Monday, October 26, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Seth Rogen may not know what he's doing, but is golden.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Oooooh, I got Goosebumps. And figures, thanks to

Behind the Curtain

While I'm waiting for the Weekend Box Office Report to upload, here's a peek behind the scenes.

You may have intuited that practically every episode of the Report is done solely by me, Daniel K.  I put the camera on a tripod and hit the start button, do the report, and then just get up and turn the damn thing off. Also over the summer, you may have noticed that I had focus problems often that I just couldn't (or usually just didn't bother to) correct. Also, I was using the mic on my Nikon D3200 prosumer SLR, and everybody knows those things are nowhere man.

The last month or so, I've stepped up my game in two ways. Number one, I started using my iPhone as a mic. You put it in your shirt pocket and it's pretty good sound, with little ambient background noise. The other one is the focus problem. I'd set the focus before by sitting in the chair and pointing the camera back at the tripod head. Clever but not effective, as you saw. What ruined it, apparently, was that I have weak lights and it resulted in a very, very shallow focal plane.

And that's why THIS became necessary.

It turns out that if you take the box my iMac came in, turn it on its side, and balance an Amazon shipping box on top of it, it's about the height of my head sitting in a chair. The head shot is so the Autofocus has a face to recognize. And no, that's a test headshot, I've never tried to get work with it. I mean, ugh.

So now I focus on this bizarre device, start rolling, push it out of the way and sit down in the chair, and it looks good enough for YouTube anyway. Next up, this week's report! 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jaws as Socio-Economic Parable

Chief Brody (left) deals with pressure from the
Amity Selectmen and their 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood.
Jaws (1975) was a more than Spielberg’s breakthrough thriller hit, a huge box-office hit, and the film that, with Star Wars, invented the idea of the high-concept summer blockbuster. It is also a parable. The most obvious theme is man versus nature— how humanity can band together to defeat relentless forces of death and chaos. But the parable that is touched on but rarely explored is how Jaws is a study of American social structure- How they fight, and how they cooperate.

America in 1975 was somewhat different than it is today. Wall street was still well-regulated, the top marginal tax rates on income were much higher than they are now, and unions were much stronger. The wealthy were very wealthy, but they still had some common ground with a healthy middle class. It was a time when the middle class was still given substantial incentive to prosper: single-income families were still the norm, and even the poor were considered “lower middle class.” It was before Reagan, union-busting and trickle-down economics, and the long and fantastic post-WWII run of prosperity was still going— it was near the end, but it was still working for most people. Looking back, I think most folks didn’t know how good they had it.

Into this prosperous, fairly harmonious but increasingly cynical post-Watergate world enters a shark, who begins eating people off the shore of the small East Coast resort community of Amity. After a few disastrous mistakes by the local powers-that-be that result in even more death, the right decision is made and a fishing expedition to go kill the shark is financed.

And, oddly, a representative of every level of American society is on-board.

Quint: "Let me feel your hands... They're city hands,
soft from counting money."
Hooper: "hey, I don't need this 'working class hero' crap!"
• Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is the Woods’ Hole Shark expert. He represents the upper class: He is college-educated, well-traveled and pursues his avocation (oceanographer) with expensive equipment he bought himself. His approach to the challenge of the antagonist is initially aesthetic: He thinks sharks are magnificent, beautiful creatures, the pinnacle of piscine evolution.

• Quint (Robert Shaw) owns the Orca: He is a charter fisherman specializing in shark hunting. He represents the working class: a poorly educated, crude rustic with a strong Down East accent. Quint’s motivations are personal: as a survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in World War II, he has dedicated his life to vengeance against creatures who killed his shipmates. Considering the condition of his ship and shore facility it seems Quint has turned his obsession into a marginal sort of living.

"I think we need a bigger boat." Perfect example of
middle-class pragmatism from Chief Brody.
(This classic line was ad-libbed by Roy Scheider.)
• Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is on-board as a sponsor: his efforts financed the expedition. He is ostensibly the protagonist of Jaws— and he is solidly middle class. A former New York City policeman turned town police chief, he is pragmatic, methodical and cautious. A civil servant, Brody is fully enmeshed with the pitfalls and complexity of local government, and spends a good part of the film trying to convince Amity’s selectmen to take the shark threat seriously. His viewpoint on the antagonist is a common one: ignorance and fear. He does not like the ocean, does not go into the water, and is frankly terrified of sharks. However, he displays a common-sense willingness to facilitate, learn and help.

With representative of every social class onboard the Orca pursuing the common goal of ridding the fair town of Amity of a rogue Great White it would seem their goals are unified. But there are tensions between each man as much as there are tensions between classes:

The "moment of greatest settled success" of Jaws:
all levels of society literally harmonizing together
before the shark starts taking the boat apart.
Brody and Hooper vs. Quint: As well-integrated members of mainland society, they see Quint as an unhinged, dangerously obsessed yokel.

Hooper and Quint vs. Brody: As experienced seamen and shark enthusiasts, they see Brody as a useless landlubber who has the potential to get into serious trouble onboard.

Quint and Brody vs. Hooper: Hooper has a tendency to be snippy and is constantly suspected of not sharing the primary goal of the expedition: to kill the shark, not study or admire it.

These squabbles are put aside (mostly) when the shark seems to take an interest in them and begins a personal (and scientifically nonsensical) vendetta against the Orca and the three intrepid class representatives onboard. Sharks don’t take vendettas: in fact, most marine biologists believe Great Whites don’t care for people meat, and most fatalities are “test bites” that have bled out.

"How do you work this thing of yours?" Quint setting aside
his working-class resentments for the sake of survival.
This shark vendetta does not makes sense— unless you cast the story as a parable about class. Then the shark becomes a common enemy to all society, high and low, a threat which requires complete socio-economic cooperation.

Hooper, Quint and Brody all work together to battle the shark, who also busy trying to eliminate all of them in no particular order. The final act of the film can even be seen as a microcosm of how chaos and disaster are typically visited upon the American body politic (from here to the end are solid ••• spoilers ••• but shame on you if you haven’t seen this film!)

Quint, being working class, is eaten by the shark, which fits into the demographic of natural disasters affecting the poor proportionally worse than anyone else. Hooper, having access to expensive gear, is able to swim away from his high-tech shark cage, hide on the seafloor, and survive. The job of dispatching the shark falls on the capable middle-class Brody, who uses a tool left by working-class Quint (M1 rifle) and another tool left by wealthy Hooper (compressed-air scuba tank) to blow up the shark. Thus was the burden of the 20th century American middle class.

Peter Benchley, looking sharp in wide lapels.
The original novel was written by Peter Benchley, the grandson of humorist Robert Benchley. In the novel as well as the movie Brody is the protagonist, but Benchley was in life much more of a Hooper (Phillips Exeter prep school, Harvard University). Interestingly, Hooper was a bit of a rich cad in the book: he had an affair with Chief Brody’s wife. Then again, in the book Hooper did not escape the shark cage and was just plain eaten. He comes off much nicer in the movie, which may or may not be social commentary.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Weekend Box Office

They CALLED it Pan!

Thanks to for the figures.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo - this week you can ALMOST SEE the figures page!

My New Favorite Martian

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a nice reversal of the bloat that is becoming epidemic in most big-budget films— especially in Ridley Scott movies. Prometheus was a hyperactive terrier of a movie, bouncing all over the place, rabidly exploring scifi/horror ideas and abandoning them with equal speed. Exodus was The Bible by way of Lord of the Rings— a dark, heavy, over-art-directed movie that had big CG monsters in it. The Martian is simple and exhilarating— it sticks with a handful of characters and confines itself within the realm of believable science and physics. This last part makes this film sublime: for sci-fi geeks, seeing a film that does NOT invoke some magical frammis to get out of the 3rd act is… well, magical in itself.

Not much to say about the plot you haven’t heard: an expedition to Mars gets hit by a storm which forces them to depart to orbit— leaving one of the crew behind, presumed dead. He isn’t, and now Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has to figure out how to survive alone until he is rescued. How he does it is never less than fascinating.

What makes the film work— aside from the clean direction and terrific casting— is the dialog. The screenplay is by Drew Goddard, a veteran of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Lost.” Those shows, especially “Buffy,” were known for their witty, fast-paced dialog. The dialog in The Martian isn’t fast-paced (you really need at least two people for proper dialog to happen) but Matt Damon’s naturally self-deprecating manner makes the witty asides Watney tells himself work very well. Humor relieves tension, and pacing out moments of wry exasperation and existential terror in turn makes the experience feel richer and more realistic.

A few notes:

A relatively bulky form factor with
mechanical limitations and limited dynamic range.
The Martian Curse is being met head-on with this film— and so far The Martian seems to be beating it! It took $55 million domestic ($100 million worldwide) opening weekend against a $108 million budget. Just a note about budget here: for a film that displays all the sweep and grandeur of a big sci-fi movie, $108 mil is PEANUTS. Just comparing it to recent victims of the Martian Curse: Mars Needs Moms (2011) cost $150 million to make, and John Carter [of Mars] (2013) cost a mind-bending $264 million or more. And do you know why Ridley Scott’s Mars movie was so (relatively) cheap? It was mostly made in Hungary! The Martian exteriors were shot in Jordan— which, while grand and otherworldly, also looked just a bit familiar. Squint really hard you can see Peter O'Toole’s trailer from Lawrence of Arabia half-buried in a sand dune.

That's right-- everything from Rush's self-titled 1974
 premiere album to 2012's Clockwork Angels, all
on this tiny deal. (Nose not shown.)
• The diagetic soundtrack of The Martian features no song newer than 1979. Apparently the only music left behind on Mars belonged to Mission Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), a 1970’s Disco enthusiast. Though this makes for many amusing scenes of Watney being musically tormented (“No, I will not turn the beat around!”) frankly I found this rather unbelievable and a bit of a pander. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) did the same thing (albeit with a more ecumenical selection of 70s pop) and it’s fair to say that if “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” was not part of that movie it would have been far less fun. They are trying for the same light, easy-to-relate-to musical touch with The Martian— but it doesn’t compute for several reasons: 1. The film set in the mid-2030’s: Disco will be 60 years old by then. Disco is music Lewis’ great-grandparents were into. 2. Digital audio files should NOT be this scarce-- even if they were accidentally left behind on Mars. My friend John received for his birthday the complete collected works of Rush. It was on a USB flash drive that was so small he could literally stuff it up his nose.

Although I did not include it in the article on
The Martian Curse. Robinson Crusoe on Mars did
poorly at the box-office as well. I also forgot
to mention the feature version of My Favorite
(1999), which also bombed (and
featured Jeff Daniels, who is also in
The Martian!).
The Martian is a Robinson Crusoe story, set on Mars— not the 1964 movie, the 1719 novel by Daniel Dafoe. It explores the application of what is called “Robinson Crusoe Economics,” where the protagonist is in a unique economy where he is the only producer and consumer. To survive he needs to maximize both his personal profits and expand his productivity with very limited resources. Dafoe’s novel was written at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, when scientific and rational political thought became paramount. Crusoe was the embodiment of Enlightenment thought: To survive (profit), inventories are made, output calculated and problems are solved, mathematically and dispassionately. As this film is an absolute love letter to Science, nothing could be more appropriate.

• Donald Glover has a small role as Rich Purnell, a JPL astrodynamic physicist who figures in a key plot point. He plays it like a slovenly genius savant: minimal eye contact, poor social skills, the whole deal. Still, as he was both Troy Barnes in “Community” and comic rap artist Childish Gambino, when he showed up on-screen I expected comedy that never actually materialized. Strange.

• Seen in 3D at a late show. I was the only one laughing at the punchy dialog. The 3D is very good, feels natural and the image is unusually bright. See it that way.