Wednesday, January 30, 2008

"And the Actor goes to..." Why do we care?

We're a country of contradictions. While we're all screaming about the war and the economy, watching with anger, enthusiasm or indifference as political candidates crisscross red and blue states and fill 24 hour news cycles, bitch about the price of gas while we buy vehicles as big as school buses and generally complain about the trivia in our daily lives, we're also compelled, some of us riveted, to watching an actor win an award presented by his or her fellow actors. Why? 
The Screen Actor's Guild Awards, held this past Monday night (and simulcast on two cable channels which means you'll be treated to endless repeats of the show) captured decent ratings and tons of entertainment press hungry for an actual televised awards show to cover. In this atmosphere of Writer's Guild strike-suppressed television, what is usually a period of glad-handing celebrity award show over-exposure, has been reduced to showbiz minute sound bites. The WGA granted The Screen Actors Guild permission to go on with the show, and so they did. The celebs trotted out the designer names and borrowed jewelry, and once again America got it's royalty fix, albeit our own idea of blue-blood - millionaire actors and actresses.
I'll confess here and now, I haven't a real clue why we watch.

It's not like people who use plumbers, want to go down to the local Elks lodge to watch the annual Plumbers Awards. We pay good money to see movie actors and we suffer through inane commercials to watch our favorite television actors. Why do we really care what actors think of each other? Logically it would be more important to know what fellow plumbers think of the guy you hire later this year to fix your toilet. Think about it. But watch we do. We are a society obsessed with celebrity and nothing will change that. Not even the flagrant disrespect and intrusion on private lives that "paparazzi" perpetrate on celebrities in the name of "public interest". Now there's an obvious lie. Regardless of our fascination, I want to believe that most of us still value our freedoms enough to recognize that everyone, regardless of chosen profession, has a right to a private life that should, if they request it, remain absolutely private. People who accept money for photographs of people not wishing to be photographed, and those who make out those checks, are among the most despicable I can imagine. (Yes, a sore spot for me that infuriates.) Regardless,  there's an audience lining up to buy the magazines and tune into the tabloid TV shows. We are so addicted to this morbidity that the business only grows bigger. The latest example, the web launched television show TMZ, has staffers now popping up on news channels as regularly as the hottest political analysts.

What do the SAG awards have to do with some tabloid vulture jamming a camera lens into Britney Spears' ambulance door? Unfortunately one has as much to do with the other. Isn't the phenomenon of ever present paparazzi just an extension of all things celebrity. Is it lost on anyone, that as each year clicks by, more and more awards shows (read red carpets) crop up to capitalize on our fascination and spin it into instant marketing opportunities? Producers and networks know that awards shows, relatively inexpensive television to produce, will garner substantial ratings and push out to multiple networks, news coverage and tabloid coverage, then pad out with extra hours of before and after shows (pre red carpet, post interviews and party coverage). I've always wanted to think that there was a genuine interest in which of our favorite actors, directors, movies, etc, would win, allowing us to root for favorites and recognize great achievement. This month we've all been handed proof that I'm mostly wrong about that.

Ever wonder what would happen if the celebrities just didn't show up? Remove them from the equation and what's left to watch? Well that's exactly what happened on January 13th when the Writer's strike forced the cancellation of the Annual Golden Globe Awards, a usually celebrity studded, glittering broadcast. Rather then the typical fanfare, the best television could muster for presenters (announcers really) were the awkward and overwhelmed hosts of the very shows that thrive on celebrity news themselves. Though the news of who won what, was announced in the same order and recognized the same winners as had the show gone on as normal, no one watched. And those that did, mostly the entertainment press, panned the proceedings without mercy. The point is crystal clear. We watch for the same reason we build telescopes. We are awed by the stars.

I don't have much of a point here, sorry, just a sobering reality that we really are as superficial as we fear. And now we are coming up on the height of the political season. For 24 hour news junkies it's just about Super Tuesday and time to be counting down to the conventions. Why do we watch?

Yes, I, like you, are hoping against hope that the Writer's strike will be settled in time for the Oscars.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The SAG Awards: A couple of good lines and a fitting tribute.

The 14th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards television ceremony took place last night, simulcast on TBS and TNT television channels. The first major awards show of the season that made it to our TV screens with the support of the Writer's Guild who, while still on strike, granted a special dispensation to SAG so the show could go on. For a full list of winners click here to go to the Screen Actors Guild Awards website. I'll have some thoughts about our collective fascination with watching the Hollywood elite spend an evening backslapping in a future post, but for now I'll stick to some impressions of the show, the awards and a few of the recipients honored, truly, by their peers last night.
Of course the SAG Awards highlight performances in both Television and Film and while TV coverage isn't normally part of our scope, I have to make a couple of comments about last night's TV categories. First, enough of the Sopranos already! The shows over, the cast and crew have gone home, let it go! What is about this show, this cast, that drew so much adulation? Frankly, I don't get it and likely never will. Good show? Sure. Iconic, give me a break. What was new in that idea? Anyway, show's gone, so can we please get past the most ethnically stereotyped character set in the history of entertainment and move on. For all of you diehards, enjoy those DVDs.

To site a far more creative undertaking, congratulations to you viewers, who like me, fall down laughing at Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock. Your perception that this show delivers smart, fast comedy is spot on. Baldwin's award was well deserved as was his co-star's, Tina Fey, who's acceptance line "thanks to anyone in the Screen Actors Guild for even thinking of me as an actor" was typical. Her humility is charming and her talent beautifully showcased on a show, which for me, is the closest TV's ever come to repeating the appeal of the classic 60's sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show.

On the Silver Screen side of things, here's what stood out. Just a column or so ago I urged all of you not to cave-in to Academy Award® sentimentality in counting Ruby Dee's nomination as Supporting Actress in American Gangster, as anything more than a show of respect for the aging actress. Well the Screen Actors Guild has let Academy members off the hook by presenting Ms. Dee with an "actor" for her performance. A lovely (though a bit unfair considering her fellow nominees) nod from her peers. Let's hope that's the end of that. In the other motion picture categories, the winners all had substantial performances to compete against, making No Country For Old Men's wins in both of it's nominated categories particularly impressive. 

In the "Male Actor in a Leading Role" category, it was George Clooney's unfortunate luck to have Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood) return to work in 2007, that sent George home empty handed (for his spectacular performance as Michael Clayton) and I suspect the Oscars will repeat that experience.

As for the rest of this having some influence on the Academy Awards, we'll wait to see. No Country seems like a film that is destined for "classic" status and the Oscars, I'm sure, will be a part of that.

Among favorite moments at the podium, Javier Bardem's comment, "thank you for using the good takes instead of the ones where I really sucked" was perfect. Julie Christie's vocal support of the Writer's Guild was surprisingly as close to a political statement as the evening came and Daniel Day-Lewis' dedication of his award to Heath Ledger, after siting Ledger's performances in Monster's Ball and Brokeback Mountain, was the most maudlinly sentimental note of the night. (And for me, a moment that just felt shallow, but that's just me.)

