Memorial Day Box Office is a real horse race: “Tomorrowland,””Pitch Perfect” and “Mad Max” in dead heat

boxThe three top films at the box office this Memorial Day weekend are separated by just a few tickets, based on Friday night’s numbers. “Mad Max,””Pitch Perfect 2″ and newcomer “Tomorrowland” are all looking like 3 day weekend winners in the $33-35 million range, four day takes around $40 million.

Good news for “Tomorrowland” and Disney, which is riding weak reviews and a half-hearted promotional push by George Clooney. “Mad Max” is holding much more of its audience than “Pitch,” which added theaters and is still losing 50% of its opening weekend take.

“Poltergeist,” the limp remake, is doing a spectacular $25 million+ on its opening weekend — very good for a horror film. Established brand and all that.

“Paul Blart 2″ is still in the top ten, which points to our decline as a nation louder than anything I can think of.

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Movie Review: Not much fright in this “Poltergeist”

polt
Well, the little girl gets it.
Kennedi Clements plays Maddy Bowen, the child trapped between the real world and the afterlife in the new version of “Poltergeist,” gives us wild-eyed terror that we can hang onto and a blood-curdling scream that will haunt your nightmares.
The rest of the players? They sort of shrug it off. Sam Rockwell, as the father of the missing child, lands his laughs. But he, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jane Adams (as a paranormal academic) and others under-react to the stunning evidence of a supernatural menace in a way one can only describe as blase.
Were they unimpressed with the effects, to be added in later? Or perhaps they’re as over-familiar with this story as the rest of us; a subdivision, built over a graveyard, a house in which pro-active ghosts — poltergeists — talk to a child through a static-ridden TV, and snatch her through her closet.
The 1982 Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg film is an oft-telecast classic. But generations have been exposed to the plot, and its loopiness, thanks to reruns of “The Simpsons.” Hard to get too worked up about a “Treehouse of Horror” tale.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s script is full of “We can’t go to the cops” excuses designed to explain why the family whose little girl vanishes in the middle of a thunderstorm. The assault on the family, limited to the kids, comes all at once — after fraidy-cat middle kid (Kyle Catlett) has seen plenty of evidence that the place is spooked. And the spooks themselves are not suggested, but revealed fully, lessening the fear even further.
A nearby college conveniently has a “Paranormal Studies” department, but obvious foreshadowing tells us the TV ghost hunter Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris, not bad) will be “the cavalry” the Bowen family eventually calls in.
The 3D frights — a grasping tree, the maw of hell, skeletal hands and faces reaching for children — are what you’d expect from the director of the animated (and superior) “Monster House.” Gil Kenan has to take the blame for the performances, though.
Best effect this time? Shadowy hands pressed against an HDTV screen, from the INSIDE. Worst effect? That cast, model-pretty and inexpressive, even when all hell is breaking loose.

1half-star
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for intense frightening sequences, brief suggestive material, and some language

Cast: Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements, Kyle Catlett, Saxon Sharbino     Saxon Sharbino, Jared Harris
Credits: Directed by Gil Kenan, screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire,based on the 1982 film. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 1:33

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Movie Review: Skin and sin and church tumble together in “Chocolate City”

chocWhat’s that old showbiz maxim? “Just give the people what they want.”
That’s the byword for “Chocolate City,” an African American riff on a certain stripper movie smash of a couple of summers back.
“Magic Mike ain’t got NOTHING on you,” the unemployed hustler Chris (DeRay Davis) gushes to his baby brother Michael (Robert Ri’chard of “Coach Carter”).
And he’s right. Even though Channing Tatum’s “Magic Mike” had a sharper script, funnier characters and more pathos, Michael is ripped and rhythmic enough to take it all and drive the ladies crazy.
A college student without the cash to take on a girlfriend (Imani Hakim) or help his widowed working-two-jobs mom (Vivica A. Fox), Mike answers a men’s room solicitation from MC Princeton (Michael Jai White) and joins the dance crew at Chocolate City. And Ladies’ Night will never be the same.
The costumes — cop, soldier, Spartan and cowboy — and lack of them mimics “Magic Mike.” The melodrama — keeping his sideline secret from his mother and would-be girlfriend — duller.
There’s rage and diva behavior in the macho dressing room — “Who’re you calling SENSITIVE?”
And there are rules — “Give them the fantasy. Give’em what they can’t get at home…But never get personal.” Because there’s more touching and grinding in “Chocolate City,” and every Sunday — this being an African American comedy shot in Tyler Perrytown (Atlanta) — there’s a scolding from the preacher.
Writer-director Jean-Claude La Marre plays that hip and happening man of the cloth, dropping cracks Chris Brown, “the club,” the stoner comedy “Friday” and “the faint smell of Stoli-cranberry” into his sermons. But he’s the highlight of his movie.
His leading man and that lead’s love interest have no chemistry. His master of ceremonies has no flash. The funny supporting cast has little to do. It’s got one violent scene, some African American comedy cliches (clueless church ladies, etc.) and not nearly enough laughs to carry “Chocolate City” from appetizer to dessert.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for sexual content throughout, partial nudity, language and brief violence.

