erik lundegaard

Movies - The Oscars posts

Wednesday January 28, 2009

Milk Left Out

My father once said, about an article that didn’t get the response he thought it would, “It was like pitching a penny down a deep well," and once I began publishing I knew exactly what he meant. That was pre-Internet. Occasionally I long for that silence. These days, publishing (or posting) is like pitching a penny down a shallow well full of bees. You expect to get swarmed; you hope not to get stung.

But — that said — what a great group over at filmexperience! Nathaniel R. was nice enough to post the MSNBC quiz and dozens of his readers posted their results. I should immediately apologize for the Frank Langella question. Some actors in some roles make an early impression that never goes away, and, for me, Langella will always be Zorro. That’s how I first saw him. At age 11. Later when he became a star on Broadway as Dracula, I’d think, “Hey, it’s Zorro.” When he played the villainous chief of staff in “Dave” I went: “Dude: Zorro!” On and on. Nixon, too. Still, I should’ve made the answer easier. Because how can you not imagine him as Jack the Ripper?

No apologies to anyone who got no. 14 wrong. That was a gimme.

One reader, meanwhile, suggested no. 8 didn’t have much to do with the Oscars. For those who haven’t taken the quiz (and c’mon already), here it is:
At the time of the nominations (Thursday, Jan. 22), how many of the best picture nominees had been seen in more than 1,000 theaters in the U.S.?    
    A. All five    
    B. Four    
    C. Three    
    D. Two    
    E. One    
    F. None   

The answer is One, “Benjamin Button,” and for a second I agreed with the reader. A second later I thought: Actually this is the most relevant question in the quiz. It’s not some factoid only the most insane person would know (see: no. 2); it’s about how isolated our supposed best pictures have become. Again: read this.

I found it particularly instructive that many of Nathaniel’s readers thought “Milk” was one of the most-distributed nominees when, as of today, it’s the least. Its theater-high was 356. Hell, every best-picture candidate expanded the weekend after the Oscars except for “Milk,” which remains in its truncated state of 250. I’m no insider or businessman but... Does that make sense? Is there a plan here? Who’s running Focus Features anyway?

Only a handful of best-picture nominees this decade haven’t been distributed into at least 1,000 theaters: “Gosford Park” (918), “Lost in Translation” (882), “The Pianist” (842), and, the winner of the least-distributed best-pic nominee of the decade, “Letters from Iwo Jima” (781). If “Milk” doesn’t expand, it will more than halve that mark.

So what is Focus Features saying? That it can sell “Brokeback” but not this? That Americans are more willing to understand the people who bombed Pearl Harbor, speaking in Japanese, than the people who opposed Prop. 8, speaking in English?

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it until someone gives me a response I understand: How good can the studios be if they can’t sell quality?

Posted at 09:13 AM on Jan 28, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies - Box Office
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Monday January 26, 2009

The Quiz...and How Nathaniel R. Nudged Me Off the Fence

As promised, the Oscar quiz is up on MSNBC.com. Here.

I was going to add what's below to yesterday's post but decided not to spoil it for those brave few:

  • Everyone’s trumpeting Meryl Streep’s 15th nomination. Most add that she’s got two wins without specifying those wins. Here’s a reminder: She’s got a supporting (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) and a lead (“Sophie’s Choice”). Which means Hilary Swank, among others, has won more best actress Oscars than Meryl Streep. Hell, the last time Streep won, fellow nominee Anne Hathaway was six months old.
  • Not only has Stephen Daldry, director of “The Reader,” been nominated more times (3) than any of the other directing nominees, including Ron Howard and Gus Van Sant, but, astonishingly, he’s only made three feature-length films. Which means he’s been nominated for every film he’s ever made.  For the record, his three films are: “Billy Elliott,” “The Hours” and “The Reader.” I know, me neither.

Interestingly, I was on IMDb.com this morning, and one of the links on their daily “Hit List” was entitled: “Notes on the Oscar Nominations” from filmexperience.blogspot.com. I clicked, not exactly holding my breath. Most mainstream stuff is dull reportage that ignores fascinating but easy-to-find details (like Daltry, above), and most blogs are noisy little affairs that make me want to run away, take a shower, and not have an opinion for the rest of my life. This was neither. It was fun, charming, smart. As soon as I saw this graphic I knew I was in the right place:

Some of the stuff I knew nothing about (costume design?), some I knew all too well (“Harvey Weinstein is Back. God Help Us All.”), but all of it was fun to read.

Even better was host Nathaniel R's live-blogging of the SAG noms, and his disappointment that “Milk” didn't win the cast award. I wrote about the SAGs this morning, but dispassionately, as Oscar indicators. Nathaniel helped push me off my fence. Because he's right. Both “Milk” and “Slumdog” are very good movies, and I'll be fine if “Slumdog” wins best picture, but if we're talking about ensemble cast acting, “Milk,” with Penn, Franco, Hirsch, et al., has it all over “Slumdog,” which is a director's movie. Freida Pinto is stunning, lovely to look at, and her part works, but... It ain't the same league.

Anyway, if you haven't, take the quiz already. And remember the thing about Daltry.

Posted at 07:13 PM on Jan 26, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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"Slumdog"? Final Answer

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote that the Golden Globe win for “Slumdog Millionaire” wasn’t exactly a precursor to Oscar victory since the two bodies hadn’t agreed since the spring of 2004? (Back when Barack Obama was a state senator from Illinois.)

I was thinking similar thoughts when “Slumdog” won the Producers Guild Award over the weekend. Sure, the PGAs picked “No Country for Old Men” last year, which went on to win best picture, but the year before they went with “Little Miss Sunshine” (no), and the year before that, “Brokeback” (unfortunately, no), and the year before that, “The Aviator,” and in 2001, “Moulin Rouge!” Not exactly tea leaves.

I was ready to raise similar flags of caution when “Slumdog” won the cast award from the Screen Actors Guild, since that award predicts the Oscar-winner only 50 percent of the time. But then a different thought hit: “OK, how often has a movie won all three awards and not won the Oscar for best picture?”

Answer? In the 12 years since the SAG awards arrived on the scene, the GGs, PGAs and SAG cast award have agreed only three times: in 1999, with “American Beauty”; in 2002, with “Chicago”; and in 2003, with “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” All of those films went on to win the Oscar.

I’m still waiting on the DGAs, but more and more it looks like “Slumdog” is the final answer.
Posted at 09:49 AM on Jan 26, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Friday January 23, 2009

B.O. for Best Pics

Two summers ago, in the Montpellier train station in southern France, I saw a poster touting the popularity of “Shrek the Third.” It read:
“Plus de 4 millions de Shrektateurs”

That 4 millions isn’t euros; it’s people. It’s asses in the seats. That’s how movie popularity is tabulated in France. As opposed to in the U.S. where it’s all about the dollars, and where, if you’re paying any attention at all, you have to adjust for inflation to get the true measure of a movie’s popularity.

Feel free to let each measurement stand for each culture.

So it’s the Friday after the noms and the studios are busy things. Universal, unwilling to do the heavy lifting for “Frost/Nixon” in December, is finally expanding Ron Howard’s film from 153 theaters to more than 1,000. Other films that are expanding: “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Wrestler,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “Revolutionary Road.” There’s a pattern, and it follows the pattern of previous years, and it’s getting a little old.

That said, here’s how the best picture nominees look in terms of box office before the expansion:

Movie
Domestic $
Thtr High
2008 BO Rank
 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
 $104M 2988 22
 Slumdog Millionaire
 $44M 582 62
 Milk $20M 356 111
 Frost/Nixon $8M 205 145
 The Reader
 $8M 507 148

Kudos to the way Paramount handled “Benjamin Button.” It put it out there in December. It didn’t wait for the Academy to bestow what it would. More congrats to Fox Searchlight who pushed “Slumdog” in the right ways.

But — and I’ve said it before — what lazy bastards over at Universal. In some ways “Frost/Nixon” is the most accessible of these films and yet it is, until the noms, the least-available. 145th??? I’m almost hoping it bites it at the box office during the next few weeks. Just to show Universal. Of course they’d probably take the wrong lesson away from the experience and stop getting involved in films like "Frost/Nixon" altogether.

Meanwhile, their art-house division, Focus Features, rumored to be on life-support, appears to be doing nothing with “Milk.” Of the little-seen best picture nominees, it’s the one that’s not expanding, and it's the one, along with "Slumdog," that's most deserving of a big audience.

Feel free to let that irony stand for the culture.

Posted at 09:47 AM on Jan 23, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies - Box Office, Movies - Foreign
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Thursday January 22, 2009

Note to the Academy: Why So Serious?

The Oscar nominations were finally announced this morning, and, as soon as Forest Whitaker said “Frost/Nixon,” alphabetically passing up “The Dark Knight,” I knew that, unless the Academy subscribed to Comcast’s idiotic system of alphabeticization, they had turned their backs on the Batman. Bummer. I was beginning to root for him.

So after all of the guesses, here and here and here, these are our (or their) best picture nominees:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frost/Nixon
Milk
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

What does this mean? As I wrote last January, since the Academy finally settled on five best picture nominees in 1944, there have only been six years when there wasn’t a top 10 box office hit among the nominees: 1947, 1984...and the last four years in a row: 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. This year, unless “Benjamin Button” can make another $50 million without getting swamped in the process (it’s currently at $103 million), it’ll probably be five years in a row. Stunning.

In the past I didn’t quite know who to blame for this divide between supposed popularity and supposed quality. The Academy? The studios? Moviegoers? But not this year. “The Dark Knight” was a critically acclaimed, monster box office hit with tons of buzz. In terms of domestic, unadjusted dollars, it was the no. 2 movie of all time. Yes, it was about superheroes, and no superhero film has been nominated before; but before “Lord of the Rings” no fantasy film had been nominated, either. The rule sticks until something breaks it. This year? Didn’t break. And it was the year to break it. We’re not talking about crap like “Spider-Man 3.” We’re talking about a pretty good movie. One of the five best of the year? Maybe. I’d take it over “Frost/Nixon” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” anyway. Don’t know about “The Reader” yet. Haven’t seen it. (Psst. It’s about the Holocaust.)

Besides, in the past, the Academy has nominated some popular but fairly suspect films for best picture. “Love Story”? “The Towering Inferno”? “Three Coins in a Fountain”? “Ghost”? It’s hardly a body to hold its nose.

Given the chance, who would I have nom'ed? I don't know. Because of the studios' idiotic system of rolling the best films out in piecemeal fashion at the end of the year, I haven't seen, oh, “Doubt” or “The Reader” or “Revolutionary Road” yet. I'd definitely nom “Milk” and “Slumdog.” I'd think about “In Bruges” and the forgotten but expertly crafted and genre-busting (or genre-solildifying) “Appaloosa.”

And I'd think about “The Dark Knight.” More than the Academy seemed to anyway.

ADDITION: Yeah, should've known. Harvey Weinstein was the man behind the push for “The Reader,” just as he was the man who pushed “Shakespeare in Love” to the crown in '98. Shame. Much talk about the next Batman villain. I suggest “Weinstein.”

Posted at 08:09 AM on Jan 22, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars, Batman
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