Everyone loses in a December deluge of films

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I try not to publicly argue with film legends, even those who are no longer alive. But when Mae West famously said that “too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” she clearly was not considering a film critic’s lot in December.

While it’s true that during the long fallow months earlier in the year, when so little of what’s on movie screens seems worth even seeing, let alone writing about at any length, critics daydream about December the way desperate folks in the desert fantasize about a beckoning oasis. Just hang on, we tell ourselves, the good stuff is coming.

The reality, however, turns out to be somewhat different. And when December rolls around, it’s not that there are no worthy films to see, it’s that there are too many. And that turns out to have problematic consequences not just for critics but also for audiences and even the health of the film industry itself.

Several linked factors drive good films to December release dates, including the notion that adults on holiday break have both the leisure and inclination to take in the serious cinema.

Also key is the proximity to when the film academy and other industry groups announce their nominations for the year. Fearful that academy voters have the attention span of fleas, studios open their awards contenders in December to lessen the possibility that folks will simply forget to vote for something that opened way earlier in the year.

Also not to be discounted is that risk-averse Hollywood feels safest and most comfortable doing what it has always done. No matter if the occasional film that plays earlier in the year does well — best picture winner “The Silence of the Lambs,” for instance, which opened in darkest February — doing things the way things have always been done is the best way to avoid responsibility if things go wrong. Which, frankly, is what often happens.

As I looked at the calendar for films coming in December, I wanted to weep as much in frustration as in joy. While many weeks earlier in the year were barren of interest, a recent week featured no fewer than eight films I would have been delighted to write about, more than even the most energetic of critics could find time to deal with.

Although studio films sometimes open only for one week for awards consideration and then reopen (albeit without reviews) in the new year, smaller pictures often don’t get any more than that one shot. If they don’t catch on in that December week — and in that hyper-crowded field, the chances are not strong — they are gone from theaters for good.

For what is true of critics is even more true of audiences. No matter how zealous a movie fan you are, you are not going to make time for that many films, and in today’s competitive theatrical market, some of them — the fine Norwegian drama “Pioneer” or Brazil’s sensual “Once Upon a Time Veronica,” for instance — are not going to last on screens for more than that initial week.

What that means is that audiences are getting cheated out of the opportunity to see good films, and those good films are getting cheated out of the opportunity to find an audience. And when quality films die at the box office, everyone thinks the movie business is in even worse shape than it really is, which can be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The interesting thing about this situation is that everyone in the movie business is aware of it. Everyone knows that good films that open during this hyper-busy month will fall through the cracks and disappear without a trace. But producers, being optimistic by nature, feel that that will be the fate of other films: their opuses are too special to be swept away by the tide. Unfortunately for all concerned, that is not always the case.


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

In ‘Selma,’ David Oyelowo digs deep to play Martin Luther King Jr.

Shortly before the actor David Oyelowo began shooting the part of Martin Luther King Jr. in the new historical drama “Selma,” he set out on a video-hunting mission. Oyelowo was searching for something that would help him get under the skin of his subject — that would go beyond the polished statue of photo ops and speech clips — when the longtime King ally Andrew Young handed him a piece of unseen footage.

In it, the civil rights leader could be viewed letting his guard down with friends and allies as they barnstormed on a campaign of economic equality; the candid material, it turns out, was shot just weeks before King was gunned down.

Before writing and directing ‘Whiplash,’ Damien Chazelle lived it

I like movies that are specific. Movies that home in on a very specific subculture, a specific discipline, a specific world. I started off making documentaries in school, so maybe that’s where it comes from — watching stuff like “Salesman” for the first time and discovering that it wasn’t just about a few Bible salesmen going door-to-door in the ’60s but that it was about America and what it means to be American. I do truly believe that the smallest stories can wind up being the biggest, because it’s through the specific that a writer can best access the universal.

All this is to say that when I decided to write a movie about my experiences as an aspiring big band jazz drummer, I hoped that by zeroing in on a world I had lived in and showcasing the details that were particular to that world — the ticking clocks of the rehearsal rooms, the padded soundproofing of the practice booths, the trombonists emptying spit valves, the popped blisters and bleeding hands — I might be able to examine how that world reflected America as a whole.

Maybe I could also get at a few bigger questions: At what cost greatness? What does that word even mean — “greatness”? And what does it do to the minds of young people, those who are still searching for their place in society?

