Saturday, December 31, 2005

 

Watching a Ball Drop

One of the most famous moving images each year, on this day, is a ball sliding down a pole to count down the last minute of the year, and ring in the new. It symbolizes for me why the concept of motion picture has fascinated audiences worldwide for more than 100 years now. Movement on screen. The ability to freeze history or push it along can both be attributed to motion picture. And so, on each New Year's Eve, to mark the passage of time, people around the globe watch the moving image of a ball dropping in Times Square, NY. Millions gather at the location to see it. But billions more tune in to see the one-minute event, live on motion picture. Like the movies themselves, this is a communal experience. For that moment in time, it connects its audience. For a minute, we all see that simple image captured on motion picture.

Friday, December 30, 2005

 

How Does it End?

Endings. These days (unfortunately) many films go through a series of focus groups and corporate approvals before an ending is decided. Usually, though not always, a dour ending is scrapped in favor of a more upbeat "Hollywood" ending. Still, in the cinematic world, some endings have become legendary. Often times, they are what the film is most remembered for. So, as this year also draws to an end, I thought I would indulge myself with one more list before we say goodbye to 2005. Following is my list of the Top Ten Best Movie Endings Ever! (Warning, if you haven't seen these films yet, then most of list is filled with spoilers.)

10) King Kong (1933) - When you think about it, this entire film is chock full of novel oddities, but the one for which it is best remembered, was the decision to have Kong climb the Empire State Building at the end, swatting airplanes as he holds Fay Wray in his hand. In retrospect, everything about that unique decision works, including the phallic nature of the building and the fact that it was the tallest in the world at the time. The mighty Kong would of course climb the mightiest building in NY. Right? Symbolically and viscerally it's an unforgettable ending.
9) Halloween (1978) - After a night of terror, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has just been saved by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) as the good doctor pumps six bullets into the murderous "Shape," Michael Myers, sending him backwards off a second floor balcony. "He really was the bogeyman," cries Laurie." As a matter of fact," confirms Loomis, "He was." Then the doctor (and we) peer over the side of the balcony and the Shape is gone.

8) Gone With the Wind (1939) - All is fair in love and war. And frankly, we do give a damn. Although, most forget that the actual last line of the film is the defiant comeback "Tomorrow is a another day!" The culmination of this grand, sweeping epic, in the end, symbolically comes down to two people.
7) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Some loved this film. Some hated it. But anyone who saw it, never forgets the "Star Child" at the end.

6) When Harry Met Sally... (1989) - In the course of this film, Harry and Sally actually discuss best last lines of films, while watching Casablanca together. But this movie creates one hell of an ending itself -- On New Year's Eve, Harry, realizing he loves Sally, runs through the streets of Manhattan searching for her. He finally reaches her at an elegant New Year's Eve Party, at the stroke of midnight, as she's about to leave, and proceeds to tell her all the reasons he loves her. "See?" she responds with tears in her eyes. "That's just like you Harry. You say these things and you make it impossible for me to hate you Harry. And I hate you. I really hate you." They kiss.
5) Casablanca (1942) - "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Harry thought this film had the best last line ever. I am in near agreement. And the ending is heartbreaking. But in my opinion, the next four films top it.
4) Seven (1995) - When I first saw this film, I sat riveted to my seat for the last 15 minutes of this film. My heart was pounding as I was wondering what was going to happen out there, in the desert. How would this brilliantly twisted film end? Then the box is delivered and Brad Pitt's character, as Morgan Freeman's character begs him not to, opens it...Few films have ever drawn the line between hero and villain quite as clearly (Taxi Driver and Blue Velvet spring to mind). And a very thin line it is.

3) Psycho (1960) - Alfred Hitchcock shot this film cheap and in black and white, not realizing it would be considered by most to be his masterpiece. That terrible secret in the basement. Norman Bates' complete transformation into his own mother. The shot of him alone, covered by a blanket, in a padded room. "She" knows they're watching and she wouldn't hurt a fly. Blink and you miss the mummified skull superimposed over Norman's face. It doesn't get any creepier or more shocking than the ending of Psycho. One of the most brilliant endings to a film, ever.

2) Citizen Kane (1941) - The film starts with the single dying word of Charles Foster Kane, "Rosebud." But it's only at the end of this magnificent film -- written, produced, directed and starring Orson Welles -- that we discover Rosebud, the thing which comes to mind at the end of this powerful and ruthless man's life, is his sled, a symbol of a more innocent time. One he grasps to now as his life ebbs away.
1) City Lights (1931) - The oldest film on this list is still the best. Charles Chaplin created his masterpiece with City Lights, and one of the greatest films ever produced. It embodies everything for which his character, the Little Tramp, was created. And its ending is the best ever put on celluloid. The tramp. The blind girl he loves. A flower. The touch of a face. The revelation, and the Tramp's reaction. Then, the fade out. I don't want to say anymore. If you've seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven't, you deserve to experience it without my spoiling or analyzing it any further.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

 

Zasu Who?

She may be all but forgotten now -- and I'm certain the current crop of moviegoers under 35 don't even know who she is -- but for a while, Zasu Pitts was one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood. She had her final role as the crazed switchboard operator in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (one of my all-time favorite screen comedies), but she was best known for her silent films of the 20s (including Greed and The Wedding March). She was able to make a successful transition to talking films and was in another of my favorite films Ruggles of Red Gap in 1935. In all, she acted in more than 200 productions. The U.S. Post Office issued Pitts a stamp on April 27, 1994, designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. The Hirschfeld set also honored Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Charles Chaplin, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Harold Lloyd, Theda Bara, Buster Keaton, and the Keystone Kops. Zasu Pitts has had her own film festival for years, held at Labette Community College in the Spring. So it's nice to see that even into the 2000s, some still remember the contributions of the pioneers of film. And come on, let's face it, once you've heard it, can you forget a name like Zasu Pitts?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

 

Steve Martin: Cinema's Uber Dad!

