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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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Review – Doubt, Part One

Reviewing Doubt really requires two different bits of discussion. First, there is the movie and its overall structure, skill level, etc. Then there is the question of what the movie is actually telling the audience… which is a matter of no small controversy.
First things first…
Doubt is an adaptation of the stage play, written by John Patrick Shanley, and here, adapted for the screen and directed by Shanley as well. I saw the film twice as a concession to the producer’s concern about launching prematurely in a last minute fill-in as opening night for Los Angeles’ AFI Fest. And while the two viewings will be more relevant to the second half of this review – the arguments about content – they did change my perspective on the filmmaking as well.
The film stars Meryl Streep in a rather brilliant performance, if too subtle for those who love something a more stage-y. The performance grew on me the second time around as the accent played less of a role and her cautiousness about where the boundaries as a nun became more pronounced for me. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a performance that could not have been any better.
But the truth follows both performances… different actors will deliver different interpretations. I never saw the stage show, but it is easy to imagine Bryan F. O’Byrne as a less rheumy, slightly more International Male: Irish Edition priest. And it is easy to imagine Cherry Jones tearing through the Sister Aloysius part and doing her thing, going both smaller and bigger with the role. But the stage was the stage and the movie is the movie.
The film sets up the proposition of the entire film crisply with an opening sermon about doubt. From the get-go, it is offered that doubt, in spite of the discomfort that it attends it for the individual, is not a weakness, but a much-needed strength. It is the lack of doubt that is truly dangerous. Part of the challenge for the audience – especially the first time around – is to remember that point… and if you are not inclined to agree, then to challenge yourself to learn the truth in its wisdom.
The second big sermon is about gossip and how it is irretrievable once let loose in the world. This too seems to me to be an irrefutable part of Shanley’s dramatic lesson plan.
Story structure becomes clearer, regardless of what you feel about the philosophies espoused, on multiple viewings. Shanley has a few subtextual tricks up his sleeve, which may or may not be more pronounced by his choices as a director. For instance, there are, it seems to me, parallel children at the school to both of the main characters. There is also the opportunity to sow seeds of doubt with a glance or an edit that allow audience members to imprint some of their own ideas on the story.
The weakest element in the writing is the third character in the central triangle, Sister James, here played by Amy Adams. The real life Sister James has a dedication at the end of the movie, so I assume that one of her personal stories was the inspiration for the whole thing. In any case, she is The Innocent in this battle of wills and in her lack of definition, in the ambiguity of her feelings about the truth, lies a big dramatic weakness… although ambiguity, I am told, is just what Shanley was after. Still, it’s not whether she really knows or comes down 100% firmly on one side that I see as trouble. The problem is that wherever she lands – and I’ll let you see the movie rather than argue hew position here – the motivations for her choices to feel this way or that are not half as clear as what drives the two leads. Even not knowing how she feels is a dramatic choice that could have been better exploited. As a result, she often seems a tool of the dramatist more than a central character in this drama.
The strongest secondary character is Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy who may or may not be a victim at school… but who lives his whole life in dangerous territory and seems to be destined to continue to do so for years to come. Unlike Sister Aloysius and father Flynn, she cannot afford the indulgence of doubt or certainty. She lives outside the bubble of the church (or any relatively cushy existence), where practicality overwhelms severe moral judgment, of herself or others.
The power in this piece of drama, in whatever medium, is its ambiguity and the demand made of the audience not just to think, but to really explore. The weakness is right there in Mrs. Muller, though more so in Sister James. These characters, even more so in the literal light of film than on the stage, are real breathing characters, not just the representation of abstract ideas. Aside from the children, they are practically the only characters with more than 5 lines of dialogue or 2 minutes of screen time in the film. Shanley has decided, fairly enough, that children have nothing on significance to say on morality… they are simply acting instinctually or being acted upon. But the gaping hole filled by the silence of Mrs. Muller, who turns up again late in the picture, and the inability to focus of Sister James seem more unfinished than simply human. The great “missing” scene is between Mrs. Muller and Father Flynn. But the real key is Sister James. While I feel that Sister Aloysius has a breakthrough, of sorts, in the film, Sister James does not. She is, simply, soiled. And that was not quite enough in the light of the projector’s bulb.

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Review – Doubt, Part Two – SPOILERS

The great question of Doubt is, “Did he… or didn’t he?”
My thoughts… ALL SPOILER… after the jump…

Read the full article »

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Team Rudin's Ventriloquist Act

God… I hate feeling like I have no choice but to address Crazy Nikki. But here we are… Nikki is the gossip columnist of the moment and here she goes, taking her source’s side, 100%, and as always, going so far off the deep end that she is exposing the source to ridicule for not being able to control their pet monkey.
Today, it is about The Reader.
I don’t know if it’s 42 West or Rudin’s office itself that is publishing its list of grievances in the guise of Nikki “reporting” the story (aka “opening her e-mail”), but when Nikki is “in possession of plaintive emails from Daldry, and angry letters from entertainment law pitbulls,” you know that she is passing along something that someone else is selling.
(Isn’t it ironic that on the same day she is “reporting” this and attacking Harvey, she continues to suck up to her bosses at Paramount, who have done no wrong by her assessment, in years?)
The tricky part is that all of this is interesting. Nikki, pretending to be unbiased, does deliver the lunchtime rage of one very self-interested side of the story. It’s not journalism. It’s gossip, as all of this inside baseball tends to be. But there is a value to it.
It occurs to me that all of media, online and off, is becoming a place where you not only have to read what is printed, but you have to very seriously consider where the information is really coming from and what the motives of both the sources and the outlets involved are. God knows, this is a big part of the media story this election cycle.
Anyway…
Take a look at Nikki’s thing.
I’ll offer a couple of notes here…
1) “The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s delivery date of November 7th” doesn’t exist. Movies are screened for the HFPA well after November 7 every year. I think she is referring to the joke known as The NBR.
2) Nikki parroting the dismissal that “Hollywood trades were also suckered by Weinstein’s other spin that Rudin… didn’t want his actors or his pictures competing against themselves. But that’s a ridiculous argument,” is, in fact, ridiculous.
This is spin from the Rudin camp, which would like people to believe that they are not concerned that The Reader will pull focus from Revolutionary Road. However, it is 100% true that they are ALL worried that The Reader will pull focus from Rev Road. That has been the story for months now. It does not mean that Rudin or anyone else thinks that The Reader itself is a behemoth that will crush Rev Road’s chances. But it muddies the water… and not just the public view of it.
First, let’s just look at the calendar. Scott Rudin seems to have at least 2 “Oscar movies” every year. But he doesn’t let his BP candidates release on top of one another. Last year, it was No Country For Old Men in early November and There Will Be Blood at Christmas. Second tier chasers The Darjeeling Limited and Margot at the Wedding were, respectively, launched in September and dumped (never more than 80 screens) in November. The year before, it was The Queen vs Notes on a Scandal… September and December.
No one wants to fight themselves head on, at the box office or in awards season. Had the plan been to release The Reader in December, Rudin would have surely pushed to have Sam Mendes – who is only still adjusting Rev Road because he started shooting This Must Be The Place in April, a date by which he had expected to be finished on Rev Road – to have Rev Road ready for an October release. It’s not exactly brain surgery. The only self-competing experience that comes close to this for Rudin was The Royal Tenenbaums and Iris, opening on the same day in 2001… but Royal went wider quickly and Iris was really a qualifiing run, not cracking 40 screens until March of 2002.
The other Rev Road/Reader release problem is that it represents, from the day Rudin & Weinstein teamed, a combination of behind the scenes marketing and publicity talent that is conflicted, both in terms of the immediate issue of release, as well as the long relationships in town. Rudin’s point people are at 42 West, a company driven greatly by people who used to work for Harvey… and who carry the scars of that history. They did a lot of great things together. But the end was bitter. Moreover, Harvey’s ongoing team is spread around town, as he didn’t have a lot to push this season, so they have other obligations, some exclusively. On top of that is the Kate Winslet problem.
Doubt really is on a different track altogether. Miramax’s relationship and enormous awards success working with 42 West is every bit as well established as the relationship with Rudin, who also produced this movie. There is a built-in conflict there. But unlike the Paramount Vantage situation, there is a lot less cross-over between the film’s teams.
3) ”Instead, this conflict has everything to do with Weinstein and little to do with Rudin.”
Yes. Wrote that a week ago. Not news.
But that doesn’t mean that Rudin & Co are now trying to bury Harvey in response to the choice to do exactly what Rudin did not want him to do.
And if you believe that it was about Daldry’s post schedule, I have some shares in Lehman Bros to sell you.
4) “Insiders insist to me that Harvey’s desperation to release The Reader this year is because of The Weinstein Co’s money woes. One of my sources heard Harvey say that if he can’t afford to hold The Reader and, if he can’t get it out this Christmas, then he’ll dump it in February.”
Thanks for reading The Hot Blog, Nikki.
5) ”Yet puzzled insiders tell me three other film companies want to buy the pic and release it properly in 2009.”
Uh… bullshit.
Three other companies want to buy the nearly-complete picture without having seen it?
More like Scott Rudin has gotten Dan Battsek and/or Peter Rice and/or Chris McGurk to say that they are interested in floating the budget and interest costs to have what seems to be an interesting film for next year’s Oscar race. Rice, in particular, is about to make a killing on WB dumping Slumdog Millionaire into his lap at a deep discount after he passed on making the film because he felt the budget was too high. Cleaning up messes can be a winning position for studios who have the deep pockets to do it. But it’s not like there’s a bidding war out there for The Reader.
And when has Harvey Weinstein ever sold a movie that he liked, aside from the movies that Disney wouldn’t releasse?
I mean, this is a lame one to throw out there.
6) “Insiders have told me that Rudin and Daldry and Winslet were all threatening The Weinstein Co not to support the film. That would have been a TKO for Harvey’s Academy Award dreams.”
Thanks again for reading, Nikki.
The bottom line here is that Harvey Weinstein got done what he needed to get done. He couldn’t afford to take the loss by dumping the movie – which February would have been – and he can’t afford to pay interest for another year. So he’s throwing a quarter of his additional costs of waiting onto the fire to get the post finished without a war.
He still won’t have Winslet working for his movie. He is still fighting off not only Rev Road, but Ed Zwick’s Defiance as well (another Par Vantage release).
Scott Rudin, a very sharp cookie, is using Nikki to bludgeon Harvey… he’s hoping, to movie death. Unfortunately, Nikki doesn’t know the beat well enough to know when she’s overshooting reality.
And truth told, not that many others do either. But I can tell you… everyone who knows the players and the situation do know. And starting with the crazy “Rudin Wins” headline yesterday, they knew someone had fallen down the rabbit hole.
Go ask Nikki… when she was just small.

