Nebulous Arrays

February 11, 2013

It's ironic there was a  trailer for Red 2 in front of Monday night's screening of Stand Up Guys. The original Red (2010) with Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Mary-Louise Parker and Karl Urban did close to $200 million worldwide. The next Red (opening in August) will add Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren (who was just nominated for another Academy Award for The Sessions). It will probably do even better than the original. Sequels often do.

The original title of Stand Up Guys was actually "Old Timers" and the kicker for the poster is "They don't make 'em like they used to." The same title and phrase could have been used for the Red movies too. The difference in popularity, however, is extraordinary. Red's opening weekend grossed almost $22 million in 3,349 theatres. That's OK, but not great. Stand Up Guys made $1.5 million in what they call a "semi-limited release." That's terrible! How on Earth could that happen?

The problem of a preconceived negative evaluation could not be due to a cast of old actors. Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin are all Academy Award winners and they are absolutely wonderful together. Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys made use of an aging cast with Clint, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner starring as retired astronauts.

It couldn't be the criminal theme. Martin Scorses's Goodfellas (1990) and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) were both popular and did well at the box office, let alone home video. Filmgoers are not squeamish about film violence.

Whatever it is, though, there is a real problem with how the film was perceived before audiences got to see it. How else can you explain why people stayed away. The box office winner this past weekend was Identity Thief ($34 million domestic - 20 million ahead of the rest in a soft market). To be honest, I never considered going to see it (even though I do enjoy Jason Bateman's work).

If I was going to make a comparison to an earlier film, I would have to go back to Elaine May's 1976 film Mikey & Nicky (starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk). It is a dark and disturbing story of two friends spending a night together, but one of them is running from a contract while the other is helping set up the hit. In Stand Up Guys, one of them is the target and the other is the hitman. The Pacino/Walken team, however, are more loveable, endearing and entertaining than the Cassavetes/Falk duo.

The stand up guys possess an amazing superiority over all adversaries in their film. While they may be violent men of questionable morality, they still possess chivalry, loyalty and compassion. They may be old guys, but they are defenders of old values and you have to admire them for it.

Personally, I loved it. The subtle performances of Pacino, Walken and Arkin - who can each steal a scene without saying a word, are truly amazing. There's humour and a sense of justified revenge combined with a heroic ending. So what's wrong? Why does Red get a sequel while Stand Up Guys appears to be looking into the abyss?

To paraphrase a key line from the film, I guess no one's out of gum.


Budget Polarities

One of the incomprehensible aspects of entertainment is balancing the risk of investment with the unpredictability of popularity. If you joined The Avengers this year, you were victorious, but if you got on the bench with Dredd, you burned.

What is particularly mysterious is, until the two films opened and showed what they could do, no one really knew what was going to happen. OK, most people thought The Avengers was probably going to do well, but its writer/director Joss Whedon was no box office guarantee like James Cameron. Whedon didn't work (credited) on the other Marvel Studios movies that built up Avenger momentum. Joss, however, is now up there alongside Cameron with the #3 domestic gross film of all time - only $30 million behind Titanic. The #4 film is almost $100 million behind it.

Meanwhile, on its opening weekend, Dredd did $6 million. On its second weekend it did $3 million. It wasn't a bad film. I actually really liked it. So did a lot of film reviewers, but the audience forgot to show up. The movie has terrific production values. It has brilliant VFX by The Mill and had an Academy Award-winning cinematographer (Anthony Dod Mantle for Slumdog Millionaire). The art direction is terrific. The music is great. The cast is excellent and the script is credible and authentic. Even the original Dredd writer, John Wagner, liked the story and cast - and he didn't liked the Stallone version (1995). Who did? It was corny and tacky with a goofy script and a typical Hollywood treatment - which means no respect for original concept.

In terms of budget, the film of the year has to be The Possession. With a cost of only $14 million, the picture went on to make almost $50 million domestic and another $20 million worldwide for a total of $70 million in less than five weeks. Was it a good movie? I don't know. I didn't see it. Sam Raimi produced it. It looked like a scary, supernatural horror flick for a teenage date night. But man, that's good business! Back in the winter, The Descendants ran for 12 weeks and made $65 million with a budget of $20m.

So you can't dismiss the low to mid-budget film as a collapsed market. It ain't true. It also doesn't explain how Dredd, which cost a modest $45 million, could not even reach the domestic box office lowball limit of $10 million. Dredd is a popular character and has been for a very long time, but that doesn't seem to matter. On account of The Avengers, you can't say audiences are tired of comic book characters. The Avengers makes them look like they're more popular than ever!

Maybe Stallone hurt the Dredd franchise. Maybe the R rating restricted its potential. Did people think it was a re-make? The marketing was weak and unremarkable. Maybe the story looked too dark and hopeless. I guess I would really like a reason for why the film bombed, but maybe there is no simple explanation. It reminds me of Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature) by Edvard Munch. It is also known simply as "The Scream" or Skrik (Norwegian). For some inexplicable reason, it is by far the most popular painting on earth. Just over 100 years old, the image is now an icon featured in popular television shows and advertising and all kinds of merchandise including halloween costumes, sheets, lamps, drapes and any number of dust-collecting chachkies. 

There are four versions of the work of art, one of which sold this year for US $120 million at Sotheby's. No particular authority told the people of the world to vote for it. No one needed to convince anyone it was good or bad. The people just decided en masse it is the most recognized piece of art on Earth. Everyone likes Harrison Ford, Harry Potter, Mozart, The Beatles, Ferraris, Tetris, iPhones and Avatar. Dredd, however, is on the opposite end of that list unfortunately, but I'm still going to buy the Blu-ray when it comes out. Maybe in 20 years, it will be considered a "cult classic" like Buckaroo Banzai.


