FORCE AWAKENS Breaks Multiple Records In 2nd Weekend; All-Time Looms

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(UPDATED with final numbers)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens continues to demolish records, racking up several in its second weekend:

  • Best 10-Day Gross, $540.3 million
    • (Previous Record: Jurassic World, $402.8 million)
  • Fastest to $500 million, 10 days
    • (Previous Record: Jurassic World, 17 days)
  • Fastest to $400 million, 8 days
    • (Previous Record: Jurassic World, 10 days)
  • Biggest 2nd Weekend, $149.2 million
    • (Previous Record: Jurassic World, $106.5 million)
  • Best Christmas Day, $49.3 million
    • (Previous Record: Sherlock Holmes – 2009, $24.6 million)
  • Fastest to $1 billion worldwide, 12 days (it opened in Europe two days before the U.S.)
    • (Previous Record: Jurassic World, 13 days)

In addition to all of that:

  • The Force Awakens is now the highest-grossing Star Wars movie of all-time, lightspeeding past the entire gross of $474.5 million set by the previous top episode, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
    • It’s now also the first time that creator George Lucas has not been the director of the top-grossing movie in the saga. His Episode I and original Star Wars: A New Hope are now 2nd and 3rd.
  • The Force Awakens is now the #5 Movie of All-Time (domestic).

But the biggest stat of all? The Force Awakens is now just $221 million from passing Avatar‘s $760.5 million to become the #1 Movie of All Time (domestic). At this rate, after just 10 days – and no let up in sight – it’s not so much a question of “if” it’ll pass Avatar, but how soon?

So with that likelihood, here’s the real high-stakes goal moving forward:

Does the 7th installment of this spectacularly rejuvenated franchise have enough Force left in it – a.k.a. $460 million – to become the first movie ever to haul in $1 billion in North America alone? Even in the most loftiest projections, that possibility was never broached. It’s still a long-shot to get there, but the fact that it’s even possible at this point says everything about how the culture has embraced J.J. Abrams‘ take on our most enduring mythology.

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THE FORCE AWAKENS Opening Week Record

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Over its first seven days of release, Star Wars: The Force Awakens took in a staggeringly unprecedented haul of $391.1 million, crushing the previous first-week mark of $296.2 million set this past summer by Jurassic World.

It almost seem pointless to mention, but the mega-blockbuster’s seventh-day take of $27.1 million more than doubled Avatar’s previous Christmas Eve record of $11.2 million.

What is worth mentioning is that just after one week in theaters, The Force Awakens has already surpassed the total box office grosses of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 ($381 million) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith ($380.3 million), two behemoths in their own right.

The Force Awakens has set so many records at this point it’s staggering…and it’s just getting started.

THE REVENANT (Movie Review)

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**** out of ****

My review of The Revenant, at Crosswalk.com, inspired by a 19th Century American Frontiersman’s real fight for survival – and revenge.

The Revenant is ranked #1 on my Top Ten List for 2015.

An excerpt from my review:

“…a grueling, often torturous tale, testing the limits of both its actors and audience…Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman) loves to drag his characters through gauntlets – both physical and psychological – and star Leonardo DiCaprio has made a career out of putting himself through them. Their collaboration is potent.”

To read the rest of the full review, click here.

Rated R
for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, strong language, and brief nudity
Released: December 25, 2015 limited; wide January 8, 2016
Runtime: 156 minutes
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (Movie Review)

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*** out of ****
Rated R
for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, strong language, and some graphic nudity
Released: December 25, 2015 limited; December 31st nationwide
Runtime: 168 minutes
 Digital; 187 minutes 70mm film “Roadshow” Edition (only 100 screens nationwide)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Demian Bichir

Quentin Tarantino is up to his old indulgent tricks again in The Hateful Eight, a sprawling if less ambitious effort for the always-vital filmmaker. Cinematically it’s among his best, shot on the gloriously rich canvas of 70mm film, but it also rides along with only a modicum of thematic firepower in its arsenal.

This is a savage and brutal Western, with a climactic hour that may be the bloodiest and most grotesque of Quentin’s career (which is really saying something), as if pushing the limits of even his most ardent defenders – and hard-edged gore geeks – to see just how far down the slaughter hole they’ll go with him before vomiting, leaving, or both. A B-movie throwback at A-level artistry, with little if anything to say (despite endless, energized talking), The Hateful Eight may be arthouse in scope but its grindhouse in spirit.

Discussing a Tarantino movie is inevitably an exercise in evaluating its context with the man’s entire filmography; it’s impossible not to, and The Hateful Eight is a fusion of it all. After an early career that was as spectacular as any in the history of the movies, Tarantino took his much-deserved Instant Auteur status and went bonkers with it. Suddenly his work – while still important and dynamic – was intemperate and unwieldy (the Kill Bill volumes were particularly bogged down by Q’s “everything and the kitchen sink” excess).

Then came along Inglorious Bastards, arguably his masterpiece, that boasted a controlled, mature director at the height of his powers and discipline. Django Unchained continued that impressive precision, if to a nitpickingly lesser degree. And now we have The Hateful Eight, which finds that recent self-possessed director letting himself go completely bonkers again. That is to say, Tarantino’s 8th Film is not one type of Quentin more than the other; it’s equally both.

The setting is post-Civil War Western Frontier, and Q has cooked up a story that traps a posse of disparate miscreants from that 19th Century American milieu into an outpost during an unrelenting snowstorm. We come to find that there’s six degrees of separation (or less) between them, and as connections are revealed (and still other secrets kept), The Hateful Eight unravels in riveting, revolting fashion.

Throwing discipline to the outhouse, Quentin gives into every whim he has over this three-hour stretch. Lucky for us, some of those whims are pushing himself to new heights, capturing his most epic frames yet – in cold, ruthless conditions, no less. But that “screw it, I’m doing everything” attitude also gives us at least a half-hour’s worth (or more) of unnecessarily extended scenes confined to tight interiors. Clever as it all may be (and it is), less of it would go a much longer way. Quentin’s too much in love with all of his babies, and directs like a parent who thinks everyone else is in love with them as much as he is.

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In the first hour, with the exception of some snowy, sweeping mountain vistas and occasional double-barrel standoffs, we’re inside a stagecoach as three (and eventually four) characters ramble on and on. There’s a point to it all, as we eventually learn, but the conversations are about other exploits done at other places at other times. They’re interesting tales, even mythic, all told by pulpy raconteurs – but they’re just told, not shown. When we do finally see one depicted, however, it comes much later, at the film’s turning point, and visualizing its lurid nature makes quite an impact. But until then, it’s a lot of sitting, talking, and some occasional punching.

This continues in the second hour, once the stagecoach of bounty hunters (Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell), prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and would-be lawman (Walton Goggins) arrive at the outpost en route to their destination. There, trapped in the middle of a blizzard, they meet up with the film’s other titular half (including Tarantino vets Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, as well as a grisly confederate Bruce Dern and Demian Bichir), each feeling the others out, keeping their own motives and intents close to the vest.

Then, in that climactic third hour, The Hateful Eight becomes like one of those outrageous yarns we heard told in the first – except now we actually see it, in all its sadistic, facetously-gratuitous particulars. The thrill (if you’re not entirely repulsed by it, that is) is in discovering who, if any, will live to tell this tale.

Tarantino is still an elite when it comes to plotting and dialogue (and arguably peerless, although some of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplays can match), but alas, more than ever before, his characters aren’t so much people as they are just archetypes. Colorfully alive archetypes, mind you, but they primarily work as pawns in an elaborately devised chess match, serving their purpose but with little dimension. In films of Tarantino past, his characters would reveal perceptive, challenging truths about our most base impulses. Here, they’re limited to revealing plot twists.

But oh, the twists. The Hateful Eight is like Sergio Leone by way of Agatha Christie, a pulpy potboiler that simmers, boils, and then explodes in a brilliantly intricate plot machine. Those machinations are subtle at first as Quentin patiently builds the bomb over the first 60 minutes, lets it tick for another 60, and then lights the fuse for the last 60. As the puzzle pieces lock in through a timeline-jumping assembly, you find yourself eagerly anticipating a second viewing even as your first continues to unfold. Along with the sheer visual scope of the whole thing, this dizzying, dazzling story is the movie’s strength. It’s a blindsiding whodunit.

Without that masterful construct, though, the equally remarkable cast (who, to our benefit, seem to be in competition for who’s having the most fun) would be just jabbering on and on to no point or purpose. Because whatever The Hateful Eight has to say about the human condition – which is basically that we sure can be a racist, sexist, greedy, violent lot – isn’t anything particularly revelatory. A richer film would be able to indict its audience with the very sins of its characters, challenging us to see how, in our own ways, we’re not so dissimilar from these scoundrels and sociopaths.

But these eight (and more) are just one really bad crew of lowlifes who have little to do with – or reflect – the modern person’s values, actions, or moral compromises. Today, you’d only find their kind on the farthest fringes. Tarantino can still make his characters speak with a profane eloquence like he always has; he’s just not saying anything terribly insightful through them. But boy howdy are they a hoot.

The Weinstein Company is releasing two versions of the film. The first is the 168-minute digital projection that most of the nation will see. The second, in a select 100 locations nationwide, will be showing The Roadshow Edition (which I was able to screen), an actual Old School 70mm film projection that runs 187 minutes, including the classic Hollywood additions of a pre-show Overture (set to spaghetti Western composer Ennio Morricone’s inspired throwback score), as well as a 10-minute intermission.

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The actual narrative cut is essentially the same in both, with the 70mm boasting a few wider frames than its digital counterpart; it’s stunning, honestly, to see just how much landscape can be crammed into that scope. For cinephile diehards the Roadshow is worth seeking out, and if a participating theatre is halfway convenient to access then it should definitely be your choice. But for most others, your local digital projection will more than suffice (and depending on how your stomach and psyche feel after its over, you may be grateful you didn’t go out of your way).

Quentin has always made, broken, rewritten, and played by his own rules, but he’s at his best – his most creative and formidable – when he employs some restraint. Now he’s back to that phase where he just doesn’t know when to stop, or doesn’t care to, exercising zero ability to rein himself in. It’s brilliant and bloated all at the same time, proving that there really can be too much of a good thing. In the case of Tarantino, it can get pretty ugly too.

And like Tarantino I’ve gone way past my welcome, even though there’s so much more I could still say (violent misogyny, anyone?!). But also like Tarantino, you probably got my point at least 800 words ago.

JOY (Movie Review)

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***½ out of ****

Rated PG-13
for language (including brief strong language
)
Released: December 25, 2015
Runtime: 124 minutes
Directed by: David O’Russell
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, 
Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Bradley Cooper 

Joy is ranked #19 in the Honorable Mention section of my Top Ten List for 2015

Just when it seems like we’re getting more of the same from director David O’RussellJoy works a miracle halfway through.

Some may give up or pass judgment on this (eventually) effective crowd-pleaser before it gets there, and given how the first hour feels like leftovers from his past three films – including the same troupe of core stars – it’s not surprising if “O’Russell Fatigue” sets in for those who are hoping for something fresh. But, at a key turn, the freshness hits – even explodes, with textures of magical realism – into the most personal (or, at least, personally felt) film for O’Russell to date.

It’s the first of his mid-career resurgence that feels truly inspired, rather than simply “inspired by” better filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, most notably). On the awards circuit, Joy doesn’t appear to be building momentum toward the massive Oscar recognition that his recent slate (The FighterSilver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle) has enjoyed. That’s too bad too because, of that run, Joy – which also boasts the best Jennifer Lawrence performance since her indie breakthrough Winter’s Bone – is definitely the best.

I’m not a small business owner myself, but as an employee of one for nearly 15 years I’ve witnessed first-hand the extremely intense highs and lows of individuals who risk it all to build an entrepreneurial dream. Joy, which is the broadly-fictionalized account of 1990s Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, captures the high-stakes roller-coaster of putting everything on the line.

The initial ramp-up on that ride, however, is a bit of a slow one. It’s not bad, mind you, as O’Russell applies his familiar Scorsese-lite aesthetic to his also familiar (and comically-heightened) family melodrama. But we’ve seen this from him before, even if this time he takes a multi-generational Italian clan and infuses it with some Woody Allen level neurosis.

O’Russell uses that first hour as a solid setup for the challenges that Joy must face – from her family to her career – as well as substantiating her lifelong drive to be an inventor of devices that make life simpler. It’s engaging, thanks to a sharp cast (having a lot of fun) working in simpatico with an assured directorial vision. But it’s also O’Russell coasting in his comfort zone.

But then, just as Joy begins to come into her own, so too does O’Russell as a filmmaker. When her dream broaches reality – vis-à-vis when Joy grabs the attention of upstart cable channel Home Shopping Network (the casting of HSN’s early celebrity icon is truly inspired)  – the film leaps into an all-new energized stratosphere. O’Russell captures the dizzying speed and drama of live TV sales with the hypnotic vigor of gambling at a racetrack. As the wunderkind network producer Neil Walker, Bradley Cooper orchestrates off-camera wizardry like an omnipotent Svengali. It’s all absolutely intoxicating.

From there, Joy never lets up. It’s not just an American story; it’s an American Dream story. It shows – and captures, with full emotional velocity – just how tough, how risky, and how fragile being a self-made entrepreneur can be. How the dream can turn into a nightmare. Why the rewards can be so fulfilling, and the losses so devastating.

Jennifer Lawrence, whose career has been built on variations of a spunky tough-talking strong-willed persona, stretches herself into a deeper range of emotive territory. The chutzpah’s still there (and needs to be), but her performance is also marked by moments of insecurity, tenderness, and frailty, all at vulnerable levels we’ve not seen from her before. She’s a good actress who’s finally starting to grow and mature, and she owns the screen here.

Robert De Niro strikes just the right tone of support with comically-comforting De Niro-isms, Isabella Rossellini wields a command of her own as a firm, spirited business benefactor, and Dianne Ladd maintains a necessary undercurrent of strength, faith, and hope as the matriarch who has always believed in Joy, and who won’t let her granddaughter give up. And as the ex-husband who’s as much of an albatross for Joy as he is a defender, Édgar Ramírez creates a simple-minded, flighty guy who can surprise us with thoughtful, selfless moments of much-needed grace.

After a good-but-average start, Joy erupts into an all-consuming story of a single mom’s personal ambition, and the ingenuity, toughness, sacrifice, and all-in wagers it takes to fight overwhelming, insidiously conspired odds at every turn (even from within one’s own family). Equal parts labyrinth saga and personal journey, this comes along at a time when so many have lost faith in our country and our potential. In the face of that ailing national spirit, Joy is the perfect parable to inspire.

Tuesday Falls, THE FORCE AWAKENS Fastest to $300 Million

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Another record for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has seen the end of the previous Tuesday high, but The Force will have to be monumentally strong with this one if it’ll see the end of Wednesday and Twilight: Eclipse’s $68.5 million. Still, another major record has already been obliterated.

On Tuesday, The Force Awakens took in another $37.3 million (breaking the previous $35 million Tuesday record by The Amazing Spider-Man) to bring its unrelenting North American haul to $325 million in just 5 days. In doing so, The Force Awakens becomes the fastest film to pass the $300 million mark, beating Jurassic World‘s previous pace of 8 days.

Oh, and Episode VII‘s about to pass $700 million globally too. To give that some perspective, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 – also considered a gargantuan global box office monster – just passed the $600 million mark, and it opened a month ago. 5 days verses 30 days, and The Force Awakens has already passed THGMP2 by $100 million.

It also has the upcoming Christmas weekend already secured. The only question now is by how much it will beat Jurassic World‘s $106.5 million record for the best second weekend. Analysts are predicting the new benchmark will be anywhere from $140 to $180 million.

CONCUSSION (Movie Review)

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*1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
for thematic material including disturbing images, and language
Released: December 25, 2015
Runtime: 123 minutes
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard

Sony Pictures is to be applauded for tackling (forgive the pun) the issue of NFL concussions head on (with helmet-to-helmet intent, no less) as the tragic toll of football-related brain trauma increasingly mounts.

But coming off like a mid-90s Oscar bait issue movie, Concussion is an overwrought piece of melodrama that had me wondering at what point Will Smith was going to look at the camera and say with chilly resolve, “Grinder rests.” (If you’ve seen that new Rob Lowe sitcom, then I just told you everything you need to know about Concussion.)

Avoiding nuance like the plague, this is obvious, on-the-nose, hold-the-audience-by-the-hand kind of filmmaking, with an antiquated self-important tone that’s hard to take seriously. Director Peter Landesman does his movie (and his star) no favors by giving us all the contrived intensity of a slick, run-of-the-mill CBS procedural. The problem with Concussion isn’t the case it’s making; it’s how it’s making it.

In the early 2000s, neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu – a Nigerian immigrant to Pittsburgh – examined the brains of several deceased former NFL players, each who died at relatively young ages, often by self-inflicted injuries or intentional suicide. These untimely deaths were the result of depression and mood disorders that were uncharacteristic of the lives these men led. And yet no extensive medical examinations prior to their deaths revealed any signs or symptoms that doctors could diagnose.

