Book Review: “Becoming Richard Pryor” gets close to what made the comic a legend

pryI’m a big fan of Scott Saul’s pretty-much definitive new biography of the late/great and deeply messed up comic Richard Pryor. Saul himself credits the passage of time for a lot of the access he got to Pryor’s friends, family and intimates, people who wouldn’t talk to biographers while Pryor was alive. The result is a book that reveals the true nature of his childhood, the dark family life of brothels, bootlegging, crime and violence that he illuminated in his act — onstage — in his peak years.

I like that Saul stops the book, basically, at Pryor’s “Live and in Concert” breakout concert documentary. So we get a taste of his scene stealing in smaller roles in films from “Lady Sings the Blues” and “The Mack” to “Silver Streak,” which led to his film stardom and — according to one and all — his selling out.

I doubled back to an online PBS documentary on Pryor to see just how the new book reinvents Pryor’s past. The man lied, onstage, to reporters, all his life. And didn’t make many bones about it. The PBS doc has an academic or two repeating the stories Pryor told in his autobiography, but Saul gets at the real history and the naked truth — drugs, the ways he “tested” white people he’d meet, his greatest collaborations (Lily Tomlin, Paul Mooney), the frankness with which he talked about race, sex (including his occasional suggestion that he’d had a homosexual experience or two) and America.

Saul doesn’t hit Pryor hard enough on his treatment of women, his propensity for violence. But some of that becomes clearer when he reminds us of the documentary Pryor took part in and basically stole — “Wattstaxx” — about Watts, almost a decade after the mid-60s riots there, and a tribute concert with the likes of The Staple Singers and Isaac Hayes. Black people, talking in the vernacular of the day, women talking about loving their “abusive” men, men talking about their promiscuity, and Pryor telling stories about his culture that allowed him and the rest of black America to own it — the good and the bad.

Watch that “Wattstaxx” bit, or any of the scores of sketches, etc., sampled on Youtube, and be amazed. Eighth grade education, never the best reader or writer. But incisive, biting insights into the human state and the American state. Clever doesn’t cover it. Everybody else seems but an imitation, and only a contemporary — George Carlin — comes close in the social commentary with wit business.

Look for the book. It’s worth a read. I never “got” Lenny Bruce. What survives of his comedy just doesn’t age  well. But “Becoming Richard Pryor” gives one a whole new appreciation of the most important stand-up — maybe ever. Most imitated, most revered, and, as you can see in “Wattstaxx” (above) — still funny as hell.

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Movie Review: “Aloha,” Cameron Crowe. Aloha.

aloooCameron Crowe fans — and that includes most movie critics — have cut him a lot of slack over the years.
Our love for “Say Anything,””Almost Famous” and “Jerry Maguire” made us embrace the big romantic gestures and little traces of heart in “Elizabethtown,” “Vanilla Sky” and “We Bought a Zoo.”
But “Aloha” is a breaking point, a movie that makes you start to see the guy just, well, full of it. Whatever it was going to be — and editing has been a Crowe problem since “Elizabethtown” — “Aloha” has been reduced to a shambling, lurching Hawaiian comedy full of big name actors making long, rushed, declamatory speeches.
And every minute or so, there’s another annoying traditional Hawaiian song, or Hawaiian pop or blues or country tune. They’re meant to tie the mess together, to allow the picture to coast along on musical emotions where script coherence is lacking.
And they don’t. Even Elvis gets into the act. It’s so grating that you find yourself waiting for Don Ho to croon “Tiny Bubbles.”
Bradley Cooper plays a one-time Air Force space program officer, wounded in Afghanistan, semi-disgraced and reduced to being the “fixer” for a space tech billionaire (Bill Murray, seemingly improvising his role). Brian Gilchrest is back in Hawaii, at the little “Mayberry of a base” where he was stationed, to talk the natives into blessing a gate that’s being moved so that big rockets can be moved from location to location.
Rachel McAdams is the girl he left behind, married, with kids and a comically silent Air Force pilot husband (John Krasinski).
Danny McBride is an old comrade, now a colonel more or less in charge.
And Emma Stone is the eager beaver Captain Ng, a pilot assigned to be Gilchrest’s minder, his shadow as he goes to deal with Hawaii’s most nativist natives.
The movie’s more Hawaiian than “The Descendants,” but the early culture clash promise — “Below the ‘Aloha’ exteriors?” “‘Casablanca,’ baby!” — unravels. The president of the Sovereign Nation of Hawaii (Dennis Bumpy Kanahele) just shrugs at how low his old friend has sunk.
“You’re on the wrong side, bra’.” At least he doesn’t throw “Mahalo” in there.
The son of Gilchrest’s ex-girlfriend is a space and Hawaiian mythology buff who insists Gilchrest is a mythical character, “The Arrival,” newly returned to set the future in motion. A little magical realism helps set the expected Gilchrest/Captain Ng romance in motion. But it feels absurdly abrupt, the way we get to “Boy, am I a goner.” That was to be this movie’s “You had me at hello.” It isn’t. Not a lot of chemistry, despite Stone’s enthusiastic plunge into the part.
The performances are passable, save for Murray — who goes ham, and Alec Baldwin, as a general who goes comically nuclear. He at least leaves an impression.
The film-buff Hawaiian resident Crowe has, in essence, made his “Donovan’s Reef,” a movie John Ford and John Wayne did to celebrate Ford’s World War II service in the Pacific, and to get a studio to pay for long tropical vacations for the cast and crew.
“Aloha” has a nod to the power of music and respect for religious traditions and the once-promising frontier of space. But it’s also about the versatility of that one-word title. Sadly, in this case, “Aloha” doesn’t mean “Hello,” or even “Welcome back, Cameron Crowe.” This feels like good-bye, at least to his major studio film career.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language including suggestive comments.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachael McAdams, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, John Krasinski, Dennis Bumpy Kanahele, Bill Murray
Credits: Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. A Sonjy/Columbia release.