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TIFF Review – Che'

My first reaction to Steven Soderbergh’s Che’ was absolute shock at the idiocy and arrogance of it all… that is to say, the idiocy and the arrogance of the response from Cannes.
This is one reason why I hate seeing a movie “after the fact.” It is a real challenge to all critics – and any one of them that claims it is not is more self-delusional than most and should probably be more distrusted – to not react to the criticism of others, whether to embrace it or to reject it, when one sees a film that gets the kind on biting response that Che’ got in Cannes.
For me, it was Friday morning, 9am, anticipating 4 hours and 22 minutes of film, without credits. Exhausted, but as part of an excited full house at the Ryerson screening room. No food allowed… no coffee… oy.
But the proof is in the work. I think that prior reactions were driven by traditions, expectations, and the combination of an indulgent effort by Soderbergh with The Good German, preceded by the more interesting, but also relentlessly arthouse Bubble and followed by the overtly commercial effort of Ocean’s 13. And before that… Ocean’s 12 and Solaris. Before that? Full Frontal and Ocean’s 11. In other words, it’s been eight years since Traffic blew (many) critics away and then gathered up some of the stragglers who finally caught up with the brilliance in the film after it started having awards thrown at it. (Recall the screaming that Traffic was impossibly overlong at 2:27?)
Really, critics haven’t had the great romance with Soderbergh since The Limey.
But critics, as we so often prove, are often not arbiters of art, but members of a certain kind of frat where art is defined by often great, but somewhat audience-unfriendly films like Momma’s Man or Man On Wire. Everything else, like an unattractive woman in a frat house, is just not good enough. (Except, of course, until the night gets late and the beer goggles go on, the drunk of these critics often created by a story or two about critics being out of touch.)
Soderbergh, for me, is one of the key modern figures of cheap critical derision. He isn’t Kubrick, but he does suffer similar slings and arrows. The Coen Bros. get the same treatment in fits and starts. He has always done anti-commercial work in between more commercial efforts. His response to breaking through commercially with Sex, Likes & Videotape was Kafka for God’s f-ing sakes. He then made King of The Hill, which current day Fox Searchlight or Focus would have ridden to a slew of Oscar nominations and more than $40 million at the box office. The often sparkling Gramercy never put it on more than 5 screens at any time. Then it was The Underneath, a movie that clearly presages much of what SS does in The Limey, the Spaulding Gray doc/performance art piece, Gray’s Anatomy, and the wacky, crazy, personal Schizopolis. But most civilians just leap from Sex, Lies to Out of Sight. Critics (mostly) remember the other films… but seem to forget that this is how one of the world’s finest working filmmakers works.
But I guess I digress…
And perhaps it is because the glory of Che’ has a lot to do with what it is, more than anything that is easily encapsulated in a review written after only one viewing. Yes, the two films, two sides of one narrative coin that is bigger than the life and times of the central character, could have been shortened into a speedy 2.5 hours. But yes, the story could well have gone on for 6 hours. It could well have been three movies of 2 hours and 11 minutes each, the third establishing a middle of Guevara’s work, that was neither as overt a success (in that time) as Cuba or the clear failure of Bolivia. Each of these movies could have been longer.
But Che’ is, it seems to me, exactly what Steven Soderbergh wanted it to be.
I almost hate to explain it at all, as the journey of a film like this is a great part of the experience. As usual, I avoid as much detail as possible before seeing and experiencing any movie.
But here is the short version. Part 1, aka The Argentine, is about Ernesto Guevara – still known primarily as a doctor from Argentina – establishing his relationship with Castro and those who will come to take over Cuba. And then… they take over Cuba.
In the process, Soderbergh and co-screenwriter Peter Buchman (who does exist… not a Soderbergh pseudonym like The Great Peter Andrews) don’t seek to do a complete biography of the man. Instead, they write a biopic that has the perspective, subtly, of the subject of the biography. How much time does his family get? About as much as Guevara seems to give it in his mind.
And Soderbergh/Andrews use the camera to distinguish the inner life and the outer life of the man, though the movie is mostly about the inner life.
The movie is, in many ways, a more-intimate-than-possible documentary (thus, a fictionalized narrative). Instead of telling us things in dialogue or setting up dramatic moments that makes ideas obvious, Soderbergh & Co let Guevara and The Castros and the rest show themselves in the way people really show themselves… in small, human, real moments. They also force the audience to keep its awareness of the future events in check… first, what happened… but the future we all know stares us in the face. This is no revisionist history. There really is no effort to define the politics around these men, but simply to allow them to express what they felt they were doing or what they told others they felt they were doing.
There is great effort to work, in both films, with the true experience of the men and women fighting the fight. This is one of the real feats of Soderbergh’s work here. Unlike Hurt Locker, which does a great job of sharply defining the mechanics of the work of bomb defusing teams (which happen to be in Iraq), this detail is about the feel of the human effort, both on the side of the fighters we are watching and the rural people that they are navigating while also fighting national military forces.
The second half of Che’, aka Guerilla, which matches the first film’s 2:11 running time according to the TIFF presenter (4 minutes longer than Variety’s reported running time from Cannes), is about Guevara’s last stand in Bolivia. And the story could and on its own… but that would be to miss the entire point of the effort.
Written by Soderbergh, Buchman, and Benjamin A. van der Veen, the story follows the man now known by everyone as “Che’,” but who constantly seeks to hide his presence, into a Bolivian rebellion. Here, he has no strong partner, as he had in Fidel Castro in Cuba. But Castro turned out to be more interested in the pleasures of governing and being a legend than in the ideals that inspired he and Guevara in the first place. But without an equal, a balance, who keeps his feet on the ground, can Che’ succeed in his aspirations? Will his celebrity be overwhelm the value of his leadership in this situation? Will he understand the big picture strategy necessary to deal with a very different government and their reactions to his efforts?
It is ironic that The Wrestler got so much love at Toronto, given that Guerilla is so similar as a storyline, albeit set in quite different universes. The Wrestler tells the story of a man struggling to survive his past while wanting nothing so much as to wallow in it. Of course, in The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s character is writ small… tiny, really. Ernesto Guevara is as quiet as Rourke’s wrestler, but while Rourke’s character struggles with his tiny fame, Guevara holds many lives in his hand as a result of his… and still, struggles.
For people looking for a snap and slap testament to Che’s greatness or his hypocrisy or anything definitive, this will never quite work. It just isn’t a straight biopic. It has more in common with Malick’s The Thin Red Line and the second half of Kubick’s Full Metal Jacket than any more traditional war epics… there is a bit of Patton, in conceit though not remotely in character, as well. Soderbergh and his collaborators have taken the story of Che’ Guevara to define their ideas much the way Robert Bolt did for Lean, though this film creates intimacy like Bolt created epics (though Lean hired actors who brilliantly undercut the stuffiness of Bolt to make most of their films together a perfect balance). Che’ is Brando to most biopics’ Heston.
The notion that this film is in any way a “patchwork” or “unfinished” is, simply, not to understand the work. That doesn’t mean that I think anyone has to like it in order to be smart. But professionals should be, at least, able to step away from the work enough to comprehend the effort.
The sad truth is, if Che’ had a French or Italian name after “directed by,” it would be hailed as one of the great achievements of the last decade. Not only would the critic snobbery be engaged, but critics who will not do the heavy lifting for Soderbergh would dig into the subtexts of the film with both hands… if only the film had little chance of becoming well known to US moviegoers who might challenge any interpretation.
In the end, I quite liked Che’ and expect I will like it more and more with additional viewings. It is a challenge to today’s quick cutting and narrow idea movies. It is a challenge to anyone who is not prepared to sit down and let a movie wash over them for four hours and twenty-two minutes, without the intermission or the credits. And if that challenge is not for you, please don’t take offense. The choice of the art you want to embrace is, as it must be, with the individual.
My expectation is that Che’ will do a few million dollars in a very limited release… a bit of a small phenomenon as true movie lovers take up Soderbergh’s challenge. Some will love it. Others will be non-plussed, which given the length, will read as negative. I guess some, particularly those who want it to be something else, will hate it. But it is art, in the very best way. And Soderbergh’s achievement as an artist is undeniable.
Before I go, a word about the acting… since I haven’t felt compelled to offer any yet. It is perfect, from start to end. What that doesn’t mean is that it is a big movie shoot ‘em up of scenery chewing. There is almost none in the film. There are some familiar faces. (One face, Fidel Castro’s, has only become familiar to many people with the new season of Weeds on Showtime.)
Benicio del Toro is perfect and quiet and strong. There is never any question of what is happening in his mind, even when he is nearly silent. He is a believer, first and last. He never sees himself as a martyr. He is just doing what he must. He moves forward. The movie doesn’t linger – or spend much time at all – on “details,” like his family, his sex life, and his other banalities.
But that’s not what this movie is.

