Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Will 'Penguins' or 'Horrible Bosses' Win the Holiday Weekend?

Penguins of Madagascar
Gluttony Weekend--sorry, sorry, Thanksgiving--approaches, and with it a slate of  new releases for people who can manage to fight through their food coma and pull themselves off their couches. Go on, buy that movie theater popcorn. Your diet's shot anyway.

The two movies coming out in wide release today (Wednesday) aren't much to be thankful for, at least according to reviews--critical reception for Penguins of Madagascar and Horrible Bosses 2 has been decidedly mixed, though Penguins' 60% Rotten Tomatoes rating isn't awful. Expect Horrible Bosses 2's poor reviews (31% on Rotten Tomatoes) to keep it from snagging the top spot, while Penguins has a better shot due to its status as a kid's movie on a long weekend when schools are closed and parents need something to occupy the little ones with. Hey, you don't want to take 'em Black Friday shopping. That stuff's dangerous. Still, my money's on Mockingjay - Part 1 holding on for another week, despite its relatively disappointing opening weekend haul.

The Babadook
Reviews have been more positive for limited releases The Imitation Game and The Babadook, both out this Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Another option if you're not interested in penguins or bosses is The Theory of Everything, which is expanding from 140 theaters to 802. It's done well in limited release, snapping up nearly $3 million (and a lot of awards buzz) so far.

Also hitting theaters in the indie arena are director/writer/actor Shawn Christensen's Before I Disappear, based on his Oscar-winning 2013 short film Curfew, and the documentary Remote Area Medical, about a "pop-up" clinic in Bristol, Tennessee established to provide aid for those without options for medical care.

The Criterion Collection Is Coming to Fandor. Here Are Three Reasons to Celebrate.

We're a pretty big fan of movie theaters around these parts (maybe you've heard), so even when it comes to classical movies, Film Journal International's preference is watching at a theater vs online if at all possible. There's nothing like seeing Metropolis for the first time on a big screen with live musical accompaniment. Nothing. But hey, the Internet's good too, and not everyone lives in cities with a bustling assortment of theaters that play repertory films.

So we count it as a good thing that movie streaming site Fandor--like Netflix, but with an indie, foreign and classic bent--is getting its mitts on some of the Criterion Collection by way of Hulu, which currently owns the streaming rights. Every week will see a curated collection of seven films, based around a theme, come to Fandor, for a rough total of 30 per month. The films will be available for only 12 days each, which is a bit of a bummer, but if you miss one thing you want to see, something else will surely come cycling through.

Here, for your convenience, is a list of the currently running (Island Life) and upcoming (Family Troubles) slate of films.

Launch Date: 11/18/14 Series: Island Life
1. L'avventura (1960) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
2. Bergman Island (2006) dir. Marie Nyreröd
3. Lord of the Flies (1963) dir. Peter Brook
4. Naked Island (1960) dir. Kaneto Shindô
5. Profound Desire of the Gods (1968) dir. Shohei Imamura
6. Stromboli (1950) dir. Roberto Rossellini
7. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) dir. Ingmar Bergman
Launch Date: 11/25/14 Series: Family Troubles
1. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
2. A Nos Amours (1983) dir. Maurice Pialat
3. The Ceremony (1971) dir. Nagisa Oshima
4. The Demon (1964) dir. Kaneto Shindo
5. Fists in the Pocket (1965) dir. Marco Bellocchio
6. The Housemaid (1960) dir. Kim Ki-young
7. Seduced and Abandoned (1964) dir. Pietro Germi
8. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) dir. John Cassavetes
Click here to check them out; if you don't already have a subscription, you can sign up for a free trial. Do so, then start off by watching these three classics.

Through a Glass Darkly, dir. Ingmar Bergman 

This 1961 classic about a woman (Harriet Andersson) slipping back into insanity after a stay at a mental hospital has all the bleak humanism and religious metaphor you could possibly want from a Bergman film.
A Woman Under the Influence, dir. John Cassavetes

If you're a fan of indie film, it behooves you to see this, one of the most notable entries in the filmography of the godfather of independent cinema. The brilliant turn from Gena Rowlands as a housewife losing grip on her sanity doesn't hurt.

Lord of the Flies, dir. Peter Brook

Sucks to the assmar of anyone who hasn't seen Peter Brook's 1963 adaptation of William Golding's classic novel about a group of English students who get stranded on a deserted island shortly after World War II. Much like their adult Cold War counterparts, the boys behave perfectly and nothing bad happens to them. Wait.

Monday, November 24, 2014

'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1' Devours the Competition, Is Still a Box Office Disappointment

First, the positive for Katniss and her crew: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 easily dominated the box office over the weekend, earning $123 million to second place finisher Big Hero 6's $20 million (in its third week). That amount gives it the highest opening of the year, a title that it's almost certain to hold on to--the only movie that could conceivably challenge it would be The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but the first two movies in that trilogy made $84.6 million and $73.6 million on their opening weekends, so it's not looking good for Bilbo.

Now, the negative: Mockingjay - Part 1 lost the fight against its predecessor Catching Fire, which had an opening weekend gross of $158 million. It was also trounced by the similarly titled The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 ($138.1 million) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 ($125.1 million). Less than enthusiastic reviews probably have something to do with it--Mockingjay - Part 1's Rotten Tomatoes rating is only 66% positive, compared to 89% for Catching Fire, with many critics and fans frustrated by the way the movie doesn't tell a whole story. Can we stop splitting book adaptations into two parts, please? I know it's more money for the studios, but things are getting out of hand.

