Archive for September, 2012
I like movies with heart. “Duets” is a movie with a big heart that nobody went to see. Well, almost nobody. Despite an intelligent, one-of-a-kind script and a star-studded cast, “Duets” tallied a mere 4.73 million dollars in domestic box office sales.* In terms of Hollywood studio economics this paltry sum is tantamount to a financial implosion.
“Duets” is (mostly) a feel-good road movie about people following their hearts and discovering who they are. I don’t see any harm in a story like that, particularly if you can add a few new twists and keep folks smiling. I thought “Duets” did both, but a lot of people disagreed.
I can find only two explanations why “Duets,” a movie I liked, was so universally overlooked by the movie-going public. Explanation 1: I have very bad taste. Explanation 2: An overwhelming number of negative reviews by movie critics cut off the hand that feeds the box office.
According to Metacritic® (www.metacritic.com) a sample of 29 professional movie critics gave “Duets” an average rating of 40 % out of 100. In contrast, a sample of twelve “Users” (people) gave the movie a rating of 8.8 points out of 10. (I realize this is a small sampling of “Users,” but let’s not forget that not many people saw this movie.)
According to this compact study then, “Duets” is a predominantly people friendly movie with an allergy to movie critics.
Here are a few typical movie critic reviews:
“Miserable as it crawls for two eternal hours towards being “life affirming.” Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner
“Simply creaks with contrivance—particularly in its overwrought finale.” Curtis Morgan, Miami Herald
“A leaden piece of whimsy that looks for profound life lessons among a group of karaoke bar aficionados.” Steve Daly, Entertainment Weekly
To be fair, some critics praised “Duets, as evidenced by these reviews:
“A highly likable movie.” M.V. Moorhead, Dallas Observer.
“Appealing, and ultimately moving.” Bob Graham, San Francisco Chronicle.
Now let’s hear from a few movie-goers:
“Her name was Lola. She was a show girl…dah de dah de dah. This movie was fun interesting and catchy. What is better?” James R.
“This movie is engaging, the story unfolds around the music, and Paul Giamatti is great. Apart some predictable things typical nowadays in American movies (family values, etc.), this movie is fun.” Pablo E.
“I loved it. Movie critics suck.” Stephanie R.
“The karaoke scenes were great…the film got me.” John O.
“Bette Davis Eyes…I like this song! Especially when Gwyneth Paltrow sang it.” Jiae K. (I agree with you, Jiae. Paltrow sings the song like a sultry angel in her own voice–no dubbing.)
It’s interesting to note the difference between the critical reviews and the “User” reviews. Critics, for the most part, write about the movie from a purely intellectual and artistic point of view. Believe it or not, I feel strongly this point of view does the movie-going public a disservice. For a more detailed explanation of what I mean by this, please read my earlier post, “Do Movie Critics Have a Heart?”
The people who commented on “Duets” experienced the movie in a completely different way than the critics. They connected with the movie emotionally. They had a good time. People primarily go to the movies to be entertained. I believe this is a fact most movie critics tend to forget.
Here is my own somewhat extended review of the movie.
The script weaves the stories of three sets of people into a road movie unified by the common thread of karaoke. I give the screenwriter, John Byrum, credit for coming up with this unique concept. Before watching the movie, I never knew karaoke bars existed, and people competed in karaoke competitions for cash prizes. I discovered an entire karaoke subculture and its attendant technology. One of the things a good movie will do is open a door to a world you’ve never experienced before. For me, Duets succeeded admirably in this regard.
Good music of any kind never fails to stir the human soul. This comes through in the “User review” excerpts. I found the music and the surprising singing talent of the “A” list actors showcased in “Duets” both refreshing and moving. I am astonished that movie critics, in large part, failed to respond to the musical dimension of “Duets.”
“Hard to take stone-cold sober,” writes critic Jack Matthews of the New York Daily Times.
Instead of asking, “Do movie critics have are heart,” I wonder if it might be more appropriate to ask, “Do movie critics have a heart beat?”
What about the acting? Well, Huey Lewis is definitely a better singer than actor. But I thought he basically got the job done in his role as a karaoke hustler and recalcitrant father. I have some questions about the choices Gwyneth Paltrow made in playing her role as Lewis’ long-lost daughter. I think she was going for innocent, but I didn’t feel it worked. I’d say this was the one major flaw in the film. I thought the other stars, Giamatti, Braugher, andMaria Bello all brought “A list” luster and ingenuity to their roles.
I found the three stories in the movie appealing, and yes, even insightful, some more than others. I enjoy movies that have the unmitigated gall (according to critics) to explore questions like “What the hell am I doing here?” or “What does it take to be a good person?”
I believe the emotional center of the movie revolves around the disillusioned-with-the American-Dream character of Paul Giamatti playing opposite Andre Braugher, an ex-con. Braugher (Life on the Street) brings his customary moral compass and dignity to the role, plus a singing voice you would not believe he commands if you had not heard it yourself. This can also be said for Gwyneth Paltrow, and to a slightly lesser degree, Paul Giamatti and Maria Bello.
I connected with “Duets” emotionally. Like John O said, “…this movie got me.”
I’ll close by saying it’s very hard to make a compelling, engaging movie that switches back and forth between three different stories.Yet here I am, twelve years later, still thinking about “Duets.” Am I smart or senile to like this movie? Why did it fail at the box office?” Did “Duets” make a comeback in movie rental receipts?
If you have the answers to any of these questions, I’d love to hear from you.
*September 17th to October 29, 2000. Source: Wolfram Alpha Computational Knowledge engine (www.wolframalpha.com)
At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m fed up with movie critics. Critics are supposed to help me find good movies, and they tend to fail miserably at this.
My purpose here is not to be unkind to movie critics. Instead, I’m trying to understand by thinking out loud on paper why movie critics are so unreliable.
Most movie scripts share a common shape. By this I mean the stories are grouped into three acts designed to build dramatic tension, climax, and ultimately resolve the conflict. A number of precise rules for screenwriting success are drilled into the heads of screenwriting students. I have experienced this first-hand as a screenwriting student at UCLA. There are pros and cons to the three-act formula. The good news is that the structure works fairly well. The bad news is that it can impede creativity. Most writers and film makers need a structure or a shared convention to shape their work, no matter how badly they resent it. Genius writers and filmmakers break the rules at will and succeed handsomely. You just have to know where you fit in.
The point I’m trying to make is that there is a basic flow to most movie stories. I don’t think most movie-goers mind the similarity. Critics do. They complain bitterly about it. Unfortunately, not too many people can come up with a movie like Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” every time they pull the trigger.
Critics know this. They aren’t dumb, after all. They are just bored with watching so many stories that unfold in a similar manner. They also get tired of the same themes, over and over again. And the movie they are reviewing often reminds them of one of the many others they’ve seen. They conveniently forget there is nothing new under the sun and filmmakers tend to influence one another. So the pro critic is prone to bouts of grumpiness, a jaded outlook, and unreasonableness.
My intention is not to make excuses for bad movies. We all know there are too many sub-par films hitting the streets every day. I do need to point out, however, that it’s hard to make a decent movie. Many elements have to come together gracefully and, in a way, miraculously.
A good film begins with a good script. After the filmmaker pens or acquires a good script, no easy feat in itself, he or she must assemble a cast of competent actors. In Hollywood, they have to be “A” list actors to get financing. Trying to get a few people from a small pool of famous actors interested in your script isn’t the easiest thing to do in the world.
Add cinematography, sound, makeup, costumes, editing, scenery and other artistic functions requiring a high degree of talent and expertise, and you have an accident waiting to happen unless everyone involved knows what they are doing. Add another intangible element like the chemistry that develops or fails to develop between cast members and crew, and you can see why filmmaking is a risky business.
Obviously, a great deal of blood sweat and tears, not to mention money, goes into making a “major motion picture.” There is no doubt that a lot of movies fall far short of the artistic vision that breathed life into them. But there are a lot of movies that deserve more credit than critics are willing to give them.
I understand that a critic’s job is to criticize. Go ahead and nitpick about whatever aspects of a movie that may not work. But please, I beg, pay a little more attention to the overall effect the movie evokes. That’s what People care about.
In my next post, I’m going to talk about Duets, another movie I felt received short shrift from professional movie critics.
This is a childhood memory that keeps surfacing. I’m writing about it to better understand what’s happening, and because I suspect there is a point to the story worth sharing.
My mother took me to the circus every year as a child. One year, I asked for a pet turtle instead of the chameleon I usually begged to take home as a souvenir. It occurs to me that I may have chosen the turtle because I did not want to go through the trauma of the chameleon dying for one reason or another within two weeks of bringing it home. I watched my little turtle walk in circles around the plastic gulley of his cage for a few weeks. Occasionally, he would climb the ramp to the tiny plastic island in the center of his domain to bask under a green, plastic tree.
After a few weeks of watching the turtle walk around, feeding him daily, and occasionally taking him out to play on the cork floor of my room, I grew bored with the little fellow. I think my waning interest was the result of the turtle’s boredom rubbing off on me. I can’t imagine he found his life interesting, trudging around in a small plastic tray day after day, with nothing to look forward to besides a few grains of dried turtle food.
Then I did something unusual. I decided to set the turtle free.
I have no idea why I came to this decision. It might have been out of admiration. The turtle refused to die, unlike my pet chameleons. Looking back on it now, it is likely the little guy had some heroic qualities, or was born with his sun in Jupiter.
I took the little turtle to a favorite play spot; a stone bridge overlooking a pond tucked away in a corner of my neighborhood. Here, I let the turtle swim out of my hands, hoping the little guy’s chances for survival in the wild were better than dying of boredom from circling a plastic dish endlessly in my room.
Six months later, while playing near the brook, I spotted the turtle sunning himself on a rock. I knew circus turtles came from some far-away place. They didn’t look like the other wild turtles living around the brook-pond in my neighborhood. And this guy had the distinctive markings on his chest characteristic of circus turtles. This turtle had to be the little guy I let go only he wasn’t little any more. He had grown at least four or five inches in diameter and his shell had turned up at the edges due to this growth spurt.
My little circus turtle had flourished in the wild. I’d like to say he looked happy, but I really can’t remember, and it’s probably hard to tell what turtles are feeling under any circumstances. But my turtle had obviously survived and prospered. It’s a fair bet his life was more interesting than the dreary one he led in captivity.
Why am I writing this? Perhaps to understand this recurring memory is my soul speaking to me in a parable. My soul is imploring me to get out of my plastic turtle cage, to explore, to grow, to get out of my little rut.
Human nature tends to resist the whispers of the soul, despite my increasingly desperate attempts to listen. (I recently purchased a rocket belt on e-bay to overcome the effects of psychological gravity.*)
Actually, this blog helps me to climb out of my turtle cage.
So, thanks for being there. Thanks for reading.
*The rocket belt didn’t work. I had to return it.
The moment arrived unannounced during a set of solitary yoga postures on my plush, living room rug. A long stretch to relieve the tension of the day popped something open inside me. It was not a ligament or a tendon. It was my hardened heart.
In the Hollywood version of the story, the hero manages to crawl to the phone, call 911, and then wakes up in a hospital bed after a miraculous, life-saving operation by a brilliant, open-heart surgeon. The experience impresses upon our hero a number of crucial life lessons. After the crisis, the hero’s character and actions towards others change profoundly for the better.
Unfortunately, life does not resemble a Hollywood B movie. My physical heart had not split open while in shoulder stand on the rug. A more subtle heart had opened, and with it, a door to a new world and another destiny.
It all started with Jorge, the new employee I would never have gone to lunch with if my usual lunch-buddies had not run off somewhere without me. Jorge was Mexican, the only Latin guy on the second floor executive suite of Wallco, a wallpaper distribution company that hired mostly white Anglos in 1981, when Miami’s transformation into a multi-cultural city began in earnest.
Jorge, like me, was in his early thirties, average looking, average height, dark hair, brown eyes, thin mustache — an easy to get lost in the crowd kind of guy. I had no idea his unheralded arrival would trigger a seminal occurrence in my life.
Wallco hired Jorge for its fledgling export division. Jorge’s mission was to open up markets in South America and the Caribbean–approximately one quarter of the world–all by himself. He had the ability to speak Spanish and, I presumed, super-human sales skills coupled with a pioneering spirit. I didn’t envy Jorge one bit.
I considered myself above Jorge. I was the high and mighty Marketing Director—Jorge the lowly new sales recruit. I had served my time in sales. I was grateful beyond words not to have to spend my days selling wallpaper sample books to dealers who had no more room in their stores for them. I figured, if nothing else, I could learn something about the export market by going to lunch with the new recruit. Besides, Jorge was the only soul left on the second floor other than myself.
Jorge suggested we eat at a quiet, natural food restaurant in Miami Springs. My lunch prospects had just been elevated from a singular, fatty, McDonald’s affair to a tasty, low cholesterol engagement. I happily agreed.
Over salads and grain burgers, I discovered Jorge was a vegetarian and engaged in practicing meditation on a daily basis. Here was a subject I had some interest in, having experimented with various forms and teachers of meditation over the years. You might say I was a semi-serious spiritual seeker. I had reached a curious crossroads, a sort of impasse in my life.
I had everything a thirty something American male could wish for: the perfect job in a field I enjoyed; a great boss; a townhouse bachelor pad; girlfriends, a few pals to hang out with; a sports car and club memberships. I had scrupulously followed the prescribed formulas for success. I had cobbled together many of the accoutrements of an ideal life.
Yet I felt restless and unfulfilled.
I was terrified there was something terribly wrong with me. I felt the cold winds of middle age blowing in my direction. I saw myself dating one girl after another well into my eighties, until I finally abandoned the search for true love when my body and spirit caved in from old age.
There I was, sitting across from this lowly new recruit munching on his iceberg lettuce. He casually mentioned losing 80 pounds after becoming a vegetarian. I commented that it must have taken a great deal of willpower. He answered, “Not really.”
I began to pepper Jorge with questions. The guy was unlike many of the salespeople in our company I regularly rubbed elbows with. He had a depth and an intensity that I found intriguing.
I asked Jorge what kind of meditation he practiced. He said it was not a “kind of meditation.” He launched into a passionate discourse about a profound experience of peace the meditation opened up for him. He invited me to a presentation scheduled at a hotel on Miami Beach that evening. I told myself there was no way I was going to drive all the way from South Miami to the Beach to attend some dubious spiritual seminar.
That night, I found myself sitting in a lime green, orange accented meeting room at the Carlyle Hotel.
Curiosity—and some undefinable vibe emanating from between Jorge’s words at lunch had picked me up from the chocolate brown pit sofa in my living room and deposited me in an uncomfortable chair surrounded by a room full of strangers.
Indian music played from six-foot speakers flanking a makeshift stage. The only thing that kept me in my seat was the absence of Hare-Krishna-like chanting.
I glanced to my left and caught a glimpse of Jorge, who smiled kindly at me. Someone took the stage and began speaking into a microphone.
The Indian Music and the microphone are the only details I recall after the program began. My perspective slowly shifted from an external focus to a pleasant inner experience.
A succession of three speakers addressed the gathering that evening. I do not recall a single word any one of them said. I just remember feeling relaxed. I had an experience that can only be described as feeling at home with myself.
For the first time in a very long while, I had actually enjoyed myself without a great deal of effort or alcohol to help me along. I felt like an invisible hand had knocked off a layer of caked mud from my body.
It is difficult for me to describe what happened after that evening. I can only say that it marked the beginning of a long journey that lasts to this day, to this very moment.
In the days and weeks after the event at the Carlyle Hotel, I met Jorge’s teacher, who essentially introduced me to myself. I thought I knew myself pretty well. I began to see that the image I held of myself was only a faint glimmer of a deeper, broader Self, filled with possibilities.
Many years later, my life remains full of challenges, but I face them with real joy and optimism. I have discovered that life can be every bit as beautiful as you want it to be. It takes some courage and effort, but the possibility is real for anyone willing to step up to the plate.
I look inward now for satisfaction, rather than chasing it on the outside. I shake hands with myself on a daily basis through meditation. I feel more grounded. I feel more love from within, which reflects positively into my outer life.
It occurs to me that I should have picked up the tab for Jorge’s lunch. Jorge, buddy, if you’re out there somewhere and can read this, please know that I owe you one.
Top photo from the Dutchville Exhibition at the Netherlands Architecture Institute