Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Cameron Crowe and Lloyd Dobler

ALOHA opened this past weekend to bad box office and even worse reviews, and you could see this coming for a number of reasons, not all of which had to do with the Sony email hack. Cameron Crowe has been in a rut for a while, which is unfortunate as he used to be a vital artist. I fell in love with Crowe's first film SAY ANYTHING when it initally hit home video and enjoyed his follow-ups for the most part until I had a breakthrough with ALMOST FAMOUS. I realized that it's kind of a bullshit movie, and then later hearing the commentary for SAY ANYTHING, it became obvious why I have never loved another Crowe film as much as his first film.

As for ALMOST FAMOUS, there's nothing all that wrong with an enjoyably full of shit movie if it's made well and is inoffensive (like GOOD WILL HUNTING, which requires as much suspension of disbelief as any superhero movie), but ALMOST FAMOUS is supposedly autobiographical. And that means that either Crowe never saw too much of the dark side of Rock and Roll, or he didn't want to show it. Both are possible (he was 13 when he started writing for magazines), and it's why the moments when the film gets a little darker, like when Billy Crudup shows that he's capable of violence, are where the film is at its most interesting. But when Crowe's/William Miller's first sexual encounter with a number of groupies is portrayed through hankerchief juggling... an act that if the character is 15 could be considered statutory rape (though likely gets the SOUTH PARK/THAT'S MY BOY "Nice" reaction from most), and if it was his first time... especially if it was three groupies it would be weird and awkward and likely quick. And you could argue that he tries to get that across in that William is more in love with Penny Lane, who seemingly gives permission to him to have sex but also maybe feels bad about it as well, but it also reveals the truth about Crowe: he's a nice guy. And it seems the best/worst thing to happen to him was John Cusack.

On the commentary track for SAY ANYTHING, Crowe talks about his initial conception of Lloyd Dobbler, which was based on someone that Crowe knew. He was a Southern gentleman who had the positivity of a motivational speaker. That was his concept for Lloyd, someone who could not be deterred, whose unerring sense of rightness would guide him to the life he wanted. And what Cusack brought to the part was the dark undercurrent. Cusack's Lloyd knew pain all too well and his positivity was a choice made in face of how much things sucked. When Lloyd is driving around in the rain, one doesn't get the sense that this is the first time his heart has been broken, it's that he can't understand what he did wrong (spoiler: he did nothing wrong). SAY ANYTHING seems grounded in a reality that Crowe knew, but the reason why the film works is because of Cusack, unquestionably. And for better or worse, Diane Court is one of Crowe's most rounded female characters.

SINGLES came out at an interesting moment, and it's mixture of romantic comedy and grunge documentary that's fascinating even if it's more charming than great. And then came JERRY MAGUIRE. I still like the film, though I haven't watched in a while, but what makes it interesting is how much Crowe actively paints himself into corners. The main character is a sports agent, seemingly the most detestable person imaginable. The love interests get married before they fall in love, etc. etc. But here, we start to see that Crowe is getting removed from regular people, and that he wants to emulate his success with SAY ANYTHING, though it doesn't comes as organically.

Post-ALMOST FAMOUS, Crowe made a remake for Tom Cruise with VANILLA SKY, which is a bro midlife crisis film that never meant much to me. Then there's his latest trilogy, and I go back to that commentary track. The big problem with these films, with ELIZABETHTOWN, WE BOUGHT A ZOO, and likely ALOHA - which I will eventually watch - is that Crowe likes to graft pain onto his main characters. In ELIZABETHTOWN - which due to the nature of DVD post-production work, is a film I have seen over ten times - it opens with the Orlando Bloom failing big and nearly committing suicide, in ZOO, it's that the protagonist's wife recently died, and in ALOHA, the main character was declared dead and left heavily injured in Afghanistan (though this was more fleshed out in the original script than the finished film).

The problem, especially in ELIZABETHTOWN is that it seems that Crowe only superficially understands darkness, and that's why ALMOST FAMOUS turned out as it did, but he still wants to have that dark energy in his movies. And when you realize that Lloyd Dobbler's character wasn't meant to have that weight, it explains a lot. Would ELIZABETHTOWN be a better movie if the main character wasn't suicidal? It strikes me that part of the problem is miscasting, but that Crowe's initial choice for the role was Ashton Kutcher suggests either that he's at the mercy of the studio system, or that he doesn't understand that pain. Other names that could have played the part are (according to wikipedia)  Seann William Scott, Colin Hanks, Chris Evans, and James Franco, so perhaps it is a generational problem. That film doesn't know how to mix pain with joy, the sweet and the sour. It's a hard chemistry problem to crack, perhaps even more so when you first did it accidentally.


There are certain things that I would love to have listed on my tombstone. A collection of the eccentric moments in my life that I’m – for better or worse – proud of having experienced. And I’m sure by the time Andre Dellamorte III sits on my lap, my story of having coffee and pie with David Lynch will likely involve me saving his life, or telling him a joke that made coffee and/or pie shoot out his nose.
Alas, such is not the case. I did have pie and coffee with David Lynch, and I’m sure I’ll be bragging about that for years to come, but it was because I was invited to attend a junket with David Lynch and Laura Dern at a nearby Marie Callenders, where we were served pie and coffee and got a chance to have a roundtable discussion with one of the few artists who managed to make transcendent work in the 80’s, and one of the stars of Jurassic Park. Though that’s not exactly fair to Dern, who has been one of the best female actresses going for nearly 25 years, with great performances in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Citizen Ruth. INLAND EMPIRE is their latest collaboration. Lynch is a mad gesticulator, his hands were often in motion when answering questions, and not being able to transcribe those movements is something of a loss.
As David sat down with us someone commented that pie and David Lynch go together
David Lynch: It’s the Twin Peaks thing, I guess.
Someone chimed in "I’ll take Marie Callendar’s over Four Seasons any day."
Lynch: You and me both. (This place) is way more of a restaurant than I thought.

Someone asked if he’d tried the pie yet, as a chocolate cream pie was put at the center of our table.
Lynch: Not yet, not yet. I was thinking about Banana Cream Pie. What are you guys gonna have, you’ve got Apple pie? Nice. But now you want the chocolate cream.

So what’s your favorite pie?
Lynch: Well, I like cherry pie, I like blueberry pie, I like banana cream pie, and I like Dutch Apple pie, I guess those would be the top four.
How is Dutch Apple pie different than regular apple pie?

Lynch: Dutch apple pie has something on top. What is it, cheese? It has that crumbly top. Yeah, yeah yeah, that’s it, a real crumbly top. Killer pie, beautiful.

Do you have a least favorite?

Lynch: I don’t think I’d be wild about rhubarb
And at this point Laura Dern joins us.
Laura Dern: I love Rhubarb!

Lynch: Really?

Dern: Yeah.

Lynch: Wow.
David said he wanted banana cream.

Dern: Oooh, banana cream! Does that mean we get a piece of pie at every table we go to? Oh, this is fantastic. I should get a coffee.

Lynch: I’m getting a coffee, I think. I think so. (To us) Fire away!
How long were you guys in production on INLAND EMPIRE?

Lynch: Well, production is a weird thing, how long over from the beginning to the end was about three years, but we weren’t always shooting every day, you know what I mean? A lot of days we weren’t shooting.

(To Dern) So he’d just call you up every once in a while and say "I’ve got a camera, I’ve got an idea?"

Dern: Pretty much, right?

Lynch: Yeah. (pause, followed by laughter)
It seemed like there were a lot of different styles in this picture in comparison to some of your other work, handheld type of stuff, did you take a different approach to this project?

Lynch: Yes, because I was shooting DV with a small, lightweight camera. It was so beautiful to me, to be able to hold the camera and float around, and you know, let it move according to what I was feeling or seeing. Whereas before you’re behind a massive camera, in front of you is an operator and a focus puller, and you’ve got a kind of barrier, and if you wanted to move, if you felt a thing, it wasn’t possible. Like I say, on the next take you might say "can you drift in on this line a little bit like this," but it may not happen the same way on the next take, so it gives you this ability to really be in there and stay in there, because it 40 minute takes, it’s very beautiful.
(To Laura) How different was it for you, having worked with David on previous projects?

