I whispered to my wife as we watched this film that Snow was about to get her period… and sure enough, no discussion on screen of feminine plumbing, but all of a sudden, within 2 minutes, she was “of age” for the first time, according to the mirror-mirror.
What seems to have been writer Evan Daugherty’s original notion, later rewritten by John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, and shaped by director Rupert Sanders (and no doubt, Charlize Theron), lives at crotch level. It’s not profane. Kids are safe, if not too easily freaked out, to enjoy the visual wonder of the movie. But makes no mistake. This is a movie about sex and death.
Disney’s Snow White was also about sex & death, but in a much for subtextual way. It was a Walt Disney fetish. If you watch his movies, he always sexualized the evil women, not the pure ones. They were always the stars. And Charlize Theron is, here, pretty much the owner of the movie. But with Kristen Stewart as the only greater beauty, still unsullied, all Joan of Arc-ed up, it is a fair fight.
In fact, swimming through the thick subtext, Snow White is, really, what evil Queen Ravenna (Theron) could have been… had she had the opportunity to remain unsullied… beauty and kindness and toughness. Ravenna is not only trying to kill Snow for her direct benefit, but she is trying to kill the representation, in flesh, of what she might have been.
When, early in the film, Ravenna’s creepy brother Finn (Sam Spruell) threatens to molest young Snow while he is on his mission to bring her to the queen, there are layers that you don’t have to think about, but I sure did. If he plucked Snow’s flower, would he have unwittingly doomed his sister, whose youth would be preserved by Snow White’s pure heart of beauty? If Mr. Yeeks is after the most beautiful of them all and has spent a lifetime with the previous title holder… have bro & sis had something creepy going? What does he want? What are his needs?
Snow White’s relationship with The Huntsman (eventually) and young Prince Charming (here named William) is right out of Star Wars, which was right out of… and so on and so on. The Huntsman is Han Solo and William is Luke (pre-bro/sis insight). Both come to love Snow. But one is a man and one is a boy. (Will William turn out to be Snow’s brother in the sequel? Tune in same Snow time, same Snow channel!!!)
And is this just a big horror show about losing your virginity? Ravena’s countdown clock started early, without her consent, and there began her obsession with losing the power of her youthful beauty. Snow just doesn’t seem to give a damn. She is effortlessly beautiful. She is instinctual and immediate as Ravena is deliberate and reliant on others (her brother, the mirror, black magic) to simply be.
Thus, the cruelty of man (literally, those of us with low hanging fruit). Everyone in the film is turned on by Snow White and her pure beauty… even the seemingly desexualized dwarfs. Yet, the subtext of this tale offers, from the moment that the prize is obtained, the purity man steals is the lost, distraction begins, and the woman is left to fight to resurrect that purity, in hope of keeping the man she gave it tom, by any means necessary.
Perhaps Zwick & Herskovitz should do the sequel, Snow White: Honeymoon’s End.
All this and I still haven’t written about how cool it all looks…
It looks really cool.
Oddly, given that we are on top of Prometheus, I thought about 20 minutes in that Rupert Sanders has a very Scott-ian skill set and style. We’re a long way from the flawed but beautiful Legend. Sanders takes that kind of imagery to the next step here, mixing Scott with Guillermo del Toro at times to create a new era Wizard of Oz.
In some ways, if the cause of Dorothy’s entry to Oz wasn’t a tornado, but a blackout coming from good ol’ Professor Marvel trying to pluck her innocence away behind the tent, you would get Snow’s journey into the Dark Forest here. Nature is even more treacherous here… even more treacherous than the humans (flying monkeys) that she enters the woods to escape… but also clearly motivated. The Dark Forest is a dark sanctuary… a place where Black Magic cannot enter. Nature defends itself from the world.
Snow has an odd hero’s journey here, as the Dark Forest lightens only for her. (I’m not sure how any screenwriter of director can ever allow, “She’s THE ONE” to be used without irony in a post-Matrix movie world. It’s like having The Huntsman say, “I coulda been a contender.”) In many ways, the Dark Forest is another representation of the virginal trust theme. The Dark Forest will kill you for trying to enter… and every time it/she opens up a bit, it/she is reminded why it was so dark/guarded. Man behaves badly.
I loved a lot of what happens in the Black Forest… which I will reserve comment on for the sake of spoilers for now.
I especially love the Eight Dwarfs. Yes, eight. (If Yul Brenner was alive, he might be one, so he could say, “Now we are seven!”) I also loved the dwarfs in Mirror Mirror. But how much fun is it to see taller actors you love turned into not only dwarfs, but such great versions of themselves? (Rhetorical question… but answer: LOTS!) Hoskins, McShane, Marsan, Toby Jones, and Nick Frost (who made me laugh a little every time that mug came on camera) are all such big personalities. Great stuff. And it was inspired to have Brian Gleeson, with a short resume and status as spawn of Brendon, get one of the meatiest dwarf roles, instead of giving it to one of the big names. It kept his dramatic moments from feeling too gimmick-laden.
And I felt that the super-serious Kristen Stewart was dead on through most of the movie. Her purity of spirit is as central to the story as Ravena’s impurity. It wouldn’t have made sense for her to play it larger or more emotionally.
That said… and there is a big “but” in this review… the film was lacking something that kept it from being truly great.
Was it that the film failed to catch fire in Kristen’s St. Crispin’s Day speech? Maybe. I went with it. But I wasn’t knocked out by it.
But I don’t think blaming K-Stew for being quiet is the real issue. Element for element, this film absolutely rocks. Looks GREAT. Effects are GREAT. Colleen Atwood is a sure Oscar nominee and how can anyone beat her for this work. Chris Hemsworth is the best he’s been – best character he’s had to play – and absolutely delivers. Theron is fucking EPIC. I don’t know that, all said and done, it’s awards work… but it was flawless and fearless.
So why wasn’t I jumping out of my seat in the third act? At the climax? Ever?
The analogy that strikes me – fitting the film – is a person you are crushing on… attractive, sexy as hell, smart, similar interests, basically perfect… and then you sleep together and everything the other person does is “right,” but somehow, it just isn’t great sex. You can’t point to this move or that, to enthusiasm or skill, or to your own enthusiasm. It just doesn’t have that SCHWING!
