Hot Button Archive for July, 2008

Circles Of Lies

Oy… this is what I get for watching The View.
The ladies spent 5 minutes discussing how the Western Wall prayer that was taken out of the wall and published in Israel was, according to the paper that published the presumably private document, Ma’ariv, pre-approved for publication by Obama even before the note was stuck in the wall. The claim from an unnamed Ma’ariv editor was legitimized by publication in The Jerusalem Post as part of a story about a potential legal probe and boycott of Ma’ariv for publishing the note.
The Wall Street Journal pushed the story further by publishing a series of web attacks on Obama without bothering to do what they do best… report news.
“Maariv’s response: “Obama’s note was published in Maariv and other international publications following his authorization to make the content of the note public. Obama submitted a copy of the note to media outlets when he left his hotel in Jerusalem. Moreover, since he is not Jewish, there is no violation of privacy as there would be for a Jewish person who places a note in the wall.”
Problem is… the story was a lie.
An editor at Ma’ariv, on the record but once again unnamed by the Associated Press for lame reasons that follow NYT’s lame blind quoting guidelines that follow the line of ligic that created this lie in the first place, acknowledged flatly: “”We did not get permission, formal or informal, to print the note,” said the Maariv editor, who asked to remain anonymous because of the touchy nature of the dispute. “This kind of snowballed and got out of hand.”
Further, the website that the Wall Street Journal features,, cites The New Republic’s Zvika Krieger, writing in TNR’s “The Plank” Blog and then updates: “I just got off the phone with a Ma’ariv spokesman who says that the accusation is ‘completely false,’ and that he has no idea who these papers were quoting from Ma’ariv. ‘No official spokesman for Ma’ariv told this to any of the papers.'” Krieger added: “He told me definitively that “the Obama campaign did not give us a copy of the letter or approve it for printing.”
Of course, IsraeliInsider’s report about getting caught spreading lies is not contrite. Instead, the headline is – Video source claims prayer note snatched by man in Obama’s “entourage”.
Stick and move. Stick and move.
The note that goes along with the footage from the “videographer,” a guy whose YouTube post claims to be named David Cohen, doesn’t say that Obama’s people took the note, but rather: “Seconds after Obama left the stones, some of his entourage stepped up to the wall (seen dressed in suits) while young men began gathering notes in their hands in what appeared to be the search for Obama’s freshly placed personal note”
And indeed, there is no footage of the two men in suits, who may or may not be part of the Obama team, taking anything out of the wall. In fact, they seem to be taking a moment to do what people do at The Wall, reflect and pray and perhaps add a note of their own. But we do see three young, apparently-orthodox men who seem to have noting to do with Obama start foraging and pillaging people’s private and sacred notes.
So much for that false conspiracy.
And I have to say, I am a bit disgusted with The Huffington Post and others who have NOT covered this controversy, either by aggregating or reporting. If it were true that the Obama campaign gave out the Western Wall note as a press release, it would be news. If they let the idea that it – still not confirmed to be his personal note by anyone – was pulled out of the wall immorally even though they leaked or released it… that would be very bad news indeed. They did neither, from all indications, including official statements by the publisher of the note.
I suspect we will now hear the outrage from the left-leaning media about the lie being spread. Too late.
My point is, if it’s in the Wall Street Journal, it is news of a kind. And it must be addressed, even if it is only to point out skeptically that the pieces don’t seem to fit. (My first reaction to hearing this thing about Obama allegedly approving publication of the note was that if it was approved for an Israeli paper, why just one, and how did all those American news people miss getting approval if Obama was okay with it? It made no sense on its face.)
The responsibility of the newsperson is greater than ever. It’s not business as it once was. Every disagreement need not be assumed to be a personal vendetta. False news needs to be challenged. Fellow MSM news people are just as dubious, at times, as web people… in this case, the WSJ and the Jerusalem Post.
And if you are wondering how this all leads back to movies… well, journalism is journalism. There are variables. But we know a lot in entertainment journalism about people taking information out of crevices where they don’t belong and publishing it and then claiming it was the fault of the person whose private information it was. And the better the story, the more people want to believe it, even when it turns out to be a lie.
By the time the lie hits The View, it’s going mainstream and you may never get the truth to overcome it out into the public. Paul is dead, Pop Rocks killed Mikey, Nikki Finke is interested in the truth… you know, the big ones.
And even as I rage about all this, I smirk on the inside, because there is nothing I enjoy more than watching people who really, really want to be right making up their minds about something based on a poorly reported rumor only to have the truth shoved back in their face.
If the allegation that Obama orchestrated the publication of his note in the Western Wall shows something about his character, what does the fact that he did not and was maliciously attacked for it by the right wing media in the last 48 hours mean about the character of his attackers and the lengths to which they will go to discredit him?
Oh… it was just a mistake? Oh… this stuff happens? Oh… sorry… but what was he doing in Israel anyway and where is his poll bounce?
The best goes on…

