Summer 2009

Posted on August 29, 2009 at 8:00 am

The end of August is the worst time of year for movies. This makes no sense to me. I would think that people would want to see some good movies before the end of vacation. But it has been true for as long as I can remember and this year is no exception. Because Labor Day comes so late this year, we have two weeks filled with movies not screened for critics like “Halloween II,” “Final Destination 3D,” “Gamer,” and “Carriers.”
This provides a moment to look back on the summer’s hits and misses. Time Magazine has a good piece called 10 Lessons from the 2009 Box Office. Keeping in mind the perennially re-learned lesson from Oscar-winner William Goldman — “Nobody knows anything,” Time’s Richard Corliss has some important insights. Stars don’t guarantee success (“Land of the Lost” and “Funny People” did poorly; “The Hangover,” “Star Trek,” and “District 9” did well). Women go to movies — this is a lesson Hollywood always forgets, until the next “Julie and Julia” comes along. Big budget films did well.

Five other films in the summer’s top 10 domestic winners — “Up,” “Star Trek,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and “Angels & Demons” — had budgets of at least $150 million. Their sponsors must have been pleased, since each of the five earned more than $350 million worldwide.

You could make just as strong a case for the other side by comparing “District 9” ($30 million budget, $80 million box office) to “G.I. Joe” ($175 million budget, $124 million box office). But it is true that big budget movies did better than smaller independent films. This summer had no “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Blair Witch Project,” “March of the Penguins,” or “Juno.”
For me, the most interesting point Corliss makes is the way technology has changed the way people make decisions about what movies to see.

Instant-messaging can make or break a film within 24 hours. At any rate, something viral happened to Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen’s followup to Borat. Its opening-day gross was a burly $14.4 million, which that Saturday plunged an abysmal 40%. Somebody got out the word — stinker — and did it quick, possibly in 140 characters. The movie’s opening-weekend total was $30 million, and it’s taken six weeks to earn its second $30 million.

So, keeping a movie from critics may not make much of a difference. They can run, but they can’t hide from the audience members who become critics via Twitter and Facebook.
But the most surprising fact in the article was which movie was the top world-wide box office champ of the summer, in fact of the year so far. I’ll bet you can’t guess. Think for a moment before continuing, and, if you have the nerve, give me your guess in the comment box before clicking ahead to see the answer.

(more…)

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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Miles Davis at the Movies

Posted on August 28, 2009 at 8:00 am

I love this Slate article by Kim Gittleson on the best and worst uses of the classic jazz album, Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis, in film and television. The list includes an action film with real-life jazz-lover Clint Eastwood (“In the Line of Fire”), a romantic comedy with Julia Roberts (“The Runaway Bride”), and an underrated fantasy film (“Pleasantville”), as well as a television series about a serial killer (“Dexter”) and a high-class cop show (“The Wire”).

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Music Television

Interview: Marc Fienberg of ‘Play the Game’

