Friday, June 29, 2012

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is the same, only much much worse.

The Amazing Spider-Man
136 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

It's no secret that I have had major issues with the very idea of quickly rebooting the Spider-Man franchise.  If the film was a smash, I have argued, then studios would basically spend the next few decades merely rebooting the same dozen franchises over and over again.  Well, the Marc Webb-helmed reboot is here, and it fails in fundamental ways despite not being an outright terrible film.  It fails by both not being different enough from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and not being better than Sam Raimi's Spider-Man.  While it is preferred to view (and review) films in a vacuum, the circumstances in this case not only prevent that but discourage it.  At its core, it is an unofficial loose remake of a prior film being sold as an 'untold story' while the studio attempts to sell used goods as a new product.  It is astonishingly cynical gambit and the idea behind its construction turn what is by-itself a moderately entertaining superhero origin story into something downright insidious.  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Good movie news in 2012: The return of the "movie".

I've written a bit about this over the last couple years, but this weekend is surely as shining an example as anything about how the mainstream film landscape has somewhat self-corrected.  This weekend sees the release of four wide releases.  We have two R-rated films, one a vulgar (but surprisingly smart) comedy about a talking bear and the other a $5 million indie dramedy about male strippers directing by one of our most successful experimental filmmakers.  We've got a bawdy PG-13 comedy aimed primarily at African-American audiences and a PG-13 star-driven drama.  Ted, Magic Mike, Madea's Witness Protection, and People Like Us are all coming out tomorrow in wide release.  What we've seen over the last year or so and what we will continue to see throughout the remainder of 2012 is the return of what can only be called the old-fashioned 'movie'.  In a time when it seems that every week brings another $150 million male-driven action tentpole based on a comic book or action figure series, a glance at the release schedule shows something very different.  Amid the big-budget animated films (which I generally like), the mega-budget comic book films (which are sometimes very good) and the various remakes and reboots, there exists a plurality of old-school, often star-driven dramas, comedies, and often adult-skewed fare being released by major studios on thousands of screens every weekend.  It seems that Hollywood is getting the message that one cannot subsist on a diet of nothing but tentpoles.

Patent Zero: Why readily available health care for every person in America, via a nationalized single-payer system, is a national security issue.

I'm certainly glad that the Supreme Court upheld the vast majority of the Affordable Care Act, although once again it is disconcerting to have an incredible amount of power in the hands of one person.  Usually that person is Justice Anthony Kennedy, but this time it was Chief Justice John Roberts who differed with the four 'liberal' Justices by upholding the Individual Mandate not via the Commerce Clause but by its theoretical virtue as a tax, which Congress of course has the power to levy.  I'm glad that the many good things in the law will remain on the books and it is unlikely that these changes are going anywhere anytime soon.  Say what you will about the overall popularity of 'Obamacare', the vast majority of citizens of all political stripes approve of most of the specific portions of the law (no more lifetime caps for benefits, no more denying children coverage for pre-existing conditions, no rescinding of coverage upon serious illness, the ability for young adults to stay on their parents' plans until 26, etc.).  So now that the Affordable Care Act is set in stone, the next step is the provision contained which allows individual states to choose how best to implement the law.  Vermont has already chosen to take the initiative of crafting what amounts to a Single-Payer healthcare system, and hopefully California may do so as well.  And that's precisely the road that each and every state should take as soon as possible.  I say this not for humanitarian reasons, not for economic reasons, but for national security reasons.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Total Recall trailer reminds you that you already saw this damn movie 22 years ago, and it was just fine, thank you!

Yes this trailer looks every bit as bland and generic as the teaser from early April.  And yes the lack of creative imagination that would cause Sony to spend $200 million on a painfully similar remake of a 1990 sci-fi thriller is disturbing and perhaps a sign of the end times.  But I'm not going to whine.  First of all, I damn-well have the choice to not see this thing when it drops on August 3rd.  Second of all, and I'll be getting into this tomorrow if time allows, but we're slowly entering an era where studios seem to be remembering that not every film in the tent can or should be a tent-pole.  So for now, feast your eyes on the raging mediocrity that is the trailer for Total Recall.  Is there really any one who is honestly excited for this?

Scott Mendelson  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Why Warner Bros' Lego: The Piece of Resistance may end up being the greatest movie ever made by humans...

Much of this is speculation, so bare with me.  Jeff Snyder over at Variety reported today that Channing Tatum and Will Arnett have been cast as voices in Warner Bros' new Lego movie. The bad news is that yes there is a Lego movie coming, but the good news is that it's being directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, they of Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street (so they are two for two so far).  The even better and more curious news is that the live-action/animation hybrid Lego: The Piece of Resistance is casting Tatum as Superman and Arnett as Batman.  Yup, Justice League may or may not ever happen and Wolfgang Peterson's Superman Vs. Batman project is a distant memory, but we will indeed be seeing an big-screen team-up of the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel in some form.  That's certainly amusing and perhaps noteworthy, but a little imagination leads to an even more insane possibility.  In short, what if Warner Bros. gets the rights to use all or most of the various properties that Lego currently has? 

Guest Essay: Merrill Barr explains why Comic-Con is a better marketing tool for television than it is for movies.

From time to time, Mendelson's Memos is able to present reviews and/or essays from guest writers, as is the case this afternoon. Merrill Barr is a frequent analyzer and reviewer of television for both blogs and podcasts. A former contributor to, he currently runs the television podcasts The Idiot Boxers and Operation: Nikita for and occasionally provides written reviews for He can be found on twitter (@sonic43), Facebook ( and Tumblr ( He can also be contacted via email at Please enjoy, share, and comment.

