September 2008 Archives

Auto Pilot

fringe.jpgIn the pilot episode of Fringe, one bit of dialogue struck me as so wrong that I backed up to transcribe it.

An FBI agent (Anna Torv) is speaking to the man who’s supervising a mysterious case in which everybody on an intercontinental flight arrived with only their bones intact. Earlier in the episode, we had seen Torv’s character in bed with another agent, whose life now hangs in the balance after being attacked with a similar flesh-eating agent.

Here’s what the supervisor says:

“It would be nice to think that your tenacity in this case is a byproduct of a remarkable and robust professionalism.”

That’s a good line, spoken with with precise sarcasm by Lance Reddick (who will always be Cedric Daniels to me but is probably vaguely familiar to the masses from a few guest appearances on Lost).

Unfortunately, he’s not finished:

“But I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t something going on between you and Agent Scott.”

That’s not a good line, and it’s so unnecessary that I can’t imagine how it got through.

You can get away with dialogue like that on Lost, which skates by on conceptual brilliance even when the acting and scripts make you wince.

But Fringe is a blatant rip-off of The X-Files. The series’ opening scene is effective and horrifying, but it mimics Chris Carter’s episode template. The opening credits include a handprint. The first scene after that found the two agents post-coitus, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if their names were Sculder and Mully. (Thankfully, the male didn’t survive the first episode.) There’s a grand conspiracy suggested in the pilot. It’s on Fox.

When you’re treading such familiar territory, you need some sharper conversation, particularly with a pilot episode, with which you’re trying to hook executives (initially) and then audiences.

Frequent Drunken Commentary Track collaborator Mike Schulz tells me I’m making a big deal out of nothing, that network television is written to the lowest common denominator.

That might be true, but this little niggling detail knocked my enthusiasm for the show down a couple notches.

Summer 2008 Hits

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Which among the following summer 2008 hits was your favorite?

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ghost-town.jpgIf you glance at the box-office top 10 this week, you might think that the supernatural romantic comedy Ghost Town was a bomb, finishing last among the four major new releases and eighth overall. But the movie’s title was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Paramount/DreamWorks only exhibited it in 1,505 theatres — a sure sign the studio doesn’t believe in the movie. (Its opening-weekend competitors — Lakeview Terrace, Igor, and My Best Friend’s Girl — were all released in more than 2,300 theatres.)

Given a wider release and more marketing money, Ghost Town would likely have been a modest hit, easily making back its $20-million production budget in theaters. Consider that it was second-best-reviewed movie in the top 10 (behind only The Dark Knight), and that audiences liked it, too. Yahoo! users rated it B+ (compared to grades of B and B- for the other three big releases), while users of the Internet Movie Database gave it a 7.5 out of 10 (compared to a range of 5.2 to 6.5 for the new-release competition).

It’s unlikely that Ghost Town would have overtaken Burn After Reading in our Box Office Power Rankings this week with a more aggressive release, but its performance would have better reflected how people actually felt about it. This is a poster child for mis-released movies.

Continue reading for the methodology and the week’s full rankings.

burn-after-reading.jpgMuch has been written over the past 18 months about the death/irrelevance of film criticism in print media, as newspapers scaled back their movie coverage and Premiere stopped publishing a print edition.

The refrain has been that movie critics are out-of-touch and elitist, that they don’t reflect the values and tastes of audiences, etc., etc.

While that might appear true when Bangkok Dangerous tops the box office (as it did the first weekend in September), the truth is a little more complicated. Numerous (mostly unscientific) studies have found a correlation between box-office performance and critical reception.

Don’t read a cause-and-effect relationship into this and claim that audiences follow critics — that criticism matters because it affects audience behavior. Instead, let’s just note that audience behavior and critical reception often hook up.

For instance, the top movie at the box office this weekend was the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading (also our Box Office Power Rankings champion), followed by Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys, the decades-late Pacino/De Niro thriller Righteous Kill, and The Women. Check those opening movies’ Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores, and you’ll see a pattern. Whether you’re looking at gross or two measures of critical evaluation, they follow the exact same order. Freaky.

Continue reading for the methodology and the week’s full rankings.

Words to Live by

It’s been linked to plenty over the past few days, but David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address deserves to be read, in light of and in spite of his suicide:

“This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

wallace.jpgSome marriages come with two microwave ovens or two sets of dishes. Ours did, too, but it also came with two copies of Infinite Jest.

This speaks less to our reading habits than our book-buying habits. I do not believe that Bride of Culture Snob has read David Foster Wallace’s doorstop from 1996. I didn’t get far enough to invoke the 69-page rule, which dictates that I must finish a book once I’ve gotten to that point.

So I won’t tell you — now that he’s killed himself at age 46 — that I devoured every word he wrote, or that I’ve memorized favorite passages, or that I’ve ranked my favorite Wallace foot/end notes. I’ve probably read a few of his short stories and a dozen or so essays. My favorite was probably his report from the set of Lost Highway, which seemed a perfect match of author and subject. (Wallace’s writing and insight are far more interesting to me than the movie itself.)

I don’t feel the cultural loss, even though I know it’s significant. I claim no personal connection with Wallace. I simply feel vaguely sad, and a little ill.

I remember feeling this way when I heard about the death of Elliott Smith and the disappearance of Spalding Gray — something like the retrospectively inevitable fulfillment of dread, with no surprise and a sense of societal failure. Yeah, we shoulda seen that one coming.

Devil’s Rejects

devil-dead.jpgSidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead starts with a sex scene that’s important for being so out-of-place. In movie shorthand, it suggests a prostitute and a john: The man is paunchy, she is lithe, and he’s taking her from behind. Surely, one of them will awaken in the morning and find the other dead. Isn’t that nearly always the aftermath?

