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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: May 2011

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Five ways 'Tree of Life' can go

May 31, 2011 |  5:13 pm

Tree3
Few were surprised when crowds packed into theaters in New York and Los Angeles this past weekend to see "The Tree of Life." Terrence Malick's movie about morality and mortality had an insanely high level of buzz coming in, and culture-vultures were invariably going to rush out on opening weekend.  As my colleague Amy Kaufman reports, they did --about 35,000 of them, according to our informal calculation.

But successful niche openings can spell disappointment as much as it can spell mainstream success.  In the coming weeks, the Brad Pitt-Jessica Chastain drama will roll out to hundreds of theaters, and in places with far less of a cinema-going tradition than the country's two largest cities. How will it fare? Here are five movies the "Tree" release could emulate, and the likelihood that it will follow a difficult or a hospitable path (or, yes, the way of nature and the way of grace).

"Black Swan": A film that defies categorization goes on to become a cultural phenomenon, spoofed on late-night television and discussed at seemingly every cocktail party. The film also improbably  tops $100 million at the U.S. box office.
Likelihood: The Natalie Portman ballet drama had sexiness and horror elements. "Tree"? Not so much.

"127 Hours:" Strong performances and striking natural imagery  generate a lot of ink and awards talk. But after the hard-core film fans turn up, the mainstream is daunted by it, and the movie never really breaks out of the art-house ghetto.
Likelihood: "Tree" seems to stand on this precipice; a few shots in the film even evoke "127." But
for all the goodwill Danny Boyle generates, Malick exists on a different plane with many filmgoers, which should help.

"Midnight in Paris:" Woody Allen's recent hits ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona," "Match Point') have taken between $20 and $25 million -- a number that lies somewhere between art-house specificity and mainstream commerciality. His new one seems to be heading in that direction. Could "Tree" too?
Likelihood: It's curious that two films so different -- one a whimsical entertainment and the other a heavy meditation -- are becoming the two independent hits of the season. In fact, so far their per-theater averages are almost identical. "Tree" could yet be seen as the more serious piece of art and lap "Midnight" -- or be seen as the darker of the two and fall short.

"Elephant:" A movie from an acclaimed American auteur with an impressionistic vibe wins the Palme d'Or and has the press breathless, but goes on to attract only the most hard-core cinemagoers.
Likelihood: The big limited-opening suggests that "Tree" is at least over this hump. (It's reached nearly half of the "Elephant" box-office total already.)

"The Thin Red Line": Malick's most successful release to date generated scads of Oscar nominations and a very solid $36 million in domestic box office.
Likelihood: "Tree" is garnering stronger reviews and is arguably more of a conversation piece -- but a film combining midcentury angst and the beginning of earthly life is not quite as digestible a genre as a World War II movie.

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What Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' is actually about

--Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight 


A Noah Baumbach-Jesse Eisenberg reunion brews

May 31, 2011 | 12:22 pm

Eisenb

EXCLUSIVE: Noah Baumbach introduced many of us to Jesse Eisenberg when he cast the young actor as the son of divorcing parents in 2005 breakout "The Squid and the Whale." Now the two look to be reuniting -- with Eisenberg all grown up and playing one half of a couple.

According to a person who was briefed on the project but was not authorized to talk about it publicly, Eisenberg is in talks to play one of the lead roles in "While We're Young," an intergenerational couples drama that will be Baumbach's next film. Eisenberg, nominated for an Oscar for his performance in "The Social Network," could be working with another Oscar nominee, Naomi Watts, who's also in talks to star in the drama, according to the person briefed on the project.

Representatives for Eisenberg and Watts were not immediately available for comment. The person briefed on the project cautioned that formal deals for Eisenberg and Watts are not yet in place.

Baumbach's independently financed film is about a 40-ish childless couple that begins feeling alienated from their friends as those friends start to procreate, and strike up an unlikely friendship with a younger couple. The film is being produced by Scott Rudin, who was also Eisenberg's producer on "The Social Network."

Ben Stiller, who starred in Baumbach's most recent "Greenberg," has already been set as the older male. The actress playing the young female has not been set.

Baumbach's new movie has faced a bit of a casting shake-up. James Franco was initially set to play the  role that Eisenberg could occupy (if it's not one 2011 Oscar nominee, it's another) and Cate Blanchett the older female part, but each fell out in recent months.

Eisenberg, who voices a lead characater in spring hit "Rio" and will be seen this summer in the comedic action movie "30 Minutes or Less," has had his choice of big roles since breaking out as Mark Zuckerberg. He's getting ready to shoot Woody Allen's new film in Rome this summer.

Watts was last on the big screen in the political drama "Fair Game" last year. But she's about to be a frequent presence: later this year she'll appear as J. Edgar Hoover's secretary, Helen Gandy, in Clint Eastwood's biopic about the FBI chief, as well as as star in Jim Sheridan's dramatic thriller "Dream House."

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--Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Jesse Eisenberg, left, in "The Squid and the Whale." Credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films


'The Hunger Games': Donald Sutherland cast as President Snow

May 31, 2011 | 12:05 pm

Sutherland For the upcoming film "The Hunger Games," Lionsgate has cast Donald Sutherland as the ruthless autocratic leader of Panem, the world in which heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her competitors reside. The role is a critical one for the tween action drama (which has begun shooting in North Carolina), and the studio filled it with a high-caliber veteran.

Sutherland, who will next be seen in the New Line comedy "Horrible Bosses" and recently received acclaim for his performance in the Starz mini-series "Pillars of the Earth," will play President Snow. When the trilogy begins, he has already ruled with an iron fist over the dystopian environment for 25 years.

For those of you unfamiliar with "The Hunger Games," the film centers on Katniss Everdeen, a teenager from District 12, who must compete against other minors from the other 11 districts that make up Panem in a fight-to-the-death competition called the Hunger Games. The film is being adapted by director Gary Ross from the first novel in the trilogy by author Suzanne Collins.

Lionsgate has scheduled the movie for release on March 23, 2012.

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Stanley Tucci joins 'The Hunger Games' cast

-- Nicole Sperling

Photo: Donald Sutherland. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Anges Times


Frame Grab: Who is that guy who plays Hemingway in 'Midnight in Paris'?

May 30, 2011 |  6:57 pm

Editor's note: A-list actors may draw us into theaters, but often what's most delightful about seeing a movie is an unexpected performance from someone who's unfamiliar or only registers with faint recognition. So you leave the multiplex wondering something like, who was that gal who played the sweet shop clerk? Or where have I seen that guy who played the doorman and stole the scene?  24 Frames aims to shine a spotlight on these performers with our new feature, Frame Grab. 

Corey1 There are many perks that come with starring in a Broadway play opposite Scarlett Johansson. But for Corey Stoll, one of the biggest benefits of appearing in “A View From the Bridge” with the actress last year was getting to meet one of her A-list friends.

“I remember telling Scarlett before we started the run, ‘I know all of these famous people are going to come backstage. But I don’t care about meeting anybody other than Woody Allen,’” the actor, 35, recalled. “And then one day she came up to me and said, ‘Oh, he came yesterday, but he was too shy to come back and meet everyone.’”

Stoll was disappointed — after all, as a boy, he had plastered pictures of Allen on his wall — but as fate would have it, he’d hadn’t missed out on his chance to meet the filmmaker. A few weeks later, as Stoll was bowing during the curtain call, he noticed the legendary director in the audience. The following day, he received a call from his manager that Allen wanted to meet him.

The filmmaker was interested in Stoll for a part in his new film, “Midnight in Paris,” which stars Owen Wilson as Gil, a struggling novelist on a trip to Paris. Gil, a nostalgic, longs for 1920s Paris, when writers and artists flocked to the City of Light. Gil begins wandering the cobblestone streets late at night, and is transported back to the era he has romanticized, where he meets icons such as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Stoll got the role of Hemingway, and his performance has caught the attention of many who’ve seen the film since its recent opening. If you’re wondering about him too …

Continue reading »

Did a lack of originality help 'The Hangover Part II' this weekend?

May 30, 2011 |  1:00 pm

Hangov
The raised eyebrows started pretty much the moment the trailer hit the Web.

"The Hangover Part II," Todd Phillips' follow-up to his 2009 smash, wasn't just bringing back the same characters and actors as the R-rated original. It was returning the same structure and plot devices -- good friends lose track of someone from their group during a bachelor-party bender and must then piece together what happened. The pre-release line on "The Hangover" was "It's original and crazy." The pre-release line on "The Hangover 2" was: "Isn't this the same movie I saw two years ago?"

Critics didn't help as the reviews began to roll out: the Rotten Tomatoes score for the new Bradley Cooper-led ensemble comedy was a dismal 36%. (The original notched a respectable 79%.)

And yet when the movie opened this weekend, audiences devoured it. "The Hangover Part II" took in more than $86 million in the Friday-Sunday period alone, the biggest total for any 2-D offering this year. The film's five-day weekend haul of $137 million helped this Memorial Day weekend set an all-time record, downright stunning in a year when most weekends have seen drops over previous years.

Even more remarkable is that the comedy is on pace in the U.S. to outgross the original -- no mean feat when you consider the first film tallied $277 million to become the most lucrative R-rated comedy of all time.  How did it manage all of this?

Comedy sequels are a strange bunch. Many of them don't get made in the first place (witness studios pulling the plug this year on new "Anchorman" and "Zoolander" films). And those that do often disappoint, both at the box office and with fans. Some are outright dogs -- hi, "Sex and the City 2." Others just peter out quietly.  You can extend movies in genres such as science-fiction and horror with relative ease. Try to continue the funny and you frequently end up with yawns.

But if you start ticking off the successes and failures, a pattern begins to emerge: Those that succeed tend to hew very closely to their originals. Once they start departing from what got them laughs and dollars in the first place, their chances of success dip.

There are exceptions, of course. But the pattern holds up surprisingly often, as a quick look at the comedy sequels that tried to mix up the formula demonstrate. "Evan Almighty,"  the follow-up to Jim Carrey's God comedy "Bruce Almighty," made some notable switches when it came out in 2007. Gone was the lead actor, for instance, as was the premise of the divine in everyday life, replaced by politics and a biblical flood. The movie's global box office plummeted by $300 million from the original.

Then there was  "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," which changed up much of its supporting cast and tweaked its concept from a science-based comedy to a historical one. It, too, grossed considerably less than its predecessor.

When filmmakers make even more radical changes, things can really get gummed up. A few years ago, Sacha Baron Cohen decided to take a different one of his clueless foreigner characters from cable television instead of continuing the antics of "Borat." The resulting film, "Bruno," took in less than half of the "Borat" total. Studio comedies are comfort food, and we generally don't want the same dishes made with new ingredients.

In contrast, the few comedy sequels that have worked in recent years rehashed the same shtick.  "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," for instance, came back with an almost identical set of gags in 1999 and vastly outdid its first installment. Ditto for "Meet the Fockers" and "American Pie 2." Few would say filmmakers were doing anything dramatically different with these sequels. But the lack of chance-taking, paradoxically, paid off.

Phillips and the "Hangover" screenwriters have caught some heat for playing it safe. After a major blockbuster, Phillips had the clout to do pretty much whatever he liked with his characters in "The Hangover Part II." Why, after making such a bold movie, would he just try to do the same thing with a new backdrop? But while Phillips may have made a creatively questionable decision, he made a savvy financial move. Comedy sequels have a better shot at the dollars if they stick to what got them there.

If that sounds a little depressing, there is some solace in another fact. Once a movie generates this much money in a second installment, there's usually a third edition not far behind. But audiences tend to punish those movies no matter how safely they play it.

So there might yet be some karmic justice for those not enamored of "The Hangover Part II" -- in 2013.

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-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: "The Hangover Part II." Credit: Warner Bros.

 


With new trailer, 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' begins to breathe its fire

May 29, 2011 |  5:46 pm

 
Crai
There's already a debate about how this trailer for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" got online: Was it leaked from a European theater or stealthily put there by Sony? Whatever your conspiracy theory, the source is perhaps less important than the content of this so-called "feel-bad" Christmas movie, all of which comes at us fast, gritty and stylish. (We link to the trailer here instead of embedding it because it's been red-banded, apparently owing to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it nudity shot; please use your discretion in clicking through.)

Shrewdly assuming knowledge of the Stieg Larsson literary series, the spot for the David Fincher movie eschews traditional setup and exposition in favor of quick cuts and a driving Led Zeppelin cover by Trent Reznor and Karen O. This one's for the devotees.