Four years ago, when it came to movie hype, there was no greater combination of studio marketing and rabid fandom than Comic-Con. Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Green Lantern, Twilight, Captain America, Piranha 3D, Avatar, Scott Pilgrim, Cowboys & Aliens, The Avengers, if your movie had even a sliver of nerdy potential (and sometimes not at all [Salt]) you went to the annual San Diego Comic Book Convention, better known as just 'Comic-Con'.  But that mentality is shifting in movie land.  The downside to a massive marketing push like Comic-Con is – and let’s not beat around the bush, that it is all marketing. Really cool, sometimes clever and intelligent marketing, but marketing none the less – is that there needs to be results. The problem is that it’s hard to differentiate the impact of Comic-Con vs. every other piece of marketing inside the box office because of one thing… Time.  

Alex Cross gets a terribly generic, almost satirical trailer...

It's no secret that I'm a fan of both of the prior Morgan Freeman-starring Alex Cross films.  I enjoyed Kiss the Girls and find Along Came A Spider to be among my guiltiest pleasures.  But aside from inexplicably being PG-13 despite an inordinate amount of violence just in the trailer, the clip above feels like a direct-to-DVD franchise reboot more than a theatrical return, at times feeling like a parody of the genre.  Tyler Perry is fine as Cross, but he's of course no Morgan Freeman and the film clearly has to make an effort to convince you that he's a brilliant and sharp-witted detective, which was presumed with Freeman (and arguably would have been presumed with original lead Idris Elba).  Moreover, Perry's constant aggravation at Matthew Fox's raping and murdering is weird coming from someone who is supposed to be a longtime profiler.  Matthew Fox looks to be having a blast as the main baddie, and his cartoonish antics are in step with a literary series that basically plays out like a gore-drenched variation on a super hero comic book. While we see John C. McGinley right off the bat, Rachel Nichols, Jean Reno, and Gincarlo Esposito are apparently MIA so far.  Still, I can't help but wonder if Criminal Minds has completely filled the void for this kind of material, as that show is basically James Patterson meets Justice League.  Come what may, especially with the on-the-nose dialogue and somewhat C-level action beats, this basically feels like a bad extended two-part episode of Criminal Minds, or rather its awful spin-off Suspect Behavior from a couple years ago.  Oh well, Summit/Lionsgate will be releasing this one on October 19th.  As always, we'll see.

Scott Mendelson    

Review: Ted (2012) is a blisteringly funny and painfully insightful look at generational nostalgia.

105 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Seth MacFarlane's Ted joins the ranks of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Observe and Report among razor-sharp cultural satires cleverly disguised as dumb comedies. While it doesn't quite reach the brilliance of the former, it is an altogether warmer, sweeter, and more empathetic film that the latter pitch-black comedy. It would be tempting to write the film off as pure popcorn exercise in vulgarity, and on that account it is an unquestionable success. But beneath the one-joke premise and the R-rated humor lays a piercing examination of a culture unable to let go of the entertainment they grew up on. To paraphrase a very wise friend of mine*, our generation defines itself not by the historical events of our lifetime but rather by the entertainment we consumed as we grew up. Writer/director Seth MacFarlane, along with co-writers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, would surely agree with that statement.  But they take it a step further.  For those in our generation who refuse to truly grow up, the entertainment of our past is a crutch for furthering the cause of arrested development. That MacFarlane would craft a film so critical of both his core demographic and one of the key components of his own joke box is an act of genuine bravery.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Informal critical thoughts on The Newsroom pilot.

Yes, there is comic value in this 7-minute super-cut of oft-repeated phrases in the work of Aaron Sorkin.  But it also highlights just how damn entertaining his shows are and how much credit should go to the various actors of The West Wing, Sports Night, and the disappointing but not awful Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip.  And come what may, The Newsroom is 'okay Sorkin'.  It's not great, but it is relentlessly entertaining.    On just viewing the pilot, I wish the supporting cast didn't seem so heavily made up (thus far) of somewhat similar-looking young white men.  And the undercurrent of Sorkin's passive-aggressive sexism rears its ugly head in several unnecessary ways, be it Jeff Daniel's opening speech opining about the good old days when 'Men were men!' or an entire first half where most of the female characters almost exclusively talk about relationship issues.  And while the show once again taps into the excitement of seeing professionals excelling and putting quality of work over other concerns, it reminds us again that Sorkin's world is a fantasy, a utopia, which makes it hard to watch in times such as these.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Weekend Box Office (06/24/12): Brave hits the Pixar bulls-eye while Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is (somewhat) staked.

Another year, another $60-$70 million Pixar opening weekend.  Brave (review) is their thirteenth release, as well as their thirteenth number-one debut and their eighth film to open between $60 and $70 million since 2001.  Brave, which attracted headlines due to the fact that it was Pixar's first film with a female lead (and a female director until Brenda Chapman was replaced by Mark Andrews), opened with an estimated $66.7 million this weekend, putting it (for now) just above Cars 2's $66.1 million debut and a bit below Up's $68.1 million opening as the fifth-best debut in Pixar history.  Brave pulled in $24.5 million on Friday, which gives the film a 2.71x weekend multiplier, which is actually pretty low by Pixar standards.  Still, it's close enough to the 2.73x multiplier for Wall-E ($23m/$63m), the 2.68x weekend multiplier for Toy Story 3 ($41m/$110m), and the 2.64x weekend multiplier for Cars 2 ($25m/$66m) to avoid any alarm.  Movies, even most animated ones, are just a bit more front-loaded these days and Pixar films tend to play like sequels in a popular franchise than stand-alone entries. In terms of total box office, there is always the chance that Brave could play like Cars 2, which (comparatively) flamed out with just 2.8x weekend-to-total multiplier ($191 million domestic) and end up below $200 million.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: Brave (2012) is Pixar's most impersonal and least consequential film and a more troubling failure than Cars 2.

