Saturday, February 28, 2009

How Can We Recession-Proof the Movies?

As you might have heard, movies are not, at present, feeling the effect of the recession. 2009 was the biggest January on record and February was unusually strong, too. The Alamo Drafthouse is reporting their best Januarys and Februarys to date, and with the big slate of titles coming out through the last week of April (WATCHMEN; MONSTERS VS. ALIENS; FAST & FURIOUS and I’m gonna add DUPLICITY to that list, just to be nice to someone) it’s probably going to be a record spring. Sure, some of the big hits haven’t been deserved (I’m looking at you, FRIDAY THE 13th PART 12), but it’s pretty damn cool that in a search for affordable entertainment, Americans have turned such fine films as GRAN TORINO, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Henry Selik’s excellent CORALINE and even TAKEN into hits. I’d love to think that they would have all been hits anyway, but let’s be honest here, times are tense and people are looking for comfort food at the moment. Some people may have seen our current financial crisis coming, but they should have known that once it hit, people would go back to the tried and true, the movies.

There’s a myth that the movies are recession proof, but that’s exactly what it is, a myth. There have always been times when ticket sales are down, even in much better economic times (remember back in 2005 when everyone thought that movie theaters were going to go the way of CD stores?), and in past recessions movie theaters were not always filled with folks. During the recession of the early 80s hit movies mostly came around in the summer and Christmas with few spring and fall hits, and I distinctly remember the recession of the early 90s being quite bad on the old HQ 10, with many shifts cut and reduced show schedules to keep costs down (I was working two jobs at the time to get by). Yes, they were an important tonic to many during the last Great Depression and they did extremely well back then, but the way movies are in 2009 makes me think that there might be some rough seas ahead. Movies were about $0.25 a ticket back then, affordable for most families, while now they’re about $9 in the suburbs and more in the major cities, and if you’re looking to see a 3-D or IMAX movie, then it’s about $60 or so for a family of five, and that’s without popcorn or parking (or beers and burgers at the Alamo). That doesn’t really strike me as affordable, but most people don’t seem to mind at the moment, though perhaps at some point down the line (especially if this stretches out as long as people think it will), waiting for the DVD might end up being more of an option. Just sayin’.

So what’s the answer? Fuck if I know. You can’t lower ticket prices, since the theater chains and studios would both scream bloody murder, as they’re pretty much all publicly traded and getting hit hard at the moment. Despite the excellent business, it wouldn’t surprise me if ticket prices continue to sneak up (and it’s always a sneak, since they never announce these things). Same thing goes for concession prices, too, though free refills on any size drink or popcorn sounds like a good idea to me, don’t you think? You could offer more discounted shows (wouldn’t hurt), perhaps even some free shows of older films or recent releases that have yet to hit DVD (AMC tried this during the recession of ’91, and while it was certainly an appreciated effort, no one went). Along these lines, I’m curious to know how the $2 theaters (or are they $3 theaters now?) are doing, providing they’re all still around (a number of them closed as DVD became more popular). Does the reduced-rate entertainment they provide have greater appeal to cash-strapped consumers? Ironically, the answers that the studios have provided over the last few years is to get bigger - 3-D, digital projection, IMAX – and though it’s currently reaping benefits, should the shit hit the theatrical fan, these are the places that are going to feel the effect the most. Already the studio’s plans to help theaters pay for digital upgrades has hit a snag, with some of those conversions now having to wait, and with major upcoming 3-D titles like AVATAR and the TOY STORY re-issues lacking necessary screens, some big pictures might suffer (notice how CORALINE took a hit when they lost most of their 3-D screens to that Jonas Brothers thing). Those one-time only satellite screenings do pretty well, I’m told, but they basically help bring up the weeknight numbers, nothing more; if they did something like screen TV shows once a week (like we do at the Alamo) or create new theatrical-only series, then they might have something there. But they haven’t for some reason, giving us only limited-appeal programming like Metropolitan Opera House performances (fine, if you’re into that), concerts, documentaries and occasional classic films (mainly to promote new DVDs), but it’s still pretty uninspired at the moment.

