Okay, now we can talk about the Oscars…

…Because the somewhat mysterious organization that mysteriously somehow sets the stage and begins the momentum for the awards season, the National Board of Review, has given its awards. Perhaps not so unexpectedly, the big winner appears to be “The Social Network” which earned awards for Best Picture, Best Director (David Fincher), Best Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin), and, most interestingly, earned a Best Actor nod for Jessie Eisenberg, making him suddenly something of a frontrunner for Best Actor, which is not to say that the award makes him some kind of a sure thing.

Jessie Eisenberg and I'm not sure who in

At 27, if Eisenberg does wins for his thoroughly on-target performance, he’ll be the youngest winner in that category yet, beating 29 year-old Adrien Brody for “The Pianist.” Still, he’ll likely be facing stiff competition from 50 year-old Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”), 70 something Robert Duvall (“Get Low“), 30 something co-host James Franco (“127 Hours“) and, perhaps, 60 something Jeff Bridges (“True Grit,” a bit less stiff since he won last year and Oscar likes to spread the love around).

The Best Actress prize was equally interesting. Lesley Manville won for her extraordinary work in the upcoming “Another Year.” I’ve seen (and will be reviewing here), the latest from Mike Leigh. There’s no doubt that Manville did an absolutely remarkable job but her supremely needy, depressed, alcoholic character is often irritating to the point of distraction, on purpose. It hits closer to home because I think most of have known or have actually been (hopefully temporarily) people very much like her. Still, sometimes people tend to blame actors for playing characters they dislike or are made uncomfortable by. Regardless, she’s been noticed. At the press day, I half-jokingly suggested to Ms. Manville that she should work on her American accent.

Jacki Weaver's back in Another heretofore far from world-famed actress who might consider studying up on U.S. dialects is Australian veteran performer Jacki Weaver. She was nominated for her magnetically squirm-inducing crime grandma in the effective thriller, “Animal Kingdom.” It’s the first time she’s been in a film to make a splash stateside since Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” back before Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco were yet born.

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Weekend box office: Demons take robbers (maybe, kind of) in a photo-finish (updated — results reversed)

To be perfectly honest, this whole business of the box office horse race is a bit silly. Box office is not a zero-sum game and is probably a bit more like horseshoes than hand grenades. The success of one film doesn’t necessarily take that much away from the success of another. In this weekend’s case, people who felt like seeing an attempt at a stylish robbers-‘n-cops thriller were edged out very slightly by people who wanted to see another scary mockumentary. This weekend, the results are close enough that the “actuals” may be different enough from the estimates to reverse the #1 and #2 positions.

TakersTo be specific, the horror tale, “The Last Exorcism,” earned an estimated $21.3 million for Lionsgate, while the crime thriller “Takers” netted an estimate of $21 million. Aside from being extremely close, it’s worthy of a huge asterisk. As per Box Office Mojo, “Exorcism” was in 668 more theaters while Screengems/Sony’s “Takers” had the week’s highest per-screen average ($9,519). The heist picture had a budget of $20 million, extremely modest by contemporary studio standards, which means that it’s very much on its way to profitability. However, like prior horror mock-docs, “Exorcism” is by far the profitability king this weekend with an announced budget of $1.8 million. That’s enormously tiny in Hollywood terms and makes this a big win for producer Eli Roth, first-time feature director Daniel Stamm, and the screenwriting team of Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, whose unpromising looking upcoming ‘net-driven horny-teenager flick, “The Virginity Hit” got a certain amount of bloggy attention a while back.

On the bad news side for “The Last Exorcism,” Nikki Finke has noted that the film received a “D” from Cinemascore. She decreed, in typically blunt Finkian fashion, “they hated it.” Well, that seems a fair enough assessment, except that it might not be that simple. The ending has been generating a certain amount of complaints even from critics, who have been mostly supportive of the film. Clearly horror fans and others who plunked down $10+ more, however, may be feeling cheated and we have reports of audible responses from audience.

A friend and I have been having for decades having to do with mostly good movies with bad endings versus mostly bad movies with good endings and which are “better.” Perhaps like the critics who were kind to “The Last Exorcism,” I believe the journey is more important than the destination but, of course, it’s the destination you often remember most easily. I wonder if any of those D-graders had second thoughts on the way home as their immediate anger lessened and they remembered the “good parts” on the way home.

[UPDATE: Yes, that difference was small enough to be reversed. According to Nikki Finke and Box Office Mojo, the “actuals” have reversed the order of the this week’s top 2l.  “Takers” took $20,512,304 and is now #1, while now #2 “The Last Exorcism” received $20,366,613. That’s a difference of just over $145,691.]

In other news, the week’s #3 film was ‘The Expendables” with $9.5 million estimated in its third week. That expanded 3D only reissue of “Avatar” I spent time discussing on Thursday night turned out not to be monkey wrench to anyone else’s success. It only managed to get into 12th place, earning a decent but definitely non-blockbuster $4 million in about a third as many theaters as a typical wide-release.

Finally, the indie/limited release beat is percolating along nicely with good news for the first half of a fact-based French 2-part gangster thriller “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” starring the memorable Vincent Cassel. Meanwhile, my mild obsession with the success of “Get Low,” which continues to thrive, is mellowed by the knowledge that it’s not likely to match the years #1 indie so far, “The Kids All Right.” As usual, the details are available as handled very nicely by Peter Knegt over at Indiewire.

Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in

  

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A press conference chat with Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek of “Get Low”

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In case you haven’t been paying attention to limited release movies aimed at an older audience, “Get Low” is one of the year’s real success stories. My pretty negative review, notwithstanding, I’m surprised but not upset that the movie is doing as well as it is, both commercially and critically. These days, it’s nice to see a movie with a coherent story, at least, doing well. As for its star, Robert Duvall, being an apparent lock for an Oscar nomination, I can hardly complain. This may not be even close to being his best performance, but it’s a very good one and he’s a national treasure at this point. That’s how these things work sometimes.

“Get Low” stars Duvall as Felix Bush, an irascible and sometimes frightening hermit who contracts with the mildly rapacious local mortician (Bill Murray) to stage his funeral while he’s still alive. Though Bush says the funeral is to hear what people think of him while he’s still alive, it’s clear something in his past is disturbing him. Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) is a former girlfriend who may hold the key to some of that.

Arriving right on time for the press conference, I saw that things weren’t quite ready and decided to grab a quick (and free) beverage. Looking over the soft drink selection in the hospitality area, however, I turned around and saw a serenely patient Sissy Spacek beaming at me and, before long, talking to me as if I were an actual human being while looking so good I was slightly stunned. As her assistant smoothly parried my lame request to turn on my digital recorder for a brief impromptu interview, she asked that I inform the public that she, at least, had showed up on time for the event. I was too charmed to do anything else but comply with the wishes of the luminous star of “Carrie” and “In the Bedroom.”

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Mr. Duvall, it turned out, was only a couple of minutes late and the event started before I could make a proper drink selection. It was immediately apparent that Spacek and Duvall get along quite well and enjoyed joshing each other in front of reporters. (They last appeared together in 2008’s “Four Christmases.”)

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Weekend box office: A crime caper, a demon (non) con, and some bulked up Na’vi head to the ‘plex

The good news is that it seems pretty clear that “Vampires Suck” will not be the #2 movie again this weekend. The not-quite-news is that, with the reign of “The Expendables” also almost certainly over, there is some real doubt about what will be #1 because of the special extended edition, all 3D, release of box office champion “Avatar” in over 800 theaters.

While Ben Fritz confesses to some actual confusion, jolly Carl DiOrio cautiously leans toward the heist thriller “Takers” to take the weekend with some amount in the “teen millions.” Although our own Will Harris found some things to like in a thoroughly mixed review, the thriller is being out-and-out bashed by many critics, with the consensus being that the film, which stars Chris Brown, potential A-lister Idris Elba, and “Avatar” leading-female-life-form Zoe Saldana (well, Will says she’s hardly there), is a tinsel-laden rehash or, as Cinemablend’s Josh Tyler puts it (via Rotten Tomatoes pull quote):

The logical result of watching Heat over and over and over until your brain burns out, and then wondering what it would look like if the whole thing were remade as a Smirnoff Vodka commercial.

