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Prisoners (#110 of 10)

Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions Cinematography

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Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Cinematography
Oscar 2014 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

As R. Kurt Osenlund pointed out yesterday, there are plenty of categories more flashily controversial this year, but none have become as big a flash point among cinephiles as the cinematography prize. No demographic is more certain that one of Oscar’s longest-running contemporary injustices is its failure to coronate Emmanuel Lubezki, whose lucidly expressive images have now earned him six nominations and a near-fanatic cult devotion. Having to cope with the losses he’s suffered his last three times at bat—with The New World, Children of Men, and The Tree of Life respectively falling to Memoirs of a Geisha, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Hugo—are, for acolytes, like living in an alternate universe where John Alcott’s work on Barry Lyndon lost to Robert L. Surtees’s The Hindenburg, or Sven Nykvist’s lensing of Cries & Whispers lost to Surtees’s The Sting, or Néstor Almendros’s Days of Heaven lost to Robert Surtees’s Same Time, Next Year. Adding insult to injury last time around was the fact that Lubezki’s richly textured analog work in The Tree of Life was chewed up and spit out by the Academy’s now-insatiable sweet tooth for CGI-heavy 3D toy boxes, a trend that’s held for the last four years running.

Box Office Rap The Counselor and the Prestige-Film Fallacy

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Box Office Rap: The Counselor and the Prestige-Film Fallacy
Box Office Rap: The Counselor and the Prestige-Film Fallacy

This Friday sees the release of The Counselor, a film that, by all conventional accounts, should be a lock for a $20-million opening at the box office this weekend, and yet the film is unlikely to crack double digits, even with a mega-wide 3,000 theater release. Certainly, as many have been doing, we could point to Gravity as a reason why The Counselor is likely to stumble; earning over $30 million in its third frame last weekend, I’m inclined to think it will finish on top yet again, besting primo contender Bad Grandpa by a few million, and making it the first film since The Hunger Games in April 2012 to top the box office for four consecutive weekends. However, its highly impressive run cannot fully explain why The Counselor is going to fail. Rather, we would be better served to examine how Fox has been marketing the film and, beyond that, question precisely why Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free, and Fox believed this to be a financially viable project to begin with.

The entirety of the marketing for The Counselor suffers from what I’m calling “prestige-film fallacy” (PFF). The PFF relies on the prior prestige of those involved, rather than ingenuity, to convince prospective viewers of the new film’s worth. Everything about a PFF campaign reeks of derivative, outmoded notions of “quality” cinema and often hitches its wagon to the premise that sexy, rich characters played by sexy, rich stars equal big bucks. The Counselor is an epitome of these tendencies and, for those attuned to these developments, will serve to test our fundamental question: Can you sell a film based purely on prior pedigree?

Box Office Rap 12 Years a Slave and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Oscar Screening

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Box Office Rap: 12 Years a Slave and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Oscar Screening
Box Office Rap: 12 Years a Slave and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Oscar Screening

This week’s column was originally intended to discuss the box-office viability of Carrie, notable as both a remake of Brian De Palma’s classic and Kimberly Peirce’s first feature film since 2008’s Stop-Loss, but then I read Peirce calling Brian De Palma’s film “semicampy” in an otherwise fascinating and spot-on New York Times article, which rubbed me the wrong way. Moreover, giving more ink to yet another cash-in remake of an all-time great horror film would find us caught within the cogs of the Hollywood machine—something this column is actively opposed to.

A more pressing issue than Carrie’s potential box office has presented itself with 12 Years a Slave, opening in limited release this Friday (but even so, it stands a considerable chance at cracking the Top 10), though screened for the first time to Oscar voters on Sunday night. In an excellent, if depressing, Los Angeles Times recap from Glenn Whipp, AMPAS members couldn’t even fill the auditorium for Steve McQueen’s latest, even though the film has been riding a tidal wave of good reviews from festivals and is being called the Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture by many prominent prognosticators, such as Sasha Stone of Awards Daily. This comes after the previous weekend, where Academy members were turned away from a screening of Gravity, with the Samuel Goldwyn Theater packed to the brim, much like the rest of North American theaters.

Oscar Prospects Gravity, Your Cinematography and Visual Effects Winner

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Oscar Prospects: Gravity, Your Cinematography and Visual Effects Winner
Oscar Prospects: Gravity, Your Cinematography and Visual Effects Winner

On September 12, when Mark Harris officially returned to Grantland to cover the Oscar race (he stepped aside last season due to the conflict of husband Tony Kushner’s Lincoln being in contention), he penned this dead-on and intentionally prickly piece, which took to task the festival-going, hastily-Tweeting types who hurried to declare 12 Years a Slave this year’s Best Picture winner. In true Harris style, the article used insider wisdom and everyman accessibility to comprehensively articulate the trouble with this particular behavior, and the folly of using “I’m first” tactics to simplify something that still has miles of nuanced ground to cover. It’s one thing to announce, with great certainty, one’s thoughts on a probable nominee, like the baity Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but it’s quite another to plant one’s feet so early, and firmly name a winner. 12 Years a Slave has a lot of promise, but it’s impossible to tell how it will fare amid the cavalcade of critics’ awards, additional precursors, shifting tastes, and campaign strengths, not to mention the mystery of whether or not Academy members will stomach the film’s violence enough to hand it their loftiest vote. That said, as another adored colleague, Nathaniel Rogers, recently acknowledged, Gravity simply isn’t walking away this year without statuettes for Cinematography and Visual Effects. Sorry, Mark, but this time, my feet are planted.