This was by far the most personal thing I’d ever written. I’d spent about five years of my life utterly devoted to jazz drumming, and I wanted to tap into the obsessiveness of that mind-set. Every hour of every day during those years I’d thought about nothing but drums and the raw technique I was desperately trying to master.

In school, I rehearsed, performed and traveled with the competitive jazz ensemble — led by a conductor who scared the hell out of me — and when at home I would lock myself in my basement and practice for six to eight hours a day. My hands were constantly blistered or bloody, my ears were always ringing, I tore through drumheads and drumsticks like there was no tomorrow.

Jazz drumming was my life — and it was both joy and agony. That that world now seemed to me as a writer so esoteric, so specific, was exactly the point: Jazz drums had become a bubble for me in those years, divorced from the outside world, and that tunnel vision had only heightened the intensity I felt day in and day out. … It all sounds insane — because, in a way, it was.

I guess art itself is insane. Its actual function is rarely clear, and yet people give their hearts and souls and lives to it, and have for all of history. Maybe it’s that burning desire to leave something behind, to be remembered. At one point in the movie, the lead character, aspiring drummer Andrew Neyman, declares that he’d give up everything if it meant he could be talked about at a dinner table, by people he’s never met, at some point in the future. We shudder and maybe laugh, because the kid is totally nuts. But I think there’s a part of every artist that can relate.

I certainly recognize those flashes of insanity within myself today. But with this movie I wanted to be very critical of the ends-justifying-the-means mind-set. I wanted to show the ways it could be pushed into abuse. As I was in the cutting room, it felt like the movie we were making could be read as either a total condemnation of a certain kind of arts education — the idea that “greatness” can be codified and bottled up and taught, and that in the case of an abusive instructor the ends therefore justify the means — or a celebration of an artist’s (perhaps necessary) insanity. I purposefully made the behavior on-screen as repellent as possible, so as to make the film’s ending harder to grapple with — the saddest “happy ending” I could imagine.

There are obviously other ways to be an artist. But as crazy and misguided and unforgivably cruel as Andrew becomes — I really do see this as a fundamentally sad movie — I think he gets one thing right: Art is and always should be irrational.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

25 titles added to National Film Registry

Steven Spielberg’s 1998 World War II epic, “Saving Private Ryan,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s cult comedy “The Big Lebowski” and the 1976 drama “Please Don’t Bury Me Alive!” — considered by historians to be the first Chicano feature film — are among the 25 titles added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

The selections are to be announced Wednesday by the librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, who recognizes the pictures as “cultural, historical or aesthetic cinematic treasures.”

“The National Film Registry showcases the extraordinary diversity of America’s film heritage and the disparate strands making it so vibrant,” read a statement from Billington. “By preserving these films, we protect a crucial element of American creativity, culture and history.”

Under the National Film Preservation Act, the librarian of Congress chooses films that are at least 10 years old. The Library of Congress’ Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Virginia will ensure that each film is preserved, whether through the center’s preservation program or through collaborations with other archives, movie studios and independent filmmakers.

The 2014 selections bring the number of films in the registry to 650. This year’s additions are:

“13 Lakes” (2004): James Benning filmed his feature documentary at 13 American lakes, each captured in a single 10-minute take.

“Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day” (1913): Seven reels of unassembled footage were recently discovered from this abandoned feature film starring Bert Williams, the first African American Broadway headliner and the most popular recording artist before 1920. This footage is believed to be the earliest surviving film starring black actors.

“The Big Lebowski” (1998): Joel and Ethan Coen’s cult comedy starring Jeff Bridges as the ultimate L.A. slacker, the Dude.

“Down Argentine Way” (1940): Betty Grable had her first starring role in this musical, which also featured Don Ameche and Carmen Miranda in her U.S. film debut.

“The Dragon Painter” (1919): Hollywood’s first Asian star, Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, and his wife, Tsuru Aoki, lead this silent drama that was one of more than 20 feature films Hayakawa’s production company made.

“Felicia” (1965): This 13-minute documentary short subject revolves around a high school student living in Watts before the 1965 riots.

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ (1986): John Hughes’ popular comedy follows a high school student who plays hooky one day with two classmates.

“The Gang’s All Here” (1943): Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda star in this Technicolor musical comedy directed and choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

“House of Wax” (1953): Considered the first full-length 3-D film produced and released by a major U.S. studio, this iconic horror thriller stars Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy and Phyllis Kirk.

“Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” (2000): Oscar-winning documentary details the World War II rescue operation that put Jewish children with foster parents in Britain.

“Little Big Man” (1970): Arthur Penn directed this revisionist western about a 121-year-old man (Dustin Hoffman) recalling his life in the Old West.

“Luxo Jr.” (1986): Directed and co-produced by John Lasseter, this Pixar short was the first 3-Dl computer-animated film to be nominated for an Oscar.

“Moon Breath Beat” (1980): Lisze Bechtold made her five-minute short subject while a student at the Valencia-based California Institute of the Arts.

“Please Don’t Bury Me Alive!” (1976): Efrain Gutierrez wrote, directed and starred in this independent Chicano drama set in San Antonio and noted for its bicultural narrative.

“The Power and the Glory” (1933): Spencer Tracy stars in this drama penned by Preston Sturges about an American industrial magnate. The film is said to have been an influence on Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.”

“Rio Bravo” (1959): Howard Hawks’ western drama, which the Library of Congress describes as his last great film, stars John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson.

“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968): Based on the novel by Ira Levin, Roman Polanski’s horror masterpiece stars Mia Farrow in her first leading role, John Cassavetes and Oscar winner Ruth Gordon.

“Ruggles of Red Gap” (1935): Leo McCarey directed this comedy about a proper English manservant (Charles Laughton) won in a poker game by an American (Charlie Ruggles)

“Saving Private Ryan” (1998): Steven Spielberg won his second director Oscar for this action drama about soldiers who land on Omaha Beach on D-day and embark on a dangerous rescue mission.

“Shoes” (1916): Silent social drama about a poor shopgirl, from pioneering writer-director Lois Weber.

“State Fair” (1933): The legendary Will Rogers stars in this comedy-drama directed by Henry King about an Iowa family attending the annual event.

“Unmasked” (1917): Famed silent serial queen Grace Cunard starred in, wrote and directed this adventure about a jewel thief.

“V-E + 1″ (1945): Silent 16-millimeter footage documents the burial of Holocaust victims found by Allied forces at a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

“The Way of Peace” (1947): Frank Tashlin, who was an animation director before making such live-action comedies as “Geisha Boy,” directed this 18-minute stop-motion animated puppet film sponsored by the American Lutheran Church to reinforce Christian values in the Atomic Age.

“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971): Roald Dahl adapted his classic novel, and Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley penned the score to this fanciful musical starring Gene Wilder as the enigmatic candy maker.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

‘Anything for Alice’ mixes chemistry, old formula for success

“Anything for Alice” handily demonstrates how there’s no need to divert from the dog-eared romantic-comedy playbook when you’ve got a pair of ace players in your corner.

Although formulaic to a fault, this French film directed by Nicolas Cuche packs a charming effervescence thanks to the easy chemistry of appealing leads Max Boublil and Aïssa Maïga, who meet cute but are quickly driven apart by their differences.

When we first encounter Max, he’s a vacuous university student attempting to catch the eye of the pretty, principled law student by pretending to care about social issues.

Fast-forward eight years. Max and his slacker buddies have become improbable Internet millionaires with their dating site, Meetthemother.com, and Max spots Alice, a factory assembly line worker and employee representative, on the news.

In a bid to get closer to her, Max purchases the B’ang powdered beverage company, where Alice works, and poses as a fellow employee.

On paper, the two characters might not be the easiest to warm to. One’s a bit of a con man, the other’s a tad judgmental. But Boublil and especially the vivacious Maïga possess a natural, winning charisma that cuts through the written conventions. With similarly savvy casting, the rom-com seems ripe for an American remake.



‘Anything for Alice’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West L.A.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Actresses bond over playing dress up, tattoos and aging on screen

Keegan: How much does something like a physical aspect — Emma, I’m thinking of your tattoos in “Birdman” — help you find a character?

Stone: Alejandro really wanted her to be dressed in a way that would make any father crazy, so lots of—you know, everything was ripped. But the tattoos, we sort of came to a conclusion that there are a lot of young girls now—in L.A. specifically, I’ve seen it—that get tattoos all over their hands at a really young age. So we covered her hands in tattoos because the sort of commitment of that, and how flippant she is about something so permanent. Everything was a symbol in some other language of finally finding some peace in her life …

Dern: Oh, it’s so heartbreaking.

Stone: Yeah, it’s impossible for her.

Keegan: Meanwhile, you have one of the greatest screaming at Michael Keaton scenes.