Cast: Robert Ri’chard, DeRay Davis, Vivica A. Fox, Carmen Electra. Michael Jai White
Credits: Written and directed by Jean-Claude La Marre. A Freestyle/Paramount release.

Running time: 1:31

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Movie Review: The future isn’t what it used to be in “Tomorrowland”

tom“Tomorrowland” is Brad Bird’s Jeremiad against the dystopia that is modern culture, with its yen for zombie apocalypses, environmental catastrophes and the 24 hours of fear telecast by cable news.
It’s a movie for the “dreamers,” the ones like its teenage heroine Casey (Britt Robertson). She’s the only kid in class who asks the obvious, when confronted with lectures on nuclear proliferation, the unstable politics of much of the world and global climate change.
“Can we fix it?”
So it’s not just the ponderous theme park attraction in search of a movie that this Vision of the Future sometimes seems to be. Or the dystopian critique of dystopian pop culture — thank you, fanboys — it actually is.
“Tomorrowland” is a sci fi mini epic told in flashback by a girl genius, Casey, who spends her teens sabotaging a NASA launchpad dismantling project her dad (country singer Tim McGraw) is overseeing, and the one-time boy genius, Frank (George Clooney) she’s come to for answers.
Casey has been chosen, as boy-inventor Frank was once chosen at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. A British pixie, Athena (Raffey Cassidy, quite good) gave each of them a special “T” medallion. It’s a badge that magically connects her to this alternate reality where science and reason, optimism and imagination have been given free rein.
It’s all jet packs and hover-rails and skyscrapers straight out of Walt Disney’s notion of what the future would be like.
But somebody is trying to keep Casey from getting there, and that’s how she’s thrown in with Frank. They have to team up to save the future.
Clooney makes a properly grumpy guide to this world Frank once knew, was banished from but whom Casey convinces is worth a return trip.
“The future is scary,” Frank warns. And it is, with killer robots, fights to the death (vaporization) and the odd spot of blood.
Evil Governor Nix of Tomorrowland (Hugh Laurie, never duller) wears silly Oz jodhpurs and tries to rationalize why the real world is not ready for Tomorrow, and that the self-fulfulling prophecies of our TV news of Doom is a good thing.
It’s all about how “imagination is more important than knowledge” and not giving up, making “Tomorrowland” the sort of movie Walt might greenlight, when Disney thaws him out.
Young Robertson gets across a nice sense of wonder in early scenes, with the spectacle of tomorrow laid before her. But her character takes Frank’s pleas too much to heart and the wonder is gone.
“Can’t you just be amazed and move on?”
Bird cooks up lots of eye candy, but the dazzle wears off, and nobody really connects emotionally.
Disney keeps shoving “dreamer” as a challenge into some of its chancier films, as if daring us not to endorse their vision. But our not hugging the boring bits of this — and there are a few — is not because we lack imagination. That’s on you, for stealing from “Men in Black.”
As much as one appreciates the idea of optimism, looking for solutions instead of bemoaning the doom-laden futility of it all, “Tomorrowland” falls short. The future isn’t what it used to be, but maybe it will, when Walt comes back.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language

Cast: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie.

Credits: Directed by Brad Bird, script by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird. A Disney release.

