Friday, October 31, 2014

Nightcrawler to Crawl to the Top of Bad Weekend

Spookiness abounds this weekend at the box office, both in terms of the slew of horror films coming out and the likelihood of none of those films making much money. People tend to have other things to do than go to movies when Halloween falls on a Friday. Strange.

Studios are holding their major films for future weekends; the closest thing to a regular wide release hitting theaters is Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a morality challenged wannabe crime reporter. The reviews are overwhelmingly positive--94% on Rotten Tomatoes, and our own Nick Schager praised the film's atmosphere and "magnetic, uninhibited" lead performance, though he also points out it has "little new to say about its subject" of the sensationalism and superficiality of TV news. Elsewhere it's being called "the perfect movie to see on Halloween." Still, even given its near-universal praise, the film is unlikely to do much higher than $10 million on opening weekend.

A more horrifying film--though less in a "wow, this film is keeping me on the edge of my seat" way and more in a "wow, this movie is really bad" way--is Before I Go to Sleep, starring Nicole Kidman as a woman suffering from a rare form of amnesia whose husband (Colin Firth) and doctor (Mark Strong) might be less benevolent than they appear. It's tracking a mere 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, with our own review calling it a "grim, humorless psychological thriller." It was produced by Clarius Entertainment, whose track record as a distributor isn't exactly good (remember how well And So It Goes, She's Funny That Way and Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return did? No?), so it's a good bet that Before I Go to Sleep will bomb. Kidman, you can go back to good movies. Any day now.

Also hitting theaters in limited release is Horns (review here), which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival over a year ago and has been dumped on Halloween weekend by distributor RADiUS-TWC. You have to think they know they have a stinker on their hands--the film's gotten a fair amount of buzz, but you can't erase that 44% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Horns' day-and-date VOD release could cut into its theatrical earnings, which probably wouldn't have been all that good to begin with if you go by the grosses of Radcliffe's last two films, What If ($3.5 million) and Kill Your Darlings ($1 million).

Lionsgate is re-releasing Saw for its 10-year anniversary, but without the added wow factor of 3D, most fans of the franchise would probably rather stay home and pop in the Blu-ray. Also unlikely to make bank is horror anthology The ABCs of Death 2 (review here), which came out on VOD earlier this month.

Leaving the horror films behind, the latest from Jean-Luc Godard, Goodbye To Language 3D (review here), will probably have the wide-ranging box office appeal that all Godard films have, which is to say it will get positive reviews (89% on Rotten Tomatoes) and make very little money. Director Pat O'Connor's Private Peaceful (review here), opening in New York, is also likely to fly under the radar of your average moviegoer.

Several documentaries are coming out in limited release, as well: Revenge of the Mekons, about the cult favorite band the Mekons (review here); All You Need Is Love, which according to our review is as unbearably schmaltzy as the title makes it sound; Deepwater Horizon oil spill doc The Great Invisible (review here); Plot for Peace (review here); Braddock America (review here); True Son (review here); Point and Shoot (review here); and Magical Universe (review here).

And let's not forget about Hit by Lightning..., let's forget about Hit by Lightning.

A guide to the wild post-Harry Potter career of Daniel Radcliffe

It was obvious even before Daniel Radcliffe’s tenure as the world’s most famous boy wizard ended that his career would not be following the path laid down by previous child actors: Some big budget action wannabe-franchises that never quite got traction, a rom-com or two, some moderately received indie flicks followed by a slow slide into obscurity and maybe a stint on reality TV. In between Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Radcliffe had a cameo in Ricky Gervais’ decidedly un-kid-friendly series Extras playing, in his own words, “a very, very warped version of myself in a scouts uniform.” (For a sample of how “warped” we’re talking--he hits on everything that moves and carries around an unwrapped condom that he accidentally throws on Dame Diana Rigg's head.) A few months later he raised eyebrows for starring in a West End revival of Equus, a play which received massive critical acclaim since it was first written in 1973 but, due to Radcliffe’s involvement, became better-known as “that play where Harry Potter strips down and wants to get intimate with a horse.” For a somewhat… different theatrical experience, Radcliffe starred in the 50th anniversary revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which opened on Broadway a few months before the premiere of the eighth and final film in the Harry Potter franchise.

So, yes. Radcliffe’s never evinced a particular interest in doing run of the mill studio projects, a trend that’s continued now that Potter’s behind him. His films may not always be good, but they’re never boring. Case in point: His newest film, Horns, out today, in which Radcliffe plays Ig Perrish, a ne’er-do-well who develops literal horns and a side order of demonic powers after he’s accused of murdering his girlfriend (Juno Temple). Personally, I didn’t like the film, and neither did our reviewer Nick Schager, but I respect that Radcliffe chose a project of potential substance over some milquetoast Nicholas Sparks drama, even if said substance didn’t materialize. He's interesting. Hop on your Nimbus 9000 and join me as we see what else Radcliffe’s been up to these days.

MoMA's "Filmmaker in Focus: Nuri Bilge Ceylan": A Retrospective

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep, set in Cappadocia, Turkey, had its New York premiere this week at MoMA. (Photo courtesy of Museum of Modern Art.)

by Maria Garcia

At Wednesday night’s first public screening of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, the standby line at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) snaked around the first-floor lobby. Fifteen minutes after the scheduled 7 PM start, when the filmmaker took the podium inside the smaller of the museum’s theaters, every seat was taken. Despite a 196-minute run time, the audience was eager to hear Bilge Ceylan’s introduction. He spoke briefly, simply stating that the writing of the screenplay, in partnership with his wife Ebru Ceylan, had been quite contentious. The confession appeared droll and spontaneous, but some of us were startled: Ebru is 17 years younger than her husband and Winter Sleep, set in Cappadocia, Turkey, is about an affluent, older man in an unhappy marriage to a much younger woman.