My final comment speaks to the evening's highlight. Most lifetime achievement awards seem like an overdue and perfunctory tribute to a passing industry icon. Regardless of merit, the business takes a moment to honor one of it's own and we politely sit through the accolade mostly disinterested. Last night the Screen Actors Guild presented it's 44th Lifetime Achievement Award to Charles Durning, a fine actor and, as I learned last night, a hero and decorated soldier in World War II. I was also surprised to find that I had been a fan of Mr. Durning from the beginning, his first major film role still embedded as one of my favorites, as the the hard nosed Lt. Snyder in 1973's The Sting. I've loved watching this man act over the years and still laugh, imagining him dancing around a Texas State House in Best Little
 Whorehouse In Texas. He was a great partner in Burt Reynolds' success (including appearances in some 77 episodes of the underrated television series Evening Shade) and spot-on perfect casting in Denis Leary's Rescue Me, his performances a huge part of why I've watched this show's every episode. Taking the podium after the spoken and video tributes, Mr. Durning's opening line was "That's it?". When he once told his wife he was thinking about retiring from acting, his wife replied, "Yeah, and then what?". Indeed. And then we would have missed so many great performances and characterizations that followed.
Congratulations to Charles Durning and to the Screen Actor's Guild for honoring a talented and deserving icon still within your ranks.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Academy Awards Club.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences boasts between 6,000 to 6500 members. According to the Academy's own publicity, only members within a particular branch (of which there are 14) may vote to nominate candidates within that branch. Once the nominations are decided, all members may vote on the final award recipient. I'll relinquish my skepticism momentarily and concede that, perhaps, these members actually make choices with an eye and ear to their expertise, with their final decisions based on the knowledge and acquired experience that qualifies them as experts. That's about as far as I can stretch it. Here's my gut... it's all based on the buddy system.
OK, I'm a cynic. Ever wonder why the best hosts of the annual Academy Awards® ceremony are all comedians? Because you have to take all of this with a laugh. Unfortunately, we don't. This is very serious business. And not just for the Hollywood Hype spewing from the studios and distributers. You and I take this seriously as well. Why? Well, for me personally, last year's ceremony was life changing.
The 2006 Best Picture nominees were The Departed, Babel (the most appropriately named motion picture in history), The Queen, Letters From Iwo Jima, and Little Miss Sunshine. Among the mix nominated outside of Best Picture were films like Pan's Labyrinth, Children of Men, Little Children & Venus. V for Vendetta, one of the best graphic novel adaptations in the history of the genre received no nods and extraordinarily, Apocalypto, one of the best and most beautiful films ever made, only got technical notice. For me that meant that the films nominated for Best Picture had to be pretty amazing. You know where this is going, they weren't. I watched these films because they were nominated. I purchased the DVD of The Departed because it won Best Picture. I was infuriated. The Departed wasn't a great film. I wouldn't call it a good film. It certainly and unequivocally wasn't the best film of 2006. Moviedozer was born.

My point is that the Academy is a private club. It's members have personal and professional motivations and they behave as if their goings-on are sequestered in the secluded domain of a dark paneled, scotch and smoke filled private lounge. Yet you and I will buy movie tickets and home videos based on their fanfare filled Awards ceremony. So this year, right up front, here's just a touch of what I'm very skeptical about in 2007's Academy Award® Nominations. In no particular order, here are 3 nominations that reduce Oscar to paperweight status.

1. I saw American Gangster. Denzel was OK, didn't deserve a nomination, didn't get one. Russell Crowe was, well, Russell Crowe, in my book, not a compliment. Didn't deserve a nomination, didn't get one. The screenplay (read story) was serviceably standard. Didn't deserve a nomination, didn't get one. Direction was dull and ordinary, you get the idea. But wait, Ruby Dee (83 years old to my count) was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Heart warming, if this were a private testimonial. If you haven't seen American Gangster, don't buy it or rent it based on the Academy's penchant for sentimentality.

2. Best screenplays relate great stories. Charming stories. Unforgettable stories. The engaging and adorable tale of Ratatouille, good nomination. The edgy, conflicted and tense Michael Clayton, good nomination. The hard and uncompromising adaptations for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, good nominations. The asinine Lars and the Real Girl - 'nuff said.

3.  You could have nominated every song from Enchanted and done yourself proud. From the looks of it, the Academy seems to have tried. Next to shorts and documentaries, there aren't a lot of you out there deciding to catch a movie based on it's Academy nominated song. Well let me save you from wasting money on a CD or even a 99 cent song download. The nominated song "Raise It Up" from August Rush was much like the film, filled with empty hype, far-fetched promise and utterly (and happily) forgettable. Forget it's even on the Academy's list, it was awful.

