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.

A Twee Too Much

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There are a few things I need to get off my chest.

  1. I won’t be seeing the Jurassic Park reboot.   I found the first one interminably dull after a short while and this was at a packed screening in cushy seats where other people were loving it.
  1. My flat screen TVs, all of which are smart (certainly much smarter than me) have become the enemy. If I so much as graze one of their buttons in the wrong way I am left with nothing. No sound, no picture, snow or a frozen image. This can then only be remedied by calling one of five sources for help (all of whom I’ve bothered more times than I can remember) – a call which is even more embarrassing than admitting this problem publicly to all of you.
  1. I’m tired of people who can’t carry a tune or barely can sing but seem to do so quite well because of modern technology, passing themselves off as musicians and singers – and convincing the record industry and downloading public this is so.   You can’t croon or play if you are unable to achieve the effect without the help of heavy machinery.giphy
  1. Losing ones hair and figure is not fun nor is working out more than you ever did in your lifetime just to maintain status quo, health or to just look presentable enough to avoid scaring small children. On the other hand, cutting into your face or having fairly recent medical school graduates inject you with poisonous waste products from exotic animals so your skin can seem as taut as the sheets on a new recruit’s army cot seems even worse. And certainly more expensive.
  1. Ronald Reagan was a TERRIBLE president and don’t let anyone reinventing history in the forthcoming election year try to tell you any different.
because a picture of Reagan would make me barf, enjoy this litter of puppies

because a picture of Reagan would make me barf, enjoy this litter of puppies

This all started with a screening I attended of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl this weekend. No one likes a good cancer movie more than me, and certainly there isn’t a guy on the planet who gravitates more to an indie tearjerker – especially one that sold for near record millions at Sundance like such predecessors as Little Miss Sunshine – one of my all-time film festival (or any other kind of festival) favorites.

Now I hope all the filmmakers who made Earl go on to have long and happy careers (Note: They all inevitably will), not to mention most of the actors, who mostly did stellar work (Note #2: You can decide the muggers for yourself when/if you see it) and seem to have been enjoying themselves during filming. But if I have to watch one more hip, young, piece of cinema demographic filled with endless snide, deprecating dialogue bouncing off of colorful, macramé-like images shot through endless gradations of a fisheye/crooked/or skewed lens, I WILL just spend the rest of my life inside, watching my smart TVs, where I vow I WILL call one or more of you to figure out the problems with each and every one of them.

And just know by that time there will be many, many more.

It’s writer-director Wes Anderson time – meaning that’s what 100 minutes of Earl longs to give you via an unfresh and un-new visual and storytelling style– which in turn is unsurprising since WA’s frequent producer, Indian Paintbrush, distributes this one. Yup, it’s Quirky McQuirk-Quirk, Jr. with just a dash of sincere 60s/70s film homage and postmodern emotionless emotion thrown in.

And now I'm exhausted

And now I’m exhausted…

Question: If Odd is the New Norm then what is the New Odd? Would that be Mundane? It brings to mind the master originator of contemporary postmodern, David Lynch, and when he made The Straight Story in 1999, a pretty conventional tale of an older man crossing several states to visit his dying brother. The director publicly admitted that he had gone just as far as he could go with strange in his past so he decided the truly revolutionary strategy for him was to go plain. So just who will step up and assume the mantle of the then mid-career David Lynch? Anyone? Bueller?

Or perhaps let’s put it another way:

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE — will someone make an impression out there doing PLAIN – which these days merely means unadorned and with a lack of tricks???

And not from this guy.. please

And not from this guy.. please

I knew the moment I saw Wes Anderson’s Rushmore 17 years ago and was left dazed and confused – something I have never been when watching a Richard Linklater film, by the way – that I was in trouble. But never did I dream that Mr. Anderson would be responsible for a commercial cottage industry of distanced, strange and bizarre just for strange’s sake.

This, of course, is how I also felt as a very, very young man when everyone was making such a fuss about National Lampoon’s Animal House, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ghostbusters. I mean, they were fine, all fine – but the notion that they’d spawn endless sequels, reboots and their own cottage industries? Well, no wonder the president of Columbia Pictures didn’t hire me for that film development job in the 1980s – especially when I answered my personal favorite studio film of the previous year was Ordinary People. What an idiot I was. Though Ordinarily People could clearly be rebooted today – albeit with hand drawn animated inserts for the teary parts and with Mark Ruffalo and Parker Posey playing the parents of – the young new Miles Teller?

Coming soon to a theater near you

Coming soon to a theater near you

By the way, I think Miles Teller is among the best of the best in Whiplash and The Spectacular Now. He might yet one day win an Oscar even though his older generational acting doppelganger, Michael Keaton, never has (Note: He should have this past year). I also believe Miley Cyrus is very talented, imaginative and not a flash-in-the-pan, Amy Winehouse was not for a moment ever overrated and that the pastiche conceits of American Horror Story works every bit as well in its way as do the broad and stylized comic turns of both Broad City and Girls do in theirs. (Note: Coincidentally, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl was written by American Horror Story alumn Alfonso Gomez-Rejon).

But sometimes it is the job of each of us, especially those who have no other platform to do so other than in an obscure personal blog, to rail against the popular – to call out what we perceive to be The Emperor’s New Clothes.

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The gay community, not to mention any number of other un-American US citizens tried unsuccessfully to do this all through the Reagan years of the eighties – when during that president’s stewardship AIDS became a pandemic and tax cuts for the rich and corporate deregulation helped spawn the economic meltdown of the late 2000 naughts we are all still recovering from.

Yes, I am on a soapbox but how else do our collective voices forestall Jurassic Park 33 – which you all may think you want now but, trust me, your grandkids will be cursing you for. Those same kids will also likely be listening to the new 2100-age, as-of-yet unborn Sinatra singing live in each of their rooms through some kind of still undiscovered clone entertainment mechanism.   And by the way, these kids will have all also adopted their own brands of voluntary male pattern baldness for their inevitably overweight selves because certainly by that time they won’t want to look like their grandparents – since at that point they will all be sporting perfect bodies without exercise and be tossing around their long luxurious manes of intact original hair thanks to some new, priceless and certainly voluntary (Note: Though we all know socially it won’t be, not really) medical option.

Welcome to the Twilight Zone

Welcome to the Twilight Zone

I’m not sure I’ll be around then – yet given the aforementioned advances there is a possibility I could at least still be carted about like an old embryo in a trendy Mason jar. However, I am 100% positive I still won’t get Rushmore, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl or Ronald Reagan.

Generation gap, my eye – the latter of which might actually be all that is left of me. If so, it will still be just as discerning as it ever was despite what the majority is saying.

This, as Martha Stewart says – and you know that SHE will definitely still be around then – is a good thing.