Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Chart courtesy of Boxofficemojo.com

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Movie Weekend: How Novel!

So I'm sitting in an art theatre in Long Beach which is literally CALLED The Art Theatre on Friday night, waiting to see The Hunger Games. Yes, this thing is so saturating the market that it's even playing in a single-screen art house. I check my email and Variety says that at press time, the movie has already pulled down $70 million. I look around me; the place is packed. Last time I was here it was a French-language film about Algerian monks and there were 12 people watching. The money the Art Theatre makes for the next month is going to pay for a lotta monk movies.

Predictable phenomenon it may be, but it's hard to find a bad thing to say about Hunger Games. It's an adaptation of a novel that young adults embraced, which means we aren't post-literate yet. The movie itself is solid, well-made with few missteps, shows more than it tells, and doesn't embarrass anyone involved. Is it plausible? Welllllllllll.... when you're in the same situation, you tell me.

The Hunger Games takes place in a future North America (now called Panem) where some unspecified unpleasantness has resulted in an economic collapse. All the wealth is concentrated in a central city but most people live in 12 surrounding districts which make the world in The Road Warrior look luxurious. Once a year, the overlords of Panem televise a contest in which two teens from each district are drafted and made to fight to the death over the course of several days. The story follows a plucky underdog from District 12 as she struggles to survive without killing anybody, except in self-defense.

And of course, even if no one finds you to kill you, you're still at risk from exposure, starvation, attack from wolves, attack from genetically engineered wasps, infection, and whatever. And there are cameras everywhere. It's like Big Brother only instead of getting voted out of the house, they hack your head off at the neck.

Tucci, Tucci
Most of the fun in the movie (let's put fun in quotation marks, because this ain't no party) comes from the city folk. Decadent to a fault, they are an excuse for production designers to binge like Bukowski on his first day out of the tank. Stanley Tucci, as the host of a talk show for contestants, has a foot high blue pompador, George Hamilton's tan and a suit made out of rainbow trout skins. All-American girl Elizabeth Banks is like some sandpapered Marie Antoinette doll. Weirdly, Lenny Kravitz (the rock star) is probably the most subdued city character, and even he wears gold eyeliner.

Any good fantasy story is actually about reality, and this is no exception. If you're a teenager it's important to be popular; here it's REALLY important because if sponsors like you they'll airlift medicines or weapons to you. If you think reality TV is immoral in real life, imagine it jacked up like this. And even in a fight to the death, the show is at least a little scripted.

As I said, The Hunger Games ain't no party. The one thing I'd fault this movie for is sincerity. Everybody is terribly, terribly earnest and I think they couldn't have thrown in a little slyness without upsetting the mix. But then, I haven't made $70 million bucks in a single day. 


Similarly sincere to a fault is the movie I just finished on streaming Netflix: Atlas Shrugged (Part 1), based on the libertarian's favorite novel by Ayn Rand. It's pretty interesting as a document and kind of a sad misfire as a movie. It takes place in our future, but since the source material was written in the forties and they wanted to remain faithful to it, it's all about trains and manila folders and maps on walls. There are computers but no one uses them. 

I kind of got the feeling that the filmmakers have been enraged by the way Hollywood depicts capitalists as sneering 2-dimensional villains, and all they had to do was depict Government regulators the same way. It doesn't work. "I'll force your company to pay extra taxes so that the poor will be able to eat, muah-hah-hah" turns out to be a bigger leap than they anticipated. You keep returning to the problem that the poor are going to starve. When I say you there, I mean me. And unlike The Hunger Games, here there is little at stake and the lack of laughs provided by the filmmakers gradually makes you start to supply your own. Well, maybe Part II will be better. Will there be a Part II? I hope so. I'd still rather see a movie that read that damn book.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Springtime For Michael Bay

A pretty daisy. It's spring!
According to the "Heat Vision" (i.e. comic-book movie geek) section of The Hollywood Reporter, devotees of the 80's comic book "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" are quite upset at Michael Bay's plans to re-boot the franchise.