Batman & The Iceberg

Okay… so I get that John Horn had to ask the question… can The Dark Knight pass Titanic or even come close to Titanic at the box office?
And I understand that the new rule at the LAT is local, local, local.
But is it anything less than a dereliction of duty, whether it be Horn’s choice or his editors’ choice, to not even mention the worldwide box office success of Titanic, which really is what makes the box office landmark the equal of what “Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is to baseball.”
A domestic lead of $140 million or 23% on #2 Star Wars or $160 million/27% over Shrek 2, which is the #2 highest grosser in its first run alone, is obviously impressive. But the domestic box office is more like the home run record for a season. Eras change and the season home run number got threatened and then beaten… repeatedly. We later realized that the players, not the ball, were juiced.
The Dark Knight’s massive opening was “just” $7.3 million more than the last top film, Spider-Man 3, or a %% bump. Impressive, but not so shocking (except for the fact that it was unexpected from this particular film).
There have been eleven $100 million openings in history and every one has been in the last seven years… seven of the eleven in the last three years. That is a seismic shift in the idea of what is possible in one weekend.
The $400 million mark is less seismic in and of itself, but how we get to that number has changed a lot. For what is now the #2 film, Star Wars, the $400 million mark was only achieved after a third release of the film… the third release earning $138 million, bolstered by the lack of availability of the film. (I believe there was a vhs release, but the film was rare to see on free or pay tv, we were still before a major dvd market… there was an event to a theatrical re-release that seems to be a thing of the past now.) E.T., even more tightly held, also hit $400 million only by re-release, though the total domestic gross from the film’s two re-releases was only $76 million.
Then Star Wars: Episode One did it on its own power. Then Spider-Man (but neither sequel). Then Shrek 2 in 2004, Star Wars: Episode III missing by $20m in 2005, and Pirates II in 2006.
While the trio of three-quels last summer broke a record by all doing $300 million-plus domestic, none did $400m domestic. However, the worldwide numbers were what really mattered to the studios.
Shrek The Third lost $120 million from the prior film’s domestic gross, but held steady internationally to get to a reported $799 million. Spider-Man 3 lost $37 million domestic from its prior entry, but increased worldwide gross by $144 million to get to $890 million worldwide. And Pirates 2 lost in $1124 million in domestic value, but was stead overseas to be one of just five films ever to crack $950 million worldwide (2 Pirates, a Potter, a Ring, and Titanic).
Another thing that remains stunning about Titanic is that it and Jurassic Park are the only “originals” to gross over $900 million worldwide.
But the mega stat is that Titanic did overseas alone more than ANY other movie has grossed in total. International was more than double domestic. The second best all-time international gross is $500 million less than Titanic.
And that is why “titanic numbers” are close to impossible in the current marketplace.
I have said before, at some point, some studio will experiment with day-n-date for one of these mega-movies, something like the last Harry Potter, offering it across the globe in theaters and in one-view-for-one-payment showings through opening weekend into living rooms by satellite and cable. And that movie will gross $600 million in one weekend. And the one-view sales will be enormously profitable, since delivery costs are minimal and providers will take a much smaller cut than the 45% that exhibitors take. And in that moment, someone will have made the most profitable movie ever.
And if the entire industry follows suit, we will see the sky fall for real.
But I digress…
Domestic box office will continue to creep up on Titanic. Someday, perhaps in less than a decade, that number will fall. But the international number is far, far away in comparison. While international box office has grown, the biggest potential markets remain elusive. Piracy is still an issue. And while the habit of opening weekend has become greater in many of the traditional international powerhouse countries, that has led to increases in front-loading grosses, just as in the US. And many of the underscreened countries, recent generations have become habituated to taking what they can get when they get it, not to demand opening weekend access.
The Dark Knight is likely to take Titanic’s domestic lead from the current 27% to as close as half of that, maybe 13% or under $100 million. That’s shouting distance. Ticket price creep can push that further. (Keep in mind, in 1994, when we had the first two $300 million movies in one summer, we went two years before the next (ID4) and then Titanic in 1997, another two before Episode One. It was 2001 before multiple $300 million grossers in the same year became a norm.)
But the 67% lead of Titanic on Rings 3 internationally… that’s a looooooong way to reach.
For The Dark Knight to be the fourth film in history to crack $1 billion will be a big achievement… bigger than any Harry Potter film.
No Batman film has ever even matched the level internationally that it reached at home. But let’s give The Dark Knight that. $500 million at home and $500 million overseas. You’re $850 million away from Titanic.
But let’s give it more. International at 60%! So… $500 million at home, $750 million internationally. And we’re still almost $600 million away from Titanic’s number.
Do you want to believe in miracles? How about $600 million domestic and $900 million worldwide? You’re still almost $350 million away from Titanic.
And for all of you guys who have S.O.O. (Sudden Oscar Obsession), the top two grossing films in history did get Oscar nominations and wins. After that? Aside from the other Rings movies? #30 all-time was the next highest grosser to even be nominated… Forrest Gump. And #31, The Sixth Sense.
Those four movies are the only films to gross as much as $500 million worldwide and to be nominated. And yes, three of the four won. (1994, 1997, 2003) But you’re still looking at four nominations in 14 Oscars, 4 out of 70 nominations…. 5%.
The odds are better than an animated film getting nominated… 1 out of 105 opportunities since Beauty & The Beast got the only nod ever. .1%.
I am all for celebrating the achievement of The Dark Knight. But while hysteria may be fun from someone, that achievement is only great in context. And in the context of reality, this success is very exciting indeed… and not earth-shattering.
The first Batman was a real industry changer.
Titanic was a real industry changer.
Lord of the Rings was an industry changer (good for some, not so good for others).
And this summer, Iron Man is a real industry changer. (Whether that is good or bad, time will tell.)
The Dark Knight is a good movie that everyone underestimated. Everyone. On top of that, it is even more successful than anyone who pays serious attention to box office anticipated, even after the massive opening.
But to hit “Titanic numbers” a film will have to not only match or beat Titanic at home, but unless something changes significantly (and someday, it will), the film will need to do at least $100 million or more than Titanic at home and still be an international giant to get to $1.8 billion.
It really is a 56 game hitting streak. And the headline rhetoric should really be lessened before someone embarrasses themselves.
Oops. Too late.