The movie had me. The performances had me. The ideas had me. And then, somewhere in the murk… somewhere as they prepared to go confront Evil… I was aware that I was watching a movie, not lost in the excitement.
It’s a very rare thing, to like this movie as much as I did, and not to be able to fall in love. And from that odd place, I have no idea what audience reactions overall might be. I would be happy to watch this movie again. I’ll support Atwood’s and production designer Dominic Watson’s Oscar pushes energetically and be completely open to Theron’s. I hope the film does plenty of business. It is smarter and more challenging than most teen girl empowerment events…. certainly a huge step up over the Twilights that I have seen (not the last one) and Hunger Games 1.
But as Sinatra might sing, “I wish I were in love again…”
It’s almost impossible to write about Prometheus without spoilers, as the very first scene of the film is, in fact, a visual you have not seen in any of the materials and a story spoiler that establishes the foundations for what the movie will be.
That said, the film is a prequel to the Alien movies, though not a direct prequel. It feels like there is room for a few more movies (2?) before there is a direct connection to Alien. Set in the late 2000s, the mission is on a trillion dollar ship going as far out as any human ship had gone. The women at the center of this story are Noomi Rapace, as scientist Elizabeth Shaw, and Charlize Theron, as Meredith Vickers, the apparent boss of the ship, though she struggles, coldly, for control throughout the movie. Shaw desperately wants to be on this journey and seeks higher insight and Vickers is there out of obligation and is deeply frustrated by what she clearly sees as a waste of time.
Shaw and her boyfriend, Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), discover the symbolic maps placed through human history on earth that lead to the journey. Shaw & Holloway offer a conflicting dyad, she seeking a higher/spiritual answer to the origins of human life and he seeking a scientific explanation only.
The movie is loaded with these dyads. The other major character in the story is David (played by Michael Fassbender), who is the most advanced robot created by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) at the time of the story. He is, in may ways, the HAL 9000 of the story. He doesn’t have a HALian meltdown, but he does have a lot of control and is quite close to being omnipotent on the ship. He quirkily sees himself in a mirror of Peter O’Toole’s TS Lawrence, as he leads a group of humans into a conflict, the futility of which he cannot understand until he has experienced it. He is in a dyad with Theron’s Vickers, two controlling figures with short blonde hair, crystal-blue eyes, and seemingly perfect physiques. And by the end of the film, his relationship with Shaw will form another dyad.
Also pairing up are Fifield and Millburn (Sean Harris & Rafe Spall) and Chance & Revel (Emun Elliot & Benedict Wong). And there is “Ford” (played by Kate Dickie), who seems to be a medic of some kind. Another 8 humans on the journey, so inconsequential that they are credited as “Mercenary 1 – 4″ and “Mechanic 1 – 4.”
Last but not least, there is Idris Elba as “Janek,” as the old school ship’s captain, gets a surprising amount of screen time, given that he is really an outside perspective on the whole thing. His dyad is himself and his ship, which along with his crew, is his only real priority. He is the film’s true pragmatism with no off-setting motives.
The “big theme” in the film is our origins as a species. How did human life come to be on earth? Why? As Navin R. Johnson might put it, what is our special purpose?
I’ve already read one review that thinks the answer is not in the film. I think that the answer is not only there, but that it is so simple that it became invisible to that critic and to others… including, during the film, Noomi Rapace’s character, who is desperate to know why the other species they discover “hate” humans so much, which is the wrong question, offered in an emotional fit, lacking perspective.
The images in the film are, simply, exquisite. This is not your 1979 Nostromo, in which Scott made beautiful things out of a broken down, dank, wet ship. On the inside of this ship and even more so, in the world outside this ship, Prometheus offers a visual universe of a level never before put on digital film. (I thought a few times during the film how much I’d like to see a Fincher movie shot with these tools.)
There is one super-cool new technological gimmick in the film, which leads to the film’s best single sequence. And the visual mapping elements look in the film feel familiar and fresh all at once… perhaps they are just the best ever done.
There wasn’t a bad performance in the film. Fassbender has the showstopper… and it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it as well.
Noomi Rapace is the real deal, it turns out. Ridley Scott and DP Dariusz Wolski shoot her like a period portrait, her face stretched on its frame, every odd angle emphasized and romanced, her eyes the most animated part of the close-up frames in which she appears. And she delivers. There is the real possibility that the screenplay could have aspired to more based on her abilities here. She is capable of being the Virgin Mary in this tale, but when her character wanders into the relationship of religion and semiotics, the script is at its weakest.
Theron & Elba are not on unfamiliar turf here. Both deliver, but both are in service of the film, not asked to create more complex characters than that. That said, wearing a skintight space suit most of the time, it struck me for the first time in a while that as unique Ms. Theron’s physique is, the sexy thing about her is all in that face and the brain behind it. Like Rapace, who is not afraid to be nude (in other films) or swathed in gauze here, the “hot bod” thing rarely fails to distract from the actresses whose curves fill the screen. Crass as we choose to be, it is still the spirit of great actresses that move an audience, not their asses or boobs, great or otherwise.
But I digress…
The mystery casting of the film is Patrick Wilson as Shaw’s father. He’s sporting a UK accent and isn’t in the film for a full minute, so what is he doing there? Lost scenes or sequels? You tell me. (I also have a vague feeling he was dubbed… but maybe not.)`
The thing about Prometheus is that it is the first true Science Fiction movie from a major studio in years. i know that a lot of movies are positioned as sci-fi. But watching Prometheus, I felt like science and fiction were pushing me, as an audience member, to think about the ideas being presented in a fairly complex way. This was not, as Alien itself was, a genre film of a different sort with sci-fi elements superimposed on top of it (brilliantly, in that case). This film is about ideas. This film is about whether there is a greater meaning in the tradition of the first Planet of the Apes, early Trek, Soylent Green, Serling, Matheson, Bradbury, and others.