That’s when Omalu concluded there must be a new disorder that needed discovery and definition. He found it. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – or CTE, as it’s referred to in shorthand – is a progressive degenerative disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Long referred to as being “punch drunk”, discovering this disease and its cause led to a major confrontation – both legal and moral – with the most dominant professional sports organization in our culture, the National Football League. Concussion tells that story in ways it believes are dramatic and powerful. In truth they’re simplistic and, at times, downright silly.

It’s that way pretty much from the start. The film begins by spending an inordinate (and completely unnecessary) amount of time introducing us to Omalu, in no uncertain terms, as a righteous crusader of impeachable virtue and resolute conviction, even as his admirable humility makes him entirely oblivious to what a saint he truly is. I’ve no doubt he probably is in real life but, dear Lord, this movie lays it on thick.

Omalu’s mentor Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks, in a ridiculous bald cap) essentially counsels Bennett that he can’t go around being that virtuous because that’s not how the real world works (it could even get him in trouble), all but saying “Would you stop being so awesome already!” The movie even goes so far as to have (I kid you not) a priest literally tell Omalu in hushed reverence, “I feel God in you.” For reals. And this is just the first 10 minutes. Okay. He’s a genius. And a super duper nice guy. We got it. Move on.

It does, and things just get worse. Not only does director Landesman pound us with heavy-handed stylistic flourishes (and an incessant music score especially, swelling so much and so often that it gets in the way of Smith’s excellent, more natural performance). Smith’s sincerity clashes with the film he’s trapped in. He doesn’t need Landesman’s directorial “help” but he gets it (unfortunately), and relentlessly so. Where’s Michael Mann (The Insider) when you need him?

Desperate for drama (despite not needing to be), Concussion is peppered with histrionic confrontations and contrived shouting matches, all painfully forced. When not laying on the bombast, Landesman dips into the cheese. He has Omalu, for example, talk during his autopsies like some Corpse Whisperer, asking the spirits of the deceased to help him help them. I dunno, maybe he is a saint.

(It should be noted, too, that the film contains some disturbing imagery at times, from CTE sufferers inflicting pain on themselves – and threatening it on others – as well as the results of their actions that we see on the morgue table.)

Landesman (who also scripted) shoehorns in a sentimental love story subplot, too, that feels dropped in straight from the Formula factory, with little fine-tuning. The only refreshing feature here is how honestly and open they portray the Christian faith that Bennett and his would-be wife Prema share. And yet even there Landesman can’t leave well enough alone as his movie all-but flatly states that Bennett is on Divine appointment for such a time as this, and that God Himself doesn’t want us to play American football anymore.

Suffice it to say, Concussion doesn’t pull any punches with its NFL target (nor should it), but it’s a great disservice (not to mention dramatically inert) to treat every league official and rep as if they’re cold, callous, rage driven greed monsters, reveling in the pain and misery their game produces. These guys aren’t just arrogant and corrupt; they’re soulless sociopaths. I don’t question who the film indicts; I question how truly evil they make them.

Aside from Smith’s Omalu, the only character with any authentic consistency is Alec Baldwin’s Dr. Julian Bailes, a former Steelers physician who sacrifices his professional future to side with Omalu. Baldwin doesn’t demand our attention; he allows Bailes to be secure in his conviction. As Prema, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from the excellent but underseen period drama Bellemy review) also acquits herself well, but in a pretty thankless supporting role that exists solely to prop up and fawn over Omalu’s steadfast decency.

Concussion had me rolling my eyes and it didn’t even need to damage my brain to do it. Many viewers may not be as intensely averse to the film’s crass manipulations as I am, and may even, on balance, appreciate the message enough to also appreciate the movie that delivered it. Even so, Concussion is not a challenging film, although it should be.

Or if it is to any degree, it’s due to the subject matter – and American institution – that the movie confronts, without compromise. The NFL’s head trauma scandal is so brutal, so heartbreaking, that it doesn’t need to be overplayed. But when it is (like it is in Concussion), your own innate sensibilities start throwing yellow flags to penalize the maudlin efforts, ones that constantly throw Hail Marys, when instead it should be progressing – and winning – with balanced and steady drives that know when its time to go for the big play.  Huston rests.