What’s So Unfunny About No Peace, No Love & No Understanding

Tropic Thunder was pretty much guaranteed to me. “This one is for real,” I was told by a trusted publicist.
I am not a fan, though I respect the cult status, of any of the Ben Stiller-directed films. As for his career in comedy, the last run of 5 is Heartbreak Kid – NO!, Night at The Museum – Mediocre, Madagascar – No, Meet The Fockers – Dusty & Babs only (loved the first film), Dodgeball – Mad Genius. The 5 before that is equally iffy (BAD – Envy, Starsky & Hutch, Duplex, PASSABLE – Along Came Polly, EXCELLENT – The Royal Tenenbaums). Before that, Stiller was one of the promising comedians in Hollywood.
The problem with putting a needy egomaniac in charge of a movie with a needy egomaniac at the center of it is that you get a character that will only humiliate itself in ways the actor is comfortable with. In other words, you will get a character trying really, really hard to be funny, but who never actually puts any skin in the game, even though the character is written as an asshole.
When that actor/director invites two uniquely talented actors to work by his side in the film, you get a different problem. You get a director who wants those guys to steal the show, ham it up, and run wild while you have an actor who doesn’t want to be upstaged… let’s not forget who the star really is!
Next, let’s look at taste level. It’s interesting that Roger Ebert took a shot at Step Brothers, which wallows in the adult-retard genre that Will Ferrell has been a leader of, supported by the Apatow machine… but Ferrell owns the very specific tonal sliver he works in. It seems that the Apatow might have pushed Will, who has been very successful keeping it weird but sweet, to go to that darker place with this variation on the same moron character. But Ebert cites Tropic Thunder as a film in which at least one profanity struck him funny while Step Brothers struck him as mean.
Not me.
Tropic Thunder strikes me as the ultimate example of Stars Gone Wild. Let’s put aside that the commercial viability of movies about movies has always been iffy, no matter how good the movie. (See: Bowfinger. Really. See it now! See it again!) The premise for Tropic Thunder is funny. Selfish, obnoxious, spoiled people forced to face real pain for the first time… how will they respond?
We have seen similar ideas before during this summer… Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock… even, in a way, Mamma Mia! and Speed Racer.
But none of the other movies have so reduced the central idea to nothing but that basis for an extended comedy sketch, often forgetting the central idea and simply trying to milk laughs out of any action that some very talented people can come up with.
I have to say, I was pushed right out of Tropic Thunder as soon as the blood became real and there was zero connection to any honest human response to it. And I never really came back.
Is the idea, for instance, of actors being, inside a story, being either praised or punished by real people – especially ethnics that the actors barely knew really existed as anything but servants before – for the vacuous nature of their earlier work is funny. (Avoiding spoilers here!) It’s not only funny. It’s a rich vein of humor and pathos and insight. For the most part, it is reduced in Tropic Thunder to a long-legged “retard” joke.
Even Downey, who is so game and always looking for subtle touches, is stuck playing one note for much of the film. You know the note… it’s in every ad. He’s a white guy in black face. Okay… funny idea. But is it really funny for more than two acts of a movie? Isn’t the idea of writing such an inherently flawed character to push that character’s buttons in different and interesting ways through the entire film? Isn’t having an actor of Downey’s quality an opportunity to do something really interesting? Or are you, as an audience, satisfied by that same joke told 10 different ways?
Jack Black gets the best of it here because he actually is given a clear motivation for his antics… heroin withdraw. I know… hysterical! But it’s something to play and something that can develop. But even there, the writing is so weak that Tropic Thunder is reduced, in Black’s case, to being exactly the kind of movie that it mocks in early scenes. Black’s character has become a star based on a Klumps-like series of comedies that get all of its laughs on fart jokes. It’s an unfair hit on Eddie Murphy, who has shown himself to be much more than prosthetics and farts even in his worst films, but satire is that way… cool. But what is the Jack Black character doing for most of the movie? Doing big, broad, self-humiliating gags, few of which are any more sophisticated than a fart joke.
But as I say… that’s the highlight of the movie… because at least he has motive.
The other highlight of the film is Tom Cruise in a bald wig and fat suit cursing a lot. Problem is, it’s a part that would have been rightly cut down to 5 minutes of the film (and likely played by Stiller) if Cruise wasn’t playing the role. The joke – like so much of the film – is a meta joke and not really a smart joke. You laugh because Tom Cruise says, “fuck,” because Tom Cruise is “FAT,” because Tom Cruise acts like a jerk. The fact that he gave an Oscar-worthy performance doing much the same thing, but exposing himself as an actor in a very real and emotional way in Magnolia, really puts this movie in its place.
However, looking past that, Cruise scores his laughs. He is performing under the fat and the balding head. It’s no more important a performance than Rob Schneider’s, “You can do it!” cameo in The Waterboy. But it’s very funny coming from Cruise.
Another feature are the bits establishing each of the three main characters’ history. But even there, a big part of what is funny is the “I can’t believe Universal and DreamWorks let themselves be mocked like that… what good sports!” That doesn’t make it not funny. But it is inside baseball that plays well with people who are inside, but somehow makes the work lazy, more self-amused than amusing… and while of better production quality than the side dished of Grindhouse, not nearly as earnest an effort of movie love.
There are other big laughs in the film. It’s not unlike many of the comedies around these days. You get 20 laughs in 100 minutes and audiences are satisfied, no matter how stupid of unconsidered everything around the laughs might be. That is what you call, fairly, damning with faint praise.
What made Tropic Thunder feel even less than just small is the size of the talent and budget involved. The movie would have been better at half the budget, with Stiller and Justin Theroux forced to actually write their way out of dead ends instead of simply blowing something up real good. The movie looks like it was shot on the old M*A*S*H* television sets. There are no more than a half dozen shots in the film – hello, 2nd unit! – that even needed the Hawaiian locations.
And not only does Stiller waste his main crew and Cruise, but he also wastes Steve Coogan and Nick Nolte, whose remarkable skills are reduced to sight gags in the movie. This is particularly true of Nolte, whose character could have been one of the great movie supporting roles in comedy history, but whose turns are simply thrown away as story points and not even developed enough to make any logical sense. Since Nolte is the driving reason for the entire movie, the fact that his motives for driving the story forward MAKE ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE, all you can do is to scratch your head and wait for Jack Black to show us his ass again and do the wild eyes.
I’m beginning to think that 2008 will be remembered as a seminal moment in movie history. Is this the year that a new generation took over the box office and less became more than enough? Perhaps. I would consider – and will continue to consider – arguments that I have simply gotten too old to appreciate what the primary market for movies now want at the movies… but I honestly think I am not just holding onto old school filmmaking here. Yes, this film wants to be the next Caddyshack or Stripes or Ghostbusters. It has that swagger about it. But Ivan Reitman, who is every bit the visual mediocrity that Ben Stiller is, was working with better scripts and the discipline of forcing himself and the writers – surely with the help of actors who were both skilled as actors and often, as improvisers – to follow their story lines from start to finish… to make cameos truly special… to attach even the broadest gags to character and the central idea.
How easy it to imagine Caddyshack remade with Nick Nolte as Carl (the Bull Murray role), Downey in the Chevy Chase role, Stiller in the Ted Knight role, and Jack Black as The Rodney? Easy!
But if Stiller was directing, the Baby Ruth in the pool would be melting like diarrhea, the sex scene in the pool would somehow feature Downey taking The Girl from behind and getting a cramp and then farting and then shitting himself, the gopher would chew on Carl’s balls, the girls on “Rodney’s” boat would be naked and passing around dildos, and when the caddy kid almost gets caught with in the “Ted Knight” house and the girl, he would somehow get his penis slammed in a window.
Would that be funnier?
Would that be trying too hard?
Tropic Thunder is not so bad that it will end comedy as we know it. Heck, it may be one of the better comedies of the summer… but that too is damning with faint praise. It is easy to laugh your 20 laughs and walkout of Tropic Thunder with a shrug of the shoulders. With so much mediocrity out there, you can’t hatehatehate it. With so many insane budgets out there, you can’t just wag your finger at how absurdly expensive a film that looks so cheap was made for. With so much profanity out there, you can’t get too upset about how blandly unfunny licking real blood and guts out of the head of a man who has just been decapitated is.
But disappointed? Extremely.