Running time: 1:44

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Movie Review: “San Andreas” shows why The Rock is aptly named

sanDisaster movies, which pre-date the zeitgeist’s fascination with a world falling apart around us, are always great measures of the state of the Hollywood art of special effects.
In “San Andreas,” you will believe the ground is rippling under Los Angeles, the cracking collapse of Hoover Dam and a tidal wave is submerging San Francisco.
But what sells this formulaic corker of Apocalypse Porn is the cast. Paul Giamatti, as a Cal Tech seismologist who has just this minute uncovered a way to predict earthquakes, wears the horror of what he sees and what he knows is to come on his face.
Carla Gugino and Alexandra Daddario let panic, grief and relief when the shaking ends wash over them in what feels like real time.
And the actor nicknamed for a geological feature earns that nickname all over again by being that sturdy force of nature the whole movie is anchored on. Dwayne Johnson is the ex-Army chopper pilot, now with the L.A. Fire Department’s air rescue unit, a man uniquely set up to save his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Gugino, his “Race to Witch Mountain” co-star) and college coed daughter (Daddario, of TV’s first season of “True Detective”). Johnson believes what he’s seeing — buildings tumbling like dominoes, fires errupting, the sea fleeing San Francisco Bay — and we do, too.
The script and director Brad Peyton (“Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”) never escape the time-honored formula for disaster movies — the warnings, unheeded, the villainous builder (Ioan Gruffudd), the disaster-built love interest (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) thrown together with the hot coed.
But here’s what he and this production get exactly right.
The first death has meaning and pathos, as does the last one.
The medical moments and derring do can feel far fetched. But the science feels solid. God help them if they’re only bluffing. It’s a “swarm event” that runs up and down California’s infamous San Andreas Fault. Because…geology!
We know where it’s going, from the moment the ground starts shaking, until it finally, several “swarms” later, stops. But “San Andreas” is a well-executed reminder of why we don’t need to fret over the zombie apocalypse when there are plenty of things Mother Earth can throw at us. And that Hollywood’s best craftsfolk at Digital Domain, House of Moves and other effects houses are getting even better at recreating those worst case scenarios we love so much…in our movies.

2half-star6
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Paul Giamatti, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Hugo Johnstone-Burt
Credits: Directed by Brad Peyton, script by Carlton Cuse. A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:54

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Movie Review: “Gemma Bovery”

