Red Carpet Chatter: Mike Nichols Gets His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

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Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.

Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”  “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.

That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001’s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.

Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)

Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.

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Weekend box office: “Shrek Forever After” #1 with diminishing returns; “MacGruber” explodes, but in the bad way

Shrek Forever AfterThe fourth and, I’m guessing, probably final theatrical bow for the soulful green troll with the Scottish accent grossed an estimated $71.25 million this weekend for Dreamworks and Paramount, according to the mighty Box Office Mojo chart. That’s a lot more than enough to make “Shrek Forever After” the top movie in the country this week, and a substantial take for any movie. It is, however, significantly below the $121.6 that the widely unloved last entry in the series earned on its opening weekend back in 2007 — without the benefit of inflated 3-D ticket prices.

It’s even further below the  numbers that were being bandied about by writers, if not, studios, earlier on. I mentioned last time that Carl DiOrio thought the film could hit $100 million, but failed to note the breakdown at the Numbers. It said that while “analysts” (whoever they may be) were suggesting a $90-$95 million opening, the studio was pimping a more modest $80 million while trying to diminish expectations. They should have diminished them a little bit more.

The week’s other major opener, “MacGruber,” proved my hunches to be at least as wrong as DiOrio’s. While steering clear to some extent of the $15-20 million guess at the Numbers, I doubted the single-digit numbers that DiOrio mentioned. As the singer of the obscure Difford and Tilbrook tune says, let’s face it, I’m wrong again. As it turns out, even DiOrio’s lowest figures weren’t low enough. The incompetent MacGyver-like bomb diffuser only earned a fairly pathetic $4.1 million in 2,551 theaters for the #6 spot. I think it’s safe to say that the poor reputation of SNL-derived films clearly preceded this one, which actually has garnered reviews that are a bit better than most other films in this long-running franchise.

Grim faced Ryan Phillipe, Will Forte, and Kristen Wiig face the b.o. music

Still, considering that most SNL sketches, even at their best, never seem to sustain until the end of the bit, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the movies derived from them have a hard time holding attention through feature-length running times. If “MacGruber” suffered from a bit of movie guilt-by-association, it’s just too bad for anyone who was hoping for a quick A-list status for the off-kilter Will Forte — a performer who I think would fit in really nicely in a David Lynch movie. (I mean that as a compliment, I think.) On the other hand, every time I check Rotten Tomatoes, even it’s now-meh-to-bad (once kind of okay and maybe even almost good) critical numbers keep dropping, with “Top Critics” being a bit more brutal.

The #2 and #3 spots, respectively, were held by “Iron Man 2” with an estimate of $26.6 million for Marvel and Paramount, and “Robin Hood” with $18.7 million estimated for long suffering Universal. Probably helped by weak competition, both movies managed to keep their weekly drop to just under 50%. Still, I think it’s safe to call the $200 million “Robin Hood” a disappointment that won’t do much for the careers of either Russell Crowe or Ridley Scott, not that they’re in any danger of obscurity just yet.

A paucity of movies for women of any age probably also helped grow some legs for the #4 cross-generational rom-com, “Letters to Juliet,” which dropped only by 32.8% and earned a solid $9.1 million for the probably fairly modestly budgeted film. That should help young Amanda Seyfried cement her growing credibility as a box office draw, at least for young-female-skewing films and even if her most challenging film role so far has been ignored. Of course, that lack of female-friendly major draws will change next week with the arrival of “Sex and the City 2.”

Jesse Eisenberg is probably okay for the JewsOn the limited release circuit, it was actually a pretty good weekend for Jesse Eisenberg and the talented young actor’s efforts to prove he’s something other than a Jewish knock-off of Michael Cera. His high-concept drama with mixed reviews, “Holy Rollers,” performed fairly strongly in its opening weekend on three screens with a solid per screen average of $13,003 from an audience that probably discussed after the film whether the drama about a drug-running Hasid was good or bad for the Jews. Doing even better was the all-star comedy, “Solitary Man,” top-lined by Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito (let’s not talk about how long it’s been since “Romancing the Stone” and ‘The War of the Roses”),” and also featuring mid twenty-something Eisenberg. On the strength of strong reviews and the cast, it managed an estimated $22,250 on four screens. As usual, Peter Knegt at Indiewire has the details.

  

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