erik lundegaard

Tuesday April 29, 2008

Who's your superhero?

Another 5Top piece on MSNBC — this one on the most inspired superhero casting. It was designed to coincide with the opening of IRON MAN because I was thinking of putting Robert Downey, Jr. on the list, but the studio didn't make the film available before the piece was due. The screening is tonight (and anyway I've got French), and the piece was due yesterday, and I didn't want to hold it up on the off-chance that I liked Downey and IRON MAN enough to include it.

No supervillains. That's a whole other category and would include Gene Hackman and Ian McKellan and Alfred Molina and probably, eventually, Heath Ledger. Off the top of my head. 

No tagsPosted at 09:28 AM on Apr 29, 2008 in category Superheroes
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Monday April 28, 2008

Reframing the War on Terror with Milan Kundera

Add my voice to the chorus of people who think it’s time to reframe “The War on Terror.”

Its current frame has been problematic from the start. How do you fight a tactic? Why not just a war on al-Qaeda? But we called it “The War on Terror” and it’s partly why we are where we are. The War on al-Qaeda wouldn’t have led us into Iraq.

I know: old topic. But I started thinking about it again while reading, of all things, Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, particularly “Part Two: Die Weltliteratur,” in which the author makes an impassioned plea for world literature — for literature studied in the large context (aesthetically, as part of one world literature) rather than in the small context (geographically, as part of one’s country’s literature).

The main reason literature isn’t studied aesthetically, according to Kundera, is provincialism, which he defines as “...the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context.”

He then gives us two kinds of provincialism: that of large nations and that of small nations.

Large nations feel their literature is rich enough and central enough that they needn’t bother with literature from other, smaller countries.

Small nations feel the opposite. They are overwhelmed by world literature. Kundera writes that they see it as “something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature. The small nation inculcates in its writer the conviction that he belongs to that place alone. To set his gaze beyond the boundary of the homeland, to join his colleagues in the supranational territory of art, is considered pretentious, disdainful of his own people.”

Like all good definitions, Kundera’s definitions resonate beyond the borders of his immediate discussion. The provincialism of large nations, for example, is reminiscent of the provincialism of major cities like New York. A friend of mine, a Seattleite, once visited her sister in Manhattan and the sister brought up a popular film seen all over the country and asked, “Do you get that where you are?” Where you are. Because we don’t know and don’t need to know. It’s the attitude Saul Steinberg lampooned in his famous New Yorker cover — in which 9th and 10th Avenues predominate and the rest of the country is merely a truncated square, with dots for Texas and Chicago.

The provincialism of small nations, meanwhile, reminds me of Minneapolis, where I grew up, and where any artist who builds a following in the smaller context of the Twin Cities and then dares to succeed in the larger context of the nation is immediately set upon by locals as a sell-out. You belong to us. To think you belong “out there” is pretentious. Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning former City Pages columnist, is the latest to experience this phenomenon.

But more than anything, Kundera’s talk of provincialism reminded me, even reframed for me, The War on Terror.

Al-Qaeda demonstrates the provincialism of small nations. They may not see western culture as “an ideal reality” but it’s definitely an alien sky that covers all, and so they’ve declared war on it. They are as likely to win this war as they would a war against the sky.

The U.S., unfortunately, keeps helping by demonstrating the provincialism of large nations. Kundera writes that artists in such nations “need take no interest in what people write elsewhere,”  and that’s the U.S. attitude since 9/11. Hell, the attacks made us more provincial. The U.N.? The Geneva Conventions? We invaded the wrong country and most of the U.S. was fine with it. Once Baghdad fell, we filled important positions with functionaries who had no Mid-East background, who spoke no Arabic. Doesn’t everyone want state-owned enterprises privatized under foreign occupation? Don’t they want their constitution written under foreign occupation?

Isn’t this going to be easy?

The War on Terror, in other words, is simply a battle between two provincial groups who refuse to see their culture in the large context; who refuse to see themselves as part of the world.

At one point in The Curtain, Kundera takes great, almost humorous exception to a French honor panel’s list of the 100 greatest works in French literature — De Gaulle’s War Memories ahead of Rabelais and Flaubert? — and scolds the honor panel thus: “France is not merely the land where the French live, it is also the country other people watch and draw inspiration from.”

As are we. Something to keep in mind anyway as we head towards November.