Doing better critically is this week’s other new wide release, “The Last Exorcism.” Producer Eli Roth’s first foray away into PG-13 scares, the movie boasts a premise that actually threatens to justify one more shot at the increasingly large horror mock-documentary subgenre with a premise I know I’ve seen somewhere before in some form. It’s about an avowedly phony exorcist who opts to document his own con job only to find himself beset by…well, just guess. It’s a premise ripe for laughs and satire as well as scares and a majority of critics find this an auspicious debut for first time helmer Daniel Stamm.  There’s been some viral promotion for this film. Considering the style and the no-name cast, I’m sure the budget for this “Exorcism” was good and low and that’s nearly always a smart move, especially with an attempt at horror that’s more than just frightening.

One proviso, however. Most seem to agree that the ending is a let down. One thing about the most commercially successful entries in this genre, they might not have been great cinema in the usual sense, but they had wowser endings.

Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, and Lucas Black In the indie world, the year’s next candidate for break-out film turns out to be “Get Low,” which will almost no longer be a limited release as it expands onto 570 screens. Yes, I’m one of the very few writers not to be the least bit charmed by the film. So, what’s the voice of one-almost-lone movie critic versus a wave of good reviews and enormous, well-earned goodwill built up by three great stars like Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray? Don’t answer that.

  

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Weekend box office: “The Expendables” hold their ground, otherwise things pretty much “Suck”

Sylvester Stallone in I guess all Americans should all be grateful to the very patriotic Sylvester Stallone and company for “The Expendables” for being #1 at the U.S. box office, even with a not-terribly leggy performance of $16.5 million in week 2, a 53% drop. That’s because him and his studly posse turned out to be only standing between us and the spectacle of “Vampires Suck” being the #1 movie in the U.S. of A.

Yes, I know I never have, and probably never will, see more than a minute or two of the parody. However, a very tiny minority of films and filmmakers are so bad and so devoid of even the minimum level of dramatic/comedic acumen that a minute or two is really all you need to see and, from its titles to its sub-idiot-mentality trailer, this is one of those rare films, unless my cine-spider senses totally have failed me.

Yet, the PG-13 “Twilight Saga” spoof, so rated because, if you’re over 13, you should be too old to find anything in its trailer remotely funny, did far better than it surely deserved. It seems the Twi-hards really wanted a spoof movie to call their own, so many went and the film earned an estimated $12.2 million, just barely edging out the roughly $12 million second weekend of “Eat, Pray, Love.” Somebody really blew an opportunity a few years back to rush a quickie adaptation of the Harvard Lampoon’s legendary “Bored of the Rings.”

Overall, this  weekend should be familiar to we Democrats in that it was a real circular firing squad, with too many new movies competing for attention and, I suspect, sort of canceling each other out. Nobody really did that well though some did better than you might assume.

The so-called “urban demos” appeared to turn out for the comedy “Lottery Ticket” which netted an estimated $11.1 million. Not at all bad considering it’s thrifty $17 million budget.

Lottery Ticket

As for nerd male demos, “Piranha 3D” fell squarely into an amount I’m going to just go ahead and name the “geek zone” with an estimated $10 million despite the boost from 3D ticket prices. Despite lots of gore, I’m guessing the movie just didn’t seem scary enough for today’s trauma-loving hardcore horror fans and naked breasts are available in many venues these days. Even so, since that movie cost $24 million, extremely modest especially considering the amount of effects involved, I wouldn’t rule out an even lower budget “Piranha 4D” or something. That might have been a disappointing number, nevertheless, but it still managed to beat two films some analysts apparently expected to do significantly better, the family comedy “Nanny McPhee Returns” and the relationship comedy, “The Switch.”

I’m running short on time this week and there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on. So, I’ll simply refer you the source for my numbers this and most weeks, the mighty Box Office Mojo weekly chart. Also, on the arthouse side, there was good news for the outstanding documentary “The Tillman Story” and liked-by-everyone-but-me folk tale “Get Low,” among many other interesting tidbits. For that, as always, I refer you to Indiewire’s detailed coverage.

  

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