Easter Weekend Box Office: Can “Heaven is for Real” transcend “Transcendence”?

Neither of the major openings this weekend has a prayer of catching “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” or “Rio 2.”

The bad reviews for Johnny Depp’s last film in which he does not play a pirate (merely a prediction) won’t help “Transcendence.” You have to squint extra hard to find real names on the critics’ “quotes” on the TV ads endorsing this stinker. Never a good sign.

Box Office Mojo still figures Depp doing sci-fi will pull in $20 million. I doubt it.

Box Office Guru makes the case that “After Earth” and “Oblivion” opened bigger than that, and based his $25 million prediction on those precedents. We’ll see. I think Depp, as much as I’ve enjoyed him over the years, is done. And he’s particularly bad in this part.

“Heaven is for Real” is the last of this Easter season’s faith-based films, and with the director of “Braveheart” and Greg Kinnear and a god supporting cast, this child’s view of the afterlife earned far better reviews than the dreadful “God’s Not Dead,” which will end up earning $50 million or so, when all is said and done.

The Guru figures “Heaven” could open at $16, which would be impressive. Box Office Mojo is thinking $15 million. Will the faithful embrace it? “Noah” made nearly $100 million despite being pounded by evangelicals and Fox News blondes. “God’s Not Dead” had a lot of church-based marketing behind it. Will “Heaven” get that sort of boost? 

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Next screening: “Belle”

A period piece about an illegitimate, mixed-raced beauty raised by her aristocratic uncle (Tom Wilkinson), “Belle” could be a breakthrough role for Gugu Mbatha-Raw, of English and South African ancestry. And in a posh period piece, no less. Matthew Goode, Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson also star in “Belle.”
It opens in early May.

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Movie Review: “Gabrielle”

ImageGabrielle is 22 and impulsive. But who isn’t, at that age?
She wears her heart on her sleeve and a grin on her face. She loves her bracelets, and she loves to sing.
Gabrielle has perfect pitch, “just like my father.” And when she sings in the choir she belongs to, The Muses, she loses herself in the music.
Because Gabrielle is in love — for the first time. And that’s where things get complicated.
“Gabrielle” is a French-Canadian romance about love in a Quebec group home. It’s a detailed character study about someone who has been mainstreamed into Canadian society, and her discovery of love as she strains at the limits her disability puts on her life and her world.
Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) is fairly independent and testy about what she thinks she can do “by myself.” She has an office job, a seemingly full social life, especially when Martin (Alexandre Landry) is around.
Her sister, Sophie (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) wonders if Gaby is “autonomous” enough to get her own place and be responsible for her own life. Sophie, a teacher, longs to join her beau teaching at a charity school in India. Gaby insists she’ll be fine on her own. She wants her own apartment. That’s what she equates with having a full life, and love.
And she cannot wait for her choir’s big show, in which they’ll join legendary Quebec pop singer Robert Charlebois on stage for one of his quirky love songs at a festival.
Marion-Rivard was born with Williams syndrome, a developmental disability characterized by an “elfin” appearance and a cheerful demeanor, as well as learning disabilities. It might have helped the film to have someone come out and explain that, at least about her character.
The people who supervise her and Martin and several others in their group home are frank about matters of sexuality and treat the curiosity she and Martin share as no bigger deal than this resident who has seizures or that one who doesn’t understand privacy. There are rules about that sort of thing, but “l’amour” is “l’amour,” they suggest.
Martin’s mother isn’t convinced. And with Sophie determined to give Gaby a chance to prove she can live on her own and Martin’s mom determined to keep the couple apart, we’re treated to some nervous moments as Gaby, who is also diabetic, stumbles head-on into her limitations.
Marion-Rivard has won honors in Canada for her performance, which is natural and unaffected. It’s not a “stunt” turn any more than Marlee Matlin’s Oscar-winning performance in “Children of a Lesser God.” She is an engaging personality, even if you can’t tell where the performance begins or ends.
But director Louise Archambault’s custom-built film for Gabrielle breaks no new ground in its depiction of people with disabilities. The singing is nice, the peripheral characters interesting. But a love that others don’t approve of, that may get in the way of a big concert debut? That makes “Gabrielle” a bit too Lifetime Original Movie for its own good.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality
Cast: Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Alexandre Landry, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin
Credits: Written and directed by Louise Archambault. An eOne release.
Running time: 1:43

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Weekend movies: Thumbs up on “Bears,” but “Heaven” isn’t for real and “Transcendence” is trashed”

No surprise that another of Disneynature’s engaging, kid-friendly documentaries has earned universal thumbs up from critics. “Bears” has really good photography, faintly cute (ok, cloying) narration by the ursine John C. Reilly, and no bear dies. What’s not to love? Or at least, in my case, like?

The critics — myself included – have been brutal to “Transcendence.” There are plenty of actors, like Kevin Spacey, who have a hard time playing “dumb.” A few, like Matt Damon and Cameron Diaz, are adept at both dumb and smart or at least cunning. Johnny Depp does dumb, and nothing about his performance here suggests “brilliant scientist.” No chemistry with his adoring “wife” (Rebecca Hall), a thriller lacking thrills or suspense. Paul Bettany acquits himself, but the rest? Not so much. Early fanboy raves for this only reveal why fanboys don’t make good critics.

“Heaven is for Real” earns some points for being so unlike the shrill, anti-intellectual screed “God’s Not Dead.” It won’t make nearly as much money, I predict, because shrill sells — when it comes to conservative, evangelical-aimed faith-based films. BEn Stein is still laughing all the way to the bank for the rubes who bought into his Creationist documentary, “Expelled.” But the sweet, embracing and childlike “Heaven” works well enough to earn meekly respectable reviews.

“Fading Gigolo” goes into release this weekend, and John Turturro scores points for giving Woody Allen his most Woody-like role in ages. Other than that? Pretty forgettable movie, a poor mishmash of genres, tones, etc. Still a passing grade on the Tomatometer, but aside from that.

And hey, “Under the Skin.” the weirdest spin on the “Starman” story of an alien (Scarlett Johansson) among us, opens wider this weekend. If you’re into sci-fi, this is what challenging science fiction looks and sounds like. Pretty good.

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Movie Review: “Transcendence” doesn’t transcend cliches

ImageFor years, the rumor about Johnny Depp was that he wouldn’t take a role that
required him to get a haircut. “Chocolat,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Once
Upon a Time in Mexico,” “Sleepy Hollow” — unchallenging, mop-topped
coincidences, or a career vanity?
With “Transcendence,” he’s got a part that requires a shaved head in some
scenes. And acting. He needs to suggest a brilliant scientist, the first to
crack “the singularity,” a very smart man transferring his mind to a machine and
thus achieving “Transcendence” — immortality.
Depp cuts it off, but he doesn’t pull it off.
This thoughtful but windy and winded sci-fi thriller shortchanges the science
– understandably — and the thrills. The directing debut of “Dark Knight”
cinematographer Wally Pfister is a mopey affair with indifferent performances,
heartless romance and dull action. It transcends nothing.
Depp is Dr. Will Caster, a mathematician, computer genius and artificial
intelligence theorist who, with the help of his brilliant wife Evelyn (Rebecca
Hall), is close to a computer that might “overcome the limits of biology.” It
will think.
That troubles his equally brilliant neuro-scientist/ethicist pal, Max (Paul
Bettany) who doesn’t give voice to fears of a machine that wants to jump from
tic-tac-toe to “Global Thermonuclear War,” SkyNET and HAL not opening the “pod
bay door.” But you know he’s thinking it.
And since this tale is told by Max in flashback, from a desolate,
off-the-electrical-grid San Francisco five years in the future, we figure Max
knows what he’s talking about.
Terrorists have decided that this project is a threat and try to blow it up
and kill Dr. Caster. They almost succeed, sentencing the not-so-mad scientist to
a lingering death. That gives his friends the chance to try and skip a few steps
in their research. They’ll load the electrical and chemical contents of his
brilliant mind — his thoughts, memories, ethics — into a vast machine and save
his life.

In a manner of speaking.
And since we’ve seen a San Francisco where keyboards are only useful as door
stops and cell phones are just so much worthless litter, we know this is where
the trouble starts.
Kate Mara suggests nothing fanatical, clever or fearsome as the leader of the
RIFT revolutionaries who tried to kill Caster and who then kidnap Max.
“What is it you want?”
“Just some clarity.”
Depp and Hall are supposed to have this “Ghost” level love, a romance of
death-defying longing that drives her actions to save him, in spite of Will’s
warnings to her.
“Don’t lose yourself in this.”
They don’t set off sparks.
Morgan Freeman shows up as a grandfatherly skeptic scientist, Cole Hauser as
a dull military man brought in to deal with the growing problem that happens
when Will’s insatiable brain gets on the Internet, manipulates Wall Street and
starts to plan a technological revolution.
The script suggests the miracles that bio-tech has in store for us —
repairing injuries and infirmities with nano-technology, 3D laser printers and
the like. The lame will walk and the blind will see.
But there will be a cost, well, a cost common to sci-fi stories about “the
singularity” and the unlimited power it promises.
Depp is a bland presence as a disembodied face on a computer screen. Hall
seems to wish she had a flesh and blood actor to emote to and Bettany spends far
too much of the time with Mara, who has never been worse in a movie.
As Max says, in his narration and elsewhere, this sort of dilemma seems
“inevitable” given the state of our wired-in world. But we knew that from “The
Terminator.” The trick is to transcend sci-fi tropes, get past bogey-man
“People fear what they don’t understand” and get into the experience of Will’s
existence across the digital divide.
“Transcendence” doesn’t.

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for
sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman
Credits: Directed by Wally Pfister, written by Jack Paglan. A Warner Brothers
Running time:1:59

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Movie Review: Striking photography and Disney cute work together in Disneynature’s “Bears”

Image“Bears” is exactly the sort of nature documentary we’ve come to expect from Disneynature, the film division of the company that rolls out a new nature documentary every year at Earth Day.
It’s gorgeous, intimate and beautifully photographed. And it’s cute and kid-friendly, with just enough jokes to balance the drama that comes from any film that flirts with how dangerous and unforgiving The Wild actually is.
Here, it’s Alaskan brown bears whom we follow as cute cubs through their first year of life. A mama bear and her two cubs endure a year of hunger, dangerous encounters with other bears, a wolf and a riptide as they trek from snowy mountains, where the cubs were born, down to the coast where salmon streams feed into the sea.
The mother, “Sky,” needs to fatten up on salmon to be able to survive and nurse her cubs Amber and Scout through their upcoming second winter. The cubs need to discover the world, and stay out of the way of omnivorous male bears and assorted other dangers. We’re told, right off the top, that only half of the cubs born each winter make it through their first year alive.
Uh oh.
More than once, “Bears” flirts with the grim realities of less sentimental films such as “The Last Lions” and Disney’s own “African Cats.” The adult bear fights are quite intense and frightening.
But John C. Reilly narrates this nature tale with a hint of whimsy, especially when the cubs get into mischief as, for instance, they try to learn how to dig up clams, and discover getting “clamped.”
“Leggo of my claw, clam!”
They’re craving salmon, but until the salmon run starts, the cubs have to get by on chewing grass.
“It’s like settling for a dirty salad!”
The cubs ride mamma’s back across freezing rivers, stick close when danger is near and roughhouse with each other and mother, forcing that involuntary “Awwww,” out of even the most jaded viewer.
The filmmakers get right underneath the fur to see the tiny cubs just after birth, and the extreme close-ups and very cinematic tracking shots take us into a pristine wilderness where survival is a matter of instinct, pluck and more than a little luck. It’s reassuring to see that there are still places as unspoiled as this, and that Disney is willing to pour some of its theme park and Marvel Studio millions back into documentaries that are more worthwhile than profitable.
So yeah, they’re cute. But forget that, and that there’s a whole TV channel devoted to this sort of film and use these Earth Day delights the way they were intended — as big screen rewards for the intrepid filmmakers who devote years at a time to making them and as a taste of nature most of us, especially the very young, will never be able to experience in the wild.
MPAA Rating: G
Cast: Narrated by John C. Reilly
Credits: Directed by Alistair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, written by Alastair Fothergill ad Adam Chapman. A Disneynature release.
Running time: 1:18

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Movie Review: “Heaven is for Real”

ImageImageGreg Kinnear, an actor perpetually on the verge of tears (he’s the “white Terrence Howard) is the perfect choice to play a preacher whose son tells him he’s been to heaven. And “Heaven is for Real,” based on a book by a Nebraska pastor about his then-four-year-old son’s near-death experience and account of a visit to heaven, is a sometimes touching and comforting account of this family’s story.
It’s a child’s tale, and the childlike faith of the kid (Connor Corum) who almost died of a burst appendix is underscored at every turn in this Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”) drama. Kinnear, as Todd Burpo, does his best to suggest a guy overwhelmed by the thought that the words he says every Sunday have a real-world relevance that his kid has witnessed, first hand.
What’s novel about “Heaven” is the weight the film gives to alternative explanations for Colton’s miraculous recovery (his dad’s congregation prays en masse, for him) and what he says he saw “up there” in the clouds, sitting on the lap of Jesus, with singing angels who giggle when he makes a request.
“Can we do ‘We Will Rock You”?
Is what little Colton’s saying merely “an echo” of the house and environment he grew up in? Is this his elaborate fairy tale recreation of the sort of heaven kids are taught in Sunday School? Or does he have too many details, too many descriptions of dead family members he’s never met for this to be not “for real”?
Pastor Todd buys in, somewhat reluctantly, the film suggests. Mom (Kelly Reilly from “Flight”) is a harder sell. The academic Dad visits dismisses him, or makes him feel dismissed. And his own congregation (Margo Martindale, Thomas Haden Church) has its doubts, too.
That’s a tricky turn that this film never quite makes. A story with assorted health, personal and financial crises facing this wholesome, small-town family, “Heaven” lacks real villains. Even the nosy reporter who questions the kid is compassionate. So when people turn on the preacher for obsessing over his kid’s story, it feels unnatural, half-hearted and abrupt. The debates have no weight to them.
The best faith-based films are embracing, and “Heaven is for Real” aims for that. It’s too slow, the plastic smiles of the little boy are kind of creepy (his sister-character reacts to him that way) and the literal representation of heaven feels comically childlike. Jesus looks just like Kenny Loggins, circa 1983.
But it can, on occasion, touch you. Reilly has a wrenching moment or two and Kinnear is as sincere as a recent convert in the lead role. His Todd Burpo is an informal, caring preacher in the modern mold, a guy who doesn’t wear a robe or a tie, but who sells his sermons with conviction.
“If He forgives anything, He forgives EVERYthing.”
This spring’s indie faith-based hit “God’s Not Dead” may have a similarly assertive/defiant title, but it lacks the tolerance and sensitivity of this movie, trafficking in angry, anti-intellectual caricatures of academics and journalists.
“Heaven is for Real” accentuates the positive, the simple faith ingrained in a kid who learns “Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Little Children of the World” fresh out of the cradle. Whatever the film’s other failings, it presents an incredible story with a credulous, approachable innocence that it to be envied, whether or not you believe a word of it.

MPAA Rating: PG thematic material including some medical situations
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Connor Corum, Margo Martindale
Credits: Directed by Randall Wallace, scripted by Chris Parker and Randall Wallace. A Sony/Tristar release.
Running time: 1:40

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Movie Review: Aged Woody and ageless Turturro look for laughs in “Fading Gigolo”

Image“Fading Gigolo” is John Turturro’s idea of an old school Woody Allen comedy,
so he wrote Allen into it.
It’s a sentimental farce that presents Turturro as a Brooklyn Jack of All
Trades whose pal (Allen) decides another trade this Jack, named Fioravante,
would be good at is pleasing women.
Allen is Murray, one of Fioravante’s several bosses, as the younger man has
to juggle several service sector jobs to make ends meet in what we call “the gig
Murray runs a rare book shop, and he’s about to give up the ghost.
“Only rare people buy rare books.”
But those rare people figure the grandfatherly Murray can help them find
something a little special — like a third for a planned menage a trois.
“Yeah, I know somebody. But it’ll cost you a thousand bucks!”
Mild-mannered Murray has to talk milder-mannered Fioravante into it. It helps
that Sharon Stone was the woman doing the soliciting.
“Is he clean?” the society trophy wife wants to know. “I’m a little crazed. I
just came from an AIDS benefit.”
And we’re off, with Sofia Vergara as the “trois” in that menage. Fioravante
tackles this new gig with sensitivity and compassion. That’s why Murray figures
there’s no harm in offering him to this lonely Orthodox rabbi’s widow he’s just
Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) is lonely, depressed and, Murray figures, in
desperate need of a man’s touch. But how do you “help” an Orthodox woman?</P>
“I don’t shake hands,” she says. Her culture doesn’t allow her to touch a
man. Her elders watch over her like a hawk. Her Bensonhurst community even has
its own NYPD sanctioned neighborhood watch, and one of those over-zealous
watchers (Liev Schreiber) watches Avigal with love, and a lot of suspicion. Even
passing off Fioravante as a masseuse with hands “that bring magic to the
lonely,” this is going to be tricky.
The ancient Allen gamely makes Murray a doting, baseball-playing father in an
interracial marriage full of kids he has to keep entertained. Thirty years ago,
he’d have made Murray’s “new pimp throws around the cash” scenes very “Broadway
Danny Rose” and funnier.
Bob Balaban is amusing as Murray’s trusted, kvetching lawyer, Vergara and
Stone set off comic sparks. But Turtorro winds up playing the sad straight man
in his own comedy. And he and Paradis play this too somber. Sex scenes are more
explicit than silly. The movie gropes around for a lighter touch.
Moments when the Orthodox religious police nab Murray for an Inquisition are
meant to play like farce, but the often scary Schreiber lends that an alarming
theocratic, fascist feel. Seriously, New York allows “religious police” to
enforce dogma?
But by then “Fading Gigolo” has mimicked its title and faded, a failure in
tone, a romantic comic juggling act where every dropped ball kills another
potential laugh in a movie that desperately needs them.

MPAA Rating: R for some sexual content, language and brief nudity
Cast: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara, Liev
Credits: Written and directed by John Turturro. A Millennium release. </P>
Running time: 1:31

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Turturro talks about writing for Woody, teasing tha Hassidic and playing a “Fading Gigolo”


