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With 'Law Abiding Citizen,' Overture could finally make some mayhem

By Steven Zeitchik

Law After two years, some impressive specialty results but no big openers,  (highest-generating wide release: "Righteous Kill," at $40m), the Starz-affiliated Overture looks to finally have a broad hit. And it took an absurd pulp movie -- though also a thrilling and fun one -- produced by another company to do it.

F. Gary Gray's "Law Abiding Citizen," which goes wide this weekend, is many things. Plausible is not one of them. The story of a justice system brought low by a one-time victim (Gerard Butler, even less convincing than usual) now bent on gruesome revenge on the D.A. who failed him (Jamie Foxx, solid as usual), various elected officials and seemingly the entire city of Philadelphia, has little in it that could be called high-quality. It's preposterously constructed, at times awkwardly directed and often hamfistedly acted. And yet it's irresistible. To not crave it is to not crave cheesesteaks. You know it's artificial and bad for you, but why wouldn't you have more? (Butler's character, a nihilistic killer with remarkable technical craftiness -- like Hannibal Lecter by way of MacGyver -- is especially fun to watch as he plays a cat and mouse game with Foxx.)

Continue reading "With 'Law Abiding Citizen,' Overture could finally make some mayhem" »

'Agora,' the high-profile movie you can't see

By Steven Zeitchik

Weisz A studio-level budget, a bankable star and an Oscar-winning director are just a few of the commercial virtues of “Agora.”

Alejandro Amenabar’s English-language period pic, about religious clashes in Roman Egypt, stars Rachel Weisz and sports a $65 million budget (and effects to match). And you can now add Spanish blockbuster to the list. The movie bowed last weekend to nearly $8 million in Spain in just three days, and a $10.3 million cume. That’s the country’s best opening of the year, ahead of “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” and a slew of Hollywood fare.

So why hasn’t a U.S. distributor touched it?

The idea-driven pic — it centers on the tension between religion and science — has sat without a deal since it debuted at the Festival de Cannes. Sales agent Cinetic tried again at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival and met with the same guardedness, as buyers worried about marketability and audience.

Continue reading "'Agora,' the high-profile movie you can't see" »

Where the Wild Things Aren't: The problem with Spike Jonze's movie

By Steven Zeitchik

 WildReaders of this space might know that we've been a little obsessed with "Where the Wild Things Are" for  a number of months now. The reshoots, the self-promotional short doc, the indie soundtrack, the humanity.

It's not that we're so concerned about our childhoods being hijacked by a man who once had a DVD magazine called Wholphin. (We in fact weren't so into the cult of Maurice Sendak in our younger days. We're that guy.) It's more that the Dave Eggers-Spike Jonze collaboration has for a while now seemed like the strangest of forays, a lavishly budgeted ($80-90m, at least) experiment in childhood whimsy from Warners. Or, perhaps better, the most expensive hipster movie ever made.

We caught the film at a media screening Tuesday night, and it's not as messy as some of those early set reports had it, nor as flawless as some of the first reviews have it (we're looking at you, new At the Movies people). Basically, it's a noble misfire. Jonze is attentive enough to detail and has a sufficiently developed sense of whimsy to convey the subtleties of childhood and its various states of imagination and vulnerability. (It's also a respectable allegory for our era, with global warming and other collective fears running throughout; in this sense, the filmmakers seem to be saying, we are all children.)

But Jonze's resistance to narrative, coupled with a neglect for differentiating the monsters into rich individual characters, works against him. You can see why the director might have felt that keeping things impressionistic was an advantage when making a film about the subconscious. But without any real shape or specificity, it all feels unmoored, like a dream that never really coheres. It's hard to understand how a movie so deeply metaphoric can feel so slight.

Continue reading "Where the Wild Things Aren't: The problem with Spike Jonze's movie" »

Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew McConaughey will be lawyering together

By Steven Zeitchik

Tomm Tommy Lee Jones is heading to court.