Is this the best film of that tradition that I’ve ever seen? No. Scott & Co. were doing other things as well and, no doubt, the epic scale and visual intensity got in the way of some of that exploration. As Serling and the rest showed us, you don’t need a big budget or great special effects to discuss ideas. On the other hand, I think – and I’ve only seen the film once – there is a lot in the unvoiced parts of this film that can be and will be mined for depth… not spoon-fed so that you walk out of the theater with The Answer.
I felt Prometheus. It’s not another version of Alien or Aliens or Alien 3. I guess this is why Scott was so serious about this not being positioned as a prequel. In many ways, this is closer spiritually, in Scott’s filmmography, to 1492 or Gladiator or the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven than to Alien. Seemingly earned arrogance is broken down, the hero gains insight into how their world was prioritized, they struggle on. Many different perspectives are represented on that ship without the crew sitting around a table arguing their views. And personally, I prefer that.
Are there the scares of Alien? Not too many. It’s an action movie this time, not a slasher movie. No cats making the audience scream.
Is there a new creature as exciting as The Alien in this film? No, not really. It’s not about that. (Though there are new, cool alien forms.)
And by the way… any talk of this being PG-13 was just publicity working overtime. There is no f-ing way this movie was ever going out as anything less than an R.
I found Prometheus to be a fresh, new, and visceral movie experience. Every bit of goo was fun. Every stupid move made by characters – which we know is stupid from knowing the previous films – was fun. I enjoyed seeing what every character with a name was going through and how the sequences manifested themselves. And there is still that bit of Hitchcockian anticipation in the film, as small seeds are inevitably going to lead somewhere familiar. But as my dad used to say, it’s not the situation, but how you react to it. And here, we have a group of new characters whose choices are not predictable.
I expect some critics to be very hard on the film. They seem to expect the Second Coming. But while they may have found The Avengers or whatever easier to swallow, there are things in Prometheus that will sustain audiences, not just offer that sugar high. (Hulk SMASH!) And when the questions about what isn’t in Prometheus are given voice, I will ask the question without irony, “Are you sure that what you think you want would satisfy you or make for a better movie?” I can’t say that I know the true answer to that question. But I am pretty sure that no one else will really know that answer about this film in the first hours after walking out of the theater.
Not only is Prometheus the best film of the summer so far, but I don’t anticipate anything but The Dark Knight Rises being able to challenge it for quality before the end of this summer. I’m really looking forward to the sheer joys of Brave and The Amazing Spider-Man and Ted, and others. But amongst movies that work for thrill-seekers and people who want to think and audiences that just want to be entertained, Prometheus hits to all fields. If you love movies, Prometheus has to be a part of your vocabulary this summer and for years to come.
(NOTE: I will do a spoiler review of the film AFTER it opens.)
The lack of media knives regarding Battleship and Universal is probably a neutral default position. First, the media got all its jollies out on John Carter, with two, count ’em two, senior execs at Disney heading out the door on either side of that financial debacle. Second, with Nikki Finke inhibited by her intimate relationship with the second Nikki Whisperer and probably the #1 leader of that pack at this time, Ron Meyer, there was no one out in front of the pack trying to get fat on the financial failure of the film. And Nikki is not the only person who enjoys the lining of Mr. Meyer’s pockets. Beyond that, The Avengers was an upbeat story and Universal had pre-cauterized the wound by opening international first… and though the showing was modest, most American journos who position themselves as box office writers these days are scared of international grosses and ending up looking foolish in their dismissals. So…
The year leading up to the dismissal of Marc Shmuger & David Linde offered only one $100m domestic grosser for Universal (Fast & Furious), some expensive misses (Duplicity, State of Play, Land of the Lost), and some high profile less-bottom-line-more-embarrassing misses (Flash of Genius, The Changeling, Frost/Nixon, Funny People, The Tale of Despereaux). There were also two expensive, high-profile titles that shuffled off to 2010 (The Wolfman and Green Zone).
I don’t want to pretend to know where the bodies were buried on every project. So let’s give the current team of Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley, both of whom were in the mix at the highest levels with Shmuger & Linde, a year and a Focker sequel to get to their first real slate. Start with January 2011… 23 released movies ago. They have had six $100m domestic releases, including the surprise that was Bridesmaids and the revitalization of the F&F franchise, with Fast Five topping the best worldwide gross by a previous entry in the series by more than 70%.
On the other hand, this is the second summer in which Universal seems to have the biggest flop, Battleship following in the sad tradition of Cowboys & Aliens. Movies like The Adjustment Bureau, Sanctum, Larry Crowne, and Paul found black ink overseas after being soft at home. But the string of head shakers is pretty impressive. Your Highness, The Change-Up, Dream House, The Thing, Wanderlust, The Five Year Engagement amongst them.
Safe House is the classic Universal frustration. One of Denzel’s biggest hits… his biggest driven by him without a more internationally valuable acting partner. Over $200m grosser. Yay. But with an $85m price tag, yeah, it’s profitable… but it’s not head-turning profitable. Same with American Reunion, which thanks to international and a lower price tag, will actually be more profitable than Safe House. But it did about half what any of the original cast Pies did at home, so no one is getting excited.
The two $100m domestic grossers not mentioned yet were Hop and The Lorax… both of which also go into the “okay” category. Lorax actually had the biggest domestic gross for an animated film in just under two years… since Despicable Me. However, not only were expectations much lower for DM, but the international was much biggest, totaling out at $543m vs Lorax’s current $305m ww gross, taking some of the bloom off the rose.
There are many ways to parse numbers. For instance, Judd Apatow giveth Bridesmaids, so how much do Wanderlust & 5 Year Engagement taketh away? How much credit should go to studio chiefs for getting out of the way of Team Apatow and doing good marketing?
And how do you measure value? Disney, though these were not films “owned” by Rich Ross, had FOUR billion dollar releases under Ross or within weeks of his exit… four of the twelve all-time. (Disney leads all studios with five such films, two being Pirateses.) He’s gone and so is his marketing chief. There were all kinds of other issues at Disney and with these two execs… but the home run numbers, which is where the John Carter discussion took place, were exceptional.
Universal, on the other hand, hasn’t had a film top Fast Five‘s 2011 gross of $627m worldwide since Jurassic Park, almost 20 years ago, in 1993. The next lowest number for a major in recent history is Sony, with $891m for Spider-Man 3.
