Posts Tagged culture
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.
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
If there is a hall of fame for under-appreciated or misunderstood movies, then “The Family Man” belongs in it.
For the record, I have studied screenwriting at UCLA, have written three screenplays, and watch at least two to three movies a week. I mention this only to point out that my opinion is not entirely uninformed (off the wall—maybe—uninformed—no.)
Despite this informed opinion, “The Family Man,” starring Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni, met with lukewarm reviews by critics and movie fans when it came out in 2000.
The story opens with a day in the life of Jack Campbell, a thirty-something, wealthy investment banker who captains a boutique investment firm on Wall Street. Jack is intelligent, ambition consumed, bold, self-centered, and charming. Even though his life revolves around the pursuit of money and the pleasures of the flesh, he is hard not to like. His appreciation of classical music and opera displayed in the opening scenes hints at the presence of a soul.
When this movie was made, Nick Cage was still at the height of his acting career. I believe Jack Campbell is one of his more memorable roles. All of the characters in the movie, for that matter, are finely drawn and acted.
After becoming acquainted with Jack Campbell and the world he inhabits, the screenwriters (David Diamond and David Weissman) waste no time in spinning the tale. Jack drops into a fast-food mart after work on Christmas Eve to buy eggnog and stumbles into an armed altercation between a disgruntled customer and the store owner. Jack intervenes to prevent a violent incident by offering to buy a lottery ticket the owner claims is a fake.
In the aftermath, outside of the store, Jack speaks with the disgruntled customer, played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle happens to be an angel on a routine mission designed to teach the Chinese convenience store owner a lesson in racial tolerance. The owner doesn’t learn his lesson, which puts the angel in a foul mood. Unwittingly, Jack contributes to the angel’s frustration with the human condition by making a condescending remark indicative of his superior attitude. The angel decides to teach Jack a lesson by sending him into an alternate reality that “might have been” if he had not deserted his college sweetheart to launch his career as an intern at an investment firm in England. The angel gives Jack a chance to get a “glimpse” into a life based on a completely different set of values than the values he now holds dear.
A big dog slurping Jack’s face wakes him up in bed next to the woman he left cold “in real life.” He is shocked and horrified when two young children pile on top him. The kids are under the ridiculous impression that Jack, a lone wolf of Wall Street, is their father.
In “The Family Man” Jack’s disdain for middle class values slowly turns into respect, caring, and finally a deep concern for the people who surround him. This synopsis really doesn’t do the movie justice. I found almost every scene in the movie poignant. Many of the scenes are multi-layered with subtle observations about human nature and social issues. The dialogue and situations are clever and insightful without a hint of cliché.
The movie moved me to the point of tears in three or four scenes. One example involves Jack’s relationship with the little girl who would have been his daughter in his alternate life. The little girl, Annie, senses Jack is not her “real father.” She concludes Jack is an alien and asks him where the mother ship is so she can get her father back.
In a scene towards the end of the movie, Jack and Annie frolic in the snow on Christmas morning. By now, Jack has formed a bond with the child. Jack falls down and Annie crawls onto his chest. With a precious smile, she says, “I knew you’d come back.”
I lost it right there.
Many critics commented that the movie over-sentimentalized middle class life. I disagree. I feel the movie artfully portrayed the bumps and warts of middle-class existence, as well as the pitfalls and emptiness of Jack’s investment-banker life. Neither of the two Jacks had it all. Regardless, I found the lifestyle issue secondary. The element of the movie that spoke to me the loudest was Jack’s transformation.
“The Family Man” isn’t the only movie I liked that critics and movie fans, in disturbing numbers, deemed “overly sentimental.” Either my sensibilities are inverted, or I’m incredibly sane. Whatever the case, I’m sticking to my guns. I just want to point out that as the world grows more cynical and hardened, it appears good movies are becoming an endangered species. I believe there is a direct connection here. Think about it.
Fictional movies reflect our world while creating their own realities. They are, by definition, abstractions. However, good movies have the power to inspire us to rise above fears and other roadblocks in the way of a better life and a better world. They teach us, often, to listen to our hearts. This isn’t always easy. One has to develop a relationship with one’s heart to hear it.
Feeling, I find, is a first step in cultivating a relationship with the heart. I believe that cultivating a relationship with the heart is essential to leading a full life. There is no one way to do it, but I feel strongly that the human heart needs to be cultivated, just like abs, biceps, WordPress blogs, and Facebook pages.
I liked the “The Family Man” because it made me feel. I practice meditation every day to cultivate a relationship with my heart. You might say the practice helps to “tenderize” my heart center. This movie reminded me that I have one.
I started eating natural foods at the age of 21. Considering that was 42 years ago, I am somewhat of a pioneer or at the very least an early adopter.
The increasing popularity of natural foods is proof positive that human consciousness is continuing to expand. However, I am at a loss to explain how the average natural food enthusiast can afford the cost of gas and natural foods.
Wait a minute. Maybe if you eat one-and-a-half meals a day instead of three you can afford both.
Hold on. I think I’ve finallyfigured it out. Yes, this has to be the answer:
People who buy their groceries at natural food stores and continue to drive their cars no longer go to the movies.
This means that the decline in movie box office sales is NOT due to the quality of the movies coming out of Hollywood nowadays. It is due to a redistribution of disposable income into the natural food sector.
Let’s move on to a few important facts of interest that will affect your life, whether you eat natural foods or not, and whether you like it or not (the facts, I mean.)
Tofu is the natural food equivalent of Hamburger Helper.
People who eat natural foods are 37% less likely to be involved in road rage incidents when compared to a statistically relevant sample of processed food consumers.
Children brought up on natural food are 26% more likely to realize GOD at some point beyond the age of 40.
In ten years, there will be 2,719 WHOLE FOODS stores in China.
If natural food consumption continues to grow at its present rate, financial analysts predict BURGER KING and McDONALDS corporations will merge within the next seven years and the new company will attempt to buy the WHOLE FOODS chain.
Editor’s Note: We hope this does not happen.