Archive

Posts Tagged ‘3-D’

Is Silence Golden? The 2011 Academy nominees…

January 24th, 2012 No comments

Nine Pictures. One statuette…

In a bold move, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made good on their promise to reduce the number of Best Picture nominees from their recent unwieldy total of ten contenders to a much more reasonable nine films. If ever there was any question that the Academy moves quickly to institute change, this should forever address that issue…

Silent vs. 3-D?

The Best Picture nominees for the 84th Academy Awards include very few surprises. Audience darling, Golden Globe winner and Oscar campaign veteran “The Artist” was nominated for Best Picture, one of its 10 Oscar nominations. It does mark the first time since the inception of the sound era that an (ostensibly) silent film has been nominated, which is Oscar history. Also nominated is “Hugo,” which received a total of 11 nominations. Golden Globe drama winner “The Descendants” also did well, garnering a Best Picture and 4 other Oscar nominations. “The Help”‘s popularity at the box office elevated that film to a Best Picture nomination, as well as 3 acting nominations. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” earned him his best reviews (and box office) in years – and a Best Picture nomination, along with similar nods for original script, directing and art direction. Another veteran director, Steven Spielberg, received a Best Picture nomination for his “War Horse,” although his other film of 2011, the motion-capture ‘animated’ film “The Adventures of Tintin,” was a no-show in the animated film category.

Rounding out the  pack of nine nominees are “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life.” Of these, only “Moneyball” received multiple acting and adapted screenplay nominations, while ‘Tree’ scored nominations for veteran director Terrence Malick and Best Cinematography. Having another large field of Best Picture nominees does little to solve the traffic jam that is the Oscar telecast, but given the speed with which the Academy addressed the Best Picture nominee overpopulation issue, it’s a sure bet they’ll fix that moribund telecast… any day now…

Director

The Best Director field is broad this year. Oddly, despite directing two films in 2011, Steven Spielberg is NOT represented, but his pal Martin Scorsese, whose “Hugo” earned him his best reviews and audience acclaim in years, is. Alexander Payne, who won the statuette in 2005 for “Sideways,” is nominated for directing “The Descendants,” as well as for adapting its screenplay, along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Michel Hazanavicius, best known in his native France for lowbrow spy spoofs, is the surprise of the directing nominees. His “The Artist,” a Golden Globe winner for comedy film, is reaping the benefits of a carefully-orchestrated Oscar campaign, complemented by wild audience acceptance. As noted above, Woody Allen is nominated for his popular “Midnight in Paris,” his seventh nomination as director (he won once before, for “Annie Hall,” for which he also won an original screenplay Oscar with Marshall Brickman). Finally, iconoclastic film director Terrence Malick was nominated for directing “The Tree of Life,” a film that has confounded, enthralled and agitated moviegoers, often simultaneously. A legendary perfectionist, ‘Tree’ is only Malick’s 5th film in 34 years, although he is rumored to have a couple of films nearing completion.

Best Actor

The Academy’s nominations for Best Actor seem to fall into two categories: favorites and newbies. The favorites (at least among audiences)?: George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Clooney won the Golden Globe for his “The Descendants” role (against Pitt). The newbies? Jean Dujardin of “The Artist” and Demian Bichir of “A Better Life.” Dujardin won the Golden Globe for comedy actor, and is probably the betting favorite for the actual statuette. The wild card? Longtime screen vet and first-time nominee Gary Oldman, whose turn in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has also earned him a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination as Best Actor. In light of Oldman’s long and varied career, it’s surprising to learn this is his first Oscar nomination.

Best Actress

As with the Best Actor category, the race for Best Actress seems split into the familiar and the new. Familiar faces show up in the form of gender-bending Glenn Close, who adopted a male persona in “Albert Nobbs,” and ubiquitous Oscar nominee Meryl Streep, whose performance as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” has earned her both critical plaudits and jabs, mainly because her portrayal of Thatcher includes depictions of her as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Streep has been nominated for a record 17 acting nominations and won 2, but her last win came in 1983, for “Sophie’s Choice.” Close has now earned six nominations, but no Oscar statuettes. Up against these two legends are relative newcomers Rooney Mara, Viola Davis and Michelle Williams. Although Mara (the lone non-technical nominee from “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,”) has never been nominated before, this represents Davis’ second nomination (the first was for 2010’s “Doubt”), and Michelle Williams’ third (following “Brokeback Mountain” and last year’s “Blue Valentine.”)

