Movies postsMonday July 07, 2008
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.
R.I.P., Cyd Charisse
A few months ago Patricia and I were watching All That Jazz and when that great “Everything old is new again” dance number came on, with Ann Reinking and little Erzsebet Foldi performing for Roy Scheider, I was stunned all over again by the effortless, long-legged grace of Ms. Reinking, who, unfortunately, came of age at a time when the movies were no longer interested in effortless, long-legged grace. “She could’ve been another Cyd Charisse,” I thought.
Cyd Charisse barely had the chance to be Cyd Charisse. Looking at her IMDb.com credits after news of her death two days ago, I was surprised by the few films she made or starred in. After the great “Broadway Melody” number in Singin’ in the Rain, she co-starred with Astaire in The Band Wagon and with Kelly in Brigadoon and It’s Always Fair Weather and with Astaire again in Silk Stockings. That was in 1957 and that appears to be her last Hollywood musical. By the mid-sixties she was an extra in Matt Helm movies and when she resurfaced after a ten-year hiatus it was to guest star in episodes of “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” — and eventually, where all older Hollywood stars wind up, “Murder, She Wrote.”
A couple of nice tributes in The New York Times today: one from Manohla Dargis and a surprising one on the Op-Ed page from Verlyn Klinkenborg. Both women get off good lines (Klinkenborg: “It was Cyd Charisse’s remarkable gift to move through the hall of mirrors that is the American movie musical and never be caught glancing at herself”), and both, of course, admire her legs (who doesn't?). Both have their favorite numbers and both are from The Band Wagon. Dargis goes with “The Girl Hunt Ballet” while Klinkenborg opts for the more universally acclaimed “Dancing in the Dark.” I’m with Ms. Klinkenborg here — few things are more beautiful onscreen than that flowing white skirt — but it’s like Charisse’s own comment about whether Kelly or Astaire was the better dance partner. “It's like comparing apples and oranges. They're both delicious.”
The Pretty Good Hulk
[Harrison] Ford, now sixty-five, is still playing Indy, but he can’t be described as a man relaxing into middle age. He’s in great shape physically, but he doesn’t seem happy. He’s tense and glaring, and he speaks his lines with more emphasis than is necessary, like a drunk who wants to appear sober.
I also liked his recent review of The Incredible Hulk. Three criticisms stood out: 1) that King Kong and Frankenstein’s monster are Byron and Keats in comparison with the Hulk, who’s a dull, soulless beast, 2) That “Thunderbolt” Ross’s attempt to make soldiers out of the Hulk serum is idiotic, since the goal is always to control soldiers and you can’t control the Hulk, and 3) that the film misses the make-my-day thrill of turning into the most powerful creature in the world.
Now that I’ve seen the film I feel that 1) this Hulk is very King Kong-like in both his anger, his sadness and his protection of his girl, 2) Ross wants to contain Banner the way he would an advanced-weapons system that got loose, while the super-soldier forumula alluded to is something else entirely (i.e., Captain America fans, awake), and 3) the make-my-day thrill is still there, for the audience anyway, since Banner only turns into the Hulk when he’s being bullied. That Banner gets no thrill from this also makes sense. Who knows what he’ll do as the Hulk? Who knows whom he’ll kill?
So after all the hand-wringing and all the unncessary articles, The Incredible Hulk turned out to be a pretty good popcorn movie. Its rating on Rotten Tomatoes (64%) is only slightly higher than the rating Ang Lee’s version got five years ago (61%); but if you look at only top critics, the numbers shift from 53% to 67%. Even here, I feel, RT’s critics are probably lowballing Hulk, influenced, no doubt, by all the hand-wringing and unnecessary articles. No wonder Hulk mad. No wonder Hulk smash.
The movie picks up where The Hulk left off. It gives us the origin during the credit sequence, in case we need it, then takes us to Brazil for sweeping shots of the teeming slums of Rochina Favela in Rio. Bruce Banner is now working at a soda-bottle factory there, studying Portugese via “Sesame Street” and corresponding via IM with a scientist named “Mr. Blue” on a possible cure for his monster problem. He’s also studying martial arts, less for the self-defense (which he’s got in spades) than for the discipline. “The best way to control your anger,” his teacher tells him, “is to control your body.” Then he slaps him hard across the face. Twice.
The script by Zak Penn is frequently smart and fun. Homages are prevalent. Flipping channels in Brazil, Banner comes across an episode of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” starring Bill Bixby (the ‘70s Banner), and a security guard in Virginia is played by Lou Ferrigno (the ‘70s Hulk), and taking on some Brazillian bullies, Banner says that show’s most famous line but messes up the Portugese translation: “Don’t make me...hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m...hungry.”
In the end, even Rio isn’t far enough away. The U.S. Army finds him and there’s a good chase — complicated by the bullies and the fact that Banner can’t let his pulse race. But of course it does. Boom. And there go the bullies and the fully loaded army men, including Tim Roth as a former Russian, raised in Britain, who’s entranced by all that power and will eventually become the Abomination. Many critics have been as unimpressed by this CGI-Hulk as they were five years ago but I think the technology has come a long way — not least in giving the Hulk weight. This time around he feels part of the action rather than some video-game blip that bounces around a lot. When Banner wakes he’s laying by a picturesque waterfall. Holding up his pants and flagging down a driver, his newly-learned Portugese gets him nowhere since he’s now in Guatemala. The problem of being the Hulk. At least he was nice enough to choose the waterfall.
Everyone’s got their agenda here. Banner wants to return to normal while Ross wants Banner for study while “Mr. Blue” (Tim Blake Nelson) is after...what exactly? Our final shots of him indicate he might be back as...The Leader? Modok? The Rhino? The movie leaves it open-ended. The movie leaves a lot open-ended — including to what extent Banner can control his body and his problem.
The Incredible Hulk is only the second movie, after Iron Man, produced by Marvel Studios, and they seem to be forging a new paradigm for superhero movies that recalls their Silver Age of comics in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most modern superhero movies are self-contained — all plot points are resolved, while Batman doesn’t appear (or even exist) in Superman movies — but Iron Man included a cameo by Nick Fury and Hulk includes a cameo by Tony Stark, who tells Ross, “What if I told you we were putting a team together?” So we know it’s building toward that Avengers movie and beyond. As Jack Kirby’s characters couldn’t be contained by the arbitrary limits of the comic panel, so Marvel’s superheroes, under their direction, can’t be contained by the arbitary limits of a single movie. They're spilling out. Makes me think that, if you're going to keep making superhero movies, this is the way to do it.