Apr 30, 2012

REVIEW: The Five Year Engagement

So we knew about Jason's Segal's slobby, slightly self-hating, love-handled charms. And we obviously knew about Emily Blunt's mixture of gameness and dry wit (an unbeatable combination). For me, the real revelation in The Five Year Engagement was Alison Brie, fresh from playing Pete's hoity-toity wife in Mad Men and here acquitting herself of an impeccable sloan-with-a-phone English accent, all the while bringing off some stealthy and not so stealthy scene theft involving silly voices; early on during a wedding speech, delivered basso profundo to stave off tears, and later on, as Elmo to Blunt's cookie monster during an in-depth and very serious discussion of emotional commitment. Now, Blunt's cookie monster is good, if a little half-throated, but Brie's Elmo is a gurgling, unselfconscious delight: I wanted all such conversations on this topic, in every romantic comedy made forthwith, delivered in the same saucer-eyed squawk. C+

Apr 27, 2012

The year Hollywood changed hands

'The Summer movie season officially starts in the U.S. when The Avengers opens on May 4th. Overseas, though, the season has actually already gotten underway with Battleship's foreign rollout. This extended schedule is indicative of the growing importance of the overseas market to Hollywood's bottom line—last year, international grosses accounted for 69 percent of overall sales, compared with 66 percent in 2010 and 64 percent in 2009. Nearly all big-budget movies this Summer are designed with the intention that they will earn at least 60 percent of their revenue in foreign territories, with the biggest grosses likely coming from developing countries China and Russia. As usual, sequels like The Dark Knight Risesand Ice Age: Continental Drift should fare the best, though some original movies like Brave, Snow White and the Huntsman and Prometheus will likely make their mark as well.'
'Thanks to strong openings in China and Russia,Battleship took the top spot at the overseas box office away from Titanic 3D this weekend.' — Box Office Mojo
This seems to me one of the significant trends capturing Hollywood in its undertow. It started, arguably, with Jurassic Park in 1992, the first year in Hollywood's history in which overseas earnings out-stripped domestic. Ironically, the French took the opportunity to man the Bastille barricades and complain loudly about American "cultural imperialism," seeing in Spielberg's dinosaur thriller a replay of D-Day, only this time with Dinos. Well, Jurassic Park was a Higgins boat alright. But it wasn't aimed outward. It was aimed inward. The Invasion was America's. These days, the studios are owned by international conglomerates. It is the foreign markets which determine which films get made: international grosses now account for 69 percent of overall sales. America now twiddles its thumbs, waiting to find out from China and Russia which of its movies are hits. 
From The Economist:—  
Mr Cameron arrived in Beijing on Saturday and will soon be attending a screening of “Titanic 3D” at the Beijing International Film Festival (the re-release opened earlier this month to staggering sales in China). But his most important business will be conducted in private meetings, including with state-owned China Film Group. Speaking in an interview on Sunday, he said a priority of this trip was to explore a co-production deal with the Chinese firm on “Avatar 2” and “Avatar 3”. Mr Cameron says he would need to be satisfied in advance that his planned films would meet the approval of censors. If that key condition can be met, he is keen on the potential payoff. “There are economic advantages,” as he puts it. Mr Cameron’s meetings this week come shortly after the news that “Iron Man 3”, starring Robert Downey junior, will be a Chinese co-production. The gravitational pull of the Chinese movie market, nonexistent less than a generation ago, is now an undeniable force, sucking in all Hollywood blockbusters (and lesser projects) that venture within its event horizon. Hollywood studios, independent producers and directors regularly cycle through Beijing in search of partnerships with Chinese production houses—often seeking money to finance their movies, as well as access to a suddenly lucrative market.  
This year China will surpass Japan as the world’s second-largest movie market, after America. Chinese box-office takings totalled 13 billion yuan ($2.06 billion) in 2011, an increase of 30% from 2010, which in turn had been more than 60% higher than in 2009. The number of movie screens has doubled in five years to more than 10,000 (and is projected to reach 15,000 in speedy fashion), and the new screens are mostly digital and 3D-capable. Meanwhile America’s market is stagnating. Takings in North America (America and Canada combined) declined by 4% in 2011, to $10.2 billion. Mr Cameron suggests that by the time “Avatar 3” is released later this decade, China may well rival America as the top movie market.  

The 2012 film I am most curious to see

From Ang Lee's forthcoming Life of Pi, the 2012 film I am most curious to see — John Hillcoat's Lawless, Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, Michael Haneke's Amore and Steven Spielberg's Lincoln following up quickly behind.

Apr 23, 2012

Sasha Frere Jones on Kraftwerk

'Early reactions to Kraftwerk were often hostile, and sometimes verged on xenophobic. In an interview published in Creem, in 1975, the critic Lester Bangs asked the members of Kraftwerk if their machines were “the final solution” for pop music. “No, not the solution. The next step,” Hütter responded, and he was right. Pop’s non-narrative phrases, glittering, brief melodies, and reliance on technology can be traced directly to Kraftwerk’s concept of Mensch-Maschine, or “man-machine,” which was not just the name of the band’s seventh album but also a guiding principle. The sound is rooted in the interaction between computers and people—which, for many of us, is what now fills our waking hours. Kraftwerk’s melding of machines and everyday life is far from eugenic, though; it’s remarkably gentle, even a bit melancholy. The bicycles and cars and computers and radios and calculators that inhabit their albums are a friendly lot. When Bangs tried to provoke the band by citing William Burroughs’s assertion that one could start a riot with two tape recorders, Schneider responded, “A person doing experimental music must be responsible for the results of the experiments. They could be very dangerous emotionally.”' — Sasha Frere Jones on Kraftwerk

Apr 16, 2012

Don't let the 'pre-sold' suck your soul

"If anything, the massive success of The Hunger Games is a confirmation of a kind of cultural vapidity or failure. It says "look how malnourished and under-developed we are...look at the spiritual junk food we're eating!" — Jeff Wells   
I feel Jeffrey's pain — the wild success of bad films does test your faith in your fellow man, particularly if you are a populist like me who believes there is no such thing as the lowest common denominator, and that on the contrary, what we have in common is the highest, not the lowest thing about us.  But his despair is quite unnecessary. Just penalize the pre-sold*, and the box office quits its resemblance to the moronic inferno and once again becomes a place of order, harmony and perfectly legitimate hits. The biggest blockbuster of 2010? Inception. Of 2011? The Help and Bridesdmaids. This year so far? The Vow, Safe House and John Carter. There may be films in there you don't like, but none whose success is as mystifying as The Hunger Games is to some. The people have not lost their minds. The movies will not suck your soul. The pre-sold will.

* A refresher: the 'pre-sold' is that quality,  much beloved by movie executives, and shared by sequels, tween-bestseller-/comic book adaptations, that guarantees an audience before a single bum has touched a seat ("The highly anticipated big-screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins' bestselling novel has sold out nearly 2,000 screens in its pre-sale, Fandango announced on Tuesday"). It is what differentiates the faux-popularity of today's mega-blockbusters from the popularity of films made 40 years ago (The Godfather), or even 20 years ago (Pretty Woman). It is populism's circuit-jammer — it's super PAC. 

Apr 11, 2012

Imitating the mockingbird

'Which of these three events, all in the last week, most clearly signalled that the general Election is underway? A) Mitt Romney’s decision, on Tuesday, to pool resources with the RNC. B) Obama’s decision to call out his rival by name for the first time when addressing the Newspaper Association of America on Tuesday. Or C) The president’s brief televised introduction of the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird on the USA Network channel on Saturday night. 
The answer, as any seasoned Politico will tell you, is C).  A) is just economics and B) is forgotten within a news cycle. But no election is complete without movie endorsements. The election of 2008, in the end, boiled down to a battle of the Brandos: on the one hand, Marlon Brando making us an offer we couldn’t refuse in The Godfather (Obama’s favorite film), versus Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata! (John McCain’s favorite film) making us an offer you couldn’t quite understand, in a thick Mexican accent. Nothing told you more about the way the election was going than that face-off between the stealthy and the florid.

Obama’s choice of the Harper Lee classic was a deft, multi-valenced piece of branding-by-association. After weeks of the networks squeezing the Trayvon Martin case for the last drop of controversy, the president aligned himself with a much-loved classic whose message on race comes wrapped in a sweet nostalgia for small-town values. Pivoting towards the election, it retrenched Obama’s status as the defender of the American mainstream, evoking a blissful, pre-Palin era when “small town” and “liberalism” could be spoken in the same sentence, and no problem seemed too big that it couldn’t be solved by an afternoon of somber, sun-dappled reflection by decent, reasonable men in horn rims and seersucker suits.  
 “He is the protagonist for middle American aspiration, pathfinder to the straight and narrow and able to suggest a false ease and gloss that go with probity,” as critic David Thompson has put it. He was writing about Gregory Peck but he could equally well be talking about Obama, who is cut from exactly the same liberal oak as Peck’s Atticus Finch. “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks,” Atticus tells his daughter Scout. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”. It’s pure Obama — the unrufflable paterfamilias and empath-in-chief, with his beer summits and no-drama managerial style — right down to his favored use of the word “folks”.  
Every president also “plays” the president.  With his looks, wit, style and beautiful wife, Kennedy played him as a Bond-era heart-throb, channelling what Norman Mailer called the "subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely romantic desires".  With his bluff self-deprecation and tough-guy one-liners ("They can run but they can’t hide”) Reagan played him as a reluctant High-Noon-era gunslinger, a model aped by every Republican president since, from George Bush (“Hasta la vista, baby.") to George Bush Jr, pantomiming Top Gun aboard the  USS Abraham Lincoln in a S-3B Viking jet.
Obama has proven a judicious, if cautious, custodian of his own “brand”, his election night scored with the soundtrack of the Denzel Washington football movie, Remember the Titans, his early days in office playing out as a Dave-like comedy about an outsider-come-to-Washington, complete with gee-whiz riffs on  presidential helicopters and body guard detail. As the drama of the campaign segued into the grind of governance and Republican obstructionism, Obama has seemed at times more like a storyteller with writer’s block — jammed by the dull clay of his material. But elections always favor the incumbent for narrative, as well as political reasons. Simply put: Americans may not be ready to see this story end just yet. And everybody loves a sequel.'  
— my post for The Guardian

Apr 7, 2012

REVIEW: Titanic 3D (dir. Cameron)

I'm sure it's the best conversion to date, but it's still a conversion, which means that the action is segregated into a series of planes, as in a diorama, while the actors remain stubbornly and defiantly in 2D. The only places it worked, I thought, were the shots at the prow and stern of the boat — Rose looking down into the churning water, Jack doing his king-of-the-world routine, the upended stern in the finale. All nicely vertiginous, but  the over-the shoulder shots now make it look as if the conversations are taking place across a tennis court. It actively dispels the intimacy Cameron fought so hard to achieve. I still love his film, while wishing its detractors happy, contented lives, shorn of all cornball sentiment and sappy dialogue (what do they do when someone tells them "I love you?" Send it back for a rewrite?). I love Di Caprio in it, so beautiful, long and lean you wonder he doesn't get ushered onto the lifeboats with all the women and children.  I love Rose once she gets her hair wet (not so much before, with her ringleted hair and awful make-up), and most of all the sight of her wading through jade-clored water, indomitably, with an axe. I even like Billy Zane, delivering his lines like a villain waxing his mustache. Also, the shot of those massive pistons below decks, pumping in a row, like a bunch of terminators doing bench-presses. All shots of the boat at night. That eerie moment of calm, right after the collision, when everyone thinks they've gotten away with it ("that was a close shave"). I just preferred it all in 2D, thank you, although I appreciate the effort. B+

Eleven rules for box-office appeal

In 1941, a year after his movie, The Great McGinty, won the first ever Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, celebrated screenwriter/director and "father of the screwball comedy," Preston Sturges, drew up the following "eleven rules for box-office appeal."
A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.
A leg is better than an arm.
A bedroom is better than a living room.
An arrival is better than a departure.
A birth is better than a death.
A chase is better than a chat.
A dog is better than a landscape.
A kitten is better than a dog.
A baby is better than a kitten.
A kiss is better than a baby.
A pratfall is better than anything.

Apr 3, 2012

Summer movie screengrab 2012: Actors

Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom; Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages; Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spiderman; Jeremy Renner in The Bourne Legacy; Leonardo di Caprio in Titanic (3D).