50 Shades of Grey bondage

Focus Features

Because of shoddy source material and a healthy sleaze factor, following the Fifty Shades of Grey production (and now bizarre marketing) has felt a lot like getting to watch Showgirls get filmed in real-time. Like we knew about the creation of a sexploitation, so-cringey-it’s-entertaining classic long before it creates its cult. At the very least, the project has done nothing to diminish the idea that it’s more neon stripper pole than Maggie Gyllenhaal in fishnets.

Beautifully for better and worse, it’s become a movie that everybody knows and has an opinion about, which is a great place for the filmmakers and Focus Features to be, but it’s also an excellent opportunity for movies that want to use Grey‘s notoriety for their own purposes.

Enter Freestyle Releasing, who is sending Christianity-based romance Old Fashioned to theaters the same Valentine’s Day weekend that Grey invades with its riding crop. This is the second smartest thing a Christian film could possibly do.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

This weekend, Luc Besson’s Lucy topped the box office with more success than expected. You might say that the film performed above its potential. Coincidentally, the film is about a woman (Scarlett Johansson) who, through an unexpected side effect of being a drug mule, was able to access the full potential of her brain. This led her to various super powers, including being a genius in mathematical calculations, having the ability to diagnose medical conditions by hugging someone and controlling radio waves with her mind.

The film rests on the belief that human beings only use about 10 percent of their brain’s full potential, and the drugs that leaked into Lucy’s system helped unlock the other 90 percent. It’s not the first time this theory has been brought to the silver screen. Bradley Cooper got similar powers in the 2011 film Limitless. Both the 90s cheese-fest The Lawnmower Man and the more down-to-earth 70s drama Charley feature similar ideas. Even the character of Sherlock Holmes, seen in everything from classic Basil Rathbone films to Benedict Cumberbatch and his “mind palace” in the BBC’s Sherlock, have found a way to access seemingly limitless and unnatural brain power.

This got me thinking. We might never be able to look like Scarlett Johansson or Bradley Cooper, but could we think like their characters on screen? What extraordinary things could we achieve if we tapped into our brains’ “full potential”?

Skull Island King Kong

Universal Pictures

Given the kind of hindsight that comes with being forty-eight hours outside of something (you know, minimal, but still readily apparent), it seems safe to proclaim that Legendary Pictures won Comic-Con purely in terms of jaw-dropping announcements. This year’s San Diego Comic-Con was mostly free of big shockers (we’re looking at you, Marvel), but Legendary managed to sneak in a doozy while everyone else was busy processing their first (though still expected) announcement that they’re making Godzilla 2 and that they’re sticking with Gareth Edwards to do it.

It’s called Skull Island, and it’s the King Kong origin story that maybe we all forgot we wanted until we realized that, no, no, in fact, we would like it, especially one coming from the studio and screenwriter behind Godzilla (scribe Max Borenstein will pen the new film). The recent news that Legendary has also targeted filmmaker Joe Cornish to direct the film (as reported by Deadline this week) only adds fuel to this big, furry fire. But before we journey to Skull Island, perhaps we should familiarize ourselves with our destination.

The Blair Witch Project

Artisan Entertainment

On July 30, 1999, The Blair Witch Project expanded to a wide theatrical release and raked in over $25,000 per screen on over a thousand screens, thus becoming the first sleeper horror hit of that late summer, one week before The Sixth Sense opened. The weekend of July 30th solidified Blair Witch’s status as a phenomenon, but to recognize it as a defining date of the film would be to misrecognize what Blair Witch did.

Rather than come about as an instantaneous cinematic event (in the way that the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain or the 25th anniversary of Batman have been nostalgically reflected upon this summer), Blair Witch’s reputation manifested as a slow unraveling over many months of speculation and word-of-mouth, from its chilling first-screening at Sundance to an Internet-based fury of speculation to a teaser attached to The Phantom Menace of all things. The film represented a first in many respects – transmedia marketing via the web, a jumpstart of the modern found footage subgenre – but it also bears its young age in surprising ways, whether in its analog aesthetic or the particularly 20th century character of its word-of-mouth circulation.

Despite that the film set the supposed standard for viral buzz-creation and found footage horror, The Blair Witch Project remains an important anomaly for a shaky tent-full of reasons.



There’s no shortage of love for the way Marvel has crafted its Cinematic Universe, especially from yours truly. They’ve created an entire market for themselves by weaving nine — soon to be ten — movies together into an impressive spandex suit. From Iron Man in 2008 to this year’s unofficial summer kick-off movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, every Marvel movie is the next piece in a much larger puzzle. Like clockwork, we wait in darkened theaters through lengthy credits to get to the end, where a little tease usually awaits for what comes next. Each film is built with the next stage in mind.

