Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paid to See 'Planes' Sequel; Found Nemo, Instead

By Steve Evans

Taking three kids to the movies turns out to be more interesting than the movie itself, in this case, Disney's sequel to Planes.

After the picture finally started, the two oldest kids made two trips each to the restroom, which in practical terms means we ALL went to the restroom four times. The youngest ate more than half of an $8 sack of popcorn and talked merrily throughout the film while giving me non-stop High Fives. Then she removed and tossed one of her shoes down the aisle. I do not see well in the dark, but always bring a pocket flashlight with me for these special occasions. Middle child took his shoes off as the credits rolled, then went running and leaping up and down the theater aisles. Oldest child offered to share her Skittles with every kid leaving the theater. She and her brother danced until the house lights came up, then we looked for their shoes.

And once we got to the car, loaded up and locked in with seat belts, my three-year-old son screams, "Daddy! I left Nemo inside the movie house!" Nemo is a beloved stuffed toy, a Clown fish from the Disney/Pixar film Finding Nemo. Whereever my son goes, Nemo goes.

Nothing to do but unload everyone, bang on the Exit door of the theater until a kind soul let us in, then pick our way through the theater in our quest for Finding Nemo.

Alas, the stuffed fish was not in Theater #8. But the nice folks at Lost & Found had indeed found Nemo, no worse for the wear and tear except for a few pieces of buttered popcorn stuck to his gills.

Half an hour later, we were back in the car and on the road. Youngest had both her shoes. Mr. Elephant was in the possession of my oldest. And middle child clutched Nemo to his chest -- a clear sign that going back into the theater was the right thing to do. Hell, the only thing to do.

Over ice cream the kids talked happily about how much fun they have going to the movies. And I thought quietly that the tale of a Talking Plane and his adventures with firefighters in the Pacific Northwest could scarcely compare to the real-world excitement of lost shoes, finding Nemo, and making so many trips to the potty I am thinking of equipping everyone with a colostomy bag.

Fatherhood: the most challenging job I ever loved.

(For those of you on the fence about the Planes sequel, truth be told it's better than the original. The computer animation is a wow. For kids and their parents -- at least the parts we managed to see.)

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Summer cinema: talking monkeys, giant robots, dumb comedies & superhero sequels = dismal box office

By Steve Evans

The summer movie blockbuster season hits the midway mark this week and box office results show audiences are saying, "meh."

The top three films in America, as of this writing, are a Planet of the Apes sequel, a Transformers sequel, and "Tammy" starring Melissa McCarthy, the vastly overrated comedienne whose sell-by date soured almost a year ago.

Variety reports a shrinking domestic box office this year, as raunchy R-rated comedies fill theaters bereft of family films and provocative adult dramas that might give more people a reason to go to the movies. At this point, there's no way Hollywood will top the record $4.76 billion box office from last year.

Hollywood, of course, skews product toward teenage boys and occasionally their dates. As a result, superhero movies dominate screens and sequels rule the summer. Except this summer, it ain't necessarily so. Lackluster results for Spiderman 2, Michael Bay's execrable Transformers series and other summer 2014 sequels pale in comparison to last year's record movie attendance. Why?

Analysts and studio execs are tripping over themselves to explain away these dismal results. They claim irregular production schedules and competing entertainment such as the World Cup peel off potential ticket buyers.

These are smoke screens.

The reality is that the slate of summer 2014 films is of such poor quality and ticket prices have grown so exorbitant that people exercise more caution with their entertainment dollars. Social media plays a big role in advancing word-of -mouth about the merits of a movie. Low social engagement with a film on Facebook can cost a production millions in revenues.

Film critics fancy themselves an indispensable part of the dialog on contemporary cinema, but their influence is negligible compared to the power of a social media post gone viral.

So here's a post:

This year's summer blockbusters just aren't very good. And irritated ticket buyers are quick to post their dissatisfaction. Films that might surge on opening weekend lose 60-70 percent of their business the following week. It's a numbers game: you cannot recover a $200 million budget on a film that makes $75 million on opening weekend and gets bad-mouthed on the Internet to the point of extinction in the following weeks before the picture is pulled from screens to await a Blu-ray release and possibly a second life on Netflix.

Video on demand and streaming services like Hulu catch a lot of the blame for poor ticket sales at theaters, but that doesn't tell the whole story.

America excels at a great many things, none moreso that the creation of popular entertainment. As much as I love world cinema, the simple truth is that when it comes to making movies, Hollywood is the center of the universe. Until the Hollywood studios curb their desire to repeat past successes with formulaic films and endless sequels, people will remain wary of the noisy product on sale at multiplexes throughout the country. The harder the marketing push, the more reluctant the buyer.

It's simple, really. People crave strong narrative; it is inherent in all of us from childhood. Please. Tell me a story.

Present a story fundamentally well-told, both original and with characters worth caring about, and people will pay to hear it. Or watch it with sticky 3-D glasses at the theater.

For now, studio executives are content to engage in a high-stakes crapshoot with loaded dice. Even then, they still roll snake eyes. The results are boring. Predictable. And we deserve better.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Running with the Mayans: Revisiting Apocalypto

By Steve Evans

How many times has the famous short story, The Most Dangerous Game, been adapted to film? I can think of the original from 1932, shot in chiaroscuro shades of black and white by night on the same sets used to make King Kong. There's a nice DVD edition of this picture in The Criterion Collection.

Variations of this adventure tale abound in the cinema. Essentially, The Most Dangerous Game involves an innocent man captured and set into the wild for the sole purpose of being hunted and killed by ruthless men who live for the perverse sport of tracking and eliminating another human being. In some accounts, the hunters pay for the privilege. In others, they hunt just for the hell of it.

Jean Claude Van Damme starred in Hard Target (1992), which was Hong Kong director John Woo's first American film. It's ruff and tuff, with as much stylistic camera whoop-de-doo that Woo can get away with. Lots of slo-mo explosions and doves suspended in flight, punctuated by the Belgian Van Damme's peculiar blend of kickboxing and stilted non-sequiturs delivered in halting English.

I could rattle off a dozen more films in this sub-genre, but for my nickel, the most absorbing of the bunch is Mel Gibson's off-the-rails Mayan thriller Apocalypto (2006). Easily in the running for most violent film ever made, the picture is so completely engrossing that at times you may think you're watching a documentary of an ancient culture. Once it gets rolling, though, the tension never lets up. 

Briefly, a peaceful tribe of Indians is ambushed by Mayan warriors who need human sacrifices for their sun god. Tribal leader Jaguar Paw is among those tied up and forced to march through the jungle to the Mayan city, but not before he is able to hide his pregnant wife and young son in a deep pit.

Vividly depicted on massive sets augmented by CGI, the Mayan city is shown to be part of a decadent civilization in rapid decline. Disease is rampant. Crops wither in fields parched from lack of rain. The Mayan leaders attempt to appease their followers with ghastly human sacrifices at the summit of their pyramids. Indian prisoners are forced onto an altar, where their beating hearts are cut and ripped from their bodies with a jagged bone knife (this is not a date movie; much of Gibson's original vision had to be toned down so the film would receive an R-rating).

Jaguar Paw manages to escape this fate and his captors, setting in motion the final act of the plot -- an adrenaline-charged chase through the jungles as a persecuted primitive man races to save his family while Mayan warriors pursue him mercilessly. From here on, it's catch me if you can. Jaguar Paw will leap from waterfalls, fend off poisonous snakes, jaguars and wasps, dodge spears and arrows, and kill many evil men with a savagery befitting the times and circumstances in his heroic odyssey to rescue wife and child.

The performances, costume design, cinematography and breathless editing are top-notch. All dialog (with English subtitles) is in the Yucatec Maya language, adding to the authenticity of this mesmerizing cinematic experience.

Found it on Blu-ray today for a measly $5 so it's off to the 15th century with me this evening.

Say what you will about Gibson, but when he gets a chance to work with unique material that sates his bloodlust and transparently Darwinian point of view, the results are stunning, visceral and unforgettable.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Writer-Director Paul Mazursky Dead at 84

By Steve Evans

Five-time Oscar nominee Paul Mazursky, who played a role in Stanley Kubrick's first film, Fear and Desire, died June 30 in Los Angeles. He was 84.

Mazursky's career as an actor, writer, director and producer spanned six decades and almost all genres, although his focus remained primarily on comedy and drama. Always a bridesmaid, he came closest to winning the Academy Award for his work on An Unmarried Woman (1978), starring Jill Clayburgh as a wealthy Manhattanite whose life is shattered when her husband leaves her for a younger woman. Mazursky was up for the Oscar that year as writer, director and producer. Clayburgh also received a nod for Best Actress.

His most popular film, Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), is a remake of Jean Renoir's classic French satire Boudu Saved From Drowning. Mazursky was reportedly a great admirer of French cinema, Renoir in particular, and this fact alone drew me to Mazurksy's work through the years. Down and Out remains one of my favorite films satirizing the Reagan years.

As an actor, Mazursky played a delinquent tormenting Glenn Ford's high school teacher in the hugely influential Blackboard Jungle (1955). Late in life, he had a recurring role as the poker dealer Sunshine in The Sopranos.

As a writer, Mazursky penned the amusing hippie film I love You Alice B. Toklas (1968) starring Peter Sellers as a square who learns to tune in, turn on, drop out and loosen up with the benefit of a special hash-brownie recipe. Getting it on with Leigh Taylor-Young certainly adds to Sellers' enthusiasm for the role.

A Jewish kid from Brooklyn, Mazursky's work was often compared with Woody Allen, as the two worked similar turf. Mazursky never came completely out of Allen's shadow, but they collaborated through the years and Mazursky's films never failed to entertain.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Mazursky's comedies "are more intelligent than most of the serious films around."

Always a writer of topical material, much of Mazursky's output may now seem dated as his settings are invariably linked to the social concerns of a specific time and place. You should seek them out, anyway.

He had an acerbic wit that reportedly emerged from a gentle spirit and a fascination with the foibles of average Americans.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.