In fact, there have been 41 releases in the last decade that have outdone the best grosser of Universal’s in that period. Every major has had at least four such films, Summit’s had three, and even two defunct distributors (New Line and DreamWorks) and Lionsgate have each had one.
Be clear… I am not calling for anyone’s head (not that anyone would care if I did). But for all the attacks on Fox and the JC hysteria earlier this year, there is one studio that hasn’t hit a single major league home run in almost 20 years (Bridesmaids is an inside-the-parker), though it’s had plenty of doubles and a few triples. The franchises it does have – F&F and Bourne – seem to operate under a glass ceiling. (Bourne’s best is $443m worldwide) And of top of that, it had one of the biggest money losers of the last decade this month. It won’t lose as much as JC… but about half as much is still a lot of red ink.
Will Snow White and the Huntsman be the breakout for which they’ve been praying? If not – what if it’s just a big success with $450m worldwide? – do we just wait until next summer, when another F&F, another Despicable, and another Jurassic Park (in 3D!) arrive?
Personally, I don’t want the surviving staff at Universal to go through any more unneeded trauma. The last two hires have been internal and the results have not changed much. Is there someone out there on a white charger who could turn the whole thing around? Always possible. But recent history isn’t brimming with thrills. Disney is barely in the production business and the Adam Goodman era at Par is really still being defined in light of many pre-existing relationships, though last year was very promising.
REALLY, REALLY GOOD Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson’s latest is also the most Wes Anderson film yet. (Wes doesn’t quite see it that way, but people are bombarding him with the idea.) In much the way that Rushmore really focuses on its young lead and lets the adult be in service of his story, Moonrise accentuates this idea and with two kids in the center, has a cast of very strong adult supporting actors/characters who add color and insight, but never overwhelm the central story. The cast is uniformly brilliant and the Anderson inventions, like Edward Norton’s daily walk-n-talk through his Boy Scout camp, are as unreal as ever, but don’t feel as forced as they sometimes do. They really inform the rest of the characterization. If you enjoy Wes Anderson, this is an absolute must-see.
Killing Them Softly – I was a fan of Andrew Dominik’s Chopper and not so much of his beautiful but stilted The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward England Dan & John Ford Coley. With his latest film, he finds a sweet spot right in between his two earlier features, mixing style – but not so much style that it eats the story – and rough-hewn wisdom in a parade of memorable characters, dialogue, and a good story well told. The most controversial thing about the film, so far, is the inclusion of a lot of television news coverage of the 2008 banking crisis, as well as the less overt subtext of rebuilding New Orleans (where it’s set) post-Katrina. The notion is that the criminals in the film are not that different – perhaps more honorable – than the criminals in Washington and Wall Street. I though this was done in such a clear, straight-forward way that it works well. It’s another layer in a really good movie, which I expect to be quoted in future the way Donnie Brasco and Goodfellas are. This, too, is self-consciously handled in the film, with Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini amongst other mob-movie-associated actors. And Brad Pitt gives my favorite performance of his career. The balance of character role and movie star role is pitch perfect. This film has grown on me from the minute the lights went up.
Despues de Lucia (aka After Lucia) – Bullying was a hot topic this year, though talking to Michel Franco (writer and director) about his process for the film, the topic is not where he started, but where it naturally went. I haven’t seen a film about a painful subject involving teens that was this good or hurt this much since Tim Roth’s great The War Zone. This story of a father and daughter trying to overcome some kind of setback (avoiding spoilers), turns into a story about this young teen’s experience with a new school, where fast friends turn equally quickly into brutal, cruel enemies. What’s truly remarkable is that Franco pushes the story right to the edge of credulity, but never crosses. And the closer he gets, the more painful to know that this is an extreme tale, but not an unlikely one. Tessa Ia as The Girl is truly remarkable. This is a film that could not have been made in America, as Franco – who worked with Ia and her actress mother before – managed to get a group of teenagers to work with him without a lot of parental oversight, in spite of being “underage.” What do they say? Old enough to fight a war, old enough to…
Jagten (aka The Hunt) – For me, the best film of the Dogma 95 experiment/promotion was The Celebration, directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Since then, he has made a number of films that got indifferent distribution in the US and failed to live up to that remarkable achievement. Well, Jagten is pretty damned close. The story is not unfamiliar. A middle-aged divorcee works as a kindergarten teacher. He has a circle of close male friends, a new girlfriend, and a teen son from his failed marriage that he dotes on. And then, one of the kids at the school, says that he showed her his penis. That’s when the hunt begins. Panic, paranoia, good intentions, deflection, and a situation where every response, whether subtle or extreme, is used to prove a predetermined idea in the minds of others. The film is about as good as you can get on a subject like this. It reminds me of the old studio noirs, though much more modernly edgy, where you knew the field by knowing the actors, and were never quite sure whether the directors you expect from a film like this would end up going as anticipated. A strong story incredibly well told.
REALLY GOOD No – For me, this film has become dangerously overrated by critics. It’s a very solid piece, reminiscent of the HBO political films. It’s shot in the style of 80’s Chilean television, real footage mixed with what was produced for the film, and covers the 1988 Chilean election that finally knocked Augusto Pinochet out of power. Gael Garcia Bernal is the young ad exec who takes on the “No” campaign. (The advertising for the election, Yes vs No, was 30 minutes a night for each on national television for one month. Boy, that sounds good in this year of the first multi-billion Presidential campaign.) The film is basic “hero’s journey” stuff. It’s got lovely comic moments and plenty of drama, as the danger of going against the Pinochet government is never far from home. Strong movie.
Anton Corbijn Inside Out (market only) – I love smart insider docs and this one is a fairly intimate portrait of one of our most interesting visual artists. Apparently made just before Corbijn shot The American (one of my underappreciated beloveds), the film gets into his photographic work, his video efforts, and his two feature films. We also get a glimpse of him and his family, including a look back at his very influential father.
GOOD, WITH RESERVATIONS
This is the toughest category for me. I like most of these films and I see clear value for audiences in every one of them. But I have reservations. In a media world that leans to black & white, this feels like I am smacking these films. I am not.