Dern: You know, again, I’ll almost repeat the same idea. The liberty that comes with working with DV, you’re liberated as an actor, in the same way David describes you never miss anything because you’re right there. You never miss an opportunity of being in the moment, because suddenly now – not just the performance – but the camera is offering that in the moment opportunity, you can catch anything, and he can hear what the actor – seemingly off camera – is doing and want to capture that and just flip around, and because of the luxury of a 40 minute take if you need it – I mean 40 minutes in the camera – that you can shoot an entire scene without ever stopping and he can get all the coverage he wants and we are staying within the moment of acting out this scene, and not cutting and resetting but in fact even while filming talking to me, because of the luxury of the lack of expense as well, to say let’s do it again, okay, go back to this line, let’s keep going. And you’re just, as an actor, it’s an incredible feeling to stay true the mood, the feeling that’s going at that given time.
David, could you talk about how this film relates to your other work? Because there seem to be similarities with Mulholland Dr, and we actually saw clips from Rabbits in this film. Is this film an extension or how do you view it?

Lynch: It’s different but… similarities, because it deals with – as Mulholland Dr. did – the movie industry. But… And it has, you know, a female lead, um (laughs)

Dern: Thank you (more laughs)

Lynch: You know, and then it kind of takes off and becomes different.
It felt a bit like a collage of some of your previous works, was that intentional?

Lynch: No. Ideas come along, and you pick an idea, and sometimes you catch an idea that you fall in love with, and you see the way cinema could do that. It’s a beautiful day when that happens, and the idea tells you everything. Now you – because we had our kind of mechanism, we kind of fall in love with certain kinds of things, but every film is different, and it’s based on the ideas that come. And they are the things you try and stay completely true to, and all the elements you try to get to be feeling correct before you walk away, and you go.
So, Laura, with this role, there’s so many different levels, so many different performances, various different versions of the same person, how was that working for you?

Dern: You know, more than ever, the day’s work was at hand, and what I had. Given that we shot in such a way that we would, David would a write and we would film that, and then he’d write another scene and we’d film that and so on, it forced me – very luxuriously – into the moment. I didn’t necessarily know what was coming before or what was coming after, and whether one perceives it that I am different people, or that I am aspects of one person, either way you can really only act one way, which is being the person you are in that moment. So in a way, not knowing everything, and trying to somehow get to what would be logically minded as an actor and try and help the audience understand how this relates to that, etc. I was freed from any of that, by David keeping me in the moment with whatever character I was playing, or whichever aspect of the story I was involved in. And that was extremely freeing, and in a way I think allows for more imagination as an actor, because as much as an actor wants to believe this is just for my own experience, that they are not informing the audience. There can be a pitfall of feeling like "because my character is going to do this five scenes from now, maybe I should give them a little taste of that, so they know that it’s coming," but as we see, human nature doesn’t work that way. Where people cry in the news when we hear "so and so, who seemed like such a nice guy, did this atrocious thing." And so being forced by the director, if you will, to just be this aspect of what I suppose this is for, I think made me get to be braver by default, not intentionally.
Would you only want to approach a movie with this scene-by-scene approach with David? Is he the only one you’d feel comfortable with?

Dern: Well, I’d rather only work with David, period. (laughs)

Lynch: You’re working with me now, but watch what happens next time "Oh, I don’t even want to work with Robert." (more laughing)

Dern: They know, we’ve met many times before when you weren’t here. (again, this entire exchange is peppered with laughter)

Lynch: Exactly. It’s all baloney! (more laughing, as per last sentence)

Dern: Going back from their lunch. "Can you believe it? Poor David Lynch, he doesn’t
realize that Laura has said that so many times today." But I think, for myself, I’ve watched David do this with many other actors on this movie, but I don’t know if I could have done this with many other directors, because, and we’ve been asked if we have a shorthand, in fact we have a remarkable one. And I’m sure he has it with the other actors he works with, but for me, I have the ability from knowing him since I was seventeen, separate from who he is as a director to me, to intuit what he means, and he can intuit what I’m going to express before it happens. So it’s not just what the movie’s about, or the character I’m playing, but even as an operator, a cinematographer, I felt like David moved his body and camera just into place just as I was thinking of moving that way. You know there’s that thing that happens…

Lynch: Laura actually directed this picture.

Dern: Wonderful.
With that scene by scene approach to filming, did you ever consider releasing it as a series of short films?

Lynch: No. (laughs)

Dern: A set of long films.

Lynch: No. After a while, the scene by scene revealed more. And then I wrote a lot of stuff, and then we went and shot more traditionally. We could shoot for several weeks, and have stuff to shoot, and organized like a regular shooting schedule. But it was just in the beginning that it was scene by scene. And those, were, could have ended up just being that, a scene, separate, by itself, for the internet or whatever. But I didn’t know what it was going to be, so I’d shoot a scene, and then I’d get an idea for another scene and shoot that scene, and lo and behold, after a bunch of them, a thing came out.
Your working process on this was different

Lynch: A little different.
So, with the freedom of digital video, do you see yourself making movies more in line with this, or this kind of process?

Lynch: Not this process, but with digital video. And I think, maybe, I would, it would be nice to have a script written up front, but it just didn’t happen this time.

Dern: But, as he said, there were chunks of the film that surfaced, that you wrote. Towards the end, I mean, we shot for a month.

Lynch: It all starts coming more and more and more.

Dern: But we shot for like, four or five weeks solid at one point, almost like a traditional movie.
So it was all linear?

Lynch: Totally linear. It’s a straight ahead linear thing. (laughter) No, it wasn’t all linear, but there were a lot of scenes that were there, some could have been back in time, some could have been here, and then a chunk right now, like that.
Laura, when you were shooting the opening sequence with the creepy old woman (played by Grace Zabrinski), was it as creepy to shoot as it was to do it?

Dern: Well she is the nicest, loveliest lady, but having met her on Wild at Heart, I’m just damned terrified of her every time I see her. I can’t get over who she has been made out to be by David when I see her. It’s the beauty of working with David, is that you are – speaking of being in the moment – you are there in the moment, you may have a sense that something is disturbing, or a sense that something is funny, but when you’re in it you’re just trying to make it as authentic as it is, and then when you reflect back, or when you see it as an audience something that even seemed straight while you’re shooting it to me is just hysterical. I pretty much think he’s the best comedy director going, you know other people don’t see it that way.

Lynch: Laura is seeing a psychiatrist.

Dern: Hilarious. Her speech is hilarious, but I was doing it she was terrifying, so I don’t know why it worked out that way because I wasn’t sitting across from her.
The last question call is given

Lynch: Whoa that was quick, how can we possibly get into this?
I have to ask, is Twin Peaks ever going to be released on DVD?

Lynch: For sure it is.
We’re still waiting for Season Two.

Lynch: Yeah, it’s coming out, I think next spring. I think so.
What about Lost Highway?

Lynch: It’s all color corrected, timed, high def masters ready, it’s, I think Universal owns it now, and Lost Highway did not make a lot of money at the box office, so they probably have it way low on some list for DVD, I don’t know when they’ll get to it, I haven’t heard a thing. You’re going to have to write to Universal.

INLAND EMPIRE is already open in New York and Boston, and opens in LA on Friday the 15th.

For the Record: TROLL 2

The Film: Troll 2 (1990)

The Principals: Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, shitty puppets, Claudio Fragasso (director)

The Premise: A young boy named Joshua (Stephenson) has been having conversations with his dead grandfather Seth, who keeps warning him about Goblins. His family decides to go to a town called Nilbog for vacation. Nilbog is goblin spelled backwards. Do the math. 

Is It Good: In the words of our foremost poet-laureate “Aw, hell no.”

This is a movie called Troll 2 that features no actual trolls. They’re all goblins. This was made by an Italian (Fragasso) in America at the tail end of the Italian horror renaissance. There’s a horror subculture that regales the Italians, but horror fans are often the most forgiving, and there’s a lot of terrible Italian horror movies. Oh sure, you can call Dario Argento a master, there is a case to be made for Lucio Fulci, and there’s no denying Ruggero Deodato has his moments. I’m not denying the Italians (hello, my name is inspired by Dellamorte Dellamore) but many of the other big names – like Umberto Lenzi and Bruno Mattei – made shitty knock offs that are mostly laughable. That’s also appealing in its way as their films often mimicked something successful in America. It says something about his gifts that Claudio Fragasso worked a lot with Bruno Mattei and co-directed Rats: Night of Terror (if you haven’t seen Rats, it’s totally worth seeing for the surprise ending).