The screening marked the opening night of MoMA’s retrospective of the Turkish writer-director’s work, which consists of seven films, including Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. Best-known for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), the story of a love triangle that leads to murder, Bilge Ceylan has also written and directed Three Monkeys (2008), a story of classically tragic dimensions; Climates (2006), a tale about a failing marriage in which the filmmaker and his wife co-starred; Distant (2002), the story of an Istanbul photographer who helps a country cousin; Clouds of May (1999), which centers on a filmmaker scouting locations for his next project, and The Small Town (1997), inspired by Bilge Ceylan’s boyhood. All of the films will screen between now and November 5th. (Tickets can be purchased here.)

In my 2011 interview with Bilge Ceylan for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (which can be found here), the filmmaker admitted to being misunderstood in his own country, especially with regard to his feelings about women. “Man is lost in the dark,” he said in that interview. “He wants to connect himself always to a woman. On the surface, it seems that this is just about desire, but it is much more than that.” The writer-director could have been speaking about Winter’s Sleep which, like all of his films, is shot from the point of the view of a male protagonist who is unable to articulate his emotions or to act upon them. Bilge Ceylan’s movies unfold slowly, and are characterized by meticulous framing and unusual uses of sound to replace image. He is obviously influenced by French filmmaker Robert Bresson. In fact, in Winter Sleep, the musical theme is Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major, the same one used by Bresson in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966).

Like all retrospectives in any art form, “MoMA’s Filmmaker in Focus: Nuri Bilge Ceylan” provides a rare opportunity to see the complete work of a wonderful artist, in this case one at the height of his talents. Because the writer-director often collaborates with the same principal crew—for instance, Ebru Ceylan as co-writer, and Gökhan Tiryaki as DP, have worked on four of his seven films—this program allows the viewer to chart the progress of these artists as well, across different settings and storylines. While Bilge Ceylan has long been an important filmmaker in world cinema, it was not until Once Upon a Time in Anatolia that he captured a larger audience here. His work is meant for the large screen, not only because of its stark depictions of “Anatolia,” Turkey’s vast countryside, but because of the filmmaker’s close study of his character’s emotions, especially evident in Climates where the camera is often in close-up, lingering on Ebru Ceylan’s face, as she struggles to come to grips with her husband’s indifference.

Such scenes require great film acting, a component of Bilge Ceylan’s work which draws the viewer in even when the plot seems to move slowly or when, as in Winter Sleep, it takes over three hours to unfold. Delightful flashes of humor are also apparent in every one of the filmmaker’s movies, often of the sort we associate with country life. For instance, in Winter Sleep and in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, it is centered on hired drivers who take themselves and their jobs rather more seriously than anyone else does, or when the boredom and drunkenness of male characters lead to verbose contests of one-upmanship. Bilge Ceylan’s direction of actors also lies at the core of his ability to create dramatic tension, or to shift the mood of the film, which is apparent in Climates when, for instance, Ebru Ceylan’s character turns away from her brooding self-reflection to a shocking instance of self-destruction.

Like the works of Robert Bresson, Bilge Ceylan’s films are elemental and therefore inherently cinematic. There is no wasted motion, in the choreographing of the actors’ movements, in the motion of the camera, or in the editing of the movie. Everything beyond the frame feels insubstantial and fearful, so we remain riveted by the characters’ internal strife. If their redemption is often fleeting, it is because in “Anatolia,” as in the provincial settings from which Bresson drew inspiration, the senses are dulled, for some by hard labor and despair, and for others by greed or, as in Winter Sleep, by the pretense of intellectual pursuits, so that the soul has little room to flourish.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Billy & Ray" -- Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler Clash Their Way to a Classic

“Billy & Ray,” is a terrifically entertaining and beautifully performed current off-Broadway play about the locking-horns collaboration on the screenplay adaptation of James M. Cain’s pulp classic “Double Indemnity” which became, as so many already know, the Fred MacMurray/Barbara Stanwyck noir classic that was nominated for seven Academy Awards and was an early benchmark for the many film noirs to follow.

The film brought together as screenplay collaborators the great filmmaker Billy Wilder and novelist and movie-agnostic Raymond Chandler, perhaps Hollywood’s first true off-screen “odd couple.” Wilder was younger, friskier, prone to humor and a womanizer (forget the minor detail of a wife at home); Chandler, by stark contrast, was older, stuffy, a literary light and newbie to The Biz. He was also a covert drinker whose alcoholism would later get the better of him.

“Billy & Ray” was not a promising ticket. Weeks ago at its opening, it got clobbered by several New York area critics. The New York Times’ review was unsparing, using words like “torpid,” “slumberous,” “long,” “listless,” “static,” “mediocre,” flat.” Yikes! But what cinephile could resist a play about Wilder, Chandler and their masterpiece "Double Indemnity"?

So, nasty reviews aside, how to explain the sheer delight palpable in the recent audience that included a seasoned stage and TV actor and a fussy vet writer/correspondent on the film beat? Maybe it’s a lesson about why living theater, unlike film, is truly alive and organic. Film is largely locked in concrete but a play can grow from performance to performance and surely some of the negative feedback inspired some serious tweaking (more below on this).

So the play as experienced post-reviews was, at least for many of us, fun and rewarding theater.  Sundry thoughts below aren’t meant as reparation for the critical slams but as observations regarding what “Billy & Ray” has to say about some important aspects of The Biz, e.g., the dynamics of creativity, collaboration, Studio and Breen Office meddling, this latter’s role especially as the formidable censoring mechanism that restricted depictions of sex and violence. And what of, as the play has it, the guts it took for the studio to O.K. Wilder’s insistence on a new ending even after a preview audience gave the film with its old ending a big thumbs up? Let’s just say it was a sign of how much Paramount valued its slightly spoiled filmmaker, a 38-year-old whiz of a director who came aboard “Double Indemnity” with two Hollywood hits behind him. Lesson: Success pays.

Wilder in the play, with his European sensibility, owns up to a weakness, claiming he doesn’t know the “vernacular” that informs the Chandler/Cain dialogue that the screenplay requires. Lesson: Hubris is good, but to a point.