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Posted at 09:45 AM on Apr 28, 2008 in category Politics
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Sunday April 27, 2008

It's Sunday morning and I love David Mamet, Randy Newman, Frank Rich and especially Elizabeth Edwards

Loudon Wainwright III (M*A*S*H alumnus, father of Rufus and Martha) has a nice song called "Sunday Times" that I've included in more than a few mixed CDs over the years. Although the cost of that paper has gone up four-fold, the song basically reflects my views on the Sunday Times:

    Well I’m trying to read my Sunday Times
    It cost a nickel and twelve dimes
    Bought it late Saturday night I’m almost finished but not quite
    It weighed a ton it seemed to me that each one of them must take a tree to make
    And also I should think it takes about a gallon of ink

Loudon then goes through the various sections of the newspaper — bleak section one, fun A&E section, boring Business, plus the Magazine ("the crossword will keep you up late/ And there's camp if your kid's overweight") — but the song's main point is that it's so big how can anyone possibly read it all?:

    Well it’s Tuesday and I’m still not done
    With Sunday’s Times — son of a gun
    Monday and Tuesday’s still unread
    I could’ve read
War and Peace instead

So for those who are reading War and Peace instead, here are a few good articles from today's Sunday Times.

David Mamet has a great piece on the sad wisdom of fighters in movies, including Stanislaus Zbyszko from the great noir, NIGHT AND THE CITY, Kola Kwariani from Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING and my man Takashi Shimura from SEVEN SAMURAI and IKURU. I had an analysis of SEVEN SAMURAI on my previous site but it was among the 50 or so reviews I dispensed with in making the transfer here — it wasn't worthy of the film — but Mamet has some great descriptions of a couple of keys scenes. It's a beautiful read.

Further in the Arts section, Geoffrey Himes writes about the many versions of Randy Newman's song, "Louisiana 1927," and its popularity in post-Katrina New Orleans. At the breakfast table, Patricia mentioned how she always loved the line, "Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline." I immediately downloaded both Newman's and Aaron Neville's versions. Listening to them as I write this.

In the Week in Review, there's Elisabeth Vincentelli on the popularity in France of a fish-out-of-water, city-man-in-the-country comedy, BIENVENUE CHEZ LES CH'TIS (WELCOME TO THE STICKS), and what its popularity means for France and Pres. Sarkozy as France tries to find itself in a global economy (as we all do, as we all do). Then of course I went to my man Frank Rich and his take on how the prolonged Democratic primary really isn't bad for the Dems. The ending, in which John McCain uses prison help to set up tables and chairs for a private fundraiser in Selma, Ala., has a BRUBAKER quality to it. 

Finally, there's Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John, on the awful, need-for-narrative, where's-the-beef? campaign coverage of this year's presidential election by the mainstream media. One can say her point is obvious, that everybody knows the media's dropping the ball, but as someone who's been accused of stating the obvious before, I tend to believe that it's the obvious and effed-up things that need more talking about, not less. Besides, Mrs. Edwards had a front-row seat for much of all this and has sharp things to say. I particularly like her thoughts on Joseph Biden (whom I've always liked) and how he was dismissed almost from the get-go by a media who felt they knew where the narrative was heading. She writes:

[That] decision was probably made by the same people who decided that Fred Thompson was a serious candidate. Articles purporting to be news spent thousands upon thousands of words contemplating whether he would enter the race, to the point that before he even entered, he was running second in the national polls for the Republican nomination. Second place! And he had not done or said anything that would allow anyone to conclude he was a serious candidate. A major weekly news magazine put Mr. Thompson on its cover, asking — honestly! — whether the absence of a serious campaign and commitment to raising money or getting his policies out was itself a strategy.

Bless her for that "honestly!" And one wonders: how is it that media momentum is built up in this fashion toward the inconsequential, the wrong-headed, the just plain stupid? Until we can answer that obvious question, we will always be a less-than-serious country in a very serious world.

No tagsPosted at 10:28 AM on Apr 27, 2008 in category Culture
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Saturday April 26, 2008

Movie Review: Avenue Montaigne (2006)

AVENUE MONTAIGNE did pretty well in American theaters last year — a little over $2 million — which doesn’t surprise since it feels a little like an American film.

