Monday, January 3, 2011

Film News

A Western Tide Smashes a Familiar Box Office Landscape

      This past week at the box office foretells an interesting though surprising story for the future success of the Western genre.  True Grit may have lost out to Little Fockers (an underwhelming, formulaic comedy) for a second straight week—Fockers managed to capitalize on both it's established name and past two successful entries in the series by taking home $26.3 million for a gross total of $103.2 million over it's two-week run while True Grit totaled $24.5 million bringing it's box office gross to $86.8 million—but the Coen Brothers film provided a more compelling result that requires a more scrutinizing look behind the numbers
      The seemingly ho-hum box office number for True Grit is actually quite significant.  The Coen Brothers $86.8 million dollar total (and counting) exceeds the box office receipts for all other Western Drama's since Tombstone in 1993.  Additionally, True Grit is the Coen Brothers greatest box office achievement surpassing the $74.3 million earned by No Country for Old Men.  This is a noteworthy accomplishment for the Western genre and may impact the type of films that the Hollywood studio machine intends to pursue over the next few years.  As an avid fan of Westerns, this is particularly inviting news for me.  Of course, any future Western production will require a highly competent team because matching the cinematic brilliance of the Coen Brothers and the superb ensemble cast of True Grit will be no easy task.  Call me an optimist but I presume to have all the faith that another True Grit is right around the corner.   
      Traditionally, Westerns have a dubious track record for churning out financially resonant films.  In fact, only four films have exceeded the magical $100 million dollar figure: Maverick, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, and Wild Wild West.  Barring a collapse, True Grit is well on its way to reaching that pivotal $100 million dollar tier.  
      Perhaps, the success of True Grit is owed to the increasingly popular Coen Brothers directorial stewardship.  I tend to think that the box office success of True Grit is the cumulative result of numerously diverse factors.  These factors, in no particular order, include the fact that True Grit is a remake of a popular classic, the Coen Brothers are increasingly gaining mainstream appeal (evidenced by the strong showing of Burn After Reading), and the cast is comprised of A-List box office darlings: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.   My contention; however, is not that the future status of Westerns is contingent or correlative to the same reasons for True Grit's box office success.  On the contrary, the fact that it is an established success will influence Hollywood studios who make decisions primarily based off of robust box office showings.  All I can hope for is that the requisite action of studios will lead to more satisfying, entertaining, and artistically significant Westerns.  
      Witnessing great filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers achieve commercial success for steadfastly upholding their artistic integrity foreshadows only positive developments for the future of cinema.  An industry dominated by middling, underwhelming films can potentially transform into an industry that is only mildly dominated by porous filmmaking.  Hail creativity in the name of the Coen Brothers, in honor of True Grit. 
The Box-Office Top Five: (12/31/10-1/02/11)
1. Little Fockers  - $26.3 million
2. True Grit - $24.5 million
3. Tron Legacy $18.3 million
4. Yogi Bear - $13 million
5. The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader - $10.5 million

* Be sure to check out the COMMENTS section where JL and I discuss the abysmal career of M. Night Shyamalan, the exceptional legacy of Nolan's Inception, the future of western cinema,, and other random thoughts about the industry.  

*In the above video,  the Detroit News offers a flattering review of True Grit, juxtaposing its original western roots and its remaking quotient.


  1. Interesting read. I have to admit, when done right, I do enjoy a good western movie as well. However, I don't see True Grit bringing a rise to the genre. For one, while enjoyable, I think it's a bit overrated (definitely not movie of the year like some would like it to be).

    Couple of things that need to be pointed out:
    1. If you count Dances with Wolves as a western, then you have to count Brokeback Mountain as a western too. And that one did very well at both domestic and foreign box offices.

    2. If you count Wild Wild West, then you have to count Shanghai Noon. While it didn't put up Wild Wild West numbers, it still did pretty well for itself.

    3. Also I believe when talking westerns of the past decade you have to bring up 3:10 to Yuma and Open Range. Again, neither put up Unforgiven type numbers, but they still did pretty well for themselves. Enough so to definitely be called a commercial success.

    Those points in mind, none of those films managed to revive the genre. Likewise, I don't see True Grit doing it either. I think the genre has actually run its course, and you'll never really see a "reviving" of it again. We'll just get to have the occasional good western that pops up from time to time (a la 3:10 to Yuma and such).

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I took a look at your blog and was blown away by how well put together it is...great work!