I have not seen Best Worst Movie – though I will – but I was indoctrinated into the Troll 2 cult by old video store coworkers. A number of the girls there (it would be fair to call them hipsters) really got into the “so bad it’s good” type of cinema, and they were obsessed with this movie. And you can see why they were so stoked: It doesn’t take long into the movie to realize that the director’s command of performance and acting was non-existent. All the actors are uniformly terrible, though you build up sympathy for Stephenson’s Joshua because he’s trying and he’s a kid. The girls were obsessed with Stephenson. Side note: as Best Worst Movie was taking off I had dinner with Stephenson through mutual friends, and I had to tell those old coworkers about it. I was star struck, but in that way you might be if you saw someone you recognized from a porn video.

The driving force of the cult of this thing is apparent right away, which is the complete disconnect from good acting and the weird interpretation of standard movie tropes. It’s one thing to be bad, but it’s something way more awesome if you’re crazed. Joshua constantly talks to his dead Grandpa Seth, who acts partly as a Obi-Wan Kenobi figure and partly as a get out of jail free card whenever Joshua needs help. Which leads to a scene where Joshua’s family is about to eat dinner, so grandpa Seth freezes time and Joshua figures the only way to stop people from eating is to pee on their food. This actually happens, by the way. Though the actual score is fun, the poor music choices also help amp up the camp (up). The family sings “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” terribly (which Kirk, Spock and Bones did in Star Trek V, leading me to a new pet theory: any film that uses this song will be bad), and Joshua’s sister doing a workout to music obviously created specifically for the scene.

There is a war going on for the film’s tone, but you can tell there’s something of a fairy tale quality to the movie, as there is an evil witch and fairy tale logic. For example, eating the Goblin’s food turns you into Goblin food, and because the goblins are vegetarians, Joshua is able to ward them off by eating meat. Every once in a while things seem so uniquely terrible that you almost think the film is intentionally doing what it’s doing, but then those thoughts pass as shots linger on terrible actors. This is also – strangely – a dead teenager film, as Joshua has a sister who’s got a boyfriend who wants to go on their vacation, but instead takes an RV with his friends to follow the family, which means additional corpses. One of his friends dies eating corn on the cob that explodes into popcorn as he’s eating it.

And finally, man I love the Goblin costumes. My favorite has always been the one that looks like Edvard Munch’s Scream guy.

Is It Worth a Look:  It depends on your tolerance/appetite for good bad movies. There’s no denying the film has a charm because it is so uniquely terrible. I go back and forth on my feelings about liking a film for those reasons. Yes, I own The Room, and Battlefield Earth, but I don’t know how much energy should be spent on appreciating something terrible. Then again, I just bought this film on Blu-ray, so I’m kind of an asshole. Yummy! Mom is so good.

Random Anecdotes: The costume designer for the film was Laura Gemser. Gemser played Emmanuelle, and spent much of the 70’s in films where she was naked, having sex, getting raped (oh, the Italians!) and/or “exploring her sexuality” (read: fooling around with chicks). Sometimes this would start or end with her wearing a nun’s habit. I have no knowledge of what she did in her off hours, though her transition into costume design leads me to think it was knitting, and possibly darning. If I ever see Michael Stephenson again, I’ll have to ask him about her, though that’s possibly mentioned in his movie Best Worst Movie, which comes out on DVD 11/16.

For the Record: ONE FOR THE ZIPPER: LESLIE NIELSEN 1926-2010

If it weren’t for David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the passing of Leslie Nielsen would have mostly been noted by fans of 1950’s sci-fi. Without ZAZ, Nielsen would be best remembered as the vanilla lead of Forbidden Planet. To be fair, Nielsen gave what the role required: a stiff resolve, and the look of the perfect American (or North American, Nielsen was a Canadian). But in terms of acting, the role didn’t require a lot of heavy lifting, and Nielsen was another in a line of handsome but bland actors who slummed in those (at the time) children’s pictures. After that, it would be probably be his role as the Captain of the ill-fated Poseidon in The Poseidon Adventure to which he was most memorable on-screen. Had it not been for his willingness to make fun of himself (and perhaps a vague similarity to Ronald Reagan), he would have continued on the road he was on for most of his career, which included guest spots on such shows as Fantasy Island, The Golden Girls, and Murder, She Wrote. Perhaps the autumn years would have been spent at cons getting horror fans to pay money for his autograph because of his brief turn in George Romero’s Creepshow. It was a career littered with special guest spots and lower-billed authority figures, the career path of many who came to close to becoming studio system stars, but didn’t have that extra oopmh.

But when Leslie Nielsen was cast in 1980’s Airplane! a second career was born, albeit one that took almost a decade to come into bloom. Nielsen was one of many older actors called on to mock their straight-faced demeanor and bland good looks in the hit comedy, and though both Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges would return to work with ZAZ, it was Nielsen who they based a show around with their dismal failure Police Squad (in Color!). Running an all too brief six episodes, Police Squad is one of those great flukes of television history, and one of the most unintentionally perfect shows ever to air. Nielsen’s Frank Drebin is an ingenious comic lead – he’s a clueless but effective police detective in the middle of a ZAZ world. The show cemented his rhythms for these roles – Nielsen was drop dead funny when he was completely oblivious. And the show wouldn’t work without such a great anchor. But even after that, it took time for Nielsen to catch on, so much so that he was cast in a relatively serious role in Barbara Streisand’s Nuts in 1987. It was when Drebin was resurrected for 1988’s Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad that he finally caught on. The film was a smash hit, and it cemented Nielsen’s comic chops (while also spawning two sequels).

Though Nielsen could be the highlight in some truly terrible comedies, he was limited by the quality of the writing. Too often he was called on to mug, which works against what made him so great – Nielsen’s comic persona is based around him not being aware that he’s saying something funny or outrageous. Unlike Bridges or Stack, or even Peter Graves, Nielsen’s lack of definition in the early part of career made him perfect as a representation of an earlier era without the baggage of well-known roles. But even if the movies were lesser, Nielsen had a joy about him even in something as flimsy as a Scary Movie 3. He knew what a gift his second career was, and even when he wasn’t funny, he could make a bad comedy that much more lively. 

The legacy of his work is undeniable, as his work with ZAZ was very influential on a lot of comic writers, but specifically in Nielsen you can see the template for Stephen Colbert, and Police Squad was obviously the blueprint for shows like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Though the Naked Gun franchise has not aged as well as Airplane! or Top Secret!, the first film still has some great laughs (as do the sequels), and I’ve intentionally kept this piece from becoming a quote fest – there are just way too many great lines that Nielsen sold as well as any great comic performer. But if any work should be saluted as Nielsen’s greatest accomplishment, it should be Police Squad (in Color!). The show never lurched above minor cult status in America, but I suspect it made a larger impression in England. When I talked to Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper about Look Around You, Police Squad was one of their biggest reference points, and Edgar Wright also mentioned the show while noting Nielsen’s passing. If you have yet to experience it, here’s a taste:


For the Record: I KNOW: IRVIN KERSHNER 1923-2010

Peter Bogdanovich: “Isn’t it too bad she (Greta Garbo) only made two good pictures out of forty?”
Orson Welles: “Well, you only need one.”

I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 – in fact I moved in the day of the presidential election, which reiterated what the most of my year had essayed. It was a tough but hopeful move, and one of the nice things I had to look forward to was that my friendship with Jeremy Smith and my writing meant that I could do something I had wanted to do since they started appearing on Ain’t It Cool News: I was going to be a part of their Jedi Council. Okay, admittedly, it was silly and a bunch of geeks bickering over what had already been a wounded franchise, but I am a nerd and even if my first go-around was an off night (Drew McWeeny couldn’t make it), what did come of it was great. I not only got to meet some of the people who would become some of my closest friends, I also got a ticket for a screening of The Empire Strikes Back at the Arclight with director Irvin Kershner in attendance.