Forbes Misses The Mark… Badly

Why are journalists who know better talking about this idiotic Forbes value list as though it made sense?
And then I realize… it’s late summer! Any crap flies as news about now!
I mean, seriously. I have never read anything quite as random and profoundly irrelevant. The list purports to actually say something about the value of actors, but it is so random about the circumstances of rankings, you have to throw your hands up in the air.
There are movies on the list from as long ago as four years… yet it is “the last three wide release movies” of each actor. Yet, Fred Claus is not on the list for Vince Vaughn. And animated films, even if advertised based on the star, like Julia Roberts in Charlotte’s Web, don’t count. Naomi Watts is in the Top Five with films earning (another problem… domestic only) $238 million… $219 of which is from one film King Kong). Sorry, but if two of your last three wide-release films grossed $19 million total and if the one that grossed over $200 million cost over $200 million for a CG monkey, you aren’t on the top of any studio’s value list.
There is also the little problem of back-end, which is clearly not accounted for in any way…. except when, suddenly, the biggest stars are having points counted… but inaccurately.
There is also the problem that in a case like Vince Vaughn’s, the coincidence that he was in a career lull and did Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball for relatively little (seems like Forbes guessed at $5m per) and then The Break Up for $20m isn’t a sane survey… not to mention the absence of Fred Claus and Be Cool (which was not just a cameo and in which he was as advertised as anyone but Travolta) and Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show, which probably didn’t make the list because it only went out on 962 screens instead of the 1000 which seems to be Forbes’ line for “wide.” If Jennifer Lopez gets stuck with Jersey Girl, how can Vaughn avoid Be Cool?
How did Hugh Jackman get to #9 on this list with 3 films grossing a total of $73.7 million… two outright flops and one soft grosser? Apparently, these three films happen to be the ones he did for $7.4 million total.
Yet where is Daniel Radcliffe on this list with $832 million from his last three films… his “gross income for studios for every dollar he was paid” can’t be less than $10, can it?
What about Seth Rogen, whose last three films grossed $345.9 and for which he got paid, what, $6 million total? $10 million total? Even $15 million total (and he is surely now getting paid that per film) means a $23 return per dollar, blowing away everyone else. And unlike many on this list, he earned every dime of it.
And if anyone at Forbes wants to pretend this project took months and months to research, I cry “bullshit” on them. Anything more than 2 weeks doing this was a waste of a salary. Really. Not complex. I ran the numbers on the first 10 people on the list in less than 30 minutes.
Shall we project into the future? Christian Bale’s last three wide releases – The Dark Knight, 3:10 To Yuma, and The Prestige will gross at least $400 million. To beat Vaughn’s current (not well researched) mark, he will have to have been paid just $27 million for the three films. (I expect Knight to do more than $290 million, so he is even more likely to reach the top!)
But wait, there’s Robert Downey, Jr and his $369m in Iron Man, Zodiac, and Good Night, And Good Luck… if he made less than $26 million on those three films – pretty much a guaranteed bet – he will smash Vaughn. In fact, if his paydays were something like the $12 million total that I suspect might be high, his “per dollar spent” is over $30, more than twice Vaughn’s chart topper.
And what exactly does Forbes think they are doing with Will Smith?
According to their numbers, Smith, who grossed $599.5 million domestically with the “considered” I Am Legend, Pursuit of Happyness, and Hitch, earned $106.3 million for those three films. Huh?
No one else has anything suggesting gross points being counted. So he averaged $35 million upfront for these three films? Huh? He paid himself $35 million on Pursuit? Or he did that for $30 million and charged WB $40 million for I am Legend? The math makes no sense by the standards the magazine set.
These are the same people who are estimating that Ben Stiller made only $38.5 million on The Heartbreak Kid, Night at the Museum, and Meet the Fockers. This is possible, even though Stiller is a $420m comedy guy, because he might have taken a lot more in points… like Smith.
Even worse is Tom Cruise, who doesn’t take big upfront salaries at all, but eats large gross points. But here they have him earning $96 million in three films, one of which we know he got paid almost nothing to be in, as a producer. So again… they have to be estimating based on points. But that is not the standard they are using for everyone else. As a result, Forbes has the “controversial” dropping of two of the biggest stars in the world into also-run status as “value plays.”
This list is so inaccurate, so full of missing movies, and so remarkably misleading as to come close to being a lie. I will include the entire list after the jump, since it should be accessible in a way that Forbes can’t seem to figure out how to make it.
Really, nothing against Vince Vaughn. He is a good buy as actors go, but as in so many cases, it’s because he makes movies that don’t cost a ton to make. The real analysis, even with bad numbers, would be two-fold. Who opens movies and who gives the best return on dollars spent? It is that combination that establishes the value of talent. And in a very small group – currently occupied only by Will Smith – is it consistency of picking winners and then delivering them.
May we never speak of this stupid list again!

Read the full article »

When Divorce Goes Wrong

We in the media jump like trained monkeys when studios and others offer up press releases. Yippee! It’s NEWS!
But a lot of the time… really, more than 20% of the time… the story fades as the players decide not to play. And very rarely is there a course correction since no one releases a story that their initiative failed and few journalists take any of this too seriously… until there is another press release.
The Weinstein Co has announced its re-pacting with Showtime… at the expected lower price (the Hollywood Reporter reporting on TWC paying Showtime upfront cash makes little logical sense… there may be smoke and there may be money changing hands, but why and how and how much probably has not yet been uncovered)… which is most likely exactly what Paramount and MGM and Lionsgate will end up doing also.
With The Weinsteins out… MGM building with Mary Parent, but unlikely to be delivering much product to anyone before product that would have been running on Showtime will need someplace to land… Lionsgate having a rough run and 13 films on the schedule for the rest of this year, which means a lot of cash out in marketing and few guarantees of big hits… and Paramount already in flux with the anticipated DreamWorks exit in the months to come and not able to promise more than a half dozen films to a new outlet for cable release in 2009…
It’s independence vs. security. And with all three major players weak… well…
Meanwhile, just a breath after Philippe Dauman was saying about the decision not to renew the Showtime deal, “We wanted to control our destiny,” Paramount has done a deal with Jaman for digital delivery of its product:
The Kite Runner, There Will Be Blood, Into the Wild, Cloverfield and many popular titles to Jaman’s online library
San Mateo, Calif.- July 15, 2008 –, a leading global community and online destination for quality entertainment, today announced the completion of a distribution deal with Paramount Digital Entertainment. Many popular movies from Paramount Pictures will be available for rental or purchase from Jaman’s site to viewers across the nation.
Jaman’s expansion of its library continues to connect people with movies they love with the convenience of the Internet.
“Jaman is proud to deliver the latest hits and classics from Paramount Pictures,” said Gaurav Dhillon, founder and CEO of Jaman. “The addition of these wonderful Paramount titles is a big stride towards our goal of making Jaman the biggest online destination for quality film.”
“By bringing our titles to Jaman, we hope to engage new audiences with great movies,” said Malik Ducard, Vice President of North America Digital Distribution, Paramount Digital Entertainment. “Jaman’s creation of a secure, high-quality platform was a big draw for us as we strive to make our films easily accessible to audiences around the world.”

Nice control.
Paramount has also made deals, beyond its direct control, for digital distribution of clips and shows from its cable nets with Joost. Why does Paramount need two separate digital distribution channels to deliver content from the wide range of content creators? (shrug)
Paramount continues to fight itself, leasing out assets that the company should be keeping for itself. And how long can Sumner Redstone allow Viacom division Paramount to compete with Viacom division CBS, which owns Showtime? They are now on the way to having – and more importantly, paying for – competing pay-cable networks and competing movie divisions… INSANE.
The three major movie pay-channels are:
HBO – Established in 1972 – Deals with DreamWorks, Fox, Warner, Universal
Showtime – Established in 1976 – Expired Deals with movies still in the 2008 pipeline from Paramount, MGM, Lionsgate
Starz/Encore – Established in 1994 – Deals with Disney, Sony, Overture
So, no new major pay movie nets in almost 15 years. As you can see, Disney and Sony have the comfy position of dominating Starz/Encore and are in excellent position to someday split the two sides of the company into individuated networks. WB obviously has natural family dibs on HBO, but the ratings at the first pay-TV major still make being there attractive for Universal (which has flipped around a bit), Fox, and DreamWorks. Don’t be surprised if the next major pay-tv net is Universal/DreamWorks, splitting off of HBO at some point.
What there is not is a financial incentive to sell outside of the family ahead of selling inside the family anymore. On individual movies, yes. On overall deals, no. And the cost of launching a stand-alone net in future will become less of an issue as niche branding becomes increasingly the norm. Paramount is five years ahead of itself – as the dominant element in their attempt to launch a new net – and too weak to force the issue.
How can Paramount fail to return to the Showtime fold before January 1? There needs to be some kind of realistic outlet in place by then. Is Redstone really going to let this go on past then? Because right now, there is no network to put on the books. And while the 2008 number for pay-cable lease of the average studio movie may be under $10 million, it’s another $120 million – $160 million that a studio can count on. And after Paramount has left much of that on the table because of the DreamWorks deal – yet another hidden cost – rebuilding, which is exactly what’s about to happen, can use every base of support possible.
Moreover, the Weinstein deal, whatever the terms, speaks to the state of the content-creator business at the moment, as does their deal to move Project Runway to ABC’s Lifetime network from NBC Universal’s Bravo. The issue of the moment is survival. And as The Weinsteins spread out over Disney and Viacom’s CBS (spurning Viacom’s Paramount), while still seeking a distribution partner – likely a third corporation – for the future, the opportunity to hold out for your own place on the dial is not an option unless you are very, very deep pocketed.
And right now, very few outlets are.

