‘Maze Runner’ easily takes No. 1 at box-office, grossing $32.5-million

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Adaptations of young-adult books proved their might again at the box office this weekend as “The Maze Runner” sped past other new movie releases.

Despite somewhat slow sales for its Thursday night and Friday matinee shows, “The Maze Runner” finished strongly to gross an estimated $32.5 million in the U.S. and Canada, solidly meeting expectations.

The Liam Neeson thriller “A Walk Among the Tombstones” came in second with $13.1 million, followed by the comedy-drama “This Is Where I Leave You,” which took in $11.9 million.

“Sometimes you just have to be patient,” Chris Aronson, 20th Century Fox’s head of domestic distribution, said of numbers that built through the weekend for “The Maze Runner.”

The studio had cautiously predicted an opening of $20 million to $30 million in the U.S. and Canada. But “The Maze Runner” did so well that Aronson said Sunday that the studio was picking up the film’s sequel, “The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials.”

TV is viewed as holding more promise for screenwriters than movies

Scott Frank likes to call himself “the least bitter writer in Hollywood,” and given how much success he’s had in his 30-year career, you could argue he should be. These days, though, reflecting on the state of the film industry that he loves, he has a hard time sounding upbeat — and in that, he undoubtedly reflects the sentiments of a lot of his fellow screenwriters.

Frank, 54, has carved out the kind of career that any Hollywood writer would envy. He has worked with talented filmmakers such as Jodie Foster (the 1991 child-prodigy drama “Little Man Tate”), Barry Sonnenfeld (the 1995 Elmore Leonard adaptation “Get Shorty”), Steven Soderbergh (the 1998 crime comedy “Out of Sight,” also adapted from a Leonard novel), and Steven Spielberg (2002′s sci-fi film “Minority Report”). He has received an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe nod, among other honors. Every major studio has him on speed dial and, when a problematic script needs the trusted touch of a seasoned pro, he routinely gets the call.

But when he looks back on his rise to the upper ranks of the screenwriting food chain, Frank can’t help thinking it never would have happened if he were starting out today.

Over the last few decades, as the studios have shifted their business models toward making fewer, bigger would-be blockbusters, a certain kind of movie that used to be the bedrock of American cinema — namely the kind aimed at adults who didn’t necessarily grow up surrounded by stacks of comic books — has gotten only more difficult to make. Unfortunately, that just happens to be the kind of movie that Frank, like many of his peers, aims to write.

“I’m sure ‘Out of Sight’ wouldn’t get made today,” Frank said recently. “‘Little Man Tate’ definitely wouldn’t be made. Even ‘Get Shorty’ is a struggle to get made today. They’re all tricky movies that probably wouldn’t happen.”

Laments about the death of intelligent, adult-oriented movies are nothing new, but it is unusual to hear a writer of Frank’s stature voice them quite so bluntly. And it’s sobering to think that even movies as crowd-pleasing as “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight” might be a tough sell in today’s Hollywood, at least on the studio level.

“It’s gotten harder to make movies about people,” said writer-director Miguel Arteta, 49, who has chronicled the lives of ordinary folks in indie films like “Star Maps,” “The Good Girl” and “Cedar Rapids.” “There’s not that big a variety in the types of movies that get made. People don’t take a chance on material as much as they used to. The kind of character-driven stories that we were making in the late ’90s and 2000s — all that stuff has moved to cable.”

‘We Are Kings’ has heart of blues but misses art of filmmaking

A love letter to the blues, “We Are Kings” is a spirited if technically wobbly feel-good road movie about a down-and-out musician named I Be King (Sammy Blue) on a quest to keep his club with a little out-of-body assistance from the apparition of his bedridden wife (blues belter and former Raelette, Rita Graham).

When the bank seizes their small-town Mississippi juke joint, bluesman King takes to the road in a rundown Winnebago, picking up a veritable band of young supporters along the way including a pair of homeless musicians (Jonathon “Boogie” Long and 2006 “America’s Got Talent” winner Bianca Ryan) and an Internet-savvy runaway rapper (Pryce D. Watkins), all dealing with issues of their own.

