Movies postsMonday July 14, 2008
Bob le flambeur
Last May I did a piece for MSNBC, to coincide with the opening of Paris je t’aime, on the Top 5 films set in Paris. It was an excuse to see more French films before a bike trip along the Canal du Midi in June and July. Unfortunately I screwed up the deadline, had to rush it, and even without the screw-up I didn’t have the depth of knowledge you’d need for a good piece on the subject. I still don’t (the more you know, the less you know, etc.), but a new list, or at least an addition to the list, would probably include Bob le flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 take on an aging gambler and a perfect crime caper. Those shots around Paris from a speeding car window in 400 Blows? Melville does it four years earlier around Montmartre: Gorgeous shots of a life that doesn’t exist anymore. For a genre film, made a few years before Truffaut, et al., broke, the movie feels very New Wave.
Many films are suggested in this one. A shot of Anne (Isabelle Corey) dancing alone to a jazz band reminded me of something Roger Vadim did with Brigette Bardot in Et Dieu...crea la femme — which featured Isabelle Corey as well. Obviously The Good Thief, with Nick Nolte, is a direct remake, but there are also strong elements of Bob le flambeur (the debonair, moralistic gambler with the young protégé) inPaul Thomas Anderson's Sydney or Hard Eight. The film is beloved.
For all the great metaphoric use of Montemartre as both heaven and hell (from Sacre Coeur to Pigalle), and for all of Henri Dacae's gorgeous early-morning cinematography, what’s interesting about the story, and please accept all the usual spoiler alerts here, is how it upends the perfect-crime caper. A gambler (Roger Duchesne), on a losing streak and near broke, decides to rob a casino with the usual team of handy and not-so-handy men. He drills them like a military unit. Parts of the scheme begin to unravel (an informant hears about it, tells the police) but are solidified again (the informant is killed for other reasons), and it’s set in motion even as the police are closing in.
Then the reason why it was necessary in the first place unravels. Bob, the point man in the casino, begins to gamble and his luck begins to change. He keeps winning, and winning, and he forgets all about the caper. After several hours he remembers, but his men and the cops arrive at the same time, there’s a shoot out, and Bob’s protégé, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), is killed. That’s a good take on the heist film: the heist never happens but the hero gets rich anyway. The denouement includes a good conversation between the cops and Bob on how much time Bob will do and what a good lawyer can buy you.
This is my fourth Melville film (Le Samouri, L’Armee des ombres, Le Cercle Rouge), and while I like him intellectually, his cool may be too cold for me. His leading men don’t intrigue. For all of Bogie’s cool, remember, he was a helluva talker.
The history of Batman: from les Vampires to George Clooney
As a way of introducing a new round of reviews in the Batman cycle, let me point, first, to M. Rhodes' European Film Report and his post from a week ago on the early silent-film influences on the creation of Batman, including Les Vampires from 1915, The Bat from 1926 and The Man Who Laughs (i.e., the Joker) from 1928. Some of the clips go on a bit long, and to seemingly silent purpose, but when, say, the vampire-girl swoops onto the stage with her bat cape, or when “The Bat” beams a “bat signal” onto the wall, it looks stunningly familiar. If the lead in Man Who Laughs looks familiar, it's because it's Conrad Veidt, the German actor who played everything from Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Major Strasser in Casablanca, and who was the first choice to play Dracula.
Rhodes' report is my kind of thing. How did we get where we are? How did such iconic characters as Superman and Batman come to be? Rhodes deals mostly with European cinema, which is why Douglas Fairbanks' Zorro isn't mentioned, but let me add, as a possible influence, from the newspapers, the murder of Fred Oesterrich in his home in 1922. His wife, Walburga, was charged with the murder but she was let go due to insufficient evidence. In 1930, a man named Otto Sanhuber claimed to have killed Oesterrich after living in Oesterrich's attic for more than 11 years. He was dubbed the “Batman” by the press. Who knows what influence this might have had when Bob Kane and Bill Finger were scratching their heads for superhero ideas in the wake of Superman in 1939. At the least, it's the first mention of a “Batman” in the New York Times in the 20th century.
Also, if you head over to the Movie Reviews section of this Web site, to the letter “B,” you'll find new reviews of the seven Batman serials and movies that prefigure the current Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale cycle: Batman (1943), Batman and Robin (1949), Batman: The Movie (1966), Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). For most, it's probably too much information, but it's still a kind of exploration into how we got where we are.
Never Google Yourself - Part I
Last week I got called stupid 5,001 times.