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TIFF – Day Six Is The Charm

On the day known in the industry as the unofficial end of the Toronto International Film Festival, the festival felt like one of the great ones, if only for the day.
The best Iraq movie so far (closely nipping Nick Broomfield’s Battle For Haditha) and the best new American film at TIFF that I have seen this year is Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker, which really isn’t so much an Iraq War film as it is a war film that happens to be in Iraq. Mark Boal’s screenplay does what so many screenplays dealing with big subjects do not… it narrows the field down to a subject that can be contained by 2 hours, offering full, rich, human emotion on the playing field, which in this case is the Iraq War.
In many ways, Hurt Locker is like a third half of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Bigelow, who does her best career work here, isn’t quite the magician that Kubrick was – and who is? – but she brings her own style to the proceedings and does not, almost surprisingly, ever cross over into excess style. (There is, actually, one exception… in an early explosion, there were, for my tastes, one too many cool slo-mo shots… especially after we learn where the movie is going. I think the operatic style of the images there undermines the lack of same style later in the film. But this is a nitpick.) Along with Boal’s script, Bigelow chooses make the characters say little and to let their choices define them when the hard moments come.
The film uses three acting-celebrity cameos in an interesting way, I think trying to unbalance the audience a bit so we don’t know what to expect. I certainly don’t want to give it away, though I can guess now that a certain movie by a certain director will be referenced in over 75% of reviews when the movie is ultimately released.
Anyway…
The central trio of the film is made up of Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. Bigelow and Boal conspire to make sure that we never know what might happen to any one of the three, from the first time they are in a scene together to the last. The wild man in the trio is Jeremy Renner, who plays his role perfectly. He has so internalized his work as a bomb tech that he has no fear when faced with a situation, no matter how insane being fearless might be. But his sense of honor is equally unshakeable and leads him down some dark alleys.
The only downside to Renner being so real in the role is that not being a movie-star charismatic makes you wonder what the commercial potential is for the film. He’s handsome, but it’s a doughy-faced kind of handsome. He seems fit, but not strikingly tall or cut or lithe. He is what you might expect the real guys who do these jobs to look like. And it would be dead wrong to criticize the movie for not taking the easy way out. But you kinda want everyone to see this one and now and again, the craving for a little stunt casting creeps up on you.
Anthony Mackie, who killed in Half Nelson, is uptight here, an intellectual stuck in a harsh, ugly war zone. He gets is right, much of his dialogue shouted through helmet-to-helmet mics, like poetry or a rock song or Shakespeare, it demands a certain precision and he gets it – and the emotions behind it – just right. My guess is that he is the most likely stand-in for the film’s audience.
Brian Geraghty is the innocent. And he another character who could so easily have gone someplace irritatingly obvious, but does not.
In many ways, the film is of the Michael Mann oeuvre, with half a dozen or so major set pieces that are complex, dramatically compelling, and make you feel like you are experiencing the moment first hand. The drama between the set pieces is not as stylized as Mann’s, but in this case, that raw energy feels dead right.
Hurt Locker is looking for distribution here and while it seems riskier – given the industry’s heightened fear of Iraq-related movies – that The Wrestler at $4 million, the opportunity to buy a movie that you know carries some real impact is undeniable. I also have a strong feeling that the film will actually get better on multiple viewings.
Meanwhile… the rich just get richer.
Fox Searchlight has had a very quiet 2008, but they started to prep to bring just The Secret Lives of Bees here… added Slumdog Millionaire a few weeks ago… and now leave with a third fall film in The Wrestler. All of a sudden, they have a very muscular and busy fall/holiday season to come.
But back to Slumdog Millionaire.
Wow.
Dumping this film… or simply acknowledging that they don’t know how to market it… or don’t get it… will stand for a long time as one of the great embarrassments of Warner Bros’ history.
Just a great movie movie.
The story is basic… classic. Our central character has won big on India’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, in spite of not appearing to have the education to pull it off. He is interrogated as to how he cheated, because they are convinced that he did. And as he explains how he answered each of the questions, his story unfolds… starting with childhood.
And what a tale of survival it is. I don’t want to give away details, but a significant portion of the film is about kids, followed by their teen selves, and then as young adults. The stories of the luck and trouble and joy and horror they go through are so theatrical, yet never veer into storybook fantasy.
It’s an amazing journey into adulthood, almost Wizard of Oz, but you know how they say, truth is odder than fiction. This fiction feels like the oddest of truths. And that is a great tribute to Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle, the writer and director.
Boyle is at his absolute best here. You can go back to Trainspotting and Shallow Grave to see the origins of the skills he brings to bare here, but unlike those, this never feels like a young director trying to show off. There is a rugged self-assurance in creating some amazing images, pushing the editing (via editor Chris Dickens), and mostly, telling the tale in a remarkably efficient and entertaining way.
The casting – you’ll recognize no one but the great Irfan Khan – is spectacular. All three age groups are dead on and completely compelling. The boys fit the evolving story of their personalities. And we hope that Freida Pinto can get over her debilitating ugliness some day.
But mostly, it is a romp through some of the most disturbing terrain on the planet. It is, in many ways, an Indian version of City of God with a lot of Dickens and Dumas to boot. It’s funny. It’s scary. It’s romantic. It’s horrible. It’s violent. And did I mention… it’s very funny.
If this weren’t a film set in India, it would be explosively commercial. But instead, it should just be a well-sold, modest hit for Searchlight, standing up honorably for telling a story that is richer than it absolutely has to be. We are all richer for it.
It’s interesting that it is getting Oscar buzz in Toronto. Perhaps people are deluding themselves because the fest has been so sparse. But perhaps not. I do think for this film to get there, a domestic gross of over $50 million is absolutely mandatory… and I don’t know that $50m is possible. But it should be. So maybe living in hope isn’t so bad. Just as Slumdog Millionaire.

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TIFF Review – Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married is the best Altman movie in 15 years.
Of course, this film is not by Robert Altman, but by Jonathan Demme, one of America’s great filmmakers, of a generation that came up behind the Altmans and others of the early 70s, who made his first high profile film, Melvin and Howard, one decade after Altman’s M*A*S*H*. Twenty-eight years later, Demme pays tribute to Altman with the style of real-life over-talking, silence, and open ends that he has never really emulated before combined with his personal aesthetic of music, wild but loving characters, and unexpected performances that change careers.
The story is simple… kinda. The title character, Rachel, is getting married. But the center of the movie is her sister, Kym, who is coming out of rehab (not crisis, rehab!) to be a part of the celebration. Over the course of one weekend, we will meet the family, discover secrets, and see the foibles of ourselves and people we know, even if the storyline doesn’t fit like a glove. It is part of Demme’s genius that he makes his people – all of his people – relentlessly real and empathetic.
There is a lot of The Celebration, probably the best of all the Dogma films, in Rachel. But Demme pulls back the layer one level deeper, choosing not to throw quite as severe a curve into the story. Rachel never reaches that level of a family deteriorating under the weight of a long held lie. This family’s pain is no secret. It is much more like most families that suffer tragedy along the path of life… everyone knows… everyone hopes it won’t surface… everyone gets caught up in the petty (and not so petty) roles that they play in either ripping off scabs or trying to heal them… family.
So much of what is great in all of Demme’s work is the casting (though I don’t remember a Demme film without Chuck Napier before). Here, it is Anne Hathaway’s show and she doesn’t miss a note. But in tribute to that success, she might have a hard time with Oscar because she is too real… she doesn’t show off for the camera. And when you hear criticism of this film, that will be the center of the complaint. Not the performance, but the lack of “gotcha” movie moments. Every story is different, but this is one of those human stories that feels more real than written (thanks to Jenny Lumet, the screenwriter, and yes, Sidney Lumet’s kid.)
Once you get past Hathaway, you have the emergence of an actress who may be one of our next big stars and the reappearance of an actress who was one of our biggest stars… and then walked away. But wait until you get a load of Debra Winger. She just eats the screen every second the camera lands on her. She’s not hamming it up… she is just plain magnetic. There is, as you might remember, so much going on behind her eyes that as an audience member, you just have to keep an eye on her to see what’s going on. And she too… she has one “big scene,” but it isn’t as big, in the script, as you might expect. You don’t get the 5 minute speech where she tears down the house. What you get is what the character demanded… and that includes a boatload of subtext. She may not end up winning an Oscar for this performance, but you get the feeling that some director with a great script for an adult woman will turn up at her door and talk her into doing the work and winning one. All these years since she has been a fixture in movies and she still has that unmistakable star power.
And Rosemary DeWitt, best known for her work on Mad Men, shows up big here as the opposite number to Hathaway’s reservoir of pain and fear. She’s the one who holds the family together, even when it’s her day. And she hits just the right notes of selflessness and selfishness…. again, from life.
Of course, Demme has his regular parade of irregulars (the regular ones and others). One of the most fascinating casting choices is Sidney, Tunde Adebimpe (who you might remember from Jump Tomorrow). The role of the husband-to-be could be cast in all kinds of ways, but Adebimpe plays it close to the vest, with the clear presence of big ego potential, but very low key… a man who draws people into his world, but also puts out for those close to him when the chips are down. (Many would say the same of Demme.)
Anna Deavere Smith as The Second Wife… Bill Irwin as a father twisted in emotional knots that he fights not to allow to unravel… a new actress named Anisa George as the bitchy best friend… Carol Jean Lewis leading the way as the leading face of Sidney’s impeccably cast family… and comedy-guy Mather Zickel, turning in a smooth performance as The Best Man.
And then there is the music. There is a score, but the film is floating throughout on a cloud of “live” music around the house… serious music, light music, ethnic music, noodling, performance… all kinds of music… infectious music… life in a iPod of the coolest stuff you’ll hear.
By the end of the film, your expectations have been overwhelmed by the world that Demme and all of his collaborators (including Declan Quinn as DP and Ang Lee’s regular cutter, Tim Squyres on the Avid) have created. At the same time, what many people expect to get from a movie these days is not offered. Sorry. But any detractor – and there will surely be some – should take a breath and think about what they were offered here by Lumet, Demme, et al. When is the last time we saw this kind of intimacy in a movie released by a major or a division of a major? It’s what Altman was always reaching for, for better and sometimes worse. It is what Soderbergh beings to his more earnest efforts. It’s what we yearn for at film after film at these festivals… an intimate human truth.
A wedding is where the family is forced/chooses to come together, as adults, with histories, in an attempt to share a loving event. It is a classic dramatic construct. Rachel Getting Married is a classic deconstruction. It is a minor masterpiece. So far, it is the best American movie of the year. And even in this weak movie year, that is saying something.