Notably absent…

Sony’s Christmas tentpole film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was noticeably overlooked in Academy nominations; apart from Rooney Mara’s acting nod, as noted earlier, every other nomination was for technical contributions, leaving director David Fincher (and the film) basically shut out. Director Stephen Daldry, (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), failed to score a nomination for directing, his first time ever; Daldry has been nominated for each of his previous films, “Billy Elliot,” “The Hours” and “The Reader,” but has never won. Similarly, Bennett Miller, a directing nominee for his 2005 “Capote,” failed to make the directing cut, although his film “Moneyball” did for Best Picture.

Who?

A few high-profile performances appeared to have gone unnoticed in this year’s performances. Although “Hugo” received the most Oscar nominations, its star, Asa Butterfield, did not receive one; his performance, criticized as flat by some critics, clearly underwhelmed the Academy. Michael Fassbender, hailed for his unyielding performance as a sex addict in “Shame” and as psychiatrist Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” was totally overlooked by the Academy. “The Descendants” actress Shailene Woodley was also passed over for a nomination as Best Supporting Actress, but the mistake here seems to be the Academy’s, since her performance was exceptional.

Success is no guarantee of… success? 

Having your movie do well at the box office during the last year (a increasingly difficult proposition given declining B.O. dollars and attendance) offers no assurance you’ll also cash in at Oscar time. Of the year’s 10 biggest moneymakers, only 1 got a ‘Best Picture’ nomination, and that was for animated feature “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Despite a fierce campaign to garner gravitas, the Harry Potter series earned billions at the box office, but no Best Picture nomination for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” Likewise with the sleeper hit “Bridesmaids,” although Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo were nominated for original screenplay (against Hazanavicius’ “The Artist”, Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” – also Iran’s Foreign Language Film nominee, and dark-horse candidate “Margin Call,” written and directed by J.C. Chandor for a relatively microscopic budget of $3.3 million). 

Still to come: Original & Adapted screenplays; Supporting roles and more…

Cowboys tie Smurfs

August 1st, 2011 No comments

 

It’s a Tie: The Smurfs win!

As the summer movie season heads into its final month, the preliminary box office report is in for the past weekend, and the winner is… “The Smurfs.” But wait… Didn’t “The Smurfs” tie with “Cowboys & Aliens” at a reported $36.2 million each for their opening weekends? Well, technically, they did. But Sony and Columbia’s animated, 3-D, kid-oriented feature outperformed for its opening, while Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” series follow-up underperformed. And there’s always the ‘liar’s poker’ aspect of preliminary box office – frequently it turns out that the margin between a ‘tie’ or even a $100,000 ‘squeaker’ finish is far wider than studio ‘estimates’ suggest. In other words, sometimes people inflate figures to enhance their company bottom line. Gee, when did artifice, insincerity and self-interest creep into Hollywood business? Oh, right – never mind. [As this post was being completed, the final numbers came out for the weekend: “Cowboys & Aliens” $36.4 million, “The Smurfs” $35.6 million.]

Favreau got smurfed like nobody’s business

“Cowboys & Aliens,” which cost $163 million to make, is writer/director Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” follow-up, and producing partners Universal, DreamWorks, Reliance and Relativity were depending on Favreau’s mojo with fanboys to drive the film’s opening. The movie participated at Comic-Con last weekend, and its stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford have been grouchily honoring their publicity obligations, but this project seems to have fallen on Favreau’s shoulders, and getting gang-smurfed at the weekend box office probably came as a rude surprise to him. It doesn’t help matters that “Cowboys & Aliens” was shot in (apparently now passe) 2-D, so it did not get the 3-D premium coin its diminutive blue Belgian competitors enjoyed. Western films, in general, have been poison at the box office in the last few decades, with a few notable examples like last year’s remake of “True Grit” or 1990’s “Dances With Wolves.” Just a handful have made it past the $100 million dollar B.O. mark, and “Cowboys & Aliens” will have a tougher time making it there now that it has opened lower than hoped. Let’s face it, though: “Cowboys & Aliens,” a genre mash-up, is about as much a ‘Western’ as next year’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” can be called a ‘Lincoln biography.’