Ahhh. This sort of news is a wonderful gift-- A giant, multicolored prop department daisy. So let's savor it by pulling the pedals off one by one:

• Top Level Reaction: Okay, Michael Bay is going to make another iconic 80s kid-culture franchise. Worked before with those damn folding robots, should work again. (and just so you know it IS indeed working, the next Transformers movie already has a release date: June 27, 2014.)

Michael Bay has sent out a snippy, utterly unconvincing statement to this end, urging calm among his pissed-off and unwilling new fanbase:

Fans need to take a breath, and chill. They have not read the script […] Our team is working closely with one of the original creators of Ninja Turtles to help expand and give a more complex back story. Relax, we are including everything that made you become fans in the first place. We are just building a richer world.

The Turtles: (left to right) Mario, Luigi, Sacco and Vanzetti.
• Geek Point of Outrage #1: Bay wants to make the Turtles aliens, rather than mutants. This has struck fans an a terrible idea, completely inorganic to the whole "TMNT" canon. Alright, let us parse this from a normal person's perspective: human-sized turtles who love pizza and are ninjas who were mutated from normal turtles via toxic ooze-- versus human-sized turtles who love pizza and are ninjas but are actually from another planet. See? World of difference. How could he?

• Geek Point of Outrage #2
: Michael Bay's unique style of filmmaking will "ruin" the "TMNT" franchise. This ruination would occur via the application of Mr. Bay's stylistic ouvre: baseline-dumb scripting; sexy pinup-girl female leads; cooperation with military and/or governmental agencies for added production value; not-so-subtle jingoism; comic-relief racist stereotypes; frenetic, loud and over-rendered CGI sequences. Admittedly, at first glance none of these Bay hallmarks seem to mesh with the "TMNT" universe, but I'm sure he'll find a way.

• The Purist Argument: When you sat down to see the first TMNT movie in 1990, did you feel that a huge disservice had been visited to the spirit of the comic books? Or did you feel, as I did, that the film was pointless, as "TMNT" comics were a thinly conceived, pre-sold-out indie-comic goof on the superhero genre in the first place?

"Dude! Can we, uh... Bring the brewskis?"
-- Frat Boy Leader (Michael Bay), Mystery Men (1999)
• Appeal to Realism: If I were king of Hollywood, I would have given the TMNT reboot to Kevin Spacey. He could have engaged Alexander Payne to direct an Aaron Sorkin script, and created a work which explores the existential and psychological underpinnings of the characters. My version would have been a lot more like "Flowers for Algernon," a quartet of reptiles bought to sentience via genetic alteration-- but briefly, as the toxins which granted them super turtle-ular powers will eventually kill them. It would be a study in heroic, Homeric fatalism, four characters determined to do good before their ooze-given gifts destroy them. Oscar contender! Also a downer-- which is why I'm not king of Hollywood.

• Mike Returns to Form: Most folks (okay, most hard-core movie geeks) may remember Michael Bay from his semi-memorable cameo turn in Mystery Men (1999) as the cool, collected leader of the Frat Boys. Perhaps he looked around the set, saw how much Universal lavished on a star-studded film based on a marginal 1980s comic book-- a spinoff of Bob Burdon's "The Flaming Carrot," a goof on the superhero genre-- and decided to do thou likewise?

(p.s. see what I did with the title up there? 'Cos Megan Fox said Michael Bay was "like Hitler" in the press, it got back to [Transformers producer] Steve Spielberg, and Bay fired her tattooed ass from the franchise.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Jon Versus Kim, Smart TV versus Stupid TV

There is a fascinating exchange going on via the entertainment news, one that speaks volumes to the cultural conflicts raging through television and, by implication, the larger world. It's a war of words in a fight that is measuring the very viability of intelligence in public media.