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Toronto 08 Preview, Pt 2

The 35 other titles I am quite interested in seeing… which makes a total of 59… and a lot of stuff that I will be looking for advice on.
The titles…
American Swing – Another swinging doc… but this time, chronicling the specific ups and downs (and ins and outs) of Plato’s Retreat, a club whose daily existence, I must admit, I still can’t get my brain around.
Beaches of Agnes – Agnes Varda’s autobiodoc. Yeah.
Biggest Chinese Restaurant In the World – A 5000 seat restaurant with 1000 in staff… this has got to be fascinating. (And in China, I guess it’s just “the biggest restaurant in the world.)
Blind Sunflowers – Another Spanish civil War drama, but the cast is compelling enough to get me in the door (Maribel Verdu and Javier Camara).
Dead Girl – Stand By Me meets a naked dead girl that comes back to life. Eeeewwww….
Examined Life – How can this navel gazer skip a doc about Big Time navel gazing?
$5 A Day – Chris Walken goes road tripping again… it must be better than Around The Bend right?
Fear Me Not – Kristian Levring is a talent. The Intended kinda crashed on take-off, but Levring is always reaching for something interesting. Here, he co-writes with Anders Thomas Jensen, who wrote and directed the terrific The Green Butchers, and wrote on terrific films like Mifune, Open Hearts, Brothers, After The Wedding and even The Duchess, which also screens at TIFF.
Food, Inc. – Yeah, Fast Food Nation kinda sucked… hopefully, it will work a lot better as a doc.
Gigantic – I’m taking a flier on this one… not completely sure… but hopeful. Could be a cloying car wreck.
Goodbye Solo – Ramin Bahrani is the young and the building… we have to watch each step and hope for some growth every time. Here, he has another cast of unknowns and a very personal idea.
Happy-Go-Lucky – Mike Leigh in one of his happier efforts. You know it will be compelling and very, very human.
Hunger – The Irish Hunger Strike of 1981. I don’t have a lot of info on the film, but it won the Camera d’Or in Cannes for a work from a first-time director this year. IFC picked it up, but no release date yet.
Hurt Locker – Is this FINALLY the Kathryn Bigalow movie we’ve been waiting for her to make, merging drama and action with al of her skills as a movie visualist? The film is written by Mark Boal, who was the original writing on In The Valley of Elah… a red flag for American studios, which have still not picked up the film.
Is There Anybody There? – John Crowley is among the best international directors whose name is probably not all that familiar to many of you. Intermission and the recently-barely-released Boy A are really good movies. So, give him Michael Caine, Rosemary Harris, and Sylvia Sims, amongst others to populate an old age home and to change the life of a 10 year old boy… and I’m there.
JCVD – You guessed it… Jean-Claude Van Damme IS Jean-Claude Van Damne in a Jean-Claude Van Damne action movie.
Lovely, Still – A romance between Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau… I’m willing to try it. Hopefully, a true charmer. Could be something special.
Lymelife – The amazingly self-promotional Derick Martini is back at TIFF with a follow-up with, again, all kinds of talent involved and a story that sounds a little hackneyed. We’ll see. But even if it isn’t great, expect to hear a lot from journalists dragged to cocktail parties.
Me and Orson Welles – I am intrigued by Richard Linklater making the film… and scared to death of Zac Efron trying to act. On the other hand, Linklater has gotten some of the best career performances out of good looking, not very good actors. Sounds kinda like An Awfully Big Adventure.
Middle of Nowhere – John Stockwell’s stock rises and falls, but you never really know which way any of the films is going to go… so I continue to be happy to give him the shot each time around. This time, it’s pot selling teens and 20somethings. We’ll see…
Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist – Is this Michael Cera/Kat Dennings comedy the Juno of TIFF 08? Sony sure hopes so.
Not Quite Hollywood – A doc about the Aussie genre push of the 70s and 80s and how it influenced then-young Hollywood.
Paris, Not France – I know… but if this doc about the phenom of Paris Hilton has more to say than Ms Hilton herself, it could be truly worth the time.
Real Time – A Slamdance hit, Randy Quaid is the hitman and Jay Baruchel is his target… a real time hour before the fateful moment.
Religulous – Bill Maher and Larry Charles take aim at organized religion in what seems to be an elaborate episode of Penn & Teller’s Showtime series, Bullshit. Hoping it’s great.
Sexykiller – Kind of a perfect double feature with Paris, Not Hilton, this is the story of a fashion model who is also a psychotic killer… but things really get fun when her victims start coming back to life. Hee Hee.
Skin – Anthony Fabian is a UCLA-trained filmmaker doing his first feature, the true story of a dark skinned daughter of white parents in 1955 South Africa. I am a fan of Sophie Okonedo and Sam Neill and Alice Krige as her parents should be interesting.
Sky Crawlers – Oshii anime… sounds truly bizarre and adult… the story of a culture that watches war as a TV sport and the people who fight that war.
Slumdog Millionaire- Didn’t Danny Boyle see Millions? Oh… he MADE Millions. But this one is in India!
Synedoche, NY – Charlie Kaufman at the helm of his own script. The most easily noted piece of inspiration? Casting Emily Watson as Samantha Morton, since so many people can’t really tell them apart. Some big ideas here, but it still comes back to classic Kaufman… why can’t I clear my mind and my heart and allow myself to love? Believe it or not, this one is more complex than any of the other scripts. But if you ignore much of the first act, figuring it out becomes much easier. Follow the metaphors.
Tony Manero – How can you think twice about seeing a Brazilian movie about a guy obsessed with Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero? I mean… it could be horrible and the kitsch value is through the roof?
Uncertainty – From The Deep End writer/directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel, two of the hottest young actors – Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Olivia Thirlby – as a couple that gets pregnant… there are two choices of what to do… and the movie follows them through both possibilities.
Wendy & Lucy – I’m trying really hard to get onto the Kelly Reichardt train… really. People LOVE Old Joy so intensely. I was fine with it, but not bit. Maybe this, slightly bigger film with the ever-watchable Michelle Williams at the center (Lucy is her dog), will be the one.
What Doesn’t Kill You (aka Real Men Cry) – Southie battles with a top notch cast (Ruffalo/Hawke/Peet). The cliché fairies are circling, but let’s hope it is above and beyond.
Witch Hunt – 25 years of false sexual abuse charges, with innocent parents going to jail, make this doc about the tragic situation in Bakersfield, CA a must see.

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Toronto 08 Preview, Pt 1

I am now working my way through the TIFF list… here is the first part of what I am finding that I think might be particularly interesting…
Appaloosa – Ed Harris takes on the western… fingers crossed.
Blindness – Fernando Meirelles took a beating in Cannes… but I trust him more than I trust “them.”
The Brothers Bloom – Rian Johnson’s first, Brick, was a cult phenom… and little seen by mainstream movie lovers. Here, he has indie beloved Ruffalo and Brody as brothers/con artists, working Rachel Weisz. Fingers crossed.
Burn After Reading – A Coen Bros comedy. ‘Nuff said.
Burning Plain – The soul of the dramas with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo Arriaga gets behind the camera for the first time with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger on board in lustful, ripe roles. The only question is whether it will entertain as much as it punches you in the face.
Che’ – I can’t wait to see it. Again, I trust few critics, especially when impatience was the leading theme of most slams. Maybe it really does need to be cut… maybe not. We’ll see.
Disgrace – A remarkably quiet production, given that it adapts a very popular J.M. Coetzee book and stars John Malkovich as the professor whose disgrace starts the story rolling. It could be the fact that the filmmakers, the Aussie husband and wife directing/writing team Steve Jacobs and Anna Maria Monticelli, are little known commodities. But this one smells of being one of those that surprises at the fest.
The Duchess – More pretty dresses, on and off.
Easy Virtue – Stephen Elliot, the man who put Guy Pearce, Terrance Stamp, and Mr. Smith in drag, is back at the movies with a Noel Coward romp. Finding the right speed for movies of this tone is very difficult.
Flash Of Genius – Universal is quite serious about their variation on Tucker: A Man & His Dream with Greg Kinnear in the Jeff Bridges role.
Girl From Monaco – I have become an Anne Fontaine fan, mostly from exposure at TIFF. Once again, she works in the arena of people who don’t belong together, but just can’t help but to be drawn into trouble.
The Good, The Bad & The Weird – Billed as “the first kimchi western,” it comes on the heels of Takshi Miike’s Sukiyaki Wastern Django. Word of mouth is good on this one.
Il Divo – A political film with passionately mixed response at Cannes, at least as far as whether it will play in North America.
Inju, The Beast In the Shadow – A Barbet Schroeder thriller, he is usually a sure bet for a good time in this mode, if the not the most subtle experience.
The Lucky Ones – Veterans cross America on way home… it’s been in the can a while…
Miracle at St Anna – Spike Lee’s black Saving Private Ryan. Hopeful.
Nothing But The Truth – Rod Lurie’s recently delayed tale based on the Valerie Plame scandal, from the POV of the reporter who was jailed for not giving up her source. Lurie risked casting Kate Beckinsale, who has been known for her vinyl pants instead of her acting in recent years, looking to score some serious points, along with Vera Farmiga as the glam CIA agent and Lurie regular Alan Alda in a showy role.
Other Man – Richard Eyre’s follow-up to the very successful and underrated Notes on a Scandal, this is another intrigue with Liam Neeson seeking out the truth about his wife’s secret relationship. Sounds a little like one of my beloveds, Damage.
Pride & Glory – Gavin O’Conner tries not to fall into cliché with the story of NY police family tested by… blah blah blah. The thing is, when those clichés are overcome, the results can be very exciting.
Public Enemy No. 1 – The French version of a familiar tale stars the always fun to watch Vincent Cassel and Depardieu. I’m willing to give this one a chance with hopes for great fun.
Rachel Getting Married – Jon Demme’s tribute to Altman adds in Demme’s love of music with the daring choice to tell a real, human story and not to rely on easy Hollywood answers to every dramatic question. A festival film that will cause fights between friends.
Rocknrolla – Guy Ritchie doesn’t suck… a key theme when his last film was the career-horror Revolver. But this time out, the film works and has a cult star turning bigger and bigger in Gerard Butler.
The Wrestler – Darren Aronofsky has gotten the CG ambitions out of the way and is back to hard core, personal storytelling with style. Mickey Rourke has a shot at being a big story at this year’s fest.
Zack & Miri Make A Porno – As raunchy as this one sounds, word is that it has a degree of sweetness more like Chasing Amy than Clerks, with skills that Kevin Smith has built over the years.
(Director mistake corrected, 8:45p)