93 minutes
rated PG

by Scott Mendelson

Beset by production troubles and changing schedules, Brave enters theaters as a fable without an author.  I don't know what happened behind-the-scenes with original director Brenda Chapman nor do I know what replacement director Mark Andrews added to and removed from the final product.  But Brave is an almost irrelevant entry in the Pixar library.  While it is visually scrumptious (in 2D, natch) and boasts a terrific lead vocal performance by Kelly MacDonald, the overall story is both painfully slight and lacking any deeper meaning beyond surface-level morals.  While it is technically a superior film to Cars 2, that film was arguably a 'one for me' project with Pixar founder John Lasseter indulging his love of the Cars universe and his love of old-school spy pictures.  Brave is an artistically superior picture that is still pales in comparison to both the better efforts from both Pixar itself and the various animation rivals (Blue Sky, Dreamworks, Illumination, etc.) nipping at its heels.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Actors Against Acting Athletes with Gary Oldman...

I'm not sure how big of a problem this is offhand (Space Jam was sixteen years ago and Michael Jordan wasn't half-bad playing himself, while Steel was fifteen years ago this summer) but this is utterly wonderful anyway.  At the very least, it's a fun thing to see Gary Oldman actually speaking in his own voice for a change.  And he doesn't even die at the end!  Now I want to see the Morgan Freeman version.

Scott Mendelson

Newsflash: Twilight didn't invent the female-driven blockbuster and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man was primarily about romance too...

As expected, the initial wave of mostly positive reviews for The Amazing Spider-Man have partially involved a form of collective amnesia. Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph called the film 'a superhero film for the Twilight generation' and states that Twilight was the first blockbuster to target women and The Amazing Spider-Man is the first superhero targeted at females, a theme that a number of critics have implicitly or explicitly stated in their critiques.  Both of these things are false of course.  Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy was primarily a romantic drama stretched over three films.  The web-slinging action beats and occasional super-villain squabbles were less important than the ongoing love story between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.  Kristen Dunst was as much of a main character as Toby Maguire, especially in the somewhat underrated Spider-Man 3, and the romantic arc was the main narrative throughout the blockbuster trilogy.  And as for the second claim, it's like Titanic, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and Avatar never happened.  But in an era where no one remembers a damn thing and everyone is too damn lazy to look it up, Marc Webb is now getting the credit for basically inventing a female-skewing superhero film and Twilight is now presumed to be the only reference point for blockbusters that were popular with women.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Good movie news in 2012: the return of R-rated movies.

Normally, I wouldn't be one to consider Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which to be fair I have not yet seen) as a shining example of a positive trend in movie-going.  But the historical fiction action-thriller may be many things, but one thing it is not is PG-13.  Oh no, it is a mid-summer major studio spectacle that is going out into 3,000+ theaters with an honest-to-goodness R.  Said rating is officially for "violence throughout and brief sexuality".  Whether or not the film could have been edited down to a PG-13 is arguably a moot point.  20th Century Fox spent $70 million (a refreshingly reasonable sum) on a major summer production that was conceived and produced with the intent that it would indeed be R-rated.  And most shockingly, it was not even the only R-rated wide release last weekend, as Focus Features unspooled Seeking Friends at the End of the World in 1,400 theaters.  I've written/ranted for years about how the R-rating became an endangered species for major-studio releases due to the 2001 FEC regulations regarding the marketing of R-rated films, but the tide does seem to be changing over the last couple years.  And it's reached a glorious peak at this very moment, with an avalanche of R-rated wide releases filling up the multiplexes.

Pixar/Disney debuts four Monsters University teasers at once.

Officially it's because Billy Crystal gave them enough improv material to cut four teasers, and I suppose there is some charm in walking into Brave on Friday not knowing which teaser you're going to get.  "Billy Crystal's an amazing comedic actor," remarked Dan Scanlon, Director, Disney•Pixar's Monsters University. "He gave us so much fun material, we decided to cut four slightly different versions of the trailer. We are so happy to have him back as Mike!". Allison hasn't been keen on watching Monsters Inc., due to the whole 'monsters = scary' meme.  But perhaps seeing this comedic teaser might change her mind.  The differences below are limited to one single line of dialogue, but I suppose that means the trailer can be released to Yahoo, Disney, Huffington Post, and iTunes all at the same time as 'exclusive'.  Anyway, say what you will about the depressing fact that Pixar is following up the disliked Cars 2 and the critically-mixed Brave with a needless prequel, but the idea of Pixar doing a college comedy has some token merit.  Anyway, Monsters University opens on June 21st, 2013.  As always, we'll see.  The trailers are after the jump.

Scott Mendelson

Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part II gets a trailer.

I've been whining a lot about sledgehammer-style advertising campaigns, so I must give kudos to this brief and concise trailer.  It's about 75-seconds long and does little more than set up the story and offer a few alleged money shots.  What I do find amusing is that this trailer isn't even trying to sell the idea that this series finale has anything approaching the scope and pathos of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II.  Yes there is a final battle of sorts, but it's clear that it's about on the scale of the action finale from The Golden Compass, which was basically a street fight as far as fantasy battle scenes are concerned.  Maybe the next trailer will sell the emotional highs, but of course I'd argue that there doesn't need to be a 'next trailer'.  I can't imagine anyone who isn't already a Twi-Hard not seeing this in theaters, while the whole 'series finale' enticement will only rope in so many casual fans. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part II opens on November 16th, 2012, or the 11th-anniversary of the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, for whatever that's worth.  It's opening unapposed, as its Skyfall the previous weekend, but considering there are five (!) movies opening over Thanksgiving, I imagine something will end up opening alongside one of the two films (Ang Lee's Life of Pi perhaps?) As always, we'll see.  