It’s cool that there are new reasons for going to the movies, but what exactly are they giving back to the audience? Once they figure that out, then they can breathe a little bit easier in knowing that the audience will always return. It will be more than a little dangerous to presume that the audiences will keep coming despite the bad times. Movies costs more and it’s always possible that people can give them up to help make ends meet. Cool as much of this new technology is, it might end up going unused if people abandon the movies. Something has to be done. Some new ideas need to be introduced and the audience has to get more in return beyond better sound and picture. Turns out that by thinking bigger is better, the studios have most likely painted themselves into a corner.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cheezeburger Allowed

My compliments to the I Can Has Cheezeburger crew for this one. Worth a sold five minutes of giggles from me.

funny pictures of cats with captions
more animals

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Forgotten Movies: Russell Rouse's THE OSCAR (1966)

I’m probably not telling you anything you haven’t heard when I say that Russell Rouse’s 1966 film version of THE OSCAR is a howlingly bad movie. If you know anything about it (or have seen it) you’ll know its reputation as a classic movie turkey is pretty well deserved. It regularly turns up on “Worst Movies of All Time” lists and is a regular for bloggers who want to write about bad movies. It’s become increasingly popular over the last few years as more and more people discover it, and it seems that every time it airs on TCM message boards light up with notifications to set your Tivos and burn DVD-Rs, since it’s not on DVD and rarely screens theatrically. For those who love bad movies, it provides quite a bit of entertainment and for that reason alone it’s pretty well worth seeing, no doubt about that. And one of the amazing things about it is that it’s not a misunderstood film by any means; THE OSCAR is a poorly made, ineptly written, sometimes atrociously acted film that really is that bad. One can use it as a whipping boy for hours on end and not feel any guilt about it.

The nicest thing that anyone can say about THE OSCAR is that it’s not offensively bad, just…bad. Sadly, it could have been something much better than what it is. I’ve written about Richard Sale’s original 1963 novel, a very entertaining (if trashy) read that I happen to love, and since they pretty much chucked out Sale’s story, with the exception of a few character names, it’s possible that it still could make a good movie some day. (Sale’s novel finds up-and-coming young actor Frankie Fane out to sabotage his fellow Best Actor nominees chances through blackmail and other devious methods, while the film is about the backstabbing Fane’s career up until the nomination, which doesn’t even occur until the film’s last half hour.) The only positive thing one could say about the adaptation is that it doesn’t sugarcoat Fane in any way – he’s still a scumbag – though here he’s a borderline psycho, while in the book here a fascinating sociopath. Sale made it so that you could understand (though not believe) how Fane could get away with what he does through charm and charisma, but the way that Rouse’s script (co-written by producer Clarence Greene and none other than Harlan Ellison, whose modern-day recollections on the film can be found by scrolling down here) portrays Fane, you’ve got to wonder why anyone would go near the guy, or how he could go on to become any kind of a star. Add to this the ridiculously (and intensely) over-the-top performance from Stephen Boyd (an Irishman struggling with an American accent) and I suppose it doesn’t matter much in the long run, because if they did it any differently then THE OSCAR might not be as enjoyably bad as it is. The book is always there for those who want to find it (it’s been out of print for some time, but paperbacks are easy to find online) and can always be read and enjoyed on its own level. But this film is a pretty big failure on a level that not many others can claim.

What I do find interesting about the film version of THE OSCAR is looking at it as a representation of the kind of movie that was strangling Hollywood before the likes of BONNIE & CYLDE and MIDNIGHT COWBOY came aboard to really shake things up. Take away the bad acting and ludicrously awful dialogue (check out the Memorable Quotes IMDB page), this film is about as banal and unexcitingly made as any other second-rate film of its era. Even though Rouse was an Oscar-winning writer (he wrote the story for PILLOW TALK and also wrote D.O.A.) and had directed the classic noir THE THEIF, his work here is as pedestrian as you could ever get, completely studio-bound with the look and feel of mid-60s TV. He directs like a writer, protecting the words with no care of building any kind of creative visual style or imagination, and if it weren’t for the ludicrous nature of the rest of the picture it would otherwise be deadly boring. Yet, this was the norm back when THE OSCAR was made, the kind of safe-bet filmmaking that the studios preferred and hacks like Rouse lifelessly delivered. The book had a life to it, some vitality, while this is a big wasted opportunity that deserved to go down in flames, and it happily took this kind of hackneyed filmmaking with it. Part of THE OSCAR’s modern-day appeal is how it feels so dated, how its clichés and stilted dialogue turn it into high camp from a bygone era. But that out datedness is also what does it in as a movie, proving that by playing it so safe that they have nowhere else go to but into the obvious, it’s driving straight off a cliff and into disaster. This movie never had a chance.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"I wouldn't say I've been missing it, Bob" - 10 Years of OFFICE SPACE