Jones is in negotiations to direct and co-star in "The Lincoln Lawyer," the Matthew McConaughey vehicle based on the 2005 bestseller from Michael Connelly.

"Lawyer,"  which is set up at Lakeshore Entertainment, centers on a wheeler-dealer Los Angeles lawyer named Mickey Haller who operates out of the back of his Lincoln. Haller is content with a career defending garden-variety criminals until he lands the case of a lifetime, defending a Beverly Hills playboy accused of murder.

McConaughey is on board to play Haller. It's unclear what role Jones would play; the playboy character, which could be the second male lead, is described in the book as somewhat younger than Jones, though the part could be adjusted to accommodate an older interpretation. John Romano penned the screenplay for "Lawyer" while Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg and Scott Steindorff are producing, the first two for Lakeshore and the latter via his Stone Village Pictures banner.

Both Jones and McConnaughey had breakout roles playing characters in the justice system, McConaughey a young defense attorney in "A Time to Kill" and Jones the federal marshal Samuel Gerard in "The Fugitive." Both movies were among the highest earning of each actor’s respective careers, with Jones also seeing significant coin with the"Men In Black" franchise, where he also played a government agent.

Continue reading "Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew McConaughey will be lawyering together" »

Fox Searchlight, one year after hitting the 'Millionaire' jackpot

By Steven Zeitchik

We've gotten so used to seeing Searchlight at the awards podium -- the specialty division has been nominated for at least five Oscars in each of the past three years, including a best pic nom in all of them -- that it feels almost unfair to highlight the question of whether the streak will end this year.

The studio has a good shot to pick up screenplay and acting kudos for "(500) Days of Summer" -- still pound-for-pound the best indie movie of the year, no matter how many of you write angry emails with the words "District 9" in them -- and could still end up with kudos recognition, particularly on tech and animation fronts, for Wes Anderson's animated fable "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (though we'll see how some of the early press, particularly this pointed critique of Anderson in the Los Angeles Times this weekend, affects its chances).

But much for the specialty division this season will turn on "Amelia," the Mira Nair follow-up to her immigrant-family epic "The Namesake" from three years ago.

We enjoyed the trailer for the Hilary Swank-Richard Gere-Ewan McGregor starrer, which had some nice period texture, great photography and a surprising level of suspense for a serious 1930's biopic. And between them, the three lead actors have nine Globe and Oscar noms, which automatically provide it with a pedigree.

But it's hard to know how much awards potential the pic has. Unlike most contenders, which screen weeks if not months before they open, the only screenings on either coast (besides those done for interview purposes) will take place just a few days before the release next Friday. No one we know has seen it.

Continue reading "Fox Searchlight, one year after hitting the 'Millionaire' jackpot" »

Where will Ruben Fleischer walk after 'Zombieland'?

By Steven Zeitchik

Ru With the undead of "Zombieland" continuing to stalk the box office, one person associated with that pic may be more enlivened than any character seen on the screen: director Ruben Fleischer.

The debut helmer's name is suddenly on the lips of producers and execs all around town, as the former music-video director finds himself weighing a mix of options.

It's a wide-ranging list.

Fleischer is loosely attached to helm a Paramount pic called "Daddy's Home" (also known as "World's Greatest Brad"), though people familiar with the project say there is no formal deal in place). The comedy, which would be produced by Will Ferrell's and Adam McKay's Gary Sanchez Prods. as a starring vehicle for Ferrell, centers on a divorced man whose ex-wife gets re-married to an uptight guy, and the comedy that ensues when the divorcee re-appears on the scene. (Ed Helms has had discussions on the uptight role.)

The director is in a similar loose attachment on "The Bachelorette," a kind of female "Hangover," set at a bachelorette party, that's set up with Universal and Neal Moritz, with producers currently seeking writers to pen a new draft.

Fleischer is also on the shortlist to take over Fox's in-flux "Neighborhood Watch," the sci-fi comedy that helmer David Dobkin and star Will Ferrell left over the summer. The studio is also looking closely at another emerging helmer, Rob Letterman, the "Monsters vs. Aliens" director who recently finished shooting "Gulliver's Travels" for Fox, with the two directors considered the leading candidates.

Continue reading "Where will Ruben Fleischer walk after 'Zombieland'?" »

'Couples Retreat' provides a respite for Universal, but how much of one?

By Steven Zeitchik

Cou So Universal gets its first domestic hit in seven months with "Couples Retreat," a picture that proves that you can get men to see a romantic comedy if you make it bawdy enough (and get women to see a bawdy comedy if you put Vince Vaughn in it).

There are all sorts of caveats to this happy turn for the studio, including the rather evident fact that there was nothing else opening wide this weekend (it only felt like "Paranormal Activity" did -- more on that in another post). But if you're part of a new regime, as toppers Donna Langley and Adam Fogelson are (well, sort of), you take it, even if you also maybe think about sending one of those bouquets you got last week to Rob Moore and Paramount, which by moving "Shutter Island" off October 2 ensured there would be no second week of Scorsese to compete against and no first week of "Whip It" (which moved to the Scorsese date). Those movies may not have killed it, but they would have taken some share from "Retreat."

Even the most generous would acknowledge the success of Vaughn-Favreau this weekend doesn't counteract Uni's underperformers of 2009. Let's say the movie holds nicely and earns $25m next weekend (not necessarily easy given how "Law Abiding Citizen," which is tracking surprisingly well - more on that too in another post -- could gobble up some of the male audience) and then hangs tough for $15m the week following. That's a $75m earner for a studio that, including "Inglourious Basterds," has had just three of those all year, and for a relatively inexpensive picture to boot. Nice, sure, but even a pure profit in the tens of millions of course still wouldn't come close to counteracting the Uni releases that barely earned back their production budget ("Love Happens," "Public Enemies"), or fell plenty short of it ("Funny People," "Land of the Lost").

But that's the obvious point. The more salient question is how much "Retreat" can set the tone for the Universal movies to come, helping the studio's morale and its clout with exhibs.

Continue reading "'Couples Retreat' provides a respite for Universal, but how much of one?" »

Charlize steps out of 'Tourist' role, and Angelina could be making the trip instead

By Steven Zeitchik

Ange Charlize Theron has opted out of the Spyglass-produced thriller "The Tourist," to which she has long been attached, and in talks to replace her is one Angelina Jolie, sources say.

The tomb-raiding one, fresh off an action-heavy part in "Salt," would take on the one-part seductress, one-part action role of the title.

The project is now also seeking a director, as Bharat Nalluri, the "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" helmer who had been attached to direct, is as of last week off the project, with producers now seeking a new helmer to pair with Jolie. Neither Spyglass nor the director or actresses' reps could immediately be reached for comment.

Production has at least until this point been tentatively set for early 2010, which could prompt producers to act quickly on a director.

A remake of the French thriller "Anthony Zimmer" from 2005, "Tourist" centers on an American tourist who, on behalf of Interpol, goes undercover to entrap a former lover who's a suspected global criminal. It follows in the long tradition of innocents caught up in shady activities abroad that dates back to Hitchcock ("The Man Who Knew Too Much"), Polanski ("Frantic") and beyond, and a theme that also has contemporary echoes with "Taken" this past year.

Continue reading "Charlize steps out of 'Tourist' role, and Angelina could be making the trip instead" »

'Anvil: The Story of Anvil,' the story of the season's most unlikely contender

By Steven Zeitchik

AnvIt's hard to imagine a film that's taken a more circuitous route to awards season, or a public screening, than the Canadian heavy-metal doc "Anvil: The Story of Anvil." Premiering with high expectations and a big push from CAA at Sundance nearly two years ago, Sacha Gervasi's surprisingly poignant look at an underachieving group of middled-aged, big-haired rockers fell flat with distributors (who were spooked by the faltering of several docs the year before) and emerged from the festival with nothing but a couple new fans and a few good press notices.