Scott Mendelson

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Watch/Discuss: The Dark Knight Rises panders to the 'I want it now!' crowd, gets one more (generic) trailer.

This smells desperate, folks.  With just a month to go, Warner Bros. drops a third full-length trailer for The Dark Knight Rises. This bothers me on two levels, neither of which are related to the film itself (the film is what it is and we'll know soon enough).  First, the near-daily stream of television spots, some of which are quite spoiler-y, followed by a release of a third trailer, reeks of desperation.  Not about the film per-se, but about the apparent need to stay relevant on the film blogs (which in theory translates into mainstream interest by playing the 'show them everything 30-120 seconds at a time' game that has been the status-quo this year for tentpoles.  Next I assume Warner Bros. will start releasing clips to boot.  Point being, they don't need to play in the mud with everyone else.  The Dark Knight Rises would have been a mega-smash if they didn't realize anything other than a teaser and a one-sheet.  To see the marketing department unwilling to follow their own pitch-perfect template from The Dark Knight is not a little dispiriting, akin to Michael Jackson's later albums not breaking new ground but rather aping the younger musicians who followed in his footsteps in a bid to stay relevant.  This new trailer represents a lack of faith and I'm disappointed.   My second gripe is with the trailer itself.

Monday, June 18, 2012

June 18th, 1992 - Twenty years later, how backlash against Batman Returns changed the blockbuster business.

Three years ago, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Tim Burton's Batman, I wrote a piece detailing seven ways in which the film changed the movie business.  What was meant to be a celebratory piece turned a bit dark as I realized that the film (which I still love) had far more negative effects than positive effects.  Now we sit on the 20th anniversary of Batman Returns, which is divisive enough as to cause fights over its relative quality.  It's either an overstuffed mess or possibly the best Batman film ever made, you can guess which side of the fence I'm closer to.  The sequel opened on June 18th, 1992 to mixed-positive reviews.  There is no laundry list of the ways the sequel altered the cinematic landscape like its predecessor.  But it did indeed have two massive effects on mainstream movie-going, both of which are quite negative, that still reverberate to this day.  And without further ado, here are three (3) ways Batman Returns changed the industry, one relatively unimportant and two quite unfortunate.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Weekend Box Office (06/17/12): Rock of Ages and That's My Boy tank while Madagascar 3 remains strong and Prometheus plummets.

I try to remain somewhat positive about box office, if only to counter the relentless 'It's a bomb!' or 'Big Star FAILS!' punditry that makes up much of the box office pundit world.  But there is little good news to report about this weekend's two big releases.  The top new release was Warner Bros' broadway adaptation Rock of Ages.  The 80s rock homage pulled in just $15 million.  Now to be fair, while the film's opening is far below the $27 million debut of Adam Shankman's last musical, Hairspray in July 2007 as well as the $27 million debut of Mamma Mia! four summers ago, it's actually the sixth-biggest debut for a modern musical, which shows how rare they are even in a post-Moulin Rouge era (Moulin Rouge opened with $13 million eleven years ago, by the way).  It's a bigger opening that Rent ($10 million), Dreamgirls ($14 million on under 900 screens), Burlesque ($11 million), and Sweeney Todd ($9.3 million on 1,249 screens).

Friday, June 15, 2012

Good is not the enemy of Perfect: An examination of and a defense of Dreamworks Animation and their 24 films thus far.

As the initial reviews for Pixar's Brave roll in (again, I'm waiting till opening day to take the kid), it's clear that the film is both pretty solid and somewhat disappointing considering the uber-high standards that Pixar has set for itself.  I personally think it's almost dangerous to go into a Pixar film expecting each one to be as good as Up, but I digress.  One of the running themes of said reviews is that the film is merely 'Dreamworks good'.         If you think that's supposed to be an insult, it is. The meme for the last decade or so is that Dreamworks is not just inferior to Pixar (probably true overall), but a genuinely mediocre producer of mass-market animated films that constantly engages in some of the worst practices of mainstream animation.  But as we examine the last fourteen years of Dreamworks Animation, it becomes clear that their reputation is somewhat unfair, akin to judging Pixar based on Cars.  Dreamworks Animation may not have the sheer number of masterpieces as Pixar, but their 24 animated features (double Pixar's output) show a remarkable range of both quality and variety.  They truly are more than just the worst parts of Shrek the Third and the best parts of How to Train Your Dragon.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Not just the crime, but the cover-up. How the Tomb Raider game producers did more damage by 'explaining' Lara Croft's attempted rape and why it's all a big mess.

I really didn't want to comment on this, both because I'm no longer what you'd call 'a gamer' and because there's only so many ways I can point out that mainstream culture, especially geek culture, is sexist as all hell. But if you've been following video game news of late, you probably heard about and/or watched the extended trailer for Tomb Raider reboot.  Long-story short, it's an origin story of sorts and the new narrative turns her into a scared young woman who spends pretty much the entire trailer being menaced and assaulted by big scary men who want to do her harm, both physically and sexually.  The latter part is what has people in an uproar, although I'd argue the whole thing is pretty offensive in principle.  Since she's a female hero, of course her origin story must involve non-stop assaults, female friends being murdered, and an attempted rape, because that's how you concoct character development for female characters, right?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Weeds to conclude after eight seasons. And yet another three-act narrative closes shop one season early...