    The crux of my argument is not so much that True Grit will emphatically lead to a revival of the western genre. On the contrary, I was merely contending that Hollywood's power elite operate almost exclusively off of box office numbers. Thus, my argument was that such a resounding box office run for True Grit "may impact the type of films that the Hollywood studio machine intends to pursue..." Just as many foretell the imminent demise of the classic superhero film (with dwindling expectations for Avengers for instance), True Grit may signal a rise in western films. Your point is well taken though.

    In fact, I will admit that my argument is a little tenuous given a lack of robust empirical data. But according to the Box Office Mojo, True Grit has already entered the top five in lifetime gross (and good word of mouth resulting from potential Oscar noms) will only serve to bolster the film's ultimate box office gross. As I said, that $100 million dollar figure may carry some important weight among studios looking for their next film project.

    Whether a certain film represents a true-to-genre western is largely semantics. From a critical standpoint, True Grit holds a 95% rating among Top Critics and has received glowing reviews almost daily from myriad publications. You may think it is overrated and that is perfectly within your right. I also think it had a few flaws, notably an extremely anti-climactic finish.

    The final overriding point with my post was the fact that the financial success of True Grit foretells an auspicious future for cinema's top directors. True Grit is the Coen Brothers greatest financial success story. It is largely the result of their uncanny discipline at executing their familiarly consistent artistic bend. I think it represents a tremendously fruitful development for the future of cinema if smart and ambitious directors -- such as the Coen Brothers -- are rewarded for their creativity.

    Thanks again for your well-articulated response.

  3. Well I always enjoy intelligent debates on movies. So, I'm more than happy to read your rebuttal and your stance on the subject. I'm still not entirely convinced of a rise in western films though. Again, I am definitely a fan of them, so this isn't a personal vendetta of sorts. Just I don't see them rising to any prominence beyond what they are now.

    If you take a look at the only 4 westerns to surpass that $100Million mark, all of those (with the exception of Wild Wild West) are from the early 90's. However, despite being the most successful westerns, that really was the end of the big westerns. None of those really spurred on a rise in the genre.

    That being said, I'm not sure I want a rise in western films either. Especially not to the extent that they have done with superhero movies. As it stands, we still get the western movie here and there. And for the most part, they're good. This is because they're not a Hollywood hot ticket, thus the only ones doing them are creative people with a love for the genre. Thus, we get things like 3:10 to Yuma, The Proposition, even unconventional westerns like Sukiyaki Western Django (I don't think people really understand how similar "kung fu" movie and western films really are).

    Now, if you'd like to stick with the "may impact the type of films that the Hollywood studio machine intends to pursue..." thing in a more general sense, I could more easily agree. In the sense that it may not spur a rise in westerns, but it could impact Hollywood studios in pursuing movies with some depth and substance more often, rather than the mindless action/adventure movie they pump out. I could see that being possible. Though, I would say Inception probably has a better chance at having that type of impact on Hollywood. With Inception, Nolan sort of perfected that action-blockbuster in my eyes. Bringing actual depth and substance to a shallow and mindless genre. His success there could spur others to be more creative and begin to add substance to mix with the style.

    The part I will more readily agree with is that, while True Grit may not have an impact on what movies Hollywood pursues, it could affect what talent they pursue. Meaning, yes Coen Brothers could be given bigger shots and more attention. Much like how Hollywood really took more notice of Nolan and he became far more influential after commercial success, this too could happen to the Coens.

    I will say things like this have Hollywood looking almost promising. You speak of smart and ambitious directors who are creative. If you look at some of the hottest names around today, you have people like Nolan, Aronofsky, Coen Brothers, Snyder, Del Toro and so on. These are all directors that I believe are smart and creative filmmakers. And you're seeing this rise in such people having more popularity in Hollywood (I think at this point, Nolan pretty much has a master key to Hollywood and can do no wrong as far as studios are concerned--as long as he doesn't make a flop--which with the backing he's getting seems almost impossible).

    That is where I think something like this most benefits. Forget what genres a film's popularity inspire Hollywood to pursue. Rather, focus on the talent this brings into the eyes of Hollywood. If we get Hollywood swamped with creative, ambitious and intelligent filmmakers, the rest will fall in place. Whether it be westerns or action movies or steampunk adventure films or a resurgence in film noir, with good talent in there, we know we'll be getting good blockbuster releases from great filmmakers rather than shallow mindless junk from the flavor of the day wannabe filmmakers.

    Thanks for the compliment and glad you enjoyed by site. I'm, also, enjoying your work and your writing. Some intelligent and well-written stuff.

  4. Thanks for the praise. The one ingredient that elevates any standard debate is the presence of intelligently crafted opinions given by smart filmgoers. Both of us fit this mold and so I am delighted to make your acquaintance.

    I am glad you agreed with the heart of my argument. Hollywood may be forcibly steered down a path -- given the behemoth commercial success of Nolan's Inception and the flourishing box office success of True Grit -- that leads to a scenario where future projects are more frequently captained by the gifted class of directors. These directors, many of whom you've named include Aronofsky, Boyle, the Coen Brothers, Nolan, Fincher, PT Anderson, Edgard Wright, and a host of many others.

    I am sure you can agree that this past year in film has witnessed the end result of superlative film direction -- examples include Aronofsky's Black Swan, Boyle's 127 Hours, the Coen Brothers True Grit, Fincher's The Social Network, etc. Though all these films were not momentous commercial successes, they did exude a certain undeniably resonant intrinsic value -- the mass pool of critics universally clamored over these films, including many others I have not named.

    Your observation regarding Inception is spot-on and deeply insightful. I completely agree. The commercial success of the film -- we can only hope -- will influence studios to pull from the reservoir of their unlimited resources to provide increased control, bigger budgets, and extend more effective marketing efforts to highlight the work of cinema's most talented directors. Directors are the custodians of cinema and increasing their dual authority and power will lead to better work; so long as the directors we are highlighting are truly competent masters of film. Sorry but M. Night Shyamalan needs to hide in the shadows and re-evaluate his directorial career.

    Hopefully, 2010 has ushered in an era that will smartly balance and coalesce the history of film's last two key developments. These developments include the free reign, complete control legacy of the French New Wave period for directors that lasted until the early 80's and the intensely-driven grassroots indie movement of today's landscape that is also marked by increasingly, technologically focused, big budget allowances. Maybe 2011 will bring us closer to a film nirvana of sorts -- one in which film lovers such as ourselves will have to be only mildly subjected to the junk bond class of films. Instead, we can hope for a period where brilliant directors are rewarded for their expertise by gaining increased authority (i.e. final cut rights), solvent budgets, and greater frequency of work.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful response and I am glad we have similar sensibilities.

  5. Indeed I do hope this all signals a more artistic/creative/talented shift in the status quo of Hollywood. It's seeming more and more that creative, smart filmmakers are getting their due and more and more the indie movement is gaining more steam. I like this shift that is seemingly taking place.

    You're right, this year has given us some great films, despite some claiming this is possibly the worst year in film in a long while. I think the industry is slowly getting better. Or maybe its that audiences are developing better taste. Speaking with their dollars they show that truly good films like Inception, True Grit, etc can bring in the dollars and deserve the attention.

    I don't have much time to type out a lengthy addition to this conversation, just wanted to add a couple cents. Despite what others are saying like these recent years have been the worst for movies, I actually have been enjoying the way the industry seems to be going. Is Hollywood still going to churn out junk and milk franchises, etc? Yes. But also, I think they're starting to realize they can have the best of both worlds with money-making blockbusters and appeasing the movie lovers by giving some real substance and displaying talent. They seem to be taking more "risks" with talent.

    Then again, things like Avatar don't help either. Not sure about your thoughts on the movie, but that falls under "junk bond" for me. It was one of those "all style, no substance" for me. I personally think Cameron is overrated. As a producer he is pretty good and can be creative and bring nice style. However, as a director/writer he's pretty much garbage.

    And I agree about Shyamalan. He needs to stop. Seriously. Unfortunately, he's got his head so far up his own ass that he thinks it's the critics (and I guess the entire movie-going public) who are doing something wrong...not himself. Somebody needs to pull his funding. Put him in a timeout in the corner and let him think about what he's done.

  6. Once again, I find myself agreeing with your arguments. I did enjoy Avatar though my appreciation for the film is tempered by the gaping lack of originality within its narrative. Not only is Avatar a blatant rip-off of numerous other classic film tropes (seen in Pocahontas, Dance With Wolves, etc), but the dialogue is often bland and void of characteristic heart. On a technological level, I thoroughly dug Avatar as it's sprawling environment was beautifully rendered -- this is the area where Cameron shines.

    Unfortunately, the prodigious success of Avatar has lead to a growing shift towards 3D. And if 2010 has taught us anything, it's that 3D, as a viewing experience, can be grossly intolerable and poorly executed (Clash of the Titans for example). How To Train Your Dragon illustrated the effective use of 3D, but that film is the rare exception.

