Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Canada's Cineplex Entertainment Launches Autism-Friendly Screenings

Well, this is a much better idea than theatres where text messages are projected on-screen. Cineplex Entertainment, which operates 160 theatres across Canada, has partnered with Autism Speaks Canada for a special screening series for moviegoers with autism spectrum disorders. Via the CBC, these Sensory Friendly Screenings take place at 12 theatres and will feature "2D projection, increased auditorium lighting, lower volume and smaller crowds." Moviegoers will also be able to bring in outside food, and a "calm zone" will be provided for those audience members who need to step away for a bit.

The series starts on 2/14 with The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (our review); future movies include Cinderella (4/4), DreamWorks' Home (4/18) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (5/16). Screenings will typically take place ever 4-6 weeks, all on Saturdays at 10:30am, before the theatres open to all patrons. The cost of all tickets will be the child price for those with autism and their families, and tickets will go on sale the Tuesday before each screening date. Check Cineplex's website to stay updated on future screenings and for a complete list of participating theatres.

Cineplex is only the latest theatre chain to take this leap forward in accessibility; AMC Theatres has been providing Sensory Friendly Films for years now, with special screenings spread across thirty states, plus Washington DC. In addition to high lights and low sound, "audience members are invited to get up and dance, walk, shout or sing!" Upcoming screenings include The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2/14), Home (3/28), Tomorrowland (5/30), Minions (7/18) and Pixar's The Good Dinosaur (12/5).

(via FilmDrunk)

Monday, February 9, 2015

'SpongeBob SquarePants' Exceeds Expectations; 'Jupiter Ascending' and 'Seventh Son' Flop

It was a foregone conclusion that The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water would finally relieve American Sniper of the number one spot at the box office, but no one thought it would be by quite this much: The nostalgia-heavy animated film made $56 million on its opening weekend, for the fifth-highest February opening ever. Generally positive reviews helped, as did a savvy marketing campaign that emphasized how SpongeBob, Patrick and the rest would be going up to the "real world" in a CGI/live-action hybrid segment that actually didn't make up all that much of the running time.

American Sniper dropped one spot to number two, its $24.1 million weekend gross bringing its total so far to $282.6 million domestically. Box Office Mojo notes that that exceeds the combined grosses of the eight other Best Picture Oscar nominees.

Coming in third was the Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending, which earned a scant $19 million. That might not be so bad if the budget weren't a whopping $176 million, but alas. Andy and Lana should be getting some stink-eye from Warner Bros. execs today. Still, at least it's not Seventh Son, which couldn't even crack the $10 million barrier; Universal's wannabe fantasy epic made only $7.1 million on 2,875 screens. Rounding out the top five was Paddington, like SpongeBob a somewhat surprisingly well-reviewed kid's movie (though SpongeBob shouldn't hold out for that BAFTA nomination). Its $5.3 million weekend gross brings its total to $57.2 million.

Among new limited releases, writer/director/actor Rik Swartzwelder's Old Fashioned--an indie being marketed as a Christian alternative to next weekend's 50 Shades of Grey--earned a respectable $40,800 on three screens, proving once again the economic viability of faith-based cinema. The documentary Ballet 422 earned $26,000 on two screens, and the dismally reviewed Love, Rosie got $16,200 on 15 screens.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Luke Skywalker Will Destroy You If You Text Or Talk at the Alamo Drafthouse

When Luke Skywalker tells you not to talk or text during a movie, you'd best listen. Or else, in the words of this anti-talking PSA, he'll "unleash an entire Secret Service made up of insane clowns, brandishing lightsabers, and he will have them completely destroy you." And this is the Alamo Drafthouse, famous for their complete and utter willingness to throw people out for cell phone use. I wouldn't bet on them playing around.

'SpongeBob SquarePants' Is Coming for 'American Sniper'

From his pineapple under the sea, SpongeBob SquarePants is poised to knock American Sniper out of the number one spot at the box office after a record-breaking run. Last weekend saw American Sniper's gross drop approximately 52% to $30 million. It'll keep dropping (everyone's seen it already--not like there's a lot of January competition), leaving room for The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, which should easily open north of $30 million anyway.

The real question is whether American Sniper will be able to grab the number two spot. Its only real competition is the Wachowski siblings' Jupiter Ascending, which co-stars The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne in a scenery-chomping role he probably wishes people were seeing after the Oscars. The Wachowskis' cachet and Jupiter being an action-heavy sci-fi flick should help it, but the reviews (including ours) have been overwhelmingly negative. If word of mouth sets moviegoers off, Jupiter might be relegated to spot number three. It and Sniper are both expected to earn somewhere in the $20 million neighborhood.

Interestingly, Redmayne's fellow Oscar frontrunner Julianne Moore also has a stinker of a movie coming out this weekend: Seventh Son, which has been languishing on the shelf for years now and is finally being released by Universal Pictures, averting its gaze and whistling innocently like they don't know what this generic-looking fantasy movie is, golly gee! The reviews have been even worse than Jupiter Ascending's--an 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Jupiter's 24%. It probably won't crack $10 million. Moore and Redmayne should go to a bar together and get hammered.

Among the limited release movies hitting theatres this weekend in New York and/or LA are the documentaries Ballet 422 and 1971, Boy Meets Girl and "lost" indie melodrama Losing Ground.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Heritage Auctions Lets You Own a Piece of LAIKA Animation History

Detail shot of an original Coraline puppet.
LAIKA, in the humble opinion of this FJI writer, is the best animation studio working today. Disney and, increasingly, Pixar can be inconsistent with the quality they deliver, DreamWorks films are generally solid but rarely blow-your-socks-off amazing and Sony Pictures Animation released The Smurfs. And sure, LAIKA hasn't had many opportunities to fall on their face when they've only put out three films. Stop-motion animation takes time. Still, the trio of Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls are a trio of modern masterpieces, combining striking visual style with humor, drama and important messages tackled in a more nuanced way than even many so-called "adult" films would dare.

Fellow LAIKA lovers will have a chance to get their grubby paws on puppets, original artwork, unused poster designs, props and more from the studios' trio of films when Heritage Auctions puts nearly three hundred lots up for bidding in Beverly Hills next Thursday, February 12th.

Heritage brought part of their "The Art of LAIKA" collection to their New York City office this week, and the FJI office was fortunate enough to take a field trip and check out the goods. There was the Other Mother puppet from Coraline, a stunning Angry Aggie concept art piece from ParaNorman and Archibald Snatcher's Boxtrolls extermination truck, among many other wonders. All puppets sold in the auction, explains Heritage's Director of Animation Art Jim Lentz, were used in production of the film. They're not cheap, so LAIKA doesn't make them just for show and tell.

The limited nature of LAIKA's offerings means "There will be not be a second Coraline auction. There will not be a second ParaNorman auction," warns Lentz In fact, LAIKA wasn't sure they even had original art for Coraline kicking around until Lentz asked for it. They dug some up from a crate in LAIKA's descriptively named "Storage Facility by the Swamp," and yes, it is by a swamp.

