The Scream Awards go down the rabbit hole (updated)

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There was a time in this world when young people were frequently slightly ashamed of being bigger than average fans of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and especially comic books. I, personally, wasn’t embarrassed …and I paid a price. Those days may be over. In any case, the capacity crowd that showed up for Spike TV’s Scream awards, largely in costume and largely dramatically over- or under-dressed for a nighttime outdoor show after a very warm day, seemed more like club kids and less like the kind of uber geeks who become entertainment bloggers and film critics and stuff like that.

The Scream Awards are, in their fun/silly way, a big deal. Big enough to attract a good number of stars and even a few superstars like Tobey Maguire, Jessica Alba, Morgan Freeman, Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp and his living legend “Pirates of the Caribbean” muse, Rolling Stone Keith Richard.

I, however, am not such a big deal and was reminded of that fact when, prior to the show I found myself with the less fashionable members of the not-quite paparazzi on the “red carpet” (actually a checkered walkway) with my little digital camera and even smaller digital recorder device, wondering whether I’d really get a chance to ask a question of one of the super-famed folks, knowing that the only question I could think of at the time would be something in the nature of “What’s it like be the most notorious rock and roll star in the world, having your blood changed, and snorting your late father’s ashes?” That probably would have been inappropriate, especially if I asked it of Jessica Alba.

What actually seems to happen at events like this is that, if you’re a small-timer especially, most of the big stars either go through another entrance or walk right by you at warp speed. Meanwhile, folks who are a bit more anxious to meet the press find their way to you with the help of PR types. As an example, for about half a second, I was almost able to talk with actor Karl Urban, who did such a great job homaging DeForest Kelly while putting his own hilarious stamp on “Bones” McCoy in “Star Trek.” However, within a nanosecond he remembered he was in a big hurry and politely scurried off.

After a few odd reality show people I didn’t recognize, and the pretty young actress who assays the part of “Female Addict” in “Saw VI,” our first actual notable was statuesque model turned actress Tricia Helfer. Helfer is, make no mistake, a true superstar to TV sci-fi fans and is best known as Number Six, aka “the hot blonde cylon” on “Battlestar Galactica.” The actress appeared with her significant other, the owner of a British accent and a Giaus Baltar-style beard, but I’m sure that’s a total coincidence. I had a not terribly consequential discussion with her — lost because I apparently forgot to press the “on” button on my digital recorder. One would expect no less an effect from Number Six. UPDATE: Yeesh! As pointed out by my PH compatriot John Paulsen, the actress was actually Kate Vernon, who played the lady-MacBeth-like Ellen Tigh. It is true, all statueseque blonde women in shiny dresses look alike to me! My apologies to all concerned or unconcerned.

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Food to defeat flesh at the box office

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

It’s going to be a messy weekend at multiplexes this weekend. Raining food items in 3-D are likely to rule the weekend against a sex-heavy horror comedy with a literally man-eating lead, a food-industry investigation gone badly awry, and the semi-obligatory poorly reviewed rom-com and/or rom-drom.

Redefining the term “splatter” for an all-ages audience is “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.” The Sony-made entry looks to combine the proven appeal of family-friendly animated comedies, 3-D (and 3-D Imax), and adaptations of popular books to make what THR‘s Carl DiOrio guesses will be roughly $25-30 million. Add to that the film’s fairly stellar critical appeal, with most critics echoing the sunny assessment of our own David Medsker with an 89% Rotten Tomatoes “Fresh” rating, and you get a feature with extremely wide appeal. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one go well over the $30 million mark. (I should add, however, that the “Top Critics” rating is a considerably more modest, but still good, 71% as of this writing. However, with only seven reviews included, that seems like a less a fair sampling.)

Likely to come in a distant second is the R-rated, youth oriented sexy horror comedy from Fox, “Jennifer’s Body.” Variety doesn’t hazard a guess this week, but THR/DiOrio is saying to expect a gross in the “low-teen millions” and that seems reasonable. Though for whatever sick reason audiences have been turning up their noses even at very strong horror films inflected with humor like “Drag Me to Hell,” this film benefits from the current”Transformers”-based star power of flavor of the month Megan Fox. Directed by Karyn Kusama and written by the ballyhoed Diablo Cody, this mixture of blood, sex, and quips is generating little “Juno“-based critical afterglow and some anti-Cody backlash with a mere 33% “fresh” rating. That’s not so surprising given that a lot of critics already had mixed feelings about former exotic dancer’s sometimes cutesy dialogue in last year’s sleeper hit. Given the cussedness of young audiences lately, I wouldn’t be surprised if this would be the film to overcome the horror-comedy jinx and over-perform by a few million this weekend. I think the youngsters enjoy driving critics mad.