    I am glad you agreed with my appraisal of Shyamalan's putrid film career. The Last Airbender left such a foul stench in my mouth (in addition to all my friends) that I would not trust the guy to direct a rap music video. Other than his first gigantic success, The Sixth Sense, his career has rapidly descended into oblivion. Eventually, the sting of critics will cause him to realize his follies and give up...we can only hope.

  7. I resent Avatar's success much more than I do the movie itself. I didn't hate the movie, and yes it was very visually striking and beautiful. But, like you illustrated, the substance part of it was very lacking. This writing was very weak. It is an old story done several times before. Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves both did it far better. Pretty much, in all areas except visual/technological, the movie was a pile.

    The disheartening part is the success and what this signaled to Hollywood execs. It told them that they don't have to make movies with any substance. They can make movies that are poorly written in all areas. As long as they make it look pretty though and/or tack on some gimmick (plus of course shell out tons for advertising), then they can have huge money-making hits on their hands.

    The fact that it is now the highest grossing movie of all-time only exacerbates that problematic mindset.

    Moving on Shyamalan, I'm glad you said what you did there ("other than The Sixth Sense his career has rapidly descended"). See I've known many that will stand by, not only Sixth Sense, but Signs and Unbreakable as well. Hell, even known some that say Signs is his best work, or worse yet, some that say Unbreakable is. To me, Shyamalan has only ever made one really good movie: The Sixth Sense. Signs was bearable but ultimately pretty stupid. And I didn't care for Unbreakable at all. And beyond that he went downhill even further. What's even worse: he keeps amazing me with how bad he can make a movie. It's like you watch him put out garbage and think that's about as bad as it can get. Then he comes along with his next film and falls even further. Even still he does it. I thought for sure you couldn't get any worse than The Happening, but no, he was dead set on proving me wrong I guess, cause along comes The Last Airbender. Mind you, I haven't seen the movie, but I really don't need to. I've seen the trailers enough to tell me all I need to know. And couple that with the fact that the entire world unanimously calls it the worst movie of the year pretty much, that's all I need. I refuse to watch anymore of his work. Hell, I'm not even going to watch Devil. Even though he didn't write the screenplay or direct it this time, he did still write the story. Plus, he put faith into Dowdle and I don't trust Shyamalan's judgment at all anymore. Plus I've seen Quarantine, so I know how Dowdle rolls. Though I will say Brian Nelson, the guy Shyamalan chose to write the actual screenplay, I like some of his work. I enjoyed 30 Days of Night (though I know most didn't) and Hard Candy was good I thought. But again, he only wrote the screenplay, the story comes from Shyamalan.

    Anyways, yes we can hope Shyamalan will eventually give up. I do hope that every time I hear/read his name.

  8. My gripes with Shyamalan are emblematic of a more troubling problem. The guy just does not possess the chops to direct any kind of compelling, dramatc or visually moving work of cinema. His career peaked at the outset, which is probably the reason for his abrupt demise, at least from a critical standpoint. Shyamalan's filmmaking career is eerily similar to the sports career of the flash in the pan stud who bursts on the scene and subsequently, experiences failure for the first time in their life (like Bill Mazeroski who is known for a historic game winning World Series home run and sadly nothing else). They do not know how to respond to it. Whether the guy simply refuses to accept any critical appraisal of their glaring flaws or just peaked creatively, the problem of ineptitude still persists...filmgoers are still rudely subjected to commericals of Shyamalan's next film.

    I adamantly refuse to cast any praiseworthy light on Shyamalan's films (post The Sixth Sense) because they resemble a disturbing trend -- his films reflect a self-indulgent and self-absorbent direction that unwillingly avoids coherent storytelling mechanims or even remotely adheres to a meaningfully written script. I'll give Shyamalan one compliment. From a visual guise, he has shown stunning promise. But as we have seen, that promise was mostly smoke and mirrors and an anomaly of brilliance more than a foreshadowing of anything substantive.

    I will not read the riot act or denounce the guy so densely as to list the litany of his growing cinematic failures. Rather, I will give a sampling of his terribly imperfect work -- the "racebending" in The Last Airbender, the befuddling mystery of The Happening, the silly, juvenile nature of The Lady in the Water...well I'll stop there but you get the point. The world of filmmaking will be a much better place if Hollywood pumps their vast resources of wealth into true up and coming talents -- Rian Johnson or Vincenzo Natali to name just two -- rather than passively hand big budget checks to grossly incompetent, one hit wonders.