Thursday, September 30, 2010

Box Office Predictions: Weekend of 10/1

After taking a week off from writing the full-length version of this column due to a rigorous week of midterms at school--thank God that's over--I'm back and ready to offer up analysis and comparisons on this week's releases. However, it's unfortunate for my reputation that I didn't completely check out last Friday, instead still offering my customary prediction of what the top 10 would look like... which I totally flubbed, over-inflating the potential of all three major releases. It wasn't hard to see why they didn't do as well as I had guessed once I saw them, though -- talk about bad movies. Wall Street 2 was the best of the bunch, but even that was mediocre at best. You Again and Legend of the Guardians were painful to sit through, as if they had been left over from August.
This weekend, on the other hand, brings us two critically acclaimed films: Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher's take on the origin-story of Facebook, The Social Network, and Matt Reeves' update of the Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One in, Amerisimplified to just Let Me In. Even if they turn out to be box-office duds--unlikely in the case of the former--they at least promise to offer enriching moviegoing experiences. But if they're not your thing--meaning you're intellectually void--then there's always Case 39, a horror flick starring real-life couple Renee Zellweger and Bradley Cooper that has been sitting on the shelf for ages. Or some Nikki Reed movie called Chain Letter that's surprisingly opening on over 400 screens.
I think The Social Network will be huge. With the best reviews of any movie all year (it's currently 98%-fresh with an average rating of 9.4/10 on Rotten Tomatoes), a built-in audience of Facebook addicts, and a distributor that is seemingly invincible this year (Sony), it's hard to see the movie underperforming. The real question is: how high is its ceiling? Most predictions have it at around $25 million, which I think errs way conservative. In fact, I think there's a great comparison that performed much better than that, and it may surprise some: Superbad.
Even though their genres are different, both movies carry natural appeal for almost every 17-to-25-year-old male and are able to expand their potential audience widely due to critical praise and word-of-mouth. Sure, Superbad demanded more immediate viewing because people wanted to see it with an enthusiastic crowd on opening night, avoiding any potential of having the jokes spoiled for them, but The Social Network boasts a PG-13 rating to counterbalance this. There are lots of 13-16 year-olds who use Facebook and who are, I'm sure, interested in how it came to be, while many in this age-group were barred from Superbad due to its R-rating. Facebook user = potential viewer, as far as I'm concerned. We could definitely see The Social Network perform as well as the aforementioned Judd Apatow-produced comedy hit, repeating its opening of $33.1 million.
Let Me In is tougher to predict. While it is technically a horror film and features a vampire, the material doesn't easily fit inside the mold of either genre and, hence, it may have a hard time attracting their built-in audiences. Likewise, while the 2008 original has become relatively popular for a foreign film in America, many of its fans might not want to see this remake, calling it "too soon" or a "rip-off." Then there's the matter of the distributor (Overture), which isn't exactly a big name and has only secured 2,020 theaters. However, in fairness, they did release this year's zombie remake The Crazies with great success and, as is the case with this movie, no big stars. (Has Chloe Moretz ascended to Timothy Olyphant-level fame with the popularity of Hit Girl?) Also boding well for Let Me In is the fact that it has damn good reviews, which should mean equally good word-of-mouth.
Frankly, it's tough to find good comparisons for Let Me In because it's pretty unique. My best bet is last year's Orphan, which was similarly R-rated and more cerebral than the usual Friday night horror film. That WB release played in over 700 more theaters, however, so its $12.6m opening might be a little high. But maybe not by much, as I could see Let Me In's rumored artistic excellence boosting it to around $11.4 million.
Then there's Case 39, which is, yes, a Paramount Vantage title. (Who were they again?) I was going to comment that its best chance at success would be kids buying tickets for it as their way to sneak into Let Me In, but then I realized it's R-rated as well. What a dump job! With bad reviews and uninspired marketing, this probably would have been better off going straight to video. (Ironically, it is already available on DVD in Europe, from where I ordered the copy that I will be watching tonight.) So who will go see Case 39? Fans of "dumb" horror? Older women who like Renee Zellweger but don't know what the movie's about? Beats me. Sparing it the embarrassment of a sub-$2,000 per theater average, I'll predict the movie manages to rake in $4.6 million.
Then there's Chain Letter, which I hadn't even heard of until showtimes were posted for the week. Somehow, first-time micro-distributor New Films Cinema has secured 401 playdates for this Nikki Reed (Twilight, Thirteen) vehicle. Even better yet: it's another R-rated horror film! While New Films Cinema probably chose the date because it was the only time they could get so many screens, it wasn't exactly a smart first business decision. Will Reed's Twilight fans show up to save the movie from a PTA worse than The Black Waters of Echo's Pond's measly $555 earlier this year? Given most of them are probably underage and Chain Letter faces so much R-rated horror competition, I doubt it. I reckon it'll only manage about $215,000 for the whole weekend.