The (small) Blue Man Group

It’s pretty clear Sony’s marketing machine revved-up and ‘got its smurf on’ in a big way. In addition to a huge advertising campaign, the company pacted with Build-a-Bear, FAO Schwartz and McDonalds to grow awareness of the film among the Smurf set. Neil Patrick Harris dilligently performed his PR duties with a smile, appearing across the TV channel spectrum. As a result, the $110 million production resonated with youthful audiences, who, accordingly, dragged along at least one parent to pay enhanced 3-D prices for their tickets. Tellingly, “The Smurfs” was on 355 fewer screens than ‘Cowboys,’ so the final B.O. totals should be interesting, to say the least. The end result was a happy weekend for director Raja Gosnell and the folks at Sony and Columbia – at least until the final B.O. figures come out. [See the end of the first paragraph for ‘Cowboys” narrow margin of ‘victory.’]

‘America’ comes in third; ‘Love’ loses big…

Last week’s number one film (it opened at $65 million), “Captain America: The First Avenger,” slipped dramatically (62%) into 3rd place, with $24.9 million, but its box office take (and B.O. stalwart Harry Potter – see below) bested the only other film opening last weekend, the adult-skewing “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Disapointingly for Warner Brothers, ‘Love’ brought in only $19.3 million from more than 3,000 screens, earning it 5th place  for the weekend, behind the ‘boy-wizard-who-could,’ Harry Potter. Although it claimed most of the adult audience (and a more-than-half female audience), “Crazy, Stupid, Love” simply couldn’t beat the world’s love affair with Potter, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” earned $21.9 million over the weekend, giving the final picture in the Potter series the notable achievement of being its first of the Potter franchise to make over $1 billion at the box office. ‘Hallows Pt. 2”s domestic total is $318 million, but the film has earned over twice that overseas, with $690 million (and counting!).

Coming Soon: Even More Remakes!!

If you haven’t gotten enough of Hollywood’s ‘creativity’ in terms of re-inventing (exploiting?) franchises they already own, get ready for next weekend’s “Rise of Planet of the Apes,” from Twentieth Century Fox, starring graduate degree record holder James Franco. In the alternative, if quality adult drama appeals to you, there’s “The Whistleblower,” starring Rachel Weisz.

See you at the movies!

A Lion, Hobbits and Bond – oh my!

July 22nd, 2011 No comments

As summer heat scorches most of the U.S., (except, interestingly enough, Hollywood), perhaps it’s time to chill out and get caught up with stories we’ve blogged about in past months. Interestingly, in one way or another, all of today’s stories link to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Sort of.

 

The Cat Came Back…

Proving a corporate survival rate second to none, MGM emerged from bankruptcy in late 2010 and was placed under the leadership of former Spyglass Entertainment honchos Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber. Having successfully fended off corporate raider Carl Icahn’s attempt to take over the beleaguered studio via his one-third share in Lionsgate, as well as a semi-serious offer by Time Warner (and even some foreign tire-kicking),  MGM received debtholder approval and the bankruptcy court’s blessing to restructure its obligations, and has re-entered the movie business. Well – sort of.

As a matter of fact, MGM has a movie in the theaters right now – sort of. “Zookeeper” is a MGM film, but it is distributed by Sony under that studio’s Columbia label. MGM bought the script in a 2008 bidding war for $2 million against $3 million, and promptly set Adam Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison (HQ’d at Sony), onto the project, effectively reuniting most of their “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” production team to get “Zookeeper” made. Unfortunately, in the interim, MGM was hit with big money woes, and the film was included in a deal which gave Sony distribution rights to the next two James Bond films as well. The deal with Sony may just get the struggling studio back into regular production, but MGM’s possible future slate looks more like a ‘blast from the past,’ relying heavily on remakes of MGM properties like “Red Dawn,” “RoboCop,” “Mr. Mom” and “Poltergeist.” 

And that’s just the Halfling of it…

Another long-stalled, high-profile MGM project, “The Hobbit,” has finally begun production. Well – sort of. It’s a ‘good news, bad news’ kind of thing for MGM: MGM’s “The Hobbit,” long planned to be a pair of films directed (and co-written) by Guillermo del Toro and produced by ‘Lord of the Rings’ director Peter Jackson, ended up morphing into a giant pair of  Warner Brothers (corporate successor to New Line) 3-D movies, directed by Jackson after MGM’s money woes caused del Toro to move on (after 2 years of work) and MGM to unload its rights, retaining only broadcast TV rights. Peter Jackson has largely reunited his ‘Lord of the Rings’ principals; they support British actor Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins. In early press, Jackson points out that these things rarely get easier: the shooting schedule for both ‘Hobbit’ movies is only 12 days less than all 3 of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films, and the $500 million budget is 40% more than the three earlier films. The first of the two 3-D ‘Hobbit’ films, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” is due in theaters in December, 2012. The second film, “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” is set for a year later in December, 2013.

Never say ‘Never Again’…

The other jewel in MGM’s crown (after the hard-won ‘Hobbit’ rights, which involved years of legal wrangling with Saul Zaentz) is James Bond. ‘James Bond 23,’ the as-yet-untitled next chapter in the spy series, was held up due to – what else? – MGM’s financial troubles. With the resolution of MGM’s debt situation, they are free to make the next James Bond movie. Well – sort of.

Due to a deal set up with MGM in 2004, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment distributed all of MGM’s theatrical feature films and  home video, accordingly, including the rebooted Bond franchise’s highly-successful “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” However, MGM exercised an option in 2006 which allowed it to transfer distribution of its product to Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. This left the distribution of the next Bond movie up in the air when MGM ran out of money; now Sony has stepped in and agreed to distribute both ‘Bond 23’ and ‘Bond 24,’ in addition to co-financing both films. This solves several problems: Sony stays in the Bond business, and MGM has a partner well-versed in dealing with EON Productions, the ‘power behind the throne’ of the Bond franchise. Oscar winner Sam Mendes is set to direct, and Daniel Craig will return as James Bond. ‘James Bond 23’ has a release date of November 9, 2012.

It’s Too Darn Hot!

It is hot out there. Why not go into a nice air-conditioned movie theater? This weekend, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is the latest 3-D superhero to grace movie screens, and it should be interesting to see if he battles boy wizards as well as he does Nazis. It takes guts to go up against such tough foes… And if good versus evil isn’t your thing, check out “Friends With Benefits,” which should benefit producer Screen Gems via its clever (2-D, superhero-free) counter-programming… Sort of.

Summer Movies: And… They’re Off! (by 28%)

April 11th, 2011 3 comments

The 2011 movie season has started, albeit tepidly. This weekend’s box office was buoyed by a 3-D holiday animated film, “Hop,” which garnered about $21.5 million, but the remaining films in the top five hovered around the $11 to $12 million mark in terms of box office returns. It’s more evidence that the habits of moviegoers are changing – as a result of technological developments as well as economic instability – and the movie industry itself is undergoing a paradigm shift akin to the changes in the music business in the last decade.

Good News, Bad News…

The numbers are in, and it’s not good: the take at the movie box office is down a whopping 20% since the beginning of 2011. And, to make matters worse, that’s the good  news. The bad news? Attendance is down even more, having slipped 28% so far this year. Hollywood doesn’t seem to be helping: its sequel, prequel, remake and reboot-heavy schedule for 2011’s prime movie turf has already been lacerated by critics and fans alike. The few strongly-anticipated films can be counted on one hand – two, if you’re a superhero fanboy. Discussing the potential for this summer’s tentpole films, movie mavens Peter Guber and Peter Bart singled out the July 4th weekend-opener “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” as one of the summer’s rare sequels with real audience potential, and pointed towards J.J. Abrams’ Spielberg-tinged “Super 8” as another film with positive ‘buzz’ among distributors and moviegoers. Not so definite were the prospects for the fourth film in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which loses franchise stars Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom this go-round, replaced by Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane, along with Dame Judi Dench and a new director: “Chicago” helmer Rob Marshall.

Big Film, Little Film

What seems clear is that the entertainment industry is going through a great metamorphosis. And it’s not just movies, but all media ‘platforms’ in general. With few exceptions, today there are no studios making theatrical genre fare like the Universal and Warner Brothers programmers of old, or MGM‘s old-fashioned frothy romances or musicals, apart from a specialty distribution unit like Sony’s Screen Gems, which releases “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” sequels with regularity, while sneaking in a popular musical like “Burlesque’ every once in a while. But these movies are small films, basically, and Screen Gems has a firm understanding of its core audience: they are teen moviegoers who have grown up on a steady supply of vampires, werewolves and action fare, with the occasional musical (“Country Strong”) thrown in for good measure. As a result, the company has had few missteps (“Death at a Funeral” was a rare recent misfire), and has made a lot of money for its parent company. Other studios tried with specialty units, but none has had the staying power – or success – of Screen Gems.

Sony continues to make tentpole movies, of course, but they have acknowledged the need for belt-tightening – their retooling of the “Spider-Man” franchise is a perfect example: when the budget of “Spider-Man 4” passed $250 million, the studio began to think in terms of a newer, less costly take on the story – and cast “The Social Network” star Andrew Garfield as its newer, younger Peter Parker. Even a successful studio like Sony needs to deal with the realities of the present: fewer people are going to see movies in the theater, so it’s helpful for them to know who those theatergoers are and give them the movies they want to see, and it’s also important to find a way to distribute their product in every possible way to multiply potential revenue streams. Because let’s face it: when business is down 28%, it’s time to lower margins, tighten belts, and look for new ideas… The studios can implement the cutbacks – but where are they going to find new ideas?

 

2010 – The Year in (moving) Pictures…

January 5th, 2011 No comments

Charles Dickens wrote in “A Tale of Two Cities” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” but he might as well have been talking about the film year just passed. 2010 brought us pronounced Hollywood highs and lows, from the (continued) historic box-office success of 3-D juggernaut “Avatar” to the cringe-worthy release of “Sex and the City 2,” but perhaps the biggest story all year has been the public’s perceived paucity of quality entertainment coming from Hollywood. For every success like “Toy Story 3,” there were scads of expensive failures, from “The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader” or “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” to “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (the latter two films being rare flops from mega-budget producer Jerry Bruckheimer). And then there was “The Last Airbender,” which offended fans of the series and struck out both artistically and at the box office, despite being 3-D retrofitted by Paramount.

But the news wasn’t all bad: there were big-budget successes (other than Fox’s “Avatar,” which made $477 domestically in 2010), like Tim Burton’s 3-D opus “Alice in Wonderland,” which earned Disney $334 million, as well as the think-piece of the year, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which simultaneously thrilled and confounded audiences with its reality-bending storyline, pulling in $293 million domestically for Warner’s. Harry Potter made a return to America’s movie screens in “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 1” and pulled-in $273 million, but the film couldn’t be made into 3-D by its already-set release date, so Warner Brothers sacrificed B.O. bucks while gleaning praise by purists for not cutting corners. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Warner’s “Clash of the Titans,” which, like ‘Airbender,’ retrofitted itself to 3-D, with predictably bad artistic results (although being the first at the trough helps, since ‘Titans’ made over $163 million domestically).

But when the Motion Picture Academy announces its Oscar nominees on January 25, 2011, don’t expect to hear too many of these films being mentioned. For starters, “Avatar” was a 2009 release, and it did OK at the 2010 Oscars, but James Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow walked away with the statuettes for Best Picture and Best Director for “The Hurt Locker,” and that film also won for Mark Boal’s original screenplay. This year it’s about critically acclaimed movies (think  either low-budget or so-so box office), like The Weinstein Company’s “The King’s Speech,” whose ad campaigns seem eerily reminiscent of “Shine,” probably because of star Geoffrey Rush, or Sony’s David Fincher-directed, Aaron Sorkin-scripted “The Social Network,” which packs so much dialogue into its two hour running-time that the shooting script was 180 pages long. Another  potential nominee is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” but after his manic “Slumdog Millionaire,” it’s doubtful he’d win again so soon, but James Franco seems a lock for a Best Actor nomination. While you’re at it, add “Black Swan” and Natalie Portman to the list, as well as Lisa Chodolenko’s “The Kids are All Right,” which seems destined to earn a few acting nominations for its stars. David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” falls into this group of critically-lauded but low-performing films.

One of the year’s best reviewed films is also its longest and hardest to find. “Carlos,” a 5 1/2 hour epic by Olivier Assayas about the international terrorist known as ‘Carlos the Jackal.’ The film was made for Canal Plus; it’s a demanding biography that travels through the history of international terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s. Because Assayas’ film was initially made for television (and already aired, last October, on the Sundance Channel) it won’t be earning any Oscar nominations. Even still, “Carlos” consistently placed highly on critics’ year-end ‘best’ lists, and was an audience favorite at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

2010 wasn’t really a year for the record books – domestic box office receipts dropped along with ticket sales, approximately 5%. But the 3-D ‘premium’ ticket price kept things nearly even. Even still, of the top ten films at the U.S. box office in 2010, 6 of them were 3-D – but only 2 of those were live-action films: “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.” The remaining films were all animated: “Toy Story 3,” Universal’s “Despicable Me,” and Paramount’s “Shrek Forever After” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” So although 3-D is credited with bringing additional change into studio coffers, that trend seems to be slipping, with audiences growing more picky about whether they spring for the extra bucks to see “Yogi Bear” in 3-D. Although more 3-D films are in the works, it’s still not clear whether 3-D is a technological advance in filmmaking – or a way for the studios to grab a few extra bucks.