Reality – Matteo Garrone is at the start of a long, productive film-making career. His tastes are eclectic and so are his movies. His new film is, really, not like Gommorah, which made him an instant arthouse icon in the US. This film is more like Visconti by way of Sturges. No… it’s not a match for the best work of either director. But after you take a breath and get over all that it is not, it is a fascinating, funny, smart look at how closely people can straddle the line between real-life and reality tv. It’s not just about reality television at all. It’s mostly about the desire to be something other than what you are. The central character, Luciano, is a good man, a hard worker, and a bit of a show-off. Everyone tells him he should be more than he is. And as the real possibility of being part of Big Brother Italy – which seems to be more like being cast on Jersey Shore than on Big Brother, in terms of being a life changer – becomes closer, Luciano allows himself to dream… and starts to lose his mind. It’s not Network. It’s not Meet John Doe. But it’s really quite good, in its own space.
Paradise – Ulrich Seidl is not a shy filmmaker. And a movie whose dominant images are naked 50ish overweight German women and the penises of tall, young pitch-black African men is as bracing as it sounds. But Seidl, by making these images ubiquitous, forces the audience to get used to these not-unusual human bodies and, eventually, allows us to see past the imagery. Seidl, at that point, has even greater nerve, taking us into a world that very, very few films dare, but which represents a significant chunk of the world’s populace. None of it is conventional. But for me, the journey was rewarding, if exhausting.
Lawless – I am a big John Hillcoat fan. (By the way… why hasn’t someone picked up US Home Ent rights to Ghosts… of the Civil Dead?) But I wish he had done, as he has in the past, perfect casting on this film. My complaints are minor for the most part. I’d look at thinning out the 2nd act a little, as the film repeats some themes, almost as though it’s trying to avoid rushing into the memorable, but somewhat conventionally genre third act. But my big problem is at the center of the film. Shia LaBeouf, whose work I generally like, is just out of his depth here are as the weak brother of three, who grows up in a hurry in the course of this story. Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke are, in the tradition of Hillcoat’s films, epic. And in the real story, third brother was physically smaller and not as imposing. I get that. But the character – also the narrator – controls the story and his coming of age is the center of the movie. Was Joseph Gordon-Levitt the better answer? Andrew Garfield (perhaps to tall)? Has Jamie Bell aged out? Or did Shia get the money deal closed? Anyway, there is a lot of great stuff in here, including a restrained Gary Oldman and a vamp-y Guy Pearce. It reminds me a little of Matthew McConaughey, who is having a GREAT year in movies, as the religious intellectual in Contact. These kinds of miscasts can really hurt some great material.
(MORE TO COME)
The We and The I (market only)
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The Legend of Love & Sincerity (aka Ai to makoto)
PAINFULLY WELL INTENDED
Baad El Mawakeaa (aka After The Battle)
Depa Dealuri (aka Beyond The Hills)
(Note: This post was the victim of a software malfunction that disappeared hours of work. Having not suffered a computer glitch like that in years, I find myself in retro-shock and I just can’t rebuild quite yet. But I wanted to at least get the framework on the record before anymore awards announcements. My apologies, both for the lack of a full piece and the simplicity of these headers, which were fleshed out in individual graphs for each before the “accident.” I unreservedly recommend all the films in the top 3 categories. Hopefully, I will rewrite it all by the end of the holiday weekend.)
My experience of Cannes 2012 was unsurprising. The films in competition were either very good or very well crafted but missing the mark. And for the the record, you will find support for the films I didn’t care for and plenty of slaps against the films I embraced, with only Amour really emerging unscathed.
The most significant thing of note was how whiny the media gets in the South of France. Mon Dieu! Cannes is, I found, the easiest festival I have ever had to navigate aside from Telluride. I was turned away from one screening in a week of screenings… and that was a market screening that was not particularly significant to me and was full of potential buyers. But the coffee, the badge colors, the remarkable gentle – in my experience – staff… even the frickin’ weather. Did I miss something or weren’t we there to see the inside of movie theaters, not sit on the beach?
Yes, it’s very expensive. And I was shocked… actually shocked… to hear the budgets that some people had for their festival. I guess if I was a solo person and hadn’t felt compelled to sleep so close to the action and hadn’t brought a second checked bag of gear, etc, etc, I could have cut my budget in half. But if you’re coming from L.A. and manage to do a week at Cannes for under $5000, God bless you. Color me impressed.
The staff/guards are a bit stiff. But basically, if you are going where you are being asked to go and not trying to shove your way into where you aren’t being asked to go, I found them nothing but polite and helpful. It wasn’t so helpful to have the Croisette locked down for blocks, so that if your point of approach is from the Palais side, you have to walk blocks in order to turn around into the funnel and go through a narrow point of entry. But that was really only for evening screenings in the big house. And the streets are insanely crowded, so getting around in a hurry can be brutal. But hardly impossible.
I was given a Rose badge, no pastille. I didn’t run into a single occurrence where the pastilles seemed to be separated, though there were plenty of very funny conversations about people, in the past, who were desperate for that pastille… so it must have mattered more at some point. But I had a functional, useful mailbox. (It would have been better if they put the daily market schedule into the box as well. Once I figured things out, I picked on up each morning in front of the market theater on the way to the Palais.) Apparently, Blue and Yellow badges feel screwed. And perhaps they are, at least in terms of popular morning screenings. But there are so many screenings of the competition movies, access can be had.. just not at the speed of Twitter.
The movie viewing experience at the festival is as good as anywhere I have ever experienced. The English subtitles are done expertly, even if they often seemed overly simplistic. (As a big colloquialist, the small notes and tiny repetitions mean a LOT to me.) And even from the balcony, which my tardiness left me in a few times, the site lines were fine. Not all the seats are made for people over 5′ 9″, but few theaters are built with that in mind. (I love the EbertFest experience, but those seats in the Virginia… oy.)