"The Art of LAIKA" has led to an unprecedented level of interest from the public, both on social media and in-person; Lentz describes people coming up to him and thanking him for the chance to see part of LAIKA's archives when Heritage made a stop in Dallas. Indeed, some of the objects up for auction are breathtakingly detailed when viewed them up close, like the puppet of Lord Portley-Rind (left) from The Boxtrolls. With all the hand stitching, you'd think LAIKA was preparing for a high-class fashion show. Even things that are part of the background, like a manhole cover or cheese vendor's stand, are painstakingly given details that most moviegoers won't notice, like a town logo on the former and a board with cheese prices on the latter.

"The studio's legions of die-hard fans regularly ask LAIKA for the opportunity to own some of the masterfully engineered puppets, props and other artwork used to make these beloved films," says Lentz. "So the studio is finally offering a specially curated collection of items from its production archives. This is the chance that those fans, and animation and film collectors of all stripes, have been waiting for."

ParaNorman Face Concept Sketch Original
by character designer Heidi Smith
For those with money to spend, you can bid one of nine ways; early Internet bidding ends on February 11th, and the auction itself starts on February 12th. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Los Angeles-based charity organization The Art of Elysium, which has as its mission "enriching the lives of artists and critically ill children" by hosting arts-based programs for hospitalized youth. If you're in the Los Angeles area from February 10-12, stop by Heritage Auctions Beverly Hills to see selected items in-person.

For more information, visit the Heritage Auctions website. You can see details and pictures of all the lots here.

Monday, February 2, 2015

'American Sniper' Has a Super Super Bowl Weekend, New Releases Not So Much

Super Bowl weekend doesn't tend to be a particularly good one for movies, but American Sniper has shown yet again that it doesn't care much for existing records. Its $31.85 million weekend haul is the highest-grossing for a Super Bowl weekend ever, beating out the $31.1 million earned by 2008's Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour--which, by the way, earned that amount on its opening weekend. For Sniper, this was its fourth in wide release. So far, it's earned $248.9 million, though the 51% drop from last week doesn't look good for its continued box office dominance.

The Loft
This weekend, though, it had no trouble, as the three new wide releases all flopped. Found footage time travel flick Project Almanac made only $8.5 million in 2,893 theatres, enough to put it in spot number three behind Paddington (weekend gross: $8.5 million; total gross: $50.5 million). Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer's Black or White landed at number four with a gross of $6.4 million in 1,823 theatres. And The Loft, this weekend's biggest disappointment, couldn't even crack the top five--its $2.8 million in 1,841 theatres barely let it squeak into number ten spot. The number five movie was Jennifer Lopez's erotic thriller The Boy Next Door (weekend gross: $6 million, total gross: $24.6 million), which dropped off nearly 60 percent from its debut last weekend.

After five weeks in limited release, J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year expanded to 818 theatres and saw its box office increase to $1.7 million, for a total so far of $3.1 million. New in limited release, Chinese action comedy Running Man and Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee Timbuktu earned $205,000 and $50,000, respectively. And the theatrical release of two episodes of "Game of Thrones" made $1.5 million on 205 IMAX screens, enough to land it at spot number 15. It's not a ton of money, but the amount that Warner Bros. and HBO needed to pay for marketing was low, so, as far as theatrical exhibition experiments go, it seems to have been a successful one.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sundance Wrap Up: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Best of Enemies, plus 5 Takeaways from festival's 2015 Edition.

The 2015 Sundance Film Festival runs through Sunday –with major awards still to be handed out- but Wednesday marked the final day of my Sundance, bringing my festival tally to 26 movies seen throughout 6.5 glorious days. I unfortunately missed a couple of films I was hoping to catch up with: James C. Strouse’s People, Places, Things, playing in the US Dramatic Competition category, Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground; a groundbreaking and fittingly noisemaking documentary (playing as part of Doc Premieres) about the rape epidemic on college campuses, as well as Noah Baumbach’s latest collaboration with his muse Greta Gerwig, Mistress America, which played to great reviews in the festival’s Spotlight section. But one can’t see it all, and it’s always good leaving something to look forward to in the future.

On my final day, I made a point of catching up with a few documentaries; a segment of the festival I admittedly pushed to the sidelines for a few days. Among them is Bobcat Goldthwait’s Call Me Lucky, a powerful portrait of the sharp-tongued comedian Barry Crimmins. Having survived sexual abuse at a young age, Crimmins turned his childhood trauma into essential activism in support of children both suffering and in danger of similar sexual abuse; especially in the wake of unmonitored online chat-rooms that enabled criminal activity around child porn while profiting companies such as AOL during the mid 90s. Welcome To Leith, from directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, proved to be just as frightening as Rodney Ascher’s Nightmare, in recounting a small town’s singular stand against white supremacists and Neo-Nazis (led by Craig Cobb) trying to take over the land and government of the town. Welcome to Leith, eerily spotlighting challenging questions rooted in freedom of speech for all, is uncomfortable and shocking to watch and proved to be one of this year’s essentials. The final US Documentary Competition title I caught up with was Best of Enemies, from directors Morgan Neville (Academy Award winning director of Twenty Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon, on the debates of Conservative William F. Buckley and Democrat Gore Vidal that skyrocketed ABC’s ratings in 1968 and launched political punditry on TV. Balancing both sides with a crackerjack sense of pace, the immensely entertaining Best Of Enemies (bought by Magnolia and Participant Media) is not only one of my favorite films of this year, but also a timely film that prescribes mutual understanding for both sides of the debate, in the (almost) eve of a presidential election.

Probably the biggest film to report back on from my Wednesday schedule is Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. A strong contender to win the Audience Award in the Dramatic Competition category in a couple of days, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a teenage weepie in the tradition of The Fault in Our Stars; and a celebration and romancing of cinematic love forming at a young age (everyone has their own analogies here, but it made me think of Garth Jennings' Son of Rambow somehow.) Adapted from Jesse Andrews’ novel by Andrews himself, the story is about Greg Gaines (the “Me” of the title, played by Thomas Mann), a high-school student and a fan of European Cinema along with his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler). Forced by his mother to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a school friend who’s just been diagnosed with cancer, Greg unexpectedly forms a real friendship with her and decides to make a movie for her with Earl’s help (side note here that the duo often re-title Criterion films with humor –for instance, Citizen Kane becomes Senior Citizen Cane- and make short pastiches of them.) As tough it is to hold your ground against a festival darling, I must admit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl didn’t have the same emotional impact on me, as it apparently did on many others. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, to me, seemed a lot more interested in proving his knowledge of cinema with initially charming yet increasingly repetitive cinematic references -from Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (hint: study up your Herzog prior to seeing Gomez-Rejon’s film), to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and many others- than using these references in favor of the film’s narrative. It was all a bit too self-congratulatory in context, and quickly became trivial instead of inspirational. Yet, the bigger problem for me was the film having very little time for Earl (his name is IN the title after all), and even Rachel (as the “Dying Girl”) in building them as fully-fledged characters. Especially Earl was disposed of rather abruptly in the story, becoming (along with Rachel) not so much more than an instrument on Greg’s path of self-discovery (and eventual college application.) I don’t mean to sound heartless here, and I give the film a lot of credit for trying to tell the story of a true friendship (rather than romantically involving Greg and Rachel), yet this didn't add up to more than a quirky, textbook Sundance movie for me, about a male teenager finding his place in life. It will be talked about for sure, both positively and with anger –especially watch for potential think pieces on the unfortunate depiction of Earl- that some I have spoken to following Wednesday’s screening voiced.