Unless there's some sort of miracle--come through for us, Mr. Turner!--this will be the first year since 2010 without a $150 million opening weekend.

Last week's number one movie Dumb and Dumber To fell 62% to spot number four, probably because people heard it's awful. (What, they couldn't tell that from the trailers?) The number three spot was taken up by Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, while David Fincher's Gone Girl just won't quit--this marks its eighth week in the top five.

With all the other studios staying out of Mockingjay's way, there really weren't all that many other new movies hitting screens. Jarvis Cocker documentary Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets earned $22,000 on 36 screens, for a per-theater average of $611. Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman expanded from 4 theaters to 33 and saw its box office more than triple. Foxcatcher and The Theory of Everything, both heavy awards contenders, continue to add both theaters and earnings. Interestingly, Guardians of the Galaxy--you know, that movie everybody liked that came out in August--added 91 theaters and saw its weekend box office climb from $292,787 (last weekend) to $471,000. Not too bad for a movie in its 18th week. You're doing well, grandpa.

Friday, November 21, 2014

'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1' On Course to Dominate the Box Office

No questions about it--The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1, the third movie in the Hunger Games franchise, is going to mop up the competition this week. The only uncertainty is by how much. A $100 million opening weekend is practically a guarantee at this point, with $150 million also a possibility.

The non-Lionsgate studios are basically staying out of Katniss' way as far as major releases are concerned, so it's looking like last weekend's top three movies--Big Hero 6, Interstellar, and Dumb and Dumber To--are going to hang around in the top five. As far as limited releases are concerned, there are two horror films that I can personally attest to be worth seeing: The Babadook and A Girl Walks  Home Alone at Night. V/H/S: Viral and Extraterrestrial are hitting screens as well, though the reviews for both have been less than positive (41% and 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively. Personally, I thought Extraterrestrial had enough stupid clichés for five movies). Werewolf thriller Late Phases is somewhere in between, with a 60% approval rating from critics.

As far as non-horror movies are concerned, the reviews for farmworker doc Food Chains have been promising, and Reach Me has one of the most intriguingly eclectic casts I've seen in a while. You're telling me that Kyra Sedgwick, Thomas Jane, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Crews, Cary Elwes, Tom Berenger and Sylvester Stallone are all in one movie? Unfortunately, the reviews indicate that Reach Me is a big ol' mess. Oh, well. Better luck next time, Sly.

Personally, I'm going to try The King and the Mockingbird. a restoration of a classic French animated film that looks charmingly madcap:

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Poland’s Retro Oscar Bid Ida Hits New York’s Hip Downtown

By Doris Toumarkine

Polish-born, U.K.-based and educated filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski’s much-applauded Ida, which Music Box Films released last spring and is Poland’s bid for an Oscar foreign-language nomination, got a special screening and Q&A time afterwards with Pawlikowski Sunday night at downtown New York’s Soho House. With Music Box exec Ed Arentz also in attendance, the event was no doubt intended to keep deserved awareness and award hopes alive for the film, especially when you’re in competition among 82 other countries for the Academy’s handful of final nominations.

Set in a grim Communist Poland in the early 60s and co-written by the director and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Ida is about 18-year-old orphan and novitiate nun Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) who, about to take her vows, is first sent to visit her Aunt Wanda (Agneta Kulesza, delivering a remarkable performance), a cynical and dissolute Communist Party adherent, her one living relative. Suggesting the wounded Holocaust survivor that she is, Wanda is living a reckless life.

She informs Anna that she was born Ida and is Jewish. What follows is their journey into the town’s wartime past as they learn of Ida’s parents’ tragic end and are led to their remains buried in a ditch. Here, suspense begins for audiences about Anna and the path she’ll take and further heightened when she shows interest in a local young musician. Will Anna forgo her vows and embrace her true identity as the Jewish Ida? And Wanda, sinking deeper into depression, has her arc.

Coming from the world of documentaries, Pawlikowski’s film, his fourth theatrical fiction feature (the Kristin Scott Thomas/Ethan Hawke starrer The Woman in the Fifth was the most recent), is distinguished by its deliberate low-key approach. Presented in black-and-white, Ida offers stark and authentic star settings framed by the retro 1.33 screen ratio.

In her debut, Trzebuchowska, who delivers a moving performance, is given very little dialogue; emotional feelings are left to her innocent face, which some may perceive as more suggestive of Slavic than Jewish. Pawlikowski said finding his Anna/Ida was “tough” but luck stepped in. A colleague of his spotted her in a café and tipped her to the film. Keeping alive the Schwab drugstore legend of star discovery but with an intermediary’s intervention, the filmmaker thus found his heroine.

Above all, Trzebuchowska is brave indeed in dealing with the camera. And suggesting the wisdom of those who know to quit while ahead, she told the filmmaker that she has no further acting ambitions.

Ida really is a pile-up of important themes (the Holocaust, politics, identity, etc.) but Pawlikowski is more after an experience for his audiences. Ida’s finale recalls the memorable endings of past classics like Knife in the Water, The Third Man and 400 Blows. For all these films, it’s that slow-burning but ultimately powerful consummation of all that transpired — on a human level — before.