The extra came from my seven-year-old nephew, who I was picking up from golf lessons and driving to a friend’s house so I could take the two of them to, of all things, a Pokemon class for the afternoon. At the friend’s house, my nephew, all enthusiasm, wanted to get out the SUV’s side doors, but I was unfamiliar with my sister’s car — the newest car I’ve ever owned is a ’96 Honda Accord — and didn’t know there was an “Open” button located on the ceiling. “Open it!” he insisted. I held up my hands. “How do you open it?” I asked. Frustrated with an uncle whose newest car was five years older than he is, my nephew delivered the coup de grace: “Stupid!” he said. I laughed.
The other 5,000 times I got called stupid came as a result of that Slate article. My nephew gets a pass: he’s seven. The others, I assume, are a bit older.
David Poland's critique on “The Hot Blog” is indicative. His criticisms of my article — in which I wrote that, in general, a 2007 film that was well-reviewed (via Rotten Tomatoes’ rankings) made $2,000 more per screen than a 2007 film that reviewers slammed — are basically four-fold:
1. I love RT [Rotten Tomatoes]. It is a great site and a great idea [but] as a basis for statistical analysis, you should probably poll Patrick Goldstein's neighbors as soon as use those numbers for a factual analysis...
Some sympathy here. I didn’t critique RT in the Slate article. In earlier drafts, yes, but you’ve only got so much space, even online (where attention spans are shorter), and besides who wants to repeat themselves? Three and a half years ago I’d written about RT’s shortcomings in the same manner Poland did, and those shortcomings are still true, but I still say that as an attempt to quantify quality — which is what you need in a statistical analysis that uses quality as a frame of reference — it’s helpful.
2. The second HUGE mistake is, somehow, in spite of indicating a lot of knowledge in general, thinking that bulk numbers - as in, every film released on as many as 100 screens - can be used to analyze anything in a reasonable way. The math of the studio Dependents is quite different than the true indies, much less the small releases of under 300 screens and the behemoths of summer and the holiday season.
Obviously math from one place to another can’t be “different” (2 + 2... etc.), but if the box office numbers we’re getting are being calculated differently, well, that would be good to know. But Poland doesn’t continue. Maybe this “different math” is common knowledge in L.A. but it isn’t with me. Part of the reason I wrote the piece is that those Monday morning box office numbers always seem half (or less) of the story. If there’s more to the story that I’m missing, and that boxofficemojo — the site from whom I got most of my numbers — is missing, I’d like to know.
3. The biggest, perhaps, problem of all, is that after trying to take a run at this idea, and examining his data, Lundegaard didn’t just throw this junk science out. To wit… what is the leggiest wide-release movie (domestically, since it is the only stat we can use for all US releases as of now) of The Summer of 2008? Anyone? What Happens In Vegas... Rotten Tomatoes percentage? 27%.
Two things. He’s equating popularity with legs, which isn’t a bad method but has its own problems: Namely the problems he ascribes to my methodology in #2. But here’s the second and more important point: There will always be exceptions. I don’t understand why people don’t get this. All I’m saying, all the numbers are saying, is that a 2007 film that was well-reviewed (via Rotten Tomatoes’ system) generally did better, to the tune of $2,000 per screen, than a 2007 film that reviewers slammed. Are there exceptions? Of course. The tenth highest per-screen average belonged to National Treasure 2 and its 31 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. Twelfth highest belonged to Alvin and the Chipmunks and its 24 percent rating. But when you crunch all the numbers, and despite such exceptions, the rotten films still sink below the quality films in box office.
4. And riddle me this… how can Lundegaard or anyone else assume that critics are increasing box office when “good” and “bad” are not the exclusive provenance of critics. There is no sane and knowledgeable person I know who does not accept that word of mouth is the most powerful element on the ongoing box office of a movie after the first week...
Three paragraphs later, Poland writes my answer: “There is nothing in Lundegaard’s story that suggests in any sustainable way that critics reviews have a direct cause and effect on box office in a real way.” Exactly! Because that’s not what I’m arguing. I’m arguing correlation, not causation. I’m arguing that critics, perceived as elitist, are simply fairly good barometers of popular taste. I’m arguing something fairly basic: that both critics and moviegoers like quality and don’t like crap.
Is this revelatory? In a society that dismisses quality, and that holds up crap for imitation, it certainly feels revelatory.
The studios will always try to make their numbers look good, and it’s part of our job to find out how they’re lying with them. Is my method — ranking films by the per-screen average for their entire run — the best method? I don’t know. It’s a method, a method we don’t usually see, and, maybe, a method to build on.
We interrupt this vacation to bring you a Slate piece
I’ve got a piece on Slate about movie box office and critical acclaim. If you’ve arrived here from there, apologies. It’s no fun to travel and find the same shit you saw in the last place.
The argument in the article is basically two-fold: 1) Quality films — as judged by critics’ rankings on Rotten Tomatoes — do better at the box office than people realize, and 2), as a result, critics, who are perceived as elitist, and moviegoers, who are, by their numbers, populist, are actually closer in taste than people realize. I’ve made this argument before. It’s the numbers-crunching that’s new.
While on vacation in Minneapolis, I’ve been re-reading David Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business. Mamet isn’t much of an essayist. He tends to wander within the confines of even a short essay — exploring four themes in four pages — but he packs a wallop, and the world, in a paragraph. It’s worth reading, or re-reading, for the paragraphs.
Mamet is an outsider who went inside; he knows how Hollywood works better than I ever will, and so it’s nice that some of my assumptions, about how audience-testing squelches innovation, and thus possible cash cows, are borne out by his experience.
Hollywood outsiders can never be sure. There’s that tendency to think, “Well, they’re professionals; surely they know what they’re doing.” Pushing against this is that great lesson from All the President’s Men: “The truth is, these aren’t very smart guys, and things got out of hand.”
We’re all involved in our self-fulfilling prophecies and maybe the numbers-crunching is mine, and maybe opening schlock in 3,000 theaters is Warner Brothers’. Who knows? But I’ll keep watching the numbers.
OK, back to vacation.
The NY Times box office report card: C minus
On May 15th, The New York Times published an article about a movie industry worried over how summer would go without the usual glut of sequels. The article bothered me in so many ways I had trouble articulating a response, but back then I wrote, “How is this news? It’s prognostication. It’s a kind of vague economic hand-wringing over something that hasn’t occurred.”
Now that some of it has occurred, how are their worries looking? Like they should’ve been worried about something else:
- As hot as “Iron Man” is, with domestic ticket sales of about $180 million in its first week and a half, it still trails last year’s summer season kick-off movie, “Spider Man 3,” by about 25 percent in the same time. One of the many facile comparisons in the piece. They’re comparing a hit movie with a movie that shattered the weekend box office record. If they’d dug deeper they would’ve realized that Spider-Man 3, which wasn’t a very good movie, dropped off precipitously in its subsequent weeks, while Iron Man, which is a good summer movie (93% on Rotten Tomatoes), has legs. In a head-to-head match-up, Shell-Head beats Web-Head every week but the first two and now trails by only 8 1/2 percent: $304M to $332M (out of a final $336M). In the end, the race between the two — if it is a race between the two — will be closer than anyone thought.
- But even with the help of ticket price inflation “Indiana Jones” is the only one that appears a relatively safe gamble to hit the $300 million mark. Iron Man just passed it.
- “Sex and the City”... could become a hit on the order, of, say, “The Devil Wears Prada,” which took in $125 million when it was released in June of 2006. But that would still fall short of “Knocked Up”... Knocked Up made $149 million. After four weeks, Sex is already at $132 million. It should pass it within the next month.
- “Kung Fu Panda,” from DreamWorks Animation, could do as well as “Madagascar,” the company’s best-performing movie to date outside the “Shrek” series, with $193 million in ticket sales, and barely edge out last summer’s “The Simpsons Movie,” which took in $183 million. After three weeks (or weekends), Kung Fu Panda is at $155 million. Madagascar didn’t reach that point until its fifth weekend.
OR if you’re going to write about box office, dig deeper. Because ultimately, last summer, record-setting or not, was a disappointment at the box office. Every one of those blockbusters sequels — Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates 3 — underperformed, and they underperformed because they weren’t that good. They made less money than their immediate predecessors, and the winner of the three, Spider-Man 3, the no. 1 movie of the year, is, when you adjust for inflation, only 92nd all time. That may seem a cheap comparison — it may even seem like an accomplishment — but every year this decade, save 2000, has a film above it on the list. These films include both Spider-Man movies, both Pirates movies, two Star Wars movies, all three Lord of the Rings movies, Shrek 2, Finding Nemo and The Passion of the Christ.
This summer, instead of a sure thing like Spider-Man, Hollywood has had to rely on original movies, pretty well-made, that got good word-of-mouth. And people have come out. Imagine that.