Watching the Gross

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I thought I’d grown used to the movies I like grossing very little money but it’s sobering. Still, this shouldn’t be surprising. I can now get into films as a senior citizen in some places. I know, I’m shocked too.   When I went to see the Steve “Jobs” movie a few weeks ago I almost passed out. But still paid full price.

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Clearly, I’ve permanently strayed from the “youth” demographic Hollywood covets no matter how many times my peers say 50 is the new 40, 60 is the new 50, 80 is the new 20 and death is something that happens to OTHER people. That’s scary enough. But to realize that not one of my favorite films is among the 50 top grossing movies of the year – well, that’s positively un-American. It’s like my entire country has turned on me when I wasn’t looking. And in more ways than one. On the other hand, it’s not the first time. I lived through the eighties, Ronald Reagan and Forrest Gump winning the Oscar yet I am still here whining about it all as our first African American-president completes his second term of office and Birdman was last year’s best picture winner. Inevitably, these types of things, as well as life, do run in cycles.

And yet…

Hard as it is to recognize I have come to understand that like many Americans the movies are my touchstone. Each year at least a handful reflect what myself and our culture were thinking or feeling en masse and, when they worked really well, even showed us alternative ways to cope. Did Michael Keaton really go out the window at the end of Birdman? Who cares – it raised the question of just what are the alternatives we all face when trying to survive as an artist of any kind. And if one believes, as I do, that anything you attempt to do well in life does indeed have some sort of artistic element to it, it is essential we continue to consider these questions. And spend less time pondering how high of a gilded wall we can build around ourselves to keep out those who are different. Ironic, isn’t it? That a country built on a melting pot of difference should be faced with the 2015 Shakespearean question of how we engineer and preserve our current gene pool to exclude as many others as possible.

There’s a reason why, at its essence, drama hasn’t really changed very much since the Elizabethan period or even as far back as the ancient Greeks.

Still works!

Still works!

Which in a roundabout way brings me back to The MOVIES, 2015.

If you’re a member of a Hollywood guild each year you’re fortunate enough to receive DVDs of many of this year’s movies so you don’t have to move your privileged ass off the couch and make the effort to go to the movie theatre if you so prefer not to. (Note: Well, you wouldn’t either if you didn’t have to and had a decent TV setup at home – give me a break)

So being the lazybones (nee whore) that I am I decided that after gorging myself on turkey I’d continue gorging myself on some of the movies I got in the mail and have not yet seen. I also decided to go out to the movie theatres and pay for a few others as well as attend several industry screenings (Note: Yes, for free – I’m not only getting lazy in my old age but also cheap). And what continued to amaze me is that without exception the films that I really enjoyed continue to make very, very little money at the box office. How long before these types of films are not made at all? I fear, not very long.

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I'll ask Matt Damon)

Maybe there are better movies on Mars? (I’ll ask Matt Damon)

Now before you go saying I’m part of the problem because I’m not going out to see my films enough – you’re only partly right. Like all of you, I should venture out and support my local theatres more than I do. But also know that part of the marketing budgets of all production companies include sending out free DVDs to guild members not to be kind but to get us to VOTE for said film in an enormous array of awards competitions that the industry will use to promote the winners and get you/us – the audience – into the theatres to see or into the stores to buy or into our heads to stream. For better or worse that’s the way the system works. Bottom line dollars.

I suppose this explains why as a Writers Guild member two of the early DVDs I received were for Furious 7 ($353 million domestic box-office gross) and Jurassic World ($652 million). Did anyone really think these would win any writing awards? (Note: That question was rhetorical). No, it was about spreading the word. Well, fyi, I’ve previously seen both a Furious AND a Jurassic movie before and was entertained. I tried briefly with both of these. Oh God. I might be old but I’m not brain dead. Yet. Which is why I turned them off.

As for some of the others – well, here I am to do the job that I was sent to do by the studio overlords – spreading the word. (Note: As if I wouldn’t give my opinion anyway).

TRUMBO

He is Spartacus?

He is Spartacus?

This is the story of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and how his intellectual liberal leanings sent him to jail for a year in the 1950s merely for being subversively un-American as a member of the Communist party. (Note: Think of him as a Muslim under a future Trump administration).