Running time: 2:10

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Movie Review: “Aloft” never, for one second, takes flight

alof“Aloft” is a melancholy, cryptic drama that guards its secrets as if they’re the answer to some ancient riddle about the human condition.
And they’re not.
Peruvian writer-director Claudia Llosa (“The Milk of Sorrow”) landed a top flight cast, and gives this Canadian co-production an air of mystery and the feel of a glum sci-fi dystopia.
But the mystery isn’t that mysterious, and the fiction here is more mundane than scientific or fantastical.
Under perpetually grey skies, Jennifer Connelly plays Nana, an impoverished single mom taking her two little boys on a pilgrimage into the Canadian wilderness. One of the boys, the willful and stubborn Ivan (Zen McGrath) has his pet falcon with him.
They’ve joined others hitchhiking their way into the woods where, under a big Indian hogan made of twigs, sticks and vines, “The Architect Newman” (William Shimell) promises healing. Nana’s other son (Winta McGrath) is very sick.
Something happens that breaks the spirit of the day and dashes the hopes of the legions of poor and desperate parents grasping at the shaman’s straws. The Architect then suggests Nana is the true healer.
The story flashes forward 20 years as a reporter (Melanie Laurent of “Now You See Me” and “Beginners”) shows up to interview the adult Ivan (Cillian Murphy). She said she was interested in his “hybrid falcons.” What she really wants to know is where his mother is.
Llosa skips back and forth between the present quest to find Nana in the frozen north and the past events — tragic and mystical — that sent her off the grid.
Murphy is properly bitter as the adult son of a woman who “abandoned” him. Laurent maintains an air of mystery even as her true motives become clear. The Oscar winning Connelly plays a quiet desperation and world weariness, and never seems truly out of place in this world — until the movie reveals how much of a tease it is.
What are these kids suffering from, some Future Plague? Why are these poor and good looking Canadians, with one of the world’s great health care systems, seeking the help of a shaman? And who IS this hustler/healer?
“You can’t avoid pain by resisting it,” The Architect pretentiously intones.
Llosa ably blends the past with the film’s present, but dawdles as she does. And in doling out information so sparingly, she gives the viewer the same false hopes that are common currency in the shaman trade. We’re hoping something profound or at least futuristic happens. It doesn’t.
The falcon metaphor is clumsy and ill-defined, and “Aloft” is never much more than a lovely, dull cheat.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality

Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy, Melanie Laurent, Oona Chaplin, William Shimell
Credits: Written and directed by Claudia Llosa. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:52

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Movie Review: “The Farewell Party”

fareSteve Allen’s famous equation, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy” is seriously stretched in “The Farewell Party,” a darker-than-dark Israeli comedy about old people seeking “death with dignity.”
The deaths are sad, gripping affairs, the terminally ill and terminally old seeking an end to the pain, the ever-shrinking horizons of a life confined to a hospital bed and the indignities that come with that. But the laughs sneak in before the corpses turn cold.
Veteran character actor Ze’ev Revach (“The Quest,” and the Israeli Oscar submission “Gett”) is Yehezkel, an inventor/tinkerer who uses gadgets to call his elderly friend Zelda and, in an echoing booming voice of God, tell her “there’s no vacancy” in Heaven. So she needs to hang on, submit to more cancer treatment.
But this playful old man has end of life burdens as well. His wife, Levana (Levana Finkelstein) is fading away with Alzheimer’s.
And their friend, Max, begs Yehezkel to help him end it. Max’s wife Yana (Aliza Rosen) is more insistent and more shrill, raging at a medical establishment bent on “keeping him alive, as though dying is a crime.”
They ask around. An elderly doctor rebuffs them, but another (Ilan Dar) says “Sure, I’ve done this many times.”
Turns out Dr. Daniel is a veterinarian. Turns out he’s gay. And it turns out he’s got a friend, Raffi, the gruff retired cop (Raffi Tavor) willing to give these “idiots” the spine to do the deed.
The tinkerer in their ranks, Yehezkel, cooks up a device that seems copied from America’s Dr. Death. It puts the patient’s fate into his or her own hands.
And before you can say “Kevorkian,” sad, broken old people in kibbutz hospitals are lining up for their help. Each case is heartbreaking, each death somber.
But the way Yehezkel & Co. get caught by the same cop for various traffic violations as they flee the scene of each “crime” revives the comic undertone.
And the spreading conspiracy — there is a world of over-cared-for 80 and 90 year olds ready to leave Israel for Zion — has an amusing edge.
The performers, working in Hebrew (with English subtitles), make their characters empathetic, emphatic, human and humane. The clash of tones doesn’t always work, but from its title to the closing credits, “The Farewell Party” does a nice job of reminding us that people who have lived as adults for the better part of a century are certainly entitled to control their own fate when the end is within their fading sight.

3stars2
MPAA Rating: unrated, with nudity, suicide, smoking

Cast: Ze’ev Revach, Levana Finkelstein, Aliza Rosen, Ilan Dar, Raffi Tavor
Credits: Written and directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:32

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Movie Review: “Sunshine Superman” offers a more sober than sensational history of BASE jumping

3stars2An eerie pall hangs over “Sunshine Superman,” a documentary history of BASE jumping, the practice of skydiving off Buildings, broadcast Antennas, Spans (bridges) and Earth (cliffs).
That’s connected to both the movie’s main subject, Carl Boenish, who dreamed up the sport, popularized it and died practicing it, and the ongoing high-risk/modest-altitude carnage that it continues to generate.
The very week this movie opened, wing-suit BASE jumping pioneer Dean Potter and his fellow jumper Graham Hunt died in the very park — Yosemite — where BASE jumping was born. Over 250 people have died worldwide doing this.
Marah Strauch’s film has a somberly celebratory air, capturing the manic enthusiasm of engineer-turned-skydiving cinematographer Boenish, a man who survived a childhood bout with polio and lived the rest of his life as if it was bonus time.
“There’s no future in growing up,” he says in archival TV interviews. “We don’t want to be limited by any laws, except nature’s.”
So Boenish and his fellow pioneering divers leaped from natural landmarks that they weren’t supposed to leap from, and trespassed on incomplete skyscrapers and antennas — stunts that riveted TV audiences when the sport first broke out in the late ’70s.
Dangerous and reckless? Sure. That’s why Boenish made such a great spokesman for the sport, weaving poetic spin about testing the limits of “whatever the human spirit can accomplish” while evading authorities and making that one mistake that proved to be fatal.
Strauch deviates from the earlier BASE origins doc “Valley Uprising” by zeroing in on Boenish, and devoting much of the film’s third act to the stunt — diving, with Jean, off Norway’s towering “Troll Wall” for TV’s “That’s Incredible! — and his death the following day.
The footage is striking, the memories of the man vivid, and the finale, a tribute to the next phase of the sport, winged suits, which Carl didn’t live to see, still stuns you. Even if you know two more pioneers just died flying into towering rock walls of Yosemite.

sun
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, some language, smoking, and a brief nude image

Cast: Carl Boenish, Jean Boenish, Kent Lane, John Long
Credits: Directed by Marah Strauch. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:40

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Sam Elliott still makes the womenfolk whisper “I’ll See You in My Dreams”

2013 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards Arrivals Held at Nokia Theatre LA Live Featuring: Sam Elliott Where: Los Angeles, California, United States When: 16 Sep 2013 Credit: FayesVision/WENN.com

2013 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards Arrivals Held at Nokia Theatre LA Live
Featuring: Sam Elliott
Where: Los Angeles, California, United States
When: 16 Sep 2013
Credit: FayesVision/WENN.com

