erik lundegaard

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Tuesday June 24, 2008

The NY Times box office report card: C minus

That article again? Yeah, that article again.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
I don’t mean to suggest I could’ve predicted any of this (I couldn’t). My point has always been that it’s not the business of The New York Times to engage in this kind of facile prognostication. Coulda woulda shoulda. Tell me news. That means: Stuff that’s happened.

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.
Posted at 08:46 AM on Jun 24, 2008 in category Movies
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Thursday June 19, 2008

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.”

Posted at 12:20 PM on Jun 19, 2008 in category Movies
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Monday June 16, 2008

The Pretty Good Hulk

I’m usually more an Anthony Lane man than a David Denby man but Denby’s been getting off some good lines lately. Earlier this month he wrote about how Sean Connery “had relaxed beautifully into middle age,” when, at 59, he played Indiana Jones’ father in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Then he compares him with the star of the current Indiana Jones:
[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.

Posted at 08:00 AM on Jun 16, 2008 in category Movies
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Wednesday May 28, 2008

Web-head vs. Shell-head

Update on that Michael Cieply article. Two weeks ago he wrote that “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.”

Now it's about 16 percent. Iron Man is at $258 million while at this time last year Spider-Man 3 was at $307 million. And this isn't just the shortening shadow of percentages: Iron Man is also closing the gap in gross numbers. While Spider-Man 3 outperformed Iron Man during the first two weeks ($240M to $177M), Shell-head has outperformed Web-head during the next two weekends ($31 and $26M vs. $29 and $18M).

What's the point of this superhero horserace? Just this: In the long run, in some small way, quality matters. People seem to forget this when discussing movie box office.

Posted at 07:18 AM on May 28, 2008 in category Movies
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Tuesday 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.

Posted at 02:36 PM on May 27, 2008 in category Movies
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