Matt Damon in
And then we have this week’s token major release for discerning grown-ups, “The Informant!“.  A fact-based comedy about a borderline delusional executive who threw a huge monkey wrench into an FBI price-fixing investigation of food giant Archer Daniels Midland, it’s the latest from the very prolific Steven Soderbergh. In the past, the onetime “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” wunderkind has had success with fact based material with the unassuming 2000 box office hit, “Erin Brockovich.” This film is similarly star-driven, though it remains to be seen if a pudged-up Matt Damon wearing a doofy mustache will have the same appeal as Julia Roberts in a push-up bra.

With an okay 67% RT rating, the critical chorus here is marked by notes of disharmony. Sometimes that’s actually the sign of a truly interesting movie, but rarely is it the mark of an instant hit, though the hope is still for a double-digit millions opening weekend and some “legs.” Damon is getting very good reviews for his lead performance, so a Best Actor Oscar nomination is definitely not out of the question, which could help this movie get some kind of second life if it does disappoint this weekend.

Bringing up the rear is “Love Happens,” which has one of those titles that pretty much dares critics to come up with clever and, in this case, potentially scatological, insults. I didn’t see anyone actually take the bait this time, though the film did receive a not unfecal 20% RT rating. Also, there seems to be some genuine disagreement about whether or not this film is really a comedy or more of a soapy drama, which is usually not a good sign. The appeal of Aaron Eckhardt — still an underrated actor — and Jennifer Aniston, not my choice for the actress of her generation, can only do so much. Fortunately for the producers, the film had a low enough budget that even a single digit opening weekend can mean they’ll eventually recoup their money and perhaps make a profit. Maybe.

Finally, as Oscar season approaches, we’re starting to see more limited releases of interest. This one to watch this week is the new film from writer-director Jane Campion of “The Piano.” Featuring Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, “Bright Star” is a well-reviewed romantic period drama/biopic about poet John Keats and the literal girl next door. Not that it’s a huge category, but I’m betting this will be the big date movie for English majors of 2009. All that, and no naked Harvey Keitel. Yay.

  

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News from the sleepy town of H-wood

Nothing too exciting to report today, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to report.

* Dreamworks and, presumably, Steven Spielberg are “eying” one last project based on a book by the late Michael Crichton, to be written by David Koepp. Much as I admire Spielberg, this particular triumvirate has never done much to get me excited as a filmgoer, and yes, that includes the original “Jurassic Park.” Still, this time the topic is a non-fantasy pirate story, so who knows.

* Some movies to TV news, the cult teen black comedy, “Heathers,” is being adapted for TV, which I guess makes sense in the era of “Gossip Girl.” Also, Sam Raimi, still a major movie player courtesy of “Spiderman” and what not but also licking his wounds from the utterly unfair box office failure of “Drag Me to Hell,” is making a new tubular type deal.

Christina Hendricks on * Christina Hendricks, on the other hand, is going from TV to movies. Ms. Hendricks is a first rate actress currently making hearts go pitty-pat as the multifaceted Joan on “Mad Men.” She previously contributed a couple of tour-de-force guest spots on a show that was just about as outstanding in its own way, “Firefly.” Yes, I’m a big fan. And, sure, her movie gig is only a “best friend” kind of thing, but you gotta start someplace.

  

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Break out the Bloody Marys, “The Hangover” Lingers at #1

As I was too chicken to more than implicitly predict last time, “The Hangover” held on to its #1 spot with a cool $33.4 million. Variety reminds us that this is only a 26% drop, very rare in today’s opening-weekend-centric turn-’em-and-burn-’em movie world. The star-free ensemble farce is clearly benefiting from excellent word of mouth so that folks who might ordinarily avoid an R-rated comedy about a Vegas bachelor party gone off the rails are being attracted. Good work.

Also Pixar/Disney did fabulously with its unbeatable, yet rare, principle that if you work really hard and imaginatively to provide quality family entertainment with a heart and soul as well as a bit of show-biz razzle-dazzle, people will actually show — you should pardon the express — “Up.” The CGI 3-D animation-fest with a cranky elderly protagonist that no sane executive would ever have greenlit were it not for Pixar’s unprecedented track record, earned $30.5 million and dropped a low 31%.

Denzel Washington, Meanwhile, in star-driven product land, “The Taking of Pelham 123” met the rather modest expectations for a lavish, all-star, action-remake and hit $25 million, while the Eddie Murphy family flick, “Imagine That,” netted a sad $5.7 million for the #6 spot on its opening weekend at over 3000 screens.