My prediction of what the full top 10 will look like:
1. The Social Network ... $33.1m ($11,945 PTA)
2. Let Me In ... $11.4m ($5,644 PTA)
3. The Town ... $10.1m ($3,441 PTA) -35.3%
4. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps ... $10.1m ($2,808 PTA) -46.9%
5. Legend of the Guardians ... $10.0m ($2,797 PTA) -37.9%
6. Easy A ... $6.4m ($2,152 PTA) -39.6%
7. You Again ... $4.7m ($1,845 PTA) -44.1%
8. Case 39 ... $4.6m ($2,081 PTA)
9. Devil ... $3.0m ($1,250 PTA) -54.6%
10. Alpha and Omega ... $2.6m ($1,129 PTA) -45.1%

(Note that Legend of the Guardians and You Again should come out a bit higher than their "real" grosses, as sneak preview revenue for Life As We Know it and Secretariat, respectively, will likely be applied to their tallies. Hollywood works in mysterious ways.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Box Office Predictions: Weekend of 9/24

The site is backed up this week and I view this column as the most expendable feature, so I'm just going to post my raw predictions without any analysis. But not before I brag about last weekend's predictions, which were pretty darn accurate, and would have been even more so had Exhibitor Relations' Saturday morning weekend projections held. Fear not, however -- I'll be back with the whole enchilada next week. For now...

My prediction of what the top 10 will look like:
1. Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps ... $26.8m ($7,518 PTA)
2. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole ... $20.5m ($5,734 PTA)
3. You Again ... $14.0m ($5,495 PTA)
4. The Town ... $12.4m ($4,298 PTA) -47.9%
5. Easy A ... $10.3m ($3,606 PTA) -41.9%
6. Alpha and Omega ... $5.5 ($2,095 PTA) -39.6%
7. Devil ... $4.8m ($1,708 PTA) -60.9%
8. Resident Evil: Afterlife ... $4.8m ($1,817 PTA) -52.0%
9. Takers ... $1.6m ($1,312 PTA) -47.1%
10. The American ... $1.3m ($989 PTA) -51.4%

I think Wall Street 2 will be pretty close to that number, with Gran Torino's $29.5m as its ultimate ceiling. Legend of the Guardians could very well surprise and do better than $20.5m, but it's a risky proposition with the Australian cast and the paradox of scary-but-kiddy owls. I'm giving You Again an edge on other prognosticators' predictions because I think Jamie Lee Curtis and Betty White are pretty big selling points for older women, meaning it'll have a slight uptick on similar pictures like lead Kristen Bell's When in Rome and Disney's previous adult-skewing family film Dan in Real Life. If my guesses hold, it'll be a pretty successful weekend on the whole... though WB will probably have a ways to go in paying for all those CGI creatures.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Box Office Predictions: Weekend of 9/17

