Crime and punishment, Hollywood style

I’m going to defer this weekend’s box office preview for the morning because we have several fairly major breaking developments that probably shouldn’t wait. Guess who figures in the first item…

* In the case that director Marina Zenovich built in “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” — that the world-class director was both a criminal perpetrator and victim of legal malfeasance — one damning element was an interview with a former D.A. who was not supposed to have been involved in the case. As recounted by the L.A. Times’s Jack Leonard, David Wells said that he suggested to Judge Lawrence Rittenband that he could effectively sentence Polanski to jail time by ordering the accused director to undergo “diagnostic testing” in Chino State Prison, overruling the determination of a probation officer.

As described in the documentary this is, to say the least, outside the bounds of what is permitted in a situation like this. (In the context of the film it comes off as almost a petty vendetta.) Now, Wells claims that he lied. I’m not sure how to take that except that it’s never a good situation to be in when something you said may get you into trouble, and you suddenly claim that you were lying. At that point, you’re an admitted liar, the only question remaining is a matter of timing.

Roman Polanski, Douglas Dalton...and Neil Diamond?

At the same time, my own position on this case could be changing to the point where I may disagree with some of what I wrote in my review of the Zenovich film. I commend you to two extremely thoughtful posts on the matter: one by Anne Thompson (who also gets a huge h/t for this item) and the other by Karina Longworth. Karina’s take on the film was quite different from mine, but all of her points are at least valid and some may well be a lot more than that.

* A horrifying story I’d forgot all about reemerged today, as if to coincide with the Polanski matter. Roger Avary, who shared story credit and an Oscar with Quentin Tarantino on “Pulp Fiction,” co-wrote the screenplay for “Beowulf, and wrote and directed 1993’s “Killing Zoe” and the 2002 Bret Easton Ellis adaptation, “The Rules of Attraction” and also used to have a pretty lively blog, has been sentenced to a year in prison for gross vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated.

Although Avary previously argued he was not drunk at the time of the accident which killed one friend and severely injured another, his blood alcohol level was reportedly above the legal limit. (No stories I can find say by how much, though legally and morally, I’m not sure if it matters.) He was also reportedly driving over 100 miles per hour. I wouldn’t want to live with what he must have on his conscience. Use a designated driver, wait several hours, if need be, until you are completely sober, take a cab, drink at home, or don’t drink at all.

* On a vastly lighter note, Nikki Finke broke the news today that cinephile-bane Michael Bay will be back at the helm for “Transformers III” with a presumably chastened Megan Fox. In this case, the crime will be on the screen and the punishment will be endured by critics.

* Also another “toldja!” from the mighty Finke: Leo the MGM lion may be a shadow of his former, but he will live to roar another day.

  

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Disney, Diablo, and the King Kirby clan’s Spidey claim

Just  a few interesting items in recent movieworld news.

* Nikki Finke selects a possible future “toldja” candidate for the next Disney chairman. Toothy, bespectacled Rich Ross is not a name that’s likely to excite movie fans, as his background is pretty much Disney Channel material. Interesting comments on this one.

* Fresh on the heels of the bad box office of  the graphic comedy horror flick, “Jennifer’s Body,” “Juno” authoress Diablo Cody’s next outing will be a major dialing down of the “edgy” factor, as she will be adopting the Sweet Valley High book series for the movies. I had only heard of the television series until I saw this item, but according to the Heat Vision blog, a humongous 150 of the books were published between 1983 and 2003 and 60 million copies are in print. That’s not small and reminds me of a female-skewing variant on classic pulp series based on characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage.

Attaching Cody to this project strikes me as a canny move. Not only is she apparently a fan, but giving it to a writer with a known “edge” might broaden the appeal to cynics and, possibly, males. I’m far from Cody’s biggest fan, but I’m still a lot more likely to check out the movie than I would have been otherwise.

* Also courtesy of Heat Vision, the Jack Kirby estate law suit against the Disney owned Marvel continues to play out. The THR blog’s Borys Kits and Matthew Belloni say that they’ve seen some of the legal “termination notices” and that this might be a more sweeping suit that was thought. To me, the really interesting portion of this is that one of the notices was for Spiderman, a character Kirby never drew that’s usually credited largely to the eccentric and brilliant Steve Ditko. However…

According to several accounts, Kirby, with his Captain America co-creator Joe Simon, did create a character called the Silver Spider, whose alter ego was an orphaned boy living with two elderly people, and that character was morphed into Spider-Man. Other accounts have the Silver Spider becoming the Fly for another comic company.