That would have been that -- as it is for ninety percent of movies that go into Sundance without distribution -- but the filmmakers decided to exhibit a tenacity to mirror their subjects. They took their show on the road, playing film festivals large and small (but mostly small) from the Czech Republic to New Zealand, a carpetbombing approach that banked on a little goodwill and the odd Anvil fan in a far-flung place to drum up even the slightest bit of noise.

But a funny thing happened. In a meta-plotline eerily similar to that in the movie -- which focuses on the 35-year friendship and musical collaboration between  Anvil's hard-luck frontmen Lips Kudlow and Robb Reiner -- the blood and sweat paid off.

The film tracks Anvil, which if you haven't been plugged into the Canadian metal scene is a band that, after a few top-selling and influential metal albums in the early '80's, was playing for as few as a couple dozen fans in obscure pub basements (and whose lead singer spent the last two decades working catering and other odd jobs).  But the pic started gathering fans with varying levels of influence and  musical interest, from Mark McGrath to VH1 execs (who picked it up for airing on their network) to the music-minded director Cameron Crowe. In the past few months, the band has been back on the map, setting stadium dates with the likes of AC/DC and booking spots on venues like the Tonight Show, where Anvil appeared last week.

Continue reading "'Anvil: The Story of Anvil,' the story of the season's most unlikely contender" »

Paramount belting out a Paul Potts aria

By Steven Zeitchik

Pott Brad Weston is getting a chance.

The former Paramount production chief will produce "One Chance," the story of unlikely British reality star Paul Potts that Weston had been developing at the studio with "The Bucket List" scribe Justin Zackham.

"Becoming Jane" helmer Julian Jarrold is in negotiations to helm the pic.

Simon Cowell is producing the project along with Mike Menchel, who helped discover Potts when his daughter watched a YouTube video of the everyman hero, as well as Menchel's Relevant Pictures partner Steve Whitney. Weston helped steer the project when he was an exec at Paramount, and it was one of several he took with him when he segued to a producer deal on the lot.

"Kick-Ass" writer-director Matthew Vaughn is expected to come aboard and help finance via his Marv Films banner. 

Continue reading "Paramount belting out a Paul Potts aria" »

Will politics come to awards season?

By Steven Zeitchik

Maoz Anyone waiting or hoping for politics -- that is, for the outside world -- to come to awards season these past few years has probably been disappointed.

Two years ago there were a slew of political movies released, but outside a few of the docs, nothing really clicked. Last year saw some Prop 8 heat with "Milk," but it was mostly contained there. You probably have to go back to 2003 and the now-famous Michael Moore speech about fictitious presidents to find something genuinely polarizing.

This year would seem to be shaping up a little differently, first with Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" and, lately, with Samuel Maoz's intensely personal "Lebanon," the latter of which looks to go further than Ari Folman did with his "Waltz with Bashir" campaign last year. Both Folman's and Maoz's movies deal with the same war (the Israeli conflict in Lebanon in 1982) and draw from the same autobiographical well, but Maoz's pic is the less whimsical, more gritty and thus, in the end, more stirring (though significantly, "Lebanon" won't compete in the foreign-language category at the Oscars; the Israeli-Palestinian ensemble character drama "Ajami" edged it out as Israel's official selection. Maoz's pic will hopefully get foreign-language consideration from other awards and critics groups, as well as tech consideration by the Academy; it excels in below-the-line areas like sound editing and art direction).

But even more than Folman, Maoz seems to be treading very lightly on political ground. At a New York Film Festival screening a few days back, he was asked in several different ways about the politics of the pic and carefully avoided the topic each time, instead talking in his characteristic low-key way about the far more personal experiencing of being in a tank during a war, and about conveying that feeling to the audience, which he does perfectly and chillingly. (To replicate the claustraphobic sensation for the actors, he locked them in what he describes as "a small and dark container for a few hours." When the actor was sufficiently disoriented, he came to the door and knocked on it with a loud iron pipe. "It was similar to being attacked," he said.)