With the festival almost behind us, there are many topics and trends that stood out. Here is my recap of the most prominent topics that took over the streets of Park City during the previous week.

1. Acquisitions galore!
Trades and online film outlets alike were rolling in ecstasy just a few days ago when incorrect news of a $12 Million sale (of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, to Fox Searchlight) spread like wildfire. The number was corrected, with almost two thirds of it shaved off, however the 2015 edition of the festival still played host to quite a number of grand sales; Anne Thompson said in an article that “The Sundance Market is starting to look like the old days” over at her blog at Thompson and Hollywood. Among the notable sales are John Crowley’s Brooklyn, which went to Fox Searchlight for $9 million, Dope, grabbed by Open Road and Sony for $7 Million, and The Bronze, scooped up by Relativity for $3 Million. A24, Magnolia, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics all bought festival hits (with the first three closing on multiple deals). Check out Hollywood Reporter’s comprehensive guide to this year’s Sundance sales

2. Coming of Age: Still a favorite Sundance genre.
Yes, there is that title again. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. But it needs to be mentioned here, as it proved Sundance just loves watching children and teenagers come of age. Under this banner, notable festival favorites are Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman's Ten Thousand Saints and even Chloé Zhao’s quietly-played competition entry Songs My Brothers Taught Me as well as Matt Sobel's simmering Take Me to the River.

Marielle Heller (Source: Getty Images)
3. An exciting crop of female storytellers is emerging, with movies about women on the horizon.
In a recent interview with Variety, Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard and Michael Barker spoke of female voices of Sundance, having just grabbed the distribution rights to Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which frankly explores female sexually –a topic that is rather poorly served in mainstream cinema. Bernard said “It’s the year of the woman,” and he is clearly on to something. From the opening night movie The Bronze, to titles like Brooklyn, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Witch, Unexpected, Advantageous and hot-button topic documentary The Hunting Ground, stories led by and/or made by women generated a considerable amount of the buzz on the ground, generating much hope for gender diversity in film for the years ahead.

Duplass Brothers.
Photo: Chelsea Lauren
(Getty Images for Sundance)
4. The blurring lines between Film & TV: also a Sundance topic.
It was voiced during the Day 1 press conference that the Sundance institute champions storytellers not only in writing feature-length projects, but also in creating episodic content. With a wealth of talent trying their hand on both film and TV, and innovative TV shows taking up the lion's share of the popular culture, it was only a matter of time that the Sundance Institute further blurred the line between two mediums. To perhaps no one’s surprise, Mark Duplass –a perennial Sundance kid, having executive producer credits on three of this year’s titles (The Bronze, Tangerine, The Overnight) and having brought the animated series Animals to the festival along with his brother Jay Duplass- has made a deal with Sundance in producing an independent TV series. “This is a brand new thing, it’s never been done before,” said Duplass (reported by USA Today), noting that he has always been interested in making television independently, using the same model as independent film.

5. There is this thing called “sex.” It’s going to be big.
I remember my first Sundance Film Festival in 2013, when Robert Redford referred to “sex” as a thematic element to pay attention to. And he was certainly on point with titles such as Hannah Fidel's A Teacher and Anne Fontaine's Adore (formerly titled Two Mothers) among others that year. After a relatively sterile 2014, we are in the presence of an even more sexually-charged Sundance this year, starting with the outrageous sex scene of the opening night film The Bronze that sent shock waves through the Eccles Theater to an instantly hilarious effect on Thursday night. From frank encounters and full frontals (with prosthetics) of The Overnight, freewheeling affairs of Sleeping with Other People and Knock, Knock, and the groundbreaking take on female sexuality of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Sundance 2015 certainly dialed up the heat in the snowy mountains of Utah and set a high bar against the increasingly sterile Hollywood mainstream, threatening to make the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey look tame in comparison.

'American Sniper' Likely to Retain Its #1 Spot Despite Lack of Katy Perry Intermission

Apparently there's a sporting event that people are going to be paying attention to this weekend? No idea what's up with that--I'll be catching up on my grocery shopping. Among the people who are going to movies instead of doing that other thing, it's looking like a good chunk of them will catch Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, enough to make it the #1 movie domestically for the third straight weekend. It's adding 180 theatres, bringing its theatre count to a record-breaking (for an R-rated movie) 3,885, and the money it earns this weekend should bring it within spitting distance (not sniping distance--that's much longer) of $250 million domestically.

Project Almanac
The found footage time travel flick Project Almanac is looking to poach some of our nation's teenagers, and the fact that it doesn't have any new release competition on that front should help. Less helpful: It is an awful film, with a 30% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Then again, Taken 3 had a surprisingly robust opening weekend of $39.2 million, and its approval rating was only 10%, so what do I know? Without any Liam Neeson-sized stars, though, Almanac will likely only pull in between $15 and $20 million. (Paramount's expectations are a more modest $10 to $12 million.)

Getting similarly bad reviews is Black or White, about a white man (Kevin Costner) fighting for custody of his granddaughter against her black grandmother (Octavia Spencer). If the stars align, it could squeak into the top five, though getting to the level of a $10 million gross is unlikely. Expect The Loft, Erik Van Looy's remake of his own 2008 Dutch thriller, to fare even worse. Unlike Black or White's Costner and Spencer, The Loft's cast--which includes James Marsden and Karl Urban--is recognizable but not really all that marketable. Marketing has been minor, and buzz has been lukewarm. On the plus side, it was probably cheap to make.

"Game of Thrones," The Watchers on the Wall
J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year is expanding to wide release after a month-long limited run that's earned it $1.3 million so far. And people with an interest in the future of exhibition will want to keep an eye on the theatrical release of HBO's blockbuster fantasy series "Game of Thrones," two episodes of which (season four's "The Watchers on the Wall" and season finale "The Children") are coming to 205 IMAX screens.

Among the specialty movies opening in New York and/or LA are the Jason Statham actioner Wild Card; the Oscar-nominated Timbuktu; Girlhood; and Shorts HD's release of the Oscar-nominated animated, live-action and documentary shorts.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Heading into the week with Sundance Buzz: Dope, Brooklyn, Nightmare and others.

Oh, the festival exuberance that forces many to pull the information trigger too quickly. I have reported in my previous dispatch –after double-checking on several trades and online outlets - that the sale price for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was $12 million. But in the last 24 hours, several outlets have now corrected this information. It sounds like the deal actually closed for a number around $4.7 million instead (Source: Slash Film) though other numbers that are close are also flying around. Thus, Little Miss Sunshine still maintains its record, being the most expensive acquisition of Sundance history, with a $10.5 million sale price.