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It Was 11 Years Ago Today…

Happy Button birthday to me.
I usually write some sort of heavy perspective column at this time of the year, but… nah.
The column was inspired by the lack of daily commentary from anyone but Army Archerd. I was online because of the late, great Andy Jones recruiting me from EW for a weekly. The support of TNT’s Scot Safon was critical. The anger from most of the staff in Atlanta, once the column caught on, was palpable.
Six months or so off for The Miami Film Festival. VoicesOfHollywood.com. And then Movie City News.
Eleven years later, I am still having the same arguments with Moriarty… ten years of Wells doing my schtick (19 months of not reading him or communicating with him as a result of the prior 100)… about three years of blogs transforming the daily marketplace into something else altogether… the insanity (mostly offline) of Nikki Finke… and the desperation of an group of mainstreamers to be just like her, still not understanding that the opportunity of the web is to be so much better than smears and gossip.
Through the whole 11 years, I have not only done as I like, but I have always had very clear ideas of what I don’t want to be doing on the web, regardless of how it might spark bigger numbers or greater popularity. What I have had to fight off has changed, year by year. People and sites have come and gone. Overresponding to “threats” happens… and I think I have retreated to my real standards each time. (Welcome to the jungle, Sharon Waxman. Good luck.)
Of course, it is the people read my endless musing that make it all possible. It is the eyeballs of the industry that has allowed me my independence and made MCN a viable home not just for me, but for an entire somewhat underpaid staff of writers and other creative people. I couldn’t be more proud of or thankful for our staff, led by my partner in MCN crime, Laura Rooney.
Every year has been a little different. The Hot Blog came along about 3.5 years ago and 3000 entires and over 90,000 comments later, it has become the primary release valve. Lunch With David, now known as DP/30, soon to be known as something else as we take the 30 minute interview on the web to its next step, has been an absolute joy, even though it occupies part of my workspace that used to be spent grinding out copy. I love working with the only traditional editorial cartoonist working weekly on the film beat, RJ Matson, as we continue to seek out new ways to expand the boundaries of web editorial.
I’m healthy. I’m married. I’m busy. I’m still learning every day. And I am always looking for the next thing that will feel fresh and worth the effort.
I am happy.
And I thank you all.

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Taking On Fox… But Where's The Beef?

Well… I guess it‘s something to write about…
What is Patrick Goldstein’s problem with Fox?
Has Tom Rothman been refusing to buy him lunch?
If Goldstein or anyone else wants to take on a studio and how it behaves, please, have at it! But be fair in how you use your stats… or you are not doing the job.
Goldstein uses the most petty journalist trick in the book, selective box office information. He writes;
“This summer has been different. Without a true tentpole film, the results have been dispiriting. The studio’s biggest hit was “What Happens in Vegas,” a forgettable comedy that grossed $80 million in the U.S. and roughly $215 million around the world. “The Happening,” a poorly reviewed thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, topped out at $64 million (though it’s performed better overseas).”
Problems?
1) However forgettable What Happens In Vegas is, it is the #2 comedy of the year so far worldwide, behind only Sex & The City, with a reported $209 million to date. As a point of reference, only one Judd Apatow movie (written, directed, or produced) has EVER matched or beaten the WHIV number – Knocked Up – and then, by only $11 million. The #2 Apatow movie is $30 million behind.
I had no idea how very real the success of WHIV was… and if Patrick had his way, you wouldn’t either. Even offering the number, he chooses not to offer the perspective.
2) Worse, Patrick smacks The Happening without mentioning the worldwide number… only admitting “it’s performed better overseas.” Yeah… about $145 million worldwide so far.
3) Likewise, there is the “summer only game,” which eliminates a relative bomb in America, Jumper, which is a $222 million worldwide hit, and allows him to overlook Fox’s animation strategy, which is to release in March, not the summer, which led to a $295 worldwide gross for Horton Hears A Who.
4) Finally, is Patrick really selling that idea that a studio MUST make a summer tentpole – a dead concept still used all the time by old media – to be doing the right thing? Would a smash hit like The Day After Tomorrow, a truly horrible movie in any season that made huge bank before audiences realized they were buying a pig in a poke, have made this summer a success in Patrick’s mind?
No. I don’t think so.
See… what Fox is supposed to do is to turn it all over to producers with deals and directing talent that has minds of their own. Why? Could it be that the people who whisper loudest in Patrick’s ears are the people who benefit from this idea… an idea that died first at Fox, but which every studio in town is following?
And again, Patrick plays the dating game to manipulate his point, even within the confines of his own story. He writes;
“Here’re the people who directed the studio’s 2007 summer films: James Wan, Tom Brady, David Silverman, Len Wiseman, Tim Story and Carlos Fresnadillo. I bet some of them are genuinely nice guys, but there’s not a Warren Beatty or Tim Burton in the bunch.”
Wait… weren’t we talking about the summer of 2008? The three $100 million-plus films of 2007 are the same as the no-$100 million summer of 2008? But I thought… uh… well…
And does Goldstein realize that his slap at Silverman is a slap at the guy that co-directed Monsters, Inc? Not good enough?
Is Brett Ratner – who cherry-picked the X3 job from a relieved Matthew Vaughn and went tens of millions over budget, but delivered the film in time for a pre-Superman release – really the standard bearer for good behavior while working for a studio?
He throws Forrest Whittaker’s Hope Floats into the mix because, what?, he won an Oscar for acting years later? It’s not like it was a great movie or a box office smash. And no mention of First Daughter. Not to mention Whittaker’s inability to make things work with Bill Cosby, back-burnering Fat Albert, an eventual minor hit for the studio as directed by Joel Frickin’ Zwick, for a couple of years.
And who is working for Fox after this summer? The masterful B13 director, Pierre Morel, does his second feature for Fox. Gil Kenan has jumped into a live-action film with his sophomore effort after the excellent Monster House. Wes Anderson is doing a cartoon. They have John Singleton aboard. Baz Luhrmann is back. The Chris Wedge team is back again. And of course, Jim Cameron is coming back.
Plus, the studio hired the art-house director of Tsotsi (and unfortunately, Rendition), Gavin Hood, to handle their Wolverine franchise, much as they tried to hire Vaughn (the production dates did his involvement in), much as Bill Mechanic hired Bryan Singer for X-Men, who they chaperoned to two successes, which led directly to Christopher Nolan being hired for the Batman franchise at WB.
Boo on them! Hacks! Fools!
Are these hires Beatty or Burton or Altman?
Well, Beatty hasn’t directed a film since… and he acted in one, Town & Country, which is one of the three biggest money losers in the history of the industry.
Boo on them! Hacks! Fools!
And Burton, who I do think is brilliant, was an absolute mess on Planet of the Apes, went way over budget and schedule, and was at the low point of his personal issues that affected his career. Meanwhile, he continues to work almost exclusively at WB, where he has done 8 of his 13 films. (The ninth, Sweeney Todd, was co-funded by WB, which has the overseas distribution.)
Boo on them! Hacks! Fools!
And seriously… John Lesher was all Beatty and Burton and Altman types at Vantage and lost over $100 million in less than 2 years. Is that what Patrick wants?
“I say the cruel summer numbers are also the result of a rigidly constructed system that has driven away nearly all of the creative filmmakers and producers who once worked on the lot, putting the studio’s movies in the hands of hacks, newcomers and nonentities who largely execute the wishes of the Fox production team led by studio Co-Chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos.”
Then how did all those years of success happen? And what will you say if they have a billion dollar year next year?
So….
What would I say is a reasonable position?
I would say that the idea that the Fox bad habit under the R&G regime, which is absolutely real, of working with mediocre directors who are willing to work under the hardly pressed thumb of management, does come home to roost now and again.
Tim Story, Rob Bowman, Raja Gosnell, John Whitesell, Andy Tennant are all in that group. Some of them have had some big hits. And that is what is difficult about arguing the choices that any studio makes about the level of talent with whom they work.
I would say that Fox has made some very bad calls about restricting some of the real talent they have had in place, like Ridley Scott and the release cut of Kingdom of Heaven… but that would require making an accusation not based on popular belief.
Was Kevin Reynolds’ teen version of Tristan & Isolde a worthy attempt at something interesting or a child strangled at birth?
Could they have picked a more difficult genius director to work with than Doug Liman… twice?
Are these the same dream killers who backed Sasha Baron Cohen all the way on Borat?
Where do you put Shawn Levy in all of this? Does anyone really think he is a quality director? But can anyone deny he is a cash machine and that Fox is his home studio?
I like Tom Rothman. But then again, I have never gotten spittle all over me from the screaming.
But you can make the argument when any studio head is having a down year that their style has become a problem. Every one of the people in that job has vulnerable points, even the mostly-liked Dick Cook, who has lived with accusations of being too much of a company man when Disney’s had down years.
With Fox and Rothman and Jim G, I look back at their last down year, 2003. They couldn’t get the Peter Weir movie, Master & Commander, over $100 million, even with an Oscar nod. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was weak in the US, but made up for it overseas (almost double domestic). Just Married was horrible, but made money. Peyton Reed’s ambitious effort with Down With Love went down in flames. Phone Booth numbers weren’t over whelming, but it was a strong money maker and established Colin Farrell’s box office potential as an above-the-title name. And there were classic image disasters like From Justin to Kelly and genre experiments Chasing Papi and Wrong Turn… but all were cheap.
A rough year… over 30% down from the year before and the next year would be more than 30% up.
But from that year, they got an Oscar nod… as they may this year with Australia (and don’t let anyone tell you that Baz is an easy ride for a studio). They extended the X-Men franchise more effectively than anyone expected (and yes, Rothman’s chase for the Memorial Day slot for X3 cost a lot… and they did, as it worked out, beat Singer’s Superman by $70 million worldwide), as they may this year with Wolverine. And they got Shawn Levy in place, who will pay off again this year with Museum II.
And as I indicated earlier… things got a lot better again the next year.
You could argue that it is time for Peter Rice, who is much smoother than Rothman, to take over… an argument that will turn Rice green if you suggest its inevitability. When he someday gets the job, he will be ready for the job. But part of why that works is that he is loyal to his current bosses and unflinching in sharing the credit. He is probably the next truly great studio chief and I look forward to his ascension.
But these August cheap shots that guys like Patrick love to take… they don’t hold up. If the year to come doesn’t lead to a domestic number of more than $1 billion, averaging $100 a releases over 10 releases, you can start saying, “This has been going on for years now… they took a strong shot this year and they failed.” Truth is, the two holiday powerhouses made 2007 look better than it had looked as well.
But if you want to make the argument, don’t back it up with the kind of off-the-cuff attacks that people throw around over – yes – lunch. It’s not news or even thoughtful opinion… it’s just gossip.

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Preview Week 2008: Planning for The Worst… Hoping For The Best

The summer of 2008 is 17 weeks long.

There are 44 films scheduled to be released “wide” this summer, only 3 of which are not from the major studios or their Dependent specialty arms.

I count 16 of these releases as “The Big Ones,” meaning that a lot of money has been spent – and a lot more will be spent- on marketing, and expectations are very, very high.

Eight of The Big Ones are sequels or spin-offs (like The Incredible Hulk, which is not strictly a sequel).  Eight are non-sequels: the two big animated films (Wall-E and Kung-Fu Panda), the new Shyamalan, the Angelina Jolie-actioner-ripping-off-M&MS Wanted, Eddie Murphy in Meet Dave, andWill Smith as Hancock are originals.

What will they sequelize in a couple of years?  Well … originals Hancock, Meet Dave, and Wanted … they hope.  And The Hulk and Hellboy and Iron Man and Speed Racerand Batman and Narnia and Indiana Jones and animatedStar Wars movies and Mummy 4 and even the King-Fu Panda and Wall-E.

The hope is that these films, some of which already have a mixed record, will get fat and happy enough this summer to be blockbusters (or bigger blockbusters) the next time around.

Really, the only “franchise” films that are probably not hopeful about being the start of a longer legged franchise are X-Files,which already had years on TV, and The Happening, which is a Shyamalan thriller, none of which has spawned sequels.

Amazingly, after going the first six weeks of the season without any opening weekend overlap, there are three weekends that will see duel openings of films with mage-expectations.  On June 13, The Incredible Hulk goes up against Shyamalan’s The Happening.  On June 27, the most same counterprogramming duo weekend, Wanted vs Wall-E… though putting Wanted just a week before Hancock seems a little suicidal.  Then on July 11, Hellboy II meets Meet Dave, with two very different tones, but very similar demographic targets … that is, if HBII is planning on expanding on its previous base.

But there’s a lot more than the Big Ones … there are the Big Comedies!  12, count ‘em 12.  The reverse of My Best Friend’s Wedding (though Patrick Dempsey ain’t Julia Roberts),Cameron Diaz & Ashton Kutcher, S&TC: The Movie, Adam Sandler, Steve Carrell in a redux Get Smart, Mike Myers, a Meryl musical, Will Ferrell/Judd Apatow, all-star girl cast inHe’s Just Not That Into You, Kevin Costner in the kind of film that works for him, a second Judd Apatow film, and a Stiller/Jack Black satire.

Are you going to argue that any of these movies are not targeting $100 million… even though realistic expectations at the studios involved are half that or less for about four of them?

Maybe you can make the case that Sony will be okay with $80 million on Made of Honor or Fox with Vegas or Disney withSwing Vote. But they are all also hoping for breakouts.

Add those to the mix and now, you see a summer with only five weekends that are owned by single wide releases.  Three weeks in May (Caspian/Indy/Sex & The City), Hancock’s July 2 4-quadrant launch, and Pineapple Express on August 8.  I would say that S&TC is simply on a date that scares most distributors … and Pineapple is on a date with two smaller niche titles that work against an R-rated comedy, New Line’sJourney To The Center Of The Earth 3D (which will be on a lot of non-3D screens and an unknown number of 3Ds, given the competition this summer) and WB’s grrrl sequel, Sisterhood of the Traveling Culottes (aka Pants 2).

And here come the underdogs.

Anna Farris as The House Bunny, a Legally Blonde-alike from the guys who wroteLegally Blonde.

The Rainn Wilson comedy, The Rocker, from Full Monty director Peter Cattaneo and written by the team of a Simpsons writer and a Larry Sanders writer.

Lionsgate’s Bangkok Dangerous, a Nic Cage action remake, remade by the original directors, the Pang Brothers.

A late-season Tom Tykwer thriller, The International, starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts.

And, of course, Space Chimps, a third film from Vanguard Animation, who placed their first film at Lionsgate, the next at Disney, and now, this one at Fox.

Finding an overall theme for this summer is not easy. There are big movies, but compared to last year, it feels like small change. Expectations of success and failure are, as ever, overly bloated just before the season begins.

Easily the most underrated film, by way of potential box office, is Disney’s Prince Caspian, which people seem to forget grew huge over time after the first film was released.  There is no negative feeling that should make it do less well, though there is a lot more competition in that summer slot… and the potential for an even bigger opening.

Geeks and Girls have got to be drooling coming into the season.  Not only is there an new Indiana Jones, but there is a great comic book hero coming along with some very good buzz, a new Batman from a hero director, a Star Wars that is supposed to look like a cartoon, and the return of two beloved geek colors, green and red.  For women, Hollywood responded strongly to some female-driven hits in recent summers with no less than a half-dozen films aimed at them.

The big question mark of this summer is whether Sandler, Ferrell, Stiller, Carrell, Myers, and Pineapple Express is just too much boy comedy for one summer.  It’s a lot… and I am not even counting Eddie Murphy, whose film seems to have some of that spirit with snot jokes, etc.

The biggest question mark around a single film is Speed Racer… a movie that delivers on all it wanted to be, but seems to be confusing every demographic with its marketing campaign.  This is the great family film of the summer, with lots of unreal action, no deaths, no gun violence in which a bullet hits skin, no sex, lots of positive family messages, and one use of the word “shit.”  But that won’t matter if no one knows.  The example best pointed to is Tim Burton’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, which people were dubious about, but which ended up being a $200 million long-legged beauty.   The problem here is that Speed Racer doesn’t have much time to get up to speed.

The spread between the studios is pretty even, though it does look like a down summer for Fox… though the studio isn’t making big gambles this year.

Based on my charts, which will inevitably be flawed, the summer by studio may look like:

The top grosser will be Sony, with $711 million.  But it will take them 7 films to do it, averaging out at “just” $102 million.

I am projecting two big winners battling it out this summer: Disney and Paramount.  Each has three films… and each “will” average $198m per and $197m per.

Interestingly, if you add the DreamWorks product to Paramount’s line-up, this summer, I see it lowering the studio numbers, not adding to them.  Ironically, this is caused byStephen Spielberg making a Paramount sequel that isn’t co-owned by DreamWorks.  Still, I have the two DreamWorks movies averaging over $100 million also.

The other $100 million averaging company I am anticipating is Warner Bros, recovering from some tough summers with a $129, per-film avg.