The collaborators also know their way around the story’s sex and violence that the Breen office won’t approve. Solution: Both sex and violence are very effectively conveyed but never, really never shown on screen. Lesson: Silent reaction shots do wonders.

“Billy & Ray,” in which we learn (again) how so many stars turned the material down (Raft, Ladd, Milland, etc.), is also a reminder of how established actors who should be smarter and bolder are often blind to great material when it comes their way.

The play also conveys to what degree Hollywood hates originality and how much Chandler, the Hollywood outsider, was initially put off by Wilder’s ex-pat crowd of insiders. Lesson: Even the most seemingly mismatched of collaborators can produce wonders.

Another lesson: Knowledge provides leverage in any kind of match. This is made clear when Wilder discovers that his stuffed shirt collaborator, claiming status as a non-drinker, secretly stuffs a bottle of liquor into his leather briefcase for frequent encounters. Wilder knows how to use this discovery to positive effect.

The play also provides insights into how and why the writers unexpectedly turned "Double Indemnity" into a love story — not between the MacMurray and Stanwyck characters — but, surprise, between MacMurray’s Walter Neff and Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson. Lesson: The more surprises and ironies, the better.

So “Billy & Ray” can also function as an engaging Hollywood primer about how words on a written page (a book, no less) can end up in the Hollywood pantheon of cinematic greats. Apparently, luck, persistence and good timing also had something to do with it. And that near-catastrophic tug-of-war between the stuffy, humorless Ray, frumpy in his retiring WASPy way, and the good-time Charlie who was Billy was a personality and skill clash that Wilder was smart enough to see as beneficial to the collaboration (Chandler was so movie-ignorant, he had no idea what a script looked like).

It’s movie theme aside, the play also reminds of some important differences between live drama and film. For instance, there is usually great clarity regarding authorship of a play, whereas writing credits for films are often murky.

Set in cement, films, unlike plays, are only rarely altered once they hit the marketplace. But a stage play lives a lifetime as malleable as soft clay, suggesting “Billy & Ray,” unrecognizable as described in the Times piece, must surely have been tweaked to death (through rehearsals, previews, those punishing reviews and onward). And like many plays, it might also get a measure of further fine-tuning with each performance. Such flexibility no doubt helps explain why that salvo of negative adjectives hurled at the play almost two weeks ago seemed so off the mark at a recent performance (“Billy & Ray” ends November 9th at New York’s Vineyard Theatre).

As Kevin Lally, FJI editor and author of “Wilder Times,” the well-regarded biography of Wilder, noted after seeing “Billy & Ray,” the play attempts to show whether it was Wilder or Chandler who came up with the hard-boiled dialogue. Says Lally, “The author of the play [Mike Bencivenga] says he pored through boxes of Paramount memos, but I still doubt these would confirm authorship of individual lines. I like to think that that famous ‘How fast was I going, officer?’ exchange wasn’t solely Chandler, but the play gives him the credit.”

A further complication regarding screenplay authorship comes by way of original “Double Indemnity” author James M. Cain, whose story first appeared in Liberty Magazine in 1935 before becoming the pulp classic published in the 40s. The play also suggests that Cain himself might have authored some of the screenplay’s hard-boiled zingers.

Lessons aside, “Billy & Ray” is so appealing as good theater. Nods are due the fine cast — “Mad Men"’s Vincent Kartheiser as frisky Billy, theater and TV vet Larry Pine as his older stuffed shirt opposite Ray, Sophie Von Haselberg (Bette Midler’s Yale-trained daughter) as Billy’s assistant (also kept busy arranging rooms for his trysts) and Drew Gehling as Wilder’s studio-frazzled producer on "Double Indemnity."

It helps that Hollywood heavyweight Garry Marshall, a veteran of 17 movies, directed and was blessed with Bencivenga’s deeply researched play. Also impressive is Charlie Corcoran’s expansive set representing Billy’s comfortable filmmaker’s suite on the Paramount lot.

But so much entertainment comes with a word of caution to potential audiences: Full appreciation of “Billy & Ray” is best achieved by more than just a vague familiarity with "Double Indemnity." Even obsession with the Wilder classic is strongly advised. Or, to paraphrase one of Barbara Stanwyck’s famous lines, “Are we going too far, officer?”
--Doris Toumarkine

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"The Real Indies: A Close Look at Orphan Films"

Orphan films are the focus of "The Real Indies," a series this weekend sponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the New York University Orphan Film Symposium.  Screenings take place at the Academy Theater at 111 East 59th Street, on Friday, October 31 and Saturday, November 1.

The final frontier in film preservation, orphan films range from Oscar-winning shorts and features to advertisements, newsreels, cartoons—anything outside the commercial mainstream.  Some have fallen into the public domain, while others are subject to copyright disputes. As a result, these are the movies most at risk of being lost.

"Even neglected commercial films, like our opening film, Jack Hill's Spider Baby," adds Dan Streible, director of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program at New York University and an Academy Film Scholar.   "It's an orphan in the sense that it was made and then not distributed for four or five years later.  And like many exploitation films, it was marketed under different titles, in different versions.  It had a very interesting afterlife."

Starring Lon Chaney, Jr., who sings the title song, Spider Baby was also released as The Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy.  Director Hill's career includes exploitation hits like Coffy and Foxy Brown.  He will introduce Friday's screening, and take part in a post-screening conversation with director William Lustig (Maniac Cop).

Other filmmakers will introduce the Saturday screenings, among them Connie Field, Charlie Ahearn, Bill Morrison, and Jimmy Picker.

Spider Baby was restored by the Academy Film Archive, an arm of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  "Our mission and focus is to preserve films," says Patrick Harrison, the Academy’s Director of New York Programs and Membership.  The series will showcase other Academy Film Archive restorations like Connie Field's Oscar-nominated documentary Rosie the Riveter.

"The Academy is interested in collecting as much celluloid as we can," Harrison adds.  "Celluloid lasts, if it's properly stored in a temperature-controlled environment.  I don't think anyone knows how long digital files will last."