It’s a phenomenon not limited to Marvel, though. They simply seem to have perfected it. Warner Bros. is about to set off on a voyage to build its DC Comics universe. And Michael Bay this summer rebooted his entire franchise and took Transformers in a new direction. Every major summer tentpole film is now trying to hook you years in advance. Studios spend money on these movies specifically because they spawn franchises and propel stars who go on to lead other tentpole movies. They sell merch and home video copies and get endlessly streamed the minute they hit the web.

The concept isn’t lost on any of us (more like it’s hammered in), especially this week following Comic-Con. We are reminded that these movies are made within the confines of a well-oiled business machine. With their formula, Marvel has your movie ticket money locked up probably well into the latter part of the decade.

Still, every once in a while it’s nice to see this formula passed over in the pursuit of something even more compelling: the rare movie that is stunning in its singularity. I’m reminded of the sci-fi films of 2013. There were plenty of great films that appeared to want to boot up franchises. Pacific Rim, Elysium and Oblivion come to mind. Had these all done well financially, there would have been a push for more. Pacific Rim might get a second round. In the end though, it was those films that seemed less ambitious about being a “part one” that ended up being the most compelling. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Spike Jonze’s Her and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color will likely be the three most memorable sci-fi films of last year. Their unifying thread: they each exist as a complete, encapsulated idea. It’s what makes them audible through all the noise.

The great news is that this trend continues in 2014. It even appears to be gaining velocity. From big studio projects (even a sequel) to smaller, craftier films, the most compelling sci-fi films of the summer are the ones that deliver a complete puzzle, rather than just another piece. It’s a phenomenon I’ve explored over the past two weeks in darkened theaters, one that permeates this latest Summer Movies Diary entry.

IFC Midnight

IFC Midnight

Welcome back to This Week In Discs!

If you see something you like, click on the title to buy it from Amazon.

Discs Section: Pick of the Week

The-Den-DVDThe Den

Liz (Melanie Papalia) has received a grant to study The Den, a popular online video-chat service (like ChatRoulette) that matches up strangers for conversations, interactions and dick pics. After being pranked a few times by bored kids she witnesses what she believes to be a real murder and calls the police. Nothing comes of it, but she’s thereafter harassed by a particular user capable of infiltrating and controlling her laptop. Soon her friends and family are targeted by the unknown assailant and Liz is forced into an online fight with real-world consequences.

You have every right and reason to be leery. This horror flick is composed entirely of footage captured on webcams, cell phones, GoPros and more. Even less promising, the images are displayed as video windows on a computer screen. I know. It sounds terrible. But here’s the thing. The Den is a fantastic slice of A/V horror that handily avoids most of the issues the “found footage” format is saddled with again and again. It’s also legitimately scary, creative and features a heroine who grows on you like a sexy, spunky, grad school fungus. [My full review.]

[DVD extras: Commentary, behind the scenes, trailer]

Passion of the Christ

Newmarket Films

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They said it couldn’t be done. They called me mad at the university. They doubted my math skills and insisted on hiring an accounting team from Pricewaterhouse Coopers. They debated whether or not there should be a hyphen between “box” and “office.” But here we are, fourteen weeks later, and our inaugural Summer Box Office Challenge has come to a successful end.

The last weekend of releases saw some heavyweight newcomers, and after the dust settled an action film led by Scarlett Johansson severely beat down one headlined by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Did I mention she did it on a 60% lower budget too? Luc Besson’s Lucy brought in just under $44 million for the weekend — a great number for Besson and his highest opening since The Fifth Element in ’97 — and the hope is that Hollywood takes the right notes from these results. Last week’s bonus question asking which film would end up in fifth place got an answer in the form of Planes: Fire & Rescue.

So after tallying up all the points not twice but once, we have our three winners! Keep reading to see who’ll be getting a Bu-ray bundle of new releases, and to those of you who played along but didn’t win, know that we’re grateful for your participation. This feature wouldn’t have been nearly as fun as it was if you folks weren’t engaged and interested in playing along. So thanks!

Christopher Walken in The Country Bears

Walt Disney/Richard Cartwright

The Jungle Book is seriously crushing the casting game right now.

This morning, Deadline revealed that two new actors have come aboard the all-singing, all-dancing, all-CG wildlife pic directed by Jon Favreau (as opposed to the other one, coming from Andy Serkis). Giancarlo Esposito, best known for portraying a dark-universe Colonel Sanders on Breaking Bad, will play the wolf Akela. And Christopher Walken, best known for a lifetime of skeezing people out by being Christopher Walken, will play the orangutan King Louie.

Those two extra-talented thespians join Ben Kingsley as the panther Bagheera (yes, splendid), Lupita Nyong’o as mother wolf Raksha (really, really great), Scarlett Johansson as the python Kaa (this is perfect) and Idris Elba as the film’s antagonist, the tiger Shere Khan (good god yes). Also, there’s some newcomer named Neel Sethi playing Mowgli, but  he is not a well-loved Hollywood star voicing an extremely appropriate animal character. Temper your excitement accordingly.