The nostalgic feel of the film aside, therein lies the film’s main attraction. As Pawlikowski suggested during the Q&A, exploration of matters religious, political, historical, ethical or even familial weren’t his real concern. Best to leave the heavy lifting to viewers, he suggested, saying, “I tried to tell the audience that they’re not going to get the full picture. The film is more meditation than story.”

He went on to explain that “political films tend to simplify things. My mission was to show how strange and paradoxical life is.” His goal was for Ida to be “a cinematic experience about human beings rather than an issue-driven film.” And so it is.

Ida began years ago as just an idea he had. What gave it initial traction was that he had always wanted to make a film with a character like Wanda, his complex, tortured Holocaust survivor in the early years of Poland’s Communism. Implied is that it was the horrible wartime experiences that drove her ardently to Communism, which in turn drove her off the rails. But that may be getting too historical and political.

What really sticks is the film’s nostalgic look and sound (old pop songs identified with that period in Europe but also fragments from Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, a Pawlikowski favorite).

The filmmaker said the film’s look was inspired by his family photo albums. Because he wanted a strong picture more than a beautiful one, “we didn’t do coverage…we even cut some shots because they were too beautiful.”

And let film backers beware: “We kept changing the script, so it’s much different from what we raised money on.” The script, he further observes, feels graceful because it came from many changes. “I don’t trust scripts.” Most of the material was rehearsed but, showing his documentary roots, Pawlikowski offered that “you mold film as you go along.”

Ida is a compact 80 minutes and wound down its theatrical run this summer flirting with a $4 million box office for the U.S. Now with the film’s team and filmmaker’s native country of Poland crossing fingers that Ida can consummate a love affair with Oscar, they await the final list of Foreign-Language nominations.

Monday, November 17, 2014

'Dumb and Dumber To' Beats the Competition to Box Office Victory

It was a decidedly dumb weekend at movie theaters: Not only was Dumb and Dumber To's $38.05 million enough for it to trump holdovers Interstellar and Big Hero 6, it also proved the biggest opening of both the Farrelly Brothers' and Jeff Daniels' careers. Move your Emmy off the mantlepiece, Jeff--your framed Dumb and Dumber To script deserves pride of place. The reviews have been abysmal (27% Rotten Tomatoes rating), and even the people who saw it didn't like it all that much--its CinemaScore rating is a mere B-. Long story short, don't expect this one to hang around in the top five for long, especially not with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 barrelling into theaters this weekend.

Big Hero 6 and Interstellar are looking to have better legs--box office grosses for the pair dropped 36 and 39 percent over the weekend, which isn't half bad. They've earned $111.6 million and $97.8 million so far, respectively. Newcomer Beyond the Lights was a distant fourth, earning $6.5 million with a per-theater average of $3,633. Gone Girl is clinging onto the top five and has so far earned an impressive $152.6 million.

For more limited releases, Birdman nearly doubled the amount of screens it's playing on and had its best weekend yet as a result, bringing in $2.45 million for a total so far of $11.5 million. Whiplash likewise added theaters and saw its weekend gross jump 152 percent. Rosewater, Jon Stewart's directorial debut, earned $1.2 million at 371 theaters, while Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas got $1 million at 410 theaters, for an opening weekend per-theater average ($2,468) that's only a fraction of what Cameron's Christian-themed Fireproof pulled in back in 2008 ($8,148).

Finally, Foxcatcher debuted in six theaters in New York and Los Angeles, where it grossed $288,000 for an impressive per-theater average of $48,000. And Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman got $48,000 in four theaters.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Box Office On Track for a 'Dumb' Weekend

As much as it pains me to type this, it's looking like the Farrelly Brothers' Dumb and Dumber To is going to come out on top of the box office this weekend. There is a chance, though, that one or both of last weekend's two highest-grossing films--Big Hero 6 and Interstellar--could beat it. Let's hope something does--that 27% Rotten Tomatoes rating isn't promising.

Also out in wide release is showbiz romantic drama Beyond the Lights, starring Nate Parker and Belle's Gugu Mbatha-Raw, while Birdman and Whiplash are both expanding after several solid weeks in limited release.

In the specialty arena, moviegoers will have some options. Jon Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater, about a journalist held in solitary confinement in Iran, is opening on 371 screens; in general, reviews have been on the positive edge of mixed ("I liked it, but...," "It was well-done, but..."). Reviews have been more enthused about Foxcatcher, based on the true story of a wrestler (Channing Tatum) taken under the wing of an eccentric billionaire (an unexpectedly disturbing Steve Carell, who's been getting a lot of awards buzz). You can read our interview with director Bennett Miller here. Anticipation for this one is high, and it's only opening in six theaters, so expect a per-theater average of $50,000 or higher. Not likely to do as well is Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman, opening at four locations in New York and Los Angeles.

There are a smattering of other limited releases, though nothing that's likely to get too much traction. Movies to keep an eye on are 1980s-set coming-of-age drama The Toy Soldiers, which our reviewer was positively rapturous over; Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas, which could get decent numbers courtesy of the moviegoers who made Cameron's Christian-themed Fireproof a success; and A Merry Friggin' Christmas, notable for being one of Robin Williams' last film performances, though not for much else.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

MPAA Launches to Combat Movie Piracy

Hey, movie pirates: The MPAA sees you. They see you, and they want you to cut it out. To that end, they've launched a new site called, a helpful little resource that lets you type in a movie and compare different (legal) ways for watching it online.