Is it me, or was Steve Martin born to play the sentimental Dad on screen? Maybe it's something about his face. When it's sad, we're sad. When it smiles we smile. That rubbery, cheeky smile was a trusting and inviting feature even when Martin was playing "wild and crazy guys" on screen, decades ago. So maybe that's why, when director Ron Howard matched Martin's face to the central "Dad" character of his film Parenthood, he created a new persona for Martin on-screen: the Uber Dad! And that persona fit like a glove. Afterall, who wouldn't want a Dad like Steve Martin? Sure, he's a bit over-the-top when it comes to his family (he may spy on his daughter's date, or check out his future in-law's bank account), but if you have (as I have) viewed Parenthood, Father of the Bride, Father of the Bride II, Cheaper By the Dozen and the just-released Cheaper by the Dozen 2, you'll understand he does it all with love. He loves his children above all else. He wants to protect them. He loves family and its traditions. He's always playing sports with them in the backyard. He doesn't blow his top when wacky things happen, and is the most loyal and loving husband a woman could want. He loves and respects his wife as the mother of his children but still desires her as a woman. I have no doubt, if someone decided to revive the classic Robert Young TV series Father Knows Best, and cast Martin in the lead role, it would be a huge success today. Better yet, have Martin star in a big-screen version of Father Knows Best and get Ron Howard to direct it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

 

Roaring on the Edge of Pretentiousness

Ok. So I finally saw the latest remake of King Kong -- Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson's loving tribute to the 1933 original. I respect what he tried to do. And, I enjoyed large chunks of this film. But here's the thing. Did everything have to be taken up a notch (or three)? In 1933, crew members attempting to rescue the heroine Ann Darrow from Kong must face down (and kill) a raging dinosaur. Here, they must run from (and survive) a heard of them! In 1933, a scene involving a giant spider at the bottom of a ditch was scrapped. Here, Jackson not only includes a scene with giant spiders, scorpions, earth worms and beetles, he also retro-fitted a newly filmed version of the scrapped scene into the original film! In 1933, Kong battles a T-Rex to save Ann. Here, he battles four of them, all while falling off a cliff, into vines, and still holding on to the girl! Wow! Which brings me to the next point. The original made it very clear how a big brute like Kong could fall for a beautiful blonde like Fay Wray, but here, Jackson attempts to show why a blonde (like Naomi Watts) would fall for the brute! Ann and Kong bond. This Ann is not the willing participant in Carl Denham's circus (as Wray's was in 1933). Watts' Ann would rather be a chorus girl then be a party to Denham's inhumane spectacle. And while I realize, it's daring to introduce such themes of primal attraction and exploration of man's darkside (done here by frequent references back to Conrad's Heart of Darkness) much of this film walks far too close to being pretentious. Plus, it's just difficult to believe that Ann would monkey around with a 25-foot monkey (which she literally does, to make him laugh). Now that said, Kong himself looks amazing, a definite improvement on the original. But some of the digital effects here look like, well, effects. And they jolted me out of the movie, at times. Other industry-specific themes and in-jokes in the film were on the money. But honestly, I think Jackson over-reaches here, and wants to make epic, what is simply adventurous pulp. I'm willing to see this film again, and let it seep in once more, but I'm fairly certain that parts of it still won't work on repeated viewing, even as parts of it are brilliant the first time around.

Monday, December 26, 2005

 

Great Character Actor Vincent Schiavelli Dies

How many times have we said, "I don't remember his name, but I know that face. He's been in lots of movies. If you saw him, you'd know who I was talking about." Character actors often rely on a unique looking face or a quirky personality to stand out in a film or TV show. Vincent Schiavelli, who died today at age 57, was one of the best character actors working. His look was often described as "hangdog," and when he was in a film, you didn't forget it. Schiavelli, who studied his craft at NYU, often worked with director Milos Forman, for whom he acted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, Valmont, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. He had a rip-roaring turn in Ghost as a furious spirit, and appeared as Latka's comrade in the long-running TV series Taxi. His other films included Ron Howard's Night Shift, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Batman Returns and Tomorrow Never Dies. In 1997, Vanity Fair named Schiavelli as one of the best character actors in America. I agree. When he wasn't acting, he was writing award-winning culinary articles and three cookbooks. His presence will be missed, even if you didn't know his name.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

 

Is Anyone Documenting This War on Christmas?

