erik lundegaard

Sunday June 30, 2019

Box Office: June is Strewn with Broken Tentpoles

After the blitzkrieg of “Avengers: Endgame” in April/May, this has been the summer of underperforming sequels/retreads: 

  • May 31: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” opened in the U.S. at $46 mil, which is about half of what “Godzilla” opened to five years earlier ($93.1). After a month, it's at $106 domestic.
  • June 7: “Secret Life of Pets 2” opened to $46 million, which is far cry from the $104 the original opened to in 2016. It's now at $131 vs. the $368 the orginal brought in. Perhaps worse: “Dark Phoenix” grossed just $32.8 mil and after nearly a month looks like it won't even make triple digits. It's stuck on $63 domestic, which is the worst gross ever for any of the 12 X-Men movies. (Yes: 12.)
  • June 14: “Men in Black International,” starring Thor and Valkyrie, opened at $30. The original opened at $51 ... in 1998.
  • June 21: Finally, a movie that opened better than its predecessors! “Toy Story 4” grossed $120, which is a hair better than “3”'s $110 in 2010, but worse if you adjust for inflation. Even so, it's a huge success compared to everything else on this list.

Will all of this get Hollywood execs to change strategy and maybe give us the new? Doubtful. Execs would still point to “Endgame”'s $2.7 billion worldwide as the endgame. Do it right and you get that. Do it wrong and you'll probably still make up for it internationally. 

Or do you? 

Movie Worldwide Box Office Previous Film Worldwide Box Office Difference
The Secret Life of Pets $223 $875 -$652
Men in Black International $219 $624 -$405
Dark Phoenix $244 $543 -$299
Godzilla: King of the Monsters $376 $529 -$153

 The difference amounts to $1.5 billion. That actually might get some attention in Hollywood. 

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Posted at 01:55 PM on Jun 30, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  
Sunday June 09, 2019

A Bientot

James Cagney in “The Crowd Roars” (1932), directed by Howard Hawks.

Posted at 07:47 AM on Jun 09, 2019 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Friday June 07, 2019

Movie Review: The Crowd Roars (1932)

The Crowd Roars with James Cagney movie review


Howard Hawks' “The Crowd Roars” is a perfect example of why I like watching old movies. Not because it's good—it’s not—but the history. Questions I didn’t even know I had got answered. That doesn't happen with new movies. If a new movie is bad, it's just bad.

“Crowd” stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell, and has cameos from top race-car drivers of the era (Harry Hartz, Fred Frame, Billy Arnold), while Fred Duesenberg is namechecked. But what won me over was this line:

OK, so they screwed up the subtitle. What she actually says is: “Fifty million racecar drivers can’t be wrong.”

Immediately, I was like: “Wait. That Elvis album was playing off something else?”

The album in question is, of course, “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” from 1959. It’s a title so goofy it stays with you. A few years ago, in my day job, we did an article on a Memphis attorney who sends out cards to his clients; but he avoids the Christmas rush, or ignores it, by sending them a few weeks later: Jan. 8 for Elvis’ birthday. They’re Elvis cards, and he sends about 5,000 of them. So of course we called the piece “5,000 Elvis Cards Can’t Be Wrong.”

Long way of saying I have a long history with the phrase. But I had no idea until today that that phrase had an antecedent.

So what was Blondell’s line playing off of? Turns out: “50 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong,” a hit song by Sophie Tucker from 1927. Two years later, Cole Porter, no less, debuted a Broadway musical simply called “Fifty Million Frenchmen.” That’s how it started. Another reminder that we arrive in this culture in medias res.

As for the rest of the movie, Mrs. Lincoln?

Big shot
“The Crowd Roars” starts with distant footage of a sportscar race. Then there’s a crash, the crowd gasps, and we get the title. So shouldn’t the title be “The Crowd Gasps”?

Cagney plays Joe Greer, who’s one of the best race-car drivers in America. That can only mean one thing in a Cagney movie: His fall is inevitable.