I like Weeds, having watched it first for work-related reasons and then having caught it on my own slowly over the last year or so via Netflix.  I'm not a die-hard fan, so news of its upcoming cancellation following the upcoming eighth season would otherwise be untroubling save for one key factor. Weeds, like any number of ongoing episodic series was clearly structured into a three-act structure, with three seasons for each act.  Like 24, Mad Men, and (so far) Sons of Anarchy among others, the show's long-form storytelling clearly established a set structure.  The first three seasons established the core premise (Nancy sells dope to neighbors in upscale Agrestic after her husband dies) and literally burns down the primary story, while the second three seasons upended Nancy's world and left her at what amounts to rock-bottom (her family abandoned her and she basically surrendered herself to police custody at the conclusion of season six).  That leaves three seasons to rebuild to some kind of third-act finale.  But just like 24, the logical narrative has been cut short by a season.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is an engrossing, intoxicating, and devastating modern-day fable.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
90 minutes
rated PG-13
Opening June 27th in select theaters.

By Scott Mendelson

Beasts of the Southern Wild is among the most transporting films you're likely to see. Director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin, using Lucy Alibar's play Juicy and Delicious, crafts a fully enveloping world that is both pinpoint specific and all-encompassing enough to be a timeless fable.  On the surface, it is a character study of one six-year old girl as she comes to terms with the possibility of becoming an orphan as a natural disaster devastates her dirt-poor backwoods community.  Yes, it's about people surviving Hurricane Katrina and yes it contains certain social/political commentary, but it is a universal saga of grief and survival.  The film's greatest narrative strength is that it refuses to be a representative saga of the impoverished victims of that 2005 storm.  It is merely a heart-wrenching would-be myth told from the point of view of a single child.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bad films have good ideas too. Or why Prometheus shouldn't get a token pass for its 'big ideas'.

Here's a newsflash: Most movies are inherently about 'something'.  Art films are about 'something'.  Studio prestige pictures/Oscar-bat are usually about 'something'.  And yes, even mega-budget studio franchise entries are usually about 'something'.  There is a notion running around the Internet that Ridley Scott's Prometheus should be graded on a curve because it technically has a few 'big ideas' in its screenplay.  And yes it does indeed play around with concepts involving the origin of human existence, the motives for our apparent creation, and what our beginnings say about what we have or have not evolved into.  We can argue about how well they are developed, how they mesh with the pulpier genre elements, or what extra depth the inevitable (and just announced) extended Blu Ray cut will provide this Fall.  But I didn't come here to re-critique Prometheus (review).  That it has ideas, be they big or even good, is not automatic justification for forgiving the film for its pretty glaring slights as an actual story/character narrative.  Moreover, the "But, it's actually about something!" defense is rooted in a long-standing critical falsehood, the concept that most movies are bereft of thought, ideology, and even basic ideas.  This is false.  And this falsehood is hurting how we look at movies in general.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Weekend Box Office (06/10/12): Madagascar 3 and Prometheus both open well.

As I often say, ranking is a relatively irrelevant stat that shouldn't be used as a barometer for box office success.  Both wide releases opened like rather well this weekend, and in this case the weekend gross of the second place film is arguably a more impressive achievement.  Anyway, the number one film of the weekend was Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (review) which debuted with a pretty big $60 million.  That's pretty close to the $63 million that Madagascar 2 opened with back in 2008 and the $61 million that the first film debuted with over its four-day Memorial Day 2005 opening weekend.  I had theorized that the film might explode even higher due to the utter lack of kid pics this summer (ala The Lorax earning $70 million in March after months of no family films), but I'm not going to pretend that this debut it's 'disappointing'.  It's still a solid debut that's right in line with the previous entries of the series, give or take inflation and the 3D bump.  It's almost identical to the $60 million debut of Kung Fu Panda in June 2008 and the $59 million debut of Dreamworks's Monsters vs. Aliens in March of 2009.  The film earned an 'A' from Cinemascore and while it's not quite that good it is a lot of visually creative fun.  That most kids are already out of school made the film's Friday ($20 million) play like a proverbial Saturday, meaning that there was no Saturday jump ($22 million) as is sometimes the case with animated films. The film played 45% 3D, 56% female and 54% under 25 years old.

Review: Madagascar 3 (2012) is visually scrumptious and mostly clever all-ages fun that ably continues Hollywood's most Jewish animated franchise.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
90 minutes
Rated PG (for... I have absolutely no idea)

by Scott Mendelson

Madagascar 3 is so substance-free that one almost feels the need to apologize for enjoying it.  It tells a story that is almost thinner than the first film and certainly less introspective than the second film's family drama.  And it rivals Back to the Future II for an almost complete lack of overt 'drama'.  But it *is* completely enjoyable and again proves that the technical side of Dreamworks Animation doesn't do anything half-assed.  It is a visually splendid adventure that continues the franchise's refreshingly small-scale storytelling.  Come what may, the Madagascar series exists as a definitive 'western' animated series with a specifically Jewish sensibility. Once again the primary conflict is 'untamed wilderness versus civilization' while the primary character arcs involve our heroes dealing with their own neuroses.  Yes there is an outside threat, but the primary battle once again lies within.

Don't leave us hanging... If you want us to see a sequel, you might want to *finish* the first film.