Like most people, I bypassed Mike Judge’s OFFICE SPACE in theaters when it opened ten years ago today. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t really strike me as something I felt I should see theatrically, so I never saw it. I’m not really one to “wait for the DVD” – if I don’t see something in theaters, I usually don’t see it at all – but when OFFICE SPACE hit video in July of ’99, I did feel far more compelled to check it out than I did before. What had changed was that the subject mattered had suddenly become of interest to me, because for the first time in my life, I was doing office work, as opposed to working retail or at the old HQ 10 theaters. I had been working for a subsidiary of Image Entertainment up until the previous summer, but they shut us down and I was out of a job for several months. I took this as an opportunity to take up some job training, learning Microsoft Office (which was new enough at the time that you had to take a class to learn it) and getting a job as a temp in offices throughout Morris County, NJ. It was then that I learned that a lot of the workplace clichés of sitcoms and movies actually had a ring of truth to them, and the truer the gag was, the funnier it got, which is part of why people love OFFICE SPACE so. Had I seen OFFICE SPACE in February of that year I probably would have just looked at it as a comedy, whereas by July of ’99, it became a social satire, one that I was starting to live in myself and would pop in and out of over the last decade, and one that would become more and more identifiable as time would go on, frighteningly so, in some cases.

One doesn’t necessarily have to have worked in an office setting to have liked (or loved) OFFICE SPACE, though that’s clearly why so many people identify with it. To anyone who works in a soulless office environment, fantasizing of getting out of it and doing something more meaningful (and fun) with your time is the real goal, with the office life becoming a trap that can suck you in and take away your personality and ambition. Sure, OFFICE SPACE is a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy with groundings in reality; beyond just the mundane day-to-day stuff like TPS Reports and broken fax machines, the reality of layoffs and efficiency experts (not to mention asshole bosses) helps to make it a social satire that will (sadly) probably always remain relevant. That’s what’s especially interesting about looking at OFFICE SPACE in 2009, because corporate America, for all of the massive changes on the financial and technological landscape, is still as controlling and dispiriting as it ever was, like it’s another level of high school with a template design that is impossible to stray from. All the credit must go to Judge for putting all of this into a context that captures this essence so very well while still making it fresh and funny. THE APARTMENT excepted, it almost feels as if no one had ever made a proper workplace comedy before OFFICE SPACE, like no one got it as right as Judge did, to the extent that the film has lived on like it has in a way that no was would have ever expected.

What I’ve found especially interesting about the OFFICE SPACE phenomenon – and the film’s effect on people – is to have seen it in action back on February 8 at a 10th anniversary reunion screening here in Austin that just happened to have been put together by we Alamo Drafthouse/Fantastic Fest folk. When the show was initially suggested (I can’t remember by whom; might have been me), the idea was to simply bring Judge in for a show or two (he lives in Austin) and that was it. But when we thought about it a bit more, we knew we had an opportunity to make it special, and we certainly did, renting out the Paramount Theater, Austin’s biggest theater, and bringing in as many of the cast members as we could get (Notable absences were Ron Livingston, who had prior work commitments, and Jennifer Aniston, whose people probably never told her about it). We always figured that it was going to be a successful show (wouldn’t have suggested it, otherwise), but when we sold out the 1,200 seat venue two weeks before the show began, we knew it was going to be special. And it was.