Posted on August 27, 2009 at 2:00 pm

“Play the Game” has many elements that are often found in sexy romantic comedies — a hero who thinks he does not want to fall in love and a heroine who teaches him that he does not know what he wants, a pair of couples whose romantic ups and downs complement and balance each other, and the usual comic mis-fires before the happily-ever-after ending. But it also has some very unusual elements: the sexy humor about the romances of the elderly and the fact that the important relationship in the film is between a devoted grandfather and grandson. Another surprise: the grandfather making the Viagra jokes is played by Andy Griffith. 148pzf8.jpg
The movie’s title comes from the games played by the main characters in order to maintain control of their romantic relationships.
So I began my interview with writer-director Marc Fienberg by asking him about the worst game he ever played during his dating days.
It was a trick that appears in the movie, “planned spontaneity,” arranging a chance encounter, or what looks like a chance encounter, even though you planned it out meticulously.
I tried to seduce my wife for seven years. Some might call it stalking — any other woman would have called the police. I drove up to Madison after four years and told her I was in town for a consulting gig, even though I was there just to see her. It didn’t work. My friends who helped me develop these tricks of the trade, it worked like a charm for them. I wish I was as suave and debonair as the guy in the movie.
So, despite the “planned spontaneity” ploy, it is not autobiographical?
It is not so much autobiographical, as a reflection of my life. In my case, only three years later, I just put it on the line and told the truth. I took my own advice and it actually worked. Lying in general is not good.
So I’ve heard! It was nice to see Clint Howard in this film, and of course he has that connection to Andy Griffith going back to his guest appearances with his brother Ron Howard on the old “Andy Griffith Show.”
Clint Howard was the first actor to sign on board. I always wanted him for this part. We had actually gone out to Andy Griffith but he said no at first. We were on a short schedule and he worried that he didn’t have time to learn his lines. And he was concerned about the sex scenes. He is a religious man and he wanted to be consistent with his values. But he said he couldn’t stop thinking about it. The bedroom scene showed older people in a nice, honest, realistic light. And very important — he didn’t die in it. There are not a lot of parts for older characters that don’t have them dying at the end. This movie was all about passion and living life to the fullest and holding out hope that there’s love and companionship at all ages and he liked that.
Griffith and many of your other actors have a television background — Liz Sheridan on “Seinfeld,” Doris Roberts on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Marla Sokoloff (“The Practice”). Was it an adjustment to work on a feature film?
TV and movies are similar enough from an actor’s standpoint. It’s always hard but the actors brought something even I didn’t see.
What’s next?
“The Machine,” more of a family comedy about a young goat herder who dreams of doing bigger things with his life. Then the internet comes to town and he is forced to save his village. I’m also working on another romantic comedy and doing commercials now, too.
How did your own family influence this story?
My grandfather started dating when he was 89 years old. The more time I spent with him, the more I appreciated different things in life and what was important. When you see these vibrant, passionate lives you more easily focus on what matters in the world.
My father was my first inspiration. He was a closet writer. And I had teachers and read authors who have inspired me to follow my passion. Giving up a safe, secure career, the hardest part was taking that leap to a career that had enjoyment and fulfillment and could make the world a better place. I studied business and started a million dollar e-commerce company that got sold. I wanted to make people laugh, affect people. One of the main things that gave me strength was my kids. It was important to have them see me doing something fulfilling, to set an example for them. We realized that our concern about the financial risk of trying to make a career in movies affected me and my wife much more than the kids.
In the movie, the father is the bad influence and grandfather is the good influence. It was when he started working for his father that he started being less honest. And it is when he starts trying to teach his grandfather not to be honest with women that he learns how important honesty — with himself and others — really is.

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Behind the Scenes Directors Interview Writers

Tribute: Teddy Kennedy

Posted on August 27, 2009 at 1:34 pm

The essence of Sen. Kennedy’s political power was crystallized by Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, one of many Republicans who worked with the late senator to forge compromises on bills. Alexander called Sen. Kennedy “at once the most partisan and the most constructive United States senator. He could preach the party line as well as bridge differences better than any Democrat.”

This quote in the Washington Post obituary for Teddy Kennedy seems to illuminate the essence of a man who was an idealist and a pragmatist, a man who battled enormous public and private challenges. His example will continue to inspire all who believe that the dream will never die.

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Tribute: Dominick Dunne

Posted on August 27, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Fallen Hollywood luminary, name-dropper, world-class party-goer, best-selling author, and force for justice Dominick Dunne died of cancer yesterday at age 83. He was the brother of screenwriter John Gregory Dunne (the subject of The Year of Magical Thinking by his widow, Joan Didion). He was the father of actor/writer/director Griffin Dunne and Alex Dunne. And he was the father of Dominique Dunne, who played the oldest daughter in Poltergeist. She was murdered in 1982 by an ex-boyfriend whose inadequate sentence caused Dunne to devote the rest of his life to pursuing justice as a writer and activist.

Dunne was the best-selling author of novels based on real-life incidents of society scandal that were often adapted for glossy made-for-television productions like An Inconvenient Woman and The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. And he wrote non-fiction accounts of real-life scandal for Vanity Fair.

None of it was as entertaining as his own story, which he told in the books Fatal Charms and Other Tales of Today and The Mansions of Limbo and in a documentary called Dominick Dunne: After the Party.

I heard him speak once and he was filled with bubbly and sometimes wicked anecdotes about the rich and famous. But he was also an enormously appealing presence, completely sincere in his essential decency. That comes through in a wonderful story he told for The Moth called “My Bunkmate Was In For Murder.” It is the tale of his arrest for possession of marijuana, which, since it was found on him at the airport coming back from another country made it a very serious offence. His rescue by from a most unexpected friend for a most unexpected reason makes it a perfect way to remember him.

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