Via their blog:
 "Finding your favorite films and TV shows legally and quickly online has always involved searching and sifting. There are more than 100 platforms that legally stream content now, but there’s never been a single source to help you find them, and, find out what movies and shows they’re offering. Simply searching for “Inside Llewyn Davis legal streaming” brings up (which then directs you elsewhere), Amazon, some illegal service (negating the “legal” in your original search to begin with), (which takes you to yet another platform) and Oscar Isaac’s IMDB page. Not entirely simple after all. Considering that last year, thoughtful film and television lovers like yourself used legal online services to access more than 5.7 billion film and 56 billion television episodes, there needed to be a single source to find and access all of these services. Now there is."
Subtext--"What's your excuse for illegally downloading now, suckers?"

So, for example, you want to know the best place to watch... let's say Snowpiercer, a movie that if you haven't watched already, you really should, because it's excellent. Boom:

Or if you're on a Scorsese kick you can search for him, though personally I'd prefer a site with all a director's movies on one page to a list that requires a bunch of clicking to see a comparison of availability between multiple films. So if I want to see a Buster Keaton movie but don't know which one, I can just do a quick scan to see what I can get for $1.99 on Amazon Instant. As Where To Watch is in beta, there are still some bugs--clicking Keaton's 1927 film College, for example, takes me to this, which... no. No, that is not the movie I wanted.

Those minor complaints aside, it looks pretty handy. You can even set up an alert for something that's currently in theaters, because I don't particularly want to pony up $14 to see Dracula Untold, but it's something I might be OK with slapping down a few bucks for one night when I'm feeling bored and masochistic.

(via The Daily Dot)

5 Films to Watch at DOC NYC

For documentary enthusiasts, there's no better place to be come November than New York City for DOC NYC, launching today and running through November 20th. And even if you don't count docs among your favorite genres--it's OK, you can admit it, I won't get all snobby on you--DOC NYC has a large enough slate with a wide enough variety of topics that you're more likely than not to find something that strikes your fancy. There are plenty of films largely in line with documentary's reputation as a genre--earnest, serious and often advocacy-based--but those looking solely for an entertaining few hours will have options on hand as well. There's even a "Docs Redux" section for those classic films you know you should have seen but haven't gotten around to yet, like Albert Maysles' Salesman or Steve James' Hoop Dreams. (Yes, I know, I know--I'm watching Hoop Dreams soon.)

Here are a few highlights from the fest that I've been able to see; the full lineup and schedule are available on DOC NYC's website.

Above and Beyond (screening info)

Above and Beyond - Teaser Trailer from Katahdin Productions on Vimeo.

Director: Roberta Grossman
Synopsis: "As Israel was fighting to establish a nation in 1948, it was badly wanting for an air force. Using secret means in defiance of the US Neutrality Act, Israel recruited American pilots who had fought in WWII. Above and Beyond recounts this hidden chapter of history, interviewing pilots and making skillful use of special effects by Industrial Light & Magic. The creation of Israel’s air force proved crucial in the ‘48 war and has had reverberations up to the present day."
My Thoughts: This is a good one to feed your inner history buff, particularly if said inner history buff has a more military bent. Grossman has assembled interviews from those directly involved in the creation of Israel's Air Force, mostly American pilots who risked a loss of citizenship to defend the nascent nation of Israel from being destroyed by neighboring Middle Eastern armies, intent on attacking as soon as Britain left the formerly colonized Palestine. If you're looking for any sort of in-depth political examination of the Israel/Palestine relationship, this isn't it. It's one-sided and fairly straightforward. That isn't a knock. What Above and Beyond sets out to do--tell this particular story from the perspective of those who lived it--it does adeptly.

A Murder In the Park (screening info)

A Murder in the Park - Trailer from Transition Studios on Vimeo.

Director: Christopher S. Rech, Brandon Kimber
Synopsis: "With his execution just 48 hours away, Anthony Porter’s life was saved by a Northwestern University journalism class. Their re-investigation of the crime for which he was convicted—a double homicide in a Chicago park—led to the discovery of the real killer, Alstory Simon, whose confession exonerated Porter. If it all sounds too good to be true, it’s because, as compellingly argued here, Porter actually is guilty, Simon is an innocent man and both are just pawns in a much larger plan."
My Thoughts: Documentaries about miscarriages of justice aren't exactly rare--depressingly so, because that means there are a lot of miscarriages of justice--but the story told in A Murder in the Park is far from average. The undoubted villains of the tale are Medill Innocence Project founder David Protess (since ousted from the organization) and private investigator Paul Ciolino, whom, Rech and Kimber argue, manipulated evidence to get a guilty man off death row and an innocent man imprisoned in his place, all for political reasons. It's a riveting documentary, and one that the directors might want to go in and add a post-script to: mere weeks before the film's world premiere at DOC NYC next Monday, Alstory Simon was released from prison, Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez calling out Protess and Ciolino's investigation for "involv[ing] a series of alarming tactics that were not only coercive but absolutely unacceptable by law enforcement standards."

Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man Behind the National Enquirer (screening info)

Director: Ric Burns
Synopsis: "Serving up a sensational expose in line with his juicy subject, acclaimed multiple Emmy-Award winner Ric Burns uncovers the strange history of the National Enquirer and the tabloid’s legendary publisher, Generoso Pope Jr. Purchasing the paper in 1952— allegedly with Mob financing—Pope showed an uncanny knack for assessing what the public wanted, using first sex and gore, and later celebrity gossip and the supernatural, to ramp up his circulation to unheard-of numbers—and to generate controversy at every turn—presaging today’s celebrity-journalism-driven culture."
My Thoughts: Did you know that the National Enquirer was considered for a Pulitzer in 2010? Because I did not. I also didn't know that it was (probably) initially paid for with mafia money. Or that before it founded celebrity tabloid journalism as we know it today, it made a name for itself by printing the goriest stories it could find ("Mom Boiled Her Baby and Ate Her"). Or that longtime publisher Generoso Pope Jr. was obsessed with having the world's largest Christmas tree. Or that almost its entire library of back issues and photos (including the famous snap of Elvis in his coffin) was destroyed after Anthrax was sent to its headquarters shortly after 9/11. But these are things I know now, thanks to Enquiring Minds. The way the doc scratches the surface of larger issues of tabloid journalism before darting away to focus solely on the history of the Enquirer is at times frustrating. But hey, Enquiring Minds is still thoroughly enjoyable, even if it never really ventured into analyzing its subject from a critical perspective.

Do I Sound Gay? (screening info)

Director: David Thorpe
Synopsis: "After a breakup with his boyfriend, journalist David Thorpe embarks on a hilarious and touching journey of self-discovery, confronting his anxiety about 'sounding gay.' Enlisting acting coaches, linguists, friends, family, total strangers and celebrities, he quickly learns that many people—both gay and straight—often wish for a different voice. What starts out as a personal journey becomes a chance to unpack layers of cultural baggage concerning sexuality, identity and self-esteem.

Thorpe gains frank and funny perspectives from public figures such as comedian Margaret Cho, actor George Takei, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, fashion guru Tim Gunn and writer David Sedaris. Drawing upon movie and television clips, the film traces a cultural history of the gay voice—ranging from closeted icons to a notable string of cartoon villains—which places Thorpe’s self-consciousness in a broader context and illuminates the complexity at play in this seemingly personal issue.

Teamed with award-winning producer Howard Gertler (Shortbus, How to Survive a Plague), Thorpe makes for a winning and sympathetic guide who doesn’t shy away from confronting taboos and vulnerabilities that often go unexpressed."
My Thoughts: No wonder this was chosen as DOC NYC's opening night film--its title is eye-catching, as is its premise; it features interviews from a number of instantly recognizable names (like Tim Gunn, George Takei and David Sedaris, the latter making his film debut); and it strikes a good balance of social analysis, introspection on the part of director Thorpe and audience-pleasing entertainment.

Jingle Bell Rocks! (screening info)

Jingle Bell Rocks Trailer HD from EyeSteelFilm on Vimeo.
Director: Mitchell Kezin
"In Jingle Bell Rocks!, director Mitchell Kezin delves into the minds of some of the world’s most legendary Christmas music fanatics and hits the road to hang with his holiday heroes – including hip hop legend Joseph 'Rev Run' Simmons of RUN-D.M.C., The Flaming Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne, filmmaker John Waters, bebopper Bob Dorough, L.A. DJ and musicologist Dr. Demento, and Calypso legend The Mighty Sparrow. In his search for the twelve best, underappreciated Christmas songs ever recorded, Kezin both asks and answers the question, 'Why, when Christmas rolls around, are we still stuck cozying up with Bing Crosby under a blanket of snow?'"
My Thoughts: I have an confession to make: I am a complete and utter Christmashead. I'm pretty cynical about most things, but you can rant at me about the commercialization and increasing meaningless of Christmas all you want, and I won't care. Come November (yes, I'm one of those), I will still be wearing my Christmas socks and humming carols. All that is to say that I'm naturally biased in favor of a documentary about obscure Christmas songs and people who collect them. Even so, Jingle Bell Rocks is an entertaining enough jaunt through the world of music that there's something there for all but the most hard-hearted of grinches.

Other notable films on the lineup include Jessica Solce's gun control doc No Control, having its world premiere at the fest; Divide in Concord, about the attempts of 84-year-old Concord, Massachusetts resident Jean Hill's attempts to ban bottled water in her hometown; and Hotline, about the world of telephone hotlines. There are also a number of classes and panels on offer. DOC NYC's official website has additional information on all their films and screenings.

Monday, November 10, 2014

'Big Hero 6' Trumps 'Interstellar' at the Box Office

What'd I say about not underestimating the earning power of animated kids' movies? Disney/Marvel's Big Hero 6 beat Christopher Nolan's Interstellar at the box office over the weekend, earning $52.6 million to Interstellar's $50 million. That gives it the second highest opening of an animated film so far this year, after The LEGO Movie ($69 million).