A smalltown girl, Jessica (Cecilie De France), gets a job as a waitress at Bar des Theatres in Paris, which caters to the rich and theatrical crowd along Avenue Montaigne, and she gets involved, rather quickly, in several of their storylines: a soap actress, Catherine Verson (Valerie Lemercie), who hopes to get into movies, specifically a new (Hollywood?) biopic of Simone de Beauvior directed by Brian Sobinski (Sydney Pollack); a concert pianist, Jean-Francois Lefort (Albert Dupontel), who is tired of playing concerts; and an art collector, Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur), who is selling his art collection. An early encounter between Grumberg and Lefourt is indicative of what makes the film worthwhile.

Lefort has stepped outside for air — he’s suffocating in the concert world, at one point even telling a visiting Japanese journalist, “I believe in God but I think religion keeps us from God, just as classical concerts keep us from music” — and, on the street, he’s recognized by Grumberg, who is supervising the unloading of his artwork. Lefort looks slightly panicked at the recognition but Grumberg is at ease as his approaches and shakes Lefort’s hand:

Grumberg: You don’t know recognize me?
Lefort: I do.
Grumberg: No, you don’t.
Lefort (laughs, sheepish): No.

Turns out Lefort dined at Grumberg’s apartment after a concert. A beat later, Lefort remembers: “The fabulous blue Braque!” Turns out Grumberg is selling it, along with everything else in his collection. Lefort is now curious, and, seemingly, envious. Why sell everything? Grumberg says, “A collection is like life. When its heart stops beating, it’s over.” He looks around. “I began as a cabbie. I don’t want to end as a museum guard.”

It’s a great line that bears repeating, but when Grumberg does, to his son, the son completes it because he’s heard it too many times. These two are estranged, and, in French fashion, sharing the same mistress. Or, rather, the son’s mistress is the father’s girlfriend.

The son starts out as unlikeable, gets less so. But, oddly, the least likeable character in the film is Jessica, who is supposedly wide-eyed and talkative and honest in a world in which many artists and art collectors are suffering crises of mid- or old-life. It should be them, with their complaints amid comfort, who annoy. Instead it’s her. I’m not sure why, or if I should blame the character or the director or the actress (I didn’t like De France in AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, either), but Jessica, just arrived in Paris and working all day without a place to stay, exudes a sense of privilege at odds with the precariousness of her situation. She doesn’t seem serious enough about her job, which she was lucky enough to get, but loiters, lingers, and tells these artists her not-brilliant thoughts. Maybe it’s because she presumes too much. Maybe it’s because she acts like the center-of-attention when the world shouldn’t care who she is. The movie, you can tell, loves her for it, which makes her all the more annoying. Me, I dug her boss, who’s seen as a bit of martinet, because he takes his work, such as it is, seriously. I like people who take their work, such as it is, seriously. It’s easy for artists to take their work seriously; but people in service occupations? Who have to be nice? To people? All the time? Now that’s admirable. Let’s face it: In a world of Jessicas, the Bar des Theatres disappears.

I also loved Verson, and the messiness of her eating and talking and living (she presumes nothing), but mostly I loved Grumberg and his old-age wisdom and shrug. He’s who I want to become — young mistress aside. OK, with the mistress.

The main conflicts in the film — will Grumberg sell, will Lefort quit, will Verson get the role? — resolve themselves as you think they will. And cleanly. It’s a very clean film that feels like it’s pushing (one might even say pimping) Paris on us. Romance everywhere, etc. In the end the two least likeable characters get together for a smooch over a small cafe table. I don’t know if that’s romance or its opposite but it still feels like too much of a Hollywood ending for such a French film.

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Posted at 12:10 PM on Apr 26, 2008 in category Movies - Foreign
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Thursday April 24, 2008

“J'ai l'oeil americain”

Interesting sidenote on LE CORBEAU. At one point we see the good doctor reading one of the poision-pen letters and it's translated as “I see all and I tell all,” but if you look at the text it reads “J'ai l'oeil americain et je dirai tout,” which means, literally, “I have the American eye and I tell all.” So, one wonders, how did “the American eye” ever mean “seeing all”?

Some quick internet research. For a bottomless pit of information, there's not much out there and most of it's in French. From what I gather, though, the phrase related to the popularity, in France, of the early 19th-century novels of James Fenimore Cooper and his American Indian characters, who were far-seeing and eagle-eyed. Hawk-eyed. Madame Bovary even uses the phrase: “J'ai vu ça, moi, du premier coup, en entrant. J'ai l'oeil americain,” which my beginning French translates as  “I have seen this, myself, the first blow is incoming. I have the American eye.” 