Here is a list –

And so, the horserace begins …

- Email David Poland

Circles Of Lies

Oy… this is what I get for watching The View.
The ladies spent 5 minutes discussing how the Western Wall prayer that was taken out of the wall and published in Israel was, according to the paper that published the presumably private document, Ma’ariv, pre-approved for publication by Obama even before the note was stuck in the wall. The claim from an unnamed Ma’ariv editor was legitimized by publication in The Jerusalem Post as part of a story about a potential legal probe and boycott of Ma’ariv for publishing the note.
The Wall Street Journal pushed the story further by publishing a series of web attacks on Obama without bothering to do what they do best… report news.
“Maariv’s response: “Obama’s note was published in Maariv and other international publications following his authorization to make the content of the note public. Obama submitted a copy of the note to media outlets when he left his hotel in Jerusalem. Moreover, since he is not Jewish, there is no violation of privacy as there would be for a Jewish person who places a note in the wall.”
Problem is… the story was a lie.
An editor at Ma’ariv, on the record but once again unnamed by the Associated Press for lame reasons that follow NYT’s lame blind quoting guidelines that follow the line of ligic that created this lie in the first place, acknowledged flatly: “”We did not get permission, formal or informal, to print the note,” said the Maariv editor, who asked to remain anonymous because of the touchy nature of the dispute. “This kind of snowballed and got out of hand.”
Further, the website that the Wall Street Journal features, IsraeliInsider.com, cites The New Republic’s Zvika Krieger, writing in TNR’s “The Plank” Blog and then updates: “I just got off the phone with a Ma’ariv spokesman who says that the accusation is ‘completely false,’ and that he has no idea who these papers were quoting from Ma’ariv. ‘No official spokesman for Ma’ariv told this to any of the papers.’” Krieger added: “He told me definitively that “the Obama campaign did not give us a copy of the letter or approve it for printing.”
Of course, IsraeliInsider’s report about getting caught spreading lies is not contrite. Instead, the headline is – Video source claims prayer note snatched by man in Obama’s “entourage”.
Stick and move. Stick and move.
The note that goes along with the footage from the “videographer,” a guy whose YouTube post claims to be named David Cohen, doesn’t say that Obama’s people took the note, but rather: “Seconds after Obama left the stones, some of his entourage stepped up to the wall (seen dressed in suits) while young men began gathering notes in their hands in what appeared to be the search for Obama’s freshly placed personal note”
And indeed, there is no footage of the two men in suits, who may or may not be part of the Obama team, taking anything out of the wall. In fact, they seem to be taking a moment to do what people do at The Wall, reflect and pray and perhaps add a note of their own. But we do see three young, apparently-orthodox men who seem to have noting to do with Obama start foraging and pillaging people’s private and sacred notes.
So much for that false conspiracy.
And I have to say, I am a bit disgusted with The Huffington Post and others who have NOT covered this controversy, either by aggregating or reporting. If it were true that the Obama campaign gave out the Western Wall note as a press release, it would be news. If they let the idea that it – still not confirmed to be his personal note by anyone – was pulled out of the wall immorally even though they leaked or released it… that would be very bad news indeed. They did neither, from all indications, including official statements by the publisher of the note.
I suspect we will now hear the outrage from the left-leaning media about the lie being spread. Too late.
My point is, if it’s in the Wall Street Journal, it is news of a kind. And it must be addressed, even if it is only to point out skeptically that the pieces don’t seem to fit. (My first reaction to hearing this thing about Obama allegedly approving publication of the note was that if it was approved for an Israeli paper, why just one, and how did all those American news people miss getting approval if Obama was okay with it? It made no sense on its face.)
The responsibility of the newsperson is greater than ever. It’s not business as it once was. Every disagreement need not be assumed to be a personal vendetta. False news needs to be challenged. Fellow MSM news people are just as dubious, at times, as web people… in this case, the WSJ and the Jerusalem Post.
And if you are wondering how this all leads back to movies… well, journalism is journalism. There are variables. But we know a lot in entertainment journalism about people taking information out of crevices where they don’t belong and publishing it and then claiming it was the fault of the person whose private information it was. And the better the story, the more people want to believe it, even when it turns out to be a lie.
By the time the lie hits The View, it’s going mainstream and you may never get the truth to overcome it out into the public. Paul is dead, Pop Rocks killed Mikey, Nikki Finke is interested in the truth… you know, the big ones.
And even as I rage about all this, I smirk on the inside, because there is nothing I enjoy more than watching people who really, really want to be right making up their minds about something based on a poorly reported rumor only to have the truth shoved back in their face.
If the allegation that Obama orchestrated the publication of his note in the Western Wall shows something about his character, what does the fact that he did not and was maliciously attacked for it by the right wing media in the last 48 hours mean about the character of his attackers and the lengths to which they will go to discredit him?
Oh… it was just a mistake? Oh… this stuff happens? Oh… sorry… but what was he doing in Israel anyway and where is his poll bounce?
The best goes on…

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Batman & The Iceberg

Okay… so I get that John Horn had to ask the question… can The Dark Knight pass Titanic or even come close to Titanic at the box office?
And I understand that the new rule at the LAT is local, local, local.
But is it anything less than a dereliction of duty, whether it be Horn’s choice or his editors’ choice, to not even mention the worldwide box office success of Titanic, which really is what makes the box office landmark the equal of what “Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is to baseball.”
A domestic lead of $140 million or 23% on #2 Star Wars or $160 million/27% over Shrek 2, which is the #2 highest grosser in its first run alone, is obviously impressive. But the domestic box office is more like the home run record for a season. Eras change and the season home run number got threatened and then beaten… repeatedly. We later realized that the players, not the ball, were juiced.
The Dark Knight’s massive opening was “just” $7.3 million more than the last top film, Spider-Man 3, or a %% bump. Impressive, but not so shocking (except for the fact that it was unexpected from this particular film).
There have been eleven $100 million openings in history and every one has been in the last seven years… seven of the eleven in the last three years. That is a seismic shift in the idea of what is possible in one weekend.
The $400 million mark is less seismic in and of itself, but how we get to that number has changed a lot. For what is now the #2 film, Star Wars, the $400 million mark was only achieved after a third release of the film… the third release earning $138 million, bolstered by the lack of availability of the film. (I believe there was a vhs release, but the film was rare to see on free or pay tv, we were still before a major dvd market… there was an event to a theatrical re-release that seems to be a thing of the past now.) E.T., even more tightly held, also hit $400 million only by re-release, though the total domestic gross from the film’s two re-releases was only $76 million.
Then Star Wars: Episode One did it on its own power. Then Spider-Man (but neither sequel). Then Shrek 2 in 2004, Star Wars: Episode III missing by $20m in 2005, and Pirates II in 2006.
While the trio of three-quels last summer broke a record by all doing $300 million-plus domestic, none did $400m domestic. However, the worldwide numbers were what really mattered to the studios.
Shrek The Third lost $120 million from the prior film’s domestic gross, but held steady internationally to get to a reported $799 million. Spider-Man 3 lost $37 million domestic from its prior entry, but increased worldwide gross by $144 million to get to $890 million worldwide. And Pirates 2 lost in $1124 million in domestic value, but was stead overseas to be one of just five films ever to crack $950 million worldwide (2 Pirates, a Potter, a Ring, and Titanic).
Another thing that remains stunning about Titanic is that it and Jurassic Park are the only “originals” to gross over $900 million worldwide.
But the mega stat is that Titanic did overseas alone more than ANY other movie has grossed in total. International was more than double domestic. The second best all-time international gross is $500 million less than Titanic.
And that is why “titanic numbers” are close to impossible in the current marketplace.
I have said before, at some point, some studio will experiment with day-n-date for one of these mega-movies, something like the last Harry Potter, offering it across the globe in theaters and in one-view-for-one-payment showings through opening weekend into living rooms by satellite and cable. And that movie will gross $600 million in one weekend. And the one-view sales will be enormously profitable, since delivery costs are minimal and providers will take a much smaller cut than the 45% that exhibitors take. And in that moment, someone will have made the most profitable movie ever.
And if the entire industry follows suit, we will see the sky fall for real.
But I digress…
Domestic box office will continue to creep up on Titanic. Someday, perhaps in less than a decade, that number will fall. But the international number is far, far away in comparison. While international box office has grown, the biggest potential markets remain elusive. Piracy is still an issue. And while the habit of opening weekend has become greater in many of the traditional international powerhouse countries, that has led to increases in front-loading grosses, just as in the US. And many of the underscreened countries, recent generations have become habituated to taking what they can get when they get it, not to demand opening weekend access.
The Dark Knight is likely to take Titanic’s domestic lead from the current 27% to as close as half of that, maybe 13% or under $100 million. That’s shouting distance. Ticket price creep can push that further. (Keep in mind, in 1994, when we had the first two $300 million movies in one summer, we went two years before the next (ID4) and then Titanic in 1997, another two before Episode One. It was 2001 before multiple $300 million grossers in the same year became a norm.)
But the 67% lead of Titanic on Rings 3 internationally… that’s a looooooong way to reach.
For The Dark Knight to be the fourth film in history to crack $1 billion will be a big achievement… bigger than any Harry Potter film.
No Batman film has ever even matched the level internationally that it reached at home. But let’s give The Dark Knight that. $500 million at home and $500 million overseas. You’re $850 million away from Titanic.
But let’s give it more. International at 60%! So… $500 million at home, $750 million internationally. And we’re still almost $600 million away from Titanic’s number.
Do you want to believe in miracles? How about $600 million domestic and $900 million worldwide? You’re still almost $350 million away from Titanic.
And for all of you guys who have S.O.O. (Sudden Oscar Obsession), the top two grossing films in history did get Oscar nominations and wins. After that? Aside from the other Rings movies? #30 all-time was the next highest grosser to even be nominated… Forrest Gump. And #31, The Sixth Sense.
Those four movies are the only films to gross as much as $500 million worldwide and to be nominated. And yes, three of the four won. (1994, 1997, 2003) But you’re still looking at four nominations in 14 Oscars, 4 out of 70 nominations…. 5%.
The odds are better than an animated film getting nominated… 1 out of 105 opportunities since Beauty & The Beast got the only nod ever. .1%.
I am all for celebrating the achievement of The Dark Knight. But while hysteria may be fun from someone, that achievement is only great in context. And in the context of reality, this success is very exciting indeed… and not earth-shattering.
The first Batman was a real industry changer.
Titanic was a real industry changer.
Lord of the Rings was an industry changer (good for some, not so good for others).
And this summer, Iron Man is a real industry changer. (Whether that is good or bad, time will tell.)
The Dark Knight is a good movie that everyone underestimated. Everyone. On top of that, it is even more successful than anyone who pays serious attention to box office anticipated, even after the massive opening.
But to hit “Titanic numbers” a film will have to not only match or beat Titanic at home, but unless something changes significantly (and someday, it will), the film will need to do at least $100 million or more than Titanic at home and still be an international giant to get to $1.8 billion.
It really is a 56 game hitting streak. And the headline rhetoric should really be lessened before someone embarrasses themselves.
Oops. Too late.

