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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Why don't high quality movies make money???

Interesting observation today from a great website -- Box Office Mojo:

"Brokeback Mountain scored eight nominations, more than any other picture. Collectively, though, the Best Picture nominees made up the least popular slate on record, marking the second year in a row that the Academy has not nominated a single movie with a gross over $75 million." (60 million this year!)

Complete List of Nominees & Their Box Office:

What does this say about movies and the movie-going audience? The money makers are widely considered poor- or mediocre-quality movies, but the movies with the most nuanced performances and most impressive visual styles don't really make money (of the critically-acclaimed movies that were nominated in the major Oscar categories this year, only Walk the Line crossed the fabled $100 million mark, and just barely). People say this wasn't a good year for movies, but that really means it wasn't a good year for box office (or probably, more specifically, for blockbusters). Why this schism? Why don't people come out for "good" movies? Of course the big money makers like Harry Potter or Batman Begins also cost a lot more to make -- this year's award winners and Oscar nominees almost all had very modest budgets (my point being that these movies have to make more money to be considered successful -- Brokeback Mountain has made about $50 million, but it only cost about $12 million to make).


Monday, January 30, 2006

The Smartest Guys in the Room

Watched Enron, the Smartest Guys in the Room tonight. Good timing, as the trial is starting. Hard to imagine these assholes escaping conviction, but the law is a funny thing and a jury trial is a funnier thing. Personally, I'd like to see them fed to lions in a public coliseum, but that's just me. Nice use of music in the film, very clever. I knew the basic story, but it was more repulsive, all put together in a neat package like that. What is it about financial geniuses (think Michael Milken) that they can only use their abundant talents in the service of total evil???


Friday, January 27, 2006

Damn Botox!

Rob Morrow's incredibly sexy crow's feet were nowhere to be found on tonight's episode of Numb3rs. His previously weathered face looked quite shiny and smooth. Dammit! I can only assume that he succumbed to the lure of Botox (it seems unlikely that he had a facelift right in the middle of the season).

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Feminists are ruining this country

It's been a weird week. First, I read a thought-provoking interview with Kate O'Beirne on Salon.com.


She wrote a book called "Women Who Make the World Worse," referring to feminists, of course. Apparently, like Phyllis Schalfly, she has been writing and lecturing on this topic for many years (i.e., traveling the country to tell women why they should be content to stay home and tend their kids). Her basic premise appears to be that the sexes are immutably predetermined to behave in certain ways (e.g., women nuture, men protect) and anything else is unnatural and unnecessary. She claims that feminists fight for things that women don't want; her case in point - most women want to leave work to raise their children.

Yes, some women want to leave work, but many do not, and many cannot. She insists that these cases are so rare that we don't need anyone to fight for these people. In fact, there's something shameful about the people who are fighting for these things. This seems like a weird cause to devote your entire life to. If you want to stay home and raise your kids, no one is stopping you. She claims that the feminist movement has been so successful that women are discouraged from doing what they naturally want to do. I think that's completely absurd, and I can't imagine where she gets the idea that the feminist "agenda" is the rule of this land, especially now.

With these surreal thoughts reverberating in my brain, I read the Newsweek cover story about how boys are no longer served by the American educational system and then read several commentaries about how this issues comprises one of the current crusades of the religious right.


Katha Pollitt: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060130/pollitt

Feminists (and liberals) are charged with focusing so much on female achievement that male achievement has been ignored and as a result, both men and women are suffering (conservative commentators like John Tierney suggest women are going to be mighty lonely in this world that we've created).

It's surreal. Apparently, the women's movement has been so successful that we've ruined the whole country. I must confess that this success has happened very much without me noticing. And more to the point, I find the underlying premise of this whole argument to be completely offensive. I am a feminist and I have a son. I'm utterly committed to the equal rights of women and, at the very same time, I'm utterly committed to my son's success and happiness. These things are not mutually exclusive and I don't have to choose one over the other. It's perfectly absurd to suggest otherwise. Some women prefer a traditional role and society fully supports that choice. Some women prefer something different and it's perfectly legitimate for a "movement" (in Kate O'Beirne's words) to promote the acceptance of these alternatives. I feel sort of weary grappling with all this. We've come so far and yet the forces against change are so loud and so emboldened these days. Perhaps it is the last dying gasp of these efforts. We can only hope.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Book of Daniel

I've enjoyed this NBC drama (on Friday nights), but it struck me as a hard sell. I think they're trying to copy night time soap opera successes like Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy, with the convoluted and slightly shocking relationships -- among the many, many story lines: the female bishop of Daniel's church is having an affair with another bishop (who happens to be Daniel's father), one of Daniel's sons is gay, though he recently had sex with a girl (long story) and the other is a teen Casanova, Daniel himself is addicted to vicodin.

