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2010 – The Year in (moving) Pictures…

January 5th, 2011 No comments

Charles Dickens wrote in “A Tale of Two Cities” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” but he might as well have been talking about the film year just passed. 2010 brought us pronounced Hollywood highs and lows, from the (continued) historic box-office success of 3-D juggernaut “Avatar” to the cringe-worthy release of “Sex and the City 2,” but perhaps the biggest story all year has been the public’s perceived paucity of quality entertainment coming from Hollywood. For every success like “Toy Story 3,” there were scads of expensive failures, from “The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader” or “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” to “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (the latter two films being rare flops from mega-budget producer Jerry Bruckheimer). And then there was “The Last Airbender,” which offended fans of the series and struck out both artistically and at the box office, despite being 3-D retrofitted by Paramount.

But the news wasn’t all bad: there were big-budget successes (other than Fox’s “Avatar,” which made $477 domestically in 2010), like Tim Burton’s 3-D opus “Alice in Wonderland,” which earned Disney $334 million, as well as the think-piece of the year, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which simultaneously thrilled and confounded audiences with its reality-bending storyline, pulling in $293 million domestically for Warner’s. Harry Potter made a return to America’s movie screens in “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 1” and pulled-in $273 million, but the film couldn’t be made into 3-D by its already-set release date, so Warner Brothers sacrificed B.O. bucks while gleaning praise by purists for not cutting corners. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Warner’s “Clash of the Titans,” which, like ‘Airbender,’ retrofitted itself to 3-D, with predictably bad artistic results (although being the first at the trough helps, since ‘Titans’ made over $163 million domestically).

But when the Motion Picture Academy announces its Oscar nominees on January 25, 2011, don’t expect to hear too many of these films being mentioned. For starters, “Avatar” was a 2009 release, and it did OK at the 2010 Oscars, but James Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow walked away with the statuettes for Best Picture and Best Director for “The Hurt Locker,” and that film also won for Mark Boal’s original screenplay. This year it’s about critically acclaimed movies (think  either low-budget or so-so box office), like The Weinstein Company’s “The King’s Speech,” whose ad campaigns seem eerily reminiscent of “Shine,” probably because of star Geoffrey Rush, or Sony’s David Fincher-directed, Aaron Sorkin-scripted “The Social Network,” which packs so much dialogue into its two hour running-time that the shooting script was 180 pages long. Another  potential nominee is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” but after his manic “Slumdog Millionaire,” it’s doubtful he’d win again so soon, but James Franco seems a lock for a Best Actor nomination. While you’re at it, add “Black Swan” and Natalie Portman to the list, as well as Lisa Chodolenko’s “The Kids are All Right,” which seems destined to earn a few acting nominations for its stars. David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” falls into this group of critically-lauded but low-performing films.

One of the year’s best reviewed films is also its longest and hardest to find. “Carlos,” a 5 1/2 hour epic by Olivier Assayas about the international terrorist known as ‘Carlos the Jackal.’ The film was made for Canal Plus; it’s a demanding biography that travels through the history of international terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s. Because Assayas’ film was initially made for television (and already aired, last October, on the Sundance Channel) it won’t be earning any Oscar nominations. Even still, “Carlos” consistently placed highly on critics’ year-end ‘best’ lists, and was an audience favorite at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

2010 wasn’t really a year for the record books – domestic box office receipts dropped along with ticket sales, approximately 5%. But the 3-D ‘premium’ ticket price kept things nearly even. Even still, of the top ten films at the U.S. box office in 2010, 6 of them were 3-D – but only 2 of those were live-action films: “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.” The remaining films were all animated: “Toy Story 3,” Universal’s “Despicable Me,” and Paramount’s “Shrek Forever After” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” So although 3-D is credited with bringing additional change into studio coffers, that trend seems to be slipping, with audiences growing more picky about whether they spring for the extra bucks to see “Yogi Bear” in 3-D. Although more 3-D films are in the works, it’s still not clear whether 3-D is a technological advance in filmmaking – or a way for the studios to grab a few extra bucks.

With more big-budget films coming your way for 2011, there should be plenty for everyone. Did I mention Sony’s “The Green Hornet” opens in 3-D next week? See you at the movies!