March 19, 2012

Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power

I've been reading the latest book by Zbigniew Brzezinski, called Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. It's actually a bit "global" itself in its generalizations and observations, but is still really well thought out. How unusual and interesting to read the opinions and predictions of someone who has really been in the trenches of "global power" who can provide a legitimate and informed opinion of our future. Mr. Brzezinski's credibility is unquestionned.

The book progresses through observation and analysis to describe the current international situation and whether the "West" can maintain its economic and cultural leadership in the future.

His conclusions regarding its inevitable decline is based on what he calls six "dimensions." They include America's "unsustainable national debt" and its "flawed financial system." He also blames their deficient education system, income inequality and "stagnating social mobility" for their inability to sustain cultural awareness. This is part of what undermines the perception of global dominance and leadership. He also points out how alarming is the quality of news media content and the partisan political system - all contributing to an inability to regain lost power and influence.

On the other hand, he observes how China has had a "meteoric economic rise" largely due to Deng Xiaoping's adoption of market liberalization as opposed to the traditional self-isolation China had been enforcing since the 15th Century. He looks at global competition from other dominant powers including India and Europe and describes the problems and shortcomings preventing them from achieving "supremacy."

For a truly enlightened and quick overview of the future of global power, this is an excellent book. Mr. Brzezinski was former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. He is currently a counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and he is a professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Strategic Vision is published by Basic Books (2012) and is $29 (Cdn) at Chapters.


January 3, 2012

With best wishes for a new year and a little lassitude when it comes to "box office pessimism," I have to refer to the wave theory of cultural history. The top five films of 2011 were all sequels (Harry Potter, Transformers, Pirates, Kung Fu Panda and Twilight).

On the other hand, 2010 featured The King's Speech, Despicable Me and Inception. Before that, we had Avatar (2009) and the year before that, we had The Dark Night (2008) - two of the all time box office money makers of all time. Well, you simply can't have one of those every year. Even though James Cameron is responsible for the top two box office hits of all time, they are still 12 years apart.

The notion that people don't want to go to the movies as much as they used to suggests a real lack of vision. There were authoritative spokespeople who said photography would be the end of painting and television would be the end of cinema. There are lots of people who say newspapers and books are heading for extinction. Tell that to the companies still releasing vinyl records.

Our future is full of immense diversity and opportunity. We now have movie theatres with reserved seating. Projection systems are getting more and more sophisticated with bigger screens and brighter, digital images. The quality of cinema is getting better and better every year.

The audiences who desire the fantastic experience of the giant screen with phenomenal sound and comfort are simply not the same people who watch their favourite movies on home entertainment systems. They are as different as model train enthusiasts and rocket scientists. One isn't any better than another. Their worlds are just lightyears apart.

The fact that 2011's box office didn't come up to expectations has nothing to do with the propensities of our modern population. It's not about the people. It's about the films. If audiences didn't flock to see Green Lantern or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it's because the films didn't deliver what the people wanted to see.*

Last year, Toy Story 3 made over a billion dollars worldwide and was nominated for five Oscars. The same year, Winter's Bone only made $6 million (domestic) and $13 million (worldwide) and was nominated for four Oscars. It was a great film. Critics loved it. Not very many people went to see it. I didn't. It just wasn't on my "must see" list at the time.

If one year had two or three Toy Story movies, reviewers would probably say the box office was healthier than ever and the trend looks great. If another year had two or three Winter's Bone movies, reviewers would say the movie industry was at the end of its life and the trend looks hopeless.

Thank goodness we really don't listen in earnest to reactionary opinion and there are still people like Alexander Payne making movies like The Descendants. After seven weeks, the film has made a modest $40 million. It is not a blockbuster. It's not for everyone. It is just another really good movie. I saw it at the theatre and I will definitely buy it when it comes out on March 13.

Have a great year!

*FOOTNOTE (May 7, 2012): Marvel's The Avengers just smashed box office records with a $200 million opener (over $600 million worldwide) and is expected to double that - at least. So there. - CS†

FOOTNOTE to Footnote (June 4, 2012): Marvel's The Avengers has now passed Star Wars and The Dark Night to take the #3 spot on the All Time Box Office (domestic grosses) list - behind Titanic and Avatar. It's still $100 million behind Titanic, but it's at $1.3 billion worldwide and still only in its 4th week. So don't tell me people aren't going to the movies as much as they used to. Hello!


December 16, 2011

As of this year (2011), it really seems e-books have hit their stride. There is an amazing new awareness and desire for electronic readers, but the first electronic text versions of books were actually available from Project Gutenberg a long time ago. It is truly a groundbreaking idea that goes all the way back to 1971 and Arpanet. Be sure to visit:

Project Gutenberg

The founder, Michael S. Hart, passed away this year in September. He will be missed.

Starting with the United States Declaration of Independence as the very first e-text, all the books in the "project" were manually typed until 1989 - when they started scanning and using OCR. Today, the text is checked and proofed by thousands of volunteers.

You don't have to register and there is no fee. It is a non-profit corporation and donations are tax-deductible.

They have Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Swift, Sunzi, Kafka, Stoker, Verne, Wells, Wilde, Wittgenstein, Poe, Potter, Doyle, de Maupassant, da Vinci, Voltaire, Tolstoy...and 38,000 more.

You can donate and you can be a contributor, too. It's like having the world's most fantastic library right in your own home. Whether you have a new e-book reader or not, be sure to go there.