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Category: August 2010

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Rerelease redux: Was the opening of the 'Avatar' special edition a disappointment?

August 31, 2010 |  4:42 pm

No sooner did we write that the release of the special edition of "Avatar" this past weekend was a disappointment than we received a slew of comments and e-mails asking why we thought it a failure (politely, of course).

So let's take a closer look.

The movie grossed about $4 million on 812 screens here in the U.S. Several readers pointed out that the per-screen number this averages out to -- just about $5,000 -- was among the strongest of the weekend. And that number is indeed not terrible for a new opener -- except for the fact that "Avatar" wasn't a new opener; it had the benefit of eight months of marketing and buzz behind it. This is hardly some unknown character drama that has to fight for every ticket.

Throw in the fact that the film had the benefit of premium ticket prices, and was going up against some pretty weak competition, and $5,000 doesn't look quite so solid. If you're scribbling on the back of an envelope -- assuming conservatively about a dozen shows per screen over the three days and $15 for a premium 3-D ticket -- that's an average of about 28 people at each showing. If you saw that many people in a theater you were in, you'd think that was OK, but wonder if the film is getting much beyond the hard-core or the really late adopters.

In the per-screen pecking order, the "Avatar" re-release was better than the second weekend of "The Switch" and "Lottery Ticket," but not as good as the first weekend of "Takers" and "The Last Exorcism." Which is ... Fine? Mediocre? Not an overwhelming success?

Others pointed out that this was a weak time to release a big movie, so you have to take the numbers in context. Well, it was Fox's decision to release it this past weekend, and clearly they thought it would be a propitious time for the film. And they had reason to. In fact, outside of "The Expendables," the new "Avatar"  had the benefit of being the only action spectacle playing in any kind of wide release this past weekend. Clog the weekend up with a few more wide releases and it's likely the movie's numbers dip.

None of this is really a knock on the new "Avatar." It was a tall order to come on the heels of a DVD release and assume a few minutes of extra footage would restart the phenomenon. And much of this is found money for Fox. So it's not even the worst gambit in the world. It's just not exactly a major event either.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Avatar": Credit: 20th Century Fox

When producers attack: 'Piranha's' Mark Canton takes on James Cameron

August 31, 2010 | 11:33 am

"Piranha 3D" may not have conjured up a huge number of scares, but the meta-story around the Dimension Films release is turning into entertaining bloodsport.

After first releasing a fake Oscar video from members of the cast, the Weinstein Co. division is now sending out word about one of the producers, Mark Canton, responding angrily to James Cameron's (slight) knock on the film.

Piran In a much larger VanityFair.com interview about his views on 3-D, the "Avatar" re-release and his latest work, Cameron says that he didn't like the way "Piranha 3-D" used the technology. Cameron, who worked for a few days on the sequel to the Joe Dante original before being fired from the production, said that "I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the '70s and '80s."

That was all Canton needed to pounce like, well, a piranha. In a 15-paragraph screed sent to reporters Tuesday morning that led with  "Jim, are you kidding or what?" and "Mr. Cameron, who singles himself out to be a visionary of movie-making, seems to have a small vision regarding any motion pictures that are not his own," Canton makes his broadside against the director.

Part of Canton's invective is personal, "What it comes down to, Jim, is -- that like most things in life -- size doesn’t really matter. Not everyone has the advantage of having endless amounts of money to play in their sandbox and to take ten years using other people’s money to make and market a film ... like you do. Why can’t you just count your blessings?"

Part of it goes to Canton's irritation that Cameron is claiming ownership of Hollywood's z-axis craze. "Let’s just keep this in mind Jim -- you did not invent 3D. You were fortunate that others inspired you to take it further."

Then it gets into what Canton, who produced "300" and a host of Hollywood films over the last few decades, really thought about Cameron's piece de resistance. "To be honest, I found the 3D in 'Avatar' to be inconsistent and while ground breaking in many respects, sometimes I thought it overwhelmed the storytelling," he said. "Technology aside, I wish 'Avatar' had been more original in its storytelling."

And finally it comes down to, well, getting attention for the film, of course. "My sense is that Mr. Cameron has never seen Piranha 3D ... certainly not in a movie theatre with a real audience. Jim, we invite you to take that opportunity and experience the movie in a theatre full of fans -- fans for whom this movie was always intended to entertain. ... [You have] no clue as to how great and how much of a fun-filled experience the audiences who have seen the film in 3D have enjoyed."