Aside from a projector glitch that denied us a clip from EXTRACT, Judge’s new film, the entire event went off like a dream. The cast were all great to deal with and quite friendly, everything went on schedule, and the whole thing as recorded for posterity by the great folks at G4’s “Attack of the Show”. But was the real surprise for me was in how the film played to this mass audience, no doubt the largest the film has ever played to. Like a crowd of Python fans watching HOLY GRAIL, they knew the film inside and out, so the first time someone said, “Seems like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays”, half the crowd spoke it back. It wasn’t quite like ROCKY HORROR and it wasn’t raging fanboy enthusiasm, either; it was all from the heart, like when even minor characters would get applause by their first appearance, and proved how special the film was to so many people. More than just a comedy, more than just a movie, it was something they could all identify with and relate to, something that spoke to them and for them, an acknowledgement of what everyone goes through on a daily basis in their struggle to get by. That may be overstating things somewhat, but the fan reaction really felt that way to me. People love this movie as more than just a mere comedy, but as a representation of the way they feel, and 10 years later OFFICE SPACE still resonates. I can understand why it’s become a modern classic.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"You're so bad in martial arts. You don't deserve to even be under my foot!" - Wilson Yip's IP MAN

Wilson Yip's IP MAN may not be a great movie, but it's a great martial arts movie, and that's all that matters. This assessment may not be a startlingly original one, but IP MAN is not a startling original movie, either, which is one of its charms. This is very much a throwback to the more traditional martial arts films of years past, an old-fashioned martial arts biopic of a legendary figure in the world of martial arts (in this case, the man who revolutionized Wing Chun and who later mentored Bruce Lee), that is less about facts and more about fostering the legend. This may not have been the way any of this really happened, but then again, who really gives a shit?

IP MAN follows a classic martial arts movie structure of slight characterization, followed by fights, followed by plotting, then followed by fights, then followed by wrapping up the plotting and ending in more fights. Something like this may seemed tired and cliched, but IP MAN has an earnestness to this structure that gives it credence; it doesn't exactly matter that the film isn't innovative or that creative, just that modern audiences understand what a hero Ip Man is to the Chinese culture. The "true" Ip Man is still something of a mystery, but this Ip Man, as created by director Wilson Yip and star Donnie Chen (in their fourth collaboration together) is a different kind of true; true to his people, true to his family, true to his country and true to his martial arts, a real hero of the people. By sticking with an old fashioned narrative of Ip's refusal to teach Wing Chun, then changing his mind after the Japanese occupy his city and enslave his people, Yip turns Ip into the Wong Hei Hung of his day. However right or wrong this is, it becomes the right approach here because a huge part of who this guy is for contemporary audiences is based in the fact that he was Bruce Lee's mentor, so in turn, Ip Man has to be faster and quicker than Lee ever was, and that's certainly what you get here. Donnie Yen's portrayal of the man is as earnest as can be - Ip Man is pretty much the ultimate patriot and family man - and it's also totally, 100% badass. Yen has never been better, both as an actor and a martial artist; he usually comes off as too cocky and self-assured in his other roles, but he reigns it all in here and he gets it just right. It's said this was a dream role for Yen, and he definitely doesn't waste the opportunity, and he's a huge part of the film's success.

As I said, IP MAN also represents Yen's best work to date as a martial artist, and if you'll allow me to go further than that, IP MAN is also one of the very best martial arts films of the decade, no question. Every fight scene (and there's a lot of them) is as expertly shot, edited and choreographed as the best of Hong Kong action films can be, and they are all refreshingly earth-bound and mostly CGI-free (there are a few moments here and there, but they go by quick). The fighters in this film pretty much keep their feet on the ground and respect the bounds of gravity; while IP MAN pretty much fantasizes the man's life, it keeps it fairly real as far as the fights are concerned, and that's a wonderful thing. All of the fights are tremendously exciting, up there with the work that Yip and action director Sammo Hung did on their excellent 2005 policier S.P.L., and there's an unpretentiousness to them, like the rest of the film, that makes them quite special. On top of all that, sometimes you just want to see guys get the shit beat out them, and few films in the last few years have done that as well as IP MAN has.

Even though it opened in Hong Kong a mere two months ago, IP MAN will be hitting legal Hong Kong DVD at the end of the week, and I'll certainly be getting myself a copy, while also hoping that it doesn't hit Stateside DVD before a certain film festival rolls around in September. Can't wait to see this one on a big screen.