Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Weekend Box Office - Thanksgivin'

You want another helping of numbers? Take some home with you!

Bear in mind that these numbers are from the 28th to the 30th, even though it was a 4-day weekend. Most of the new movies opened on Wednesday instead of Friday which means they've made way more than you'll be seeing here. For example: that Potter kid took the number one spot, but at #2 was Disney 3D CGI extravaganza Tangled. It made $49 million in the two days, but by the end of the weekend it had pulled down $69 million. See what I'm saying? By the way, I'm pretty sure the greenlighting process for CGI animation nowadays starts with "I just wrote a new algorithm that renders great hair." "Rapunzel! Get some writers in here."

Waaay further down, Cher/Christina Aguilara vehicle Burlesque at #4, $12 million. Then #6 was Love and Other Drugs at $10 million, and #7 was Faster with $8 mil. Me, I saw Megamind. I hate crowds.

Lowest grossing new movie: The Legend Of the Pale Male. I was interested until I learned it's about a hawk, and not about me.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Most Honest Movie Title Ever

Last night I got to the multiplex and checked out Unstoppable, the Denzel Washington/Tony Scott film which might be considered a rough remake of Runaway Train (D. Andrei Konchalovski, 1985). In brief, it was very enjoyable. Tony Scott is a fine action director-- and this time, he managed to not include his typical frosting of jingoism and flag-waving. I'd even say Ol' Mr. Scott is growing a tiny bit of social consciousness.

But this entry is not really about Unstoppable: Its about the Most Honest Movie Title Ever, which I saw gracing a coming-soon one-sheet in a corridor. I had to stop and laugh at it, which sort of scared the other patrons in the immediate vicinity.

Just Go With It (2011) is a romantic comedy featuring Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler. It's about a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon (Sandler) who lies to women that he's unhappily married to get dates with them. But when he meets the girl of his dreams (Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker) he enlists the help of his office assistant (Aniston) to pose as his ex-wife. Hilarious situations and many romantic misunderstandings ensue.

In the course of one's everyday interactions, we all have to deal with deceptive little phrases. These are often meant to promote social ease (“Uncle Peter sure is a free spirit, isn't he?”) and maintain harmony (“Oh,it's okay: I was tired of that Hummel figurine anyway.”). But sometimes these little nuggets are pernicious and weasely.

“Just kidding” is my least favorite: You generally hear it uttered by someone who has been been caught red-handed saying something awful, usually about you, and it literally means “I was not kidding at all.”

“Be cool” is another one I used to have to deal with back in my management days. It was usually uttered by some dopey kid doing something dangerous or illegal, and it meant “I need you to be a sucker.” If you don't let the dumb/dangerous/termination-worthy thing I just did pass, you won't be Cool.

“Just go with it” is just a more mature version of “be cool,” but it's much more subtle and therefore more pernicious. It means “I need you to ignore the unpleasant aspects of the thing I'm advocating.” In criticism, “just go with it” is a request to ignore a work's faults and turn off your natural instinct for quality. Slate's Dana Stevens if the first person I read who correctly identified this weasel phrase: in her review of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, she was amazed by the number of critics who used the phrase to give Ms. Coppola and her sucky films an inordinate amount of slack.

In any case, here is a movie with a perfectly appropriate name which works on several levels: as yet another meaningless, catch-phrasey RomCom title-- and as a startlingly honest plea to a public who are likely sick to death of the whole genre.

Another Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy, and this time she's paired up with a formerly funny actor? Just Go With It.

The fact this film is yet another remake? The original is Cactus Flower, a 1969 Walter Matthau/Goldie Hawn comedy. Just Go With It.

A film set in these difficult contemporary times about super-wealthy, beautiful people (and in the case of Ms. Decker, crazy beautiful people) living in a world with no hard edges? Where the principals couldn't even be persuaded to make the film anywhere but West Los Angeles and Hawaii? Just Go With It.

Yet another romantic comedy based on deception and lying, where the big complication could be sorted out by a 30-second conversation? Just Go With It.