Still, Interstellar's $50 million is nothing to turn up one's nose at. In fact, this is only the fourth time in history that two movies have opened at or above $50 million. Add in the dough from Interstellar's two days of limited release before it went out to digital theatres, and the space epic has earned $52.15 million. However, 26% of that came from IMAX screens, which indicates that, while Nolan fanatics showed up on opening weekend to see the film in all its space-y glory, Paramount had a tougher time pulling in casual moviegoers of the sort not willing to pay premium IMAX prices. The movie earned less than $37 million on non-IMAX screens.

Update: Variety is now reporting that Interstellar made only $47.5 million, falling short of Paramount's $50-$55 million projections.

Rounding out the top five were Gone Girl (in spot 3, up from spot 4 last week), Ouija (for God's sake, someone get this movie out of the top five!) and St. Vincent.

In limited releases, Birdman added 231 theatres, but its weekend haul still shrunk by 4%. Fox Searchlight is taking the movie nationwide this weekend, so we should see an uptick then. The Theory of Everything, which opened in five theatres, took $260,865 for a respectable per-theatre average of $41,400, putting it in a good place for when awards season starts to ramp up.

Italian comedy/drama Viva la Libertà pulled in a not-too-shabby $6,300 in two theatres, and docudrama Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain got $6,150 in one. For the docs, this weekend gave us On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter ($343,876), National Gallery ($9,650) and Death Metal Angola ($2,500).

Friday, November 7, 2014

Nick Temple and the Art of Movie Trailers

In reality competition The Chair, two first-time directors--Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci--are given a budget and the same script to complete their first feature film. Naturally, since filmmaking is something of a collaborative process, they needed a fair bit of help. When it came to trailers, that help came from Culver City-based Wild Card Creative Advertising. The list of Wild Card trailers doubles as a jaunt through some of the biggest blockbusters from the past several years--from 2014 alone, Wild Card has put its stamp on the upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings and Unbroken, plus Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and more.

Maleficent Trailer 1 from Wild Card on Vimeo.
There's a fair bit of variation in what Wild Card has worked on--Día de Muertos-themed kids movie The Book of Life and space epic Interstellar, for example, would make for an odd double feature. And the two trailers for The Chair are vastly different, for all that the movies that they came from are based on the same script. Dawson's Not Cool resembles nothing so much as American Pie, while Martemucci's Hollidaysburg has a more indie dramedy feel.

"For us to do the trailers [for The Chair] was exciting, because it was an opportunity to take a couple young editors and pair them up with essentially what were two first-time filmmakers, and really see how that parallel path worked for both of them," explains Wild Card CEO Nick Temple. "After watching the films, we sat down and said 'OK, which young editors here would jibe the best with the directors?'... It was cool to see how the personalities worked between the editor and the director, and then tackling the material from that standpoint."

For Wild Card, cutting trailers comes down to one question: "How can you make something stand out?" Temple himself ascribes to a "less is more" approach, acknowledging the criticism that's been popping up more and more as of late that trailers give away too much. It's part of the "evolution of the trailer," he explains: "They get analyzed and critiqued and they're watched millions and millions of times," fans able to pore over every frame in a way that they couldn't pre-Internet. "You have to be conscious about what's enough to engage the viewers so they understand, and at the same time leaving enough that they feel you didn't spoil it."

Temple shared the story of one summer film that the studio kept putting out clips for. "[We were in a meeting], and one of the producers on the film said 'I understand at this point, from what we've learned, that kids are stringing those clips together.' And it gets to the point where they can see 30-40 minutes of the film! And it's really had almost an adverse effect. As they move forward, I'd be surprised if some of that didn't gear back a little bit. There are different ways to deliver content that can be really engaging, and stuff that's a little more out of the box. Not clips from films."

The key to creating that engaging content, says Temple, is emphasis is on establishing a tone and evoking emotion instead of flat-out showing what a movie's about."What I never responded to favorably [in trailers] is stuff that feels expected. And that's not about the material, about the film. It's about the conventions by which trailers are created. It's something that feels very linear, very straightforward, holding my hand and taking me through: 'This guy walks through the door! Now he goes upstairs!' Funnily enough, when you watch that stuff, that might not even be what the movie is. That might only be one small component of the film. But when it's presented in a way that's constructed like you've seen everything because it's created in such a linear fashion... then it can create that impression."

One all-important tactic for avoiding those boring, by the books trailers is music, which was used to excellent effect particularly in the first Unbroken trailer:

Unbroken Official Trailer 1 2014 - Angelina Jolie Directed Movie HD from Wild Card on Vimeo.

"Music can be such a huge storytelling device, even if there's no dialogue," Temple says. "If a piece of music really sticks out, or it really connects, that's what [the audience will] remember."

But crafting something that will catch the audiences' attention--in the first 30 seconds is essential, Temple believes, because "if you don't get people's attention right out of the gate, you're almost a goner"--has gotten more difficult in this digital age, when moviegoers are bombarded constantly by clips, trailers, even trailers of trailers. And most of them are seen for the first time online, as opposed to on the big screen. "I remember the first time that I really thought about it," Temple recalls. "I was working on Avatar.  It was a movie that had to be seen in the theater, it had to be experienced. When we put the teaser out, [people were watching] on an iPhone or a small screen, and there was just no way you could generate the impact that you would have created in a theater... I don't know if there's any way you can really get away from people seeing it first online. But at the same time, there are ways to [still create effective trailers]. Less is more, again. When you watch something online for the first time, if you're creating a tone and a first impression, a lot of times that's a lot more impactful than going all in and showing everything."