Unfortunately, last week the network said they were taking the show off the schedule (though they did not say they were cancelling it). Apparently the religious right has been protesting the show's disrespectful attitude toward Jesus (who is a character on the show), especially because this Jesus is "tolerant of sin." For myself, I'm hoping they're dropping the show because the ratings are low (less than 7 million the first week and less than 6 million the second week), and not because Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association and others are making a fuss. Why is it somehow acceptable to protest a disrespectful portrayal of Jesus, but if you care about the way women or racial minorites or gay people are portrayed in television you're some kind of whiny PC freak. If Reverand Wildmon and his flock don't want to watch the show, by all means, put the TV on a different channel. That's the approach I take with say, NASCAR races, the WWF, and The Bachelor.

ADDENDUM (1-29-2006):
In this week's TV guide, the show is back on, but listed as the season finale, which seems a bit odd considering it's only the third time the show is airing. Oh well. I liked it but didn't expect it to last.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Golden Globes

My friend Suzanne (gradgirl) and I had our usual post award show pow wow via telephone after the show on Monday night. We agreed that the speeches, with a few notable exceptions, were a bore. The Globes like to promote themselves as the most unpredictable and the most fun party in all of Hollywood, but they didn't really live up to their hype this year. As a general rule, the women seemed to handle the proceedings with more aplomb than the men. Emma Thompson was very witty and Geena Davis seemed to be quite in the spirit of things. Felicity Huffman can always be depended on for something pithy. S. Epatha Merkerson definitely gave the most heartfelt speech of the evening, so kudos for that. Steve Carrell was funny and so was Hugh Laurie. Ang Lee kept our attention. Otherwise the men were wooden or bizarre. What the heck was wrong with Jonathan Rhys Meyers? Was he just nervous? He's an actor, he could have acted a little pleased. Instead he seemed like he could give a flying you-know-what. He beat out some of the finest actors working today -- Donald Sutherland, Ed Harris, Kenneth Branagh for crying out loud. He could have at least made an effort. And Philip Seymour Hoffman seemed like he's never stood before an audience before. Diana Ossana was meandering all over the place in her speech, which is a little surprising, considering that she's a writer. And speaking of being on something, what do you suppose Mary-Louise Parker smoked (or snorted) before the show? Because that was more than a couple of appletinis on display. Sheesh. And someone give that girl a sandwich before she blows away in a stiff breeze. There's thin and then there's emaciated. That degree of skinny is just not attractive, not to mention unhealthy.

I like when the winners say something about their fellow nominees, I think that's so gracious. But I don't think anyone did that this year, except Ang Lee. John Travolta, as a presenter, made a really great comment about how the actor nominees have raised the bar for everyone, but his comment got no response from the audience at all. I was surprised and clearly he was too. Too busy getting drunk I suppose.

Suzanne and I didn't have any major complaints about the actual winners. Of course I was rooting for Brokeback Mountain and wasn't disappointed. Suzanne wanted Matt Dillon to win, and Jeremy Piven; they both totally deserve it. We both wondered why Crash was so under-represented. Seems like it doesn't pay at awards time to release your movie before the fall. People have such short memories. Plus it seems like ensemble pictures like Crash just do not lend themselves to the showy performances that elicit awards. Clearly the Golden Globes and the Oscars should add an ensemble category, like the SAG Awards have.

We did complain about the categorizations of some of the performances -- why is Reese Witherspoon in the Best Actress category while Scarlett Johansson is in the Supporting category -- they had about the same amount of screen time. And Maria Bello was probably on screen less than either of these actresses and she's in the Best Actress category too. Were there really so few major female performances yet again this year??? And why is George Clooney winning in the Supporting category when the entire movie is based around his character (and based on the books written by his character). What exactly is a "supporting" role? And what exactly is a "comedy"? Not The Squid and the Whale and certainly not Pride and Prejudice. Maybe these films were happy to get a berth in any category, but I would think choosing films like these tends to shut out movies that really are comedies.