It all started last week, when handsome, handsome actor Jon Hamm talked to Elle (UK) about the sad decline of public culture:
We’re at a place where the idea of being elite is somehow considered a negative. Whether it’s Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian or whoever, stupidity is certainly celebrated. Being a fucking idiot is a valuable commodity in this culture because you’re rewarded significantly. Incuriousness has become cool... It's celebrated. It doesn't make sense to me.
This is what I consider a lovely bit of portable wisdom. It ties in the latest trend in FNC/RNC name-calling (in 2012, "elite" is a GOP obscene epithet, even though the candidates could objectively be called nothing else) with the depths of reality TV, where there is nothing more telegenic and ratings-grabbing than the combination of wealthy people acting like total fools.

The point Mr. Hamm was making was quite clear-- but in doing so he also made a huge tactical blunder: he mentioned Kim Kardashian by name in public. There is no opportunity for public exposure too insignificant or obtuse for her to pursue. So of course, she weighed right in (via Twitter, which is about as thoughtful a medium as she uses):
I just heard about the comment Jon Hamm made about me in an interview. I respect Jon and I am a firm believer that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and that not everyone takes the same path in life. We're all working hard and we all have to respect one another. Calling someone who runs their own businesses, is a part of a successful TV show, produces, writes, designs, and creates, "stupid," is in my opinion careless.
At this point, you could step back and call this whole thing entirely superfluous-- the opinion of an actor being rebutted publicly by a… by a… I guess you could call her a reality-television personality. Anyway, some might see the antics of the Kardashians are harmless entertainment put out by people willing to make their private lives public in lieu of something that requires actual talent.

(I'm obviously taking Jon Hamm's side here-- especially when Kim claims to be someone who "produces, writes, designs, and creates." There are all sorts of levels of that kind of thing, and her level of reality-TV creativity is risible. The only creative guy in reality TV is that keyboard guy who puts the cymbal crashes on all the bug-eyed revelatory shots-- and, steady paycheck or not, the poor bugger probably contemplates suicide on a weekly basis.)

But that's not what this publicly conducted argument is actually about-- this is the inside view of an epic fight: The Battle for Television's Soul. On one side is scripted television: written and created by studio-level artisans and professionals, expertly produced, expensive and risky. On the other side is reality television: created by pandering cable-level producers, shot on the fly and cheaply, calculated to sensationalize the lives of the privileged and stupid. On basic cable, Reality TV tends to outdraw scripted shows: on the big nets, it's pretty much 50/50, "American Idol" and it's ilk versus everything else.

"Mad Men" is the standard-bearer for Smart TV:  Crazy melodrama aside, It takes great pains to recreate the world of the 1960s and explore the societal and cultural changes under way in that era. Watching it is often a history lesson, and we can glean much about how modern society was shaped by the larger conflicts raging in the subtext of every episode. Jon Hamm is the star of that show, and it's obvious to any viewer that the cool intelligence of Don Draper flows from him organically.

"Keeping Up with the Kardashians" and all the other grubby little satellite shows in it's orbit are, of course, the apex of Stupid TV, escapist, disposable entertainment. The intricacies of the human condition are indeed on display on Kardashian-centered entertainment, but in a debased form: envy, backbiting, awe in it's trashy McMansion splendor, and petty conflict. If it has any redeeming social value, it must be at such an ultra-sonic level of irony it's only understood by ironic dogs.

These shows often out-draw "Mad Men" in ratings. This is what motivated Jon Hamm to speak out: he and his show are on the parapets of traditional Hollywood, watching the hoard of Kardashians and Snookies and Real Housewives coming right at them. Notching an arrow in the bow and and letting fly is preferable to being overrun.

Jon Hamm did, in time, realize his tactical blunder, and via "Inside Hollywood" issued a response to Ms. Kardashian's barbed tweet. Don't call it an apology-- He's not about letting Reality TV off the hook anytime soon:
It’s surprising to me that it has become remotely a story… My quote was simply about that version of television and that version of American culture being celebrated. It’s not something that I particularly enjoy. The quote was obviously taken out of context, but I said what I said. I just wish it had been reported correctly. I don’t know Ms. Kardashian; I’ve never met her (and) I would never say anything personally about somebody that I’ve not met. What I said was meant to be more on pervasiveness of something in our culture, not personal, but she took offense to it and that is her right.
I'm sure it'll end here-- Too many big words for Kim to possibly match.