Still, if you pause the spot or watch it multiple times, you'll see many allusions to the mystery that Daniel Craig's Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander are trying to solve in the Swedish snow. It's a smart approach: The story is there for those who want it, but it's not laid out in a way that could subject it to scrutiny.

The trailer's cumulative effect is to make the movie feel both polished and raw, a sophisticated product that moves miles beyond the made-for-TV feel of the Swedish-language original. If the book and the casting already have fans excited for the first installment this December, this one will make them rapturous.

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-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Rooney Mara on the set of  "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Credit: Vanity Fair

 


What’s next for Terrence Malick after 'The Tree of Life'?

May 27, 2011 |  6:12 pm

Affleckm
His new movie is coming out this weekend, but hard-core Terrence Malick fans always want to know what's next for the director, even if he himself doesn’t always know.

Malick has finished shooting his new film, a drama once titled “Burial” and now without a title. Starring  Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko, its contents have been shrouded in mystery, as is typical for a  Malick project.

What is known: It’s a love story, and it uses some of the same radical slice-of-life production techniques used on “Tree.” One person who worked on the film described it as even more experimental, in fact. It’s also the first film Malick has made that’s not in period, which should make for a switch for viewers used to his visions of throwback America.

There’s no U.S. distributor yet for the Affleck movie, but one person who saw a few minutes that are being shown to foreign buyers said that the meditativeness for which Malick is known is there in spades. There was no discernible story or a voice-over in the footage, but shots of Affleck and McAdams in Malick's trademark man-in-nature style.

Of course, given the gaps between Malick’s movies, the big question is when the 67-year-old’s new  project will reach theaters. There were at least two sets of reshoots that had the actors flying back to a Paris location after the production was complete, suggesting an elaborate, Malickian level of tinkering.

But compared with "Tree," whose haul of effects bogged down the production, Malick's sixth project has considerably fewer visual arabesques. And Malick himself may have offered the biggest clue as to when his new movie might be ready: He has told members of his production team to keep the summer and fall open for a possible shoot of yet another film –- which means he expects to be finished with this one in a matter of months.

RELATED:

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--Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in the untitled Terrence Malick film. Credit: Film Nation


Critical Mass: 'The Hangover Part II' gives the critics a headache

May 27, 2011 |  4:14 pm

Hangover2-memorial1

The first "Hangover" was a surprise smash, an R-rated comedy that raked in more than $277 million at the domestic box office. So, a sequel was inevitable. And judging from the first day's box office, people are awaiting it with open arms.

But is it any good? That's another story.

Most are like Times critic Betsy Sharkey, accusing the film of existing purely as a crass cash-grab without any good comedy to justify itself. She writes, "Me, I'm left with morning-after regrets. Lost is the fresh, perverse, painfully politically incorrect R-rated pleasure that came when 'The Hangover' ate up the summer of 2009."

Continue reading »

Judy Garland gets the 'Never Say Never' treatment

May 27, 2011 |  1:33 pm

Fifty years ago last month, Judy Garland gave what is regarded as one of the most memorable musical performances of all time, a standing-ovation extravaganza at Carnegie Hall. After years of a substance-abuse-induced decline, Garland came back strong that April night, wowing both the media and celebrities in attendance. The resultant double album topped the charts for more than a year.

Carneg But despite its place in the canon, little footage exists of the event, a point that's not lost on Steven "Flip" Lippman and "Howl" filmmakers Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein. The former, a director of musical shorts featuring the likes of Sam Phillips and Rosanne Cash, has set out to direct a documentary about that night, with the latter two serving as creative consultants. Called "Stay All Night," it seeks to re-create the evening in the New York concert hall a half-century ago.

"The concert is a cultural touchstone, something I remember vividly as a kid," Friedman told 24 Frames. "It's a magical moment in theatrical history. And yet there's almost no record of it."
 
Friedman said he and his collaborators aim to make a documentary that's less a historical document and more evocative of the experience of being in the theater, particularly focusing on the connection between the singer and her audience. "It's loomed so large that it's easy to forget that this was something that happened in a kind of immediate way," Friedman said.