Corey Atad wrote a great 'wish I had gotten around to writing it first' piece on Friday.  It's about well, it's called "Prometheus; or Stop Trying to Set Up Sequels!".  I've whined about this in brief or in the context of something else from time to time, but the whole 'everything's a trilogy' mindset has been quite harmful to any number of pictures over the last decade.  When you go back and look at the films that spawned successful franchises, they generally began with mostly close-ended installments.  Star Wars stands on its own, as does The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Batman Begins (heck, over the last four years I've come to admire how The Dark Knight begins and finishes its Harvey Dent business within its own 152 minute running time).  Even the first Back to the Future ended its specific narrative before offering a comedic cliffhanger that didn't necessarily need to be revolved (the producers always say they sure as hell wouldn't have had a flying car at the epilogue if they knew they were going to have to do expensive FX for a flying car all throughout a sequel).  Even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone had a relatively self-contained story that didn't necessarily require a sequel to complete its narrative.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Spoiler Thread: Open discussion for Prometheus and Madagascar 3...

You know the drill.  It's open season below for anyone to discuss the two big movies opening this weekend, as I imagine a large portion of my readership will have at least seen Prometheus by weekend's end.  One request: Since some people may have seen one film but not the other, please label which film you're going to discuss in your comment so spoiler-phobes know to avoid it if they haven't seen it yet.  Obviously if you want to discuss the limited debuts as well, feel free but please label what film is being discussed.  Thanks and go nuts!

Scott Mendelson

Midnight box office: Prometheus earns $3.56 million at 12:01am. Weekend looks to be around $64 million.

For the first time since The Avengers, a major summer movie has landed where its midnight grosses are actually somewhat relevant.  The hotly anticipated Prometheus, Ridley Scott's kinda-sorta prequel to Ridley Scott's Alien earned $3.56 million in midnight screenings last night.  The math is pretty easy on this one.  It's basically being viewed as a geek-centric sequel/prequel and thus falls into the same boat as heavily anticipated and somewhat niche geek properties.  As such, we're looking at the film having earned between 3.5% and 6.5% of its weekend gross just last night.  That gives Prometheus a probable opening weekend of between $53 million and $100 million.  Realistically speaking, a 5.5% figure is probably where it ends up, giving the $130 million science-fiction thriller a terrific $64 million for the weekend.  Obviously we'll know more in about 10-12 hours.

Scott Mendelson

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

As Men In Black 3 crosses $400 million worldwide, some thoughts on preconceived box office notions and the wisdom of double-checking your conclusions.

As of yesterday, Sony's Men In Black 3 has grossed $400 million worldwide after twelve days of theatrical release.  At this rate, $600-$700 million worldwide seems probable.  So even if the budget is $300 million, so large that the film may not be profitable even if it surpasses The Hunger Games's $645 million worldwide take, it is quite clear that Men In Black 3 is a pretty big worldwide box office hit.  It's arguably so big that only The Avengers (already well-ahead of course), The Dark Knight RisesThe Amazing Spider-Man (also a Sony film), and a trio of animated films (Madagascar 3, Ice Age 4, and Brave) stand even a theoretical chance of out-grossing it this summer.  Yet I come not to cheer-lead but to ponder.  At summer's end, will anyone bother to remark at how well the film did over its entire run?  Will the various pundits who wrote the film off as a flop or a disappointment after its 'mere' $200 million four-day global opening weekend over Memorial Day eventually check back at Box Office Mojo and realize the error of their original prognosis?  It's unlikely. The box office pundits of the world are often so dead-set in their preconceived presumptions, sometimes before a film even opens, that it's too much to admit that opening weekend isn't everything and that sometimes a would-be disappointment didn't disappoint in the end.

Robert Zemeckis's return to live-action, the Denzel Washington drama Flight, gets a great (spoiler-filled?) trailer.

This may be my wife's most anticipated film of 2012.  She hasn't seen the trailer, but I know her well enough to presume as much.  It's ironic that this picture marks Robert Zemeckis's return to live-action twelve years after the double-wammy of What Lies Beneath and Cast Away, as this Denzel Washington vehicle is arguably just the kind of film that they've mostly stopped making over the last decade.  Yes the film seems like an unofficial remake of Piché: entre ciel et terre and yes it appears that Robert Zemeckis is once again spoiling the living hell out of his movies via the trailers.  But those quibbles aside, this looks like a terrific piece of old-school character-driven entertainment.  It's heartening to see that Washington isn't the only actor of color onscreen, as we also have Don Cheadle, Nadine Velazquez, and Tamara Tunie among others playing seemingly major characters.  And the last time Denzel Washington and John Goodman appeared onscreen together, we got Fallen, one of the best supernatural thrillers of the last fifteen years.  So watch this if you can handle the possible spoilers contained therein.  But otherwise know that Flight debuts on November 2nd, and it frankly looks terrific.

Scott Mendelson

Watch/Discuss: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained gets a perfectly appropriate QT-style trailer.

Well this looks like a pulpy blast, as I suppose it should be.  There isn't much to comment on.  Jamie Fox suits the role just fine, Leonardo DiCaprio looks to be having a blast, and the soundtrack is vintage Tarantino.  Now, of course as we all know, the final film will probably be less action-packed than dialogue-drenched, but let's hope that it's a cocktail closer to Inglorious Basterds than Death Proof.  This is actually the 20th anniversary of Reservoir Dogs, which means that Tarantino has been making movies for two full decades.  He had a bit of a rut after Jackie Brown, as Kill Bill and Death Proof are basically straight genre homages without a lot of substance underneath.  But Inglorious Basterds arguably turned a corner, and seeing Tarantino explicitly tackle the uglier parts of history twice in a row is encouraging to say the least.  Could it be that act two of QT's career will plunge head-first into wish-fulfillment historical revisionism, with a side-eye turned towards the darker components of said vengeance-fueled fantasy?  I don't know how history will judge his filmography decades from now.  But I will say that Mr. Tarantino arguably has made some of the movie movie-ish movies of any major auteur in recent history.  Anyway, Django Unchained opens on Christmas day 2012.  As always, we'll see.  Thanks to The Film Stage for the embed.