I suppose we owe Happy Madison and Columbia Pictures a debt of gratitude for being so darn honest. I'd love it if such direct naming became a trend-- but how many movies can you name More Of The Same?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Glee Makes a Breakout Character (or tries to)

I'm not one to quibble about how a successful television series is made. A good show is a soup with lots of ingredients that have no business being in the same pot. Good-looking actors-- but not TOO good-looking. Compelling story arcs-- but interesting episodic writing. Characters who care about each other, but are able to mortally insult each other regularly. If it's a soup, it's Beef-and Bubble-Gum Stew.

I'm not a regular viewer of "Glee" on FOX, but I catch it now and then. As TV show metaphors go, it's more briskety and bubble-gummy than most shows. It's a showcase for a number of audacious gimmicks and marketing strategies. It's skewed young, a demographic the nets still slaver for-- But those kids sing a lot of standards and classic pop, which will allow any 25-and-older-type-person to be able to get their dentures on at least a corner of it. They sell their own versions of these songs on iTunes, which must be a lovely source of non-advertising coin. And each episode is an opportunity for a flimsy theme: It's Britney Spears/Lady Gaga/"Rocky Horror" week! This gives "Glee" a weird critic-proof edge: unlike most shows, they can jump a different shark every week-- and there are, many, many sharks in the sea, my friend.

I've noticed, in my fitful viewing, an interesting shift of characters between Season One and Season Two.

"Glee" was a hit pretty much out of the gate, and it had a true breakout character: Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), the vindictive cheerleading coach who tried to derail the Glee Club once a week. Like everything else on "Glee," she skews two ways: as a villain (if you like the Glee kids) or an exasperated agent from our plane of reality (if you're annoyed by the Glee kids).

Breakout characters are a good thing: they indicate the show they came from is becoming part of a larger public discourse. Maynard G. Krebs, Barney Fife, The Fonz: Examples of characters who at some point eclipsed the designated main characters in popularity. This is a great development for the nets and the showrunners, not so much for the writers (who have to give the public more of what they love without breaking the show) and, I'm sure, the actors who played Dobie Gillis, Andy Griffith, and Richie Cunningham.

From what I've seen of "Glee's" Season Two, a new dynamic seems to be taking hold. Sue is still there, generally driving the B storylines as before. But it seems to be that the showrunners have taken great pains to sand off all her true meanness. She seems far less interested in trying to destroy Will Shuester's glee class, and is given all sorts of ongoing character complications (a sister with Down's Syndrome, an estranged mother, etc.) to make her more... I don't know, sensitive? What I do know is Sue Sylvester's tart reposes are so tamed down now her storylines are more distracting than menacing.

The interesting thing I mentioned: I think the showrunners are trying to willfully engineer a new breakout character in Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), an openly gay student in the glee club. As Season Two has progressed, his character's arc seems to be taking up a larger and larger part of each episode. The last one I saw had every other character acting fully on his behalf-- even Sue Sylvester.

You can tell who the breakout character of a show is not by watching the show itself, but by looking everywhere else: the Internet, supermarket check-out lines, mentions by your friends on Facebook, etc. If the public's reaction is accurate, the popular characters are still Sue and the nominal leads: Finn (Corey Monteith), Rachel (Lea Michele) and especially Quinn (Dianna Agron). I don't see any particular public buzz for Kurt, no more so than the rest of the ensemble.

Now, I admit I'm a bit awed by Chris Colfer's work on "Glee:" He's playing the part, if you pardon the expression, absolutely straight. From interviews I've seen, there is not a lot of difference between him and his character. The amazing part is his success with the sort of screen persona every aspiring gay actor since talkies were invented, due to the prejudices of the day, had to take great pains to hide. Be it luck or the times we live in, Kurt is an undiluted version of the majority of guys I knew from high school Theater Arts.

Which brings me back to why, exactly, Kurt is taking center stage in Season two. I'll guess it's because of a simple reason: his story is the one the producers want to tell. Which is why "Glee" is beginning to feel like someone rewriting their own high school experiences-- from a very particular perspective.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Weekend Box Office

Hey, I ain't just conjuring up these numbers.

