Movie news for a no longer new week

A few items of note…

* Back in 1939, Hollywood’s best-paid screenwriter, Preston Sturges, sold his screwball political satire, “The Great McGinty,” to Paramount for the grand sum of $10.00 on condition that he also be allowed to direct the movie. (I think he might have gotten a buck for the actual directing gig.) To this day, writers often take a pay cut for the privilege of becoming what Sturges used to call “a prince of the blood.”

Today, Mike Fleming reports that writer Dan Fogelman may be about to be paid in the neighborhood of $3 million to direct his first feature. “Imagine” is set to star Steve Carrell and will pair him with an older actor –presumably an aging superstar — who will be playing his extremely absentee rock musician dad who discovers a letter from John Lennon and decides to actually meet his now-middle-aged son for the first time.

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* My colleague Will Harris forwarded me a press release with some exciting news for serious movie fans and fans of serious movies. Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, still best known as the writer of “Taxi Driver,” but also a fascinating director in his own right with credits ranging from “American Gigolo” and “Cat People,” to “Mishima” and “Auto Focus” is poised to come back with “The Jesuit.” The deal for closed at the ongoing American Film Market, still underway in Santa Monica, and is set to star Willem Dafoe, Michelle Rodriguez, and Paz Vega. It’s a revenge film and, between that title and the Calvinist-raised Schrader’s well known inclinations from past films, you can hope for more than just a bit of spirituality meshing with the blood, guts, and sexuality. The Playlist has more.

* The Playlist also passes along the news that Christopher Doyle, an Australian-born cinematographer who made his name doing absolutely stunning work in Hong Kong for Wong Kai-Wai and others, is going to be making his first film in 3D. That should be interesting.

* From “True Blood” werewolf to Superman? Is it a Great Dane? Is it a lycanthrope? No, it’s Joe Manganiello.

* Hot on the heels of producing “Paranormal Activity 2” and wrapping “Area 51” the very shrewd Oren Peli is going back to the roots of American horror with a film loosely based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe.

* Screenwriter John August responds to a less than intelligent quote attributed to Jessica Alba.

* No, Ahmet Zappa and Michael Wilson aren’t writing “Tiki Room: The Movie” but an Polynesian tale that was inspired by the Tiki Room. I don’t care, as long as the birds sing words and the flowers croon.

  

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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.

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“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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A Na’vi, some singing rodents, and Sherlock Holmes walk into a movie theater…

…And never leave.

Well, that’s the scenario provided by jolly Carl DiOrio, the only box office prognosticator I have access to now that Variety has gone behind that pay wall. I certainly have little reason to doubt that Fox’s “Avatar” will experience a fourth weekend atop the box office pile, considering how the film has most definitely emerged as one of those rare demographic-spanning productions that becomes a self-perpetuating “must see” phenomenon. It’s already the tenth biggest domestic money-maker of all time at $380 million+ and I’m almost afraid to check the international numbers.

The last movie like this was “The Dark Knight,” which also ruled the roost four weekends running, but sometime tells me that the appeal of James Cameron’s movie might actually be wider over the long run in terms of attracting an older and less gender-specific audience. I could be easily be wrong about that but, considering how excellently the film has been holding up to now, even a relatively precipitous post-holiday drop still seems to promise another very hefty payday for Cameron’s epic spectacular.

Family appeal should never be underestimated at the movies. However, I have to admit that I’m a bit stymied by the degree of success of Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.” It’s just that I can’t imagine adults wanting to see it. Still, the movie came in third in a photofinish with Warners’ “Sherlock Holmes” last week (both made $35-36 million), and both movies apparently seem set for a similar repeat. Personally, though I wouldn’t be surprised if either film experienced a bigger than expected post-holiday drop. I found the opening hour of “Holmes” pretty dull stuff, despite a lot of running around and mucking about and it’s not like moviegoers don’t have some interesting options this weekend.

Indeed, unusually for the first post-holiday weekend of the New Year, we have two rather solid-looking entertainments on tap. Hopes are reasonably high for “Daybreakers,” to be a strong #4 for Lionsgate. It appears to be a clever, horror/sci-fi/action/satiric variation on an old Monty Python sketch, in which a world dominated by vampires  must deal with dwindling supply of delectably sanguinary humans. It’s an intriguing enough conceit to draw my attention despite the film probably having too much gore for my taste and having almost certainly way too much of leaden star Ethan Hawke for my preference. Still, a second billed Willem Dafoe can go a long way toward fixing that and critics are reasonably, though not ridiculously, positive, as in type O. Top critics are a leaning a hair negative, also as in type O, though it definitely has its fans.

