erik lundegaard

Movies - The Oscars posts

Friday February 13, 2009

And the Award for Least-Seen Best Picture Nominee Goes To...

Nine days before the Oscars and three of the five best picture nominees — “Milk,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader” — haven’t cracked the top 100 in terms of 2008 box office.

As I mentioned earlier, only two best picture nominees since 1980 haven’t wound up among the year’s top 100 box-office hits — “The Dresser” in 1983 and “Letters from Iwo Jima” in 2006 — and yet we have three this year alone. Amazing. The sad part is they’re not even great films. Maybe “Milk” but that’s it. I mean if the Academy is going for quality over popularity, as David Carr suggests, why not choose quality? Instead of a bland mediocrity that pleases neither moviegoers nor critics.

“Milk,” by the way, has the best shot of cracking the top 100. It’s currently at no. 104, only $1 million behind no. 101, “Street Kings,” a dirty-cop movie starring Keanu Reeves that opened in over 2,000 theaters in April. Yes, that sentence is sad in so many ways.
Posted at 12:14 PM on Feb 13, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies - Box Office
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Wednesday February 04, 2009

The Lundys: Best Reviews of Best Pics

Welcome! To the first annual presentation of the Lundys: the best reviews of the best picture candidates from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

No science in mine. Not a speck of it. Just reviews that confirmed or articulated what I felt was right or wrong about a movie. Mostly wrong, this year. Many people have said that 2008 was a pretty crappy year for movies, but, to me, it was really only an off-year for the prestige pictures. Overall, it was a great year. Just look at 2007. The big box-office pics were either lame threequels (“Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates 3,” “Shrek the Third”) or noisy remakes (“Transformers”), while 2008 gave us, among the top five box-office hits, “Dark Knight,” “Iron Man” and “WALL-E.” Not bad.

From the winning reviews, you can probably guess which movie I’m rooting for on Oscar night. It has no shot but... Doesn’t mean I’m not rooting.

Apologies, too, to all the critics whose reviews I missed. I’m not much of a surfer. I don’t even have nominees for best reviews of best picture candidates. Only winners. Maybe next year.

OK, on with the countdown.

For best review of Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader,” the Lundy goes to... Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal! (Applause) Mr. Morgenstern wins the award even though, and this is extremely embarrassing, I haven’t been able to read his entire review. (Thanks for nothing, WSJ.) After scanning the Rotten Tomatoes site, though, Mr. Morgenstern most exactly articulated the biggest problem with both movie and book:
The Reader remains schematic, and ultimately reductive. It really is about literacy, which proves to be a dismayingly small answer to the enormous questions posed by Hanna's dark past.
I can talk more about this later, but: Yes. “The Reader” begins as a sexual coming-of-age film, veers into a Holocaust picture, and winds up as an “ABC Afterschool Special”: Hanna Schmitz Learns to Read. With such a trajectory (which is more obvious in the book, since the movie includes Kate Winslet’s great performance), it can’t help but feel small and unworthy. Academy, I'm looking at you.

For best review of Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” the Lundy goes to... David Edelstein of New York Magazine! (Applause) I love in particular Mr. Edelstein’s early slams of Nixon the man. Criticism is not for the impartial, political or otherwise, a fact that many editors at many newspapers — trying to hold onto every loudmouthed conservative subscriber — don't seem to understand. Edelstein also gets to the heart of what’s weak with “F/N”:
Frost/Nixon is unsatisfying even if, like me, you’re a lifelong aficionado of Nixon-bashing. [Screenwriter Peter] Morgan makes him out to be a Great White Whale, but when he sat down with Frost, Nixon was already dead in the water—convicted by his own words in White House transcripts to the point where even his Republican allies had long deserted him. And with selective editing, Morgan makes it seem as if Frost got Nixon to admit more than he actually did. The original Watergate interview is now on DVD, and there are self-exculpatory escape clauses in every interminable, circumlocutory utterance. When Frost read aloud from the White House transcripts, Nixon’s eyes darted around as he searched his brain for linguistic loopholes. In Frost/Nixon, Langella’s heavy features move slowly; he seems to be plumbing the depths of his soul and glimpsing, for an instant, the abyss. Alas, the shit that dribbles from Langella’s mouth is still Tricky Dick’s.
For David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Lundy goes to... David Denby of The New Yorker! (Tepid applause. Some hoots.) Mr. Denby actually reviews, or takes apart, all of the Oscar candidates in his piece — save “Milk,” which he roots for — and he’s good on all of them. But particularly “Button”:
As Benjamin makes his way, many people puzzle over the discrepancy between his age and his temperament. But who cares? The movie is given over to an infinitely patient and scrupulous working out of its own bizarre premise, and you come away from its sombre thoroughness with the impression that something profound has been said without having any idea what it could be.
For Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Milionaire,” the Lundy goes to... Manohla Dargis of The New York Times! (Hoots. Cries of a New York bias.) Ms. Dargis’ reviewed the film when it was merely a film — one of many coming out that month — as opposed to the Oscar frontrunner for best picture, but, from that early, uncluttered vantage point, she still manages to articulate what is both appealing about the film, and, more importantly, what is false about it:
In the end, what gives me reluctant pause about this bright, cheery, hard-to-resist movie is that its joyfulness feels more like a filmmaker’s calculation than an honest cry from the heart about the human spirit (or, better yet, a moral tale). In the past Mr. Boyle has managed to wring giggles out of murder (“Shallow Grave”) and addiction (“Trainspotting”), and invest even the apocalypse with a certain joie de vivre (the excellent zombie flick “28 Days Later”). He’s a blithely glib entertainer who can dazzle you with technique and, on occasion, blindside you with emotion, as he does in his underrated children’s movie, “Millions.” He plucked my heartstrings in “Slumdog Millionaire” with well-practiced dexterity, coaxing laughter and sobs out of each sweet, sour and false note.
And finally, the last Lundy of the evening, for best review of Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” goes to... Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic! (tepid applause; shrugs; people grabbing their coats and leaving en masse) Mr. Sullivan is the only non-critic in the bunch, but his early take on “Milk,” written from a more personal perspective, articulated something about the film I hadn’t taken in. It opened the film for me. That’s basically what you want from a critic:
Milk was a radical; but he was also a businessman. He had one true love; and yet couldn't integrate it into a successful long-term relationship in his short life-time. He was a man of the streets and yet he also had to become a symbol of establishment power. The scene when he both stokes a rally-cum-riot and then calms it down captured the tension perfectly. He was a man of politics, but he was also only a politician in order to have the chance to be a human.
The movie's brilliance is not that it begins and ends with his death as a reflection on the first and last things; it is that it begins and ends with Milk's love for another human being as well. This reach for intimacy - always vulnerable, always intimate, never safe - endures past movements and rallies and elections. These manifestations of the political are the means to that merely human end.
Which is why, in so many ways, the gay movement, at its very best, is something holy.
That’s it, folks. Thanks for coming. And keep reading the critics.
Posted at 09:13 AM on Feb 04, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Monday February 02, 2009

Pedigree of a Slumdog: PGA, SAG, DGA...

With the Directors Guild of America Award going to Danny Boyle of “Slumdog Millionaire,” it looks increasingly unlikely that any other movie will win best picture. In fact it'll be unprecedented. Winning the DGA alone is usually a lock. You win the DGA, you tend to win the Oscar for best director. You win the Oscar for best director, your picture tends to win best picture. Only nine times since 1957 has best pic gone to something other than the DGA winner’s pic. That’s 82 percent.

Then factor in the Producers Guild of America, which began giving awards in 1989. How many times has a movie won the DGA and the PGA and not won best picture? Three times: In 1995 when the guilds chose “Apollo 13” and the Academy chose “Braveheart”; in 1998 when the guilds chose “Saving Private Ryan” and the Academy chose “Shakespeare in Love”: and in 2005 when the guilds chose “Brokeback Mountain” and the Academy chose “Crash.” That’s 84 percent.

(BTW: Isn’t it amazing how the guilds had the better choice each disagreeable year?)

Then factor in the Screen Actors Guild, which began giving awards in 1996. This is the fifth year all three guilds agreed. They agreed in 1999 (“American Beauty”), 2002 (“Chicago”), 2003 (“Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”) and last year (“No Country for Old Men”). Of course each of those pictures won the Oscar. Now we’re talking 100 percent.

In other words, if you choose anything other than “Slumdog” in your Oscar pool, you’re rolling with some pretty loaded dice.
Posted at 07:56 AM on Feb 02, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Saturday January 31, 2009

Mood Fight

I’m a little worried about David Carr

First there was that odd, Joker-mask video he did for his Carpetbagger blog. Then last week he clapped the Academy on the back for choosing quality (meaning: “The Reader”) over popularity (meaning: “The Dark Knight”).

But yesterday? He launched into one of my least-favorite journalistic devices: How the popularity of this or that film reflects the nation’s mood.

The Times is infamous for doing this. Just last year, on May 15th, Michael Cieply implied that the upcoming summer movies, including “The Dark Knight,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Pineapple Express,” were just too dark. “The mix,” he wrote, “may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive…”

Turns out “The Dark Knight” was just the refuge people were looking for. So Brooks Barnes took over, and on July 28th, wrote the following: “The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.”

Problem solved. We weren’t repelled from the movie because it reflected our mood; we were drawn to it. Once it became clear we were drawn to it.

See what fun you can have with the nation’s mood?

Carr, whom I love, and who’s a better writer than both Cieply and Barnes, has actually done something worse. He begins his article, “Riveting Tales for Dark Days,” by once again lauding the Oscar nominees. They are, he says, an upbeat lot, particularly compared with the gloom of last year’s “No Country” and “There Will Be Blood.” They reflect our nation’s can-do spirit in troubled times. In one graph he dismisses what he’s doing and then keeps doing it:
Using the Oscars as a prism on national consciousness is a hoary, time-worn activity perpetrated by those of us who must find meaning in sometimes marginal work. But it does seem worth at least a mention this time around that both the Academy and audiences are showering love on such upbeat movies at a rough time in history.
Why is this worse? Let’s let “X” stand for “What people would do or are doing because of the nation’s mood.”

Cieply’s X wasn’t verifiable but predictive. It was two months down the road when only idiots like me would remember that he, or someone he had quoted, had made such a prediction.

Barnes’ X was verifiable and correct. People were in fact going to see “The Dark Knight.”

Carr’s X? Verifiable and incorrect. And not just incorrect in a small way. Incorrect in a way that refutes his entire premise.

He mixes two unstable elements. He writes that January box-office receipts are up by 10 percent (true) and that the Oscar nominees are more upbeat than last year (true-ish, though there’s nothing as purely pleasant as “Juno” in the mix). So he concludes people are drawn to these upbeat best picture nominees.

Problem? For whatever reason (and I blame the studios as much as anyone), we’re not drawn to these upbeat nominees. We’re drawn to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” which has made, as of today, $69.3 million. The nominees, save for “Button,” have all made less. Some a lot less: “Slumdog” ($59.5M), “Milk” ($21.9M), “Frost/Nixon” ($12.9M) and “The Reader” ($10.2M). In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, Brandon Gray, over at boxofficemojo.com, has written that these nominees are, at the time of the noms, the least-attended ever. (I’m still interested in his math on this, by the way.)

In Carr’s defense, and despite the “showering love” line above, he does say that the upbeat nominees “reflect an appetite on the part of the Academy, and by proxy, the public, for a nice, big chunk of uplift.”

That’s a nice one. Using the Academy as a stand-in for the public when the two have never been further apart.

So I’m a little worried about David Carr. He’s better than this.
Posted at 10:23 AM on Jan 31, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies - Box Office, Media
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Friday January 30, 2009

Who Sees the Oscar Nominees Anyway?

I didn’t see this until yesterday but Brandon Gray of boxofficemojo.com has a good piece on one of my favorite topics — box office and Oscar — and comes to the conclusion that this is not only a weak year in terms of attendance, it’s the worst year ever. I assume he’s parsing this the French way — asses in the seats, not inflationary dollars in the pockets — but that’s an astounding stat. Not surprising, though. It’s a week after the noms and where are our nominees in terms of 2008 box-office rankings? At 20 (“Button”), 53 (“Slumdog”), 109 “(“Milk”), 131 (“F/N”) and 143 (“The Reader”). Obviously this will change, and for the better, but, by way of comparison, only two films nominated for best picture since 1980 haven’t landed among the top 100 box-office films of the year: “Letters from Iwo Jima” in 2006 (138th) and “Secrets and Lies” in 1996 (108th). “The Dresser” in 1983 came close (100th).

Gray comes to this conclusion about Oscar and box office:
Slumdog Millionaire was a snowballing success prior to the Oscar nominations and Gran Torino, which received zero nominations for instance, was a hit, and neither picture's status fundamentally changed after the nominations were announced.
He also mentions in passing the b.o. difficulties of “Frost/Nixon” but no one seems to be taking Universal to task for this. When the movie had buzz in December, Universal kept it limited (205 theaters). After the noms, they opened it wider (1,000+ theaters), but by then it had been overshadowed by both “Button” and “Slumdog,” and word-of-mouth wasn’t great, and people stayed away. Maybe they would’ve anyway. Who knows? But Universal pushed it for the Oscars, and then relied on the Oscars to push it to the public. Didn’t work.

In better news, Focus Features, a Universal subsidiary on life-support, finally opened “Milk,” one of the best films of the year, wider. It plays in 882 theaters today. About effin’ time. Yet it's still the only best pic nominee not to play in at least 1,000 theaters.
Posted at 07:44 AM on Jan 30, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies - Box Office
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