It's tempting to do a gag about this being an unexpected sleeper hit, but I think I'll just dump this into your lap without the jokes: #1 in the nation, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 1, $125 million. Expect more from Part 2, coming out in about 6 months. Ain't many folk being fired at Warner Brothers this year!

Also opening this week, Russell Crowe vehicle The Next Three Days, which came in at #5 with only $6 million. What's it about? Hell I can't even remember the title and it's right in front of me.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Download Me A Pitch Meeting With JB

Look out - Amazon is buying screenplays. I hope they have better luck with movie production than Netflix did. And I hope Warner Brothers has better luck with crowdsourcing than... well, I wish them luck.

The Maritally Estranged Mr. Limpet

Just seen in super-sharp HD: The 1964 film The Incredible Mr. Limpet. I would not consider this the zenith of the Don Knotts cinematic ouevre – That honor goes to The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, which was ahead of it's time in density of wit and running gags. But I saw Limpet a lot on TV as a kid, and I'll admit to having a soft spot for it.

This new viewing was a bit of a revelation. I assumed it was a kiddie film, but now I can see it wasn't, despite it's animated fantasy elements. The story begins a few months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor: Mr. Limpet is an unassuming bookkeeper who is far more fascinated by fish than his work or his marriage. And we see why: his wife Bessie is overbearing, and his friend George has managed to join the Navy, while he is 4F. Limpet is in such a state of general pessimism about the human condition that early in the film he voices a hope that we will all be eradicated in the upcoming world war, which will allow fish to evolve into our replacements.

Through a bit of unexplained wish-granting, Mr. Limpet falls into the Atlantic and turns into a fish. He quickly adapts and even gains the love of Ladyfish, a comely, naïve female of his new species who talks in a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice. But Mr. Limpet still feels the pull of his old life-- and addresses it's disappointments by helping the U.S. Navy's Atlantic Fleet locate and destroy German U-Boats.

From a 2010 perspective, Mr. Limpet is an unusually bloodthirsty animated protagonist: there are lots of stock-footage shots of submarines imploding and the seas strewn with shattered hulls. Das Boot and Crimson Tide lie between us and this film, and we as an audience now know how horrible it is to die in a submarine. But in 1964, the war was still a fresh memory, and I'm sure every person in the cast and crew were WWII veterans. The enemy was invariably identified as “Nazis” in the film, as in “I'll lead your ship to the Nazi submarines!”

After a lot of German sailors, most of whom were not Nazi Party members, go to their watery graves, the war eventually ends. With the explicit permission of his estranged wife, Mr Limpet and Ladyfish swim off to “the spawning grounds.” The end.

Mr. Limpet, as a fish, often contends with how this unusual dilemma affects his relationships. His former marriage is de facto void, but since Bessie is not technically a widow and they never divorced, his guilt (and then-current social morés) initially prevents him from consummating his relationship with Ladyfish (which should consist of her depositing a clutch of eggs while he sheds gametes into the surrounding water: I'll bet he didn't think that part through when he was wishing to be a fish). His unexplained metamorphosis creates ethical and logical problems no amount of hung lanterns can explain away.

This leads to a completely different reading of The Incredible Mr. Limpet. With one small adjustment, the story can make sense: when Henry Limpet looks out into the sea and says to himself “I wish I were a fish,” what if he meant “I wish I were single?” As a bachelor/fish, Mr. Limpet is able to achieve his full potential: he makes friends, joins the service and receives a commission, and gets to be the hero who eradicates the Axis menace from the Atlantic. None of this would be possible if he had stayed married/human. In the end, after the fighting is over and he retires with honors, Mr. Limpet amicably parts with his first wife and moves on, to live happily ever after with his comely, naïve Ladyfish/second wife.

Just to drive this home, but maybe as just an indication of how serial monogamy worked in the 1960s, I was struck by how much this reminded me of the last season of “Mad Men,” set in 1965. Bessie, in her shrill, domineering way, reminded me of Betty Draper, Don Draper's first wife; Ladyfish had the same youthful, big-eyed, come-hither ways as Megan Calvet, Don's soon-to-be second wife. But Don Draper and Don Knotts: polar opposites, save that first name.

