Wednesday quickie movie news briefs

* <Shock!> “Avatar” has crossed the finish line to become the biggest moneymaker in film history (not at all adjusted for inflation).

Avatar* <Shock!> Fox superhoncho Rupert Murdoch has confirmed there will be an “Avatar 2,” though it won’t be arriving terribly soon.  Just as predictable: his Fox News commentators and viewers will complain about its politics — assuming James Cameron doesn’t have any road to Damascus conversion to conservatism from someone like, say, “24” creator Joel Surnow.

* 3-D mania continues. Nikki Finke confirms that the final 2 Harry Potter films and, as previously mentioned everywhere, “Clash of the Titans,” will be released in the process as an assortment of less well known films. And that’s not all, how did I miss this story from a couple of weeks back? Highbrow 3-D porn…now that’s the future.

* Johnny Depp, who has not directed a movie since the 1997 obscurity, “The Brave,” is putting his helmer’s hat back on for a documentary on his friend and ultimate rock and roll wild man Keith Richard, writes the Playlist.  (H/t Christopher Campbell and Brian Prisco.)

* Nikki Finke has been on fire (metaphorically, I mean) the last 24 hours or so. La Finke has the scoop on the latest about the sale of MGM and the suspense over whether Leo the Lion will be roaring in an independent fashion in the fure. She also the muckrakey details of the departure of the now former head of the Motion Picture and Television fund earlier today and its relationship to the closure of an acute care hospital and elder care facilities.

* For his part, Finke’s new partner, Mike Fleming, covers the latest on the fascinating niggling info regarding which producers of Oscar Best Picture nominees are real enough producers to actually collect Oscars should their films win.

  

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Awards news: Director’s Guild and Sundance

There’s some sadness hanging over the American film world this morning due to the tragic and disturbing death of highly respected 39 year-old editor Karen Schmeer, best known for her work on Errol Morris projects as “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” “Mr. Death,” and “The Fog of War.” (Shawn Levy of The Oregonian has much about piece her shockingly random death in a crime-related automotive accident, her work, and her early start in the documentary film business.)

Nevertheless, the awards beat goes on and today, as Nikki Finke points out, we can chalk up a big victory for female directors as Kathryn Bigelow of “The Hurt Locker” defeated a boys club of directors that included such ultimate mega-males as Quentin Tarantino and her one-time husband, James Cameron.  Bigelow, of course, has been a noted director since her early features, 1982’s “The Loveless,” which introduced Willem Dafoe, and 1987’s ahead-of-its-time vampire drama, “Near Dark” attracted the attention of genre friendly critics. Her best known film, ironically enough, is probably the silly action flick, “Point Break,” which has emerged as a culty guilty pleasure after its 1991 release.

kathryn-bigelow1

“The Hurt Locker” is the first time Bigelow has been associated a project to get this kind of near-universal acclaim. It’s a major departure stylistically from her often slick and superficial past work, looking at an unexploded bomb team with the same kind of dispassionate intensity as “The French Connection” examined police work. This award definitely makes Bigelow the apparent favorite for the Best Director Oscar. It also doesn’t hurt it’s chances at the Best Picture award either.

“Hurt Locker” also swept the Producers Guild award earlier this week. Similar to the DGA, that award is widely seen as a harbinger for the “Best Picture” category, in which the producer is the one who actually receives the award. Still, as Dave Karger reminds us, the DGA doesn’t make the award inevitable. Also with the nominees this year doubled to ten and a more complex voting system for “Best Picture” that category, at least, remains open to any of the four or five most frequently nominated films in my opinion.

In other awards, “The Cove” got a boost in the nevertheless very hard-to-predict documentary Oscar category with an award for its director, Louie Psihoyos. I usually don’t cover TV, but it is worth a mention that the winner of the award for direction in a TV drama series was also won by a woman. Lesli Linka Glatter was awarded for her work on the action-packed “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency” episode of “Mad Men.” Not a bad choice.

Meanwhile, over in Park City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival presented its awards, which offer a fairly significant peak into what are likely to be some of the most acclaimed and potentially award-winning films of the next year or so. Young people with family ties to crime seemed to be a winning theme in the dramatic categories: “Winter’s Bone,” about a young girl in search of her crystal meth manufacturing father, won the U.S. Prize; the Australian crime drama “Animal Kingdom,” about a teen boy born into a crime family in 1980s Melbourne, took the international award.