Watching the film again on the big screen brought back many memories. My parents say that the first movie I saw in the theater was Star Wars, but I have no real memory of that. Instead, what I remember was seeing Empire. I think we came in during a scene where they’re getting the troops together on Hoth, but that can’t be because that comes after the scene with the Wampa, and I know that I spent much of pre-school hanging upside down (but still using one hand to support myself) and trying to use the force. I was four then, and the color scheme of the film’s epic final confrontation, and the power of that whole last stretch of the film was imprinted on me. Something reinforced when I watched the film again almost ten years later when I wanted to buy a laserdisc player, and my friend Chris showed me the film in widescreen. Or when I worked a shit job just so I could afford the $250 laserdisc box set of the trilogy (all in CAV, with sparse commentary tracks!). But – at the Arclight – it was the special edition cut of the film (unfortunately), the one that my friends and I went to see repeatedly. When that version came out in 1997 I was working at a video store and going to college, and my best friend and I went to the Eastgate theater to see the first show. He wanted to live it, so he spent the night outside the theater with a number of other die-hards. The special edition – fixes and slapdash “new” stuff – still worked like gangbusters. And watching it in 2004, I noted what has come to be my trigger with the movie, as I always fall into the film at the same point. It’s the push-in on Carrie Fisher as the shield doors are closed.

It’s film-making 101 right there: we know that Princess Leia is concerned that both Luke Skywalker, and now Han Solo are locked outside the base in the deadly freezing temperatures of the planet. We are told that they both have a very low probability for survival. Leia doesn’t break, because she’s in a leadership position (even though everyone is being sensitive around her) but the push-in lets us know cinematically that she is feeling that door closing. And here Kershner shows what he brought to the table, because this (mixed with the great blues and whites of this section of the film) doesn’t seem to come from Lucas. There are elegiac moments in the first Star Wars movie, but Kershner’s work deepens the characters, and gives a greater sense of visual poetry to the universe. The audience at the Arclight was into the film, and then they brought out Kershner to a standing ovation.

Watching the Q&A was weird, because you want all great directors to be great storytellers, and Kershner at first didn’t come across as a great speaker, but he eventually came to life. He covered the usual bases (“who wrote it?,” etc.) but the longer he spoke, the more it crystallized in my mind: Irvin Kershner is Yoda. Not only does Kershner’s voice resemble the Jedi master, but Luke Skywalker was always a George Lucas surrogate, and Irvin Kershner was one of Lucas’s teachers at USC. Yoda spends much of Empire schooling Luke, just as – for many fans – Empire takes the ideas and characters from Star Wars and takes them to the next level. Such might explain why they never captured the Yoda of Empire again.

In fan circles, there’s always been a question of who to credit for the success of the film. There are those who give a lot of love to Leigh Brackett (who all involved now says got a tribute credit for her work, which was mostly discarded), while there are a number of Lawrence Kasdan partisans, and others who give it up to George Lucas’s bank-betting production (less so now that Lucas has returned to directing). Regardless, it’s easy to wonder how much Irvin Kershner had to do with the success of the film. On the positive, when you take out Kershner and put in someone else you get Return of the Jedi, which was written by Kasdan, and had Lucas – some say micromanaging – on the set . But then there’s also Kershner’s post-Empire track record, which includes Never Say Never Again (which I recently revisited and enjoyed, though at the time Disco’d out, video game playing Connery Bond was a huge disappointment), and the wrongheaded Robocop 2. And now there’s the J.W. Rinzler making of book, which goes into greater detail on the making of that film. But all evidence is that Kershner was no Tobe Hooper, no Christian Nyby.

But for those Star Wars fans who go digging, Kershner’s body of work offers few answers to how he did it. Perhaps best known of his earlier films is the John Carpenter-penned The Eyes of Laura Mars, which Pauline Kael flipped for but never made a great impression on me. I was fond of A Fine Madness, which is a fascinating pop-art late 60’s movie that tried to help Sean Connery shake the bonds of Bond, but is very modest in the scheme of things. S*P*Y*S reunited Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland post-M*A*S*H to little greater ends. And the intersection between Auteurism and fanboyism has never led to DVD releases for The Flim-Flam Man, or The Luck of Ginger Coffee. If nothing else, perhaps Kershner’s passing will drum up some interest in the rest of his body of work, even if thirty years post-Empire has done little toward that. But Kershner – and his role in creating what is one of the great and defining works of cinema fantasy – has earned his place in the canon, because regardless of how it came out, he created a masterpiece, and his fingerprints are undeniable. As Orson Welles said, you only need one.

For the Record: The Tourist

What does it mean to win a foreign film academy award? In the modern world, it means you can go to America. Not everyone does, of course, but usually the awarded film features great performances. Director Andrew Dominik said of his Chopper that when you make a film like that, actors want to work with you, and such seems the case for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who came out of The Lives of Others looking like a champ. For geeks, he was the man who denied Guillermo Del Toro an Oscar, but the film was considered one of the best of the year.

Regardless, his work caught a lot of people’s attentions, which is why he was able to make The Tourist with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Depp stars as Frank Tupelo, the titular tourist who takes a train ride with Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie). She is being followed by international agents (headed up by Paul Bettany) as she is the lover of a mysterious accountant Alexander Pearce, who is worth a couple billion dollars and is wanted by the British government for $775 Million in back taxes. Elise is contacted by her lover to go on a train and find a dupe, who turns out to be Frank.

The film starts with a set-up that’s both familiar and new, and von Donnersmarck and his fellow scripters Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellows (in adapting the French film by Jerome Salle Anthony Zimmer) obviously are careful of their Hitchcock. That’s the activating agent for this film (and likely the original), as the two strangers meet on a train, but Depp’s Tupelo is no Roger Thornhill. Tupelo is a bumpkin, touring Europe after the death of his wife, a math teacher who smokes an electronic cigarette. Elise chides him for his behavior, and coaches him how to act as a man. It’s a charming scene, and though everyone involved seems to know what they’re riffing on, it’s still got enough sharp edges to make it pop a little.

When the two de-board, it’s revealed that the police know he’s a dupe, so they back off, but enough information leaks out that illicit gangster Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff) is on his trail. His order to his men: you can kill Elise, but Frank must be left alone. Elsie invites Frank on a night on the town, and the come close to consummating a relationship, but he is weak and is aware that there is another man. From there the film becomes a chase, as Shaw wants his money, and chases Frank without knowing that he has nothing to do with anything, though word is that Pearce has gotten plastic surgery, so any one is possible. But it’s also about Frank becoming the man he’s always wanted to be, and a man of derring-do (which is the theme of all these sorts of films).

What’s unfortunate for this film is that Brian De Palma ruined Hitchockian riffing. Where De Palma was able to steal from Hitchcock and turn it into a game, his knowing acknowledgement makes those that follow come across as less clever. The Tourist feels familiar in its To Catch a Thief meets North By Northwest trappings, and there’s a sag to the film because it comes across as a xerox. There’s no edge here, there’s nothing more than feeling like a riff until the final reveal, which I will cover in a spoiler section. And if you like a reasonably well made riff on Hitchcock then this will surely fulfill your needs, but it feels like exactly that (and no more). In every way this film feels like a movie out of time, as this sort of thing seems to be something best done two decade or more ago. But if I don’t dislike the film, it’s because it feels old school, with a nailed down plot and enough twists and turns and practical action to keep a viewer engaged.

What I think makes the film is the ending, which moves us into spoiler territories, so beware. End of line, I modestly liked the film, and there’s some appearances by actors I didn’t know were in the film that lifted the movie for me, and as a star showcase, character actors having fun sort of film, I found it to be harmless fun.


What I think makes the film is that in the end moments, there’s a twist ending (which the writing credits might make more evident) where Tupelo is revealed to be the sought after man in question. What I like-to-love about this ending is that Johnny Depp is our everyman, just as so many ultra-famous people have been before. What makes the ending for me is that it says that what we trusted was that everyman is revealed to be a billionaire. In that way, the film is a very interesting comment (intentionally or no) on so much of pop culture and films like this. And that was enough for me to view this film as a minor success.

For the Record: THE DEFT TOUCH: BLAKE EDWARDS 1922-2010

With the passing of Blake Edwards, the world has lost a master, and an important link in the development of American comedies. Edwards is the bridge in comedic sensibilities from the more urbane and droll sex comedies of the pre-Hayes code era (think Ernst Lubitsch) and the modern sensibilities that moved more towards the explicitly sexual and scatological (say, Judd Apatow).

For modern audiences, the work of Edwards will always seem of period. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but works as diverse as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Party and the Pink Panther series feature racial stereotypes that temper more politically correct enthusiasms. But just as D. W. Griffith is one of the greats, Edwards legacy is only tarnished but not ruined by such elements. Like most comics, his films were a reflection of their era, and a commentary on them, and it takes some distance to find the truth underneath the polyester period trappings.

Like most from his generation, Edwards’s directorial career started in television, after writing a number of B westerns and films for Richard Quine. His early efforts are most notable for the cast, with Operation Petticoat the best remembered of the bunch (with Tony Curtis and Cary Grant). Television served him well, as he created Peter Gunn, and set a tone of cool that would dominate his 60’s work.

In 1961 came Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Audrey Hepburn’s filmography is reasonably long and she is an international sex symbol, so it says something that Holly Golightly is her career-defining role. Her fashion sense (that black dress!) and the extended cigarette holder here are as immortal as Bogart’s trench-coat, or Harold Lloyd’s glasses. Though the film is scarred by Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of an annoyed Asian neighbor (which might be forgivable if we weren’t supposed to laugh at the abuse he takes for wanting quiet simply because he’s a wacky Asian), it was here that Edwards matured into a great director. So much of modern comedy is performance-based, but if you watch the party scene in this movie, it’s a musical number of comic choreography. If released today, the film would be seen as the Hollywoodified version of a much tougher novel, but that also goes to show how wrong modern concerns for fidelity can be. The film exists right on the precipice of the new freedoms regarding sex on screen (European films had already started to feature nudity), which is why the film can only intimate the fifty dollars Holly gets to powder her nose is a euphemism for sexual favors, but it – like so many of the films of the past – it gives the film a couple layers. Some viewers may think she’s on the verge of real prostitution, others may never get what’s going on, while others can see the sad truth of her “profession.” Regardless of the retroactive schmaltz associated with “Moon River,” the ending of the film works like gangbusters, and the film deserves it place as one of the great romantic comedies.

In 1962 he stretched his muscles, doing a thriller/noir with Experiment in Terror, and – one of his personal favorites – the melodrama The Days of Wine and Roses. The latter is more effective than the former, but both are good movies, and showed that Edwards had a range. With Roses he showed that he understood pathos, which is the key to any great comedy. In another career, these would be crown jewels, but the next year he made The Pink Panther. For those who are only familiar with the franchise in passing, or through Inspector Clouseau’s fights with Cato (Bert Kwouk), what’s fascinating about the first film is that it’s a European heist movie with an international cast that includes David Niven, Robert Wagner and Cappucine. But Peter Seller’s Clouseau was the role, which led to A Shot in the Dark a year later. The franchise waned dramatically as it went on – and also led to a bizarre spin-off in 1968 with Alan Arkin – but it had enough audience pull to lead to eight official movies in total (including one with Ted Wass and another with Roberto Benign) or an even ten if you include the Steve Martin remakes. It’s a comic legacy of diminishing returns, but between the first two films and The Party, Edwards set a tone for how comedies were made in that era, and films like Casino Royale and What’s New, Pussycat? are inconceivable without Edwards.

The Party has a rabid fan-base, as it’s an effort that either delights from beginning to end or puts you off with its dated approach and its mild case of racism. The film stars Sellers (and other than Stanley Kubrick, it’s hard to argue that Edwards wasn’t Sellers’s best director) as an Indian actor who is mistakenly invited to a party, and manages to turn it into full-on chaos. The movie is a perfect time capsule of the era, and as it was made in 1968 you can feel the film torn between the counter-culture (which gets a watered down representation) and a more staid sensibility. There are lots of bubbles, and an elephant. Slightly more fun is Edwards’s The Great Race, which has Tony Curtis reuniting with Some Like it Hot co-star Jack Lemmon, along with Natalie Wood and Peter Falk. It’s very arch and silly – a live action cartoon – and all the more enjoyable for it.

Edwards had no problem cashing Clouseau paychecks through most of the 1970’s, though his relationship with Sellers crumbled, and the comedy got more and more labored, but he did get to make a World War II film with his wife Julie Andrews in Darling Lily, and the Western The Wild Rovers with William Holden and Ryan O’Neal. But in one of the great flukes of right place-right time, he turned Dudley Moore into a leading man with his 1979 film 10, which was a cultural phenomenon (there are still jokes made about Bo Derek’s hair in this film). Edwards was always interested in the social mores of sex, and the film hit a cultural button. Moore plays a guy who keeps seeing what he considers the perfect woman (which in 1979 was defined in the dictionary as Bo Derek), and contorts his life and nearly ruins his current relationship to be in a position to fuck Derek’s character. In that way Edwards showed his great gift for torture and near-missing in comedy.

It was a build-up to his last great picture with 1981’s S.O.B. The story of a filmmaker who wants to get someone known for their wholesome image to do a nude scene – featuring Julie Andrews going topless – was Edwards at his sharpest, and is one of the best satires of Hollywood. He followed it with Victor/Victoria, the still-funny sex comedy about a female drag queen played by his wife, who falls for a man who doesn’t realize she’s a woman. It was a great rebirth, but turned into his last great run of quality.

Like most great directors, Edwards worked long past his prime, and the rest of his films from the 1980’s were misses. There are moments in Blind Date and Skin Deep, but they’re few and far between. He knew the blueprints, but it’s hard to imagine how much cocaine made Ted Danson and Howie Mandell in A Fine Mess seem like a good idea. Comedians and comic directors don’t tend to age well, as we’ve seen with many of his contemporaries (Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks).

But if anything, Edwards marks the end of the age of elegance in comedies and comic directors. John Landis is one of the last, but so much of comedy – even from names like Judd Apatow – are driven by dialogue and the performers more than visual wit (you see more of that internationally). Edwards knew that certain angles and certain cuts could be hysterical, and he used the language of cinema to enhance or create a joke. For that – among many other reasons – is why he’ll be missed.