Merry Christmas! (I think you can still say that without being arrested.) Anyway, whether you truly believe there is a cultural war that is undermining the representation of Christmas in government-funded spaces (and Wal-mart, for that matter), or if you believe that the so-called "War on Christmas" -- which was coined for John Gibson's book of the same title, and ignited into a conflagration this year by right-leaning commentators such as Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity -- is simply a diversion tactic, one thing is certain: it's worth documenting on film. In years to come, the film will either be viewed as the record of a watershed moment in the clash of culture and politics in this country or, as a trivial novelty. Either way, it would make an entertaining documentary. I suspect the "war" has just started. This year -- a year in which Gibson's book codified the "battles" of the previous two years, and struck a nerve -- were just the opening salvos of what I suspect will be an ongoing struggle through the end of the Bush administration (or the end of the Iraq War, whichever comes first). Is there a War on Christmas? Perhaps. But wouldn't it be great to hear opinions from both sides? Maybe pepper in the rantings of O'Reilly, Limbaugh, Hannity and (on the left) Randi Rhodes to demonstrate the breakdown in communication on such issues? New battles raged this month. Is there someone out there documenting all of it? Either way it plays out, I am certain this is one for the history books. Wouldn't it be great to see a film intelligently document it? Anyone willing to fund such a project?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

 

Wonderful Life's "Mrs Martini" Passes Away

On this Christmas Eve comes word that Aregentina Brunetti, the Italian actress who played the minor role of Mr. Martini's wife, and the mother of the large Martini clan, in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, has died at the age of 98. Brunetti -- whose career spanned more than 50 years (including a turn as Dean Martin's mother in the film The Caddy) -- played the matriarch of the large Martini family who accepts the symbolic loaf of bread from Donna Reed's character Mary, as she, and her family, move to a bigger, better house in Bailey Park, thanks to Jimmy Stewart's character George Bailey. In the film, the immigrant family represents director Capra's own experience of upward mobility in this country. It's a Wonderful Life is a film full of hope, on many levels, which is what tonight, Christmas Eve, the night that frames the film's story, is all about.

Friday, December 23, 2005

 

Finding God Through Narnia?

Forget Communion hosts. Looks like churches would rather build concession stands in the vestibule. Why? Well, I read an article today that reports certain Christian churches have taken advantage of the release of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and utilized the film to better reach their congregations. In addition to Sunday sermons, certain churches (in the Nazarene denomination) are offering classes with titles such as "The Promise of Christmas -- Hope in My Land of Narnia," and "Finding God Through Narnia." Is this a good thing? On the one hand, I can certainly understand the appeal of using a popular fantasy (that has long been recognized as a Christian allegory) to reach younger churchgoers, but is introducing a faith (which some already consider a fantasy anyway) by way of a recognized fantasy a good thing? Does the church need Narnia these days? Are the stories of the faith not enough to pack 'em in any more? Creation? Noah's Flood? The Ten Commandments? The Resurrection? Too passé? Not enough action? Allegories are great. But Narnia is certainly not the first tale to utilize Christian themes? They exist throughout Slaughterhouse Five and Catch 22 and most certainly in the Star Wars saga. Why didn't churches embrace those stories to reach the faithful? I can remember a time when Star Wars was denounced as drawing younger adults away from the church and, in a way, forming a new secular religion. The classic struggle of good and evil and messianic heroes is what Star Wars is all about -- if that isn’t Judeo/Christian, I don't know what is. So, why Narnia? Why now? Has the church lost touch with its people? Are popular movies a way to bring them back? And even it they do come back, like movie audiences, won’t they just want more and more? Mel Gibson single-handedly caused a seismic shift. Hollywood and the Christian Church have struck an interesting sort of alliance in a post-Passion world. Still, the question is: Can Hollywood and the Church keep upping the ante and packing 'em in?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

 

Part of a Balanced Breakfast

I remember being excited to find a plastic toy in my cereal box. Now, Kellogg's is offering MGM and 20th Century Fox movies on DVD as part of its "Movie Lovers Collection" promotion. The offer for MGM titles ends June 30, 2006. The Fox titles go to December 31, 2007! Both collections include new and vintage films, such as the classics Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and 12 Angry Men. More information is available at http://www.kelloggs.com/promotions/mgmdvd/ and http://www.kelloggs.com/promotions/foxdvd/films.shtml. What a great way for children to be introduced to films they might not have otherwise known. I remember how I would read the cereal box at breakfast to learn of the latest offers. Hopefully this promotion will ignite discussions about these films.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

 

Classic Christmas Songs From Film

There was a time, when many of the chart-topping tunes of the day came from films. That time has long passed, but at this time of the year, I started thinking about how many of the songs we consider "Christmas standards" today originated in films (some of them not even Christmas films, per se). The most obvious example of these is Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," which he wrote for the film Holiday Inn. (Another seasonal standard, "Happy Holidays," also comes from that film.) "White Christmas" went on the win the Oscar for Best Song and subsequently become the most popular Christmas song of all time. In fact, so popular was the song, that when Holiday Inn was remade, it was re-titled White Christmas. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is from the Judy Garland film Meet Me in St Louis. The popular "Silver Bells" come from the Bob Hope film The Lemon Drop Kid. Originally written for the stage, Jerry Herman's wonderfully lively "We Need a Little Christmas," from Mame, was included in the Lucille Ball film version. A few years back, Faith Hill's performance of "Where Are You Christmas?" from Ron Howard's The Grinch that Stole Christmas, made that song an instant classic. Likewise, last year, Josh Grobin's rendition of "Believe," from The Polar Express, earned that song an Oscar nomination, and catapulted it into the collection of tunes heard this time of the year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

 