The series gives fans the chance to see these rare films under the best possible conditions.  Not in visually compromised YouTube versions, but on restored 16mm and 35mm prints, as well as new DCPs.

"There's nothing like sitting in a blacked-out room filled with people who are there for the same reason," Harrison believes.  "There's an energy that we feed off each other. You think about production design, makeup, costumes, cinematography. You see the real vision of the filmmaker up on the big screen."

"No matter how good the digital copy is, there'll be differences, a loss in the image quality," Streible says.  "I think everyone who loves film, who's had personal experience watching film prints projected, knows about the luster that they bring."

Saturday's screenings fall into three categories.  At 10:00 a.m., "Pioneering Women" includes films by Aloha Wanderwell Baker from the 1920s-30s, introduced by Academy archivist Heather Linville; Make Out, a 1970 Newsreel collective production preserved by the Third World Newsreel; and Rosie the Riveter.

At 2:00 p.m., "Experimental Views" features Charlie Ahearn, who will introduce the first public screening in 35 years of his 1977 film Mass Guide; Les Blank's Running Around Like a Chicken with Its Head Cut Off (1960); Bill Morrison's Outerborough (2005), accompanied by violinist Todd Reynolds; and the first ever public screening of Bill Brand's Organic Afghan (1969).

"Visions of New York" at 6:00 p.m. features nine decades of films about the five boroughs of New York City, from footage of the 1917 New York Giants baseball team to the Oscar-winning animated short Sundae in New York.

"People who think they are interested only in blockbuster comic-book movies are often surprised by orphan films," Streible says.  "They find out how entertaining, how interesting even anonymous home movies or newsreel outtakes are."

Streible points out that viewers connect with orphan films because they recognize their own family legacy materials.  "They might not have thought that films that their grandfather made and stored away interest anyone other than family.  But seeing these movies might activate them to become more interested in preservation."

Harrison hopes to bring orphan films to more cities.  "But it's up to film fans to help us raise awareness of these neglected titles," he cautions.  "Facebook it, tweet it, go through all your social media platforms and say, 'I saw this incredible film, where can we see more?'"

Tickets for each segment are $5, and can be purchased online at and at the Academy box office.

Friday, October 17, 2014

‘Fury’ to unseat ‘Girl’

David Ayer’s Fury will most likely wrest the top spot from reigning b.o. champion Gone Girl this weekend. The WWII drama opens in 3,173 theatres nationwide, and should prove itself another hit for, and largely thanks to, leading man Brad Pitt. Although Killing Them Softly was a bit of a dud, several of the actor’s recent titles, including War War Z, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and that other WWII flick in which he starred, Inglourious Basterds, each grossed more than $120 million. (Moneyball, with its $75.6 million haul, was one of the most successful baseball movies ever.) Fury has received a strong marketing push from distributor Sony, one that has kept a tight focus on the film’s action and special effects, as well as on the movie’s sympathetic if conflicted cast of characters, like the one played by box-office draw Shia LaBeouf. Reviews have been roundly positive: The movie is currently tracking 76 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. At the very least, Fury should match the $22 million debut of last year’s WWII film The Monuments Men. The appeal of its heightened action elements could boost sales as much as $5 to $10 million higher.

Animated family offering The Book of Life screens in 3,069 theatres beginning today. Visuals for this Day of the Dead-themed film look spectacular, and the movie boasts new original songs in addition to several repurposed hits like “If You Think I’m Sexy” and “Just a Friend.” It does not hail from one of the top animation houses (Pixar, Dreamworks, etc.) but it does feature a voice cast of popular actors, including Channing Tatum, Zoe Saldana, Christina Applegate, and Ice Cube. The film from Reel FX should match the $15.8 million opening of the production company’s first and only other feature to date, last year’s Free Birds. A total in the mid-to-high teens seems likely.

But The Book of Life may not necessarily earn third place behind holdover and likely second-place winner Gone Girl. It will have to contend with the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation, The Best of Me. Leads James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan are both recognizable names and appealing screen presences. They do not, however, make for as swoon-worthy a pairing as Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams of The Notebook, still the Sparks adaptation to beat. This means the film has a limited chance of appealing to an audience broader than the Sparks faithful. Still, the romance author’s legion of fans should be large enough to ensure a solid opening.  In all likelihood, The Best of Me is looking at an opening weekend gross in the mid-teens.

Jason Reitman’s latest, Men, Women & Children, breaks out of the specialty realm today and expands nationwide to 608 locations. The film performed poorly in limited release; it earned a weak $148,856 after nearly two weeks in theatres. To compare, Reitman’s Up in the Air earned over double that amount its opening day. Now that the critically maligned feature is accessible to more mainstream audiences, however, fans of Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort and Jennifer Garner might help business improve some. At any rate, it’s unlikely Men, Women & Children cracks the weekend’s Top 12.

Finally, two buzzy titles, Birdman and Dear White People, open in limited release. The former, a Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film and Oscar favorite (for best film, director, and actor for Michael Keaton), screens in four locations in LA and NYC today. The many positive reviews that have buoyed the film to a “certified fresh” standing of 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes should go a long way toward luring a sizable art-house crowd.  Dear White People is likewise an RT hotshot, boasting a 97 percent fresh rating of its own. Screening in 100 theatres, the feature debut from writer-director Justin Simien could crack $100,000.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

NYFF ending highlights: Part I

A number of movies featuring prominent, popular directors and actors screened during the final days of the 52nd New York Film Festival, which concluded Sunday. Below are a few highlights from the event's last batch of showings:

Clouds of Sils Maria

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart headline Clouds of Sils Maria from Olivier Assayas of Summer Hours. Binoche is Maria Enders, an aging actress who agrees to star in a modern staging of the play that furnished her with her breakout turn several decades ago. As a teenager, Maria assumed the role of Sigrid, a youthful and manipulative beauty. Now, an ingenue no longer, Maria is tasked with playing Helena, the middle-aged employer driven mad by her desire for Sigrid. Kristen Stewart is the assistant who helps Maria run lines, vet offers, and provides companionship upon which Maria, in a storyline that runs parallel to the plot of the film's fictional play, is complexly dependent.