One gets the sense from the e-mail that Canton is genuinely upset, though it doesn't hurt publicity efforts for "Piranha" to engage in a fight with a much bigger fish like Cameron.

But the real irony here is that Cameron's original comments may have targeted what audiences actually like about "Piranha." Part of the movie's appeal comes from its throwback campiness. Director Alexandre Aja basically said as much when he told our colleague Gina McIntyre that his intention was for an '80s era pop pleasure  modeled as a kind of "Gremlins" for adults. The idea, he said, was for "a very simple, efficient concept to reboot or reinvent that kind of disaster movie, creature movie from the '80s, that kind of guilty-pleasure movie that delivers on every front." Canton may have felt it more personally, but Cameron's attack seems largely bloodless.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: An image from "Piranha 3D." Credit: Dimension Films


"Piranha 3D" director says his movie is Gremlins for adults

"Piranha 3D," the Oscar campaign

Movie review: "Piranha 3D"

Is television really the new cinema? Or is that just something TV people like to say?

August 31, 2010 |  8:00 am

The telecast of the Emmys on Sunday -- and the "Mad Men" and "Modern Family" dominance thereof -- once more threw into relief the arguments about television beating film at its own game of character and narrative.

The idea that contemporary television does storytelling -- particularly drama -- better than its cinematic counterpart has been advanced for a while now, especially by those, well, working in television. It's been particularly present this summer. Writing about FX chief John Landgraf at the Television Critics Assn. Tour earlier this month, Forbes' Lacey Rose noted that "rather than lament the loss of the creatively ambitious, mid-priced drama that once brought multidimensional characters to the big screen, he, like ... many of his cable cohorts, has stepped up to fill the void."

Storytelling on the small screen is deeper and richer, the television camp maintains, than it is on the effects- and brand-obsessed big screen of the studio system -- or, for that matter, in an indie-film world that has gone stale. Which is why, the argument goes, the best actors now regularly choose cable. Or as Michael Tolkin, "The Player" scribe and unofficial avatar of the disenchanted-screenwriters movement, told us a few years ago: "Character has migrated to television."

Few would deny that cable has upped its game (and everyone else's in television) over the last decade, as the wave of "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "The Shield" hit, followed soon after by "Damages," "Dexter" and "Mad Men," to name a few examples. And network comedies such as this year's Emmy-winning "Modern Family" and previous Emmy darling "30 Rock" can offer a sharp kick to the gut of contemporary life.

The movie industry, meanwhile, has hardly helped its own cause this summer, cynically churning out a series of forgettable big-budget brands wearing the clothes of a real movie.

But the TV First argument has holes aplenty. Those who advance it point to how much more story and character development television offers. But TV has an innate advantage in this department; that's how it goes when you have as many as 20 or 30 screen hours to develop a story instead of 1 1/2 or two. Unlike TV, movies are not designed to play over a long period or to follow the jagged EKG of characters' lives over the years. It's like asking an opera singer to rap and then wondering why she can't rhyme. The better question to ask of both film and television is not how much time each one takes but what it does with the time it has.

And here the film camp gets a big bump. The urgency and immersiveness of the medium still trump television when each is at the top of its game. For all the great TV series in recent years, are there three hours of television as ambitious or energized as, say,  "Avatar" or "The Dark Knight"? We're sure some readers will think there are plenty -- or find reasons to hate on those movies -- but we've racked our brains and can't come up with anything.

Films like those get to play with more money than television ever does, you say. Fair enough. Yet the situation isn't much different as one moves down the budget spectrum, right down to the low-mid range that cable ostensibly specializes in. Are there two hours of television in the last few years that achieved, on the screen and in our minds, what  "The Hurt Locker" or "Slumdog Millionaire" did? It's hard to see even TV Firsters like Landgraf not jumping at the chance to produce and premiere either of those movies over pretty much any couple hours-worth of material they currently have in development.

Film's detractors will say these are the exceptions, and cite the derivative action spectacles and litany of flat comedies that make up so many studio slates these days. But for every piece of two-bit lameness that finds its way to the multiplex there are also many analogues on the small screen, endlessly interchangeable procedurals and three-jokes-per-minute sitcoms. At least with movies they're gone after a weekend.

And much of the TV First argument ignores the material that really powers television: nonfiction programming. Film documentaries have become sophisticated, multiflowered things, serious and entertaining in equal measure -- anyone doubting that need only see movies such as "Catfish" and "Waiting for Superman" this fall. Television nonfiction is largely wife-swapping and karaoke.