This last couple of days, I have been playing catch up with titles that generated strong buzz throughout the festival’s first weekend. It’s tough to go into a movie with high expectations that only escalate with each passing day. On one hand, it’s an exhilarating feeling to have them preset for you. On the other, hype always comes with an element of caution. Therefore, I was very pleased to see that writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope (US Dramatic Competition) not only lived up to its hype, but also exceeded my high expectations. (Those who stand by the already-overused phrase “Dope is dope” are correct.) Dope, with a $7 million distribution deal from Open Road and Sony already under its belt (which I covered in my previous dispatch), has confidently established itself as one of this year’s true breakouts and at once became the kind of movie people hope to see when they make the effort to trek up to Sundance. Set in Los Angeles, Dope tells the story of a trio of misfit teenagers; geeks of their high school and easy targets of the street smart kids of their crime-filled neighborhood in Inglewood. The heart of this geek squad is the straight-A student Malcolm (Shameik Moore) who dares to dream big for his future. He wants nothing more than getting a college education from Harvard, despite constantly being discouraged by his environment and even his high school advisor. Working through his unusual personal statement, preparing for SATs and having scored a vital interview with an educational advisor in the process, Malcolm accidentally finds himself at a crossroads: his dreams vs. the corrupt world of drugs and gangsters that mean business, outlining a plot Malcolm and his geeky pals involuntarily get pushed into. The question is: will they be able to pull a complex ploy off and put it all behind? The pulsating and often electrifying Dope is a beautiful homage to the 90s (Rachel Morrison’s cinematography paints the film with a vibrant energy), and already drawing comparisons to Spike Lee’s cinema as well as Pulp Fiction for good reason. Filled with high-energy music (hint: Malcolm and his pals have a band) and tightly navigated set pieces, the ultimately uplifting Dope is a sure-bet crowd pleaser. In the film’s post-screening Q&A, the breakout actor Shameik Moore –who oozes with humble disbelief and pride, the kind of honest authenticity and excitement one hopes to witness in Sundance- talked about his audition when he sent his tape all the way from Atlanta. “You send in so many auditions,” he said. “And you stop believing that it will ever happen.” But it did happen for him. As I was leaving Prospector after the screening, I witnessed him sharing an embrace with a member of his team –possibly his manager- who said: “You are here. And no matter what happens from now on, I’m proud of you.”

Including Dope, I was able to see 8 films during Monday and Tuesday of the festival; the final two days of Sundance that unveil the remaining competition titles (with rest of the days through Sunday being encores.) Among them is the US Dramatic Competition title Results (by the Computer Chess director Andrew Bujalski), an offbeat comedy about two hardheaded gym workers/personal trainers (Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders) and a new wealthy Client (Kevin Corrigan). Despite engaging performances and a promising concept, Results (bought by Magnolia at the top of the festival) seems to be one edit away from having a more coherent structure. The film’s 3rd act seems shaky with questionable cuts that hamper and muddy the story and its organic humor. Another effort I caught up with, Jennifer Phang’s truly original Advantageous (US Dramatic), is an elegant, minimalist sci-fi refreshingly revolving around the story of a mother-daughter while inventively tackling a chilling near-future hypothesis on racism, and capitalism’s insistence on dehumanization. Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which also competes in US Dramatic, is a mature, clear-eyed debut from a young director that tells a small coming of age story of a high-school student living in Pine Ridge Reservation, whose future plans get put on hold with his father’s unexpected death. Playing at the Midnight section, Eli Roth’s semi-campy, Fatal Attraction-meets-Misery-meets-Funny Games flick Knock Knock unsatisfactorily offers up cheap thrills and uncomfortable humor in a story about a wealthy LA man who finds himself as the subject of two attractive female intruders’ sex-filled game. Festival’s early buzz title The Witch (US Dramatic, directed by debuting name Robert Eggers) proved to be a truly creepy, intensely atmospheric tale of mythical witches in 1692’s New England, led by a superb performance by Anya Taylor Joy.

The Room 237 director Rodney Ascher’s Nightmare, another Midnight entry of the festival, will perhaps be the most memorable title of this year, for reasons that reach beyond the quality of filmmaking. Not only because its topic is stylishly presented through Ascher’s now signature command on details and imaginative reenactments of stories told by talking heads, but also because of the fact that Nightmare is truly one of those horror films that will ruin your sleep for many days to come (I’m talking with first hand experience here.) The subject Ascher takes on is “sleep paralysis”, a condition, or rather a phenomenon, in which one would experience a state of half asleep/half awake period with complete inability to speak, move or react. But that is not all. All those Ascher has interviewed explain a similar chain of signals and symptoms that start with a tingling sensation taking over their body, followed by shadowy figures appearing one by one and slowly approaching their bed, invading their personal and psychological space. And there is nothing you can do but stare in silence and terror, hoping it would end soon. In several instances, subjects swear to do things in their sleep before paralysis overtakes their body (in one instance, a New York man says he received a phone call from a devilish voice and smashed his cell phone.) And everyone describes their state of paralysis and being under-attack by truly frightening figures in the same way: “It was like dying.” In the film’s post-screening Q&A (which I was too frightened to stay for), Ascher reportedly asked the audience to raise hands if they had ever experienced similar episodes. And apparently there were many hands up. Tweets from the Q&A confirm one woman actually broke down in tears, talking about her own paralysis. I dare you to watch Nightmare and get a comfortable night’s sleep immediately after.

Crawling out of bed the next morning –after a truly ruined, almost non-existent sleep, compliments of Rodney Ascher-, I ran to Eccles to catch John Crowley’s Premiere title Brooklyn. Crowley, with previous films like Boy A and Is Anybody There?, is an unassuming storyteller. He knows how to make an audience feel. And with Brooklyn, led by a radiantly truthful performance by Saoirse Ronan, he masters his poignancy. In the film’s introduction, it was appropriately noted that Brooklyn, being a period drama, is a rarity of Sundance. Telling the story of an Irish immigrant girl who settles in 1950s Brooklyn at an all-girls boarding house, the film gracefully navigates the story of Ellis Lacey who yearns to establish a life away from home and struggles with her identity and future decisions when she temporarily goes back to Ireland with grim news from her family. Brooklyn is a gorgeous, straightforward and tear-jerking drama, ripe with earnest melancholy (in my view, superior to James Gray’s The Immigrant) and rich with period details. Grabbed by Fox Searchlight, Brooklyn is one of the titles out of this year’s Sundance to watch for.

While the party scene in the last couple of days in Park City was equally vibrant as the weekend, I found myself willingly skipping many gatherings (except for a quick stop at the Duplass Brothers’ party on Monday afternoon), desperately trying to recover from a cold (some call it “The Sundance Flu”), which is currently showing no signs of vacating my body. Turns out, you can take all the necessary precautions (like obsessively using hand sanitizers), but this thing will still get a hold of you somehow. Yet in Sundance, flu -like hunger or sleep deprivation- is just one of those things to ignore until you’re on a return flight back to the real world. And that’s what I’ll be doing.

Monday, January 26, 2015

'American Sniper' Is Full Steam Ahead with a Record-Breaking Second Weekend

American Sniper

American Sniper sees you saying "January movies don't do well!," and it lauuuughs and laughs. After a record-shattering opening last weekend (it made more than double what January's previous best opener, Ride Along, did), the six-time Oscar nominee pulled in $64 million this weekend, for the highest-grossing second weekend in January and the eight highest-grossing second weekend ever. It's already earned nearly $250 million worldwide and could easily make $350 million by the end of its run, which--considering its Christmas Day release--would make it 2014's highest-grossing film. Sorry, Mockingjay - Part 1. You thought you had it in the bank, and then this latecomer comes along and messes with your laurels.