Dern: Oh my god.

Keegan: I mean, you really unleash on his character. What was that like to shoot?

Stone: Wonderful once it was working. Because if it wasn’t going right for the first eight minutes of the take, you would just hear Alejandro’s voice in another room going, “No!” [To Patricia] How did you feel when you first sat down to watch [“Boyhood”]?

Arquette: Well, it was weird, I mean, I’ve seen my face so I know I’ve gotten older. It wasn’t a giant shock to me that I’d aged but—and if you’ve been an actor long enough, the world does recall your youth and the moment they found you or the age they want you to remain at. So you’ll turn the channel and there you are and you’re young and like, “Whoa, that’s weird. I was so young there.” But to see it kind of all happen quickly, it’s a little bit shocking. Wow, it went fast. It goes fast.

Olsen: And, Laura, you were also in “The Fault in Our Stars” this year and it’s sort of a similar but slightly different mothering role, and that’s also a film that has been a huge commercial success, kind of a little movie that could.

Dern: Yeah, it feels luxurious because it was certainly made with a studio’s support but still a very small, independent film. It’s like eight times the budget of all the movies I’ve done with David Lynch. But it’s still a very small movie. And people love John Green and he’s such an incredible author and luckily people connected to the movie and longed for the movie because they loved the book so much. So that’s sort of a luxurious setup, much like “Wild,” a beloved story that people are waiting for. I pray for more of these movies to continue to get made over and over again.

Swinton: But it’s so encouraging because what you’re saying is that it’s the audience that wants to go to see these films and not just to wait for them to come out on video but to actually go to the pictures and see them. What would you say, Rebecca, why would you say that a film like “Boyhood” has had the success that it has?

Keegan: It’s so different. There aren’t eight other things that you can see like it. It’s very specific in particular.

Swinton: But that’s always true. All films are different, well, except for the films that cost a fortune — that go out of their way to not be different—

Olsen: A lot of it is that people have seen the film, it touches them in a very genuine way, and I think this is a rare project where genuinely you have not seen a movie quite like this before just due to the nature of how it was made. And that it really touches people and they go and they tell their friend. I mean, it was playing in theaters here in Los Angeles for an astonishingly long time.

Dern: But that speaks to something interesting too, which is that these beautiful films are out for two weeks and then they’re gone. It’s just so heartbreaking, you know, I’ve watched it with my parents, they make something so beautiful and people are like, “Ah, I wanted to see the movie but it left the theater after, like, three weeks. I never got to see it.”

Olsen: “Snowpiercer” as well really hung around in theaters for quite a while.

Swinton: We were very, very fortunate that that worked out so well. Because for a long time there was a whole discussion of Bong Joon-ho’s film not being seen by English-speaking audiences and thank goodness, we have seen it. The very fact that that’s done as well as it has is also incredibly encouraging because it means, yes, that’s what people do want to see. They want to see something that complex and that original and that unusual and weird.

Dern: What’s amazing is, obviously this character you played, but that we’re sitting here having a conversation where even maybe just five years ago the conversation was about “women in movies.” We haven’t even talked about that yet. So, I’m really excited that there’s been a huge shift, right? In the way women get to sit around and talk about the roles they’re getting to play or their movies making money or people wanting to go see them.

Arquette: Or all of these different structures. I mean, [Emma] when you’re talking about your movie it sounds like live theater. All of these different ideas from filmmakers and, what is so beautiful about making a movie, when it’s great, is the collaborative experience of making it together. And I feel so lucky to be able to do that for a living, when it’s great. You know, when it’s horrible, it’s really a drag, you’re like, “This is like a bad divorce I can’t get out of.”

Keegan: Laura, one thing you and Patricia share is that you come from households where acting is the family business. Was there anything that your parents told you along these lines that helped you out?

Arquette: They told me don’t do it.

Dern: Yeah, mine wanted me to be a lawyer. Why is being a lawyer—?

Swinton: Are both your parents actors?

Arquette: My dad [Lewis Arquette] was, my mom was when she was younger, but then she was a therapist. So, she was always talking about, that person is narcissistic, or this is the archetype, and that’s passive aggressive. So, I always kind of look at my characters with both of those things. The things my dad talked about on acting and my mom, who taught mythology and was a therapist. So, both of those kind of stories.

‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ tops box office with $24.5-million debut

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” dominated the box office this weekend, riding past “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” and meeting expectations with an estimated $24.5-million debut.

