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Murphy to Oscar: “Oh-Tay!”

September 8th, 2011 No comments

  

I read the news today. Oh boy.

I smell a Ratner…

Still stinging from criticism of the less-than-stellar 2010 Oscars telecast last February which paired actors Anne Hathaway and James Franco as show hosts, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has announced that Eddie Murphy will host the 2011 Oscarcast. That’s right: Eddie Murphy, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member turned 80s and 90s box-office powerhouse. While still a recognizeable figure, Murphy’s star has faded substantially in the past decade, despite maintaining a lucrative job voicing the character of Donkey in the “Shrek” films, as well as receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Dreamgirls” in 2006. Even still, Murphy, whose last film was box office dud “Imagine That,” will be seen in the upcoming “Tower Heist,” opposite Ben Stiller and Casey Affleck, directed by Oscar co-producer Brett Ratner (who works alongside seasoned Oscar producer Don Mischer).

Can “Pluto Nash 3D” or “Re-Meet Dave” be far behind?

Ratner has expressed a desire to resurrect the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise with Murphy; the 3-film series made nearly a billion dollars in box office receipts from 1984 to 1994. Still only 50, Murphy broke-out in stand-up comedy and was made a cast member of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 19. Two years later, he made his feature film debut in Walter Hill’s successful “48 Hrs.”, then cemented his box office stature with 1983’s “Trading Places,” a bona fide blockbuster hit. A number of hit films followed (“Coming to America,” “The Nutty Professor”), but by 2002 Murphy’s film roles grew increasingly formulaic, and he was saddled with a series of high-profile flops, including “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,”  “Norbit” and “Meet Dave.” Clearly both Murphy and Ratner believe that “Tower Heist,” in which Murphy plays a thief recruited to help steal $20 million believed hidden by a Bernie Madoff-like con man, will revitalize his career. Early buzz on ‘Heist,’ which features a supporting cast filled with the likes of Alan Alda, Gabourey Sidibe and Matthew Broderick, is strong.

Have I seen this one before?

The Academy has drawn on comedians to host the Oscarcast many times before: Bob Hope was considered the show’s ‘unofficial host’ for years. Johnny Carson hosted the show numerous times, and Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and even David Letterman have hosted (although Letterman was a one-shot wonder, as were subsequent ‘edgy’ comic hosts Jon Stewart and Chris Rock). It’s hoped that Murphy’s stand-up experience and career longevity will restore the Academy Awards telecast’s steadily declining ratings, but that a tough bet to make, given that Murphy’s dated appeal and R-rated humor may not  translate to a network awards show.

In other Brett Ratner-related news…

Whether by coincidence or design, another Ratner crony re-surfaced this week: Chris Tucker, of “Rush Hour” fame, announced he was set to join director David O. Russell’s comedy “The Silver Linings Playbook,” the director’s follow-up to last year’s box office hit “The Fighter.” Tucker hasn’t been in a film since “Rush Hour 3” in 2007, after hemming and hawing 6 years to make that film. Although he was (and remains) attached to a crime script at Warner Brothers called “The Rabbit,” it seems likely that Tucker’s next two projects will be Russell’s  ‘Silver Linings,’ as well as “Neighborhood Watch,” opposite Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill. Tucker is a mercurial figure who has worked with visionary directors like Quentin Tarantino (“Jackie Brown,”) and Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”) before finding financial and career stability with Ratner, with whom Tucker has made 4 films: the 3 “Rush Hour” films, as well as “Money Talks,” Ratner’s debut feature. Presently, Tucker is performing a standup comedy tour, set to end in November.

Beverly Hills Cop-out?

Eddie Murphy’s hosting gig at the 2011 Oscars next February probably won’t change much in terms of the show’s ratings decline. Despite Murphy’s $7 billion (with a b) in career box office earnings, what needs to be changed at the Oscars is the show, not its host. The Academy has already decreed that the number of Best Picture nominees will not be the 10-title phone-book list of recent years, itself a promising start. It’s clear the different producers of the last few years have taken stabs at originality, but the Academy Awards telecast remains a real relic of old Hollywood. Like the movie business itself, which is declining in the numbers of ticket buyers, the Academy Awards TV broadcast is going to have to find a new, sustainable model if it wishes to enjoy continued ratings – or relevancy.