The highest-grossing new release was walking disaster (or camp masterpiece--depends on whom you ask) The Boy Next Door, which made $15 million against a production budget of $4 million. The rest of the top five were holdovers Paddington (weekend gross $12.3 million, total gross $40 million), The Wedding Ringer ($11.6 million; $39.6 million) and Taken 3 ($7.6 million; $76 million).

Abysmal reviews hurt Disney's Strange Magic and Lionsgate's Mortdecai, which earned only $5.5 million and $4.1 million, respectively. That's Depp's second-worst opening of the last ten years; the only movie that opened with less is a documentary he narrated that only ever played in eight theatres. Looks like Depp's 'stache won't become the next big fashion trend, after all.

The much-buzzed-about Cake opened in limited release and took in approximately $1 million in 482 theatres. Whiplash finally expanded to over 500 theatres and saw its box office more than double. So far it's earned $8.5 million, making it the lowest-grossing Best Picture nominee, not that that means much this year.

Other movies out in limited release were Black Sea ($35,000), Song One ($23,800), Mommy ($21,000), Red Army ($20,100) and The Duke of Burgundy ($13,000).

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sundance Weekend Recap: The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Z for Zachariah, The End of the Tour...

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and competing as a US Dramatic title, this is the movie everyone is talking about today at Sundance, at the end of the festival’s first weekend. It has taken the crowd in Park City by quite an emotional storm (many reports of wiped tears and broken hearts on Twitter) and following much speculation about what studio might grab its distribution rights, Fox Searchlight has only just landed a record-breaking $12 million deal just a few hours ago, even further raising the film's hot ticket status in the days ahead. Yesterday’s buzz on the other hand, was all about Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, which secured a stellar distribution deal at Open Road and Sony. According to Deadline, “the deal is worth $7 million in minimum guarantee, with a $15 million P&A.” I’m happy to report that I have already planned to see both titles later in the week, partly in response to the overwhelmingly positive word. In the meantime, I was busy tackling other titles, some with pre-buzz and other being complete discoveries. And not all of them proved to worth the time or effort.

On Saturday, I managed to fit five movies into my schedule. The day started early with a 9am screening of The Spectacular Now director James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, screening as part of this years Premieres program. Already grabbed by A24 (one of Sundance’s busiest and most tasteful buyers, that also distributed Ponsoldt’s earlier film), The End of the Tour is the story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (with real Lipsky being in attendance at the premiere) and highly acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace that took place in 1996. The dialogue-driven, highly conversational The End of the Tour is written with tremendous honesty and originality. A bookish, brainy Almost Famous that romances journalism while patiently crafting a bond between the writer and the reporter, The End of the Tour reaches deep into the reluctant, and disarmingly sweet mind of David Foster Wallace, and celebrates the author’s authenticity and humanity. Jason Segel portrays Wallace with a hazy goofiness and emotional earnestness. Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Lipsky, significantly dials down his trademark neurotic act and instead, delivers an assured performance as a confident journalist. The road friendship of the two men is a joy and their conversations beam with the truth rarely found in movies, bringing Linklater to mind. Plus, it features a delightful performance by Joan Cusack, who drives the two men around as part of Wallace's book tour.

I was also lucky with my second movie of the day on Saturday, which will easily become one of my 2015 Sundance favorites along with Ponsoldt’s film. On paper, first time director Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl initially looks like the blueprint of a quirky coming-of-age Sundance film about an unusual teenager’s self discovery. And on screen, the elements we came to expect from this genre are surely there, but thankfully Heller –who is also the sole screenwriter on this- gives us a lot more. First off, the teenager in question –Minnie Goetze- is allowed an almost completely guilt free sexual empowerment, so much that in one scene, her lustful appetite scares off one of her casual flings of her own age. But Minnie apparently has no patience for boys her age anyway, as she is already buried deep into a messy affair with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (played by Alexander Skarsgard.) This may sound like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank at first, but given the film’s humorous tone and the fact that it is set amid the sexual revolution of the 70s in San Francisco, the air is significantly lighter despite well-timed dramatic turns in the story that feel just dangerous enough. But more importantly, unlike Fish Tank's Mia, Minnie never comes across as a manipulated victim here, even at her most vulnerable. Kristen Wiig gives a superb performance as Minnie’s mother (she should be given dramatic roles more often) but this is undoubtedly the newcomer Bel Powley’s show, who knocks it out of the park with a secure and mature performance. We watch her attend school, master her comic drawing, fool around, have (lots of) sex, do drugs, lose control and find it again. In the film’s post-screening Q&A, Heller mentioned that Powley (who was also in attendance) sent in an audition tape from England and landed the part. Expect to hear her name frequently in the coming years. She is one of this year’s discoveries. 

Mississippi Grind, my third film of Saturday, was a true letdown. Directed collaboratively by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck –whose previous works, such as Half Nelson, Sugar and It’s Kind Of A Funny Story I am a big fan of– the film didn’t connect with me on any level despite its strong performances by Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn. I walked out an hour into the film, and therefore am unable to offer a full-fledged opinion.

I had better luck with the rest of the day, however. Competing in World Cinema Dramatic, Gerard Barrett’s Irish Glassland chillingly portrays an alcoholic (the always wonderful Toni Collette) with raw realism while keeping the focus on the love of a son (Jack Reynor) for his mother. Reynor might be known for Transformers: Age of Extinction primarily, yet his quiet and stirring performance in Glassland awards him a much higher status and makes one look forward to the advancement of his career in this new path.

Z for Zachariah, a consistently anticipated US Dramatic Competition title in many critics’ Sundance previews, premiered on Saturday night with director Craig Zobel (of Compliance), and stars Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine in attendance for the screening. Set in a nuclear post-apocalyptic world during an undefined era, Ann Burden (Robbie) and a scientist named Loomis (Ejiofor) defiantly fight for survival and reluctantly fall in love, until their orderly life in Ann’s farm gets disturbed when suddenly another survivor named Caleb (Chris Pine) appears out of thin air and joins the duo. Zobel, true to his signature slow-burning style, craftily controls the tension in suggesting there might be something off about each and every one of these people, but loses credibility when Nissar Modi’s script pays too much attention to the ill-fated love triangle between the three. Still, Z for Zachariah is handsomely made and one of this year’s better offerings so far with an intriguing storyline packed with metaphors and led with top-rate performances. It also features an inherently strong female character. In the post screening Q&A, Robbie said she wanted her character to be capable and not always innocent, and still maintain a mental and emotional spirituality. The film also features a stellar score by Heather McIntosh who was supported by the Sundance Lab for composers.

Sunday started with one of this year’s biggest disappointments: Sleeping with Other People, a tired, unfunny and offensive romantic comedy written and directed by Leslye Headland. The filmmaker defines this film as a “When Harry Met Sally for assholes", and despite certain elements of the plot that feel like a rip off of the rom-com classic, it’s important to denounce this comparison from the get-go. This is a film where successful, competent women obsess about men who don’t deserve them and find nothing better to do with their time than to talk about them (note: the film only barely passes the Bechdel Test –where two women should talk about something other than a man- with only a couple of minor lines.) It is sad to watch a female filmmaker submit her could-have-been-interesting characters to the genre’s worst crimes. Even the hard-work of its cast can't save this otherwise charmless effort.

Thankfully, the next stop was Sean Baker’s Tangerine; a crass comedy with a big heart, set on Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. An alternative to family-friendly Christmas classics (being only for adults), Tangerine revolves around working girls of LA while they fight for money, love and friendship. Shot on an iPhone 5s (now we’ve heard it all in Sundance) and featuring trans actors playing trans characters as leads on screen, Tangerine, which is still waiting to land on a distribution deal, is beautifully original and exceptionally funny.

Sunday’s final film for me was writer/director Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder. Telling the true story of Stanley Milgram, the famous social psychologist that conducted a set of controversial behavioral experiments on obedience –trying to understand the mindset of people who obey authority even under extreme conditions (such as war time)- Experimenter is a tad repetitive and technical, yet it feels almost instantly dangerous with the right atmospheric choices and assured performances from Sarsgaard and Ryder. It’s tough to guess this highly technical film’s theatrical prospects –the storyline does get too academic at times- and it will be interesting to watch where it will find a home.

The weekend’s screenings might have wrapped (save for the Midnight titles at The Library), but the parties are just heating up, with the "National Lampoon Toga Party" starting shortly on Main Street. Film Journal International will be on the scene.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

2015 Sundance Film Festival Kicks Off: What Happened, Miss Simone?, The Overnight, True Story...

A tangible excitement has taken over the streets of Park City one more time, as the 2015 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, which kicked off on Thursday, is well underway. Last year’s festival is still fresh in minds, largely due to its rich crop of critically-acclaimed titles such as Whiplash (2014 opening night film), Boyhood, Life Itself, Love is Strange, The Babadook, Obvious Child and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night proving to have legs beyond the mountains, and with the first two even scoring a number of Academy Awards nominations in major categories. This year’s festival has certainly a lot to live up to and during the festival’s Day 1 press conference, festival director John Cooper (joined by Robert Redford and Sundance Institute’s Executive Director Keri Putnam) promised nothing less in saying that the audiences would feel a wild ride.

As he often does, Robert Redford celebrated the notion of “change” –how it affects the world and the society we live in- during the conversation moderated by Salt Lake Tribune film critic Sean Means, setting the stage for the days ahead. The trio focused on interconnected topics around episodic storytelling in response to the blurring lines between TV and Film (reminding everyone that their lab model has expanded to offer help to filmmakers and storytellers in building episodic content), documentaries, distribution models and diversity issues in film industry. 

Tackling a question related to distribution (especially of the currently distribution-less Sundance title A Walk In The Woods starring Redford himself), Redford said he’s had some experiences with his own films that had either no or poor distribution, perhaps subtly referring to his remarks around All Is Lost in last year’s press conference that Roadside Attractions has handled the film unsatisfactorily (which was on the same day as Academy Awards nominations when he didn’t get a Best Actor nod.) “What’s the mindset of a distributor? What moves and galvanizes them? I don’t know. It’s weird,” said Redford. Touching upon alternate alleys of distribution while not alienating the traditional models, Putnam talked about “The Artist Services Program” carried out by the Sundance Institute year around to help artists both creatively tell their stories, and tactically and strategically connect with audiences. “It is about providing opportunities to filmmakers who want to be more entrepreneurial about releasing their films after the festival or at any point,” said Putnam. “We have a new partner we’re very excited about this year: Quiver Digital. They built a dashboard where all filmmakers using this tool can see how their film is doing. It’s really great transparency of data.”

Speaking of a visible festival trend this year, Cooper mentioned documentary filmmakers thinking about the cinematic experience from a use of story and character standpoint. “It’s not just about getting the information out there but also about how to engage an audience.” Answering a question from the crowd about why there seems to be a disconnect between Hollywood and the independent world in Sundance when it comes to the diversity of players, Putnam said; “If we had the answer to that question, we would be publicizing it pretty widely. We have done our own research with USC. The pipeline of young talent interested in telling stories is there but somewhere along the way, they fall out of the equation. When money comes in, it changes. One of the biggest obstacles towards changing it is there wasn’t even awareness this was a problem.” Then Cooper added, “I will just say that Ava DuVernay won the best directing award here with Middle of Nowhere,” delicately driving attention to her snub at the Oscars as a Best Director nominee and highlighting an attitude that sets Sundance apart from mainstream Hollywood.

The opening night films of the festival didn’t offer up the next Whiplash perhaps, but Liz Garbus’ Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? (screening as part of festival’s Doc Premieres slate) was a showstopper, and in many ways, brought home the points made at the press conference around documentaries and diversity. With the use of an extensive, stunning wealth of archival footage and a number of talking heads interviews, Garbus evidently chose to tell the well-known and widely unknown parts of the icon’s life story in a steady, straightforward manner and let the wonderful music and rich archival material speak for themselves. And what a deeply affecting result she has achieved in building Nina Simone first and foremost as an inimitably talented artist, but also as a fragile human being whose talents and eventual artistry were hindered by systemic racism of the time, despite her stardom and influential role at the Civil Rights movement. Nina Simone was originally trained to become a classical pianist, but she could never realize her true dream after getting rejected by the music school she applied to; a decision made due to her race. With her film, Garbus gracefully explores the truth about an international talent who never felt she was given a chance to rise up to her true calling in life. What Happened, Miss Simone? was especially powerful when the story reached to the heat of the Civil Rights movement, pointedly blasting Simone’s emotionally gripping “Mississippi Goddam” as well as footage of the Selma march and its aftermath; in a way, bridging the conversations the film industry has been having the past couple of weeks around Selma’s absence at the Oscars, with Sundance. Selma director Ava DuVernay was also at the screening. So was John Legend –an Oscar nominee this year for Best Original Song (“Glory” from Selma)- who sang a number of Nina Simone songs on the piano at the end of the screening; making a memorable night at Sundance even more special with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”

Before making it to the next opening night film in my schedule, I accepted Anne Thompson’s kind invitation to stop by Indiewire’s infamous annual chili party at their condo and somehow managed to grab a bowl of delicious chili and a glass of wine, before running back to the Eccles Theater in time for Bryan Buckley’s US Competition title The Bronze – a film that only deserves a gold medal for featuring the raunchiest, funniest and the most borderline ridiculous sex scene in recent memory (hint: it’s a sex scene between competing gymnasts, so use your imagination.) However, the film itself was largely a flop, despite conjuring many uncomfortable laughs from the audience, unsure of what to do with poorly written material, delivered by its hilarious lead Melissa Rauch with distinguished comic timing. In The Bronze, Rauch plays a once-upon-a-time bronze medalist gymnast who’s now wasting her days in her dad’s basement watching videos of her expired glory, consuming thousands of calories a day (yet, still managing to stay inexplicably skinny) and swearing like a sailor to whomever and whatever crosses her path. I give it credit for its female-driven story where we get to watch women obsessing about things that have nothing to do with men and are given the luxury of being and acting gross, but The Bronze unfortunately uses up this credit of goodwill too quickly by becoming an often unfunny comedy, about 20 minutes too long.

Festival’s second day –which is its first full day with screenings starting as early as 8:30am- offered many hotly anticipated titles across a variety of programs. I gave my best shot to get into the Press & Industry screening of Robert Eggers’ US Dramatic Competition title The Witch, but unfortunately got shut out of it despite showing up 45 minutes early, and decided to see Mark Cousins’ 6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia instead (showing in Documentary Spotlight) which was the next viable option. Constructed as a letter to Lawrence to the accompaniment of footage of Sardinia as well as cinematic clips as references, I am sorry to say this project would have been better off if it stayed solely as a written essay. Offering no visual interest or imagery that is remotely cinematic (it takes a lot for one to make Sardinia look ugly), this little experiment was a puzzling choice for Spotlight, not to mention for a slot at the press screenings, where the theaters are already small and crowded.

Next, I watched Nikole Bekwith’s Saoirse Ronan-starrer Stockholm, Pennsylvania, a harrowing abduction story founded on a pretty unsound metaphor around love. The film, like Ronan’s character who returns in her early 20s after living in the captivity of her abductor for over 15 years, asks the question whether love evokes and fuels a sense of ownership and entitlement over one and other. Ronan, and Cynthia Nixon (who plays her mother) deliver fine performances, but the film only resonates to a limited degree.

The US Dramatic Competition title The Overnight (directed by Patrick Brice), if my prophecy holds, might become a sleeper hit of sorts of this year’s festival. The crowd at the Eccles certainly signaled it. Produced by Adam Scott and the Duplass Brothers (who are synonymous with Sundance at this point) and starring Scott, Jason Schwartzman, "Orange Is The New Black"’s Taylor Schilling and Judith Godreche, The Overnight is a sharply written comedy that dares to be a hipster-ized, 21st Century “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, with intellectualism replaced with sexual humor. Watch out for plenty of full-frontal shots of Schwartzman and Scott (who ruined the fun by revealing "They are both prosthetics!" at the premiere's Q&A at the Eccles.)

My last stop on Friday was Jonah Hill, James Franco and Felicity Jones-starrer True Story, one of this year’s bigger offerings which distributor Fox Searchlight along with Plan B producers brought to Park City. The screening was attended by the director Rupert Goold, James Franco and to everyone’s surprise, Brad Pitt as one of the film’s Executive Producers at Plan B. True Story tells, um, a true story adapted from Michael Finkel’s book with same title. As a now jobless but once on-the-rise journalist (played by Jonah Hill), Finkel is confronted by the disturbing news that a potential killer of his wife and three young children (played by Franco) has used his identity when he was captured in Mexico. Interviewing the suspect in building an exclusive story with hopes of a comeback, Finkel unveils dark secrets amid a cat and mouse game where truth takes many shapes. Confidently directed and shot, True Story only falls short when it comes to a miscast James Franco (an artist whose versatility I generally admire), who frequently shows he’s ‘acting’ as opposed to ‘being’. Plus, an under-utilized Felicity Jones –who plays Finkel’s wife- makes one wish for more scenes with her. Still a respectable, competent feature debut that makes me look forward to theater-hailer Goold’s next feature. 

Friday ended with a quick stop at True Story’s after-party at Main Street, but in an effort to save my energy for Saturday morning’s 9am screening of The End Of The Tour, I called it an early night in anticipation of the days ahead.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The classic 'Merry Widow' operetta: Even merrier on HD screens

by Doris Toumarkine

Fathom Events provided a merry evening indeed in theatres on Wednesday with its sparkling encore presentation of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of the beloved Franz Lehár operetta The Merry Widow, originally broadcast to cinemas as part of its hugely successful Live in HD series on January 17th.

It was palpable in the house (New York’s Regal at Union Square) that audiences — a true cross-section of quality-seeking patrons that also included a small smattering of the greying gang of culture-vultures — were delighted with the sold-out show.

The program ran almost three hours. Packed into its audience-appropriate pre-show and intermission (the screen during intermission, as mercifully happens in this Met HD series, conveniently delivered a countdown of when the program would return) were interviews, a little fundraising, some promos for upcoming opera events, and plugs for backers like the Neubauer Foundation and Bloomberg. All ancillary to the “merry” main event but highly watchable.

The Merry Widow performance was nothing short of spectacular. Legendary turn-of-the-century Austro-Hungarian composer Lehár ((1870-1948) wrote the operetta in 1905. Much of the feel-good, very merry plot (unfolding as a mix of dialogue and song in English and accompanied by English subtitles!) explodes with romantic intrigue, romantic game-playing and the irresistible allure of storied Paris club Chez Maxim and its flirtatious, almost scandalous chorus girls, in 1905. It’s sort of a turn-of-the-century look at a slightly retro Euro-trash bunch back in their homeland.

The delightful if schmaltzy story largely revolves around a diplomatic plot, hatched by Pontevedria’s Ambassador to France Baron Zeta (Sir Thomas Allen) to marry off that small Balkan country’s wealthy widow (the great soprano Renée Fleming as Hanna) to Count Danilo Danilovitsch (Nathan Gunn), a Pontevedrian First Secretary to the embassy in Paris. Most importantly, he’s a Pontevedrian citizen; the country, you see, is about to go bankrupt and Zeta needs Danilo because the country needs her dough.

Creating only some of the obstacles are the facts that Hanna and Danilo were once lovers and he’s a party animal with an addiction to Maxim’s and its storied dancers. Furthermore, Zeta’s younger wife is the somewhat louche and loose Valencienne (Kelli O’Hara) who has adulterous designs on Count Camille de Rosillon (Alek Shrader), French attaché to the Pontevedian embassy.

So much pomp and romantic entanglements unravel in three grand Paris locations: a diplomatic party at the Pontevendira Embassy in Paris, Hanna’s elegant Paris house which hosts a celebration of Pontevedrian dance and folk costumes, and Maxim’s itself where the grissettes (the sexy club dancers) hold nothing back, especially in the way of costumes.

The Merry Widow's elaborate sets and rich Lehár score (the Met’s orchestra was conducted by the famed Andrew Davis) delight. And the Metropolitan Opera, one of the world’s most glorious opera venues, and the Met audience are also given their dazzling close-ups. High bling throughout.

HD cameras flow gracefully around the stage during the performance, sneak up on the audience and even stagehands, and also capture backstage interviews with the stars. Truly helpful in immersing audiences in the operetta itself — a mix of dialogue and the arias — were the many close-ups of the star performers. Also bringing the program alive were the English subtitles, even though the operetta was entirely performed in English.

But like some of the operetta characters (especially the seemingly incurable bon vivant Danilo), the presentation itself leaves room for a little tweaking. One true fan of the series in the audience (she catches the Fathom HD opera series at both New York and Long Island theatres) expressed disappointment that the Regal provided no program whatsoever. Hey, even a one-sheet printed on two sides (cheap, cheap to produce) could have given cinema-goers much helpful information about the major players involved (stars, Lehár, the story, songs, etc.) and some background on Merry Widow director Susan Stroman, a seasoned Tony Award-winning Broadway director making her Metropolitan debut here. And how about a few words about the wonderfully witty English translation from the German and the spectacular sets and those gorgeous costumes worn by so vast a cast?

The all-around lavish look of what was onscreen suggested another tweak that will inevitably come by way of the next great wave of projection illumination that will pop all that color and beauty to the max. Such a screen bursting with talent and bling will deliver the Fathom Event shows that art and fun-loving audiences and all those on the creative and technical side deserve.

