Oscar Watch: Hereditary

Two months ago, the supernatural horror flick Hereditary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and it made quite an impression. Reaction from Utah (where this was also shot) has indicated it’s a genre exercise that truly is a frightening experience and it sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes currently. The film marks the directorial debut of Ari Asher with a cast led by Toni Collette and costarring Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, and Ann Dowd.

As we know, horror pics face an uphill battle for any Academy recognition and that could certainly be the case here. That said, the buzz for this is getting louder as it debuts stateside on June 8. Critics have particularly taken notice of Collette, saying her performance is masterful. If she manages a nomination for Actress, it would be her second Oscar nod. She was recognized nearly 20 years ago in Supporting Actress for another genre piece, The Sixth Sense. Collette is not the only actress generating some buzz in this category as Emily Blunt could garner attention for this April’s A Quiet Place.

Bottom line: even with its sterling critical reaction, Hereditary could be a long shot for attention. Collette, on the other hand, could be worth keeping an eye on.



God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness Box Office Prediction

This Easter weekend, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness debuts in theaters. It is the third Christian themed drama in a franchise that began four years ago. Michael Mason directs a cast that includes David A.R. White, John Corbett, Shane Harper, Ted McGinley, Jennifer Taylor, Tatum O’Neal, rapper Shwayze, and Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney).

The Pure Flix release finds itself in direct competition with some similar genre fare. This is the third faith-based release in as many weeks. I Can Only Imagine will be in its third weekend and Paul, Apostle of Christ in its second. In 2014, God’s Not Dead premiered to $9.2 million and legged out splendidly to a $60 million domestic gross. Two years later, God’s Not Dead 2 couldn’t match it with a $7.6 million debut and only a $20 million overall total.

Even with the advantage of the Easter opening, the competition and dwindling fortune of part 2 could hinder this. I’ll predict it continues that downward trajectory.

God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness opening weekend prediction: $5.4 million

For my Ready Player One prediction, click here:


For my Acrimony prediction, click here:


Acrimony Box Office Prediction

Tyler Perry leaves Madea aside for Easter next weekend as he directs and writes the psychological thriller Acrimony. The tale of a cheating husband and a vengeful wife stars Taraji P. Henson, Lyriq Bent, Crystle Stewart, and Jazmyn Simon. The Lionsgate release hopes to capitalize on Mr. Perry’s involvement, as well as Ms. Henson, who’s had some successes on the big and small screen.

There are certainly some similar genre comps to put this up against. The trick is figuring out where it will fall. Will it play like Henson’s own No Good Deed from 2014, which debuted to a stellar $24.2 million? Or the $25.6 million achieved by The Perfect Guy in 2015? In 2016, When the Bough Breaks managed $14.2 million. How about some other non-comedic directorial efforts from Perry: $21.6 million opening for Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor or $15.5 million for Good Deeds? On the low end, what about the measly $4.7 million from last year’s Unforgettable?

My hunch is a low to mid teens gross is probably the ticket, just managing to break the gross of Bough.

Acrimony opening weekend prediction: $14.8 million

For my Ready Player One prediction, click here:


For my God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness prediction, click here:


Downsizing Movie Review

Director Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor enter new genre territory with Downsizing, but it’s filled with the themes found in their previous efforts. A central character searching for meaning in life, marital strife, and classism are on display. Unlike prior features, science fiction elements and a bigger budget are in the mix. This is a story loaded with intriguing prospects  that doesn’t lead to a totally rewarding whole.

A prologue shows the advent of a monumental discovery by Norwegian scientists – the ability to shrink humans to only five inches tall. The reasoning to do it is to save the Earth by significantly reducing pollution and overpopulation. Not all citizens who choose to go through the procedure are hardcore environmentalists. There’s also the added bonus that downsizing is a financial boon. Every dollar in big world translates to about a grand in the smaller one.

This is the primary reason why occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig) choose their new path. The Omaha couple agree to downsize and populate the colony of Leisureland. In Nebraska, they’re scraping by. They will be millionaires post op. A surprise happens on the way to the procedure. Paul goes through with it, but Audrey backs out and leaves him.

Lonely Paul must adjust to his tiny new surroundings and life. His eventual divorce agreement causes him to trade his Leisureland mansion for an apartment (albeit a pretty nice one). Up to this point, Downsizing is pretty nifty. The leadup and explanations of how this new world works are fascinating. There’s some prejudice involved with the full size humans meeting those about to become small. Should they get full voting rights, for instance? We also discover there’s nefarious governments that forcibly shrink their dissidents.

Further exploration of themes like these could have made a potentially rich experience. Downsizing goes a different direction. Paul’s upstairs neighbor is a party animal played with expected gusto by Christoph Waltz. It’s through this freewheeling character that Paul meets Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese political activist who was punished by that government. She’s an amputee and cleaning lady with a heart of gold. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to the slums of Leisureland where he begins to medically assist its poor residents. He also begins to fall for his companion.