For Exodus: Gods and Kings, that tone was all about not letting one single aspect of the film overwhelm the others: "You really want to take the material and say, 'Look, we can't just cater to the religious crowd. We can't just cater to the all-action crowd.' It's really about finding a  nice balance. We're going to build the trailer with some [aspects] that people know through the Moses story, but at the same time it can feel huge and exciting and not like [something they've seen before]."

Exodus: Gods and Kings Theatrical Trailer from Wild Card on Vimeo.

In having that balance, one avoids falling into what Temple sees as trailerdom's biggest trap. "You're causing more damage not doing the unexpected... The more shocking and more unconventional [a trailer] is, as long as you're still on-point with your marketing message, the better. Because I think there's nothing more damning than being mediocre. And it's very hard to reverse that impression once you've created it."

'Interstellar' and 'Big Hero 6' to Face Off at the Box Office

After a decidedly lackluster Halloween weekend, studios are finally getting back on track and delivering movies we actually want to see. (Apologies to Nightcrawler. We did actually want to see you.) Christopher Nolan's space porn epic Interstellar and Disney/Marvel Entertainment's Big Hero 6 are expected to do big numbers over the weekend, each probably making over $50 million. Both movies have been getting good reviews (77% on Rotten Tomatoes for Interstellar, 88% for Big Hero 6), and Interstellar, which came out on Tuesday in select theaters, has already earned $1.3 million. For the three-day total, it'll be close, but I predict Big Hero 6 will come out on top. Never underestimate the earning power of a good (or even a bad) kid's movie.

Either way, reigning champ Ouija isn't getting a third weekend at number one, and that's something to be happy about.

For smaller movies, Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything has been generating some major awards season buzz for star Eddie Redmayne. It opens today in five theaters in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto--expect a healthy per-theater average to precede Focus Features expanding the film in the coming weeks. Less critically beloved is Lionsgate's Jessabelle (31% on Rotten Tomatoes), which is going to have to pray that people are still in the mood for spookiness.

Then there are the even smaller films, in most cases debuting in New York and/or L.A. For the history crowd, there are two movies about East German families trying to survive during the Cold War hitting theaters: West and The Tower, the latter a compressed version of a two-part TV movie. Ravi Kumar's docudrama Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, about the 1984 Union Carbide chemical disaster in India, is coming out as well. And heading back stateside, The Better Angels, a Terrence Malick-esque meditation on the early life of Abraham Lincoln, is debuting in Los Angeles. Despite its appealing cast (Jason Clarke, Brit Marling, Diane Kruger), reviews have been pretty dismal.

For documentaries, the three main movies to keep an eye on are Virunga (opening in New York); Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery; and the buzzed-about Actress. If none of those catch your eye, consider Pelican Dreams, Death Metal Angola, Getting to the Nutcracker, The Invisible Front, On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter or The Only Real Game.

For fans of Italian cinema, there's Viva la Libertà, with The Great Beauty's Toni Servillo. People who want a little mystery in their lives have The Lookalike to consider, while for you dorky genre-heads (I count myself among your number), there are Open Windows, Hangar 10, and the promising-sounding Japanese flick Why Don't You Play In Hell?. Fugly! has the comedy beat on lockdown, Elsa & Fred with Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer is geared towards moviegoers of a certain age, and if you're in the mood for a coming-of-age movie, The Way He Looks is for you. And Sex Ed is for absolutely no one:

If you want to see Haley Joel Osment being funny, I recommend IFC's "The Spoils of Babylon," now streaming on Netflix Instant, instead.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Orphans Recap: Tributes and Discoveries

World traveler Aloha Wanderwell Baker posing for a publicity photo. Courtesy Aloha Wanderwell website.
Over thirty films screened at "The Real Indies: A Close Look at Orphan Films," a series presented on October 31 and November 1 by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and NYU's Orphan Film Symposium. Filmmakers and archivists were among the enthusiastic viewers at the Academy Theater at Lighthouse International in Manhattan.

Friday night opened with a Halloween tribute to writer and director Jack Hill, whose Spider Baby was screened in a new 35mm print. Hill thanked Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein, who helped liberate the Spider Baby negative from a film lab, where it had been classified "Abandoned Property."

The director, who now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, reminisced about Lon Chaney, Jr., and Mantan Moreland, veteran actors approaching the end of their careers in Spider Baby, and B-movie mainstay Sid Haig. Hill also talked about how to shoot a feature film in twelve days, with a budget of $50,000. What's surprising today is how effective Spider Baby is despite Hill's limited resources. A long sequence following actor Karl Schanzer through a decrepit mansion is a tour de force of silent film techniques.

The Saturday morning program "Pioneering Women" featured fascinating 35mm restorations of works by Aloha Wanderwell Baker, who filmed several globetrotting expeditions in the 1920s. She joined her husband Walter Wanderwell on endurance trips, driving specially adapted Fords across deserts and mountains, and later filmed tribes in South America. When he was murdered in 1932, Aloha continued her travels with her second husband Walter Baker.

