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Wednesday October 27, 2010

Why Can't I Quit Michael Cieply?

I always seem to be about a week behind in what I want to post about.

This piece, for example, “Longing for the Lines that Had Us at Hello,” showed up in The New York Times a week ago today, and it's been stuck in my craw, wherever my craw* is, ever since.

(*craw (n.): a pouch in many birds and some lower animals that resembles a stomach for storage and preliminary maceration of food)

One, it's by Michael Cieply, who's been a bit of a bete noire for me for the past few years. My site has a search function now, and if you search for “Cieply” you get 10 hits, most of them bitching about this or that now-forgotten article.**

(**My favorite of these is “Two Face,” from July 2008, in which Cieply's April prediction that “The Dark Knight” may underperform at the box office—because it's too gloomy at a time when people want to escape gloom—is juxtaposed with colleague Brooks Barnes' after-the-fact analysis that “The Dark Knight” did well at the box office because its gloominess reflected the national mood. Escape/reflect. Nice when the Times gets it both ways.) 

Two, it's about movie quotes, which I've written about before: once for MSNBC, once for me. So, egotistically, I feel like it's my turf.

Three, the Times' headline plays a bit with the text. Cieply's main argument, or thought, is: Where have all the good movie quotes gone? He doesn't mention longing.

Mostly, though, elitist that I am, I think the movie quotes that everyone quotes (“Show me the money!”) aren't as interesting as the movie quotes that movie lovers quote (“Takin' em off here, boss”). ***

(***Cieply also confuses the categories, putting “The Dude Abides” in the former when it's really the latter. “The Big Lebowski” kinda bombed on first viewing. It took years before quotes about the Dude started coming.)  

Here's the brunt of Cieply's argument:

Sticky movie lines were everywhere as recently as the 1990s. But they appear to be evaporating from a film world in which the memorable one-liner — a brilliant epigram, a quirky mantra, a moment in a bottle — is in danger of becoming a lost art.

I could argue that “Stupid is as stupid does” is not art, lost or otherwise. I could argue that sticky movie quotes get annoying fast. But there's really only one thing to say to Cieply at this point:

Why so serious?

What about you? What movie lines from the past 10 years do you quote? Feel free to put 'em in the comments field below.****

(****Shout-out to Joe Posnanski, from whom I got the idea of footnoting within the text of a blog post.)

Posted at 05:36 AM on Oct 27, 2010 in category
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Tuesday December 02, 2008

Cieply: Academy Increasingly Foreign, Indie

Interesting if inconclusive piece in yesterday's NY Times by Hollywood insider (and frequent source of my disappointment) Michael Cieply on the Academy and its battle to reign in new membership.

The battle began in 2004 and has resulted in a slight increase in executive membership, along with decreases in acting and writing memberships, but the biggest change, unnamed in the piece, is a tendency toward political correctness: more foreigners, more indie filmmakers. 

Producer Lianne Halfon gets asked to join but not her production partner Russell Smith, who has virtually the same curriculum vitae. Mexican actress Adrianna Barraza, nominated for the nanny role in “Babel,” gets asked, but not recent American nominees Ellen Page, Casey Affleck and Amy Ryan. Cieply writes: “...roughly a quarter of the 115 new members invited in 2007, for instance, worked on films like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Queen” — and those from the independent film world.”

Unmentioned, and probably unknown, is whether this percentage (1/4) of new foreign and indie members is unusual. I assume it is.

Unasked is whether the Academy, which is a Hollywood and thus American institution, should lean toward foreign membership, when most countries have their own version of the Academy Awards. What's the point in going international? Does it make sense, and, if so, what kind of sense: cultural (the world is shrinking) or economic (increased viewership abroad at the expense of viewership at home)?

The result of this trend, if it is in fact a trend, is, Cieply writes, the promise of more indie and foreign-flavored movies like “Babel” and “Little Miss Sunshine” getting nom'ed at the expense of mainstream and commercial films.

But is that the question? How's this for a question? Which commercial and mainstream films should've gotten nom'ed in place of “Babel” and “Little Miss Sunshine”? Do the studios make those kinds of films anymore? I'm not talking “Gone with the Wind.” I'm talking “Dances with Wolves” and “The Silence of the Lambs” and “A Few Good Men” and “Apollo 13,” all of which wound up among the top 5 box office hits for their respective years in the 1990s and all of which got nom'ed. If “Dances with Wolves” was released this year, how many theaters would it wind up in? Enough? Or would it be considered a prestige picture and given to us in dribs and drabs?

