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Box Office Rap Riddick and the Passion of Brian De Palma

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Box Office Rap: Riddick and the Passion of Brian De Palma

On May 22, 1996, Mission: Impossible opened in 3,012 North American movie theaters. That weekend, it made $45.4 million and marked the highest opening weekend ever for a Tom Cruise starrer, a record that would stand until Mission: Impossible II opened in May 2000. Cruise has since used that franchise as a staple for his box-office résumé, allowing him collaborations with the likes of J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird, with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol marking the highest-grossing film of Cruise’s career with a whopping $694 million in global receipts.

But back to 1996. Then, that $45.4 million also marked the highest opening-weekend gross for director Brian De Palma; in fact, with the exclusion of The Untouchables, no prior De Palma film had made as much in its entire run as Mission: Impossible managed in just its first three days. The film was considered a critical success as well, receiving “two thumbs up” from Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, though they, like several other critics, reserved most of their praise for Cruise’s performance and were skeptical of the film’s [sic] convoluted going’s on. Even in commercial success, De Palma’s fervid formal artistry has few boosters—an unfortunate trait that has inexplicably followed the great filmmaker’s entire career.

Fast-forward 17 years to last Friday, when Passion, De Palma’s latest, opened in just 14 theaters and over the four-day holiday weekend made a miniscule $40K, finishing in 55th place. Okay, so audiences still aren’t ready for De Palma’s operatic visual sensibilities, but surely critics must be on board by now, right? It’s 2013 after all, and De Palma’s oeuvre continues to increasingly get its due, with insightful academic texts, many a (favorable) online retrospective, and interviews galore permeating key film sites. Well, turns out, even with the praise for past work, little of that translated to favorable reviews, press, or excitement from critics for De Palma’s latest, as the film currently stands at a pathetic 38% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with “top critics” bestowing an even worse approval rating of just 23%.

Here’s the beef: The cultural sins of critics who consistently refuse to treat the very art form they cover seriously prevents Passion from getting picked up by Sony Pictures Classics or Fox Searchlight, thus ensuring its financial and artistic demise, since Entertainment One lacks the resources or track record to entice exhibitors, thus getting the film into just a handful of theaters and simultaneously On Demand. Although De Palma ranks among the greatest living American filmmakers, with revisionist academic work and thoughtful online features pleading the case, critics continue to miss the point. Successful cultural historicity depends on a fluid engagement with delineating significance over a period of time that encompasses more than simply the immediate moment. When critics make no mention of De Palma’s past work or controversy, it bastardizes film discussion and, frankly, only exists a notch or two above the YouTube comments sections. David Edelstein’s claim that the film is “entrancing and narcotizing in equal measure” carries a glibness that speaks to such faulty consideration—as does the capsule-length entirety of his review, with nary a mention of another De Palma film. Serious film criticism should either engage with a work in light of the filmmaker’s past work or, at least, thoroughly explain the viewpoint being offered; Edelstein does neither. Even Alan Scherstuhl’s positive review for The Village Voice undercuts its enthusiasm by saying “Passion is pretty good. If you cared enough to make a list, it might be your fifth or sixth favorite De Palma.” Two issues: By claiming the film “pretty good,” then placing it in the top fourth of De Palma’s work, Scherstuhl’s uses the same glib tone as Edelstein, as if to belittle the significance of “a new De Palma film,” as Quentin Tarantino once called it; and by relegating film culture simply to listing of “favorites,” the implication is that De Palma’s work isn’t worthy of more serious contemplation or consideration, as rankings will suffice.

De Palma isn’t the only casualty here, as the same thing happened earlier this year with Terrence Malick and To the Wonder, which likewise received a simultaneous On Demand and limited theatrical release, while critics thumbed their noses with rampant claims of “self-parody.” If critics fumble at identifying important cultural markers (whether Passion is “good” or “bad” is less important than the track record of its filmmaker), then what chance do audiences have of being expected to perform anything remotely similar? This is less about “bad reviews” than unthinking reviews: Obviously, for a critic to dislike the film is perfectly within bounds, but to neglect giving the film more attention, prominence, and a word count exceeding 116—now that’s irresponsible. So, if you want to see a thriller this weekend, the multiplex offers Closed Circuit or Getaway...take your pick.

Or, you could see Riddick, which reunites Vin Diesel with director David Twohy nearly a decade since their last collaboration, The Chronicles of Riddick. Touting an R rating and dark cinematography more reminiscent of Pitch Black than Chronicles, this film clearly looks to bestow a smaller, more-intense atmosphere to the sci-fi proceedings. Although Diesel has been a box-office force of late, that’s more a product of franchise-baiting than the actor drawing a crowd himself. Expect Riddick to come up short of a $20 million opening—likely a few million short, at that.

Box Office Weekend Predictions

1. Riddick: $16.8 NEW

2. Lee Daniels’s The Butler: $9.8 -44%

3. We’re the Millers: $7.5 -41%

4. One Direction: This Is Us: $4.9 -69%

5. Planes: $4.5 -42%

6. Instructions Not Included: $3.8 -51%

7. Blue Jasmine: $2.9 -28%

8. The World’s End: $2.8 -45%

9. Elysium: $2.7 -58%

10. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones: $2.4 -56%