I wonder if the phrase is still in use? Doubtful. America has come to mean something besides Indians in forests. More to the point, that American eye, in recent years, has become awfully myopic. It hasn't seen shit.

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Posted at 08:10 AM on Apr 24, 2008 in category Movies - Foreign
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Wednesday April 23, 2008

LE CORBEAU (1943) et HORS DE PRIX (2006)

Saw two French films this week.

Monday, at the Uptown in Queen Anne, I checked out HORS DE PRIX (Priceless), a 2006 comedy about a gold-digger, Irene (Audrey Tautou), who, in a late-morning luxury hotel bar, mistakes the bartender, Jean (Gad Elmaleh), for a wealthy patron and sleeps with him. A year later she returns, and, despite getting engaged that day to her wealthy patron, sleeps with Jean again, only to get caught, and quickly disengaged, by her fiance. When she returns to Jean's “room,” Jean is subsequently caught by the hotel staff, fired, and left in the lurch by the now-wiser Irene. The steps Jean goes through to win her back among the obscenely wealthy along the Cote d'Azur are both sweet and degrading — immoral, some Americans might say — but the tone of the movie is adult and amoral (what is, is), even as the film eventually steers us from how they live to how we do, or would like to. For a comedy, its humor is dry and rarely laugh-out-loud, but it does end the way most such comedies end. Which, for me, is the wrong ending. It's ending just as it's getting interesting.

The other film, watched last night on DVD, is a classic I'd never seen before, LE CORBEAU (The Raven), made during WWII by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who would go on to direct QUAI DES ORFEVRES, LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR (The Wages of Fear) and LES DIABLOLIQUES. A doctor, Remy Germain (Pierre Fresnay), becomes the target, or the first target anyway, of posion-pen letters signed by “Le Corbeau,” in which secrets are revealed and falsehoods spread. As more people get these letters, as more unwanted information (true and false) winds up in the public sphere, distrust and anxiety mounts, and the village leaders will do anything to flush out Le Corbeau. It's both mystery and character study, with sharp dialogue, beautiful black-and-white photography, and a gloriously ambiguous ending that, in a sense, makes us members of the village. Seen as an indictment of the Gestapo in Vichy, France, it's more, and worth the quick 90-minute trip. Netflix it.

No tagsPosted at 03:08 PM on Apr 23, 2008 in category Movies - Foreign
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Paul Auster

A good, quiet Op-Ed in the NY Times this morning by Paul Auster about craziness. Not a bad companion piece to Toles below.
No tagsPosted at 10:08 AM on Apr 23, 2008 in category General
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Tom Toles

Tom Toles has been the best editorial cartoonist in the U.S. for years. The cartoon below is from February 11 but I thought I'd post it today to remind the Dems, and everybody, what the stakes really are. We're on some thin ice here. That Toles can still make us laugh with this stuff is amazing: 

Toles: the end of the Bush years

No tagsPosted at 07:05 AM on Apr 23, 2008 in category Media
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Tuesday April 22, 2008

So it goes...

Everyone knows I love Joe Henry, so this NY Times blog from Rosanne Cash, about her collaboration with Mr. Henry, was fascinating and touching and I can't wait to hear the song.

For those who don't want to read the entire blog, here's what they've got so far:

I lost two friends, each one alone
One by the hand of God, one by his own
Oh, I loved them both, that same God knows—
And so it goes,
So it goes

Wisdom and madness go hand in glove
One falls to the other, like need into love
I want you in ways that nobody knows—
And so it goes,
So it goes

We have in common an uncommon grace
Taught us by time, revealed by the face of
Beauty in even the worst that we know—
And so it goes,
So it goes

(Sung as a bridge?)
There’s No one who drives me like I drive myself
Once more around before I rest on the shelf
Home is just one step beyond what I see
And darkness the thing one step behind me…

Many years pass, and so many friends
And none of us ever may pass here again
The last of us standing the first one who knows—
So it goes, so it goes
So it goes, so it goes

Somewhere Kurt Vonnegut smiles.

Also check out part I of Rosanne's blog. In it, she talks about her recent brain surgery, the death of her friend John Stewart (“But where's the madness, Rosanne?”), the death of her friend Eric Wishnie, and the problem with a particular brand of Christian fundamentalism (like “looking at the ground with a flashlight when the whole universe was around you waiting to be noticed"). Her blogs are exactly what I want. They're personal, deep, quiet. They take you inwards, into contemplation, rather than outwards, into argumentation. They give no answers, they just make you wonder.