The problem isn't just the Academy or its changing membership. What top 10 box office hit of the last five years has been worth nominating? 

More later.

Posted at 09:14 AM on Dec 02, 2008 in category
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Tuesday March 01, 2011

Quote of the Day

“Who would want to break into it? It’s like a bank that’s already been robbed.”

—Randy Newman, backstage at the Oscars, after a college reporter asked him about breaking into the music business. (As recounted in Michael Cieply and Brookes Barnes' article, “Younger Audience Still Eludes the Oscars,” in The New York Times.)

Posted at 04:34 PM on Mar 01, 2011 in category
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Sunday March 01, 2009

Movie Attendance Up Thanks to...WTF?

Can Michael Cieply and Brookes Barnes, the two reporters covering the movie industry for The New York Times, write any article that doesn’t piss me off? Are they bad writers or do they merely have bad editors?

In today’s Times, they have a front-page, below-the-fold piece on how the movie industry is doing well in tough times. And it is. So far this year, ticket sales — not just box office, which is inflationary and thus easy to mask — but tickets sales are up 17.5 percent. Then Cieply and Barnes give us other, interesting stats. Ticket sales also increased by double digits in 1982, a time of unemployment and inflation (and “E.T.”), and in 1989, a time —although they don’t mention it — of rising inflation (and Michael Keaton’s “Batman”).

I even like their insider quote for a change. Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society (who knew?), says, of this year’s attendance jump, “It’s not rocket science. People want to forget their troubles, and they want to be with other people.”

All well and good. Then more than halfway through the piece, Barnes and Cieply forget that it’s not rocket science. They give us this graf:

The film industry appears to have had a hand in its recent good luck. Over the last year or two, studios have released movies that are happier, scarier or just less depressing than what came before. After poor results for a spate of serious dramas built around the Middle East (“The Kingdom,” “Lions for Lambs,” “Rendition”), Hollywood got back to comedies like “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” a review-proof lark about an overstuffed security guard.

What-the-effin’ eff, mother-effer!?!

OK, the big problems with this graf:

  1. Those serious dramas were released in the fall of 2007. “Paul Blart” was released in January 2009. Why compare these two items? Wouldn’t it make more sense to compare “Paul Blart” with what the studios released in January ’08 or ’07? Why go back to the fall of ’07 and those poor, over-commented-upon Middle East releases?
  2. The phrase “got back to.” Hollywood “got back to” comedies like “Paul Blart”? Sheeeeeeeyit. Hollywood never left comedies like “Paul Blart.” These things have always been around, particularly in the early months of the year. “Blart” is certainly doing better business than most ($123 million and counting) but I’d argue it doesn’t have much to do with “Paul Blart.” I’d argue it has to do with these tough economic times. In fact, isn't that what the whole article is about?

But of course the film industry wants to take credit, at least partial credit, for this uptake in attendance, and Cieply and Barnes are obliging them with this fatuous graf that compares apples and orangutans.

Dudes: Cover the industry. Don’t cover for the industry.

I’m also amused that we get the actual movie attendance numbers in a year when actual movie attendance is up. We don’t hear a whisper of it during years (i.e., most of the time) when it’s down. More good reporting.

Posted at 11:09 AM on Mar 01, 2009 in category
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Tuesday January 24, 2012

Oscar Reaction: Cieply and Barnes, Seemingly Disconnected

It's been a while since I voiced disagreement with the New York Times' resident movie-industry writers Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes but they had a line in their latest piece about the Academy Award nominations (“Nine Films Vie for Best Picture”) that stopped me cold:

“In a seeming disconnect, only one best actress nominee, Viola Davis of 'The Help,' appeared in a film nominated for best picture.”

Really? A seeming disconnect? The Academy is male dominated and tends to nominate movies that are male dominated. Best pictures have historically featured leading men, not leading women. Don't they know this? I wrote the following for MSNBC seven years ago:

In the first 15 years of the Academy (roughly 1928-43), the woman who won best actress appeared in that year’s best picture three times: Luise Rainier for “The Great Ziegfield” in 1936, Vivien Leigh for “Gone with the Wind” in 1939, and Greer Garson for “Mrs. Miniver” in 1942. ...

Did women’s stories suddenly seem silly and unimportant after D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge? Perhaps. Because the next time a best actress appeared in a best picture wasn’t until 1977: Diane Keaton for “Annie Hall.” During that same period, 15 best actors starred in best pictures, and to this day, best pictures tend to be testosterone-filled enterprises: “Braveheart” and “Gladiator” and the like. It’s the Academy’s way of telling women their stories don’t matter. I’m surprised there’s not a bigger outcry over this.