The Great Father/Son Films

When you think about it, on a spiritual level, the Christmas story is really the ultimate father/son story. Hollywood has had its share of good father/son films as well. Many of these have come from the Walt Disney studio, whose classic films generally involve a protagonist who either has no parents (Snow White), an evil step-parent (Cinderella), or just one, rather non-relevant, parent (Belle). In all those cases, however, the protagonists are female, all lacking a mother, and having to make it in the world by finding the "prince" who will save them. That archetype has informed the minds of million and millions of impressionable girls over the years. Still, Disney did offer a father/son story during this "golden" age with a message which spoke just as strongly to boys -- Pinocchio. Once again, the story revolves around a single parent household (amazing, isn't it, how many of Disney's films -- the paradigm of "family" entertainment -- involve one-parent homes, even back in the 30s and 40s). Pinocchio's quest to "be a real boy" and ultimately save his father, still resonates today. More recently, Disney created two films which explore the father/son bond. The Lion King, in which the young cub Simba must live up to his father's legacy, relates how a father's spirit lives on in his son (not unlike the Christmas story). Setting the father as an unlikely "hero" is Disney's wonderfully realized Finding Nemo, in which a neurotic little clown fish, who has lost his wife and had to raise his only son alone, will literally risk life and limb to find his son, when he becomes lost in the vast ocean. On a somewhat more adult level, Field of Dreams taps into all the unspoken emotions, and things left unsaid, between a father and a son, sometimes. It uses baseball -- America's father/son sport -- and the activities and foundations associated with it, to make its point. Sometimes, no matter how old you are, you just want to play catch with your Dad. The Santa Clause 1 & 2 also explore the bond between father and son. Scott Calvin (played by Tim Allen) isn't only learning to be a good divorced father to his own son, but as Santa Claus, a father to all the children of the world.

Monday, December 19, 2005

 

Scary Santas

The book, The War on Christmas by John Gibson has struck a nerve this holiday season. Battles in this war have broken out around the country, including a grisly Santa display in Manhattan, in which a bloodied, knife wielding Santa holds a severed head in his hand. The display -- which was eventually ripped down by an ex-Marine who found it offensive -- made the front page of the New York Post and subsequently national news reports, on cable. The whole incident put me in mind of a series of Christmas "horror" films that demonize Santa. Christmas was horror's last taboo. But why, I wondered, did filmmakers feel the need to turn Santa into a monster. Were they traumatized as children, when they were made to sit in Santa's lap for a photo? Is it just that they don't like Christmas and want to bring it to the level of Halloween? Or is it just a droll, dark commentary on the commercialism of the holiday? After all Santa does have access to everyone's house. He has us on his list, and the song does say "you better watch out." (Hmm, that's starting to sound like the government.) In 1980's Christmas Evil, a boy's belief in St. Nick is shattered when he witnesses his mother "kissing" Santa Claus. As an adult, he becomes a toymaker in an attempt to spread Christmas cheer, but eventually snaps and, while dressed as Santa, murders "naughty" boys and girls instead. In the similarly themed Silent Night, Deadly Night, which hit theaters four years later, a troubled teenager (whose parents were murdered) goes on a murderous rampage, while dressed as Santa, due to his abusive stay at an orphanage. This film, which caused a certain level of controversy for its depiction of Santa a holding an ax while going down the chimney, was popular enough to spawn a slew of sequels. Now, just in time for this holiday season, the direct-to-video effort Santa's Slay, portrays Santa as an evil spirit who lost a bet, forcing him to be jolly and hand out toys. But when the bet ends, he returns to his evil ways. No doubt, if this "war" on Christmas continues, these films will serve as ammunition fodder for one side or the other. But it's been 25 years now since the scary Santa hit the screen. Will a renewed focus on all things Christmas help or hurt this most unusual of film sub-genres?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

 

Forgotten Christmas Gems From TV's Bygone Era

I often think about how DVD (and VHS before it) has been able to preserve small treasures from years past which might have otherwise been forgotten. I just viewed two Christmas productions back-to-back today, both of which reminded me of a line from another Christmas classic -- the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. "It is at Christmastime that want is most keenly felt." I agree. For those who recognize it, Christmas magnifies everything. Happiness becomes great happiness. But want becomes great want. Need becomes great need. And loneliness becomes great loneliness. These two TV items, both produced by CBS, "keenly" demonstrate that point. The first, The House Without a Christmas Tree, which originally aired in 1972, was directed by Paul Bogart (who would go on to direct some of the best episodes of All in the Family) and was shot on video, giving it a stage-like yet realistic feel. It starred two-time Oscar-winner Jason Robards as a widower and single father whose bitterness over the loss of his wife has prevented him from enjoying Christmas (or life, for that matter) for nearly a decade. The story takes place in Nebraska of 1946 -- and you believe it -- the nuances are perfect, and the epiphanies and emotions here are as realistic as they come. The film produced three sequels over the next four years. I had always held a fond memory of this film and was genuinely overjoyed when I saw it available on VHS many many years later. It plays every bit as real today as it did in 1972. The second TV gem was the Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone (a TV anthology series which showcased the finest writing and some of the finest performances ever on the small screen). Written by series creator Rod Serling, "Night of the Meek," which first aired on December 23, 1960, tells the story of an alcoholic and disillusioned department store Santa who dreams of becoming the real Santa. On Christmas Eve (and especially in The Twilight Zone), anything is possible. Also shot on video (a departure for the series, which was regularly shot on film), the episode captures a tour de force performance by Art Carney, who deeply mines the emotions felt by his character. Both productions, like all of the truly great Christmas films, show the healing power of the holiday.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

 

Christmas Fun With John & Laura

Filmmaker (and "Movies on My Mind" reader) Brendon Connelly sent me an early Christmas gift with an opportunity to see his new Christmas short, John vs. Laura. This light holiday confection is sort of a playful riff on O. Henry's Christmas classic The Gift of the Magi (albeit, with an innocent bit of competition thrown in for good measure) and unfolds against the The Waitresses' fun 1981 holiday song, "Christmas Wrapping." Here's what I really like about this little Christmas film. Understanding the nature of short story telling (much in the way O. Henry and Rod Serling did), Connelly ends his film with an unexpected and humorous twist. Also, with small strokes, and a smart sense of art direction, he is able to visually convey the Christmas season without dialogue. John wears green. Laura is dressed in red. He wraps her gift in shiny red paper with a green bow; she wraps his in shiny green paper with red bows. It's simple, but it says "Christmas." The film also keeps the action in close-up (even the film's climax is a tightly framed shot in front of the Christmas tree), and allows small gestures to reveal individual character traits. John's wrapping technique is hurried and clumsy. Laura's is meticulous, with a sense of flare (she puts two bows on her package, indicating she and John are a couple and underlines her name, on the gift tag, for an added bit of emphasis). You can view John vs. Laura at http://www.anthologise.com/johnvslaura/.