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What’s So Unfunny About No Peace, No Love & No Understanding

Tropic Thunder was pretty much guaranteed to me. “This one is for real,” I was told by a trusted publicist.
Okay.
I am not a fan, though I respect the cult status, of any of the Ben Stiller-directed films. As for his career in comedy, the last run of 5 is Heartbreak Kid – NO!, Night at The Museum – Mediocre, Madagascar – No, Meet The Fockers – Dusty & Babs only (loved the first film), Dodgeball – Mad Genius. The 5 before that is equally iffy (BAD – Envy, Starsky & Hutch, Duplex, PASSABLE – Along Came Polly, EXCELLENT – The Royal Tenenbaums). Before that, Stiller was one of the promising comedians in Hollywood.
The problem with putting a needy egomaniac in charge of a movie with a needy egomaniac at the center of it is that you get a character that will only humiliate itself in ways the actor is comfortable with. In other words, you will get a character trying really, really hard to be funny, but who never actually puts any skin in the game, even though the character is written as an asshole.
When that actor/director invites two uniquely talented actors to work by his side in the film, you get a different problem. You get a director who wants those guys to steal the show, ham it up, and run wild while you have an actor who doesn’t want to be upstaged… let’s not forget who the star really is!
Next, let’s look at taste level. It’s interesting that Roger Ebert took a shot at Step Brothers, which wallows in the adult-retard genre that Will Ferrell has been a leader of, supported by the Apatow machine… but Ferrell owns the very specific tonal sliver he works in. It seems that the Apatow might have pushed Will, who has been very successful keeping it weird but sweet, to go to that darker place with this variation on the same moron character. But Ebert cites Tropic Thunder as a film in which at least one profanity struck him funny while Step Brothers struck him as mean.
Not me.
Tropic Thunder strikes me as the ultimate example of Stars Gone Wild. Let’s put aside that the commercial viability of movies about movies has always been iffy, no matter how good the movie. (See: Bowfinger. Really. See it now! See it again!) The premise for Tropic Thunder is funny. Selfish, obnoxious, spoiled people forced to face real pain for the first time… how will they respond?
We have seen similar ideas before during this summer… Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock… even, in a way, Mamma Mia! and Speed Racer.
But none of the other movies have so reduced the central idea to nothing but that basis for an extended comedy sketch, often forgetting the central idea and simply trying to milk laughs out of any action that some very talented people can come up with.
I have to say, I was pushed right out of Tropic Thunder as soon as the blood became real and there was zero connection to any honest human response to it. And I never really came back.
Is the idea, for instance, of actors being, inside a story, being either praised or punished by real people – especially ethnics that the actors barely knew really existed as anything but servants before – for the vacuous nature of their earlier work is funny. (Avoiding spoilers here!) It’s not only funny. It’s a rich vein of humor and pathos and insight. For the most part, it is reduced in Tropic Thunder to a long-legged “retard” joke.
Even Downey, who is so game and always looking for subtle touches, is stuck playing one note for much of the film. You know the note… it’s in every ad. He’s a white guy in black face. Okay… funny idea. But is it really funny for more than two acts of a movie? Isn’t the idea of writing such an inherently flawed character to push that character’s buttons in different and interesting ways through the entire film? Isn’t having an actor of Downey’s quality an opportunity to do something really interesting? Or are you, as an audience, satisfied by that same joke told 10 different ways?
Jack Black gets the best of it here because he actually is given a clear motivation for his antics… heroin withdraw. I know… hysterical! But it’s something to play and something that can develop. But even there, the writing is so weak that Tropic Thunder is reduced, in Black’s case, to being exactly the kind of movie that it mocks in early scenes. Black’s character has become a star based on a Klumps-like series of comedies that get all of its laughs on fart jokes. It’s an unfair hit on Eddie Murphy, who has shown himself to be much more than prosthetics and farts even in his worst films, but satire is that way… cool. But what is the Jack Black character doing for most of the movie? Doing big, broad, self-humiliating gags, few of which are any more sophisticated than a fart joke.
But as I say… that’s the highlight of the movie… because at least he has motive.
The other highlight of the film is Tom Cruise in a bald wig and fat suit cursing a lot. Problem is, it’s a part that would have been rightly cut down to 5 minutes of the film (and likely played by Stiller) if Cruise wasn’t playing the role. The joke – like so much of the film – is a meta joke and not really a smart joke. You laugh because Tom Cruise says, “fuck,” because Tom Cruise is “FAT,” because Tom Cruise acts like a jerk. The fact that he gave an Oscar-worthy performance doing much the same thing, but exposing himself as an actor in a very real and emotional way in Magnolia, really puts this movie in its place.
However, looking past that, Cruise scores his laughs. He is performing under the fat and the balding head. It’s no more important a performance than Rob Schneider’s, “You can do it!” cameo in The Waterboy. But it’s very funny coming from Cruise.
Another feature are the bits establishing each of the three main characters’ history. But even there, a big part of what is funny is the “I can’t believe Universal and DreamWorks let themselves be mocked like that… what good sports!” That doesn’t make it not funny. But it is inside baseball that plays well with people who are inside, but somehow makes the work lazy, more self-amused than amusing… and while of better production quality than the side dished of Grindhouse, not nearly as earnest an effort of movie love.
There are other big laughs in the film. It’s not unlike many of the comedies around these days. You get 20 laughs in 100 minutes and audiences are satisfied, no matter how stupid of unconsidered everything around the laughs might be. That is what you call, fairly, damning with faint praise.
What made Tropic Thunder feel even less than just small is the size of the talent and budget involved. The movie would have been better at half the budget, with Stiller and Justin Theroux forced to actually write their way out of dead ends instead of simply blowing something up real good. The movie looks like it was shot on the old M*A*S*H* television sets. There are no more than a half dozen shots in the film – hello, 2nd unit! – that even needed the Hawaiian locations.
And not only does Stiller waste his main crew and Cruise, but he also wastes Steve Coogan and Nick Nolte, whose remarkable skills are reduced to sight gags in the movie. This is particularly true of Nolte, whose character could have been one of the great movie supporting roles in comedy history, but whose turns are simply thrown away as story points and not even developed enough to make any logical sense. Since Nolte is the driving reason for the entire movie, the fact that his motives for driving the story forward MAKE ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE, all you can do is to scratch your head and wait for Jack Black to show us his ass again and do the wild eyes.
I’m beginning to think that 2008 will be remembered as a seminal moment in movie history. Is this the year that a new generation took over the box office and less became more than enough? Perhaps. I would consider – and will continue to consider – arguments that I have simply gotten too old to appreciate what the primary market for movies now want at the movies… but I honestly think I am not just holding onto old school filmmaking here. Yes, this film wants to be the next Caddyshack or Stripes or Ghostbusters. It has that swagger about it. But Ivan Reitman, who is every bit the visual mediocrity that Ben Stiller is, was working with better scripts and the discipline of forcing himself and the writers – surely with the help of actors who were both skilled as actors and often, as improvisers – to follow their story lines from start to finish… to make cameos truly special… to attach even the broadest gags to character and the central idea.
How easy it to imagine Caddyshack remade with Nick Nolte as Carl (the Bull Murray role), Downey in the Chevy Chase role, Stiller in the Ted Knight role, and Jack Black as The Rodney? Easy!
But if Stiller was directing, the Baby Ruth in the pool would be melting like diarrhea, the sex scene in the pool would somehow feature Downey taking The Girl from behind and getting a cramp and then farting and then shitting himself, the gopher would chew on Carl’s balls, the girls on “Rodney’s” boat would be naked and passing around dildos, and when the caddy kid almost gets caught with in the “Ted Knight” house and the girl, he would somehow get his penis slammed in a window.
Would that be funnier?
Would that be trying too hard?
Tropic Thunder is not so bad that it will end comedy as we know it. Heck, it may be one of the better comedies of the summer… but that too is damning with faint praise. It is easy to laugh your 20 laughs and walkout of Tropic Thunder with a shrug of the shoulders. With so much mediocrity out there, you can’t hatehatehate it. With so many insane budgets out there, you can’t just wag your finger at how absurdly expensive a film that looks so cheap was made for. With so much profanity out there, you can’t get too upset about how blandly unfunny licking real blood and guts out of the head of a man who has just been decapitated is.
But disappointed? Extremely.

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“I am just grateful I am still around. I would love to be Steven Soderbergh, but I am lucky to be Joe Swanberg. Actors want to work with me, people want to give me money, and my nightmare scenario remains: Getting in bed with a studio, spending years on a movie, and it turns out horrible, but now I’m rich.”

Actually, by Hollywood standards, you’re right, I said. That is unambitious.

“It is, and yet, if you can go to bed happy at night, doing what you want, isn’t that ambition for a lifetime?”
~ Swanberg On Swanberg By Borelli

“In retrospect, nothing of that kind surprised me about Philip, because his intuition was luminous from the instant you met him. So was his intelligence. A lot of actors act intelligent, but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you from the moment he grabbed your hand, put a huge arm round your neck and shoved a cheek against yours; or if the mood took him, hugged you to him like a big, pudgy schoolboy, then stood and beamed at you while he took stock of the effect.”
John le Carré on Philip Seymour Hoffman