The Long, Dark, Good Knight

I quite liked The Dark Knight.
Christopher Nolan and his collaborators quite carefully walked the line, as others have already noticed, between a classic movie cop drama and a comic book. This is inherently the strength and the weakness of the work. The mere effort to combine the two, combined with the degree of filmmaking skill involved, makes this film not only enjoyable, but somewhat important.
However, the schizophrenia of the effort is also what keeps this film from being a masterpiece on any level.
I am going to avoid spoilers in this review. Thing is, it’s hard to imagine that any more than 10% of the audience for this film don’t know the biggest “spoiler” is coming before walking into the theater. How it comes is, it would seem, the only surprise.
What Nolan is clearly reaching for is a Godfather-esque effort. You can feel all the corrections of his first film… all the improvements by spending more freely… all the “stuff we would have done differently.” And almost all of them are, indeed, improvements. Maggie Gyllenhaal in for Katie Holmes was a step up, though in the context of the two films, switching actresses was unfortunate. Either one appearing in both would have been better. And eliminating Wayne Manor and The Batcave for a penthouse and array of basement hideouts is a daring, odd, and nearly unspoken call.
Still, it speaks to Nolan’s agenda. This is not a Batman movie… this is a 2008 version of The Untouchables with The Batman as Elliot Ness, The Joker as Al Capone, much better toys, and, it seems, a topper.
But the topper is a bit unwieldy, in that it makes the film too long to sustain by pushing beyond the main story – DePalma and Mamet’s The Untouchables was 119 minutes – and too short to do the second push of Nolan’s thematic idea real justice at 152 minutes. Unlike many long films, the problem with The Dark Knight is that it is too short.
The movie works really well – however pitch black and undeniably inappropriate for any kid who isn’t over 12 or playing Grand Theft Auto with mom & dad’s blessing – in delivering The Joker’s mayhem in the first 100 minutes or so. (Actual timings were impossible as, for the third time in my career, my camera-free Blackberry, aka my movie watch, was disallowed from the screening.
Ledger is terrific, though the Oscar talk is pretty goofy… something I am convinced he would agree with were he alive. Ledger’s embrace of sheer mayhem and recklessness in playing The Joker makes for a perfect counterbalance for the sphincter-tight self-seriousness of The Batman, as played by Christian Bale.
But that is not where Nolan & Co are really heading. For all the magnificent IMAX landscapes and cool action sequences (this film is destined to provoke many discussions of who Nolan was stealing from, who he topped, and who he fell short of), Nolan’s real interest is in the bigger moral question that goes well beyond The Batman and The Joker. Faced with chaos, how will the civilians act? Who is willing to break rules and what is the cost of breaking them or nor breaking them? How close is any society from anarchy?
When it is limited to the two central costumed figures, it is pure Untouchables. “I have become what I beheld” translates quite directly to Joker’s “You complete me,” which also harkens back to Tom Burton’s controversial choice to have his Joker’s origin come down to “I made you… and you made me.” Moreover, The Joker suggests directly that they, as a pair, are nature in the Garden of Gotham, the immovable object and the unstoppable force.
But the “extra part” of the movie, the topper, is not about them, it’s about about collateral damage… real humans in a real city with real ambitions to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And that is where it feels like Nolan is forced – by time – to restrain himself. For the first time in the movie, characters have to explain themselves, over and over and over again. (Well, one in particular.) Strong ideas don’t seem as clear and complete as they do earlier in the film. And the keynote of the last part of the film is delivered by a character we really don’t know (though the actor will be familiar to everyone), while other grace notes are offered in montage.
I wanted that movie that Nolan was chasing. I really wanted that movie. But as is the nature of the dramatic arts, there is a mystical and undeniable gut feeling when you know that even the best film has come to its natural end. And in The Dark Knight, this occurs more than half an hour before the picture actually ends… maybe an hour… before the issue of collateral damage.
With $50 million and 45 minutes more to paint in – a second film containing about 45 minutes of this one – Nolan surely could have delivered his Godfather. He would have the time to more completely explore the powerful issues of how civilians and police and criminals and yes, even costumed folks, behave when they are in the midst of what feels like unstoppable anarchy. He would have the time to really give a proper middle to the story that is there to push past The Joker’s story. And most importantly, he would have had a bit more time to deal with Bruce Wayne and The Batman trying to come up with the right answer to it all.
From a purely business angle, this film will absolutely be limited by its content. Word of mouth about the personal and realistic violence of the film will keep women and younger kids out of the theater after opening weekend and waiting for DVD. And the length of the movie will cost a screening a day on opening weekend… more in big multis where four or five screenings a day will be lost. Obviously, there will still be plenty of room for a massive opening weekend gross. But the pre-word-of-mouth opportunity will be lessened. And no matter how good the film, the darkness will be a factor.
Had this been two 110 minute films, the box office for both would have been nearly identical, doubling the total revenue while increasing costs by roughly a third. A win all around.
But… The Dark Knight is what it is. And that’s still quite good… and explosively good for the base that is busting, waiting for this film.
There may be a director’s cut someday with the 30 minutes that was apparently in a cut as recently as two months ago. Maybe it will speak to these issues. Maybe not.
But The Dark Knight is a terrific film. And though it is an effort to be a retro, high quality crime drama in a cape and cowl, in looking back, it is looking forward and breaking new ground. It is the first big studio comic book movie since the pre-Superman: The Movie era to try to make more of less, while at the same time offering all the more that studios think they need to deliver.
It is fascinating that this is coming from the same studio in the same summer as The Wachowski’s latest groundbreaker. I believe that The Wachowskis got caught up in their Matrix sequels with an idea they didn’t completely know they were caught up in, with each of their three films arguing a step in the evolution of Neo, each episode closer tied to spirituality than the next. (Kubrick’s way of fixing this was to keep re-shooting endlessly… but the puzzle of Eyes Wide Shut still kept that masterpiece audience unfriendly.) The packaging of the central idea in the first Matrix film was so neat and the packaging in the second and third film so uncertain – you have to work hard for it – that it provoked rather than seduced audiences. Likewise, with Speed Racer, they busted the genre brilliantly, but potential audiences never got the real central idea – family, however structured, is everything and subsuming the personal for those you love is an honor, not a burden – and were distracted exclusively by the racing effects.
And here we have Christopher Nolan saying that you can do a straight drama with guys in wild costumes and live by most of the rules of straight drama. It is the skill and convention of Nolan’s action sequences that will keep audiences close to home as he breaks new ground.
Nolan is working with the same crayon box as The Coen Bros, bouncing from Blood Simple to Miller’s Crossing to No Country For Old Men. The Dark Knight is big time philosophy… which should get unanimous raves, since critics who don’t like to think too much will be able to understand it. (Some, like Peter Travers, will just want to be quoted and will hyperbolize as much as they can to win the quoting wars.) But still, it deserves some unanimity of support and appreciation. It must be hailed for both its ambitions and execution.
The Dark Knight fails to reach the highest level of the form – not the comic book form, the movie form – because it ultimately has to cut away from its ambitions and blow some stuff up real good. If Nolan had the opportunity to have a more even balance between explosions and ideas, it could have been that masterpiece that was prayed for.
A spoiler review will follow in a few days to discuss the many sequences and ideas worth discussing in depth. I’m going to see the film again before writing that one.


