Movies postsTuesday May 27, 2008
Memorial Day weekend
This weekend, between moving down the hallway and going to a friend's dinner party on Saturday night, Patricia and I watched two films, both of which surprised.
The surprise in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was just how good Ethan Hawke was. I'd never been much of a fan. He always seemed a little too sure of himself without having reason to be. Here he goes opposite, playing a loser, a man without many choices left in life who nevertheless keeps choosing the wrong path. There's no even keel to his character. He's desperate in his sadness and desperate in his happiness: eyes a little too wide, smile a little too quick. There's nothing comfortable about him at all. I remember when the movie came out last fall but I don't remember Hawke getting much of a write-up. He deserved it. Great cast, of course (I'd watch Albert Finney anywhere, anytime), in a good, painful movie that loses a little something in the end.
The other surprise was less welcome. I assumed Le Souffle au coeur would be a good film — Louis Malle, coming-of-age, sex — but it was made in 1971 and it's set in 1954 and they do nothing nothing nothing to reflect this difference. The haircuts, the styles, the attitudes, all feel like 1971. The haircuts are floppy sixties haircuts, the rebellion has the anti-authority bent of the late 1960s. Seventeen-year gaps are pretty hard to bridge anyway but this one, from uptight to anarchic, close-cropped to free-flowing, is particularly wide. Wish I could've gotten past it but it bugged me every second I was watching.
On the other hand: What's interesting about the film is that it sets up a tension and keeps teasing you with it until you want that tension resolved. Even though the resolution is immoral. In this way it's a little like Paradise Now.
Why is the New York Times encouraging Hollywood's myopia?
When I began reading Michael Cieply’s article in yesterday’s New York Times, “For Movies, A Summer That’s Shy on Sequels,” this was my main thought: “What’s the point?”
A year ago, the headline would’ve read, “For Movies, A Summer That’s Full of Sequels,” which, it turns out, is exactly their point. Last summer, three sequels (Spider-Man, Shrek and Pirates) and one movie based on a toy/TV show (Transformers) each took in over $300 million at the domestic box office, leading to one of Hollywood’s best summers. This summer, insiders believe only Raiders can reach the $300 million mark. They’re bracing for an off-summer.
Even so: What’s the point? Or better: How is this news? It’s prognostication. It’s a kind of vague economic hand-wringing over something that hasn’t occurred. Cieply uses the conditional or tentative form of “could” five times in a pretty short article. He uses “may” five times. He writes:
- “…that could be a problem for an industry that has done well lately by peddling the familiar.”
- “‘Hancock’...could match [Will Smith’s] recent hit ‘I Am Legend,’ and still fall short of the $319 million in ticket sales for ‘Transformers’…”
- “‘Kung Fu Panda,’ from DreamWorks Animation, could do as well as ‘Madagascar’…”
- “[‘Sex and the City’] could become a hit on the order, of, say, ‘The Devil Wears Prada’…”
- “With a little luck and a few crowd pleasers, the business could look good, by comparison, at year’s end.”
With all the rules the New York Times has in its style guide, you’d think they’d have some limits on conditionals or hypotheticals in a non-Op-Ed article.
Still, if you're going to write about this kind of non-news, at least be imaginative with your use of box office stats. Cieply isn't. He writes: “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.”
Well, of course. Spider-Man 3 set a box office record, grossing over $150 million in its opening weekend. But if you keep following the stats you’ll find that Spider-Man 3’s take the following weekend dropped by 61.5 percent while Iron Man’s dropped by only 48.1 percent. You’ll find that while no movie was faster than Spider-Man 3 to the $100 million mark, three movies were faster to the $200 million mark and five movies were faster to the $300 million mark. You’ll also find that of all the Spider-Man movies, the third grossed the least. Even with inflation.
Similarly, of the other two big sequels last summer — Shrek 3 and Pirates 3 — each grossed $100 million less than their previous sequel.
In other words, for all of their supposed success last summer, these films really weren’t that successful. It was summer, people went to see them, but... They didn’t keep returning. On IMDb.com, each film has the lowest user rating in its series. In the long run, they probably weren’t good for the business.
I know: “the long run.” Something Hollywood doesn’t pay much attention to. But why does the New York Times, the paper of record, have to share, even encourage, their myopia?
It's Sunday and I'm a little disappointed in Manohla Dargis
The questions Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott ask on page 3 of the New York Times Summer Movies section — respectively, “Where are the women in movies?” and “Why are the men in movies just overgrown boys?” — are answered on page 6 of the New York Times Summer Movies section. Michel Cieply writes, not very interestingly, about Hancock, a movie about a bum of a superhero, a guy with superpowers who drinks too much and crashes on park benches and goes to prison. The movie stars Will Smith and opens July 4th weekend and the studio is nervous because the subject matter is considered edgy. They feel like they’re breaking the box. That’s what writer-producer Akiva Goldsmith says in the article’s last line. “Everybody knows that you want to break the box. It’s just that the act of breaking the box is really frightening.”
So if a summer movie starring Will Smith as a superhero is considered “breaking the box,” what chances do movies about real women and men have?
To be honest, I was a little disappointed in Ms. Dargis. She’s sharp but this time she conflates two issues: “Where are the women?” and “Why are the few women here so unrepresentative?” The first issue is true and undisputed: the second isn’t limited by gender, as A.O. Scott’s article shows. Hell, the photo accompanying her article shows it, too. It’s the Incredible Hulk in low growl. Ms. Dargis complains that the new Anna Faris movie, The House Bunny, about a Playboy Bunny kicked out of the Playboy Mansion because, at 27, she’s too old, will be another Legally Blonde: “...one of those aspirational comedies in which women empower themselves by havng their hair and nails done.” I looked at that line, looked at the Hulk again, and wondered, “And how are boys empowering themselves? What is their fantasy?"
The issue of representation onscreen is a sticky one. Most of what we see onscreen is some combination of identification and wish-fulfillment. Action movies tend to be mostly wish-fulfillment, comedies mostly identification. Or are comedies anti-wish-fulfillment? You feel superior to the main characters: the 40-year-old virgin; the chubby slacker living with his loser stoner-friends; the chubby schlub who can’t stop crying. You see some possible version of yourself and think, “There but for the grace of God...” But there’s still wish-fulfillment, because these guys get girls they couldn’t possibly get: Katherine Heigl and Catherine Keener and Mila Kunis.
Men aren’t hard to figure out. We thrill at super versions of ourselves and laugh at lame versions of ourselves and in either version we get the girl.
As for women? Who is their identification and what is their wish-fulfillment?
Answer these questions and you’ll render Ms. Dargis’ first question moot.
5Top Cinematic Stoners
Latest MSNBC piece. Not bad for a guy who never really smoked pot.
"'Never really,' Mr. Lundegaard? Are you telling us that you did smoke pot?"
"Well. Implying it anyway."
"So you inhaled." (Laughter from the gallery)
"You know, Pres. Clinton got a lot of flack for that line, but I understood it. The first couple of times I smoked pot I got nothing out of it because, not being a cigarette smoker, I didn't know how to inhale properly, which is what I assumed he was saying. He smoked, but he didn't get the effects. Also, Jimmy Carter was never attacked by a killer rabbit, but that's another story."
For more on pot, check out Dan Baum's book, Smoke & Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure.
The most popular movies of all time are chick flicks
The highest-grossing film of all time, both domestically and internationally, is Titanic, a chick flick. The highest-grossing domestic film of all time, after you adjust for inflation, is Gone With the Wind, a chick flick. The third-highest-grossing domestic film of all time, after you adjust for inflation, is The Sound of Music, a chick flick.
Moreover, all three films have the same basic storyline: A woman choosing between two suitors against a backdrop of historic tragedy.
So Rose has to choose between Jack and Cal (no choice at all, really) as she sails on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.
So Scarlett has to choose between Rhett and Ashley (a little more difficult, but not much) as she struggles to survive and thrive during the U.S. Civil War.
And so Maria has to choose between Captain von Trapp and God (perhaps the most difficult choice of all) during the 1938 annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.
If Hollywood is looking for a template on how to make a blockbuster, this is it: A woman choosing between two men (that’s how you get women in the seats) against a backdrop of historic tragedy (that’s how you get the men in the seats).
Given how much money Titanic made — $1.8 billion worldwide, more than $700 million ahead of the second-highest-grossing film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and almost a billion dollars ahead of the highest-grossing film from last year, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End — I’ve always been surprised that Hollywood hasn’t attempted to make more of these types of films. Then I found out they had. A friend, a screenwriter in Hollywood, told me that in the late ‘90s he worked on a water-themed movie because water-themed movies were big then. He said that was the lesson the studios picked up from Titanic’s success: People like water.
Some part of me doesn’t quite believe this. Some part of me thinks, “Surely the people in charge are smarter than that.” Then I remember that great line about the Nixon administration, and people in power in general, from All the President’s Men: “The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
Some may argue that the above films aren’t really chick flicks. That chick flicks are smaller-scaled, modern and light. That there is no historic tragedy in chick flicks.
Here’s the point. “Chick flicks” implies that movies for and about women are their own genre, or sub-genre, and don’t do well at the box office. That implication is 180 degrees from the truth. Boys may flock to Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park, but they don’t flock the way that girls flocked to Titanic. Not even close
In fact, in order to create a blockbuster, all you’ve got to do is find the right actress, the right actors, the right historic tragedy, and then cross your fingers that you’ve created Titanic rather than Pearl Harbor. Which, I should add, still grossed $449 million at the worldwide box office.
The formula works even when the movie doesn’t.