There's more and we'll certainly be part of the cacophony of comment on the upcoming show, if indeed it makes it to our television screens in spite of the WGA strike. You're welcome to add your voice.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A favorite.

Suzanne Pleshette.  I share my prayers for family and friends with warmest respect for the talent and work of a wonderful actress. 



Monday Morning Musings on Marketing

Let me get this out up front, then I can let my stomach adjust and get back to writing. Cloverfield, the first release of 2008 that I was truly rooting against, broke the box-office record over the weekend, taking in 41 million and trouncing any and all comers. Give me a moment.
OK, what's up with Cloverfield's opening success? It's that damn YouTube generation. What are we supposed to do with the kids these days? Get off the comment button, I'm just kidding. I am inclined to take a look at what's happening here though. Was this a movie idea that honestly captured the imaginations of the audiences who flocked to see it or was this really about marketing? Did hand-held camera jitter make this thing look more authentic, using a cheap, (borrowed), and clich├ęd idea to it's best advantage, or is Cloverfield just the beneficiary of cleverly conceived and executed marketing? Has someone really leveraged the age gap of movie audiences to nail a number one? Perhaps there's something fundamental about Cloverfield's concept that made it an opening weekend must see so the "secrets" wouldn't be ruined when every high school kid who saw it went on talking about it all week in school. If there's a huge drop in percentages next weekend, that would certainly tell some of the tale, but my guess is J.J. Abrams and company owe a debt of gratitude to the marketing boys, the trailer design and the magical age of viral marketing.

On a weekend where second place went to the incredibly lame 27 Dresses, which made a distant but respectable 22.4 mil., modern marketing methods delivered an industry changing result that will influence and perhaps haunt the methods of marketers targeting young demographics for years to come, maybe forever. Cloverfield is all about the sell. Perhaps more than any film in history, this is a movie that expended more creativity, energy (and likely currency) on it's campaign to fill seats then to please those who wound up sitting in them. And once the seats were filled, the saturation of Cloverfield teases and "secrets" spread around the internet (from it's website 1-18-08.com to character MySpace pages, fake product placement and ficticious company websites) created such a bond with the audience, as to create a feeling that it was their friends who were up on the screen shooting home video of a real monster attacking Manhattan. Kind of like logging onto YouTube with a 40' x 90' screen. Cool.

Arguably more effective than any new 3D technology, J.J. Abrams has found a way to pull the movie off the screen and into the lives of his audience. In my book, all at the expense, or rather ignorance, of attempting to make a quality film. But that's entertianment. It may be very appropriate that this is the way the first big movie of 2008 debuts, with all of the hollowness and superficial promises of a political campaign that carefully crafts it's message to it's targeted audience in any meaningful way that snares more votes. The monster unleashed will be revealed when we see what's next.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Die DVD Die!

A couple of days ago, Apple Inc. did what they do best in the world of computers, electronics and innovating, they shook things up. The obvious tremor was the announcement that movie rentals were just hours away from being available on the ubiquitous iTunes store. For a few bucks, the promise of first run movies bowing on iTunes about a month after those same films come out on DVD had become a reality. A whole month? A little inconvenient if you're salivating for a particular title (in which case you're likely buying, not renting) but pretty easy to take if you've just got a casual interest in catching a flick you missed at the theater.

Though movies have been available on iTunes for some time now, it's never been much of a market as only a couple of studios were participating and only Disney was moving it's new releases. To put things in perspective, Apple counts success in selling songs in the billions and TV shows in the hundreds of millions. Till now, movies have garnered about 7 million downloads. That number, announced by Steve Jobs at the annual MacWorld conference in San Francisco, held earlier this week, clearly does not impress. As of January 15, 2008, life in the world of producing, manufacturing, distributing and retailing DVDs is poised to radically change. Here's why.