Hollywood Autumn

September 30th, 2010 No comments

It has been a tough week for Hollywood and Broadway, not to mention the comedy world, in terms of losses. In just the last week, four Hollywood legends have passed away and two younger talents, a renowned editor and popular comic, have died unexpectedly. Most of us have heard the old saying about losses coming in threes, but multiples of three? That’s hard to take.

Eddie Fisher died at his home in Berkeley, California on September 23, 2010 from complications of hip surgery. He was 82. A singer and actor, Eddie Fisher was a top performer whose tumultuous love life commanded headlines throughout the 1950s. As a teen heartthrob, he scored four number-one hits, and his good looks and charm won him his first wife, Debbie Reynolds, with whom he had two children, including writer-actress Carrie Fisher of “Star Wars” and “Postcards From the Edge” fame. In 1959, Fisher earned notoreity and public scorn when he left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor in a messy breakup, complicated by the fact that Taylor had recently been widowed when her husband Michael Todd died in an air crash – and Eddie Fisher was Todd’s best friend. Fisher married actress Connie Stevens after Taylor left him for co-star Richard Burton while she was making the ill-fated “Cleopatra” in Rome. A period of decline, due to personal, financial and drug problems, ensued in the 1970s. Fisher married twice more, and wrote about his vicissitudes in two autobiographical tomes: “Eddie Fisher: My Life, My Loves,” and “Been There, Done That.”  In addition to Carrie Fisher, he is survived by actress Joely Fisher, his daughter by Connie Stevens, two other children, and six grand-children.

Gloria Stuart (nee Stewart) passed away September 26, 2010. She had turned 100 years old on July 4, 2010, but earned her current celebrity from her role as 101 year-old Rose in James Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic.” Oddly, Stuart’s long life makes the fictional Rose’s look mundane: born in Santa Monica in 1910, Gloria attended University of California at Berkeley, where she met her first husband, a sculptor. Living in an artists’ colony with the likes of photographer Edward Weston and journalist Lincoln Steffens, Gloria acted in a local theater and wrote for newspapers. In 1932 a trip to the Pasadena Playhouse earned Gloria a newfound respect for theater – and a 7 year contract with Universal Pictures. One of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild and a regular at the famed Algonquin ‘Round Table,’ over the next 14 years she performed in 46 films, acting beside Claude Rains in “The Invisible Man” and opposite Boris Karloff in “The Old Dark House,” both directed by “Frankenstein” director James Whale. Eventually the roles grew increasingly undemanding, and, in 1946, Gloria Stuart (she changed the last name for marquee symmetry) bid her Hollywood career goodbye. Remarried, she traveled around the world, settled in New York City, had a daughter, taught herself to paint, moved to Italy, later began a new career as a master print maker, and eventually wound up as Rose in Cameron’s epic film, playing 101 years old at age 87. A full life, indeed.

As we already noted in For Bards Blog, Academy Award nominated film editor Sally Menke was found dead on September 28, 2010 after failing to return from a trail walk during a record heatwave. In addition to editing all of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Sally also edited two films for Billy Bob Thornton. She was 56 years old; she leaves behind a husband, TV director Dean Parisot, and two daughters.

Arthur Penn died on September 28, 2010 of congestive heart failure, one day after his 88th birthday. Arthur Penn was born in Philadelphia in 1922; his older brother Irving earned international fame as a photographer, but Arthur followed his interests into theater after serving in WWII, working with then-unknown director Joshua Logan. Eventually he garnered a job as a floor manager for the “Colgate Comedy Hour” in New York City, and worked his way up to directing live TV dramas on “Goodyear TV Playhouse,”  “Philco TV Playhouse” and “Playhouse 90.” Before too long, Penn was dividing his time between Hollywood and New York City, directing Broadway hits like “The Miracle Worker,” “Two for the Seesaw”  and “Wait Until Dark.” After winning a Tony for directing “The Miracle Worker,” Arthur Penn directed his Broadway stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the film version of William Gibson’s drama, earning his first Oscar nomination and winning Oscars for both Bancroft and Duke. Penn only made a dozen theatrical feature films, most notably “Bonnie and Clyde,” the 1967 film whose over-the-top violent ending polarized critics of the day. While a string of Broadway successes and quirky films like “Little Big Man” and “Night Moves” followed, Penn will forever be known as the ‘bloodthirsty’ director of “Bonnie and Clyde,” opening the door for cinema followers like Sam Peckinpah, although Penn himself likened the 1967 film to the Vietnam War, exposing the grittiness of violence to give it value.