The biggest shock in Cannes for me was the lack of great food and serious French cooking. And then one remembers that we’re at a seaside resort and that the not-inexpensive menu of pizza, pasta, and shrimp (with occasional and iffy homages to beef) serves that demand. I’m sure that just blocks away or not at the most expensive hotels, there is plenty of “real” French cooking available and probably some really interesting chefs. That said, the bread and cheese were abundant and magnificent.
And yeah… the whining.
Everything I thought about Cannes was pretty much affirmed in this trip. What I didn’t really understand about Cannes was how the central festival combined with the market, which is both very smart and very viable. I now understand some of the efforts to combine AFI Fest and AFM into one big event. (I also understand that there are also massive problems with the details of that notion here in Los Angeles.) Sundance would be incredibly well-served by this kind of mechanism, though their ongoing problem is not enough screens, either big or small. Toronto has never really tried to be a sales festival, so even though the city of Toronto could support an event like this, that hasn’t been the focus.
Anyway, it’s always nice to see films before there are a bunch of opinions floating out there. I was really struck by how much the film critics in attendance felt compelled to define their opinion early and intensely… which more often than not led to really crap criticism. No festival really demands more time and thought about the movies on display and I have never seen one where there is less… at least in the moment. Perhaps it’s a phenomenon of the internet era… or the number of people who call themselves critics but who never really think past their personal taste of the moment… or the expense of the trip and the pressure to produce from editors. But reading the first wave out of Cannes has always, as perceived from months later, been a rather poor way of judging a movie. And in the middle of it… oy.
And now, my ramblings…
INSTANT CLASSICS Amour – Micheal Haneke strips down to a deceptively easy-seeming piece, mostly played in one apartment, quiet and thoughtful. But the transformation of a year in the death of one member of a long-time couple into an experience of cinema is another magic act by Haneke, who seems to just get better and better as he gets older. The film reminds me of songs like Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” which must be specific, but feels so universal and truthful. Every story of a loved one hitting that wall… that moment where it changes profoundly and the best of life is unavoidably in the past… is different. Haneke makes very specific choices in telling his tale. He doesn’t reach for the universal. But in being so detailed, in making the characters so rich and real, he finds it. A truly remarkable film that will resonate forever.
Rust & Bone – Jacques Audiard is a master showman. His work has always been provocative and sophisticated, both as a writer and director. Here, he takes multiple genre notions, turns them inside out, and blends. Anyone who tells you that they knew the turns coming in Marion Cotillard’s character is lying (if not to you, then to themselves). Her character alone embodies 4 different genre stereotypes slammed together in a way that only real life tends to do… human contradictions. Matthias Schoenaerts, who broke out in American arthouse cinema just last year in Bullhead, is challenged again to embody and outstrip basic notions of the masculine stereotype. The film plays as an angry, intellectual response to last year’s audience-pleasing French mega-hit (now in the U.S.), The Intouchables, working through some of the same themes. But it is so much more than that. And at the same time, it will please a lot of audiences, though on a different scale than Intouchables. Cotillard will be in serious contention for an Oscar nomination, as will Audiard’s screenplay.
It may be #1, but the opening for Men in Black III is no thriller domestically. It’s on track to do marginally better (or possible marginally worse over 3 days) over the first two MiB films. The story of success for this film was always expected to come from overseas, but this summer, having the second best opening so far this summer is nothing to crow about either. We’ll see how it rolls out.
The Chernobyl Diaries multiple will also be interesting. Have they shot their wad with the geek community or is the any mainstream audience for the film as the weekend progresses? Oren Peli just isn’t a brand. Sorry.
The Avengers will become the fastest domestic film to reach $500 million ever this Sunday. In the ultimate domestic competition with Avatar, it’s worth noting that when Avatar passed $500m – also on a 4-day weekend – its weekend gross was about 35% higher than Avengers will be this weekend. So make of that what you will.
Very strong bi-coastal start for Moonrise Kingdom. If it holds up, it will be the 7th ever $165,000+ per-screen opening.
THESE THINGS SIMPLY DO NOT MATTER… NO MATTER HOW MUCH THE MEDIA HARPS ON THEM Outliers – The vast majority of media stories about the movie business focus on outliers, not the industry as a whole. Those outliers, good and bad, have never been a good representation of the health of the industry.
Tickets Sold – A recently popularized stat, there are few things more irrelevant, except if you are analyzing the exhibition business. I believe a healthy exhibition business matters greatly, but for studios, this stat is actually inverted. If you can raise revenues while showing a film to fewer people, that’s a plus, as the potential non-theatrical market is bigger. Obviously, increases in both is the most preferable scenario. But the argument that fewer tickets sold is a problem does not take into account that product is being exploited by the same distributors in non-theatrical markets. The bottom line matters. How a film gets there does not matter much to the investors in films.
Weekend-vs-Weekend Annual Comparisons – Simply silly on the face of them… which is about as deeply as most reporters think about this. There are at least a dozen significant variables that change from year to year and make these comparisons specious, aside from being a starting point for analysis, not analysis on its own.
Domestic Gross Only – For some, like Adam Sandler, the domestic number is still king… though even he has made significant inroads into better international grosses in the last few years, scoring three $100m international grossers since 2008. But when comparing him to others, intentional matters. And when looking at movies, foreign is now more important than domestic in a majority of studio releases. Even this summer, with Thor as the outlier with 60% international, The Avengers will be the #2 Marvel-produced Marvel title in international percentage ever, with somewhere between 55% and 60% coming from international when all is said and done, delivering more than 2.5x the previous top M-p-M-t’s international (Iron Man 2). The international improvement alone represents almost a third of the total worldwide box office for this film.
Weekend Box Office Rank – Pure marketing bullshit. It can mean something, but only because of the other contexts in which the success is reflected. The most profitable movie of Summer 2008 was Mamma Mia!, not The Dark Knight… and it opened to $27.8m and never was #1 in any weekend. At this point, I believe this stat does more damage to movies not being hyped as #1 than it does help films that are already winning a weekend or weekends.
Studio Market Share – An oldie, but a goodie. Completely meaningless. How are the movies funded? Is the studio just distributing or is it making money on the production side? Or is it doing bug numbers distributing films that are losing money? And what about international?