ARE MOVIES GETTING smaller?

February 17th, 2011 No comments

In our last For Bards blog post, we posed the question “Are movies getting bigger?,” citing the number of sequels, prequels and reboots coming down the pike for the next couple of movie seasons. Everything looked to be bigger! better! (And more of the same!!)

But there’s change afoot in the cinema. By the looks of this year’s Academy Award nominees, movies may be getting smaller. A quick look at the ten nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture reveals that at least 6 of them are smaller-budgeted, character-driven ‘arthouse’ films: “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours” and “Winter’s Bone.” And another Best Picture nominee, “Inception,” is a contradiction in terms: a  huge-budgeted, arthouse film made by a studio (which returned the favor by delivering blockbuster global box office).

But a strange thing happened on the way to making these ‘small’ pictures… For starters, they actually got made – truly a testimony to the creative talents behind the projects. Their budgets were squeezed for every dollar – and the filmmakers often suffered for their art; the entire “Winter’s Bone” budget was $2 million, yet that picture has earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Leading Actress (Jennifer Lawrence). The highest-budgeted (with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s anomalous “Inception”) of these so-called arthouse films is $25 million for “The Fighter,” but Lisa Chodolenko managed to make her “The Kids Are All Right” for a little over $4 million, and that garnered Academy nods for Best Picture, Leading Actress (Annette Bening) Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), and Best Original Screenplay. “The King’s Speech” cost $15 million to make, but this past weekend it walked away with 7 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards (in addition to receiving 12 Oscar nominations).

But something even stranger happened – something few folks predicted: these films made money. “The King’s Speech” is rapidly closing in on $100 million in the US, and has made $86 million overseas. “Black Swan” has earned nearly $100 million in the U.S.,  “The Fighter” has earned $82 million in the US, and another $11 million abroad, even Chodolenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” made about $20 million domestically. The micro-budgeted (by Hollywood standards) “Winter’s Bone” made a significant profit, returning $10 million in B.O. receipts. Ironically, the one ‘small’ Best Picture nominee that has underperformed is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” which was budgeted at $18 million and has brought in only $15 million domestically, and another $13 million at the box office overseas. Poor word-of-mouth is probably to blame: while audiences thrilled at Boyle’s bravura filmmaking and James Franco’s charismatic (and Leading Actor Oscar-nominated) performance, word of the picture’s emotional climax, in which Franco’s character cuts off his own arm, hurt potential sales. It didn’t help that the media picked up stories of people fainting at screenings, although Boyle’s films have always tested audience’s fortitude – think ‘plumbing-diving’ sequences in “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” (and don’t forget: for the latter, Boyle – and his film – won Academy Awards).

It’s not uneard-of for a ‘small’ film to make money – studios are always looking for the next money-making phenom like “Paranormal Activity,” “Napoleon Dynamite,”or “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but it takes a certain sensibility to find and nurture these off-the-radar projects. It’s rare that a studio gets behind such a project – it used to be the province of the studios’ ‘specialty film’ units, but most of those have closed since every studio began throwing money at ‘small’ films, effectively turning them into conventional studio product. In the case of this year’s ‘small’ nominees, every film represents the vision of a strong-minded director and a solidly-written script, and, despite this, many of these projects struggled for years to find funding and support to get made.

The lone exception is Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which resembles an ‘arthouse’ film in its mind-bending originality, but is betrayed by its $160 million budget. It speaks volumes that Warner Brothers executives greenlit Nolan’s film, a convoluted puzzle-within-a-puzzle, but it is very representative of the filmmaker’s work: turning genre works on their head is Nolan’s specialty – just watch “Memento,” “The Prestige” or even “The Dark Knight” to see how this cinephile subverts conventional storytelling to elevate the antagonist and invert audience expectations. He may be too ‘smart’ or original for conventional Hollywood fare, but Nolan’s auteur sense suggests a keen understanding of art and commerce; after all, despite critical brickbats, “Inception” has gone on to make $824 million at the world box office. Not bad for a giant ‘arthouse’ picture!