For the Record: Real Genius

The Film: Real Genius (1985)
The Principals: Val Kilmer, William Atherton, Gabe Jarret, Robert Prescott, Michelle Meyrink, Jon Gries, Martha Coolidge (director)
The Premise: A genius-level fifteen-year-old named Mitch (Jarret) gets recruited to a prestigious college to work on a laser for Doctor Jerry Hathaway (Atherton), and work with somewhat more famous genius Chris Knight (Kilmer). It turns out the world of a college for nerds is no different than high school (or life).
Is It Good?: Yes, but let me start by saying I don’t know if any of you follow me on twitter (@houx), but The Social Network came out Tuesday, and like many I watched the film that night (actually my review should be up on Collider shortly), and I thought to myself and then tweeted “The Social Network would make a great double feature with Real Genius.” I got some retweets for that, and I do think it’s interesting to compare the two as the big problem Mark Zuckerberg runs into is he doesn’t know how to relax. But then I realized something: Scott Tobias from The A.V. Club (which I esteem as the best pop culture site on the internet) was about to do it as an entry in the Cult Cannon series he does every other Thursday. I hate to follow in his footsteps, but that was the movie I watched last night, and his thoughts are here.. My approach will try and compliment his as we both agree it’s a darn good movie, so I will try to avoid double dipping, as it were.
Like a lot of people my age, I grew up on the movie, watched it repeatedly, and my fandom has never subsided (there are recent pictures of me with Eddie Deezen wearing a I Heart Toxic Waste shirt). At the time – between this and Top Secret! – Val Kilmer was a hero, and I couldn’t wait to see how his career developed (answer: sadly). Tobias brings up the slobs versus snobs aesthetic which gripped films of this sort, but one of the things I love most about the film is that the bad guys are also smart people too. I think this reflects a reality of any sub-culture in that once you hit a certain critical mass there’s always going to be factions. Chris Knight has his friends, and so does Robert Prescott’s Kent. (News to me: Prescott was in Burn After Reading, and Jarret was in Frost/Nixon) Ultimately, in this highly rarified air, Kent knows he’s been outdone by many around him (arguably he was used to being the smartest guy around), and now that he’s surrounded by people like Knight, his response is petty insults, and being a sycophant to Hathaway. But Martha Coolidge makes him – in his way – sympathetic. He’s a boob, but one whose domain is so small and petty that he’s ultimately more pathetic than evil, and when he sabotages the laser it’s born of pure resentment.
One of the things I love about the film is that – though it sets up the dangerous nature of the laser – the heart of the movie is about Chris helping Mitch and vice versa. Mitch has always applied himself, and the film takes for granted that these people are smart – so much so that the writing seems sharper than anything is most adult films these days. We want Knight to succeed with the laser, even with the looming military threat, but that is so backgrounded that when they make it work and the machine is whisked away, such begins the third act in one of those great “transitions of interest.” For the first two-thirds it’s about getting to understand Knight and his swagger, and see why it’s good, while also preparing Mitch to deal with a world that isn’t just his work, while the film concludes with them working together to stop their work from being misappropriated.
And to this first part I think the film is a great lesson in the same mold as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but I think this is better because we believe these people are geniuses, and we understand that some people are so driven that sometimes the socialization process gets away from them (cue The Social Network). Jarret is great casting in that he comes across as a miniature adult, but not in a freakish Tin Drum sort of way, but he’s at the exact right age where his body and face seems in transition to adulthood. He’s already partly there, but mostly not. But I love how the film moves into the final section of the movie. It sets up that the goals have changed, and the characters are reacting to a new and much higher level of come-uppances.
As Tobias notes, because of the influence of Animal House the structure for most of these films are based on getting even or back at people, and that comes more into focus for the end. And I think that’s why the film is so loveable – for the most part the big prankish stuff the guys pull is not against other people, but just being clever. Set pieces like the pool party or the ice skating in the hallway suggest that Knight and company are just trying to have fun, and as long as they’re doing the work, it makes sense. This also extends to the oddity of having a character that lives in the closet. Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries) is used to represent what could happen – the guy who worked so hard he couldn’t handle other people, and Gries plays him like everything’s a little off-tempo. It comes across as someone not used to speaking.
And Val Kilmer. Oh Val Kilmer. This is – for me – the defining performance. It’s a special magic to play this sort of role: Kind of a jerk, but likeable. He’s the sort of guy who would be unbearable if he wasn’t your friend. The character as written is one of those guys who have an oversized personality, and Kilmer finds all the right notes to give him humanity, and showcase that there’s so much going on in his head that he can’t help but crack wise all the time. But – like all great slightly assholish comic leads – he happens to be funny, and most of what he says in the film delivers.
He’s got a great foil in William Atherton, and as great as his Walter Peck was, Atherton’s best is Real Genius. Atherton could be a solid supporting actor, but like fellow Die Hard Alum Paul Gleason, it was always a pleasure to see him spew contempt. Here he does nothing but offer insult after insult. Hathaway is a public TV star, and one of the great unspoken elements of the film is that the laser he’s working on has been farmed out to his students. Like Kent, there is a level of resentment and lack of expertise to his character. When Lazlo tells Chris that he’s memorized all of Hathaway’s test questions it serves to suggest both Hollyfeld’s genius and Hathaway’s laziness.
Is It Worth a Look: I would say – slightly guardedly – yes. I have no idea how much I romanticize this film as one of my childhood favorites, and watching it again it serves slightly as comfort food. But it’s got good jokes, a great structure, winning performances, and the deft touch of Martha Coolidge. Coolidge seems underrated in the scheme of things, because between this and Valley Girl I prefer her films about teenage lust and life to most of the other 80’s films about teens.
Random Anecdotes: Dean Devlin, later of Independence Day and Godzilla fame, has a small role in the film. When Tim League came to LA with Four Lions, I rode around on a Karaoke bus with Jon Gries. We both ended up singing the chorus of Cheap Trick’s Surrender at each other very loudly. How’s that for random?


So who are you and why are you doing this?
Well, my name is Andre Dellamorte, and I’m doing this cause Nick and Devin asked me to.

So what makes you think you’re some kind of expert on guessin’ how movies are going to open?

Honestly, I don’t think I am. Predicting a film’s box office is much like predicting the weather in Chicago, though there are always tells. To wit, Spider-Man 3 will open big, and Lucky You will open small. I AM A GENUIS! The question is how close to being right you can get. For the most part, I will be wrong more often than not. And I say this (and have said it repeatedly) with no ego, because nobody is ever that right. So much of successes and failures are due to all sorts of mitigating factors that could be categorized under the butterfly effect. Hopefully, I will be consistently in the ballpark, or my errors will make sense within the scheme of things. That said, I spent five years in the film business working on the exhibition side of things, so monitoring the numbers is something I have done in a professional capacity. When I say exhibition, I don’t mean I worked at a movie theater; I worked within the organization of a theater chain and my livelihood was based on being more right than not. Then again, knowing that certain films will make money and certain films won’t is also not that hard. The real analysis comes on Sunday once the numbers are in.

How, then, do you arrive at your guestimates?

Through a couple of things, but most importantly by tracking. Those are the numbers the studios gather to get a sense of how things are going to play out. These numbers are also always wrong, and tend to miss out on the children’s market because those numbers cannot be tracked as efficiently. Such may explain why predictions on kids films are usually off the most. Last weekend Disturbia blew out its tracking, but that has to do with its target demographic.

How do you feel about the numbers?

I hate them. They are one of the worst things about the business.

Then why write about them?

I’ve always felt that box office results, Oscars, and top ten lists are the bane of filmgoers’ and critics’ existences, but all serve very important functions. With the latter, they are more important politically than they are as a measure of any relative worth. Judging 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the better film over Shaun of the Dead comes down to splitting hairs and personal preference – at some point, there are great movies and then there’s everything else. Making a list is usually an act meant to alert readers to the best movies to see and the ones to avoid (or, at least, it shouldn’t be used to confirm tastes, as the AFI does). Also, many great films emerge after the fact, and some films grow in time as others diminish. United 93 is a film of its moment, but who’s to say how it will be viewed in twenty years? That doesn’t make it a lesser film. And with the Oscars, if winning one helps get Charlie Kaufman financing on his next project, the world is a better place. And if Rachel Weisz’s win for The Constant Gardener makes more people see it, then I hope they like it. It’s all about the small victories. The same could be said for box office results, because few great films make that much money. There are numerous reasons for this, but the main one is that often the most profound works of art aren’t all that commercial. But whereas Eternal Sunshine and Shaun were outperformed by Shrek 2, The Day After Tomorrow, Catwoman, National Treasure and Shark Tale (not to mention Ladder 49, White Chicks and The Stepford Wives), it’s fair to say their legacy will stretch further.

And your point is?

To understand what’s going on in the business, you have to watch the numbers – even if they’re depressing. The old coot William Goldman said it before, but the truth is that good business for one film means others like it will come after and box office sets the trends. And sometimes bad sex comedies generate good sex comedies, bad horror movies beget good ones, and, every once in a while, a pretty good movie makes money and a pretty bad one doesn’t. But to understand the why’s, you have to watch week in and week out to understand why what works works and why what doesn’t doesn’t. A release date can make a winner or a loser out of some titles, simply because of what else is out there. But usually audiences want something that will simply entertain them – they want to get out of the house, and often they are drawn to something that won’t challenge them and that delivers exactly what was promised by the trailer, be it Martin Lawrence in a fat suit, or Spider-Man slinging his web.

So what does it mean when a film does a lot of business? What does it say about Joe Six Pack?

I think there’s a common misconception, and often a disconnect from the critical community and the "regular Joe" who goes to see a movie, and it’s this: buying a ticket for a normal person is not intentionally voting with their dollars. They may not consider what it means to support Wild Hogs or Norbit, and they certainly don’t think of it in those terms. For the most part an average movie viewer just wants to see a movie, and they may make apologies for what they’ve seen because they’ve spent money on it. (Side note: I remember walking out of a screening of Men in Black where the people in front of me were saying how much they liked the film in a way that suggested they were talking themselves into loving it. I don’t think this is uncommon). When a film does a bunch of business these days, it tends to mean that the advertising was successful. Word of mouth effects DVD rentals, sales and art house pictures (where word of mouth and critical support are key), but otherwise the story of a film’s success is written by the first weekend’s numbers (since 1999, only The Sixth Sense and My Big Fat Greek Wedding have been true word of mouth phenoms), and that’s why those numbers are so important. And yes, some people do enjoy "bad" movies, but cinema has always been a vehicle (especially in America) for escapism. So it’s no surprise that audience flock to films that appear weightless and predictable. And I don’t know if the world would be a better place if Robert Bresson’s au hasard Balthazar challenged Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love for the top spot of worldwide box office.