Leading women and their director attended a press conference after Maria screened Wednesday morning. Assayas discussed the meta considerations that informed his casting choices. Although Stewart revealed she was initially asked to read for the part that would go to Chloe Grace Moritz, that of Jo-Ann Ellis, a trainwreck of a talented young actress who plays the new Sigrid, Assayas insisted he always wanted the Twilight star for Maria Enders' assistant, Valentine. Stewart, a frequent target of gossip rags and websites, said she enjoyed embodying her industry-savvy character. A sequence in which Valentine informs Maria of Jo-Ann's tabloid exploits was a particular treat.

The celebrity culture surrounding the two actresses is an important element of the film, Assayas explained. The audience is not supposed to lose itself in the narrative and forget Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, rather than Maria and Valentine, are onscreen; instead, the director expressed his easily realized hope viewers would remain aware of the actresses playing the characters as they followed the characters themselves.

The conceit is a bit heady, perhaps, but works well in context. Unfortunately, not every idea dramatized, or, more accurately, expressed in Clouds of Sils Maria lands so squarely. Writer-director Assayas has much he wants to say concerning celebrity, aging, and desire, among other themes. As his characters talk and talk, these ideas are repeated in sometimes interesting and novel, but increasingly and eventually redundant ways. It is a film whose impact is undercut by the number of grand ideas it wishes to address, and then, by its circuitous and circular means of addressing them. "Uneven" seems the best word for the beautifully shot Clouds of Sils Maria, for the very ambition that resulted in its surfeit of ideas is admirable.

Listen Up Philip

The third feature from indie writer-director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) screened as the first showing last Thursday morning. Its titular Philip is played by Jason Schwartzman, who frequently displays laudable breath-control as he spouts his character's densely worded invectives. Philip is a self-involved author awaiting the publication of his second novel. He's drifting apart from his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) when his literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a man whose narcissism rivals Philip's near-sightedness, offers his country house as a summer retreat away from the distractions of New York. Philip leaves Ashley behind in their Brooklyn brownstone without hesitation, and happily, or as happily as a misanthrope can ever act, decamps to chez Zimmerman. The aging and creatively blocked writer is very pleased with his new housemate; less so is the daughter he neglects to inform, Melanie (Krysten Ritter).

Philip is an irritating character, but Perry's script is so well-written his obnoxiousness is made palatable and then entertaining by his cleverness. This script includes a number of unconventional elements, including a large section that leaves protagonist Philip behind, much as he does Ashley, to seemingly rectify the shafting of Ashley and focus on her. It's a choice that lends some needed emotional weight to Philip's tendency to make poor personal decisions, as, the more we grow to like Ashley, the sadder, rather than merely annoying, Philip's egoism appears.

Perry addressed the charge of "annoying characters" during the post-screening press conference Thursday, pointing out the film's female characters were not nearly so reprehensible: They were strong, together, with-it. This is true, and their presence often adds an appreciable sense of grounded-ness to the proceedings. They give Philip and Ike those satisfying dressing-downs the guys are, and the audience is, wanting so badly.

The problem, however, is one of character "types:" That of the wise female vs. the emotionally stunted guy. That of the female who dresses down. Of course, someone in the film ought to be together and with-it, in order to provide tension with the foundering protagonist, in order to offer viewers some breathing room. But did each one of the three central females need to assume grounding duties to both of the central males? That, more than Philip's pretentious patter, is rather annoying.

That being said, Listen Up Philip concludes on a realistic note that shades more deeply the character of Philip. For all that the characters may, if inadvertently, adhere to certain "types," they are not lacking in humanity. This fact, combined with a clever script that includes a fun Philip Roth-ian voice-over narration, helps the film end strong.

Monday, October 13, 2014

‘Gone Girl’ bests newcomers

The thriller from David Fincher out-grossed each of the several new titles that opened this weekend. Gone Girl dipped just 29 percent to earn $26.8 million. To date, and after 10 days in theatres, the film has raked in $78.3 million. If it continues to hold strong, Girl should surpass The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s $127.5 million total to become Fincher’s most successful movie.

In second place, Dracula Untold managed an impressive $23.5 million. The action-horror flick exceeded the expectations of pundits who believed it would open in the mid-teens. Audiences were mostly male (57 percent) and majority Hispanic (31 percent). Overseas, Untold acquitted itself even better: The flick earned $62.6 million for a worldwide total of $86.1 million. These figures appear even more impressive when one considers Dracula’s production costs; the movie was made for $70 million, and thus turned a profit after only one weekend in theatres. Not bad for a flick lacking in marquee-name stars.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day boasts two such celebs in prominent roles, Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner, and performed more or less to expectation with a $19.1 million debut. The weekend’s third-place film proved a hit among families, which comprised 67 percent of its audience. Disney should be pleased; the feature cost just $28 million to make. It may be no Frozen, but Alexander will be profitable.

Although not many were expecting a boffo opening weekend for The Judge, the first film from Robert Downey Jr. and wife Susan Downey’s production company Team Downey opened even weaker than predicted. Instead of clocking in at No. 4, The Judge debuted behind holdover Annabelle to open at No. 5. It earned $13.3 million to Annabelle’s $16.4 million. Unfortunately, The Judge targets the same adult audience as Gone Girl, a film that continues to hold considerable sway among viewers. Those who did purchase tickets to The Judge seemed to enjoy it: They awarded the movie an A- CinemaScore grade, which bodes well for a steady if not spectacular theatrical run.

Finally, the specialty realm experienced a few successes and disappointments of its own. The Weinstein Company’s St. Vincent proved a modest hit in limited release, grossing $121,000 from four theatres, which works out to a per-location average of $30,250. The studio’s One Chance, however, was much harder hit, raking in a weak $32,800 from 43 theatres (per-location average of just $763).

