October 2008 Archives

Thomson Twinge

have-you-seen.jpgDavid Thomson’s “Have You Seen ... ?” A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films is the book that I’d been waiting for from the author of the Biographical Dictionary of Film. And I can’t imagine that I’m alone among his frustrated fans in being disappointed that his new tome reveals that the faults of his seminal, agitating Dictionary lie with the author and not with the constraints of that book.

My hope with “Have You Seen ... ?” (released in hardcover earlier this month) was that, freed of the strictures of a nominal reference work spanning the careers of directors, writers, actors, and craftspeople, Thomson’s prose and insights would shine unfettered. Each of these roughly-500-word essays would dazzle with Thomson’s densely ambiguous prose; the laziness and dismissiveness that often marred the Dictionary would fall away.

Yet “Have You Seen ... ?” is even more maddening, because Thomson is no longer at the mercy of duty.


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hsm3.jpgThe theatrical success of High School Musical 3 begs a question: Was Disney too slow to capitalize on the success of the original, which drew an audience of nearly 14 million the first two nights it aired in January 2006?

High School Musical 2, after all, got 17 million pairs of eyes with its American television premiere. Maybe it was about building the brand, but that seems like a lot of ticket cash foregone to me.

With an average movie-ticket price approaching $7 (according to the National Association of Theatre Owners), the second sequel got about 6 million asses in seats in its opening weekend. Senior Year also topped this week’s Box Office Power Rankings by a wide margin, and it was the only release in the top 10 to be Rotten Tomatoes-approved “fresh.”

But keep a couple of deflating facts in mind:

  • That Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus concert movie from earlier this year drew $31 million its opening weekend on fewer than one-fifth as many screens. And it got better reviews.
  • High School Musical 3 had a per-screen average less than $2,000 more than the lowly retread Saw V.

I wouldn’t want those damned kids to get even bigger heads.

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

rick-moody.jpgIn April, Rick Moody fulfilled a fantasy that many artists surely have: He delivered a pie to the face of one of his critics.

Moody is probably best known as the author of the 1994 novel from which director Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm was adapted. But he’s also famous in some circles for nine words written about him: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.”

Those words were the opening line by Dale Peck in a 2002 New Republic review of Moody’s award-winning memoir The Black Veil. Moody is hardly Peck’s only vaunted victim; his reviews were collected in the aptly titled Hatchet Jobs, and he’s similarly disemboweled Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Julian Barnes. But that line is so forceful and unequivocal and personal that the two authors have been inextricably linked in the six years since.

Moody said in a phone interview earlier this month that he hoped the pie would bring some closure.

“I got so tired of hearing about this,” he said. “It seemed as though the remark launched a specific conversation about how the literary world deals with itself. That’s an interesting question, but I was never allowed to really talk about that, because people just wanted a salacious answer to the question: ‘What does it feel like to have this sentence written about you?’ That’s actually a tedious question. ... So when this guy asked me for charity if I would throw this pie at Dale, I guess I felt like I could put the first part to bed.”

stone-w.jpgOliver Stone’s W. didn’t win this week’s Box Office Power Rankings, but it did better in every measure than I expected: $10.5 million in box office (fourth place), $5,175 per theater (third), 55 on Rotten Tomatoes (fourth), 56 on Metacritic (fourth). Consistency can pay off, and all that led to a second-place overall finish, behind the just-ahead-in-every-category The Secret Life of Bees (third, first, second, third).

It’s curious that the critical reception to W. has been so ... bland. Nobody hated it, and only Roger Ebert gave it four stars. If we do the Olympics-judging thing to its Metacritc scores by lopping off the top and bottom three, we get a range in the remaining 29 scores of 40 to 80 — from two to four stars on a five-star scale. Has a filmmaker who made a career out of polarizing critics and viewers become tentative and safe?

This is particularly strange given the opportunities for rage in his last two movies. World Trade Center’s Metacritic range was 50 to 90 if you remove the three reviews at the extremities.

Those are not the numbers of somebody taking chances. Those are not the numbers of the Oliver Stone of JFK and Natural Born Killers.

And that’s fine. Stone also made Nixon with the primary interest of empathy. It’s just surprising that he chose that road when all the signs were surely pointing him in a different direction.

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



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quarantine.jpgQuarantine won this week’s Box Office Power Rankings, and my first thought was that, with Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores of 61 and 54, respectively, the horror flick would have done even better a few weeks ago. Sure enough, those scores would have secured an additional five points for Quarantine because of weaker competition.

That got me thinking about dumping grounds — the conventional wisdom that early in the year and after the summer movie season, Hollywood drops its unwanted product on the market just to be rid of it. I decided to try to quantify the dumping ground.

I combined the median and average Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores for each weekend’s box-office top 10 starting July 20, 2007. Because both measures use a 100-point scale, one would expect that a typical week would have an aggregate score near 200 — or 50 each for median and average on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

Charting the dumping groundsThe accompanying chart shows that — at least over the past 15 months — the conventional wisdom holds true. The obvious valleys fall in early autumn (post-blockbusters) and late winter (post-awards bait). The noticeable peaks are in late summer and the holiday season.