Comedian Greg Giraldo died Wednesday, September 29, 2010, five days after falling into a coma after an apparent accidental prescription overdose. He was 44 years old. The comedian was a Comedy Central cable TV network mainstay, appearing regularly on “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn” and Lewis Black’s “Root of All Evil,” and earning special acclaim as host of Comedy Central’s ‘roasts,’ where his sarcastic humor and semi-serious rants offered a glimpse into the comedian’s darker side. Initially educated as a lawyer, Giraldo gave up the legal profession to tour as a successful comedian, and his popularity soon earned him appearances on late night talk shows. His ascendancy on Comedy Central followed. Giraldo, a divorced father of three, was set to perform in New Brunswick, New Jersey when he was discovered unresponsive and taken to a local hospital.

Hollywood legend Tony Curtis died in his home in Henderson, Nevada, also on September 29, 2010, of cardiac arrest. He was 85. Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx on June 3, 1925, Curtis faced a bleak future when his parents, Hungarian immigrants, placed him and his brother in a state-run institution during the height of the Depression. Toughened by street life and anti-Semitism, Curtis entered the US Navy during WWII, serving on the submarine tender U.S.S. Proteus. After his service, he gravitated toward theater, working in the Catskills until a casting agent saw him and invited him to Hollywood. Signing a contract with Universal, he settled on the pseudonym Anthony Curtis. By 1951 he was the Tony Curtis; it was also the year he married actress Janet Leigh. They had two daughters, including actress-author Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis carved out a successful career during the 1950s and 60s, forming alliances with directors Richard Fleischer and Blake Edwards, among others. As his Hollywood film career stalled, Curtis tried his hand at two television shows, “The Persuaders” and “McCoy.” After a stint at the Betty Ford Center to deal with alcohol and drug issues, Curtis re-invented himself as a fine artist, painting boldly-signed, Matisse-influenced works. After his divorce from Leigh, Curtis married five more times. He is survived by 5 children; one son died in 1994 of a drug overdose.

It certainly is a lot of loss to deal with in a short period of time, but we can take comfort in the fact that all these talents left behind works we can continue to enjoy.

Bilbo’s new boss, Leo sizzles & ‘Apprentice’ fizzles

July 27th, 2010 1 comment

 

 Picking up ‘The Hobbit’ – again

As a searing heatwave gripped most of the United States, news came out of Hollywood that should give some Tolkien fans hope that the long-gestating “The Hobbit” feature film(s) are getting back on track. In an announcement that took no one by surprise, Peter Jackson revealed that he will take over the directing duties on “The Hobbit,’ following Guillermo del Toro’s departure as director over scheduling conflicts, despite del Toro’s having already dedicated almost two years to pre-production planning. Executive producer Jackson was presumed to be the frontrunner for the directing gig, but his plate is fairly full these days as well, with several projects in development and a commitment to produce the next two ‘Tintin’ movies for Dreamworks. Despite the change in directors, however, the project still faces challenges as producing partner MGM endures mounting financial woes and remains for sale with few, if any, real potential buyers. 

Cerebral Cinema

The #1 movie at the box office in the US for the last 2 weeks has been the Leonardo DiCaprio starrer “Inception,” the latest brain-teaser from Christopher Nolan, who has made a reputation for himself of turning out movies that are smarter than the average audience. His breakout film, “Memento,” was a breath of fresh air in terms of storytelling, literally turning the plot on its head as the story unfolded backwards; even though others have used this device before (Harold Pinter wrote “Betrayal” ‘backwards, and Martin Amis’ “Time’s Arrow” uses a similar technique in prose narrative), Nolan layers his story with false leads and ambiguities which results in a truly unsettling and intense experience. “The Prestige” also plays with audiences’ perceptions while setting its tragic tale of  magician one-upmanship in Victorian-era London. Now Nolan has created “Inception,” a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream puzzle involving industrial espionage, hallucinatory ‘reality,’ and a team of mind-bending operators who can literally become the men (or woman) of your dreams. In ‘Time’ magazine, veteran film critic Richard Corliss suggests seeing the film twice, since viewers will be challenged by the complexity of the story. In a summer of dumb 3-D fare and middling sequels, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is welcome indeed.

Audiences to ‘Apprentice’: “You’re Fired!”

