatile actor he was. Oh, and there always will be Mork and Mindy, of course, which after all hooked me on him in the first place [Jintara giggles].

Any final thoughts?
While Robin’s premature death is sad and shocking, I just hope that he has found peace somewhere. I for one surely will never forget him and he will live on in my memories. He taught me a lot, and perhaps I am today a better actress because of him.

*All photos courtesy of Jintara Sukaphatana