Of course, skeptics will say that all quality is subjective. Perhaps. But then the best evidence for film's supremacy over television may lie with what people will sacrifice to watch their favorites. As with film, the biggest TV hits draw tens of millions of viewers. But how many of these people would pay ten dollars dollars to see a episodes?

Sure, this summer has been, on balance, dreadful for filmgoing. And plenty of studio development seems uninspired, done by committee, or worse. But that hardly means it's all on a downward spiral. Call it warm-weather optimism, but despite the movie industry's financial and creative crises, the fall is shaping up to be one of the most promising in years, dotted with potential gems such as "Never Let Me Go," "The Social Network," "The Town" and "Black Swan," among others.

There is, of course, room for great narrative in all mediums (well, except maybe Web video). To engage the film-versus-television question is not only to ask how many angels dance on the head of a pin, but  which pin they're more likely to dance on. Few outside Hollywood care where strong entertainment comes from, as long as it comes.

Still, if you're going to ask which system is more likely to give us -- and actually has given us -- the most memorable and enduring dramas and comedies, our feeling is that it's nice that television has (inspired by great cinema) upped its level of quality. But much of the strongest and richest entertainment is still where it's always been: at the movies.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Mad Men." Credit: Lionsgate Television


"Modern Family" and "Mad Men" take top Emmy awards

Emmy Awards ratings squeak past last year's

The Emmys: Now with more cultural diversity!

With 'Avatar' struggling, is the bloom off the rerelease rose?

August 30, 2010 |  5:40 pm


For a while now, theater owners — and to a lesser extent filmmakers and studios — have been touting the economic and cultural wisdom of rereleasing Hollywood's biggest hits.  Personalities as varied as Steven Soderbergh and theater mogul Shari Redstone have talked about the rerelease as a way both to keep theaters relevant and provide a service to tentpole-overloaded moviegoers.

Most films still don't get a wide rerelease, but those that do tend to fare well. "The Godfather," the first two "Toy Story" films and "Apocalypse Now" were all rereleased at least a decade after they first came out, all of them to strong effect.

None of the new releases re-created the blockbuster success of their original go-rounds — "Toy Story" made the most of the bunch, grossing $31 million domestically — but all came away with their reputations burnished. In the case of "Apocalypse Now," whose redux edition added a significant amount of footage, the 2001 rerelease not only solidified the movie with old fans but brought in plenty of new ones.

That trend changed this weekend, when a rerelease of "Avatar" passed quietly for filmgoers. The Fox movie grossed only about $4 million despite playing on more than 800 screens, as my colleague Ben Fritz notes.

The easy explanation for this failure is that with nine minutes of extra footage tacked on to a movie that was already as long as the Bible, this new version didn't add as much to its original as the other rereleases did. In a way, "Avatar" was a victim of its own success. With the original already perceived as the be-all-and-end-all in big-budget entertainment — many of us had already seen it in 3-D, and the film was already considered a visual feast the first time around — there's not much to improve on with a new edition.

(It's also worth noting that the movie grossed $750 million the first time around, some of that from repeat viewers, and it's asking a lot for people who saw it multiple times just six or seven months ago to pay to see it again, even if the alternative is "Takers" and "The Last Exorcism.")

But it's also possible that the rerelease just doesn't mean as much as it once did, what with the culture of the Internet and nonstop blog coverage putting movies in the public eye in a way it never has before. When "The Godfather" came out in 1997 after being away from theaters for 25 years, it felt like an event; no matter how well we remembered the movie or how many times we watched it on basic cable, seeing it on the big screen brought memories for those lucky enough to catch it there the first time and created that experience for those who weren't. Even the rerelease of the "Toy Story" movies last year struck a nostalgic nerve for a '90s animation era that seems so far away, before the form changed so radically.

But it may be that today's classics just don't fade into history in the same way. We've lived them, in a sense, too deeply (and exhaustedly) the first time around.

Despite the struggles of "Avatar," we'll probably see a few more rereleases of Hollywood's biggest hits. They're comparatively low-risk for studios, who see them not only as a theatrical play but a way to generate interest in the DVD. And filmmakers envious of new technology will push for them — George Lucas has made noise about a "Star Wars" release, for instance. Without significant additions, though, it's hard to see why a rerelease is worth the screens or the bother.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Avatar." Credit: 20th Century Fox.

'Machete's' Danny Trejo will kill again

August 29, 2010 | 12:34 pm

Fans of Danny Trejo get their full dose of the Latino baddie in this weekend's "Machete." We'll have more later in the week from the character actor, who has had smaller parts in dozens of movies but is finally getting his close-up, playing a part he and Robert Rodriguez describe as the "first Latino superhero."

In the meantime,one interesting tidbit to emerge from our conversation with Trejo: The actor will reunite with "Machete" costar Michelle Rodriguez in a new indie called "Skinny Dip."

The movie is a revenge picture involving a young woman who kills a policeman, and Trejo is keeping it in the family: His son Gilbert will produce and likely co-direct. In case there wasn't enough of the ethnic pride/campiness that Trejo is known for in his work, the other director is a young filmmaker with the perfect name of Frankie Latina.

(No word yet, incidentally, on sequel plans for "Machete," though it's likely Rodriguez, who actually wrote the film back in the early '90s, has some ideas. Certainly, the movie, which got a jolt in development when a fake trailer for it ran in the 2007 movie "Grindhouse," plays on our sequel expectations, with a credit sequence that touts fictitious followups "Machete Kills" and "Machete Kills Again.")

The 22-year-old Gilbert Trejo grew up on movie sets and around movie stars -- Trejo the Elder likes to recall the time his son met Robert De Niro and did a "You talkin' to me" impression (Gilbert was 9). The younger Trejo also occupies one of the low-riders in the climactic scene of "Machete" (firing missiles from a rooftop turret, of course).

Danny Trejo quips that he hopes his son makes it as a filmmaker "so he can give me a job." With the mustachioed one currently booking 10 to 13 gigs per year, we suspect getting a job is no real problem.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Danny Trejo in "Machete." Credit: 20th Century Fox

Preview review: Gemma Arterton gets saucy with director Stephen Frears in 'Tamara Drewe'

August 27, 2010 |  4:35 pm

MV5BMjAwOTUwMjIzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTY1MjM0Mw@@._V1._SX640_SY426_ On the big screen, Gemma Arterton has been no stranger to playing the role of resident hottie. She's was a Bond girl in "Quantum of Solace" and a fiery vixen earlier this year in "Clash of the Titans" and "Prince of Persia."

Her new film -- director Stephen Frears' "Tamara Drewe," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival next month -- may have been shot on a much smaller budget, but Arterton is again portraying a sought-after female.

The film -- based on Posy Simmonds' graphic novel, which was inspired by Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd" -- is centered in the English countryside. There, a variety of writers and artists are pleasantly surprised when bombshell Tamara Drewe rolls into the sleepy town. Tamara, once not so attractive, has gotten a nose job and now enjoys a wealth of local male attention. She catches the eyes of two men in particular: one guyliner-wearing and surly (Dominic Cooper), the other muscular and outdoorsy (Luke Evans).

We're not sure if all of the elements here seem to work: For instance, the explanatory word boxes (which we assume exist because the film is based on a graphic novel) feel out of place in the comedy and more suited to a movie like "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." The movie also seems -- no surprise here -- to have a distinctly British sense of humor that audiences might not expect given the source material.

That being said, Arterton is really appealing in the role -- self-assured and sassy without making herself unlikable. And it looks like it will be fun to watch her multiple love affairs intertwine until the situation inevitably implodes. If she can bring enough youthful energy to the film -- which we're hopeful she can -- the movie seems like a light, easy comedy from the frequently stellar Frears.

--Amy Kaufman


Photo: Gemma Arterton in "Tamara Drewe." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics


The Performance: Gemma Arterton

Faces To Watch 2010

Critical Mass: 'Takers'

August 27, 2010 |  2:13 pm


We're in the dog days of summer here, people, and not even the nation's film critics, hiding from the heat in the cool comforts of the theater, can muster much enthusiasm for the films they have to review this weekend.

Case in point: The Times' own Betsy Sharkey's review of "Takers." Sharkey begins, "'Takers,' the new heist movie starring blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and T.I. (who's scary bad and just plain scary), would be a good snooze if it weren't for all the noisy gunfire and explosions and the violins — which always signal a 'special' shootout that will unfold in that ballet-of-death style that's supposed to be arty but just feels tedious here."