And yes, I'm afraid The Incredible Mr. Limpet is being remade. Warner Bros. has tapped Kevin Lima to direct this effort, which is a good idea: He directed Enchanted, and knows a thing or two about blending reality and fantasy that skews for kids and grownups both. To portray the updated Mr. Limpet, they're looking at Zach Galifianakis. This is an awful idea, for a reason that should be painfully obvious: How can a fish version of Zach be designed to resemble him when fish don't have beards? Duh. I'll even ignore the fact that his style of humor couldn't be a worse fit for the role. Of course, by the time this film is released Zach Galifianakis will have completed his magical transformation into Jack Black and this point will be moot.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Weekend Box Office

What's the story? Numbers.

Megamind still keeps its diabolical hold on the number one spot with $29 million, but 3 other movies opened this week and they deserve our attention too! For example, Unstoppable coming in at #2 with $23 million. Like director Tony Scott's career, it's the story of a train that cannot be stopped no matter what kind of damage it may cause. At #4 it's Skyline, an alien invasion story that looks good in trailers but I'm suspicious that it seemed to emerge from nowhere in the last week or so, indicating a flop in the making, but for now it pulled down $11 million. at #5 with only $9 million we have Morning Glory, starring Harrison Ford and a few other of our most treasured has-beens.

At the bottom of the chart, The Magician, which made $22 at one theatre. What is this movie? A helpful synopsis can be found on its IMDb page, and it's cowritten by the guy who wrote the screenplay.

The Magician recounts a series of strange moments that take place at the wake of a man who seems to have scarcely lived. What begins as an attempt to distract a little girl from the death of her father becomes a true spectacle as a man dressed in a tuxedo performs trick after trick, each more unbelievable than the last, culminating in a moment so surreal and implausible that Daryl's death becomes silenced in the minds of all the mourners.
Imagine, a moment so surreal that it can SILENCE A DEATH!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Free Movie Friday: The 39 Steps

There's this fellah, used to direct movies. Called Alfred Hitchcock. Overweight fellah. He's best known as the guy who directed Rear Window, which was eventually turned into Disturbia. Anyway, something else he did, pretty early on his career, was a movie called The 39 Steps. It's free here.

Thanks to Col Needham col@imdb.com for the synopsis:

Richard Hannay is a Canadian visitor to 1930's London. After a disturbance at a music hall, he meets Annabella Smith who is on the run from foreign agents. He takes her back to his apartment, but they are followed and later that night Annabella is murdered. Hannay goes on the run to break the spy ring and thus prove his innocence.

All the classic Hitchcock themes and tropes are there except one: you don't have to pay for this! Enjoy, 'cause it's free movie Friday!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Weekend Box Office

Don't take my word for it! These numbers are here for all to see!

I guess 3D isn't dead yet. Megamind, a CGI cartoon with hip voice talent such as Will someone and Tina whatshername, generates $46 million and the number 1 spot. Next down, Due Date; a Zack Gallifinakis vehicle in which he and Robert Downey Jr. drive around in a, uh, vehicle. $33 million, no special effects! #3 earned $19 million and is a sensitive drama called For Colored Girls; that's pretty impressive for a movie that has chick flick and minority written all over it.

It should worry you that after 4 weeks, Jackass 3D has made $110 million and Red has only made $71 million. Oscars aren't box office magnets after all, unless you are swinging them repeatedly at someones head and laughing.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Gaudiest, the Most Violent, the Lonesomest Mile in the World

This is an example of one of my favorite Old Time Radio Shows, Broadway is My Beat. The thing I like about it is the writing - the dialog and narration on this show is a rare and beautiful thing, an insane combination of blank verse and David Mamet style meaningful gibberish. It's about half an hour and within the first five minutes you'll see what I mean. The fact that actors are able to pull this stuff off is a tribute to how good actors were in those days.

The show was written by Morton Fine and David Friedkin,  and produced by the king of Radio Noir, Elliot Lewis. The dynamic of the show, typically, pitted the boring and straight-arrow detective Danny Clover against an array of hyperneurotic brittle New York sophisticates, beatnik junkies, and colorful crypto-homosexuals.

This episode, the Paul Holland Murder Case, features Paul Frees in a bit part as a witness who insists on calling Danny Clover "Robert" without any reason.  Anyway, enjoy because this is your free movie Friday. If you like it and want more, check this out.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Weekend Box Office

Scary, scary numbers.

Sorry I'm late... I had an election to blog about elsewhere. Besides, it was especially unsurprising at the movies last weekend. #1: Saw 3D, as in "I saw this many times before, but not in 3D." Perhaps on the strength of the optical gimmick, it made $21 million. Also note that Paranormal Activity 2 displayed a few interestings binomials: dropped to 2nd place, was shot in 2D, is a 2nd sequel. Unfortunately it also lost almost 60% from it's opening week instead of 20%, and only pulled in $16 million. Happy Halloween!

A movie called Shake Hands With the Devil premiered almost dead last, with $86 total. Curiously, that's kind of what I was blogging about on Tuesday.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Zombie-Civilization Inverse Rule

AMC rolled out the premiere of their new zombie horror/drama series "The Walking Dead" last night. Our cable system broadcasts the East coast feed of AMC in HD, so it was on at 7, rather than 10.

There was way too much going on last night to watch this show live. Trick-or-treaters descend on our neighborhood like hordes of hungry locusts. (You know, if some kid in a locust costume came to the door and said "Gimme candy, I'm a hungry, hungry locust!" I for one would give him extra treats for the effort.) We got 141 trick or treaters that night, and at the same time Game 4 of the World Series was on and San Francisco was pitching a shutout. So the wife and I took turns shoveling out mini-Hersheys or watching the game unfold. After we ran out of candy at 8:30 we shut off the lights, caught our breath, and watched "The Walking Dead."

It was worth waiting for. It was quite terrifying and gross, and it hewed close to the baseline, George Romero Living Dead definition of zombie: slow, uncoordinated, but hungry and dangerous in large numbers. Frank Darabont directed the pilot, and he knows how to structure a sense of menace into his scenes: you find yourself scouring the frame looking for places a zombie might enter. I have to give it the ultimate accolade for a horror movie: later on, I had vivid zombie nightmares.

It drew the biggest audience for any original show on AMC so far. I had read several write-ups on the show, mostly quite positive. The New York Times review made a point of comparing zombies to vampires ("Zombies are from Mars, vampires are from Venus.") The Los Angeles Times had an extensive slideshow showing the type, underlying meaning and appeal of zombies and the variations thereof.

It's all mostly excellent analysis (zombies are the ultimate consumers/proletarians; they're symbolic of SARS/The Vietnam War/The Tea Party, etc.) but the analyses seem to concentrate solely on the creatures themselves.

I've always found the most compelling aspect of any zombie movie to be how their rise (often sudden, sometimes not) affects civilization. I believe this aspect is compelling for a lot of zombie-movie aficionados. There is a very important inverse-proportion rule at work in these movies: the more utterly destroyed civilization is, the more terrifying the living dead are. If chaos reigns, the lights don't come on, and there's no TV or radio, you're truly on your own. Humans (at least movie-going humans) are creatures who thrive in the artificial light of the technologically advanced world. In this regard, the living dead are the darkness, spreading chaos one shambling step at a time. This interpretation of zombie movie universes can be charted thus, in steps of increasingly dire circumstances:

Stage 1: Disruption. Things are just starting to turn bad. The lights are still on, and TV shows scenes of panic or urgent public service messages. The zombies are usually still contained to a small area (Night of the Living Dead) and when things start to unravel things get interesting (both versions of Dawn of the Dead and Romero's later films). Zombie comedies tend to keep their universes in Stage 1: that way, the horror can be thrilling without becoming too grim (Shaun of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead). There is usually a reason the lights are still on, but sometimes these reasons are lazily ignored (Zombieland: everyone is dead except for power company employees, apparently) or a lantern is hung on it (in Dawn of the Dead a character plainly surmises the mall is powered by nearby nuclear plants).

Stage 2: Widespread Chaos. The lights are off, and everyone is dead. But there are still pockets of ad hoc civilization and order, and the wagons are circled. Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead and 28 Days Later show the world in this state. These enclaves of humanity generally don't last long, which leads to...