Connie Field introduced her Oscar-nominated The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter in a new restoration from the Academy Film Archive. She spoke about preservation issues, which she experienced first hand when leader disintegrated onto the negative for Rosie that had been stored in a lab. Field described the extensive casting process for Rosie, which contrasts interviews with five World War II-era women factory workers to propaganda films of the time.

"We interviewed over 700 women all over the country," Field revealed. She then tape recorded 250 subjects on cassettes before picking forty to videotape. "I would meet women and they were wonderful, but then I saw them on video and they weren't coming across. Whatever was going on between me and the person didn't reflect itself on video. So out of the forty I picked five to be in the film."

"Altered Reality," the afternoon program, included Necrology by the structuralist pioneer Standish Lawder, an atypical student film by the noted music documentarian Les Blank, and Organic Afghan, a 1969 animated short by Bill Brand that had never been screened to the public.

The segment also included Bedtime Story, a remarkable 1981 collage by Esther Shatavsky, who cut individual frames of a "Gunsmoke" episode into pieces and then animated them. Andrew Lampert at the Anthology Film Archives is still trying to track down information about the reclusive Shatavsky.

Bill Morrison presented a 35mm screening of his 2005 Outerborough, with live musical accompaniment by violinist Todd Reynolds. Propulsively exciting, Outerborough reworks an 1899 Biograph short, Across Brooklyn Bridge, that was shot on 68mm film. The Academy Theater was the perfect venue for Morrison's widescreen movie.

Morrison also introduced several short fragments in the evening program, "Visions of New York," including scenes from the 1917 World Series. The fragments were found under an ice skating rink in Dawson City, Canada, in 1978.

Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum showed Broadway by Day, a remarkable 1932 travelogue that spanned the Bronx, Harlem, Times Square, and Battery Park in seven minutes. Brian Meacham from the Yale University Film Study Center introduced an equally worthy short, 3rd Ave. El, shot in 1955 by amateur filmmaker Carson Davidson. His compositions and exposures showed extraordinary skill. (The short was one of two he made to receive Oscar nominations.)

Along with a sneak peak at the Museum of Modern Art's restoration of the 1913 "Lime Kiln Club" feature starring Bert Williams, the segments included an excerpt from I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here, a student film by Chris Columbus.

Elena Rossi-Snook from the New York Public Library spoke about the Youth Film Distribution Center, an opportunity for city youths to experiment with filmmaking. Black Faces was an exhilarating blast of collage and chants put together in 1970. Steve Siegal and Phil Buehler were teenagers when they made the exuberant Coney Island, a 1973 short that captures a world that has largely vanished.

"The Real Indies" showcased just how wide-reaching the film world is, juxtaposing works from major studios with experimental pieces meant for private audiences. But as many archivists agreed, accessibility has become a major issue. Few of these films will reach the public. Even if some titles show up on platforms like YouTube, the online experience can never match film projected in a theater.

Dan Streible, director of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program at New York University and an Academy Film Scholar, will be one of the presenters at the next orphan screening, Orphans at MoMA: An Amateur Cinema League of Nations on November 18.

Monday, November 3, 2014

'Nightcrawler' and 'Ouija' In Dead Heat Over Halloween Weekend

There weren't many new movies to see on Halloween weekend, and not many people out and about on Friday, at least, to see them--and so it came to pass that this weekend was one of the slowest of the year so far, with the top five films earning a mere $48 million between them.

Neck and neck for first place were Nightcrawler and last week's #1 Ouija, both of which earned $10.9 million. Nightcrawler's weekend total is currently sitting at $9,000 more than Ouija's, but Ouija could easily overtake that once final numbers come in. That's a pretty big surprise, as low-budget horror movies don't tend to have legs after their first weekend. Something about their intended teenage audience having short attention span--look, a butterfly! Also working against Ouija is the fact that it's really, really bad--its Rotten Tomatoes rating is a wince-worthy 8%, and our own reviewer called it "one of the laziest, least frightening mainstream horror movies in recent memory." Moviegoers, there are multiple good movies coming out next weekend, so if Ouija's still in the top five then so help me, I am done with all of you. Nightcrawler was more positively received by critics, and the $10.9 million it managed to earn is pretty good considering the less than mainstream nature of the film.

As far as other new releases are concerned, Before I Go to Sleep was a huge flop, earning only $2.03 million. That's $1.72 million less than the opening weekend haul of fellow Clarius Entertainment film Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, which, as a reminder, is this:

So good on you, Before I Go to Sleep! You were beaten by that.

The Daniel Radcliffe-starring Horns pulled in a mere $104,000 on 103 screens--some people surely opted for VOD instead of seeing it in theaters, but hopefully not too many people, because it's really bad. The 10th anniversary re-release of Saw earned a dismal $650,000 on 2,063 screens, for a per-screen average higher, but not much higher, than the infamous Oogielovers In The BIG Balloon Adventure. Er... congratulations?

For some silver lining to this dreary weekend, Birdman expanded from 50 theaters to 231 and saw its box office take jump nearly 82%. More theaters are being added next weekend, when animated superhero flick Big Hero 6 is going up against Interstellar for the #1 spot. Given the number of superhero movie digs in Birdman, I find that amusing.

Rounding out the top five were holdovers Fury (#3, $9.1 million weekend gross), Gone Girl (#4, $8.8 weekend gross), and The Book of Life (#5, $8.3 weekend gross). Au revoir, October. And you know what that means: