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Box Office Rap Elysium and the Summer Traffic Jam

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Box Office Rap: Elysium and the Summer Traffic Jam
Box Office Rap: Elysium and the Summer Traffic Jam

Jacques Tati and Jean-Luc Godard would undoubtedly be amused with the August traffic jam Hollywood has made for itself, as 14 wide releases will debut within the next four weeks. June 2013 saw just eight new releases, but even then, a mega-budgeted film such as Man of Steel only managed to stay in theaters for seven weeks, so the likelihood of any August films sticking around for longer than a month becomes a near impossibility. Has the summer market always been so saturated? Looking back to June 1993, seven major studio films saw wide releases, only one less than 2013. However, Jurassic Park played in theaters for 71 consecutive weeks. Even Last Action Hero, a film that brought a studio to its knees, lasted 12 weeks during that 1993 summer.

The casualties this summer have been numerous. Most notable is, perhaps, The Lone Ranger, a $215 million production that fell to just 553 theaters in its fifth weekend and is likely to be out of theaters by Friday by the time this week’s four mega-wide releases drop. What’s an onlooker to make of these developments? On the one hand, from a cultural capital perspective, these are dire days. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an excellent, and spot-on, positive review of Gore Verbinski’s film, in which he bets that, like Steven Spielberg’s 1941, 20 years from now The Lone Ranger will be “re-evaluated” and discussed as “misunderstood.” Seitz’s thoughtful and contemplative review shuns much of the mob-mentality demonstrated by the film’s embarrassing Rotten Tomatoes score and reveals the underlying problem with such an adopted critical system: emphasis on scores and figures over ideas and commentary. Yet his perceptive insights are lost amid this contemporary climate because, in turn, the marketplace cannot hold such a product long enough to receive honest feedback and critique; the “critical consensus” passes immediate judgment on The Lone Ranger to expedite the film’s financial (and cultural) execution. On the other hand, a neo-Marxist couldn’t help but delight in Mouse House miscalculation, as the film appears unlikely to match its budget through even its worldwide haul, which currently stands at $175 million.

Understanding Screenwriting #113: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, Monsters University, & Unfaithfully Yours

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Understanding Screenwriting #113: <em>The Bling Ring</em>, <em>The Heat</em>, <em>White House Down</em>, <em>Monsters University</em>, & <em>Unfaithfully Yours</em>
Understanding Screenwriting #113: <em>The Bling Ring</em>, <em>The Heat</em>, <em>White House Down</em>, <em>Monsters University</em>, & <em>Unfaithfully Yours</em>

Coming Up In This Column: The Bling Ring, The Heat, White House Down, Monsters University, Unfaithfully Yours, but first…

Moving on: This is going to be my last Understanding Screenwriting column for The House Next Door. Don’t worry, it’s not going away for good, just moving to a new location. Earlier this year, I got an announcement from Erik Bauer, founder, publisher, and editor of Creative Screenwriting magazine. In addition to writing for the magazine, I was on the editorial board from 1994 to 2008, when the board was dissolved. Erik had sold the magazine and the Creative Screenwriting empire (website, screenwriting expo, etc.) to another man in 2007. Unfortunately, the recession came along the next year, and the magazine closed down in 2011. This spring Erik had what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to buy back the Creative Screenwriting empire, and his announcement said that he’s intending to revive the magazine, beginning in 2014. In the meantime, he’s reviving the Creative Screenwriting website in August, and my Understanding Screenwriting column will be moving to it then. The new address will be www.creativescreenwriting.com, and he hopes to have the new website up the first week in August. I trust you will all come and visit and leave the kind of intelligent comments you’ve spoiled me with for the last five years. And I must finish my work here at the House with a great big “thank you” to both Keith and Ed for their support over the years.

Fan Mail: “shazwagon” raised the question in regard to the close-up of Jesse at the end of the opening scene in Before Midnight: “How do you know that it was the writer’s decision to show the close-up later?” That’s an easy case; since both the actor involved and the director were also the writers, we can pretty much be sure it came from them. In other cases, it can be a tricky question. Generally writers will make an effort to write in reactions for the characters (but not camera directions, since directors pay no attention at all to writers’ suggestions in that area). If, as in the close-up in Before Midnight, the reaction is related to everything else going on in the scene (here the counterpoint to the dramatic action with Jesse and Henry), then it almost certainly comes from the writers. If actors and directors in general are at the top of their form, you feel that the moment is happening now right in front of your eyes. Look at Jeff’s (James Stewart) reaction to the itch in an early scene in Rear Window. It seems the camera just happened to catch him when the itch did. Not so; it’s all laid out in John Michael Hayes’s great script.

David Ehrenstein is back to disagreeing with me and all’s right with the world. He thought Behind the Candelabra was better than I did. He especially liked the performances by Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. I liked the performances, but felt the script didn’t give them as much to work with as it could have.

The Bling Ring (2013; written by Sofia Coppola; based on the Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales; 90 minutes.)

Sofia Coppola, meet W.E. Burnett and John Huston. You may remember that, in US#68, I found Coppola’s Somewhere very disappointing, but I also said we shouldn’t give up on Coppola. The Bling Ring shows why, and it’s one of her best films yet. Never give up on talent. Here Coppola’s minimalist style, which was a little too minimalist in Somewhere, is perfect for the subject.

A Movie a Day, Day 34: Toy Story 3

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A Movie a Day, Day 34: <em>Toy Story 3</em>
A Movie a Day, Day 34: <em>Toy Story 3</em>

I’ll get to Toy Story 3 in a minute, but first I wanted to tell you about something else I’ve been thinking about today. We’re designed to search for patterns, so I guess it’s no surprise that you can’t see a lot of movies without noticing trends. Sometimes it’s something minor, like a stylistic trick you see repeated or an actor who keeps popping up. But when two movies open a window onto the same little slice of life, it can change the way you experience both. That happened to me the other day when I came across For Neda, an HBO documentary about Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who was killed by a government gunman during the protests that followed Iran’s last election. As it happens, I’d just seen Women Without Men, one of the characters of which was a fictional forebear of Neda: a strong-willed young Iranian woman who defied taboos and risked death half a century ago to protest an illegitimate regime. Women Without Men was a little too underdeveloped and For Neda a little too didactic for my taste, but as I watched one and thought of the other, they melded into a kind of double exposure. Like Astaire and Rogers, in that quote about how he gave her class and she gave him sex, each movie made me appreciate the other more: The art-house film gave the documentary historical perspective, and the doc made the fiction film feel more urgent.

Focus on the Family: Pixar’s Small-c Conservatism

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Focus on the Family: Pixar’s Small-c Conservatism
Focus on the Family: Pixar’s Small-c Conservatism

Earlier this year, the National Review published a list of the top 25 conservative movies. Number two on this list was Pixar’s The Incredibles:

This animated film skips pop-culture references and gross jokes in favor of a story that celebrates marriage, courage, responsibility, and high achievement. A family of superheroes—Mr. Incredible, his wife Elastigirl, and their children—are living an anonymous life in the suburbs, thanks to a society that doesn’t appreciate their unique talents. Then it comes to need them. In one scene, son Dash, a super-speedy runner, wants to try out for track. Mom claims it wouldn’t be fair. “Dad says our powers make us special!” Dash objects. “Everyone is special,” Mom demurs, to which Dash mutters, “Which means nobody is.”

Love and Loss in John Lasseter’s America

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Love and Loss in John Lasseter’s America
Love and Loss in John Lasseter’s America

One of Pixar’s greatest accomplishments is that their movies are more than just terrific mass entertainments—they’re personal statements from the directors that made them. Their filmmakers each have their own set of reoccurring themes and characters, and one of the most interesting examples to me is that director and Pixar head honcho John Lasseter keeps returning to the same subject matter. He’s fascinated with relics of Americana from the past, and three of the four films he’s directed thus far—Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Cars—have focused on trends and lifestyles that have been tossed aside by our culture in favor of something newer and shinier. There’s an element of poignancy and regret in his movies at how much things have changed, but Lasseter is also astute enough to know that American pop culture has been always been a little junky and disposable, and yet at the same time it’s something that we can imbue with personal meaning.

Pushing at Boundaries: The Two-Faced Ideology of Pixar

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Pushing at Boundaries: The Two-Faced Ideology of Pixar
Pushing at Boundaries: The Two-Faced Ideology of Pixar

“YOU. ARE. A. TOY! You aren’t the real Buzz Lightyear! You’re… You’re an action figure! You are a child’s plaything!”

“You piece of dirt! No, I’m wrong. You’re lower then dirt. You’re an ant!”

In Pixar’s first two feature length films, Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998), after a violent confrontation, two of the main characters are face to face. One of them berates the other in defense of an age-old system of master and servant, a system that the other character actively denounces because this system gets in the way of his lofty ambitions. In both films, the plot centers on this conflict of those who wish to uphold boundaries and those who wish to break through them.

However, there’s one main difference. In the film’s ideologies, Buzz Lightyear is wrong, and Flik is right.

The Conversations: Pixar

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The Conversations: Pixar
The Conversations: Pixar

Jason Bellamy: Aggregate movie review sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are never more predictable than when compiling the reviews of a Pixar release. Through almost fifteen years Pixar has been a cinematic goose laying digitally animated golden eggs. Not all of Pixar’s ten features have been universally beloved, but even the studio’s disappointing efforts, like 2006’s Cars, have been treated by critics as mostly worthwhile. Generally speaking, to read reviews of Pixar movies isn’t to see critics wrestling with the question of “Is it good?” but rather “How good is it?” The result creates something of a critical paradox. When a Pixar movie earns a rare pan, the studio’s previous successes seem to work against it. Pixar becomes the A-plus student who suffers a C-minus grade for turning in B-plus work. It becomes the victim of a masterpiece-or-else set of expectations, thus making critical takedowns seem annoyingly nitpicky or pathetically contrarian (yep, that’s an Armond White reference). At the same time, however, when Pixar delivers something that’s truly and utterly magnificent, any praise heaped upon it seems empty. Gushing reviews of a Pixar movie come off like testimonials on the joys of army life written by soldiers in the North Korean military.

I mention all of this because it helps to illustrate how troubling it can be to have critical conversations about Pixar movies. When someone tells me Finding Nemo is “great,” do they mean “It’s a great piece of family entertainment with something for everyone,” or do they mean “It’s on my short list of the greatest cinematic experiences of all time, tied with Taxi Driver”? I can never tell if I’m supposed to be grading on a curve, if I’m supposed to be comparing Monsters, Inc. to just Dreamworks’ Shrek or instead to There Will Be Blood and anything else. If I tell you that I found Cars to be tedious when I saw it on DVD at the age of 30, is that a valid assessment, or am I supposed to analyze the movie through the eyes of the 10-year-old for which it is intended? Why is it that if I tell people I found Toy Story cute but not special, I get wide-eyed looks like I’ve just insulted the 9-year-old in the school play for not being Meryl Streep?

These are issues we can cover over the course of our conversation, but for now all of that is setup for this: I absolutely adore Ratatouille and I have a fondness for A Bug’s Life and Up, but at the top of the Pixar heap is WALL-E. This is the one Pixar movie that, while by no means flawless, I can call great without any hesitation or qualifiers. To me, it is a masterpiece, and not just of its genre. Of all the films I saw last year, there was a small handful that shared its company, but not a single one that was better. Ed, you hadn’t seen WALL-E prior to this conversation, citing little interest in the Pixar series. My question to you now isn’t if WALL-E is as good as I just described. Instead it’s this: Is WALL-E better than you expected, a notable Pixar achievement, or is it just more of the same?

Where Technology Meets Community: In Defense of Cars

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Where Technology Meets Community: In Defense of <em>Cars</em>
Where Technology Meets Community: In Defense of <em>Cars</em>

The key scene in Pixar’s 2006 Cars comes about halfway through, as Lightning McQueen and Sally ride through the countryside and stop on a mountainside above the small, quiet town of Radiator Springs. McQueen notices the nearby superhighway for the first time and the cars on it brushing by the town without even knowing that its there. Sally understands and laments that, “The road didn’t use to cut through the land like that interstate. It moved with the land.” This is followed by a flashback to older times, when Route 66 was the country’s main east-west thoroughfare and Radiator Springs was lively and full of visitors. The flashback shows the interstate being built, and then the town falling into decay. It’s the clearest statement of the film’s central concern: how technology forces change - and not always for the better.

The House Next Door Presents Pixar Week: October 4 - 10, 2009

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<em>The House Next Door</em> Presents Pixar Week: October 4 - 10, 2009
<em>The House Next Door</em> Presents Pixar Week: October 4 - 10, 2009

In the nearly fourteen years since it first released Toy Story, the first completely computer-animated film in history, Pixar has somehow gone from a well-liked animation studio to the last, best hope of the Hollywood studio system, the final piece of proof many critics can point to and say, “See? The old system can work if you know what you’re doing.” Since the release of Toy Story, Pixar has gone through A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up, and nearly all of these have die-hard defenders who proclaim their film of choice to be a modern classic (well, maybe not Cars). The release of each new Pixar film in the summer can be rather predictably greeted with a spate of critical hosannas, but with a few exceptions, reviews of Pixar’s work often boil down to the following: “Pixar makes great films that both parents and their kids can enjoy!” And true though that may be, the studio has provoked surprisingly little solid critical discussion in mainstream outlets, outside of the annual attempts to rank Pixar’s latest effort against their former films.

Enter Pixar Week at The House Next Door, running Oct. 4-10, 2009, to coincide with the re-release of Toy Story and its sequel in theaters on Oct. 2.

What sorts of pieces are we looking for? Follow us after the jump for more.

Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions Original Song

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Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Original Song
Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Original Song

Sure, the last time the majority of nominations in this category belonged to a single film, said film actually won. But don’t call this category for Dreamgirls just yet. When, in 1991, Beauty and the Beast’s title song triumphed over “Belle” and “Be Our Guest” (in addition to a forgettable song from Hook and a song everyone wished they could forget from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), it was easy since all three songs covered notably different musical bases, allowing “Beauty And The Beast” to coast to its win on the ballad ticket over the curtain-raising overture of “Belle” and the “do not forget, eh, zees movie…she is eh set in Fruhnce” obviousness of “Be Our Guest.” The three songs from Dreamgirls, however, are almost indistinguishable from each other; it’s appropriate that our graphic above with the songs’ odds makes no attempt to differentiate. You could play them all now and I couldn’t tell you which song goes with which scene, which is unfortunate as they’re all supposed to play extremely different functions within the film. All right, that’s not entirely true: one does sound different from the other two. I’d forgotten that “Love You I Do” is Jennifer Hudson’s bouncy ditty before her fall; I’d falsely remembered it as the song Jaime Foxx snores through in front of the blowup of Beyoncé’s monstrous lips (the title just seemed appropriate for a song that was basically all “Get down on your knees and suck Berry Gordy off, woman!”). “Patience” is supposed to be an anthem on behalf of the collective conscience, like Motown hitching up to the Joan Baez Express (or, at any rate, a pastiche of one of Stevie Wonder’s early-’70s protest songs a la “Look Around” or “Evil”), and “Listen” is supposed to be an isolated ode to self-entitlement as personal fulfillment (Beyoncé is framed against a black background like Diana Ross at the climax of The Wiz). But they sure as hell sound interchangeable to me, and taking Beyoncé’s name off the credits for “Listen” sure knocked the wind out of its sails as the ersatz frontrunner of the trio, unless voters are seriously lazier than we give them credit for. If the award were actually being voted on by songwriters, than Siedah Garrett’s name recognition would almost be enough of a factor to push “Love You I Do” to a win, but most voters are not songwriters and the peppy number probably has as much chance as “That Thing You Do” did (or, rather, didn’t). Count Cars out for stealing Prince’s nomination for Happy Feet, and we’re left with only one nominee with the sort of Grammy-bait crossover appeal that’s proven so powerful in this category lately. If the Dixie Chicks are likely headed to Album of the Year honors tonight, Melissa Etheridge’s An Inconvenient Truth power ballad “It’s Hot Out There For A Pimp” stands a reasonable shot to complete the circle. A win for her is almost like a win for the non-nominated Chicks over in the Documentary Feature category…somehow.