Review – Greece Is The Word

The First Sin Of Musical Conversion!!!!
Hiring the stage director who doesn’t have the slightest idea how to shoot a movie and has no real understanding of why a movie is NOT simply the stage show on film.
And this is, simply, why Mamma Mia! is a pretty terrible movie.
Worse than Rent. Worse than Annie (a movie with three numbers that really work and an overall tone that does not). But it is one step better than the conversion of The Producers, as it is a jukebox musical and actually requires very little sophistication… just more than Phyllida Lloyd could deliver from behind a movie camera.
I had a hard time getting a handle on what exactly they were going for with this mélange of beautiful settings, terrible green screen (or whatever technique they used to leave massive lines around the actors’ heads when they were looking out onto the sea from the hotel), overt breaking out in song, 60-is-the-new-45 casting, big energy, little consistency, a stunning amount of obvious ADR-ed/dubbed dialogue scenes like we haven’t seen/heard in an American movie in a long, long time, and the bravest performance of Pierce Brosnan’s career since anyone who sings like that choosing to expose himself to the public is daring indeed.
After about 30 minutes, it hit me. They were making an AIP beach movie… Gidget Goes Grecian… How To Stuff A Wild Souvlaki… Marital Beach Party. It’s meant to be rollicking, cheesy, brain-dead good fun.
I’m not kidding. There is a distinct filmmaking style that suggests that they looked at these films as a template. (Exec Producer Tom Hanks has also shown his interest in that period, including with his own directorial debut, That Thing You Do.) The problem is that the filmmaking doesn’t deliver on that either. Ms. Lloyd just doesn’t know what she is doing with the camera. She leaves some very talented people hanging in the breeze as she fails to understand the language of film and how to support the ideas of her actors’ performances with how she shoots the images.
Really, there are only two moments that really fly. One, when Streep does a song on a mountainside with the sea as a background and, essentially, only three angles to cut between. And you get the feeling that this song was why Streep did the film – aside for one last chance to do a movie romp without having to play the smart-mouthed matriarch – and that it was shot exactly as SHE wanted it to be shot. (Attention must be paid!) Second, over credits, when songs are performed on a stage somewhere and the fourth wall is broken… there is real delight in the actors and they seem to be having real fun. But still, it is shot so poorly as to undermine a really great idea.
It’s kind of impossible to do spoilers for this film. If you have seen the ads, you know all the surprises. And that’s okay. Mamma Mia! has enough of a story to work. Really simple… girl’s getting married… girl wants to know who her dad is… she invites three candidates with three distinct personalities… door slamming, singing, and romance ensues.
One very clever idea is that The Girl, Amanda Seyfried, has two BFF girlfriends who mirror The Mother (Streep) and her two BFFs, played by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski. Unfortunately, instead of figuring out how to make this play throughout the movie, the younger duo, who never get to distinguish themselves, are pretty much dumped after the first quarter of the film. So much for that movie theme. Baranski and Walters are natural scene stealers and they pretty much steal the movie when they get a chance, Walters most of all.
But it’s not enough to say, “There is some good stuff so this is a decent movie.” Their performances and some wonderful moments in other performances are a distraction from the filmmaking mess that the movie is.
Amanda Seyfried and Streep get a ton of close-ups, so the make-up decisions by Streep’s personal make-up artist J. Roy Helland are a constant focus. And the way she is made-up and lit chance in scene after scene after scene. She is at her most beautiful when she seems to be trying the least hard to look 20 years younger and windswept.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos was an incredibly bad choice for this film. Not only is he inexperienced in dealing with aging beauties, but his only major American credits are Sony Classic’s Sleuth, shot with a slick, but harsh style, and 2nd unit on Batman Begins, where he clearly did good work, but mostly lighting plastic and metal. So the Streep variations may well be more his fault than Helland’s.
Zambarloukos clearly has a DP crush on Ms Seyfried, who is shot in such warm close-ups that you almost want to spread her face on your toast. The difficult part of that, however, is that as an audience member, you are tracking her bouts of acne on her chin throughout the movie. It’s not severe, but her skin is so luminous so often that when it does turn up, it’s a little shocking. And seeing it… is utterly unnecessary. Her skin is not the responsible party.
Speaking of Seyfried, who broke out as the doofus hottie in Mean Girls and ended up doing a lot of TV, including HBO’s Big Love as a daughter of bigamy, she acquits herself nicely. She is a beauty and she can sing. But she doesn’t pop in a special way beyond her looks and energy. You don’t walk out of the film saying, “Star.” You come out noting that she did a good job. You want to marry her and travel the world, not see her in any movie she does because she is so compelling. She may have that in her… but it would help to have Mike Nichols behind her and not Ms. Lloyd.
There is also an odd sense, at least for me, of Seyfried being a bit objectified by the filmmaking. The whole movie has an air of pleasantly relaxed morality and the costume design by Ann Roth does a really good job of taking it all right to the edge of exploitive or attractive or flattering. But Ms. Seyfried, who has a pretty spectacular shape, seems to be the only person running and bouncing in bikini tops or hanging out with three older men all day in nothing but her skimpy one-piece. As a guy, I was appreciative on some level. But as a film critic, it seemed to be a little out of character for the film. Even when the movie gets loud about sex, its spirit is PG. (The exception is one shot, during a musical sequence, of Christine Baranski dropping out of frame in front of a Speedo-clad 20something boy… a set-up for a joke that would have been less creepy if shot more effectively.)
I think Seyfried has a lot to offer and that she will, eventually, find a real breakout role. We still don’t know quite who she is and that is very much the nature of being a movie star. If any movie proves that, it’s this one. Baranski, Walters, Brosnan, Skaarsgard, and Firth are all playing their images. And Streep is at her best in this film when she finally lets loose with some Streep-isms… that laugh, that look, the sigh. I kept thinking to myself, “Damn it! Someone needs to write a great dramatic role for her soon… she’s been slumming for so long!” But Doubt is also coming this year and that may be one of her best. (Meanwhile, she should have taken Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, which would have probably taken the movie up in quality by 20% or more and perhaps won her another Oscar.)
As I just wrote, the trio of men are pretty much in their personal wheelhouses… though Brosnan singing is… well… uh… eh… brave.
It’s possible that Mamma Mia! will be a surprise break out in the vein of Sex & The City, but the problem is, I think, that it’s a tweener. Universal is not selling it as the out-and-out musical that it is. (Yes, people just break out into song and people dance in packs.) Ms Seyfried is beautiful and accessible, but the movie really isn’t about her and her girlfriends. And the age of the trio of parental-aged women is not S&TC 40s, but 50something. Who is the movie for? Who is going to show up?
I can tell you from the screening that there was enthusiasm, though one has to keep in mind that we were in a room loaded with people who signed up to come see Mamma Mia!. They were not show virgins. The good news for the studio is that they seemed to mostly be women and not so much gay men. The gay audience that wants to show up will show up. It’s not a very gay-friendly show and, actually, is a bit homophobic. But the gay audience is very discerning and wil either show or not based on materials and the reviews (perhaps the last group on under 50s – those under 50 – that is really critic-interested). But the female audience is the real challenge and teh real box office hope here. The straight male audience is not coming.
I like musicals. And I was ready to embrace the goofy fun of this film. But I could not. I blame that mostly on a failure to reconsider the show in any real way for movies by the producers, Lloyd, and stage writer/screenwriter Catherine Johnson. And even with what was there that charmed, Lloyd just had no idea how to take any moment from a 7 to a 9 or a 4 to a 7 or, most frustratingly, from an 8.5 to a 10.
If you want to do the work for a movie and love ABBA and feel desperate for something light (and probably, are over 40), you might have a good time at the film. I suspect that the box office will look a lot like The Phantom of the Opera, light at home and more forgiving overseas, where the popularity of the show and the music tend to drive more business. Unlike Phantom, the film will be given a pass by many critics, who are generally more forgiving of the flawed lightweight than the flawed heavyweight.
But unlike Rent, this film should have been easy to make work more effectively. (Rent carried the burden of being out of its time by the time it was made as a film, whereas the stage is much more period-friendly. Better choices could have been made, but the material was its own biggest enemy, no matter how thrilling on stage.) It has the light feel of Hairspray, if not the teen exhilaration. It has the “let’s put on a show” of Grease, but not as well supported a supporting cast or as iconic a song selection. It has the potential visual beauty of Evita, but a director who can’t begin to compare to the skill set of Alan Parker.
It’s not going to be anyone’s Waterloo, but it’s no mamma mia of a movie either.


