Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Odds Were In Its Favor...

It's an after-thought at this point to say that The Hunger Games was triumphant over the weekend.  The young adult phenom created by Suzanne Collins earned $155 million at the domestic box office in its opening weekend.
The records it set, or how Hollywood marks a film a success:
  • 3rd largest opening weekend in history (behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Dark Knight.)
    • Biggest opening weekend for a non-sequel.
    • Biggest opening weekend in the first 4 months of the calendar year (Eclipsing Alice in Wonderland, which minted $110 million in 2010.)
  • 5th largest opening day gross ($68 million)
  • 2nd fastest film to earn over $100 million (behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)
  • Highest grossing film in distributor Lions Gate Film history (slaughtering previous champ Fahrenheit 9/11 in two days.)
  • Highest grossing film for director Gary Ross, and any member of its principle cast.
  • Largest opening weekend for a film centered around a female protagonist-- no one's mentioning that record...
I'm sure I'm missing a few-- box office land is full of vague, seemingly just invented records to boast-- best non-holiday\non-sequel opening for a film about a dog, etc.  The point is it was huge, now I question its legacy...

Thursday, March 22, 2012


For sure arty nastiness, few filmmakers have as much verve or style than David Croenberg.  After a break from the usual kinkiness of his oeuvre with the more austere period mind game of sexual dynamics in last years A Dangerous Method, the Canadian auteur has returned back to the dark side.  With Cosmopolis, a seemingly aggressive and dark mood piece starring Robert Pattinson, Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche and Paul Giamatti looks enticing and frightening.  One question- Pattinson?  Can the pale pretty boy ignite such Croenberg-ian intensity?  Here's the French teaser trailer-- the film will likely be tapped for a slot in this years Cannes Film Festival.

The Directors: Gary Ross

I'm starting a new, hopefully weekly, edition here focusing on a look back at an interesting filmmaker right before their latest movie opens.  This weekend, the only thing going on in the movie universe is The Hunger Games, based on the hugely successful novel by Suzanne Collins.  One has to harken back the days of the first Twilight film to see a film so heavily hyped and fussed about; and sadly one has to go back to last November to the fourth Twilight film to find a film that could be described as an event, or one that will likely open to north of $100 million at the box office in its opening week.  Anyhow, numbers matter nothing to me, nor especially does exaggerated media or fan boy hyperbole.  The director (and co-writer) of the dystopian, kind of like Battle Royale epic is Gary Ross, a four time Academy Award nominee (neither of those nods were for direction), who has directed but three films, but has long carved himself out a handsome career as a writer and producer, with a penchant for humor and satire.  And yet in but three features under his belt as master and commander, there's a seeming shape-shifter like capacity to his talent, an interest to challenge and disarm his audience by throwing the rug out under them and coming up with something completely different.

Ross came to fame as the writer of the enormous Tom Hanks film Big-- ever genial, a bit absurd in its fantastic flights of fancy, but a generous crowd pleaser.  The film opened in 1988 and earned Ross an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  Following this big break came Mr. Baseball (1992)- a middling Tom Selleck sports comedy, and a second writing Oscar nod for Dave (1993), the infectious mistaken identity comedy starring Kevin Kline (in one the actors absolute beauts of a performance.)  Already clearly expressed in Ross, the screenwriter, was a sort of throwback to generous, gentle screwball comedies of the past, one with a nod for satire and a smidgen of biting truisms, but inoffensive and witty.

The big break came when Ross took to the directors chair for the first time with Pleasantville (1998), which bonded his gentle screwball rhythms, fondness for yesteryear with a bigger scope and larger ambition than any of his prior works as screenwriter. A faux teenage comedy with a fantastical high concept where two modern teenagers get transported into the black and white world of a 50s sitcom is nutty and in most regards shouldn't work.  That Ross brought a texture and humanity to his characters, alongside an ensemble of indelible performers (Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Jeff Daniels and a nearly note perfect Joan Allen) showcased a debut worth clamoring about.  That Ross also assembled a beautiful (and what must have been hellish) visual landscape throughout (including the melding of black and white and color photography, arch period costuming, and a story that shifts in tone from comedic to dramatic within scenes themselves) either proved he was a masochist as a filmmaker, or a writer\director force to be reckoned with.  Pleasantville also carved out relationships with ace production design Jeannine Oppewall and costume designer Julianna Makovsky, both of whom would become incremental for future Gary Ross projects.  The film earned three Oscar nominations-- for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score, and certainly deserved a few more, especially Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress (for Joan Allen's ace performance), and Best Cinematography.  Pleasantville may have appeared sharper had Jim Carrey's The Truman Show, another mindbender situated in the 50s sitcom land, hadn't opened a few months prior.  Still it's a visual beaut, and certainly helped shape the careers of not just Ross, the filmmaker, but also Maguire and Witherspoon (Election, the best performance of her career came about mere months later.)

The first sense of Gary Ross the shape shifter occurred in 2003 with his second film as writer\director-- the stolid and earnest awards bait horse drama Seabiscuit.  Taking an about face to his throwback sense of irony and replacing it with an inspiring based on a true story is a well-worn tactic for filmmakers, but the film was a hit (reaching over $100 million domestically and earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination.)  The earnestness of Seabiscuit is its own undoing as a great group of performers-- including Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and a re-teaming with his Pleasantville star Maguire-- as well as a finely crafted piece of early-20th century Americana are rendered with astute aplomb without the typical Hollywood bombast.  Ross earned another writing Oscar nomination (his first for Adapted Screenplay) as well as a nod as one of the credited producers, but it feels the film long ago become a punchline, despite tremendous success.

With The Hunger Games, we see another sense of Ross shape-shifting-- his first foray into the world of franchise filmmaking, and the riskiest and nerviest choice in his career so far.  On paper the tale of a group of young, starving teenagers killing one another while under the microscope of a Big Brother-like government and showcased as a sick reality show doesn't exactly seem copacetic with the many gifts Ross has offered film in the past two and a half decades.  However, the hype is pre-sold, and Ross needn't worry too much.  The interesting thing on Gary Ross, the director, and may be a plus or minus for any scribe trying to break out into directing, is the willingness to play that game of chance and make each film tonally and abruptly different from the next.  I'm ready to commit that his next film will be a black and white French film with no words...oh wait!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

21 Jump Street and How Channing Tatum Found His Groove

This past weekend, 21 Jump Street, the seemingly unnecessary reboot of the forgotten 80s television show that made Johnny Depp an overnight heartthrob (of which he rebelled against only to later become a franchise movie star, aside...) became the box office king.  Surprisingly, it's critical reception was just as stellar.  Directed with a freely associative comic quotation marks by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), this buddy action comedy is vulgar and jaggedly uneven, but not without its charms.  Concocted as an inconceivably frantic buddy picture about two underachieving police officers (played by co-writer and producer Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) who go undercover as high school students to crack a drug ring, the film departs from the series completely after initial set-up.  It's kind of all over the place, at once a cartoon, a high school sociological excavation (where Hill's nerd and Tatum's jock find themselves in a Freaky Friday-like switch-a-roo the second go around), part bromantic frat boy love fest sliced with Apatow-like obscenity, part violent action film-- it's actually really exhausting, and almost sluggish despite it's brisk pacing.  The ace in the hole, and the most startling element to 21 Jump Street is surprisingly, even shockingly, the charmingly self assured, even amusingly graceful comedic performance by Channing Tatum.