of his many associations with Spike Lee — from “Do the Right Thing,” to “Clockers” to “He Got Game” — eight films stretching back to the ’80s.
Or maybe it’s the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” connection, his four films with The Coen Brothers, including “The Big Lebowsky” and “Miller’s Crossing.”
But he’s also done a couple of films with Woody Allen, and that’s what led to his latest — “Fading Gigolo.” Turturro not only stars in it, he turned the tables on his “Hannah and Her Sisters” director by writing and directing a film in which, as The Guardian newspaper noted, “Turturro has given Allen his biggest and best on-screen turn in years.”
“We’d always talked about doing something together,” Turturro, 57, says of Allen, 78. So Turturro cooked up a comedy about a Brooklyn Jack of all trades that he’d play, with Allen as his boss at a rare book shop who becomes, sort of by accident, the younger man’s pimp.
“Actors have to reinvent themselves a lot,” Turturro says. “And that’s a lot more common in the world at large, now. People have to change who they are to be viable, to make a living.
That is something that we wanted to get into the movie. Woody’s character is a guy whose business is out of date. My character is comfortable with women, so out of necessity, these two friends both re-invent themselves.”
Allen “gave me a lot of construction criticism and feedback as Turturro dug into what would be his fifth film as director. And with Allen on board, lining up a supporting cast became a breeze.
Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara play women who want to enjoy Turturro’s character’s company at the same time. French actress Vanessa Paradis plays the widow of a Hassidic rabbi who needs a man’s touch to lift her out of her mourning. Liev Schreiber is a fellow Orthodox Jew who longs to make the Paradis character part of his life. Bob Balaban’s a kvetching lawyer, Jill Scott plays Allen’s character’s wife.
“People will do you a favor when you’re an actor and you’re casting an indie film, sure,” Turturro says. “They knew Woody and I would be in it. Which helped. But if the material is good, they want to do the movie. Actors like being around other good people, too.”
Turturro knows New York well enough to make the city’s Hassidic subculture a major setting and component for the film. In “Fading Gigolo,” as Fioravante (Turturro) spends more time with the rabbi’s widow, Schreiber’s character uses his city sanctioned Orthodox citizen policeman status to harass and eventually kidnap Allen’s pimp for a comical Hassidic Inquisition.
The Italian-American Turturro has taken heat in the New York press more than once for his portrayals of Jewish characters (“Mo Better Blues”). Was he worried about crossing the line with the Orthodox Jewry of New York?
“I poke fun at everybody,” he says. “I think the film is very respectful of the Orthodox community. I did a lot of research on it to get a candid and fair depiction of that world. Nobody comes off as a buffoon.”
But he laughs when he remembers the ace up his sleeve.
“Besides, people in the Hassidic community, they don’t go to the movies!”
The film’s uneven blend of romantic longing and ribald sexuality, family farce (Allen’s mixed-race/vast age difference household has him teaching small black children how to play baseball) and wistful mourning is earning “Fading Gigolo” mixed reviews. “At times the movie’s a mess, but it goes to such special places that you don’t mind,” the Boston Globe noted in a typical notice.
But that’s fine with Turturro. He embraces the messiness of this world and the movie he made from it.
“Most movies don’t have a lot to do with life. I like making movies that do.”


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Box Office: Weak reviews, word of mouth tamp down “Rio 2″ — “Captain America” wins another weekend

Based on the great Friday night it had, “Rio 2″ appeared headed for a $43 million opening weekend at the box office, an established brand whose fans ignored poor reviews to give it a weekend win over blockbuster “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

But Friday night’s filmgoers apparently did what America’s critics could not. They warned their friends with kids that this wasn’t nearly as good as “Rio.” And with most reviews on such popular “buy my tickets ap” as Fandango being negative (i.e., MY review), expectations for the film fell. So Saturday’s take fell off.

It still earned $39 million, a huge return, but not enough to top the Captain. And it probably won’t do the business that “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” has done ($105 million and counting).

“Oculus” did an almost-respectable $12 million. Unfamiliar horror, not an established franchise, not that bloody, no horny teenagers, it’s just a ghost story. That doesn’t pull them in the way a “Cabin in the Woods” might.

“Draft Day” did a middling $9.7 million, and will not cover costs. A bad draft pick by Summit. Kevin Costner’s ability to open a movie is over. Hyped to death on sports events sports talk TV and sports talk radio, the NFL and ESPN couldn’t buy an audience for this clunker.

“God’s Not Dead” added a lot of theaters and lost a lot of box office. It will lose many of its screens, starting this weekend. “Heaven is For Real” would be lucky to do the $50 million or so the indie “Dead” will end up with, all in.

“The Raid 2″ opened somewhat wide and just bombed. Bombed.



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