The Turan Column

Ken Turan, the lion in winter of Los Angeles criticism, wrote a piece today that will aggravate some. But I actually agree with him about what he wrote. That said, I don’t think he went nearly far enough or spoke directly enough to the issue for my tastes.
He closes by saying, “Criticism is a lonely job, and in the final analysis either you’re a gang of one or you’re nothing at all.” And he is absolutely right.
There was a lot of talk about this issue here on the blog last week. And at the core of it is that philosophy.
What I see is that there are more and more outside pressures on film critics as the work gets done. From the very first days I got into this in L.A., I was privy to the little non-coffee klatches that gather after screenings as people compare notes. Not all critics participate in this.
But the seduction of engaging is powerful… and not just for the wrong reasons (or taking a poll). We are (mostly) people who really love and care for movies. Discussing film with others who are similarly passionate can be wonderful. Even conflict, as we see so often on this blog, can be exhilarating, as defending one’s position can clarify one’s position to their self. None of us can consider every idea about a film… certainly not on deadline, whether that deadline is 2 hours or 2 days.
And with any conversation, the issue of reacting instead of build one’s own opinion is dangerous. And it’s not a black and white situation. And not talking to others does not necessarily mean you are not being pushed by outside influencers, like ads or feature stories or tone from your colleagues or real-world friends.
As Turan says, “criticism is at its core opinion shaped by all the personal and societal forces that shape anyone’s taste.”
Now… “the closest I ever came to making a mistake” may seem like an arrogant argument that Turan was never wrong, but I read it as saying that it would have been a mistake to offer anything but his real, personal opinion… so even if he changes his mind about a film, the original review was not a mistake.
And that is where I think the piece comes up a little short. Only someone in profound denial could ever go through hundreds of movies for years and never think their original take on a few of them turned out to be wrongheaded. Even if the film didn’t change, we all do. And even the movies we most love change in the perspective of time. Mr. Turan does not offer a personal example of this. All he does is to offer a self-serving example of a movie that he “fought the crowd on” to be honest. Yawn.
We live in a new era of media. Movies, like television, is now often “re-run” and reconsidered. I haven’t read “The Immediate Experience” by critic Robert Warshow – I now will – but I suspect that the idea of committing to our first reactions is no longer valid in the way it once was.
To toot my own horn, I have been looked at funny by media and publicists alike for years for often going to movies twice before writing about them. But I don’t consider my job to be to simply spew out my gut reaction to everything. I am not here to be “one of you,” which is not to say that I am better than any of you. But it is my work to be considerate of the films on a professional level and to offer my best insight into the work that you may or may not pay to see. If I’m not sure, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest for me to guess. I want to see the film again and see how it plays, because the film will exist long after I viewed it and long after opening weekend. The film, like any work of art, is there pretty much forever, to be considered and reconsidered. My real, personal opinion should be as informed as I want it to be before I offer it to others in a professional capacity.
As for a film that has changed in my view over time, Die Hard 4 is one where the phenomenon of what it is… not really a Die Hard movie by the standards of the iconic series… but something new and different that I was unwilling to separate from last summer when I saw it… is worth reconsideration. In that same vein, I am ongoingly reconsidering this summer’s Marvel movies. Though some of you take my lack of real love for them to be a continuing slap, what I am really after is context for them. I would not judge a Corman film in opposition to a Lean film… that would be silly and unhelpful. Likewise, I consider it part of my work now to recognize what is going on with the Marvel product line… or with the newly CGed Indiana Jones… or with the more densely populated Hellboy II, etc. I am not withdrawing my critical perception. But I am trying to consider context in a more complex way. And I think that is part of the work of the post-DVD critic.