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Posted at 10:45 AM on Apr 22, 2008 in category Music
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Monday April 21, 2008

5Top Cinematic Stoners

Latest MSNBC piece. Not bad for a guy who never really smoked pot.

"'Never really,' Mr. Lundegaard? Are you telling us that you did smoke pot?"

"Well. Implying it anyway."

"So you inhaled." (Laughter from the gallery)

"You know, Pres. Clinton got a lot of flack for that line, but I understood it. The first couple of times I smoked pot I got nothing out of it because, not being a cigarette smoker, I didn't know how to inhale properly, which is what I assumed he was saying. He smoked, but he didn't get the effects. Also, Jimmy Carter was never attacked by a killer rabbit, but that's another story."

For more on pot, check out Dan Baum's book, Smoke & Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure

No tagsPosted at 08:31 AM on Apr 21, 2008 in category Movies
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Sunday April 20, 2008

Why a stripper is like you

My girlfriend bought Diablo Cody's “Candy Girl: A Year in the Life on an Unlikely Stripper” at the Minneapolis airport a few months ago and on the flight back to Seattle I read over her shoulder for a minute: a graf on the icky fetishes of some of the customers. My first thought: “So much for sex tonight.”

Finally read it myself. Zip zip. It's a fun, breezy read. Also prefigures one aspect of JUNO in this description of Sex World:

“There was a red sofa shaped like Marilyn's pucker, and a pair of chairs shaped like stiletto heels. It was all very reminiscent of the eighties trend toward 'wacky' high-concept furniture; I half-expected to see a hambuger phone.”

But it also reminded me of Jim Bouton's “Ball Four.” Both books are year-in-the-life stories regarding jobs (major league baseball player, stripper) that most of us can't get or don't want; but we relate because Bouton and Cody, in these occupations, suffer the way we suffer. I.e., the boss is an idiot.

Read here for Bouton. In Diablo's case it's more than the moustache-men and their fines over at Deja Vu; it's also the thick (in both senses) female manager at Dollhouse who leaves the following note:

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN I WANT THESE LIGHTS ON ALL THE TIME I DONT CARE HOW THEY MAKE YOU LOOK OR IF YOUR GETTING A HEADACHE IF I FIND THEM TURNED OFF YOULL RECIVE A WRITTEN WARNING AND OH YES I WILL WRITE YOU UP FOR SOME DUMD SHIT LIKE THE LIGHTS NOT BEING ON TRY ME ANY QUESTIONS

“Dumd shit.” You can't make that up.

No tagsPosted at 03:43 PM on Apr 20, 2008 in category Books
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Saturday April 19, 2008

SUPERMAN! Starring Vass Anderson

I was thinking about buying Superman: The Movie (1978) yesterday and so checked it out at amazon.com. There are a couple of versions. The first DVD from 2001. The four-DVD set from 2006. And now the Blu-Ray version.

Looking over the choices, I got a sense of how much the great communication tool of our age — this thing here — is on autopilot. First, plugging in “Superman: The Movie” into amazon's search engine brought back the following options, in order:

  1. Superman: The Movie (Blu-Ray)
  2. Full Metal Jacket (Blu-Ray)
  3. Stir of Echoes (Blu-Ray)
  4. Superman: The Movie (Four-Disc)
  5. Superman: The Movie (2001)
  6. Superman: The Movie (HD-DVD)
  7. Swordfish (Blu-Ray)
  8. American Psycho (Blu-Ray)
  9. The Devil's Rejects (Blu-Ray)
  10. Superman: The Movie (soundtrack)

Stir of Echoes? American Psycho? Top results, indeed.

More bothersome, to me anyway, was the cast list for the 2001 version. The film apparently starred, in order, Vass Anderson, Harry Andrews, Ned Beatty and Marlon Brando. That's it. The four-disc set gave us more familiar names (Reeve, Kidder, Brando, Hackman) but the new Blu-Ray version goes alphabetical again: Kirk Alyn, Vass Anderson, Harry Andrews, etc. This list is even more problematic because Alyn did star as Superman, but in the 1948 serial, so the listing might confuse the few people actually searching for that one.

Both of these errors, by the way, are quality-control issues, but, because I'm cynical, I assume the search-engine mistake is intentional — a way of getting unwanted Blu-Ray discs before our bloodshot eyes — while the alphabetical listing is an unintentional, autopilot, no-one's-paying-attention error. Expect to see more of both.

Oh, and Vass Anderson? He played Third Elder.

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Posted at 09:20 AM on Apr 19, 2008 in category Superman
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Thursday April 17, 2008

Captain America and the short end of the stick

Yesterday the New York Times ran this piece on Joe Simon, who, with Jack Kirby, created Captain America in December 1940. Simon is now 94 and part of a panel at this weekend’s New York Comic Con that he calls “The old geezer table.”

It’s a newspaper piece, and thus skimps, but it brings up a key issue not only for comic creators but for artists in general: the inability to profit from your own hugely successful creation. Simon, who got squat for creating the good Captain, puts it this way: “People in comic books have a very sad history in dealing with their creative people.” Todd McFarlane, reinventor of Spider-Man in the 1990s, and creator of Spawn, says this: “I read the stories of Jack Kirby. I read the stories of all those guys in the ’40s, ’50s and even the ’60s. I kept coming across this repetitive story: the creative guy got the short end of the stick.”

The great cautionary tale, of course, belongs to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the two Cleveland boys who jumpstarted an entire industry with Superman in 1938, and who, for their trouble, got $116 from Detective Comics (and, after decades of lawsuits, an annual stipend from Warner Bros.). Their story, along with many others, is told — extremely well, I should add — in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones. Check it out.

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Posted at 10:20 AM on Apr 17, 2008 in category Superheroes
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Saturday April 12, 2008

Why movies that open in 2,000 theaters should be avoided

I like crunching box-office numbers because it unwarps my perspective. It gives me a swift reality check.
 
Example. Last year I must have seen the trailer to Eagle vs. Shark a dozen times. I frequent Landmark Theater chains and they kept showing it, along with those increasingly bothersome Stella Artois ads; and while I was never interested in seeing the film (too many indie clichés), I assumed it would play in the 200-300 theater range, such as The Science of Sleep did in 2006. Nope. Topped out at 20. Twenty. Arrived June 15th, left August 5th. To me it seemed the film would never go away and yet it hardly showed up at all.

Meanwhile, movies that played in 100 times as many theaters, such as The Messengers, The Condemned, The Invisible and The Last Legion, didn’t even make a soft impression on my brain. Niche dynasties are being created without an ounce of awareness on my part. Or yours. And it’s only getting worse.

Overall, by my admittedly suspect calculations, and not including re-releases, 596 films played in U.S. theaters in 2007. They range in availability from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which overwhelmed 4,362 domestic theaters last May, to the 77 films, such as Oswald’s Ghost, Primo Levi’s Journey and Looking for Cheyenne, whose widest domestic release was exactly one theater.

In quality, 2007’s films range from IMAX: Sea Monsters, which got a 100% rating from the compiled critics on rottentomatoes.com, to the three films (Constellation, Redline and Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour) that couldn’t even manage a marginal thumbs-up from an online critic.

I’ve been crunching box office numbers for a few years now (here are links to articles about 2004, 2005 and 2006 box office) and, despite the occasional swift reality check, generally the numbers bear out what most of us know intuitively: critically acclaimed films rarely get wide or even marginal releases, while universally despised films are spread like manure across the country. You begin to wonder, in fact, why anyone in their right mind would want to be a movie critic. The job is essentially quality control in an industry that not only doesn’t care about quality but seems to punish it. No wonder print publications, which are abandoning their own forms of quality control, are letting movie critics go.

How bad was it last year? Of those 596 films, 406 didn’t manage a marginal release (500+ theaters), and of these, 65 were so marginal they didn’t accrue the five reviews necessary to get a Rotten Tomatoes rating. But of the remaining 341 films, 215 were deemed “fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes (i.e., 60% of movie critics gave the film a positive review). In other words, if you went to a film that didn’t get a marginal release in 2007 — including La Vie En Rose, Once and The Namesake — you had a 63% chance of seeing a film most critics thought watchable.

From there, the numbers drop. A movie whose widest release was in the 500-1999-theater range? A 39% chance it was watchable. In the 2,000-2,999-theater range? 22%. Basically one in five. You have a better chance of meeting someone who thinks Pres. Bush is doing a good job than seeing a good movie that plays in 2,000 theaters.

Here’s a chart:

Widest Release  Movies"Fresh" Movies 
 1-499 theaters
 341215  63%
 500-1999 theaters
 6827  39%
 2000-2999 theaters
7617 22%
 3000+ theaters
4620 43%


That spike in the 3000-theater range is a nice surprise, but it shouldn’t be. One assumes studios and distributors know what they’re doing and save their better popcorn films (a Norbit notwithstanding) for super-wide release. The critics’ numbers simply reflect that.

(And I don’t mean to imply that a Rotten Tomatoes rating is sacrosanct. One of 2007’s big disappointments for me, Spider-Man 3, buoyed, one expects, by fanboy critics and weary newspaper critics, managed a “fresh” RT rating of 62%. RT is simply a general overview — a way of quantifying quality — but there are still a few bugs in the system.)

The overall numbers are starker when you chart for initial release rather than widest release:

Initial Release  Movies"Fresh" Movies 
 1-499 theaters
 361 232 64%
 500-1999 theaters
 53 14 26%
 2000-2999 theaters
 74 16 21%
 3000+ theaters
 43 17 39%


Now I know that trying to stop a Spider-Man or a Shrek is like trying to stop an avalanche. But at the least — at the least — these numbers should give moviegoers pause before attending a film that opens in the 2,000-theater range. Think about it logically. For films to open in this many theaters, their concept has to have some kind of widespread appeal. So why don’t they open wider? Most likely, they’re not good enough to be popcorn pictures. Consider them stale popcorn pictures.

Imagine that you only saw films that opened on 2000-2999 screens. Here’s what you would’ve seen in the first 12 weeks of 2008: One Missed Call (0% RT rating), Meet the Spartans (3%), College Road Trip (12%), First Sunday (15%), Untraceable (16%), The Eye (19%), Mad Money (20%), Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (25%), Never Back Down (26%), Step Up 2 the Streets (27%), Rambo (31%) and Definitely, Maybe (72%).

One out of 12. And I don’t even know about the one.

Americans have already spent over $420 million on these 12 films. Surely there’s better uses for our money, our time, our lives. This ain’t practice, people.

More later.

No tagsPosted at 08:49 AM on Apr 12, 2008 in category Movies - Box Office
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Thursday April 10, 2008

Hulk smash New York Times!

Today the New York Times has a piece on the controversy surrounding the movie, The Incredible Hulk, which won't be released until June.

I'm not a big fan of these types of articles anyway. The star is bickering with X. The fan sites are saying Y. The first movie “flopped,” even though it made over $130 million domestically. It's not “news,” since it's not about something that's actually happened; it's just gossip and prediction. 

I would've let it all slide except for this line: “The monster was mute in Mr. [Ang] Lee’s film, but this one speaks, a nod to the campy 1978-82 television series that starred Bill Bixby and the bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno (resplendent in green body paint).”

First, the TV show wasn't really campy — the way that Adam West's “Batman” was campy. “The Incredible Hulk” took itself seriously. Parts of it, in retrospect, may appear campy, but that wasn't the intention.

More importantly, and correct me if I'm wrong (Tim), but what nod to the series? Ferrigno's Hulk didn't speak. The comic-book Hulk spoke, generally without articles or proper grammar, but he spoke. If this new Hulk speaks, it's a nod to the comic book not the TV show.

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Posted at 03:06 PM on Apr 10, 2008 in category Media
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The most popular movies of all time are chick flicks

I don’t know how articles about chick flicks — like this one yesterday in the New York Times, or this response from Melissa Silverstein on HuffPost — can exist without somebody mentioning the obvious: the most popular movies of all time are chick flicks.

The highest-grossing film of all time, both domestically and internationally, is Titanic, a chick flick. The highest-grossing domestic film of all time, after you adjust for inflation, is Gone With the Wind, a chick flick. The third-highest-grossing domestic film of all time, after you adjust for inflation, is The Sound of Music, a chick flick.

Moreover, all three films have the same basic storyline: A woman choosing between two suitors against a backdrop of historic tragedy.

So Rose has to choose between Jack and Cal (no choice at all, really) as she sails on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

So Scarlett has to choose between Rhett and Ashley (a little more difficult, but not much) as she struggles to survive and thrive during the U.S. Civil War.

And so Maria has to choose between Captain von Trapp and God (perhaps the most difficult choice of all) during the 1938 annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.

If Hollywood is looking for a template on how to make a blockbuster, this is it: A woman choosing between two men (that’s how you get women in the seats) against a backdrop of historic tragedy (that’s how you get the men in the seats).

Given how much money Titanic made — $1.8 billion worldwide, more than $700 million ahead of the second-highest-grossing film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and almost a billion dollars ahead of the highest-grossing film from last year, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End — I’ve always been surprised that Hollywood hasn’t attempted to make more of these types of films. Then I found out they had. A friend, a screenwriter in Hollywood, told me that in the late ‘90s he worked on a water-themed movie because water-themed movies were big then. He said that was the lesson the studios picked up from Titanic’s success: People like water.

Some part of me doesn’t quite believe this. Some part of me thinks, “Surely the people in charge are smarter than that.” Then I remember that great line about the Nixon administration, and people in power in general, from All the President’s Men: “The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

Some may argue that the above films aren’t really chick flicks. That chick flicks are smaller-scaled, modern and light. That there is no historic tragedy in chick flicks.

Here’s the point. “Chick flicks” implies that movies for and about women are their own genre, or sub-genre, and don’t do well at the box office. That implication is 180 degrees from the truth. Boys may flock to Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park, but they don’t flock the way that girls flocked to Titanic. Not even close

In fact, in order to create a blockbuster, all you’ve got to do is find the right actress, the right actors, the right historic tragedy, and then cross your fingers that you’ve created Titanic rather than Pearl Harbor. Which, I should add, still grossed $449 million at the worldwide box office.

The formula works even when the movie doesn’t.
No tagsPosted at 07:44 AM on Apr 10, 2008 in category Movies
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Wednesday April 09, 2008

Marty

Here's the piece on the documentaries of Martin Scorsese, which went up last week while I was in Minneapolis visiting family and friends.
No tagsPosted at 06:50 AM on Apr 09, 2008 in category Movies
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Tuesday April 01, 2008

Where in the world are Iraq War movies popular?

Discussions about box office tend to stop with Monday morning’s numbers and bad puns. So 21 “raked in the chips,” and Superhero Movie was “a superdud,” and Stop-Loss was “shot down at the box office.” Why not push the envelope? How about Stop-Loss was car bombed? Had its legs blown off? Got ambushed in an alleyway in Tikrit?

Admittedly Stop-Loss’s numbers weren’t great: $4.5 million; 8th place. But it played on only 1,291 screens, meaning its per-screen-average, while pretty sucky ($3,505), was still better than all but three films in the top 10. Unfortunately our discussions about box office don't go that far. Instead we make some bad puns and add Stop-Loss to the list of Iraq-war-film casualties: Lions for Lambs ($15 million domestic box office), Rendition ($9.7M), In the Valley of Elah ($6.7M) and poor, poor Redacted ($60K). Underperformers all. Cue taps.

Except: If Stop-Loss follows the example of these films, it will make most of its money abroad. Rendition made $14.9 million, or 61% of its total, abroad (U.K., mostly), while Lambs pulled in $41.9 million, or 74%, from foreign countries (Italy and Spain were the big spenders). Elah also made 74% of its total abroad (France and Spain, mostly), while Redacted, which couldn’t do much worse, didn’t, pulling in $600,000 (France and Spain, again), or 10 times what it earned here.

Is this something else Americans should be embarrassed about? We went into Iraq thinking it would be good entertainment, and for a while it was (Pvt. Jessica, “Mission Accomplished”), but when it turned serious we turned the channel. It was supposed to be a Jerry Bruckheimer flick, Shock and Awe, with clear heroes and villains, and it's become a complicated, hard-to-understand, morally ambiguous film out of the French New Wave. It's become Battle of Algiers.

Hollywood has tried to make it easy for us by making its Iraq War films about us, and setting the action here, in the U.S., but the source material is still that morally ambiguous, hard-to-understand, French New Wave film. So we're letting the foreigners figure it out. They're figuring it out over there so we don’t have to figure it out over here.

Yeah, we should be embarrassed. This is our national story but we can’t be bothered. Elah is a good movie but we can’t be bothered. Stop-Loss is another good movie, and it’s got handsome leads, and it’s about camaraderie, and the few sacrificing over and over again for the many, who are us, but we can’t be bothered.

How awful is that? We can't even be bothered with how little we're being bothered by the war. And how much others are sacrificing.

Thank God for France. 

No tagsPosted at 07:02 AM on Apr 01, 2008 in category Movies - Box Office
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