The highest aggregate score recorded so far was 267.4 for the weekend beginning July 20, 2007, with six movies scoring 76 or higher on Rotten Tomatoes, led by Ratatouille, Knocked Up, and Hairspray. The nadir of 145.9 came the weekend of March 7, 2008, with six movies scoring 27 or lower on Rotten Tomatoes, including 10,000 B.C., Fool’s Gold, College Road Trip, and Jumper.

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

Confidence Artist

damien-jurado.jpgFor somebody who’s been compared favorably to Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young and Nick Drake, Damien Jurado has had a touch-and-go career, and a bit of an inferiority complex.

Eight full-length records and loads of critical acclaim still found Jurado doing music part-time, and in interviews he has said that performing live was an obligation more than a joy. He hated leaving his family behind, particularly his son.

He’s a different performer now. He is doing music full-time. He claims he’s happier, and that he now enjoys performing, and he’s certainly more confident.

But Jurado is still harsh on his former self, to the point that nearly disavows his four-album output for Sub Pop, regardless of the respect those records earned him.

american-carol.jpgIn this campaign season, what can we learn from the performances of An American Carol and Religulous?

The easy conclusion is that audiences aren’t real keen on such aggressively political material, with the two movies finishing ninth and 10th, respectively, in the weekend’s overall box office. The second easy conclusion is that conservatives are slightly hungrier for entertainment than people who don’t like religion.

Neither is correct.

While these two movies brought up the rear here in box office, at least they finished in the top 10, unlike fellow new releases Blindness, Flash of Genius, and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. All of those opened in more theaters than Religulous, and all but Flash of Genius opened in more than An American Carol.

As for the conservative and whatever-Bill-Maher-is divide, Religulous had the second-best per-theater average in the top 10. An American Carol did better only than Burn After Reading, which had been out for three weekends.

Critics were far kinder to Maher’s anti-religion documentary than the the proudly conservative satire of David Zucker, which garnered worse reviews than anything else in our rankings. That might mean that movie critics hate God and conservatives.

Add it all up and it appears that pandering to right-wingers isn’t enough; they wanted something better than An American Carol.

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

palin.jpgI find it baffling to read even marginally positive reviews of Sarah Palin’s performance in last night’s debate:

“The 90-second format, with little time for follow-up, favored Palin. She has one answer. She doesn’t appear to have a second one, and she never had to give one. To the television audience, she no doubt looked in command.”

I saw it the same way noted political commentator Roger Ebert did:

“Listening to her voice, you could also sense when she felt she’d survived the deep waters of improvisation and was climbing onto the shore of talking points. When she was on familiar ground, she perked up, winked at the audience two of three times, and settled with relief into the folksiness that reminds me strangely of the characters in Fargo.”

My movie comparison was to a bit in This Is Spinal Tap when Nigel is propped up by a roadie after a solo left him flat on his back. Upright once again, there’s something giddy in his expression suggesting that he’d instantly forgotten how foolish he’d looked just a few seconds earlier.

Palin’s struggle was evident, leading to a visible release of tension mixed with unearned, self-satisfied triumph.

It’s no surprise; she’s basically a local politician thrust on a national stage.

As Ebert wrote:

“If that had been me facing Joe Biden with the same preparation, I don’t know if I could even have walked onto the stage.”

Also, here’s a joke I bet you’ll hear in the coming days, most likely from Jay Leno:

“Sarah Palin said she favors a two-state solution for Israel: New York and Florida.”

My Best Post

best-post.jpgA common regret is watching blog-a-thons come and go with nary a contribution from Culture Snob. So I was overjoyed to see the announcement at He Shot Cyrus for the “My Best Post Blog-a-thon”:

“Everyone should participate because here’s the best part: You’ve already written your entry!”

Lucky for me, I’ve maintained a Best of Culture Snob category that provided me with 22 candidates.

What surprised me was how easy the decision was.

AniDiFranco.jpgThe Ani DiFranco appearing on stages these days might not be the same Ani DiFranco who became something of a legend over the past two decades.

The old Ani averaged a record a year from 1989 through 2006, toured incessantly, and was a punkish-folk, feminist, do-it-yourself, and bisexual icon.

The new Ani has a 20-month-old child and a “baby daddy” (her words, referring to producer Mike Napolitano), and in September released her first studio album in two whole years: Red Letter Year.

fireproof.jpgLate afternoon Tuesday, the Christian drama Fireproof had unofficially won this week’s Box Office Power Rankings, with a gross of almost $7 million and a per-theater average to make Eagle Eye sweat. By Wednesday morning, however, it was in fourth place.

Call it the Curse of the Small Sample Size. On Tuesday, the movie had one Metacritic review: a 50. On Wednesday, it had three: two 50s and one zero. Hence, its Metacritic average dropped from 50 to 33, and plunged its ranking in that criterion from second to last.

I initially thought that the movie was a victim of snooty critics skipping the “religious” film. But the reality is that the studio didn’t screen it for the heathens. So now I don’t feel so bad for Kirk Cameron and his cohorts; they got what they deserved.

And in the process, they showed one of the weaknesses of the Box Office Power Rankings: the potential for tyranny by The Onion’s AV Club and its accusations of misogyny.

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