The 20th Century Fox biblical epic, directed by Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) and starring Christian Bale as Moses, did not rely on the same base of Christian moviegoers that other religious dramas — notably “God’s Not Dead” and “Noah” — tapped to find success this year at the U.S. and Canadian box office.

“I know there’s been a lot of talk about religious movies and obviously ‘Exodus’ has a biblical storyline,” said Spencer Klein, Fox’s senior vice president and general sales manager. “But I think with its pedigree of director and stars … people see this as just a big movie.”

Klein said the audience for “Exodus” was broad. An estimated 65% of moviegoers were older than 25, and 54% were male. Like other faith-based films, “Exodus” played well with Latino moviegoers, who made up about 20% of the audience. African Americans also accounted for about 20% of the audience.

“It’s clearly a mix of religious audience but also general moviegoers and a pretty impressively diverse audience make-up,” Klein said. “I think it’s a great indicator for our playability.”

But with a lofty $140-million budget, “Exodus” needs to pull in big numbers overseas to become a hit for the studio.

By comparison, Fox’s “Son of God,” a retelling of the life of Jesus, grossed about $59.7 million in the U.S. and Canada. That film, budgeted at an estimated $22 million, debuted in February to $25.6 million.

Faith Driven Consumer, an advocacy group known for petitioning the A&E network to reinstate “Duck Dynasty” regular Phil Robertson, rated “Exodus” 2.5 stars out of 5.

“Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus’ represents a strong departure from the Bible and will likely fail to resonate with millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, said in a statement. “Ultimately, the movie misses the central point of the story.”

The film earned a B-minus rating from audience polling firm CinemaScore and a 27% positive rating from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

In its fourth weekend, Lionsgate’s “Mockingjay” fell to second while adding $13.2 million to its domestic haul. The latest “Hunger Games” franchise film has grossed $277.4 million in the U.S. and Canada, the second-highest of the year, behind the $332.3-million domestic haul for “Guardians of the Galaxy.” “Mockingjay” crossed the $600-million mark worldwide, helping Lionsgate to surpass the $1-billion mark internationally for the third year in a row.

Fox’s “Penguins of Madagascar” took third place over the weekend, adding $7.3 million to its haul of about $60 million to date.

Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures’ “Top Five” opened to a solid $7.2 million in 979 locations, putting it in fourth place for the weekend. Critics and audiences have lauded the Chris Rock film, which the studio acquired for $12 million at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered.

“From a profitability standpoint, it’s a great deal for us,” said Megan Colligan, Paramount’s president of domestic marketing and distribution. “We love this movie so much. … I think we started off strong.”

The movie follows New York comedian and film star Andre Allen (Rock), who has to confront his past and comedic career after doing an interview with journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson).

“It’s not an easy movie to define,” Colligan added. “As we expand out, hopefully word of mouth and the positioning of the film will allow it to play well in suburban and smaller markets.”

Rock’s previous features as writer-director-star include 2007’s “I Think I Love My Wife,” an adaptation of Eric Rohmer’s “Chloe in the Afternoon.” It opened to about $5.6 million and ultimately grossed $12.5 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Colligan said Rock is a “broad star,” appealing to a range of audiences.

“Everyone is excited to see him,” she said. “He’s funny and smart … a marketer’s dream.”

Disney’s “Big Hero 6” rounded out the top five, adding about $6.1 million. Its total domestic haul is about $185.3 million.

The animated film has also seen success overseas, grossing about $68.2 million in international markets. It’s the second-highest grossing Disney-Pixar animation release of all time in Thailand. It has also become the biggest industry animation release of all time in Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Fox Searchlight’s “Wild,” which has rolled out to 116 locations, broke into the top 10 in its second weekend.

The film, based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, added $1.55 million for a strong per-screen average of $13,300. To date, the film has pulled in $2.4 million.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”), the film follows Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) as she hikes more than 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The Fox Searchlight film been well-received by critics and audiences.

Meanwhile Warner Bros. released “Inherent Vice” in five locations. The Paul Thomas Anderson-directed film had a strong debut of $330,000, a per-screen average of $66,000.

Despite the strong debuts, the box office is still down about 5% year to date.

With “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” and “Annie” all set to open this month, studios and movie chains are hoping ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada will catch up to last year’s record of $10.9 billion.

For more news on the entertainment industry, follow me @saba_h

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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