It turns out they’re married, and on vacation. They’re briefly happy, and they’re as surprised by that as the audience should be that they both survive the sexual encounter. Alas, their conjugal bliss droops like a spent erection (sorry), and we’re shifted to a different place, where a title card sets the time in relation to a robbery.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Andy, the husband, and Marisa Tomei is the wife. He’s been embezzling money from the company for which he works, and he sucks his ne’er-do-well brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) into a robbery scheme. Their target speaks to their lack of imagination, as does an expected take measured in the tens of thousands of dollars.

So there are two elements at work here: family drama and crime, and I emphasize this because screenwriter Kelly Masterson has constructed something that balances the story’s thriller conventions with ostensible human elements.

So it was written, and I agreed.

On the other hand ... .

For what it’s worth, the following sentence made me stop taking seriously Lauren Wissot’s initial piece, and that puts me among the author’s detractors:

“For example, a few weeks back I had fantastic afternoon sex with a hot bodybuilder — the tryst ending badly afterwards when we got into a heated debate over John Barrymore and Marlene Dietrich (who he feels are both vastly overrated).”

The problem here is a simple one of construction: The emphasis is in the wrong place. The nature of the sex isn’t relevant — fantastic, afternoon, or the hotness of the bodybuilder — yet it dominates not just the sentence but the paragraph and the whole damned essay. What’s important is treated structurally as an afterthought and is consequently lost.

The sentence could have easily been made more effective, and more appropriate to the piece:

“A recent tryst with a bodybuilder ended badly when we got into a heated debate over John Barrymore and Marlene Dietrich (who he feels are both vastly overrated).”

We all write bum sentences (and pieces) now and again, but this one by Wissot is pretty egregiously (and unnecessarily) self-involved. And this comes from someone who would know.

mamma-mia.jpgMamma Mia! isn’t a massive hit, but it has staying power. With $136 million in domestic receipts since its release on July 18, it’s at ninth place in the summer’s box-office race, yet it’s been a steady earner. This marks the movie’s eighth week in the box-office top 10 (and hence the Box Office Power Rankings), equal to Iron Man and The Dark Knight and one more than WALL•E, Kung Fu Panda, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That’s pretty impressive however you cut it, but especially in the absence of a huge opening weekend.

Last week, I predicted — nay, guaranteed — that Tropic Thunder would match The Dark Knight as four-time Box Office Power Rankings champion. I’m an idiot. Batman would have none of it, and reclaimed his crown.

As for new releases, Nicolas Cage borrowed Tom Hanks’ The Da Vinci Code hair for Bangkok Dangerous yet couldn’t even manage that film’s meager accomplishments: His action thriller barely beat Tropic Thunder at the box office and was hammered by the critics who saw it. It shan’t last long.

Continue reading for the methodology and the week’s full rankings.

A Big Arrow

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punch-brothers.jpgChris Thile doesn’t like musical boundaries, and the mandolin player seems to almost relish pissing off those who would prefer to pigeonhole him.

On Punch, the first recording released under the name Punch Brothers but the second performed by Thile and this particular quartet of musicians, the centerpiece is a four-part, 42-minute suite that fuses classical structures with a bluegrass style.

In an interview last week, Thile’s shrug was almost audible when he was asked about how fans of his previous work with the platinum-selling Nickel Creek were reacting to this ambitious work.

“Losing people was going to happen,” he said.

A Challenge

disaster-movie.jpgYesterday, I noted that Disaster Movie and Babylon A.D. — which both opened on August 29 — had a horrific combined Rotten Tomatoes score of 4. (As of this writing, it’s up to 5. Somebody’s apparently feeling generous.) Metacritic total: 41.

That got me thinking: Might this be the worst pair of movies ever to debut on the same day?

So I’m on the lookout for a more spectacularly awful pairing. Barring that, what same-release-day two-fer comes closest to this unholy duo?

Help me out in the comments.

new-thunder.jpgIf Tropic Thunder repeats as Box Office Power Rankings champion this weekend, it will match The Dark Knight with titles in four consecutive weeks. (Iron Man topped the charts for five straight weeks earlier this summer.)

This points out one of the flaws of our system: Box Office Power Rankings have no sense of scale. After 20 days, Ben Stiller’s comedy earned $87 million domestically to Batman’s $411 million. Christopher Nolan’s movie received better reviews. Yet in the eyes of the Box Office Power Rankings, they could soon be equals. It just isn’t fair, is it?

This is partly by design. One goal of this system is to level the playing field, to give underdogs a shot at Culture Snob glory.

Alas, no amount of playing-field leveling could help this past weekend’s releases, with Babylon A.D. and Disaster Movie earning a combined Rotten Tomatoes score of 4. That’s a lot of sucking.

So will Tropic Thunder come out on top once again? With only the Pang Brothers’ remake of their own Bangkok Dangerous opening wide this weekend, it has an excellent shot. Critics tend to be dismissive of Nicolas Cage action flicks, and the movie’s studio won’t be screening it for them. You know, because they want audiences to be surprised.

So call your bookie: Tropic Thunder will end up at least as big as The Dark Knight! Four-time champion!

And if it equals Iron Man’s five-week run, I’ll make Stiller a plaque.

(I just checked the release calendar, and I’ll be rooting for the Coen Brothers, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Tyler Perry, and women everywhere. Plaque construction is not my strong suit.)

Continue reading for the methodology and the week’s full rankings — in a chart that you might actually be able to follow!

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