Although director-writer Toby Hubner clearly has a soft spot for the characters’ hand-to-mouth milieu, clunky dramatic staging and discordant emoting from his cast of non-actor musicians keep threatening to derail those good intentions.

But there’s a palpable, soulful authenticity to the musical performances, which ultimately draw you in, lending credibility to King and his talented passengers’ shared philosophy: “If you don’t feel it in your heart, it can’t possibly be the blues.”

The film’s heart is unmistakably in the right place — even when the camera isn’t.

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‘We Are Kings’

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes.

Playing: At Arena Cinema, Hollywood.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘Reclaim’ tosses away all credibility

The horror of child trafficking has been explored in numerous fiction and documentary films. So too has overseas adoption, in all its emotional and political complexity. Both topics figure nominally in “Reclaim,” which takes a different tack: It uses them as action-thriller fodder.

The scam against adoptive parents and orphans that it depicts may be based on true crimes, but director Alan White’s ludicrously escalating showdown between goodies and baddies is too far-fetched to sound a credible note of protest.

Incongruously, the drama features accomplished actors, travelogue scenery and a surfeit of guns, cash and murderously speeding cars. It starts off gently enough, with the arrival in Puerto Rico of an apparently wealthy Chicago couple (Ryan Phillippe and Rachelle Lefevre), dewy-eyed and nervous over the prospect of meeting their new daughter. At the instruction of the orphanage’s preternaturally chirpy director (Jacki Weaver), they settle in at a beach resort with the girl (Briana Roy), an exceptionally well-adjusted 7-year-old who lost her family in the Haiti earthquake, and wait for her passport to be processed.

Then John Cusack, in full-tilt sleazoid mode, appears on the white-sand horizon, and the delighted parents have to fend off his menacing friendliness. Double crosses, kidnapping, extortion and heroics ensue, with Luis Guzman as the cop who doubts the couple’s story, until he doesn’t. Carmine Gaeta and Luke Davies’ screenplay is constructed from plot mechanics, and the emotional stakes grow less convincing with every twist of the screw.

————

“Reclaim.”

MPAA rating: R for language, violence.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Playing: At AMC Burbank 16. Also on VOD.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Simon Pegg finds happiness

At 44, Simon Pegg thinks he’s finally found happiness. The “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible” actor has that particular achievement on his mind recently, thanks to his new film, “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” The quest film, which opens Sept. 19 and is based on an international bestselling book of the same title, follows British psychiatrist Hector as he travels around the world, researching what makes people happy while perhaps looking for his own sense of contentment. It’s a more thoughtful role for the British actor who, along with his blockbuster action movies, has starred in the overtly comedic “Shaun of the Dead” (2004), “Hot Fuzz” (2007) and “The World’s End” (2013).

Franchise-powered Disney can’t rest on laurels, studio president says

Walt Disney Studios is riding its big tent-pole movies to box-office success, having put out the two biggest movies of the year so far: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

But even with new “Star Wars” efforts, animated sequels and, yes, more superhero movies coming in the next two years, the company isn’t “taking anything for granted,” said the studio’s president Alan Bergman, who oversees distribution.

The movies still have to be good.

“We can’t rest on our laurels, we have to make great movies,” Bergman said at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2014 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference on Wednesday.

Bergman, who has been the studio’s president since 2005, said the Burbank company’s focus on big brands such as Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar has reduced the risk of money-losing disappointments like 2013′s “The Lone Ranger” and the previous year’s “John Carter.”

Each year, Bergman said, audiences can expect two-to-three animated movies, two Marvel titles, one Star Wars film, two-to-three major live action offerings and some smaller movies.

The first Disney “Star Wars” film, the seventh in the saga, is coming next December, followed by the franchise’s first stand-alone film (directed by “Godzilla’s” Gareth Edwards) at the end of 2016. Bergman did not reveal details about the spin-off.

Talking about marketing the seventh installment of the venerable Lucasfilm series, Bergman said he’s “not really concerned about awareness on this one.”

“‘Star Wars’ is a unique property,” he said. “I think this title is very well known out there. The single most important thing is to make sure the movie is great.”

Disney’s busy slate also includes the animated feature “Big Hero 6,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur.” 

The tent poles have done well this year. “Guardians of the Galaxy” recently became the first film of the year to cross the $300-million mark in the U.S. and Canada, while the “Captain America” sequel grossed about $260 million. 

Industry-wide, the U.S. box office is down roughly 5% so far this year, following a summer that tanked 15% from 2013′s key season.

Despite successes, having popular brands does not make the Disney studio invincible, Bergman noted. 

“We’re not immune from flops,” he said. “We do believe, with our branded tent-pole strategy, we can reduce that risk to a certain degree.”

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ plot details: Tony Stark’s plan backfires

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Elizabeth Olsen is seen filming on location for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Elizabeth Olsen is seen filming on location for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson is seen filming on location for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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“Avengers: Age of Ultron” films on location on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Joss Whedon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are seen filming on location for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner are seen filming on location for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Actors are seen filming on location for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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General view of location of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in Pont-Saint-Martin on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are seen filming on location for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in Pont-Saint-Martin on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson is seen filming on location for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in Pont-Saint-Martin on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Jeremy Renner is seen filming on location for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on March 24 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” ranks as one of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2015 — and now, it’s become a little bit clearer what fans will see when the movie opens next May.

Check out the official plot synopsis released this week by Marvel:

“When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, including Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, are put to the ultimate test as the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. As the villainous Ultron emerges, it is up to The Avengers to stop him from enacting his terrible plans, and soon uneasy alliances and unexpected action pave the way for an epic and unique global adventure.”

Mark Ruffalo, left, as Bruce Banner and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in a scene from Marvel's "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment/ Marvel)

Mark Ruffalo, left, as Bruce Banner and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in a scene from Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

Joss Whedon’s follow-up to his $1-billion-plus 2012 hit, “The Avengers,” will reunite the star-studded cast of the earlier film. Downey Jr. will again don the Iron Man armor, Chris Hemsworth will return as Thor, and Chris Evans will once more wear Captain America’s uniform. Also returning are Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill.

James Spader will play the villain Ultron, while Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron-Taylor Johnson will join the franchise as twins Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, respectively. Jarvis voice actor Paul Bettany will evolve into a new role — he’ll play the Vision in “Age of Ultron.”

(Click through the gallery above for a behind-the-scenes look at the production when it visited Italy earlier this year.)

Marvel’s enjoyed another successful year with April’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and August’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which now ranks as No. 1 movie of 2014, earning upward of $300 million at the domestic box office.

Writer-director James Gunn is set to return for “Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” which will open July 28, 2017.

The company is now in production on its other 2015 release, “Ant-Man,” which will be directed by Peyton Reed and star Paul Rudd as reformed thief Scott Lang. Michael Douglas will play Hank Pym, an original member of the Avengers in the comics.

– Gina McIntyre| @LATherocomplex

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Film official cautions against importing Hollywood values into China

It’s now the world’s biggest film market outside the U.S. But how do Hollywood filmmakers successfully penetrate the Great Wall of China?

Find reliable partners, hire screenwriters who’ve actually visited the country and avoid grafting “Hollywood values” onto the country.

“When you choose your subject matter you have to work hard, you have to think deep,” said Zhang Xun, former general manager of China Film Co-Production Corporation at a conference in Los Angeles on Monday. “Do not force Hollywood-style values onto China.”

Those were among the nuggets of advice offered by Xun and her colleagues at the inaugural U.S. China Film & Television Industry Expo at the L.A. Convention Center.

The event, which runs through Tuesday, is aimed at broadening business relationships between film and TV producers in the U.S. and China. Topics included navigating China’s censors and forming co-production deals, which allow producers to bypass China’s strict quotas that limit how much revenue foreign companies can collect.

The conference drew more than 400 American and Chinese film industry representatives, including representatives from the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio, Film & TV; the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Radio and Television; the Beijing International Film Festival; and Wuxi Studio, which operates a sprawling film production facility outside Shanghai. Co-productions must have some connection to China and one-third of the actors must be from the country.

The gathering comes at a time of growing partnerships between companies in Hollywood and China. Studios such as Disney, 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation have been forming partnerships with Chinese companies to expand their business in the world’s most populous country, which generated $3.6 billion in box-office revenue last year, making it the largest international market for Hollywood movies.

During a panel on co-productions, Xun stressed the importance of cultural understanding between the countries. “U.S. screenwriters often haven’t even visited China,” she said.

Co-productions that are love stories, family dramas and animated movies do especially well in the Chinese market. Political dramas, not so much. “Talking about the Chinese leadership I suggest is not appropriate,” Xun added.

That said, Nansun Shi, a veteran Chinese filmmaker and distributor, stressed that a new generation of young filmmakers behind such films as “Lost in Thailand” and “Finding Mr. Right” are changing the types of movies released in her country.

“This is China now,” she said. “Be respectful of the sensitivities, then you can do anything you want.”

Ryan Kavanaugh, chief executive of Relativity Media, which was a producer on “The Forbidden Kingdom,” the 2008 co-production with Jackie Chan and Jet Li,  said the film’s success was helped by the fact that it was based on a popular story, the legend of the Monkey King.

“In the U.S., you make a movie, you put it out and people buy it or they don’t,” Kavanaugh said. “In China it has to be … not just relevant, but something that is meaningful both to the government and the Chinese people.”

Twitter: @rverrier

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Toronto Film Festival: ‘Imitation Game’ wins people’s choice award

“The Imitation Game” has won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, cementing its status as an Oscar-season front runner.

Morten Tyldum’s WWII-era drama stars Benedict Cumberbatch as eccentric scientist Alan Turing, who helped defeat the Nazis by devising a new code-breaking machine. Weinstein Co. will release the film on Nov. 21, and is expected to campaign heavily for award nominations for Cumberbatch, Tyldum and co-star Keira Knightley as well as the film as a whole.

The company receives a significant boost from Sunday’s news. Toronto’s top audience award (the festival does not hand out any jury prizes), is a fairly reliable indicator of a movie’s awards prospects.

Five of the past six people’s choice winners at the Toronto festival landed a best-picture Oscar nomination (only Nadine Labaki’s “Where Do We Go Now?” in 2011 failed to make the grade) and three of the six won best picture (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “12 Years A Slave” and Weinstein’s “The King’s Speech;” indeed “Imitation Game” has drawn comparisons to that film on thematic and other grounds).

Still, some pundits have felt that the race this year has lacked a juggernaut. And momentum out of Toronto doesn’t always carry over all the way to the big dance — “Up in the Air” was the consensus breakout in 2009 but didn’t wind up with any Oscar wins.

TIFF organizers on Sunday also announced a number of other awards. The people’s choice prize in the documentary category went to Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka’s “Beats of the Antonov,” about the war-torn residents of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains in the director’s home country.

Meanwhile, the people’s choice award in the genre-driven Midnight Madness section went to New Zealand comedy maestros Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement for their vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows.” The film will be distributed in the U.S. by upstart company Orchard.

Audiences handed the award for best Canadian film to Maxime Giroux’s “Felix and Meira.” The multilingual movie, about the relationship between a Hasidic woman and secular man, will be released by Oscilloscope next year.

The group of international critics known as FIPRESCI also handed prizes to Abd Al Malik for “May Allah Bless France!” and Oren Moverman for “Time Out of Mind” as the best of their respective festival sections.

TIFF, an 11-day gathering that is among the film world’s most crucial confabs, winds up Sunday. A number of performances asserted their award candidacies during the fest. In addition to Cumberbatch, they include Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”), Bill Murray (“St. Vincent”) and Steve Carell and Channing Tatum (“Foxcatcher). Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”) and Felicity Jones (“Theory of Everything”) were among the female performers with buzz in a somewhat thinner lead actress field.

The momentum on the actress side is suddenly with Julianne Moore. Moore, who stars in the Alzheimer’s drama “Still Alice,” went from a non-factor to a front-runner in the matter of a few days after her film screened to rave reviews and Sony Pictures Classics acquired rights to the picture with plans to drop it into this year’s campaign.

As for “Imitation Game,” Cumberbatch told The Times that he believed the film would popularize the legacy of Turing, who in addition to cracking the Nazis’ Enigma code also created a key test for artificial intelligence while leading a tragic personal life as a gay man in an environment hostile to homosexuality. “I think it’s just astonishing considering his level of achievements and what he stands for that he is relatively obscure,” Cumberbatch said.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times