Who would have thunk it?  The former model (and stripper, soon to be dramatized in Magic Mike, directed by Steven Soderbergh) had such natural comedic rhythm, an unforeseen dimension of, well anything, in playing the dim, ab-informed, intelligence-deficient rookie officer Jenko, a stud in high school who in adulthood finds such amusing vulgarity and more surprisingly, the only facet of a genuine heartbeat in 21 Jump Street.  He has such a well-worn, unassuming dumb look on his face that feels strangely true; all the while spewing the weird, slightly worn out dick jokes that pepper the screenplay.  As a pretty boy familiar to audiences in such awe-shucks sub-romantic sudsers like Dear John and The Vow where he was nothing but obligatory eye candy, one would never expect such an unexpectedly effervescent and charming performance from the actor.  He plays dumb, but gets the joke in such a knowing and nearly insightful way that it not just makes the movie stronger, but altogether calmer in its disheveled frantic-ness.  I remain true in stating 21 Jump Street is merely average as filmmaking, but Tatum's performance is a slight game-changer for the ab-admired actor, a nod of confidence for his future, and a step up for the film.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Oscar 2012

Too soon to start thinking about Oscar season 2012...well perhaps considering so far nothing of any particular note has come out yet.  Whatever, AMPAS announced the nominations for the 85th Academy Awards will take place January 15, 2013.  This is one week earlier than announced this past year, which makes me wonder a little bit if that will have any impact on either side.  Will it impact on members ability to watch all qualifying films in time-- one doesn't care for another Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close moment that 2011 will sadly have to live with.  Or could that impact eventual winners giving studios, publicists, nominees one more week of scandalous play to doll out for our precious amusement.  Or am I just over-thinking this, and it will remain but a trivial non-sequitor for a probable long in the tooth season.

One film that's already been released that might have an awards play:

  • The Secret World of Arrietty, the Japanese retelling of the classic children's story The Borrowers was co-written by Oscar-winner and master stylist Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and released through Disney's Studio Ghibli.  It's a low-key, but enchanting movie, beautifully animated and enriched with creativity.  That the film come out last month to a bit of sluggish box office return may hurt it's chances at a Best Animated Feature slot, as well as Disney's likely strategy to go full throttle with Pixar's upcoming Brave come awards season, it may be unlikely to hear The Secret World of Arrietty uttered on January 15th.  Even still-- it's stronger than any of the 5 nominees from 2011, and an early release dates didn't hurt Coraline in 2009.  Plus, Miyazki's name at the very least, should mean something to branch that gave him a statue in 2002.

Dark Shadows Trailer

The trailer for Tim Burton's latest-- Dark Shadows arrives.  Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green and Michelle Pfieffer.  Based on the '60s television show, it appears, as always that Burton's crew had a lot of fun putting the production design and costume elements, but the tone is odd, no?  I never saw the show, maybe it's appropriate or will make more sense in context.  Anyone remember back in the day when Tim Burton was, you know, like king?!?!?  Alas, this must be better than Alice in Wonderland, right?

Friends With Kids

Pleasant and harmless, Friends With Kids is more or less a glossy, R-rated sitcom where attractive yuppies (most of which are Bridesmaids alum) bitch and moan before adjusting to the fact that their lives are fairly good.  Written, directed and starring Jennifer Westfeldt, it marks her third in a sort of rom-com trilogy of sorting stuff out-- starting with the amusing, bi-curious meet cute of Kissing Jessica Stein (2002), the path to marriage in Ira & Abby (2007) and now this-- a next step in relationship status, children.  Westfeldt has a witty point of view, she's attractive, as neurotic and stammering as any Woody Allen creation, and has an intelligence that's hard to pigeon-hole mixed with a brittleness ready to crack.  In other words, America's sweetheart she's not exactly, which undoes, at least partially, the want my cake and eat it to mentality with Friends With Kids-- which at it's best is an amusingly naughty ensemble piece about the messiness of modern families and at it's worst, another indulgently predictable title to modern romantic comedies.

First we meet Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt), two successful Manhattan singles, best friends since college, both of whom seemingly enjoying a hetero- Will & Grace-like relationship that while manufactured by the movies, plays out nicely thanks to the easy-going chemistry the two actors share with one another.  He's a womanizer, she's on the verge of spinster-hood-- the first scene details their relationship succinctly when they call each other late one night, while both in bed with their respective dates for the evening.  It's cute and inappropriate; clearly they're made for each other.  We then meet their married friends (played with generous brio by Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd, Kristen Wigg and Jon Hamm), both couples have children and the tenuousness of child rearing alarms both Jason and Julie-- they don't want that.  They don't want to become the dour, angry people they see their friends becoming upon the arrival of children.  The solution for the childless BFF's-- conceive together, share custody and continue romantic pursuits later.

What sounds a bit irresponsible and hopelessly naive as the treatise of the film actually rears some witty and tender grown-up dialogue-- it's perhaps a shame that Westfeldt didn't fight the urge to shake some of the saltier words which nearly negates the purpose.  It's also a bit of shame that Friends With Kids starts frankly and promisingly as a witty alternative to its banal genre only to dovetail right into it, and that the supporting characters are merely arbiters for a different stance on parenthood-- Wiig sadly in the least utilized and given the least flattering role, while on contrast O'Dowd (Wiig's Bridesmaids love interest) proves best in show with his randy, low-key charm.  At the same time, however, there is something of value in Westfeldt's voice, a slightly different variation on the neurotic funny girl angle-- she's kind of hard, a bit too verbose yet too soft-spoken at the same time.  And there's something about Scott as well, whose played many variations of the same prickly holier than thou sort before, but in a strangely deadpan way, he's a new sort, and appealing romantic lead.  B-

Friday, March 9, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom to Open Cannes

The latest film from Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom, will open the 65th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16th.  Co-written by Roman Coppola, the idiosyncratic comedy stars long time Anderson muses Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, as well as delectable newcomers Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis and Edward Norton.  This marks Anderson's first visit to Cannes.  The film will open, courtesy of Focus Features, this summer.

This Is Not a Film

In watching Jafar Panahi's muckraking and illegal day in the life Iranian documentary This Is Not a Film, there's an avid and tense tingling sense of an unjust world and wasted potential.  Without the backstory however, many might not see the fuss, for this isn't quite a film, but a testament to one's passion to their craft.  Panahi is one of the most prominent Iranian filmmakers of all time-- his film The Circle (2000) is perhaps his most respected; an impassioned portrait of women living and struggling in contemporary Iran (the film won the top prize at the 2000 Venice Film Festival.)  He was imprisoned in 2010, sentenced to six years in jail and barred from making films, writing screenplays, giving interviews, or leaving Iran for twenty years.  What's developed is a ripe conversation of political calculations and the purity of filmmaking, as well as the artistry of one gifted man.  That struggle and context give This Is Not a Film such a substantial heft, and a purity of joyous refrain that it exists at all, that while minutia at times drags and stalls, it's hard to reject.

Shot with a handheld camera (as well an iPhone), Panahi and friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb chronicle a day in the life of the banned filmmaker while stuck in his apartment on house arrest.  The antsy, cabin fever trappings are apparent from the start as Panahi putters around the apartment discussing his past work, his failed projects and latest screenplay he's barred from attempting.  There's a heartbreaking sadness to his anguish, joined with the drudgery of day-to-day nonsense (which includes earnest phone calls in vein to his lawyers about this court appeals and random tenderness with his pet iguana.)  What's striking is the lack of sermonizing Panahi summons-- there's seeming little spark of fight the system rabble-rousing on display.  This nonchalance may strike as hurtful to the modest film with hopeful intentions of rise-up activism, but also perhaps might just be the point-- let his films speak for him, and let this artist do what it's evident he was born to do.

While the complex themes of shady politics in an unstable region of the world, censorship and the sharing of one mans art are plenty to stand up for, this is still not quite a film.  The before and after complexity of Panahi's story are far more compelling-- for instance this film exists at all because of a flash drive that has hidden and smuggled out of Iran in a birthday cake on it's way to make a special appearance at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival-- and without that context, the narrative inside This Is Not a Film feels inordinately humdrum and unsure of itself.  B
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