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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Thankful 2008

It has been a year of much turmoil in this country and in both industries of filmed entertainment and journalism. So much so that a list of my film pleasure thanks seems insanely indulgent. And unfortunately, in this year, far too limited. But it has been a tradition for a long time and one that gives me some perspective and no small amount of pleasure. And so…
Things I Am Thankful For – Episode 11: 2008
I Am Thankful For the regular reminders that this industry is not just business or just show, but a place for artists to aspire to greatness… or at least, to the search. More and more I find that those of us covering the industry have become the cynical, art-hating group and that the artists (Bob Koehler would hate that I use that term, but I believe that artistry is in the effort of expression not the judgment of the result), often overpampered indeed, have become the ones trapped by “our” expectations and not the boundaries of their own skills and efforts.
I Thank Roger Ebert for not only fighting the good fight and getting back to work, but for continuing to use his illness and the career setbacks that came with it as an opportunity to become even more creative and aggressive about using the printed (or e-printed) word.
My Thanks Go Out To The Wachowskis for doing what they do and clearly not worrying too much about the response. They made a minor masterpiece in Speed Racer that was either going to be the game changer of the summer or get crushed on the rocks by the media and indeed, the box office. But I have no doubt that the next time they make a film, it too will push the envelope of creativity in a way that wigs out the over-40 media. Huzzah.
I Am Thankful for and to my wife.
I Thank The World for indulging a piece of junk like Mamma Mia! not because it is of an enduring quality, but because it is, simply, fun. There is something to be said for stupid pleasures. And I watched Mamma Mia! on a plane recently – my second viewing – and was reminded of just how bad it is and just how incredible it really is. They put a show on in the barn, got one of the world’s greatest actresses ever to ham it up, pulled every bit of vaudeville schtick out of their collective tuchus, made Pierce Brosnan sing embarrassingly, objectified both sexes, and just plain had the kind of party that leads to embarrassing stories… that you tell every time you get together for decades to come. Those of us in the business of public judging need to be reminded – often – that stupid pleasures count and that people who love them are not stupid, just willing and vulnerable to that particular kind of stupid.
I Couldn’t Be More Thankful that Hancock, abused as it was, is currently the fourth highest grossing film of the year, both domestically and across the globe. This sophisticatedly unsophisticated take on the superhero genre came up against expectations of critics and the urge of pundits to seek the destruction of a box office hero at the top of his career. It also started the inevitable move – tipped in a small way by Iron Man – towards the next wave of the genre, deconstruction. As with so many great thirds acts in genre-shifting movies, critics found themselves unable to make the adjustment from watching the genre messed with for two acts prior. And Hancock is not a perfect movie. But audiences seem to have gotten it, making this the second highest grossing film of Will Smith’s career. And the greatest beneficiary of this? Watchmen, most likely. That is looking to be the film that the media understands because they went through the training at the hands of Peter Berg, et al.
I Thank President-Elect Obama for reminding us all about hope… regardless of whether we believe he represents the best hope for our country. We are the ones we have been waiting for. And I truly believe that he believes that and that it and wil be reflected in his efforts. More than that I cannot expect from a president.
I Am Thankful For Pixar, which has not only continued to make movies that are as ambitious as they are beautiful, but has also made real inroads into bringing Disney’s internal culture on that side of the company back to greatness. Disney is, hands down, the most effectively run studio in this industry, as led by Bob Iger, Dick Cook, John Lasseter and Oren Aviv. I kept The Flashy One in that group – and I think that the fact there really is only one flashy one says volumes – because his ability to thrive in the quiet family culture over there shows their strength. They will flame out at Disney in some years. They have their flops. But they also have a core as a studio that no other studio currently has. And that core will bring them through the bad times. But none of that might be true without the extremely expensive (overpriced on paper) purchase of Pixar and the successful integration of the companies. The only years in this young millennium in which Pixar did not deliver a $200 million+ movie that was on of the top two grosser for the company in that year were the two years without a Pixar movie. Remarkable.
I Thank myself for not making me go to every crap movie that gets released by the studios throughout the year. It has made making my “Worst of” list harder and harder. There are only 2 junkers in the year’s box office Top 30 that I allowed myself to miss, but after that, I count 18 in the next 30 that I skipped out on, 21 of the next 30, and so on. Part of me really wants to be embarrassed and feel like I am not working hard enough… but my soul is comforted.
I Am Thankful For Blu-ray and the unquestionable pleasure it brings to me in the home entertainment experience. Sure, I still watch movies on the satellite (though watching anything not in HD has become less attractive) and I watch movies on my iPhone and I watch movies on little screens and big screens and well, anywhere. Films can be great in any format. But there is a real opening night thrill that often comes in a Blu-ray viewing. Great films are being seen in a way they have never been seen before, with the visual limitations of a TV screen, but with the visual density much closer to film. Not every film rises to that standard… not most. But The Godfather and Sleeping Beauty and Wall-E and Hancock and The Kubrick films and Across The Universe and so many others just blow the walls out.
I Thank the industry for embracing the 30 minute interview format, which is a gift to me every time we shoot a Lunch with David or 30 Minutes With… or DP/30 or whatever it will be called soon and forever. Sometimes I am better than other times. Sometimes the guests deliver more than other times (which is surely my fault in 90% of the cases when it isn’t great). But I find that the talent wants to talk about the work that they love and the world in which they live and that there is something refreshing about someone just wanting to talk with them, directly, sincerely, with preparation, but without the constraints of simply selling the movie they are out selling. It is, more often than not, a profound pleasure to do that part of my job. And I hope the pleasure that I feel translates to the viewers.
I Am Thankful to everyone who tells the truth. I know of very few people in this industry who are at liberty to always tell the truth… not even me. But there are people – even publicists – who are truth tellers. And as truth tellers, they more often than not have perspective even on the bullshit they truly believe. I cannot really express how thankful I am that these people exist and continue to drive forward in spite of daily ass kickings. Every year, my work narrows, and my circles narrow and it is the straight shooters who keep me from giving up on all of this organized insanity. It is often the case that I cannot share their truths with you, as readers. And I used to suffer with that burden more. But I have come to understand that having people in positions of knowledge who trust me and whom I trust is not a burden, but a layer of support that allows everything that is public to go on… hopefully without anyone but us knowing the difference. In a time when inside baseball trust has sunk about as low as possible between the industry and the media, I am proud and thankful to be trusted and trusting.
I Thank Heaven that extreme ego has this amazing tendency to attract insane choices that almost invariably will crush that ego… or at least make it a lot less fundable over time. Yeah, there are the cheese purveyors like Roland Emmerich and Brett Ratner who somehow manage to talk studios into doing amazingly dumb things, but who keep surviving because somehow, in the end, their crappiest crap is commercial. (And now and again… they show some real talent.) They have that gift. But crap will out. All you need to know from my side of it is that it all must be watched from the perspective of time, not the heat of the momentary hype.
I Am Thankful to the entire team at Movie City News, which by the grace of some kind of journalistic god, continues to grow. This project started with a couple of core ideas. One, it gave me a place for my stuff, which used to be a lot more stuff. But more so, it was a place for ideas to be supported and grow. The headlines were, from the start, intended to give readers a sense of the greater perspective on stories and to try to separate the press releases from the actual news… the great writers from the daily grinders… and the things that might mean something more than the cover of weekly tabloids, or the trades. We have succeeded in some of that and failed in other ways. There is not enough diversity in our headlines, but that it not for a lack of effort. We probably have not launched enough new writers from other sites out of this space and we have probably indulged established outlets too much. We don’t always have the time to go through every version of every story to find the ones with the most compelling angles. And there are, no doubt, many areas of the industry we still do not cover enough. We don’t have the infrastructure that, say, the trades have. But we don’t have the weight of that financial machine either. We are trying. Every day. And the only reason that Laura and I can keep making that effort is that we have the support and good works of the staff of writers who crank it out – Doug, Gary, Kim, Len, Michael, Noah, and Ray – delivering daily and weekly. And when you get contributions like the 48 Hrs. Diaries from guys like Larry Gross, or cartoons from RJ Matson, you’re just that much more thankful.
As always, I Thank Scot Safon and the late Andy Jones for dragging me onto the internet all those years ago and giving me a home and – particularly Scot – indulging me in ways that a multi-nation media conglomerate doesn’t normally indulge a loudmoth writer. Between the EW and roughcut.com experiences, I learned about how power works in the entertainment media, for better and for worse. This old dog may not learn many new tricks, but the old ones still get me through a lot.
I Am Thankful to still be in business in this media climate. Too many good people are losing their jobs these days. And too many hacks are not because they can saber rattle their way to a crowd. The distinction between the two must be maintained, for the sake of what comes out at the end. This is a time when all of us who have not suffered jobus interruptus must remember to be very thankful indeed. The line is thin. And much of the Traditional Media still can’t tell “us on the web” apart. We all read the same to them. But as Pogo (written by Walt Kelly) would remind, “”We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us.” As we move forward, the greatest distinction between professionals on the web and the vast majority of Traditional Media is that only one side uses the name of the other medium as a pejorative intended to keep a distance from the “other side.” Greatness requires seeing past these self-indulgent biases. And it is greatness we all seek, right?
Finally, I Thank all of you, the readers… to use a phrase of the late, great Dusty Cohl, my co-conspirators… my enablers… the proof that the woods are not empty when I saw down the trees. Everything I do is built, in no small way, on your indulgence of me and your willingness to come out and play, day after day, year after year. I have not had cover, in these last 11 years, the cover of a major media outlet to keep me going. I have had the support of all the people I work with… and of you (some of whom are both). I am not the same man or the same writer that I was those 11 years ago. Maybe for better. Maybe for worse. Some of you have stayed… some left… some wandered away and then came back. You have seen my worst and my best. And you keep coming back. So I thank you for my life and my livelihood. And I thank you in the name of those I work with. Great days in the past, but better days ahead… for us all…

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“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes. It’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful. People don’t realize what goes into making a movie like that. It’s mind-blowing. It’s just insane, it’s hurting the business, it’s getting people to not see a movie. In Middle America it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a low Rotten Tomatoes score so I’m not going to go see it because it must suck.’ But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”
~ Brett Ratner Has A Sad

“The loss of a local newspaper critic is a real loss. People who know the local audience and know the local cultural scene are very important resources. You can’t just substitute the stuff that comes in from nowhere through syndication or the wire. I think at the same time, some of the newer outlets have really beefed up and improved their coverage and made room for criticism. The real problem is in the more specialized art forms — fine arts, classical music, dance and jazz, say. There is a real slowing of critical voices, partly because those art forms have smaller audiences. Newspapers and magazines can say that doesn’t get enough traffic, so we don’t have room for that. To me, that’s especially worrisome. This is the opposite of what newspapers are supposed to do, which is not to try to figure out what people are already interested in and recite that back to them, but to hopefully guide them to something that they should be interested in, connecting potential audiences with more interesting work.

“Then again, not everyone needs a critic. People have been going to movies for more than 100 years now, and probably the vast majority of those people have not read movie reviews or cared what critics thought. But there has always been an important subset that wants to know more, that wants to think about what they’ve seen and what they’re going to see, and wants someone to think along with. I think critics are important, not just as dispensers of consumer advice — though that’s certainly part of it, too — but as trusted voices and companions for people to argue with in your head when you’re going to movies or afterwards.”
~ A. O. Scott