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Posy Simmonds couldn’t have had actress Gemma Arterton in mind when she wrote “Gemma Bovery,” her darkly comic 1999 spoof of Gustav Flaubert’s classic tragic 19th century novel “Madame Bovary,” about a bored provincial housewife whose affair has tragic consequences. But the overripe Arterton (“Prince of Persia”) has long seemed like someone dreamed up by a graphic novelist.
And since Arterton’s winning turn as Simmonds’ “Tamara Drewe,” a modern take on the 19th century English novel “Far From the Madding Crowd,” she was fated to become “Gemma Bovery,” the object of desire, manipulation and conjecture in the small town in Normandy where she and her new husband (Jason Flemyng) move.
It is “a place where the art of living is taken seriously,” our narrator, Martin (Fabrice Luchini, of the imports “The Girl from Monaco” and “Potiche”) tells us. A droll one-time editor of academic books, he and his wife have taken over his father’s bakery. And knowing that Flaubert was from Normandy, he is frankly delighted at having a bored beauty whose name sounds like Emma Bovary move in next door. He abandons his “10 years of sexual tranquility” to fantasize over Gemma, a woman “waiting for something to happen.”
Martin, narrating in French (with English subtitles) feels “like a director” when Gemma, sure enough, is tempted by the rakish law student Herve (Niels Schneider). Martin is content to lust from afar, but he knows how “Madame Bovary” ends. He frets over her indiscretions and flips out when he sees she’s bought arsenic to contend with the mice who invade her tumbledown farm home.
Director Anne Fontaine (“The Girl from Monaco”) plays up the sensual pleasures of teaching a beautiful woman how to knead dough, and the adorably deadpan Luchini makes a wonderfully guilty near-omniscient narrator. A French baker must cope with foreigners with gluten allergies and assorted other bread phobias without rolling his eyes. Martin tries to manipulate events to change the outcome and stumbles into the occasional awkward encounter with the luscious Gemma — who knows her effect on men in general and Martin in particular. She finds the “Bovary” novel “wacky,” and needs the occasional rescue — a bee sting that must be sucked out, etc.
“Gemma Bovery” manages a few surprises, even if you know the Flaubert novel Simmonds was sending up. The Norman countryside, Luchini’s slack-jawed incredulity at the coincidence of having a sophisticated and sexy Gemma move to the land of Emma and Arterton’s guileless abandon in the role she was born/ — or at least named to play — desired by and desirous of men who will be her ruin — make “Bovery” a fun riff on “Bovary,” even if no one ever confuses it for the earlier classic.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexuality/nudity and language

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng, Niels Schneider
Credits: Directed by Anne Fontaine, script Pascal Bonitzer and Anne Fontaine, based on a novel by Posy Simmonds . A Music Box release.

Running time: 1:46

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Movie Review: “Survivor” is a B-movie thriller that kind of works

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For more than a decade, nothing has screamed “B-movie” louder than seeing Milla Jovovich’s name in a movie’s credits.
But even in the worst of those “Resident Evil” action pictures, the model-thin Jovovich delivered fair value, packing a lot of punch for one so slight of build and a lot of intensity into roles that sometimes seemed thankless.
“Survivor” is what happens when you give her a “name” director — James McTeigue of “V for Vendetta” — and surround her with A-listers, or former A-listers.
Jovovich plays Kate, the security chief for the U.S. embassy in London, a woman on the lookout for terrorists trying to passport their way into the U.S. Robert Forster’s her boss, a little too quick to allow the occasional iffy scientist (Roger Rees) through passport control.
And Angela Bassett’s the ambassador, the one who loses her temper if the wrong British feathers are ruffled in the name of “security.”
Kate gets too close to something big, people die, and even though her immediate supervisor (Dylan McDermott) has her back, the Brits and the CIA are after her.
“What am I now? A suspect? A target?”
Both, thanks to the assassin hired by terrorists to “make sure she doesn’t survive.” He is code named The Watchmaker, a talented bomber, sniper and all around killer, and he is played with ice and verve by Pierce Brosnan.
Thrillers like this have gone lazy in recent years, always giving the heroes and heroines “particular skills.” It’s always a more thrilling hunt if the quarry isn’t some Liam Neeson/Bruce Willis/Jason Statham superman. Jovovich’s Kate has some spycraft, but she isn’t wiping out legions of bad guys with “I’m coming to GET you” on her lips. Every time she tangles with The Watchmaker, she’s lucky to get out alive.
So “Survivor,” predictable, short and shallow ticking clock thriller that it is, is more “Three Days of the Condor” than “Taken.” And thanks to its stars, it’s more engrossing and fun than it has any right to be.

2stars1
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, some action and brief strong language

Cast: Milla Jovovich, Pierce Brosnan, Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett, Roger Rees, Frances de la Tour
Credits: Directed by James McTeigue, script by Philip Shelby. An Alchyemy release.

Running time: 1:36

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Movie Review: “Heaven Knows What”

2stars1The novelty of having a real homeless junkie play a version of herself drives “Heaven Knows What,” a gritty hand-held character portrait of heroin addict life in New York today.
The unblinking character study, shot in muted shades of grey, stars recovering addict Arrielle Holmes and is based on her memoir. Thanks to its subject and the contributions of electronic music artist Tomita to the film’s score, it plays like an awful flashback to an earlier age.
But kids these days, it’s not just vinyl that they’ve brought back. Heroin is in. Again. And here’s an indie-film era look at what their lives are like.
Harley (Holmes) has two great loves. One is Ilya (the actor Caleb Landry Jones). The other is heroin. Neither treats her with a hint of humanity.
Ilya is a cruel, selfish and childish junkie, laughing as he orders her to buy razor blades and open her veins.
“If you love me, you would’ve killed yourself by now.”
Harley writes him a love letter, gets the razor blades and tries to earn his attention long enough to prove herself to him.
“I’m about to die right now, and I really want you to BE there.”
She survives, endures the hospital and a little rehab. But on getting out, Ilya wants nothing to do with her. She clings to their skinny braggart-bully of a dealer, Mike (Buddy Duress). They drift from fast food joints where they shoot up in the restrooms, to snowy Central Park, to subway stations and street corners, begging for change or subway passes, stealing and living only for their next fix.
Sibling filmmakers Ben and Joshua Safdie, working from a script based on Holmes’ “Mad Love in New York City,” capture a colorful street life of sleepy-eyed stoners, drunks and junkies, prattling on about fights they’ve had, cops they’ve dodged and TV’s “Cosmos.”
Random? That’s the very definition of the lifestyle. Harley, heroin thin, blond and about 20, doesn’t plan for the future, be it a year from now or an hour from now.
“I need TWO to get straight,” she begs Mike. Any money she picks up is spent in an instant. Cheap booze, Dr. Pepper and DayQuil keep her and her whole crowd going between fixes. Food never seems to enter into it.
And truth be told, that’s about it. The filmmakers have contented themselves with the barest bones of a story, relying on local color and the nuts and bolts of being homeless and addicted in New York to carry the film.
But it doesn’t. The far superior “Animals” (released last month) captured a love story with an arc, a hazy fantasy life and the slim hope of living through the experience of heroin addiction — with real actors, and without the novelty of street people filling many of the roles.
See “Animals” and “Heaven Knows What”plays like more of a gritty snapshot than a movie.

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MPAA Rating: R for drug use throughout, pervasive language, disturbing and violent images, sexuality, and graphic nudity

Cast: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress
Credits: Directed by Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie, script by Ronald Bronstein and Joshua Safdie, based on a book by Arielle Holmes. A Radius/TWC release

release.

Running time: 1:34

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Movie Review: “Results”

resultimage

“Results” is a random, generally pointless romantic comedy set in the world of personal trainers.
We have Trevor (Guy Pearce), the Aussie building his dream “Power 4 Life” gym in Austin, Texas, exercising compulsively, with only his big galoot of a dog for company.
Kat (Cobie Smulders) is one of his best trainers, but intense — wrapped-too-tight, just as compulsive about running, lifting, etc. Only she’s inclined to tear into clients who “quit” on her. Maybe she and Trevor could have a “thing,” if only she didn’t have that temper. Got to love her training regimen, though.
“Imagine there’s a wall right behind you, and you’re trying to knock it down with your butt!”
Into this world comes pasty, balding and doughy Danny (Kevin Corrigan). His wife just dumped him, and he’s suddenly come into money. So. Train him.
“I want to be able to take a punch.”
Something about Kat — her temper, the fact she’s played with the willowy knockout Ms. Smulders –– gets to Danny. But there’ll be no rich guy courting his trainer here, thank you. Money or no money, Kat won’t have it. And Trevor seems to take that attempt a tad too personally, as well.
Actor turned writer-director Andrew Bujalski has some promising angles he could have pursued. Trevor’s idol is a Russian kettle bell trainer living and running gyms and selling his own line of equipment. The joke is that he’s played by Anthony Michael Hall and Grigory runs his empire from… West Texas. Brooklyn Decker plays his adoring wife.
Giovanni Ribisi is a lawyer rich-Danny meets and hires in a dumpy bar. Ribisi usually makes such sleaze funnier.
A sharper comedy would have played around with the addictive nature of exercise, the roid rage that Kat seems to suffer from with no other evidence that she takes steroids. There’s little contrast between the unhappy six-packers with the equally miserable “pudgy and mellow” Danny.
So as nice as it is to see Smulders get offered something other than a S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuit in the “Avengers” movies after “How I Met Your Mother,” as interesting as Pearce and Corrigan usually are, “Results” is a comedy that never offers more than unsatisfactory ones — results, I mean.

1half-star
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content and drug use

Cast: Cobie Smulders, Guy Pearce, Kevin Corrigan
Credits: Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:45

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Movie Review: “Barely Lethal”

barely2stars1
“Barely Lethal” is a fairly amusing rough draft for a high concept high school romantic comedy.