With more big-budget films coming your way for 2011, there should be plenty for everyone. Did I mention Sony’s “The Green Hornet” opens in 3-D next week? See you at the movies!

Bilbo’s new boss, Leo sizzles & ‘Apprentice’ fizzles

July 27th, 2010 1 comment

 

 Picking up ‘The Hobbit’ – again

As a searing heatwave gripped most of the United States, news came out of Hollywood that should give some Tolkien fans hope that the long-gestating “The Hobbit” feature film(s) are getting back on track. In an announcement that took no one by surprise, Peter Jackson revealed that he will take over the directing duties on “The Hobbit,’ following Guillermo del Toro’s departure as director over scheduling conflicts, despite del Toro’s having already dedicated almost two years to pre-production planning. Executive producer Jackson was presumed to be the frontrunner for the directing gig, but his plate is fairly full these days as well, with several projects in development and a commitment to produce the next two ‘Tintin’ movies for Dreamworks. Despite the change in directors, however, the project still faces challenges as producing partner MGM endures mounting financial woes and remains for sale with few, if any, real potential buyers. 

Cerebral Cinema

The #1 movie at the box office in the US for the last 2 weeks has been the Leonardo DiCaprio starrer “Inception,” the latest brain-teaser from Christopher Nolan, who has made a reputation for himself of turning out movies that are smarter than the average audience. His breakout film, “Memento,” was a breath of fresh air in terms of storytelling, literally turning the plot on its head as the story unfolded backwards; even though others have used this device before (Harold Pinter wrote “Betrayal” ‘backwards, and Martin Amis’ “Time’s Arrow” uses a similar technique in prose narrative), Nolan layers his story with false leads and ambiguities which results in a truly unsettling and intense experience. “The Prestige” also plays with audiences’ perceptions while setting its tragic tale of  magician one-upmanship in Victorian-era London. Now Nolan has created “Inception,” a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream puzzle involving industrial espionage, hallucinatory ‘reality,’ and a team of mind-bending operators who can literally become the men (or woman) of your dreams. In ‘Time’ magazine, veteran film critic Richard Corliss suggests seeing the film twice, since viewers will be challenged by the complexity of the story. In a summer of dumb 3-D fare and middling sequels, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is welcome indeed.

Audiences to ‘Apprentice’: “You’re Fired!”

The phenomenal success of James Cameron’s “Avatar” in late 2009 and early 2010 skewed results for the tracking of box office receipts (just as “Titanic”‘s success had done a decade earlier). Clearly an aberation, “Avatar”‘s profits raised expectations all around Hollywood that the box office was booming despite a flat-lining economy. As a result, lots of 3-D movies were rushed into production (or, in some cases, like “Clash of the Titans,” were retroactively engineered in 3-D), and some did quite well, like “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”and “Shrek: Forever After,” but 3-D fare alone could not immunize the domestic box office from the economic downturn or a series of underperforming films – or even worse – downright flops.

Since May, the box office has seen a series of high-budget missteps, starting with “Prince of Persia,” followed by “The A Team,” “Killers,” “The Last Airbender,” “Predators” and now “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The latter, a Disney picture, had a very ‘soft’ opening last weekend, coming in at #4 with $9.6 million behind “Despicable Me,” which has already been in release for several weeks . Even before ‘Apprentice’ opened, it was the object of negative ‘buzz’ in Hollywood due to its low tracking numbers. Tracking numbers are the result of audience polling which hint at a film’s potential popularity and success or failure. In light of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”‘s low figures, its poor opening weekend performance should surprise few. In fact, overall domestic box office receipts are currently 4% lower than they were one year ago. With fewer (but more expensive) movies to see, higher ticket prices and a real dearth of originality on the screen, is it any surprise that people are going to see “Inception,” a movie that makes them think? 

Who knows? Maybe ‘thinking’ will be the next trend to catch on in Hollywood, like 3-D. But 3-D came and went once. This thinking thing? It’s practically a first for Tinseltown…