We quickly gauge how it’ll happen, too. He has two issues:

  • He wont tell his family about the girl in his life, Lee (Ann Dvorak)
  • He drinks too much

Then he returns home to Indiana (Cagney?) to the pop who loves him (Guy Kibbee), and Eddie, the kid brother who wants to emulate him (Eric Linden). At first Joe pushes Eddie away; he doesn’t want him hurt in a car wreck. But soon he’s mentoring him and taking him back to Los Angeles, where Lee is waiting. Then he pushes her away. He says:

Lee, the kid doesn’t know anything about us. Both of us have to soft-pedal while he’s around. You understand.

Uhhh ... no. What the hell are you talking about?

Later, Lee and her best friend, Anne Scott (Blondell), are in Lee’s room, dishing dirt, when Eddie stops by. They give him a drink. Anne flashes some leg. Everyone’s getting chummy. Then Joe shows up, scatters the crew and breaks up with Lee:

Joe: Lee, we’re calling it quits.Lee: What do you mean?
Joe: On account of the kid, you understand?

Uhhh ... no. What the hell are you talking about?

Seriously, was Lee a prostitute or something?

Anyway, to show Joe what it’s like to lose someone he loves, Lee has Anne go for Eddie. She wins him over pretty quick ... but she falls, too. This burns up Joe, he and Eddie fight, and for the next big race Eddie is driving for another team. In the midst it, his affable partner, Spud Connors (affable Frank McHugh), tries to come between them. Literally. With his car. Joe, who’s behind, and who was drinking before the race, starts ramming him. You see where this is going, right? Spud’s car bursts into flames, he screams in pain, dies.

Cut to: A series of newspaper headlines charting Eddie’s rise and Joe's fall. He finishes seventh in a county fair. He’s lost his nerve. They don’t call it trauma—not in 1932 and not at Warner Bros. They say “he’s turned yella.”

Anyway it’s that Cagney trajectory again. Long rise, quick fall, then stumbling around with five o’clock shadow. “He used to be a big shot.”

Please pardon the fact that my car is ahead of yours and maybe be disrupting your ability to see
The final act includes something Cagney rarely gets—redemption. He’s hanging around the track in Indianapolis before the big race, where all the hotshot racers turn him down for jobs—they have too much respect for him, see—and then a guy running a coffee joint recognizes him and gives him a free meal. Guess who serves it? Lee! Who’s in Indiana there looking for him. They make up. Then the race. Eddie’s winning but he injures his arm so Joe takes over—with Eddie in the passenger’s seat. (Almost all of this is via distant shots, with announcers creating the drama.) They’re about to take the lead again when Joe flashes back to poor Spud; but Eddie is there to keep his foot on the pedal. They win.  

The movie ends on an oddly light note—with the various racecar drivers, heading to the hospital in different ambulances, encouraging their drivers to beat the others.

This is another of those early ’30s Warner Bros. movies (see: “The Mayor of Hell”) that the studio saw fit to remake at the end of the decade. I guess they were running out of ideas? The ’39 version is called “Indianapolis Speedway” and stars Pat O’Brien (of course) and John Payne as the brothers; Ann Sheridan and Gale Page as the girls; and Frank McHugh resurrecting his role as Spud.

I had a vague thought that maybe “Crowd Roars” was one of the first movies about auto racing, but not even close. Wallace Reid made a slew of them in the early ’20s: “The Roaring Road,” “Double Speed,” “Too Much Speed,” and (my favorite title) “Excuse My Dust.” But “Crowd Roars” may be the first feature-length talkie about auto racing.

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Posted at 09:07 PM on Jun 07, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Thursday June 06, 2019

Movie Review: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)


Here’s something I never knew until the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival: the Phantom of the Opera’s real name is Erik. With a k. And the name keeps coming up in the 1925 movie: in title cards, on a file card, in letters to Christina:

You’d think someone would’ve told me this at some point. Or that I would’ve figured it out on my own. Is it in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, for example? In any of the songs?

Is really Erik
With a kaaayyyy

I guess I didn’t really know the story, either, but it’s basically another of the deformed man/beautiful woman pieces. Think of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” as hazy antecedent and Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta” as direct descendant.

There are also elements of the Joker: the madman who’s somehow super organized. 