It’s “Agent Cody Banks” meets “Sixteen Candles” — with quotably snark one-liners, hormonal kids being hormonal, and a socially inept teen the mean girls don’t want to cross. Because she knows 66 ways to kill you.
Hailee Steinfeld of “Pitch Perfect 2″ is #83, who has been trained as an assassin, pretty much since birth. But she longs to see “this whole other world I’m missing” and go to high school. Or at least the version of high school she’s seen on “90210,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Mean Girls” and the films of John Hughes.
That’s why she fakes her death so her boss (Samuel L. Jackson, of course) won’t come looking for her. That’s why she passes herself off as an exchange student “from…Canada” at Newton High.
But those movies and dated TV shows are no guide for blending in — today. Let’s start with the fashions.
“You look like you had a one-night-stand with Mr. Potatohead!”
Then, there’s the labeling that those comedies tend toward. Calling the helpful Roger (Thomas Mann) “an A.V. Geek” is no way to make friends.
Megan, as #83 now calls herself, may be able to break into the school to change seating assignments and defend herself from a “kidnap the school mascot” (her) prank. She may have studied up via movies. But that doesn’t keep her from falling for the pretty and shallow boy with a band, known as “The Wrong Guy” in “Pretty in Pink” and its ilk.
Director Kyle Newman is entirely too tentative with a potentially terrific script by John D’Arco.
The best lines go to Dove Cameron, as the edgy, eye-rolling “sister” in Megan’s host family. Her put downs, long or short, are lethal.
“Jesus, Ringwald!”
Jackson has fun taunting the little orphan girl trainees as he teaches them martial arts and bomb defusal. And Jessica Alba, as a “rogue agent,” gets a nice fight scene.
Steinfeld (“True Grit”) is more at home here than among the Bellas of “Pitch Perfect.” But the film feels like a series of pulled punches, slow-footed and sluggish.
With the teen world crying out for this generation’s “Breakfast Club,” with teens swearing, drinking and narrowly dodging bad decisions, “Barely Lethal” suggests that movie is coming. It just needs more polish than this.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 on appeal for sexual material, teen drinking, language, drug references and some action violence

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Mann, Jessica Alba, Dove Cameron, Sophie Turner
Credits: Directed by Kyle Newman, script by John D’Arco. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:38

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Movie Review: “In the Name of My Daughter”

daughterimageA famous French unsolved disappearance and a mother’s decades-long search for justice is the focus of “In the Name of My Daughter.” That, as such, is the promise of the title.
But Andre Techine’s ponderous and misshapen tale, told with “poetic license” an opening title tells us, is more about a daughter’s misguided love affair and betrayal than about mom, more about the accused killer’s guilty behavior than his inner life. It is as inconclusive as this endless French court case has proven to be.
Catherine Deneuve is Renee Le Roux, owner of the Palais de la Méditerranée casino in Nice. She welcomes her newly-divorced daughter Agnes (Adele Haenel) home from Africa, where she’d been living, only to learn Agnes wants her inheritance — now.
Mom is barely in control of the casino during a mid-70s economic downturn. The mafia, she is told, is out to get it. They already control the other casinos along that coast, she is also told.
And the person telling her all this is her hustling, blunt-talking legal advisor, Maurice Agnelet, played with a poker-faced impatience by Guillaume Canet of “Farewell”).
Renee never really trusts Maurice, despite his many services for her. He’s shifty, a guy who tape records conversations in a French version of what in America would be recognized as CYA behavior.
Agnes is smitten. But he keeps his emotional distance. The daughter should be on her guard, especially when Maurice’s other lover warns her, “He beds everyone, in the end.”
Of course he does, and that’s a tipping point for the Palais board of directors. Mom gets voted out, and in a heartbeat — the casino is closed, Maurice distances himself from Agnes, Agnes attempts suicide, and then Agnes disappears.
Techine (“The Girl on the Train”) spends so much time setting up the love affair and betrayal that he has nothing left for the mother’s deepening, maddening conviction that Agnelet has gotten away with murder. That’s the movie here, not the endless details of love, sex and motive that eat up most of the screen time.
“In the Name of My Daughter,” in French with English subtitles, never creates empathy for any character, never picks up enough speed to draw us in. Lacking a smoking gun, this Riviera-set crime thriller lacks both thrills and convincing evidence of a crime. “Poetic license” or not, that doesn’t add up to an engrossing film.

1half-star
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, nudity and some language.

Cast: Guillaume Canet, Catherine Deneuve, Adèle Haenel
Credits: Directed by Andre Techine, script by Cedric Anger and Andre Techine. A Cohen Media release.

Running time: 1:52

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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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