More interesting is the tale it tells of how Trumbo, once out of a jail, worked secretly writing tacky low-budget movies under assumed names and got his other unemployable writer friends jobs doing the same via a hidden writer’s clearing house he ran out of his house. With the help of his wife and children. Who answered five different telephone lines and served as their script couriers.

As played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, this Trumbo is a witty, erudite crusader, family man who takes advantage of the people around him while at the same time loving them and his country in the most unorthodox of ways. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance that will surely get him an Oscar nomination. The movie takes a long time to get going and in the first half especially feels a bit like a choppy, TV movie biopic from the 1970s. But ultimately it’s smart, breezy, clever and not without some meaning. And slickly made by director Jay Roach.

AND — It’s made less than a $1 million after three weeks of limited release.

Verdict: Watch it.

TRUTH

Would you... Rather?

Would you… Rather?

I was where most of you probably are on this. Robert Redford playing Dan Rather in a movie that shows us how Rather got pushed out of the anchor chair at CBS because of a 60 Minutes story he did on George W. Bush’s questionable military record of service? A story where sources recanted their original claims but nevertheless a story that was never proven factually inaccurate?

#1 – I don’t want to hear any more about Dubya. #2 – Redford is about as similar to Dan Rather as I am. #3 – It’s my private time, I want to be entertained by a film not forced to think about unpleasant stuff I was forced to live through all too recently.

Well, the film is not really about Dubya at all but about how the news you see on TV is put together and just how influential political dynasties can be “behind the scenes.” More importantly, Redford might not look anything like Rather but he’s got his speaking cadence down pat and is ultimately absolutely believable as the veteran Texas newsman – in fact it’s the best he’s been in a movie in many years. Who knew? Not any of us because no one is going to see it. Since it’s release in October it’s grossed about $2.5 million.

Oh, and then there’s Cate Blanchett starring as Rather’s real-life producer Mary Mapes, a tough-talking Texan she gets exactly right because she doesn’t slather on the accent but instead accentuates her intelligence. The whole film is smart. And –

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING.

SICARIO

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

Yawn. Sigh. Bleh.

My students will hate me for this because they seem to love this movie. Why? I have zero idea. Emily Blunt is as good as she can be as an FBI agent drawn into the web of breaking up a Mexican drug cartel by her CIA overlords as well as by others. But…it’s a labyrinth of action with character development and logic so spare as to be almost non-existent. And after a while it simply becomes preposterous. And a bore.

I’ve experienced first-hand as a writer notes on the strategy of throwing audiences right into the world of a movie without much of a convincing setup and allowing the viewer to play catch up. This sometimes works – as it did in the first season of True Detective. And it often times fails, as it does here. But then again, it depends what you mean by failure. Sicario has grossed $49 million in the U.S. alone and another $34 million overseas so far. That makes it a bit more than a modest success in the world of the balance sheet of a film with no above the title movie star or director. It’s also a world where logic and dialogue don’t matter as much the various kinds of actions that are ultimately delivered.

Verdict: SKIP IT. Though you could do worse (Note: See Furious AND Jurassic).

CAROL

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner... what can ya say?

Costumes by a 3-time Oscar Winner… what can ya say?

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two seemingly mismatched women falling in love in the repressive 1950s under the direction of Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine, HBO’s Mildred Pierce). This movie was MADE for me!! You’d think.

It’s beautiful to look at. Cate Blanchett’s mink coat and shimmering blonde hair and red lipstick are breathtaking. As is every single room, piece of jewelry and choice of scenery and period motor vehicle and hotel room and tacky apartment and cheap motel room. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s a movie in love with artifice – and itself. The drama is real and sometimes palpable but as someone is said to have once said, “it’s like watching paint dry.” The same emotional beats are played over and over. Time and again.   It’s based on the seminal lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, which she published under a pseudonym in 1952.   But never for one moment do you feel as if you’re watching anything other than a book unspooling in movie time without any of the nuanced language that made it so special.

The two actresses are wonderful. Everything is pretty. And it does show us how much a great deal of the world has changed. But…well….

Verdict: PASS – which is not to say there is not a great deal of skill and intelligence here. Would I watch it before Jurassic and Furious again? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I should just force myself to get all the way through the latter two for the first time. Though Carol needs the money more. It’s grossed about $500,000 in 10 days of limited release. And I doubt there’s a ton more to come. DVD/streaming sales? Maybe. But…OK, I’ll stop now.

BRIDGE OF SPIES

A Spielberg movie written by.... The Coen Brothers?

A Spielberg movie written by…. The Coen Brothers? 

I popped the DVD to this in and had low expectations. I mean, it’s the tale of the reluctant negotiator spy type American hero of the 1950s as played by Tom Hanks and directed by Steve Spielberg that somehow you believe deep down in your soul you’ve seen before…. but directed by Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman or by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Except it’s not any of those. Or really that much like them.

Tom Hanks is very good, very believable and very likeable – in an authentic, throwback Americana way. It’s a tough act to pull off an insurance lawyer turned hostage negotiator in period clothes but somehow you buy it all. At this point it’d be shocking if Mr. Spielberg did not direct an infinitely watchable movie. And this one is pretty darn watchable – thanks also in great part to Mark Rylance’s brilliantly understated performance in a role you need to see rather than read about from me. He anchors the film. And if you think that’s easy when you’re not a movie star, you’re wrong.

Verdict: WORTH WATCHING. It won’t change your life but it’s engaging. Though at a $67 million box-office gross it’s the equivalent of Trumbo or Truth in dollars for a Spielberg pic. That may not be fair but it’s the way the industry thinks. And for our future films bodes a bit ominous.

Feel free to agree – or disagree. But just know the top five grossing films of 2015 are Jurassic World ($652 million); Avengers: Age of Ultron ($459 million); Inside Out ($356 million); Furious 7 ($353 million) and Minions ($336 million). And that’s just in the U.S. alone. Films that are more adult – nee a bit more complicated or intellectually challenging – are in trouble. And need our support. At theatres, on DVD, or yes, even for free. It’s who we are. Or were. Our choice.

Oh you'll be adding me to that list pretty soon....

Oh you’ll be adding me to that list pretty soon….

P.S. Note #1: I did very much enjoy Inside Out but it’s an animated film and they’re in a category of their own. This is not a snob thing but everyone likes at least one animated movie a year except a dear friend of mine who I still can’t convince to embrace Aladdin – the gayest animated movie that’s ever been made. I’ll work on him, though.

P.S. Note #2 – Just got home from a screening of The Danish Girl. Eddie Redmayne and his co-star, the Swedish film actress Alicia Vikander, will both receive Oscar nominations. As will others behind the scenes. It’s mainstream yet unusual. Thought-provoking though not too complicated. And timely in that it follows one of the first medical cases of gender reassignment. Verdict: See it. People actually speak in full sentences, and often more than one sentence at a time. Plus, nothing blows up.

At least that’s something.

More Whine Please

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When you’re a politician and lash out at the media for asking you questions you don’t want to answer it means you are attacking them for doing their job and ill-prepared to do yours. – The Chair

What a bunch of whiners. I’m talking about politicians – particularly the GOP candidates in Wednesday’s second Republican presidential debate. And who better to know than a reformed whiner and complainer like myself. Oh, it’s not that I don’t still bitch and moan too frequently. More that a combination of age and looking around at the rest of the world and its misfortunes has made me realize that, when it comes down to it, I can scale back the bellyaching by at least 50-75%. Besides, as my father used to tell me, what good does it do anyway? (Note: To which I used to retort – It makes me feel better! Yeah, for 5-10 minutes – but consider what it does to your friends. Not to mention the general audience)

I don't know Chairy... I'm still counting my millions (billions?). #ultimatewhiner

I don’t know Chairy… I’m still counting my millions (billions?). #ultimatewhiner

I went to grad school in journalism at Northwestern University during a time when newspapers really were made of PAPER and the people and profession was generally seen as a noble quest for the truth by slightly odd and often dysfunctional people who were nevertheless smart and in your face when it came to digging up your inconvenient truth. The ultimate job of a journalist is not to be its subject’s advocate or friend, though both can easily happen – but to inform its readers – nee the public – on what’s what. Not the party line but what’s really being said at the party – behind closed doors.

Imagine it this way – you’re at a family dinner and you need to find out exactly what Aunt Clara and Uncle Artie have been hiding all these years in the locked back room of their house. Is it a trunk full of money, a dead body or simply the art projects they have been working on for the last 50 years? It is well-known among your relatives that one NEVER asks Artie and Clara about that room, much less goes into it, but for the future of the world, the safety of your neighborhood or the piece of mind of your mother who’s asked you to fulfill her last dying wish, that you find out what the hell is in that godforsaken space they’d never let her into.

Would you be able to resist?

Would you be able to resist?

So what would you do – how far would you go to find out? And how much do you think Clara and Artie would hate or blame YOU once you were done finding out? Because clearly you WILL uncover it since everyone that knows you realizes this is your area of expertise. In fact, that’s why the world, the neighborhood or even your family enlisted you for this duty in the first place. You’re the investigator-in-chief of putting people’s feet to the fire and unearthing the truth.

Oh, and you only have two hours to do it.

Are you getting the picture yet? I thought so. When electing the leader of the free world is the issue, investigators – chief or not – aren’t supposed to be nice. (Note: Did anyone see the members of Congress cross-examine Hillary Clinton at the Benghazi hearings?) I don’t have time to sugar coat for Clara and Art if all you’re giving me is two hours. My mother is dying for god’s sake and I’ve been hired by the world to do this. Failure is NOT an option. Tell me what’s in that effin room!!!!

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!

How do you not ask the self-proclaimed politically incorrect Republican Apprentice a question about temperament and being a loose cannon? Do you ignore the fact that Gov. Mike Huckabee has built his entire campaign on traditional family values and not ask him a question about morality? Does one ignore accusations of financial impropriety against Sen. Marco Rubio when he’s running to be the head of the largest economy in the world? Does Sen. Ted Cruz, who campaigns on national television talk shows bragging about not caring about being liked by his fellow senators, NOT get asked a question about his ability to unite the warring political factions of the country?

There’s no such thing as a GOTCHA QUESTION when the security of the world or granting my mother’s last dying wish are concerned. I’ll stop at nothing. Are you kidding?

I can personally confess that people whine and complain to deflect attention from the real issue at hand. When you have a rough day at the office the loud chewing sound of your spouse at dinner makes you feel like you’re eating in the center of the track at the Indianapolis 500 – in the rain. Without an umbrella. So you yell about it to deflect from the real problem to which you have no solution. Not that my husband chews loudly. He doesn’t. In fact, he does nothing wrong at all. We just care so much about each other.

OK.. maybe not the best strategy

OK.. maybe not the best strategy

See, that’s the party line. Without journalistic investigation. But to answer the direct question – no, he does not chew loudly. Though yes, of course there are times when he pisses me off. And CERTAINLY vice-versa. But we argue, discuss, reason, cajole and sometimes even all out fight about them. That’s why the relationship works. Confrontation is not always a bad thing. Better to confront this stuff now than let it fester into a HUGE problem down the line. Does anyone remember the near collapse of the American financial system almost seven years ago that ensured the election of Barack Obama to begin with?

One of the most cunning skills elected officials posses is the ability to perform expert slight of mouth. That would be the ability to reply to an inquiry with a seemingly related yet ultimately irrelevant retort that avoids the original topic posed entirely. In laymen’s terms, this is called changing the subject. You learn all about sources, subjects and the avoidance thereof in any journalism 101 class. Or simply watch All the President’s Men.

... or apparently any other movie starring Robert Redford

… or apparently any other movie starring Robert Redford

Somehow, with the dissolution of the Fairness Doctrine, which used to require that all news programs offered up opposing opinions and helped usher in the era of partisan journalism, we’ve gotten to the place where fair and balanced seems to be equated with not challenging anyone with whom you agree with or like on an issue they might not like or want to be on the record with. When what’s required in our new age of worldwide media is precisely the opposite. More questions. More answers. More truth. Because the TRUTH will come out anyway.   These days everyone has a camera and knows how to use it. The more challenges our elected officials, especially the next leader of the free world, has to endure in front of them, the more prepared she or he will be to lead us into the future. Hopefully, one a few less Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhs.