The Couch Jumper Can’t Win

Tom Cruise’s new moviegets panned in London.

Tom Cruise

Bad Orgones: The first reviews for Lions for Lambs, the Redford-Cruise-Streep collaboration, are coming in, and they are not good.

The movie was a hot ticket at a London film festival this week, but the Times of London derided its “almost autistic lack of personality.” Variety called it “talky.” We suspect it costs reviewers some anguish to smite Robert Redford, but in the early going, Lions for Lambs is scoring a weak 40 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

This is not surprising considering the setup of the movie: Tom Cruise as a slick senator tries to sell a skeptical journalist (Meryl Streep) on a war strategy that is failing as he speaks. Robert Redford is an earnest college professor who tries to inspire an uninvolved student. Two of Redford’s former students, having enlisted, try to survive the failing strategy in Afghanistan. All three vignettes involve a great deal of talking.

Even if Lions for Lambs were the greatest movie ever, it would face tough sledding in today’s marketplace. The public is lining up to see the football comedy The Game Plan and recoiling from a spate of serious and rather depressing films, a number of which have to do with the war on terror.

Lions for Lambs is in for a lot of scrutiny, not just because of its star cast but because it’s the first film released under the United Artists banner since Tom Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, took over. And it wasn’t a bad idea. Cruise was coming off couch-jumping and Matt Lauer-scolding. Allying himself with Redford and Streep could have been good. Cruise’s eagerness placed him in an unusual role: performing in and producing a topical, political film. He doesn’t seem entirely at ease: Variety noted that he “didn’t exactly morph into Tim Robbins” during a question-and-answer session after a New York-area screening last week, concluding that the actor “hadn’t decided exactly what positions to stake out and was using the event as a rehearsal for his views.”

But back to business. The film’s lack of commercial appeal wouldn’t be a problem if the movie were generating reviews that would give it Oscar fuel. But it isn’t, and UA’s got two more tough-to-market movies coming down the pipeline. Up next is Valkyrie, in which Cruise plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a German icon who tried to assassinate Hitler. You might recall that the Germans—hostile to Scientology—wouldn’t allow filming in the Bendlerblock, where Stauffenberg was executed. When the government relented, footage shot there was mysteriously damaged in the lab and had to be reshot.

Valkyrie is a period piece with a downer ending, but at least it’s directed by Bryan Singer, who has The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men to his credit. He might be able to make a movie that has some box office appeal, though whether the public is prepared to swallow Cruise in a Nazi uniform with an eye patch is obviously a looming question. (One industry veteran sniped that the photo from the production makes Cruise look like one of the Village People.)

The third movie coming from UA is Oliver Stone’s take on the My Lai massacre. No kidding. At least they cast Bruce Willis instead of Mel Gibson, who was considered at one point.

Cruise has clearly steered away from the conventional wisdom that he should do career repair with an action movie or romantic comedy. And he was among the canniest of stars for many years, so maybe he knows what’s best for him. But if Cruise is reinventing himself as an actor in and producer of “quality” movies, that may not be compatible with reviving United Artists. Given the cost of doing such risky business, most industry observers doubt that mission would be possible even if Cruise and Wagner were trying to make popcorn movies instead of chasing an adult audience that is frequently inclined to wait for the DVD. (link)

Oct. 22, 2007

Ryan Gosling

Bye- Bye: A strong source tells us that things blew up badly with in The Lovely Bones, the Peter Jackson-directed film based on the Alice Sebold novel. Recall that in May, DreamWorks prevailed in a bidding war by offering a very rich deal to make this film, which tells the story of a child who is raped and murdered. Gosling is out in the role of the child’s father, and Mark Wahlberg slid in over the weekend just hours before shooting was set to begin. And apparently, the break with Gosling may lead to litigation, though it’s still unclear what the fight was about. Sure seems that DreamWorks has been hitting a few speed bumps lately. The first movie under its own label was The Heartbreak Kid. Things We Lost in the Fire got incinerated over the weekend, opening to $1.6 million. And Kite Runner has been delayed because it put its child stars in danger in Afghanistan. Schadenfreude, Mr. Grey?

This would also seem like worrisome timing for Gosling, who got an Oscar nomination for his role in Half Nelson and is getting a fair bit of praise for Lars and the Real Girl. If he’s managed to tick off Peter Jackson and DreamWorks honcho Steven Spielberg simultaneously, that could not be considered a good career move. ( link)

Oct. 17, 2007

George Clooney

Curious George: We admit that we were a little disappointed when Michael Clayton opened to a weak $10 million and fourth place last weekend. The critics were gaga about Michael Clayton, though Variety’s Brian Lowry was astute enough to peg it is as a “difficult-to-market” film.

We all know that grown-ups are not usually in haste to go to theaters to help movies chalk up a big opening weekend, but many thought Michael Clayton might do better. We’ve also heard a lot of you grown-ups complaining about a lack of grown-up films, or a lack of good ones, and this isn’t going to help.

Since Michael Clayton is fairly crackling entertainment, we asked around to see why Hollywood thought the movie failed to connect with audiences. A number of theories emerged:

  1. It’sClooney. Clooney is very popular in Hollywood, but he cannot be counted on to open a movie. It’s happened for Ocean’s 11-12-13, but when you’re in a movie with Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, you don’t get bragging rights. There was The Perfect Storm, but that kind of co-starred the wave. “George has made a series of bad decisions as a movie star,” says a top producer. “Not as an actor, not as an artist, but as a movie star.” Clooney has given a nod to fans with the Ocean’s series, he continues, but he doesn’t give them a lot of gratification. “George has made calculated decisions about what he wants, not what the audience wants,” this producer concludes. As it turns out, you can make bad decisions as a movie star and still win Oscars and have a villa in Italy.
  2. It’s not Clooney, it’s the marketing. Who can be counted on to open a movie these days? Maybe Will Smith. Maybe Adam Sandler in a comedy. “There ain’t a whole lot of ‘em,” says a former studio chairman. The days are gone when you could book Julia Roberts into Dying Young—”a movie that nobody wants to see”—and watch the audience line up. So, if you can’t count on selling the star, he says, you’d better sell an idea. That didn’t happen with Michael Clayton. “When you look at the marketing, you don’t know what it’s about,” he says. To him, that’s understandable because Michael Clayton is “a really well-executed movie that’s not about anything.” But a good marketer shouldn’t let that stand in the way. Make it look like it’s about something. And create a campaign that hints the movie is, in fact, pretty entertaining. “It doesn’t look like it’s really different from In the Valley of Elah,” this observer says. “I don’t mean to piss on that movie, but there’s 50 of ‘em like that right now. I’m tired of death and destruction.” Which leads to the next theory:
  3. All at once, there are too damn many grown-up movies. “A lot of movies are going after the same audience,” says a studio chief. The Kingdom; Elizabeth: The Golden Age; 3:10 to Yuma; Into the Wild; Darjeeling Limited; Lust, Caution; Eastern Promises … and many more to come. “It’s a tough market,” the studio chief continues. “If you don’t have a defined perspective, you’re just one of the many.” He also argues that Michael Clayton should have been released on fewer screens. The movie is sophisticated and plays pretty urban, he explains, so putting it out on 2,511 screens put it in a lot of places where it wasn’t going to rack up much business. “If it had gone out on 1,500 screens and it did $10 million, you’d say, ‘Hey, it did pretty well,’ ” he says. (link)

Oct. 11, 2007

Drowning their pens: No one is dragged more reluctantly into covering the industry’s labor problems than your Hollywoodland correspondent. But since the writers are rattling the saber very loudly, here’s a quick and simple look at the situation.

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation 

The writers feel they’ve gotten screwed on DVD revenues and don’t want to repeat that experience. They are attacking on numerous fronts—trying to organize reality-show staff, demanding a federal rule requiring networks to disclose when advertisers pay to have their products woven into television shows. But this is really about getting a piece of the revenue from new media, whatever that new media may be.

The networks and studios say they don’t know how the business is going to work at this point or even whether anything resembling life as they know it can continue in the new-media world. They offered to do a study of this mysterious new media. When the writers didn’t go for it, the producers came up with another idea: doing in the long-standing residuals system, under which writers get paid for repeat airings of their work. In other words, give up your puppy, or we’ll kill your baby.

Now, the writers seem poised to strike—which wasn’t supposed to happen just yet. Yes, their contract is finished this month, but they were going to work under their old deal until June, when the actors and directors guilds are supposed to negotiate new contracts. The networks, thinking they still had some time, have been stockpiling new shows and reality series. The studios have been working toward getting movies started by March on the assumption that they’d be able to finish while the writers were still around.

But the writers figured out a couple of things. One, the directors look like they’re going to cut their own deal early, which they’ve done before, and the supposedly perfect end-of-June storm will be downgraded. Two, what’s the point of letting the enemy stock the larder? So, the writers may walk as early as the beginning of November. Certainly they’re talking a tough game, despite great trepidation among many of the rank and file.

There seems to be some debate as to which will have a tougher time if the writers go—the networks or the film studios. The movie folks are either a little bit or very pregnant with pictures and would have to expensively put them on hold or expensively pull the plug if no writers are around. The networks may be able to stockpile reality programming but don’t want to drive viewers away in droves with all that much slop. They’re scratching for primetime ideas—NBC, for example, is said to be looking at reruns of Curb Your Enthusiasm or airing the original British version of The Office. (link)

Oct. 5, 2007

The Kite Runner 

The war in Afghanistan: Paramount is starting to sweat bullets over The Kite Runner.

Perhaps you’ve read the New York Times report about concerns over the safety of the child actors in the film, which is based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel. Or perhaps you heard your Hollywoodland correspondent’s even earlier report on NPR in which one of the child stars and his father said that they were misled about the nature of the film and that they are now afraid of what might happen after it’s released. The movie was supposed to hit theaters in November. Now it’s been pushed back several weeks to give Paramount time to figure out how to protect the three children who may be at risk.

Like the book, the movie portrays two boyhood friends who must deal with political strife, and ethnic and class conflicts. In one pivotal scene, one of the boys—Hassan—is raped by a youth who later becomes a Taliban leader. Various parties might be offended by the film’s depiction of life in Afghanistan: the Taliban, other fundamentalists, members of the Hazara minority who will not like the portrayal of their bitter persecution.

But the rape may be the most sensitive issue in the film. Ishaq Shahryar, who served as Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban ambassador to the United States, says that the depiction will destroy the lives of Ahmad Kahn Mahmidzada, who plays the victim, and his family. “The consequences will be terrible,” he says. “To be raped or to be gay over there—it’s unfortunately absolutely unacceptable.” The stigma is so great that even a fictional depiction is bad—worse, says Shahryar, because “the whole world will see it.”

In July, Paramount got nervous enough to dispatch former CIA counterterrorism officer John Kiriakou to talk to experts in Washington and Kabul and evaluate the risk. He said unequivocally that the kids had to leave Afghanistan before the film is released. Paramount is working to relocate the three actors and their families, though it’s unclear whether they will decide to leave and how long they might stay away.

The filmmakers have repeatedly said they had no inkling of the danger during the making of the film. “Nobody that we were working with [in Afghanistan] ever said this could be anything but a positive thing for these kids and their families and for their culture,” says producer Rebecca Yeldham. “There was such joy and enthusiasm for the sincerity and seriousness of our approach.”

The filmmakers say the situation has changed because of escalating violence in Afghanistan. But former Ambassador Shahryar says that has little to do with the danger facing the children, which involves long-standing taboos in Afghan culture. “I think in cases like this, all times are bad—nothing to do with the [idea that] the situation is worse now,” he says. Paramount’s own consultant concurs that the filmmakers walked into this situation naively at best.

It is interesting how filmmakers can invest so much time and so many resources into creating authenticity on movies set in a different place and time. And then they claim ignorance about the very subject that they’ve been studying.

Yeldham, the producer, says Ahmad Jan Mahmidzada—the father of the then-12-year-old schoolboy recruited to play Hassan—has falsely accused the Kite Runner team of misleading him about the film by downplaying its dark elements. But they confirm young Ahmad Kahn’s account that he balked at playing the scene.

Yeldham says the scene was in fact depicted in a less harrowing manner than originally planned, in part “out of respect for concerns of the families and out of respect for the culture.” (Apparently, the filmmakers had some inkling of these issues after all.) She also said that the studio wanted to be sure the movie got a PG-13 rating so it could “reach out and touch audiences around the world of all ages.”

Ahmad Kahn said he declined to remove his trousers for the scene. He and his father became concerned that the studio would use computers to make the sequence more graphic. Yeldham says that is not the case. But she acknowledged that a body double was used, in one case to show a boy undoing a pants buckle and in another to show pants being tugged slightly down. “We shot those for continuity,” she says. “There was no nudity involved.” Somehow, we suspect that the Mahmidzada family will be unpleasantly surprised to see that bit of continuity.

“This has been a labor of love for four years,” Yeldham says. “We have taken great pains to do right by Khaled’s beautiful book. And, none of us being of this culture or faith, we really, really carefully undertook every step of this process and tried to do the right thing by the kids and the families always. It’s tough to be on the receiving [end] of fraudulent accusations when you know that you can hold your head high because you did do the right thing.”

It’s ironic. The Kite Runner, which takes children in peril as such a major theme, has ended up creating exactly the sort of situation lamented in its pages. (link)