Friday, December 16, 2005

 

Christmas Film Quiz

'Twas a week (or so) before Christmas and I thought gee whiz, instead of a blog, I'll post a film quiz. Some answers are easy, some less so, but give it a try, before you go.
1) What do Jan Rubes, Tom Hanks, Armand Meffre, Ed Asner, Mickey Rooney, Sebastian Cabot, Sir Richard Attenborough, Ed Wynn, David Huddleston, Art Carney, Tim Allen, and Edmund Gwenn all have in common?
2) Can you name the only two of Santa's reindeer sleigh team to have their own feature film? (Hint: One film was animated, the other live action.)
3) What is the most successful Christmas film of all time?
4) What Christmas film has been remade more than any other?
5) Name two Christmas films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar?

6) Name two films that include both the holidays of Halloween and Christmas.
7) What is the first Christmas present Santa gives in the film The Polar Express?
8) What distinguished actors play the three wise men (the magi) in Jesus of Nazareth?
9) Which of the following screen strongmen was not in a Christmas movie: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone or Hulk Hogan? (Bonus: Can you name the films the other two were in?)
10) On what famous Christmas movie is the film It Happened One Christmas based?
Good luck. Have fun!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

 

Reports of Kong's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

King Kong, which just opened yesterday (a Wednesday), has not even made it to its opening weekend yet, and already, reports are implying it's a bomb (or at least way below expectations). Here are the AOL headlines: "Kong Barely Growls With $9.8M on First Day" and "Kong Whimpers With $9.8M on First Day." Whimpers? On a Wednesday? King Kong is a three-hour movie! Wednesday -- last I looked -- is a work day and (more importantly) a school day. And despite those obstacles, the film still managed to bring in close to $10 million in one day, with a restricted amount of showings (due to its length). That's hardly a whimper. Of course, AOL is part of the Time Warner family, whose studio is Warner Bros. King Kong is released by Universal. Could this be a bit of wishful thinking on the part of a rival studio? It's bad enough that today's Hollywood judges whether most films live or die based on opening weekend grosses. But now, will films not be able to even get to their opening weekend before judgment is passed? Furthermore, everywhere you turn, King Kong is being compared to Titanic in terms of potential boxoffice. Is this the intentional kiss of death for the film? In other words, does setting up that expectation mean the film's a flop if it doesn't reach $600 million domestically and $1.2 billion worldwide? Recall, I mentioned earlier on here that Sony's Godzilla had equally lofty hopes of boxoffice revenue and it fell with a thud. Overnight King Kong, a three-hour movie, took nearly $10 million, on a non-vacation, school/work night. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks that's impressive boxoffice. Plus, Kong does not have the built-in cult following of other, more successful, Wednesday openers with which it's being compared, such as The Lord of the Rings and Spiderman. But let's forget money for a minute. Kong has received across-the-board rave reviews. Does that count for anything? It's also been nominated for Best Picture by the Broadcast Film Critics. How about letting the film breathe (for at least one weekend) before pushing the big ape off the Empire State Building to its death.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

 

Film Uncovers Post-Tsunami Scandal

Director Dhruv Dhawan may have just wanted to make a film about Sri Lankan survivors of the 2004 tsunami that crashed into southeast Asian countries last December, killing more than 200,000 people, but what he uncovered, while making his film From Dust, is a scandal of global proportions. Dhawan's film reveals that rather than using the $3.5 billion allocated to help rebuild homes for victims following the disaster, the government of Sri Lanka, warning of another Tsunami, used fear to drive these homeless (many of them fishers) from the coastal regions and, rather than provide new homes for them, used the money to develop the land for tourism. The film estimates that more than 350,000 people remain homeless and living in tents. The film also quotes a disillusioned U.S. naval officer as saying that the Sri Lankan government has not constructed a single home for the victims of the tsunami and instead is turning the crisis into an money-making opportunity. The film also has a local Sri Lankan politician saying that those affected by this decision are "the small people." Anyone who has given money to the tsunami relief effort should watch this film and then stand up in protest! This is nothing short of an outrage. Once again, a film has helped to shed light on injustice. But it really doesn't matter if no one follows up. This reminds me of a line from The Godfather Part III. A catholic bishop has just thanked Michael Corleone for a generous contribution to the poor of Sicily and Michael replies, "Let's just hope the money gets to the people who need it the most." Everyone who gave to the tsunami relief funds hoped the same thing. Now, the film From Dust shows that isn't the case.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

 

George Clooney: Filmmaker to Watch

Proving to be more than the TV pretty boy he played on ER and bouncing back from portraying Batman in the worst installment of the series, George Clooney, has, of late, proven he's a filmmaker and actor to watch. Scoring huge with Golden Globe nominations today, Clooney was recognized for his writing and directorial effort on Good Night, and Good Luck as well as his acting in the timely and provocative Syriana. After making some smart acting choices in films such as Out of Sight, The Thin Red Line, Three Kings, and O Brother Where Art Thou, Clooney made his mark as a director with the independent Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Like that film, his two current efforts have more than a bit of political intrigue. In fact, some have already dubbed Clooney the filmmaker with the greatest political conscious working today. I will say this. He has made interesting, and not obvious, choices, which is always refreshing for the industry. If his gambles pay off, though, look for Hollywood to try and replicate with similarly themed films. Hopefully, by then, Clooney will be off forging new filmic ground elsewhere.