The picture, at this juncture, largely abandons its sci fi leanings and concentrates on issues of self-worth, love, and political themes. Of course, all these things have been present in many great science fiction efforts. However, the tone of Downsizing is a shifty one. There’s moments of satire that aren’t biting enough and an earnestness that can come off cloying. That latter description could sometimes apply to Damon’s work. Payne has directed a number of actors to Oscar nominations. His lead here displays the same syrupy conviction in which he once bought a zoo. Chau is a different story. She creates a character whose backstory might have been really rewarding if shown onscreen. Unfortunately, Ngoc Lan eventually becomes just the love interest to the blander protagonist.

Payne and Taylor deserve a degree of credit for crafting this odd concoction. There’s some original thoughts here and some sequences are truly impressive, especially the downsizing procedure itself. That said, the emotional payoff the filmmakers are reaching for never quite reached me. There are moments in About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska that did so more often and with an appreciated higher level of subtlety. So while I admire Downsizing for some big ideas, the overall impact is smaller.

**1/2 (out of four)

Ready Player One Box Office Prediction

Opening over Easter weekend, Steven Spielberg attempts to delve into our collective member berries with the release of Ready Player One. Based on the 2011 Ernest Cline bestseller, the futuristic adventure stars Tye Sheridan as a gamer entering a virtual reality world chock-full of 1980s pop culture references and beyond. The Warner Bros release comes with a reported $175 million budget. The supporting cast includes Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Letitia Wright, and Mark Rylance. There’s also appearances from Freddy Krueger, the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Sonic the Hedgehog, and many more. I’ll also note the picture is set in the place I call home – Columbus, Ohio.

Ready premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival to mostly acclaim and it currently stands at 79% on Rotten Tomatoes. Some reviews have called it Spielberg’s most accessible and inspired work in quite some time. Even though it’s based on a known novel, questions abound as to how it will perform. Having Mr. Spielberg’s name attached doesn’t automatically generate dollars anymore, though it certainly doesn’t hurt (especially in a genre like this).

It opens on Thursday (meaning Wednesday night showings) and that’s a break from the typical release pattern. Generous estimates put this at a $50 million roll out with $35 million on the lower end. This is a toughie. I’ll estimate Player manages to top $30 million for the traditional portion of the weekend and mid 40s when factoring in its Wednesday sneaks and full day on Thursday.

Ready Player One opening weekend prediction: $32.3 million (Friday to Sunday), $44.9 million (Thursday to Sunday)

For my Acrimony prediction, click here:


For my God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness prediction, click here:


Oscar Watch: Final Portrait

Premiering across the pond at the Berlin Film Festival in February and debuting stateside at the South by Southwest shindig days ago, Stanley Tucci’s fifth directorial effort Final Portrait comes out in limited release this Friday. The film centers on the relationship of famed Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) and American writer James Lord (Armie Hammer).

It’s been a decade since actor Tucci has been behind the camera. His debut effort Big Night from 1996 was his biggest critical and commercial success. Portrait has been met with solid reviews and it currently holds a 79% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

That said, any potential Oscar attention would likely focus on its performers. Rush had a big 1996 as well, winning Best Actor for Shine. He’s been nominated three times since. This is said to be one of his most impressive performances in recent years. Hammer probably just missed out on a nod for last year’s Call Me by Your Name and would be vying for his first recognition.

My take right now is that Portrait could be forgotten come nomination time. The early date and good but now fawning critical reaction could serve as roadblocks for Rush’s fifth go round and Hammer’s first.

My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Box Office Predictions: March 23-25

We have a quintet of pictures entering the marketplace this weekend and it may mean Black Panther is dethroned after five weeks atop the charts. They are: sci-fi sequel Pacific Rim Uprising, animated sequel Sherlock Gnomes, Biblical drama Paul, Apostle of Christ, YA romance Midnight Sun, and psychological thriller Unsane. You can peruse my detailed prediction posts on all of them here:






Even though I have the Pacific follow-up generating less coin than its 2013 predecessor, its haul should be enough to have it rise to the top. That said, Black Panther has continually defied expectations and held off other high-profile titles such as A Wrinkle in Time and Tomb Raider from getting to first place.

Sherlock Gnomes is a question mark in my view. Its predecessor – 2011’s Gnomeo and Juliet – had a solid $25 million opening, but that was seven long years ago. My lower teens estimate may nab it a third place showing.

If Sherlock fails to meet expectations, it could allow Tomb Raider or I Could Only Imagine to place third. The second weekend of Imagine should particularly be interesting to watch as it significantly topped all expectations and could be set for a small drop based on word-of-mouth. Raider, on the other hand, should lose arouns half its audience after a disappointing start.