Box Office Rap Machete Kills and the Gravity Wrecking Ball

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Box Office Rap: Machete Kills and the Gravity Wrecking Ball
Box Office Rap: Machete Kills and the Gravity Wrecking Ball

In January of 1993, Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi screened at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award and was picked up by Columbia Pictures. A month later, it was released in theaters, grossing over $2 million at the domestic box office, an anomaly for a film made for a mere $7,000. At the time a director with no formal training, Rodriguez served as a beacon for the independent spirit, even writing Rebel Without a Crew in 1996, a book recounting his initial success and subsequent collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. This week, Rodriguez’s Machete Kills opens in theaters, but the film reveals the filmmaker to be far removed from his independent and creative origins.

Rodriguez appears content to make sequels of his own hits: Machete Kills marks his sixth, and next year will bring a second installment in the Sin City franchise. Such practices are certainly not uncommon in Hollywood, nor were they uncommon to the exploitation cinema of the 1970s, which Rodriguez has clearly modeled so much of his work after. As Ian Olney explains in his recent book Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture, Hollywood stole distribution tactics from B-film production studios, such as saturated openings, while also recognizing the viability of cheap sequels to accompany these methods, where films could make so much money in one weekend, as to become profitable, that whether or not audiences actually liked the film ended up being an afterthought.

Box Office Rap Gravity and the Art-House Blockbuster

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Box Office Rap: Gravity and the Art-House Blockbuster
Box Office Rap: Gravity and the Art-House Blockbuster

When Contagion opened in IMAX theaters on September 9, 2011, only a handful of films had previously been offered in that large-scale presentation that weren’t either part of a franchise, an original film with hopes of becoming a franchise, a work based on another text, or a prominent remake a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. From 2002 to September 2011, a total of 77 wide release films made their way to IMAX screens. Of these, and excluding animated and concert films, only three films (Eagle Eye, Inception, and Sanctum) opened over that nine-year span that didn’t fit the above qualifications. Certainly, these anomalous entries can be explained by their potential box-office appeal, but only Inception had directorial (let’s say auteur) pedigree, which is where my interest lies. We shall call such films art-house blockbusters (AHB), in accordance with our established definition.

Box Office Rap Baggage Claim and the Lost Women of September

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Box Office Rap: Baggage Claim and the Lost Women of September
Box Office Rap: Baggage Claim and the Lost Women of September

As the series finale of Breaking Bad nears, and with Walter White set to confront Todd, Uncle Jack, and (potentially) rescue Jesse Pinkman, Americans may pass the time this Friday by heading to the multiplex. Opening, and expected to take the weekend with ease, is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, though it’s unlikely that members of #teamwalt will be interested in that, unless they have kids of their own (“a scary thought”). No, they’ll most likely see one of the other three primary offerings, all with hyper-masculine protagonists. There’s Rush, director Ron Howard’s racing period piece. If not that, perhaps Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut about a guy from Joisey with a porn addiction. If neither of those strike a chord, there’s always the macho spectacle of Metallica: Through the Never, which bumps Dorothy and Toto from IMAX theaters on Friday.

Box Office Rap The Wizard of Oz and the IMAX Cancer

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Box Office Rap: The Wizard of Oz and the IMAX Cancer
Box Office Rap: The Wizard of Oz and the IMAX Cancer

“The last time I checked, I owned the films that we’re in the process of colorizing…I can do whatever I want with them, and if they’re going to be shown on television, they’re going to be in color.” These are words spoken by media mogul Ted Turner in 1986, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, defending his decision to colorize classic black-and-white films for television airwaves, most famously Casablanca, leading Roger Ebert to call its colorized airing “one of the saddest days in the history of movies.” That sadness, Ebert claimed, comes from knowing that even the most beloved classics aren’t safe from “computerized graffiti gangs.” Well, this weekend, The Wizard of Oz boots Riddick from IMAX theaters, coming at viewers not only in the format’s scale-oriented excesses, but also in 3D. Thus, though we may still refer to the film as The Wizard of Oz, Warner Bros. is going with The Wizard of Oz: An IMAX 3D Experience. So, a question becomes pertinent: How is turning a 1939 Technicolor film into a 2013 IMAX 3D “experience” any different from Ted Turner colorizing Casablanca?

Box Office Rap One Direction: This Is Us and the Box-Office Horizon

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Box Office Rap: One Direction: This Is Us and the Box-Office Horizon
Box Office Rap: One Direction: This Is Us and the Box-Office Horizon

The end of summer is officially upon us. Okay, technically that isn’t until September 21st, but as far as Hollywood is concerned, the summer box-office receipts have been tallied, with the winners and losers already determined. What have we learned? For starters, that Brian De Palma wanted to see The Lone Ranger, but it was gone from theaters before he had a chance to; that lower-budget horror films can stand their own against big-budget blockbusters, though audiences prefer their horror either slovenly supernatural (The Conjuring) or strictly high-concept (The Purge), as proved by the weak opening this past weekend of the excellent, reflexive You’re Next; and that Hollywood is still capable of producing mega-bombs, as demonstrated by the alarming disappearing acts performed by films such as White House Down, R.I.P.D., and Paranoia. Finally, we’ve learned that, all in all, not much has truly changed in the box-office landscape over the past 30 years, as summers continue to be ruled by sequels and commercially driven pap, with the occasional indie (like Fruitvale Station, The Way, Way Back, and Blue Jasmine) lucky enough to make a drop in the bucket.