Continue reading »

Kenneth Turan's film pick of the week: 'The Big Uneasy'

August 26, 2010 |  7:50 am

If you know Harry Shearer only as a key voice on "The Simpsons," you're missing a lot, especially his work as a fearless and incisive social commentator on his KCRW program "Le Show" and in his excellent muckraking documentary, "The Big Uneasy," playing in theaters nationwide one night only Aug. 30.

A part-time resident of New Orleans, Shearer has put together a gripping, persuasive film that posits that the catastrophic flooding that overwhelmed New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was not a natural disaster but the result of years of ruinous decisions and horrific misjudgments by the Army Corps of Engineers, the same people who are in charge of the city's latest flood-control plan.

With the help of lively computer imagery and smart interviews, "The Big Uneasy" shows what went wrong and how both academic investigators and a Corps of Engineers whistle-blower were unceremoniously quashed. Essential viewing. Showing at the Grove, the Americana in Glendale and theaters listed at thebiguneasy.com.

-- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times film critic

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Preview review: Danny Boyle spends '127 Hours' with James Franco

August 25, 2010 |  3:48 pm

127H-06688 It was only two years ago that "Slumdog Millionaire" swept the Academy Awards, claiming eight Oscars, including one for best director Danny Boyle. That's a fact, it seems, Fox Searchlight doesn't want audiences to forget.

The new teaser trailer for "127 Hours," Boyle's first film after "Slumdog," opens by hyping the director's many credits: "Trainspotting," "28 Days Later," "The Beach." Set to music with a strong drumbeat, the trailer's opening definitely has a "Slumdog" vibe to it -- lots of fast-paced edits, wide shots of impressive scenery. "This fall," the preview touts, Boyle "takes us on a ride beyond our imagination -- and it's true."

That journey? It follows Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), the mountain climber who infamously got trapped under a boulder in Utah in 2003 and was forced to cut part of his arm off to escape a near-death situation.

We've heard that a majority of the film deals with Ralston's frightening predicament, and the loneliness and desperation he deals with over the 127 hours he's pinned under a rock. (And is perhaps thematically similar to the upcoming "Buried," in which Ryan Reynolds plays a U.S. contractor who gets buried alive in a coffin in Iraq.) But you might not realize that, having only watched the movie's trailer.

Indeed, most of the footage we see from the movie is, we'd imagine, not in line with the film's larger tone. As Ralston, Franco comes across as an offbeat adventurer -- a dude unafraid to take risks in the dangerous outdoors, who manages to chuckle even after taking a painful-looking fall off of his bike. He's believable in this playful goofball/stoner type of role, especially when he charms the socks off of two cute girl hikers (Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn) in need of a guide.

Watching his performance evolve as the story goes to a much darker, introspective place is something we're looking forward to. But what has us more perplexed is how Boyle will deal with the rest of the movie, which -- as far as we can tell -- seems to take place largely inside the crevice of a rock canyon. We're hoping that the film will take us that deep inside Ralston's mind, too.

--Amy Kaufman


Photo: James Franco in "127 Hours." Credit: Chuck Zlotnick / Fox Searchlight.


Oscilloscope howls with James Franco

James Franco and his 'General Hospital' performance art project

James Franco carries on the Warholian marriage of celebrity and art -- and who else?

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Betsy Sharkey's film pick of the week: 'Get Low'

August 25, 2010 |  3:30 pm


"Get Low" is one of those fine character studies that is blessed with good characters and even better actors to bring them to life. Set in the hills of Tennessee during the '30s, it swirls around legendary recluse Felix Bush, played by Robert Duvall, who decides he wants to stage his own funeral in time to attend.

There is a very funny turn by Bill Murray as a sly shyster of a funeral director more than happy to take his money, with Lucas Black as his much better, much younger No. 2.

Sissy Spacek, in a performance that seems to catch her "Coal Miner’s Daughter" a few decades later, has lingering affections and a bitter grudge toward the old codger that she’s still working through. Watching Spacek and Duvall play off each other is enough of a treat on its own to put the movie on your to-do list.

But Felix, never the most popular person, is worried no one will show up, so there’s a lottery to make sure they do.

The filmmakers capture the raw beauty of the region and the raw culture it produced. In director Aaron Schneider's hands, it all makes for a blissful way to spend a few late summer hours -- a warmhearted story in the cold comfort of a theater’s deep freeze.

-- Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Sissy Spacek and Robert Duvall in "Get Low." Credit: Sam Emerson / Sony Pictures Classics


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