Monday, December 12, 2005

 

The Old West Ain't What It Used To Be

There was a time when a movie Western evoked images of John Wayne, battling savage Indians, and bravely forging America's God-given path to the Pacific? Well, you ain't gonna see that no more. On screen, the deconstruction and revision of the "Old West" mythology (and perhaps the mythology of this country, as well) began with Kevin Costner's 1990 Best Picture winner Dances With Wolves. That film turned the notion of Cowboys and Indians on its head. When the Cavalry comes storming in, towards the end of the film, you shudder, not cheer, at the needless carnage they will create and the lives they will displace. Costner's focus on Indians as "good guys" in the film set the tone for the screen Westerns that were to follow. Two years later, Clint Eastwood (himself a traditional Western -- albeit Spaghetti Western -- icon) directed and starred in Unforgiven. Here, another of the screen Western myths was shattered. Dying from gunshot wounds were suddenly not as clean and quick as they once were. Agonizingly slow deaths from shootouts were shown in painstaking detail, and the line between hero and outlaw got a bit fuzzier. Unforgiven also won the Oscar for Best Picture. Now, director Ang Lee has given us Brokeback Mountain and added perhaps the last piece to the deconstruction of Western screen mythology. In the past, there was nothing more manly than being a gunslinger. After all, taming the Wild West was a man's job -- a dangerous one, seething with testosterone. But the cowboys in Brokeback Mountain are homosexual. Can there be a more shattering notion to the cowboy myth? Having already taken the L.A. Film Critics Award for Film of the Year, will Brokeback Mountain complete the hat trick, begun with Dances With Wolves and walk off with an Oscar for Best Picture as well? More interestingly though is this question: Does the deconstruction and revisionist view of the West mirror the evolution of the country itself? In the late 1960s as anti-war protests were heating up, they were met on screen with the resolve of the Old West. John Wayne was not only one of The Green Berets (1968) he had True Grit (1969) as well. The sentiment of Westerns from the 40s and 50s still held sway by then. By golly, we were gonna win the Vietnam War the way John Wayne won the west -- with good old fashion American resolve! But today, as we fast the growing disapproval of another war, the movies themselves have told us, the Indians were good, the gunshots hurt, and some of the cowboys were gay! How can you win a war knowing that? How indeed.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

 

Going Ape

There is something about the primal nature of King Kong that still resonates today. Is it the subtext of man worshiping and then killing a god? Is it notion of a primate more powerful than us? Or is it just that the big hairy ape gets the blonde? Whatever it is, we're just days away from the second (and, one would hope, far superior) remake of King Kong. And this thought comes to mind: Will this be Peter Jackson's Heaven's Gate? Or will it be the fourth in a string of worldwide blockbusters for the director? King Kong, as many movie fans know, is the reason Jackson wanted to make movies. The 1933 original is his favorite film. He has wanted to pay homage to it for some time, but not until the success of his Lord of the Ring trilogy did he get a studio to back him. Unlike the first remake in 1976, Jackson decided to keep this story set in the 1930s and true to the original plot. A wise move. In fact, much of what I've seen about the film, thus far, seems wise, including the casting of Jack Black, Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody. The effects seem amazing. Still, I wonder, has the studio over hyped the film? Will that backfire? Remember Sony Pictures' onslaught of marketing for the remake of Godzilla? The studio was certain, so certain, it had a Titanic-sized hit on its hands. Then the film flopped. But Jackson seems to have delivered the goods. All that's left now is the roar of the crowd.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

 

Richard Pryor Dies

In Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, writer/comedian/actor Richard Pryor, bravely (although, not completely successfully) attempted to take a no-holds-barred look at his life (mistakes and all), following a drug-related accident that burned more than 50 percent of his body. But Pryor had made a career -- and became a legend -- of being raw and open on stage and on screen about his life experiences. He died today, of a heart attack, just nine days after his 65th birthday. He had influenced a generation of up-and-coming comedians (particularly Eddie Murphy, who would often mention his admiration for Pryor, with whom he co-starred in the film Harlem Nights). Few may know that Pryor co-wrote Blazing Saddles, but it was his razor-sharp, groundbreaking stand-up films; his successful string of screen hits with co-star Gene Wilder (led by Silver Streak and Stir Crazy); and the goodwill he engendered from having survived his accident, that combined to certify Pryor's place in the popular culture of the 20th century. It’s ironic that is was Pryor’s access to mainstream success which ultimately led to the least satisfying phase of his career (with films such as Superman III and the remake of Brewster’s Millions exemplifying the bad choices made during this period), before he was forced to retire, due to an ongoing struggle with MS. Tonight, the marquee at Manhattan’s Laugh Factory simply said, “Make God Laugh.”

Friday, December 09, 2005

 

Where's the Line?

I recently watched the in-name-only sequel to 8MM. Here's what was interesting. Although I rented it at Blockbuster, the film contained a great deal of full-frontal female nudity, and a scene of actual (not simulated) cunnilingus. Now, I have always believed that graphic violence is much more of a concern than graphic sexuality on film (although I'm not one of the crowd that believes violent films beget violent acts). But this film made me wonder...has the line moved on such content? A couple of years ago, Oscar-nominated actress Chloe Sevigny and respected independent actor/writer/director Vincent Gallo caused a stir in the U.S. when the two engaged in a scene of actual fellatio (in close-up detail) on screen for the otherwise non-pornographic film The Brown Bunny. But the release of that film was essential squashed domestically, and few have seen it (although it's fairly easy to view the controversial fellatio scene on the Internet). And that is part of the point. Can't people, at the touch of a button on Google, see more content within seconds on the Internet, than anything a film can provide? Of course. So has such saturation of content for the current generation led to a shift of the line? I think it has. I'll repeat this. Blockbuster now carries a film with explicit cunnilingus in it. And you don't have to go to a secret back room to rent it. That's a shift.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

 

Will Movie Theaters Die?

My short answer is: No. But there are qualifiers to that answer. Independent movie theaters started dying a while ago, and now are all but gone. Sony's move, a few years back, to recreate vertical control over content distribution by purchasing Loews Theaters was also a bust. And yes, in this age of iPod and computer downloads (not to mention illegal DVD copies of theatrical films available on street corners), the threat to movie theaters seems great. Still, here's why I believe theaters (in one form or another) will be around for years and years to come. Movies have always been, from the start, a communal experience. And they have been about size. That's why we call it the big screen. And while we live today in a time of instant gratification, the opportunity to see an "event" film on opening night, on the big screen, with hundreds of others is still strong. King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars: Episode III, Harry Potter and War of the Worlds, this year, are just some of the examples. In recent years, other Star Wars sequels, Lord of the Rings films and Harry Potter films have also drawn people to theaters in droves. What can we make of this? Well, as I have said before on here, prior to the age of VHS, I could have seen a new low budget horror film every week at some theater, somewhere. Homevideo took that away, and with it, slowly went the independent theaters that could make a buck off of such films. Blockbuster, in turn, eroded the neighborhood video store. With homevideo options, audiences, over the years, stayed away from overpriced movie theaters, arguing, sensibly, that they could "wait for that to come out on video." With the independent movie theaters gone, with them went the individual character of that venue. Like the homevideo market (with Blockbuster), soon the multiplex homogenized the movie-going experience as well. Independents. Foreign films. Off-beat efforts. All had less of a chance of exposure in such an environment. Enter the Internet. Suddenly, this new and accessible outlet gave smaller films a chance to be seen. (With the proper bandwidth, of course.) What evolved from there was the notion that seeing a film was something that could be done with no wait. But waiting is something that still attracts people to the theater. Granted, this seems to be the case more and more, for the so called "event" film. But as I said, that type of film brings audiences in droves. So. what does all this mean? Is the independent theater all but dead? Yes. Will more people see films on one-inch iPods screens and computers? Yes. (Although, I will never understand why.) However, will event films -- which still bring in upwards of $1 billion in boxoffice revenue -- keep larger chains of theaters alive. Yes. And as the industry shifts to more and more of those films filling the theaters, we will see a shift in viewing habits, that's true. But theaters are here to stay for a long, long while.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

 

Front Line Films

Having grown up on MTV music videos and Internet film downloads, the current crop of soldiers in Iraq, CBS News recently reported, has been making home movies of the war zone in ways never before seen in any U.S. war. But these films are not only capturing the hell of battle (which they are, in close-up detail). In downtime, the soldiers are also filming themselves, doing wheelies on dirtbikes, playing air guitar, and attacking Porta Potties!! British soldiers, in country, reportedly made a spoof music video, so popular in England, that it crashed the Ministry of Defense's computer when people tried to download it. In an era of reality TV, these kinds of films don't seem so odd. Do they? In time, they'll serve as time capsule for the attitudes of the fighting soldiers and a glimpse into the front line of war that just can't be replicated in fiction, no matter how good it is.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

 

The Spinoff Sequel

Yesterday, I talked about the fact that the Griswold children in the Vacation movies have never been played by the same actors twice. In thinking about that series, another oddity associated with it came to mind, and for it, "Movies on My Mind" has today officially coined a new phrase for the movie industry: The Spin-off Sequel. What is the Spin-off Sequel? Simply put, it's when a film is a non-sequential sequel in a film series and is neither a prequel to the original film nor a sequel to the most recent sequel in the series. Sound confusing? It really isn't. Two great examples come to mind. One, as I said, is associated with the Vacation series of films, the other is part of Disney's The Lion King franchise. The original Vacation was released in 1983. That was followed in 1985 by European Vacation, 1989 by Christmas Vacation and 1997 by Vegas Vacation. Then in 2003, not a fifth entry in the series (Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo -- and their characters -- are nowhere to be found) but rather a sequel to the third installment in the series hit the small screen: Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie's Island Adventure. The film forgoes the Griswolds to focus on Randy Quaid's dim-witted character, although there is an appearance by Audrey Griswold (played by the actress who originated her, Dana Barron). This film is not the fifth in the official series, but rather the second in the Christmas Vacation line of films. A true spin-off sequel. In 1994, Disney's The Lion King became the most successful animated film in the history of cinema. It was followed, in 1998, by a direct-to-video sequel called The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride. Then in 2004, Disney released another direct-to-video installment in The Lion King series, but this was not Lion King 3, nor was it a prequel to the original. Instead, The Lion King 1 1/2 was a retelling of the first story from the unique point of view of Timon the meerkat (voiced by Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the warthog (voiced by Ernie Sabella). A very clever idea, but again, it can only be classified as a spin-off sequel.