All The Glitters Is Not Hellboy II – The Review

I am already girding myself for the parade of discomfort that comes when I have a differing view on a film that has already been “positioned” by a few critics. Ironically, Variety, in fighting like mad and reasserting its ancient and currently unwarranted and illogical for studio “first” position, has become a definer of movie criticism again, even though the trade tends to miss the mark 90% of the time it goes particularly strong for or against a movie. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Todd and his minions are obviously well versed and think deeply about film. But whenever they get emotional – particularly Todd – they become remarkably misguided and lose focus completely. Yet, studios continue to indulge the tradition of letting the trades go first, often at their own cost, rather than allowing the open exchange of ideas start so that no one voice becomes defining.
Meanwhile, after being out for a few days when this film premiered at the LA Film Festival, I will be taken to task by those who disagree and want to disagree without having seen the film as mop-up boy, relegated to a discussion of why I have my opinions, as opposed to simply arguing opinion. Everything is either “contrarian” when you go against a small group of voices or “going with the crowd” if you are of a similar mind when you don’t see a movie “first.” This thinking becomes nearly impossible to fight when so many professionals really are either being contrarian or going along with the group. (not all, but many)
Of course, if you push to see a movie first, if only to keep your ideas about the film purely your own, you are obsessed with winning the race… because so many people are obsessed with winning the race. I would have to cop to having been one of them… about 5 years ago.
I should be as detached from the maddening crowd as, say, Manohla Dargis or Ken Turan or the lovely and talented and not heard from enough about the last 40 years of criticism Joe Morgenstern (detached though not unhinged, like Peter “You Can Quote Me About Hitler Being ‘The Best Ever One-Balled Jew Murderer Ever!’ So Long As My Name Is At Least 20% Of The Quote’s Type Size” Travers) and just put my head down and do the job. There is an elegant logic to that mindset. Interestingly – to me – it is quite the opposite of being a columnist or blogger, in which awareness of your surroundings is an absolute requirement of the job.
All of that seemed like an aside as I typed it, but it actually does match up with my concerns about Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which is a remarkably easy review to write…
Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army is much less formal, much more comic book, and ultimately a bit less effective for anyone outside of its core constituency than the first film in the franchise. If you know these characters, I have little to add, other than to tell you that this time, Hellboy faces a dark nemesis who seeks to break from the honorable tradition of his magical forest family and to destroy mankind for its sins, but his sister, who doesn’t fight but has the power of a puzzle piece, gets in his way. Hellboy & Co. are there to clean up the messes the resulting monsters create or become. If you don’t know the characters, you should rent or buy the first film, preferably in Blu-ray, or skip this sequel altogether.
Here is a bit more about what I feel.
Guillermo del Toro is truly a bright, beautiful light in the industry. For all of his genius in the imagination of characters and creatures, his real power is in the drama of the misunderstood or broken coming to a place of love and peace, often through violent means. His best film, The Devil’s Backbone, is also his least effect-y film, though it is a ghost story. The second film in that trilogy, which he will likely complete after The Hobbit, Pan’s Labyrinth, has more magical stuff, but also comes back to the emotions of his “Dorothy,” not just amazement at the beauty of his visual ideas.
Here, with a second shot at Hellboy, he was at first constrained by Universal on budget, then not unlike Jackson/Walsh, he expanded his vision – and budget – because of his skill and charm and the studio’s urge to ride his very special train to its natural end. But there can be a problem with getting what you want. And Hellboy II suffers, in my opinion, from too much of everything.
I will warn you if any spoilers are coming… and if you haven’t seen the first film, you might want to skip this from here on, since I presume if you are reading this, you have familiarity with that movie.
From the time we enter the Bureau for the first time in this film, unlike the original, there is a kind of Men-In-Black-ization of the movie, with other paranormal creatures in passed doorways or down long hallways. And right there I thought, “Okay… maybe.” But as the movie pressed on, I was more and more aware of the size of the visual palette and less and less interested in the storytelling, the basics of which were there, but often seemed like the afterthought.
In other bad words, Guillermo Goes Lucas.
Unlike Mr. Lucas, it is pretty clear that Guillermo can come back to his best self anytime he wants. He is still young enough and still bursting with new ideas enough that he can make the adjustment, just as Peter Jackson did after he went off the rails a bit with The Frighteners.
There were also two character points that really distracted me through the new film. The first is not a spoiler… the second is, and I will mark it when I get there.
Abe Sapian, still played by Doug Jones, is now voiced by Doug Jones. And the truth is, Doug Jones ain’t David Hyde Pierce. The odd thing is, I would probably have been fine with Mr. Jones playing the character outright had the movie series started there. But it didn’t. As a result, I was distracted every time he spoke… and he speaks a lot more in this film. Moreover, with Abe as a much more significant character this time around – yay! – Mr. Jones, presumably with the collaboration of GdT, has made Abe less balletic than in the first film. So Abe feels like a very different character… less of a marked contrast to Hellboy, which was kind of the beauty of him the first time around.
The Fire to Abe’s Water, Liz Sherman, is now living with Hellboy. And it is, not unsurprisingly, difficult. That is exactly the kind of non-effects exploration that Guillermo is all about and able to pull off with great skill. But it is filed down here to a few minutes and, as the movie progresses, an odd disconnect of Liz from Hellboy and from the movie. Until she becomes the “must save Liz” object, the relationship doesn’t really move us… and when that does happen, it really does move us.
The title character of the film, The Golden Army, is beautifully rendered with puppetry in the opening of the film, one of the truly elegant segments of work. But by the time we get back to it being real in the movie, The Golden Army feels like the ultimate red herring. We really don’t need to see them brought to life to get to the end of the story. And story logic actually suggests that we won’t. But of course, we will. And as with most of the big action in this movie, it is not a story driver, it is a set piece that’s really cool.
I know this is an odd distinction in big action movies. But the genius of the first Indiana Jones movies, for instance, was that every action sequence had to be fought past by Indy in order to get to the next part of the movie. It was the understanding of this that made the expedience of shooting the guy with the swords one of the great movie moments ever. It said, “We’re not just dragging you through set pieces because that’s what a movie is… if we can get right to it, we will.” And it worked brilliantly. In Men in Black, using the investigation thread to push the story, every alien they rousted led to the next alien which led to the big alien and the tiny universe… as well as to the education of Will Smith’s J. Here, not only in the end, but in earlier sequences, wonderous lifeforms seem to be thrown in Hellboy’s way just to have a great big beautiful fight. You can’t say they aren’t cool. But if you took out most of them, the story would remain exactly the same. And in one case, there is a remarkable lack of story logic, as – dancing around the spoiler – Hellboy being occupied means that a key object in the story is absolutely vulnerable to being snatched… 30 minutes before it is eventually, inevitably snatched.
Del Toro reconfigures his heroes in this film, from one central hero, Hellboy, into a real team of three; Hellboy, Abe, and Liz. He then adds an otherworldly interoffice antagonist who can do more than cower like Tom Manning or pine for Liz like John Myers. Cool. But he has the problem that you have with a lot of team stories… it’s still called Hellboy. And as a result, the other heroes have to do a lot of standing around, not acting, to give him the stage for his heroics. And in the literalism of a movie, it doesn’t work as easily as it does in a comic. Yes, they all ultimately participate… like I said, Guillermo is a genius, not a schmuck. But there is an awful lot of “why didn’t they do that?” in this film. A lot.
All that said, the movie feels more like a comic brought to life than anything since Tank Girl, which this movie reminded me of more than once, oddly. And I think it will play very, very successfully with the comic book loving audience. It almost feels like it was made for them and their tastes with a happy disregard for making a movie that is really accessible for a wider audience.
This doesn’t mean it won’t find a wider audience, especially on opening weekend. But in many ways, this is a narrowcast movie right in line with Universal’s summer of The Incredible Hulk and Wanted. I’m not quite as confident that we will see that same $50m – $55m start that the other two got… but then again, no one really saw that number for Wanted.
There are some remarkably beautiful things in Hellboy II. That was a given. And as I say, the rough hewn touches are manna from heaven for the geek boys. (And unlike my criticism of the two Marvel movies, I don’t actually have the slightest objection to them reveling in every minute of this one.) Liz is a very identifiable character for teen girls. And the performances are pretty great all around, though as I wrote, I prefer a more elegant Abe… but that’s just me.
I love the first Hellboy… even more so after watching it again from top to bottom in Blu-ray. I didn’t need more, just the next step. But we got a lot more. As a story, it’s a little too big for its britches and a little too small to be epic. There are always holes in any story, but there were some here that I just don’t expect from Guillermo, who seemed to be a little to distracted by all those wonderful toys. Wait ‘til they get a load of me, indeed.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon