The Grudge Box Office Prediction

Blogger’s Note (01/02): On the eve of its premiere, I’m revising my number down to $10.2 million

2020 begins at multiplexes in the same fashion as other recent years with a horror offering. This time around, it’s a remake of the 2004 supernatural pic The Grudge. And that Sarah Michelle Gellar hit was itself an update of a 2002 Japanese title in which Takashi Shimizu directed both. Nicolas Pesce is behind the camera now with a cast including Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Frankie Faison, William Sadler, and Jacki Weaver.

As mentioned, this is the genre that has typically kicked off the cinematic calendar lately. In 2019, Escape Room surprised prognosticators with a debut north of $18 million. Two years ago, Insidious: The Last Key unlocked a gross just under $30 million.

The Grudge is not expected to approach those figures, but horror flicks always have the capacity to surprise. Yet this could also fall victim to the unasked for franchise fatigue that has plagued several titles recently. A decent comp could be 2017’s Rings, which was also a reboot of a Japanese series. It opened to $13 million and that sounds about right here (and perhaps a tad under).

The Grudge opening weekend prediction: $10.2 million

Battle of the Sexes Movie Review

A glossy and often relevant retelling of one of the most famous matches ever, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes is centered on both the tennis court and the court of public opinion. Both matters are firmly on the focused mind of Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), the famed pro who was demanding equal pay for women in 1973 when the picture is set.

King and her fellow female players aren’t getting near that, so they start a league of their own, under the sponsorship of Virginia Slim cigarettes (it was a different time). Another player sees an opportunity to cash in on the publicity and that’s Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a former champion now in his mid 50s who spends most of his time as a compulsive gambler (though he doesn’t see it that way). His challenge to King to meet on the court generated a divide among the sexes and many eyeballs on the eventual event – apparently about 90 million.

The court of public opinion doesn’t extend to gender issues. King is married to Larry (Austin Stowell) who helps run her fledgling empire. Yet when she meets free spirit hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a romance quickly develops. King is smitten, but she knows it must stay in the closet to protect her career.

Battle of the Sexes tells this tale entertainingly and somewhat superficially. The themes of gender equality are ones that render four decades later. Stone has the most material to work with in her nuanced and strong portrayal of King. There’s not much nuance to Carell’s Riggs, though he’s certainly fun to watch.

The screenplay doesn’t delve too deep into his story, but Carell plays it well enough to avoid him becoming a total caricature. King seems to know Bobby isn’t quite the chauvinist louse he purports to be. The same cannot be said for Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer, a prominent former pro turned announcer who doesn’t understand anything about women’s liberation. The pic is peppered with familiar faces in smaller parts, including Elisabeth Shue as Bobby’s wealthy and frustrated wife and Alan Cumming as the team’s outfit designer who quickly figures out Billie’s affair.

King would eventually earn the Presidential Medal of Freedom due to her advocacy for gay rights and equal pay. Sexes sees her at the advent of that life’s work. We see her drive as she tirelessly practices to beat a man at his game when so few think it’s possible. In fact, hearing Howard Cosell’s actual play-by-play during the game is both a treat and a stark reminder that it was a different era. We know eventually that King’s relentless work ethic will be applied elsewhere and for an even greater cause. Battle doesn’t delve overly deep into how she got there, but it serves up its replay of history admirably enough.

*** (out of four)

Birdman Movie Review

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman has plenty to say about the current mega-blockbuster movie culture that we live in and have for some time. The screenplay (by the director along with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo) puts in its two cents regarding the power that critics have, which is highly debatable in the Internet culture. Ironically, while Inarritu and his team may share a disdain for them, it is likely the rave reviews and Oscar buzz Birdman has received that will grant it a larger audience than expected. Yet, ultimately, this picture will be remembered as a story of an actor trying to make a comeback while giving its actual star one humdinger of a real one.

That would be Michael Keaton in the kind of part that most actors dream about and never get to play. He’s Riggan Thomson, an aging celebrity known to the world for his role as Birdman in a series of wildly popular comic book flicks from two decades ago. As you can gather, this is not much of a stretch for Keaton himself who brought Batman to the masses a quarter century ago. In the present day, he’s directing, writing, and starring in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. He sees it as an opportunity to make himself relevant again and yet he’s haunted by his famous alter ego. The production of the play is a mess, which reflects Riggan’s personal life. He employs his fresh out of rehab daughter (Emma Stone) as his assistant. One of his actresses is his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), who may or may not be carrying his child. His ex-wife (Amy Ryan) turns up from time to time. Riggan makes life difficult for his lawyer and “best friend” (Zach Galifianakis). And his main co-stars (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts) are action packed with emotional issues.

Birdman shows us an actor on the edge of sanity who is grappling with this massive undertaking of the play and dealing with his wilting fame. He feels like he’s doing something of utmost importance while those around him may not see it that way. The screenplay doesn’t shy away from humorously but honestly ribbing the healthy egos that actors are often known for displaying. Norton’s character could perhaps be based on himself, if you believe the gossip about how difficult he is to work with in real life.

While the pic pokes its dark humor from time to time at the superhero genre craze, it cheekily employs three actors who’ve been a part of them: Keaton, Stone (Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man), and Norton (The Incredible Hulk). And while Inarritu could feel those movies are just visual fluff, Birdman itself is a technical marvel, so to speak. There is a visual trickery to make the film seem like one long continuous take and the result from Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork is often hypnotic.

The supporting cast is uniformly top-notch. Every performance is rock solid and every actor gets their moments to shine. Let me there be no doubt though – this is Keaton’s show. People who describe themselves as “movie people” (pretentiously or not) all seem to have a Keaton affinity. Part of it could be that he’s the original Caped Crusader in the blockbuster area. Same goes for Beetlejuice. We’ve never seen him like this, but I believe we always suspected he was capable of this kind of amazing performance. Here, Keaton must balance portraying several alter egos and it’s a joy to witness.

Birdman is not necessarily a movie for the masses. Its pitch black humor could fall flat with some while others will deem it too inside baseball. The ending may be perfect to some viewers, but it took one step too far into unnecessary ambiguity for my taste. There’s a terrific scene when Riggan tells off The New York Times theater critic (Lindsay Duncan). On one hand, he feels liberated telling her what he really thinks of her high-mindedness and misguided sense of self importance. On the other, he’s terrified of her negative review. This explains Riggan’s character in a way – looking for liberation where he may not ever find it and scared as hell the whole time. That probably describes the way a lot of actors truly feel and Birdman drives that point home in an original, often funny, and constantly interesting ways.

***1/2 (out of four)