Stage 3: Complete Chaos. we're down to individuals trying to survive: no help of any kind is available. "The Walking Dead" and the first half of 28 Days Later feature protagonists utterly alone and clueless. The main character of the "I Am Legend" movies (The Omega Man, I Am Legend) are not only dealing with zombies, they have to battle isolation and guilt over the fact that the creation of the zombies is their own fault.

One very good recent film shows what Stage 3 would look like without zombies: The Road. Some unknown ecological catastrophe has killed everything, and the few individuals left are reduced to scavenging and cannibalism. It's proves the inverse proportion rule: just showing, quite accurately, the struggle to survive in a hostile, chaotic world is terrifying enough without the help of the shuffling undead.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Post-Mortem on a Ghost Gig

This weekend I concluded one of the weirder acting jobs I'll ever have, playing a role in the Simi Valley Ghost Tour, an historical re-enactment-cum-haunted house at a park just 3 miles north of the Regan Library.

The Robert P. Strathearn Historic Park boasts a plethora of buildings and artifacts from Simi Valley's past, most of them transplanted from their original locations. For the tour, many of these locations were populated by actors portraying ghosts of the original inhabitants (the ghost of General Store owner, for example, or the ghost of Crash Corrigan) and the rest of the ghosts were liberally sprinkled about wherever they could set up lighting. The tour would stop, the actors would perform a 3 page scene about their life and times

My station was a gazebo. The original concept called for me to play a parrot with Captain Juan Bautista De Anza, who led the expedition that brought Santiago DeLaCruz Pico to California. DeAnza is trying to convince the audience that he's a sea captain, which he believes is a better story than the truth, which is that the expedition traveled 1,000 miles on foot. A friend of mine recommend me for the gig because I had done the voice of a parrot in Light Up the Sky earlier this year when I wasn't onstage playing a human. They had a parrot suit ready for me and everything!

The week before we began our 3 weekend run, it was finally determined that the guy playing DeAnza just wasn't going to show up, and there was no time to find another actor because all the available local talent was gearing up for a production of Annie. So I was cajoled into playing both parts with the aid of a hand puppet, which was obtained from e-Bay cheaply and quickly. No dialog had to be changed, though I added a line at the end:

PARROT: You're nothing without me!

DE ANZA: Nonsense.

PARROT: At least when you talk, my lips don't move!

If the applause didn't kick in at that point, I had "You don't even HAVE lips" waiting as a backup.

So in practice, the gig was like this: A tour is admitted into the park. At this point, I wait because as station 11 I was at least an hour away from my first performance. Eventually the crowd would arrive at the barn across from my gazebo, which still meant 20 more minutes, and from then on I could watch Krishnaventa, the crazed cult leader to see how the crowd might be for my scene. On a typical night I would do the scene 8-15 times to groups of varying enthusiasm.

It occurred to me that the gig kind of approximates the experience of being an actual ghost: stuck in the same place, forced to perform the same actions for what seems like an eternity.

I haven't had to do a dual act by myself since high school, and you know what? It gets lonely up there. If I forget my lines I got no one to prompt me. Periodically I would make a mistake and have the parrot correct me, or the other way around. After a while I relished those kinds of errors because it livened up the scene for me. I never made them on purpose though because people can tell.

It wasn't all isolation though; each scene was introduced by a local junior high school kid, and they hung out with me at the gazebo between scenes unless they hung our somewhere else. They were like a pack of energy-drink-fueled wolves, roaming around the park. I learned probably a little more about 13-year-olds than I really wanted to know. For one thing, all the girls like Philip* but they don't LIKE him.

I'm pleased to report that it was a paying gig and I did get paid. Not only that, but... well, at some point one of the other actors suggested I should get twice the pay because I was playing two parts. I laughed it off but in fact, they did give me a bonus. It wasn't twice, but it wasn't nothin' either. And next year the organizers tell me they are going to keep the concept of a ventriloquist act for that scene, because I guess it worked. Kudos to me for not ruining Juan Bautista De Anza's (and Pequito's) big night!

*name changed to protect "Philip"