Now, I want to add that, while trashing movies I haven’t personally seen is against my religion (for all I know, I’ll end up sorta liking Tony Scott’s “Pelham” — stranger things have happened, I’m the guy who liked “Domino”), even more against my religion is trashing the concept of remakes, though on the whole they tend to be less good than earlier successful versions.  True, it doesn’t exactly scream “originality” to take on a property that’s been previously successful, but no one says, “Oh God, not another remake of ‘Romeo and Juliet.'” There is absolutely nothing wrong with restaging an old concept, as long as you have something of your own to say with that property and are not simply going with something that looks likes a safe bet in a business where safe bets don’t exist. Lack of “originality” is not the problem; abject creative cowardice is.

Movie remakes go back to Hollywood’s youth. Probably my single favorite little-known Hollywood factoid is that the 1941 “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston was actually the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s great detective novel made over a period of about ten years. I also happen to think that Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is arguably even better than the rather great original version directed by Don Siegel in 1956. And, moving to TV land for just a second, is there any human being on the planet who thinks the recently concluded “Battlestar Gallactica” (don’t tell me how it ends!) isn’t a million times better than the unbelievably awful original? As Roger Ebert likes to say, movies are not what they are about but how they are about it. If you have something fresh to say by revisiting an old story, by all means say it, just make sure you’re not kidding yourself.

Anyhow, returning to this weekend’s b.o., what I think harmed both “Pelham” and “Imagine That” was that, as far as was visible from either the marketing or the response to it, these were movies that offered not one thing fresh or exciting or in any way of a great deal of interest other than the services of its stars. That’s good for something — big stars are the closest thing on the planet to a certain level of guarantee of public interest and sometimes that’s all you really need. But if you really want to hit it big, you’ve got to gamble a little bit that the audience is more interested in being genuinely entertained than lulled by the presence of name entertainment brands.

On the other hand, “Terminator Salvation,” which nobody seems to like too much, is actually doing very well abroad and the very honestly entertaining “Drag Me to Hell” isn’t exactly burning up the U.S. box office. So, who knows?

  

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“The Hangover” Needs No Box Office Cure (Updated)

The first sign I received was an e-mail from a friend (more of a civilian than a ravening cinephile like yours truly) raving about the “The Hangover.” After a response from me that I’d already written that the picture seemed like a possible sleeper, he mentioned that he saw it with a healthy sized crowd for a relatively early show, but by the time he exited at about 8:30 or so, the theater staff at the Northern California multiplex was announcing the comedy was sold out for the entire night.

Then, going on my morning blog/pub patrol, I found that Nikki Finke and THR (and I’m sure Variety too, but do you really need a third source for the same info?) are abuzz with reports that the modest, R-rated comedy earned a cool $16.5 million yesterday. It defeated not only “Land of the Lost,” which unsurprisingly ran a mediocre-at-best third in the wake of a lot of negative buzz, but far more surprisingly, the beloved (but perhaps a bit family friendly for a Friday night) “Up.” And it did it with a starless cast of actors, who would ordinarily be in supporting roles in a film like this.

Once upon a time, my friends, even the big studios occasionally lowered their financial risk for slightly off-kilter projects by populating them with relative unknowns. Major ensemble-comedy releases like “American Graffitti,” “M*A*S*H,” or “Animal House” could make superstars, rather than simply relying on already huge names to fill every seat on the very first night. Of course, this was back when movies initially opened in a small number of theaters in large cities, with gradually expanding releases that allowed time for word of mouth to spread. The meant that not every film was expected to be as pre-sold as a Big Mac.

It’s still possible that “Up” will stage a comeback with families hitting the screens today and tomorrow, but “The Hangover” is now a verifiable sleeper hit and concerns that the appearance of Mike Tyson might backfire because of his recent extremely sad family tragedy seem to be more or less baseless. (Eternal interest in gossip notwithstanding, maybe the general audience is a bit less emotionally wrapped up in the personal lives of celebrities than you’d think.)

It’s nice to see that, even in today’s truly hostile and originality-killing marketplace, Pixar isn’t the only place where filmmakers make a star-free killing by simply entertaining an audience. (And folks, if you can’t get in to see “The Hangover” tonight, consider another film that’s a bit of a throwback to a less calculating Hollywood, “Drag Me to Hell.”)

UPDATE: I forgot to add that my friend also mentioned something I’d somehow missed — that the early reaction to “The Hangover” was so strong that Warners was already publicly discussing a sequel even before the release of the film. I think it’s safe to say that there are some very happy agents in Hollywood right now. One thing is certain, “The Hangover II” will be more expensive than the first.

  

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