In the documentary, Lippman, who has already begun conducting interviews, will blend together rare scenes from the concert with conversations with dozens of people who were in the audience. He says he and his collaborators have uncovered Super 8 footage from backstage, and will also play snippets of music from the show. [Update: Lippman says, via a representative, that there is in fact no footage from the show.] The movie, incidentally, is not the first time a modern-day artist has sought to reconstruct the evening; five years ago the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright gave a Carnegie Hall performance that re-created, with the help of a 40-piece orchestra, the same set list that Garland sang.

Concert films are enjoying something of a resurgence. Justin Bieber had a hit this spring with "Never Say Never," and the cast of "Glee" will bring their concert tour to the multiplex this summer. Although a movie screen has sometimes been seen as a pallid re-creation of the concert-going experience, the advent of digital and 3-D technology has helped the medium catch up.

"There's an opportunity to create what it's like to be in the presence of transcendent artistry," Friedman said of both "Stay" and concert films in general. "The trick is to capture these unguarded moments and make the audience feel like they were there."

RELATED:

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-- Steven Zeitchik
Twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. Credit: John Fricke Collection / PBS


Why couldn't David O. Russell and Sony make it work on 'Uncharted'?

May 26, 2011 |  7:45 pm

  Drake
Whenever the subject of the movie “Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune” came up with David O. Russell during the last Oscar season, he had one response. He was going. Fast.

"It's a locomotive," the "Fighter" director told 24 Frames in December of his progress on the video game adaptation. "I don't know how to say this except that I feel that I see things much more clearly. I don't turn over an idea as I once would,” he added.

It wasn’t entirely easy to believe. Russell was famously deliberative about his process -- he took six years between completing “I Heart Huckabees” and “The Fighter” -- and he had flirted with “Uncharted” for months before committing, causing film reporters to write a series of hair-pulling stories that had him in one day and out the next.

But Russell was convincing enough in our December interview, especially when he said he had written half the script already and then proceeded to lay out the plot.  (It would be an art-heist movie involving a family of international thieves, using the game as a loose template.)

On Thursday it came to light that Russell wouldn’t direct the action-adventure after all. But that wasn’t, it turned out, because he couldn’t decide what to do. It was because he had steamrolled ahead, but  in a different direction than studio Sony wanted.
 
Russell had already turned in a script, but it was a script so long and so ambitious that it was at least partly responsible for the studio and him parting ways, according to two people familiar with the situation who were not authorized to talk about it publicly. (Sony declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Russell.)

Among the many flourishes Russell had added were a bevy of characters not in the video game. (The director had given hints of this in December when he said he loved the idea of a “a family that's a force to be reckoned with in the world of international art and antiquities ... [a family] that deals with heads of state and heads of museums and metes out justice.” The game centers on a lone adventurer, Nathan Drake.)

Without having read Russell's script, it’s hard to know whether this divorce is good or bad news for the film, though "Uncharted" fans skeptical of Russell and his choice of Mark Wahlberg for Nathan Drake probably have their own opinions. The studio still wants to make the movie, and will bring on a new writer and director to work off an earlier draft (written by the scribes of the upcoming "Conan the Barbarian"). It's not expected that Wahlberg, who had been Russell's choice, will star in the film (allowing fans to begin their drumbeat for Nathan Fillion again). It's also hard to imagine that the movie will come out next summer, as some fans had hoped.

Russell, meanwhile, has plenty of other options, many of them promising and most of them not in the summer-action vein. There's  a Russ Meyer biopic, a teacher drama called "The Silver Linings Playbook" with Bradley Cooper and Anne Hathaway, and a traveling salesman dramedy with Vince Vaughn and Chloe Moretz.

But more than any individual director choice, there's perhaps a bigger lesson in the Russell-"Uncharted" saga.

While studios in this post-Chris Nolan era like to make some of their biggest movies with top-flight auteurs, the marketing-driven nature of the studio system, and the fussiness of said directors, means the reality can't always match that ambition.  Darren Aronofsky and Fox couldn’t make it work on “Wolverine,” and Sony and Steven Soderbergh clashed on "Moneyball" in a way that led the studio to pull the plug on on the film just days before the cast  and crew were due to arrive on set.

All these pairings would have been interesting, and then some. But given the state of the movie business these days, inserting a rare part into the studio machine often doesn't make for a locomotive. It just causes the train to sputter.

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--Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

 Photo: A shot from the Uncharted: Drake's Fortune video game. Credit: Sony


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