The documentary award went to one of the festival’s most high profile entries, “Restrepo.” From two-first first-time directors, journalist/author Sebastian Junger (the book, The Perfect Storm) and documentary cinematographer Tim Hetherington. The film is follows a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan for a year. As the offical Sundance description has it, it depicts a “surreal combination of back breaking labor, deadly firefights, and camaraderie….”  Indiewire’s Eugene Hernandez has a complete rundown.

Battle Company

  

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“The Ugly Truth” is that no one will beat “Harry”

A slightly rushed Comic-Con box office preview….

This week sees the release of three movies with a certain degree of box office potential, middling-to-awful reviews, and little hope of outdoing the projected $31 million-floor for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” The most likely runner-up, says THR‘s Carl DiOrio, is “The Ugly Truth,” which got a facially challenged 08% “fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes. DiOrio says the tracking augers about $20 million worth for the R-rated comedy featuring beefcake Gerard Butler and beauty Katherine Heigl.

Guinea PigAlso hitting theaters is the 3-D CGI animated “G-Force,” a critically derided action-comedy focusing on what Jason Zingale terms “the goldfish of the rodent world.” This one, of course, has the benefit of family appeal, and 3-D doesn’t seem to be hurting movies these days. Variety is calling $20-30 million, and I personally wouldn’t be surprised to see either a photo finish or a minor upset here with “The Ugly Truth.”

Orphan” has aroused some minor controversy and outright disdain with its horror variation on the old “Bad Seed” storyline, but apparently its tracking (whatever that is, I’m still trying to figure) isn’t showing all that strongly. Ironically. This is actually by far the best reviewed of the three new releases, with a not-even-close-to-steller 50% “fresh” RT rating. Everything is relative.

Finally, a couple of smaller films are continuing to gradually grow wider as they show some promise of breaking through. Kathryn Bigelow’s highly acclaimed and buzz-heavy “The Hurt Locker” continues to roll on to what I’m guessing is a more than possible “Best Picture” nomination given the doubled number of slots this year. “(500) Days of Summer” is already experiencing what may be the start of a small critical backlash, which is seemingly inevitable with successful indie comedies. Given the track record of “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” etc., this is probably a good sign, commercially speaking.

  

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Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Nate Silver pegged the odds at 99% that Slumdog would win this, so hopefully you picked it in your pool.

Here’s David Medsker’s take in his Bullz-Eye.com review.

In the end, though, the magic of “Slumdog” is in the story, not the actors who play it out. Its moral seems to be twofold: follow your heart and the money will follow, and sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. As both a lucky dog and hopeless romantic, “Slumdog” is a huge, if odd, affirmation that I’m living a good life, and I’ll take that any day over, say, a period piece about missing children or abusive priests.

  

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Using statistics to predict the Oscars

Movie buffs love predicting Oscar winners, but stats guru Nate Silver decided to look at hard data and trends to come up with his own predictions. Political junkies are familiar with Silver, as his blog became one of the top resources for interpreting polls and predicting election results in the last cycle.

After spending most of 2008 predicting the success of political actors—also called politicians—it’s only natural that Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight.com) would turn his attention to the genuine article: the nominees in the major categories for the 81st Annual Academy Awards (Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. on ABC). Formally speaking, this required the use of statistical software and a process called logistic regression. Informally, it involved building a huge database of the past 30 years of Oscar history. Categories included genre, MPAA classification, the release date, opening-weekend box office (adjusted for inflation), and whether the film won any other awards. We also looked at whether being nominated in one category predicts success in another. For example, is someone more likely to win Best Actress if her film has also been nominated for Best Picture? (Yes!) But the greatest predictor (80 percent of what you need to know) is other awards earned that year, particularly from peers (the Directors Guild Awards, for instance, reliably foretells Best Picture). Genre matters a lot (the Academy has an aversion to comedy); MPAA and release date don’t at all. A film’s average user rating on IMDb (the Internet Movie Database) is sometimes a predictor of success; box grosses rarely are. And, as in Washington, politics matter, in ways foreseeable and not. Below, Silver’s results, including one upset we never would have anticipated.

Check out the article for his predictions. There aren’t many surprises, but it’s interesting to see the probability percentages he allocates to each category.

  

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