Now that we're done with all that Resident Evil nonsense, we can get on with an actually interesting weekend. (That's not an excuse for my high-balled prediction last Thursday, just a general statement that the box office field was painfully uninteresting.) This weekend, the movie getting all the commercial buzz is Easy A, a potential breakout for both up-and-comer Emma Stone and for the seemingly invincible Sony. Easy A has great reviews, but its R-rated, adult-targeted competitor, Ben Affleck's The Town, is meanwhile sucking up all the critical buzz. Not screened for critics but also expected to do well is Devil, a PG-13 horror film produced by M. Night Shyamalan. And likely to tank and finish last among the openers is the 3D animated flick with the voices of Justin Long and Hayden Panettiere, Alpha and Omega.
While Easy A seems to be the consensus' choice for #1 this weekend, I'm going to venture out on a limb and say The Town will champion. With good reviews to bring in the 35+ crowd, a stellar ad campaign that appeals to young males, a cast of desirable men who women won't mind watching, and region-centric material that the East Coast (especially New England) will be drawn to, Warner Bros have got themselves the complete package. Yeah, it's R-rated, but all the teenyboppers were planning on going to Easy A or Devil anyway. And yes, Ben Affleck's first film, Gone Baby Gone, also set in a lower-class Boston neighborhood, only opened to $5.5m, but that was Oscar bait with a different release strategy and far more limited appeal.
The best box office comparisons for The Town are The Departed, Mystic River, and Fever Pitch (no, that isn't a misprint), all set in Boston. The first also opened in the early fall to a stellar $28.9m in 2006, $30.7m when adjusted for inflation. Of course, I don't think anyone's under the impression that The Town could pull those numbers, because Affleck, Jon Hamm, and Jeremy Renner aren't Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Leo DiCaprio as far as star power is concerned. Nor are they Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon, but Mystic River, which grossed over $90m total, is further proof that these adult-oriented, East Coast crime-dramas have immense appeal. (That Clint Eastwood film only opened to around $10m, but its release strategy was different and its theater count was much lower, meaning if one were to directly compare it, one would have to account for increased front-loading for The Town.) Lastly, Fever Pitch ($12.4m, $13.5m adjusted for inflation) is a good comparison because it represents a well-reviewed, broadly appealing movie within its genre, but also one that's region-specific to Boston. As was the case with that Red Sox fan love-story, sometimes such a focus on setting can be alienating to those in other parts of the countries. Also, I think Affleck/Hamm/Renner are more synonymous to Fallon/Barrymore in terms of draw. As a result, I think the ideal prediction is an average of The Departed and Fever Pitch, meaning The Town opens to an exceptional $22.1 million.
Similarly, I think Easy A's number is best predicted by averaging those of two similarpictures. Those saying the movie will break out are comparing it to Mean Girls, which pulled an incredibly strong $24.4m opening back in 2004, $27.5m adjusted for inflation. There are a lot of similarities, especially the great reviews. Because of all the favorable word-of-mouth, this is the type of movie that not only teen girls will want to see; their moms may want to take them as well. That expands the audience considerably. However, Lindsay Lohan was already an established draw when Mean Girls came out; Emma Stone is just now becoming one. So that could lose some potential viewers. More pessimistically, one could equate Easy A with She's The Man, which starred Amanda Bynes, who's also in the supporting cast here. While that film didn't have as good of reviews, it was similarly high-concept (a modern Shakespeare adaptation) and was more equatable to Easy A in terms of its commercial prospects. It opened to $10.7m back in 2006, $11.4m adjusted for inflation. Thus, it seems logical to average Mean Girls and She's the Man, which would give Easy A a terrific $19.5 million opening, extending Sony's box office streak.
How well Devil does seems largely dependent on which member of teenage couples is choosing the movie: the girl or the boy. If she gets to decide more times than not, then we could see a rise in the aforementioned Easy A number. But if traditional gender stereotypes prevail and the guy picks, then look out for this cheap horror film. It is the iffiest opening of the weekend in my book, but it definitely has the potential to do well if it grabs enough under-25s, who are sure to make up over 75% of its audience. (If anybody over 25 was considering seeing it, then they were probably turned off by executive producer M. Night Shyamalan's widely advertised attachment to the project.) Some obvious teen-horror comparisons are The Unborn ($19.8m last year) and When a Stranger Calls ($21.6m in 2006, $23.0m inflated). That'd be $21.4m if we played the averages game, but that's not going to work in this case because Easy A will surely take away some of the teens who would've gone to see this on another weekend. How much that'll hurt Devil is anybody's guess; I'm going to say it opens to $16 million.
Then there's Alpha and Omega, which has poor reviews and isn't on anybody's radar except maybe that of the parents of young children. It's distributed by Lionsgate, who doesn't have much of a history releasing kiddie flicks. A good comparison would be their 2007 foray into the genre, Happily N'Ever After, which opened to $6.6m ($6.8m inflated) with a similar theater count. Another would be Summit Entertainment's third-tier animated film Astro Boy, which did a similar $6.7m last year. That averages out, of course, to an opening of $6.75m, which works out nicely because, with an average admission price $6.75--figuring a lot of child tickets--it implies about 1 million tickets sold. The reason this needs to be calculated is Alpha and Omega is being shown in 3D at many theaters, meaning the impact of the surcharge needs to be factored in. I think about 55% of tickets will be 3D, a little less than this summer's Despicable Me. When one does the ensuing math, it suggests Alpha and Omega will open to about $8.1 million this weekend.
So there it is, a high-grossing four way battle. If the top three are able to pull the kinds of numbers I've predicted, then this will be one profitable September weekend.