Scott Mendelson   

Can't wait until June 22nd, eh? Via books and toys, Disney/Pixar's Brave spoils itself a month before release.

The first round of press screenings for Pixar's Brave start tomorrow night.  I won't be in attendance, and I probably won't be attending any press screenings.  It is a cruel irony that my daughter is now old enough to go to press screenings with me and actually wants to go to press screenings with me, yet 90% of what I would take her to is now shown in 3D for media audiences.  In short, the few times we watched a 3D movie, she took the glasses off 15-minutes in and watched the rest of the film in blurry-vision.  Since she wants to see Brave, it just makes sense for me to wait for a Friday June 22nd late-afternoon 2D matinee.  Alas, the whole 3D hassle also prevents me from taking her to whatever cool stuff the El Capitan is doing this time around, but I digress.  On the plus side, if I just can't wait until June 22nd, I can just read the movie right now.  Wait, what?

Blu Ray review: Superman Vs. the Elite (2012) improves on its source material, ranks among the best DCAU features yet.

Superman vs. The Elite
74 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

The original story, "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" (Action Comics 775) was a better discussion piece than actual story.  Written by Joe Kelly, the story served as a rebuttal to the ultra-violent superhero storytelling found in the likes of Ultimate Avengers and The Authority.  The ideas contained within are potent, and the story took on a new level of social importance just months after its March, 2001 publication for sadly obvious reasons.  The gang over at the DCAU have taken this single 41-page story and in fact improved upon it, with an even greater emphasis of the story's moral debate while crafting a solid action drama in the process.  Rather than take multi-issue story arcs and try to whittle them down to 65-75 minutes, this time we have a single 'important' comic book brought to life in a perfectly appropriate 74 minutes.  As a result, this well-written and solidly acted drama is easily the best DCAU film since Batman: Under the Hood, which also improved on its source material as well.

In post-Potter exile no more: Evanna Lynch, who was almost *too good* as Luna Lovegood, joins Monster Butler.

Last year, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II opened in theaters, Elisabeth Rappe did a slideshow regarding what was next for the various Harry Potter alumni.  To my shock, the only major cast-member with nothing on his/her plate was Ms. Evanna Lynch.  As I discussed during last year's Harry Potter retrospective, Lynch pulled off the rare feat of actually improving a character from the source material.  Going into Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I barely remembered Luna Lovegood from the book I had read four years prior.  But Lynch's terrific 'shoulda-been breakout' turn was so dynamic and engaging, her chemistry with Daniel Radcliffe so potent and convincing, that she basically torpedoed Harry Potter's romantic arc of the last four movies.  Without being mean about it, why would Harry Potter be chasing after the deadly dull Cho Chang or even the attractive but thinly-written Ginny Weasley (who was neutered in the film translations) when he obviously got along so well with the smart/funny/wise/kind/hot/etc. Lovegood?  My wife and I both spent large chunks of the fifth and sixth films wanting to grab Harry and smack some sense into him.  So it is with token relief/approval that, so says The Hollywood Reporter, Evanna Lynch is joining the cast of Dough Rath's Monster Butler.  Based on a true story of a murderous con man played by Malcolm McDowell, the film also stars Gary Oldman and Dominic Monaghan.  I have no idea if she has any star power behind what may have been a tailor-fit role for her, but I'm happy to get a chance to find out.  The rest of the Potter cast has so far done well with finding work post-Potter, and it's good to see that the one holdout is finding her footing as well.

Scott Mendelson

Watch/Discuss: Disney's Wreck It Ralph gets a charming trailer, with a shocking number of licensed video game characters along for the ride.

First and foremost, I am shocked that Disney was able to get the rights to so many classic video game characters.  At the very least I see characters and/or settings from Super Mario Bros, Mario KartCuburt, Street Fighter II, House of the Dead, Halo, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat, and Pac-Man.  One only hopes that the already acknowledged difference between older arcade games and hyper-intense newer titles leads to some kind of social commentary/satire, but this looks like a wonderfully creative little cartoon no matter how deep it ends up being.  The voice casting seems solid, and it appears that Disney even went and hired the original game vocalists when possible (for example, Gerald C. Rivers reprises his work as M. Bison). Offhand, I see at least three major female characters without a token love interest in sight, so that's icing on the cake.  Anyway, this looks like exactly the sort of 'off the beaten path' animated features that Disney should be making.  Wreck It Ralph opens on November 2nd, 2012.  As always, we'll see.

Scott Mendelson

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Less is more. Why Marvel's decision to increase Iron Man 3's budget by $60 million may not be a net-positive.

This is old news, but it broke while I was busy and I suppose the release of the first official still is as good a time to discuss this as any.  Despite commentary running up to the release of The Avengers swearing that Shane Black's Iron Man 3 would be a scaled-back and character-centric affair, it now appears that the eye-popping success of The Avengers has changed the template over at Marvel.  The film's budget of $140 million has now been raised by a whopping $60 million, so that it will now cost $200 million assuming everything gets done on time and on schedule.  Instead of promising a low-key character drama loosely based on "Extremis", Iron Man 3 is now intended to be the biggest Marvel movie yet!  Iron Man 2 cost $200 million and still felt incredibly small-scale and the $140 million Captain America was the only pre-Avengers film that actually felt 'big'.  It's not that money can't buy quality or anything obvious like that, it's the idea that money wrongly applied and/or given to a film purely because it can be sometimes does more harm than good.