True, I'm discussing winners and Cieply and Barnes are discussing nominees; and true, in the previous two years, with best picture nominees swollen to 10, more of the films of best actress nominees wound up among the best picture nominees: three in 2010 (“Black Swan,” “The Kids Are Alright,” and “Winter's Bone”) and three in 2009 (“The Blind Side,” “An Education” and “Precious”).

But these are historic anomalies. The previous year, only one best actress nominee, Kate Winslet, had her film, “The Reader,” among the best picture nominees. In 2007? One again: Ellen Page for “Juno.” 2006? Helen Mirren in “The Queen.” 2005? Zilch. Nada. Bupkis.

It is a seeming disconnect that women's films are ignored in this manner. But Cieply and Barnes should know that it's been a seeming disconnect since around World War II.

Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher

Meryl Streep may look shocked, but she knows, as Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes apparently don't, that the films of best actress nominees tend not to garner nominations for best picture. Of the 14 films for which she's been nominated best actress, only one* has been nominated best picture.

*Answer in the comments field below.

Posted at 11:28 AM on Jan 24, 2012 in category
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Wednesday October 29, 2008

Dark Knight + Oscar

I missed this article about the Academy Awards and box office when it came out two days ago — distracted, as ever, by the presidential campaign and the World Series — but it’s certainly in my wheelhouse. Last January I wrote an article (or articles) on the subject for HuffPost, and throughout the year I’ve certainly blogged enough about Times’ writers Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, and the two tag-team on this one.

Here's the point: In the past, popular but lightweight movies were nominated best picture (Three Coins in a Fountain; Love Story; Raiders of the Lost Ark), while weighty Oscar nominees could be huge box office hits (Bridge Over the River Kwai; The Graduate; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). But for the past 30 years, and particularly this decade, we've seen a split: Box office hits rarely get nom’ed and weighty best picture nominees rarely become box office hits. Last January I wrote:

How rare is it when at least one of the best picture nominees isn't among the year's top 10 box office hits? Since 1944, it's happened only five times: 1947, 1984...and the last three years in a row: 2004, 2005, 2006. What was once a rarity has now become routine.

Make that the last four years in a row. The biggest box office hit among last year's best picture nominees, Juno, topped out at 15th for 2007, $25 million behind Wild Hogs.

Now, according to Cieply and Barnes, the studios, who have been busy closing their prestige divisions, are hyping their box office hits, including The Dark Knight and Wall-E, for best picture. Good for them. Unfortunately, Cieply’s and Barnes’ article is also filled with the conventional wisdom of Hollywood insiders. No sentence screamed at me more than this one:

However, several [Oscar campaigners] noted a belief that audiences — weary of economic crisis and political strife — are ready for a dose of fun from the entertainment industry.

It screamed because last May, in Cieply’s article about how Hollywood insiders were worried about their gloomy, sequel-shy summer box office, we got this graf:

The [summer movie] mix may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive who is now an adjunct professor…

What movies, included in this “mix,” did Cieply specifically mention that the audience might not be in the mood for? The comedy Tropic Thunder, which quietly made $110M, and, of course, The Dark Knight, which noisily grossed $527M. Internationally, it's approaching $1 billion.

You’d think a journalist might be shy about quoting Hollywood insiders in the exact same way after dropping a bomb like that. Not here. Seriously, I encourage everyone to read Cieply’s May article. It’s instructive. Hell, it’s downright Goldmanesque. Nobody may know anything but some of us really don’t know anything.

In the end, and depending on what gets released in the next few months, I wouldn’t mind seeing Dark Knight get nom’ed. It shouldn’t win, of course (Three Coins, Love Story and Raiders didn’t win either), but it was a hugely popular, critically acclaimed film and in the past that’s been enough for the Academy.

But that’s only one part of the equation: a box-office hit will have gotten nom’ed. The other part — a weighty best picture nominee that becomes a box-office hit — will take more work. Work, I should add, the studios don’t appear interested in doing.

Posted at 01:02 PM on Oct 29, 2008 in category
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Sunday August 25, 2013

Raise High the Bookshelves, Carpenters: More Salinger Books on the Way

Since I'm the man who inadvertently put the kibosh on the last published J.D. Salinger book, I'm delighted with the news, via Michael Cieply in The New York Times, that more Salinger books, plural, are on the way:

One collection, to be called “The Family Glass,” would add five new stories to an assembly of previously published stories about the fictional Glass family, which figured in Mr. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” and elsewhere, according to the claims, which surfaced in interviews and previews of the documentary and book last week.

Another would include a retooled version of a publicly known but unpublished tale, “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans,” which is to be collected with new stories and existing work about the fictional Caulfields, including “Catcher in the Rye.” The new works are said to include a story-filled “manual” of the Vedanta religious philosophy, with which Mr. Salinger was deeply involved; a novel set during World War II and based on his first marriage; and a novella modeled on his own war experiences.

Not sure which excites me more: the five new Glass family stories (since “Hapworth” was hardly “Franny” or “Bananafish”), the novel set during World War II, or the WWII-era novella.

Cieply gathered the news from the new Shane Salerno documentary, as well as its accompanying book, both entitled “Salinger.”

The Salinger family, meanwhile, is still not talking.

The downside of all of this? The companion book, which comes out Sept. 3, was co-written by David Shields, whose “Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season,” I skewered almost 15 years ago. How does that guy keep getting work? And awards?

Oh right. The world.

This Salinger tidbit via Cieply is equally fascinating—if creepy:

Another relationship described in the book and film will provide plenty of intrigue to Salingerologists: after the war, Mr. Salinger met a 14-year-old girl, Jean Miller, at a beach resort in Florida. For years, they exchanged letters, spent time together in New York and eventually had a brief physical relationship. (She said, in an interview in the film and book, that Mr. Salinger dumped her the day after their first sexual encounter.) Ms. Miller said in the book that Mr. Salinger once saw her stifle a yawn while talking to an older woman and borrowed the gesture for one of his short stories, “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor.”

“He told me he could not have written ‘Esmé’ had he not met me,” Ms. Miller said in an interview in the book.

Or “Bananafish”?

The doc opens Sept. 6.

J.D. Salinger in the 1950s

“If you really want to hear about it...”

Posted at 12:32 PM on Aug 25, 2013 in category
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Friday May 16, 2008

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, 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?

Posted at 07:59 AM on May 16, 2008 in category
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Monday January 28, 2013

Movie Trailers: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The Coen Bros.' latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan (troubled husband and wife in “Drive,” more troubled here), is apparently screening for L.A. insiders this week, according to this New York Times article by Michael Cieply. Cieply writes:

If the film has had a slight air of mystery in recent months, that is partly because the Coens, working with the producer Scott Rudin, their collaborator on both “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men,” made the film with backing from the French company Studio Canal but with no predetermined American distributor.

After shooting in New York City and elsewhere last year, Mr. Coen said, the brothers finished the movie at their own pace. They could have rushed it into the Oscar season but didn’t. Instead a public debut at the Cannes film festival in May is possible, he said. And by then, assuming that buyers like it as much as Mr. Wald did,“Inside Llewyn Davis” may have an American distributor, an army of publicists and a release date.

But it's the closing line that makes me smile:

“How good you are doesn’t always matter,” he added. “That’s what the movie is about.”

Here's the trailer that's making the rounds:

If that left you hanging, as it's designed to, you can hear Mr. Isaac singing live at Caffe Vivaldi here.

By the way: Would anyone but the Coens get away with “Llewyn” in the title?

Posted at 05:55 PM on Jan 28, 2013 in category
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Tuesday September 07, 2010

Why Can't the Times Write about Box Office?

It's been a while since I've ranted about Michael Cieply or Brooks Barnes over at The New York Times, but Barnes' latest, “Even Hits Like 'Kick-Ass' Can Seem Misses at Debut,” pissed me off all over again.

It's not the sentiment behind it: Too much attention is paid to opening weekends. I agree with that. It's the numbers. He keeps fudging the numbers.

Here's his lede:

LOS ANGELES — In early April, as Lionsgate prepared to release “Kick-Ass,” the movie capital buzzed that the film looked to be a smash hit. Lionsgate had acquired it for just $15 million, and surveys that track audience interest projected a $30 million opening weekend.

The movie, directed by Matthew Vaughn, instead opened with $19.8 million, and the chatter, fueled by the blogosphere, abruptly turned negative. Misfire! Bomb! Flop!

As it turns out, “Kick-Ass” is living up to its title. The picture, about a teenager who tries to become a superhero, went on to generate about $97 million in ticket sales and is on track to sell over two million copies on DVD and digital download services.

Nice Hollywood ending for “Kick-Ass.” But like most Hollywood endings, it's false. Or fudged.

The movie opened with $19.8 million domestically. It closed with $97 million worldwide. Its domestic close was $48 million—not even three times its opening weekend. It may be profitable, but that's hardly a movie with legs.

Barnes keeps doing this, too. Here's a graf later in the article:

There are other recent examples of movies that were quickly deemed misses but turned into hits. “Date Night,” the 20th Century Fox comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey, was branded a disappointment when it opened to $25 million. Yet it finally captured over $152 million. “The Last Song” had a $16 million opening in March — lower than expected — but went on to sell $89 million at the global box office for Walt Disney Studios.

“Date Night” opened at $25 million domestically but grossed $152 million worldwide ($98 million domestically). “The Last Song” opened at $16 million domestically and grossed $89 million worldwide ($62.9 million domestically).

It's not just that Barnes isn't comparing the same things. He's not telling his readers that he's not comparing the same things.

And if you're going to do a piece like this, on the long legs of some modern movies, why not focus on the film that has the longest legs this year? “How to Train Your Dragon” opened at $43 million domestically and grossed $217 million domestically, or five times its opening, but that film only gets a graf midway through Barnes' article. Most of the article is about LionsGate's “Kick-Ass,” which didn't even gross three times its opening. Why?

Here are some past arguments I've had with Barnes/Cieply:

I guess the theme snaking through these arguments is that Barnes/Cieply cover the industry for the industry and not for moviegoers. Not sure why you would do that.

Posted at 08:31 AM on Sep 07, 2010 in category
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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
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Saturday January 31, 2009

Mood Fight

I’m a little worried about David Carr

First there was that odd, Joker-mask video he did for his Carpetbagger blog. Then last week he clapped the Academy on the back for choosing quality (meaning: “The Reader”) over popularity (meaning: “The Dark Knight”).

But yesterday? He launched into one of my least-favorite journalistic devices: How the popularity of this or that film reflects the nation’s mood.

The Times is infamous for doing this. Just last year, on May 15th, Michael Cieply implied that the upcoming summer movies, including “The Dark Knight,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Pineapple Express,” were just too dark. “The mix,” he wrote, “may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive…”

Turns out “The Dark Knight” was just the refuge people were looking for. So Brooks Barnes took over, and on July 28th, wrote the following: “The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.”

Problem solved. We weren’t repelled from the movie because it reflected our mood; we were drawn to it. Once it became clear we were drawn to it.

See what fun you can have with the nation’s mood?

Carr, whom I love, and who’s a better writer than both Cieply and Barnes, has actually done something worse. He begins his article, “Riveting Tales for Dark Days,” by once again lauding the Oscar nominees. They are, he says, an upbeat lot, particularly compared with the gloom of last year’s “No Country” and “There Will Be Blood.” They reflect our nation’s can-do spirit in troubled times. In one graph he dismisses what he’s doing and then keeps doing it:

Using the Oscars as a prism on national consciousness is a hoary, time-worn activity perpetrated by those of us who must find meaning in sometimes marginal work. But it does seem worth at least a mention this time around that both the Academy and audiences are showering love on such upbeat movies at a rough time in history.

Why is this worse? Let’s let “X” stand for “What people would do or are doing because of the nation’s mood.”

Cieply’s X wasn’t verifiable but predictive. It was two months down the road when only idiots like me would remember that he, or someone he had quoted, had made such a prediction.

Barnes’ X was verifiable and correct. People were in fact going to see “The Dark Knight.”

Carr’s X? Verifiable and incorrect. And not just incorrect in a small way. Incorrect in a way that refutes his entire premise.

He mixes two unstable elements. He writes that January box-office receipts are up by 10 percent (true) and that the Oscar nominees are more upbeat than last year (true-ish, though there’s nothing as purely pleasant as “Juno” in the mix). So he concludes people are drawn to these upbeat best picture nominees.

Problem? For whatever reason (and I blame the studios as much as anyone), we’re not drawn to these upbeat nominees. We’re drawn to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” which has made, as of today, $69.3 million. The nominees, save for “Button,” have all made less. Some a lot less: “Slumdog” ($59.5M), “Milk” ($21.9M), “Frost/Nixon” ($12.9M) and “The Reader” ($10.2M). In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, Brandon Gray, over at, has written that these nominees are, at the time of the noms, the least-attended ever. (I’m still interested in his math on this, by the way.)

In Carr’s defense, and despite the “showering love” line above, he does say that the upbeat nominees “reflect an appetite on the part of the Academy, and by proxy, the public, for a nice, big chunk of uplift.”

That’s a nice one. Using the Academy as a stand-in for the public when the two have never been further apart.

So I’m a little worried about David Carr. He’s better than this.

Posted at 10:23 AM on Jan 31, 2009 in category
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Monday May 04, 2009

Logan's Run: $85 Million

I was surprised but not shocked that "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" did so well this weekend, bringing in $87 million, which, unadjusted, is the 18th-best opening weekend ever. It's a superhero movie, after all, and a popular character, and it opened in over 4,000 theaters (the 14th-most ever) and, according to Brandon Gray, on 8,300 screens (which is the Xth-most ever? Someone?). The biggest surprise, from Michael Cieply over at the Times, is the make-up of the audience: nearly 50 percent female. Although, in retrospect, it certainly makes sense, Hugh being Hugh...

No, the number to look for is how much it falls off next weekend. That's when the bad reviews (37% on RT, 44 on metacritic), and so-so word of mouth (assuming), might be felt. A drop-off of more than 60 percent (as with "Watchmen," "X-Men 3" and "Spider-Man 3") will definitely mean something in terms of what people really think of this thing.

ADDENDUM: The actuals are in and it's $85 million, which is good for 19th-best opening weekend. The movie it dropped behind? "X2: X-Men United." Any guesses as to "Wolverine"'s dropoff next weekend?

Posted at 09:18 AM on May 04, 2009 in category
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Sunday February 22, 2009

The Backwards Threats of Hollywood Execs

I'll live-blog the Oscars during our party this evening — stay tuned! — but the oddest of threats in this morning’s New York Times made me start early. Michael Cieply, whom I’ve written about before, has a piece in the Business section in which unnamed Hollywood executives grumble about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which, as we all know, didn’t nominate any of the critically acclaimed box-office hits from 2008 (“The Dark Knight” and “WALL-E”) for best picture. Then comes this odd threat:
Some executives, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect their relationships with those who vote for prizes, have said in the last few weeks that they do not expect their studios to make any movie in the foreseeable future as a specific Oscar bet.
If honors happen to come, as they came to “The Departed,” a Warner film that was a surprise best-picture winner in 2007, so be it. But few are looking to make the next “Frost/Nixon,” a smart, critically acclaimed film that got Ron Howard a nomination as best director this year.

Look, I enjoyed “Frost/Nixon” well enough. But threatening not to make the next “Frost/Nixon” is like, I don’t know, threatening not to serve a baked potato at your next dinner party. Not many people are going to lose sleep.

Read Cieply’s entire piece. On the one hand, the lament of these executives is part of my lament: In recent years, the Academy hasn’t been nominating box-office hits for best picture. Let’s trot out that stat again. Since 1944, when the Academy finally settled on five best picture nominees, there have only been seven years when not one of the best-picture candidates was among the year’s top 10 box-office hits: 1947, 1984...and the last five years in a row.

But blaming only the Academy for this is both dishonest and hypocritical. Me, I mostly blame the studios. Here’s the bigger problem: Best pictures are no longer perceived as movies for all of us. They’ve become, as in the language above, niche pictures, and one niche of many. Here’s your gory horror, your chick flick, your urban comedy. Here’s either your gross wish fulfillment (the superstrong and superpowerful) relased into 4,000 theaters in the heat of summer, or here’s your small, sad slice of reality (the superweak) released into select cities in the dark of December. The former’s fun, the latter’s “important,” and never the twain shall meet. Anymore.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the consolidation of these niches makes each niche more like itself. The gory horror film becomes more gory; the chick flick becomes pinker and fluffier; the serious film becomes deadly, sadly serious. And the idea of a best picture “for all of us” becomes just that: an idea.

Thus the primary threat above — that the majors will no longer make and/or target specific films as Oscar candidates — is amusing in two ways. One: the majors haven’t even been producing many best-picture-type movies in recent years — they leave that to the indies — so threatening not to do what they’re already not doing is, yes, not a viable threat.

More importantly, removing the "best-picture niche” may allow what elements are in that niche (seriousness, etc.) to bleed into other niches and create something that's both important and not limited. I.e., something for all of us.

It's not only not a threat; it might even be a solution.

See you in a few hours.

Posted at 11:06 AM on Feb 22, 2009 in category
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Tuesday July 29, 2008

Two Face

Repeating last year’s performance looks like a long shot, given the rest of this summer’s lineup. This batch is light on sequels, gloomy in spots (as with “The Dark Knight”) and heavy on comedies...The mix may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive... 
— Michael Cieply, New York Times, May 15, 2008

The success of “The Dark Knight” is an example of what can happen when an array of factors coincide...The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.
— Brooks Barnes, New York Times, July 28, 2008

Different writers, to be sure, but don't they ever talk to each other? Also, it raises this question about movie audiences: Do people go to films to escape the national mood or reflect it? Or do they just go?

And what are the “array of factors” Barnes gives in yesterday's article (via quotes with industry executives) for The Dark Knight's continued success? 

  1. an expertly executed promotion plan
  2. the brooding film matched national mood
  3. the sour economy forced families toward cheaper entertainments like movies
  4. the publicity following Christian Bale's questioning by the police last week

No mention of the word “quality.” No mention of the phrase “word-of-mouth.” That's part of the problem with relying on quotes from industry executives. Those guys are in a bubble. They're in a town that talks about movies constantly so they can't tell the difference when people really start talking up a movie. In Seattle (or in Minneapolis, Omaha, Denver ...), it's a little easier. One wonders if relying on industry executives for quotes about movies is a little like relying on Dick Cheney for quotes about WMDs.

Both articles also remind me of something I tell my writers in the magazines I edit: Just because someone gives you a quote, doesn't mean you have to use it.

Posted at 07:14 AM on Jul 29, 2008 in category
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Monday February 27, 2012

Quote of the Day

“The fact that the Oscar telecast is a bust, that it is doomed—almost designed—to be a bust, and that the varying degrees of bustness are all that separates one year from the next, should neither surprise nor even dismay us, because the Academy Awards are like teen-age sex. It’s all about the fizzing buildup, and the self-persuading aftermath: the occurrence itself, nowadays, is nothing but fumble and flub...”

-- Anthony Lane, “The Oscars: Man or Muppet?” on The New Yorker site, in what is easily the best post-Oscar commentary. Most critics fulminate. They snipe. Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes of The New York Times write about the Academy's doomed ratings ... even though, they admit, the ratings were up 3.7 percent. The Hollywood Reporter slams host Billy Crystal, as it slams all hosts, even though he was funny and got off several of the evening's best lines, particularly: “Nothing takes the sting out of these tough economic times like watching a bunch of millionaires giving golden statues to each other.” Julia Turner over at actually criticized the way Penelope Cruz looked. (“The look is blah ... stupid princess gown.”) Lane keeps the proper distance. He expects little and is amused when he gets less. He unleashes bon mots with a shrug. All other critics should read and learn.

Ryan Seacrest and Sasha Baron Cohen on the red carpet. Cohen is the one with a sense  of humor.

Ryan Seacrest,” Lane writes, “whose very name resembles a brand of luxury yacht, so smooth are the waves on which he sails through life...” Choppier waters here thanks (and yes, thanks) to Sacha Baron Cohen.

Posted at 07:23 PM on Feb 27, 2012 in category
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Sunday May 04, 2008

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: “ 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.

Posted at 12:46 PM on May 04, 2008 in category
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Monday January 03, 2011

Lancelot Links

Weclome to 2011, everyone. Let's get it right this time.

Posted at 06:39 AM on Jan 03, 2011 in category
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Thursday February 03, 2011

Lancelot Links

Hold onto your seats; it's going to be a bumpy Lancelot Links.

  • To start. The Star-Tribune's Colin Covert recently asked me, vis a vis my review of “Vincere,” what responsibility the critic has in parsing fact from fiction in historical dramas. I shrugged, adding, “Historical context should get more play if the filmmakers fudge history in a way that makes the film less interesting.” To wit: “The King's Speech,” which Christopher Hitchens' reminds us, gets its facts wrong in its drive toward the obvious and comfortable conclusion. In reality Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) was a Nazi sympathizer while George VI (Colin Firth), our sympathetic, tongue-tied hero, was an appeaser who wanted to stick with Neville Chamberlain even after Sept. 1, 1939, and whose first choice as successor was another appeaser, Lord Halifax. “And so the film drifts on,” Hitchens writes, “with ever more Vaseline being applied to the lens.”
  • Then our old friend Michael Cieply gets into the act. He writes of the attempts by other filmmakers, not to mention Hitchens, to take down frontrunner “The King's Speech.” The Weinsteins, he adds, are ready to fight back:

And it is lost on few here that a primary competitor, “The Social Network,” has also faced questions about the veracity of its portrayal of the Facebook entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg, so any showdown between that film and “The King’s Speech” over matters of fact and fiction might end in a draw.“

  • To which Richard Brody of The New Yorker parses the difference between the two movies:

    “The King’s Speech” is an anesthetic movie, “The Social Network” an invigorating one—and their scripts’ departures from the historical record serve utterly divergent purposes. The tale of royal triumph through a commoner’s efforts expurgates the story in order to render its characters more sympathetic, whereas the depiction of Mark Zuckerberg as a lonely and friendless genius (when, in fact, he has long been in a relationship with one woman) serves the opposite purpose: to render him more ambiguous, to challenge the audience to overcome antipathy for a character twice damned, by reasonable women, as an “asshole.”

  • To which Tom Shone, former critic for The London Sunday Times, objects on grounds that indie films like to wallow in misery as much as Hollywood films like to revel in happy, stupid endings:

It is the reigning aesthetic consensus of the day. In Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher we have a pair of twin dark princes for whom life is misery and pain and unpleasantness not just every now and again, but all the time. Black Swan is virtually a primer on developing-your-own-dark-side, in much the same spirit that teenagers take up smoking to annoy their parents, but presented as if this represents the loftiest of artistic aims.

He thinks I’m complaining about pleasantness, and about viewers who enjoy “The King’s Speech”; not at all. ... “The King’s Speech” is pap, but I have no argument with the people who enjoy it. I’m not against the film’s existence or the audience’s pleasure, I’m against giving it awards for any supposed artistic merit. Because, as it turns out, my point of view regarding character in art is one that has some precedent. It is, in fact, the core of what we call Western art: inducing the audience to overcome feelings of repugnance or derision (i.e., prejudices or settled moral values) and enter into sympathy with people who, despite (or even because of) their virtues, make themselves into monsters (in tragedy) or asses (in comedy)
  • Updates as they come. In the meantime here's a nice Sundance rundown from MSN's James Rocchi, who chronicles the hits (”Martha Marcy May Marlene“) and misses (”Son of No One“). But it's his list of superlative documentaries that most intrigues me. From Morgan Spurlock on product placement (”The Greatest Story Ever Sold“), to the daily newspaper in the internet age (”Page One: A Year in the Life of the New York Times“), to personal injury lawsuits (”Hot Coffee“) to the man inside a muppet (”Being Elmo“), I kept thinking, ”I'm there, I'm there, I'm there, I'm there.“
  • I haven't read Daniel Zalewski's profile of Guillermo del Toro in The New Yorker yet, but his video on del Toro's monsters, particularly the ”pale man“ from ”Pan's Labyrinth,“ is way, way cool.
  • Are you reading Alex Pareene over at Here he is on media coverage of events in Egypt: ”It goes against the nature of the medium to suggest that we just watch and analyze the events of a faraway nation and examine America's role only in a historical sense.“
  • My friend Jerry Grillo takes a break from Facebook (for non-Tom Shone reasons) and makes a list of what he's missed. Answer: Not much.
  • Finally, we have a new Superman: Henry Cavill. Here he is talking about his role on ”The Tudors." Yeah, he's a Brit. Like Batman (Christian Bale), the new Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield), Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), the young Beast (Nicholas Hault), and the old and young Professor Xes (Patrick Stewart/James McAvoy). But the U.S. still has Ghost Rider! Plus Iron Man, of course (Robert Downey, Jr.). Who also plays Sherlock Holmes. Is that our tit or our tat? Either way, it feels like a trade deficit.

After yonks, Cavill wangles the bleedin' superbloke. Brilliant.

Posted at 06:56 AM on Feb 03, 2011 in category
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Wednesday April 20, 2011

Tim Hetherington (1970-2011)

I just heard the news about Tim Hetherington.

A year ago I saw him at the Harvard Exit in Seattle, tall and thin and British, a photojournalist mostly, standing next to Sebastian Junger, short and broad and American, an author mostly, and his co-director on the documentary we'd all just watched: “Restrepo.” Both calmly answered questions from the partisan Seattle poster for RestrepoInternational Film Festival crowd about the politics of war and the politics of documentary. A few in the crowd, like Jeff Wells later, wanted “Restrepo” to be more political: the how and the why we're in Afghanistan. They felt “Restrepo” somehow lacked. I was stunned. I was stunned by the stupidity of the questions and by the power of the film. I've urged it on everyone since. I doubt there's a movie I mentioned more in the last year. I was a broken record.


Maybe someday they will.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hetherington. Emphasis on peace.

Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington during the making of "Restrepo"

Junger, left, and Hetherington during the filming of “Restrepo”

Posted at 03:24 PM on Apr 20, 2011 in category
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Thursday May 05, 2011

Lancelot Links

Posted at 03:16 PM on May 05, 2011 in category
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