So has anyone read the novel? Apparently what the ’25 version gives short shrift to is how long Phantom/Erik (Lon Chaney) has been tutoring his love, Christine (Mary Philbin). In the movie, every time he took credit for her talents I was like, “Bit presumptuous, dude.” But in the book that’s what happens. He makes her. Like Frankenstein. Or Eliza Doolittle.

In 19th-century Paris, two men buy the Paris Opera, while the sellers give each other sly looks. After the deal is made, they confess to the whole ghost/phantom problem, which is an odd move: “Hey, here’s how we snookered you!” Our new guys dismiss the rumors out of hand, but investigate a supposed phantom who sits in a regular balcony seat. At first they see him ... and then they don’t! So was this the Phantom/Erik? Did he have season tickets? 

There are various backstage—or below stage—antics involving rumors of the Phantom, a stagehand who’s seen him (“a living skeleton”), and long shadows cast. The Phantom also sends threatening notices demanding casting changes. Specifically he wants Christine to star as Marguerite in “Faust” rather than the prima donna, Mme. Carlotta (Mary Fabian). And he gets his wish! Carlotta falls sick. Did the Phantom cause this? And could I do something similar with the Seattle Mariners? Send messages to management? Start So-and-So at short ... or else!

Meanwhile, Christine’s beau, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), hears that he’s being superseded and confronts her about it. She admits she’s being tutored by someone she calls “the Spirit of Music,” and that nothing can stop her career now, but when he suggests she’s being duped she storms off. Later, outside her dressing room, he hears the Phantom talking to her: “Soon, Christine, this spirit will take form and will demand your love!” She's OK with that; she calls him “Master.” Kind of kinky. When she leaves, the Vicomte bursts in, but of course the room is empty. 

Here’s a question the movie doesn’t really answer: Why did the Phantom choose Christine? Because he was enamored of her looks, her talent, or both? If it’s looks, wasn’t she a bit young when they started? And how did he become such an expert music tutor? I know: “self educated musician.” But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good teacher. Particularly if you’re, you know, insane.

Anyway, Christine’s debut goes well, but Carlotta returns to the role against the Phantom’s wishes, so for the next performance a giant chandelier crashes onto the audience. This is when the masked Phantom finally appears before Christine, and, in a kind of nightmare sequence, leads her slowly down the stone steps as she cowers in fright. What happened to all the “Master” talk? Hey, I thought you were into this!

There’s a labyrinth beneath the opera house, I believe she rides a horse for a time, and then he rows her via gondola across an underground river to his hideout. He wants to marry her, or something, says she can come and go as she pleases, but he makes one demand: that she never remove his mask. So of course that’s exactly what she does.

Apparently Chaney, who was already legendary in 1925, and only lived until 1930, did his own makeup. Even 100 years later it’s good. Spooky. One can only imagine what 1925 audiences thought.

So what’s her punishment for Eve-like doing the one thing she wasn’t supposed to? Erik says he’s going to make her a prisoner forever. But then he immediately lets her go back to the surface to say her goodbyes. Does she flee Paris? France? Does she go to the cops? None of the above. She attends a masked ball at the opera house, where she tells Raoul all; but the Phantom is there, too, spying, along with another mysterious, menacing figure in a fez, who turns out to be a cop, Ledoux. He's long been on the trail of the Phantom—a madman who escaped from Devil’s Island.

Another question: Was he a madman before Devil’s Island or was he tortured into it? And was his skeletal visage the result of the torture or was he born that way?

The big third act involves the Phantom kidnapping Christine off the stage, Ledoux and Raoul in pursuit but falling into one trap after another, and a mob with torches descending in the basement labyrinth of the opera house. There’s a chase through the streets of Paris, and the Phantom, grinning all the while, almost gets away but is caught near the Seine. I love the bit where he threatens the crowd with an explosive device in his hand, but then reveals the hand to be empty. I like how he does this—triumphantly—even though it means his doom. He’s beaten by the mob and tossed into the Seine. That’s it. Bye, Erik.

Stage 28
So what to make of this story? Why does it endure? How is it romantic? 

To me, two things are still great about this ’25 version: Chaney, who apparently hated the director, and the sets. Here’s Wiki on the latter:

Because it would have to support thousands of extras, the set became the first to be created with steel girders set in concrete. For this reason it was not dismantled until 2014. Stage 28 on the Universal Studios lot still contained portions of the opera house set, and was the world's oldest surviving structure built specifically for a movie at the time of its demolition. It was used in hundreds of movies and television series.

One wonders which movies and TV series. One wants a book on the subject: “Stage 28.”

I got to see “Phantom” at SIFF, on the big screen, with a live soundtrack by Austin indie band The Invincible Czars. Made for a good Saturday afternoon.

Someone get back to me on the romantic question.

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Posted at 06:24 PM on Jun 06, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  
Wednesday June 05, 2019

Movie Review: Meeting Gorbachev (2019)


I learned a lot. But enough?

I‘ll start with the superficial: I had no idea Mikhail Gorbachev was so good-looking as a young man. In photos from the ’40s and ‘50s, he seems almost movie-star handsome. At the least, a B-actor in underrated noirs for Warner Bros. He would’ve given Sterlling Hayden a run for his money. 

An endless chain of catastrophes
I didn’t know he was from the provinces, or the story about his rise: how he didn’t really achieve national attention until the late 1970s. The doc also made me flash back to Ronald Reagan’s incredible good fortune of coming into office as a slate of Soviet general secretaries were dying. We were used to the opposite. Brezhnev came into power in Oct. 1964 and ruled until his death in Nov. 1982—so through the presidencies of LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. Five presidents. We kept changing, they stayed the same. Then suddenly they kept changing and we stayed the same. During Reagan’s first five years in office, three General Secretaries took the dirt nap: Brezhnev in ’82, Andropov in ’84 and  Chernenko in March 1985. I’d completely forgotten about Chernenko, to be honest, which makes me think of this line from “Doonesbury”: “Do you realize I have absolutely no memory of the Ford years?” Chernenko was the Soviet’s Ford.

I think all of this helped Reagan. How could it not? It was like he was slaying enemies. He stood tall, they dropped. 

Director Werner Herzog has fun with this—trotting out the funeral march again and again, as if he’s reveling in the deaths of these Soviet leaders who divided his country for so long. It’s kid-in-the-back-row stuff—and works. The audience at the Seattle International Film Festival roared.

This is a different kind of Herzog, by the way. You know those mock motivational posters that include nihilistic quotes from Herzog? “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder” or “Human life is part of an endless chain of catastrophes, the demise of the dinosaurs being just one of these events.” Yeah, we don’t see that Herzog. It’s not just that he isn’t a nihilist, he’s a fan, and unabashed. He brings Gorby gifts: sugar-free chocolate from London. I think he even tells Gorbachev he loves him. For what he did. Or didn’t do.

That’s the tragedy, or maybe the tragic irony, of Gorbachev. He set in motion glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”), which led to rebellions against the Soviet Empire, which he could’ve ended with a word. He didn’t. He began a movement that swept him away. He felt the Soviet Union needed greater democracy and it led to Putin, who managed to undermine the world’s great democracy.

I’d forgotten about the putsch, too. Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were on vacation in Crimea when eight older members of the CCCP tried to seize power. They claimed Gorbachev was ill but he taped a message for the world that got out. People protested, Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, took advantage, and afterwards Gorbachev seemed a diminished figure. He misread the Soviet satellites. He underestimated nationalism. Or maybe he thought the Soviet was the nationalism. 

Does Herzog’s Gorby-love get in the way of the story? I don’t think he gets enough into his post-Soviet life, while his interviews aren’t particularly enlightening and a little dissonant. They’re speaking different languages—Gorby Russian, Herzog English—and Gorbachev will finish a story with his face expectant of the payoff from the listener; then he’ll have to hold that position awkwardly for a while until his words are translated. Some part of me thinks Herzog likes this awkwardness. It’s part of an endless chain of catastrophes. 

Gorbachev is heavier now, and slower, and I don’t think he’s long for this world. He’s probably grateful. The love of his life, Raisa, died in 1999, shortly before Putin took power. He wants to join her. In either the afterlife or oblivion.

Some of the most powerful moments from the doc are actually from another doc, “Gorbachev. After Empire” by Vitaliy Manskiy, which shows the tears Gorbachev shed at Raisa’s funeral, as well as the man himself puttering around the yard, putting lids on trash cans, in 2000 or 2001. The man who could’ve kept the Cold War going with a word or gesture. He’s not appreciated enough for not saying that word or making that gesture.

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Posted at 05:06 PM on Jun 05, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Tuesday June 04, 2019

Movie Review: Alice (2019)


I can’t remember the last time I was as angry at a movie character as I was at Francois Ferrand (Martin Swabey), the husband of Alice, while watching Josephine Mackeras’ feature film directorial debut, “Alice,” at the Seattle International Film Festival last weekend. I was almost shouting at the screen. Anyone who knows me knows this is aberrant behavior. It’s the opposite of how I want to act.

Give the movie credit that I cared this much. But is it also a problem with the script? The character got me so angry not only because he was awful but because our title character acted so stupidly. 

A terrible fix
Alice (Emile Piponnier) is the wife of Francois, and, as the movie begins, a bit of a nonentity. She’s ultra polite. Ironically, given what she becomes, she’s just a girl who can’t say no. At least that’s what her husband, a lit professor and would-be novelist, tells her before a dinner party she’s prepping, after one of the party guests says she can’t bring the wine and would Alice do it for her? Alice says yes. She can't say no. 

She also can’t say no to her husband. When he arrives home, she asks him to get their son, Jules, out of her hair so she can prep the meal, and instead, he and the boy hover over her. Some of it is cute—he pretends the chocolate is the detritus of fairy tale monsters, etc.—but it’s definitely not helpful, and in retrospect pretty creepy.

The next day she’s buying items at a pharmacy when her credit card is denied. So is her backup. She can’t withdraw money from the ATM and her husband is not picking up. Eventually she goes to the bank inn person and a bank rep spills all:

  • For the past year or two, her husband has been withdrawing their savings, and there's nothing left
  • He hasn’t paid their mortgage in that time
  • The bank is about to foreclose on their home—didn’t you get the notices?

And still hubby isn’t picking up. What begins as polite pleas ends in angry shouting and phone-throwing. After she figures out his computer password, she learns the problem: He’s been spending their money, including the €90,000 her father left her, including all that mortgage money, on high-end hookers.

Me in the audience: Wait, that much money? Is that even possible? I expected another shoe to drop, but that was the shoe. 

Going in, I knew the movie was about a woman in dire circumstances who becomes a hooker and winds up enjoying the power/control of the profession. What works is her path. It's believable. Initially she's merely investigating how much her husband paid for the service. But because she’s tall, thin, and with a girl-next-door face, she gets the gig she didn’t even know she was auditioning for. And because it pays €1,000 or so a throw, and because she immediately owes €7,000+ or she and her son will lose their home, she takes it.

What are the customers like? No one’s horrible; most are tentative; all are men. She starts shy and bumbling but soon gets the hang of it. Her mentor in all of this, and soon her best friend, is Lisa (Chloe Boreham), a tough ex-pat from New Zealand. She tells Alice the ritual: change into something sexy, offer a back massage, soon they’ll turn over, then finish it with the usual protection. Easy peasy.

That we are.

Yes, one dude is a little creepy but he’s creepy internally. He’s working out his own deep issues, but he’s never harmful to Alice.

Watching, I assumed two things. I thought the bank manager, to whom she was paying off the mortgage, would wind up a customer and know where the money came from. Nope. I also imagined that once she got her life in order again after the chaos her husband caused, he would return to cause more chaos. That happens, but it happens much, much sooner than I expected.

Oughter say nix
One day he's just there, back in the apartment, seemingly contrite, with a thin shin of sweat on his pale skin, and taking but really absolving himself of all responsibility. Where was he? At a friend’s. What does he want? To get back together with Alice. What does Alice want? A babysitter.

She’s no “Belle de Jour”—and, yes, someone needs to write an essay comparing the films—because she’ll do it at all hours, at a moment’s notice. In other words, she’s still the girl who can’t say no, but this time for money, and her friends, such as they are, are no help with last-minute babysitting. That’s how Francois worms his way back into her life. She needs a sitter.

Question: Does she think she’ll get away with it? That he’ll accept those terms? That he won’t try for more? How dumb is she? Because of course he finds out what she’s doing, is both turned on and repulsed, demands she stop, then essentially blackmails her: Let me back into your life or I’ll take Jules from you. A last-minute reveal that goes nowhere: The high-end hooker he used most was Lisa.

How does she fight back? She pretends to go along with it, then poisons his meal and chops him up into little bits and puts them out with the compost, where they’re mistaken for worms.

Kidding. She pretends to go along with it, then she and Lisa take everything, including Jules, and move to New Zealand. This dovetails with earlier conversations about Alice wanting to feel the earth beneath her feet, etc., but it leaves questions. I thought she got into hooking to help save her apartment? So did she? Or did she merely stave off the foreclosure for a few weeks/months at exorbitant rates? I mean, once Francois fucked up everything in the beginning, couldn’t she and Jules have simply moved somewhere else and started anew? Without the hooking? So doesn’t the end undercut the entirety of the movie?

“Alice” is winning awards on the festival circuit, and it’s fine for a first feature, but it’s not all that. 

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Posted at 07:22 AM on Jun 04, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Monday June 03, 2019

Movie Review: Frances Ferguson (2019)


“Frances Ferguson” is the type of movie that gets buzz during a film festival but none afterwards.

It’s a deadpan indie comedy about a woman in a dead-end town with an obvious character defect, and the point of the movie eventually becomes overcoming that defect. But it’s not funny enough or clever enough; and the defect is part of the reason for the buzz: She’s deadpan, unengaged, unfeeling. For a certain type of moviegoer, deadpan is almost a political/sociological stance—a proper response to a corrupt world—but to me it’s the sad, adolescent cousin of cool. I want to say: Move on; grow up.

Writer-director Bob Byington seems destined to make these kinds of things: people who aren’t engaging with the world realizing maybe they should engage with the world. Cf., “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and “7 Chinese Bros.”

Frances (Kaley Wheless) lives in Point Bluff, Nebraska with a loser husband, Nick (Byington staple Keith Poulson, hair perpetually dangling over one eye), and a 4-year old daughter, Parfait, with a learning disability. She and Nick are uncommunicative. The first time we see him, he’s sitting in their car, parked on a side street, masturbating. It lets us know they’re no longer having sex, etc., but to me it raises this point: Who the hell does this? Is there no locked bathroom? No closet he can use?

Do we ever find out his job, by the way? His career? Anything other than this sad fact? She, anyway, is a substitute teacher at the local high school. We see her nervous before taking over a French class, trying to remember what little French she knows, before being informed that it’s actually a biology class. “Merde,” she mutters. Good bit.

It’s in this biology class that she first contemplates the act that propels the rest of the movie—having sex with a hunky student, Jake (Jake French). Because she’s bored? Self-destructive? Because it’s a biology class? She’s certainly no pro at having an affair. Here’s where she tells her student to meet her in this small town where everyone knows everyone:

  • at a grocery store, while she’s shopping with her husband
  • at a laundromat, where she wears her old cheerleading outfit
  • at a motel

That’s where she’s busted. Is this what she wanted? She’s not saying and neither is the narrator, Nick Offerman, master of the deadpan delivery. She’s sentenced to prison, divorces her husband via online dispute resolution, is paroled, goes through therapy, meets good, bad and ugly people, and begins, maybe, to come out of her shell. That’s the movie. It ends arbitrarily—during a date with Martin Starr, Gilfoyle from “Silicon Valley.” (Yes, this thing is like a deadpan Hall of Fame.)

Why does she maybe begin to come out of her shell? My friend Vinny thought she realized how much her mother screwed her up, and she doesn’t want to do the same to her daughter. Except her mother doesn’t seem that horrible. Frances actually seems worse.

The last time
I saw it at the Seattle International Film Festival, and there was a Q&A afterwards with the star, Wheless, and Byington. One filmgoer asked about a recurring device in the narration: Whenever a character is about to leave the movie, Offerman tells us so: “This is the last time you’ll see Nick.” “This is the last time you’ll see Jake.”

I liked this bit a lot, and Byington talked about how it grew organically: from one character, to the others, to, finally, and why not, Frances. These are the movie’s last words: “This is the last time you’ll see Frances.”

Byington said he hoped moviegoers would feel a little sad at hearing this line; at seeing her go. Trouble was, I wasn’t. I was a bit surprised—because of the arbitrariness of the end—but sad? No. There wasn’t enough there there. The movie is called “Frances Ferguson” but I never knew Frances Ferguson; I just knew the stare and the stance.

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Posted at 08:35 AM on Jun 03, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019   |   Permalink  
Sunday June 02, 2019

Box Office: ‘Godzilla’ Doesn't Roar, ‘Rocketman’ Doesn't Soar

I remember being surprised when Elton John's Princess Di tribute “Candle in the Wind 1997,” which riffed off his Marilyn Monroe tribute 25 years earlier, became the biggest chart single in music history—selling 33 million copies.

I remember being surprised when “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a kind of blah biopic of Freddie Mercury and Queen, grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide at the end of last year—up there with superheroes and animated ice queens. 

So, surely, I thought, “Rocketman,” a biopic of Elton John, who always sold way more records than Queen ever did, will do great business this spring.

Nope. Surprised again. I guess I just don't know you people. 

“Rocketman” opened in the U.S. on Friday and over the weekend came in third, grossing $25 million in 3,610 theaters—about half of what “Bohemian” grossed during its opening weekend in 4,000 theaters last November. Domestically, “Bohemian” wound up grossing $216, so slightly more than four times its opening numbers, which ain't bad. If Elton does the same it‘ll break $100 million. But it’ll be a slog. 

Of course “Bohemian”'s true power was overseas, so how is “Rocketman” doing there? Ehh. $31 million so far. But I don't know in which countries it's opened and when. Box Office Mojo doesn't have those details yet. Odd, since overseas is where the action is. 

So what to make of all this? Is it that Freddie's popularity has eclipsed Elton's worldwide? Is it that “Rocketman” is “gayer” than “Bohemian” and turned off some homophobic people/countries? Is it that “Bohemian” opened in the fall, when the light is dying and we‘re ready for more serious fare, rather than the first days of June, when everything’s light, including our step and taste in movies? Is it that “Bohemian” has an ending while “Rocketman” really doesn‘t? Yet? 

That actually gets to the bigger point: Is it necrophilia? That explains all of my above surprises. “Candle in the Wind 1997” sells because of Diana’s death, “Bohemian” sells because of Freddie's death, “Rocketman” doesn't because Elton John is still standing.

Anyway, something to keep watching. 

No. 1 at the box office was “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” grossing $49 million. Box Office Mojo lists it as part of the “Monsterverse” series, Warner Bros. attempt to create an MCU or DCEU but with monsters, but I thought that was one and done. Oh wait, I'm thinking Universal's “Dark Universe”: Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, etc., but in 2017 “The Mummy” killed all that. Hard to keep up. Warner's is just giant creatures. I guess it's leading to “Godzilla vs. Kong” next year but interest is apparently waning in the U.S. Openers:

Worldwide, “Kong” did about the same as “Godzilla” ($566/$529), so will be interesting to see how things go. But nobody is handling this as well as Marvel did. 

Second place for the weekend was the second weekend of live-action “Aladdin,” which has grossed $185 here, $445 worldwide. Fourth was the scary Octavia Spencer movie “Ma,” which earned $18. 

In sixth place, “Avengers: Endgame” grossed another $7 domestically. It's now at $815, second all-time, of course. Early on, it seemed it would vault over “Avatar”'s worldwide mark of $2.7 billion with ease, but now it's crawling there. It's finally reached $2.7 but it's still about $60 million behind. Seems only a matter of time, though. No way Disney's not going to claim that crown from Fox. Get down to it, those are the true monsterverses.

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Posted at 10:14 AM on Jun 02, 2019 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  
Saturday June 01, 2019

Movie Review: The Fall of the American Empire (2018)


Couldn’t this have been called anything? It only really makes sense if “American Empire” is a metaphor for greed, or shady international finance, or something, and even then it doesn’t quite work, because that stuff doesn’t fall. It thrives, but for the other side. I'm reminded a bit of Vonnegut's “Cat's Cradle.” See the cat? See the cradle? Here it‘s: See the fall? See the empire? See the American?

Oh, wait. So this is a set piece to Denys Arcand’s “The Decline of the American Empire” (1986)? Which also didn’t have much to do with the American empire’s decline.

Oh, wait. Apparently this could have been called something else, since the IMDb bio page for one of its stars, Maripier Morin, the hottie prostitute, says the following: 

She stars in Le Triomphe de l’Argent, her first big role on the silver screen. The highly anticipated movie is directed by Oscar-winning director Denys Arcand.

That’s actually a better title.

Oh, wait. It’s certainly a more accurate title. But better? Would I have seen it at the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival if it were called “The Triumph of Money”? Maybe not. 

Carry on.

Oldest profession, oldest cliché
So: A hapless Montrealer, Pierre-Paul Daoust (Alexandre Landry), too book-smart for his own good, who works a short-pants delivery job despite the wealth of western civilization in his head, is parked in a parking lot when a heist goes awry—gangsters stealing from gangsters—and, amid the blood and carnage, two gym bags full of money are just sitting there, exposed, on the pavement, for the taking. Our man stares at them, mouth agape, for a beat, two, four, and then shoves them in his delivery van behind some boxes. Police arrive, question him, let him go. At home, he’s smart enough to take the gym bags through the front doors, since the company is notified whenever he opens his back doors. Then he’s dumb enough to use a small fraction of the money to hire a high-class prostitute, Aspasie (Morin).

Initially, he’s intrigued because her hooker name is the same as an ancient Greek philosopher. Then he’s intrigued because she looks like she looks and does what she does. Then he falls in love with her. With a prostitute. World’s oldest profession? How about world’s oldest cliché.

At least she’s not scamming him—she’s interested in what he’s doing. He’s got a good heart, and wants to help people, and this opens up her heart. It’s another gender reversal—the man making the woman a better person, cf., 《北京遇上西雅图》—but is it believable? I didn’t believe it.

Meanwhile, forces are gathering against him/them. The cops (Maxim Roy and Louis Morissette) show up at Pierre-Paul’s house as Aspasie is leaving, and they know her, and they know how much she costs, so they’re wondering how a deliveryman can afford a prostitute who charges more than his monthly wage? Now he’s their No. 1 suspect. They also warn him that this is gang money, and they’re going to want it back, but Pierre-Paul stays the course. He aligns with Sylvain “The Brain” Bigras (longtime Arcand collaborator Rémy Girard), a convict who knows money, but not enough of it, so they contact an old customer of Aspasie’s at a high-end investment firm, Maître Wilbrod Taschereau (Pierre Curzi), who knows how to launder money internationally. Initially he’s reluctant; then he takes it on.

Meanwhile, the gang is going after suspects in the brutal fashion of gangs. The surviving robber is beaten, handcuffed behind his back, and then hoisted into the air until his shoulders tear and give way. Brutal. I had to turn away. Then the man who planned the robbery, and who owned the store that was robbed, and acts oddly untouchable, is touched: Going to his car, he’s shot in the head. Also brutal. We fear for Pierre-Paul and the rest.

Nice to be nice to the nice
How does one legally get rid of millions? It can’t physically cross the border; so they find people with money internationally, who generally can’t touch it, and trade that for the cash. Then Wilbrod routes the international money to this country and that. It goes to South Africa, then Britain before winding up in, of course, Switzerland. The exchanges for the paper money occur even as the cops close in. 

The best scenes are in the beginning (Pierre-Paul’s speech about being too smart to be successful—look for it soon on YouTube), but I like how it ends. In that, it just ends. We think both cops and gangsters are after our hero, and the cops nearly nab him, so we wait for the other shoe to drop. It never does. There’s no confrontation with the bad guys. How often does that happen in the movies? When we give up that possibility? Imagine Tarantino turning that down, for example. Our heroes turn the financial tables to benefit the downtrodden and get away with it. That’s fun.

But there’s a liberal squishiness to the movie I found a bit much: about the homeless; about Pierre-Paul giving coin to panhandlers; about good things happening to good people. It’s a nice thought. As nice as a beautiful prostitute falling in love with your sorry ass.

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Posted at 10:13 AM on Jun 01, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2018   |   Permalink  
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