ADDENDA: Kim may be done, but apparently her proxies want to get in on this ginned-up "feud." Ms. Kardashian's best friend Jonathan Cheban has gone on the record with this reposte: "Jon Hamm just needs to shut up and stop being such a mad man." Um... zing, I guess.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Thanks as always to boxofficemojo.com for the chart.

Monday, March 12, 2012

March Oddments 2012

••• John Carter of Ishtar: I made comment almost exactly a year ago about how weird it was to be witnessing another entry in the "biggest flop of all time" contest. Now it's super-weird, because both are big-budget films by big-name directors with associations to the animation industry-- and both flops have Martian themes. The difference is budget: John Carter cost roughly double of Mars Needs Moms. The regularity of this phenomenon allows me to predict the article I'll be writing for "March Oddments 2013:" It'll be about the box-office failure of (I'm guessing) Disney's adaptation of Fredric Brown's 1955 novel "Martians Go Home." It'll star nobody, be directed by Nick (Wallace and Gromet) Park (his first live-action film) and in keeping with the trend it'll be budgeted at $500 million.

The New York Times has an unbeatable headline for the epic John Carter fail: "Ishtar Lands On Mars." I'll save you the effort of scaling their paywall and give you the gist of it: John Carter was a passion project by Pixar honcho Andrew Stanton. Because Disney wanted to keep him happy, they greenlighted everything he wanted, even though there were red flags from pre-production on (No stars, cryptic source material, somebody had already made Avatar, etc.)From the Times article and what I learned from John Lassiter speaking at the Austin Film Festival, it boils down to two big problems:

1. The collaborative Pixar production method was much vaunted at Austin as the antidote to dumb producer-based decision making. Unfortunately, this method seems to not work on live-action films. Stanton had to do expensive re-shoots on John Carter to get the film he wanted. For a front-loaded Pixar production, this is no big deal: Nothing is really final in computer animation until someone pushes the "render" button. But live action, where you need a lot of expensive equipment, craftspeople and artists to show up to help realize your revision, is another beast entirely.

2. It was, like Ishtar, a case of studio management worshiping celebrity-- in this case, the guy who had a hand in some of Disney/Pixar's biggest hits. Hollywood is unique in the entire crazy capitalist world for occasionally investing huge amounts of capital purely out of deference and admiration of talent. In fact, a lot of problem films can be traced to this, the inadvertent reversal of celebrity worship. It's supposed to go down and out, like a storm drain: When we ordinary folks become glassy-eyed at Angelina Jolie's leg or start hopping up and down anticipating the release of a long-lost Joss Whedon film*, the celebrity engine is working properly. But when studio executives start worshiping their own employees, well, the engine starts backfiring and will eventually catch fire.

••• Hollywood Echo Chamber:
Managed to catch Hugo and The Artist this week. Liked The Artist better: It was fully committed to it's premise, that of being a silent film. It was even shot in 4:3 Academy format aspect ratio, end to end, admirably authentic. Hugo had a layer of "Film History 480" to it-- Martin Scorsese trying to educate all of us on the protean era of cinema. The Artist is steeped in the world it portrays (Hollywood 1927-1932) but it's all in the service of pure entertainment: at the end, unlike Hugo, you don't feel like someone is going to slap a quiz sheet and a #2 pencil in your lap during the final credits.

••• Under The Bus: Over the last few days and months I think I figured out a new and strange decision process used by the producers of compelling shows like "Game of Thrones," "Breaking Bad" and especially "The Walking Dead." This involves dispensing with The Character Shield. "You viewers like interesting characters, right? Then let's kill some of them off! You're sure to come back next season and see how we're coping with it!"