So – are movies getting smaller? The simple answer is no. But as long as ‘small’ films make money, look for studios to hedge their big tentpole bets with lesser-budgeted projects in hopes of landing ‘the next big thing.’

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!

Hollywood’s Best at Last?

November 10th, 2010 No comments

Earlier this year, I wrote in For Bards Blog about Joe Queenan’s contention that 2010 was the worst year for movies ever. While For Bards Blog took a more cautious approach, citing box office champs “Inception” and “Toy Story 3” as quality successes, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Queenan may have had a point. Despite the successes of a few films, quality pickings at the local multiplex or arthouse cinema have been few and far between. For every thought-provoking and poignant independent film like “Never Let Me Go,” or pedigreed Hollywood release like “The Social Network,” there are multiple go-for-the-quick-money, Hollywood-factory releases like “Salt,” “Jackass 3-D,” “The Sorceror’s Apprentice,” or “Robin Hood.” And it’s no accident that so many kids’ movies are released in 3-D, since 3-D simply increases ticket prices, strengthening the studio’s bottom lines.

But there may be a glimmer of hope for serious filmgoers. The holiday film season is upon us, and with it comes a lot of big-budget and high-profile fare, including a 3-D sequel to Disney’s 1982 classic “Tron,” “Tron: Legacy,” along with Danny Boyle’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” the harrowing “127 Hours.” Action films are represented by Twentieth Century Fox’s “Unstoppable,” which goes head-to-head with Universal Pictures’ “Skyline,” in mid-November, but one week later the first part of the final Harry Potter adventure bows; “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1)” faces the latest Russell Crowe adventure, “The Next Three Days,” in which Crowe attempts to break his wrongly-accused wife out of prison. In December, the final film based on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” will open opposite a Ben AffleckChris Cooper dramatic comedy about corporate downsizing, “The Company Men.” Also opening the same week is “The Tempest,” a gender-bender version of William Shakespeare’s play, directed by Julie Taymor (“Across the Universe”), starring Helen Mirren. Another opener that week is the Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie starrer “The Tourist,” which combines Oscar-winning director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) with equally-honored scribes Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) and Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects.”)

As Christmas nears, the mood lightens, and comedies enter the fray. The week of December 22, a 3-D retelling of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” opens with Jack Black in the title role, along with “Little Fockers,” the third go-round in the “Meet the Parents” series, featuring Oscar winners Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand as well as Oscar nominee Harvey Keitel. Also opening just before Christmas is “Somewhere,” writer-director Sofia Coppola’s insider Hollywood drama. Also, Paramount has  announced it is moving “True Grit,” the Joel and Ethan Coen re-telling of the Charles Portis novel, forward a few days from its originally-scheduled Christmas release date. Evidently the feeling at Paramount is that they’ve got a strong contender on their hands with last year’s Oscar-winning actor, Jeff Bridges, in the Rooster Cogburn role, (which won the original film’s Cogburn, John Wayne, his only Oscar) and hopes are a few extra days will help fuel Oscar buzz and the film’s bottom line.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg… There’s a new James L. Brooks film, “How Do You Know,” coming out in mid-December, featuring Brooks’ good-luck charm Jack Nicholson in a cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd. For the serious moviegoer, there’s “Rabbit Hole,” a marital drama starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart about the aftermath of a traumatic loss. And let’s not forget “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” a love-tale between prison convicts Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, or David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, “Fair Game” with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, “For Colored Girls,” “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman and “Love and other Drugs,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, in which a pharmaceutical rep falls for a Parkinson’s patient.

This doesn’t even touch the vast number of independent and ‘art’ films that will fill the theaters late this year. So – was 2010 the ‘worst movie year ever?’ It’s impossible to tell – let’s see what it still has to offer…

Finally, “Casino Jack,” the last film by director George Hickenlooper, who died last week at the age of 47, will open December 17. Based on the twisted tale of crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the film is highly regarded by those who have already seen it, and only underscores the loss of director Hickenlooper at such a young age. More will follow about Hickenlooper, who I first wrote about 30 years ago when he was a student at Yale, soon in For Bards Blog.