Social Media On Opening Weekend – There is, simply, no consistent information even suggesting that what is huge in Social Media converts to tickets sold. Moreover, there is no consistent data that shows any correlation between Saturday grosses and Social Media. The same foolishness has been attached to cell phones, text messaging, MySpace, and now Twitter. Going to the movies has a different kind of call to action than Social Media. This is not to say that word of mouth doesn’t matter and that much of it is now via Social Media. But when something like this becomes hip to cite, I look to consistency, not experiential hype.
AND TO A LESSER DEGREE… Theatrical Gross Without Context – A $200 million production in 2012 that grosses $400 million worldwide is likely to lose money. (Not so much in 2007.) A $30 million production that grosses $80m domestic is likely to make good money. It’s that simple and that complex. There are broad equations we can use to guess at profitability, though no journalist has all the details needed and sometimes we can get closer than other times floating on the details we do have available to us. But it’s all about context.
Quality – I have always said that opening weekend has nothing to do with quality. This is a slight overstatement. But only in outlying situations. Much as we all like to believe that quality counts, the truth is that in most situations, the opening week pretty clearly defines the box office grosses to come. I’d say that 10% or so of films break that cycle, up or down.
Awards – They can matter for indies and events, like The Oscars, can be used effectively in strategizing release choices. But in and of themselves, not very important.
People Over 35 – Sorry. I am in this category too. And we can make some films hits and very profitable. But in a good year, that’s 10% of the domestic market. (I am neither an expert in local international markets nor on the revenues from local films in each market, so breaking my own rules, I can’t include non-major-studio international in this issue.) The theatrical movie business is driven by the under-35s… even if they are spending money we gave them in allowance. (a joke.) But as important as we are to ourselves and as much as we love movies, we don’t show up often enough and in big enough numbers to be a primary focus of major studios. We are a niche.
I’ve been in France for the last 10 days and while I was gone, the news flashes around the media business piled up… all of which continue to point to what I consider the biggest problem for the media business as it continues to transition to the future. No one seems to know what their business actually is anymore.
Facebook’s IPO was the biggest story. Clumsily handled, the offering seems to have served as a wake-up call for… well… everyone. Facebook is an amazing story and still offers lots of potential success, but the valuation on the company seems to confuse it for a Growth Business, instead of what it is, a Utility company.
As anyone who’s played Monopoly before knows, a Utility can be a very good business indeed. But when you run Utilities as though they were Growth Businesses – chasing after quarterly profit and revenue growth and suffering in the market when that’s not delivered – you end up with Enron.
Or in a case like Facebook, where there is not as much at stake, financially or as a nation, you end up with a company puffed up by media hype then being torn down by the very same media, which in its own arrogance feels – irrationally, like a women who sleeps with a married man and then is shocked to find he is sleeping with yet another woman – betrayed.
Or you get an AOL, which materially damages a realistically bigger company (Time-Warner), then subsists as an individual entity in great part by taking advantage of customers who aren’t aware that they are still being charged for free services. This has been a revenue stream of over $200 million a year for the six years since AOL stopped charging for having an AOL e-mail address or Instant Messaging services or any content, etc. That’s just under 10% of annual revenues for the company, down from about 15% in 2008.
This phenomenon also occurs at companies like Netflix, which one MCN staffer with a credit card continues to pay $25.39 a month for, while I can find no pricing option currently available for over 16 bucks. How many other subscribers are paying more than they need to pay simply because the credit card is on file? We also have one LA Times subscription, now $4 a week for the most complete delivery/online option, for $6 a week.
Yes, I have some obligation as the consumer to keep a vigilant eye on my spending. And yes, there are special prices offered in all kinds of subscription situations to draw new customers. But when these companies make fundamental changes to their pricing structures, yet continue to take revenue from their most loyal, reliable customers, it seems especially wrong. But the bottom line is more important than the consumer experience now. Churn is expected and this gouging is a considered, analyzed, intentional revenue producer. Besides being somewhat dishonest, this also creates another bubble inside of companies that can pop at any time when latent spenders are suddenly activated. That, in my opinion, is more of the problem with Netflix in the last year than pricing. And once you wake your loyal base of customers to a reconsideration of the product, everything goes into play… which is why Netflix has spend the last 3 quarters trying to lull its subscribers back to sleep.
Of course, one of the other major stories in the last few weeks is DISH Network, whose new commercial skipping feature has been and announced and aggressively challenged in recent weeks, led by the broadcast networks. Also in the courts is Barry Diller’s Aereo, which has made a calculated gamble on the US judiciary still being conservative (aka pro-business, anti-consumer) enough to allow his new company to steal broadcast signals and to stream them at no cost to his venture.
These are two businesses that are pissing off the networks and are presenting themselves as Disrupters, as though disrupting itself was worthwhile. Of course, what is interesting is that the two companies are going in completely different directions.
DISH is an existing, successful business. With 14 million subscribers, they have more customers than any cable provider other than Comcast… pretty much equal to all the other cable providers combined, including Time-Warner. But they have remained perpetually behind DirecTV, which has about 20 million subscribers.
The offering of The Hopper, which automatically skips commercials via the DVR, is about breaking the glass ceiling that DISH has been sitting behind for years now. DirecTV has the NFL Sunday Ticket (see sidebar) and after acquiring Tivo, is about to roll out a new group of more complex DVR products. So in response, DISH is offering this “disrupter.”
Of course, The Hopper is just one more form of pushback against the most significant media disruption of this decade, which is changing the media playing field for the future… the end of free television. And when I say “free television,” I mean the idea that it is free at any step of the process.
Broadcast networks, which aired programming for free from the beginning of television, have shifted from the last 35 years or so of cable, in which cable providers were required to carry the broadcast nets and full array of local channels, both by the FCC (in the name of the consumer) and as part of their local deals to wire cities to charging those cable/satellite providers for carriage of broadcast signals, using retransmission consent. In other words, the game has turned upside down, in favor of the networks.
Both the Fox TV network and the entire Turner empire (now long part of Time-Warner), amongst others, were built on the idea of offering content of so much value that it demanded a cable slot. For WGN and TBS, it was gaining access to cities other than the independent local channels they were broadcast on. For Fox, it was building a network of independent stations that led to many different kinds of growth with the success of the network.