The phenomenal success of James Cameron’s “Avatar” in late 2009 and early 2010 skewed results for the tracking of box office receipts (just as “Titanic”‘s success had done a decade earlier). Clearly an aberation, “Avatar”‘s profits raised expectations all around Hollywood that the box office was booming despite a flat-lining economy. As a result, lots of 3-D movies were rushed into production (or, in some cases, like “Clash of the Titans,” were retroactively engineered in 3-D), and some did quite well, like “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”and “Shrek: Forever After,” but 3-D fare alone could not immunize the domestic box office from the economic downturn or a series of underperforming films – or even worse – downright flops.

Since May, the box office has seen a series of high-budget missteps, starting with “Prince of Persia,” followed by “The A Team,” “Killers,” “The Last Airbender,” “Predators” and now “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The latter, a Disney picture, had a very ‘soft’ opening last weekend, coming in at #4 with $9.6 million behind “Despicable Me,” which has already been in release for several weeks . Even before ‘Apprentice’ opened, it was the object of negative ‘buzz’ in Hollywood due to its low tracking numbers. Tracking numbers are the result of audience polling which hint at a film’s potential popularity and success or failure. In light of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”‘s low figures, its poor opening weekend performance should surprise few. In fact, overall domestic box office receipts are currently 4% lower than they were one year ago. With fewer (but more expensive) movies to see, higher ticket prices and a real dearth of originality on the screen, is it any surprise that people are going to see “Inception,” a movie that makes them think? 

Who knows? Maybe ‘thinking’ will be the next trend to catch on in Hollywood, like 3-D. But 3-D came and went once. This thinking thing? It’s practically a first for Tinseltown…

Running Hot or Cold…

July 8th, 2010 No comments

 

My relatives on the east coast currently sweltering in the midst of a monstrous heat wave probably won’t appreciate hearing that it’s been cool and cloudy with what we call “the marine layer’ in otherwise usually-sunny Los Angeles. So as my family cooks, I throw on another layer and muse about the movies I’d watch in the midst of a heat wave… Would I ‘go with the flow’ and watch movies with heat-related subjects? Or would I rather forget my troubles with a movie about the cold?

 

With that in mind, I offer some hot-and-cold running fare that will hopefully take your mind off the fact that your grass just went up in flames… (Or, if you’re in Hollywood, it’ll help you blot-out the ‘marine layer’ that’s blotting-out the sun…)

It’s Too Darn Hot…

  1. “Body Heat”   Apart from being set in the midst of a Florida heat wave, this modernization of “Double Indemnity” has a lot going for it: it’s Lawrence Kasdan’s first directorial effort, it’s an evocative modern film noir with a surprisingly good supporting actor star turn by an unknown Mickey Rourke, and its sexy co-stars throw off an awful lot of heat of their own.
  2. “Falling Down”  Another film set amidst crushing heat (L.A. this time), the appeal of “Falling Down” comes from Michael Douglas‘ portrayal of an unemployed defense worker who descends into a psychopathic rage as he perceives the social injustices before him. Although far from a laugh riot, this dark drama has its share of humor – and pathos.
  3. “The Bridge on the River Kwai”  David Lean’s classic war drama of British prisoners ordered to build a railway bridge in the hellish jungles of Burma. Famous for its train crash sequence, this war film practically radiates heat as its prisoners are made to stand at attention in the searing sun under the eyes of their sadistic captors.
  4. “Do the Right Thing”  Spike Lee’s meditation on race relations in Brooklyn in the midst of a heat wave is anything but calming. With a ‘Greek chorus’ led by Ossie Davis, this breakout hit details the tensions between African Americans and their white neighbors on the hottest day of the year. Spike Lee is a standout as Mookie, the pizza delivery-boy-cum-provocateur.

Baby, it’s cold outside…

  1. “The Thing” (1982)  John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic retains its red-scare subtext while amping-up the environmental hazards contained in this story about a constantly-mutating alien who alternately inhabits bodies before moving on to its next prey. The polar station setting is effective, especially in the film’s final moments, which are pure Carpenter.
  2. “Cold Mountain”  The title pretty much says it all. This is one cold mountain. A Civil War Confederate soldier does his best to make it home to his beloved, but a harsh winter and other adversities thwart him continually. The war scenes are gruesome – and compelling. (And the film was shot in Romania during one of its harshest winters on record.)
  3. “Jeremiah Johnson”  Another tale of mountains, but in this case the Rockies. Robert Redford stars in this 19th century mountain-man tale in which he fights a years-long vendetta with a Native American over his family’s death. Despite its ‘Hollywooden’ plot, the film offers a great sense of the majesty of the Colorado and Utah wilderness.
  4. “The Abyss”  While not technically set in a snowy place (or an above-water place, for that matter), James Cameron’s 1989 deepwater rig film is in a cold, cold place, and that’s made abundantly clear when Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character must make a difficult choice as her two-person rescue sub fills with water – and there’s only one diving suit available.

“And then there’s that lesser-known third category…”

         “The Day After Tomorrow”  This film has it all: tropical heat, instant cold… Wolves in Manhattan! And let’s not forget the instantly-freezing helicopter pilots, the best-insulated public library reading room in the northern hemisphere… I could go on. But the point is – if it’s too hot outside, lose yourself in a movie! Just don’t think TOO hard about ‘Day After Tomorrow.’ THAT would probably give you an ice-cream headache!

Blue? – or – Boo!

June 3rd, 2010 1 comment

A la “Speed,” here’s a a pop quiz: What was the most profitable movie last year?

If you guessed “Avatar,” you’re wrong. James Cameron’s movie may have made the most money of any film last year, but the winner in terms of profitability is “Paranormal Activity,” the ‘little movie that could’… “Paranormal Activity,” written and directed (on HD video) by Oren Peli for something like $11 thousand, went on to make $108 million domestically. For its part, “Avatar” made the most money ($750 million domestically, and about twice that overseas), but it also cost the most. The budget for “Avatar” is rumored to be in the $300 million range, while Peli used his own home to save on expenses. So it all adds up to big profits for Paramount – which, coincidentally, released both pictures. 

But in terms of return on investment, Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” earned an unheard-of-in-Hollywood 9,800% return. That makes “Avatar”‘s 750% profit (and remember – that’s worldwide) look downright puny. But pictures like “Paranormal Activity” are phenomena which rarely occur; Hollywood’s last bona fide breakout hit of this scale was “The Blair Witch Project,” and that was ten years ago…

Apart from their mutual heritage as very successful Paramount releases (‘Paranormal’ was actually a 2007 L.A. “Screamfest” festival entry before it made the rounds in Hollywood and ultimately ended up at Dreamworks, which ceded it to corporate parent Paramount), both pictures share another attribute which increased their odds: they are both genre movies. And that’s the secret to their successes…

Genre movies are Hollywood’s ‘ace up its sleeve,’ because they are popular and profitable and fairly cheap. Neither “Paranormal Activity” nor “Avatar” are fair examples, since they represent the exceptional upside. But you can point to a lot of solid genre performers in the marketplace, like “District 9” or “The Hangover,” both of which represented a low budget with high returns. Other genre successes include martial-arts/crime films (almost every Steven Seagal film has been quite successful – believe it or not…), action films (Val Kilmer still works; so does Dolph Lundgren), and the most recent sub-genre entry: dance films. These films represent something of a ‘sure bet’ for the studios (or their low-budget subsidiaries), since a low-budget film is far more likely to make money if it catches on with audiences – especially compared to their big-budget tentpole films, which must basically succeed just to break even. And a genre flop? Pffft. It’s dust – and dirt cheap at that…

 

Sure, the studios like to insist they’re creating art, 24 times a second, to paraphrase French New Wave film director Jean-Luc Godard, but really it’s ‘show business,’ not ‘show art.’ And like everybody else (except moreso), Hollywood wants to make money. That’s why they make side-bets with genre pictures while flaunting their big-budget productions. And it should come as no surprise that the most successful genre of all has been the horror/thriller genre. The success of “The Ring,” “Saw,” “Hostel,” “Scream” and all their gory and/or shriek-inducing sequels is part of a tried-and-true approach of marketing movies to teens that will cause them to slide together a bit closer in the dark. Granted, the splatter factor of recent years may be greater reason to cover each others’ eyes instead, but the business model remains the same: scare the sh#t out of the kids and they’ll always come back for more.

Genre success isn’t science fiction – I’m not joking. Genre success is kick-ass and steppin’ out. And an $11 thousand movie that makes over a hundred million? That’s genre success that’s truly shocking…