Finally, there’s something about “Youth in Revolt” which, despite the fact that most people, including most critics, seems to like it well enough, makes people somewhat downplay its commercial possiblities — despite being part of the ever-popular genre once dubbed by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel as “the horny teenager movie.” The plot is also a variation on Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam” (a horny adult movie and stage play), which certainly worked well in its day and has more than little appeal to the nerd within all of us. Certainly, director Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl,” “Chuck and Buck”) has a low key comic style that may not spell blockbuster though being based on a popular series of novels won’t hurt, I suppose.

Another side of Cera In any case, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of Michael Cera‘s box office appeal even if he’s inevitably been the subject of something of a backlash from those who argue he’s a one-comic-trick pony, though playing a dual role as his dangerously roguish alter ego might help there. Also, Cera’s memorably named costar, Portia Doubleday, is generating her own interest. That can’t hurt. The Weinstein Company could certainly use a bit of commercial help, right now. DiOrio is calling for the film to just break double-digits, but I wouldn’t be surprised by a surprise, especially given the lack of youth-friendly films and actually funny comedies right now.

  

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Gore v. chills at the box office

I keep reading that the studios are reducing their outputs and that we’ll be seeing fewer new movies, but there’s sure no sign of it lately as we have another complicated week where, at least in theory, anything can happen. Still, the prognosticators agree that the latest entry in the first and longest running franchise in the sub-genre of torture-heavy horror, “Saw VI,” will likely win the week for Lionsgate.

On the other hand, there is also a consensus that the low-violence yet entirely potent chills of “Paranormal Activity” will be cutting into the Saw-bucks some also. Obviously, there is some audience crossover but, just as obviously, the most jaded gore hounds may find it beyond tame. I’ve already noted online the start of an inevitable backlash. I doubt this reaction will have the same angry potency that afflicted “The Blair Witch Project” so many moons ago. In that case, Lionsgate’s attempt to persuade less-savvy audiences that it might actually be real probably backfired later on, as did the over-hype of some of the early write-ups.

This time, Paramount has been more cleverly circumspect than the “Blair Witch” marketers, simply making the case that the modest video-movie can really scare the bejesus out of an audience. I’m here to tell you it can, even though I feel sure that not a single person I saw it with was under any delusion that what we were watching was not staged. Still, you see the violence-loving fanboys complaining at certain sites. I mean, how can a movie be scary if it lets you imagine the worst of it? How is that ever going to work?

It’s probably pretty obvious by now, especially from my post just before this one, that I prefer the “Paranormal” approach and will be rooting for it but, despite the still growing excitement around the movie, it’s the definite underdog as “Saw VI” will be opening in 3,036 theaters, while it’s competitor will be expanding to a mere 1,900. However, the outstanding per-screen averages that the film has been nailing could compensate if some horror audiences find the prospect of yet another ultra-brutality fest less than ultra-appealing.

Though it’s yet another family-friendly CGI animated film, this one based on a property at least some of us remember from our childhoods, hopes are not all that astronomically high for the next film. Summit’s “Astro Boy” is based on the best known creation of Japan’s “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, who basically invented both manga and anime as we now know them and who created some of the best comic books for adults that I’ve ever read. Of course, you’d never know from the horrendously lame gag at the end of the trailer or the often ugly CGI animation that ruins the beautiful 2-D (black and white, too!) of the early Tezuka cartoons as scene in the trailer. This appears to be another case of a studio adapting a property and missing what made the original work.

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And in other movieland news….

* MGM is looking more solvent than before, with the help of its significant library. La Finke toldja.

* Willem Dafoe has been cast as sympathetic Martian Tars Tarkas in Andrew Stanton’s upcoming “John Carter of Mars.” It’s been a very long time since I read the books, but the character description reminds me of his “Platoon” character, just a little.

* Where does an actor for whom the ladies swoon go in the masculinity department after playing the hirsuite badass Wolverine and the heroic Gable-esque lead in “Australia“? Well, if you’re movie star/Oscar host Hugh Jackman, you play an Avon cosmetics sales person. I had an aunt who did that; I got aftershave for my tenth birthday.

* After the news of Harry Potter’s big haul (see the post just below), we’ll be seeing more like this, I’m sure.

* Not coincidentally, the blogger-boy cause celebre del dia boils down to a Hogwartsian architectural design and a suspiciously Potter-esque font, and basic concept, in the trailer for something called “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.” My reaction: Chris Columbus is directing, so I’m not sure why anyone even cares. See for yourself…

  

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