The bad part about the films of Adam Shankman, Shawn Levy, and Brian Robbins, etc. doing well is that these filmmakers have very little craft in their work, and it helps denigrate the language of cinema, which most audiences understand without necessarily being able to articulate it. The bottom line is that critics have to watch countless movies a year, and as such, their tastes are honed in a way that someone who goes to the movies even once a week can’t imagine. The more movies you see, the more you write about them, the more you analyze your own taste, the more you understand the craft, then the better your understanding of what makes a film good or bad, and it makes you less tolerance for the mediocre – which is often what an audience will settle for. The effort it takes to truly study cinema is something wholly removed from simply watching movies, as loving and understanding film requires dedication, while going to movies requires having about two hours of free time, and most people simply don’t love movies (though they may love going to the movies). And I understand that some people want to go to McDonalds, spend five bucks and get a meal to which the process from ordering to consumption can take less than ten minutes. But I have to agree with Devin when he wondered what can be more important to consider in these lives that make McDonalds and Wild Hogs so successful. Studios are more than happy to exploit that divide between the critics and regular folks whenever possible, except when they need critics to help sell their wares. And with anti-intellectualism a point of pride for many in America (though this is a worldwide concern, popcorn films make money everywhere) a lot of audiences become defensive of their movie night selections. Ultimately, for me to continue talking about this would cause me to speculate less kindly about the masses, and nothing I could add to the discussion would be anything more than biases, and frankly I would like to remain an optimist. There is a chance that a lot of people just don’t care, and maybe they shouldn’t. I do, and that poisons my viewpoint.

But, that noted, when a movie does a lot of business (say over a hundred million) it only ever means that a lot of people bought tickets. But it doesn’t mean they liked it. This is a critical point that is rarely addressed in a film’s success or failure. Repeat business is only a mere fraction of what it once was, and using the numbers as a touchstone for what people like is device of the past. It must be let go. In six months, any film is going to be on DVD, and so many will see a film once and pick it up for $15.99 at Walmart (how many times it’s watched after that is anyone’s guess). Sure, for a film to do $300 million or so there will be people who go back again and again, but the majority of pictures that do that sort of business now are franchise films, where the audience is geared by years of Lucas and Spielberg training to see the film repeatedly (and I’m willing to stake the Pixar name as a franchise as well). The only notable exception is The Passion of the Christ, though it too could be called a franchise film (though doing so might make New Line weep). Let me end this argument (with myself, such as it is): Night at the Museum made 250 million, and made no dent on pop culture.

So, how do you gauge a film’s success then?

Easy, you do it by looking at how much it cost to make. Now it used to be that a film would have to make twice as much as it cost to be profitable. That’s due to all sorts of things, including making the prints, advertising, the theaters getting a cut of the profits, and production deals, etc. Nowadays, with ancillary markets and DVD sales, the line is blurred, and then when you throw in product placements, shooting in Germany, etc. how much was spent is anyone’s guess. Michael Bay talked about the budget for Bad Boys: Part One being closer to eight million (versus the posted-on-Box-Office-Mojo $19) because of all the pay-or-play deals involved with the title, where how much a film like Superman Returns or War of the Worlds costs is something the studios will hide as much as they can. Studio accounting is a racket, and you don’t have to dig up the corpse of Art Buchwald to know that it takes really good lawyers to get the real numbers. So even the numbers used to judge a film’s success are slightly wonky. Wonky, I say, wonky.

Films tend to be weighed against what the industry expected it to do, regardless of whether that goal is realistic or profitable. That’s why numbers seem to be so confusing, but since the system dictates what was successful and what wasn’t, it’s the only line that matters. Yes, Peter Jackson’s King Kong made $218 million stateside. But with a listed production budget of $207 (that may or may not include prints and advertising, and likely doesn’t), and Jackson getting 20% of the gross, you don’t have to be a mathamagician to see why that’s considered a bad investment. And then, of course, the argument goes to foreign box office, and to those previously mentioned DVD sales and ancillary markets. And yes Kong didn’t lose money. Hulk didn’t lose money, and The Matrix sequels were also profitable. But this business is also about openings, wagging phalluses, or more to the point, bragging rights. Doing break-even business with a highly touted film is not why you invest $207 million dollars.

And that’s not to mention Superman Returns, which deserves its own article (if not a book), but to tell it briefly, whether you like it or not, for that film to do the majority of business within the first seven days and have Warner Brothers essentially limp the film to a $200 million dollar total means that it was not successful, especially when the projected budget on the film is quoted at $270 million – and that may be lowballed. But the story isn’t over; Warner Brothers feels that they must have put a good spin on this, and have suggested a sequel is in the works. It’s the Hollywood equivalent of "heckuva job, Brownie." Why this is important to understand is that even three years ago a film hitting $200 million meant something totally different than it does now. Though with the internet such as it is, the bald face they put on may not have fooled many; still, it’s their job to try and make something that obviously missed look appealing. With the industry as it is now, the franchise business is the strongest kind going, and with the industry afraid of failure, they’re going to play to what has worked in the past, hoping that if you didn’t love it the first time, they might just fix it the second (ala Hulk 2)

So it’s all bullshit?

Yes, because a production budget can often include a studio paying itself for rental of space, or props, or all sorts of addendums; ergo, the studios are going to do their damndest to keep this from public scrutiny. It used to be that the studios owned the theaters, and could play a film into profitability; with multiple DVD releases, and all sort of other schemes, it is rare that a film does lose money. But, again, what’s more important is how that changes the playing field. There was a time, not but forty years ago, where the big money was spent on musicals. It busted the genre to the point that a film as commercial as Dreamgirls becomes that much harder a sell (not to mention Rent, The Producers or The Phantom of the Opera). We’ve seen westerns go the same route, and both of those genres were the main ones less than half a century ago. Things change. There’s peaks and valleys.

And so the problem when bad crap sells well is that it opens the market to more crap.

This is nothing new. If you can find a copy of Pauline Kael’s Taking it All In, she wrote an essay called "The Numbers, or Why the Movies are So Bad," and she nails everything that is currently wrong with the studio systems as they are now. They are conglomerates where art is often an accidental byproduct. But, and there’s always a but, the next Shankman may end up being a Tony Scott. The machine always needs fresh meat, and if those smugglers (God bless them) achieve some success, they may get the opportunity to make their great products. Home teamer Guillermo Del Toro has been working the classic "one for me, one for them" philosophy with his films to great creative rewards, but each smaller project is a struggle – which is hard on them, but great for us. And, as crap triumphs, we’ve seen in the last four years some of the best films of my lifetime.

Ultimately, you have to approach it all with a Zen-like appreciation to not go crazy with what works and what doesn’t, and most people want to insert their preferences for why things work or don’t. You don’t have to read some other prognosticators takes to see how bias slips in. And yet the Lord of the Rings films made as much money as whatever altogether too successful summer entertainment that deserves to be bitched and moaned about. Sometimes the public likes good things.
And so you have people guessing what something is going to gross, which reflects on the numbers presented which are fictional. And that’s entertainment. That’s entertainment.

days of speed and slow time Mondays
pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday
watching the news and not eating your tea
a freezing cold flat with damp on the walls

That’s Entertainment. That’s Entertainment.

And I’ll be here twice a week to talk about this.

For the Record: John Barry (1933-2011)

For many, the John Barry they know is intimately connected to James Bond and Monty Norman. Norman is known now as the credited creator of the James Bond theme that has opened every shot of Bond taking out a shooter. Norman held on to that claim, while Barry has stated publicly that it was his work. Print the legend and likely the truth: It was Barry.
Barry’s work for James Bond is probably the go-to for many on the sad occasion of his passing. Regardless of who came up with the title theme, the lush symphonic scores for From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and especially the underwater passages of Thunderball are the definitive Bond music. Regardless of who they brought in to tweak or replace Barry, James Bond’s music will always be Barry’s, and he’s had as much of an impact on that series (I hate to use the word “franchise”, its crass connotations have no place in recognizing a genius) as any other collaborator. Put simply, he’s defined the sound and cool, and amped up the best set pieces with an impeccable sense of strum und drang.
But at this moment of Bond nostalgia, I would love to celebrate his work in The Living Daylights – a film that many Bond fans consider one of the best of the franchise though is considered underrated – which melded a contemporary sense of Bond with the old school to which Bond still belonged. It was a relaunch in a way that is defined by its 1980’s origins, but Barry’s score helped turn the film into a classic adventure for the character. As bored as Roger Moore and company might have been during such flights of obligation as A View to a Kill, Barry’s work made those films – if not worthwhile – than not entirely negligible.
If I were to make a case for John Barry full-stop, it wouldn’t be his excellent work for such diverse films as Zulu, Petulia, The Ipcress File, or The Last Valley, but his scores  for such obvious misfires as the 1976 remake of King Kong and The Black Hole. Like Ennio Morricone’s work on Orca or Mission to Mars, the art he created by scoring those films turned efforts that are either interesting but underwhelming films or complete botches into works of art that can be defended because of his soundtracks. I don’t know how the remake of King Kong would play without Barry’s score, and I don’t want to imagine it either. Regardless, I can defend the 76 King Kong as better than Peter Jackson’s version if only because of Barry’s score. I remember being at a Beta Band show, and the fact that they used a sample from Black Hole made me like the band more than their music ever did.
Barry started as a musician, and formed the John Barry Seven, which scored popular British television at the time, until his skills lent him to Bond. From there his work was mostly celebrated, as he accrued five Oscars for works as diverse as Dances With Wolves, Out of Africa (actually not that disimilar) and The Lion in the Winter. He worked a lot on English films, but was courted by Hollywood some, and he turned out great pieces for such films as The Deep, Inside Moves, and Body Heat. Again, he made films like Mercury Rising and Chaplin all the better for his efforts.
Barry hadn’t composed a score since 2001’s Enigma, and (like all prolific artists) he had his hands in a number of films that don’t deserve visiting –  much less re-visiting – upon his passing, but the man deserves to be placed on a pedestal along such greats as Bernard Hermann, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, John Williams, and whichever great composer deserves recognizing as a true master of the field. Barry was a master. A maestro. A genius. And there may be no real tragedy in an old man dying,but  the sense of loss when a great artist leaves us is inescapable.

For the Record: Fuck 3D

I recently interviewed Roger Deakins and asked him about the Walter Murch article in which he systematically tore apart 3-D. Deakins hadn’t read it, but what he kept repeating was – that though he spent some time working on 3-D animated films – he felt 3-D was a ride. I think one can guestimate that Deakins is not a fan. But where Murch and many others have gone about attacking or defending 3-D by our ability and psychic space to respond to it, my issue with 3-D is one of my continuing problems with cinema. I’ve never expressed much happiness with the format, though I’ve seen some fun films done in 3-D (My Bloody Valentine, Jackass 3-D) that I would recommend as 3-D experiences. But ultimately I don’t like the format at all. I think my problem is how we’re asked as an audience to share our imagination.

To be fair, one of my earlier cinematic memories was being at a public library watching Creature of the Black Lagoon. The film was entertaining us brats (I remember there was some running around, but not from me), and the highlight of the film was easily the sequence where there’s a fossilized hand that reaches out across the screen. It’s a show stopper. I also remember TV networks showing 3-D movies locally, selling 3-D glasses at the local 7-11. As a kid I loved the stuff, but I was a bit too young for the wave of 3-D films that came in the early 80’s. My first theatrical (partly) 3-D movie was Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, where you are instructed to put on the glasses for the last twenty minutes. It was a stupid conceit, but it was also a stupid movie, so what are you going to do? Later there would be Imax films that were in 3-D, and I’d dutifully check in, finding them more mature than the more polarized diorama-looking 3-D of the past. And when 3-D started popping up again with greater frequency, it didn’t seem like the worst thing with Corlaine and My Bloody Valentine. But what I liked about it as a kid was that it was different, I liked the idea more than the actual experience, and generally the idea was better than experience itself. What I liked about it two years ago was that filmmakers either embraced the nature of their filmmaking (exploitation, stop-motion) and found that 3-D was beneficial or didn’t interfere.

Now, post-Avatar, it’s everywhere and used on some horrible movies to hopefully jack up ticket sales (Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender, likely Thor) and now we’re in a position where we’re going to keep getting 3-D films for a while now. The battle lines have been drawn, and I hate the format. I’ve been watching 3-D films long enough in their current iteration and I now no longer want to see any more 3-D films. Not just because of the occasional headaches, and not because it doesn’t work for me – though sometimes I question if my disinterest is because maybe I’m not getting the same depth as the format’s fans. No, my problem is this: Whenever I notice 3-D, I stop watching the movie. That’s because of a simple aspect of filmmaking and storytelling which is that the minute you notice dimension, you’re no longer engaged. I think a fundamental aspect of storytelling is that you’re supplying part of the narrative with your imagination, and any time something tries to be more real it ultimately becomes less so.
Of course this is made tricky by the advancements in technology (even if you still have to wear glasses, and as someone who wears glasses already, it’s hard not to notice the hardware). Ultimately 3-D technology – even in its newer more polished iteration – can do some things better than it used to – like creating depth. But there’s been nothing in 3-D that I’ve found as effective as one of the opening shoots in Cliffhanger, when I got a sense of vertigo from how the camera moved around Sylvester Stallone and showed that what he was doing was not digital trickery. Ultimately the limits of 3-D are the problems of trying to create an immersive world. There is a level to which – by forcing the fact – it becomes less immersive to me because I’m not thinking about the narrative but the trickery. Much like a lot of CGI effects, I’m constantly aware of the notion that what I’m looking at isn’t really in three dimensions, and I’m not guessing how it was accomplished, so much as assured it’s a byproduct of digital technology. Perhaps I’m of a generation too aware of what computers can do, and I’m aware of that. I think my problem might have something to do with the uncanny valley, but ultimately I tend to explain my problem with 3-D in these terms. Imagine 3-D creating a perfect lust object. You can see this form in all dimensions, and you may want to have sex with it, but any motions toward it break the spell because the chasm between you and the object is such that the fact that it isn’t real eventually becomes frustrating. Whereas when I’m intellectually stimulated by a sequence that involves seduction I tend to find the build up to sex hotter than anything that could be done with 3-D, because I know how sex feels, and watching people do it interferes with my own fantasy, whereas watching two people look at each other and want to fuck is way more exciting often. I find it hotter because my intellect is doing the work, versus just relying on the visual. I will not deny the visual works, but in either case, it’s not the same as the real thing.

One of the reasons why I love The Muppet Show is that the characters are obviously puppets – because we make the leap to accept the characters as real. And that schism is what makes great art, that we can project and create as much as the artist. I prefer art where we the audience have to fill in the blanks, and have a shared responsibility in the heavy lifting (which may explain why my year-end list featured Dogtooth and Never Let Me Go). We acknowledge the fantasy (be it just in “A Long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”) so we know what we’re dealing with. With Muppets, we know that there is a hand in Kermit, but we can watch the puppet make emotions- it’s there and present. This also gets into the problem with CGI, but it’s a similar problem. As an audience member, I prefer tangible phoniness played straight, versus the always noticeable accentuations of digital technology. But I find with stop-motion, and puppetry there is usually a human artistry visible that makes these works endearing, more so than the best of the computer world interacting with flesh. If we recognize the phoniness, at a certain point you stop questioning it in ways that I’ve found difficult with digital.  I’m reminded of Vern talking about how someone was questioning how they got Arnold Schwarzenegger into T:4, and explaining it was digital technology. With computers the sense of how magic is accomplished is readily explainable.

I was also recently watching some old movies like The Driver and Dirty Harry. I found they had more breathtaking action sequences than anything I’d seen theatrically in quite some time. It’s because I believed that the cars were doing what they were doing, and that the characters were invested. I think the Bourne shakey-cam stuff works fine, but ultimately that constant movement becomes a way to distract more than enhance, because it doesn’t clarify so much as obfuscate.
Back to Avatar: The World of Pandora – to me – was made way more involving on my second pass on Blu-ray because it was removed from the 3-D environment, and I could appreciate the alien vegetation. I guess you can get both in 3-D, but I think the third dimension gets in the way. I also think one of the best films of the last decade was Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Part of what makes it so great is that there aren’t really sets, and the film then becomes about how that doesn’t matter. I guess this makes me a Brechtian, but we all know what’s going on is phony, so acknowledging the artifice works. It works because great films with heightened reality do well to acknowledge their silliness in one way or another.

The third dimensional boom in cinema was brought about partly because of the inflated ticket prices – not so much audience interest in the format. People will go see Inception just as readily as they will Toy Story 3. But as long as tickets sell, we’re stuck in a world where 3-D seems viable. To me it’s like mixing a classic album in DTS 5.1 or colorizing. Some people enjoy that, but it adds nothing to my experience (and may prove distracting) because it’s unnecessary for the magic to work. And in pursuing the format, it distract from what makes movies great: The connection to material that is indelible. I can’t think of a single one of my favorite films that would be better in 3-D. but I also haven’t seen the 3-D film that makes me think it’s a format worth more than gimmickry.