Sam Elliott had a window when he might have broken through and become a bankable Hollywood leading man.
It was somewhere around 1976’s “Lifeguard,” which had him playing a hunk who held onto the beachside style of living and loving a little too long, his 1983 performance as the title character “Travis McGee” in a TV movie based on John D. MacDonald’s iconic Florida detective, and 1985’s “Mask,” which turned his manly mustache loose as the one biker sensitive enough to tame Cher and bond with her disfigured son.
Decades of stellar supporting work have been the rule ever since. Need a man’s man to play a military officer (“Hulk”), a growling coach (“Draft Day”) or cowboy? Sam’s been your man.
But maybe the window hasn’t quite closed, even at 70, as his notices in the new indie hit “I’ll See You in My Dreams” suggests. He plays a sort of last chance at romance for a widow (Blythe Danner) not looking for love at this stage in her life. Elliott turns on the flirt in the role.
“Nothing you learn in acting school,” he growls with a grin. “The way I was always taught to treat women kind of gets in there.” Born in Southern California but raised by West Texans, Elliott’s masculine courtliness is something of a trademark.
And “the unlit cigar between his teeth, the glint in his eye and his deep cowboy voice signal virility,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times.
Elliott gives that a characteristic “Aw, shucks.”
“Maybe there’s a little of the old ‘leading man’ in there,” he says. “Maybe it’s a little late for that.”
His “Dreams” director,  Brett Haley, who co-wrote the script and cast Elliott, begs to differ. “A LOT of women would disagree with Sam  in that regard,” Haley laughs. “He’s back, and sexier than  ever.”
It could be that the part is tailor-made for Elliott. Hollywood isn’t making many Westerns these days, so Elliott’s Old West mustache and ability to wear a ten gallon hat like he means it is rolled out in cult films such as “The Big Lebowski” (as the cowboy/narrator) or “Thank You for Smoking.” A “Tombstone” comes along rarely, these days.

ell2

Bill, his “I’ll See You In My Dreams” character, has a “Hemingway-esque masculinity” and swaggering “self-satisfaction” which Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal didn’t warm to. But that “that coy but confident head tilt he does…draws women in like an invitation to come closer,” says Kathryn Shiflett, “a big fan” from Virginia. There’s a touch of the courtly cowpoke to that this businessman who goes after what he likes, including Carol (Danner).
“He happens upon this gal who strikes who strikes his fancy, and goes to work on her,” Elliott says of “Dream.” “He’s kind of sensitive, I guess. But he’s also very direct. I like that. That directness appeals to Carol.
“That’s part of the real me, too. I’m probably more direct than some people would like, especially out here in Hollywood.”
Voice-over work in everything from car commercials to “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner,” sustains him and wife Katherine Ross (“The Summer of ’42”). Elliott says he and Ross talk about “how lucky we were to come along when we did, with parents who grew up during The Depression and all.” But it’s hard not to see his brand of masculinity, timeless as it is, as out of its time. So he’s grateful for the good reviews for “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
“It’s been mind-boggling, on some level. Never seen the likes of it, myself.”
And there’s just a chance he’s hearing his director’s “sexier than ever” plug, and maybe wondering if those “Lifeguard” days could earn a reprise.
“I just had some gal interview me who wanted to know if I still had the red shorts from that m0vie,” Elliott says with a chuckle. “Man.”

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Weekend Box Office: “Pitch 2″ nearly $70, “Mad Max” $45

boxA blockbuster weekend for two films marks this third Sunday in May.

An established brand, “Pitch Perfect 2″ shattered whatever glass ceiling there was for femme centric comedies/musicals and may have $70 million+ in the bank by midnight tonight.

Astounding. Whatever George Lucas said about “figure out what 12 year old girls want” is money in the bank for Universal, which cashes in on a middling sequel to a perfectly cute a cappella comedy of a couple of years back. WAY above any predictions for the opening weekend.  I figures $40 was a bit generous, but again…girls.

“Mad Max” is decades removed from its Mel Gibson origins. A more feminist tack and Tom Hardy paired up with Charlize Theron didn’t deliver much juice, but George Miller showed he still has the magic dystopian touch. Dollars to donuts, “Fury Road” moves ahead of “Pitch” in the top ten next weekend, and may bank more bucks in the longer run.

“Avengers 2″ is still #3, and the artier fare has fallen out of the top ten as summer settles in, in earnest.

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Next Interview: Questions for Adrian “Entourage” Grenier?

agHe wasn’t well-known before HBO’s “Entourage” tossed him out there as a classic nobody turned somebody in Hollywood.

He was the “actor” — the talent — who propped up his less talented brother, his lumpy no-talent skirt-chasing pal and his pizza store manager best bud-turned-manager based on his Hollywood success.

Like that ever happens.

Lots of questions for Adrian Grenier about what he learned about Hollywood from doing the show  (and the new film based on it) and from the experience of becoming a “name” overnight himself thanks to it.

But you? Got a question? Comment below. I’m looking for suggestions, and thanks for the help.

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