What Steve Jobs says, makes an industry difference. Go ask a record label. Like it or not, Mac or PC, stuff you're preferences and personal feelings and recognize a little slice of reality. The iTunes store not only works, it revolutionized the selling of music. In any industry, forecasters and visionaries of future trends look to find a model within their marketplace to baseline their projections. Within the entertainment world, the relationship between music and movies is as close a correlation as you could hope for. These are businesses with cross-marketing, cross-demographics and cross-retailing opportunities abounding. There's no reason to assume what's good for one won't be good for the other. There's also no reason to assume that what was inevitable for one won't be an inescapable destiny for the other. DVDs are dying. Say what you will, gaze lovingly at your collectible box sets, your special 3D covers, cute inserts and added features, just as you once did your shiny jewel boxed CDs. It will be a slow, perhaps even painful death, but make no mistake, the dying has begun.

And die they should. Why? Because it just makes sense. Get a life and start accepting the merits of digital downloads. First, if you're still living in the dark ages (or deep in the Ozarks) get broadband. Over a matter of minutes, movie purchases can shoot through a broadband connection like, well, use the analogy of your choice. Movie rentals can allow viewing in less than a minute of beginning a download. Too slow for you? Time your next drive to Target or even your walk down to the mail box. Then factor in the time of the day, your computer never closes. Going green?, then the arguments already made for you - no disc, no packaging, no plastic wrap, no infuriating security seals, no electricity used at the plant, no trucks wasting gas on deliveries, no trips to the store and no trash left over. For the seller, no bigger footprint to sell one than sell a million. Nice. Did I mention the storage issue? I have more than 750 DVDs in my collection. Shelf space is what I don't have.

Listen people, this is happening and you should embrace it. Relax, they'll be lots of time to adjust, but the sooner you send a signal to studios and moviemakers that you're down with doing downloads, the quicker you're going to see your favorites, new and old, popping up in preview and getting those added DVD features like commentaries and behind the scenes extras we've all come to know and love. You may love your old vinyl the way you cherish your first edition books but it may have been fortuitous that there was never really anything very endearing about a silvery plastic disc anyway.

Is Apple really the harbinger of the DVD death threat? Their most obvious move this past Tuesday was the movie rental announcement. But they weren't only firing from their own fort. All of the major movie studios, all of them, signed on. Rental content will appear as quickly as prints can be made available, digitized and formatted. If rentals aren't of interest, you have only to wait. ITunes started with selling songs. ITunes today sells music, non-DRM music, music video, television shows, television movies, movies, rents movies and gives away thousands and thousands of podcasts. As downloads dominate retail and spell out the death of hard media, digital download will become the obvious and obviously lucrative marketplace for movie buying. So forget about shopping for new wall units and DVD cabinets. Oh, and forget all of that nonsense about Blu-Ray and HD DVD vying to become the standard in high definition DVD formats. Who needs 'em? And for that matter, who needs another DVD player? Already among the earliest titles on iTunes movie rentals are a smattering of titles that can be viewed in HD for just a buck premium. Save your money and start thinking about a really big hard drive. Can you say terabyte?

It's no surprise that the showpiece of this year's MacWorld was Apple's new ultra-thin laptop, the MacBook Air. For a company and a visionary leader who rarely miss anything, the new laptop is missing what has become a computer feature prerequisite, an optical CD/DVD drive. As Steve Jobs put it, we don't think most of you will miss it. Neither do I. Have the vision to take a look just a short way down the road and you may not think so either.

If you'd like to watch all of Steve Jobs keynote address at MacWorld, surprise, it's available for download on the iTunes podcast page or at apple.com.

Monday, January 14, 2008

What's wrong with this Picture?

In the business of keeping up with the business of Hollywood and American movies, reading trades, watching Box-office reports and screening hundreds of trailers, that headline question is the one I'm most often asking myself. And frankly, I think that it's a bit unfortunate. But then, that's how Moviedozer.com came about in the first place.
It's unfortunate that the question isn't more often, wow, how could this get any better? Happily it sometimes is, and it's a pleasant surprise when that question is front and center as the lights are coming back up in the theater. More often than a wow is, hey, good movie, I'd recommend this one, wonder when the DVD will be out? I had that experience just recently at Charlie Wilson's War, and in not so popular theater outings like Lions For Lambs and The Golden Compass. To each his own, one of the real pleasures of movies is that it's fun to find your own favorites. Which brings me back to the headline question, so what IS wrong with this picture. Perhaps nothing at all, but I don't really want it that way.

I admit it, I like to find occasional fault. Much like rooting against your least favorite teams, there are some studios, directors and stars that I like to root against. I break out in a minor fit of private glee when a Matthew McConaughy flick opens out of the top ten. (I was delighted by the abysmal Sahara.) I chuckle all Monday long when Sony falls all over itself with another piss-poor CGI kid critter movie. After having sat through Molly Shannon in the aptly titled Year of the Dog, I'll be snickering with fingers crossed, hoping her next project tanks worse than, well, Year of the Dog.

Logical? Maybe not. So sue me. I like to watch projects that irk me from inception, get destroyed under the weight of negative returns. But before you think I'm a total bastard, I like having a rooting interest too. I'll be rooting like hell that someone will see the value of letting Chris Weitz do another His Dark Materials chapter. I hope Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man out box-offices Edward Norton's The Incredible Hulk this summer and I love when Pixar blows every other attempt at animation into the back rows of the balcony. I enjoy seeing hard work and humility rewarded. I like watching clever, original, creative thought win out over stale, staple, and stupid.

In my book, something really stupid, is playing up a gimmick and calling it original thought. I can let Saw V come and go, whenever it does, and who cares? No one is calling it anything more than it is and it's makers have fused the franchise with enough cleverness as to have earned the right to run it into the ground for personal profit. But let's take a look at J.J. Abrams' and director Matt Reeves' new project Cloverfield, that is if you can find a frame not shaking with handi-cam motion jitter. Ah, something to root against. Yes, the technique was clever and fantastically profitable in The Blair Witch Project. George Lucas fueled the fire a few years ago when he suggested that everyone would be making movies with cameras bought in Best Buy with budgets that would hover around a million or two. Well that's very nice George, but butt out. I'd like a little technical innovation applied to my movie making, thank you, and I definitely have an attitude about being sold home movies at ten bucks a ticket. But who can resist the irresistible appeal of the wild profits lurking if you can score a blockbuster hit for the price of shooting a wedding video?

So what do we get to see? Brian DePalma coming up with every inane "creative" reason for shooting a feature with mini-DV hand-helds. Unfortunately Abrams and company found their "creativity" could be just as clever and planted a camcorder in the hands of one of their characters as well. Voila, a movie made by a character making a movie. How can anyone not be aching for this thing to crash and burn? Not since Jerry Seinfeld took "smug" to new heights in promoting that Bee thing, have I so wanted a movie to fall flat.

If you're sitting there chuckling at my despair, you'll get yours. This wave of shooting movies without going to the bother of shooting the freakin' movie continues. Happily missing from box-office tallies or release schedules is Look, a film shot mostly from, I swear it, surveillance cameras. With an advertised release last month, the Adam Rifkin directed film seems to be next to non-existent, much like the absence of creativity, imagination and inspiration from the production company responsible, Captured Films. This is a bad film school idea. Yes, it's failure (or potential failure, anyone know where this thing is?) puts a huge grin on my face.

So c'mon, admit it. I'm not the only one out here who likes to choose up sides. There's just something special about really rooting on your favorites and something oh so satisfying about watching the hacks get launched into box-office oblivion. And how much justification do we really need? Be as irrational as you like, you don't get a choice about what movies get made, who gets to star or for that matter, how much you have to pay to buy a ticket. But here the choice is all yours, so have your say and have some fun. Moviedozer.com will be adding a "choosing up sides" feature to our website soon. Click-in and follow who we root for and against all year, then let us know who you're for and against. Now if movie studios just had team colors and cheerleaders.