*The Cabin in the Woods. Just thought I'd warn all that, much like Eddie Murphy's A Thousand Words, when a film is delayed release for four years there may be more than one reason for it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Martian Curse

Coming Friday: John Carter, the epic sci-fi / action film, set mostly on the planet Mars, based on the book by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Never heard of it? You're in good company. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Disney is already flipping out: public interest is almost non-existent, the buzz isn't good (critical consensus so far: "you have seen this film before"). The prognosticators have downgraded projections for opening weekend box office from $25 million to $20 million. This is for a film that engaged four effects houses to complete, with a budget estimated from the official and astounding tally of $250 million to a flabbergasting (and off-the record) $275 million.

Teaser one-sheet from last summer.
JCM = John Carter of Mars. it was also
apparently NOT supposed to come out
'til June.

Show of hands: who has ever read the Barsoom novels the thing was based on? Who has ever heard of Taylor Kitsch, the star? Do you remember the early promotional material from last fall, when it was called John Carter of Mars? When we saw a trailer for it, my wife thought it was the sequel to Terminator: Salvation.

I honestly would never have thought there was such a thing as The Martian Curse-- but at least for Hollywood films, depicting or mentioning or even pointing a camera in the vague direction of The Red Planet is box-office doom. Big doom. Doom-de-doom-doom-style doom. Here are a few examples:

Martian with Dreads:
WTF, right?

Mars Needs Moms (2011, last year!): Disney's $150 million motion-capture all-CG bomb, based on a children's picture book. This one famously opened with $6.9 million in box office, which would be respectable if it were a mumble-core live-action film with non-union actors just talking about going to Mars. It realized a final profit of just over $20 million, which is horrible. It may have killed Robert Zemeckis' career: let's wait and see if he and M. Night Shyamalan (The Last Airbender) go into the wedding video business together. Still, compared to $275 mil, in retrospect it might have been a bargain.

"Open the pod bay doors, please-- Never mind, wrong movie."
Mission to Mars (2000): Featuring Tim Robbins in basically a long cameo and Gary Sinese with an incongruous amount of eye makeup, Mission to Mars was not all that bad a film, and alone among sci-fi films of late, it dealt with the actual technical details of going to Mars (i.e it's gonna take a long time). It was Brian DePalma's plodding tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, it even featured space helmets that looked like they were swiped from Tony Master's (2001's art director) prop closet. Cost $80 million to make, took in $60 million total, after an unimpressive $20 million opening weekend.

Mars Attacks card from 1962. Kids were really
on their own back then, huh?
Mars Attacks! (1996): Based on kitschy (but not Taylor Kitschy) trading cards from the height of the Cold War, Tim Burton brought his own brand of strange whimsy to the entire thing. I actually got a huge kick out this film, which absolutely refused to take itself seriously for even a second. But with a $70 million production budget, it opened on nearly 2000 screens and took in $9.3 million. It took until about three months ago to gain a modest profit, a rare failure for Burton.

Almost forgot these entirely (which says something):

Red Planet (2000) featuring Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore. Cost $70 million to make, took in $8.7 million opening weekend for a sad $17 mil total. Don't remember this film at all.

Ghosts of Mars (2001): It's exactly what the title says it is: Mars colonists from Earth being possessed by Martian ghosts. made with a $28 million budget (modest for this crowd), it lumped together less than $9 million in receipts with a $3.8 million opening. The anticlimactic final big-budget film for John Carpenter.

Why do Mars movies fail so badly? I haven't a clue. All the film mentioned have solid pedigrees and represent the best values of production Hollywood has. I guess a curse sometimes is just that: a mysterious sort of ill fortune. maybe it's a planetary version of "the Scottish Play," a celestial body None Dare Call By Name.

So: I'm taking all bets! Does John Carter join this gallery of cinematic ignominy, or will it somehow find an audience? The lower you guess, the better the payoff!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to BoxOfficeMojo.com for the cool chart I'm using.