It gets a lot broader than that, with the Kirby claiming some possession of several Spidey supporting characters, but that may be just so much legal jockeying. We’ll see.

  

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“Meatballs” satisfies family film hunger over tame movie weekend; “Jennifer’s Body” is lifeless

cloudy-with-a-chance-of-meatballs

A CGI-animated family comedy in 3-D performed very well at the box office this weekend and an R-rated horror-comedy tanked. Guess what will be seeing even more of and what we’ll be seeing even less of. Never mind the fact that one film people liked a lot, and the other film they didn’t care for so much. Can’t let a small factor like that affect our views of such matters.

Anyhow, to be very specific, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” didn’t quite hit the level of financial success predicted in the comments to our pre-weekend post by David Medsker, who also reviewed the film. Not that I’m in much position to lord it over Mr. Medsker, since I opined that “I wouldn’t be surprised to see this one go well over the $30 million mark.” Well, I wasn’t wrong if by “well over” you mean by a tenth of a million. The weekend estimate being reported by our usual suspects (Variety, THR/Reuters, Nikki Finke) is $30.1 million, which basically means the film hit the high end of the insider guessstimates, with a small cherry on top for Sony with it’s biggest animated hit yet.

Next in line is a bit of a pleasant surprise in terms of its second-place rank this weekend, not so much in terms of the amount of cash it actually generated. “The Informant!” managed an estimated take of $10.5 million. That can easily be framed as some kind of demerit on the career record of both star Matt Damon and writer-director Steven Soderbergh. For what it’s worth, the film’s critical reception, as expressed in its Rotten Tomatoes “fresh” rating, has improved considerably (from 67% to 74%) since I wrote this all up very early Friday morning, but Nikki Finke has reported a C- ranking from CinemaScore, so we probably have to chalk some of that up to the fact that Soderbergh is kind of a cinephile hometown favorite. He fails frequently with critics and film lovers as well as the public, but he does so by taking big risks, which we tend to see as highly honorable. To the public, however, an unsatisfying movie is just that, unsatisfying, and this one is seems to be appealing just to a particular niche.

Matt Damon in Nevertheless, an Oscar nomination for Damon — which Nikki Finke notwithstanding is still possible — might help the modestly budgeted fact-based comedy to make a decent profit over the long haul. At this point, however, this is Damon’s second least remunerative opening weekend. (The first was “The Good Shepherd” a dark, realistic spy film that bored even me — a fan of dark, realistic spy films.) I don’t know if there’s any significance to that whatsoever, since the film is obviously playing down the star’s usual areas of mass appeal and especially considering how many star-driven movies are disappointing the studios these days. Is it possible that after nearly a century of movies audiences are finally figuring out that actors don’t make up the stories as they go along and those writer and director people have more to do with a film’s quality? Nah.

Read the rest of this entry »

  

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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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Unclean! Unclean!

As if the whole Michael Jackson thing wasn’t already starting to make me feel vaguely icky in a Robert Altmanesque kind of a way, we have something that takes the Hollywood squirm factor to a possible new height. Via a particularly lively “Today in Film Bloggery” post by Christopher Campbell comes word of a New York Post report that Michael Bay is supposed to have admitted to have had “Transformers” star Megan Fox audition — or perhaps “audition”– by allowing him to tape her washing his Ferrari. (What, he couldn’t afford the handwash on Santa Monica and La Brea?)

Now, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical here, but I was already getting a good hate on the noxious and apparently proud-to-be-dickish director from stories like this. And, even before that, based on his work and press interviews, I steadfastly refuse to believe Bay’s claim (reportedly refuted by DNA testing, which Bay disputes) that he is the illegitimate son of director John Frankenheimer. The director of the best political thriller ever made, 1962’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” as well as numerous other films including “The Train” and “Ronin,” Frankenheimer was mightily skilled at combining character and thought with brilliantly coherent action sequences that could actually be understood. He was a model of integrity as a filmmaker and, as far as I can tell, as a man. Could Bay really have lost the genetic lottery so badly?

On a related note, Christopher Campbell’s previous film blog round-up deals with the controversy set-up by the trailer for Megan Fox’s next film, a horror comedy written by screenwriter Diablo Cody of “Juno” fame, one of the more celebrated and despised scribes to come around the film world in some time. The red band trailer below (a sexually specific F word, a bit of light gore, plenty of innuendo and plenty of Ms. Fox being much more sexy and interesting than I’ve seen here elsewhere) should give you some idea of what the shouting is about. All I know for sure is that I’ll think it’s a classic compared to “Transformers.”

  

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