Monday, December 05, 2005

 

The Griswold Offspring

Is this a cinematic first? While Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo have resprised their roles as Clark and Ellen Griswold in each of the National Lampoon Vacation films, the Griswold children, Audrey and Rusty have NEVER been played by the same actors twice. In the 1983 original, Vacation, Audrey is played by Dana Barron, and Rusty by (the reigning geek king of John Hughes 80s comedies) Anthony Michael Hall. However, in 1985's European Vacation, Audrey is played by Dana Hill, while Rusty is portrayed by Jason Lively. By 1989's Christmas Vacation, Audrey is played by Juliette Lewis (yes, that Juliette Lewis), and Rusty, now shorter and younger, is realized by Johnny Galicki. Almost a decade later, in the fourth (and final?) installment, Vegas Vacation, Marisol Nichols became Audrey, with Ethan Embry stepping into Rusty's shoes. Why? Who knows. Clearly, given the fact that there is 14 years between the original and its most recent sequel, the actors may have been a bit unconvincing as children. Still, that doesn't explain the recasting for the first two films, which are just a couple of years apart.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

 

No Day Like a Snow Day

I woke this morning to the first real snowfall and accumulation of the season. It happened to fall on the day of the annual Snowflake Parade, in which my daughter marches as a Girl Scout. What could be better? Right? All of this put in mind of a film, made in 2000, which I saw for the first time earlier this year with my children -- during a particularly snowy time of year. The film is Snow Day. And I was surprised at how accurately it was able to convey the importance and magic of a "snow day" (a day off from school, due to snow) in the life of a school-age child. As the film reminds us, "Anything is possible on a Snow Day." And didn't it feel that way? The way the snow slowed everything down to a hush. How it sometimes even closed down your street to traffic, because it was piled so high. Snow forts. Snowball fights. Snow angels. And the hot chocolate or warm chicken soup that waited for you, back home, when it started getting dark and your fingers and toes were wet and frozen. Anyone who enjoyed those days, will appreciate the sentiment of this film. On Snow Days, children rule. Ironically, my son was watching an episode of Rugrats yesterday which deals with a "Snow Day." When Stu Pickles, one of the parents, gleefully exclaims "School's closed!!!" his friend Charlie reminds him, "Stu, you're 35 years old, you don't have to go to school." But the feeling is still there. There's nothing really earth-shattering about Snow Day, the movie. But it's the perfect flick to watch with your children (ages 9-15) or by yourself, on a snowy day, if you want to remember a time when snow equaled no responsibilities (at least for the day) until the plow came through your street and forced you back to school the next day.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

 

Year of the Penguin

Will the 2005 film year ultimately become known as the Year of the Penguin? With strong showings from both March of the Penguins (currently the second most popular documentary in the film history, behind Fahrenheit 9/11), and the animated feature Madagascar (in which the gang of penguins stole the show with the best lines in the film) as well as the short film The Christmas Caper, also starring the Madagascar penguins, audiences have gone wild for these aquatic fowl. Come Oscar night, we may just see those little guys waddle up for a trophy, with their leader instructing them to "Smile and wave boys. Smile and wave."

Friday, December 02, 2005

 

Instant Series, Just Add Money

Have you noticed the growing trend for some films to now have two titles? The first indicates the name of a series. The second, the chapter in that series. Nothing odd about that, except for the fact that, these double-titled films begin with the first installment, seeming to indicate a confidence from the producers that there will be a series. Is it me, or is that presumptuous? I mean, what if the first film flops? The recent prototype for this approach is, of course, The Lord of the Rings. New Line Cinema rolled the dice with the first installment, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and it paid off big, so, as most know, it was followed by The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. These films made cinematic history. In the mix of this came Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. That one hit pay dirt as well, and sequels will follow. So, now Disney is rolling out The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I think the mentality behind this approach is interesting in that these are all expected to be financial winners. The approach is even used to rewrite history. When Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981, it was called just that. But since the sequels carried an Indiana Jones and... prefix, the first film was later retitled and is now officially known as Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Same goes for Star Wars. To give the original 1977 film the feel of a Saturday afternoon serial, director/writer George Lucas playfully told the audience they were watching "Chapter IV: The New Hope." The second and third in the series did not officially carry double titles. But, with the rebirth of the series in the 90s, all the chapters are now formatted the same way: Star Wars: Chapter IV - The New Hope; Star Wars: Chapter V - The Empire Strikes Back, etc. I guess the arrogance is what bothers me a bit. No doubt, a time will come when one of these "instant series" stops at chapter one. Then, rather than add a second title retroactively for the DVD release, perhaps the filmmakers will be forced to remove the superfluous second title from the theatrical release, and admit defeat in this ongoing attempt to manufacture assembly-line product.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

 

Top Films, Little Fanfare

It's being reported like a paradigm shift in Hollywood marketing. Steven Spielberg's Munich and Terrence Malick's The New World, will both open quietly, at the end of the year, minus an onslaught of television and newspaper interviews from the directors. That news comes in sharp contrast to the media circus that accompanied Spielberg's early effort this year, War of the Worlds. That film was pre-fabricated from the start -- right down to its debut on DVD late last month, just in time to buy as stocking stuffers. So, it's refreshing to hear that Spielberg and Malick (who is traditionally press shy, anyway) will let their films do the talking. Imagine. Allowing a film to speak for itself. What will Hollywood think of next?

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