Potential Oscar contender Whiplash appeared to benefit from positive festival buzz, earning $144,000 from six theatres, or an average of $24,000 per location.

It was documentary Meet the Mormons, however, that proved the weekend’s most surprising success story. Screening in just 317 theatres across the country, the film about six Mormon families earned a great $2.7 million.

Friday, October 10, 2014

‘Girl’ most likely to hold strong

Several new films open wide at the box office this weekend, but David Fincher’s Gone Girl is expected to maintain its hold at the top of the charts.

Pundits are predicting a weekend haul of a little over $20 million for the thriller. Second place seems a bit tougher to call: Will vampire fans or families turn out in the larger numbers? Both Dracula Untold and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day are looking at weekend figures in the high-teens to roughly $20 million. Dracula is a popular storyline, but this weekend’s origins flick does not include any popular/recognizable stars. In contrast, Alexander is based on a popular children’s book, and boasts popular actors Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner to boot. That being said, Untold does have the advantage of IMAX screenings, and thus more expensive tickets in several markets. This edge may be enough to help it secure second-place standing, even if it is opening in fewer theatres (2,885 to Alexander’s 3,088).

That leaves The Judge as the third and final major release bowing nationwide. Interest in Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall will likely help offset the harmful effects of lukewarm reviews (the film is trending 48 percent rotten on Rotten Tomatoes); it’s competition from the acclaimed Gone Girl, which targets the same adult audience, that should prove the largest obstacle. Odds are the film will gross in the mid-teens and clock in at No. 4. Even if The Judge does not enjoy a boffo opening, however, its older viewers should help it hold well in the coming weeks.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Seal-worthy kids' films

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that publishes reviews of media and tech products for the benefit of parents, educators and policymakers, has awarded its inaugural "Common Sense Seal" to the upcoming Disney film Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Per the organization's website, "the Common Sense Seal recognizes and champions films that delight families with enriching stories and positive messages."

The phrase "enriching stories" is open to broad interpretation, but there is unarguably a rich tradition of children's movies with affecting narratives, tales apt to move parents and babysitters as well as (often more than) younger viewers. If we were to compile a truly comprehensive list of kids' films worthy of seals of approval, the endeavor would likely grow to resemble the title of one of our entries, The Neverending Story. From older classics of the Duck Soup variety, to '90s oddities of Rock-A-Doodle's ilk, a passionate case can be made for a wide variety of movies. We can't say whether Common Sense Media would approve of our our by-no-means-exhaustive selection, but there is certainly a wide variety of former and current kids who have felt their lives "enriched" by the stories below:

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

The Snowman

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Peter Pan (Mary Martin version)

Old Yeller

Home Alone

The Neverending Story

The Secret Garden


Beauty and the Beast


Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

A Christmas Story

The Goonies

The Dark Crystal

Bye Bye Birdie

The Year Without a Santa Clause

The Lion King

The Gold Standard: The Princess Bride

‘Gone Girl’ gold

The race for box-office dominance was close this weekend, but Gone Girl managed the victory. The latest from director David Fincher grossed $38 million to horror flick Annabelle’s $37.2 million. These films did the lion’s share of the work helping the domestic box office reach its highest peak in quite some time. This weekend was the most lucrative ever for the month of October, and the combined $141.8 million earned by the top 12 films was up 23 percent from this same spread last year.

Ben Affleck enjoyed the second-best opening of his career with Gone Girl, behind 2003’s Daredevil. It was the largest debut ever for Fincher, whose Panic Room had previously enjoyed the strongest opening among the filmmaker’s movies (Room bowed to a little over $30 million in 2002). Between the cache of a director known for films with twisty plots (see: Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac), a major movie star in a lead role, and material based on a bestselling novel and thus boasting built-in interest, Girl was able to lure a sizable audience. These viewers left theatres with mixed feelings, however; they awarded the movie a B CinemaScore grade, which is all right, but certainly not terrific. Their word-of-mouth might hinder Girl from maintaining a secure hold in the weeks ahead.

Interestingly, and further proving a point made to great effect by summer hits The Fault in Our Stars and Maleficent, female audiences comprised the majority of viewers for both Gone Girl and the weekend’s No. 2 earner, Annabelle. Sixty percent of audience members for Girl were female (75 percent were also older than 25), while Annabelle’s viewership was 51 percent female (and 54 percent 25+). Annabelle, a prequel to The Conjuring and arriving in theatres a smart 15 months after The Conjuring’s debut, enjoyed the sixth-best opening ever for a supernatural horror film. It earned the same CinemaScore rating as the movie that barely beat it to first place, although a B for a horror feature, a genre whose offerings often garner poor grades, bodes much better for the film’s hold than a B for a drama. Still, Gone Girl is expected to top Fincher’s most lucrative film to date, the $127.5 million-grossing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while pundits are predicting an $80 million or so total for Annabelle.

The Equalizer dipped 44 percent to earn $19 million and a third-place standing. Its downturn is neatly in line with recent and comparable title Non-Stop, which dropped 45 percent its second weekend in theatres. To date, the Denzel Washington vehicle has grossed $64.5 million.

Fourth place went to The Boxtrolls, which enjoyed a fairly steady hold. The kids’ film from Laika Animation raked in $12.4 million, a dip of 28 percent. Its cume, at the moment, stands at $32.5 million.

Younger viewers (though not quite as young as the target audience for Boxtrolls) also continued to turn out for YA adaptation The Maze Runner, which earned $12 million this weekend and clocked in at No. 5. Well on its way toward a $100 million+ total, the action film has so far earned $73.9 million. 

Left Behind failed to match the success of faith-based titles Heaven Is for Real and God's Not Dead, but neither did it disappoint: The remake starring Nicolas Cage grossed $6.85 million and secured the weekend's sixth-place spot.

Finally, despite major stars in leading roles, specialty films The Good Lie and Men, Women & Children opened soft. Lie raked in $935,000 from 461 locations, while Children fared worse: The latest from director Jason Reitman brought in $48,000, a total that works out to a weak per-theatre average of $2,824. Here’s hoping the film benefits significantly from its national expansion this weekend.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Alain Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour" at the New York Film Festival on October 10th

Emmanuelle Riva and Eijii Okada in a newly restored print of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a Rialto Pictures Release. (Photo courtesy of The New York Film Festival.)
On Friday, October 10th the New York Film Festival will screen a beautiful, newly restored print of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), a movie which should be seen on the big screen. (It is in French, with English subtitles.)

The first time I saw it, I was in college. It was the mid-1970s, and American troops were coming home from a bitterly contested war in Vietnam. The images of the 1968 Mi Lai massacre of nearly five hundred civilians by American soldiers was fresh in everyone’s mind. That “conflict” in Southeast Asia, which devastated our generation, paled in comparison to what happened in 1945: In August of that year, American pilots dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. We were the first generation of Americans marked by the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and, like every other human being on the planet then, the first to confront the threat of nuclear annihilation.

After the screening, our professor asked us what Resnais' movie had to do with the war. Which war, someone asked, and there was laughter, perhaps to break the tension, as most of us were utterly baffled by the three storylines in Hiroshima Mon Amour. One, the past bombing of Hiroshima, is inferred by Resnais’s setting of the film in that city. The second is about the brief affair between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) who is there to make a movie about it, and the French-speaking Japanese architect (Eijii Okada) she meets at a party. The third recounts the unnamed actress’s memories of her wartime romance with an enemy soldier, in the village of Nevers, which she confesses to her Japanese lover. While we students were eager to speak about Resnais’s sublime framing and editing, and Giovanni Fusco’s wonderful solo piano theme, no one wanted to venture a guess at what the movie was really about.

Most of us had seen only one other Resnais film, his documentary short about the Nazi death camps, Night and Fog (1955). Like Hiroshima Mon Amour, and many of the director’s movies to come, it is about the nature of memory, and was narrated by a camp survivor. Both films include archival footage. Hiroshima Mon Amour was Resnais’s first narrative feature, although it had begun as a documentary; a producer, impressed with Night and Fog, asked the filmmaker to make a similar movie about Hiroshima. Shortly after he began making the film, Resnais changed course and commissioned the well-known French novelist Marguerite Duras to write a screenplay. That is when it became the French woman’s story.

Hiroshima Mon Amour sometimes leaves viewers confused about whether they are in the “present,” in Hiroshima, or in the French woman’s memory of her affair with a German solider. The movie’s “past” intrudes, visually, upon the “present.” As contemporary viewers, we are more accustomed to this technique than audiences were in 1959, although the edits are still jarring. Perhaps a better example of Resnais’s contribution to the cinematic art form is in the parade sequence, when a banner appears in the bottom left of the frame and slowly moves out of the frame, standing in for the person holding it as he or she passes by and as the lovers look on. Borrowing a term from literature, film critics call the banner a “synecdoche,” a part that stands in for the whole. Filmmaker Robert Bresson is also famous for this shot, especially because he expanded it with the use of sound.

Now to the question of whether Hiroshima Mon Amour is about war: It is, but only tangentially. Resnais’s movie is the story of the French woman’s wartime memory of her first love who was an enemy of the French, and the public disgrace she underwent when the affair was discovered—when the German lay dying, having been shot by a villager, and she kneeled by his side. These characters and that story were conceived by another woman who harbored memories of a forbidden love. Marguerite Duras was born in Vietnam, in what was then French Indochina.

Her parents emigrated when her father secured a job there, but he died soon after their arrival, leaving her mother to raise three children on a teacher’s salary. Duras’s childhood was marked by poverty. Then, as a teenage girl, she met an affluent Chinese businessman with whom she had a secret but rather longstanding affair. In a 1985 television interview, she said her mother was convinced of her “absolute degradation,” and at one point threatened to throw her daughter out of their home. She recounted these memories in her novel, “The Lover” (1984), although she had obviously told her story years earlier in Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Emmanuelle Riva’s character had never told anyone, not even her husband, about her bittersweet memory of that wartime romance, but in Hiroshima, she confesses it to a stranger, a wonderful man who believes he is lucky to be entrusted with such a reminiscence. At some point, she asks: “How could I have forgotten so much love?” Actually, Duras and her character have too long lived in the past. Hiroshima, the ruined city, and the Japanese architect who is rebuilding it, are metaphors for the French woman’s process of reclamation, of her quest to heal her younger self. That verboten love was her initial encounter with the Other, a first step to claiming her identity. This time, instead of despair over the betrayal of her family, who hid her in a basement after the war, she feels happy. She speaks to her Japanese lover as though she were once again conversing with the German soldier. Maybe, she ruminates, she will return to Nevers. It is another name for the place where the bittersweet memories reside that, at some point in the course of one’s life, must be reclaimed.

Maria Garcia

Friday, October 3, 2014

NYFF 2014: Highs and lows thus far

With a little over a week remaining of The 52nd New York Film Festival, two of the event's most anticipated movies have yet to screen: The new Paul Thomas Anderson film and the first adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice; and the latest from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film that has many crying "Oscar!" and hailing as a comeback vehicle (what awards season would be complete without such a story?) for Michael Keaton.