Fathom Events brought The Merry Widow as “Live” and “Encore” to more than 650 U.S. theatres. Prices vary within the 20s (seniors and others are discounted), but the clearly very “merry” sell-out crowd that exited The Merry Widow at Regal’s Encore show suggested a huge level of satisfaction. This “encore” was a pre-recorded taping of the live broadcast that Fathom delivered to cinema audiences via satellite on their digital broadcast network. The Merry Widow is further proof that big events have an even bigger future on the big screen. And Fathom owners Regal, AMC and Cinemark know that. So — let’s get illuminated!

(Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

'American Sniper' (And Its Creepy Doll Baby) Are Going to Beat the Heck Out of the Box Office This Weekend

American Sniper
Last weekend American Sniper broke records at the box office, earning $89.5 million (from Friday-Sunday, not including Martin Luther King Day) and blowing poorly reviewed competition The Wedding Ringer and Blackhat out of the water. This weekend is looking to be a repeat, with Clint Eastwood's brilliant, patriotic, propagandistic or downright racist (depends on whom you're talking to) Iraq war movie poised to soundly defeat new wide releases The Boy Next Door, Strange Magic and Mortdecai

American Sniper is expanding to 3,705 theatres, the widest release ever for an R-rated movie--that, combined with Oscar buzz and the movie's watercooler factor (thinkpieces upon thinkpieces upon thinkpieces about everything from its accuracy to its politics to that creepy fake baby), should bring it a second-weekend gross in the $50 million range. 

The Boy Next Door
The Jennifer Lopez erotic thriller The Boy Next Door will likely come in second place--reviews have been atrocious (14% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I personally found it enjoyable in an it's-so-bad-it's-good sort of way. The eponymous Boy charms Jennifer Lopez by giving her a first-edition copy of The Iliad. Let me repeat that: A first-edition copy of an ancient Greek epic poem. No, it's not on parchment. This movie was written by drunk squirrels.

Disney's Strange Magic, the brainchild of George Lucas, looks to be more like a The Phantom Menace than a The Empire Strikes Back. It may even be a (dare I say it) Howard the Duck. Reviewers are panning everything from its look to its apparently nonsensical plot to its musical choices (a Lady Gaga song puts in an appearance). Disney, likely sensing they have a stinker on their hands, has distanced themselves from the film's marketing. It's probably going to end up under $10 million, despite the fact that it's playing in over 3,000 theatres. 

But nothing--nothing--compares to the mess that is Johnny Depp's Mortdecai, which is rocking an 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It will likely be the latest in a long string of Depp-starring flops, including Transcendence, The Lone Ranger and Dark Shadows.

The Oscar-nominated Whiplash is finally expanding to wide release after drumming up over $6.5 million in just under four months of limited. Expect it to earn another cool mil from people who have yet to see J.K. Simmons doing what J.K. Simmons does best: Being the greatest gosh-darn character actor there ever was.

Among the films hitting limited release in New York and/or LA are Cake, starring non-Oscar-nominee (despite the studios' best efforts) Jennifer Aniston as a woman who suffers from chronic pain; Mommy, the critically acclaimed fifth feature by 25-year-old Xavier Dolan (feel old yet?); Kevin MacDonald's Black Sea, which will have submarine enthusiasts lining up at the doors; and a pair of S&M-themed erotic movies, Drafthouse Films' R100 and IFC Films' The Duke of Burgundy. Both will likely be exponentially better than the infamous 50 Shades of Grey, hitting theatres on Valentine's Day weekend.

Friday, January 16, 2015

'Guardians of the Galaxy' Made Over $100 Million More than Every 2015 Best Picture Oscar Nominee Combined

I know that Oscar nominees tend to be more niche and art house-y than huge summer tentpoles, but this is a bit much. This year's slate of Best Picture nominees is the lowest-grossing since the field was opened up to include a potential ten nominees in 2010. All combined, this year's eight recognized films (American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Selma and Whiplash) have earned a combine total of $203.1 million so far. Compare that to 2014's highest-grossing film, Guardians of the Galaxy, which has earned $333.1 million domestically. (And counting. Yes, Guardians, which came out in August, is still in 125 theatres across the country. God bless that talking raccoon.)

To be fair, American Sniper only expands to wide release this weekend, Selma and The Imitation Game are still trucking along in the top ten, and Boyhood, Birdman, Whiplash and The Theory of Everything have yet to leave theaters. Still, that $203.1 million is less than half the previous record, when the 2011 Best Picture nominees had earned $519 million by the time nominations came out. (That was the year the winner was a black-and-white silent French film, by the by. The Artist was a crowdpleaser, but it wasn't exactly a crowdpleaser with mainstream appeal.)

Does this mean the Oscars are out of touch with the general American audience their awards show is aimed at? (Don't tell me the Oscars are for highbrow cinephiles--they're not.) Maybe. I'm not saying the Academy should have nominated Guardians for Best Picture--or, God forbid, fifth-highest grossing film Transformers: Age of Extinction, though Paramount did try for it--but maybe a descent from the high horse when it comes to genre films, which the Academy displays a marked bias against, is in order.

Letting in films that wouldn't otherwise make the cut, like 2010 Best Picture nominee District 9, is the reason the field was expanded in the first place. Maybe remember that, instead of nominating endless biopics about white dudes.

(hat tip to Box Office Mojo)

'American Sniper' Takes Aim at American Moviegoers' Wallets

Riding high on a record-breaking limited run (it's the only live-action movie to hit a $140,000-plus per theatre average on multiple consecutive weekends) and six Oscar nominations (though, to paraphrase Mean Girls, none for director Clint Eastwood, byyyeeee!), American Sniper is poised to take out a trio of brand new movies when it expands from four screens to wide release this weekend.

Certainly, none of its competition has anywhere near American Sniper's buzz. First, there's The Wedding Ringer, costarring omnipresent actor Kevin Hart, whose 2014 comedy Ride Along currently holds the record for biggest January opening weekend with $41.5 million (though it's entirely possible that American Sniper could best it).

For the children, there's Paddington, which has been getting surprisingly (for this writer) good reviews considering the first look the Internet got at it generated a slew of comments about how creepily uncanny valley that bear is. Also, Nicole Kidman plays a sexy taxidermist. Tell me that you're not a little bit surprised at this movie's 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and its pair of BAFTA nominations, for Best British Film and Best Screenplay. Add in the holiday weekend and the relative lack of other film options for young children (the only holdovers in theatres are Annie and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, both of which will likely soon sink out of the top ten), and this Peruvian bear's adventures should do pretty well, at least by January standards.

Not getting such good reviews is Michael Mann's Blackhat, about a hacker (played by People's Sexiest Man Alive Chris Hemsworth) who must stop total world annihilation (dun dun DUNNNNN). It'll be lucky to get ten million dollars stateside, though given the overseas setting for much of its action and its international cast, it should do better in foreign markets (see: Transformers: Age of Extinction).

Foxcatcher expands from limited release this weekend, from 237 to 759 theatres. Its quintet of Oscar nominations should help it get to the $1 million mark. Among limited releases screening in New York and/or LA, we have the Bollywood Beauty and the Beast-esque I; Still Alice, which netted Julianne Moore an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a professor with early-onset Alzheimer's; Appropriate Behavior, from writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan, being touted as "the next Lena Dunham"; and Human Capital, Italy's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar (though it wasn't nominated).