TBS and WGN became “superstations” by using the leverage of local stations that had baseball broadcast rights to the Braves and Cubs. In an era where not all teams had every game on TV and local cable was feeling its way around, these two stations offered access to live national sports at no cost. Fox’s big move was buying into the NFL as a loss leader. Markets that Fox had a hard time cracking cracked. And small stations, often UHF, that were the Fox affiliates had to fight to keep the fledgling network.
Turner would go on to use pro wrestling and then the NBA to build TBS and then TNT. That’s why, even as TBS and TNT both know drama and comedy, they still know the NBA, which guarantees them cable and satellite placement.
The reason why TBS and TNT had to learn drama and comedy – aka original programming – is the growth of home entertainment, starting with VHS and accelerating with the DVD. The value of showing movies on a cable net has decreased in a big way in the last 15 years. The broadcast networks have gotten out of that business entirely, leaving “broadcast premieres” to TNT, TBS, FX, Disney Channel, and a few others. Even cable nets like Home Box Office, Showtime, and USA have turned into original programming outlets, with movies as a secondary content source. HBO and Showtime have both added an array of added channels that are loaded with feature films… more than “added value,” but not the subscription driver the way they used to be.
This is why another major “Disrupter,” Netflix, seems to feel comfortable moving towards the current HBO model. They would love to have a cable/satellite presence as well, even though it’s not clear that they have the rights to show any of their programming through a medium other than streaming. In fact, all of their major studio deals in the past were with cable/satellite channels with streaming rights. Currently, their only ongoing major studio deal is via EPIX, which is a still-struggling cable/satellite net, and includes Paramount amongst its owners. Viacom and network co-owner Lionsgate buying Netflix would make perfect sense for both sides about now, though it is only the Netflix deal that has put EPIX into black ink in these early years. Both companies are trying to leverage Paramount’s remarkable 2011 output to grow their companies right now… as that high-profile content as a product block will mostly run its course by October.
Going in the other direction from DISH is Aereo, the new company from Barry Diller, which seeks to stream local TV programming for $12 a month… without paying anyone for the content. The company must know that it is a con game, as it offers the scam of a “personal antennae,” for each subscriber, claiming that they are simply providing a private service for each private customer. Oy. At a time when cable operators have been forced to start paying broadcast networks and others for retransmission, this company is EVERYONE’s enemy at once. It is flying directly into the face of the central notion of this era… everyone will pay for the right to sell content.
Ironically, the argument that Aereo is a progressive distrupter is ass backwards. It is actually quite an old-fashioned idea. When they use Betamax as a plank of their legal argument, it’s not just because it fits the business model, but because the idea they are trying to take advantage of is just about that ancient (in media terms). Aereo is going back to the start of the cable business, when the networks wanted desperately to be on all the cable networks and cost the cablers nothing. If this technology was available 30 years ago, Aereo might have won in court… because there were no material damages to the content distributors that they are re-broadcasting via the internet. But in 2012, there are clear material damages, as retransmission is now paid for by cablers and satelliters. Even HBO Go and ESPN’s streaming program are, quite specifically, available only to subscribers to cable/satellite companies that have made deals with those companies.
The model has changed forever… and Barry Diller is living back in 1995.
(Coming – Part Two: The Movies – Who Is Paying For What?)
One media company that has exploited customer inertia in the past is DirecTV, which has mastered the art of adding $5 here and $3 there to pad the monthly satellite bill. But their #1 product differentiator, an exclusive on NFL Sunday Ticket, allowing only them to sell already licensed and produced NFL games outside of individual markets from the two major NFL networks, has had some consumer-friendly shaking up in the last few months. They priced the Sunday package at an all-time high of $300 last season with an additional $50 for the ability to stream the games to your mobile devices. So for a 17-week NFL season – and remember, evening, Saturday, and playoff games are nationally televised and not included, and pre-season isn’t offered – that was $17.65 a week for the cheapest package.
Many, like myself, are satisfied with what is offered on local television, though I want to have access to all the games that “my” team plays. So what if they play on national television? What if I miss a week at home? What about their bye week? In my personal case, I ended watching about 9 of my team’s 16 games via Sunday Ticket last year. So for me, it was more like $33 a game. And then you start asking yourself, “I am watching a game that is televised for free in other markets. I am watching all those commercials. And the cost of going to a bar or restaurant with Sunday Ticket to watch the few games I watch at home now is probably, for the first time, cheaper than staying at home.
For me, this was the tipping point. I felt like the price was too high. I felt resentment that I was being asked to pay more to stream to my iPad (especially in light of a full season of MLB.TV costing just over $100, streaming to my TV and all devices.) And I waited to see if the price was being hiked up again.
A few months ago, I looked it up and DirecTV was offering the same $300 deal, but this year, with the streaming included.
And then, a few weeks ago, I saw my first add for a $200 Sunday Ticket package. I figured it might just be for newcomers (like DirecTV giving away NFL Sunday Ticket for free to new subscribers last year). But no, it’s for everyone. $200 is the base… a big reduction and much easier to rationalize. 12 bucks a week. Even if I only see 10 games on it, it’s $20 a game, which I would certainly do as a PPV just to watch my team play. And if you want the streaming and, cleverly, the Red Zone channel, it’s $100 more.
The scaling just got interesting.
The people who watch Red Zone obsessively and who probably stream the most are the people betting and the people playing “rotisseries.” They are invested on a higher level than the average fan. And so the privileges come with a price. And that makes sense. Meanwhile, DirecTV is making the NFL an even more attractive piece of bait, whether versus cable companies or Dish TV or even potential cord cutters. $8.50 a month off the household entertainment budget may not seem like a lot to some people, but it’s enough to add HBO or get Netflix or just to save.
Which is easier, writing or directing a film? Those are two totally different things. Writing is slightly easier because you can do it in bed.
~ Ben Wheatley To The BBC
You can neither make beautiful, great movies without risk as you can make babies without sex. Risk is part of the artistic process. That’s why I like performance, because performance is walking a high wire.
~ Francis Coppola