Monday, January 09, 2006

Vox populi, vox dei

This is a favorite Latin expression of mine: the voice of the people is the voice of God. Poetic but hogwash. We like to think that democracy is based on this lofty-sounding principle, but it seems to me, the voice of the people says a lot of stupid stuff, like:
  • "women are fragile and need to be protected from manly activities like voting and controlling their own money"
  • "Manifest Destiny, and those pesky Native Americans will just have to get out of the way"
  • "people with dark-colored skin are innately inferior to people with light-colored skin, therefore light-skinned people can enslave and exploit dark-skinned people, and did we mention that the Bible says we can do this?"
We can think of lots more clever things that "the people" said with their God-like voice (like, "George Bush was a great president, we should give him the job for another four years").

Thursday, January 05, 2006

What makes a great movie?

I recently had a lively email "conversation" with my brother, Leo, who raised some interesting issues about the movie industry and movie quality:

I'm happy to watch a movie about Christianity, love, murder, whatever. I just have a generally jaundiced view of the industry at this point, and don't trust "them" to do anything other than pander to the lowest common denominator in the name of money. The few movies I get to hit about 50/50 in this area.

I understand and enjoy the fact that 85% of all art is crap. How else could we recognize masterpieces? But this is different somehow. I think it's the fact that there's so much money involved that it can't help but create conflicts of interest that don't have much to do with the normal incompetence, ego, bad luck and whathaveyou which foils so many creative

It's like Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness, and A. Redux. Thank God for film editors and spouses with cameras. Two of the greatest movies ever, and the one that lived inside the creator's heart until that moment of release (of Redux) was absolute tripe. This is a view of the artistic process which makes it all worth while. I wish we could see something together (like Capote).

My response:

I guess I have a different attitude about movies. I really like going to the movies, even more than watching them at home. I approach them with a strong willingness to suspend disbelief and I go into the theater ready to be thrilled, no matter what the movie is (and of course I'm frequently disappointed!!) While I appreciate a visually beautiful/artistic movie, it's more important to me that the movie be a satisfying visceral or emotional experience and that it be a good story. I understand that film is a form of art, but it's also a form of entertainment, and it's important that it succeed on that level too. I saw Capote, and it's a totally beautiful film, but I didn't find it a very satisfying movie experience. I felt the same way about Million Dollar Baby -- I could appreciate that it was a beautifully made movie, and it was certainly true to the creator's artistic vision, but I thought the story was maudlin and frankly, a waste of the talents of the performers (especially Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank). I was quite unsatisfied when I left the theater.

I know a lot of money is wasted making crap, but it's their money. And just because a movie is "pandering" doesn't mean that the creator's artistic vision was compromised. Maybe their vision was to pander and to make money (Wedding Crashers anyone???) Or maybe their vision was to create a really great "popcorn" movie, like Peter Jackson was doing with his remake of King Kong. In general, I just try to avoid movies that I think I won't enjoy, whether they cost a lot of money to make or not, and regardless of the intentions of the filmmakers. I've seen lots of artsy, independent, low budget movies (that were presumably true to the creator's artistic vision) that I thought were crap too (Brown Bunny anyone?). I rushed out to see Charlotte Rampling in The Swimming Pool (a couple years ago) because the critics raved about her, and about the movie, and I thought it was boring, and I thought the big twist at the end was more of a big cheat.

I thought Apocalypse Now was a magnificent movie, but I don't know that I would call it one of the greatest films ever made. It's certainly a reflection of a startling and original artistic vision, but also a megalomaniacal one. I actually liked Francis Ford Coppala's film, The Cotton Club, much better, but the critics savaged that movie and it completely tanked at the box office. I don't think I've ever met anyone who's heard of it, let alone seen it (and I talk it about it all the time when the topic of movies come up). Probably my favorite movie of all time is Ordinary People (also a favorite book). I think that movie was true to the artistic vision of the creator, and it was utterly involving and emotionally wrenching for me. So I left the theater devastated and totally satisfied.

I do believe that such a variety of movies, including lots of "crap," allows plenty of room for individual taste. When I went to my favorite website, imdb.com, recently, they have the (ongoing) results of their user poll of the "best movies of 2005." I only saw one of the top 10 (Mr. and Mrs Smith, which I thought was crap, but relatively entertaining crap) and maybe half of #11-25, and I wouldn't call any of them the "best" movie of the year. It gets me thinking about what people look for in a movie and what their criteria is for "best." Clearly entertainment value is dominant in these voters, as opposed to artistic value (or artistic vision), at least that's how it seems to me. I don't know if these voters would say, "I loved this movie because it told a great story and it told it well." That's my criteria, and it may be theirs, but the lists that result from applying this standard may look very different from each other.