Paul, Apostle of Christ is slated to open on only about 1400 screens and my $5.5 million estimate for it puts it outside the top 5. I also expect the other two newbies to debut weakly with Midnight Sun predicted at $4 million and Unsane at $3.9 million.

And with that, my top 5 estimates for the weekend ahead:

1. Pacific Rim Uprising

Predicted Gross: $23.4 million

2. Black Panther

Predicted Gross: $17.9 million

3. Sherlock Gnomes

Predicted Gross: $13.7 million

4. I Can Only Imagine

Predicted Gross: $13 million

5. Tomb Raider

Predicted Gross: $11.2 million

Box Office Results (March 16-18)

Black Panther held off Lara Croft and was #1 for the fifth consecutive weekend. It’s the first picture to accomplish that feat since Avatar eight years ago. The Marvel behemoth grossed $26.6 million (in line with my $25.7 million projection) to bring its total to $605 million. It currently sits at 7th on the all-time domestic earners list and this coming weekend, it should supplant The Avengers at #5 to become the highest grossing comic book adaptation ever in the United States.

Tomb Raider had to settle for the runner-up position with $23.6 million, shy of my $26.4 million prediction. The franchise reboot got off to a shaky start and future sequels appear questionable at best.

The box office story of the weekend was faith-based musical drama I Can Only Imagine, which astonished predictors like me with a third place opening of $17.1 million. I was, um, a bit lower at $5.4 million. Imagine has clearly captivated Christian audiences and it posted the largest per screen average of any pic in the top 10. With the Easter holiday approaching, it could be in for a bountiful road ahead.

A Wrinkle in Time dropped to fourth with $16.2 million (I said $16.4 million) in weekend #2, bringing its lackluster tally to $60 million. At this point, it appears questionable that it will reach $100 million domestically.

Love, Simon took the five spot with $11.7 million, a bit under my $13.3 million estimate. The coming-of-age drama did receive positive reviews and audience word-of-mouth is strong, so it could experience small declines in coming weekends.

I incorrectly had Game Night at #5 until Imagine upended that, but it grossed $5.6 million for sixth. My prediction? $5.6 million!

Finally, 7 Days in Entebbe failed to bring in an audience, debuting in 13th place with $1.5 million. On the bright side (?), it did top my $972,000 forecast.

And that does it for now, folks! Until next time…

A Futile and Stupid Gesture Movie Review

David Wain’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture centers on a Golden Age of comedy while attempting to tell a conventional biopic story line somewhat unconventionally. At times, it succeeds. In others, it strains itself. The overall effect is a retelling of moments that led millions of us to some of our biggest laughs in print and onscreen, even if the humor here is hit or miss.

The film’s central figure is Doug Kenney (Will Forte) of Chagrin Falls, Ohio (as he constantly reminds us). He grew up in that affluent Ohio suburban setting in the 1950s with uppity parents and a family tragedy that seems to inform his feeling of self-worth. However, he’s got one whip smart sense of humor and it translates to his time at Harvard. He partners with fellow humorist – the ironically pipe smoking Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) and they excel at producing the “Lampoon”, the university’s premier comedy publication. While this Ivy League duo could pretty much get any job, Doug convinces Henry to expand the magazine nationally. Hence the “National Lampoon” and the treasure trove of history that follows.

Kenney and Beard’s venture turns out to be a runaway success that provides a platform for brilliant writers such as Michael O’Donoghue and P.J. O’Rourke and performers Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Bill Murray to shine. It’s obvious to say that “Saturday Night Live” never would have existed without Kenney and Beard and that’s acknowledged here. Some of these later famous faces are given seconds of screen time and others considerably more. In a movie about the advent of ironic comedy in many respects, there’s some casting irony here. Joel McHale is Chevy Chase, an actor who dealt with the well-documented difficult nature of Chevy himself on the set of “Community”. Martin Mull is the narrator of Gesture as the older man who Kenney himself never became. The screenplay gleefully acknowledges the many clichés that come with making a biopic. The drug use, strained romantic relationships, and family drama are presented here, but with a winking eye.

The picture often plays like a greatest hits of Kenney’s accomplishments. His contributions to the big screen were short but monumental with National Lampoon’s Animal House and Caddyshack. The screenplay doesn’t linger long on either and perhaps it could have benefited with more minutes spent on the party atmosphere of the former and the coke fueled chaos of the latter.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture is clearly made by a team who reveres its central subject. It doesn’t delve too far into Kenney’s considerable issues in an attempt to keep the tone fairly light. Yet it also doesn’t fully enjoy the opportunities to spend time with these young upstarts who would become comedy legends. That creates a sometimes unwieldy mix. Forte certainly impresses in the lead and there’s a few memorable supporting turns, including Matt Walsh as the magazine’s beleaguered financier and Ed Helms in a brief, but devastatingly biting scene as interviewer Tom Snyder.

There are segments of Gesture that remind us to thank our lucky stars for the existence of the people chronicled here. It doesn’t fully succeed as a stand-alone movie that ironically apes the biopic genre that it finds itself in, though it tries hard. In fact, it sometimes tries a little too hard to be ironic. The makers of the “Lampoon” shown here probably would have known how to make it a little funnier and let the serious moments be a tad more subtly rewarding.

**1/2 (out of four)

A Bad Moms Christmas Movie Review

2016’s Bad Moms took its concept of three frazzled matriarchs letting loose and rode that wave to high box office bucks. As far as its quality, I felt it was a rather mediocre exercise that often unsuccessfully blended raunchy with pathos. Yet moviegoers turned out so now we have A Bad Moms Christmas, in which it turns out the bad moms from part 1 all have questionable ones themselves.

Our original trio is feeling the natural stress that comes from holiday planning. Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell), and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) decide to throw caution to the wind and not go crazy with the season’s headaches… other than the ones that their drunken mall trip hangovers might induce. Circumstances are altered when their mamas turn up. Christine Baranski is Amy’s control freak mom, Cheryl Hines is Kiki’s super clingy mom, and Susan Sarandon is Carla’s wild and distant mom.

The week leading to Christmas gives all three subplots time for arguments and making up, as well as Santa stripping shows and bonding over butthole waxing. That’s about as deep as we get from writer/directors Scott Moore and Jon Lucas, who are once again tasked with creating a shallow and surface level comedic dive into the female psyche.

A Bad Moms Christmas doesn’t go full throttle with its cartoonish aspects and doesn’t earn the attempted sentimentality it tries toward the end. What’s left is a sequel with less laughs than the first and the bar wasn’t exactly high. Among the cast, Hines comes off the best because she’s at least convincing as she apes daughter Bell’s look and mannerisms.

It’s tough for comedy sequels to succeed because most of them aren’t planned and feel rushed to capitalize on the success of what came before. This is yet another example.

*1/2 (out of four)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle Movie Review

The word classic in cinema world can be thrown around too loosely at times. For instance, 1995’s Jumanji with Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst, and lots of CG animals is not one. It is a mostly entertaining experience about that board game that comes to life and it made a lot of money. So 22 years later, Sony has rebooted the franchise into the video game era. Welcome to the Jungle is no classic either, but it’s often lots of fun with great casting… and of course a horde of CG animals. Truthfully, it’s a lot better than it should be.

A prologue picks up shortly after its predecessor’s events with teenager Alex finding that cursed Jumanji board game. Sort of. It’s in the original casing of the game, but has been downsized to a video game cartridge. Alex tries to play but gets sucked in and disappears for two decades.

Flash forward to 2016 with four teens serving detention together. They are the archetypes you’re accustomed to: nerd Spencer (Alex Woolf), jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), shy girl Martha (Morgan Turner), and bombshell Bethany (Madison Iseman). While doing their punishment in the high school basement, they happen upon the game and decide to select which characters to play. Soon enough, they find themselves transported to the far away title world. And they’re the people they chose to be with more famous faces and odd superpowers and weaknesses. Scaredy cat Spencer is now the heroic Dr. Smolder Bravestone, represented by the giant biceps of Dwayne Johnson. Athletic Fridge is now the diminutive zoologist Mouse, sidekick to Dr. Bravestone whose weaknesses include cake. Martha is Ruby Roundhouse, a foxy martial arts expert with an inexplicable wardrobe considering her jungle surroundings. Most humorously, Bethany has traded in her bod for Jack Black’s cartographer Dr. Shelly. All the adult actors have a ball playing their counterparts, but Black shines brightest channeling his social media obsessed teen girl.

The majority of inhabitants in Jumanji world are only programmed to speak in video game dialogue, meaning their vocabulary is quite limited. This is a funny touch in a screenplay filled with them. There’s some potential jungle love between Bravestone and Ruby (and therefore Spencer and Martha), as well as Bethany’s crush with Alex once he’s found and portrayed by Nick Jonas. Seeing Jack Black’s heart a flutter with a Jonas brother is a highlight. There’s also a first kiss between two characters that produced a knowing belly laugh. Johnson and Hart (who first teamed up in Central Intelligence) smartly play to their onscreen strengths with Gillan bringing the term dance fighting to our consciousness.

Welcome to the Jungle is in many ways an improvement on the 1995 pic. Yes, the special effects have elevated tremendously in two decades plus, but it’s more than that. The joyous and adventurous and often sweet tone here just feels right with a game cast along for the ride.

Not everything works. An interesting villain would have been nice. Bobby Cannavale’s conniving explorer isn’t it. He’s forgettable even when he’s speaking. That quibble aside, part 2 of the Jumanji saga should be remembered fondly two decades from now and probably deserves it even more.

*** (out of four)