Yet even without these titles, NYFF has already offered a strong, eclectic, and occasionally polarizing slate of films. From documentaries to modern thrillers and period pieces, here's a brief overview of some of the festival highs and lows thus far:

One can never glean much of use from breathlessly laudatory reviews, so in the interests of understatement, there is little to be said concerning Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence beyond the following: It is a documentary that first justifies then elevates the format, that affectingly proves why documentaries should be filmed. Silence is the companion piece to Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing. Whereas Killing focused on the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide, men who are still in power and (perhaps therefore) are more than happy to reenact their homicidal deeds before the camera, Silence turns about the brother of a young man who suffered one of the era's most gruesome deaths. Throughout the film, we watch as this man, who never knew his sibling, confronts those responsible for his brother's murder and the deaths of countless others. Using his trade as an eyeglass salesman as well as his affiliation with Oppenheimer, who many of the perps know from their involvement in Killing, as his "in," the documentary's subject quietly yet insistently engages these men of power and Earthly consequence in conversation about their pasts. It is a display of the baldest courage. The Look of Silence is important as historical record, as human testimonial, as a testament to documentary achievement. Oppenheimer should be nominated for his second Academy Award, of course, but that is the lesser of the necessities facing the filmmaker; he should simply continue to film.

The documentary Red Army likewise tells the story of a foreign nation in the modern era, though it lacks the incisiveness of Silence. The movie from Gabe Polsky is a nonetheless entertaining look at the former Soviet Union's Red Army hockey team in its heyday. Team captain Slava Fetisov recounts his rise to national than international fame as one of the top Soviet players, describing as well the Spartan and harsh conditions under which the squad lived, and the deceit, corruption and cruelty that characterized the government's close involvement. Fetisov is engaging and oh-so Russian in the bluntness of his delivery. What he is not is always forthcoming, and while Polsky displays an enjoyable sense of humor, choosing to include several unguarded moments with Fetisov and others (notably a former KGB agent, whose outdoor interview is twice interrupted by a local girl), the filmmaker fails to  crack his interviewees' carefully buttressed, or naturally calloused, exteriors. Granted, these are imposing figures with whom he's speaking, but one does wish he had prodded a bit harder.

One likewise wishes Bruce Wagner, the screenwriter of Maps to the Stars, displayed the tiniest fraction of Polsky's  levity. The latest film from David Cronenberg is a satire of Hollywood in the vein of The Player, although it isn't particularly funny, nor, more importantly, does it have much to say: many in the film industry are superficial, narcissistic, unfulfilled, spiritually bereft, adrift, unhinged...etc. Julianne Moore is wonderful at playing a terrible person, Mia Wasikowska is, as always, greatly watchable, and Evan Bird ("The Killing") is very, very convincing as a bratty child star and walking warning against the procreative habits of greedy people. But the film is all performance, little substance. Much like the Bret Easton Ellis works it appears to ape, it makes its satiric point right away. Everything that follows continues to hammer away at this single locale, until the wall against which the film's Hollywood "types" (that they are) are being pinned crumbles beneath the weight of blows aimed at the same darn spot. Melodrama can be great fun. This is not that.

Gone Girl, on the other hand, is quite fun. David Fincher's most recent work also follows several unlikable people, but their story has enough twists to distract from the film's dearth of character insight. You may not like the men and women of Gone Girl, but, unlike the titular stars of Maps, there's pleasure to be had in the tracking.

Of the festival's selection of characters who pose a challenge to viewer sympathy, the most interesting, featured in one of the event's best entries, are the two leads of Whiplash. The second feature from Harvard grad Damien Chazelle chronicles the relationship between an ambitious college drummer and his hard-ass, drill sergeant of a conductor. The film can prompt physical reactions: shrinking in one's seat, covering one's eyes, wincing. It is not a thriller, but it plays like one. Both the film and J.K. Simmons, the conductor, have been receiving Oscar buzz; let's hope such noise only continues to mount.

Mike Leigh's's Mr. Turner is a fine alternative to the aforementioned films. Its titular painter isn't so much unlikable as irascible. Not much happens in Mr. Turner, but the costume and set designs are so lovely many may not mind its distinctly un-Gone-Girl lack of plot at all.

Box office poised for a bounce-back

Both Gone Girl and Annabelle enjoyed strong bows Thursday night, suggesting a welcome return to healthy box-office numbers this weekend. Girl, the latest from The Social Network director David Fincher and an adaptation of the incredibly popular Gillian Flynn novel, raked in $1.25 million to Annabelle’s $2.1 million. Chances are slim, however, horror-film Annabelle will retain its lead over Girl through the weekend. Both movies boast significant fan-bases (in the case of Annabelle, these would be fans of The Conjuring, to which Annabelle is a prequel), but the audience for Girl is larger: It includes fans of the novel, fans of director David Fincher, and fans of the film’s star, Ben Affleck. Additionally, horror devotees often rush to view a feature its first weekend in theatres, resulting in totals that are often front-loaded. Older viewers, on the other hand, such as the target audience for the R-rated Girl, are able to, and often do, wait a bit longer to watch a film in theatres. In other words, Gone Girl not only enjoys the larger fan-base, but will likely hold better over the course of its theatrical run.

The two films should debut relatively close to one another (within $10 million or so), but Gone Girl should have stronger legs. Look for Girl to debut between $30 and $40 million, while Annabelle should rake in returns closer to $30 million.

The aforementioned films are not the only new releases opening this weekend, however. In fact, several movies featuring big-name stars are bowing today. Left Behind, a remake of the Christian-themed film, is headlined by Nicolas Cage. (Kirk Cameron starred in the original.) The film bows in 1,800 locations, and is likely looking, as so many features have tried over the past several months, to replicate the success of faith-based films God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real. Unfortunately, recent attempts to tap the viewing faithful have failed rather spectacularly (see: Moms' Night Out and The Identical). Left Behind is based on a popular book series, however, meaning its established fan base should help it avoid the fate of recent genre entries.

The Good Lie
, starring Reese Witherspoon, opens in 461 locations, while Men, Women & Children, starring a host of celebrities (Jennifer Garner, Adam Sandler, and Ansel Elgort are just a few players within the buzzy ensemble), expands to 17 theatres from the five in which it opened on Wednesday. The former has been receiving positive reviews, while the latter, the latest from Up in the Air director Jason Reitman, has been taken to task by critics, and is currently clocking in at 35 percent rotten on Rotten Tomatoes. Neither film is expected to do bang-up business this weekend: totals in the low millions for each seem likely.