A Truncated Story of Infinity Short Film

Paul Trillo

Why Watch? Imbued with Eternal Sunshine‘s DNA, this fantastic short film from Paul Trillo makes repetition interesting and vibrant by framing a single, unimportant man on an unimportant day faced with unlimited possibilities

Gorgeously dynamic visuals are to be expected from Trillo (see his previous work Salience), but not only do we get abstractions like an Escherian tea pot eternally pouring into a never-spilling cup, we also get to see the banal made fresh. Sometimes that’s through the subtlety of fingernail polish colors shifting, sometimes from a television smashing to the sidewalk.

There’s also a hint of Stranger Than Fiction here, as the narrator for A Truncated Story of Infinity discusses his generic subject with dry witticism and flatly offered profundity. It’s the blend of those sweeping, plain as day observations and the beautiful photography of common paradoxes that makes this short film a wondrous delight.

Sin City A Dame to Kill For

The Weinstein Company

Score one for equality! Well, kind of. Fresh out of Comic-Con comes a brand new red band trailer for Robert Rodriguez’ and Frank Miller‘s Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (does this call for a “DOTPOTA” style acronym? “FMSCADTKF”? sounds like a bad governmental agency), one that applies just a smidge of the same lascivious behavior normally heaped on the ladies of the franchise to one of its (new) leading men. That’s right, folks, we’ve still got tons of brazen babes bounding around (most of them on a literal stripper walk, because), but now we’ve also got Josh Brolin‘s bare ass to ogle. And, no, we still have zero idea what this film is about, at least going by the trailers alone, which seem to exist just to remind us that some dames are worth…wait for it…killing for.

Let’s figure this thing out, okay? Back to Basin City, after the break:

They Live Wonder Woman at Comic-Con 2014

Photo by Robert Fure

It’s easy to hate Comic-Con.

My view of things is probably a bit different from the average person, since I’m surrounded by people “in the industry” and it’s become cool over the last few years to use a tone of tired disgust when talking about the media explosion that takes place every year. More specifically, and you know this, we’re talking about San Diego Comic-Con, which over the years has become so big  that we just call it “Comic-Con” despite there being literally thousands of other Comic Conventions every year. Attendance at the event first eclipsed 100,000 individuals back in 2005. My first adventure was The Year of Watchmen, in 2008. By then, the crowd had ballooned to more than 125,000 people. This year it’s estimated that more than 130,000 people entered the exhibition floor.

During the weekend it owns in July, it’s ubiquitous. You see it on Twitter, Facebook and every other social media sites. You read articles about it, and you sense it just underneath the surface of other articles. Dusted-off essays and tired tweets will make jokes about nerds and body odor, the smell of Thor’s leather underwear, the stank emanating from far too many layers and far too much wool in an unmercifully hot Southern California summer.

Just as it’s easy to hate the hellacious line for Hall H or the semi-constant jostling from working your way through a crowd, it’s easy to make fun of Comic-Con, too. I’d never pretend to be anything other than a nerd at heart. Even as it’s cool to claim nerd status now, I’d rather throw my lot in with the undulating mass of people on the exhibition floor than the “cool nerds” who buy some expensive art, go to cool parties and talk about how much they hate going to Comic-Con because it’s so crowded.

Part of me wanted to call this article “Who Killed Comic Con?” Because I was somewhat underwhelmed this year – hey, this is my seventh straight year in attendance – I felt like maybe the hype had come and gone over SDCC. Sure, there were still 130,000 people there, but I’d felt 130,000 people swell behind me in line before. SDCC 2014 felt like it was lacking an event. Looking back over the years, they were generally marked with something big. My first year was Watchmen and that dominated the talk and the floor. The Owlship was sitting there on display, glorious and gigantic. Other years featured Twilight panels, surprise screenings of gigantic movies, visits from most of The Expendables, Marvel’s Thor and then The Avengers.

Back then, studios also weren’t as willing to put exclusive footage and panels online. Now, it’s common. Missed a panel? Either read about it, or wait a day to see the footage online, either officially or unofficially.

Paths of Glory

United Artists

Exactly one month after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia, and after weeks of diplomatic negotiations that went nowhere, Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28, 1914 — a date often regarded as the first day of what would come to be known as The Great War, now better known as World War I.

While cinema had been in existence for over two decades by the time the war began, WWII has greatly eclipsed its predecessor in terms of its breadth of cinematic representation. Yet The Great War – with its many intersecting transnational conflicts and its location at the historical precipice between 19th century trenches and 20th century machine warfare – has produced an incredible number of fascinating, haunting, and even touching stories about a world experiencing accelerated change, many of which have made their way to celluloid.

So for the 100th anniversary of The Great War, we’ve assembled a list of 8 worthwhile films that give us a glimpse into this complicated conflict that helped shape the 20th century.

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