My prediction of what the full top 10 will look like:
1. The Town ... $22.1m ($7,725 PTA)
2. Easy A ... $19.5m ($6,828 PTA)
3. Devil ... $16.0m ($5,694 PTA)
4. Resident Evil: Afterlife ... $9.4m ($2,929 PTA) -64.7%
5. Alpha and Omega ... $8.1m ($3,086 PTA)
6. The American ... $3.5m ($1,425 PTA) -38.3%
7. Takers ... $3.4m ($1,590 PTA) -40.0%
8. Going the Distance ... $2.1m ($1,046 PTA) -44.6%
9. The Other Guys ... $2.0m ($1,095 PTA) -40.3%
10. Inception ... $1.7m ($1,303 PTA) -39.3%

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Review: Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) - 1 1/2 Buckets

I feel like I should just copy and paste my review of any one of the other three Resident Evil movies because, folks, I know it’s shocking, but Afterlife represents more of the same. Franchise producer Paul W.S. Anderson may return to the director’s chair after being absent for two pictures, but the incoherent story, the abundance of clunky action, and the basic players are all still present. Basically, we get a video game adaptation that forgets the adapting part of the equation, the equivalent of watching two friends play the source material for 95 minutes without a controller of one’s own. Oh, and in case you weren’t already working up a headache, this time everything’s in 3D.

But I actually shouldn’t be so harsh. Unlike its immediate predecessor—which I only remember as being completely worthless because I paged back and saw I gave it a zero-bucket review—Afterlife is not agonizingly painful. There’s a pretty cool action sequence towards the end in which the characters escape zombies – probably the best thing Anderson has ever constructed as a filmmaker. That’s a whole 15 minutes of solid fun. Not to mention, Milla Jovovich and especially a brunette Ali Larter are hot as ever. (Yes, the world has ended and society has crumbled, but plenty of makeup and hair products are still readily available.) Given what I’ve been conditioned to expect from this franchise, I was more than happy for these small favors.

If the first three films failed to leave any kind of an imprint on your brain other than that they weren’t very good, then, like myself, you’re probably in the majority. This means that Resident Evil: Afterlife’s first 15 minutes won’t make a lick of sense to you, but then again, does anything else in the movie? The first sequence begins as Alice (Jovoich) raids the evil Umbrella Corporation with an army of clones, squaring off against bad guy Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), and ends with her jumping from an exploding helicopter after regaining her humanity from Wesker… or something like that. Then she jets a personal plane to Arcadia, Alaska, a supposed zombie-free refuge location she planned on escaping to with her compadres in the last movie. Turns out Arcadia isn’t much of a paradise; in fact, it’s uninhabited except for a disoriented Claire Redfield (Larter), one of said compadres.

So Alice does what common wisdom tells any survivor of the zombie apocalypse to do: head south. Amidst the rubble of downtown Los Angeles, she and the now lucid Claire spot a group of survivors taking shelter in a prison, a wealth of flesh-hungry zombies lurking outside the gates. These survivors inform the Alice that Arcadia is not a city, but a ship they can see in the distance. (This revelation is so corny I half expected them to tell her she actually got the wrong Arcadia, meaning the real zombie safe-haven is the suburb of L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley, not the one in Alaska.) With that, the movie’s thin plot comes to fruition. Once again, it’s time for our heroes to kick some zombie butt so they can reach a momentary oasis before the next sequel, in which they will inevitably do the same thing all over again.

Among the new team, the only interesting member is Chris (Wentworth Miller), who was found locked up in the prison. The others err on the side of caution and keep him in his cell, despite his claim that he was an Army soldier sent to release prisoners to fight the zombies, only to be mistaken for a guard and locked up by escapees. The menacing Miller ensures that Chris, who we later learn is Claire's brother, always makes for a captivating presence, even though he brings little of consequence to the story. But like I said when discussing the movie’s other pros, small favors seem huge when the movie is Resident Evil: Afterlife.

Deferring to my criticisms of the previous pictures on the rest, the only new part of the equation left to talk about is the 3D. It’s notable because the film was shot natively with an extra dimension on the Pace Fusion Camera, the piece of technology pioneered by Avatar. Like that visual milestone, this film might serve as a pretty cool Best Buy demo-real for 3D televisions, but it’s probably better as a 2D experience. The image is noticeably darker with the glasses on and the depth of field seems artificial. I’ve always been firmly in the anti-3D camp and Resident Evil: Afterlife does nothing to change my mind. In fact, I would argue the only time that the new 3D really works is the same one the old red-blue cellophane glasses kind did: when, as in the case of the recent Piranha 3D, the intention is to cheapen and cheese up the material. Resident Evil: Afterlife was already too cheap from the second it was green-lit. Like its predecessors, this is a movie only for carpel-tunnel afflicted gaming addicts whose weak hands don’t allow for all the seizure-inducing action they crave.

* * *

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010, USA). Produced by Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Don Carmody, Berndt Eichinger, Samuel Hadida, Victor Hadida, Robert Kulzer, and Martin Moszkowicz. Directed and written for the screen by Paul W.S. Anderson. Starring Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Kim Coates, Shawn Roberts, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Spencer Locke, Boris Kodjoe, and Wentworth Miller. Distributed by Screen Gems. Rated R, with a running time of 95 minutes.

Review: The American (2010) - 3 1/2 Buckets

Some movies present the audience with a central character so cryptic, the experience is made involving solely by working to decipher the person. Such is the case with The American, in which George Clooney plays a man whose profession requires he be so secretive, he can’t even be himself when he’s alone. Or has he literally become his profession—a black-market weapons maker? That’s the viewer’s decision to a make. This is a movie in which plot (of which there is little) is secondary; the real arc and its accompanying tension are created by the viewer figuring out what this man is thinking. Many will be surprised at how much of a relationship they form with him in the process, how much they begin to care for a man who is as cold as they come on the surface.

His real name is Jack, or is it? That doesn’t much matter because, for most of the movie, he goes by Edward, and you’ll think of him as Clooney. When the audience meets him in a wintery opening scene, he has been staying with a woman in a cabin in the Swedish countryside. That’s the extent of our knowledge, however, when hitmen attempt to kill him. Jack treats the event with such definiteness that it’s clearly a regular occurence for him, and he is able to make off after shooting them—and his fling—dead. From there, his boss Pavel (Johan Leysen) assigns him to a new city, in remote Italy. There, we learn his gig is to make custom firearms, tailored specially for specific hits. His client is Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who provides the specs and nothing else. Jack mostly follows protocol and keeps to himself as he assembles the gun, but he can’t avoid entanglements with the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), who realizes his cover as a photographer doesn’t add up, and a seductive prostitute (Violante Placido), who he begins to see off the clock. All the while, the Swedes are clearly still after him.

If quiet, artful movies aren’t your thing, than you best look the other way. But for those who are willing to invest in The American, the payoff is rewarding. While the movie may not deliver constant action, it’s a real white-knuckler, especially due to the overwhelming cloud of doom that enshrouds Jack as the plot progresses.

But before one becomes enveloped in the central character, one will notice the film’s other superior trait: its visual power. Directed by former still photographer Anton Corbijin, who also made the 2007 black-and-white beauty Control, and shot by his DP Martin Ruhe, The American would likely be just as transfixing without sound. The stark, beautifully composed shots are not only a treat for the eyes, they capture the mysterious protagonist’s underlying primal emotions. While Clooney and the screenplay flesh out the details, the widescreen cinematography may be the viewer’s greatest insight into what Jack is feeling on the most basic level, from assuredness to claustrophobia.

Speaking of Clooney: this is his best performance in some time. He’s an actor who has always been gifted at playing solitary, bottled-up characters—for a more mainstream example, just look at Ryan Bingham in last year’s Up in the Air—and Jack represents a blank canvas that gives him a lot of creative room to roam. This is an appropriately un-showy performance, mostly free of dialogue, so the mere fact that Clooney keeps the viewer invested in the character is a marker of his success. And, as is the case with any great acting of this nature, Clooney’s work is up for interpretation; just as a real-life person’s behavior could be viewer completely differently by separate onlookers, such is the case with Jack’s.

And don’t even get me started on Clooney’s co-star, Placido, who has a preordained future in American films for the simple fact that… well, you’ll know when you see them.

With such an engrossing, well-crafted character at the helm, it must have been tempting for director Corbijn to run wild with the movie. It could have easily kept up its high interest level for three hours. But instead, Corbijn remains incredibly measured, just as precise and masterful in his assembly of The American as Jack is in making firearms. It’s a raw filmmaking feat – a picture that strips down all the baggage usually associated with crime movies and makes a far more complex piece of work out of immaculately examined, often impenetrable human behavior.

* * *

The American (2010, USA). Produced by Anne Carey, George Clooney, Jill Green, Grant Heslov, Enzo Sisti, Moa Westeson, and Ann Wingate. Directed by Anton Corbijn. Written for the screen by Rowan Joffe, based on the novel by Martin Booth. Starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten, and Irina Björklund. Distributed by Focus Features. Rated R, with a running time of 105 minutes.