Continue reading "Will politics come to awards season?" »

'Paranormal' producers drum up more activity

By Steven Zeitchik

Para "Paranormal Activity" is already shaping up as a breakout hit, and its producers are wasting no time in trying to find the next big thing.

With the Par low-budget horror tale set to widen this weekend -- and director Oren Peli already shooting a new project in Utah -- the producers are poised to set up another project.

Sidney Kimmel Entertainment is close to acquiring a spec from scribe Carey Malloy and "Activity" producers Steven Schneider and Jason Blum titled “The Jealous One."

The project is a Hitchcockian thriller, based on Celia Fremlin’s 1965 book, that centers on a wife who dreams she murdered a woman who might be tempting her husband, only to find the woman has in indeed disappeared. (Ian Levy also will produce, while Dan Cohen and Jodi Hildebrand brought the project to SKE.)

Continue reading "'Paranormal' producers drum up more activity" »

'An Education' may take a few awards classmates to school

By Steven Zeitchik

Mul The Carey Mulligan express rolled on at the New York premiere of "An Education" on Monday night at a pleasantly low-key event at the city's Brasserie 8 1/2 restaurant in midtown. At this stage of the race, Mulligan -- who brought a few friends along from the Gotham set of "Wall Street 2," helmer Oliver Stone and star Shia LaBeouf (both sat quietly at a table chatting with each other alongside Stone's nonagenarian mother) -- is considered not only a front-runner for a best actress nom, but a pretty strong candidate to win the big prize.

Many of the people associated with the pic turned out, including producer Jim Stern and screenwriter Nick Hornby, who this time around was adapting a book he didn't write instead of having a book he did write adapted by someone else. "It made me a lot more aware of keeping in touch with the author (the memoirist Lynn Barber) because I know what it's like to have a screenwriter take a book and disappear for a few years," said Hornby, the author of the books that became "High Fidelity," "About a Boy" and "Fever Pitch," in a comment we suspect may contain as much truth as comedy.

How much "Education," a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in 1960's London who falls for a man twice her age (Peter Sarsgaard, looking bearded and hirsute at the premiere), can compete in categories beyond best actress remains an open question.

Continue reading "'An Education' may take a few awards classmates to school" »

What does all the studio musical chairs mean?

By Steven Zeitchik

Musi For the second time in two weeks, a major studio has knocked toppers to the side and elevated someone else at the company.

At Universal, Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley have been upped, David Linde and Marc Shmuger are out. By now the story of the ousted execs is well-told: a couple of very profitable years and a contract extension just nine months ago, but then a dismal spring and summer, and here we are.

The industry is still sorting through the Disney Dick Cook ouster from last month, and now it's got a new one to digest. And of course the Uni news comes just a few months after yet another shakeup at Paramount, where Adam Goodman now heads the studio after John Lesher and Brad Weston were pushed out.

That means half the major studios have had a shakeup at the top in the past few months. (The other three -- Fox,  Warners and Sony -- have less reason to expect change,  with each enjoying pretty solid years. Warners has two of the top four highest-grossing movies in 2009, Fox has three of the top ten, and Sony has the top two movies out now. Of course it was only 2008 when talking-heads were wondering about Fox toppers' future; forget the old ocean-liner metaphor - things go up from up to down and back up again pretty quickly these days.)

Continue reading "What does all the studio musical chairs mean?" »

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About Risky Business

  • Risky Biz blog takes a deep, daily look at the film industry's ups, downs and deals from around the world and the heart of Hollywood. It is edited by media and entertainment journalist Steven Zeitchik, with contributions from The Hollywood Reporter's worldwide team of film editors and reporters. Zeitchik is a Los Angeles-based writer for THR and also has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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