Monday, June 4, 2012

In a film-culture seemingly entitled to spoilers, simple concealed narrative become "PLOT TWISTS!"

Under normal circumstances, this post would require a 'Spoiler Warning(!)'.  But what I'm discussing aren't some shocking plot twists or stunning third-act reveals, which is kind of the point.  This Friday finally brings about the US release of Ridley Scott's Prometheus.  A major part of the marketing campaign has centered around its somewhat cryptic beginnings, the idea that Fox wasn't revealing the whole film in the trailer as is often the case.  This in turn led to speculation that there was some plot twist being held in reserve, be it a specific connection to the Alien franchise or some kind of stunning third act reveal.  We've seen this game before, as Paramount successfully sold the idea last summer that Super 8 had some kind of climactic reveal and/or plot twist.  Without going into spoiler-y details, this is not true for either of the above films.  Prometheus certainly has some narrative threads that haven't been revealed in the marketing, while other pretty major details have been blatantly spoiled because they contained 'money shots'.  But at the end of the day, and this is not a criticism per-se, Prometheus unfolds in a somewhat predictable manner, as did Super 8.  What's interesting is that in this day and age merely not revealing the entire narrative arc and/or every money shot in the film qualifies as 'hiding plot twists'.

Enjoy Mike Hahn's clever short film, "Past Your Eyes".

This is a short little thriller written/directed/edited/etc by a friend of mine.  Mike Hahn, college friend and former roommate, currently finishing color correction on his first feature, and watching this well-shot and engaging short film makes me all the more curious to see the final product.  It was shot on a Red digital camera and it's just another sign that the technology is slowly eating away at the distinction between professional and 'something I shot to keep my creative juices flowing'.  Anyway, watch it and if you like it, go over to YouTube and leave a comment or click 'like'.  I figure it's the least I can do for an old friend.

Scott Mendelson    

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Weekend Box Office (06/03/12): Snow White and the Huntsman opens strong while Prometheus excels overseas.

Putting a non-existent end to the non-existent box office slump, Snow White and the Huntsman (review/trailer/essay) topped the weekend box office with a pretty strong $56 million.  After the flop that was Battleship, Universal is somewhat relieved that the next of its 'let's make overpriced fantasy tentpoles like every other studio' entry might actually make a small profit in the end.  With about $39 million in overseas grosses, the film has amassed $95 million in its first three days of worldwide play. Alas the film cost $175 million to produce (and who-knows what to market), so this is another situation where a major picture is praying for $400 million worldwide just to break even.  That's obviously not healthy, but the opening is still a darn-good one. It's the second-biggest 2D opening of the year behind The Hunger Games and the fourth-biggest debut of 2012 behind The Avengers ($207 million), The Hunger Games ($153 million), and The Lorax ($70 million).

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Unequal equivalency: Why 'girls can do anything boys can do' sends a harmful, not positive, message to girls and women.

"Why is this okay?"  It was a random thought that I had while watching the final twenty minutes of Snow White and the Huntsman.  I suppose I should put a spoiler warning, but if you've seen even a single commercial or trailer you know that during the third act Snow White dons a suit of armor and rides into battle on horseback.  It's not that I took any offense at the notion, but I sat in the theater last night wondering why this kind of revisionism was completely acceptable for Snow White but not for James Bond.  Simply put, if someone tried to make an 'Elseworlds' version of James Bond where he was a British (or American?) spy during the 1880s and engaged in action-fueled espionage in a wild-west setting, I'd imagine the film punditry world would be in a tizzy.  And let's not even try to imagine what would happen if someone tried to make a Superman movie where Krypton didn't explode, Lex Luthor was a CIA agent who was actually an alien, and Superman wore a spacesuit from which he received most of his powers, because J.J. Abrams wrote wrote just such a script that sent the Internet into pandemonium back in 2003.  The geek community (and arguably the mainstream media outlets in a desperate attempt to be 'down' with the geeks) explodes with outrage at any alleged deviation from their beloved source material.  Spider-Man has organic web shooters... horror!  The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might actually be from outer-space in their next movie... shock!  James Bond drinks a beer Skyfall... gasp!  But Alice (in Wonderland) dons armor and kills a dragon and no one cares.  Snow White dons armor and rides on horseback into a medieval battle scenario and no one cares.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Review: Prometheus (2012) has stunning visuals, but with a generic story, old ideas, and thin characters.

124 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

Come what may, Prometheus is a mid-level version of what it is.  By that, I mean it is, in the end, a somewhat generic Alien/The Thing-type horror film.  It is mostly science-fiction only in that it takes place in the future and involves inter-stellar travel.  Its 'big ideas' can be summed up in two sentences, and they are not only not-revolutionary but recognizable to probably 90% of the viewing audience.  It has some truly wonderful visuals and it's arguably worth seeing once purely for some of the images it creates.  But as a full-blown movie it doesn't quite work. Like Super 8, it gets tied up with horror elements in its last half that its filmmakers don't truly care about and feel like a commercial concession.  Like last summer's botched 80s-Spielberg homage, Prometheus takes advantage of a genre audience so worn down by threatened reboots and remakes that it seems almost groundbreaking that this film is merely a glorified rip-off of earlier genre entries of this nature.  While advertised as an original science-fiction epic with tangential ties to the existing Alien franchise, it really is a bigger budgeted and better cast variation of that specific template.  Despite must-see production values and some genuinely compelling imagery, it's somewhat closer in quality to The Thing 2011 than The Thing 1982.


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